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May 2015

STOCKI SURMISES LAST NIGHT'S ELECTION SPEECHES AND HOW THEY LEFT HIS SOUL BLACK AND BLUE

Gavin and Naomi

I Tweeted during the televised events of last night’s General Election Results that my faith in God was hanging on a thin fraying thread. It was the DUP’s David Simpson’s victory speech that bruised my faith. I am never comfortable with Ian Paisley’s singing of the Doxology to celebrate his obligatory election victory, in the long tradition of his father in North Antrim, but Simpson’s lack of composure took it a step further. Thanking God and then pouring out some ugly angry vitriol to other constituents was unseemly to put it mildly. As a minister, and therefore an ambassador for Jesus, I hung my head.

Little did I know it would get worse. I have a lot of respect for Gavin Robinson and had a while back Facebooked how fortunate East Belfast was to have both he and Naomi Long as candidates. I had decided to remain neutral on social media comments during that campaign. As Gavin stepped forward to make his victory speech I was genuinely hoping for a speech of the night, a new fresh approach to grace, inclusiveness and respect. I was utterly flabbergasted. My mouth hung open. What!? 

It didn’t start well when what might have been some kind of joke about the late announcement of the result became a criticism instead of thank you to the election staff. Oh dear. Move on quickly fella, you can save it. Then in disbelief, I listened to the most ungracious speech I have heard in a long time. Gavin not only attacked Naomi Long’s selfless 5 year term at Westminster but also alienated 16,000 plus of her voters. It was the old hardline politics. I was sad and a little distraught. 

Thankfully after I wrote this blog Gavin appeared on the radio admitting that his speech had been ill measured. It fell just slightly short of apology but it was the more friendly human being that I have come to respect; the one I hoped would appear last night. It was very welcome but much damage has been done. I pray that Gavin can redeem it and reconcile with Naomi and unite the constituency that I know he has a passion for. 

All in all my Christian faith took a battering and my soul feels beaten black and blue. I feel heavy and oppressed today. Why is it that those who profess faith in Jesus display an antithesis of his character while those who don’t even believe in him act with grace and civility? I am feeling low in morale as a minister. Last night was a bad night for Jesus. Oh I know Jesus is big enough to take it but we his followers have a job on our hands to convince many that he is not the judgemental, arrogant, unwelcoming, unforgiving, graceless tyrant who shouts and rages, that they thought he was! 

The fruit of the Holy Spirit, as Paul puts forward in Galatians 5, was pretty much absent from “Christian” speeches last night. If the Jesus on display last night was the Jesus of the Gospels I would be a convinced atheist and nowhere near a Church building on Sunday morning. I don’t believe it is but attracting others to our Jesus, or the great insightful wisdom of his teaching, is now going to be a harder task. 

And so, I pick myself up, dust myself down, stick on Martyn Joseph's Deep Blue album, read The Sermon on the Mount afresh and prayerfully attempt to live what we didn’t hear on our television screens last night. I know you might find it hard but I ask you tentatively to join me… and if this seems like taking the speck out of others eyes while there a huge plank in mine I apologise too.


MUMFORD & SONS - WILDER MIND

Mumford & Sons Wilder Mind

Last April I did a wee tour of America doing my theo-musicology thing and split my events between speaking about U2 and Mumford & Sons. Speaking about Mumford & Sons, in Dayton University with a brilliant live student band and in Calvin College with video and a huge screen, gave me a ten day opportunity to over-indulge in Mumford music. I really enjoyed it. I caught songs and theological phrases and live performances that were truly inspirational. I enjoyed the experience. 

It was in one airport lounge, probably in the midwest, that I came to the conclusion that the next Mumford & Sons record would have to be a change of musical direction. They simply could not get away with banjos and double basses one more time. Now, when they started out this was never going to be a dilemma. There is no way these guys ever thought they would be almost the biggest band on the planet by 2013. I don’t believe they ever saw that coming. Indeed Marcus Mumford has recently said he wouldn’t have his own name in the band moniker if he had to do it again. That’s because he never thought it would ever be such a household name. After 7 million record sales however you are more in the spotlight and, as this band knows too well, in the firing line of the critics wrath.

