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September 2014

MOMENTOUS DECISIONS; How To Make Them? - Pause For Thought 18.9.14

Yes no

(this morning's Pause For Thought on BBC Radio 2 with Vanessa Feltz... The theme for the week is 'momentous decisions' but I couldn't mention the big vote!!!!!)

I was 8 years of age. I look back now and think it had to do with the fact that the guy next door was a couple of years older and a bit of a hero. It certainly was momentous. I changed my soccer allegiance from Manchester United to Manchester City. City had just won the Cup. It looked good and then… They wouldn’t win it again for another 40 years! I went through at least 30 years of absolute misery. In 1999 we were two divisions down as United won the Treble! 

Yet, I have to say that when Sergio Aguero scored in the fifth minute of injury time to pip United to the Premier title in 2012 that momentous decision in 1969 paid off. I was in the garden because I couldn’t watch BUT the cheer unadulterated joy of that day was worth all the pain. Thank you Derek Cunningham for giving me that moment. As the Bible says, you reap what you sow. Every decision has a domino effect for good or bad. It makes me fear for all the 8 year olds currently opting for a trophy winning City. You have to be careful the decisions you make!

A few years ago I had another momentous decision to make. A Church showed an interest in having me as their minister. I was comfortable in University Chaplaincy and I never thought I would go back into a parish. Yet, this Church was creative and maybe just imaginative enough for me to fit. Still, it would be a momentous decision. As I wrestled I listened over and over to a song by The Killers called Human. They sing 

“And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes
Clear your heart
Cut the cord…”

I took their advice. I closed my eyes, meditated, pondered and prayed. I cleared my heart looking for the right motives, seeking the selfish things within me that might blur my choices. I then eventually had to cut the chord of my safety and jump into the unknown, knowing I wasn’t jumping blindly but had considered the decision in the right way. It has been momentous.


Dublin bombs

Part 1 - IRIS


Part 2 - VOLCANO


If track 6 on Songs of Innocence is a Volcano about to blow then Raised By Wolves, that continues the heavy sinister sounds of this section of the album, is about something that has exploded and blown Dublin city apart. On May 17th 1974 loyalist paramilitaries detonated three bombs at rush hour. Another one went off in Monaghan. Bono has often spoken about how he might have been caught up in the carnage had he not taken the bike instead of the bus that particular Friday. 

His friend Andy Rowen wasn’t so lucky. Caught up in the bombing Andy was out doing deliveries with his father and what he saw that day would have a volcanic impact on his life to quote the previous song. Bono explains in the liner notes of the album how Andy turned to drugs to deal with it. The U2 song Bad was written about Andy and Bono calls him a hero. 

Revisiting his teenage years for the inspiration to these songs, it was obvious that this incident would be featured. U2 have been been involved in the Northern Ireland Troubles since they wrote Sunday Bloody Sunday for the War album. Raised By Wolves might be seen as a tragic twin of that song. That Bono just missed this bomb, and that no doubt Andy would share the terror and horror with his mates on Cedarwood Road, must be a major contributing factor as to why Bono took such in interest in The Troubles, that mainly took place in another country, Northern Ireland, some 60 miles north of Dublin, the capital of the Republic Of Ireland. 

Of course Bono doesn’t remain in 1974 in the song. You sense that he is using it to talk about the very contemporary terror where religious militants are filling our News reports, doing inhumane things in the name of belief all across the world. Two lines grabbed my attention for 1974 and 2014:

“of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate”

“the worst things in the world  are justified by belief.” 

Raised by Wolves is a fascinating title. Where does that come from? What does it mean? My friend Bob Flayhart pointed me to where I think the strongest clues are. Jesus spoke of wolves in the Sermon On The Mount; “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. (Matthew 7:15)” When the apostle Paul was giving his farewell address to the elders in Ephesus he warned them, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. (Acts 20:29). Raised By Wolves is a song where religion is perverted to kill. Such a twisting of the truth The Scriptures tells us is the work of wolves within the flock. 

