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August 2016

U2@40 - Song #13 - WAVE OF SORROW

Bono Ethiopia

"Blessed are the meek who scratch in the dirt

For they shall inherit what's left of the earth

Blessed are the kings who've left their thrones

They are buried in this valley of dry bones

Blessed all of you with an empty heart

For you got nothing from which you cannot part

Blessed is the ego

It's all we got this hour

Blessed is the voice that speaks truth to power

Blessed is the sex worker who sold her body tonight

She used what she got

To save her children's life

Blessed are you, the deaf cannot hear a scream

Blessed are the stupid who can dream

Blessed are the tin canned cardboard slums

Blessed is the spirit that overcomes."

-     From Wave Of Sorrow by U2

Bono’s version of the Beatitudes appear at the end of a song he first attempted to write in 1985 but didn’t get finished until the Joshua Tree 20th Anniversary Edition in 2007. It had its origins in Bono’s first visited to Ethiopia as a result of Bob Geldof's Live Aid and although it would be some fifteen years before he would put his shoulder to the plough of transformation on that continent, the interest and consequent sorrow began during this first visit when he and his wife spent 6 weeks working at an orphanage with World Vision. 

Wave of Sorrow is a fascinating and heart wrenching  song in which Bono takes Scripture and uses it to resource an almost journal entry of his own experience. Bono, a man who is obsessed with the Scriptures, draws on the story of the Queen of Sheba from 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9. He finds it hard to relate the barren wasteland of modern day famine ravaged Ethiopia with the one out of which the Queen of Sheba brings King Solomon rich spices, gold and precious stones.

He then engages Solomon and the Psalm writing King David in a question; "What lyric would you sing?"  It seems to be the question that Bono is asking himself as he attempts to make lyric the experience that he and Ali are going through as mothers walk their babies as far as they have to to leave them down dead or in hope of last chance help. Waves of Sorrow is an attempt to put reality to lyric. It breeds more questions than answers; questions of abandonment, the questions of possibilities and questions of one's own involvement. 

Though the questions are left to ponder, Bono concludes the song by juxtaposing existing reality with the hope and belief of a greater one. The lyric he attempts to write finds its foundation in Jesus Beatitudes, the wise poetic beginning to thye Sermon on The Mount found in the New Testament Scripture of Matthews 5. In his own version of the Beatitudes.

In a somewhat ironic fashion, Bono has made certain to not exclude himself from the mix: "Blessed is the ego/It's all we got this hour" - as only a self proclaimed egomaniac could. The “Blessed is the sex worker” line will no doubt cause controversial reaction. That sense of shock evokes surely the same outrageous shock that the religious people of Jesus day would have had to those original Beatitudes. Perhaps the line is about a particular person that Bono and Ali met and were disturbed and impressed by in a shocking way for them. In the end, as in Jesus version, there is a resolution for the marginalised, forgotten and outcast. It is Bono’s hope in this most appallingly disconcerting experience of his life.

U2@40 - Song #12: - WHITE AS SNOW

White as Snow photo

(On September 25th 2016 we will celebrate 40 years to the day that U2 met in Larry Mullen’s kitchen for the very first time. In the 40 days leading up to U2@40 I will blog one of their spiritual songs...)

No Line On The Horizon is a pretty riffed up record and after then after the experimentation of Fez, comes this quiet reflective shift of pace. White As Snow is a piano led ballad. Even when the guitar comes in, it is a gentle strum, as far from Edge’s trademark as is imaginable. 

It all sounds very unlike U2 but when Bono begins to sing it brings Hands That Built America to mind, from the Gangs In New York soundtrack. It could be an evocative, suggestive, mysterious or vague story line, giving little away in images of highways, dry ground and woods and moons. 

The singer’s brother and he driving on straight highways in the first verse could actually be Bruce Springsteen in his Nebraska phase. Interviews, however, fill us in on perhaps trivial information that Bono was thinking of a soldier dying in Afghanistan. Along with a song called Winter it was used ion the psychological war thriller drama film Brothers directed by U2’s old Irish mate Jim Sheridan.

Whatever the storyline, at the core of the song, perhaps given away by the melodic steal of the Christmas Carol O Come O Come Emmanuel, are again questions of faith and doubt and salvation. 

There are no clues in verse one that we are to be confronted with the heavy theological issues of verse two. Immediately, the narrator declares that he once knew God’s love but there was then a time when he lost it. Whether he is still in that doubting agnostic place we don’t know but salvation is what he is looking for. 

Forgiveness is what the ultimate search is for. Where it can be found is the key to this particular universe, or in the knowledge that it is a dying man eternity. It brings to mind Springsteen again and all those characters from Nebraska seeking various kinds of atonement. 

