Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Shape Notes in Toronto!

(I'm having to publish this later, but it's not letting me add the original date! This event happened Monday, November 28, 2005)

I'm so excited! I've found a shape-note singing group in Toronto!

I figured it would be next summer til I was surrounded by more shape-noters, but I have discovered a small underground community in the great T.O. They meet on Wednesdays, which this season has conflicted with Alpha. But tonight, they had a special workshop, so I got to join in.

The workshop was lead by Shelley Posen, who, on a small-world note, knew my parents at the time they were pregnant with me! Shelley is a specialist in folk music and has attended many singing conventions in the Southern States. He absolutely knew the Stamps-Baxter music and school. Due to the crazy rain traffic, we missed the intro, so I really have no idea why there are 2 different kinds of shape-note systems.

You see, this group does not do the Stamps-Baxter kind of shape-notes. They do the Sacred Harp version, which uses only four shapes instead of the seven I learned this summer. In some ways, it was easier to learn the names of the shapes, because there were less of them. But it was also harder because you no longer have one shape equaling one note. In Sacred Harp, "do" is not "do". It is "fa". But "fa" is also "fa". So you have 2 pitches called "fa". Very confusing. And then in a minor key, "fa" shifts to the tonic. The first "fa", not the second "fa", I think. Arg!!!

After the intro, we all sat in a square formation to sing, with one part on each side of the square. The tenors generally had the tune, which I found interesting, yet each part always had a harmony line that was as singable as a tune. The leader stands in the middle and chooses the "fa" (which some of us call "do"). The leader then counts you in, and off you go. Apparently, in Southern Sacred Harp circles, only the best shape-note singers sit in the front row. If you're a first-timer, you sit in the back until you are invited to move up front. We only had 2 rows, so I arrogantly chose first-row centre. Isn't that where the smart kids always sit?

Tonight was great. I'm really hoping I can join the group again sometime. Wednesdays seem to be getting competitive for me, with Alpha, possibly post-Alpha, big band rehearsal, and now shape-notes. Can't somebody change to Tuesday???

Monday, November 28, 2005

Gospel Vespers

Today was our third Gospel Vespers service. Our gospel theme for today was the Prodigal Son.

I was really excited about today's service as my lovely friend, Aileen Lombardo, was scheduled as our music leader. Aileen and I met because we both teach baby music classes. We went out to lunch together, and within minutes, we found out that we're both Christians and we both sing gospel music. Don't tell me God's not in that?

It was great to see so many people brave the rain to join our congregation. The church was quite full when Aileen started the service. Accompanied by her partner, Jason Matta, on piano, Aileen lead the congregation in several praise and worship songs.

Dad did the sermon, and he based it on Rembrandt's painting "The Return of the Prodigal Son". He put the image up on the screen, and gave a great message on forgiveness. We then turned down the lights, and lit a candle for forgiveness. Dad kept the image up for most of the service, and it became a great point of meditation. It's amazing how much of the music and prayer were reflected in that awesome painting.

Aileen and Jason continued the service with more music and prayer. I just love Aileen's voice, but even more so, I just love her commitment to ministry. At one point, she sang the first verse of Amazing Grace acapella. Her heart and story filled every part of the song. It was beautiful.

We also tried something new and pretty daring in an Anglican church - We opened the gates for an altar call! It wasn't big or dramatic. We just let people know that if they were interested in committing their lives to Christ, they could do it here and today. We also let them know that they could pray with the clergy or musicians if they wanted to. If we're going to be inviting non-Christians into the church, we need to let them know what to do if they decide they want to join us. No one came up to the front, but what I'm hoping is that maybe we planted the seeds in some one's heart. Maybe they didn't come up to the front today, but perhaps they will another day? Or perhaps they made the commitment to God in their hearts? I just want to give people the opportunity and the safe place to discover God.

