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November 2014


Fitzroy building

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we will be lighting our first Advent Candle and also remembering that December 1st is World Aids Day, Jonny Mitchell from ACET will share a little about HIV AIDS. We will then be finishing our series in Mark Greene's book Fruitfulnes On The Frontline, asking how we give a defence for the hope that is within us. How do we share with others in uncontrived and natural ways what the angels declared that first Christmas.

In the evening (NOTE at 6.30 not our usual 7) it is the extravaganza The Gospel According To... The Lion King when we will unpack that great movie with refelctions from it that caress and collide with the Gospel of Christ. The apostle Paul started it back in Athens as recorded in Acts 17... we continue the model... click here for more details



Steve Taylor

This is sensational what ever way you look at it. Steve Taylor the prophetic rebel poet laureate of Christian rock in the 80s and 90s releases  his first record in 21 years. The Perfect Foil is like a super group; Peter Furler from one of Christian rock’s biggest band’s Newsboys, John Mark Painter from the imaginative and very original Fleming and John and Jimmy Abegg guitar hero of Vector, The Ragamuffin Band as well as a solo artist and highly regarded photographer. 

Then the songs. Oh my goodness. Don’t be fooled by the words 80s and 90s at the start of this review. This is a record that vibrates with energy and urgency for 2014. You can hear every phase of Taylor’s career in these eleven songs. There is the quirk of I Want To Be A Clone and the hard edged rock of his previous super group Chagall Guevara. Goliath is the sum of all the parts. Here is a man who has reached further and deeper and wider in every album he has ever released and 30 years in has arrived with his most holistic work yet. 

It rocks as well as anything has rocked this year. It would seem that the Perfect Foil is not just for wrapping but that all three are contributing at the heart. Furler writes melodies as well as great drum rhythms, Painter is one of the most versatile and imaginative players and Abegg can strum, riff and finger dance. All of that is in evidence throughout. There is a bass groove that thuds most sweetly and guitar licks that sprinkle like shards of brightest light.

On top of all of that Taylor’s lyrics are so poetic, prophetic, provocative, downright clever and so darn humorous that you can’t take your ears off it. English theologian John Stott spoke of “double listening”. No one does it better than Taylor. He is listening acutely to the soul numbing dangers of the world around him and how the culture bends and breaks us. He has also a sharp Biblical ear, that cuts through the shallow thinking and cheap cliche of most evangelical Christianity, and applies the Word to the world with sensitive grace but courageous truth. He brings Stott’s double listening together in the studio to create songs that everybody needs to listen to. 

The listener will feel a strength to fight a variety of empty enemies in a modern world of entertainment, celebrity and moulding us into its image. With many a depth charge some of them humorous (the high 5 in Goliath is beautifully done and the puns in Comedian are genius) we will be engaged artistically, spiritually and rebelliously. It is deftly subtle and tenaciously tough. Whatever your Goliath this will help! A Life Preserved might be a summary:

“Calling me out of the shallows of my world

Called to something graceful, something true

Gratitude's too cheap a word for all you've reassembled

From a spirit broken and unnerved

A life preserved.”

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... THE LION KING; Sunday November 30 in Fitzroy

Lion King

Fitzroy’s Gospel According To… Series has been running for five years. It started pretty much as a rock music thing with U2, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, The Waterboys, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the political provocative Christy Moore. However, we didn’t limit ourselves to that and have covered Les Miserables and The West End as well as the “all-the-family” versions with Harry Potter and CS Lewis’s Narnia.

The origins are Biblical and go all way back to the first century when the apostle Paul’s missionary journey found him in Athens. This was a city whose world view was not Jewish. Paul couldn’t turn up quotes from the Old Testament to explain the Gospel of Christ. So, as recorded in Acts 17, he took quotations and thoughts from their poets, philosophers and artists to hang his sermon on. 

That is what we are doing in The Gospel According To… series. yet, I hope there is much more going on. As we draw out Gospel ideas in movies and music we are also helping people to engage with their culture. Everybody has an opinion on what they see and hear and read. To begin to caress and collide these things with the Bible and Jesus is helpful in critiquing culture but also in sharing the good news. I always feel they have worked when my daughters say, “Dad, that Katy Perry song Unconditional. That is like a Gospel According to… type song.” My daughters are listening with spiritual ears. That will be helpful in so many ways.

