Previous month:
January 2012
Next month:
March 2012

February 2012


Astral Weeks

1912 will see the world turn its eyes to East Belfast. There, just a few miles from where I live, Belfast shipyard workers built the most famous ship that ever sailed... and sank; The Titanic. Half a century after Titanic, in the shadow of this shipyard, in the myriad of narrow, drab and claustrophobic streets a piece of art was created in the most inauspicious of all small two up, two down houses that has had rock critics using words like holiness to describe it.

Van Morrison’s iconic record Astral Weeks is like the rarest of meteorites appearing in a night sky without warning. It is an acoustic, ambient blues and jazz fusion with pain, death, love, romance and transcendental yelping that draws from a legacy of Woody Guthrie, evangelical Christianity and a transvestite called Madame George among many other things. Within its genius it is easy to trace the themes that would keep Van Morrison in muse for the rest of his career; childlike visions, his Belfast upbringing, religion and these continual moments of spiritual epiphany even in the middle of dark nights of the soul. As you listen to Astral Weeks you can feel one young man’s pain and as you are pulled into the slipstream and viaducts of his dreams you journey with him towards redemption. In the midst of the common and most ordinary Van Morrison captures a vivid vibrant vision of the sacred and holy. That same Hyndford Street where Astral Weeks was written became a song in its own right in 1991. Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary Morrison calls it dreaming in God. As yet another songs says, it is an ability to transcend the ritual and find the spiritual.

Holiness is all around us. As William Blake put it,

“See the Lord in a grain of sand

And heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour”

Or cleric, poet and author Mike Starkey put it:

 “The place you are is full of wonders

Even if that place is a wilderness

Open your eyes wide

Look for long enough and you will see.”


A few weeks ago Neil McCormick wrote an article about Bruce Springsteen in The Telegraph. This is my commentary on that article, bringing out Springsteen's Catholicism and social justice agenda. It anticipates the release next  week of Springsteen's new record Wrecking Ball. 

Wrecking Ball

I’ve always declared Bruce Springsteen my Catholic Bishop to Bono my Protestant revivalist Preacher. While publicizing my second book The Rock Cries Out I found myself in a classroom of Messiah College in Pennsylvania. I was sharing one of my theories about Bruce Springsteen from my chapter on him in the book and I said how there had been an obvious change in Springsteen’s attitude towards Christianity in the early nineties and I genuinely wondered if that was to do with his interactions with Bono and U2; they were the topic for my first book Walk On. Someone in the class then shared how his aunt had once been in a relationship with Bruce Springsteen, they were still in touch, he called for dinner the previous summer and basically shared how what I was surmising was true!

That would short circuit my theory and I hope that it is indeed a true story. I have no reason to doubt the young man. Let me take a longer way round though. In an article in last week’s London Telegraph, Neil McCormick a very balanced commentator of U2’s dynamic of faith quotes Springsteen about faith on his new record Wrecking Ball, “The album shifts towards the spiritual uplift of gospel music in its rousing finale, evoking Jesus and the risen dead. “I got brainwashed as a child with Catholicism,” joked Springsteen, who says biblical imagery increasingly creeps into his songs almost unbidden. “It’s like Al Pacino in The Godfather: I try to get out but they pull you back in! Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” He told the Irish Times something similar, Springsteen told the Irish Times, “I got completely brainwashed with Catholicism as a child. Once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic . . . It’s given me a very active sense of spiritual life and made it difficult sexually, but that’s all right”[i]

This half joking confession of Catholicism’s continued influence on Springsteen’s life is not new. It first raised its head during the tour after Devils In Dust during his introduction of Jesus Was An Only Son. You can hear that text on the Storytellers DVD. Indeed that line by line commentary suggests an influence of Martin Scorsese, another artist whose work is deeply minted by Catholicism. There seems a few of the lines from Jesus Was An Only Son could be taken as straight commentary from Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. Of course Scorsese wasn’t the only Catholic artist that Springsteen was listening to. He had been a fan of novelists Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy for some time. Walker Percy actually wrote to Springsteen to tell him how he admired his spiritual journey and  Percy’s son Will interviewed Springsteen for Double Take magazine.

