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May 2015



Very honoured to be the guest on Alan in Belfast's Tv show on local station NvTv this Monday night (May 18th) at 7.30. It is a half hour chat show format and Alan will be asking some good questions about vocation, faith and the arts, the 4 Corners Festival and the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. Hoping I don't say something I might regret. Heresy trials must be easier with TV footage as evidence!

If you are not familiar with this local Belfast channel you can find it on Freeview Channel 8 or on Virgin 159. If you're not a Corrie fan...



Fitzroy building

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we continue on the Psalms of Ascent. We will look at the People of God's excited about going to worship. We will, with a side look at Nehemiah, see that as well as worship going up to God it also goes inward to remind us of our identity. Then it heads outward, because worship is never a Sunday cul-de-sac but always a highway into the transformational work of Monday. Seeking the shalom and shalvah in Jerusalem. Paul Bowman and Rachel Jackson have a Fitzroy Sunday morning debut in leading worship. Informally informal and everyone welcome!

In the evening (7pm) Gary Burnett adds to our regular occasional series How To Read The Bible. Gary, a lecturer in New Testament at Queens and expert in Romans will give us some insights on how we read that letter of Paul. Having written a book on the Sermon On The Mount and the Blues this year Gary is writing one on Romans and American music at the moment. So expect some music too. The magnificent voice of Chris Wilson is included in the mix!


Ladybirds Bromley

painting: Ladybirds by Rebecca Bromley



Between the bloody dark

And grace’s redeeming light

Between the hate riled gloom 

And the rays of forgiveness, bright

Friendships can be messy.


Between the blowing up

And the pieces fixed on landing

Between the bleak black funerals

And the bridegroom standing

Friendships can be messy.


This is an awkward dance

With partners disconcerting

The tender tentative steps

With all our wounds still hurting

Take two up and one back

Move close to hold the seams

Swirl in the suspicious space

To soar in audacious dreams.




SOi&E photo 1

Who am I to think that I could review U2’s first gig on their Songs Of Innocence and Experience Tour from 4,400 miles away? Well, who did I think I was to write Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 without access to the band!? And I got away with that one. For some reason I, who was not top of the class in English comprehension, can decipher the intentions of this rock band and more times than not get it right. Maybe it is as close as I, a Presbyterian, gets to being a charismatic speaker in tongues! 

This morning I have followed the Tweets, the Facebook Statuses, the set list and Neil McCormick’s review and tried to make sense of what U2 are going to try and do, over the next year or two, with this piece of performance theatre. Be sure that a U2 concert is not just about choosing the best songs in some appropriate order. It is about a lot more than selling albums, though never underestimate their desire to do that too!

I have never been confident about what U2 songs are about, or at least the fulness of their depth, until I see where they place them and how they perform them in the live setting. The disappointment of the No Line On The Horizon record was also played out in the 360 Tour when they seemed to lose confidence in the songs from the album. For sure that then played into the original intention of the Tour and led to what I would say was the least satisfying overall effect tour in a long time - much as I enjoyed it!

Last night there seems no lack of confidence in Songs Of Innocence. No less than eight (and a wee snippet of California) of the album’s tracks slotted in to the set list. For me the surprise was the absence of Volcano which I felt was only chosen ahead of Lucifer’s Hands on the first disc of the album because of its potential live assault.  

Some observations on the new songs. Kicking off the first set with The Miracle(OF Joey Ramone) makes sense in sound and story. The first set seems to be about the band’s youth and following the song that sent them as “pilgrims on our way” with two tracks from their first LP Out Of Control and I Will Follow with Vertigo in between - Perfect 

Iris and Cedarwood Road together is also obvious. The first is the loss of Bono’s mother, which must have taken on even more poignancy a day after Larry buried his father, and the second is about the friend (Guggi) and family (Rowens - “an Old testament Tribe”) where Bono found solace, calm, hope and a Bible that would lead him on a redemption road. Song For Someone about Ali, his wife, whom he met at that same time and who would be his soul mate down that road,  was another incisive next move.