What a blessing this service is to all of us! It is only our third service, and there are still some technical things we need to work on. But I think the spirit is right. People are coming and responding. And I believe God is well-pleased. He is welcome in this place!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Angel songs.

What a great weekend!

This weekend, Gerald and I performed two shows each at Toronto's newest craft show, Angel Wings Over Toronto. The idea was to have an entire show filled with angel inspired crafts and things. I'm a huge angel lover, so my friend sent me a link to their site. Well, of course, I got so excited that I called them to see if I could sing at the show. Not only did I get hired, but they offered Gerald a spot as well.

Toronto has so many craft shows at this time of year, and I think they felt the competition. Turnout was not as high as expected. But the people we met were amazing. Great talents and great spirits. They really loved our music, and I think we may have met a lady who will help us find our wedding bands. (It's getting so close!)

Gerald did a set of his own songs, mixed in with some country and gospel tunes. He didn't intend to have a gospel set, but most of his songs ended up with some kind of God reference in them. (Mysterious ways...) He did his arrangement of "People Get Ready", which I just love. So soulful! And a great version of Elvis's "If I Can Dream". Of course, I think this song sounds better as a duet with a girl singer, preferably a red-head with stunning blue eyes and attitude to boot, but I digress. In his originals, he did "Perfect Picture", which always makes me swoon, and "Do You Trust the Wings God Gave You", which always makes me cry. He was just awesome! (so proud!!!)

My set was entirely inspired by angels. I found angel songs in lots of different areas of music, and build a little concert around them. Gerald played beautiful finger-style guitar for most of the songs. I did lots of traditional carols, like "Hark the Herald" and "Angels We Have Heard on High". I did old songs like "Rusty Old Halo" (which always makes me smile!) and "Angel Band". I did "The Huron Carol" with Gerald on djembe, and "Of the Father's Love Begotten" acapella.

Some of the songs were entirely about angels, like "Gabriel's Message", and some just had angel references, like "Silent Night". We did a ripping version of Ray Overholt's "Ten Thousand Angels". I thought it was important to show that the angels were not just around at Christmas, as this song sings about the passion of Christ. I also did "I Call Out Your Name", so we'd be doing a song off the cd.

I'm feeling great strength when I perform these days. I've given God complete control over my career, and when I get in a position like today, I feel his blessing on what I'm doing. Today wasn't a church, and not all my songs were Christian. But I still felt like I was representing God and his grace. People really responded to what we were doing, and I'm sure that that was God's work and not mine. It all felt awesome.

I now need a few days of rest. I'm quite sure I won't get them, but a girl's got to try!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Marilyn and Jazz

Tonight will be a quick post as it's late and tomorrow is another performing day.

This week has just been a string of interesting gigs. Sunday was church singing. Then, for the next three nights, I sang jazz at the Old Mill. Sooo gorgeous there! My beautiful friend, Moni, usually sings there, but she's away and gave me the opportunity to sub in for her. (My honour!) It's a pretty relaxed gig, as I was not the lead singer, but more like a "girl singer". (The trio was drums, sax/flute/clarinet, and keyboard with tracks.) I would come forward for a few songs a set, and then just sit back and listen to the music for the rest of the time. I did some of my favourites, including What a Wonderful World, and Don't Get Around Much Anymore. I was a little nervous the first night. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I'm used to doing these songs with a full big band behind me. When it's just a trio, you're so much more exposed. Also, we were improvising, something that never really happens in a big band situation. It's been a while since I've done any of that kind of stuff. But after the first night, I started to relax into it and I really had a great time. The crowds were small, but generally appreciative. Singing great songs in a gorgeous room wearing an evening gown - rough life!

But the last two days have just been extraordinary - and I mean that in the "strange" sense of the word. For the last two days, I have worked as a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. Crazy! It was for a convention, and I was hired by a company to pose for pictures. They do photography, and thought it would be a great way to bring people over to their booth. They were right!

