Previous month:
July 2009
Next month:
September 2009

August 2009


Ken and Gerry 

Reading Ronald Wells’ account of two of Northern Ireland’s greatest peace makers Rev. Ken Newell and Fr Gerry Reynolds is an inspiring and in many places challenging book. These two men, rooted in their different traditions that have been at logger heads in Northern Ireland society since its inception in 1921, becoming friends was visionary and incredibly courageous in a society that speedily dismisses the critique of anyone in their own community as betrayal.  Wells catalogues with an academic researchers detail the friendship of Newell and Reynolds as well as the developing cross community relationships of the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, from both of their Churches, and also the other contributions they made from their pulpits, within their denominations and the wider political and social issues of Northern Ireland.

The great dismissal of reconciliation as a theological or discipleship issue in Northern Ireland by Presbyterian ministers, is an astounding neglect of their Reformed and Biblical heritage, and without doubt comes from a deep insecurity in identity and indeed the theology that the dismissers often shout so loudly about. Wells records Newell’s belief that theology is merely an excuse to not have to deal with inbred sectarianism or count the cost of what it would really mean to follow Jesus.

The personal challenge for me was that I used to be publicly courageous about these very issues but in recent years I have been a little hesitant. Back in the early eighties I was a naive young preacher who used to preach on Chronicles 7 v 14 which was used by many of my fellow evangelical Protestants to call the people of God to pray for the healing of the nation. Somehow, missing from the declaration was the repenting of our own sinful contribution to the violently divided society in Northern Ireland. A call to prayer without the rest of the verse was an incredible neglect of the Scripture. I also remember when the Anglo Irish Agreement was signed in 1984 and the Protestant town councils put up Ulster Says No banners seemingly everywhere I was asking in sermons if we felt that there was a union jack draped over the throne of God with an Ulster Says No banner hanging over the gates of heaven! I remember my parents coming to one such sermon and leaving quickly and asking that I tell them what I would be preaching about before they came again!

I also remember Ken Newell, having read my first poetry book, which had a good few poems about Northern Ireland, warning me that with such thoughts I would find myself in a wilderness but to hang in and after ten years the Church would listen to me again! I had no idea what he meant but within a few months I did and I think that losing the support of the more conservative end of my denomination caused me to have less confidence to speak out publicly. Even as a Chaplain I have certainly made my thoughts known in conversation but probably have rarely in my Sunday night teaching been as clear and courageous as I was back in 1984, probably aware that my students go home to ministers with more intransigent views and I was not brave enough to publicly oppose them.

This week as I read Friendship Towards Peace I have felt the Holy Spirit’s conviction and vision reignited in my depth of soul. This is perhaps the biggest priority in revealing the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus in my society in my generation. I have been slow to speak out and even slower to build the friendships that Ken and Gerry have modelled. I thank God that He against my own strategies brought Fr Gary Toman into my life as a colleague in Chaplaincy.  Gary and I have taught each other (he much more than me!) how to respect each other’s differences and yet encourage each other to love and follow our Lord more. For us, we are not involved in some great Satanic conspiracy to make all Northern Ireland Presbyterians loyal servants of Pope Benedict! Indeed, we would probably have made each other much more convinced of our different backgrounds than when we started. At times I see Gary smirk at what he perceives as the chaos of Protestant democracy and I being a contrary wee Ballymena man could never handle a Magesterium telling me what to believe! Our friendship does not benefit from denying our differences but is enriched by acknowledging them and attempting to understand them in the love and grace of the deep fondness of friendship.

Having read about the vision and courage of Newell and Reynolds over the last thirty years I am energised to seek to be a peacemaker and thus a child of God, as Jesus called them. We can thank God that the awful years of death and destruction that Wells’ book records Ken and Gerry leading us through have given way to more peaceful society and we can also thank God for their contribution to that very peace that we now enjoy. However, it will take much longer and will need a whole lot more Newells and Reynolds if we are to kill off the deep seated bigotry and sectarianism that still divides us. Please God lead me to play a fuller part in the bringing of your Kingdom in Northern Ireland as it is in heaven.

YIM YAMES - Tribute To...


This is a fascinating and most satisfying little EP release from Jim James (Yim Yames) the main man in My Morning Jacket and currently working with Conor Oberst and M. Ward in the super-group Monsters Of Folk (album out September). In that busy schedule he has found time to record six songs from George Harrison most prolific period – 1966-1970 – all stripped of their Beatle-esque and Phil Spector arrangements and slowed down to a snail’s pace; what a lovely sounding snail though! I have said many times on this blog and in my book The Rock Cries Out that Harrison didn’t find his spiritual answers in the same way that I did but The Protestant Reformers, in whom my inheritance lies, always encouraged light from all quarters and something in these songs particularly My Sweet Lord (I’d love a Christian version that uses Biblical names for God in place of Harrison’s eastern deities – come on Sufjan, I dare you!), All Things Must Pass and Beware of Darkness whispers something positive to my soul. His versions of Long, Long, Long and Love You To lift them out of the Lennon-McCartney dense White Album and Revolver respectively to show the quiet Beatle’s quiet gems. In this new invention, that could have been recorded deep in the woods in Bon Ivor’s cabin, these songs ooze the mystical sense of Harrison’s intent; searching, prayerful, spiritually careful.

Lazily soulful.



