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March 2010



So I am standing in the news agents scanning the cover of the new Q magazine to see whether it is worth buying – I used to buy it every month but how far it has fallen is before me, in the very edition I have in my hand, as it declares Liam Gallagher the greatest rock front man of all time; come on! Anyway back to the original story... I am standing there, a parish vicar in very plain clothes when a woman comes in and asks when the Maundy Thursday Mass is? No one knows. The Protestants don’t know and the Catholics don’t care. After the spiritual seeker had left the shop assistants’ conversation went on.

“I don’t even go to my own Church.”

“Nah, me either.”

“I never force the children to go. As long as they aren’t hurting anyone that is the main thing, I think.”

Oh I was tempted. I wanted to go up with my Q magazine and lay it on the counter and ask,

“So if all it is about is not hurting anyone then why do we remember this very week that Jesus came to earth to die on a cross and be raised again to life. I mean why would he go to all that bother if all we had to do was just not hurt anyone.”

I didn’t; forgive my lack of evangelical zeal. My mind was on other things. It was not the short comings of my shop keepers that I was most disturbed about but the short comings of a Church, or Churches, that have been so hollow and dead of soul that they would leave these women with such a vacuous view of the vibrancy of Christ! I wanted to fall down on my knees and confess the failure of the Church to have left them so bereft of all that Christ could be for them; the vitality of a God who fills the Universe and somehow mysteriously wants to connect with them in their everyday sorrows and joys.  

I found myself walking back to my car an angry follower of Jesus on Holy Week. How could we have hidden the vision? How could we have left the majority of our population missing the subversive revolutionary who entered Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday with a mission in his soul to uproot the way things were to make them the way they should, could and will be, who freed the world from its chains but did so in the most humble of ways before smashing the tombstone and crashing into a post Resurrection world where now by the power of the Spirit weeks away from being unleashed could begin to bring God’s Kingdom on earth the way it is in heaven!

How could these women have been so duped, so badly served, so incredibly let down? That is the question for this minister this Easter week and for the Church he has been asked to shepherd. Forgive us Lord! Forgive us public! Let us start repenting and putting it right!


A CELTIC PASSION - Clonard Monastry, March 26, 2010

(wrote this for my weekly pastoral email and thought some of you might like a read)

It was a musical and spiritual revelation to be at the Celtic Passion in Clonard Monastry when we were led through Good Friday and Easter Sunday with 12 hymns led by the world famous Irish Traditional band The McPeakes. Concocted by John Kelly and Clonard’s own Fr. Clem this was a poignant and profound night that at many times reached a searing beauty of music that I honestly don’t think I have ever experienced. The idea was to use the two hymnal traditions of Protestant and Catholic traditions to lead us through the Easter weekend. It was a potent revelation of how the objective words of our Christian story and theology could be made subjective in order to come alive and stir up our emotions and cut deep to the soul. Clem’s voice was remarkable and one of my criticisms was that we didn’t hear it enough. I was also struck by the beauty of the Irish language in song. Fitzroy member Philip Mateer did his Mark’s Gospel recital (he does the whole Gospel) of the cross and resurrection with the soundtrack of pipes and whistles giving the Scriptures drama and mood. There was an instrumental suite that led us from the hymns Friday to Sunday and when the music switched from dirge to celebration I have to say that I was so moved by it that I whispered, “Lord, may this last forever.” By the time we got to Amazing Grace I was thinking that this is our music, whether you are Protestant or Catholic, if you are Irish then what these McPeakes were playing is our groove, our muse, our soul. I even joked with myself that if an African American from Memphis was in the congregation that they would have been saying, “Darn tootin’ I wish I was white” because the spirit and the confident belief of the song was to Belfast what those negro spirituals are to the southern States of America. My only regret on the night was not forcing more people to come but hopefully this might become an annual event or we can pay the £70 plus when it tours the world and comes to the Waterfront Hall!


