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September 2015

August 2015


Ben Fitzroy

(photo: Paul Bowman)

What can a song do? The power of the song for transformation, spiritual and societal has been my thing for many years; I did an MTh on it. Well tonight Ben Kyle did everything that I believe a song can do. Something way more than entertainment went down here, though entertaining it was. This was a remarkable happening of a deeply spiritual kind.

I’ll get back to Kyle. First, more than a mention for the other acts on the bill. Jonny Fitch was doing his first ever gig of this sort and did more than enough to tell us there would be many more. With a fresh voice, a contemporary rhythmic acoustic guitar style and the ability to get more words out per minute than a rant preacher like myself Jonny captivated. Covers of James Bay and Ed Sheeran sets the sights on who he wants to sit alongside. Jesse J’s Price Tag was given a new slant. Maybe best of all was his original Africa (I’m Waving At You). The next thing for the young man is more songs and some gig playing fitness that will bring confidence to reveal even more ability.

Chris Wilson has more match fitness than Ryan Giggs. Having spent years on the American Christian music tour bus Wilson originally from Indianapolis is rediscovering himself in Belfast and tonight we got the fruit of his past year living in Belfast, discovering new kinds of songs that are being recorded with Stephen McCartney right now. Wilson’s voice is a force of nature, husky and when he lets it go as powerful a thing as you’ve ever heard. That he is strong adding songs to that raw ore is wonderful and tonight Fragileand Lower were particularly emotional. The cover of Round Here by Counting Crows reinvented the familiar too!

Ben Kyle? Well this young man is something else. He is effortless on every level. The guitar playing, the voice, the melodies, the lyrics. With all this easing out of every pore of his body Kyle adds heart and soul. Nothing he sang tonight was throwaway or crowd pulling. There was a depth to all he does that touches emotionally and spiritually.

He had me at his first words, “I feel like God whistles in the wind…” Wow. Followed by “I wanna know what key he's playing in…” That might be what he tried to do for the rest of the evening, These are the songs of a man wrestling with God in the most positive ways trying to understand, family, fatherhood, heartache and death; attempting to make sense of life and faith and how to make a contribution. 

That first song is God Walks On The Water and a previous blog tells you what it means to me. After the first three minutes I was drained and elated all in one emotion. Mercy became a prayer for Northern Ireland in a bad place just now. His cover of Bobby Womack’s “the bravest man in the universe/ Is the one who has forgiven first” seemed to preach into our sectarian inertia. 

Drinking The Night Away was perhaps the most harrowing as Ben told us the story of his friend at Methody, a school a few hundred yards away, who was killed in a car crash in Donegal. Ben surmised that had his family not moved to America he might have been in that car. When he came to write the song, confused about this particular key that God was singing in, he said the song wrote itself and he got the answer in the last line, a line that I think is one of the most potent twists in the tale in rock music… (you’ll have to and buy it!)

We were back to a line from the opening song that declares that “a song can understand.” Maybe it was the setting in a Church but Kyle was in the zone tonight, choosing songs carefully, wearing his soul on his sleeve and eking out every fibre of each song’s muscle. It made for a very special evening where no one left untouched. This was the song at its best. Understanding, soothing, lifting, fuelling, transforming. What a night!


Cyprus Avenue 2

On Monday East Belfast will experience one of the moments in rock history. On his 70th birthday Van Morrison will play a concert on Cyprus Avenue the street he made world famous on his album Astral Weeks.

That iconic record Astral Weeks is like the rarest of meteorites appearing in a night sky without warning. It is an acoustic, ambient blues and jazz fusion with pain, death, love, romance and transcendental yelping that draws from a legacy of Woody Guthrie, evangelical Christianity and a transvestite called Madame George (that mentions Fitzroy for goodness sake) among many other things. 

Within its genius it is easy to trace the themes that would keep Van Morrison in muse for the rest of his career; childlike visions, his Belfast upbringing, religion and these continual moments of spiritual epiphany even in the middle of dark nights of the soul. 

As you listen to Astral Weeks you can feel one young man’s pain and, as you are pulled into the slipstream and viaducts of his dreams, you journey with him towards redemption. 

