Previous month:
November 2012
Next month:
January 2013

December 2012

HEALTHY SONG FOR ADVENT - Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne

When I shared with my Facebook friends that I was doing a Sunday night event at my Church, Fitzroy Presbyterian, called “The Gospel According To... Christmas Songs” and that one of the songs I would use was Jackson Browne’s The Rebel Jesus the response surprised me. This is a rarity in the Browne catalogue, hidden away on a Chieftains’ album Bells of Dublin though it did appear as an obligatory extra track on Browne’s compilation The Next Voice You Hear. It seems though that, as Christmas songs go, this is many people’s favourite.

On the genesis of the song Browne has shared that he was very
much looking forward to singing a traditional carol on that particular Chieftains’ album but could not find one to fit. A Mayan Indian friend suggested he wrote his own. On a Christmas radio special, hosted by Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn in the 1993, Browne explained a little more of the song’s birth, “We had also been
talking about Christianity and the impact of Christianity on the Mayan people and somehow the two things got combined into this Christmas song. I didn’t really mean to but it came out as an indictment of Christianity. I just want everyone to know you can indict whatever major religion you feel like indicting on this
song here. I didn’t mean to lay it all at the feet of Christianity so I hope you take it in the spirit of which it is intended.”
After Browne has played the song and they are tuning up for the next one, you hear Bruce Cockburn say, I think Christianity can take an

indictment like that anytime, speaking as a Christian.” The two songwriters then go on to discuss, with some humour, Salman Rushdie and those religious fanatics who are not so keen on indictment.

The song itself is a gem and does what Browne explained it would. It
indicts the dubious practices of those who claim to follow Jesus while seemingly contradiction his revolution. Browne uses the story of Christ over turning the tables in the temple to indict those who would abuse God’s Creation for selfish materialist wealth and throws in the “pride and gold” of Churches in the same verse!

In another verse the poor are ignored but might be thrown a token gesture in our Christmas generosity. The irony of the poor being ignored on Christmas Day when the baby celebrated was without a bed or food is the crux of the hypocrisy. How have we shut the door to the marginalised for a warm romanticised day of decadence is the question posed? Browne then paraphrases Helder Camara’s quote, “If I feed the poor they call me a saint but if I ask why the poor are poor they call me a communist,” to powerful effect. If we decided to turn the world on its head by seeking social and economic justice for
the oppressed we would get the same as The Rebel Jesus. In conclusion the Mayan Indian, whose views Browne is singing, claims he is a pagan and a heathen BUT on the side of The
Rebel Jesus
. Are those who claim the season so keen on the

rebellious life birthed in a Bethlehem back alley to a young girl of no

Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1, about the baby in her womb, is a song about a Rebel who will restore balance to the social, political and economic order of things. When the angels sing to the shepherds of that baby’s birth there is a sense of world shalom and peace for
humanity. When that baby grows up and stands up in his home synagogue to declares his mission, by reading from an Old Testament prophet, he is speaking of a rebellion to put all the world’s bad news right and bring good news to all those suffering the injustice of the world so messed up by the fall of humanity but now being put right by the Saviour of the World. Written all over this nativity scene is the word REBEL!


(I will put them in order by New Year's Eve... in the meantime a reminder of the contenders every day til then...)

Alabama Shakes

I think I’ll always remember that moment last week when Alabama Shakes struck up that guitar riff on Hold On. I love that chunky Rolling Stones’ guitar sound. My eyes came up from Facebook, they had my attention and then... when Brittany Howard opened  her throat to add her raspy full on Gospel squeal I was mesmerised. I realised as I sat enthralled, completely taken in by Howard’s charismatic presence, that it has been a long time since a new band so moved me or captivated me. I love that organic sound. There are no needs for samples or loops with this near primal rock sound. The piano and organ sounds give grace notes to those bluesy riffs and Howard reminded me of Maria McKee at her most passionate and spiritually exuberant. There was a moment in the mid eighties on The Tube when McKee set the TV on fire with a revivalist redemption rant at the climax of I Found Love. Howard has that kind of intensity. She gives it deep soul, then rock howl. Hold On is like an intense Negro Spiritual undergirded with the blues. Heartbreaker starts like Aretha, Billie or Mahalia before heading into Janis Joplin country. On Your Way is out and out Gospel, Howard’s voice a little more controlled but the Kings Of Leon guitar climax reminding you that these guys aren’t all retro. They have arrived all young and fresh and quickly. What they do with this spontaneous combustion over subsequent albums will be fascinating to watch and hear.