Sunday night’s event will be for all the family and follow the templates of Harry Potter and Narnia. It will be child friendly but no less deep and spiritually profound as a result. With Narnia we walked through a coat laden wardrobe to get in and were given some Turkish Delight once we were in. I can only imagine what they will conjure to lead us into The Lion King. Face painting and a community choir are being mentioned! It will be entertaining and spiritually edifying all in one!

click here to read a review of The Gospel According to... The Wardrobe, The Witch and The Lion

The Gospel According To… The Lion King is on Sunday November 30th at 6.30pm at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast.


Mesroom Maggie

It was a moment of devastating grace. The moment was freeze framed in my mind. The powerful impact of honesty and selflessness was tangible. I asked why were such moments not more common. Where in my life was I causing such effect.

It was Series 3 episode 2 of Newsroom. Maggie from the newsroom is on a train and overhears a senior player in the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chatting to someone on the phone. She sneakily sits behind him, lowers herself down in the seat and holds her phone up to record him. She gets some juicy criticism of the government and then tells him who she is and what she has done. In the midst of the ongoing conversation where he tries to stop his phone call becoming TV news she eventually listens and reflects enough to stop the whole thing in its tracks and say that she is in fact not going to do anything about it. She gets up and returns to her seat.

It is that moment. The EPA guy’s face is a picture. Confused and shell shocked. He simply doesn’t understand. He comes round to ask her what she means. No matter how much Maggie reassures him that she feels it was morally wrong to do such a thing and that she is taking it no further he simply doesn’t believe her and seems to be waiting for some deal to be offered to him. In the end he actually does give her an embargoed report and the promise of an exclusive interview but that is all is his doing.

It was a refreshing scene of integrity and ethical values. Of course it is not lost on the viewer that script writer Aaron Sorkin is setting this scene in the world of politics and journalism. Situations of pure goodness are rare in such worlds. It was a quick shift to have me on a train in Northern Ireland and dreaming of such moments in those worlds of journalism and politics that shape the atmosphere and shalom, well actually division, on the streets of my city. Oh how I yearn for moments when the other party in our vicious and sometimes violent divisions would leave the other party stunned with generosity of spirit. That more what think of what is best for the city, the country, the people, their interviewee or adversary rather than their own vot or TV ratings. Oh for more moments when people would be shell shocked by generosity and moral integrity. Oh that more of us would have moments of not understanding.

But let me not go that far. Let me start with myself. When did I last cause such a reaction? What about my Church? When did we last? As I shifted the Maggie scene across the Gospels I can only imagine that the look on the EPA guy’s face was exactly how the Samaritan woman looked when Jesus spoke to her; how the Roman centurion looked when Jesus said that he hadn’t come across such faith in all of Israel; how the prostitute, caught in the act of adultery looked, when Jesus saved her from stoning and said, ‘Go and sin no more”; how Zacchaus looked when Jesus invited himself for dinner. 

It would be easy to say that the Newsroom scene was fictitious and that Sorkin has a habit of being over idealistic. Of course. Yet, as I look into Scripture and find Jesus and hear his invitation to follow him, I realise that it is not idealistic to cause such moments of stunned disbelief as I live an upside down life of grace. Moments go devastating grace is what I am called to.


Peter and Martin

Over The Rhine’s third Christmas album is not another great Christmas album. It is another great album - period. The review is blogged here but I want to concentrate on one line that left the rest of the brilliance and torpedoed its way into my soul surmising. As they sang…

“I hope that we can still believe

The Christ child holds a gift for us

Are we able to receive

Peace on earth this Christmas”

… something clicked for the first time. It is not a new line. I have been living with this line most of my life. I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t hear it at Christmas time. I heard it for years before I even believed that what it was talking about was any kind of reality. For the last thirty years I have worked the phrase annually. One of my other favourite bands U2 even had a song called this and I have written about that song.

However, this year, as my country’s peace process is unravelling and some of our politicians seem intent in speeding up its coming apart that near over familiar line, “Peace on earth this Christmas”, struck a chord as loud as any Jimmy Page strum and as spiritually powerful as an Old Testament prophet or actually a New Testament angel on the night God came to earth! 

“Peace, Steve, Peace” is what my soul kept repeating. It is not about justice or vengeance, it is not about proving who was right or wrong. It is not about us and them and us winning. The point of this mission that God had in coming to earth was peace. That peace was not just for my soul. It was about peace on earth. Anyone following this Jesus whose birth is heralded in this angel’s song should be all about peace. 