Thrice – Beggars

Thrice are sonically loud and theologically sound.  Post-hardcore was a label that dropped off them a few years ago though no doubt that insular pigeon hole of Californian cool probably still embraces them.  Perhaps the rest of the musical pigeon holes have been slower to embrace them and that is why their deal with Island has given way to Beggars coming out on the cool indie label Vagrant Records.  It would be very disappointing if they ultimately fail to reach a much wider audience.  If their album Vheissu and the series of Alchemy eps sent them on a sophisticated musical journey then I guess Beggars sees a return to a straight ahead primary coloured rock force.  As always this is overlaid with accessible tunes and poetic theologizing that is a cut above most of the genre they inhabit.  They could easily be The Foo Fighters with depth.

Their depth is theological and theologically this is solid stuff.  The theme is the inability of humanity to overcome its penchant for destruction.  Opener All the World Is Mad lays it out clearly enough – We are brimming with cumbersome, murderous greed/And malevolence deep and profound/We do unspeakable deeds/does our wickedness know any bounds?”  The closing title track takes the poetry of Isaiah and tweaks it with a prophetic effect that would have made that Old Testament prophet proud – all you champions of science/and rulers of men/can you summon the sun from its sleep/and does the earth seek your council on how fast to spin.”  The albums conclusion follows – “if there's one thing I know in this life/we are beggars all.”

This kind of critique of the human condition is vitally important to a modern culture that thinks it is able to self aid itself by its own genius.  It is this latter heresy that Thrice’s singer and lead theologian Dustin Kensrue goes for here.  On All The World Is Mad he shows humanity’s ineptitude in the shadow of that old traditional idea of original sin – We can’t medicate man to perfection again/We can’t legislate peace in our hearts/We can’t educate sin from our souls/It’s been there from the start.”  On At The Last he reveals how he saw himself as a good man and then realised that he too is undone; we are all indeed beggars!

The salvation that is not from within gets its clearest definition on The Great Exchange“I heard singing of a violent, tireless mystery/That one would give his life to save his enemy.”  Thrice live in no Christian ghetto and you will not find a great Jesus per minute score in their work but if you have ears to hear you will hear loud and clear! (Funny how sometimes it is Christians who actually don’t hear!)  The Great Exchange finishes with “Your body is a bridge across an endless sea” and between this theology of sin and salvation the album lives in a pilgrimage that is hopeful of a better day.  In exile shines the brightest light into the reality of human darkness : -

“I am a pilgrim, a voyager

I won’t rest until my lips touch the shore

Of the land that I’ve been longing for as long as I’ve lived

Where they’ll be no penalties anymore


My heart is filled with songs of forever

The city that endures when all is made new

I know I don’t belong here, I’ll never

Call this place my home, I’m just passing through.”


For rocked up music for the sojourn then Thrice do it good.  Loud and sound!

WILCO (The Album)

Wilco Album 

Wilco have pleased me and teased me and occasionally let me down over the years but they have always stretched themselves in an attempt to reach music that doesn’t waste our time. Jeff Tweedy is a man of weighty importance in the world of contemporary song writing. There’s a social depth to his writing and a tenderness of care for the individuals whom he sings about.  Wilco (The Album) I guess picks up where the appropriately named Sky Blue Sky left off. It is less experimental than Hotel Yankee Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born and you can’t help thinking that the ghost this time is George Harrison or at least his guitar. Tweedy’s songs are built around glorious gorgeous guitars that like Beatle George’s gently weep but also smile, frown and occasionally even chortle! Most obviously Harrison influenced is the guitar riff on You Never Know and actually that entire song could be an out take from Cloud Nine. Everlasting Everything is a rewrite of All Things Must Pass with its spiritual core and message of our mortality. Harrison was the sixties mega star who caught onto the truth that the deification of the individual is a philosophical heresy and cause of much of our human ills and Tweedy puts the lesson sweet in Solitaire Took too long to see/I was wrong to believe in me only.”

Great songs greatly played!

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


A story of a dynasty of minsters might fit too obviously into my reading schedule but quite the reverse.  For me to read about ministers on my holidays, the writing would need to be something special!  Well Marilynne Robinson is something special.  When Bryan Appleyard calls her “one of the greatest living novelists” he is not exaggerating for a back cover endorsement and Pulitzer and Orange prizes (for Gilead and the recent follow up Home respectively) back up his assessment.  She writes with poetic prose that capture stunning images and with deep insight into the intricacies of the human psyche.  More than that she goes to deep soul and asks her questions of love, forgiveness, loyalty, sin and redemption from a specifically Christian context, touching heavily on the Calvinistic; portraying all of that in its better hues!

The book is written in the form of a very, very long letter from an aging minister to a very young son of a second late marriage, to a much younger woman, but ends up as the journaling of a tough relationship between the narrator Rev James Ames and Jack Boughton his best mate another minister’s son.  In the midst of his wider life story and this more specific scenario you get a liberal sprinkling of spiritual nuggets that suggest Ms Robinson has some considerable theological prowess.

At one point she writes, through old Rev. Ames, “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”  It is the attention that Robinson gives it that brings a new vitality, indeed transcendence to things that become too familiar, losing their sacredness.  For me those things were baptism which is described as “sacredness under my hand” and benediction “it was an honour to bless him.”  I am sure you will find your own. In the end the words, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.  You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see,” sum it up.  Gilead refocused my eyes and strengthened the ardour of my willingness. It was a joy to read and its benefits go on.