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February 2013


Duke Empire

The Empire Music Hall stage is made for Duke Special. It looks exactly right, his vaudeville costume dress and the Music Hall drama of the stage; perfect. Duke Special is made for Belfast. Oh, Yeah, (see what I did there!) he has the brilliance for any stage, in any city, BUT when the boy comes home there is something extra special in the ether. Yes, there are the fans who have been following him since Booley House days and before, but there is also a sense of place. Duke’s songs are informed by this city, its people, its politics, and its faith . What I am trying to say is that of all the places in all the world this is the bar that Duke Special needs to be on a stage in! It is why Duke Special did a 5 day residency here a few years ago and why he has 6 Empire concerts in the planning for 2013.  It is why I was aware throughout this gig that this was a precious piece of rock theatre and live performance.

Those 5 gigs a few years ago all had different themes and so the series that Duke embarked on with this concert was a run through his entire debut album Songs From The Deep Forest, adding a few songs from the eps recorded around that time. As the night went on you felt that you were listening to a hit after hit. Every song received a loud cheer of recognition, familiarity and love from this home town crowd. What a writer this guys is? What an album Songs From The Deep Forest is? Again, why I sensed this was a special night was that it will not be many times that Duke Special does this suite of songs and the fact that tonight’s trio on stage have played these songs for seven years was making tonight’s version more definitive than those released in 2006. The other two in the trio are important to the importance of tonight too. Ben Castle’s saxophones and Chip Bailey’s percussion are always way more than just musical accompaniment. These two guys have personality to burn and their playing or the shapes they throw can shifts moods and atmosphere. They can ham up the humour and they can charge the moments of emotional intensity. So comfortable are the together that you, and maybe they, are not sure what they have the spontaneous ability to do next. Don’t take your eyes off them. More so, of course, his Dukeness. The dreads, longer than ever, drop around his face. The voice rises and falls, nuanced in every syllable. The songs are, as I have said, hits or should have been. The sound was as near perfect as a live gig can be and in The Empire, that can be noisy, there was almost hushed full attention.

Subjectively, a couple of songs made me particularly envious. As a preacher by trade I wondered on the journey home how I could do spiritually what Duke did in Brixton Leaves and Freewheel. Brixton Leaves is a melancholy song of loneliness but tonight it’s hopefulness struck me hard, or maybe tenderly! Perhaps it was his bringing into it the Belfast flags issue but that wasn’t primarily where I needed hope. Those lines, But the sun will rise once more... Well, it better/The sun will rise once more... If we let her,” lifted my fraying soul and also reminded me of my part in the hopefulness... “if we let her!” It was a tangible spiritual epiphany when I needed it most. Speaking of soul and spiritual, Freewheel tonight took us to what fellow East Belfast songwriter Van Morrison found up on Cypress Avenue. As Duke did a spoken word ad lib he brought us all to the transcendence of the moment. It was what I described earlier. A concert of special place and time. Songs touching us like companions on the road to looking for “all the colours at our fingertips!” Phew!

I left, back up Botanic Avenue, with a freewheeling spring in my step. I stepped out of my world for just over an hour and was refreshed by honesty, pilgrimage and wonder. Songs had spiritually revived me and I smiled because The Empire Music Hall used to be a Presbyterian Church... and the angels grin too!



Montgomery buriel

Where did you go to now

And when will you be back

Are you lying lost or found

On that high mountain Indian track

You were always out of rhythm

Always just a little off beat

But the song you shared so subtle

Has a melody lingering sweet


Did we ever give thanks

Did we ever make it known

For the scattering of grace

That we have been shown

You were way off of kilter

You were way out of time

But your words and your actions

Met in most beautiful rhyme


The flame that draws us moths

Never seemed to catch your eye

You could always work out what

Without ever needing a why

When we lean against the wall

And find we fall right through

We'll look up from our landing

And realise it was you.


We never seem to read the sacred story

Until the sadness of an ending

Memories, they gash our tender hearts

But are the balm that brings the mending.


Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash is the time line of rock n roll. He was there with Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips in Sun Studios in 1955 when that which we could never have lived without was born. He dies covering the songs of the best writers in the late twentieth and early twenty first century. If I am in need to use, for their functional sake, songs like Mercy Seat by Nick Cave, One by U2, I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty or Hurt by Nine Inch Nails I will more likely than not turn to the American Recordings albums that Cash recorded with Rick Ruben over the last decade of his life. Indeed, the video for the aforementioned Hurt was voted the greatest video of all time. The song was written by Trent Reznor for goodness sake! What over seventy something could do Nine Inch Nails? Only someone who was there with Presley and was still just as cool fifty years later!

