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March 2015


Palm Sunday

If we cock our ears and listen carefully to the story of Easter week we will hear something utterly counter intuitive, upside down, inside out, socially subversive, spiritually perverse and utterly crazy…

On Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds were on adrenaline rush. They thought the King was coming. A victorious King. They were singing, they were waving palm branches. This was the one who was coming to overthrow, to set up power, to rule over those Romans. The chosen people were fighting back. We were days away from the big WIN. Stand up for the Galilean man!

The donkey was a clue. And the lack of arms. Jesus was actually riding into Jerusalem to get beaten… literally. He was heading towards defeat head on. This was not going to end well. Jesus was a loser… losing… for losers. When his big rough tough body guard Peter went to fight Jesus told him to put away his sword, his Kingdom was not of this world. 

St. Paul put it best (Philippians 2: 6-8)…

Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!

Jesus was about a very different kind of Kingdom. It was going to be strong in humility, powerful in grace, dangerous in love. It was not going to be anything like this world. 

It was what he had been about all along. Blessed are the meek. If someone strikes you on one cheek then turn the other cheek too. Do good to those who persecute you. The first will be last and the last will be first. All his teaching was made flesh as Jesus walked through Easter week. 

 If we cock the ears of our soul and listen really closely this week we will hear Jesus whisper, “follow me”… yet if we are honest we are still trying to fight, to win, to take power as the world does. It is in the humility of Jesus that the world is changed and transformed. It is in giving up our lives that we find the redemptive power of resurrection life. 





So Van’s idea was that the publishers aren’t doing what they used to do, placing your songs with other artists and so he takes their responsibility off them to eke out some of his songs full potential by reworking them with other singers. 

Morrison has of course being doing this duet thing for many’s a long year - Tom Jones, Mark Knopfler, John Lee Hooker and even Cliff Richard, for goodness sake, to mention a few. In his own live concerts he has enjoyed bouncing back and forward off Brian Kennedy, his daughter Shana Morrison and in more recently Dana Masters, to again name a few. It is a big part of Morrison's muse and thus Duets gives him an opportunity to explore that discipline at length.

Duets isn’t, however, an opportunity for a greatest hits repackage. There is no Gloria, Brown Eyed Girl, Moondance, Crazy Love or Have I Told You Lately That I Love You here. Exploitative commercial karaoke this is not. Instead, Morrison uses this record as a fresh piece of art in itself, hence the ‘reworking’ word in the title. Commercial exploiting karaoke this is not. 

Three things that stood out. First, the songs that were not only re-worked but re-freshed and therefore needed re-assessed. George Benson’s band gives Higher Than The World a little more drive; Gregory Porter recycles and reinvigorates The Eternal Kansas City; Taj Mahal gives How Can A Poor Boy more pastoral intention; and Mavis Staples makes If I Needed Someone the Gospel spiritual it always dreamed of becoming.

Since the record went to radio the world has been surprised, and fans a little disconcerted, at Michael Bublé’s appearance. Well, that’s the second thing I picked up on. Bublé is far from out of place and their romp through Real Real Gone is a gem; Bublé the 21st Century Cliff! Morrison gives some credibility too to Joss Stone, Mick Hucknall and PJ Proby, with songs that will have fans heading back to Common One, Veedon Fleece and Down the Road to see what they missed or have forgotten. Proby is a particularly clever inclusion and when Morrison sings ‘Whatever happened to PJ Proby' and PJ responds with “I wonder can you tell me man’ you can forget any accusations about Morrison’s lack of humour! Quality!

The final thing… and forgive me for saying it again… is that voice. Morrison gathers some of the world’s best singers, over a 40 year period, and comes out the best singer of a formidable bunch. 

All in all I found Re-Working The Catalogue a shake up of my listening, causing me to scurry back and re-evaluate, listen to songs and records I haven’t for a while. There are the songs and the singers unused here that would make a second or even a third volume an enticing prospect. Duets is a most satisfying mystic side alley!

OVER THE RHINE; DRUNKARD'S PRAYER ("Our Stay Together Album - 10 Years On)

Drunkard's Prayer

(Lindford Detweiler pointed out on Facebook that it is 10 years today since this gem of a record came out... what he called 'our let's stay together album'. How blessed we all have been that those guys made it through this difficult period in their marriage. Re-investigate. Here is my review at the time...)

