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October 2009


So, I’m driving along in the car and before I have a chance to switch from my daughter’s favourite radio station to my Beatles’ Remastered CDs I am suddenly paying attention to a song about Jesus dying for me. I wondered if Delirious had made one final attempt at the top ten when I recognised the voice; Robbie is putting more Jesus per minute onto the radio than Nashville’s Christian industry ever attempted!

And of course we shouldn’t have been that surprised. It is not the first time Jesus has appeared in a Robbie song. On his I’ve Been Expecting You album he gave Christ some of his 100% humanity (alongside his 100% divinity in case there is a heresy trail on me!) in Jesus in a Camper Van:

“Jesus in a camper van he said sorry to leave you but I've done all I can
I suppose even the son of God gets it hard sometimes
Especially when he goes round
Saying I am the way.”

Wikipedia will tell you that Williams was sued over this chorus as it bore too much resemblance to a Loudon Wainwright III lyric, Every son of God has a little hard luck sometime, especially when he goes around saying he's the way.” Williams claimed to have heard the line from someone else while in rehab and was unware of the Wainwright copyrighted version! Whatever, it means that in rehab Williams was thinking of spiritual stuff which might be a similar context to the Bodies song that we are coming to in a moment.

Before we get there, let us also remember the spiritual elements on WilliamsIntensive Care album. Sin, Sin, Sin that album’s fourth single mixes casual sex with religion and the video gave it the darker hue of being about the seduction of women by a religious guru. Robbie’s desire for holiness is pretty much captured in Pure from the same album quotes Augustine’s confessions:

“I got a ton of selfish genes and lazy bones
beneath this skin
Oh Lord, make me pure, but not yet...”

Fair play for his honesty but the bottom line seems to be excuses for staying the same rather than any desire for spiritual transformation. Here is a world famous wealthy young man wanting to enjoy his hedonism but knowing that he ultimately needs more and flirts with Jesus without wanting a deeper relationship because of the cost he knows it will mean.

Which has us right back, slap bang in the middle of Bodies. With a wee word play, in the title, no doubt on the hit Angels we have Robbie flirting with a whole lot more religious ideas than the one Jesus revealed with Robbie's “ley lines” and “bohdi trees.” Jesus, though still seems to be his choice of transcendence and he seems sure that he has died for him. Though, at the end there is a confusing turn about where he suggests, “Jesus didn’t die for you.” The truth is that this last “didn’t” seems to be aimed at those who don’t believe it as he concludes, “What are you on.” And the gospel choir are singing “Jesus really died for you” in response on the fade out. I am pretty sure there is a genuine declaration on the radio waves about the death of Jesus.

The song is another in a long line of “Help!” songs. Williams is a modern day John Lennon in that regard though Lennon, who had been through his confirmation classes as a teenager, never recognised God as the intended direction of his deep soul screams. Bodies is indeed the central theme of this particular prayerline song. Robbie is struggling with his reflection and his “All we've ever wanted/Is to look good naked” is close to the bone of this generation’s crisis, dilemmas, psychiatric sickness and eating disorders; it’s why this song is for a healthy soul. Once again Robbie Williams has been honest about his deep seated need, whether he will take his own advice and find hope in the Jesus whom he proclaims died for him only time perhaps will tell.


My goodness, I am still trying to come to terms with this record. On first listen I wondered had I just fallen in with the NEXT BIG REVELATION! I had heard about these guys for some time and was frustrated that the album took so long. Then they did a gig here in Belfast and I got a significant amount of raving text messages. On first listen I started asking people was I bonkers or was this the next big thing? No one has disagreed and indeed many have said, “Even better than you think!” I heard the rustic bounce of what’s current, the deftly poetic writing of Dylan and the theological depth of U2. To seek their contemporaries it is America’s Fleet Foxes and England’s Noah and The Whale meeting on the island between them; there are hints of Irish folk and tinges of Glen Hansard’s The Frames.


The songwriting is quality and the lyrics are subtle and profound carriers of theological truth. The overall theme seems to be about making sense between humanity and God. The first lines of the album are Serve God love me and men/
This is not the end/Lived unbruised we are friends/And I
m sorry.” There is a confessing of mankind’s weakness as in “man is a giddy thing” but a hopefulness that there is a love that can set the human being free, Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you/It will set you free/Be more like the man you were made to be.” These last lines might be a prophetic provocation to the anti Jesus, more  Pharisee-like version of love that has masqueraded with demonic effect in many a Christian Church. Mumford and Sons declare that the authentic love of God will be found where freedom results! And we are not even out of the first song, Sigh No More, yet!