(on Sunday night at 7pm in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, 77 University Street, Belfast we will use the songs and life of Johnny Cash to worship God... This is why?... you'd be very welcome!)


Johnny Cash is the time line of rock n roll. He was there with Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips in Sun Studios in 1955 when that which we could never have lived without was born. He dies covering the songs of the best writers in the late twentieth and early twenty first century. If I am in need to use, for their functional sake, songs like Mercy Seat by Nick Cave, One by U2, I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty or Hurt by Nine Inch Nails I will more likely than not turn to the American Recordings albums that Cash recorded with Rick Ruben over the last decade of his life. Indeed, the video for the aforementioned Hurt was voted the greatest video of all time. The song was written by Trent Reznor for goodness sake! What over seventy something could do Nine Inch Nails? Only someone who was there with Presley and was still just as cool fifty years later!

But that is not why we are gathered to consider Johnny Cash tonight. This is a spiritual event. Why would we in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church be spending an evening with Johnny Cash?

Well, Johnny Cash was powerful in middle finger gestures BUT never so potent as when he made the sign of a cross. Johnny Cash took the nice out of Jesus and removed the blue eyes and perfectly groomed blonde hair BUT at the same time he told evil in no uncertain terms to go to hell and stared down the devil eyeball to eyeball. Johnny Cash gave Jesus back his masculinity and gave the devil his due disrespect. With Johnny Cash we not only got to see the beautiful coastline but he also showed us the quarry ravaged interior, the smoke stacked poisonous reek of all our ills. We also got to see the house in the midst of the darkness that always has a candle in the window and a fire in the hearth. All the complexities of human kind were there, all rolled into one.

It has always been a tricky thing after Christian conversion to hold to truth and grace with humility grace! Integrity often gives way to Pharisee like pretension, admission of guilt to holier-than-thou. Johnny Cash somehow held together the tension. He never allowed the honest confession of his fallen state to be used as a cheap excuse for an anything-goes-this-is-just-how-I-am slackness. Nor did he allow himself to be so righteous that he separated himself from the marginalised who populated his songs or set himself apart from anyone who was drawn to the candle in the window or the warmth of the hearth. There was no pseudo self righteousness that he wasn’t like the Church. There was no religious self righteousness that he wasn’t like the world.

Johnny Cash exposed traces of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden and Christ’s blood dripping from Calvary’s wooden cross, he was judgement and grace. He was the sinner and the redeemed. He was the perfect imperfect balance of a human life. So we gather in the testimony of the life of Johnny Cash to seek inspiration in a life that mirrors something of us all, all of the time.



I started my St. Patrick’s Day on the grounds of my new Church in a heated discussion with a local Television journalist. My argument was that the Press do not use the power of their prophetic potential but instead fall for sensationalising news that they could actually play their part in eliminating. Sadly, St, Patrick’s Day in the “Holy Lands” area of Belfast, beside Queens’ University and Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, has been a big but bad news story in the past few years; are the press interested in good stories, I hear you ask? 2009 saw the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations end in a full scale riot between drunken students and the police.  Forums headed by MPs, high powered committees in the city Universities, residents meetings and TV documentaries left many of us frustrated at the seeming hopelessness of the situation.

Against my natural inclinations I was not going to give up hope and at 9.30am on the morning in question to be part of our loaves and fishes attempt at a miracle – setting up a refreshment table to be a calming presence in the area. My feeling had been that in previous years the police and media, as they did no more than go about their business, were perhaps a catalyst of the trouble and perhaps a few meek Christians might be less volatile. It was therefore a little disconcerting when as soon as we set up our table there was a TV camera stuck in our faces. Asked if I would be interviewed I suggested I would prefer if they left. When the journalist asked why I suggested that the press should play a more prophetic role in such flashpoint incidents and that if they were interested in anything other than creating a story they would have been more strategic in their approach rather than arriving in first thing in the morning suggesting to the entire area what the day was going to bring.