In the midst of the common and most ordinary Van Morrison captures a vivid vibrant vision of the sacred and holy. That same Hyndford Street where Astral Weeks was written became a song in its own right in 1991.  Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary on that song, Morrison calls "dreaming in God". As yet another more recent songs says, it is an ability to transcend the ritual and find the spiritual (Behind The Ritual). 

Holiness is all around us. As William Blake put it,

“See the Lord in a grain of sand

And heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour”

Or cleric, poet and author Mike Starkey put it:

“The place you are is full of wonders

Even if that place is a wilderness

Open your eyes wide

Look for long enough and you will see.”

As St Paul puts it, “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

So, along with Van, I am be looking beyond the ordinary to find the extraordinary. Beyond the moment to find eternity. Especially this weekend!

On Sunday morning August 30th at 11am, I along with my congregation (Fitzroy Presbyterian Church) will be building the entire Sunday Service around the work of Van Morrison using his hymns and songs under the title "WHEN WILL I EVER LEARN TO LIVE IN GOD; The Lord, N Fitzroy... and Van Morrison" ALL WELCOME!


Brian Houston

“And the parsons planting kisses on the babies at the door

And I’m wondering why I bothered and what I came here for

I’m absolutely broken with no tears of mine to cry

Saying prayers for those in prison and for those afraid to die”

     - Kisses At The Door by Brian Houston

When Brian Houston released his The Valley record I dismissed this song as really nice but of little prophetic consequences.

Then one night as he sang it live, it literally came alive. I have no memory of the context. I imagine it was somewhere intimate and his gift was connecting with my vocational environment in some personal way. Anyway this chorus came thudding through and opened a door in my soul to ask for much more from my life and ministry. 

As a “parson” I was too well aware how inane my profession can be if it is done to be nice. The devil settles for nice. The devil loves nice. Sunday mornings need to be way beyond nice. Sunday mornings need to touch a community of people who are hurting, losing loved ones, stressed at work, frightened of their own failings and doubts. If that service doesn’t bring comfort to the broken hearted and tearful then I should just stay in bed and so should they.

Beyond that I need to be about Jesus business. I hear sermons that are a little bit right. They tell us we need Jesus to save us from ourselves, our sins and hell. I have no doubt that Jesus does indeed save. Yet, if he only saves us to live nice lives, doing no harm to our neighbours as we wait for some celestial eternity then we have missed the Gospel he lived and preached. Again, the devil would settle for that!

Jesus saves - absolutely. You know I believe it. But I am not saved for my own self indulgent gain. I am saved in order to love, to forgive and to service. I am saved to sacrifice myself. Jesus was about a Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. That kingdom is not about kissing babies after the benediction, though that might be a nice thing to do. The kingdom is visiting the prisoner, feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty and welcoming the stranger. That last one seems a biggie in a world that lambasts strangers as spongers and sends them back to their damnation. 

Unless I am doing that and preaching that and making Church about that then Brian is right to wonder why he bothered. So, a song in a context can fuel the vocational energy, challenge and inspire. Thank you Brian for this one!

Brian Houston plays The Empire Music Hall, Belfast on August 27th 2015 at 8pm.


Ben Romantica

“Beautiful girl is a beautiful thing

A beautiful song is something you can sing

If you're feeling low the girl can hold your hand

But a beautiful song can understand”

- from God Walks On the Water by Romantica 

I knew that day when I left Lindsay’s house that it would be the last time I would see her. I found the whole thing deeply painful. Lindsay was 23, we had worked together on a project in South Africa, Alain her husband is one of my dearest friends. She was suffering in a way I was not. Alain was suffering in a way I was not. But my suffering was watching my friends go through the most awful suffering of all: cancer ripping them apart by a premature death through an awful disease. 

As I got into my car I wondered how to deal with my feelings. I immediately reached for my iPod and scrambled to put a playlist together that would help me untangle my deep emotions on the journey home. 

Tolstoy said art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man. I would go further and say that it’s a means of prayer between humans and God. On that drive home I used songs to wrestle with God and my own soul about what was going on in my life. Songs are a potent resource for dealing with pain. Someone said that “The blues is what you get when life ain’t right.” 