I rented a dress, bought a wig, and copied the make-up off a photo. I thought I'd have to do some singing and character work, but all they wanted was photos. No one wanted to talk to Marilyn. They just wanted to talk to me-in-a-funny-costume. It was just plain fun. My whole day was smiling and posing (talk about working with my strong points!). It was a little tiring to be in a wig and heels all day, but other than that, what a way to make my Christmas shopping money!

I don't know how much I actually looked like Marilyn, but I definitely had some great poses. The clients were really happy, and the crowds had a great time. And now that I have the wig and the make-up down, I'd definitely do it again!

Have I said recently how much I like my job?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

St. John's West and lots o' hymns!

What an amazing and blessed day of worship and music!

Every month, I ask Gerald to come and see me do something, and my reason why it's so incredibly crucial for him to come is cause it's my "first time" doing it. His complaint is, "Allison, you're always doing things for the first time!" So, yes, he does come to see things, but his point is that I'm always challenging myself with new things.

Well, today was definitely a new thing for me. A very big "first time". Today, for the first time, I was the sole music leader for an entire worship service!

Let's remember, I'm a singer. Singers always have an accompanist, and, on a good day, a choir, and on a great day, a band. But not today - just me!

St. John's West Toronto Anglican Church has taken an innovative approach to leading music at their morning worship. Instead of hiring an organist and forming a choir, they took their music budget, and decided to hire different musicians each Sunday of the year. Those musicians follow the liturgy, but are also invited to add their own creativity to the music for the service.

When I first applied for a Sunday, I thought Gerald might be able to come and play guitar for me, but then we found out he was going to be out of town! Arg!

So, out came my guitar. I play guitar almost everyday, but it's usually for babies and their moms. Not really the same thing. I've barely played in public performance, and I've never had to do so much music at once.

Last month, I started organizing my songs. I decided to go with my strengths, which I believe to be singing and song leading. If nothing else, I guess I just wanted to set a spiritual tone with the music. I wanted people to feel the joy of the Lord in song. On the way to the church this morning, I prayed that God would just use me to sing His songs and lead His people in praise. I also prayed that I wouldn't drop the guitar and swear into the mic.

Before the service, I sang Twila Paris's "How Beautiful". I immediately felt calm. (Isn't it amazing how easy things are when you just let God take control?) My next song was the Gaither's "Jesus is Lord of All", which is so suited to guitar, by the way! I then decided I'd get everyone singing, so I sang "All Night, All Day". We had put drums and shakers in the pews, so I encouraged the congregation to play and sing, and they all did. Just awesome!

The first hymn was "Seek Ye First", and the singing and played was definitely joyful. I played a Celtic "Alleluia" for the Gospel processional, and during the anointing I sang "Prayer of St. Francis" and "Spirit of the Living God", which was inspired by yesterday's Alpha day. For the offertory hymn, we did "Lord of the Dance", which was rocking! People sang and played, and some even danced. In an Anglican church! Whoo-hoo!

Ooooh, then came my big risky choice for the service. They had asked me to play the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) during the communion prayers. I decided to play it on the djembe. For anyone unfamiliar with the djembe, it's an African drum with a huge bass note. I knew it was a bold choice and quite different from the guitar, but I really loved the way it sounded, sooo.... When that point came in the service, I banged the bass note and started to sing. To my great happiness, not only did people sing along, but several people picked up their drums and played along too!

During communion, I sang my song "I Call Out Your Name". It felt awesome to hear people singing along on my own lyric. I also did the Lord's prayer that's set to the tune of Amazing Grace. We ended the service with a rocking version of my favourite song - "This Little Light Of Mine".

I was done, and it felt so good! Once it started, I just felt like I was in the right place. After the service, the comments were incredibly positive, and people loved the djembe on the Sanctus (big sigh of relief!). One woman was impressed with how well I kept the flow of the service, but with all my experience in working with my Dad and with Boni, I've learned a lot about the importance of smooth transitions, and the musician's role in keeping it smooth. And the best part of it all - I've been asked back! Yay!