I shared with the journalist the words of the novelist Ben Okri and a previous story from Northern Ireland where the press told the wrong story. Okri writes, “Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals or nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.”  How the story we tell can shine liberating light on our fallen human predicament or keep us behind the bars of our darkness came to me in the use of a real live news story by the British press in 1996. In any ordinary year it was no big deal; just the simple election of a Students’ Union president at our University. What gave this year’s election news worthiness was that two years after the Terrorist Cease Fires in the first days of a brand new peaceful Northern Ireland, the past had become involved. Two of the candidates were children of major movers in our divided history; the daughter of Bernadette Devlin and the son of John Taylor, both former MPs, the former Nationalist the latter Unionist. There was an invisible third candidate, a wee Presbyterian girl called Michelle McAuley; an independent.

On the morning of the election one British broadsheet had a photograph of all three on the front cover with day of reckoning type story. The day after the election the story was relegated to page seven of the local Northern Ireland press because it hadn’t ended up the big story; Michelle had beaten the past into history. The press did not want to know. It was the reservoir of our secret value. Northern Ireland was not prepared to move on. To ask if we wanted a different future, an Alternative Ulster as punk band Stiff Little Fingers had once called for, seemed to be as stupid as Jesus asking a begging cripple if he want to be healed. Yet, Jesus was shrewd. It is always a vital question in redemption; do you want your identity to be erased and a new one to be born? Northern Ireland didn’t want healed. At least the press didn’t. They didn’t want to tell the astounding story that the students of Queens University had given. The old story was front page, any born again possibility was demoted to a paragraph deep in the papers trivial stories. We needed the new story but were denied its telling! Our story tellers had failed us.

I guess my problem, as a minister of religion who strategizes transformation, is to understand that the press are not focused on bringing positive change to our society but to make sure that in the competition of other news papers or television news stations they have the best story. At least that was the argument I was given on St. Patrick’s Day morning. As well as the students whose drink consumption would leave them prone to a riot we have to deal with all the other forces around the community whose own vested interest will need to be met no matter what that means to law and order. The power of the story is transformative. The press are our story tellers. Oh for a prophetic press who were about shalom rather than ratings!


DAVID FORD: Let The Hard Times Roll - a review

Here’s an album that takes you back to what you were made to believe songwriters could achieve with David Gray’s debut album in 1993. Sadly Gray Judased the potency of his art for the tempting rewards of chart hits and that led us to having to settle for a clatter of blanded out followers. Well, you can shove Blunt, Morrison and Nutini under the bed because the real deal is back and he’s changed his surname from Gray to Ford. The lead off track Panic, proud owner of nine verses states the case with the wordy poetry of mid sixties Dylan, the social observation and critique of the aforementioned Gray’s Century’s End and even a riff that hints at The Jam’s Start or The Beatles’ Taxman depending on your age. It’s a doom-laden apocalypse where the recurring phrase is “Forgive me Father for I have sinned.” Later in Hurricane he lays out the generation’s predicament “asleep at the wheel” and “Not in control/it would be crazy to think that we are” but confesses that no matter how bad things get it never seems to be enough to cause repentance.

Ford connects the two most important things in the world – the world... and the love of boy and girl. The big universal issues are threaded to the intimacy of real tangible romantic love.  This is most recognised in the final altar call song Call To Arms, a beautifully tender song of commitment; the holding of the loved one is going to be what fires any change that might come along.  Another beautifully poignant song Stephen encapsulates the pain of the murder of a loved one and the futility and hopefulness of the Northern Irish Troubles, all in just over three minutes; one of the best songs about my troubled little country that I have ever heard.