I believe that one of the conduits for God’s comfort is lament. The Bible is full of it - angry, frustrated, painful. Songs of lament do something deep in our souls. They can drill to the nerve centre of our pain, somehow empathise, soothe and mysteriously be companions as we journey through dark days. 

Since the days of David’s Psalms and Jeremiah’s Laments human beings have used the song to understand. Included in the Psalms are a collection of questioning prayers, laments or blues when the believe can not only show confusion and frustration with how the world is but actually rage at God and ask interrogate him on what he might think he is doing in the world. 

Looking to a song for consolation has been a habit of humanity since Saul brought a young David to his Palace to play the harp and soothe his soul. That afternoon on a tearful, melancholy trip home praying for Lindsay and Alain I thumbed up Minneapolis band Romantica’s God Walks On The Water. Songwriter Ben Kyle grew up in Belfast before moving Stateside and his little theological twists in his tales of life and death betray his dad’s occupation as a Pastor. God Walks On The Water is a stunningly beautiful song with a sweet mournful fiddle that catches you just guessing on this side of knowing. 

It’s a song where there are curses and blessings on the journey of life that causes the kind of deep heartbreak that Lindsay’s husband, parents, brother, sisters and friends were suffering so acutely as they headed towards a reunion of the other side of death’s earthly sting. The line that nails catharsis on the head is,

“God walks on the water

I walk through the rain

One day we're gonna walk together

When he comes back again”

Indeed it was a song that understood!

Ben Kyle plays Fitzroy (BT9 6LQ) on Friday August 28th at 8pm... £10 on door!


Van Painting

Monday August 31st is going to be a historic day in rock music. Not only is it Van Morrison’s 70th birthday but he will be doing a concert on Cyprus Avenue the Belfast street he made famous in one of rock music’s greatest records Astral Weeks. 

On Sunday morning, the day before, Fitzroy Presbyterian Church will be building their Sunday morning service around the music of Van Morrison. That might not be the usual approach to a Church worship service but for Fitzroy it might not be as big a surprise. 

For some years Fitzroy have been putting on a Gospel According To... series of events that look at songs and indeed literature, film and art, and draw out the spiritual meaning. The series has included Bob Dylan, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, The West End, Harry Potter and Van Gogh! A few years ago they did Van Morrison. 

Fitzroy’s minister Steve Stockman has been connecting art, and theology for thirty years. He hosted his own music show Rhythm and Soul on BBC Radio Ulster for ten years and has written Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 as well as The Rock Cries Out; Discovering Eternal Truth In Unlikely Music. He is currently considering a book idea on Van Morrison!

Morrison gives all that is necessary to build a Christian worship service around. He has recorded hymns and many of his songs have spiritual insights. His upbringing on Hyndford Street in East Belfast meant that he was conditioned in the shadow of all kinds of Churches, Mission Halls, Gospel Halls and Kingdom Halls. It was very unlikely that an artist like Morrison who has paid so much attention to his childhood in his near fifty year career would not find these influencing his art. 

Later he became an enthusiast of Comparative Religion. He read books and wrote songs about all kinds of religious ideas like Scientology, Roscrucianism and the Tibetan influence of Alice Bailey. Into the middle of this wide ranging mix Morrison’s Christian legacy enters and exits in orthodox and unorthodox ways. Lots of his songs have a deep spirituality as a result.

On Sunday morning an array of talented musicians from Fitzroy including Chris Wilson, Scott Jamison, Dave Thompson and Caroline Orr will bring live performances of Morrison’s songs and Stockman will bring Scripture, prayer and sermon together with that work.

That Fitzroy is another place that Morrison mentions on Astral Weeks, in the song Madame George, gives the morning service extra resonance with the historic events of Monday. The aforementioned Madame George was described by one commentator as “part blues, part Protestant testifying... with the insistent verve of a Presbyterian minister...” You will get some of that on Sunday morning! Everybody welcome!