Like Bono, Springsteen’s Catholic spirituality is not individualistic. The transformation that Bono and Springsteen are aiming for is both individual and social. In that same interview with Neil McCormick Springsteen says, “I enjoy artists who like to take on the world as well as entertain their audience. I write to process my own experiences and if I can do that for me, I hope I can do that for you.” For Springsteen he is a rich mollycoddled rock star who struggles with his privilege in an American nation struggling with recession. He believes that, “An outrageous theft occurred that struck to the heart of the American idea,” and wants to highlight the consequences of the crime to power and pauper in his new album Wrecking Ball.


Archer 2

" I wanna be someone who makes you feel beautiful

I wanna be someone who does

I wanna be someone who makes you feel beautiful

I wanna be someone

Who covers you with love..."

- from Frozen Lake by Iain Archer

This is now officially the most written about lyric on my blog. I find it profoundly spiritual, doing what all good teaching should; it challenges to the core but with an inspirational push for transformation.

This morning as I preached on the counter agenda of Jesus life and teaching in the Gospel of Luke I couldn’t help thinking of Iain’s performance of this last night at the Crescent Arts Centre. In reading the entire Gospel According to Luke as we did as a congregation this week I was struck by lessons of humility, service and Jesus counter agenda of how we use our wealth and possessions. I found strong echoes in the lines of this tender song are so humble and utterly selfless. The identity of the singer is no longer in what he attains for himself. He wants to be a someone who gives to the other. His life is driven by making beautiful and covering in love.

We ended the service with a prayer that asked us to ask ourselves in our careers are we seeking to make others beautiful or to cover others in love... in how we use our money are our decisions made on how to make people beautiful or cover others in love... in how we spend our time are we driven by how to make others beautiful or cover others with love.

Deep soul critique.

Lyric For The Day 24.2.12 from Alive In The World by Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne Looking East

I want to live in the world, not behind some wall

I want to live in the world, where I will hear if another voice should call


To open my eyes and wake up alive in the world

To open my eyes and fully arrive in the world

With its beauty and its cruelty

With its heartbreak and its joy

With it constantly giving birth to life and to forces that destroy

And the infinite power of change

Alive in the world


To open my eyes and wake up alive in the world

To open my eyes and fully arrive in the world

To open my eyes and wake up alive in the world

To open my eyes and fully arrive in the world

-      From Alive In The World by Jackson Browne

I remember watching Jackson Browne in concert and wondering what he would know about the social justice he sings about, sitting beside his pool in the Californian sun behind big walls. As I was pondering he sang this and answered me right there. Jackson Browne is a songwriter who does all he can to get out from behind his walls and not only sing about injustice but do something about it.

The song wasn’t over before the Browne’s walls became the walls of my Church. This is a prophetic challenge, rebuke and inspiration for the followers of Jesus to get out from behind the walls of their Sunday services and get alive in the world. As John puts it in his record of Jesus’ life, “The word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood.” Jesus was alive in the world!


Do not be Afraid

In Fitzroy (Presbyterian Church in Belfast), where I am minister, we are currently as a congregation reading through the entire New Testament during Lent. The first day's reading led me into a new appreciation of these four words, not only some of the most used in the New Testament but also uttered many times in the Old. The words are often spoken in Scripture at times when something very frightening has happened. It could almost always be followed by a faltering, "are you having a laugh... I'm petrified!" Yet, that is the point. At times when the very earth seems to be shaking we are to trust in a God who promises to be with us.

I wrote this for one of our Communal prayer times accompanying the Readings Project. Many of us have a part of our world shaking... let us hear God's words...


