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April 2015



The news from Nepal is another human tragedy that overwhelms us. Our modern world of communications has us experiencing it, turning away from it, emotionally churned up by it. How do we deal with it and make sense of it? Worse would be that so many such news items have made us immune and emotionally and spiritually numb and apathetic. 

As a believer I am always asking where God might be in it all? Is this another world incident that is going to call me to apologetic and response? Of course it does.

Yet, this morning I immersed myself in Psalm 121 for Sunday’s Sermon Series on the Psalms Of Ascent. As I pondered and prayed I was brought before a God who never promises to take away life’s disasters but who speaks of being a companion through earthquakes and wars and tsunamis. Psalm 120 contextualises the singing pilgrim in a world of distress and Psalm 121 asks where you cry to in times like these. Earthquakes happen. That is a given. Where we look for help is the crucial response.  

My soundtrack this morning as I pondered Psalm 121, in the shadow of the Nepal earthquake, was Martyn Joseph’s I See You. This is a Psalmlike song of painful pilgrimage and the comfort that nothing escapes God’s attention. 

“I see the day that it started and when it will end

I see the laughter and pain in between

The sigh of the aged and the smile of a child

That which is hidden and seen

The cruelty and terror coming from hands

That serve no ones mouths but their own

And a thirsting for power that cannot be quenched

Once the dark seed has been sown

I see you, nothing escapes my attention

I see you, nothing escapes my attention

When I look to God for my help and sense and solace through such tough terrain I then need to not only see him watching but be his hands and feet in response to those whose cry of distress is more traumatic and piercing than mine!



Tom Keely, the central character in Tim Winton’s novel Eyrie, has been lingering in my mind now for weeks after I finished the book. That suggests something substantial to me.

Keely is a layered character. He has been a successful and reasonably well known environmental activist who has taken a fall in public. As the book starts he is heading to rock bottom, depressed and hitting bottle and pills. He is holed up in a drab tower block in Freemantle, Western Australia.

The cool guy who lost all his cool has a back story of being the son of a couple who, having had a Christian conversion experience, became selfless rescuers of neighbours needing love and refuge. His father has died but his mother, no longer as passionately active though no sign of having lost her faith, is very much part of the novel. 

Enter Keely’s current neighbours who need rescue and refuge! Bumping into a women (Gemma) in the tower block lift he finds out that this Grandmother is actually one of the people his parents rescued during both of their childhoods.

As he becomes involved in the rescue of Gemma and her grandson Kai, Keely’s own redemption is given a kick start, though never ever looks hopeful of success! A father-shaped-hole is uncovered and there is a God -shaped-hole haunting beyond that. The salvation of the characters and situations is ever messy and the plot throws up constant dynamics of dilemma in doing the right thing. Danger is always lurking menacingly and the next page is never predicted.

It is my favourite Winton book since The Riders and still it lingers…


Bill Fay Sender

Bill Fay’s piano led spiritual ruminations are an utter blessing; a gift of grace. That we lost him for 40 years makes his rediscovery even more precious. In his time away from releasing albums, this humble artist swept factory floors and only tinkled on his piano for his own private amusement. He mentions those factories in the songs on this his follow up to my 2012 Album of the Year, Life Is People, and there is something incarnational about his work as a result. This is a man on the factory floor pondering life in the horizontal but connecting with the vertical to bring perspective and hope to the sadness he sees in humanity’s inhumanity to humanity. 

The doom of War Machine is tempered by the prayer of Bring It On Lord and the hopefulness of Order Of The Day. The latter songs have their faith rooted in the Christ moment. Fay has described the record as alternative Gospel and it is certainly from a Christian place; even Bible translator William Tyndale gets a tribute on Freedom To Read. Yet, there is no hint of a preachiness, judgementalism or self-righteousness. It is like his Divine connection is too pure to be tainted by the impediments of creeds and denominations. Yet, the substance is no less anchored in its transcendence.

The beauty of his piano playing, added to by perfectly pitched haunting production by Joshua Henry, is always pastoral and ever inclusively welcoming. Fay has the gentle repose of Nick Drake and the sage-like spiritual wisdom of Leonard Cohen but, dare I say it, is a better writer than both. The songs have a melancholy weariness at a world that has gone wrong! Yet the darkness that is real and threatens never envelopes because each song is like a flickering candle of hope. And like prayer candles Fay’s songs are a solace to the soul like few other artists can achieve. A tonic for the depths of being and medicine for world transformation. Splendidly captivating!


Stocki IF preach...