The Lord ’N Fitzroy… and Van Morrison is at 11am on Sunday August 30th at Fitzroy Presbyterian, 77 University Street, Belfast BT7 1HL


Onialeku School Gate

At some stage of every day of our time at Onialeku Primary School I walked out to the gate and took snap shots of the road, some by camera and some in my mind. The red dust roads of Uganda fascinated me and this one was a mile or two out of Arua in one direction and nine miles from the Congo border in the other.

This poem is not written for literary skill but more to capture every little image that I saw in those moments by the school gate. I added one or two images from elsewhere but most of them were right here including the oil tanker with the Biblical verse across the top. I quickly got out the Bible on my phone to check the verse - perfect!


Nine miles from the border

Africa is scurrying along

From where they have to be

To where they all belong

Boda Bodas swerve the potholes

On this ancient red dust road

Two passengers and a baby

Or with a cash and carry load

Long horned cows so regal

Groves of mango and bananas

Women balancing the economy

Heads full of fish, nuts and cassavas.


Arua, on the road to Congo

Going and coming back across

We, in all the comfort gained

Oh how much have we lost?


The children waving and smiling

The men just sitting in the square

Arsenal shirts on every corner

And T-shirts from everywhere

Bus says Jesus is a Winner

It seems everything is blessed

The God Is Able Beauty Salon

Now that’s putting him to the test!

An Oil tanker trundles preaching

Proverbs 22 verse 2

Whether you are rich or poor

God’s the maker of me and you.


Arua, on the road to Congo

Going and coming back across

Whatever was to my profit

I will now consider loss.



Jason Isbell Something More

Jason Isbell has to be up there with the best songwriters on the planet just now. His last album Southeastern was a surprise revelation and the much more anticipated Something More Than Free does not disappoint. 

Every line, melody and riff sounds at the same time fresh but oh so comfortably familiar. You can hear echoes of John Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee period on If It Takes A LifetimeSpringtseen’s 80s strut is conjured on Palmetto Rose which might be one of those Bruce songs of instant political comment; the Charlestown Church shooting seems to be on Isbell’s mind. Flagship has the frayed married weariness of another Springsteen record, Tunnel Of Love. Steve Earle’s Guitar Town is all over Speed Trap Town and The Life You Chose too.

Such a review would suggest a cheapskate copycat stealing his heroes ideas. Yet, it is not like that at all. Somehow when all the influences blend into Isbell’s own voice he ends up sounding more authentic than any of the aforementioned and, let me dare to be labelled a musical heretic, a more naturally gifted writer. No he will not hold a stadium in the palm of his hand like the Boss does, for 3 and 4 hours at a time, but Bruce dreams of this guy’s ease with hooks and rhymes. 

These are songs of tough life, real love, the importance of family and vocation and all the hurt and heartbreak that is wrapped in the choices of the lives we make. Isbell can spin a tale. He loves the detail and always sees the universal truths tucked away in every day ordinary lives. Nothing is throwaway. Everything is insightful. Best of all the lyrics grab you with memorable little explosions of thoughtfulness, always dressed in gently catchy hooks. Best explosion of all has to be in 24 Frames:

"You thought God was an architect

Now you know

He's something like a pipe bomb

Ready to blow

And everything you built that's all for show

Goes up in flames

In 24 Frames"


For my other Favourite albums of the summer click here

For my review of Jason Isbell's Southeastern click here



Jason Isbell Something More


The follow up to my 2013 Album of the Year Southeastern, Isbell doesn’t disappoint. Effortless songs with clever and memorable lyrics. Try 24 Frames.


The very same day as Isbell’s record came out and Matthew Perryman Jones releases a companion piece. A beautiful piece of melancholy. Tender harmonies by Kevin Costner’s daughter add to the heartache on stripped back songs of lostness and disorientation. Try Can’t Get It Right


Dement has that voice that is a little left field of Emmylou Harris but casts the same authority. This record sees her taking Russian poet Anna Akhmatova's words and giving them voice. It gives her voice the words to punch home real substance. Try Reject The Burden which gives us:

“Humble yourself to be the meanest servant of your worst enemy, 

And learn to call the brute beast of the forest ways your brother, 

And ask of God nothing, nothing at all” 