Today was a test and a risk and a great reinforcement. Last year, I told God I wanted to start singing in other churches. I wanted to start right away, but His timing took a little longer. It just felt so good to be used in this way - to know that I helped lead people in praise and worship. Just awesome!

After the service, I raced back to St. John's York Mills. This year, I've had the pleasure of meeting a great new parishioner, Rev. Gerald Butterworth. Gerry is a hymn writer, who has hooked up with a few musicians who are setting his texts to music. Today, our choir and congregation had the chance to be a part of a recording of these new hymns. I think that the hymns will be recorded, and then a book or digital-book of the music will be published as well. (The details are still shaping up.) The choir was set up in front of the church, and about forty members of the congregation sat in the front pews. A mic was set on each group. We rehearsed five hymns, and recorded sections of four. I always love singing new music, but new hymns are really exciting, especially when you know the writer!

What a great day it has been! I have a very full week of music and performing ahead of me. I'm saying prayers for good sleep, calm nerves, and deep breaths.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

ALPHA - Holy Spirit Weekend

Today was a very special Alpha. Remember in the 80's when sitcoms always had a "very special" episode? Like, "Tune in this week for a very special Family Ties, when Alex does drugs and cries about it". Wasn't that just awful?

Anyways, today was not that kind of "very special". Nicky Gumbel has devoted three chapters of the Alpha course to the Holy Spirit, and they are intended to be studied over the course of a weekend. For simplicity's sake, our group decided to do it in a one day intensive.

The three topics covered are: Who is the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do? and How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?

Nicky starts by explaining that we tend to get very comfortable with God the Father and God the Son, but God the Holy Spirit sort of remains this great mystery. He argues that it shouldn't remain a mystery because it is such a powerful force. Well, 'force' is not his word. He calls the Holy Spirit a 'person', but I have to admit that I have trouble with that. Jesus was a person because he had a physical human form. But the Holy Spirit never took that form. Yes, I understand the idea of humanizing or personifying the Holy Spirit with "person" characteristics, but I just couldn't buy into the idea that the Holy Spirit is a person. It also doesn't make sense with the things we started to learn about it. For example, the Holy Spirit does stuff, which a person can do. But then you can get filled with the Holy Spirit, not something a person can do.

I find the concept of defining the Holy Spirit to be very cumbersome and confusing, but when we went on to discuss having the Holy Spirit in our lives, I felt much more comfortable. I guess for me, the old "wind" analogy is still best. It says that the Holy Spirit is like wind - you can't see it, but you can see and feel its effects. I believe this. I can't see the Holy Spirit, and I completely proved today that I can't define it, but I can see its effects in my life and in the lives of others.

Our leaders did a great presentation today. We were joined for the day by our clergy, Dad and Mary. They took the Holy Communion service, and stretched it over the whole day, so that the Alpha tapes and the discussions were woven into the service. We'd do a little service, say a prayer, watch a tape, and discuss. Before the lunch break, I lead the group in singing "Spirit of Gentleness". Olivia chose the song, and it fit in so well with all the things we'd talked about. (See, that's an effect of the Holy Spirit - like the wind, He is!) I had volunteered last week to bring my guitar some time, and I was really happy to do it. It's kind of like a warm-up for tomorrow morning.

By the way, the community meal is so important in Alpha. I used to laugh when my Mom would talk about the food at Alpha, but that time of sharing your day and just getting to know each other is just crucial for building trust. And you really see the effects in the discussions. We all feel very free to share our ideas, even when you may be disagreeing with someone else. When we got to the part of the communion service where we share the Peace, it was all hugs and closeness. You could tell we all enjoy being together. It's great to share this journey with such great people.

