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August 2014


My summer novels this year were all wonderful stories by crafted writers and by the time I got to the final pages of Jan Carson’s debut I realised how similar they all were in their exposure of human faultlines, foibles, quirks, idiosyncrasies and deformities of heart and soul and various clues to how and where the repairing of soul might occur. 

These novels have all dug deep into my own soul and are sure to find their way into sermons and blogs over the next while… so in the order I read them... 


Thrill of It All

It is so good to have him back in the more contemporary world after a few works set in the 19th and early 20th century. As a pastor who loves rock music I was fascinated by the relationships between the members of The Ships in their rise and fall and how that setting effects people’s interactions. You are constantly asking who inspired this character and that one. O’Connor writes so well and his music references show an impeccable taste!


Spinning Heart

So a friend, Sam Moore, tipped me off to this one. It’s Ryan’s debut and the hype is justified. He takes a vast array of characters, gives them all a chapter and links a story of how the sudden death of the Celtic Tiger threw people’s lives into a heart spin. What most impressed me was Ryan’s insight into the inner feelings of his characters, male or female, rich or poor, victim or criminal. Insightful and original.


The rest Just Follows

I love novels where I know the streets and where the references resonate. No one better than Glenn Patterson, a man born the same year as me who sets most of his work in Belfast. This story of growing up starts in 1974 as the three main characters start secondary schools. Perfect. The characters weave their lives and are shaped by the obstacles and opportunities life throws at them. Of course the Northern Ireland Troubles in all their complexities are some of those obstacles and opportunities but the novel, though is never smothered by The Troubles. It is about ordinary lives that go on around them. 


Norwegian Wood

Found this in a second hand shop in Portugal when I needed a novel to take me out of Ireland for a time. It was named after a Beatles song for goodness sake! Murakami sets this in the late 60s and there is a lot of protest and sex, maybe too much sex. Yet, he asks cosmic questions and this story of a developing maturity in the midst of too many friends taking their own lives is helpful in its study of meaning and the human psyche. 


Malcolm Orange

Back to a Belfast writer but set in the States, mainly in Portland Oregon, Carson again looks at the fault lines of our early years that impact the rest of our lives. Jan’s has a mind awhirl with imaginations and ideas. It verges on madness but underneath she is a woman who is trading the sanity underneath. Put Jan Carson alongside Donal Ryan as an Irish writer to watch... read the full review of Malcolm Orange Disappears here...




“Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I'm frightened by the devil
And I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid
I remember that time that you told me, you said
Love is touching souls
Surely you touched mine
Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time”

-      from A Case Of You by Joni Mitchell

This song is a Stockman family favourite, though my daughters do not like Prince’s version! It usually appears in one guise or another on my Family Holiday Mixes. We heard a few versions this summer and I was back in awe and in love with it. Then a friend Ian Mitchell Facebooked a live version and I thought I need to blog that song. 

I love telling the story that my friends in Lies Damned Lies told me. In the early 90s they were recording a record with renowned American producer Stewart Levine. One of his many pieces of advice was that you always hide the weakest track on side two, track four; no one will notice it there! That is where you’ll find A Case Of You on Joni Mitchell best ever record, Blue. Come on!

I fall in love with A Case Of You every time I play it! It is so crafted, so beautiful, so sad, so insightful, so objective in its emotionally raw subjectivity. The image of the beer mat in the blue TV screen light and how she gets “O Canada” in there. It also has this ability to be about the spiritually universal truth as well as the very specific individual honesty that is at its core. The genius of a song to me is when the writer can be objective in their subjectivity. When a very personal story takes universal meaning. When in the details that are very personal to them seem to be about something very personal to us. A Case Of You is that song. I think it was Kris Kristofferson who on first hearing Blue said that it was too personally raw to release. It is. Yet it is about everybody too. 

Let me then as the preacher draw out a few key spiritual gems. Mitchell has spoken about her born again phase, unknown to the public, but seemingly very real in songs like Woodstock as well as this one. To be “frightened by the devil” but “drawn to those ain’t afraid.” Lovely. What an image of the Church; a gathering of those who ain’t afraid of the devil and who in this context seem to be a place of refuge for those tossed about in their fear. Oh to create such a positive opinion of Church instead of the bad images I often get thrown at me as a minister; “God doesn’t live in most Churches!” or “I want to bring my kids up to learn about Jesus but not be institutionalised by having to attend Church.” Oh to find an authentic community that would draw the frightened.

 “Love is touching souls” is another great spiritual image and the declaration is that whoever this person is they have touched souls with tangible love; “surely you touched mine.” Oh to be a toucher of souls. Again a community showing this kind of love would be a community that would draw those beleaguered souls that, my reading of the Gospels suggests, Jesus wanted to touch.

