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May 2010

LAUGHING WITH GOD - Regina Spektor

Spektor Laughing

There seems something even more sinister than a constant dismissal of God in the British media. There seems to be a general laughing at God and the idea that it is an absolute joke that anyone should believe. It is a little out of kilter living in Northern Ireland, the small alcove of the United Kingdom where belief in God is still quite normal and you opt rather than in to faith. The general British media, when it comes to religion, is strangely alien to us weird Northern Irish. However, there are times when the childish scoffing at God is set aside. Such a situation occurred this week when I heard, on the radio, a headmaster finish an emotional statement about the tragic loss of two of his pupils in a bus crash with the words, “We are praying for their families and those who were injured.”

It is this British dichotomy of God that Regina Spektor, an American of Russian birth and Jewish faith, has dealt with in her song Laughing With God from her 2009 album Far.  In her Kate-Bushian-quirky-way Spektor lists the places and scenarios in life when “no one’s laughing at God.” The first few lines give the gist –

“No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God
When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor”

Her chorus then takes us to the places where God can become the easy butt of humour –

“But God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or
Or when the crazies say He hates us
And they get so red in the head you think they’re ‘bout to choke
God can be funny,
When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious
Ha ha”

The ironic sarcasm that Spektor uses at the end of the “God can be so hilarious” is a powerful prophetic preacher’s punch of subtlety. However the exposure of society’s hypocrisy at their big laugh at God and those who believe such nonsense, is coupled with a challenge to those who do believe and then present a God who is less than the robust one that Jesus revealed.




We have lost the meaning of the word enough. We live in a world where actually it is hard to see a driving force in our society that acknowledges the value of enough. Everyone who is getting more wants even more and everyone selling them more wants to sell more. Enough is almost a bad word in our western unrestrained consumerist culture. The problem of course is that when we reach our level of enough and pass it with the regularity and distance that we do then the balances of world shalom are so tilted that other human beings have to live in abject poverty for our dissatisfaction with enough.

The Bible makes a couple of strong pointers to God’s ideal of enough. In the wilderness when God supplied the Children Of Israel with food, they were sent out to collect enough for one day and were not allowed to gather anymore than was enough for that one day. In the New Testament Jesus teaches us to pray in The Lord’s Prayer that we would have daily bread in the same kind of way; no more, no less, just enough!

Last Sunday I was comparing and contrasting Jesus encounters with the Rich Young Ruler and Blind Bartimaeus and how difficult the rich find it to follow Jesus and perhaps how the poor might indeed be blessed but we should never stop campaigning for the eradication of poverty either. Before I preached, one of our congregation, Desi Alexander used Proverbs 30 v 7-9 in his prayer of intercession. I had never taken those verses in before but in the context of Mark 10 and these two very different encounters with Jesus it instantly became definitive verses on our modern dilemma of poverty and wealth –

 7 "Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
   do not refuse me before I die:

 8 Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
   give me neither poverty nor riches,
   but give me only my daily bread.

 9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
   and say, 'Who is the LORD ?'
   Or I may become poor and steal,
   and so dishonor the name of my God.

The book of Proverbs is indeed wisdom and here is prophetic wisdom for this generation. From a world that could never have imagined the extent of wealth that we enjoy, millennia later, the understanding of the temptations of poverty and wealth are spot on. I have lived at both sides of the balance. In 2005 I lived for a few months on the west side of Vancouver and witnessed a class of community who had so much money that they really had no need for God anymore; in fact God would have been a real hindrance to the lavish lifestyle they enjoyed. It was actually a poverty of soul caused by riches. For many weeks, at various times over the last decade, I have been engaging with various township communities on South Africa’s Western Cape. In these places I was a witness to an environment of poverty that caused crime to be rife not because those folk were any less human than my friends in West Van but because the tragic consequences of their wretched poverty drove them to it.

The prayer in Proverbs to have neither poverty or wealth suggests that we need to come to terms with the word enough and live our lives so that everyone has enough and settle for its blessing!



Here’s a clever victory in the battle to beat the throwaway download with the more precious CD product. Natalie Merchant has put together what can only be called a beautiful little work of art that has already had a friend regret doing the  download thing and missing the piece! What Merchant has done is to take 26 poems and put her own music to them. Yet, she couldn’t settle for that, she has put the two CDs into an 80 page hardback book where she not only prints the poems BUT adds a biography of all the writers, well researched. It is an intriguing little anthology with fascinating insights into poets and their poetry; hours of intrigue and interesting information. In her Introduction Merchant declares her belief about the poets: -

“Poets are keepers of the sacred language that describes our holy places – unknown and unknowable... The poet’s work is putting silence around everything worth remembering. Poetry on the page can be a little difficult to penetrate; sometimes it needs to be heard. I used music to enter these poems, and once inside I was able to understand how they were constructed with layers of feeling and meaning.”

