The title of my new song, Where Are You God? is no surprise to any of us given the current pandemic situation. The turmoil of our fragility and the feeling that God is generally silent in this era is something that has crossed most of our minds. This song was a bit of a surprise for me, I was reticent to write it as I was unsure that I could do justice to the topic. In fact, I told God that I wasn’t going to write it. I think you can tell who won this argument. The lyrics are the raw, awkward truth of how I saw things in that moment. But sometimes the raw, awkward truth is what we need to hear. The Psalms are full of unfettered emotion and passionate pleas for help, and in some senses the essence of this song lie in the same roots. Sometimes our prayers are cries that come from deep within us.
I always knew that I would be a songwriter and artist right from a very young age. And I think, if I’m honest with myself, I always knew that I probably wouldn’t have an easy life because of that calling to artistry and creativity. Artists generally experience life at a deeper emotional level than others, and this informs and guides our work. Our hearts gets broken and we pour the emotions into our work. But is there any other purpose to this?
Every artist dreams of profoundly connecting with their audience, being able to move someone is a great privilege, and if it helps them on their healing journey, even better. I learnt that the greatest way to connect with my audience was through compassion, if I understand what someone has been going through, I am then able to express these emotions better in my work.
A long time ago, I asked God why I was suffering so much in life. A series of devastating events had taken over my life, rejection, discrimination, abandonment, rape, domestic abuse, unemployment, debt, housing insecurity, divorce; it never seemed to stop. It was at this point, the Lord was clear with me that he didn’t make those things happen to me, but he allowed me to learn compassion and to soften my heart towards others in the process of dealing with these situations. Learning to be a better artist meant learning how others felt and walking the same path as them. If I wanted to connect with my audience on a deeper level, I had to experience that deeper level. I am not in anyway advocating going out and getting your heart broken to improve your work, but what I am saying is that there is more than one purpose in the pain.
But God does not leave things there in the ashes. He treats our lives as works of art. Whatever has been broken or stolen from us, is eventually restored to us. If we can walk with others and give them hope, we take them further than just identifying with their pain. God creates a beautiful story out of a desperate situation. Whether we have received restitution or are still waiting for it, the Lord always completes our story. Everything happens for his glory, so that he can reveal his love and compassion for us through our lives.
And this is why artists often go through more challenging times than others; we’re being prepared to create greater works that reach much further than we have gone before. We are to reflect the glory of God through our work. It is important to share the pain as well as the triumphs with our audiences. Christian life and also the artistic life, isn’t all successes and victories; often the best work is born out of painful journeys. Even if you’re not an artist, there is purpose in every life situation that you face. A failure sometimes has more value than a success because we gain so much through learning how to navigate through the disaster.
And by the way of example, I wrote You’re So Hard On Me when I was facing opposition as a single mother, I painted Walking Into The Light when I was emerging from the nightmare of domestic abuse and I wrote If That’s The Way when after a miscarriage. None of these projects were easy to create but they connected with my audience in a profound way and were cathartic for me as well.
So when your heart is broken, remember that there is purpose in the pain. You may not see it yet, but you might produce some of your best work and also help others along the way. We never fully know the impression that our work leaves on someone, but if we handle our creativity well, our calling to be an artist might just save someone’s life…
One of the questions I have asked over the years is “why isn’t God answering my prayers?”. There have been many occasions where God has asked me to pray for someone and yet I’ve never seen the results of those petitions. Sometimes I wonder why God would ask me to be involved in prayer for situations that are seemingly impossible to change.
A few years ago the Lord asked me to pray for someone that had fallen away from their faith. It was a gut-wrenching situation watching a friend change and become someone different to the Christian I knew. At first, I met this prayer challenge with gusto and great hope that God would do great things. The years past by and my prayers began to wane as the task became harder, I could see no result to my requests and I lost contact with my friend. Doubt was creeping in: had God really asked me to pray for this person and is he going to do as he said he would? After a couple of years of praying, the Lord gave me a Bible verse that is a promise of an expected good outcome to this situation. It renewed my passion for prayer and reminded me that God is in control of the situation.