That Drunkard’s Prayer is a slow burn smouldering beautiful thing you can take as read; it is Over The Rhine for goodness sake. Here they keep with the organic nature of the utterly classic Ohio album and also hanker back to the stripped back, do it in your living room, sound of Good Dog Bad Dog. And there are the usual tasteful traits; wonderful long lists of rhyming, depth charge one liners, on piano framed melodies and Karin’s sensually spiritual voice.

Where this album takes it a cut above the rest is the raw honesty of its story and content. In November 2003 Linford and Karin, the married couple that is Over the Rhine, took themselves off the road. The winter tour had begun well but as the muse fused in the traditionally perfect way, their relationship was in tatters. To cancel dates was brave, to admit to the reason was vulnerability not common in the industry. Their time of sabbatical and refuge was painful and, though at times it was far from certain, it ultimately brought healing. They explain opening a bottle of wine and talking to there was nothing left to say. The songs on this album are the exorcism of heir marriage’s fracture and the mending. At times the tender and fresh scars illicit tears but then always break into a smile as we see that we are walking on the fragile sacred space of recent salvation. It is in the template of Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, a song cycle of break up but here we get a twist in the tale; redemption. Over the Rhine have always had a Christian spirituality. Here the songs are not so explicit but the implicit sum of the parts is redemption.

Little Did I Know is for me the centre piece. It tugs so hard at your heart that you’re waiting for something to burst from your chest. Linford’s jazz piano and Karin beautiful piece of heartache, “Little did I know that I almost let you go/Until I caught a glimpse of life without you…” Heart feelings and naked souls have maybe never been captured in song like these testimonies of love wrestling to hold on the for better or worse. Love is joyful in the for better but love is proved in the for the worse and these songs are proof of love resurrected and vows fought for. The other option was never the designer’s intention. On Spark the soul searching and the need for personal restoration to restore the relationship is a battle with fear which also turns up on Born. On Spark “Obsessions with self-preservation/Faded when I threw my fear away” before the lesson is preached, “You either lose your fear/Or spend your life with one foot in the grave".

On Born there is conclusion and the new beginning that is another recurring theme:

“We've seen the landfill rainbow
We've seen the junkyard of love
Baby it's no place for you and me

I was born to laugh
I learned to laugh through my tears
I was born to love
I'm gonna learn to love without fear”

To live through the tears and learn to laugh is brave in itself, to turn it into an album is the audacity that only Over The Rhine would wish to offer or have the ability to achieve. The fans who were invited to pray simply that they’d work it out are now handed the lavish grace of answered prayer and this luscious fruit from the orchard besides!


Passion Walk

Imagine if you could step into the Passion narratives of Jesus and bring them alive. Imagine if you didn't have to fly to Jerusalem to do it. Imagine if you could do it in your own city over the Easter weekend.

Well this Easter if you live right here in Belfast you can do just that. The Passion Walk was developed in Edinburgh in 2012 and 2013 by writer and journalist Susan Mansfield. Moved by the experience, Northern Ireland's Joy Gowdy asked Susan to bring it to Belfast. Back in January Susan and Joy spoke in Fitzroy about the role of walking in spirituality. They certainly inspired us about the potential of the Passion Walk.

So, this weekend, why not take time out to ponder the Easter story? Take time to reflect on the journey of Christ to the cross. By hearing the Gospel narratives as you walk to appropriate parts of Belfast you will feel the Passion coming alive. This is a unique opportunity for some spiritual reflection and nourishment. 

Walkers are invited to begin their journey at Grosvenor House, 5 Glengall Street (behind the Opera House) any time between 10am and 1pm on Friday 3rd April (Good Friday) and Saturday 4th April. Walk at your own pace, alone or with friends. The Walk ends with refreshments and a space for reflection at The Dock Cafe in Titanic Quarter.

click here or more information


Jesus eyes

As we approach Easter week... here is a poem about Jesus... Imagine that Rich Young Ruler had been in a few scenes... through his eyes we see how Jesus saw people and things...  it is this Jesus heading towards Jerusalem tomorrow..


I saw him in the distance

I wasn’t going to get too close

You don’t take chances with leprosy

Unless you are him I suppose

He could have shouted from a distance

Said you’re healed and then dismissed them

But this guy went and sat among them

And before he left he touched them

Like an angel with risky wings

In a world this world despised

He seemed to see everything different

Like he looked through grace filled eyes.