Do not be afraid

Even when you are struck dumb by God

Even when an angel sits down beside you

Even when you are told you will have a child without ever being with a man

Even when the pitch black night is ripped to shreds by blinding light

Do not be afraid


Do not be afraid

When you pass through the waters

When you walk through the fire

Though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
Though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

Do not be afraid


Do not be afraid

When the wages don’t meet the bills

When your children cause you concern

When a loved one is taken suddenly ill

When you stand at the grave of your partner, parent or friend

Do not be afraid


Do not be afraid

Because you have found favour with God

Because you are precious and honoured in His sight

Because God is our refuge and strength

Because God will always be with you

Do not be afraid.



Last night saw a quere clatter (Ulster Scots for alot) of people signing off Facebook for Lent. Such a decision has written right through it the idea that Facebook is bad for your soul or a waste of time, time that could be spent doing more Christian things. For those who took that decision I would like to say, gently but with real conviction, “BAD DECISION!” Indeed, I would suggest that it is spiritually a bad decision. In essence it is cutting yourself off from a friendship with me and your other Facebook friends. I feel snubbed by that decision. Hurt almost. I don’t think it helps our lives to be even more cut off than a busy modern world already makes us. Facebook is an avenue for friendship, relationship and conversation, like the workplace, Church, the golf club, the cafe or the pub. Facebook for me has been a rich source of joy, fun, lol, news about mates new and old, interesting information, provocative quotes and stimulating conversation and debate. If everyone gave it up for Lent my life would be spiritually impoverished. We all play our part.

To me, giving up Facebook for Lent is a sign that its real identity has been mistaken. Facebook is not some computer gadget, gimmick or game; it is a means to communicate. The people who are giving it up for Lent are saying that they will still be available on email and phone. That suggests that Facebook is the newest fangled fad and we’re going back to the more authentic forms of communication. But few are giving up the phone for Lent or conversation with other humans. Thus I conclude that people do not see Facebook as a conversational resource.

You can tell that I love Facebook. I do. It has given me the opportunity in a very busy life to stay in touch with a vast array of people that I would never otherwise been able to stay in touch with. I have been able to find friends who I haven’t even seen for thirty five or forty years and had some serious conversations with them. I have been able to stay in touch with people all over the world that I could never have stayed close to. I have been able to just hang in to friendships that would have been long lost. I have picked up new songs and new books. I have been pointed to great articles and stimulating quotations. I have had some real banter about sport. I have been able to congratulate people and see friends’ new babies and wedding photos. I have been able to pastor hurting friends. I have been able to get involved in some great debates. I have just been able to say hi now and again.  It also gives me the chance to multitask. I can prepare a sermon and be in touch with friends as I do so. I can be at home watching a soccer match and chat away to friends. I can use the unfriendly hours of the day around 11-midnight to have meaningful discussions. Facebook is an amazing resource to do what humans are at their most human in doing; communicating.

I hope those who gave this conversation up for Lent gain more than they have given up. Unlike chocolate, drink or Football Manager you lose something special, if not to you then to others, and if the benefits gained outweigh the benefits given up then fair play! I and others will sit here feeling rejected and cut off in the meantime!

for more serious surmising on Facebook check out these articles from a Conference address I gave on the benefits and how to use Facebook..

ECARNATION PT 1; The Need For Heightened Discipleship

Ecarnation Pt 2; Making The Most of Every Opportunity



This morning I did the Pause For Thought on Vanessa Feltz' programme on BBC Radio 2... instead of just giving you that script I thought I'd show the original, from other ideas on Soul Surmise on this occassion, which reveals the amount of work done before the script is right for a Radio 2 audience... this one is for UNESCO International Mother Tongue Day.

One of my favourite movies is Invictus, based around Nelson Mandela’s use of 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa’s transformation. I am particularly fascinated by the ways Mandela fueled this social transformation. The title of the movie comes from a Victorian poem that Mandela told Rugby captain Pienaar had got him through the darkest days of his twenty seven years in prison. He wrote it out for the Springboks’ captain as the World Cup progressed. This reveals the power of the written word to strengthen, console and inspire. Another thread working its way through the plot is the power of the song. The new National Anthem, despised by the white Africaaner, becomes a song that is used to unite not only the nation but the rugby team; it becomes another source of unifying inspiration.

