Yesterday I was right at the front for the first UK gig in a long time of the superb Christian Celtic band Iona, at Grapevine 2009 on the Lincoln Showground. I was the guest of my friend Pete Atkins from the Groundlevel Network, who currently Chairs Churches Together in all Lincolnshire. Pete and I are both devotees of Iona’s music and it was just so good to listen to them playing many favourite pieces plus some excellent new ones I had not heard before. Dave Bainbridge, the fantastic lead guitarist, lives not far away in Market Rasen, so the local link is a good one to celebrate. I first came across Iona’s music when I was a probationer minister back in 1990. It was at the same time that I was discovering the wonderfully rich heritage of Celtic Christianity in these islands. The way in which Iona brought this alive musically was and is an inspiration to me. Yesterday it all came flooding back, coupled with such precious memories of the many times I have visited the holy islands of Iona and Lindisfarne.
The first photograph evokes for me the missional genius of Celtic Christianity: the natural and easy combination of different sacred, secular and pagan viewpoints to present a picture of the gospel that was rooted in the everyday stories, understandings and worldviews of ordinary people. Where people already were was where God made sense. Where one stood was hallowed ground because all was in fact sacred. It was in and through the familiar experiences of community life and landscape that God’s encircling love shone through. Their history was not denied, it was illuminated. Here was a theology of incarnation writ large. The reality of God’s presence was as much a given as the wind, waves and tides. Trust in the power of God’s love was as natural as breathing. It was a theology of experience and expectation rooted in the scriptures. As you can see, Iona’s lyrics reflect this passionately.
And their music is full of the down to earth yet heavenly energy and passion which is still so wonderfully characteristic of Celtic Britain and Ireland today, and which was the hallmark of Celtic Christianity too.
Dave Bainbridge’s fabulous guitar riffs really do speak of the Living Presence of Love which energises us to live both on the edge and at the centre of life. Listening to some of them again yesterday I was drawn in my imagination to the way in which Columba was compelled to journey far beyond what he knew to discover God in the fresh territory of strange geography and unknown people. Caught up in the empowering free-flowing music of grace one discovers the courage to become a pilgrim. Here life is vividly, intensely real; and so is God. The more reflective, gentle and at times ethereal sounds of guest musician Martin Nolan’s whistle and pipes drew me into another facet of Celtic Christianity, that of the emotions. Here is a faith which touches heart and mind, body and soul. Here is an experience of God which is holistic and healing. Here God is met in the very depths of our being human.
This becomes most abundantly clear in the soaring, impassioned vocals of Joanne Hogg. The photo below shows her fully caught up in the experience of singing from the depths of heart and soul and faith. She expressed her fervent desire for the ancient wells of faith to be opened up across these islands. As we look back in time to the faith experience of the Christian Celts we are given fresh encouragement and inspiration to go looking for today’s wellsprings of love and transformation which are bubbling up in strange places amongst unfamiliar people. The call is to follow in the footsteps of Columba. And to really trust in God.