In order to sneak inside the poems Merchant has used a variety of music genres and around 100 different musicians to garner the effect. With a voice that could seduce if she simply read the phone book her own art is an incredibly potent way to enter a very varied list of poets’ art. Beautiful, fascinating and educational and don’t be fooled by the download!

Songs For a Healthy Soul - MATTHEW MAYFIELD - OPEN ROAD

Matthew M

When I first met Matthew Mayfield he was in a place of deep frustration and disappointment. The Birmingham, Alabama musician had just seen his life’s work, a debut album with his rock outfit Moses Mayfield, get dumped down the pan by Columbia’s new co-head Rick Rubin in the first weeks after release. It was on the bottom side of that Rollercoaster ride that I spent some time with Matthew, becoming aware quickly of a young man with a natural artistic muse and great talent; if struggling to get over an enormous commercial knock. I remember the first time I heard his voice at Dan McGuinness’s bar in Nashville, in the round with Iain Archer and Griffin House. The power of the gravel throated weariness took me by sweet surprise. In Birmingham just a few months later Matthew was kind enough to give me a CD of stuff he was working on and I have to say I actually loved it even more than the Moses Mayfield record.

Since that time Matthew has released a series of independent EPs that reveal the talent that Rubin missed. Rubin may have given us the Beatsie Boys, launched the historically significant Def Jam Records and later reinvented Johnny Cash but he somehow missed the spiritual power in Matthew Mayfield. Indeed it is ironic that some of the work on Matthew’s EPs are Rubin like stripped back. It also comes through on the EPs that Mayfield is a rocker and a rare kind of rocker at that but one with a lyric flourishes and depth of content. He has signalled a return to the full band blast on his web page by posting - 

I love being a singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar. I’ve embraced it.  But for May’s EP, I’ve decided it’s time to make a rock record. There’s an entire 50 percent of my being that lives for gritty, electric rock ‘n roll music.  We’re called The Blue Cut Robbery and we will make a record full of nasty riffs that move you.   

I look forward to it but the song I want to throw into my Songs For A Healthy Soul stash is the lead off track from the Five Chances Remain Hers EP. The Open Road video is available on U-Tube and the song is one of struggle and disappointment that might just be a response to the period when I met Matthew at the end of 2007. The chorus is a wonderful piece of prayer poetry that shows a spiritual wisdom way beyond his years: -

“I'm screaming to God
‘would you come and save
what you've either forgot
or you're strengthening
I've finally paid the toll
and it's all open road
just trying to find a home
take me home”

“What you’ve either forgot or you’re strengthening” is so brilliant that I have tucked into the top pocket of my pastoral coat. How well does it describe the mystery of prayer and the mature awareness that God’s seeming silence might be for our own good. In Open Road Mayfield has written a big Psalm ballad of rock grit and holy beauty. 



(Tear Fund asked me to write a few thoughts on what their Discovery Course meant to my Church... thought you might like a read...)

Our Church had a moment of providence when we started asking how we could be Jesus on the doorstep. As a Presbyterian Church we were obliged to write our mission strategy and our Presbytery, as part of this process, suggested we do the Tear Fund Discovery Course. For us in Fitzroy,  Discovery, was like a gear stick and accelerator that is already propelling our mission forward at quite a speed.

One of the keys for us was that we took a small group that included elders, staff and congregation. It therefore almost became a two day Retreat where we got the opportunity to focus on how to do local mission, guided by those who had already done it and then theologised it and made it practical. We did then also benefit as we watched other people audit their congregations and what was particularly healthy was someone from another Church in our area bringing another helpful perspective. The course is broken into different stages from celebrating what you already are, to how to gather information about the real needs of your neighbourhood, to how to dream dreams and then implement the dreams. It was interactive, fun, Biblical and incredibly practical. On coming home we have continued to meet regularly and unpack the course in practical ways. We are already planning a celebratory month in September to remember and thank God for who we are and are dreaming how we can tell the neighbourhood who we and more importantly the Jesus was follow is.

