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April 2013


Combatants - Brewer

On Sunday night at Fitzroy Professor John Brewer spoke to us about how religious faith impacted the combatants of the Northern Irish Troubles. During his talk he challenged us from Matthew 28 how Jesus would be found in the tough places, like prisons. He then asked where the established Church were in such places. It reminded me of this dilemma I had a couple of years ago. Invited into a tough place I was forced to decline, probably by the very things John challenged on Sunday night - the media and the Church!


Should I go or not

If I do I’m crucified

If I don’t my head is bowed

For faith that’s been denied

When all we do become symbols

Like the flags we love to fly

We live by political statements

And the heart dies.


And if you’re anti-Christ default

Stops me do the Jesus thing

How heavy my heart tomorrow

When I stand up to sing


Should I go or not

Fear of you holds me back

All the misinterpretations

And the night time attacks

But these are not the reasons

I build my life upon

Give in to ungraced prejudice

And hope is gone


And if you’re anti-Christ default

Stops me do the Jesus thing

How heavy my heart tomorrow

When I stand up to sing


I came across Jesus on a cross

Carved into a Spanish beach

His luminous eyes pierced through the night

Like nothing was out of his reach.



Belfast sun has cast a shadow

Warmer than they’ve been in a while

George Harrison starts singing in my ear

Seducing my face into a smile

Why would i be brought up somewhere else

When I would live here half my life

Oh the mystery of our journeys

And the miracle of finding a wife.


There’s a magnolia tree on Maryville

It’s confused by the April snow

It was ready to bloom on St Patrick’s Day

But never got the green light to go

Nowadays we miss the neighbourhood

We drive right past our neighbours

Like eating is just for digestion

With no time to taste the flavour.


I am on a train back to childhood

Catching glimpses of where I used to play

Stations I never wanted to stay long

But I needed to pass on my way

Travelling through farms and rivers

Seeing new angles in the curves

Catching visions of a different view

While steeling up a holy nerve.

- Belfast, April 28 2013



In my series on What We Do On A Sunday in Fitzroy I have been looking at the artistic creativity and spiritual nourishment that is embedded in the liturgy of the Church service. This is a Gathering poem/prayer that I wrote for the Welcome. The radical nature of gathering is a powerful statement, of God's grace and the Kingdom already here and yet to come, before anything even happens. That we audaciously welcome people in the name and by the grace of Jesus is active revolution. My sermon on the subject is available to hear at :


We gather

Called out

Of a bright

And loud world

Into a place of refuge

And relationship;

Relationship with one another

Relationship with God.

We leave outside, what we are

But bring everything of who we are,

To love each other,

To love God

And to be loved,

Welcomed unconditionally,

Embraced by God.

And so, through Jesus,

We now approach God's throne with confidence

To receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.


WORSHIP SONGS; THE WRESTLING OF A PASTOR #3 - The Dilemma of Subjective and Objective

Worship songs

I had sensed something for a long time but this event proved my hunch. I was, at the time, one of the four full-time Chaplains at Queen’s University, Belfast and we had been asked to put together a service to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the University. We worked hard and we sensed that we had it right. From the choice of readings to the hymns to the writing of the liturgical prayers, it was honouring to God, Biblically robust and contextualized perfectly in educational concerns. If it looked good on the Order Of Service then on the night we were even more satisfied that we had achieved what we were asked to do. There were many pats on the back and handshakes. The University establishment and the alumni were impressed. And then... I went down the back of St. Anne’s Cathedral and spoke to my students who had attended. “Bored out of our minds” was there response; a yawn!

That was a leveller. I immediately challenged them. I pointed to the Order Of Service and asked them to show me what was boring about those carefully put together words. Nothing! At that point I realised that “something’s happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones” to quote, that commentator of changing times, Bob Dylan. When I call it “post modern” people put up CSI tape that screams “keep out”; a no go area. I personally don’t care how the philosopher or sociologist defines it. Something has shifted. My students were sieving information and experiencing spirituality on a different conduit to clever words objectivity. For those students who attended the Anniversary service it simply wasn’t subjective enough. My key to the shift is Neil Postman’s idea in Amusing Ourselves To Death that the image dominated ways of learning has changed the way we sieve information from the objective side of our brain that dominated in the linear learning age to the subjective side. This makes sense in what I experienced as a University Chaplain. This is why I am so keen on the thoughts of James K A Smith who speaks of us being who we love not what we think. The thinking was good in this Service but not the love!