STOCKI'S ALBUMS OF 2012 - Glen Hansard; Rhythm and Repose

Rhythm and Repose

(I will put them in order by New Year's Eve... in the meantime a reminder of the contenders every day til then...)

I first saw Glen Hansard in an underground car park on Dublin’s Lower Abbey Street during the filming of The Commitments; it was a film crew that looked more authentic than Hollywood. I first spoke to him after a Van Morrison concert at The Point at the end of 1991 when I discovered his little Vespa scooter parked beside me. The Frames were my favourite band in the world at the time and it was before I was used to meeting such people; Hansard was so authentic. Maybe six months later and there he is perched on the railings outside the arch at Trinity College and as I passed he spoke to me, remembering me from The Point. Now that is authentic.

Hansard’s music has always been authentic and Rhythm and Repose takes it further up and further in. Taking a year off from the years of Swell Season success, after nearly twenty years of The Frames, Hansard moved to New York for some repose. In the new rhythm of a life, where he had reluctantly come to terms with the success of the movie Once, and its’ becoming a Broadway musical while he was reposing, Hansard started writing and recording and in a very natural organic way he ended up with Rhythm and Repose.

It is an album about love and Hansard has written a record full of songs that give every last nuance of joy, hurt, companionship and betrayal that love can bring. There is a lot of heartache and regret on Rhythm and Repose which works well with Handsard’s emotive voice. Yet with all the heartbreak this is no Blood On The Tracks as the overall message that he declares in the opener You Will Become is that love has a redemptive power, always searching for, ever hopeful. Bird Of Sorrow believes, “Love is gonna find you again”; Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting is almost a prayer for the power of love to come “And love don't leave me guessing... ohh love... don't keep me here, Show yourself, show yourself” ; and the whole thing ends (before the extra tracks) with love as a guide through whatever is thrown -  “You'll be fine babe/It's just some rivers and streams/In between, you and where you want to be,” on Song of Good Hope. The Gospel According To... Rhythm and Repose is that love is never a fairytale but it has the powers of redemption. In the midst of all this love Hansard gives a commentary on the Celtic Tiger that he felt ruined the authenticity of his people on The Storm, It’s Coming.

Musically Rhythm and Repose’s lineage is down through Swell Season back to The Frames’ For The Birds. The shadow of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks slipstream and viaducts are very much in the ether. Yes, it is the most stripped back Hansard has ever been but far from naked. There are Hansard’s signature whooshes, swells and soars and the bass groove on Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting is a groove of repose. Someone asked me on Facebook if it was perfect. If you’ve been following Glen Hansard for twenty two years like I have then it is pretty close to it; deeply deep and truly authentic!

ADVENT REFLECTION; Herod? Was He Not Able To Count The Cost? And Us?


Lying below the surface of the Magi visit to Jesus is a story that doesn’t get much exposure but  which is a fascinating one none the less. While the earthy marginalised shepherds and the eastern stargazing gentiles dander right into the presence of God incarnate those who have the Scriptures have a downright frightening response. When the Magi arrive at the palace, expecting to find the new King there rather than where they will find him in a manger of animal straw, Herod is spooked and Matthew says, “all of Jerusalem with him.”

Herod gathered all the religious leaders and they opened the Scripture to find the meaning of all these nativity stories. In Scripture they found the verses that explained what the Magi were talking about. So, this king and this group of religious leaders had the opportunity to tell their people that they had discovered the long
awaited Messiah. Yet, when the Magi failed to tell Herod where the baby was Herod ordered all the baby boys of two and under to be murdered. Herod, unlike the shepherds or the Magi, had the truth and yet tried to kill God’s son and the Kingdom he was born to bring.

Why? Herod’s problem was not that he didn’t have the truth. Herod had too much truth. He knew that this baby was going to change everything. If this baby really was King of the Jews his time was up. His self-indulgent power and wealth was going to be threatened. A new way to live had been born and it was going to cost him. The
best thing to do would be to kill off this revolution now.

And what of us? I am one of that religious group who are asked to open the Scripture and find meaning to this baby’s birth. We are looking forward to celebrating the baby’s birth, 2011 years or so after Herod’s death squads hit Bethlehem. We wouldn’t kill that baby but do we murder the revolutionary Kingdom that he brought? Do we, like Herod, see the cost and find ways to avoid worshipping head

Is that why Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel was dismissed for supposedly theological reasons? Was the cost of ministering in Hell’s Kitchen and dealing with social sin rather than middle class individual petty habits too costly? Is that how we ignored the Scriptural mandate for social justice for so long that John Stott called it the
greatest evangelical heresy of the Twentieth Century?