The best song of all is To Hell With The World another song that enjoys the harbour of love to drown out the madness of the world that seems impotent in politics – “There’s no story to tell, but there’s a spokesperson yelling/At a volume to drown out your voice/Seeing justice be done, there’s a change gonna come/But in secret and you won’t get a choice” and the media – “Yeah, and maybe the greatest of heroes they inhabit the stories that nobody hears/And maybe the songs that could’ve brought you to life were not allowed to get close to your ears.” In the end it is the less spectacular places and people where beauty and truth are found. It is almost an extension of the aforementioned Call To Arms“So we’ll stand and we’ll sing, ‘cause there are beautiful things if you know the places they hide.” My theo-musicological head was drawn to the lines: - “And they’ll hide from you darling, they will, far away from the changing regimes/There’s a light, there’s a right, tonight isn’t as dark as it seems/So when victory comes at too heavy a price, well there’s honour in choosing defeat/Like the boy who was given the keys to the world and decided to sleep on the street.” There seems to be a belief in the ultimate victory of right but the character who brings that victory is the opposite of what the world might think. That last line could be the Christ figure giving up the throne of heaven for the stable at Bethlehem. Whether I am reading too much in or not, it is a subversive revolution.  

Too many other great songs to mention but this is David Ford taking all the potential of his work until now and fulfilling it all... and then some.


This is a wee liturgy I put together for our Sunday morning communion at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church based around the Mumford and Sons song Roll Away The Stone...


There is a theological gem stealing past the dragons at the door of radio, television, internet and music press just now. From a band out of London called Mumford and Sons come economical, poetic couplets of devastating spiritual potency -

“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 the restart”

It is a succinct definition, in pop song, of the crux of what makes Christianity unique. It is not what you do on the road to recovery that can change your heart; it is God’s welcome of grace at the restart. God loves us first. It is his act of love that redeems the lost cause. It is unmerited. It is unconditional. It is offered without need for a prior effort to sort it out. The welcome itself sorts it out and the efforts that follow are different as a result! Almost too good to be true. Definitely the only hope for the humans that the Mumford boys call “giddy things” (well the men anyway!), hearts that are “never pure” and souls that have “fragile substance.”

This table, Christ’s table, in this sacrament that remembers his death is our welcome. It is a symbol of Christ’s self giving act that releases the potential of grace but more than that. There is something mysterious about this act that cleanses and strengthens, that changes our heart. If you lean in and listen you will hear that welcome, as Jesus said to the disciples in Matthew 11 v 28-30 - Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." It’s God whispering, “come on in... take off your coat... take the weight off your soul... let me wash your feet...”

And in that welcome... by grace through the work of Jesus... the restart...


Lord, we come to you as Jesus did that very first last Supper

To give you our thanks

Thanks for this bread and this wine that we will take to remember

To remember that he who was first became last

So that we who should have been last could become first

Not because we took a long walk to work out our recovery

But because you welcome us into your love

That are not just words spoken

But actions of love demonstrated

Lord God we give you thanks


And Lord we seek forgiveness

For the bridges we have burned

Lord as we come towards your welcome

We remember the bridges burned

Bridges of justice across the world

Bridges of reconciliation across this city

Bridges of community around the neighbourhood

Bridges of the body here in your Church

Bridges of friendship in our closest circles

Bridges of family nuclear and extended

Bridges in our own psyche

Bridges towards you

Forgive us

Change our hearts

In this act of welcome...



THE SACRAMENT – we played Pierce Pettis’s song You Did That For Me



God we have enjoyed your welcome

We have languished in it

And so we rise

To continue in the heart of your welcome

To go and take the long road home

Believing that as we travel towards home

Home often comes to meet us on the road

As we go

Help us to be bridge builders

In our world

In our city

In our community

In our Church

In our family

In our souls

In our relationship with you

We pray that this welcome will have changed our hearts...

