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May 2011

Lyric For The Day 31.5.11 from God Is God by Steve Earle


“I believe in prophecy.
Some folks see things not everybody can see.
And, once in a while, they pass the secret along to you and me.
And I believe in miracles.
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing.
Yeah, I believe in God, and God ain't me.”

-      From God Is God by Steve Earle

Steve Earle as a theologian might take a leap of faith for some but on God Is God he is making a prevalent theological comment that speaks into the current Christian climate. Earle has touched on Biblical themes before particularly on Jerusalem an eschatological song from an album of the same name. God Is God was first recorded by Joan Baez on her Earle produced album Day After Tomorrow but Earle has now put it on his own T-Bone Burnett produced I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.

The message is pretty simple. Earle believes in God but God isn’t him, God isn’t us, God is God! It is a declaration of the sovereignty of God. It gives God back his transcendence and mystery. As Isaiah put it, “I live in a high and holy place...” God is beyond us. He is beyond our mortal thinking and morality. He is set apart and the only true Lord over all that is. Into recent arguments in Christendom over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the back lash and back biting, which has done nothing for the already tawdry PR of the Christian faith, Earle’s song brings perspective. We are all looking through a glass darkly as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians. Yes, this Sovereign God has revealed Himself to his creatures, in Scriptures and the incarnation of Jesus, but we are still a million miles from a full understanding of Sovereignty.

 Yes perhaps Earle opens God up even wider than the Biblical revelation does but it doesn’t prevent the truth contained in the title God is God. All we can do is fall back into the arms...

Lyric For The Day 30.5.11 from Tears In Heaven by Eric Clapton


“Time can bring you down
Time can bend your knee
Time can break your heart
Have you begging please
Begging please


Beyond the door
There's peace I'm sure.
And I know there'll be no more...
Tears in heaven.”

-      From Tears In Heaven by Eric Clapton

At a funeral I was performing recently the family chose this song as a final “hymn.” Having been a radio DJ I was perhaps more comfortable with this than some of my peers might have been. Perhaps along with Layla and Wonderful Tonight, this is Eric Clapton’s finest artistic moment at perhaps the saddest moment of his life. Tears In Heaven was written about the tragic death of his four year old son Conor.

Clapton is a bluesman and though this ballad is not strictly in that genre he uses many of the bluesman’s emotion to make this a classic song of catharsis. In the end there is also a sign of hope and, in what my colleague at the funeral called a secular hymn, Christian hope too; peace beyond this pain and a place somewhere where there is no tears at all; a snippet of a glance at Revelation 22.



Shane Claiborne’s inspirational The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical has been a mainstay on student reading lists over the last five years and all for the better of our youth. On reading Philip Orr’s fascinating history of a wee Christian project in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast I couldn’t help seeing it as companion piece; it is just as much a page turner. I had the privilege of sharing a seminar with the warm and winsome Claiborne at Greenbelt a few years ago. Right there alongside me Shane filled in the gaps that I thought were glaringly absent from his brilliant book; the failings. The book was too easy. I wanted him to give me ten places where it all went horribly wrong, where their efforts just didn’t work. In the more conversational situation of seminar questions Shane shared these with tender honesty.

Philip Orr has gone straight to the honesty. There is nowhere in this thirty year history of the 174 Trust still a thriving outreach project on Belfast’s deprived and dangerous Ardoyne area where it is not a struggle and many times more bad news than good news. It is about everyday heroes and I know because, unlike Shane’s inner city Philly community, I knew the very ordinary heroes of this story. I lived not far away. I knew what was happening and brushed against it occasionally. I am aware of the turmoil of “The Troubles” at the time.

As I read about Heather and Kerry and Bill and Karen and Tonya, the ones I knew best, and read some of the stories they had shared with me at the time I was struck by how frightening parts of Belfast were in the eighties and early nineties. The bullets and bombs and riots were regular occurrences and through it in this little cafe/flat on the Antrim Road many young Christians who had no need to be anywhere near the front had committed to live there or work there on projects that drew in some of the damaged youth of the area. Not for them the lovely middle class youth clubs of the suburbs. The story Philip writes is messy from the confusion at times of the missional intent, something that evolves as the years went on, to questions as to what was achieved in it all, to the personal stories of the toll the whole thing took from loss of faith to loss of life and many things in between.