I was there right in the middle

I was helping make up the jury

We dragged her from her adulterous bed

With the brute force of righteous fury

And there she stood full naked

Exposed in her body and sin

He said he’d come to judge the world

So let the lightning strikes begin

“he who is perfect then cast the stone”

He knew our blood and guilt would rise

Left alone, at last he looked at her

Forgave her with his grace filled eyes.


One day at last I met him

We stared in the crowd face to face

If he was the way to eternal life

Then how could I pick my place

“Have you kept all the commandments”

I assured him of course I had

“Sell all you have, give it to the poor,”

I’m thinking this man is mad

I stormed away my heart in turmoil

Like an antagonist to be defied

And I felt is heart yearn after me

Haunting me with his grace filled eyes

Haunting me with his grace filled eyes



Take Up Your Cross

“It’s a funny thing about humility
As soon as you know you're being humble
You're no longer humble
It's a funny thing about life
You've got to give up your life
To be alive”

Giving up your life to be alive. A strange saying in Trap Door, a song by T-Bone Burnett. Yet, it is an explosive little paraphrase of like so many subversive disconcerting phrases at the heart of Jesus message. 

As we in Fitzroy have been journeying through Luke’s Travel Narrative (Luke chapters 9-19 - unique to his Gospel account) we have been hearing about the cost of following Jesus. At the end of chapter 9 and again at the end of chapter 14 there are three short interactions where Jesus lays out what it will cost to follow him. 

Perhaps the harshest of all is:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Goodness me! This is difficult and challenging stuff! Yet, we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus is heading towards the cross. These travel narratives begin with him setting his face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). As he heads towards his cross, to give up his life that we might live, the cost for Jesus himself is in the forefront of his mind. 

In that frame of mind and soul he is warning those who would dare follow him what it will cost. 

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. (Luke 9: 23-24) Surely, the verse that T-Bone Burnett has in mind when he wrote, “You gotta give up your life to be alive.”

As I preached this on Sunday morning I at one stage was looking at the text and the looking at a very intelligent, articulate, passionate, committed community of believers and myself and was so disconcerted by how far we are from this profoundly alternative way to live life. 

I started asking where in MY life am I paying any cost? Where am I denying myself? Where am I in any shape or form carrying a cross? Where is my life in any remote way looking like being a disciple of Christ? Where? The chasm between the Biblical text that we gather round and on a Sunday and the gatherers seemed so very wide at that moment of the sermon.

So where do we need to pay the cost, deny our rights and sacrifice ourselves for others. In the sermon I love at prejudice, wealth and self righteousness. A few days on and I am still very disconcerted.

to listen to the entire sermon click here Fitzroy Media Player and then click The Cost sermon


Burning Temple

So, thousands came to watch the temple above Derry/Londonderry burn down. Thousands also invested their thoughts of love and loss in that alternative bonfire, art for the healing of all the community.  Artist David Best saw the burning as a kind of letting go… finding forgiveness and healing for the past and celebrating a new future.  

I used to do a similar thing when I was the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens. I used to ask my students to write their sins or regret or guilt as a prayer on a piece of paper. We used to then put all those prayers in a big bin, take them outside and burn them; some years very theatrically! Christianity is all about letting the past go and redeeming the future. Jesus was the ultimate alternative Bonfire. Christians believe that he took all our past regrets, hurt and guilt when he cried “It is Finished” on the cross.  

The Temple burning reminded me of the apostle Paul writing to the Philippians, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Paul’s thought on forgetting what is behind, though, might be about more than just the failings of the past. Saturday afternoon was tense to say the least. How many of us screamed at a television screen trying to get the message to a few French Rugby players to kick the ball to touch! Eventually they did… phew… and Ireland won the 6 Nations two years in a row for the first time since 1949. Yet, with sport you cannot live in the past and now a few days later the Irish team need to put their celebrations behind them to press on to the World Cup. Don’t rest on your laurels boys. There is a huge difference between momentum and impetus. 

So as the bonfire goes out… and the 6 Nations trophy goes back in the cabinet… as we will soon hear Jesus cry It is finished on Good Friday… let us let go and pray for a new impetus for a hopeful future.