Yet, this is not just about the Church as a community. In my own love life with my wife I need to be a toucher of Janice’s soul, bringing love and grace and healing. Indeed in all my relationships there is a need to reach into people’s souls. That is where it matters. That is where you can be involved in the transformation of lives and the world. The All You Need Is Love of The Beatles needs to have a pragmatic outworking. It is not a hippie slogan to chant or believe, it is a philosophy of life to be implemented in every personal engagement we have in every single day of our lives whether they are fleeting accidental meetings or scheduled and lengthy dairy dates. Touch souls. Change the world!



Sir Alex Ferguson was a genius. I have said that more than once on my blog and every time it hurts! Yet it is true and the evidence becomes clearer every single week as the United team that he cantered to a Premiership title in 2013 looks more and more average. I mean do Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley, Jonny Evans etc etc look like Premiership Champions? No! Ferguson was something else but in the end he was like the great old-time preacher who did an amazing job in his old style and in the 30 years in his bubble had not realised that the world had moved on.

As Sir Alex sits in the stand gloating that his legend is well intact you have to feel sorry for the United fans who were conned into his out of time mindset. They threw jokes at their City neighbours, even when Aguero wiped the smile off their wee grinning faces for a moment in 2012, by boasting that they didn’t buy the title and they were about bringing through young players; it is what Ferguson did after all. Their jibes seem hollow this morning and they have been left the laughing stock. Anybody-But-United fans weren’t sure whether a joke in Old Trafford’s direction last season might come back to haunt them as it had for 30 years but not anymore. United’s start to the season has left no room for doubt. They need to come into 2014 and very soon.

David Moyes got a raw deal and inherited the worst Premiership Champions’ squad in history. He was a 1985 appointment. He had no trophies on his CV, untested in the Champions League; nice, hard working guy with potential, from Glasgow. Since the last Glaswegian took the job European football had changed fundamentally. Big teams had big managers and bought expensive players. City weren’t freaky neighbours they were the norm. 

So United have woken up but boy they left it late. So late that when they decide to go for the big manager he arrives with a worse team than Moyes and three of the back four gone. It has proven one thing, that the boys of 92 was a once in a lifetime! These young guys are being thrown into a den of lions that they might never psychologically recover from and you can be sure that the vast majority won’t recover under Louis Van Gaal. So it is throw your billions at a few players, quickly. That money throwing, on Di Maria in particular, is what will give the ABU fans most joy. United don’t do that! Really! Watch them!

So, I feel that it is a humbling time for United fans. They have gone mighty quiet on social media! I do think they are shell shocked. They blamed Moyes and didn’t realise the depth of the problem. A new season and they thought the default would be reset. As I say most other fans did too. That is why the full on humour has only started now. 

United fans… give us a moment of pleasure in your situation. Us City fans for instance were where Milton Keynes Dons are just 15 years ago! We deserve a wee chuckle after all the chuckles you have had on us! You’ll be back but give it time. You no longer have the right to just turn up and score in the 97th minute! You are now on track. Big manger. Wads of cash. The rebuilding can begin. You can now play 2014 football and in 2016 or 2017 you might get to laugh at us again. In the meantime…


Luke Sital-Singh

Male songwriters are two a penny these days and so Londoner Luke Sital-Singh has a bit of a challenge to break into the pack. Well… he does. What Singh does is to mix a fascinating blend that gives him his own spot. The songwriting genre is my favourite thing. My problems with the current batch is two fold; the ones that are two traditional in their craft, adding nothing fresh to those from the peak time of the early seventies; and the ones that are adding so much to the art that the strength of the traditional values are smothered beneath the noise! Sital-Singh gets it near perfect. 

There should be no surprise when you hear that Iain Archer is his producer. Northern Ireland born Archer, a member of Tired Pony, has been acclaimed for his work with Jake Bugg and Snow Patrol. However, a songwriter in own right Archer has this astonishing gift for the catchiest of melodies but also the innate ability to be able to imagine what to do with these sounds to make them more interesting without losing the vital immediacy! He does this superbly with Sital-Singh’s work.

From percussion, to the plethora of imaginative ways to use a guitar, to the variety of intriguing harmonies and the battered brass of the piano led Lilywhite, Archer and Sital-Singh shift pace and mood at will and it all gives Sital Singh’s emotive voice opportunity after opportunity to share thoughts on life (Nothing Stays The Same), honest confession (I Have Been A Fire), marriage (Greatest Lovers) and society (21st Century Heartbeat). You are made feel that this is familiar and comfortable yet you’ve never heard it before. Somewhere between Bon Iver and Foy Vance Luke Sital Singh has made a debut record that gives him his own place in the milieu.