Then it was into their divided island. Raised By Wolves and Sunday Bloody Sunday, still not rebel songs, work together on a few levels. They are about two dark and violent days in Irish history, the former involving their good friend Andy Rowen. A snippet of Psalm 23 in Raised By Wolves is a deft but not surprising spiritual touch. From there into the soul melt of Judas and Until The End Of The World raises the drama. The spiritual is raised too as at this stage it would seem that Psalms rained as confetti over the audience along with pages of Alice In Wonderland, Dante’s Inferno and other literary works. 

Phew! Half way!

The first half ends with friction and division in Bono’s family life, Northern Ireland in the spiritual realms between Jesus and Judas. The second half begins with reconciliation. This half through the encores seems to be built around Invisible. That is again no surprise to me. Over a year ago, speaking about U2 in America, I was suggesting that its “There is no them/There’s only us” mantra would be significant in future U2 gigs. The song kicks off the second set and gets a reprise right at the end of the last encore I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

I am as yet not so sure about the juxtapositions of songs in this second half and wonder if this half will see more change as the Tour continues. We will see! Ending with the the hymn-like Still Haven’t Found also makes sense. U2 usually like to end with a spiritual depth charge as their congregation heads out into the night. That they are speaking about reconciliation that they still haven’t found preaches a continuation of the mission!

The next thing to investigate will be how the second night shimmies and shifts. Two things to watch for that they hadn’t considered before they came off stage last night. One, Edge will not stray outside the yellow lights. Indeed, let us hope he doesn’t waken up with an injury that causes cancellations. Two, BB King’s passing away will be sure to get a mention tonight. Expect perhaps a hasty rehearsal in the Rogers Arena this afternoon of When Love Comes To Town! Remarkably Pope John Paul ll died just three shows into the Vertigo Tour in 2005 and got a mention in Anaheim on Date 4.

I haven’t even got to the visuals. It has to be remembered at a U2 concert that as well as the best band in the world we are dealing with the very best lighting and stage designer. From the photographs around social media, the lighting genius that is Willie Williams with the theatrical design wizardry of Es Devlin seem to have hit the ball out of the park yet again. Neil McCormick’s review for the Telegraph puts it well, “The staging was extraordinary, using every trick in the rock-show handbook and then adding a few more.” Those with tickets for the Tour ahead must be excited this morning. I ain’t got one yet! We’ll see!

So there it sets off. Where it goes no one knows but I believe we have a pretty well pointed direction. Now for the Songs Of Experience record to appear in our iTune accounts to transform set 2! We wish!


Nepalese flag

The news this morning is of another earthquake in Nepal just weeks after it was devastated by one. Nepal is a country I have a personal interest in. Patrician Drummond, Tony and Valerie McGall and Peter and Asa McDowell from my own congregation in Fitzroy have worked there. My good friends Richard and Denise Ross spent time there. Another friend Stuart Dickson has been bringing Nepalese product back to the Uk for twenty years and selling it as Fair Trade. Our denomination has Steven and Laura Coulter and Peter and Valerie Lockwood in Nepal right now.  

This all makes it a lot more subjective and because Richard had spent time there I had always attempted to journey with him through Kathmandu with Bruce Cockburn’s song Tibetan Side of Town. I have been praying for this nation for a long time. 

As the news came through again today I happened to be reading El Gruer’s poem (click here to read my review of El's book The Paper Sky) about the earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011. It is a beautiful, powerful and challenging piece. Here is some of it. Buy the book to get it all! 



In our world, it was one of those days.

I had to study for an exam so I didn’t fail,

had a phone call with my Uncle dale,

and it was buy one get one free at the picture sale.


It was there that I heard, Japan, you hit 9 on the Richter scale.

So I stopped. I thought.

I’m sorry, Japan.




But by that time, the day was done

and the news was on.

From a comfortable distance,

I watched the day in your world.


I watched with eyes

desensitised to the perspective

of our Father’s eyes because

I was tuned out from your

blood    spilt   cries.

