RUSS BRAVO talks to children’s worship pioneer Ishmael about his new album Bigger Barn, and a life-changing encounter with leukaemia
You'd think a diagnosis of leukaemia would slow even a bouncy character like Ishmael down a bit, but he's back with a new album and the energy and vision to match.
The children's and family worship pioneer has a recording pedigree that goes back to the 1970s, with more than 400 songs, 36 albums and countless books to his name, but nothing can prepare you for a sudden encounter with serious illness.
"I'd been travelling and very busy as usual, and had written six songs for the new album when I got back home and felt a bit rough. I went to see my doctor who told me I had leukaemia – if I'd started bleeding, I would have had no cells to keep me alive!
"The biggest shock was they said 'cancel your diary for a year'."
This was in 2008 and the diagnosis was acute myeloid leukaemia, leading to months in hospital. I wondered how this impacted his faith.
"People said 'you must be very angry with God'. I wasn't angry – I was just thrilled he kept me alive! I was ready to die, and I've got no fear of death at all now. I'd just become missioner deacon at Chichester cathedral, and I thought 'if my time's up, it's up but maybe God has got more for me'."
Now still on daily chemotherapy tablets, Sussex-based Ishmael is out and about and has permission to gig, having written the final six songs for his album Bigger Barn during his illness. He's also writing a book for Spring Harvest on coping with cancer, and admits it's been much harder for his family and friends than for him.
"Your family definitely needs more support. When I came out of hospital I had no hair and had lost two stone and looked really bad. I'd come up to friends in the street and they simply didn't recognise me. Now I'm just so excited about getting back into the world and playing these new songs.
"I tell people if I'm glowing on stage I'm praying it's the Holy Spirit but it might actually be radiation!"
Ishmael describes his new album as "the most challenging I have ever made" – and not just because of his illness. "I was trying to fit a story of Jesus accurately into a few lines and still have an application – and a bit of fun."
He's also raided his record collection and delved into some of his favourite music styles from the Sixties: everything from pop, rock, rhythm and blues and country crops up on Bigger Barn, all aimed at logging Bible truth in the minds and hearts of his listeners.
I wondered how a musical noisemaker with a long background in charismatic evangelical churches had ended up attached to a very CofE cathedral?
"I had just felt very stale. It wasn't the churches – it was me. I needed something very different so my wife Irene said 'let's try the cathedral'. When we went there we found a different walk – fresh and new and different. The quiet was frightening to start with, but I really began to enjoy the stillness and reflection."
This has given him a fresh appreciation for liturgy: "Irene used to read it to me while I was ill in bed. It meant more to me even than open prayer". Now he sees friends coming along and finding it refreshing, particularly with the emphasis on the sacramental.
"I'm amazed at numbers coming out of new churches and becoming Anglican priests. More and more young people are enjoying structure with sacraments and liturgy, whereas for years we've thought singing and music have been the big things to attract people to church. It's great to see a broadening of outlook."
But in case you thought Ish had gone 'establishment', the radical passion is never far below the surface: "we need depth and theology to be taught to children – they need training. It is happening and I'm encouraged with what I'm seeing".
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