By PAUL ELLIOTT
“It feels like you’re leading us tonight, Pretoria. We had our plans and our ideas, but we’re just not getting ahead. You guys are leading us more than we are leading you. South Africa, I think the Lord has given you back your song tonight. I want to say that prophetically. This nation has something for the world. From your suffering, something is coming, strategic for the world.”
The school-ground crowd cheers and amens.
Well, that’s not the regular “What’s up *insert city name here*!”you get at a loud and live outdoor concert. But this wasn’t a regular band. And they didn’t have a regular Leader.
“I cried last night because I couldn’t go to see them”said Dale “How was it? Was it incredible?”
“What? What do you mean ‘no’?”
“Bro, it was normal, it was loud, it was good, it wasn’t incredible. What was incredible, what was sublime and gently atomic, was that God hovered in the crowd and over the people”
Sure, there was a huge line array, typical of the rock-star-esque speaker setups, and a lighting rig, with streaking beams of white light shooting out and over Pretoria. You could hear the band playing from eight blocks away when you arrived, because that’s where you had to park if you arrived late. You couldn’t get anywhere near the place. A lot of us arrived late.
It was a hodge-podge. A quilt tapestry. Blankets and lawn chairs. Crutches and wheelchairs. The groups of weirdos that showed up were a great indicator of the healthy fragmentation in flesh that finds unity in spirit. Nobody looked alike, nobody was the same age. This was something special in that people were there for one thing. And it wasn’t Bethel. It was God. And He was there for one thing, and it wasn’t Bethel either. It was us.
Jeremy Riddle was wearing his tightest underpants that night, and he was superb. Absolutely superb. His high falsetto leading a cacophony of stretching pitching fans through This Is Amazing Grace. I saw a little of his heart. I like him now.
Brian Johnson was a gentleman. Such an invisible man. Considering that he is the leader of the work the way I understand things, his profile was pressed in humility. I think he possibly led one song, and left the rest of the team to tag out and carry God’s presence. I must admit I had one fanboy moment when I checked his right bicep to make sure it was really him. *Eeeek*. Yes he had the over-sized black dark cross tattooed there. His baritone voice pealing over the school field sealed the deal.
There was an interval and a change-over. A preacher came up looking New York-ish, baseball-cap-ish, kapiche? He had something to say, I wasn’t listening. I’m sure it was important. I wasn’t listening. I’d already tuned into the right channel and words didn’t matter. Nobody seemed to mind that he was speaking. We wanted the music back, though we didn’t need it at this point. My wife tootled off for hot chocolates in the chilly blue night.
The musicians were great. My favourite of the night was the percussionist. Though percussionist is a rubbish word because it makes you think of wind chimes and triangles. This chap was beating the life into two huge floor toms. He was keeping complex timing going with a pair of shakers in one hand and access to a complimentary snare and tambouring rig by the other. He was the Tabasco Sauce man.
I’d describe their stage presence as vulnerable. There were no tricks or backflips. In fact, it was open enough to all that you could pick up your favourite lines and techniques by watching each musician. I learned a whole world of pad technique from the keyboard player alone. If you were close to the stage, you took home a music lesson for free.
The setlist rolled on. “Kurt Cobain”stepped up and sang a new song I hadn’t heard before. Free worship broke out. Harmonies in spiritual voices rose up. All seamlessly. Effortlessly. A critical mass had been achieved. A Christological Mass too.
The show landed much later, with a plump plop. No encore, just a solid four on the floor BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG as they led Pretoria and guests through Deep Cries Out. It was the first time I’d seen the song led live, and I was surprised in the proper sense, the sense that makes you go “whhhaaaa?”when I saw that William Matthews was leading the song. I understand he wrote it too? Thing is…He’s a black man! And his voice in the recordings for sure sounds like a middle aged country twanger white guy! So, yeah, there’s that random thing to be said. I digress.
Mr New York comes back on stage. He opens his mouth to speak and land the meeting, but people are already leaving, trying to find their way back to their cars parked eight blocks away. We had come to Bethel and found ourselves in Nazareth. Going home was a matter of geography, not belonging.
On that night, our hats had hung in the stars and our hearts had hung on His words. Thanks Bethel. Thanks Dad.