I sat calmly, as your

flood-damaged   souls   died.

I stopped. I really thought.


I am sorry, Japan, that your earthquake

failed to shake me

to my knees to cry out

Father, please, relieve.


I am sorry, Japan

that in my world, your world

wasn’t a part of our world, didn’t move

me to move things ion the spiritual world.




I’m sorry, Japan,

that it wasn’t my plan

to pray for you today.

So, maybe today we should change Japan to Nepal, read this poem and be shaken to our knees to cry out… In an incredible moment of coincidence the first Facebook response I read to the breaking news of this second Nepalese quake was El’s cousin Iona who simply posted “Make it stop”. Amen. Amen. Amen.


El Gruer Paper Sky

A couple of years ago a young women approached me after Church and introduced herself. She said that she was studying a Masters in Poetry at Queens University and would be around for a wee while. I am always delighted to have 20 somethings around Church so I was thrilled but I dismissed the poetry thing as we had a guy doing a PhD in poetry! 

In the afternoon I became a Facebook friend of the young woman and noticed a mutual friend. I messaged him and asked about my new Church attender. He waxed lyrical about her and sent me off to her website. Ten minutes later and I was taking her poetry a little more seriously.

The women was El Gruer. The first poem I watched her read on that website was Hoods. I was immediately mesmerised by her word play, her performance and the deep insight into the human condition and the wisdom as to how she was sharing it. 

It was not long before I was using El’s genius. I hope I didn’t abuse it. She read in Church, flexible for different occasions. I shoved her into the middle of a songwriter in the round gig at the 4 Corners Festival and without guitar or melody she more than held her own. Every time she performed Hoods I was utterly gripped and took a lot of pleasure in watching the audience fall under her spell.

Hoods features in El Gruer’s first published book of poetry The Paper Sky. It is an accomplished work and has a range of styles. This girl can do Slam, literary, pub gig, Church or University. 

Thirty years ago I discovered Steve Turner and Stewart Henderson. They were poets who I could penetrate and that wasn’t the case with most poetry. I was a Dylan boy. Gruer reminds me of Turner and Henderson but, if they might forgive me, with a little more poetic ability. El did that Masters in order to stretch her skills and that comes through in The Paper Sky. Still penetrable though!

For me the over riding theme and power of The Paper Sky is Gruer’s ability to humanise. In some cases that is to re-humanise. In other places it is to awaken us to the humanity we are missing in our every day living. 

Examples of the former would be Artism where someone with autism becomes a glorious piece of art and Svay Park, Cambodia 2013 where she meets a young sex slave women that same age as El herself. 

Examples of the latter are Notes Found In A Trench and the human cost of war and I’m Sorry, Japan where she reviews her own day on the same day an earthquake hit Japan.

Poetry and art in general have an ability to transform spiritually and socially. El Gruer’s poems awaken our spiritual awareness to people and things and if you listen in closely as you read it is all underneath God’s sky with a connection to what is above it. I look forward to marinating my days in these well ordered words, vivid images and people who will become much more alive in my soul as a result. 


Stocki Birmingham

This weekend Soul Surmise broke 350,000 hits. I find that astonishing and want to think everyone who takes the time to read my daily rants, reviews and surmises. For me, the end of most days has me at the lap top thinking out loud on the screen. That there are other people who find what I say helpful is always a surprise and encouragement.

I am a stats watcher and it never ceases to amaze me what blogs are most popular. Most days I range from just 145 - 160 hits. That can be record and book reviews or some spiritual surmise, poem or sports rant. There is little doubt that the current affairs are when the pointer goes through the roof. The Belfast flags protest, Pastor McConnell’s remarks about Islam and the recent General Election are the blogs that went through the 1500 hits a day. You also seem to like the personal. When our good friend John Montgomery passed away there were many visits from his friends to the words I spoke at his Memorial Service.