PORTIMAO SUNSET (Put Your Hand In Mine)


Fishermen working on the quay

As the birds claim their boats

The nightshift heading out to sea

To drop their night time floats

The gulls around the trawler

Don’t care where from or to

Just the feast of what’s on deck

And so with me and you

Put your hand in mine

In the sunset over Portimao

We’ll forget about the world

Love in the here and now


Hold each other over fault lines

Forgive our foibles and quirks

Soothe our souls’ tender bruises

Tolerate what sends us berserk

In a poppy field you shot an arrow 

Straight to the very heart of me

Now I love you as I love myself

You are now the vital part of me.


Walk with me by the Arade river

Gaze across its surface so still

Let God lead us by quiet waters

And hone our strength of will

Leave behind all the voices

All the demanding and comparing

In a summer sorbet sabbatical

To sense our souls repairing.

Beautiful in this evening light

Just lean in for a kiss

Life in all its fulness

Oh how good a life this is.


Fitzroy inside

(This prayer was written for this morning's service in Fitzroy following a sermon on Jesus encounter with the Samritan woman at the well (John 4) inspired by Tom Petty's song Fault Lines... a short summary is the previous blog to this one on Soul Surmise)


As we approach the well this morning

We are aware from our vantage point in history

Of exactly who you are

The Word made Flesh

The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world

The Resurrection and The Life

God in our neighbourhood

And yet we are told

That we can boldly approach

With confidence

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

We worship you as the Alpha and The Omega

The Omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God

We thank you for your grace and mercy

And we approach this well


We come aware of our brokeness

Of our neediness

Of our fault lines

We come no matter

Seeking not only the truth of who we are

And the truth of who you are 

And the truth about what you have done for us 

We are seeking grace

We are seeking welcome

We are seeking your gentle whispering

That will speak into our fault lines

And repair our souls

Making us whole, restored, redeemed


Search us Lord and know our hearts

test us and know our anxious thoughts

See if there is any offensive ways in us

And lead us in the way everlasting


Lord help us to search our own hearts

Shine a light on the fault lines that lurk 

Dangerous and ready to crack us open


Lord let us look deep into our family scenario

The place we were raised and the flags that flew around us

The Churches we grew up in and sermons we heard

The economic circumstances of our lives

The schools that developed us

The cultural shaping of our age

The academic pressures we succeeded or failed in

The relationships that hurt us

The tragedies that grieved us

The traumas that still bruise

Our insecurities and inferiority complexes 


Help us too Lord to see where these fault lines

Effect our living

Help us see where they impact our relationships

Those we are drawn too and those who repel us

Help us to see how our faultlines make us react to different situations


Where our fault lines lead us to sin, forgive us


And do more than forgive us Lord

Help us to be honest with each other, with you and with ourselves

Then repair us Lord so that we don’t damage others 

Repair us so that we become resources that you can use to repair others

May we become aware of the fault lines in each other

May we not condemn or judge

But ask what are the fault lines they have been living with

What has caused them to be damaged and broken


Then Lord by your Spirit

Use we as a repairer of souls

May I be a spring of water for others

Of welcome, grace, belonging and unconditional love

May the woman who goes in the heat of the day

Find me at the well

Filled with the grace and truth of Jesus

May the wisdom of God inside me

Always have a kind face

And may the confident truth I speak

Always have a gentle tone


May we be fault line repairers within these walls

Outside these walls

Across the fault lines of our city

And the fault line of the world.


We approach the well Lord

Expectant of redemption

In our minds… our hearts… and our souls.


Repair us through Jesus

And For Jesus

In Jesus name




“See those fault lines
Lay down like land mines
It's hard to relax
A promise broken
The ground breaks open
Love falls through the cracks

And I've got a few of my own
I've got a few of my own fault lines
Running under my life
Running under my life”

This Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ song has been rattling around my brain and soul since its release this summer. It is a great song and this is a great image. Petty has lived in California for some 40 years and that idea of the San Andreas Fault lying beneath you all the time could be a frightening thought if you allowed it to linger. Over 200 people have lost their lives in earthquakes in that State since I was born in 1961. 

Petty’s song though is not about tectonic geographical shifts. He is using the image to dig deep in his own life. Another song on the same Hypnotic Eye album goes, “Meet me tonight at the Red River/And look down into your soul…” There is a lot of soul searching going on here and so I looked deep down into mine.