But that is not why we are gathered to consider Johnny Cash tonight. This is a spiritual event. Why would we in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church be spending an evening with Johnny Cash?

Well, Johnny Cash was powerful in middle finger gestures BUT never so potent as when he made the sign of a cross. Johnny Cash took the nice out of Jesus and removed the blue eyes and perfectly groomed blonde hair BUT at the same time he told evil in no uncertain terms to go to hell and stared down the devil eyeball to eyeball. Johnny Cash gave Jesus back his masculinity and gave the devil his due disrespect. With Johnny Cash we not only got to see the beautiful coastline but he also showed us the quarry ravaged interior, the smoke stacked poisonous reek of all our ills. We also got to see the house in the midst of the darkness that always has a candle in the window and a fire in the hearth. All the complexities of human kind were there, all rolled into one.

It has always been a tricky thing after Christian conversion to hold to truth and grace with humility grace! Integrity often gives way to Pharisee like pretension, admission of guilt to holier-than-thou. Johnny Cash somehow held together the tension. He never allowed the honest confession of his fallen state to be used as a cheap excuse for an anything-goes-this-is-just-how-I-am slackness. Nor did he allow himself to be so righteous that he separated himself from the marginalised who populated his songs or set himself apart from anyone who was drawn to the candle in the window or the warmth of the hearth. There was no pseudo self righteousness that he wasn’t like the Church. There was no religious self righteousness that he wasn’t like the world.

Johnny Cash exposed traces of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden and Christ’s blood dripping from Calvary’s wooden cross, he was judgement and grace. He was the sinner and the redeemed. He was the perfect imperfect balance of a human life. So we gather in the testimony of the life of Johnny Cash to seek inspiration in a life that mirrors something of us all, all of the time.


Cave Sky

Nick Cave is one of those artists who never repeats. As I think of my favourite Cave records Murder Ballads is different from Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus is different from The Good Son is different from The Boatman’s Call. With every record Cave takes a different slant on what he dresses his stories and poetry in! And again with Push The Sky Away. This is another original take in Cave art. After the guttural guitar onslaught of the Grinderman albums Cave has stripped it all back and made a record of regal elegiac beauty. I got my first listen to Push The Sky Away on a car journey on a sunny blue late February day. It was a majestic experience. This is Cave doing his best Leonard Cohen circa The Future meeting Lou Reed circa New York with a production that could be Talk Talk. The sonics, with more loops than guitars, are sparse ambient swells of lushness and reveal some of Cave’s sweetest melodies and harmonies.  

Lyrically, Cave claims he googled the themes and relied heavily on Wikipedia which he describes as heaven on We Real Cool! There are the prostitutes you’d expect, a belief in God and mermaids, Higgs Boson and even Hannah Montana! The random nature of such does add to the mystery. All in all, it is Cave’s usual rock noir. Cave’s lyrics never shirk the darkness of a fallen world. Oftentimes he crosses the line of a little too crude for a Presbyterian minister like me; even on Push The Sky Away! However, in that darkness there are always little bright shimmering flickers. Call it hope, call it sacred, call it beauty.  The ugliness of the world is rarely left to destroy us. My thought for the day from Jubilee Street is the haunting, “All those good people down on Jubilee Street/They ought to practice what they preach...” As he sings in the title track, “And some people/Say it's just rock 'n roll/Oh, but it gets you/Right down to your soul.”

"THE NEW POPE – What do we expect of him?" - Clonard/Fitzroy event on Thursday

Pope Smoke

THE NEW POPE – What do we expect of him? 

Thursday, Feb. 28th at 7.30pm in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church. Organised by the Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship.

Catholic Theologian, Fr Eamonn Breslin CSsR, introduces an inter-church conversation on the ministry of the Bishop of Rome at this historic time in the life of the Church.  Everyone welcome

Fr Breslin was a Professor of Theology at the Milltown Institute and the Kimmage Missionary Institute, both in Dublin. He also served for 14 years as the English speaking parish priest in a European Parish in Luxembourg.

I grew up to shouts of, and murals reading, "NO POPE HERE!" Over the decades I have come to realise that there is a Pope and his influence is wide. So, if there is a Pope then what should Protestants know about him? At this historic time in the history of the Papacy, as one Pope retires and an election of another Pope begins, here is a wonderful opportunity to become informed. This will be an opportunity to learn about the history of the Papacy, about Conclaves,  and that White Smoke. How does it all work? What will be happening in Rome next week? Who will be deciding? How do Catholics listen for the Holy Spirit's leading? What might it mean for Catholicism and indeed Protestantism here in Ireland? Come along and find out...