For me the line “Stronger than fear” has had me surmising. Is Bono saying that fear is the motivating factor of the wolves? Or is he leaving out a key word, maybe love, faith or hope, that is stronger than fear but absent from the wolves false teaching to the flock. If he is listening to Tupac than “Fear is stronger than love” but if Bono or maybe Ali is reading Joyce Meyer then she writes, “Faith if the only thing I know of stronger than fear.” Bono being a man of faith has often ruminated about the tiny tweaks that makes true faith a heresy and leads to monstrous acts done in the name of God. 

Whatever… Raised By Wolves with its scary dark vocal gymnastics, reminding me of Hannibal Lecter noises, is the third song of trauma on Songs Of Innocence. Bono has seen tragedy personally and nationally. Where could a teenage boy find salvation in such a traumatic world… coming up in a climactic part 4…


A New House

“The excitement of possibility” is a phrase from a recent Ricky Ross interview. He is speaking about A New House, Deacon Blue’s seventh album, and these words are made flesh in a collection of songs that buzz with life and hope and rebirth. Perhaps building on the confidence the band must have gained from the response to their previous record Hipsters A New House is about the euphoria of spring without ignoring the cold ground of winter. Ross, in that same interview, cites John Donne’s line “No Winter shall abate the Spring’s increase” as the inspirational cornerstone. 

It is not often the review of a rock album references a Professor in Old Testament Theology but this album reminded me so much of Walter Brueggemann whose book Finally Comes The Poet speaks of the prophets being those who reveal the potential of what can be and inspire the people to reach  towards it. A New House is all about creating an inspirational hope for what could be. New beginnings, a new house, a new land, dreaming, believing and winning bombards the listener with positivity. Not that the former things are ignored. It is the happy memory of a new house in childhood that fires future newness. There are heartbreaking memories too which are reconciled so that life can move on.

If they had used New Land as the title track instead of A New House Alex Salmond might have been dropping a copy of the record through every letterbox in Scotland to gain those few extra votes that might bring Scottish Independence in Thursday’s Referendum. Ross is a major supporter of the Yes campaign and there can be little doubt that his mind imagining a new Scotland, thrilled by the prospect of it, has crept into the music. Yet, this record is about more than one country’s future destiny. A New House has a more universal theme. This is about all our individual lives and all the communities, cities and nations we belong to. The record doesn’t start in political Glasgow or Edinburgh. It starts with the opportunity of beginning again in spiritual Bethlehem. 

Ricky Ross has always had a sensitive lyrical touch, poetic and memorable with the ability to have feet firmly planted on a broken hearted earth but have head and soul in some other redeeming place. On A New House the band drive Ross’s ideas forward and his optimism is given a sound that seeps into your inner being as you listen. I’ll leave it with March  “I want the rush the push of every shoot/The thrust, the trust/The march to May.” Take a morning run with these songs in your headphones and then try to live your day in pessimism and monotony; as impossible as sucking a fruit pastille without chewing!


U2 Volcano


That post blues  (read part 1 of this series here) is very real as the record moves into Volcano which erupts, literally, with Adam’s menacing bass groove and the young Paul Hewson’s emotions are ready to blow. In the last century this would have been the single, the Vertigo or the Beautiful Day. It is heavy with doom laden bass giving underlying angst carrying it all on a dirtier sound but, as U2 have done with this entire album, it sounds like what the old days would have been a chart hit.

This might be the controversy of the album, the need to bring in young pop producers to compete. That might be a frustration among some U2 fans but as one who sits in the you-don’t-need-to-still-be-massive camp I have to admit that the blend is an interesting art form in itself. I would say that all the imaginations they were trying to unleash on No Line On The Horizon are right here on Songs Of Innocence but with the Tedders, Epworths et al they’ve added accessibility to Dangermouse rock muscle. 

