Previous month:
June 2014
Next month:
August 2014

July 2014



For many weeks there has been a sense of doom. Anyone I had spoken to who was close to the events of parades and politics were prophesying the unravelling of our peace process. The tensions in places of contentious parades like Twaddell Avenue, in Belfast’s Ardoyne, had so escalated that it was causing fracture in the top echelons of Stormont. In the end it was one of the quietest and most peaceful Twelfths in many a long year. What could have possibly been one of our darkest days might actually have been the day when a foundation was laid for a brighter future. When we were giving out about the lack of leadership in politics, community groups and the Orange Order many of the very people we were criticising were actually working hard to keep a lid on our city’s deeply rooted tensions. Fair play to them, they need our respect and praise.  

There was one moment on the TV news over the weekend which was brief but not fleeting. It has lingered with me and given me an insight to some of the work going on in our communities that I believe has reaped the harvest of a peaceful Twelfth. It was at the frontline at Twaddell Avenue and as the parade was dispersing a women wearing a union jack hat approached Rev. Mervyn Gibson and goes off on one about those who have refused to let the Orange Lodges march back home down past the shops on the Crumlin Road. You could sense her anger. Mervyn leaned in and listened graciously and intently and gave an almost pastoral word before she left.

Now, any reader of Soul Surmise will know that I have been a critic of the Orange Order and at times Mervyn Gibson, my fellow Presbyterian minister. Many people over the past year have approached me to give off about something Mervyn has said on television or at the Twaddell Protest Camp. Mervyn and I recently met and had a lengthy exchange of opinions. For me it was important to try to come to terms with how the Orange Order’s actions in general and at the Twaddell Protest in particular was helpful to the witness of Christ. 

I want to bring one thing out of that conversation that I believe I saw in action in that piece of news footage and that I believe might have played a major role in the peaceful Twelfth. Mervyn’s argument to me was that he is playing a peacemaking role in the community that he has a voice in. Of course for me I see peacemaking as bringing the two side of our community together. The stand off at Twaddell seems an antithesis of that. Mervyn sees his role as a step before that kind of peacemaking. His job, as I understood him, was to put a lid on the anger that is very real in the working class loyalist community he ministers in. Many have declared that the vehemence of flags protest of the last eighteen months and the Twaddell protest in its wake is a cry for help from a working class Protestant community that feel isolated and left behind in the new Northern Ireland. Whether we agree is beside the point. It is a genuine sense of deep alienation. 

Who responds to that cry for help? Who rolls up their sleeves and gets stuck into bringing a sense of sense of confidence and calm to that volatile situation? Who listen to those who are discontent? Who speaks for them and attempts to articulate their cry? Am I pontificating across town from my leafy middle class suburbs making any kind of contribution? My respect for Mervyn throughout the past year, even when I was heavily critical, has been that he is connecting on the ground. After our recent conversation I had many reservations about Mervyn’s idea that he was in anyway a peacemaker. However, when the Twelfth Day passed off so peacefully I began to think again. When I watched that little news clip I saw his words to me becoming flesh in a difficult neighbourhood. 

So, I want to give credit where credit is due. I want to commend Rev Mervyn Gibson and the many other community leaders like PUP’s John Kyle for what they have achieved this last weekend. There will be times when they speak into those communities that they feel drawn to, and I know need leadership, when they will use phrases and speeches that I find hard to reconcile but I need to be perhaps a little more forgiving and see their long term aim. I would now ask of Mervyn and those other community and political leaders, on both sides, to use this hard earned peace space to build something much more. It will be one thing to put a lid on the dangerous sectarianism and another to push forward to a shared future. In the meantime, even though I will continue to critique I will do so with a little more understanding, a lot more encouragement and a significant amount of prayer.


It is finished

It is finished, but still we feel this guilt
It is finished, but still we feel enslaved
It is finished, but still we feel alone
It is finished, but still we feel unloved
It is finished, but still we feel inferior
It is finished, but still we feel no peace
It is finished, but still we carry on
As if He never came
As if He never died
As if He never cried
It is finished
No buts
No more
No extra time
No ifs
No onlys
No turning back
It is finished!


Fitzroy inside

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy I will preach my last sermon before my holidays and my last sermon in our series on The Gospel According To John. We are still lingering around Pilate and Jesus stand off and tomorrow morning Pilate will declare Jesus as "a man" and later "King of the Jews" in the world's three main languages! In the end we will look at Bravehart's "Freedom" cry, hear Leonard Cohen's exegesis of the cross and follow Springsteen's Jesus Was An Only Son walk up Calvary... We will conclude that IT IS FINISHED and see what has just begun! 