Lyric For The Day 24.2.13 from Love Is A Verb by John Mayer

Born and Raised

“When you show me love

I don't need your words

Yeah love ain't a thing

Love is a verb

Love ain't a thing

Love is a verb”

-      From Love Is A Verb by John Mayer

I have not been a John Mayer fan. I took a particular dislike to him after reading a Rolling Stone interview with him in 2010. He came across as an egotistical heartless, heartbreaker. He just came across as a man who was proud of his cold badness! It was astonishing that he would share that in an industry that seeks fans. This week’s Rolling Stone has Mayer apologizing and the rest of us asking if his apology is more than words. Love is a Verb says it well. Love should first and foremost be something we do more than what we say.

This is a good lesson for all romantic relationships; all relationships actually. It is also a challenge that the Christian Church should take to heart. Francis Assisi knew the truth of Mayer’s words when he told his followers, Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” We have been too quick to talk about love and too slow to use it is a verb. God’s love is a verb. He didn’t speak about it but demonstrated it. The Church will be judged by the world by how she uses love.


Killiney Bay

This poem was written way back in 1991. I had just started living in Dublin and everyday took the DART (train service) from my home in Shankill into the city centre. It took around 25 minutes and went past Bono's house and Killiney Bay, the beauty of which I loved beyond measure. One morning a talkative woman beside me said something about the “mackerel sky” and I was jotting down notes in my, then every present, notebook. The poem was finally finished for bizarre reasons. On the Sunday evening of a Youth Mission in a Baptist Church there was some consternation that the band, Forever Remain, were going to do a grunged up (it was Nirvana time in 1991) version of Born To Be Wild. Could they do this secular song on a Sunday!? To make it theologically possible I wrote Born To Be Wild As The Breeze That Blows and read it as an introduction to the song – hey… Christianized!

Tomorrow morning in Fitzroy, I am reading it in my sermon on authentic Christian living from Matthew chapter 6 where Jesus tells his disciples “not to be like them.” Not to be like who? Well, as I see it, not to be like the manmade darkness of the pagans or the manmade light of the religious. This poem is about that spirit that Jesus spoke about in John 3, a breeze that blows in surprising unpredictable ways. Jesus wasn’t speaking about the Holy Spirit but those born of the Holy Spirit. My Dublin years from 1991 to 1994 were spiritually my most formative in heart, mind and soul. This poem is about my journey to being more authentic and different.

Mackerel sky is swimming

Of the shore in Killiney Bay

The transcendence of the beauty

Won’t let my heart drift away

Between manmade darkness and manmade light

The Son of freedom shines

Laser beam of illumination

Piercing the cloudy grey confines

And through the chinks I find myself

Holy breeze blows out the chaff

Accepted, I at last accept myself

Allowing my soul to laugh

I’ve seen a new awakening

Through this pilgrimage of pain

From the birth of a new beginning

I’ve begun to grow up again

Feelings of doubt and doubting my feelings

Yet on the rock of truth I’ve built

Love, security and significance

Been relieved of a mountain of guilt

Freed from the demons of sectarianism

Freed from looking over my shoulder

Freed from icy stares of conformity

Freed from hearts that are even colder

Freed to find the holy of me

That’s there beneath the sin

Freedom to find the heart of me

That’s being redeemed within

And so my heart reaches out to touch

The grace reaching out to me

Born to be wild as the breeze that blows

Unpredictable and free.


Fitzroy IBIS

Tomorrow morning in Fitzroy (11am) we will be sermonising under an Andy Warhol art piece called "ARE YOU 'DIFFERENT'?". We are at the line in the Sermon on the Mount that John Stott feels the whole thing hinges on, "Do not be like them." We will be seeing that "between man made darkness and man made light, the son of freedom shines..." and asking who are we not to be like... why...  how...  and for what purpose? Expect worship to be guitar tasty vibrant... and you'll get an update on Building Our Future Vision as well as a live update from our family in South Africa and our envoy to Columbia...

In the evening (7pm) we continue a jam packed feast of events with our monthly Faith On Trial. Following on from last month's look at the Middle East, with Stephen McIlwaine, we welcome two folk who have recently served in Peacekeeping missions to Palestine. Fitzroy's own Anne Deighan and Michael McRay, a student at Irish School of Ecumenics, will share their stories. Michael's will actually be published later in the year in his book, "Letters From 'Apartheid Street': A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine." Another great night assured...