Don’t give me an analgesic soul wipe

Or a sanctimonious side swipe

But a sacramental hit when I’m just ripe

Burst the bubble of the fallen me

Not a dull dumbed down drab drone

Or a monotonous mumble and mad moan

But the glorious song that I’m not alone

Love to fire what we all could be.


Don’t give me easy empty cheap cliches

Or weightless words to get blown away

But some substance of soul to fight the decay

Poetic imagination that redeems

Not a rut that we cut way back when

Not the hurt of history again and again

But a done deal hope that grace can send

Seeing visions and dreaming dreams.


Oh this can be useless hobby

And I can be a sad time waster

Or take up my cross and follow

As a radical audacious dreamer.


GATWest End

The Gospel According To... Series came about, as many good ideas, by accident. During my days as a Chaplain we raised thousands of pounds to take students to South Africa to volunteer with Habitat For Humanity. At the launch of my book Walk On we had gotten local artists to cover U2 songs and so we went for it again as a fund raiser. Then we did Johnny Cash. Then Van Morrison. As part of these tribute nights I started to LIVE J them; that is to link the songs with commentary of a spiritual nature. I had been creating sermons through songs and chat on my BBC Radio Ulster show Rhythm and Soul for ten years. When I arrived in Fitzroy it was a natural thing to repeat and then develop. The great advantage at Fitzroy was having an amazing array of talent, not only able to perform the songs but absolutely passionate about doing so. The creativity and ability of my congregation has widened the scope of The Gospel According To... Series. We now have not only done the rock music of Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, The Waterboys, Bob Dylan, Christy Moore and Bruce Springsteen but we have now stretched the canvas to include Harry Potter and Narnia, Les Miserables and Van Gogh. This week we do songs from West End shows!

Not everyone gets the concept. Some say that it is baptising secular music. For me it is not anymore baptising the artist in performing a song than it is to quote a novelist or poet in a sermon. Some seem to struggle with the idea of the Gospel of Bruce Springsteen. Of course it is not called that. It is the Gospel According To... There is actually no Gospel According To... Jesus. We only get them according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! 

There are six important things about the Series: -


Since I started trying to share my Christian faith in the early eighties I have constantly attempted to cross the gap from Scriptures into the culture by using the arts as a bridge. The use of quotations from all kind of sources has been rife in preaching for centuries. I just felt I could reach a younger, perhaps more secular audience by using quotations they would relate to and maybe be surprised I would use. This has all a Biblical model that from Acts chapter 17 where Paul does what I am doing; he takes the art and poets of the city, quotes them and then uses them to draw people to the truth of Jesus. This is an effective way to communicate in a cultural context. 


I think it was Marshall McLuhan who said, anyone who thinks there is a difference between entertainment and education doesn’t know the first thing about either. The ability for people to engage and listen to the entertainment that surrounds and near saturates them is for me a vital part of discipleship. If we think entertainment is just noise I believe we are wrong! The discernment of Christians to understand what they are listening to, reading or watching is a vital part of the job of a pastor. I believe that if Jesus is Lord he should be Lord of our aesthetics. I believe in iPodic obedience! There is art that can give us a healthy soul in a positive way. I wrote my MTh dissertation on this idea. 

My hope is that the Gospel According To... Series awakens people to think about their art. I also hope that it will exercise the muscles of our imaginations as we connect art and faith. The most positive outcome of this series for me is that my very own children will often say to me that they have heard a song, read a story or watched a movie that we could do a Gospel According To... on. They have learned to look for the spiritual in their entertainment. Success! 


In his book The Contemorary Christian John Stott speaks of not being so caught up in the Word of God that we miss the contest of the world that it needs to apply into. He suggests it is necessary to listen and have a grasp of both. One of the ways to get a handle on the issues of the day is by engaging with the art of the day. It is a window into the soul of the society. The Gospel According To... Series gives us an opportunity to listen.


In the introduction to my book The Rock Cries Out I suggested something more than Stott's Double Listening. I was aware in my own spiritual formation that rock music had played a major part in God's speaking to me, leading me back to the Bible to wrestle with social and personal issues. God was speaking in unexpected places. Of course this wasn't an original idea. From Clement of Alexandria in the Second Century to John Stott again, this time in his book The Incomparable Christ, "there seems to be truth among all men." Again we might here God if we were able to listen and this Series is aimed at helping guide us in this listening.     