Coming immediately after Iris, Volcano’s doom laden bass evokes the deep anger that Bono felt after his mother’s death. It is more about the feel than the poetry. Bono has always spoken of a variety of fault lines in his soul that have been caused by his mother’s death. He has spoken of how it fired his vocation. On initial listens I felt that this song was more about the feel than the poetry. But then on re-listens the songs depth charge started to ripple: -

“You can hurt yourself trying to hold on

To what you used to be

I’m so glad the past is all gone.”

I have blogged quite a bit about Deacon Blue’s lines from the song Is There No Way Back to You on their Hipsters record; "How do you carry this sorrow/How do you know when to let go.” This is Bono’s personal answer. He realises that he needed to let go of his past, reconcile himself with it, or it was going to dominate, haunt and mishape his soul. 

This is again pastoral gold. Whether a trauma that has knocked you over or your own failings and sin, it is good to have it redeemed. We will come in this mini series to one of the main seams of Bono’s personal redemption but even in the earlier tracks on Songs Of Innocence we are pointed to the transformational power of music in The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) and the spiritual potency of the romantic love of his wife Ali on Song For Someone.

With Bono lyrics you also have to look for the various layers of every song. These words have me wondering if he is commenting on the Catholic Church in Ireland here. In his superb liner notes, writing about the abuse of the Church’s power, he preaches “extraordinary acts of atonement are required to put things back together.” He is speaking about hurt and the holding of… or the letting go. He goes on to to talk about the positive hope of honesty and the danger of secrets; volcanos that can blow!

Politically, in Northern Ireland we could so with listening to these lines too. We are still living under the volcano of enmity and friction and the inability to deal with and let go of the past. It is still hurting us. We are still living above a volcano. When it blew in May 1974 Bono just missed the explosion but that is part 3… 



Breaking News… “Ian Paisley has passed away” … On hearing the news my mind went into a spin. As a pastor my first thought was for his wife and family. A little prayer for Jesus to be proven right when he called the Holy Spirit a Comforter. 

For the rest of us Ian Paisley was an objective phenomenon. He was a massive idea that caused passionate support or outrage. He has been a huge part of the recent history of where I live. He has shaped it and that in itself has whether I like it or not shaped me. 

For most of my life I detested the man. I was convinced that he was a major reason why my country couldn’t make peace and thus causing the deaths of many. His raging firebrand oratory divided my people and many would say that his emotive speeches led many into violence, not that he would say he condoned it. 

As a Christian I found that his attitude could never correlate with what I believe is Christlikeness as I find it in the Gospels. There was not enough “love your neighbour” never mind “love your enemy.” That he hijacked the name of my denomination, The Presbyterian Church In Ireland, when he formed his own Free Presbyterian Church, tainted me and my church’s reputation across the island and beyond. I personally believe his influence bullied by denomination into swinging to a very conservative theological position where I believe grace was replaced by law in many places.

In the end though that grace word became alive and real in Dr Paisley’s legacy. In the end his change of heart and soul and mind to sit in government with Sinn Fein and become not only a partner in government but a friend of Martin McGuinness shone out across the world as the grace of God made flesh. How we need him today as relationships between First and Deputy First Minister are so dangerously strained. 

Somehow, Ian Paisley’s following of Jesus and living out of God’s grace finally allowed him to love his enemy. It was a beautiful thing. It was a more eloquent preaching of the Gospel of Christ than he could ever have put in a sermon. Jesus giving of himself for those he was at enmity with doesn’t only redeem us into a new relationship with him but is the example of the life we should live to redeem our relationships with our enemies; by grace. Today when that breaking news came through it took me a long time to work my way through his life in order to get to it but in the end… grace!

And indeed in the end… grace. I am not sure what might have happened had I ever met Ian Paisley. We would have disagreed about an enormous amount of things. Today though I would imagine we agree on the most important thing. Today the most important thing in Ian Paisley’s life and death is not his theology, his politics, his sermons or his speeches. Today the only word that matters is… grace! May his family know that grace of God in their time of mourning too.


Bono's Mum

(Part one of a little series on what I perceive to be the hurting heart of U2's Songs Of Innocence album...)