So, I was right and here is the very different Mumford & Sons third album. It is such a radical shift of direction that there literally are no banjos at all. It was of course a lose lose. Had they stayed with the formula they would have got tanked. If they changed the formula they were going to get tanked!

So, as many reviewers take this opportunity for the Mumford & Sons backlash, what do I think? Well, this is a good record. I have always been fond of Marcus Mumford’s voice and I am enjoying the new shimmering rock backing. The record reveals that this band are great players and were not hiding behind an organic novelty sound. To create such a shift in their art form with such panache is quite a feat and, as I started this paragraph, this is a good record. 

The British press might use comparisons with Coldplay and Snow Patrol while the Americans might point to The War On Drugs and The National. The National’s guitarist produced the record and there is no doubt that that has had a influence but the record is probably something more of an amalgam of all of those bands with, if you listen carefully, a huge dollop of Mumford & Sons thrown in. Amidst the full-on near Kings Of Leon-like assaults there are at times more subtle rhythms and delicate touches where the old template can be heard. And of course there are some old style dramatic building climaxes; banjo-less yes but Mumford-like all the same.

It is perhaps not the lack of banjo that cause the lack in Wilder Mind. There is also a lack in the theological rhyming nuggets that set Sign No More and Babel apart for me. After a first listen to Sign No More I was so affected by the rhyming spiritual gems that I suggested that Bono and U2 could retire, the mantle could be handed over. I also cautiously added, however, that before I should start thinking about a Spiritual Journey Of M & S book, as I did with U2, that we would need another couple of albums to see where it all went. As I pour over Wilder Mind I am wondering which songs will fit into a Gospel According To… Mumford & Sons that I am planning for the autumn.

On first listens there might be very few. Yet, let us not be too rash. Mumford might have gotten a little more obtuse. Like when The National disappointed me when the clarity of Boxer was followed by the ambiguity of High Violet so maybe Marcus has become more implicit than explicit. After a few listens I was wondering if it was a Springsteen Tunnel Of Love-like album cataloguing his rather hasty break up with actress Carey Mulligan. Google immediately suggested no as the news sites have just declared that they are expecting their first child.

I have since heard that Mumford is perhaps not the principle lyricist in some of the album's songs which might explain the depressing lyrics sung by a man just married and about to start a family. It might also explain the less spiritual nature of the record. The rest of the band seems to have struggled with the Christian link to Mumford whose parents were Church missioners. Whatever, under the vagueness, there are still words like faith and truth and grace and devil. Some of the lyrics I am drawn to and surmising are:

In the place that's safe from harm

I had been blessed with a wilder mind (Wilder Mind)

 

You have been weighed you have been found wanting (The Wolf)

 

I never tried to trick you babe

I just tried to work it out

But I was swallowed up by doubt

If only things were black and white

Cause I just want to hold your tight

Without holding back my mind

Without holding back my mind (Tompkins Square Park)

 

But when you feel the world wrapping round your neck

Feel my hand round yours

And when you feel the world wrapping round your neck

Don't succumb (Broad-Shouldered Beasts)

 

And I hunger and I thirst

For some shiver

For some whispered words

And a promise to come (Only Love)

 

Didn't they say that only love will win in the end (Only Love)

That latter song, Only Love, is perhaps the song that you think might have been written in the days before banjos and explicit faith was jettisoned. Jesus’ Beatitudes get a mention and it might just be that Marcus was reading Rob Bell’s most controversial book in recent Christendom, Love Wins!

All, in all, I would suggest that Wilder Mind is an artistic success. The tricky transition has been made. It should be radio friendly and stadium rockin’ comfortable enough to be a success. For me, will I be listening to it in five years time? I don’t know but by then Wilder Mind Volume 2 might take it to another level!


STOCKI SURMISING HOW TO VOTE!

Polling Station

So it is tomorrow. I am excited, not because it is voting day but because the day after will mean no more of the white noise of toxic anti-social behaviour of prospective leaders of the nation pointing fingers, shouting at and belittling one another. Such behaviour is far from commending any of them to the statesmanlike role they are claiming to apply for. If any other vocational grouping acted with such a lack of civility while applying for a job there would be no point in them waiting for their mobile phone to ring!

Yet, we have to vote. I believe it is crucial to our citizenship. Don’t call the government to account if you didn’t take the responsibility to vote.