4 Corners Launch

Last year I wrote a poem, reflecting on my interactions with Belfast Lord Mayor, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. When Nichola Mallon took over last June I thought she had a tough job in following Ó Muilleoir's omnipresent exuberance. She more than followed. I have found Nichola a courageous, honest and warm Lord Mayor. She shared her faith with gentleness and deep conviction. She sought out the unsung heroes of Belfast and gave them their moment to sing. The highlight for me, among a few, was her standing with the Archbishop of Canterbury and praying for Belfast, as we stood holding hands across denominations and political lines, with City Hall lit up green for St. Patrick's Day. So, here's my poem for Nichola. Thank you Lord Mayor. Great job!

From behind a meteorite

That had hurtled bright

Could you follow on

Radiant star you shone

With a warm souled glow

Confidence on the grow

All your anger aimed

Vocational vision named

Exploring the brave

Riding destiny’s wave

To a brand new shore

We’ve never been before

Loving our wounded city

With dignity, without pity

When the heroes can’t sing to you

You do what Jesus would do. 


An Archbishop and a Lord Mayor

The City Hall all swathed in prayer

Real, honest and deep conviction

Most hopeful St Patrick Day Benediction.


Stocki IF preach...

When I preach about that incident when Jesus met the tax collector Zaccheus and asked him to come down out of the tree he was perched in in order to eat with him, I used to ask, “who is our Zaccheus?” At the height of the Northern Irish Troubles I always answered Gerry Adams. Adams was the leader of the IRA whose voice the BBC banned from airwaves and television screens. He was the kind of social pariah that a first century tax collector was. If Jesus walked into Belfast in the 1980s most of us would have been aghast if he’d walked past all the good Presbyterians and decided to dine with Gerry Adams. Of course few, if any, Presbyterians followed the example of Jesus and went to have a meal with Adams! Certainly not me!

At the 2015 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis I finally met Gerry Adams. I had known it was the Jesus thing for decades but even when the opportunity arose there were concerns. What would people think? Would it be misunderstood? These are all fears that get in the way of doing the subversive and often disconcerting thing of following Jesus.

When Máirtín Ó Muilleoir gave Van Morrison the Freedom of the City of Belfast he said that Van the Man had helped us from “the dark end of the street to the bright side of the road.” Between the darkness of Northern Ireland bloody and violent past and the hoped for bright side of a peaceful future we will find ourselves, indeed we need to find ourselves, in messy disconcerting relationships. Our conflict is only twenty years ago. The pain is raw. Wounds are deep. If we are to move on, there will be difficult moments when wounded will have to engage with the wounder.  

Jesus was involved in such relationships. People were shocked that he was eating with a tax collector, or fraternising with prostitutes, chatting to Samaritan women and commending a Roman centurion’s faith. Between the fall and redemption, the dark end of the street to the bright side of the road, people will be suspicious of our reconciliatory relationships and we might even be surprised about how we feel about the people we must shake hands with. 

Grace is the key to all of this. As I said at that Ard Fheis our example in Christian peace making is that God moved first. Jesus comes to seek us, to die for us. Even with Zaccheus, Jesus approaches him first. This grace concept is the hope for forgiveness, redemption and healing.. It will reach out across all enmities. 

A few summers ago I was walking the sea front above a Spanish beach. Carved into the sand was Jesus on the cross. Whatever they had used for his eyes just laminated the dusk. I wrote: - 

I came across Jesus on a cross

Carved into a Spanish beach

His luminous eyes pierced through the night

Like nothing was out of his reach.

I believe this verse and have to therefore find every Zaccheus out there who needs God to move first. The question is still to be asked. Who is up your tree? Who is your Zaccheus?

to hear entire sermon go to Fitzroy Media Player here... and then press  "From the Dark End Of The Street To The Bright Side Of The Road"...




Fitzroy Board

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy I will be continuing to mine the rich seam of Jesus teaching in The Travel Narratives of The Gospel According To Luke. We will be looking at what Jesus says about the cost of following him. In these chapters between 9 and 19 Jesus challenges us about that cost in our prejudices, our religiosity and our attitude to wealth. All wrapped in some guitar driven worship.

In the evening (11am) our youth worship group The Source will be opening up their thoughts in these Travel Narratives. Expect good worship and a youthful perspective.