At the core of the book is the same challenge as Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution to live real Biblical discipleship in your geographical location. When a friend recently asked about why there were not more seminars on social justice at a major N. Ireland event she was told that they preferred to concentrate on the Bible and discipleship. We have gotten it so incredibly wrong! We are heretics! Books like Orr’s and Claiborne’s are prophetic screams from the fringes to remind us of the cost and courage of following Jesus. They mangle the cotton wool that we have surrounded the Gospel in. The most crucial part is that these are not books of ideas but real life stories of ordinary radicals and ordinary miracles. The stories they tell are not Christianity deluxe or some rare limited edition; this is every day ordinary discipleship. Philip Orr has written a book that records a prophetic challenge to anyone attempting to follow Jesus in Belfast and indeed beyond. Read it alongside Irresistible Revolution and prepare yourself!


Dylan Infidels 

Bob Dylan had a very public Christian conversion at the end of the seventies that most people would say lasted the length of his trilogy of albums based on said faith; Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love. When Infidels kicked in 1983, the Mark Knopfler guitar sound that brought the trilogy in signalled the end of his preachy era and the critics were relieved. So did Dylan lose his faith? Did he return to Judaism as many suggested the time? Personally, and this article is my personally surmising, I don’t see any evidence that Dylan rejected Jesus at this point. A song from the trilogy would feature in most of his concerts through the next decade. A few years later he was introducing In the Garden live in concert as a song about his hero. Much later he would add old spirituals like Somebody Touched Me and I Am The Man, Thomas to the set. Those who reject faith are less likely to continue having any involvement or mention of it. Dylan has never shown disdain to Christianity.

So what might have happened? Well I have no real insight into Dylan’s world, who has! I am, however, well placed to comment on the evangelical world that Dylan found his faith in. My hunch is that Dylan didn’t reject what the Vineyard Church of his conversion taught him but that he started asking questions that the narrowness of evangelical Christianity of the time could not answer the wider questions that an artist like Bob Dylan would be asking. For the vast majority of the 21st century the vast majority of evangelical Christianity had become very narrow and pietistical. I would surmise that when Dylan took that six month of Bible Classes it would have been concentrating on prayer, daily Bible study and personal holiness. This comes out in Dylan’s trilogy. Where Dylan brought some political concerns to Slow Train Coming by the time he got to Saved it was all very personal stuff and the wider agenda of Dylan’s previous career was lost in testimony songs and warnings of apocalypse very rife at a time when Hal Lindsay was then what Harold Camping is now with movies about Christ’s imminent return featuring in cinemas!

Evangelical Christianity had reacted very badly to the dubious theology that Walter Rauschenbusch had added to his brilliant Social Gospel. They had, as so often happens down through Church history, thrown the baby out with the bath water. That had led to what John Stott had declared the greatest heresy of the twentieth century; the lack of social concern among evangelicals. Jim Wallis was starting something different in his fledgling Sojourners that would become a real force in American evangelicalism and indeed wider society by the turn of the century but it was too early to have given Dylan the breadth he needed.

Evangelical Christianity is a great maternity ward for faith. It has birthed so many people in their spiritual lives. For many years though it has been very poor at spiritual growth after the birth. It speaks a lot about being born again, as indeed Bob Dylan did on Saved, but it lacked and maybe still does in many places with growing up again. I am sorry Dylan never got the chance to be nurtured in his faith, to have been able to have taken in the questions, applied them to his faith. I think that we do see hints of how he has attempted that on his own – What Good Am I, I & I, Ring Them Bells and Dignity to name a few – but oh to have had him engage with Christian thinkers like the aforementioned Wallis, Walter Wink, Stanley Hauerwas and Calvin Seerveld. It is a shame!

Lyric For The Day 23.5.11 from Every Grain Of Sand by Bob Dylan

Shot Of Love 

“Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.

I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.


I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other time it's only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”

-      From Every Grain Of Sand by Bob Dylan

This has to be in my opinion Bob Dylan’s finest lyrical moment. We all know the temptation, it calls our name. We all know the isolation, the seeming distance from God. We all know the indulgence, it has us by the throat. We all need to confess our mistakes and admit our hanging in the balance of faith and life. From there all we can is trust.Hymn-like in its use of language and image, it is subjective to every pilgrim’s spiritual walk and as the Psalmist ultimately comes down to trusting God so Dylan paraphrases Jesus himself with his “every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”

GAVIN FRIDAY - catholic

The cover of Gavin Friday’s new album catholic (with a small C) has him lying dead on the cover, draped in the Irish flag and crucifix on top of him. It makes him look like what he is – a national treasure; in the artistic sense not the military sense of the Michael Collins’ portrait that it copies. It is a stunning photograph and a piece of art in itself. Which fits because Friday is an artist, maybe even more than he is a musician or songwriter. Friday has lived under the radar of what is popular for over three decades, involved in performing art band The Virgin Prunes before three solo albums, the last being sixteen years ago and writing soundtracks, theatre and a classical work with Gavin Bryars. He has also been the most important fifth (non) member of U2, advising their live visuals and on stage drama as well as pushing their musical envelopes. And yes, the sharing of ideas that best friends do make this an album where you see where Bono influences Gavin but probably more where U2 got some of their lush and layered ideas; why they called for Eno!