This of course is not an out of the blue declaration of a God reaching for some Plan B or C. The Old Testament was all about this peace; shalom is how the Jewish people said it. Shalom was God’s intention in the law given, for the King’s to achieve and for the prophets to critique the lack of. A favourite verse on the subject that I have blogged often is Jeremiah 29:7 And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” (NKJV)

Those who claim to follow the baby born when the angels sang need to find that priority of peace. That God’s people would seek shalom wherever they were was a way of being God’s holy nation, a people set apart, different, in all the right ways, from the other nations. We need to not blend in to the world’s intuitive response to seek to be proven right, in control and avenging all who would come against us. We need to be about that ministry of reconciliation that God told us we would be about just as we are connected to God himself through that same ministry of his peace making.

As my wee country’s peace unravels in this last few days with sectarian, bigoted and graceless speeches and tweets we need to see afresh this Gospel priority and commit to it with renewed courage, hope and all that grace that is intrinsic to the baby born and lacking in our current political climate.


Blood Oranges

The genius of Over The Rhine’s Christmas records is not just that they put the emotions and stories of the rest of the year into the Christmas story, it is that they also put the Christmas story into the rest of the year. This is why I can with integrity listen to their Christmas records, particularly Snow Angels and this new one Blood Oranges In The Snow, in November. Actually you could listen to these songs in July and not feel it out of sync. 

Blood Oranges In The Snow come in their usual organic and rustic Americana beauty, laying a musical foundation for Karin Berquist’s angelic voice through which they deliver poetry pretty much unequalled among their peers. That poetry is permeated with depth of human experience. 

These particular songs are suffused with a melancholy that peels back the sentimentality of Christmas that even Christmas carols have yielded to the temptation of. In these songs people lose parents, are struggling with drink and homelessness. There is a world at war in the very place the Christ child was born to bring peace. These are songs that expose the sadness and weariness of a world on the brink of hopelessness.

Yet, there is hope being marinated through the whole batch. Grace’s baby; old hymns around the fire; sparkling rumours of redemption at play; faint Christmas bells; confidence and grace; a hope for all mankind; biblical verse in neon above the trash; bright future in a checkered past. 

I love the warm fire, family together, nicely decorated, Santa calling, presents opening, turkey eating Christmas. That is a lovely time of the year for most of us. However, there is so much more. If you lean in and listen you will hear the possibilities of something new. Something earth shattering has hit the world in the image of a soft baby in straw. It is such a deeply resonating thing that it should not be contained to a couple of weeks of the year. It should be sprinkled across the whole year like the sparkling rumours of redemption mentioned on this record. That is what Over The Rhine do. Christmas songs for all year round; for that is what Christmas should be.

click here to read review of Snow Angels


Art of McCartney

The Art Of McCartney gives Paul McCartney the kind of big name tribute album that John Lennon got with Instant Karma and Bob Dylan got with Chimes Of Freedom. It is a hug step up in big names than the the tributes released together in 2001; one by “popular artists” and the other by “independent artists”. This one is the big deal. Bob Dylan, for goodness sake, along with Billy Joel, BB King, Roger Daltrey, The Cure, Heart, Brian Wilson, Chrissie Hynde as well as the more current Owl City and Perry Farrell. 

On initial listens there might be a legitimate disappointment that the whole thing is a little bit too reverential. What producer and director of the project, Ralph Sall, has done is to use McCartney’s fantastic band, of the last thirteen years, to lay down the tracks and then bring in the stars to do the vocals. This in some ways gave less freedom and imagination to the arrangements as Anderson, Ray, Wickens and Laboriel Jr are in Macca blueprint default. The danger was a superstar exercise in karaoke.

Without doubt for me the more interesting tracks are the ones that McCartney’s band are not on. The reggae groove of Toots Hibbert’s version of Come and Get It with Sly and Robbie, Peter Bjorn and John’s Put It There on the Amazon exclusive track, Booker T Jones’ instrumental Cant Buy Me Love and BB King’s extraordinary guitar blues version On The Way are the intrigue. Of course the female vocal of Corrine Bailey Rae on Bluebird, that rock chick drawl of Chrissie Hynde on Let It Be, and Dr John’s deep throated voice  Let ‘Em In give a different take.