Recently as I preach through the New Testament book of Colossians I saw how Paul is used both the written word and the song to inspire followers of Jesus to replace Empire with Christ’s Kingdom. Most would agree that the wonderful description of Jesus in chapter 1 v 15-20 of Colossians was an early Church hymn. Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat in their provocative book Colossians Remixed; Subverting The Empire see it these verses as subversive poetry. The idea is that as we read and seep our souls in the written word of the Christian story we free ourselves from the thinking of the culture around us and find the alternative imagination of God’s narrative. In Colossians chapter 3 Paul goes on to mention psalms, hymns and spiritual songs and worship therefore becomes more than liturgy to fill a family gathering. Christian meet together on Sunday mornings because like Mandela they recognise the importance of the written word and the song to inspire the transformation of individuals and society.

IS BONO A HARRY POTTER READER (and maybe Dora The Explorer!)?

Harry Potter books

As someone who has spent the last dozen years, if not the twenty before that, saturated in the work of U2 it shouldn’t surprise me when I hear quotations in books and movies and immediately think, “ah that’s where Bono got that line.” I have spoken at Festivals and Universities about  my theory that he was reading Dora The Explorer to his younger children when he wrote Vertigo hence the Spanish numbers and Dora’s favourite word “Hola!” I use that more as a humorous way in and wouldn’t stand over that too much, though if I ever meet Bono in a lift it might now be my opening line! I would be a bit more convinced about another children’s read that has seen its way into the U2 lyrical canon.

When No Line On The Horizon was released I was immediately taken by the modern worship song Magnificent. It was a nod back to the energetic praise of October some three decades earlier. A couple of lines puzzled me, however. Not the meaning or impact but why the choice of words:

“Only love, only love can leave such a mark
But only love, only love can heal such a scar”

What was the mark I wondered? Was this clumsy? Was there a meaning I was missing. Well, last summer I got it. I missed the Harry Potter books but last August my daughters gave us a crash course as we watched a movie a day for a week. And there it was at the end of the first film. Dumbledore is talking to Young Harry and he says:

Dumbledore: "Harry, do you know why...Professor Quirrell couldn't bear to have you touch him?...It was because of your mother. She sacrificed herself for you. And that kind of act leaves a mark... This kind of mark cannot be seen. It lives in your very skin. 

Harry: "What is it?"

Dumbledore: "Love, Harry. Love."

Now you see, having spent all those years immersed for one reason or another in everything that Bono has said or written or sung, I could see why these lines would jump out at him as they did to me too. This kind of sacrificial love as the big lines of a big movie can only but send your head spinning towards the cross of Jesus and his dying for others. That act leaves a mark. Love! Is that not the perfect way of talking about that love in a new song of worship about the God who left the ultimate mark of love. If that meeting in that lift ever happens I’m sure I’ll get a Bono smile on this one... and he’ll probably say something like... “well that one was obvious Steve, I hope your book came up with a whole lot more than that.” And I’ll get out on the next floor, if I need to or not!

More on U2's Magnificent


Stocki U2

I will be giving three Pause For Thoughts over the next three Tuesdays on Vanessa Feltz' show on BBC Radio 2 at 5.45 am! If you are one of the many, mainly in England, who are up that early I will be doing:

21 Feb  INVICTUS - Words Of Inspiration(UNESCO International Mother Tongue Day)
28 Feb  VAN MORRISON Finds The Holy In The Ordinary (St David's Day)
6 March LOLA - A South African Woman of Inspiration (International Women's Day)

I will also blog the original scripts which will show the work that happens between original script and going to air!

Lyric For The Day 19. 2.12 from Come Healing by Leonard Cohen

LC Old Ideas

“O, solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O, see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O, troubledness concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above.”

-       From Come Healing by Leonard Cohen

Our Assistant Minister used this Cohen lyric today during the offering and asked us to give our brokenness to God. It was in the midst of a service based around Hosea chapter 14, closing out our series on that Old Testament book. These words fitted snugly.