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'Tell me are you a Christian, child?", and I said "Ma'am I am tonight"

 Music and song are so important. Probably more than even a medium such as film, a particular melody or a song can move us, inspire us, define us, ground us and the very, very best of them can bring us closer to God.

For me one such composition is the hauntingly beautiful ‘Walking in Memphis’ written in 1991 by the American folk-rock singer Marc Cohn. So, why this song?

Well, Cohn has said it is “100% autobiographical” and soulfully tells of his spiritual awakening and how he was transfixed and transformed through it. He wrote it after going through a very difficult time. He was 28 and working as a session singer, ached to get a recording contract, but never thought it would happen as he had not been able to write a “great song”.

Then he was encouraged to visit the city of Memphis to find inspiration, being told that there were two places there “that would change me forever”.

The first place he visited was the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on a Sunday morning to hear the Rev Al Green preach. Now Al Green is probably better known as ‘The last of the Great Soul singers’ (‘Let’s Stay Together’ is his best-known hit), but Green felt God had called for him to change his life, he then became Born Again and he established his church near Graceland.

This is what happened during that church service: “I soon had chills running up and down my spine. The service was so deeply moving that I found myself with sweat running down my face and tears in my eyes, totally enveloped by everything I was seeing and hearing. There was something incredibly powerful about Al Green’s voice in that context. Even after 3 hours of continuous singing, his voice only got stronger and his band only got better. I sat there crying in the church, aware of the irony of how I used to cry in Synagogue in Cleveland as a kid- but because I wanted to get the heck out of there! Al Green’s service was one of the great experiences of my life”.

Cohn wrote about that service in the song:

“They’ve got catfish on the table

They’ve got Gospel in the air

And Reverend Green be glad to see you

When you haven’t got a prayer

But, boy, you’ve got a prayer in Memphis”

The next miracle happened when he visited the Hollywood Café in Mississippi and saw a retired schoolteacher by the name of Muriel Wilkins playing Gospel and Marc Cohn was again enraptured: “I felt an immediate connection by her voice, her spirit, her face and her smile. I was totally transfixed by her music. During her breaks, the two of us would talk, she asked me why I was there, I told her about my childhood (his mother had died suddenly when he was just two, and he had never quite been able to move on from dealing what loss), and by Midnight she asked me to join her on stage. The very last song we sang together that night was ‘Amazing Grace’, people applauded us, and Muriel leaned over and whispered in my ear “Child, you can let go now”.

Marc Cohn said that incredibly generous, maternal, and Christian act of Muriel’s “was almost as if my mother was whispering in my ear”. He had been transformed twice and he knew he had a great song he had to tell the world about.

“Now Muriel plays piano

Every Friday at the Hollywood

And they brought me down to see her

And they asked me if I would do a little number

And I sang with all my might

She said, “Tell me, are you a Christian, child?”

And I said “Ma’am, I am tonight”

The song became Marc Cohn’s signature tune (and was later covered by Cher) and was enormously successful, spending 23 weeks in the ‘Billboard’ Top 100, it was nominated for Song of the Year at the 1992 Grammy Awards and he won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

When ever I feel that I need to centre myself or be at peace, I just listen to ‘Walking in Memphis’ and I feel closer to God. You can see why below.

For VE Day -“Have courage, God is with you”

Mad with joy we walk through the garden and climb up on the roof so we can see more, grasp more of what’s happening. We can hardly believe it. Can it really be true? Is this the long-awaited end to our sorrows. Does this mean freedom?

Yes, I am sure that the above quotation could so easily speak for us all when the time comes that the lockdown can finally end, but actually the person who said those words said them in September 1944 and is someone whose faith made such a huge difference to British Paratroopers during their time of need, which we celebrate on VE Day.

Known by veterans as simply the ‘Angel of Arnhem’, Kate ter Horst was a Dutch housewife and mother of five children who lived under the German occupation of Holland. To try and shorten WWII, the Allies carried out Operation Market Garden, (the basis of the film A Bridge Too Far’)  the intention of which was for troops to parachute in, seize strategic bridges and advance into the industrial area of Germany. The Operation was not a success with nearly 2,000 allied men killed.

However, Kate ter Horst was someone who made a real difference for critically wounded British servicemen and their morale. She gave up her house, an old rectory, where she looked after her own children, to be a Regimental Aid Post as field hospitals could not cope. It was a horrific scene. Her walls were pockmarked by rifle fire, and outside in her garden there were the decaying corpses of 57 soldiers. In total around 250 soldiers of the 1st Airborne Division, most between the ages of 20 and 25, were cared and looked after by her and medics.

For those boys in pain or dying she always had a cheerful word and sympathetic ear. She would remind them: “Have courage, God is with you”, and she could be seen going through her house sitting with young soldiers, comforting them by reading aloud from the KJV of her Bible. It was said of her that “this tall slim Dutchwoman with the blonde hair and the calm blue eyes became known as the ‘Angel of Arnhem’, and that her fine voice and familiar prose calmed the fears of all who listened to her’.

Her favourite passage came from Psalm 91 and which brought men particular solace, and was said to bring light to the darkness: ” Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come night thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways”.

One soldier who was cared for by Kate wrote of her “I noticed how the whole room brightened up at her arrival and how the soldiers hung on to her every word”. More poignantly, one mortally wounded young soldier, just before he died from his injuries said of her: “She’s wonderful. Just like my Mum!”

Kate refused to accept that she was any kind of heroine- she said that “the real angels were the ones who fell from heaven-the brave men of the Airborne Division”.

Kate survived the war and lived until she was 98 dying in 1992.

At the bottom of her garden in Oosterbeek, in the shade of a cedar tree, she put up a statue of a Pegasus. It is the symbol of the British airborne forces.

