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Interview: Penny Lyon, jazz singer

08 March 2019

‘We give away little boxes of ash at our gigs — inside the boxes it looks awfully like bags of heroin’

Out of the Ashes is a band that was started by my husband, Kevin Washburn, and me. There are ten musicians in the band, but Kevin and I often find ourselves touring as a duo for the sake of ease and being able to fit into churches.

We’ve both had other careers before this one. I was in marketing, and he was in IT — in fact, he was largely responsible for bringing internet technology into the UK.

Kevin and I are each a parent, musician, writer, gardener, land manager. We run Christian retreats from our home in the South Cotswolds. These demand cooking and managing a busy household. The music has grown so much, though, that we’re about to move to a big house with less land. The retreats are run by Jonathan Bugden and his wife, Pam, who are incredibly wise and generous ministers.

Put people into the countryside, and into a Holy Spirit-filled environment, cook for them, give them direction, give them love, and they will be restored.

In truth, although we were always making music together with bands and the Beacon Gospel Choir, we were never great at actually writing together. Then, all of a sudden, about seven years ago, it was as if God turned a tap on. Songs started to come flooding out.

I thought that we were too old to start recording and gigging. If I’m honest, I was rather grumpy about the whole thing, as it just seemed like a distraction from growing bigger and better vegetables and looking after our land and horses, which was what I had planned for my future. But, after our first album and tours, God showed us what he was doing. We found that we were talking to huge numbers of people, both in the secular world and in churches, who thought that their lives were over, who felt disempowered, unheard, and valueless.

If we’re still breathing, we’ve got stuff to do. God has a purpose and a plan for each one of us, regardless of our age or ability. What we lack in youth, we make up for in experience — in maturity, wisdom, stability. We started going out to churches, telling our stories about grief and growing old and telling how God has dealt with us in some of our worst moments. We found that those stories resonated with people. I talk about how God handled me when I was in my greatest despair, and how, through him, I have come out richer and more joyful than I could have believed possible.

God takes the ashes of our lives and turns them into something amazing. To illustrate this, we give away little boxes of ash at our gigs. I sometimes feel that inside the boxes it looks awfully like bags of heroin, but I promise they really are just the ash from our wood-burner.

Out of the Ashes goes into buzzing, busy churches, and exhausted churches — wherever God sends us. We take rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, blues, R & B, the gospel, and our stories. We encourage people to know how much God loves them, to receive the Holy Spirit, and to go out into their community and take his blessing. Jazz, blues, and rhythm-and-blues came naturally: they’re styles of music that we love. The hope, joy, and encouragement — that’s God’s architecture.

The first question we get asked is how much it costs for us to go to a church. We tell people that, to keep the ministry afloat, we need an average of £200 per event as a duo. However, the message we carry is too important to not go because a church is too poor to pay us: we always go where God sends us, regardless. Churches pay us what they can afford: some more, some less. It all works out in the end.

We go all over Europe. We’re touring French Anglican churches in August this year. We go into all Christian churches, or anywhere we can share a Christian message. We are also starting to find that churches are booking the band as a musical representative at their local town festival — a great way of getting the church out into the community in a way that non-Christians can engage with.

We worship in a busy Anglican church with young people. I don’t feel that music is the key to church growth, or even necessarily appropriate for all churches, every Sunday. Growth is always, including at our church, the result of faithful people — not just the clergy — praying regularly and taking on a whole-church desire to follow and be like Jesus Christ.

I started singing when I was 16. I had a series of singing lessons when I was about 21 and living in London. Some kids play football, dance, or paint pictures; my thing was words. I never said anything in two words that could equally well be said in 26. I loved playing with rhymes, metaphors, and rhythms. It made me noisy to have around, but it was good training to be a songwriter.

Let’s face it, we all get negative words spoken to us and over us, and some of the most damaging of these are when we are children. When I was a child, I was always told I talked too much, didn’t think clearly enough, laughed too loudly (and often at the wrong moments), and said things without thinking. So I grew up with that firmly entrenched in my heart, holding me back. I used to attempt to do “personality surgery”: stifling the laugh, not speaking at all unless spoken to — basically creating a result that appeared sulky and joyless.

One day, as an adult, I was broken by a comment by another parent in the playground, and, once again, went into the same pattern of wondering whether I needed to try and do that restraining thing again — until a friend said: “God made you as you are. You were planned. He is happy with his creation; don’t try to change it.”

I went away and prayed: “Show me myself as you see me, Lord.” It was the best thing I’ve ever done. Suddenly, from this annoying person who drops clangers and irritates those around her, I saw a completely different picture. I saw a fun, hugely affectionate, popular, and engaging person — a very big difference.

Now, when I’m broadcasting or speaking at an event, I pray “My mouth, your words, Lord.” He actually uses the fact that my mouth will sometimes just work without engaging brain, because I don’t get in the way of the Holy Spirit.

I’m one of those people who would say that they have always had a sense of God being in their lives; but, as I’ve grown up, my faith has matured into something stronger and deeper.

Slavery, abuse, family breakdown — there is plenty going on in the world to get riled about. But I have a particular niggle: the amount of food thrown away, when God created it for us to thrive on and to enjoy, and when so many in the world are starving.

Getting the chance to pray with people after one of our performances is the thing that makes me happiest.

Some of the times when other people looked at me and assumed I was acting in courage, I was just clinging to the rock face, praying and putting one foot in front of the other. What felt more like courage was when my son James was getting a hard time at school because of his faith. Driving him in one morning, I found myself wanting to tell him to be less obvious about being a Christian. Just as I was about to open my mouth to speak, I felt God say: “Before you say what you’re about to, are you really sure you want to say it?” Stopped in the nick of time. But handing James over to God in that situation — that felt like courage.

Who would I choose to be locked in a church with? Jesus Christ, of course. Does anyone ever say anything else?

Penny Lyon was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Her blog is pennylyon.com, and she can be contacted on penny@outoftheashesmusic.uk; Facebook: outoftheashesmusic; or by telephoning 07717 494222.

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