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December 2013


Best of 2013

(Please note that these are my favourite records of the year. This is a very subjective list but I am hoping that Soul Surmise readers will know that quality is always high on my list of subjective qualities. Ask me what the best 5 records of the year were and they might be close to this if not in the exact order!)


I had relegated Ms Phillips to the law of diminishing returns bin but I was glad that I fell upon her 2013 release. With her gentle Tom Waitsian percussion and eccentricity this as accessible as she has been in a while.


Griffin is a quality act and her alliance artistically and it would seem romantically with Robert Plant hasn’t done her profile any harm. This sounded great on Later... With Jools. A wonderful pastoral album of catharsis

read Stocki's full review of American Kid here...


I am an Arcade Fire admirer more than a fan and this does sounds like Scissor Sisters that I hate but somehow I enjoyed it.


The Cardiff Devil has been covering Bruce Springsteen for years. I shared a Greenbelt seminar with Martyn and Paul Chambers on Bruce back in the day and have versions of Thunder Road and Ghost of Tom Joad that Martyn did live on my radio show. The stripped back perspective threw new light on some of these.

read Stocki's full review of Rushing By In The Rain here...

read Stocki's short interview with Martyn about the album here


I made a bad decision not to go see Bibb in the Queens Festival for a scandalously cheap £14. My good friend and Zumba guru Lorna McIlwaine kindly got me a signed copy of this. Spiritual, soulful, thinking person’s blues.


I love this man. More lyrical seeking and spiritual surmising that heads off in Arthur’s imaginative head.

read Stocki's full review of Ballad of the Boogie Christ Act 1 here...

read about Stocki's meeting with Joseph Arthur in 2001 here...


Ricky Ross’s look at life in the recession is a different beast than Deacon Blue’s brilliant Hipsters from last year. Sparse and socially direct.

Read Stocki's full review of Trouble Came Looking here...


I am loving Mavis Staples musical relationship with Jeff Tweedy. Gospel music contemporised with Americana. A Low song about the Holy Ghost for goodness sake! A Tweedy original called Jesus Wept. And enough old Gospel to have you rehearsed for the heavenly dance!

read Stocki's review of One True Vine here...


My good friend and sometimes co-writer Sam Hill finally gave the public some of his genius this year. What a treat. Late night early morning musings on family and faith. Deeply personal... socially vital! A beaut!

read Stocki's full review of Cowboys and Moonbeams here...


These boys give that African township rhythm to the beat of the big city issues. There’s a lot of God haunting on this one.


Haass 2

My friend Gareth once told me about a young man in his workplace. The young man was a Christian and made sure everybody knew the fact every opportunity that he got. For example he would never laugh at the smutty jokes etc. However, there was a flaw. If ever anyone needed someone to fill in or do that little bit extra after hours, our Christian friend was never available. His faith was about certain rules, regulations and self righteous statements but never about the spirit of love or grace or anything relational. The Pharisees of Jesus day were very like that. They prayed on street corners, made sure everyone knew of their charitable acts and lack of doing anything on the Sabbath. They waved their religiosity in public. Yet, when it came to grace, love and forgiveness in their relationships with others there was nothing. They lived by the law and not by the Spirit. Living by the law is a human effort; very outward. Living by the Spirit is a revelation of the transformative power of God; in inner redemption that works its way out in everything!

Today is a Sunday and the vital Haass Talks on Northern Ireland’s peaceful future have been adjourned because the DUP would not negotiate on a Sunday. Now this surmise is not about Sabbath observance. I have very strong views on God’s gift to humankind of rest and time for spiritual reflection. Like Jesus himself though I am not enslaved to a particular day or particular things you can and cannot do on that day. Already Twitter is alive with the fact that the DUP cannot be involved in peace discussions, which seem very much in keeping with God’s Kingdom and will coming to earth as in heaven, but are able to be on Twitter. If your witness lives by the Sabbath it sadly dies by the Sabbath too! It might even have been a right decision to adjourn the talks but it is a complex issue and not what my grievance is in this blog.