In Jesus name




Corinne Bailey Rae's Prayer on Fairtrade Fortnight


SONG FOR A HEALTHY SOUL – Corinne Bailey Rae: Love’s On Its Way

At the end of Fairtrade Fortnight 2010, when we have again upped the justice for many of the world’s poor and exploited, I am drawn to the prayer right there in the middle of Corinne Bailey Rae’s cathartic new album The Sea. Love’s On Its Way is a prayer. It begins “Oh Father” confesses misunderstanding the great mysteries, looks at the state of the world and then after more confession asks that her response to this world would not be just the prayer but the action of her life: -

“I want to be able to say that I did more than pray

I did more

Than just spend my money

Just writing letters

Than just going out marching

I did more than talking and saying the right thing

Wearing the right thing

It’s time for uprising...”


In many ways to pray is an easy thing. We can pray alone of in Church or in more full on prayer meetings that God would change the world. God wants more. We can give money too. The Irish, north and south, are great charity givers. Name the cause and we’ll send money. There are endless telethons, street collections, Church lunches, fundraising gigs and bungee jumps. God wants more. There are also an incredible amount of marches, internet campaigns and a creative fest of imaginative way to petition. God wants more.


Corinne’s prayer if for uprising and that is what Jesus was about in his heralding in the Kingdom. We look to a day when prayers of petition, giving to charity or taking to the streets will all be unnecessary. We look to a time when the man who receives a fair wage for his work on a Western Cape vineyard sits under his very own vine as the Old Testament prophet said he would! What Jesus was about when he asked us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done/On earth as it is in heaven...” is exactly what Corinne Bailey Rae is praying about on Loves On Its Way. Pray that love is on its way is and then live the uprising that brings it in!


Scratch My Back

The fear is that many will dismiss this as just a covers album, an album to fill out the catalogue, to release while writing for the next real record. Dismissing Scratch My Back would be a serious error. The surprise that you feel when you hear that someone like Peter Gabriel is making a covers album should give you the hint not to dismiss it. An artist like Gabriel is hardly likely to do some cheap karaoke type record to fulfil contractual obligations. He must have some other interesting imaginative plan at work. Indeed, there is talk of the artists he has covered on this album then covering his work elsewhere... “you scratch my back and I’ll...” Ah! Anyway we can review the next volume in the series when it comes, this one is an astounding success. Gabriel is a creative sort and has made the sum of these twelve songs so much greater than the parts by producing them without drums and guitars and blending them into a lamenting statement of the state of the world in 2010.

The covers that are useful are the covers that give another angle, catch another hue of the original. Gabriel adds lashing of depth here to a range of artists’ work from David Bowie to Talking Heads to Randy Newman to Radiohead to Arcade Fire and Elbow. How he does it is by giving the songs these stripped back orchestral arrangements and creating a lament for the twenty first century world. The way he pieces the songs together and the way he then places them alongside each other opens up little vistas of powerful understatement.

The most inspired for me is Paul Simon’s Boy In The Bubble. Here is a song that has been conditioned in your mind with smiles and suns in its jaunty South African township rhythm. Gabriel turns it on his head and brings out the guttural cry of lament. Yes, it is still the day of “miracles and wonders” but “the bomb in the baby carriage” takes a more profiled place and “don’t cry” becomes the saddest of cries to a generation whose tragic inhumanity to human is revealed in the even more painful slo-mo! Likewise the suicide bomber in Talking Heads Listening Wind; haunting and menacing. Lou Reeds’ new song Power of The Heart becomes the hopeful spiritual, raising love to a transcendent thing somehow able to give us the strength to stay resilient through the world of Arcade Fire’s My Body Is A Cage and Radiohead’s sparse piano ballad Street Spirit (Fade Out).

Though Peter Gabriel’s song Biko might have been instrumental in changing my life, by awakening me to the injustices of South Africa where eventually I would take hundreds of students whose lives would also be changed, I have never been a massive fan. I have been an admirer of his art, social action and musical philanthropy for sure but that rhythmic Gabriel sound was just too clinical for my deeper longer musical tastes. This is my conversion album and that is not saying that it took other artist’s talents to do the converting because the words and music might belong to others but the songs here are totally under Gabriel’s ownership and craft. And at last my tastes are salivating!