Roll Away The Stone gives the album its anchoring doctrinal belief, “It seems that all my bridges have been burned/But you say 'That's exactly how this grace thing works/It's not the long walk home that will change this heart/But the welcome I receive with every start.” These lines made me literally jump on first listen. This is as succinct and poetic a theological pop song verse as Bono has ever tried to write. The rest of the album has lashings of love and hope without ever losing site of our human frailties. The ultimate aim is to find out what the Maker made us to be. We already saw that in Sigh No More. Here it is again in The Cave, “Cause I need freedom now/And I need to know how/To live my life as it's meant to be.” That keeps pointing back to the Maker whom we were made for (Awake My Soul) and whom we’ll find dependence in (The Cave).


It’s a soul stimulating beauty of a record and they tell me they are even better live. Are they the next big thing? Who knows but what a debut!


There always seems to be three happenings that cause my mind to set off a soul surmise. This time it is the heresy of the shrivelling up of the Scriptures. Let my three stories lead us into the problem. First, someone was complaining to me that their minister didn’t preach “the Word.” I was surprised as I knew their minister to be someone who believed in the Scriptures. When I asked this critic what he meant he told me how on the previous Sunday his minister had started in Nehemiah and spoke about the Old Testament prophet’s perseverance in building the walls and then touched on a healing of Jesus. I was puzzled as I was pretty sure both those stories are in the Scriptures! My friend had confined “the Word” or at times he preferred to use “the Gospel” to a very limited amount of the Scriptures. For him the entire “Word” or “Gospel” was preaching that people were sinful and that Jesus died for their sins to save them from hell. Unless that was preached by his minister every Sunday then he wasn’t preaching “the Word.”

A second story tells of a minister who when asked about his congregation reaching out into the local neighbourhood in social care projects responded by saying that his Church would not still be here in 20 years if he pursued such projects but would only survive by the preaching of “the Word.” The conclusion of my surmising on this one asks how you can preach the entirety of the Scriptures without a whole lot of that preaching being about social care in the neighbourhood. If we then preach that and don’t do what the Scriptures say are we not, as Jesus said, like foolish men who build their houses on the sand. Thus, this minister’s Church will not be here in 20 years because the winds and rains will blow down a Church with no foundation. Jesus taught us in that section of the Sermon On The Mount that the foundations were not the words he taught but the obedience to the words!

Third up, and most incredible of all, was a story a friend shared with me that he had been to a Bible Conference where the preacher preached the book of Amos for an entire weekend and never mentioned social justice once! This is a remarkable piece of hermeneutical gymnastics! Yet, you see, if you’ve understood the first two scenarios then this makes perfect sense. The Scriptures have been so confined that we are leaving great chunks of it out and most incredibly this is coming from those who are most adamant that “the Word” is central to their theology, teaching and preaching.

As someone from the reformed tradition I am so delighted with our heritage of the whole counsel of God. These abuses of Scripture, that we have surmised, this abhorrent dismantling of the Scripture needs to be addressed. Yet, it is a widely held heresy. It is almost a cultish brainwashing that has led us to this tragic state of affairs. I listen to students whose Christian worldview is not Biblically based but based on this shrivelled version of God’s truth. It leads to shrivelled discipleship, shrivelled mission and a shrivelled God.


Rod -Sessions
I am old enough to remember when Rod Stewart was the coolest rock star in the UK. With The Faces and when they were merely playing as his solo band he and Ron Wood, now a Rolling Stone, would prance around the Top of the Pops’ studio all jack the lad, down to earth and what a voice. Hit singles like Maggie May and You Wear It Well and The Faces’ Cindy Incidentally were the solid songs in a Glam Rock pop chart that is only remembered fondly for sentimental, rather than artistic reasons. By the late seventies however D’Ya Think I’m Sexy had tarnished Stewart’s artist with Hollywood glitz, glamour and gold diggin’. The eighties struggled too but his record from the obligatory unplugged phenomenon of the early nineties reminded us of the talent and now he is an elderly keeper of the old songs, his voice a perfect vehicle for the classics both rock n roll and crooner.

Sessions 1971-1998 is a marvellous monument to a Stewart’s talent. Indeed it reminds you that even in those dodgy years he still had a voice and a knack to either write or choose a good song. At 30 quid for the box, or 16 quid to download, it is a veritable bargain for 63 songs. And even if there are some songs that you don’t need to hear twice there are many interesting artefacts, rare tracks, unreleased songs and alternative versions that will help you to rediscover Rod and remind you of his place in the history of British rock music. There are too many to name but early versions of his early tracks like Maggie May are an interesting insight to the development of songs; the acoustic versions of You’re in My Heart and the b side Rosie are lovely; his piano versions of Chris Rea’s Windy Town and John Lennon’s In My Life are stunning; and unreleased covers like Frankie Miller’s When I’m Away from You, The Call’s Let the Day Begin, Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s On Fire and Elvis Costello’s The Long Journey Home are well worth the listen.