Another Jones, Rickie Lee’s first set of original songs since The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard in 2007 it is a real return to form. That quirky voice eeks out meaning and emotion in a song cycle rooted in her life in New Orleans. Try Christmas Time In New Orleans


I accidentally fell upon this one on Emusic with great glee and excitement. Coughlan’s catalogue is strong through and through and this one is autobiographical so be prepared to weep. Less jazz and benefitting from Visser’s sweet guitar Mary smashes our hearts open with a true life story. Read her biography Bloody Mary: My Story as you listen. Try This Is Not A Song


Gundersen follows the wonderful Ledges with this one that adds some Tonights The Night Neil Young ragged guitar into the mix. If Ledges quoted Isaiah this one wrestles with the faith he grew up with it. Soul searched and scratched! Try Show Me The Light


Another accidental Emusic browsing discovery Baxter is from the same cool cloth as Isbell, Perryman Jones and Gunderson but aiming a little more intentionally at the mainstream this time around. Try Oh My Captain


Summer’s by the sea mean a more democratic listening experience, trying to not annoy my wife and father-in-law. It is always good to throw out a wee bit of Elvis Costello’s Mrs and her latest covers record is a perfect solution. From Gilbert O’Sullivan through 10CC to The Beatles and the Bob Dylan title track. Thought we might have had Allison though! Try Don’t Dream It’s Over


Arguably England’s finest songwriter Hewerdine throws out an album of tracks he had forgotten about. Most writers would die for these crafted tunes sung as ever in a voice that sounds like a man lying back on a sun lounger… languishing wonder! Try... Name


I’ve been on a Van Morrison listen this past 6 months and my vinyl copy of this one was so worn out I borrowed a fresh copy from a friend. What a revelation this 1974 live set is. The East Belfast genius is at his very best and this should be on everyone’s playlist on the week leading up the Cyprus Avenue gig on the man’s 70th birthday on August 31st! Try, all ten minutes of Cyprus Avenue (what else!)



AFRICA (I Am Waving At You)


a poem that became a co-written song with Jonny Fitch


Africa, I am waving at you

And you always wave back and smile

Roads teeming with fascination

Red dust mile after red dust mile.


Africa, I am staring at you

All the wildlife through the trees

Elephants under the mangos

The smell of your welcoming breeze.


Africa, I am singing with you

Your joyful songs of being free

Ubuntu, what a great refrain

Without you, I can’t be me.


Africa, I am praying for you

Water and education and health

That you don’t get all our poverty

With justice, peace and wealth. 


My name is not Muzungu

We may have a different skin

But all of our blood is red

The same grace colour

That Jesus bled.

THE CURSE OF POVERTY AND BLESSED ARE THE POOR: Thought For The Day, Radio Ulster 21.8.15

Lois children

(photo by Lois Clotworthy)

For many years I have pondered the difference between the poverty that the Old Testament prophets raged against and the poverty that Jesus called blessed. 

Earlier this month I was in Uganda with a Fitzroy Youth Team visiting the school where we had funded a new building through Fields Of Life, a Northern Ireland NGO. We were in Onialeku a very poor rural area near the city of Arua in the north west of Uganda. I tossed around the poverty dilemma again.

One of the problems in that part of Uganda is that fathers are handing down their one acre of land to three or more sons. The land is dividing up to smaller and smaller plots that make it difficult to make enough for your family. Wars have taken their toll. Parents are uneducated and have to use their own initiative and drive to start schools for their own children.

There is much poverty to rage against. The little pot bellies of the children tell a story of bad diets. Water still needs carried home from wherever there might be a well. One of our activities was the first time children had used glue or finger paints. As for their health clinics…  Our family sponsor a child here and it angers me that because of the location of her birth she hasn’t the things my children take for granted.

And yet as I spoke to this community at the Commissioning of the new school building I said that the world calls them poor but that they are only poor in shillings (the Ugandan currency). I had been inspired by the wealth of their faith, the passion, their vision and their hope. Their sense of community. Their resourcefulness and resilience. Their lack of cynicism revealed every time you waved and everybody waved and smiled back.

We, I went on, are wealthy in shillings but as for faith and passion and vision and hope? I think this taught me something of what Jesus meant. I saw the blessings of the the poor.