This past weekend was a spike in hits for sure. The ungracious election speeches last week hit a nerve among many here in Northern Ireland. I was amazed at the different responses that blog received. A few suggested I was being too harsh; we all make mistakes and I should get over it and not expect too much. Others told me how the blog had helped them be less critical and that the grace I had shown was a challenge. Most of you spoke to me or texted or emailed or messaged to say how important it was that I had blogged my thoughts as it had resonated and articulated your own thoughts. Some said that you were able to send the link to friends who had been over critical of Christians and that it helped in some small way to balance the situation. 

I guess that such comments have encouraged me to try to bring a different Christian voice to the public square. There are many Christian voices and for whatever reason the one I speak in is rare, particularly in Northern Ireland. I am not at all comfortable to be the one who speaks in that voice but realise that sometimes things need to be said and I am obligated by my faith to share.

Soul Surmise was predated by a web page called Rhythms Of Redemption set up when I was hosting my radio show Rhythm and Soul on BBC Radio Ulster. I need to thank Gareth Dunlop and Rick Munro for gifting me that top quality site. It was my short surmises on U2 on that site that got me a book deal with Relevant Publishing that opened so many doors for me. Before that, Andrew Kyle, my first administrator when I was Chaplain at Queen’s University had told me about the new fangled idea of websites and we set up a very early version. I remember when after weeks and weeks we got our 100th hit. We smashed open a donut or something in celebration!

So again, thank you for indulging me. About five years ago I realised that I probably no longer had the time to write books so I would blog every day instead. It pays less but reaches as many people. Maybe it is time to write books again. There are one or two in my mind. We will see. In the meantime I will go on surmising about this and that seeking to caress and collide the revolutionary ideas of Jesus on this, that and the other. Here’s to the next 50,000 hits!


Stevie G

I think Stevie Gerrard got it wrong. When asked about the standing ovation he was given by Chelsea fans as I walked off the pitch on what was likely to be his last game at Stamford Bridge he dismissed the gesture, pointed at how the Chelsea fans had “murdered me for years” and how he was only interested in the support of the Liverpool fans.

I am a big Stevie Gerrard fan. I believe him to have been one of the best players to have graced the Premiership. I have a soft spot for players of peripheral vision, who can play a 70 yard pass onto a six pence and score goals from midfield. I have admired his commitment to his hometown club, giving up the opportunities to go across Europe and win more medals in order to be loyal. I love his attitude that a medal at the club he loves, “among my people”, is always worth more. That is a rare allegiance in modern day soccer. Oh that he had been with Manchester City for 27 years!

Yet yesterday he disappointed me. To dismiss the Chelsea fans so out of hand was in itself disrespectful. Of course they had murdered him for years. He had refused to sign for them back in the day and the rivalries between the two clubs domestically and in Europe in recent years has been fierce. 

So, that a Chelsea crowd should show him the respect, in spite of all of that, was quite a statement. I am no lover of Chelsea. I have no love for their manager, I do not like the dull way they go about winning matches and Premierships but this was a moment against the current uncivilised behaviour of soccer fans towards rivals or former heroes who return with other clubs. Gerrard needed to give credit where credit was due and like an ungracious speech after an Election result he missed an important moment. 

My fear is that such a reaction will not encourage such magnanimous gestures again. We are trying to make football a more sporting sport, particularly among vociferous fans and Gerrard’s poor response to Chelsea fans will rightfully make them think twice before they do it again. That disappoints me. I feel Gerrard had a prophetic moment that could improve the game he loves. He should have embraced it, enjoyed it and shown the same respect to Chelsea fans that they did to him. Well done Chelsea fans!


Fitzroy Board

MAY 10 at FITZROY @ 7


Peter McDowell has been working for the Irish Churches’ Peace Project and tonight he will share that experience. Is there a hunger for the ministry of reconciliation in Northern Ireland Churches? What are the obstacles to that peacemaking and where are the hopes and opportunities for progress? This will be an insightful evening with lots of information from the grass roots! 


MAY 17 at FITZROY @ 7


This year we have been looking at how to read the ancient text in the modern context in which we live. These evenings have brought some experts on specific books and Scriptural genres. Gary Burnett is an expert on Paul and lectures in New Testament Studies at Queens University. He has also just published a book on the Sermon on the Mount and Blues music (The Gospel According To The Blues) and is working on one on Romans and Americana music.