A BRAND NEW PARADE (Majesty of Her Grace)

Queen and Martin

Today many in Northern Ireland will claim their loyalty to the Queen in drums, tunes and parades all across the country and far beyond. It is a day they remember King William of Orange and his victory for Protestantism at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Many cultures celebrate their historical victories. Sadly for us in Northern Ireland the divisions of 324 years ago are still very much alive on our streets. There might even be skirmishes of the continuation of that long ago battle on our news bulletins tonight.

Significantly Queen Elizabeth II has given a new lead to her loyal subjects. Her hand shake with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, her state visit to Dublin and President Michael D Higgins' state visit to the UK have been symbols of a new day when reconciliation and living in peace have replaced the old emnity between Britain and Ireland. It was far from a Royal gesture for the Queen. She lost Louis Mountbatten, a distant cousin of hers and beloved uncle of Prince Philip when the IRA blew up his fishing boat off the west coast of Ireland in 1979; it was personal.

This poem, very much influenced by Luka Bloom's song A Seed Is Sown, but set in our Northern context, asks whether the loyalist community can stay loyal when the Monarch changes the traditional route, sets a different agenda and models a different way to relate to neighbour and enemy; a courageous way filled with grace and hope. Stay loyal guys!

Their hands shook

History felt the tremors

Forgetting deep hurt

Where everyone remembers

And did memory stab

That boat on the ocean

As her courage broke

Through her heart’s emotion 


Their eyes connect

Like wires to detonate

Blow up the past

Raining fragments of hate

Did he see the loss

In her smiling face

And feel the forgiveness

Majesty of her grace.


She spoke their language

She bowed her head

Bent down on her knee

To honour their dead

She marched right through

The ancient palisades

Left the traditional walk

To lead a brand new parade.



Today we are in this midst of more tension over Parades and protests have been promised by the Orange Order. Both sides of the Ardoyne stand off are in the wrong in being so uncompromising and need to show more tolerance. I, however, am slightly biased towards/against the Orange Order as they claim the Christian faith and a Biblical foundation for their actions. Can I encourage them to show the grace, humility, repentance, peacemaking and good neighbourliness that Jesus asked for and lived. Then the Bonfires might be a beacon to Christ and not to sectarianism. Let us put our arrogance and sin on that pyre, not photos or flags of neighbours we are called to love.

The poem below was inspired in 2010 by having to preach my first July sermons in nearly twenty years. On the evening of July 11th I was sharing thoughts from 2 Chronicles 7: 14 and how we need to “humble ourselves and pray, seek God’s face and turn from our wicked ways”. As I critiqued my own background I was thinking of what we could throw on the Eleventh night bonfire. After the service as I headed north to my family on the coast I was listening to Tom Petty’s Drivin’ South… the song in that context drew these thoughts out of me…

I’m going to head up north again

Past Churches as grey as the weather

Watch the summer’s patience with the sun

And see God at the end of his tether

Ghosts are caught dancing on these Atlantic breezes

And not all of them are holy

The Mission Halls still full on Sunday night

They frightened but never consoled me.


I’m going to head up north again

Through fertile farmlands to the sea

Coastline, castles, Giant’s Causeway

And the beaches stretched out in front of me

And east the rocky rugged mountains

Where we pushed off all the Catholics

Are we not nearly ready to confess

For all our sectarian geographics


I’m going to head up north again

Try to navigate around the parades

Where we march all day to drunken fields

Playing cultural and religious charades

Strap Lambeg drums to big strong chests

Stick our victory up our neighbour’s face

Shouldn’t we love them like we love ourselves

Carry our faith with humility and grace


Maybe with all those empty boxes

And tyres their tread worn thin

We should throw our pride on the Bonfire

With all our arrogance and sin

Yes, hurl the myths we’ve told ourselves

All those lies and their exaggerations

The stories we decide to tell ourselves

Shape our children and the nation

So let us pile repentance way up high

Watch our troubles burn in the flickering light

Then I’ll head up north and celebrate

On a glorious Eleventh night. 



I have learned to be intrigued by anything Iarla Ó Lionáird is involved in. That might not be obvious. I am from the most British part of Ireland, its north east corner and Ó Lionáird is from the opposite south west Cork Gaeltacht end. He is a Sean-nos singer and in the Gaeilge language. It is not what I am used to. Indeed though my Church denomination (Presbyterian Church in Ireland) played a significant role in keeping that very language alive I was actively discouraged to have anything to do with it. We are a confused and often hypocritical little people! 