In the end though, when you sit with the record long enough and overcome the fact that on occasions it is difficult to distinguish some of the voices from McCartney’s himself, there is something profound being communicated on this project. Paul McCartney has been disparaged by many as the soft pop Beatle. It beggars belief how a man who gave us so many iconic songs should have taken such grief. Perhaps it is a fair enough comment to say that McCartney has the ability to conjure regular songwriting genius but also fill albums with very weak songs too. Lennon was not missed when McCartney hit the spot but he was missed to add a wee quirk of genius to those songs that were a tad average. Post Beatles the average perhaps got too much room to breathe!

What The Art Of McCartney declares though is not only the depth of quality in Paul McCartney’s art but also its staggering breadth. Here we get the pop of different eras, Brian Wilson, Billy Joel and today’s Perry Farrell. We have country with Willie Nelson, soul with Smokey Robinson, the light jazz of Harry Connick Jr and Jamie Cullum, the blues of BB King, the rock of Cheap Trick and Heart and then the heavy rock of Kiss, Def Leppard and Joe Elliott. it is exactly because we don’t get their versions but McCartney’s versions that his versatility is given the spot light.

It is also just a great machine gun fire of great songs. Not karaoke!


Fitzroy Board

Tomorrow morning (11am) Jonathan will take us to the end of Jonah's story. He gets over his sectarian bigotry and God interupts the way the world was. We will also be having a guest appearance from Homeplus which will tell us a little bit of what life is like on the streets and the difference a Church can make with some clothes and a few sleeping bags. 

In the evening (7pm) Mark Fullerton will take us into the heart and soul of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Last month we were looking at How To Read The Bible so over the next number of months we will regularly tap into some books and see how we can read it to give respect to its context and how it might speak to us. Mark did his theology Masters dissertation on Ecclesiastes.

and don't forget...

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... THE LION KING is next Sunday evening, November 30th and don't forget that the time is 6.30 NOT our ususal 7.006.30 NOT our ususal 7.00



Bruce Cockburn book

Readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of Canadian singer, songwriter and activist Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn's connection with Jesus has been one of the driving forces of his life, music and campaigning and his stunning poetic lyrics have nourished my soul in a whole variety of ways. 

click here to read my article about listening to Cockburn in Cape Town

click here to read my use of Cockburn on Tiananmen Square

As a Cockburn fan for over 30 years it very exciting to be able to bring news of not one, not two but THREE Bruce Cockburn appearances in March. My tickets are bought!

The Belfast Nashville Festival is a gem of a music fest. This is the week when great songwriters gather to not only do gigs but also do songwriting workshops, interviews and little unique In The Round gigs where they collaborate with others.

And so, in 2015, we get Bruce Cockburn.

BRUCE COCKBURN INTERVIEW: March 5th, Holiday Inn, Ormeau Avenue @ 5pm

On March 5th Bruce will do a public interview. I hve been to a couple of these at Greenbelt and if you go to one muscians interbview in your life then Cockburn is a good one. Bruce is a shy man but he is well read, knowledgable and articulate. His songs are deep in soul and speak about the world and its pain and hope for healing. He has a lot to say and syas it well!

BRUCE COCKBURN, IN THE ROUND with FOY VANCE and KEN HADDOCK - March 5th, Holiday Inn, Ormeau Avenue @ 9.45pm

For my wife's birthday Bruce is getting toegther with two of her favourite Belfast voices, Foy Vance and Ken Haddock to share songs and stories in the round. This is an utterly unique treat, not be to be missed, whether it is your birthday or not!

BRUCE COCKBURN IN CONCERT - March 6th, Holiday Inn Ormeau Avenue @ 9.45

The full Bruce Cockburn concert. 

click here for a Stocki live review of Bruce Cockburn

and in preparation...


The long anticipated Cockburn biography is out for Christmas. Already available in north America it is out here on Hardback on December 4th but I already have it on Kindle and the writing is magnificent. Cockburn's self awareness as well as his social and political awareness and spiritual interests make it one seriously good rock biog read - perhaps the best written... ever! It makes a great Christmas present and essential research for the Belfast Brucefest in March!

click here for tickets




Cockburn Live

Bruce Cockburn close up. My word! I was in the front, right underneath the stage. My friend said I could have looked up his nose. I guess I could but from the moment he walked on stage I was completely distracted. Cockburn has this unique combination of being an articulate poet and a brilliant guitarist. Not many can put those together. He also has, though it might be said a lot of his songs don’t have a radio friendly sound, the added ability to pull out a memorable melody. There is so much to admire that you don’t know what to concentrate on. He beats out the rhythm on his guitar and with near sleight of hand (you wonder is there another guitarist behind the curtain) picks intricate tunes, then overlays them with rhyming couplets that any great poet would dream of. And we are not finished yet… into these couplets he sets social commentary, political rage and spiritual theology as well as being able to look in the depth of an ordinary man’s heart and soul and talk about love and loneliness, joy and pain. 