However, a few more years past, and the Lord started to give me specific information on what to pray. These nuggets of information would challenge me to look at what the Bible says and line up my prayers with God’s word. However, one day I kept having a picture of this person in a wheelchair, it made me panic-stricken that this person was going to have a serious accident. Was God asking me to pray for protection? The Lord reassured me that this was not the case, but the picture persisted for awhile so I began to ask the Lord what he wanted to me learn from this picture and what was its meaning.
One night after I had put my kids to bed, I crashed out in the armchair, picked up my Bible and came across the story in Mark 2 of the friends who carried a paralysed man to Jesus. They were so persistent in their request for an audience that they tore open the roof of the house Jesus was in and lowered their friend down right in front of Jesus’ face. I can remember being stunned as I immediately knew why I was seeing my friend in a wheelchair, when the reality was quite different. Jesus was indicating that my friend was spiritually sick because they had fallen away and that my prayers were bringing this person to him on a regular basis. Jesus was hearing my persistence and he honoured it in the following verse (Mark 2:5):
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, “son your sins are forgiven”.
When Jesus saw my faith, he reminded me that he would indeed answer those prayers in his timing and in his way. The actual phrase he gave me was “because you believe” and because I believe that he can work wonders in this situation, he will move in power through the stirring of my prayers. It is often in our weakness and doubt that God send us a gem that inspires us and spurs us on to pray his will.
Interestingly if we look at Mark 2:3, Mark mentions the friends before the paralysed man. The friends aren’t insignificant in this story, they are the lynch-pin and central characters to the message that Mark wants to get across. In other gospel accounts of the story, the friends are also mentioned first; this is about bringing our friends and family to the Lord in prayer with diligence. It’s about the importance of intercession and more than anything, it’s about belief and faith in what God can do even when things look bleak. I always think that verse 12 gives us hope that God’s glory will be displayed in our situations, as the crowd exclaim “we have never seen anything like this.”
The friends weren’t worried about being seen the paralysed man, they got their hands dirty and publicly carried him to the Lord. They tore down the structure that was getting in the way of them reaching Jesus, and we should repeat the same through prayer, asking the Lord to remove everything that is stopping our loved ones seeing the Lord’s face. It’s never our place to judge the people who God calls us to prayer for, but its our responsibility to carry them to God in prayer and leave the outcome to him. It’s likely that those prayers will change us before they change the person we’re praying for, certainly the friends had to develop faith an belief for their request to be granted.
So be encouraged today, that God is lifting our situations up and moving in ways that we cannot see. The paralysed man could not bring himself to Jesus, his friends had to do that for him, a true indicator that we should do this for those who are blind to God or cannot do this for themselves. Our prayers move the heart of God and he will answer in the best way, when the timing is right. But more than anything, he will answer them because we believe.
I just love it when a news headline brings the truth of a matter into sharp focus… Over the last nine months, the state of the arts and its significance in the British economy has been hotly debated. I’ve mentioned before the importance of the large contribution the arts sector brings both financially but also culturally to society. One headline caught my eye recently, Dolly Parton partly funded Moderna Covid vaccine research, partly because I wondered what her motivation for donating to such a cause was but also because the donation came not from the business sector, but the arts.
I find it ironic in a time when the arts sector feels abandoned by the government that a musician should make a financial gesture of this magnitude to a cause that is so pressing. Often the press portrays superstars as egotistical or fame-hungry, and I will admit that at first the cynical side of me wondered if this was a publicity stunt, however, Dolly’s reputation goes before her in this arena. What we know is that she loves to give back to as many charities and organisations as possible. Her impoverished childhood gave her a good understanding of caring and looking out for others; not only does she regularly donate but she has also set up her own charities. Her business acumen has put in her in position to to give to others, and it is evident from her philanthropy that she takes great delight in doing so.