One of the things that stands out on this new U2 record is the personal raw emotion of the songs. The heart of the record is where the hurt is, to paraphrase an old Bono line. From Iris (Hold Me Close) to Cedarwood Road we are on a 4 song sequence that is a painful journey from tragic personal loss to the door that opened for redemption to be found. I believe it to be the heart of the album. To record an album of songs of youth is nothing new to U2. 

Boy was exactly that but it was actually written in their youth as they left the exit door from adolescence. These songs have been thirty five years in the bubbling, brooding and making sense of. Where the other songs on Songs Of Innocence are also crucial building blocks that made Bono a man, this little section from Iris to Cedarwood Road are the trauma, the deepest fault lines of Bono’s shaping. Song For Someone is also a crucial building block but let us work through Iris to Cedarwood Road and get back to there.

Iris (Hold Me Close) shifts the entire mood of Songs Of Innocence. There is a bright and bouncy start to the record; The Ramones, the ocean and Beach Boys’ Santa Barbara. Iris leads us into a heavier sound and Bono’s lingering grief of losing his mother at 14. Larry lost his mother at a similar stage. 

Since War back in 1983 my first listen to a new U2 record has been a near sacred experience. I listen right through, usually letting out little gasps as a line strikes a chord in my soul. The surprising drop of Songs Of Innocence into my iTunes account had me listening on the same day that a friend was marking the anniversary of the brutal killing of his father in the Northern Ireland Troubles. My friend was just two years of age at the time.

Listening to Iris (Hold Me Close) in such a context took its potent emotional power to even deeper levels: -

“the ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am”

“The darkness just let’s us see who we are/I’ve got your life inside of me.”

“hold me close like I’m someone you might know.”

As a pastor who believes in the cathartic power of music and often uses music to help in pastoral care Iris resonates deeply. The loss, the memories, imagining the parent holding you now. It is painful yet redemptive. Like this entire section, I call it “post blues”. The melancholic despair of the blues is very real but it doesn’t stop in the blues, it transitions into Gospel music’s hopefulness and spiritual healing. That is very much the tradition of U2 but perhaps in this section of songs they have achieved it in ways they haven’t done before.


Coupland Girlfriend

(This morning's Pause For Thought on Radio 2 with Vanessa Feltz... the them this week was Literature That Inspired You)

I was on sabbatical in Vancouver in 2005. The minister of the Church I attended took ill and I had to preach for 4 Sundays. It was in only the fourth week that I realised I had started all the sermons with a  Douglas Coupland quotation. It was appropriate as not only is Coupland one of my favourite novelists but he is also from Vancouver just across the Lions Gate Bridge from where I was preaching! My favourite of his novels and the one I quote the most is Girlfriend in a Coma.

Girlfriend in a Coma is an X Files like story of apocalypse and a group of school friends who live every modern malaise and find healing and redemption. They end up the only humans left alive on the planet. I did say X Files like!

Near the end the friends are given a challenge, “If you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world - if you're not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order - then you're wasting your day."

This quotation takes me back to the Bible. In the New Testament, The apostle Paul wrote that we need to be about the renewing of our minds. Jesus spent his entire ministry turning the world upside down and called us to bring in a radically different world where enemies would be loved, the marginalised would be looked after, where the oppressed would go free.

So, every time I quote these words of Coupland’s I get goosebumps in my heart and soul. These words make me want to rush out the door and go change my world? I am energised to think in radical different and imaginative ways. I am reminded of all the  rotten carcasses of the old order? These words always rebuke me in my apathy but somehow as I read them the rebuke gives way to a  motivating force that encourages me to stop wasting time and go give myself to something bigger and better. For me this is literature at its most inspiring and transformational.