Or is that why, while reading more Scripture and going to more prayer meetings than any other time in history, the Church in Northern Ireland did so little to bring reconciliation to a divided society during the Troubles. We dismissed chunks of the Scriptures particularly Luke 6 as ecumenical liberalism instead of the Christ led revolution of a shalom centred Kingdom! The cost in our own communities of fraternising with “enemies” was too much.

And as we come into a time of recession do we know too much. Didn’t that baby Jesus tell us that we couldn’t serve God and money. As our political leaders seem to be more focused on restoring the wealth generating stocks and shares portfolios of the bankers and the rich instead of how to help those who have become the innocent victims of profit making greed should we not scream revolution. It might prove too costly and be dismissed as left wing communism. Maybe we’ll not kill the baby but will we kill the revolution? Or will we become God’s word made flesh the way the baby was!

WHAT THEN, AFTER THE AMEN; Further Thoughts On Saturday's Prayers For Peace

Prayer Vigil

So on Saturday a thousand Christians gathered at Belfast City Hall to pray. That was good. One of the most used Scripture verses in Northern Ireland’s Troubles was 2 Chronicles 7:14 – 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” You can see why it was popular. God tells the people what to do in a national crisis.

I blogged recently a poem I wrote after the former President of South Africa, FW De Klerk, met students I was working with to speak to us about reconciliation. The first secret of reconciliation, he said, was to search your own motives down to the marrow of your soul. Then, he went on, the second is to search your soul again to check that you were honest the first time! This is actually a very concise exegesis of what is going on in 2 Chronicles 7:14. The three character traits that God is asking for in those who pray are, humility, a seeking of God and a turning from wickedness.

Humility needs to be in place for our prayers to be informed and wise. If we come to prayer with an arrogance that sees ourselves as better than others then our prayers will be judgement loaded and finger pointing. Prayer should actually start with pointing our fingers
inside ourselves. If we are to bring the peace of God’s Kingdom
into the divided country we live in, in Northern Ireland, the humility and honesty within our own souls will be crucial. Our prayers should not be about some arrogant rant about others becoming like us or us getting our way. Our prayers should be what God wants to do in us for the benefit of everyone else.

A W Tozer wrote, “What we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Indeed! The ways of God has to inform our prayers.
What does God want in his world? What is God’s vision for our country? The radical vision of God for shalom has to be our template. Exposing our souls before God will see God deal with us and our selfish desires for getting it our way. Then we can begin to live by the vision of God’s way.

Prayer in this verse is not about us asking others to sort their lives out. God asks us to prioritise our own wicked ways. God recognises that God’s people will have wicked ways. Turn from them he demands. Northern Ireland Churches have much to repent from not only politically but also socially, economically and spiritually. When we humble ourselves and expose ourselves to the face of God there will be much to repent of in our own corners.

For those of us who prayed at the City Hall on Saturday the question now has to be what next? What will the hopeful answer to our
prayers lead us to do? How will God deal with our own bigotries and prejudices so that we can engage with every community in our city to bring a holistic healing that will lead to shalom? Prayer is to the Christian life what food is for the physical life. Eating is not what life is about, eating fuels life. Saturday’s Peace Prayers will be useless if, in that five minutes, as we looked out to seek peace and prosperity in the 4 Corners of our city those 4 Corners didn’t bounce back to ask us about the attitudes that lurked in our own hearts, the divisions
within ourselves and if in that bouncing back we didn’t hear God transformative voice. Amen is not the end of our praying but the beginning. The beginning of the work that goes on within us and then the work that it will take to answer God’s sad heart cry for our city. It is easy to invest five minutes to pray but will we invest in God’s shalom. Will we seek God’s face for where he wants us to connect, reach out across the divisions and to stand in the gaps. So, let us
ask ourselves where we now need to give ourselves to the peace and prosperity of our city. Let’s not just pray. That was never God’s intension. 

STOCKI'S ALBUMS OF 2012 - Brian Houston; Shelter

(I will put them in order by New Year's Eve... in the meantime a reminder of the contenders every day til then...)   


I guess every time I have listened to a new Brian Houston record I have been blown away by the man’s talent. Shelter ups my respect yet again. One great thing you can say about an album from someone releasing them for years is that it sounds nothing like anything he has released before. Having said that what Houston has done has  been to bring lashings of everything he has done in the past and thrown them all in the pot. Then he has added new things
like James Brown soul and Black Gospel backing vocals and Rolling Stones guitar riffs. None of these should surprise the fan who has followed his journey from rock to pop to worship to singer songwriter but they bring a new intensity and focus. What the pot cooks up is Houston’s most exuberant and exhilarating record to date.