I would highly recommend Discovery for all Churches. If you are missionally inactive it will give you the key to get started; if you are like us ticking over with intention and a little action but want to up the ante it will help you go through the gears; if you are full on in the local community it might be a chance to stand back, reassess and improve what you are already doing. I would also recommend, though it might not always be possible, to do it as a group that continues the implementation afterwards. I went along half enthused. When it was over I had more enthusiasm, vision and pragmatic help than our entire neighbourhood could contain.


 “We try to be Jesus on the doorstep,” Rev. Dr. Spiwo Xapile told my team of students as he described the HIV/AIDS ministry carried out from his Church, JL Zwane Memorial, on the Cape Town township of Guguletu. The words, like so many of Spiwo’s, were minted in my mind. As people’s needs changed on the streets around them, so the staff at JL Zwane responded to those needs. The specific scenario that Spiwo was sharing with us was how that many children would be left on their own if their AIDS suffering only parent was rushed to hospital. As a result they were in the process of an immediate volunteer telephone line so that members of the Church could go and look after those children. It was their way to tangibly be the love of Jesus on the doorstep. When I became minister of Fitzroy, near Belfast city centre, Spiwo’s words were at the forefront of my mind. What was in our neighbourhood as a Church and how do we bring Jesus onto the doorsteps.

There was one immediate call for response. Fitzroy sits on the edge of an area of Belfast known as the Holy Lands because of the street names, Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street, Damascus Street etc. This area over the past twenty years has become a home for thousands of students, some from Queens University that our Church also edges on to and the other Ulster University situated just outside the city. Sadly, in a way that is very embarrassing to both Universities, these students have caused a lot of antisocial behaviour. St. Patrick’s Day has sadly become one of the worst days of such behaviour with students in the streets from very early morning, drinking, partying and in recent years rioting with the police trying to bring some order and noise reduction for the ordinary resident. It is not what St. Patrick would have liked his legacy to have become.

So, what should we in Fitzroy do about this unrest. Over a meal with Queen’s University Chaplains, old and new, we wondered what would happen if the main presence in the area on St. Patrick’s Day was not police keeping but pastoral. What if Jesus and not the law attempted to influence attitudes and atmosphere. Within a short time we were working with the University authorities, Students Unions, police and whoever in setting up a different presence. On the day we set up four refreshments stations at different strategic places. This allowed us to give out tea and coffee and some food to the students. As one young woman, a little shaky on her feet, said to me, “You’re trying to keep me sober!” Beyond food it gave us the opportunity too to be what Jesus called salt and light for the day.

Relationships were very positive with the students. They stopped and chatted and had a cup of tea and bacon buttie. Later in the day some of us walked around the partying streets and gave out biscuits and picked up litter. Though tensions with police were a little edgy on occasions, it never descended into the riotous behaviour of the previous year. For us that was a certain amount of success. The press would later give the story of the poor ordinary, and in most cases elderly, residents who still live in the Holy Lands. For them avoiding a riot was little consolation as they had to suffer the noise of drunk students and stereos blasting from early morning until early morning. There is still much more Kingdom to bring on our particular doorstep.

And that is what getting Jesus onto the doorstep does. It leads to more knowledge of the doorsteps and calls for more response in the name of Jesus. What are the needs? How can we involve ourselves more? How do people perceive their neighbourhood? Are they proud of it? Do they feel ownership? How does our Church, it’s buildings and what happens inside and outside of its buildings influence the area? What can we do to improve the attitude, atmosphere and ambience of the doorsteps? Our St. Patrick’s Day effort was not revolutionary or very grand but it got us in there and now we want to get in even deeper.





At a recent event I was listening to a Christian worker who spends his time reaching out to the nightclub community. It was captivating stuff and he was doing admirable work. One of his stories caught my attention. He was sharing about a young man who was a regular punter at the raves. As he shared the story he described the kind of noise and pounding beat and hit his cheat to describe the kind of effect the rave beat gives. He then spoke of the futility of such events.

Though I wouldn’t argue with the long term futility of trying to find meaning in such leisure activities I believe that this throw away description of the rave actually holds the profound key to what we need to see in our evangelism to this generation. I have written at length about this generation being more subjective than objective and this thumping of the chest is a crucial image of what the generation is looking for; for them it is not so futile!

In his new book Desiring The Kingdom, Jamie Smith (James K A Smith), from Calvin College, suggests that we are not what we believe but what we feel. He suggests that the gut is more powerful than the head in getting people to commit. He does this by showing how powerful the Mall and the Stadium have been in gripping people’s passions. He goes on to suggest that liturgy has to be about creating a similar gut response in a Church that has without doubt been over cerebral.