After lunch, we did the final video, which had some really interesting stuff in it. Nicky did a section on finding different postures for worship, including lifting your hands. This is something I've only really started in the last few years. I was raised to kneel when praying, and always clasp your hands. Any other time, your hands are either at your sides or holding a book. But when I started to open my hands and lift my arms, I found a great freeing feeling in my worship time. I felt like, if God wanted to come into me, I was open to receive him.

The really interesting part of Nicky's talk was on speaking in tongues. As most people know by now, I had a powerful and somewhat scary experience of witnessing speaking in tongues this summer. The person leading the tongue-talk was aggressive, and the whole experience was really upsetting for me. But Nicky told this great story about a woman who was praying over someone. They woman got stuck for words, so she took a deep breath and started again. When she started again, she started speaking Russian, which she didn't speak, but the person she was praying over did! See, to me, that's amazing and full of God. Nicky gave lots of information on the historical side of speaking in tongues, and then gave "tips" ( I don't know if that's quite the right word) on how to speak in tongues yourself. I have to admit, when it comes to myself, I'm really not open to this. Maybe it's because I didn't grow up with it, or maybe it's because I was so freaked out my my experience this summer, but I really don't get it. I'm sure if God wants me to do it, it will happen. But I can't say I'm going to ask for the experience.

We then completed the communion service. It was quiet and full. At the end, I again lead the group in song, this time "Spirit of the Living God". And, again, the song summed up so much of what we'd been doing.

It was a really powerful day. I learned a lot, but my mind is still swimming with ideas. This is probably the deepest theological topic presented so far. It's a challenge, but definitely one worth investigating.

Remembrance Day

I just have to share a great moment from today:

As we all know, today is Remembrance Day (I think in the States it's called Veteran's Day?). Well, for the past number of years, our church has been holding a Remembrance Day service in the neighbourhood. I've never been able to attend, but today I was available and in the area, so I went with Mom.

I thought it was outdoors, in some generalized area of the neighbourhood. No - It's actually right inside one of the office buildings. When we first arrived, all I saw was a huge empty space, a hallway where two escalators meet. "Wow", I thought, "Glad I came, cause no one else is going to show up." Boy, was I wrong.

At 10:50am, the bagpipes started to play, and the people came out of nowhere. They flooded in from all directions. Dad started things off with a welcome from the church. We sang O Canada, and Flanders Field was read. The trumpet played Taps and the Reveille, with the pipes back in for the Lament. Jamie H lead us all in the singing of O God Our Help In Ages Past. That's right - a hymn! Right there in the middle of an office building! Crazy and awesome.

Wonderful Catherine K lead us in the prayer of St. Francis. A pastor from the Evangel Temple, another neighbourhood church, lead us in more prayers, and we finished with God Save the Queen and, of course, more pipes.

The whole event was short, but so powerful. Dad had crests available for any veterans in the crowd. It was a fairly young crowd, but several people came up to get them for their parents. Our veterans - retired, but not forgotten. They thought they were fighting the "war to end all wars". The results of war were so disastrous; they couldn't imagine another generation choosing to put their children into war ever again.

I found this morning so powerful. It amazes me how we still all gather in public places to honour these great people who fought that we could live in peace. Usually it takes a parade or a band or free food to get people to leave their routines. And it amazed me that we were allowed to be a Christian presence in a public place. Toronto is so concerned with being "politically correct" that it's "incorrect" to show any public displays of prayer, faith, or God. But here we were, praying and singing hymns in a very public, very corporate space.

He really does work in mysterious ways...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

ALPHA - Week 8

This week's topic: How and when should we share the gospel with others?

What a great topic! It's a great one for new Christians, but especially good for those of us who've grown up in the church as well. As an Anglican, we aren't really encouraged to evangelize. We're taught to show our Christianity in our actions. I'm completely cool with this, but I also think that sometimes we should be able to just talk about Jesus with someone. I think they teach this better in other churches? I guess too, that being raised a Christian, I was never formally introduced to Jesus. He was just there from the beginning - my own little John 1:1 experience! You know, I never had anyone say, "Hey, let me tell you about Jesus", so I don't necessarily think of doing that for others. Or maybe it's just that I don't know how? Or maybe that I'm scared to?

