Tony Cummings spoke to Irish-based Renaissance man SAMMY HORNER
One of the great mysteries in the multi-faceted world of Christian ministry is how Sammy Horner manages to sustain all his activity. After all, this 59 year old Ulsterman is no spring chicken. Yet Sammy tours all around the world with his wife Kylie as The Sweet Sorrows and to their four "Celticana" albums should be added the 27 albums he's been involved in, with or without the Celtic punk rock band The Electrics he formed back in 1989. And now Sammy has launched a new initiative, Worship Like A Celt, which in the coming months will offer at least two albums, two books and no doubt some live performances. Worship Like A Celt challenges a basic misunderstanding of the modern Church, that worship is primarily an act of singing congregational worship songs.
With the release this month of the first album in the series, the acoustic-orientated 'Worship Like A Celt: An Aid To Contemplation & Personal Devotion', and a second album with a decidedly electro rock celebration approach planned for release at the end of the year, it is clearly time for Cross Rhythms to catch up once more with the singer, songwriter, bassist, guitarist, mandolin player, bodhran player, author, speaker and human dynamo about his latest activities.
I began by asking Sammy to explain the thinking and praying behind the Worship Like A Celt initiative. He responded, "I've had this idea of doing Worship Like A Celt for about 10 years. The whole idea was to get people thinking about worship in new ways. It's so much more than singing hymns and worship songs in a church building. And it's certainly not a particular brand of record. I don't have a gripe with any of those type of records, but worship has become a thing. Worship is a much bigger thing than it is portrayed. That's not to say that the people putting out modern worship records don't know that. I'm sure that we all know this. But nobody's really saying it and I think that all believers can lead lives that are thankful and worshipful."
As church historians have brought to light, the Celts - the first Christians to live in Britain - had an exceptionally holistic attitude to worship, embracing all the aspects of life from labouring in a cornfield, kissing their wives, or watching a bird on the wing. They embraced life and worshipped and praised God in everything they did. Sammy is not unaware that worshipping God in our stress-filled modern world is hugely challenging. "People say that 'if life is all about worship then what about all the terrible stuff that happens?' Nobody is denying that there are hard questions. I think in terms of bad stuff it is either transforming us or us transmitting it because that's what happens. It either makes it worse or it makes us better. I think that worship is the thing that says the bad stuff that happens to me can transform me into something else, I think it can. I would thank God that I haven't really been tested in some of those ways that some people have. But I've met people who have been through horrendous things and have come out the other side amazingly well and have come out with a profound faith and a profound view of life and positivity. I've also met people who have been through terrible things and it just destroyed them. So what's the difference? I haven't been tested like that so I'm not sure but I'm guessing the difference is choice. I think we can choose to live a life of thanksgiving and learning, facing up to difficulties and hardships. Or we can choose to have the hardships and difficulties make us bitter."
For the 'Worship Like A Celt: An Aid To Contemplation & Personal Devotion' album, Sammy has brought together a diverse bunch of musician friends. As well as his Australian-born wife's singing, Kylie contributes whistles, melodica and accordion. Other Australian guests include Rhys and Esther Duursma, who gig and record under the name Mayfair Lane. Explained Sammy, "Rhys is also the drummer and lead singer with The Quick And The Dead, the rock band from Australia. But he and his wife want to do what Kylie and I do, which is play music and then go and serve in different parts of the world. We really want to encourage kids coming up to do that. So they've done a track. Then we've got goth metal rocker Miril Schmidt from Switzerland. We've got some older fellas on there, we've got an old guy from Northern Ireland called Rodney Cordner, and I love the idea that we're bringing in a bunch of us old grey beards who've been doing it forever and mixing it up with these kids. Who else is on there? Two of my favourite American artists, Beki Hemingway and her husband Randy Kirkman, are singing and playing on there. Randy's actually helped me with some of the engineering on it as well, and I've co-written some of the songs with Randy and Beki.
"Then there are the Hollands. From sort of America, but they're American Australian. Craig used to be with a band called Ballydowse, the punk Celtic band who once recorded with Jesus People USA. Well, he married Janna Holland. They're a travelling, hippie family band and play anywhere they're asked. So they're on there. Also there's Katie Becker, a worship leader from Utah who is one of our friends who we've been to Thailand with to do all kinds of work. She's an artist and singer who works with Mercy House."
Among the many outstanding songs on the album is "Wild Goose", sung by Sammy and Kylie. The sleeve note explained that song's genesis: "For years my Scottish friend Alex Legg and I played many bars, cafes and art centres around Melbourne, Australia. Late-night drives through the Dandenong Ranges to his 'Pool House' studio home where we talked and wrote for hours about every subject under the sun. This one was how the Celts took the 'wild goose' as their symbol for God's Spirit. Not a gentle dove, but a warrior bird. This result, filled with Scottish imagery and history, is a prayer that the wounded would be carried by the Wild Goose."