That leads us to the great worship dilemma in these early years of the 21st century. The image dominated population are drawn to worship that hits the heart. It needs to be vibrant and emotional. Even the content, that some of us might critique as a little feely weely, has to meet that subjective need. This has led to services that spend 40 minutes singing such songs before the teaching section. The danger of this is that though we are what we love we need more substance for our love to make it through a brutal world. The lack of theological content in some of the more subjective worship songs fail to feed the soul, soothe the soul or heal the soul.

Yet, what does the pastor do? My aim has always been to mix the head and the heart. Worship songs should open the heart and the soul. Yet, they should also be slices of “compacted theology,” as I quoted Richard Mouw describing Church songs in my first part of this series of blogs. The answer is not that we go back to old hymns, and let us be honest some of those are not helpful either, or that we exclusively turn to the all heart and no mind thinking of modern worship. We need song writers to rise up, who take their eye off the best selling worship album of the year, and start writing songs for the holistic nature of a creative liturgical service covering the widest range of spiritual teaching, pastoral experience and missional intent. In the meantime this pastor is delighted to be in a congregation where the song choosers, reach across the widest range of resources to find songs that allow us to worship, give thanks, confess, weep and be catechized and envisioned! It is, as I said, a dilemma!


Fitzroy Day

Fitzroy in the morning (11am) sees us looking at what we do in our worship songs. Are they warm ups? Should they be just praise songs? Or do they catechize... help us in catharsis... and feed our souls for mission? The actual worship will come with guitar grit and a wee bit of Robert Plant thrown in!

In the evening (7pm) it is our monthly Faith On Trial. This month we are honoured to have Professor John Brewer speaking under the title Fight For God WHile Fighting For Ireland. John is the new Professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queens University and his recent writings most relevant to Sunday night are Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press 2011, with Francis Teeney and Gareth Higgins), Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland (Palgrave, 2013, with David Mitchell and Gerard Leavey). This is a real Fitzroy treat!

WORSHIP SONG; THE WRESTLING OF A PASTOR # 2; Lament and Pastoral Potency

Martin Smith

So, I stand at the front of my Fitzroy congregation on a Sunday morning I see people hurting. They have lost partners, parents, sometimes children. They are heartbroken, stressed about their job, debt ridden or just questioning how their faith relates to the world that constantly throws out shards of darkness.

Many of these stories when you look below the facts carry with them years of illness, sudden tragedy, bad decisions, betrayal and injustice. When souls get deep blue bruised by the circumstances of life, they need lament and catharsis. The Bible is full of such songs and prayers and other kinds of literature. God recognizes that we are but dust and that we will struggle emotionally, mentally and spiritually with the consequences of a fallen world. God allows the believer to scream and shout and wail. There is something in this kind of communication with God in worship that God knows will be part of the healing process. There is nothing like a song to open the pores of the soul, to dig deep and to soothe even sometimes in uncovering the wounds and the scars.

I believe that modern worship music has failed to follow the Biblical mandate here. There might be many reason for this. Writing about another absentee in the contemporary hymnal, social justice, Delirious? singer and songwriter Martin Smith wrote, There has been a lot of talk in the Christian community about writing more songs about injustice and social issues. Is it possible to write congregational songs about poverty, grief or child trafficking and not spoil everybody’s Sunday?”  When anything in worship fears “spoiling people’s Sundays” we are way off track on what Christianity is all about; Jesus spoiled many a Sabbath. A closer look at the quote will save us from lambasting Martin for not writing worship songs of a wider subject matter. In his quote it is the congregation that is not ready; seemingly seeking escapism in Church from the realities of life. When Delirious? wrote the very effective Our God Reigns while driving into the HIV and poverty of a developing country. The song doesn’t hide the darkness but when used in worship the chorus was ripped from the context of the verses and misses the point!

That expectation within worshipping communities might be forged by the worship song industry that doesn’t so much consider what I the pastor will use at a Sunday service, to heal the wounds of life in my people, so much as how to sell CDs. When worship moves from a context of communal worship, partnering with prayer, Scripture, sacrament and sermon and ends up being the preferred sound in your car on the way to work and home again or in your kitchen or at a dinner party once you are at home then we are in danger of losing the worship song’s original vocation. It is an interesting fact that in John Calvin’s choice of Psalms for his 16th Century Psalter very few were praise Psalms. He delved deeper into confession, wisdom and catharsis!