Nicky Gumbel started by talking about the two biggest dangers in sharing the gospel with others - fear and insensitivity. Fear of bringing up the name of Jesus in a public place. Fear of making other people uncomfortable. Or, perhaps, fear of embarrassment. What if I share my intimate feelings of faith to another and my feelings are rejected? Mocked? Degraded?

And insensitivity - Not realizing that someone doesn't want to hear the gospel. Being disrespectful of a person's existing beliefs or faith. Or just being pushy.

I remember once I was at a Canada Day celebration and the Jews For Jesus were handing out pamphlets. I was really curious about how you could be Jewish and for Jesus, so I approached one of the women and asked her about it. She explained how they were a group of Jewish-raised, or culturally Jewish, people who have accepted Jesus as their savior. Great! I had my answer. I thanked her and was ready to leave, when she started her pitch - "You like you're at the age to be thinking about your faith...". I thanked her again and told her I was already a Christian. But then, she started getting pushy. I remained polite for as long as I could, but I finally had to tell her to leave me alone. First of all, I'm not Jewish in any way, so to this day, I can't understand how I could ever be a Jew For Jesus. But more importantly, she was being insensitive to my pre-existing faith. I was already a Christian, and yet she was trying to recruit me. She wasn't looking to add to the body of Christ, just to the body of her organization.

Maybe this is why I'm hesitant to tell others about Jesus. I don't want to be one of those pushy people who knock on your door or chase you down in the street. And yet I know that most people who are trying to add to the body of Christ are not working in this way.

We had a great discussion about the story of the woman at the well. (I know a great song about this story, so it was hard to have the discussion without bursting out singing!) Here's an example of Jesus meeting a stranger and, within a few short sentences, sharing the gospel with her. I think the thing I liked most about the story was how he made the gospel appropriate to the situation. They're at the well, talking about water, so suddenly, the gospel is living water. Brilliant.

I remember a preacher we had at church once who talked about "quiet evangelism". Ways that we can show our faith in our actions. Ways that aren't pushy, but that may open the door to a discussion about being a Christian. Like wearing a cross, or saying grace in a restaurant. People will see these small Christian practices. Perhaps they will ignore them. Perhaps they will store them in their memory bank. Or perhaps they will come up to us and say, "Hey, what are you doing?"

They say people need to hear about Jesus thirty times before becoming a Christian. They may not change the first time you say grace with them, but what if that's #29? Suddenly, every little move becomes very important.

I remember, one time in university, I was in Bloor subway station, and I saw guy wearing a leather jacket. On the back of the jacket was a painted design of a burning cross. I was so upset by this! How dare he wear something so disrespectful? Didn't he know how important that symbol was to me? And to millions of others? But what could I do? I was tiny and he was huge and pretty intimidating. But I realized there was something I could do. I could wear a cross too. Not a burning one - a beautiful empty cross; empty to show that Jesus is not dead, but has defeated death and has been raised to new life. For as much as he has the right to wear whatever he wants, and put out whatever message he wants, I can wear whatever I want too. I have the choice to put out whatever message I want.

So, how am I sharing the gospel? I guess the main way is through my singing and, especially in the past year, through my songwriting. I think I'm sharing through this blog. I am wearing a cross, and I do say grace in restaurants. Oh, and I bought a fish to stick on the trunk of my car. (We call it Jesus-fish. It's not meant to be disrespectful. It just makes me giggle!)

Oh, and one more thought on all this. The deeper my faith grows, the more comfortable I get sharing the gospel with others. I think God is giving me confidence in this area. I used to avoid the question, "Are you religious?" by saying "Oh, well, really, I'm much more spiritual". Bull-poopy. I was spiritual, but really, I was just trying to avoid the question. I didn't want to be labeled "religious". Maybe that's part of being a preacher's kid? But now, I don't care if I'm labeled anything. (Okay, I don't want to be labeled "fat" or "mature", but that's a whole other post!)