Another exceptional track is "Fearfully, Wonderfully, Beautifully", featuring a spine-tingling vocal from Dutch singer Katie De Veau. Wrote Sammy, "Our home in Wexford is surrounded by woodland and the Irish Sea. I walk by the sea for times of quiet and peace, and I notice things. The sea birds who know exactly when to go fishing. The sound of water crashing on the rocks. The chatter that the pebbles make as waves rush back over them. The sun painting the sky silver and orange, the wind blowing it's freshness on my face. It is remarkable and new every morning. All so complex and yet it all knows exactly what its role is. Creation, all of it, is fearfully, wonderfully, beautifully made."
Other "brilliant people" Sammy is keen to praise in making the album a reality is top Nashville session drummer Dennis Holt, much loved by long-in-tooth CCM devotees for Steve Taylor's much admired Some Band. Sammy continued his roll call of honour: "There's Tim Cotterell from The Electrics playing fiddles, pipes, mandolin, accordion and everything, we've got Sean McMains from Texas playing penny whistle and we have Alice Hoolsema from the Netherlands. She's singing on a track that I was inspired to write after we had been on a barge in Amsterdam. There was a bridge called The Kissing Bridge. The Celts embraced story and imagery and how the whole of life can speak of God's blessing. Apparently, Amsterdam used to be split into two sections; one section was where you lived and the other was where you worked. The Kissing Bridge was a bridge where all the wives would go with their husbands every morning and kiss them as they left for work. It was where life and work came together. Isn't that lovely?"
The beautiful artwork on 'Worship Like A Celt' is a very important part of the album package. Explained Sammy, "Mary and Mark Fleeson from Lindisfarne Scriptorium took care of all of the artwork in it. The artwork is as much a part of the album as anything. And actually Mary has a composer credit because we stole one of her prayers from one of her books. Which is kind of like St Patrick's Breastplate, it's that kind of Christ be the centre. So it's more her song than mine but she very graciously allowed me to rearrange it."
One of the many issues that an album like 'Worship Like A Celt' addresses is the dualism that exists in both the Church and the world. Sammy tells a story about someone who was interested in The Sweet Sorrows coming to play a concert in Leeds but who was adamant he didn't want them performing "any of their Christian stuff." Sammy responded, "I told him I don't know what he means by 'my Christian stuff'. If I sing a song about 'how beautiful you are my love, your lips are like wine', is that okay? He said 'yes', I said 'well, that's Christian stuff'. I mean people have partitioned it and this is Greek dualism at its worst. I just don't buy it. Life is complete and full of all of these things, so it's full of disappointment, it's full of hurt but it's full of encouragement and beauty and all of these things. If we open our eyes we can see it, and if we open our eyes wide enough I think we can even get through the tough stuff. I'm not saying it's an easy answer and I know that the rates of things like suicide and depression tell us that people are not coping. So I'm not saying if we do this we will cope better. I'm just saying there's a possibility here that everything we were told in church about the Gospel and the Kingdom of God actually is good news, it's not bad news.
"The Gospel is a bigger thing than a lot of us have been told and I love this idea that it's good news for our lives, that it's good news for our planet, it's good news for our marriages, for our children and grandchildren, for our relationships and international relationships. The Gospel is good news and if we live in that good news, we can be people that live out a life that is thankful and a life that draws us close to God because I don't think he's ever very far away. I think we can feel like he's far away but I think an act of genuine thanks and worship can draw us closer. I think we can feel a more tangible relationship. In my own life, one of the things that's changed is that most mornings I walk to the beach, I do an hour's walk every day and as the water's coming in, I take my headphones off and I just listen to the sound of the waves. If I'm just quiet for a minute or two, I start to realise the complexity that's right in front of me, I start to realise the sea birds and the sun coming up and the colours. I start to realise what water is made of and if the one who threw all that together truly wants to include me in his life, then I have reasons to be thankful every day.
"Is this the most important work I will ever do? I don't know. If I lived till 90 then maybe I'll do something really brilliant. I have never been in this game for money, so far so good by the way, but I have also never been in it for big record sales or trying to be famous. This is sort of what I do. Of course, the Celtic Christians were among the first pop singers. I don't know if they could sing but they could write a good song. They realised, if you can sing well do that, if you can write well do that, it's not rocket science. But if you can do rocket science do that. All of our activity can be and should be worship. It doesn't have to be partitioned. Whatever we do, if we just do it the best we can for the one who loves us and those around us, I think life can be way better. I just think that, first of all, it's bigger than we have been told for a long time, and secondly, I don't think of it as hard. That's not to say that life isn't hard, but I don't think the choice to live a life of thankfulness and graciousness and worship is actually a really difficult thing. I think you can choose to do it."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.