We need to steal the pastoral potency of the worship song back. In Fitzroy we have looked outside of the Christian industry. Leonard Cohen’s If It Be Your Will has been one we have used for lament. Or U2’s Psalm 40. This week a song that Norah Jones sings called Humble Me became the core for our communal confession. As a pastor I often give people cathartic songs to help them in bereavement. At Greenbelt a number of years ago Doug Gay, lecturer, author and songwriter, performed a suite of songs about the death of his father. It was artistically authentic and emotionally charged. Tears were being shed all round the room and healing was being done. I asked a few people to record and release it but they thought there was no market and I thought Churches should fund it is a pastoral resource.

My friend Alain is a gifted worship leader and tragically lost his twenty three year old wife a few years ago. He told me that for six months there was nothing he sang in Church that in any way related to his relationship with God. So songwriters of the world with a Christian faith, whether inside the worship industry or not. Write us some songs of lament. The Bible doesn’t shirk away from eyeballing the darkness. In bringing our lives that are drowning in darkness to the God of all light something happens. Give us back our lament. I need some of it for Sunday!

CAUGHT BETWEEN THE MYSTERY... (for Lindsay Emerson)

Mystery light

( I wrote this for a friend Lindsay Emerson's funeral. Like many such times I untangled my pain and confusion in rhyme... I discovered this yesterday and thought it was helpful...)

We come with faith

But the theology don’t rhyme

We come with hope

But we are all out of time

We come with reason to believe

But reason isn’t what it was

We come with words that fail us

But Jesus never does

Faces stained with the love we cherished

Our heart broken into a million pieces

It’s the hardest thing you can ever do

Give your love into the arms of Jesus

And I know today that Lindsay is singing

But it don’t make this anymore right

To be caught between the mystery of darkness

And the mystery of God’s good light.


(As I do a preaching series on the creative imagination and art of the Church liturgy, Sunday sees me preaching on hymns and worship songs... I am going to spend some of this week looking at such issues on the blog... here's the first!)

At a recent Church service a minister stood up after some sensitive and deeply spiritual worship and said, “Now that we are warmed up, let us move on to the important content of the evening.” I was aghast. Not only did it belittle the gifting of the worship band and the care taken over the choice of songs, it was near blasphemous in what God’s place is in our worship and certainly it suggested a very errant view of liturgy in general and worship songs as part of that liturgy in particular.

When it comes to the singing sections of the worship service James K A Smith, in his influential book(for this blog anyway!) Desiring The Kingdom, quotes John Wesley’s belief that hymnody was “a body of practical divinity, a sung theology”; Richard Mouw describing Church songs as “compacted theology”; and Don Saliers saying that a “knitting of an embodied theology happens whenever Christian congregations sing.” Smith himself adds that “song soaks into the very core of our being which is why music is an important constitutive element of our identity.” John D Witvliet, like Smith on the staff at Calvin College, suggests that songs are the soul food for the people of God and “to be a Church musician – and by extension, a music editor, hymnal committee member, or Church music professor – is to be a spiritual dietician.”

I have strong belief that what we sing and listen to musically shapes who we are. I also have a conviction that this applies particularly to worship which I believe catechises. No one is going to hum any of my sermons as they head out of Church into their week but they just might sing the hymns. U2 and The Killers are just two rock bands who in recent years have been particular about the lines they get the crowd singing; those lines linger long after the buzz of the gig is gone. This belief in the transformational power of worship both for individuals and society is tempered by my critique of the very popular modern worship. spiritually and socially. There are some very good new songs being sung in Churches across the world but there is also a huge body of songs that are theologically weak, thematically narrow and at times a little self indulgent.

However, there is a real need in the post modern generation for “kardia” impact; a sense of experiencing God in an emotional heart place. Indeed, that is modern worship’s most prophetic contribution. They have turned the eye of an exclusively cerebral Church back to some emotional connection. The other side of that, for me, is that the cerebral was jettisoned from many new worship songs. A look across the new worship catalogue for songs on a range of the subjects that the readings, prayers and sermon might be about will many times leave you frustrated. Also, the need for lament and catharsis has, on the whole, been absent from the subject matter. Add to that lack of songs on Jesus incarnation, life, teaching or the influences of the Old Testament particularly the social justice agenda of the prophets and you come to conclude that there are gaps in the new hymn book.