No, my surmise is the lack of consistency in the DUP’s Christian observance. They seem to me to be a little like my friend’s work colleague. Here they are waving their human work of keeping the Sabbath “holy” and yet in the negotiations, that they have refrained from for Christian reasons, they seem to be showing very few Christian ideas. The Pharisees were about law keeping and judging others for not law keeping. Jesus was about grace and love and forgiveness. Jesus said,  “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” These are radical, revolutionary words. They seem insane, unjust and irrational. Yet they are the life of a whole new heavenly kingdom come to earth. They are fueled by the grace of God that loves people as they are, in all their sin and shame and past misdemeanours. This whole new way to live is the only hope for the world and the only hope for a Northern Ireland captive to its past of tit for tat sectarian prejudice, hatred and murder.

So I find it disturbing that the DUP can make some stand for the keeping of Sabbath by adjourning negotiations with Richard Haass while ignoring the core teachings of Jesus during those negotiations. It is a symptom of a huge problem at the heart of Northern Ireland society. We have reduced Christianity to the laws of the Pharisees and lost almost entirely the explosive (word well chosen!) spirit of Christ. If we desire to shine the light of Christ across the country and indeed the world then the best way to do it will not be by keeping the law in meticulous Pharisaical fashion but by revealing to the world how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus can do the impossible and redeem a country haunted by its past. American clergyman and writer Frederick Buechner defined sin as that which pushes away. That has indeed been the experience of our peculiar sins in Northern Ireland; we have pushed our communities apart and built walls to divide, put up flags like dogs marking out those divisions. Grace of course is that which breaks down all barriers unconditionally and brings people together with each other and with God. Now that DUP is what we should be making a stand on. Keeping the sabbath is easy. You might be right in having adjourned these talks. However, come Monday morning and I am expect you to bring us peace by mid-afternoon by living out the faith you have waved about so publicly today!

more by Stocki on the dearth of vision, courage and grace in Haass Talks



As the Haass Talks begin again in Northern Ireland today I have to say that my spirits are low and my hopefulness critically ill. Not that I don’t think Northern Ireland has changed in recent years. It has. There are relationships and attitudes and the possibilities of doing things across the old traditional boundaries that we would not have even dared to dream of twenty years ago. There is a deep desire among the majority for a peaceful way forward. Yet, this morning I am more than a little depressed because of the intellectual, spiritual and visionary poverty of our political leadership. We seem stuck, up to our waist, if not our neck, in a quagmire of same old, same old. There is such a dearth of imagination that it is literally quite frightening. My children and their children are at the mercy of people who are arguing and prepared to risk our children’s futures over how many days a flag should fly. We have somehow gotten ourselves locked into a vacuum of alternatives. Let us face it. We have elected these leaders. How? We have produced great sportsmen like George Best, Mary Peters and Willie John McBride. We have produced the literary genius of Seamus Heaney and CS Lewis and the musical brilliance of Van Morrison. Yet, we lack any political leaders who can conjure an alternative Ulster.

As I surmise this morning I think we need three things; vision, courage and grace. Vision is about looking forward not back. When our decisions are made on what has happened in the past we are locked in to the sins of the generations. What we need are leaders who can see  a better future than the bloody, murderous and painful past that we all have suffered and all have to take the blame for. What we need are leaders who will courageously lift themselves above their own parochial painted kerb stones and seek a future for all not just their own! Fuelling that vision and courage has to be a grace so sadly lacking in the history of this wee island.

I do not need to tell my friends, family or blog readers that I do not fit easily into the traditional divisions that we have been straight jacketed into in Northern Ireland. I feel very much part of that Venn Diagram that has me equally Irish and British. I am a Christian who has been shaped by a Presbyterian definition of that faith but I have benefited from many variations of that faith including being enriched by dear Catholic brothers and sisters. The one word that expresses it all for me is grace. This is the key word and idea that makes Christianity so crucial. What we have celebrated at Christmas is this incredible idea that God loved us as we were and didn’t just talk about loving us as we were but gave us his son, born that first Christmas and eventually courageous enough, imaginative enough, grace filled enough to die for us before being resurrected to usher in a while new world of possibility.

What disheartens me most this morning is that there are political leaders who claim attachment to that Jesus yet show none of those core values of Christ in what they do with their political influence. Somehow, doctrinal creeds held very dearly in the personal sphere have never been given permission to run wild in the political or social spheres. Indeed arguments have been concocted to suggest that they shouldn’t be. I find that dichotomy impossible to reconcile. What we need today, and in any remaining days that Richard Haass patiently holds out his grace towards a thran awkward people, are leaders who think, articulate and live out vision, courage and grace. Let us do unto our enemies as we would like our enemies to do unto us. Let us do unto our enemies as Jesus has done unto us, his enemies. Let us bring down the heretical wall that self righteously quotes such concepts in the personal but hypocritically ignores them in the political. Let us do it today. Please God for some sliver of the Christianity that we talk about being actually acted upon... and please God that the next time we vote...    