Tonight Cockburn unleashed sermonette after sermonette making me think that it would make a great book to look at his theology of sin and redemption. He is ever aware of a fallen humanity and describes it well – “Terrible deeds done in the name of tunnel vision and fear of change/surely are expressions of a soul that's turned its back on love (Put It In Your Heart) and I was born on a Friday and you can’t fix me” (Mystery). He is also aware that in the midst of that we can find a spiritual hope that allows us to dance in the dragons jaw, “thinking about eternity, in the middle of this ecstasy” (Wondering Where The Lions Are) and “What does it take for the heart to explode into stars/One day we'll wake to remember how lovely we are” (Wait No More) and always looking beyond with eschatological hopefulness – “Today these eyes scan bleached-out land/For the coming of the outbound stage/Pacing the cage (Pacing The Cage) and“Fold me into you, you know where I'm dying to be/When my ship sets sail on that ocean of deep mystery” (Wait No More). 

And as well as traversing the soul, a Cockburn gig allows more air travel than a television holiday programme. Tonight he takes us to Tokyo in the song named after that city and then to Nicaragua. Dust and Diesel is an intriguing choice for this. As fans no doubt clamoured for the better known song of his eighties trip through Central America as documented on Stealing Fire, If I Had A Rocket Launcher, he gives us one of the less esteemed brothers. Set lists of people with 25 albums will always have you picky about what is left out. Tonight I was more surprised and thrilled by what got put in. The songs off You’ve Never Seen Everything particularly came alive with the more stripped back sound. From Central America we headed to the Middle East. Cockburn is not an artist who prostitutes world events just to feed his songs. He likes to go and see for himself. This Is Baghdad is one such song; in it he simply describes the scene in his best travelogue way. How many times after a song like this have I found myself in some far off place staring at beauty and injustice side by side and whispering, “I wish Bruce Cockburn was here.” When he gets us to Baghdad he then takes us right into his commentary on it where he asks George Bush and his aids to tell God what they’ve done. (Tell The Universe). It is an interesting take because rather than damn the Whitehouse power brokers out of hand he almost sympathizes and encourages them to seek help for their psychological insecurities – “You've been projecting your shit at the world/Self-hatred tarted up as payback time/You can self destruct-that's your right/But keep it to yourself if you don't mind.” 

Starting with a mystical tune from the late seventies Wondering Where The Lions Are Cockburn ended, (before encores) with another mystical song, this time his most recent; Mystery from his most recent album Life Short Call Now. It is a gorgeous spiritual search and find and invitation to join in that. In the midst of the awareness of his brokenness and apprehensions of this world and the next he sings – “Infinity always gives me vertigo/And fills me up with grace.” Everything else he says and sings is wrapped in the spiritual grace and wonder of those songs. Particularly interesting tonight is his environmental anthem If A Tree which gains maybe the biggest applause of the evening. The more recent Beautiful Creatures is also powerfully poignant. 

One other comment before conclusions. His introduction to Life Short Call Now gave me an insight into the loneliness of the road. It lead us and Bruce to remark how many road songs he has written from and about and how much of his life then is between places on his own. There is a sacrifice to this life. It is not at all glamour and wealth and fun for the troubadour who heads out into the world to share his insights. And I guess it made me more thankful for Bruce Cockburn. Yes, I had paid a ticket price but he has given much more for us to meet at the front of that stage in Belfast’s Empire. He’s a long way from home. 

I have written it before but while introducing Bruce on stage at the Greenbelt Festival I declared, before the man, himself that he had "prophesied into my world, provoked my mind, preached to my heart and pastored my soul.” And that is exactly what he did tonight. Like no one else can. His musical adeptness and his poetic articulation is drenched in spiritual and worldly wisdom that tells us much of what we need to hear. So Bruce, I know it’s lonely out here but don’t make it so many years before you come back.