Beasts of the Southern Wild is a disturbing but beautiful piece. The low budget film by first-time director Benh Zeitlin is based around a young girl Hushpuppy, played, with remarkable poise, by 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. It takes place in a Louisiana bayou, on the wrong side of the levee, called the Bathtub that is under threat from environmental apocalypse and said threat is realised. Hushpuppy is motherless and her relationship with her father is strange and at times violent. He is ill and this dysfunction of their relationship and the tragic storm that falls upon them all takes place in a context of chronic poverty. I did say disturbing! The beauty, that I also mentioned, is the surprise. Hushpuppy herself is beautiful. She is vulnerable, strong, innocent and worldly wise. The other menagerie of characters are equally disturbing and beautiful. Always seemingly drinking and drunk they are also always supportive and in constant solidarity; a real community.

Into all of this Hushpuppy brings poetry of childlike wonder. As narrator she says,

"When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me, flying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard it goes away. And when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I'm a little piece of a big, big universe and that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they're gonna find it all. They're gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the bathtub."

On her place in that big, big universe she declares,

"When you're small, you gotta fix what you can."

For me the final scenes are what has lingered with me the longest. Maybe that is how every movie should be. Throughout the film Hushpuppy often gazes out across the water to a lighthouse in the distance and speaks, in a prayer-like way to her missing mother. Near the end with her father dying she sets off, with those dependable friends beside her, and attempts to reach the light. With help from a boatman she eventually does and ends up in what seems like a brothel. There she finds a woman who might or might not be her actual mother. They have a short time together when the woman cooks her some chicken but more importantly lifts her and hugs her tight. Hushpuppy narrates, "I can count on two fingers the number of times I've been lifted up..." She is told that this woman cannot look after her and she heads back, across the water, home. Arriving where her father is dying the wild beasts of the movie's title, that have made cameos throughout, descend on her. Hushpuppy stops but galvanised by the hug eye balls the beasts and conquers her fears. She then enters her father's dying presence with a tender compassion that has been birthed in her so that she can fix what she can. The lesson that once we are loved by someone we can have the strength and insight to love others is a powerful poetic statement in a story strewn with them. All of the disturbing, that has been, is redeemed in the beauty of the ending.

I watched the film along with the Fitzroy Film Club and elsewhere in the QFT was the Vineyard Creatives’ Home Group. One from each group spoke afterward about how their second viewing of the movie was even better than the first. I can believe that and I look forward to the benefits of years of coming back to it, building fresh wisdom from each new encounter. Wonderful! 

Lyric For The Day 20.2.13 from Waiting For The World To Change by John Mayer

  Mayer Waiting...

“Now we see everything that's going wrong

With the world and those who lead it

We just feel like we don't have the means

To rise above and beat it

So we keep waiting

Waiting on the world to change

We keep on waiting

Waiting on the world to change”

-       From Waiting For The World To Change by John Mayer

I am not a John Mayer fan and perhaps this lyric is one of the reasons. For me songwriters need to write songs that are not only good but good for something. Here, Mayer takes on the changing of the world but concludes that his generation is powerless to bring it about and will just wait around until they are the majority. That is not the spirit of the 60s songwriters who changed the world for good and, maybe at times, for bad but were all about the power to change it!

Perhaps Mayer sees himself as more of a victim than a criminal. In a Wikipedia article about this song he is quoted, "It's saying, ‘Well, I'll just watch American Idol because I know that if I were engaged in changing anything for the better, or the better as I see it, it would go unnoticed or be completely ineffective.' A lot of people have that feeling." Is American Idol, or in UK’s case X Factor, dulling the edge of revolution in our youth, with its need to gain votes from 8 year olds and 90 years olds to be a star, or is it the result of a youth already blunted by hopelessness? Or is it a vicious circle?

Whatever, those of us who dare to follow Jesus have no such luxury as wait around for change to come. We are called to bring heaven on earth, to redeem every aspect of our culture, to change the world. Of course the greatest danger for the Church is that followers of Jesus feel hopeless too. Not hopeless in their belief that one day things will change but hopeless to do anything now as we wait for the Kingdom to eventually come one day. The apostle Paul wrote to the early Church of such heresy and told them to get their eyes off what would happen one day and get it onto what they could do to change the world now. No waiting!