For me, I needed to seek beyond the confines that our sectarianism has imprisoned us in and open myself up to all of my island’s artistic soul. So Horslips led me into a rich seam that eventually led to Afro Celt System out of which Iarla Ó Lionáird via Peter Gabriel came onto my radar. Ó Lionáird’s album I Could Read The Sky had my attention as he took the traditional Irish fiddles and mandolins and blended them with industrial loops and guitars and distorted vocals. I am not a great fan of Irish trad played straight. I like it when it is blended it into something more contemporary which is why I so loved Horslips!

Anyway, what I have come to expect from Iarla Ó Lionáird is something innovative, fascinating and beautiful. So, when I watched him perform with The Gloaming at the Royal Albert Hall celebration of President Michael D Higgins state visit to the UK I downloaded the record before the performance was even finished. Another imaginative leap from Ó Lionáird as he again conjures something fresh and new from the old traditions. 

This time it is not just Iarla Ó Lionáird though. This is more of a super group with maybe the world’s best fiddler Martin Hayes, guitarist Dennis Cahill, Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh on the Norwegian hardanger fiddle, and pianist Thomas Bartlett. If Hayes and Cahill lay the trad foundation, then Ó Raghallaigh’s drones tint shades and moods and Bartlett brings his modern New York piano to really mix the cocktail. That Bartlett has worked with David Byrne and Laurie Anderson will tell you it is indeed a shake up. Of course Ó Lionáird’s soulful vocals overlays it all! Gaeilge is such a potently poetic language and Ó Lionáird is its greatest living proponent. That this wee Ulster Prod is unable to translate matters as much as not understanding whatever language Sigur Ros use! 

Indeed, I have always felt that Ó Lionáird is the Sigur Ros of Ireland and therefore should be able to take Irish folk to new territories. That my favourite tracks here are Necklace of Wrens, Freedom and the sixteen minute Opening Set, all featuring Bartlett, tells you where my ear is leaning on the album but, whatever your ear, this is a work of world beating musicians stretching their art to new vistas of gorgeousness and achievement. If you could put the Irish coastline on a clear summer sunset evening to music then this might be what you would get. Maybe they did!



(25 years ago tonight I kissed my soul mate for the very first time. This is pretty much the story in a 25 year old poem slightly modified...)

Right side of the escalators

Tickets and tube way trains

London lit by lightning

In the pouring rain

Soho and Piccadilly

Carnaby Street hats

Covent Garden buskers

Is where it’s at

Pictures in my memory

It’s you each one is of

In everyone you’re laughing

And I am in love.


Poppies in Norfolk given

And Pleasureland rides

Telephone boxes, no money

And places to hide

Barley field temptations

Cliff tops and beaches

Early morning rendezvous

Where no one can reach us

Pictures in my memory

It’s you each one is of

In everyone you’re laughing

And I am in love.


Forever on Weaver’s Way

Trailing at the last

We share an inside joke

As you’re sitting on the grass

Your head on my shoulder

Sleeping on the bus

You shouldn’t be here tonight

But God is good to us

Pictures in my memory

It’s you each one is of

In everyone you’re laughing

And I am in love.


Connemara beginnings

In evening Cambridge streets

Romance and us together

I never thought they’d meet

Kissing in the shadows

To where we said we’d meet before

No one seems to be there

So we hurry back for more

Pictures in my memory

It’s you each one is of

In everyone you’re laughing

And I am in love.

LET'S BE STILL... Pastoral Encouragement For The Holidays

Let's Be Still 2

A few years ago in Fitzroy, with summer coming on, Janet Morris helped us to spend some time meditating on Psalm 23. It is such a familiar Psalm and I was wondering how I would find something fresh. Though Janet was not doing a strict Lectio Divina I was immediately seeking that image from the passage that stuck, opened something, led me on. 

With a vacation time approaching and aware of my need for some rest I was drawn to “he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul”. I immediately heard the  “still waters” of the King James version and started to become aware of how I agitate those waters. There are so few places in our third millennium world where we can be still and there has never been more need for stillness. 

I had been marinating such thoughts since I had heard The Head And The Heart perform at Calvin College a month or so before. This band made an impression on me that few new acts do and I found a particular song Let’s Be Still incredibly profound:


“The world's just spinning

A little too fast

If things don't slow down soon we might not last.

The world's not forgiving

Of everyone's fears.

The days turn into months the months turn into years.