Fleeing To Egypt

(Mary's pregnancy and birth were rough. The scandal, the gossip, the donkey ride, the stable, the pain of birth. After the birth the parents must have thought it was all over at last but...So we need to see the tree coming down as a beginning. As Mike Scott sang, "The new life starts here!")

Children's nativity plays are over
The food has all been eaten
The presents have all been opened
The toys have all been discarded
The cards and the tinsel have been packed away
And the tree is back in the attic
The carols are off the hymn sheets for another year
They think it's all over
It has only just begun.

Now the shepherds are back in the fields
The wise men are on their way home, the long way
The star has left the Bethlehem sky dimmer
The angels have left it quieter
The mother is recovering from the pain of birth
The baby is safe in his daddy's arms
And there is even a room in the Inn
They think it is all over
It has only just begun.




(wrote this one last year... was just as it is written... I love Christmas Day!)

Now that was a Christmas Day

Dog sleeping by a winter fire

Family chattering out the memories

The crib having all our hearts inspired

Ripping wrapping from Tunnocks and Merlot

Turkey and beef so carefully spiced

The magical visit of Santa Claus

And the miracle of the Christ

Grace arriving, kicking and crying

To end the long yearning wait

Marcus shouting, “Awake My Soul”

And Ricky leading us through Bethlehem’s Gate.


Now that was a Christmas Day

Richard’s trumpet ringing

Linford and Karin’s Snow Angels

And my congregation singing

The bright wide eyes of my daughters

The warmth of my lovers kiss

Love that’s being born this morning

To allow us to love like this

Grace arriving, kicking and crying

To end the long yearning wait

Marcus shouting, “Awake My Soul”

And Ricky leading us through Bethlehem’s Gate.


Jesus straw

In the straw of our fouled fallen failings

In the straw of our dim dumb distracting dreams

In the straw of our wasted wily wealth

In the straw of our shame stained self indulgence

In the straw


In the straw

God’s definitive interruption

Heaven’s eternal song of hope

Earth’s last word on redemption

Grace’s love gift lavishly laid

In the straw.


HAPPY CHRISTMAS and thanks for reading SOUL SURMISE



We drive through congested traffic
Stop for a day outside the door
Sentimental beginning to bigger things
We don't see anything more
The blinding bright revelation
Of God's wild and holy nerve
Baby's heart pumping out the love
That none of us deserve
There is a gift to be opened
But we just stare at the wrapping
In a room crammed full of food and lights
We miss the wonder of what's happening.

We drive through congested traffic
Park for a day outside the stable
We think we know the story well
But treat it like a children's fable
When He tells us all there is to know
Before He utters His first word
Wisdom in this foolish dirty straw
Sense meets us in the absurd
There is a gift to be opened
But we just stare at the wrapping
In a room crammed full of food and lights
We miss the wonder of what's happening.


Christmas iPod

You’ll Know It’s Christmas – DEACON BLUE

Merry Xmas Everybody - SLADE


Must be Santa – BOB DYLAN

Happy Xmas (War is Over) – JOHN AND YOKO

White Christmas – THE AMAZING PILOTS

Fairytale In New York – THE POGUES (& KIRSTY MCCOLL)

Do They Know It’s Christmas Time – BAND AID

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – ROD STEWART

Merry Christmas Darling – BRIAN HOUSTON

Bethlehem’s Gate (piano version) – DEACON BLUE

Little Town – OVER THE RHINE


Away In A Manger – BRIGHT EYES

Silent Night – SINEAD O'CONNOR

Labour Of Love – JILL PHILLIPS


Long Way Round The Sea – LOW

Little Drummer Boy – IAIN ARCHER


Heaven’s Got A Baby – SARAH MASEN

Calvary – RICKY ROSS


Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – U2

Please Come Home For Christmas – THE EAGLES

Driving Home For Christmas – CHRIS REA

Step Into Christmas – ELTON JOHN

Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer – THE CRYSTALS

Hooves On The Roof – NICK LOWE

Christmas All Over Again – TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – JOHN MELLENCAMP

I Wish It Could Be Christmas – WIZZARD

Go Tell It On The Mountain – BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA with TOM WAITS