Over the past summer I got round to reading a Rod Stewart biography for the first time. It was a fascinating experience. Having read many rock biographies of some depth, due to my interest in theo-musicology, I was taken by how songs were given a couple of sentences and girl friends were given entire chapters! It was a sign of the lack of depth that writers judged Stewart’s work. Not that there isn’t depth. His song cycle The Killing Of Georgie Pts 1 & 2, finished on this collection with the previously unreleased Part 3, was maybe one of the first songs about the gay issue in mainstream pop and yet it didn’t even warrant a contextual perspective.

On Sessions... the interesting content is probably more likely to come in his choice of covers. The aforementioned Let The Day Begin was a massive hit for The Call in 1989 and it’s prayerful heart, “Here’s to you my little loves, with blessings from above, let the day begin,” is far from the only prayer here, joined by John Martyn’s May You Never and a piano version of Stewart’s re-write of Dylan on Forever Young. Dylan’s Day Off is also a prayer to the Blessed One and has to be one of the few uses of the liturgical word intercession in a pop song but sadly loses its transcendence in perhaps the worst lines ever recorded, “Play to the whistle/You really make me bristle...” Oh dear! Dylan’s Groom Still Waiting At The Altar is the most theological of the songs here and another intriguing choice of cover. Rod has been doing Dylan ever since he could sing but this one is from Dylan’s Christian trilogy, if originally only a b-side, before being added to Shot Of Love later on. The theology of “But I know God has mercy on them who are slandered and humiliated” certainly outstrips, “You got legs right up to your neck/You’re making me a physical wreck” from Hot Legs!

All in all, a wonderful box of sessions with way more treasure than junk; good Christmas present!


Stocki CDs
I have been surmising another great evangelical heresy; fear! No matter how many times we read about Jesus saying “Do not be afraid” we are still trapped in a paranoid of fear. It is incompatible with the theology of grace and also debilitates the follower of Jesus to follow. Recently I have watched it raise its ugly head in a few different places.

“What songs can we not listen to?” That is a question that I am not sure I understand the premise of. It is a frequent response when I do presentations on “healthy songs on your iPod.” It suggests that we are more interested in making sure we don’t do wrong instead of concentrating on the possibilities of our Christ won freedom.

Can we go to pubs or not? It is an age old question in Northern Ireland. It is another symptom of our cowering in fear rather than living the dynamic liberty of the Christian faith. There is a fear that we might fall that exposes a more fundamental fear that we are not sure if God is stronger than the devil and if we really can do all things through Christ, as Paul suggested to the Philippians. And pub going is only one of a whole host of fears that cause evangelicals to worry about so much minutiae. As Jesus said, we chew a lot of gnats while swallowing great big camels!

Lastly, a recent chat with a young believer had me struggling to break through his theological speak to find his redeemed humanity. He spoke in archaic English and explained his life in doctrinal statements rather than life experiences. There seemed to be deep seated fear of getting his explanations theologically wrong. It will be huge weakness in this guy’s life as he tries, as he wishes to with some passion, to reach out to others with the love of Christ. There is a denial of the incarnation and the witness of the four Gospels in his communication.

In these fears and many others I find many Christians living in deep seated oppression. A great many are driven by prioritising not being wrong rather than being right. It is like telling people what not to eat rather than enticing them with good healthy lovely food. It leads to an overwhelming fear of getting it wrong which paralyses the child of God with guilt and shame and therefore prevents them from the good decisions that will bring God’s Kingdom in their lives and in the society around them.

The Scriptures tell us that “perfect love casts out fear” and we should walk into the empowering reality of those words. Fear means rules and we end up like the Pharisees that Jesus came to defeat. At times we have become an image of the Jesus that those Pharisees wanted. As we read in Paul’s letter to the Galatians Christ came to bring freedom and that freedom makes rules oblique and fires a lifetime process where good pushes out the bad. Fear never creates or impacts. It never adventures or explores or develops or creates or imagines. Fear can never bring the Kingdom. It is too distracting and too disabling.


This might be what Jesus was on about when he told the parable of the talents. The fearful servant decided to play safe, take no risks and dig a hole to bury the talent given. When the Master returned he had done no wrong, not even threatened to damage or lose the talent. There it was safe and sound to give back to his Master. The Master fumed with anger at such a nervous, fearful approach to the talents and took the talent from him before casting him into hell! Another quirk in the story is that those who play it most safe and fearful are the same ones who talk most about hell!