Even the Christian angle is a new one. Houston was the boy who exorcised his demons in the Belfast bars on a Saturday night, doing Springsteen leaps across beer filled tables, before leading the congregation in worship on Sunday morning. We have watched the midnight caresses and collisions of those two genres come together in his worship albums like Jesus and Justice or Gospel Road. The latter of those would indeed be the fore runner to Shelter but was a gentler Gospel sound. This one is rocked up to the limit with guitar playing to
die for.

In the world of pigeon holes this one is hard to pitch in contemporary terms. The Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street comes to mind
but Shelter is far more focused and precise. It is as close to the Alabama Shakes as I have heard but much more up front Gospel. It is clearly coming with a Christian emphasis but is too artistically powerful in lyric and sound to be worship and not so much for congregational singing. Then he throws a wee bit of Tom Waits through a megaphone in and it’s all off in another direction. Too
dirty and rough and edgy for the American Bible Book Stores! What Houston’s mix of Saturday and Sunday worlds has always given his work is an earthiness to the theology of his lyrics. Too much modern Christian stuff sits in the sanitised sanctified sanctuary with no doors open to the dirt and hurt and bloody stains of the streets around about it.

Houston is not afraid of declaring a very committed belief in God as Lord and in charge but these songs are all coming from a man
who has worked and toiled through the week, keeping Five Dollars on his dash board for the needy. He has wept all the way through to Sunday and needs Shelter. This is the work of a man off the street with his guitar turned to ten, who needs to wail to his Lord for some sense of perspective on all that he has seen and experienced from a week in the real world. Brilliant!


STOCKI'S ALBUMS OF 2012 - Patti Smith; Banga

(I will put them in order by New Year's Eve... in the meantime a reminder of the contenders every day til then...) 


"Oh Lord let me die on the back of adventure/ With a brush and an eye full of light."

These lines from Patti Smith’s  10 minute Constantine’s Dream just about sum up the career of but certainly the latest album of the Queen of CBGB’s punk. Smith has been about adventure, the brush is a symbol of her wide art canvas (she’s see herself more a poet than a musician but author and photographer also play their part) and she’s been on that search that the best rock music is always interested in – light, truth and better world. You should miss the “Oh Lord” at the start of the line either. This album particularly is full of God and religious images. The song that this line comes from finds Smith on pilgrimage to Assisi in the footsteps of St. Francis. There are sisters of
mercy and prayers and salvation mentions throughout the record, the album title is taken from the name of the dog that keeps Pilate company while he waits in eternity for Jesus’ forgiveness in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. She never seems to be totally reverent about Christianity but her deep seated Catholicism never allows her to be too irreverent either. She finds goodness where goodness can be found. This line reminded me why I was so
annoyed that Relevant Publishing were not keen that I did a chapter about  Smith in The Rock Cries Out. She was worth a spiritual exploration!

Banga is a revelation. It is actually Smith’s most accessible work. If there were still such things as singles and decent radio and pop charts then April Fool and This Is The Girl would be her biggest hits
since that Springsteen co-write Because The Night way back in 1978. They are beautiful and Smith’s voice is so sweet. Fear not she is back to banshee wail by the end of Constantine’s Dream but throughout her longstanding band are more measured though guitars cut when Smith’s performance needs. Smith herself is tender, sometimes like a mother, sometimes like a nun and other times like a lover. The images are poetic and scatter across your ears all kinds of couplets
on every listen. Raptures in mosaic skies, eternal sons and their mothers, faithful dogs and Amy Winehouse as a smouldering bird. Humanity’s escape from the environmental catastrophe is a recurring theme and though in places gloom and doom are winning like an Old Testament prophet she concludes with hope and grace, a children’s choir joining her in Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush!

For adventure, art, religious exploration and the future of humanity it is a wonderful contribution.



Fitzroy Day

In the morning (11am) we continue to celebrate Christmas with our Famil Service. That will feature our Sounds Good Orchestra and Singers, made up of our children and youth. Always superb! Our theme will come from our new Family Service series in Max Lucado's Wemmicks. Our Youth Director, the creative Chris Hunter, will lead us last Family Service before he leaves us for new adventures. We also might have a wee sneaky look at our TV news appearance this week for our Live Nativity Community Carol Service.