Fault lines are not necessarily sins. They are those things that have made up your core. They are events or circumstances that have happened to you or around you that have somehow bruised, broken or beaten out of shape your soul. They might not be bad things, just circumstances but until we come to terms with them we live on top of the potential danger.

My old history teacher Bob Mitchell probably didn’t teach me much history but a phrase of his has lingered with me since I was 17. He once told us that any great human being was someone who was aware of his or her weaknesses. A great boxer, he went on, knows that vulnerable spot, maybe a vulnerable eye that can get easily cut. Knowing this weakness he will defend that eye. It will be vital if he is to be a champion. I have many times taken that advice and looked deep inside and asked where there might be fault lines; because of where I was born; the family that I was raised in; my social class; the creed that I was spiritual formed in; the political ideology I was steeped in; the era I was born into. For me, among many others, one of the crucial fault lines is that I am an only child and that brings with it all kinds of formations at my core.

When Jesus encountered people he was intuitive about their fault lines. He meets the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 and he opens up her fault lines. She is a Samaritan and a woman who came to the well alone in the heat of the day. He had a few clues as to where to bore into the strata of her life. It is all very different than Nicodemus’s fault lines in the previous chapter of John. 

Before pastoral care or spiritual formation can be effective there is a need to analyse the fault lines. For me personally I have to be constantly searching my own fault lines. I need to be aware of them if I am going to allow God’s objective redemption, that is mine, to become subjective in how it works itself out in my living. Then as a pastor, my pastoral care cannot be a one fits all blue print. Every member of my congregation has different fault lines and to care for each is going to need a different approach depending. Any pastor will benefit when his flock are good in their own self critique and awareness of the fault lines running under their lives.


Ballycastle blue

Just how sensational is that blue

The one made by these light beams

Not the darker cathartic kind

That soothes the bluesman’s bad dreams

This one's made by the evening sun

Setting low above the town

Just two hours before the candle glow

That deep orange of it going down


Just how many shapes can clouds throw

Like they’re belching out smoke from a fire

As if they’ve built a hundred chimney stacks

All across the Mull Of Kintyre

And the ripples and dimples and sky waves

As they float out towards Rathlin Island

I’m not sure Dawkins has it right

‘Cos I’m pretty sure God is smiling


And I look at who I’m with

You’re the image of something higher

Higher than sunset's bursting colours

That set the sky on fire


Just how vivid is this evening air

The Fair Head’s deciding to strut right out

Veins of rock with heaven in the detail

Leaves the atheist a mountain of doubt

There is a beauty elusively placed

That picture postcards just can’t capture

Like you walking this beach beside me girl

God has me by the throat with his rapture.


And I look at who I’m with

You’re the image of something higher

Higher than sunset's bursting colours

That set the sky on fire


This is our place

Our mystical space

Where we clear the clouds that have been

This is our time

The verse to our rhyme

Where we find visions of pictures unseen.

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 (Out of The Innocent Sky)


On the first day of our family vacation we heard the news of Flight MH17 being blown out of the sky over Ukraine... For the next day I conjured the tragedy in my head and as I often do I wrestled with words and rhyme...

Out of the innocent sky

Out of the deepest blue

Out of their loving arms

Out of the can’t be true

Out of the graceless soul

Out of the heart’s deceit

Out of the one eyed mind

Out of the patriot’s conceit

Out of the schemes of hell

Out of God’s silent sigh

Out of the wheat and weeds

Out of the innocent sky.


Gentry Ghost Town

Northern Ireland had the blessing of having this young American songwriter dwelling among us for the last few years. Sadly he has left for America’s west coast with his lovely wife, son, a Belfast acquired degree in Theology and this top quality new album recorded with his Northern Irish comrade in songs, Bangor’s Stephen McCartney, who produced Morris’s last release Awake O Sleeper. McCartney is a talented boy, songwriter with the tasteful Farriers and a man who has that producer’s ear for what is needed to take newly birthed songs into the maturity of adulthood. 

The best way to describe Gentry is a natural. The songs are seamless and pour forth with consummate ease. They are immediate, almost familiar, and he has quite the voice to carry melodies and words that are as sweet as the proverbial nut.  The first two tracks here come across like Pernice Brothers classics, strong shimmering guitars. Those electric guitar throw shine and shade throughout. For me it is the melancholic yearning beauty of songs like Waste Your Life, Fall Again or, my song of the summer, Slow Decline that has you asking why on earth Nashville aren’t placing these songs across the industry. Shifting his home, family, vocation and art across back and forth across the Atlantic in recent years, it is not surprising that these are songs of travel, of missing loved ones and seeking roads to whatever and wherever is next; there is a sense of movement and adventure throughout.