I know that what I have to offer is great, because all of it comes from God. And everything came together when tonight's discussion hit my guiding verse:

Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify God in Heaven.

What else do I need to say?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

ALPHA - Week 7

Alpha is going so quickly! Next week, we have a full Alpha-day to discuss the three segments covering the Holy Spirit. I'm really looking forward to it, and I just realized how geeky that is to say - "Wow, I've got a wild weekend coming up! I'm hanging out at church discussing the Holy Spirit. Wicked!"

This week's topic: How can I resist evil?

What a HUGE topic for one night's discussion. We could have stayed there all week talking about it. The first part of the talk is about the idea of spiritual warfare. It's funny how many of us will believe in God, but dismiss the idea of Satan. We've made Satan into a cartoon character. He has funny horns and a silly tail. But if there is a force for ultimate good, doesn't it just make sense that there is a force for ultimate evil? Nicky Gumbel gives many different sources of evidence to support this idea, and one of those is the writings about Satan and evil in the church's history. This got me thinking about hymns. In contemporary Christian songwriting, we so rarely write about Satan. Yet in old hymns, Satan made a regular appearance. The first to come to mind was "Down on my knees", with the line: 'Old Satan tried to tell me the Bible was a lie, that Jesus did not love me, and I was going to die'. We don't sing about this any more. It's like we've made him into such a cartoon that we don't feel it necessary to warn others of his danger. We don't feel the need to personify evil, yet our society personifies everything else. (Don't believe me? How many people name their cars?)

I truly believe in absolute evil. I believe in Satan and demons. And I believe it because of Steve. Steve was a person who loved living and who was fighting for his life. But on that day, when he took his life, I know it wasn't his own decision. He wanted to live. He was praying for his health, and we were all praying for him. But something that day convinced him that he had no other choice. I don't believe he made that choice of his own volition. It may sound hokey, but I believe he met with demons that day. I believe it with all my heart. Steve didn't want suicide, and I don't believe God wanted that for him either. If God wasn't part of that decision, it just makes sense that an evil force, Satan, was a part of it.

Nicky had some great thoughts on tempation too. He said that temptation is not sin; acting on temptation is sin. But the moment we are tempted, Satan comes around and whispers in our ear, "You're thinking evil. You are obviously doing something evil. Shame on you. Oh well, if you're this close, you might as well go all the way." Can't we all relate to this? Haven't you ever been tempted and thought, "Oh, well, I'm thinking it, so I might as well yell/cheat/swear/lie"? Nicky brought this to a great point when he reminded us that Jesus was tempted in the desert. He felt the very real pangs of temptation, but he didn't act on it. His temptation was just a desire; it wasn't sin.

We had a great discussion on Ephesians 6:11, where it talks about putting on the armour of God. I'd sort of put this passage aside in my own thoughts. I associate it with militaristic imagery, which is uninteresting to me. I have no comfort in imagining myself to be a soldier. But this passage is so full of goodness and hope. And I love the idea that God gives us so many gifts of protection.

We also talked about the "sins" of following astrology, etc. I put sins in quotes because a few years ago, at the Ex, they had a floor that had been excavated from an ancient Christian temple. They were touring this floor around North America. It was all mosaic. Just gorgeous, and full of symbols. At one end was a full astrological chart! We were a little shocked to see it, so we asked the guide about it. Apparently, very early in Christianity, the astrological charts were put in temples and incorporated into the Christian practice. I guess people had followed the charts for so long that they were reluctant to let it go too easily. Anyone who's tried to introduce a new prayer book into their congregation will understand!

Alpha only lasts a few more weeks. I can see why people do it more than once. I'm only scratching the surface here!