So, how do I decide where to put my X tomorrow? Two things will focus my mind as I still ponder. Firstly, that verse in the prophecy of Jeremiah where he tells the people in exile, “ pray for the peace and prosperity of the city…” Who on this ballot paper will work best for peace and prosperity. That prosperity, by the way, is not a prosperity that leaves a few individuals in unbelievable wealth while vast swathes of the population struggle in poverty. It is a prosperity that will be for the well being of the entire community.

That leads to the second Biblical phrase focusing my mind. Jesus told his followers to “deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me.” Jesus gave of himself for the world. As I vote I will not be voting for what is best for me. I will be praying about what is best for the entire community.

One of the many weaknesses of our electoral process is that we tend to be attracted to political parties rather than politicians themselves. It is not always the case that the best person to vote for in our constituency is the same as the party we might most easily feel affinity with. I take a lot of time investigating the personal character of my local candidates. I will be looking for the individual who has the qualities to bring the peace and prosperity of the entire community. It could very well be that I would vote for a different party if I was looking at the individual candidates in another constituency. Of course I need to consider whether I am thinking the best for South Belfast or best for the United Kingdom and are they the same? 

That is made slightly easier for us in Northern Ireland because it is unlikely that we will have any say in what is best for the United Kingdom. Indeed that will need considered too as I go to the polling station. The Union is not up for grabs these days so voting on Orange and Green lines has never been less important in my opinion. I still personally find it sad when we lazily vote the way our parents told us in back in days that are very different than these days. Peace and prosperity are again my concerns. Who in my constituency has worked hardest for peace in our post conflict society will be a major factor in whose name gets my mark.

My Christian approach in prayer and the pondering of Biblical values might not necessarily mean that I vote for a Christian candidate. Just because someone prays does not mean they will be a good politician. Just because I pray doesn’t mean I will be good Church Treasurer; I won’t! I will be asking if the Christian candidate will be a good ambassador for Jesus or if the atheistic candidate will be tolerant of Christians and encouraging to the Church attempting to contribute to the peace and prosperity we are praying and voting for.

All in all I will not be taking a simplistic approach. I will give this thought and research. I will then take a decision of faith hoping that that decision is for the good of us all. I will also be praying that, whoever gets elected in my constituency and in the nation, God’s common grace will influence whoever to seek that peace and prosperity.  

I will add to that prayer that I hope something gets sorted out tomorrow because I don’t want to go through this again in a couple of month’s time!


NOELEEN Ni CHOLLA - AN MHAIGHDEAN MHARA

Noeleen

Noeleen Ni Cholla spends a lot of time in our home. She is my wife’s cousin’s girlfriend. Over these last years I have come to see her voice and singing as a part of her life rather than just something she does on a stage or on this her first record in her own right. She’ll share a song at will around a table or in the hall. It is quite a treat to hear a voice like that in such intimate settings.

Noeleen is from the same village of Donegal as Enya, Maire Brennan and that entire Clannad family business. She has been known to sing in Mammy Brennan’s Church choir. And Noeleen Ni Cholla conjures that same ethereal wonder with the Irish language as that mighty family do. Remember Harry’s Game and In A Lifetime.  

Irish is is a powerful musical force of a language, beautiful and haunting. Though I, unlike Presbyterian ministers of the 19th Century, don’t need to be fluent in the language, and my language gifts have never allowed me to be able to speak it, I am proud of the the Presbyterian part in its history and I love its musical beauty. I have loved how Iarla Ó Lionáird and Liam Ó Maonlaí have used it artistically and indeed spiritually. 

As well as Irish language songs Ni Cholla adds Scottish Gaelic and English to her repertoire. The phrase that appears most frequently in the sleeve notes is “for as long as I can remember.” Like singing the songs are part of her. 

There is the added genius of Manus Lunny throughout. Brother of Donal and member of Capercaille Lunny’s production is absolute perfection, taking the sean-nos style of Ni Cholla and never swamping it with sounds but giving it literally the grace notes it needs. The voice and the songs are always the vital thing. It should find a home beyond the Gaeltacht. It is a tasty slice of Irish art.