So just for a moment, let's be still…”


This is the contemporary context that the ancient Scripture needs to bring wisdom to. The speed of life, the demands for immediate response on text, email or Facebook. There seems a constant pressure to live this fast pace. It is not only the speed though. The Head and The Heart’s focus on fear and the lack of forgiveness is prophetically incisive. We live with all kinds of fears and they are constant. We have fear of not belonging, not achieving and of not having what we need tomorrow. The world is graceless and demanding when we need grace and acceptance for who we are. 

Yet, when we are still perhaps it will only heighten the fears. What we need in the midst of a fast fearful world are the words of another Psalm. Psalm 46 tells us to “Be still and know that I am God.” This verse is given in the middle of a Psalm where everything is crashing in. To be still in the presence of the one who leads us beside still waters. This is to trust the shepherd. To find our identity in who God is and who he makes us by his love and tender mercy. 

This summer season, whether you are getting away geographically or not, let me pastorally encourage you to be still. We need that rest. We need that clearing of our minds and hearts and souls, a sorbet if you like, that gives us a space and a freshness for what will come down at speed in autumn and winter.

As I sat surmising Psalm 23 on Sunday night I sensed God rebuking me. As I head towards vacation, or as I see it a sabbatical, I hear him invite me to rest by the silent waters. Yet, I can ripple those waters with my desire to be creative and not miss the opportunity of moments away. I can agitate those waters into waves by not letting go of my fears or worries. I can cause splashes on the calm surface by how I force myself to use the time. I need to learn to be still and to simply rest in the shadow of the refuge of God. It is ok to rest. I need to stop fearing it. I need to stop worrying what the world thinks of it. I need time….

So just for a moment… or a vocational time… let’s be still!

IF PARADES WERE LIKE 4 WAY STOPS; Lessons from North American Roads

Orange 4 Way Stops

Let me transport you to the roads of Vancouver in Canada. As another impatient Canadian driver honks his horn, and makes to shout obscenities through windscreens, I want to stop him and tell him how much I am looking forward to treating him as he is treating me when he is trying to find his way around Belfast! The roundabout at The Royal in rush hour will sort you out pal!

The psychological and social implications of cars are frightening. There we are in this little confined space with our entire worldview defined by what we are thinking and where we are going. How dare he turn left here and slow me down. Does she not know I am late? Are they not aware that I am trying to decipher a foreign city’s road signs on the wrong side of the road with two young children
screaming in my ear!?

In our cars, we are Kings and Queens. We rule the world and everyone should do as we need them to do. There is no understanding of the crisis going on in the cars around us. There are no rights for those drivers. They need to serve my needs of getting to where I want to go. Anything short of that leads to finger gestures, bad language and road rage violence!

Transporting you back to our little piece of Ireland, we live like we are in cars without regard for the stories and histories around us, the hopes, fears and hurt of those who are travelling alongside us. Our world views are confined making us feel we are totally right and they are wrong if they are not serving our ambitions and dreams. If they get in the way of us reaching our destinations then they can be cut off.

Jesus calls for another way. His revolutionary plan for peace was forsaking our own egos to serve, forgive and love the guys in the other world view cars. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said. He knew they would change the world for the good of everyone in every car.

Bizarrely the North Americans have such a place on their roads. At crazy places called 4-Way Stops, every driver is disarmed from his arrogant self seeking and in order for this road junction to function, everyone needs to be heard, given time, and served. You literally give up yourself to let others go. When we observe such an alternative to normal road attitudes driving is made possible, easy and thoroughly pleasant. What about 4-Way Stops, on our Northern Ireland roads this Parading season? Could both sides change the mindset of their confined worldviews and give the other road users priority so that life would not get chaotic and dysfunctional? 



(I wrote this is a kind of Psalm a long while back. It appeared on the record I did with Sam Hill under the name Stevenson and Samuel called Grace Notes)

God welcomed in the morning

He gave voice to the bird

He wove a life inside another

And gave a baby her first word

God shaped a young girl’s beauty

Put love in a young man’s soul

He gave wisdom to the seeker

And strength to the old

God tinted the twilight orange

Like a dying candle flame

God gave all his love to you today

He kept whispering your name

God kept whispering your name.


God painted colours on the fields

Gave movement to the oceans

He inspired the artist’s genius

Gave scientists brand new notions

God kept the world on turning

Wouldn’t let history settle

God nourished mother nature

And opened the red rose petal

God took the moon away at dawning

Sent it back tonight the same

God gave all his love to you today

He kept whispering your name

God kept whispering your name.