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April 2010



On a track from his debut record at 37 years old, Paul Simon’s son Harper is wrestling with the fact that he was born in New York City but his mother was from Tennessee! The track called Tennessee could sum up the entire collection. The country influence with pedal steels and that rustic swing to his songwriting style could find him being confused as Neil Young’s son particularly on The Audit that would have sat easily on Harvest or After The Gold Rush. Shooting Star could have you mistaking him for a brother of Jeff Tweedy or Ryan Adams. His dad’s influence is all over his writing too and he even sings on Ha Ha. There is a beguiling simplicity yet always the sophistication of lyric and melody. Berkeley Girl captures this beautifully; a clever articulate love song. There is humour and personal introspection and a spiritual prelude in the Shaker Hymn All To God. This record is one offering that I am sure God would not mind being given. File beside Jakob Dylan!



There was a time in the early eighties when Paul Weller was the poet laureate of British rock, giving three minute state of the nation addresses in, The Jam, a band birthed in new wave but experimenting in a variety of sixties pop blends. In recent years though Weller has kept himself in the game his social comment and cultural critique has not been so frequent or biting. Until now! If his last album 22 Dreams reminded the critics that he was still musically potent Wake Up The Nation reveals a man turning fifty this month who has not been so convicted or crucial since that aforementioned 80s period when Sound Effects and The Gift were simply vital; a kind of vital that the vacuous Oasis would never even touch the coats tails of!

Weller decided that there would be no acoustic instruments this album around and that they would work on riffs and experimentation. Reviews have spoken of the avant garde influences and there are without doubt fascinating quirks and twists, shocks and surprises, built around strong guitars and free flowing piano flourishes. It is urgent and in your face and yet not without gentle side. The radio play No Tears To Cry is actually a dead ringer for the Walker Brothers.

The most talked about lyric is from the title track - "Get your face out the Facebook/and turn off the phone/What with the death of the postbox/nowhere feels home." Some have called it the mutterings of a grumpy old man which makes you ask are prophets now dismissed grumpy old men! Weller at 50 is still young enough to understand the conditioning of the media age but old enough to remember when that media didn’t bland out the energy of youth to “shake up the station.”

Though State Of The Nation is more sonically urgent and passionate than lyrically, there is still a sense of playing our part in the bettering of the world. The opening Moonshine says, “My faith has been surely fired/I’m schooled in the test of time” which suggests he’s ready to “sing like you already own it/our birth and right is to show it” on Find The Torch Burn The Plan.


Stocki collar

I am glad that we have moved on from our legalism around many Christian Churches and that one of those legalisms that no longer is our having to attend Church every Sunday morning and having to feel guilty if we don’t. Protestant guilt is heavy burden and good reddens to it in the freedom and grace of Jesus. However, let us not allow the freedom to make us lethargic, careless or neglectful.

Indeed, let me give a completely different perspective on your attendance at Church on a Sunday. Attendance should never be about your own interests. Your attendance should be about your contribution to the worshipping missional community that you are a part of. I hear you say, “But I don’t need to be at Church on a Sunday to play my role and use my gifts outside of the Sunday service.” Can I suggest that this is a too individualistic an understanding of your role in the Sunday service.

I have recently paced around the Church on a Sunday evening concerned that there would not be a careless decision or two made about attending that night, praying that some of my congregation would prayerfully and missionally strategically weigh in. One night in particular I watched as a Polish woman walked very determinedly into my Church. It must have taken some courage and I am sure she was asking some questions as she arrived. Perhaps she wanted to know about Christianity and its relevance to people like her. I knew those in our congregation who could have reached her, befriended her and made her feel a little more at home but that evening they had decided not to come along. If we had put together an intentional mission event to reach varying groups of people I know that our congregation would commit with focused conviction. We need to see that even our presence at worship may have as powerful an impact. We haven’t seen the Polish girl since. Making our services friendly to strangers starts with the gathered community that the liturgy is played out in.

In conclusion another twist in perspective from old legalism to missional intentionality. We, in my congregation, have a fascinating habit of arriving just in time or actually in the five minutes after starting time. Again, how glad I am that we are not petty punctual. I like the fact that the Irish definition of “urgent” is “that there is still time for another coffee.” However, visitors have left our services before they started because they felt that there was no one coming or because there were only young people there and they felt out of it. If they had waited for another five minutes there would have been a whole range of others arriving but for them it was too late. Our comfort and almost pride in our lateness is self absorbed and not thinking of others before ourselves, a crucial basic of following Jesus.