So let us allow the grace and lavish love of God (as John calls it in his first epistle) to make us brave and adventurous multiplyers of everything that God has given us in Christ. Flee the fear and embrace the freedom; follow Jesus!


I was always told that you should give credit where it is due. Yoko Ono has never experienced that truth. She has always been seen in the light (or dark) of her relationship with John Lennon. It is an unfair context. Yoko was a real artist long before she met her Beatle John and has been making records now for 30 years after his tragic death. Those who laugh her off as some whacky Japanese screamer are not without an argument but they are not seeing the whole picture either. Yes, you need to acquire the taste of her screechy accented high pitched vocal, and sometimes you don’t even acquire an entire affinity, but you ignore this woman’s work to your detriment. Yoko Ono was making music with the likes of John Cage and Ornette Coleman before Lennon had even sniffed a record deal and was married to two musicians before she met her Beatle. Her songs on her collaboration with Lennon, Double Fantasy, released just before that dreadful New York night in December 1980, were so much more edgy and contemporary than her more accepted husband’s; Kiss Kiss Kiss had a real late seventies CBGBs punk feel and Beautiful Boys was a touching ballad with more mood and sophistication than Lennon’s more traditional songwriting on that particular record. Yoko Ono is a poet, artist and musician of a very high quality and intrigue.

Between My Head and The Sky is yet another remarkable piece of art considering it comes from a 76 year old woman. Yes, Leonard Cohen is rejuvenated at a mere 74 but Ono out strips even Cohen with her ability to stay fresh and contemporary. She can be found here mixing indie guitar rock as in the opener Waiting For The D Train, to electro in songs like The Sun Is Down and jazz as in Memory of Footsteps. Her native New York is a place hiving with avant-garde performance art and the fusion of all kinds of art forms. This is another work of a poet, performance artist and eccentric musician but it might also be one of her most accessible records. The ambience is beautiful and atmospheric and the spoken word is at times poignant, provocative and always poetic. There are a few uses of her scream as an extra instrument but these are restrained. There is no doubt that Ono has an advantage in having her son as a band member and producer but it is also a mark of her credentials as an artist that keeps her imagination fertile.

And of course imagining has been a word synonymous with the Lennons since John took an idea from Yoko’s book Grapefruit and added a thought from some Christian Prayer Book they were given, to write his most famous solo song Imagine. On this record Ono is still imagining peace, seeking actions and love of brother and sisterhood. Her continual message has been a love for Creation and a love for the world. Her art is her way to contribute to the healing of both and you always feel she is on to something. She probably needs another thing to make her something happen but she is still on to something. Fair dues!


I love chocolates; my size gives it away. It is my addiction. So I surmised on chocolates and made my surmising spiritual this time! A chocolate is not a thing in itself. Woven into its very existence is its purpose and that purpose is for the use of others, like me! Yum!

That caused me to surmise on the human being. Are humans the only ones who feel that they are an end in themselves? Are we the only ones who have misunderstood the nature of our creation? Could it be that when we lost our purest purpose way back in Eden we lost perspective and became those who wanted to be served rather than those who would fulfil their purpose to serve?

When John wrote his first epistle he spoke of this “means to an end” nature in the DNA of redeemed humanity.

 “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (1 John 3:16)

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4: 11-12)

In the very same sentence in which John speaks of God loving us, he speaks of us then loving others. They are not two sides to the one coin but they are the very same side of the coin. It is one movement of God to love us and for that movement of love to continue into the action of us then loving others. In the self absorbed, egotistical spirit of our time, this is a radical upside down way to look at the purpose of our existence, lives and actions. When the world revolves around making our lives as comfortable and luxuriously decadent as possible, we live lives that see others as more important than ourselves, as Paul mentions quite often in his letters.

Even our salvation can take on the spirit of the age and it can all be about my place in heaven rather than being about my redeemed function here on earth. Thanks be to God that eternal life is certain for those who are in Christ but that is not the end of our salvation. The Bible never speaks of us being called to heaven; we are called to serve God on earth by bringing love and grace and truth to the world that he created and longs to redeem.



Take the crafted songs of his last album Pale Rider, perhaps his strongest songwriting collection since Deacon Blue’s debut Raintown, and add that band’s backing vocalist, his wife Lorraine McIntosh, plus an array of top American session men with Americana bent and what you get is so unique to the Ricky Ross catalogue that it demands the new moniker McIntosh Ross. The Great Lakes is like nothing Ross has done before. Very importantly Ms McIntosh is not just a backing vocalist. She contributes to the songwriting and takes duets and lead vocals too. She has played Emmylou Harris to Ross’s Gram Parsons for over twenty years but the collaborative nature of this record along with the pedal steel Americana feel is a perfect tweak to their template.