What the Series has done is draw many people into or back to Church. For whatever reason many people have problems in coming to Church. They have stereotypes or have been damaged by Church experiences. What we have found is that The Gospel According To... Series has done is to encourage such folk into the Church again and reassess their relationship with it.I often describe it as a Burning Bush, an intrigue that catches people's attention draws them closer to sacred ground.


This was a bi-product that I hadn’t gone looking for. After we had done a few events in the series I realised how fulfilling it was for those who sang or played. Church is often not a place where arts are encouraged and many musicians, singers and performers feel that they cannot easily bring the life of art and faith together. To be allowed to use their gifts for God in these musical ways has not only been a an opportunity to develop and hone their gifts but also to grow in spiritual confidence as they find a role within the Body of Christ.


The Gospel According To... Christy Moore

The Gospel According To... Bob Dylan

The Gospel According To... Van Morrison

The Gospel According To... Bruce Springsteen

The Gospel According To... The Wardrobe, The Witch and the Lion


Our friend Lindsay Emerson passed from this earth eight years ago today... Here is one of my poems of the tribute... be inspired!

Girl on the edge of the photograph
Who always seemed so distracted
The gift of your mischievousness
Was what left you so unaffected.

Girl on the edge of the photograph
Who could have been centre screen
The beauty about her beauty
Was she knew what beauty means.

Girl on the edge of the photograph
A heart with peripheral vision
The strength of your contrariness
Touched the corners of this world’s derision.

Girl on the edge of the photograph
Who you could so easily miss
But not by those who watched you bow
To give their soul a kiss.



Uncomfortable Cons 2

Last week saw the launch of Sinn Fein's book Uncomfortable Conversations. It is a collection of articles under that title that have appeared over the past few years in the An Phoblacht newspaper. The strap line is An Initiative For Dialogue Towards Reconciliation and Fr Magill and I were honoured if challenged to have made a contribution. I highly commend Declan Kearney's initiative with the many opportunities he has opened for honest speaking and listening and I encourage you to buy the book and become uncomfortable in the conversation towards peace. This was our contribution.

We were both brought up during “the Troubles”.  We heard day after day about the suffering of our fellow human beings, both Irish and British. Since we decided to follow Jesus of Nazareth we’ve been encouraged and inspired to be peacemakers. We see no other option. Jesus said that Peacemakers were blessed, on other occasions he said the uncomfortable, “Love your enemies” which was no “nice sentimental thing”. This was a call to revolution and a radical way of living, requiring courage and transcendent help which we call grace.  The Gospel of Christ is a call to uncomfortable and costly living for a better world. As followers of Jesus, we had to apply his words to every area of our lives.  

We have both engaged with Sinn Féin. We were both present when Declan Kearney along with John Kyle from the PUP were at the Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship.  We attended “A City Of Equals In An Island Of Equals” and we have enjoyed the times spent with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir in his amazing year as Belfast City Mayor and his efforts to be a peacemaker.  Sinn Féin have declared they are serious about building the peace; we acknowledge the difficult conversations and decisions which Sinn Féin has taken and which have contributed to a new Northern Ireland/Ireland. 

When someone seeks to peace build across communities he or she becomes in a way “an apologist” for each community which involves profound listening and risk taking.    As two people, who want to make peace, we seek words and more importantly tangible proof that will help us to convince our communities to rethink their caricature and stereotypes. We always dread those words and actions that have our communities telling us “we told you so”.   In our communities and other communities we often hear how Sinn Féin politicians are very articulate and well thought through.  We also hear a strong party line or effective sound bite but wonder about the substance behind it.  We want to be talked to and not talked at. We want to be listened to and not given well rehearsed and thought through answers. We want to struggle with you and anyone else who wants to be peace makers. We don’t want to hear that you invited a Catholic priest and a Presbyterian minister to write in An Phoblacht. We want to know you read the article and paid attention to it. We want substance of soul. 

One well thought through party line is how “there was no other way in 1969” than the violent campaign. We’ve heard regrets that people suffered but never a real questioning of whether it was wrong. The united front of the party line on this answer becomes tiresome and we as Christians, particularly with an example like Martin Luther King Jr in the same decade, would suggest that there was indeed another way.

An American student, when asked what he learned from studying Northern Ireland’s peace process, said that “when you use violence the healing is so much messier and takes so much longer.”  At the “City Of Equals On An Island of Equals” Conference, Martin McGuinness suggested that Sinn Féin is moving faster than your Unionist counterparts in the journey of reconciliation. It is very difficult for people who naturally desire truth and justice, for the deaths of their loved ones to struggle to trust or share the future with those who received amnesty. This is exactly what that American student was saying.  We as clergy will continue to preach how the grace and forgiveness of Jesus comes into play here but this is a long process and it might take a generation of gentle sensitivity before we pick up momentum. Sinn Féin needs to show patience, humility and understanding. 