U2: SONGS OF INNOCENCE - First Listen Surmise

Songs Of Innocence

My friend Lisa Ho Face Booked photos of the iPhone 6 Launch. My first thought was… “it would be like U2 to use that to release their new record, totally out of the blue.” Next thing I am getting messages from all over the planet (literally) telling me the new U2 album is not only out but is FREE and in my iTUNES account NOW! Come on! What a stunt?! Only U2… Like when my wife, then girlfriend, reached me a ticket for Zoo TV at Earls Court tube station an hour before the gig I had no time to anticipate. On with the head phones and BOOM there is that voice…

…BUT I am coming to this moment with a little frustration with U2. It has been 6 years. I think too long. I had lost a lot of my ardour. I have actually wondered for a year or so if I would ever take U2 seriously again. I had never come to a U2 record in a negative state about the band. Even when I first put the needle down on October it was in anticipation and Gloria kicked in, to change my world! Tonight I was caught up in the magnificence of the release rather than the expectation of what it might sound like.

Headphones on. Press play! Eleven songs later and I am exhausted by the music, the emotion, the spiritual gems. U2 have blown me away all over again; when I expected it least. We will be getting our heads around album of the year being released free in an age when record companies need a big seller for some time. Let’s reflect on that later. Let us ask our first questions of the songs. 

Though not a concept album on Bono’s childhood there are a lot of songs that go back. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) is conversion to the power of music and U2’s life’s pilgrimage begins. Raised By Wolves is about a Friday in Dublin city when loyalist paramilitaries blew the city centre and 33 people apart. Bono only missed it by having taken the bike and not the bus that day. Cedarwood Road is about the power of friendship on the street Bono grew up on. Most powerful of all is Iris (Hold Me Close) about Bono’s mum who died when he was 14. It is an emotional pummelling - “the ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am.” 

On first listen it would seem to me that that emotional heartache is a key to why the album hits. This is Bono at his most personal. These are not objective songs about creeds, political opinions or thoughts on love. This is Bono’s heart and soul right out there on his sleeve. Which might explain the voice. When has Bono ever sounded as good as this. 

Musically the stand out thing for me is what isn’t there. Edge’s trademark U2 sound is to the minimum. Oh there are guitars, it sounds like U2 and yes the Edge’s music imagination is all over it but not in the traditional sense. Adam’s bass and Larry’s drums groove and thump the whole thing forward. The further in you go the heavier the sound becomes. Yes, you can hear the accessibility that pop producers Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder have brought to the mix but it’s far from sugar coated and light. Live, this is gonna shake a stadium and hit the top row at Croke Park. There is experimentation too and lovely shimmies and shifts and vocal surprises. 

There is also the regular depth charge couplets of spiritual and theological gems but we will get to those as the week goes on. For now… First listen. How could I have doubted. They have done it again. The next three years have U2 written all over them… and… did they really just do that! Let’s listen again!




Gladys Pete and Book

(Sunday September 14th 2014 at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast... Gladys Ganiel in Conversation with Steve Stockman on Emerging Church...)

So, I am live on the Drew Marshall Radio Show across Canada. It is by telephone. I am at home in Belfast. Drew is a friendly chap and we are shooting the breeze about music and faith as Canadians and Americans like me to do when he draws me into a conversation about, Belfast’s popular philosopher/theologian/author/Emerging Church icon, Pete Rollins. He was belittling Pete and suggesting that maybe I would like to take him out the back and give him a good hiding! I wasn’t biting. I consider Pete a good friend. He is a warm and friendly fella. I admire his intellect. So I wasn’t going to criticise him on live radio. After a few minutes Drew says, “So Pete, what do you make of that?” And I realise that Pete is on another line from somewhere in Connecticut! It could have been an awkward moment…

I did say, before Pete appeared, that the one question I have for Pete is what he is building? There is a lot of talk in the Emerging Church world about deconstruction. My view of Christianity is about building something. Jesus spoke of a Kingdom coming. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians spoke about Christians being built into a Holy Temple. The Bible is very constructive. 