In the evening (please note - 7.30) Fitzroy moves venues to Clonard Monastery for their Carol Service. This is tradition that we are rekindling and no better time in our city for two communities to gather to remember the peace that enters the tesnions of our world at Christmas. As we move on from the unity of prayer for the city on Saturday morning here is a tangible and subversive message of peace.

PEACE PRAYER AT CITY HALL; A Few Thoughts On The Experience

Pray For The City

It was a very quiet coming together. To the onlooker it might even seem like a non event. Certainly it was a bigger crowd than Belfast city centre is used to at 8.30am on a Saturday morning but that is all it seemed to be; a crowd. Yet, a closer look and a few fascinating things were happening. The smiles and acknowledgement of one another other. This was a community loose in the sense that they had never gathered in this way before but robust in something in common that caused the hearty handshakes and warm embraces. That every community in our country was represented, embracing and shaking hands, across our traditional divisions should not be missed in the
simplicity. We are not as rent in two as we used to be.

Calmly, with little need for guidance by those in fluorescent warden bibs, this informal crowd worked their line around the City Hall. People have shared with me how moving it was when the chain joined at the back entrance of the building. Then very simply someone blew a whistle and the crowd linked arms before five minutes of reflection, wishes and prayers for our city and country. Five minutes later the whistle blew and just as quickly and quietly they dispersed, conversations, handshakes and embraces continuing as people went for coffee, home to work or into their Christmas shopping. It was
humble, poignant, moving and powerful.

A few thoughts...


I couldn’t help thinking that this was the most important Christian gathering I had attended. We have so many Conferences and Festivals in Northern Ireland Christendom, all with very noble causes and yet here was one with no denominational politics that united the Christian denominations with a real purpose of Kingdom bringing intent. That we linked arms and looked out from our City Hall to the 4 Corners of Belfast (watch this bog for more on that 4 Corners idea; www.4cornersfestival) was symbolic but transformative, at least in my own thoughts, prayers and listening.


I have been inspired and blessed by the vision, organisation and implementation of this event. When I was looking to my elder
Church leaders for a voice and a lead, three young Church leaders garnered the support of their peers and through the medium of Facebook, Twitter etc lead us all to action. Our younger leaders are more creative and imaginative than we were. Perhaps the future is brighter for that and today is a sign of that.


As I mingled in the crowd I became very aware that this wasn’t a Charismatic, Reformed, Catholic, Conservative, Liberal or Ecumenical
event. Everyone of those theological hues were there. As John Bell once said at Greenbelt “God’s favourite colour is tartan” and I personally have never been to a more tartan coloured gathering in Northern Ireland. How powerful and prophetic is that? Certainly our young leaders did not contrive that but that their vision stayed away from agenda was another innovation that is a breath of fresh air. Their lack of need for labels showed us the way.


The imagination of those young leaders was illustrated in their strategy today. They were not interested in making media statements
that would give Stephen Nolan good morning ratings as the country pulled itself apart over theological definition and political opinion in a radio phone in. With the start the BBC give us every morning no wonder there is tension on our streets. No. These leaders had a more subversive and powerful agenda. Indeed though it seemed a little lacking in agenda it was far from it. Let us take five quiet minutes to talk to God rather than each other and the press! Wow! There’s a thought. That might be a more worthwhile investment. Who cares if the press get a photo opportunity or if we get a slot on the news. To talk and listen to God in our moment of crisis might just be more useful. I know that as I brought each community, divided from each other and divided within themselves before God, as well the grieving parents in Connecticut, that God whispered back to me where the divisions within myself needed to be healed and reconciled. I walked away believing that someone had heard me in the silence and
that I had heard that Someone.

It was as useful a five minutes as I have spent in many a long year. Thank you Church leaders for the simple but profound lead.

SCRATCHING MY SOUL (for the parents of Sandy Hook)

Sandy Hook

Angel, you got your wings too soon

Heaven didn’t lend you long enough

What you showed me ’bout this old world

There is nothing like a parents love

And everybody’s speaking words

When only God can say

I’ll just sit here scratching my soul

And hold you ‘til your body decays.


In the end you can look both ways

And not avoid what life throws at you

And while we shake our fists at God

God is angry too

God is weeping too.


Angel, you got your wings too soon

There was so much left to do

I try to find reasons to carry on

Most of them are gone with you

They say you dance on higher ground

I’ll strain to find those ways

I’ll just sit here scratching my soul

And hold you ‘til your body decays.


In the end you can look both ways

And not avoid what life throws at you

And while we shake our fists at God

God is angry too

God is weeping too.