We dare to ask that when Sinn Féin sits down to think through their policies and actions, that they do not only consider what the response of their own supporters will be but that they also put themselves in the shoes of the peacemakers and the other communities and ask how will this contribute to a shared future and how this will promote an equal city on an equal island. The naming of a park after an IRA volunteer might find support in the former but will certainly not help in the building of a shared future with the latter. If “A City of Equals On An Island Of Equals” is to have impact behind a clever title then it is these uncomfortable questions that will need to be asked if Sinn Féin is to prove the seriousness of generosity and reconciliation.

UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS; Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness

QE2 and MM

Last week I was at the launch of Uncomfortable Conversations, a collection of contributions under that title in the Sinn Fein newspaper An Phoblacht. As former President of the Methodist Church, Heather Morris, pointed out in her speech at the launch, “One of the reasons I welcome this book is that it is not a theoretical piece on the need for uncomfortable conversations, or even solely a call for participation in those conversations – it is a record of those conversations. The contributions are part of a real process.” Whatever, some might think of Sinn Fein or their agenda it has to be good that they are giving the forum for these discussions. 

Martin McGuinness was the final speaker and he spoke of uncomfortable conversations that he had been having for forty years, conversations with "mysterious" people, Church leaders, Government Officials, other Northern Ireland politicians and even within his own party and community. he ended with two relationships that he said we could never have imagined him having twenty years ago; Rev Dr Ian Paisley and Queen Elizabeth II. 

He spoke fondly of both, sharing how Paisley had invited him round to see him just weeks before he had died. McGuinness then pointed out that Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Dublin and Cork; her honouring of the Irish language at the mansion House; laying her wreath in the Garden Of Remembrance dedicated to the memory of "all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom"; never mind their famous handshake, were her initiative. This was her contribution to uncomfortable conversations. She after all lost her cousin Lord Mountbatten in the conflict too. 

I have found myself, in recent days, in many situations of peacemaking that feel a little messy. These are not just uncomfortable conversations but disconcerting relationships. Yet, leaders have gone before us. Reconciliation will have to journey through such difficult terrain, from the violence of our past to the hoped for peace of a future day. 

After I came home I remembered this poem I had written last summer. It was about the Queen’s handshake with Martin McGuinness and her actions in Dublin and her example in uncomfortable conversations. 


Their hands shook

History felt the tremors

Forgetting deep hurt

Where everyone remembers

And did memory stab

That boat on the ocean

As her courage broke

Through her heart’s emotion 


Their eyes connect

Like wires to detonate

Blow up the past

Raining fragments of hate

Did he see the loss

In her smiling face

And feel the forgiveness

Majesty of her grace


She spoke their language

She bowed her head

Bent down on her knee

To honour their dead

She marched right through

The ancient palisades

Left the traditional walk

To lead a brand new parade.


Fitzroy inside

(I used this poem/prayer this morning after we read the first Psalm of Ascent (Psalm 120) in our new sermon series. It is a pastoral prayer for a community of faith always under pressure...)


Lord we come before you

Having been dragged through the days of a fallen world

We have things to smile about

But things that bring us down

We have things to celebrate

But things to mourn

We have things to look forward to this week

But many things that have us worried and anxious

And it is all these things that make us who we are this morning

And we come before you as we are

To commit ourselves to you, afresh.


Lord we come before you

Having been dragged through the days of a fallen world

We have been inspired by the words of Jesus

And confused by the devil’s lies

We have been praying hard for holiness

But seduced by temptation’s sparkle

We have prayed for eternal impact on our souls

And been blunted by momentary distractions

And it is all these things that make us who we are tonight

And we come before you as we are

To commit ourselves to you, afresh.


And as we come as we are

We are amazed at your grace

Because you know us as we are

And still love us

At this moment

No matter where we are,

In this in between place

Between what we want to be

And who we are

You cannot love us anymore than you do right now

And so as we are

We commit ourselves to you, afresh.



Fitz logo 1

Soul Surmise readers will know that I am minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church on University Street close to Belfast city centre. Here is news of our 10:10 Building Fund and our developments in south Belfast and in Uganda. If you have some funds that you would like to donate because the blog is free and you have enjoyed some article, for my recent Slieve Donard Climb or some future half marathon or maybe a new poetry book to be launched late May then here is information on the project and how to donate!

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