Ross is a craftsman who though writing in a professional song factory way always seems to be in the muse as well. His images are clever, the songs seemingly simple in chord and lyric but a closer look and the depth speaks to the human soul. Bluebell Wood with McIntosh on lead is the folkiest that things get and reminds the Deacon Blue collectors of their live version of Mountain Thyme. Walls is an absolutely stunning song, acoustic guitar and vulnerable Ross voice finding life in all its fullness no matter what that life throws. Mount Juliet does for postal workers what Dignity did for refuse collectors. Jesus Nailed My Sins Upon A Tree is a cappella gospel and gives a few clues to the fact that this is a deeply spiritually album; Passing Place and The World Is Not My Home among others hinting to more beyond this life.

The very first Deacon Blue single release was the brilliant Dignity and on that song Ross declared from a faraway place “I’m thinking about work... I’m thinking about faith... I’m thinking about home...” He has been a chronicler of these three things ever since but perhaps has never woven the three threads together as well as has here. These are songs where, though the weather turns stormy, it gets dark and there are walls closing in, there is hope and dogged but joyous belief in a power that is beyond yet mingling in the midst. These are songs about how the eternal gives meaning to the momentary and how through that connection we find an abundance of life to celebrate in songs.


Stocki CDs
I started surmising a headline in the newspaper that spoke of England’s Rugby hero Johnny Wilkinson having found inner peace in Buddha. It startled me, shook me up and made me ask about Jesus and inner peace. My Christian belief is that Jesus is about inner peace and I started surmising why someone from a country so recently described as Christian should have to go east to find peace and bypass Jesus on the way. I surmised if Wilkinson has even considered Jesus as an option. I guess it made me think of The Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison having had to travel east to find his inner peace forty years ago.

But my surmising moved quickly from Wilkinson and Harrison and even from Buddha. I started critiquing the Christianity that was bereft of the practice of its theology. I have consistently listened to students who tell me they don’t believe that God loves them. They know the verses. They could articulate it in theological words. They even communicate the love of God to others. Yet, it remains elusive to them in the reality of their lives. They have the theology that supposedly brings the inner peace that Johnny Wilkinson, George Harrison and indeed all of us yearn for but it is not disseminating into their deep soul.

The Christian tradition that I am from has been strong on nourishing the “head” but weak at nourishing “heart and soul.” Perhaps, even negligent! The busy nature of our worship services gives little time for the truths of the hymns, sermons and even the prayers to seep in. We have lost the sense of meditation that David wrote about in Psalm 63. Indeed, we are even suspicious of the word meditation. It is a Biblical concept that needs reclaimed in order that we might allow believers to soak in the great truths of who Christ is and what Christ has done for us. The spiritual disciplines of solitude and quiet reflection need to be rediscovered so that, in a bright, loud and busy world, inner peace becomes not just the hope of our creeds but the reality of the follower of Jesus. Then, I surmise, there will be headlines of people finding inner peace in Christ!

IT IS FINISHED - Reflective Excercise

The following is the script of a Quiet Service I did with my Students. It is an opportunity with spaces between the readings and songs to meditate on the Scriptures and the truth they proclaim. In a loud, bright and busy world, even Church, it is good to have time out to reflect and allow truth time to soak into deep soul and nourish the inner peace Jesus came to give us. A good practice would be to read the verses and other readings slowly... taking time to ponder on them... not rushing to the next... but giving space for God to whisper in the silence... and then use Pierce’s amazing songs as eyes closed meditations on the readings.

SCRIPTURE: JOHN 19 v 28 – 30

THOUGHT: The use of the Greek perfect tense (of “IT IS FINISHED”) implies that there is more than a “past completion” reading of Τετέλεσται. The perfect tense describes an act that has been completed in the past but continues to effect the present. Jesus saying that his ministry has been accomplished is true, but it not only true for the past but it is being accomplished currently.


It is finished, but still we feel this guilt
It is finished, but still we feel enslaved
It is finished, but still we feel alone
It is finished, but still we feel unloved
It is finished, but still we feel inferior
It is finished, but still we feel no peace
It is finished, but still we carry on
As if He never came
As if He never died
As if He never cried
It is finished
No buts
No more
No extra time
No ifs
No onlys
No turning back
It is finished!




· 1 JOHN 3 v 16-18

· 1 JOHN 4 v 9-10

· I JOHN 3 v 1