This brings a huge challenge to me as a Minister. How can I share the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that it hits the gut, thumps the chest and gets a passionate commitment from this generation. Though I am a huge fan of the cerebral, the evidence of which you will find throughout this blog, I need to realise that it is not going to have the same impact that it has had in recent centuries.

The way to grab gut, thump chest and garner passion has to be the same way that God chose to use with the Word becoming flesh. For God, it was about modelling a revolutionary, paradigm human being whose charisma, life and Kingdom action caused people to leave their jobs and homes to follow him. It has also to be remembered that it would be a long time before they would be cerebrally convinced. They were what they felt first and what they believed later. It is time to project the Jesus of the Gospels to a generation who have dismissed him as meek and mild and culturally irrelevant. It won’t be just teaching and liturgy that creates such a result but, modelled by the followers of Jesus, a people who live such a passionate life, the revelation of which is like a rave beat thumping the chest and demanding a response!  



I read on Wikipedia that Josh Ritter’s earliest musical influence was Bob Dylan’s duet with Johnny Cash on Girl from The North Country. It makes sense. Ritter’s factory default is the same acoustic guitar strum along with clever, economical, poetic lyrics. It is around this natural sound that Ritter plays with moods and pace changes that in the end make this his sixth album quite an eclectic mix of styles.

My first encounter with Ritter was when he supported The Frames way back in 2002 and I was immediately comparing him to a young Steve Forbert. I was impressed enough to buy his first two albums right there on the night but I could not have seen the maturity that he has shown in these intervening years. If his last album shifted him towards a mid sixties Dylan, So Runs The World Away might be the album that best defines where that career has gone. Change of Time brings the familiar acoustic Ritter before the band break in ways you might expect from Ryan Adams. Lark and Lantern looks over his shoulder to the earlier albums but not before Rattling Locks sacrifices Ritter’s natural melody for the dim dark doom of Nick Cave and Folk Bloodbath sounds like it might have been written for Johnny Cash had he still been around for American Recordings VII!

Lyrics are for the thinking listener with dreams and fictional stories and characters and philosophising. Ritter seems to be continually God bothered. When I say that I mean that as far as I am aware he has no Christian Creed but angels and Scripture and God are all around him, like a rock n roll Douglas Coupland. There always seems to be a lot of darkness in Ritter’s world but also a hope of new worlds in spite of the gloom; in it all he seeks companionship and someone to hold him up and pray for his transcendent need – So if you’ve got a light, hold it high for me/I need it bad tonight, hold it high for me/‘Cause I’m face to face, hold it high for me/In a lonesome place, hold it high for me.”  That companionship is best described in See How Man Was Made a more Biblically version of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid where a man needs to find someone to make a home with. Intriguingly he is not thoroughly Biblical in his paraphrase of Genesis 2 v 18; the woman does not get mentioned leaving the gender a man needs as his companion to be ambiguous in Ritter’s version.

It is another quality album from Ritter whose best trait is the consistency of lyric and melody. There are few fillers in a Ritter collection and always much to wonder and ponder about.


As we in the UK go to the polls today just something to surmise as we enter the polling booth. Whether it is the three main party leaders in the British mainland or whether it is the smaller parochial parties where I live in Northern Ireland, there is always a pitch from the canvassing politician that plays on our own selfish - “If you vote for us we’ll fix the tax breaks to make you and your family better off.” It is enticing and tempting but not I don’t think why a follower of Jesus should vote.

In recent weeks we have taken a motto at Fitzroy, where I am minister, that takes a phrase of Jesus and applies it very specifically to the changes that we are going through as a congregation. It is a motto that would do us all well to take meditate upon as we mark our X in a General Election – “deny yourself daily.” Jesus words of discipleship are missional in intent. We don’t deny ourselves just for the sake of it. Denial of self is a taking our focus off self to put others above ourselves, a recurring phrase in the New Testament. Just as Jesus denied himself to serve others, so we follow him.

So, the question to ask as we vote is not what is best for us but what is best for everyone. It might well be that to improve the country’s education and health as well as the environmental policy that will give hope to the poorest countries’ futures we need to sacrifice what would make us better off to serve those we are called to have compassion on. Don’t vote without a long look at the issues near to God’s heart, particularly the in relation to the world’s poor and marginalised. Ponder, surmise, pray and “deny yourself daily.”