All of this explains the atmospheric aesthetics of Friday’s new album, in which is speaks of taking back the word catholic and giving it back to every human. Friday’s belief in God stretches beyond denominations but in the reality of a very messed and mixed up world he can only conclude in the same surrendering to the Divine of Cohen’s Hallelujah, Lord I’m Coming a song of grand ambition perfectly achieved. These are all songs of love and loss (A Song That Hurts and The Only One), of mortality and sucking the marrow out of what’s left (Able and Epilogue), of brokenness and hope (Lord I’m Coming). It is personal and somehow expresses a post Celtic Tiger Ireland (reference the cover again!) before reaching beyond to touch its ambition to be universal. It is simply a beautiful listen with its hushed and sacred elegant melancholy and then elegiac catharsis.

Utterly stunning!  

Lyric For The Day 20.5.11 (dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II and President Mary McAleese) from The Times They Are A-Changing by Bob Dylan

Queen In Ireland 

“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.”

-      From The Times They Are A-Changing by Bob Dylan

The words don’t fit neatly but I couldn’t help but consider the words “Please get out of the new one/If You can’t lend a hand/For the times they are a-changing,” as I watched the events unfold this week on the Queen’s visit to Ireland. I had looked at this as a nice anaemic trip that would be a security nightmare. The iconic moments that bombarded my television and the speeches of both President McAleese and the Queen turned it into an historical moment to go with Mandela’s release, the fall of the Berlin Wall and that night in 1998 when Bono raised John Hume and David Trimble’s hands high in a new sense of unity. This was almost the book end of that Bono, Hume, Trimble night.

Suddenly the Queen of England is walking onto the pitch at Croke Park, home of the GAA and the place where the first Bloody Sunday took place in 1920; the British army murdering 13 fans and a player in brutal reprisal for their own agents and servicemen killed that morning. Then the Queen was starting her speech in Irish, getting as close to apology as any monarch can in her, “"things we wish had been done differently or not at all", and where she got closest to Dylan, “we can bow to the past but we don’t need to be bound by it.” This was the ushering in of a new Ireland, still divided by a border but more united in its feelings and atmosphere than maybe anywhere else in its history. In her speech she also reminded us that she wasn’t on some safe throne away from the subjective pain of the Troubles but that she too has suffered alluding to the death at the hands of the IRA of her cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten in the conflict.

There was more than political protocol going on in this week’s events. The Northern Ireland’s First Minister’s wife Iris Robinson had not been seen in public since confessing a very public fall from grace some fifteen months ago. In an incredibly warm way President McAleese embraced her and gave a direction for how we should all react to Iris’s return. It was incredibly pastoral.

Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese are Heads of State and in some ways get little chance to change anything; that is the job of their Prime Ministers and governments. On this occasion though they seem to have outdone the powerful ones. It might just be that this is the place where these two women changed something and made history. In the end we have centuries of wee boys going off to kill each other being brought together by two strong dignified and stately women calling it all to an end by what was a brave state visit. On an island where there is still a hesitancy to change the traditional gender stereotypes it was another iconic shudder to how things had been.

The times change when people find gestures and words and courageously cross lines to shake hands and embrace. Repentance and forgiveness are both products of such grace. The past can be bowed to and the future no longer feels bound to it. Both sides of the Irish conflict need to be loyal to the model shown by their Heads of State and lead us into such a future. The old Ireland is rapidly aging – “Please get out of the new one/If you can't lend your hand/For the times they are a-changin'.”

Lyric For The Day 19.5.11 from Death Is Not The End by Bob Dylan

Death Is not The End 

“When you’re sad and when you’re lonely
And you haven’t got a friend
Just remember that death is not the end
And all that you’ve held sacred
Falls down and does not mend
Just remember that death is not the end
Not the end, not the end
Just remember that death is not the end

Oh, the tree of life is growing
Where the spirit never dies
And the bright light of salvation shines
In dark and empty skies”

-          From Bob Dylan’s Death Is Not The End

This song of hope, almost Psalmic in its theme and structure was written around the end of Dylan’s very overt Christian trilogy. Recorded at the time of Infidels where Dylan was in transition from the Christian testifying to his usual more oblique and ambiguous poetry it sits alongside Every Grain of Sand for me as a song that seeks Christian consolation without denying the struggles of this life. That is where it finds itself much more Biblical than the Christian industry of the time. The Psalms in particular and the Bible in general never shirk the dark and empty skies that we all go through. These skies are Psalm 23’s shadow of death’s dark vale. In the midst there is hope and salvation . Check wonderful covers by Nick Cave, The Waterboys and Gavin Friday.