Of Sunday Gary wrote on Facebook, "If you'd otherwise be twiddling your thumbs this coming Sunday evening, you'd be very welcome at Fitzroy Pres Church, where I'm doing a session on how to read Romans. Some good music from the talented Chris Wilson and guest appearances from 1st century Corinth by the apostle himself and Phoebe, the church leader he chose to carry his letter to Rome. Kick-off 7pm."


MAY 24 at Sacred Heart Parish, Old Park Road @ 7

There is nothing at Fitzroy on this Bank Holiday weekend BUT why not go to…


Ecumenical Service on Pentecost Sunday 24th May 2015 at 7pm in Sacred Heart Church. The biblical story gives us a vision of God's people caring for God's world, our home. The power of Pentecost gives us the means to make that vision a reality.  The address will be given by Jonny Hanson who is a Christian environmentalist currently working as a stay-at-home dad, carer and part-time Phd student at the University of Cambridge.


MAY 31 at FITZROY @ 7


Steve Stockman will launch his new poetry books Awkward Dancers and Audacious Dreamers and Poems, Benedictions and Reflections. The first book is a collection of lyrical poems that have been written in times of pastoral wrestling and also in imagining the interruption of God’s grace in how we can change our world. There are poems about Belfast Lord Mayor’s, poets, singers and loved ones lost . The second collection is filled with prayers, poems, monologues and reflections that I have used in worship. They will include the Prayer For The 4 Corners Of Belfast, my much asked for Bigger Picture benediction, poems used at weddings and two series of reflections on Christmas and Easter.

The evening will be in two sections. Songs and performances of poems as well as a short reflective service using the second book.

The books will be on sale as well as other of my books. All proceeds for the Fitzroy Build Fund and our Youth Team Trip to Uganda!  




Another in this series on helping us to read the Bible in its original context and apply it to ours. Deci Alexander lectures in Old Testament Studies at Queens University and has written many acclaimed books on both the Old Testament and New Testament, Indeed just last week the Twitter Account TIMOTHY KEELER WISDOM was recommending his work.


JUNE 14 at FITZROY @ 7


In Fitzroy we often have people sharing some books that have been helpful to their spiritual lives. Tonight we invite a few priests including Fr Martin Magill, Fr Alan McGuckian and Fr Brendan McManus. Fr Brendan will be speaking about and reading from his own book Redemption Road which is his memoir of 40 days in the Camino Way dealing with his brother’s suicide. 


JUNE 21 at FITZROY @ 7



We have been blessed this year as on a regular basis our Youth Worship band Source have led us in not only praise but also insights in the faith. This is the last in the series before the summer. 


JUNE 28 at FITZROY @ 7


This is an evening of celebration in Fitzroy as the South Belfast Presbytery Licenses one of our congregation, indeed an elder, Brent Van Der Linde.


Fitzroy building

In the morning (11am) Jonathan Abenethy-Barkley will be helping us capture imaginations, touch hearts and offer hope as  we continue to explore Jesus use of the short story or parable with a up close look at the Parable of the Mustard Seed. A small beginning with a big ending... a group of twelve to the universal Church. Jesus reveals to us the reign of God in mustard seeds, bushes, and birds. It is a kingdom which begins with the small and insignificant, the forgotten and forsaken, and grows into a big bush for the birds, for outsiders. 

After the service we will be inviting you all to a One World Lunch supporting Christian Aid & Tearfund. It's a simple lunch - sandwiches, biscuits, fruit  and tea, coffee, juice. Served in the dining hall in Union College. A chance to chat and make a difference! 

In the evening (7pm) we will have Peter McDowell who has worked these last two years for Irish Churches Peace Project. He will be be sharing with us how Churches are doing in helping with reconciliation. What are the encouragements he has seen and what are the obstacles to peace across Northern Ireland. This will be helpful and thought provoking.