Who Will We Become?


One of the interesting conversations that has come out of us being locked down is how will our experience of it change us, as a nation and as a people?

Will it be seen as something that took so many lives, caused huge heartache as well as the ruin of  businesses but that we, in our British tradition, put it behind us and carry on as we were before (“Keep Calm and Carry On”)?

Or will it perhaps be viewed as a defining point in our country’s history and that it forms part of a revival of the Christian faith as people turn (or return) to Christ?

Despite the awful onset of the COVID-19 virus and the damage it has wrecked on communities, we have also seen the better part of peoples’ natures. There has been a return of genuine community spirit and people wanting to help other people- whether that is in our case the amazing ‘Risborough Basket’ scheme, or nationally the ‘Good Sam’ NHS Volunteer Responders initiative where over 750,000 people put themselves forward to help in any way they can. People have helped whether it is checking on a neighbour or getting in touch with someone they haven’t spoken to in a while to see how they are doing. We have been re-learning how important it is to love our neighbours -“Love your neighbour as yourself…” (Mark 12:30-31)

That was certainly something that the Queen reflected in her stirring speech when she reminded us recently that “we should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again”.

But when that happy and joyous time finally comes, will we be a changed people?

There was a similar situation at the very end of the first millennium (999AD) when the Christian world especially in Europe believed that the end of the millennium would  be the end of the world, heralded by a great blast from a trumpet -“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” . (1 Corinthians 15:52), that the dead would rise from their graves to share a last judgement with all those who had not yet died. Christ would return to earth and lead true believers to Paradise.

It was reported that in the months, weeks and days leading up to 999 AD, something extraordinary happened. People forgave each other their debts, husbands and wives confessed to each other suspected and unsuspected infidelities to each other and stayed together. Thieves returned the things they had stolen to their rightful owners. People stopped spending money on attaining things because they realised that they could not store up wealth if they hoped to avoid the final judgement. Those with money and food feed beggars in the street, prisoners convicted of crimes were released from prison, those with wealth gave it away to those more deserving. People flocked in their thousands to churches and cathedrals wanting confession and absolution.

It was described by historians of an astonishing period in our history. People flocked to Jerusalem that year, people forgot any class differences that they had, people sang hymns and psalms when they walked through the street constantly keeping their eyes on the sky. The Christmas that year was thought of as the Last Christmas for humanity- families loved each other like never before, slaves and animals were let go in anticipation of the final judgement.

In the end of course (it is a spoiler!), the world did not come to an end on the stroke of midnight 31 December 999AD. When people found themselves in January 1000 and saw that they were still alive, there was great celebration and relief but ultimately people went back to their previous behaviours. However, writers of that early period talked about the love and forgiveness that people had for each other if only for a relatively short period of time.

Like now, we somehow need to bottle that loving and Christ like spirit that we have been witnessing and ensure that people do not give in to the temptation of returning to how they may have been prior to the outbreak, in not actively loving and looking out for their fellow human beings and not honouring  the Lord’s Prayer.

How St Mary’s has been doing church differently does show a way forward. The numbers of people viewing our (and the other 800 UK churches digitally providing services) services online shows the huge and varied desire for peace and love in our world.

Our challenge will be to help them turn to Christ and change our world for the better!

All Shall Be Well


Going through the current trouble times, we can be reminded from those that came before us, how their example through their Christian lives, shows us the way forward.

There can be few better examples of this than one of the most contemplative of Christians, a woman, a Christian mystic known as ‘Julian of Norwich’.  We may never know her real name (she is named by her association with St Julian’s church in Norwich), but we know that she was in her 30’s and she lived in the 14th century.

Julian lived through the most fatal pandemic in human history – the ‘Black Death’- which like COVID-19 originated in China, but which it is believed killed up to 200 million people from 1347-1351 and around a third of the population of Europe died from it.

Like us, Julian self-isolated but she had become an ‘anchoress’, that is someone who withdraws from society and leads an intensely prayer-oriented life – a religious hermit if you will. In fact, it is believed that she lived much of her adult life in a room next to her church which would not have been much more than 10-foot square. She had a window in which people would seek spiritual guidance from her, but apart from that she lived in what was little more than a cell, so she could be alone with God.

Why though is Julian so important to us some 600+ years later?

Well, during her life she became seriously ill, so much so that the last rites were administered to her as she waited to die. However she held a crucifix in front of her and as she gazed at it, she saw the figure of Jesus beginning to bleed, and over a number of hours she had a series of visions that affected her gently but profoundly, and she recovered.

Julian, after great prayer, contemplation and understanding, wrote these experiences down in what is regarded as the first ever book written by a woman in the English language, entitled Revelations of Divine Love, and what she saw are as relevant today as they were then.

She spoke about seeing in her visions not an angry masculine God, but revelations revealed to her “very tenderly, indicating no kind of blame for me or for anyone who will be saved”. Her most famous passage in the book is when she says “And it seems to me, this suffering is something that exists for a while, because it purges us and makes us know ourselves and ask for mercy. For the Passion of our Lord is a comfort to us against all this and that it is His blessed will for all who shall be saved. He comforts us readily and sweetly by His words and says, “But all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.

These are familiar, well known and comforting words indeed. We all want the current situation to come to an end, for us to see our loved ones again and to smell ‘freedom’ once more- although that is likely to still take more time in self isolation.

What Julian continues to show to us today, is that God loves us, that He delights in us and He “will make all things well”. Yes, there will be times like now (and in the future) when we will be “perturbed, troubled and distressed by things”, but God’s promise to us is “You shall not be overcome”.

Through her revelations, Julian was shown a fundamental and profound Truth. That God made us, that God loves us, and that God cares for us. He will not let us down and right now we need to stick with Him. He will get us through this difficult time.