I’ll admit it now – this one may be a little niche. It’ll probably only appeal if you grew up as a Christian in the 1990s…but there seem to be a few of us about so the man in the picture above needs little introduction. He is the legend that is Ishmael.
I have no idea why Ishmael popped into my head as I saw in front of my laptop a few weeks back. Maybe it was work avoidance. Maybe it was prompted by the “Praise and Glories” book that is permanently stationed on top of the piano. I don’t know. But either way, I found myself poring over Ishmael’s brightly coloured website and realised that he was gigging in Chingford at the start of July. Chingford! Like that place near where we live! We had to go.
You see, from the age of ten when I started going to an Evangelical Church, Ishmael was a bit of an idol of mine. Not an idol like an Ashareth pole that you have to keep tearing down, more like the Christian version of Philip Schofield. Only he had the Glory Company in the place of Gordon the Gopher. I had the albums – I even sang on two of the albums (“Jump for Joy” and “Shout for Joy” – technically not Ishmael albums, as he wasn’t on them but certainly endorsed by the man himself). I had the “Children of the Voice” books. I may even have had a t-shirt. He came to our church to throw one of his famous “Praise Parties” and it was so cool that we could even bring non-Christian friends without feeling embarrassed. See, told you he was a legend.
That’s why we found ourselves, on a rainy Sunday morning, hurrying through the back roads of Chingford to find South Chingford Congregational Church. Ish was leading a “cafe church” service, which sounded kinda informal so I wasn’t too stressed about how blantantly late we were. It had started when we got there but no-one gave us disapproving looks. In fact, they just gave us cake. And tea and coffee and pastries. Winner!
Yes, it’s the latest in a long series of “Eva looks sulky with food” pictures. She did enjoy her pastry, honest. It’s just she has to eat food every day and apparently she is bored of this system.
Ishmael kicked things off with a song about greeting each other. We had to stand up, hold hands, sing a verse and then quickly find someone else to hold hands with. Roo enjoyed the dashing about and swinging hands in the air. Another action song quickly followed and then Ish started to give his testimony, in three parts.
You see, the last few years have not been that kind to Ishmael. Freshly ordained as a deacon in Canterbury Catherdral in 2007, he found out he had leukaemia and potentially days to live. Now, you don’t need to tell me too much about the horrors of leukaemia but apparently it was unknown to Ish when he got his diagnosis. When he was talking about it all, he did it with an cheery kind of optimism (“Cancer of the blood? Doesn’t sound too bad”) and even when he got to the part where he prepared himself for death, he didn’t get overly morbid. In fact, he seemed quite prepared to hop on board the Train to Glory right there and then. But it wasn’t to be, and he says that choosing to live was in some ways harder than choosing to die.
*Obviously* I was welling up a bit at all this. Who wouldn’t be?
Mortality is a tricky subject for an all-age service but he kept it light, with plenty of jokes along the way and some of his child-friendly “Bigger Barn” songs. Reuben liked counting the “S-words” in the “Sow and Sow” song and the liturgy was all designed in a way that was very accessible to children – even the confessional prayer and the intercession. (Although the intercession was in five parts, and Roo whispered to me after the first part “But I’ve done my praying already!)
So, a slightly odd combination of life-and-death testimony and brightly animated videos about building a “bigger barn, bigger barn barn bigger barn, build a bigger barn, bigger barn barn, bigger barn, build a bigger barn build a barn barn bigger barn, build a bigger barn, bigger barn”..but if anyone can pull this off, it’s Ishmael. The Bigger Barn song had Greek dancing with it, obviously. At one point, he invited Martin Smith of Deliriou5? to sing along with him and I was only slightly disappointed to realise it was just a recording of him. Now, there’s another 90s Christian idol… Actually, I really liked the Martin Smith song, “Oh the Peace”. It’s available on Ishmael’s “Songs and Hymns” album and I may just have to get it.
Towards the end, Ishmael invited the children up to the front for a kind of Christian version of “The Music Man”, where they had to air guitar and play rock drums. Naturally, Roo got really into the air guitaring – he has punkrock in his soul, after all. We didn’t get a good photo of it, which is just as well given I was up there too. He had fun though. The meeting finished with a heart rendition of Ishmael’s breakaway hit “Father God I Wonder”. The non PC version with “Now I am your son”, rather than “Now I am your child”. My sister would be disappointed.
After the service, me and Roo went up to meet the man himself, and get a quick picture (see the insanely grinning people at the top). I had brought my “Praise and Glories” book to get signed but actually..it had already been signed, sometime in the 1990s. Still, I think Ish was touched that I’d kept it for so many years.
So, Ishmael is back from the brink. A little older, a little wearier but he still has that magic that unites adult and child in happy praise. If he’s gigging anywhere near you, you should definitely go along. Or if you have a church, why not make him gig near you by sending him a booking? Now, if only I had one of those church things to call my own…