So what better than a vaccine where the research has been funded by the proceeds of music! Where someone people are driven by greed, Dolly has used her platform to influence and help others for good. I would even go as far to say that the Lord put her in a position to help others in this very time of need. God always knows the desires of people’s hearts and the timing needed to bring peace; he knows how to make it all work for our good, he is never late but right on time. It’s a wake up call to all of us as to what our motives our for creating art, and what we want to people to take from our creations. It’s about putting others first and then taking the opportunity to give back. And it seems for Dolly that working 9 to 5, made a way to fund a vaccine…
Earlier this week, while I was walking into the bank, a woman approached me and asked me outright “this won’t last forever, will it?”. While I was a little taken aback with her directness, I sensed an opportunity to speak the truth about hope and replied with “no, it will pass, things will get better”. And with that, she looked relieved and walk away. While it might sound flippant to say that in the middle of a pandemic, the truth is that everything comes to an end at some point and life moves on. The longterm effects of the stress of the pandemic can be seen in the nation’s outlook and mental health. Eurythmics once sang “everybody’s looking for something” and right now, we’re all looking for HOPE.
So how can we feel hopeful when everything around us looks bleak? Hope is something that has to be worked at; sometimes it flows easily and other times it seems far off and inaccessible. It is not some magical element that is unobtainable though. The truth of the matter is that we have to foster a hopeful and expectant mindset. Hope is sparked when we recall how something worked out well in the end, or we look on the positive side of a situation. We have to train ourselves to believe and expect good things for our lives; human nature tends to believe that bad seasons hang around forever, when in fact it is just a passing season. We live in a world where fear and negativity is prevalent, but if we believe that God is love then we have nothing to fear, as he has our best interests at heart and a plan for our lives.
The media is full of hearsay, doom, gloom and negative views; provocative headlines sell newspapers but they don’t necessarily represent the truth. A huge amount of damage can be done by scaremongering: it divides and isolates community and focusing on despair will corrode the nation’s attitude and resolve over time. What we know from history is that the human race has survived some of the most horrific events; the human spirit has found resilience and strength to keep going. If you fill your mind with bad reports it will affect your perspective on life, and in the long term make you depressed, and to some extent this all becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. You get out of life, what you put in.
Everyday is one day nearer to the end of the season and new beginnings. Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us that there is a time and season for everything; nothing is forever, and an end to difficult seasons will come in time. What we can do is work together to make things easier for each other. Spreading fear and gloom does nothing to help people, it leaves them in a place of despair and helplessness. We have a duty to ourselves and others to be agents of hope; the change starts with us. What we know from the Bible is that the Lord always comes through for his people, and he loves to bring new life to dead situations that have gone way past the point of no return. If nothing is too hard for the Lord, perhaps we need to remind ourselves not to limit him and his power. He can do far more than we ever dreamed of and that in itself is reason to have hope. If we hand our own situations and even the pandemic over to the Lord, we release ourselves from carrying the burden on our own and give him the opportunity to bring our chaos into his good order. Letting go requires bravery and courage but it leads to a place of peace, and in that peace is the small spark of gritty hope.
I AM 25. I am so not 25, you can add a couple of decades to that number. However, this month I celebrate 25 years of teaching music. At the end of August 1995, I went for a job interview for a teaching assistant post at primary school in Torquay. The headteacher told me that she didn’t really need another teaching assistant, but she had noticed from my CV that I sang and played the piano. None of her staff were musical, so would I mind taking on a teaching assistant role with responsibility for music? Well that was my “year out” job and the rest as they say, is history.
Nothing about my journey into music education has been normal. In fact everything about my journey is backwards from the traditional route. I went down the route of singing and piano grades as a child but due to various problems at my school, I didn’t take GCSE or A Level music, I went on to do a Theology degree, graduated and thought “I think I might do a music degree, I want to be in music”. I didn’t actually believe that I would get onto a music degree course, but 3 years later I started studying at Middlesex University and I did graduate! Traditionally, you need grade 8 on a instrument to go on to study music at degree level. I didn’t have that, I had grade 6 singing, grade 5 piano and grade 5 music theory, I’d been performing since I was 3 years old and teaching since I was 18. Sometimes experience opens more doors than qualifications. I often share this story with my students to encourage them; life can be messy and far from perfect but we somehow find a route through to where we are supposed to be.
It seems to be an odd time to be celebrating a musical milestone when the performing arts industry is in chaos, however, this milestone only happens once in a lifetime. The pandemic has changed the landscape of music teaching, but it hasn’t stopped teaching taking place. I am lucky that I have managed to keep teaching online and yes, it is different from teaching face to face, but I still get to help people develop their skills and find joy in making music. It seems pertinent to mark this anniversary as one era ends and a new era starts.