MAY GOD GRAB YOU... (We Sing These Songs)

Catharsis

This is the poem of a pastor, watching his congregation going through all kinds of pain. The third verse is based on something Philip Yancey said about spiritual maturity, where he used that verse in Isaiah 40: 31 about those who hope in the Lord and suggested that when we are young we fly but maturity causes us to land, then run and finally we are walking. That is good to keep in mind as those “winds come out of nowhere and knock us off our feet” (Bruce Cockburn). Sunday worship too, at its most Biblical, will bring catharsis in using songs of lament as well as songs of praise. 

When a loved one’s tossed in turbulence

You watch them smashed whichever way

And God never seems to bring the calm

No matter how hard you pray

May unseen threads of mercy

Weave in, the unravelling doubt

May God grab you by the finger

Before life’s hurting drags you out

 

Knowledge loves the questions

Cos it has a seamless answer

But mystery shimmies all around

She’s an awkward little dancer

And when she dances out of sight

Leaving the soul that lonely ache

May God send a holy comforter

Before you crack up in the heart break

 

Lord we flew on wings like eagles

Then landed with reality’s thud

We ran but soon were walking

Now crawl through this tear soaked mud

We mature in a world that’s broken

Confessing what our part is

We sing these songs to temper grief

And hope in their catharsis.


TOMORROW IN FITZROY 3.5.15

Fitzroy building

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy I will be continuing my new sermon series on the Psalms Of Ascent. Psalm 121 follows a Psalm that sets us in the reality of a world at war and deceit. Psalm 121 seeks where we might find help before moving into a song of benediction. With the help of Martyn Joseph and his wonderful songs Clara and I See You, Fraser Giles recent Guardian piece on art, Marilynne Robinson's idea of benediction in her novel Gilead and Eugene Peterson's commentary on these Pslams Long Obedience In The Same Direction we will look pastorally at the earthquake in Nepal and our own personal doldrums when we cannot find wind in our sails and how songs can be a conduit of spiritual healing. All around communion and sensitive modern worship from our youngest worship band!

There is NO evening event this Bank Holiday weekend. 


SONGS AS COMPANIONS FOR THE ROAD; I HOPE WE ALL HAVE A CLARA

MJ 5

Since I was a young teenager I have found solace in songs. When yet another girl rejected me or, just as often, Manchester City lost on a Saturday afternoon I went into my music room, the privilege of being an only child, and put some vinyl on the turntable and set the needle down. The songs calmed my angst. 

So it has been for forty years. In my pilgrimage of following Jesus songs have continued to be sources of solace but also windows to help me imagine, conduits of guidance, thermometers to take the cultural temperature and fuels to fire my vocational energy. 

A number of years ago my friend and songwriter Martyn Joseph was chatting to me about how he saw songs as companions for the journey. I immediately related to that idea. Martyn named his very next record Songs For The Coming Home and on that album there was a song that spells out that belief in the power of the song as a companion; Clara

Clara is a beautiful story song and instantly became one of my very favourite Martyn Joseph songs. A black girl, called Clara, nurses a rich white unwanted baby and sings to him. Years later that baby has grown up and his life has led him to the brink of suicide. As he heads out into the desert to take his life a song comes to him, from he doesn’t know where, and it pulls him back. He goes on to live the life of a writer who blesses many. 

Meanwhile an ageing Clara seeks out the wee boy that she used to look after. She eventually does and at some stage of the meeting she starts singing a song. It is that song. The song that saved a life. Suddenly the writer knows who saved his life. It is moving, profound and a theology of the importance of song. 

It is a perfect example of how songs can be companions. The Psalms were Biblical companion songs. The Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) were literally the companion songs of pilgrims travelling up to Jerusalem for religious festivals. Yet, they were for more than just these journeys. They were companions for the entire pilgrimage of faith.

Many times I look for a song to see me through. It might be a song to celebrate and be thankful. It might be a song to help me to be still. Sometimes it is a song to stimulate vision. Many times it is a while in the doldrums with no wind in my sails, a catharsis of blues in the widest sense of the blues. I am thankful that I have been blessed with a few Claras. Martyn indeed is a valuable one of them; thank you sir! 

“I hope we all have a Clara

Singing songs unknown

Songs for the healing

And songs for the coming home.”