The Beatitudes, Jesus’ eight blessings from the Sermon on the Mount, are so counter-intuitive that you could consider them to be pretentious and fanciful. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” But wouldn’t they be happier if they didn’t mourn in the first place?
Stu Garrard, ex- guitarist with Delirious?, has been investigating the effects of these sayings on real people, producing a book, album and – shortly – a movie. The book is filled with stories about how qualities that we often think of as flimsy – meekness, mercy, poverty of spirit, and more – are not just life-changing qualities, but places where we can meet God.
He has had worldwide chart success and literally played to millions – twice – but despite his fame, wealth and popularity, when singer Martin Smith left the band and the rest of them went their separate ways, they took his self-confidence with them.
Before the split, the band had just come out of a plateau stage and re-discovered some purpose after being impacted by deep poverty in India. Their final album Kingdom of Comfort was the result.
When I spoke with him some months afterwards, following a solo set, he still seemed frustrated and robbed of something.
“You are right. I was,” he recalls some seven years later. “I didn’t feel like we were finished. I didn’t feel like we’d made our best music. I guess that’s the artistic nature. Yes, I was sad about it, but trying to cope with the reality of it as well, and create a way forward.”
Even in that earlier interview, he mentions the Beatitudes project, and living with the bereavement of the band splitting has helped him to feel some of the reality of Jesus words.
“’When you feel there’s nothing left, God is on your side’ – I started to see those Beatitude announcements in that light. That really came out of my experience with Delirious? finishing. I wanted to get through the grieving stage. I just wanted to jump into something else straight away. I learned that you really have to go through those moments, experience them, rather than trying to find a short cut around. There are things in life’s journey that there is no quick fix for.
“It’s what we do with those things: do we try to get through them quickly or do we allow those moments to transform us? I think that’s the implication in the Beatitudes.”
When Jars of Clay released their album The Shelter, it was making a statement as much by how they recorded it – in community – as by what was being recorded. It was a sacrificial album, because the amount of people who worked on it meant that it was unviable to tour the project and so to promote it. Garrard can see the parallels here.
“It’s important to me that the story that I tell is that we need each other. It’s about opening our eyes to those around us and so for me, that includes my music community. That’s why we pulled from such a big pool of people and tried to share the vision with everyone, and so in that respect it’s a very similar idea to The Shelter, for sure.”
Some people whom Garrard asked were simply not available and he respected those who were, refusing to chase. As a project that had been a part of him for some fifteen years, he only wanted people who believed in it. He had an approach throughout the planning: “I would go where the spark is. So if it took me more than two times to get hold of someone, or hear back, or whatever, then I would just move on.
“I never want to forget that, if your spirit is crushed, it says that God is with you. That’s the blessing. So when we wrote a song; I had no box to put around anyone’s contribution; I said, we need to write the song together that we feel we need to write. So it’s very eclectic in its style; and in its length, so that’s where the whole thing came from and we just wrote about what is, really, rather than what we should do.”
That is where the project surprises: the angle from which the songs come. Given that they are probably aimed at Christians, you might expect them to urge listeners to actively show mercy, to be meek and so on. But the lyrics are angled towards those who are needing the mercy shown to them, or are already meek.
“They’re announcing where God is, rather than telling us to do something,” Garrard replies. “So it’s really about being, rather than doing; yet whenever we see announcements from the mountainside, that’s like a flag on a hilltop for us, because you should take note. The words are invitations to show mercy, to be peacemakers, to live a life that is swimming against the dominant powers, and so there will be a pushback.”
Given the political climate, with so much rhetoric and threat coming from those dominant powers, and little in the way of meekness or mercy, there is the danger that Christians will judge Jesus’ words by their party affiliations, rather than judge their politicians by Jesus’ words.
Garrard is pragmatic. “You can’t really foresee how people are going to respond. I’m really trying to be kind in it. There are some challenges, but I wanted to ask people, ‘What is it like, being you, in this culture?’ – especially in the South, here in America, which has a very religious overtone, and typically not very kind to people that we see as ‘the other’. That’s the kind of stuff I can imagine some people might raise an eyebrow to, or be offended by, but I haven’t written it from trying to say, ‘We need to change our mind on all this stuff’. It’s not that, it’s just we do need to change our mind on how we interact with the other.
“I think anything that offers transformation and change to us, if we let it get on the inside of us, there are things that we kick and scream that we don’t want to let go of: how we’ve been brought up, our prejudices, things like that; but at the end of the day, I just hope people are drawn to kindness and community through it all.“
The project has produced a reaction, with keen responses on social media, but Garrard has been most affected by the personal responses from a devotional session he ran on the dc Talk reunion cruise, where he asked about the voices that tell us that we’ll never be good enough, voices “that give us those moments of shame and regret that we stuff so deep.
“I suggested that for most of us it’s our own voice and the action of showing ourselves kindness and mercy is really necessary. It just touched them so much, and I think that we do have a disease in our society that people don’t think they’re good enough, they’ll never meet the mark and I think that’s really sad.
“So people came up and they wanted to say, ’Thank you’. A couple of folks couldn’t speak, because they were so emotional about it. It really took me by surprise, but I left encouraged that we’re onto something here, in terms of encouraging people.”
Derek Walker blogs at Walkerwords and a fuller version of this interview is there.