One of the challenges I have faced is the ability to keep going when life is broken. Resilience needs to be at the heart of any business, and on top of that, I have needed a high amount of personal resilience through the difficulties I’ve faced. One reason I feel that I am beginning a new era, is that I wanted to put right some of the things that had failed or not materialised in the past. Some of you know that I survived long term domestic abuse, and the devastating effect that it had on my life. To be fair, this blog isn’t the place to discuss the abuse that I suffered for years, however, one area of my life that was deeply affected was music. It was constantly taken away from me in attempt to hurt and control. I should have undertaken my teaching diploma 15 years ago, but I was never able to and it grieved me for years. Every time I tried to apply for the course, I was stopped and the opportunity was deliberately taken away. The more I fought back, the harder life would become. The pandemic really pushed me to look at how I wanted to end this year. Did I want to leave this chapter of my life having not completed something that affirms and consolidates the experience and skills of the job I have undertaken for 25 years? The short answer is no, I just couldn’t leave this season with unfinished business, so this month I have finally started my teaching diploma!
I really want to encourage you to mark the anniversaries in your life, however small, and celebrate your achievements, resilience and persistence. You showed up, did the work, learnt from the mistakes, gained experience and eventually reached the goal. Just because other people have the same achievements doesn’t mean you shouldn’t celebrate them; your own personal journey is special and precious. It doesn’t matter how many years you have been plodding away at something, long or short. My teaching journey has lead me to meet hundreds of amazing people through individual tuition, arts centres, further education colleges, churches, theatre schools, adult and children’s choirs, and music therapy with community groups. So this month I AM 25. Here’s to the next 25 years…
Well here’s the song I didn’t expect to release: Tomorrow’s Brighter. During the last four months of lockdown, we’ve all needed some hope to get through this very strange and unexpected season. I think the lyrics of this song sum up that everyday we are indeed moving forward to the end of lockdown and a day nearer to the end of the virus. Something to think about as we slowly press ahead…
Three years ago I wrote this song quickly one evening so that I could try out a new piece of software. It seemed quite catchy and lent itself to harmonies, so I landed up using it for a singing workshop I was leading a few months later. I didn’t imagine relasing it as a single. However at the beginning of the lockdown, I found a an a cappella recording of the song and started playing around with it and voilà, a new song!
Welcome to the cartoon version of me! I wanted to do something different for the video, something with a lighter tone than I had used before. A cartoon seemed the obvious way forward and I even got to create a cartoon version of me. An official date will be set soon, but as usual, you are the first to hear the song and see the video!
The song is available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music and many other places! Download the single here.
“No singing, woodwind or brass instruments…” For me, that statement was one of the saddest things I have read in awhile. The public playing of woodwind, brass and vocal performances are now banned for the foreseeable future. A wave of emotions followed this, from grief to anger and then disbelief yet in reality I knew it was coming. This affects many areas of my life from teaching music, performing and leading worship at church. Having to explain to my children that they won’t be leading worship at church and also to my daughter that she won’t be able to play the flute at school for awhile was not easy and their questions of “how long will this last?’ have been difficult to answer. COVID-19 has affected us all in so many ways, personal losses great and small, lifestyle changes, family tragedies and an uncertain employment horizon.
However, the wonders of technology have allowed us to find a way through. Though we may not want to continue to teach, produce music or worship online forever, the internet has provided a way to survive and move forward in this season. We have had to reinvent ourselves and reinvent how we do things. Nothing has stayed the same. By migrating to the internet, we have not only boosted morale for regular viewers but also attracted new audiences for our artistic endeavours. Previous situations in history have lead to an incubation period in the artistic community; as everything gets driven underground a reinvention occurs. As we emerge from lockdown, we can look forward to an explosion of creativity in all areas of life. And hopefully the public will greet the artistic community with enthusiasm. Maybe there will be more respect for the arts as people realise what they have lost. After all, Joni Mitchell sang “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone”.
And as for the singing, woodwind and brass playing… The time will come when we can all perform in public again. There will be an opportune, kairos moment when we are released to do what we do best and everything falls into place.