I have known Pete since he was involved in a Thursday night group on our home back in the mid 90s. We were a bunch of disenfranchised Christians, frustrated by the Church. I was the Presbyterian minister attempting to give a space for healing. There is no doubt that those Thursdays were deconstructive even though that was not my aim. In fact as the Drew Marshall show went on Pete jokingly blamed  those Thursday nights and thus me for what he has become! There might be some truth in it! I was delighted to be involved in the first IKON event and loved being involved in their Johnny Cash night which probably was an influence on my Gospel According To… events that have attracted much attention. Yet, I have spent a lot of time with people who have attended IKON events trying to make sense of their spiritual and artistic imaginings. (IKON like Emerging is hard to define but Belfast’s most famous form of Emerging Church and Pete Rollins was a founder and driving force.)

In Northern Ireland evangelicalism where imagination is almost at deprivation levels, and where we don’t move forward very quickly on anything, the phrase Emerging Church is like a CSI tape across the scene. It is a no go area. The thinking, worship and missional practice of the Emerging movement is ignored and dismissed. Evangelicalism has been very adept at rolling out CSI tapes. Words like ecumenical, liberal and charismatic have allowed new insights or challenges to be binned without any serious critique at all. The Postmodern word is another CSI tape. It is suspiciously looked at as a faulty worldview and the modernist worldview that it is critiqued from is seen as somehow faultless… near Biblical! 

So, what if we took a good hard look at this Emerging phenomenon? Would there be lessons to learn behind the CSI tape? On Sunday evening in Fitzroy we will do just that. Gladys Ganiel has co written the most thorough sociological look at Emerging Christianity to date. Lecturer at the Irish School Of Ecumenics, Gladys brings her sociological expertise and her knowledge of Northern Ireland Church life to the discussion. She is academically robust and spiritually sensitive to the context. The book written along with with Gerardo Marti is called The Deconstructed Church; Understanding Emerging Christianity and is very well researched and full of insights. We will be provocatively probing Gladys’s knowledge to see what we can dismiss but more importantly what we might need to hear from the new ways that many engage with Jesus, the Church and the world. Is there something we can use in constructing from all this deconstruction?!




How keen were you to get up this morning? What did the day, or indeed the week, laid out ahead of you make you feel? Is work a chore or somewhere you were racing to get to? Where you head off to today is your front line or at least a major one in your life. 

I started a new series in Fitzroy on Sunday. I am keen to have a look at Mark Greene’s book Fruitfulness On The Frontline and bring into the congregation’s psyche Greene’s 6 Ms to fruitfulness; modelling Godly character, making good work, ministering grace and love, moulding culture, being a mouthpiece for justice and being a messenger of the gospel. There is a holistic nature to this that I really like.

Early on in his book Greene looks at where our front lines are and opens up the story of a young slave girl who is the cause of her master Naaman healing from leprosy. The story is found in 2 Kings 5 and is a story I remember from my childhood. Greene made me reassess it. Here is a young teenage girl who is literally taken into slavery in a foreign culture. She had every right to be angry and hostile to her captors. However, in this her front line she brings redemption and transformation. 

So wherever you are today? However you got there? Whatever you are doing there? Whoever it is you are with? Whatever the struggles within yourself? Even if it is not a place you were keen to go. It is your front line and is probably a much more positive scenario than this teenage girl, whose name we don’t even know, was in.

As I reflected on the story Greene opened up afresh to me, I found three words. How encouraging for the preacher to find one of our University students had written them on her hand during the sermon. Her mum thought she was being disrespectful doodling on her hand during the sermon. Instead she was being very respectful. Anyway, the three words, or Presbyterian points which I am not in the habit of modelling, are FAITH, GRACE, COURAGE. 

This teenage girl has enough faith to believe that her God could make a difference. She then showed incredible grace to love her captors who had taken her from her home and family to use her knowledge to bring healing to them. She then needed the courage to make the suggestion.

Today on our front lines, whether that is in work, among family, friends, in Church, volunteering or where the the day finds us, let us be alert to the opportunities to use our faith and God’s grace with courage to make seemingly ordinary contributions that heal others and leads them to an understanding of our God.

click to listen to the full sermon here