So, don’t go to Church because you feel you have to and you don’t want to feel guilty for not going. Go to Church on Sunday because your presence is crucial for the work of Christ. Your presence is a vital contribution to Christ’s mission and might draw someone into the heart of God rather than your absence sending them back out into the cold!


(this was written for a Quiet Service in Fitzroy... inspired by David Ford's song Meet Me In The Middle)


Lord we come before you

Having been dragged through the days of a fallen world

We have things to smile about

But things that bring us down

We have things to celebrate

But things to mourn

We have things to look forward to this week

But many things that have us worried and anxious

And it is all these things that make us who we are tonight

And we come before you as we are

To commit ourselves to you, afresh.



Lord we come before you

Having been dragged through the days of a fallen world

We have been inspired by the words of Jesus

And confused by the devil’s lies

We have been praying hard for holiness

But seduced by temptation’s sparkle

We have prayed for eternal impact on our souls

And been blunted by momentary distractions

And it is all these things that make us who we are tonight

And we come before you as we are

To commit ourselves to you, afresh.



And as we come as we are

We are amazed at your grace

Because you know us as we are

And still love us

At this moment

No matter where we are

In this in between place

Between what we want to be

And who we are

You cannot love us anymore than you do right now

So, as we are

To commit ourselves to you, afresh.




There is a moment in the middle of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ version of Van Morrison’s Mystic Eyes that not only showcases the wonder of transcendence in art but if you listen more carefully you might even sense the very reason for rock n roll. Petty slows the band down and brings a little dramatic hush before going into a spoken word...

“And I thought to myself... wouldn’t it be great if just for one moment everything was alright... I want to give that to you babe, I want to give you a moment... where everything is alright... a moment where everything’s good, everything’s safe, everything’s warm... where everything is alright...”

As Petty assumes the role of preacher you can sense that this is indeed what rock n roll has always been about. It has been people who played to turn things alright. Whether it was the bluesman needing to fix what was so badly wrong, the young pop lovers gazing into each other’s eyes or the social justice agenda highlighted in Live Aid or Live 8 music has had a liturgical role at putting things right. Many trees have been cut down to feed the books that have called rock music destructive, and there are no doubt times when it has been used as such, but Petty somehow touches its very essence here and reveals its transformative hope and function.

That Petty should choose Van Morrison to attempt the transcendent should not surprise. Morrison has been making the ordinary little back alleys and chip shops of Belfast seem transcendent for years. Indeed when I heard Petty’s cover for the first time it was his Thirtieth Anniversary Concert from his hometown of Gainesville, Florida and I was even more excited at the lines “I was walking on University Avenue...” My old college room at Queens’ University Belfast looked out onto that very avenue, just about twenty yards from the Fitzroy he made a little less ordinary on his Astral Weeks record. I was buzzing for weeks that Petty had declared the purpose of rock as he sang about my street and how it made my straight a lot more extraordinary. Then I sought out the Them version and there was no University Avenue in their lyric. So where did Petty get Morrison’s geographical streets? Eventually having Googled ‘University Avenue’ I found one right in the heart of Petty’s own Gainesville. He was contextualising it in his place not mine. Still, about a year later I became the minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and it, as already mentioned. is canonized so I can rest easy!

What Petty is doing, and what Morrison was the king of, was lifting the ordinary mundane streets of any town and giving them a significance way beyond the temporal. There is something going on that can be caught if we are acutely aware. If our souls are spiritually sensitive to the moment then heaven can peek out from “the brown brick spine of some dirty blind alley”[i]  and illuminate life and eternity. Oh to have... or to look into those Mystic Eyes.


[i] Rich Mullins: Land Of My Sojourn from A Liturgy, A Legacy and A Raganuffin Band


Petty Dream


I remember being quite interested in Tom Petty’s first solo album Full Moon Fever because I had been a Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers fan since Damn The Torpedoes and the thought of Petty doing something more stripped back, as I foolishly thought solo might mean, was very appealing. Produced by Jeff Lynne was hardly going to make it unplugged and though the hits Free Fallin’ and I Won’t Back Down did make their impression much of it passed over me. It wasn’t until Petty named his Thirtieth Anniversary documentary movie and coffee table book Runnin’ Down a Dream that I caught the depth of the transcendent wonder of that little ditty!