The hymn writer and worship leader’s roles are vital ones. As a congregation gathers on a Sunday morning there are a wide range of joys and blessings, fears and hurting mingling in the midst. The Psalms, a fine model of the holistic possibilities of worship songs never shirks away from being a poetic conduit for all the spiritual moods of the people of God. I am constantly aware of the loves and concerns my people bring with them on Sunday and I am always keen for catharsis and confession to be evident in all that we sing. Creed too. We become what we sing in so many ways and the responsibility for the honing of our identities should be with the songs as much as the sermon.

Aware too of the world that we are called out of, in the gathering, and sent back into at the benediction, and how that world is trying to conform us, the hymn writer and worship leader should write and choose subversive poetry like the prophets so that believers can be strengthened in order to stand as a transforming force to the culture around them. Personally I find a dearth of songs in the new worship movement that declares a radical alternative message of following the self sacrificing Christ. Instead of being self-indulgent worship songs should be energizing self sacrifice and service. Instead of a lack of theology modern hymns should be carriers of a theology so deep and wide that the world will be turned upside down by the impact.

My desire as minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast is, to bring the “kardia” impact of the modern worship, so important to this generation and attempt to fuse into it a real depth to the theological words and a more honest and authentic expression of the struggles of living in a fallen world while at the same time holding a hope of glory. My dream is that we can take the best of old and new and blend them into an artistic expression of our relationship with God; not a cul-de-sac on Sunday but in a transformative power that sets us on a highway into Monday morning.

Skeletons (May I Dance For You)


This is a poem from twenty years ago. It was inspired by the angels who appeared in my life, seemingly beyond coincidence. Today as we live ordinary lives, the potential to be angels for each other is extraordinary...

Angels paint in ordinary colours

Angels speak ordinary words

But we are drawn to their genius

Wisdom that is beauty never heard

These may be seem simple conversations

They may just be throwaway things

Just a thought to share in passing

Or some rhyme a singer sings

But an angel beyond coincidence

Lands not even a minute late

Not a second too early

Much more precise than fate

All these things we do are skeletons

Just bones that if given a chance

Could come to life and duck and weave

Groove in some raving crazy dance

Dancing in my deepest soul

Dancing though my heart and mind

To twirl and twist my life around

Mysterious moves of a grand design

Oh the extravagant detail

Of the everyday things we do

Today I pray you dance for me

Please God may I dance for you!


Suarez bites

Let me start this Surmise by saying that I have Luis Suarez in my Fantasy League Team and I have been an admirer of his genius since watching him play for Uruguay in the World Cup. He is a unique soccer talent. Yet, he has always had this dark side. Whether his prolific diving or just always working round the edges of the rules he is shifty and cheeky and never behaves in ways that could immediately be used to defend the accusations against him of cheating. The racist controversy with Patrice Evra and a later refusal to shake hands with the same player was another step. That Kenny Dalglish, the then manager, supported Suarez might have caused him his job and the King Kenny crown in the Board at Anfield!

Today was another level, of a similar shock factor as Eric Cantona kung-fuing a fan at Selhurst Park in 1995. That Suarez would bite a player on TV was beyond belief. On a day when his pass for the first goal and almost last kick (or head) equalizer should have lifted his chances of player of the year he really should now be taken out of the short list for that honour, banned for 10 weeks and jettisoned from Liverpool at the end of the season! Soccer does not need this kind of publicity or example for the kids taking up the game. Liverpool are a club of better values that most; it is hard to believe that Cantona would have remained there after his behaviour.

However, Jamie Redknapp did highlight on Sky Sport that soccer has strange values and that Suarez might still be at Liverpool next season. That is very sad, disappointing and the answer to why these things continue to tranish the game. It makes it more and more difficult to defend the passionate support we give to soccer. Liverpool need to help the game get out of the gutter and be brave enough to stand for better things. That a Director of the Club suggested that it was not befitting of the shirt is a good sign. Suarez’ apology, to Chelsea’s Ivanovic, is too little much too late and probably a strategic way to avoid a lengthy ban. Soccer needs to get its house in order. How many times I have I written that. This is a no brainer. FA, throw the book! Liverpool FC show us you are still a great club and get rid of him. City, please NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!