Ricky Ross 2

“A baby comes, folks don't sleep
Those shepherds keep you up later than you meant to be
One child's grows and people notice
he's breaking chains
and making poor folks' lives so heavenly
(the way it's meant to be)

I don't need to know what everyone sees
different roads will take you where other paths lead
I'm not even trying to get as far as Calvary

-      From Calvary by Ricky Ross

This might be my favourite Christmas song. Why? Well there is lyrical subtlety, seasonal feel and theological insight. There were a few songs on the Deacon Blue frontman’s solo album Pale Rider that touched on Christmas but this one hit the meaning right on the head. Drawing out images of Christmas now and the original Biblical nativity scene Ricky, with a gentle couple of phrases, articulates the revolutionary nature of the scene; “he's breaking chains/and making poor folks' lives so heavenly nails.”

Yet, I guess you’ve noticed, the song is not called Bethlehem but Calvary. Why for? Well Ricky shared with me on my old radio show, where I had him right across the sound desk as I listened to this for the very first time, that the Church he grew up in always had Jesus on the cross at Calvary before he had any time to grow up. Let us not rush so fast to Calvary just yet. Let us linger awhile round the potent truth of the incarnation. What Ross achieves is a gentle song just as gentle in fact as God landing on earth as a baby in a bed of straw. Then he adds the invisible impact that shook the world to its core!

The novelist Milan Kundura in his book Immortality writes about the difference between a route and a road: - “A route differs from a road not only because it is solely intended for vehicles, but also because it is merely a line that connects one point with another. A route has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects. A road is a tribute to space. Every stretch of road has meaning in itself and invites us to stop. A route is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and a waste of time.”

Routes are very western, very functional but oh how much they miss! The route from Belfast to Ballycastle by the M2 is quick and efficient but the beauty of the coast road is sadly missed. Africans seem to detest the short cut of routes; they imagine all the conversations they would miss!

Ricky Ross’s song Calvary is about not rushing on the fastest route from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Followers of the baby born that first Christmas morning are to take the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, like a spiritual treasure hunt where we slowly approach the cross, picking up every little spiritual gem that Jesus gives us along the way. We then carry them right through Easter which gives us the power to live it and then out the other side to serve God, neighbour and world.

Not a route to

Too fast, too functional, too distracting

But a road through

Slow... to pay attention for impacting

Not a route to

Too easy, too brief, too matter of fact

But a road through

Taking in all that we’d need to act

Not a route to

Too cold, too instant, to get it done

But a road through


From Bethlehem to Calvary

It was never meant to be a quick route to

But a following, gathering all the things we’d need

A road that would take us right on through...

I BELIEVE IN FATHER CHRISTMAS; U2 - Atheist Anthem Redeemed

Bono Christmas

Now here is a song. Kept off the number 1 spot for Christmas 1975 by the phenomenon that was Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Greg Lake’s acoustic song of fragile beauty was deemed a “secular carol.” I didn’t play the song for thirty years, dismissing it as an anti-Christ angle on the Christmas season with its,

“They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
‘Till I believed in the Israelite.”

Then out of the blue for Christmas 2009 U2 do a video version to raise funds for the RED Campaign. Now wait a minute Bono. You can redeem a lot of things but Lake’s atheist anthem?

Well they do. Changing the line to “But I believe in the Israelite” Bono neither loses his faith, in their cover version, nor the opportunity to use a song to make a powerful statement. When you are listening to U2 you take one thing as read; that they have thought through the song and their use of it. They never leave a line or word to chance in their very carefully crafted artistic intent.

U2 turn this song into a close relation of their own song Peace On Earth. They are asking what good this Christmas is to the millions starving or going without clean water or anti-viral drugs. It becomes a protest song in the Old Testament style of lament. When interviewed about the song, Greg Lake never mentions an atheistic agenda. For him it was a pronouncement against the commercial side of Christmas. The last line is the prophetic preacher’s punch and much more potent with the U2 cover version: -  

“They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on earth
Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas you get you deserve.”

What Christmas do we deserve? Is it the commercial madness, the material waste, the crammed ‘holiday’ schedules, the road rage, the gluttony and the greed? Or is there something else in there? Is there a heaven in there under the wrapping, tinsel and stuffing to be found in the midst of the hell? For me U2 have redeemed the song as they attempt to redeem the season and link the celebration of incarnation with the awful crisis of AIDS across the world.