Where Van Morrison, and Petty’s use of Morrison on Mystic Eyes, deals with the transcendence that takes us higher and beyond, this is a song about the transcendence that dives below and deep within. A friend once told me that until you open the windows on an American freeway, under a warm blue skied Californian sun, and turn the stereo up loud you will never know what rock n roll was created for. Runnin’ Down a Dream is the kind of song for such a revelatory moment. The first verse even starts exactly as my friend described with Del Shannon the sound on the radio. Though the weather changes as the song goes on, there is something spiritual going on in Mr. Petty’s soul. He is longing to know more than the ordinary and the mundane. He is following in Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps in his effort “to suck the marrow out of life” For Petty it is to run down the hill of a dream; what a great image.

The song goes on “working on a mystery, going wherever it leads.” There is so much in that line. That a mystery needs worked on, that you need to not pass it by in a flighty manner. That it needs to be recognised as beyond us but also explored and at least some attempt made to unravel it. To live in the vortex of a dream or a mystery. Wow! Petty’s Southern roots are dragging him back here to those prayers his mother prays by the window on maybe his finest song Southern Accents, so wonderfully claimed for his own spiritual story by Johnny Cash. Jesus and God are never too close to Petty’s rock n roll testimony but neither are they ever too far away. See the credits on albums or the references on songs like Free Fallin’ or Saving Grace and you will find that Christianity is the faith stream of his mystery. 

That mystery seems to be something deeper in meaning on a vocational direction. Petty would not deny that most of his dreams were more than lived out; he might have in a wild dream have considered being welcomed into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame but he cannot have dared to have imagined back in Gainesville that he would be asked to be the backing band for Bob Dylan or that a Beatle would ask him to join his super group. This is life in all its fullness for Petty, literally he has run down the steep hill of a dream with all his adrenaline firing! In almost surrendering to the mystery he follows a transcendent hope or meaning that will drive his vocation. If he can find himself in the mystery then he will find the truth of his life’s potential and in turn run down his particular dream.

As I was concluding this article I was surmising whether I was close to the truth or way off base; both conclusions are always possible. Then in almost the last page of the book Runnin’ Down a Dream Petty starts declaring how right I had gotten it. He says, “When I wrote the songs for Highway Companion, I didn’t sit down and say, ‘Well I’m gonna write about this or that.’ I just started to play and the door swung open. In came the songs, I just tried to capture it as quick as possible. From there it was just a matter of thanking divine grace or whoever threw the songs in my path.” He then asks if anyone could capture these songs but sees a specific vocational calling. “I  believe that it’s a bit like being singled out for something, like there’s some greater force that says, ‘Okay,well, this guy’s going to have a powerful enough antennae to bring this stuff in.’Petty cites Johnny Cash as the one who taught him the importance of his trade. Johnny Cash said this to me one day, ‘This is a noble work... Yeah, it makes a lot of people happy.’” Petty reveals very clearly how he sees this transcendence and his vocation as a songwriter. Runnin’ Down A Dream is a confessional that to find who we are in this life we need to tangle and engage with a transcendence that guides us to the something more that this life is all about.





( I wrote this wedding prayer/blessing for my good friends Rachel and Alain Emerson for their wedding service... Alain wanted it based on “their song” Frozen Lake, by my good friend Iain Archer (“I want to be someone who makes you feel beautiful... I want to be someone who covers you in love”)... I decided to add a few other ingredients... A poem by Wendell Berry shown to me by Gail Hefner at the recent  Jubilee Conference... the events of Easter weekend, the weekend before... the goings on of Northern Ireland’s First Minister in recent days... oh aye... and Rachel and Alain’s marriage!... all in 443 words!)


To fancy someone in the schoolyard

Is so easy

How many times

The infatuation

Crazy dreams

And then moving on to someone else...


To marry someone

Now that is another matter

To commit forever

Not only when the honeymoon beckons

But when recession bites

When the children throw up in the night

When one of you gets sick

With no hope of a turning circle

To love no matter what

Now that is not schoolyard

And so we pray Rachel and Alain

That you find the grace for whatever comes...


But we your friends dare to pray for more

We pray for more than “make it through”

We pray for holiness

We pray that you would both feel beautiful

And be covered in love

By He who first loved us

As He demonstrated to us on this Easter week

When he denied Himself

And took up His cross

The selfless, suffering servant

Then crashed through the tomb

In Resurrection power

To make everything beautiful in its time...