Bob Dylan - What Good Am I


City Fans 

It has been a strange feeling down the forty two years since I started following Manchester City. Soccer is only a game but for those of us sports fans who invest something of our hearts in being fans it is so much more than a game. This is a major part of our lives; our leisure time, our thoughts, our finances. As the heart is involved there are emotions that can swing all over the place.

Supporting Manchester City has been a rough ride; more sorrow than joy. What I didn’t realise is how those years had built up such a wall of pessimism until we caught a hopeful glimpse of our first trophy. In the FA Cup semi final against our biggest rivals, and those who hate us most Manchester United, I couldn’t take off my hoodie to reveal a City shirt until there was only ten seconds to go. We were one up but history told me that United would always break our hearts; for a week after the game I was expecting to hear that they’d equalized! Yes, I am that damaged. Awareness of the damage increased on the day of the final. Thirty years since we were in a final and I was a little numb. Like the boy with acne who’d had his heart broken relentlessly and couldn’t trust real love when it arrived but always felt she’d dump him, I was scared of the day I’d waited on so long.

So I watched nervously as a City side bossed the game against a team who really had no players who would have got on the City team. Even after we scored and the Stoke team, who had been playing to try and steal a 1-0 win (their injured player kept giving away their tactics to a pitch side commentator!), almost gave up I couldn’t find confidence and any I did muster made me worry more. The final whistle did bring relief but I am not sure the euphoria I was hoping for or indeed deserved. I feel like the freshly crowned champion who says “it hasn’t really sunk in yet.” I find myself going to the kitchen to brew the coffee and suddenly throwing my arms in the air and smiling broadly!

I am pondering success for the first time I can remember. I think it feels good and that United fans can’t even begin to understand how this feels as they celebrate a twelfth league title in twenty years. Ok the fact that it is their nineteenth and puts them ahead of Liverpool for titles might give it added energy BUT I cannot believe that there isn’t a law of diminishing returns when it comes to serial trophies. My friends are saying that I’ll never know but I fear that they are wrong and I mean fear. I think these things should be shared out and a trophy every two or three years should be enough. We don’t live in such a fair world though and City’s money gives us a huge advantage. We’re now in the Champions League (sorry... did I just type that!) and that’ll give us even pulling power than the money. We’ll be even stronger again. We’re not getting relegated anytime soon. It’ll be great to have Kenny Dalglish’s boys join us at the top end next season – a top six will make it fun. It is likely that it won’t be 2041 before I feel numb and frightened again or maybe winning more trophies breeds confidence!

There has been one thing I learned on this journey to victory. As I led my Church into their final hymn last Sunday I started, “sing out as if you don’t even go there.” I was going to say, “as if you are a Manchester City fan next Saturday afternoon,” and then I realised that soccer teams and God are not to be compared! As Carlos Teves lifts that Cup and the euphoria and relief sweeps through a team, club and fan base worldwide there is another realisation; it is over and we have to start all over again to keep it next year. Manchester City hold a huge part of my heart and will continue to steer many of my emotions but they are only a soccer team and it is all very temporary. The apostle Paul spoke of training for the trophy that doesn’t last and suggesting going fpor things that would last. He also spoke of trusting more in things that were unseen than things seen because things seen like FA Cups are temporary but things unseen are eternal. So, in the morning I am sure Fitzroy will see my smile and feel my joy but it’ll not encroach on more eternal things!

Lyric For The Day 13.5.11 from Pavement Tune by The Frames

The Frames 

You see I want my life to make more sense
I want my life to make amends
I want my life to make more sense to me

-      From Pavement Tune by The Frames

I simply love these words of spiritual intent from Glen Hansard especially in the context of this Frames rock out. Glen has never suggested any Christian leanings though he seems quite intrigued with Jesus (check the Soul Surmise interview) but this is something of what repentance and spiritual transformation is all about. A getting your head straight, untangling the way it is and how should be thinking. But that is not all. Having it make sense is not the end of the deal. Your life has to count, to mean something and to make a difference. There is something defiant about Pavement Tune that says I am going to suck the marrow out of this life or as Jesus put it “live life in all its fullness.”

Glen Hansard - The Soul Surmise Interview