Rachel... Alain

May the implications of this week

Make you feel beautiful

And cover you in love

And that now as you two become one

In these vows, promises and commitments

We pray that from this source from a grace warmed lake

In these frozen northern shores

That you Alain will be given enough grace

To make Rachel feel beautiful

And cover her with love

And that you Rachel will be given enough grace

To make Alain feel beautiful

And cover him with love...


Because this is holiness

Not that we keep rules and laws

Which we only given to keep us from anarchy

For holiness is not cold hard tablets of stone

No... holiness is the warm tender loving heart of God

And we are holy

Not when we stand arrogantly proven right

But when we fall

And love the Lord our God

With all our heart, soul, mind and strength

And our neighbours as ourselves

Holiness is alive, vibrant and pulsing with transformative power

To make people feel beautiful

And cover them with love...


And so we pray that your marriage is holy

And as you bump into people

By strategic intention or casual accident

In this Church

In other places of prayer

In streets of mission

In dental clinics

In fitness suites

In Ugandan building sites

In soccer stadiums

Or in your brand new home

That your lives will leave behind them a deep holiness

To make everyone you touch

Feel beautiful and covered in love

Rachel... Alain... God bless your love to all of us

And may we in turn love you and make you feel beautiful

With our ongoing prayers.







Stocki collar

(this is a benediction that I wrote for the end of a poem way back in 1990 or so... the poem was called Bigger Picture and very much influenced by watching Dances With Wolves... anyway we used it right at the end of the album I did with Sam Hill, under the name Stevenson and Samuel, called Grace Notes... it was a great benediction after Sam’s brilliant song Thunder and Rain... I use it quite frequently as a benediction and also used it in a funeral service recently... it is the best twelve lines I ever got to write... and the most requested... so... as it is unlikely you’ll hoke out the album or the two poetry books it is on... here for free... BUT please credit me!!!!!!!... isn’t that the internet age!)

God, give us faith to believe the truth

And the right to ask why

Give us joy in life’s fulfilment

And the right to cry

God give us the strength to carry others

And the right to wilt

Give us grace towards holiness

And the right to confess our guilt

Father show us a bigger picture

Jesus play us a longer song

Holy Spirit put us on a road that’s deeper

Than the one we’re on.




As Good Friday has gone on I have been drawn to three songs that can allow your iPod to become a sacred space for Easter meditation...

DUKE SPECIAL – Song of The Hours

From one of Mr. Duke’s three recent releases,  Songs From Mother Courage, this song is just a literal walk through the hours of what seemed like the last day of Jesus life... It is a five minute graphic poem of the things done to the Innocent whose “water and blood still flows” as well as “the mocking laughter”... it is not Duke’s next pop hit but it’s mood and spiritual sense could put it in any Church liturgy.


“It is so unlike the Holy to end up full of holes,” is a provocative meditative line of itself. Here in one of their poetic list driven couplet songs Welsh troubadour Joseph and Liverpudlian poet man Stewart Henderson take theology and give it a literary twist or two revealing all kinds of questions and clues at answers to what Jesus subversive mission was and was not. This “Dissident of meekness/nurse of tangled souls” is needed by us all. If downloading then go for the version on Evolved a recent release of re-recordings which plays more starkly into the landscape of Golgotha.

PIERCE PETTIS – You Did That For Me 

Working in the Nashvillian model of the songwriter songs Pettis has been the best at adding to that tradition the robustness of deep theology. His 2009 album That Kind Of Love had its heart two songs that are a health tonic to the soul. In the title song he lays out the love of God most poetically but then follows it with this song that tells us we don’t have to cry anymore, or know it all or be ashamed or proudly do something to redeem himself as God has done everything that needs to be done. It is this latter song that gives the concrete reason why by describing the “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief... nailed like a thief” who “wore the chains so I could be free.”

As you end this song cycle with Pierce’s hymn it is good to remember that Jesus didn’t end up spread-eagled on that cross to emotionally black mail us into His Kingdom. We don’t give our lives to him because he gave his for us. We give our lives because in him giving his for us the way is now opened for us to follow him. In following him we too may end up on that cross but we follow him because he is the subversive revolutionary worth following. He is the only one who can turn the unjust world that is Good Friday into a whole new day where all the bad news is turned good and all the victims get loved! As we sit pondering these songs, getting a survey of the first Good Friday are we up for the following...