On White As Snow, if we are aware that it is a war zone and a dying soldier, the question is can forgiveness be found in a terrain that is so unforgiving. 

A more general question is how there can be forgiveness gained where forgiveness is not given, recalling Jesus words in the prayer he taught his disciples, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The answer, the singer feels, is “The lamb as white as snow.” This is the central belief of Judaism and Christianity. The lamb atones for sin. A lamb without blemish is the only thing that can bring that forgiveness from the Divine. Christianity believes that the Emmanuel who came in that Christmas Carol, whose melody underpins this theological discussion, is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1 v 29) to quote John the Baptist, Jesus cousin and fervent wilderness preacher. 

This unblemished lamb can make our hearts as white as snow is Christianity’s core belief. King David, Bono’s favourite Psalmist and blues singer, wrote his song of being made as white as snow (Psalm 51) after committing his most notorious sins, incidentally catalogued by Leonard Cohen in Hallelujah. David ultimately hoped that God would make his heart as white as snow... and so this dying soldier. 

White As Snow is intimate, tender, poignant, beautiful… and spiritual.

U2@40 - Song #11: SILVER AND GOLD

U2 Silver and Gold

The very first time I heard Bono’s Silver and Gold I sensed the claustrophobic feel of a dark wet night on the South African townships. Dark and wet add menace to the poverty of townships. The shacks close in. Silver and Gold as an attempt by Bono to bring the tradition of the blues into his work for the first time does a great job in mood and feel. What was more amazing is that I wouldn’t walk onto my first township for fifteen years after I got to sense that feel.

U2 had become a political band by the time Bono wrote Silver and Gold in 1985 but they were not on their own. Jackson BrowneJoni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn are three prime examples of songwriters who moved from songs of personal introspection to songs of political provocation in the 80’s. Bruce Springsteen’s side kick Little Steven Van Zandt got in on the act too with some political songs and then, having heard Peter Gabriel’s Biko, took some interest in South Africa and put together a star studded protest song to encourage artists to stop playing South Africa’s Sun City, the most appealing venue for concerts, as a support of the economic sanctions many were encouraging against the white government.

Bono’s first attempt at a real song, prompted by not being able to share one in the company of some Rolling Stones, was written in a New York hotel room during that Sun City project. Bono recorded it quickly with Keith Richard and Ron Wood as his band and it appeared on the Sun City album before U2 used it first as a b-side for Where The Streets Have No Name and later as a powerful live song on Rattle and Hum.

As well as the mood he conjures Bono deals with something very powerful in the South African apartheid context. Bob Marley put it well from his sense of slavery on Jamaican townships when on his much covered Spiritual Redemption Song he sings, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.” There is a sinister twist to the slavery in Bono’s opening lines – “praying hands hold me down.” One of the many foibles of apartheid was that it had been theologized. 

The theologians at Dutch Reformed Stellenbosch University had given a Biblical mandate for the institutionalised apartheid of the Africaaner government. Evidence of the belief that blacks were less than human can be found on a visit to Robben Island where prisoners who were black got no meat in their diet, compared the coloured who did, because they were seen as less than human!

There is indeed a mental slavery when you are constantly told you are less than human. This is not just political oppression. It is psychological oppression and Bono, having a faith himself, is disturbed that “praying hands” played their part in this horrendous injustice. For the answer he turns to another black voice, Jesse Jackson, who apparently used the phrase “I am someone” in his own civil rights campaigning in the USA. Jesus turns up, as he often does in U2 songs, and don’t think that his name is a throwaway taking-in-vain; Bono is too meticulous for that. In a second verse that could describe the violent end of Steve Biko’s life there is a defiant cry to free the mind; black people are someones!

This battle for psychological liberation continues today across South Africa. Being put down for generations takes its toll. Bono finishes Silver and Gold with two secrets to the freedom from mental slavery. First that the poor might actually be blessed as Jesus says and have more wealth in their humanity than the Racist oppressors. The second secret to breaking the chains is belief that freedom is inside not in the outward circumstances. 

If ever there was a place that showed the strength of feeling free in spite of being in prison then it is Robben Island, if ever a man then it Nelson Mandela its most famous prisoner. Somehow against all the odds, as the apartheid regime attempted daily to demoralise them, the prisoners on Robben Island never lost hope and somehow deep within believed that they were free and would one day be free in a democratic South Africa. That dream was a long way off when Bono wrote Silver and Gold and no one should underestimate the contribution that songs like this made to making its last few lines a reality. 


Fitzroy Board

Fitzroy are used to me having at least one Facebook quotation per week. I don't set out to find one but something always seems to resonate with my sermon prep.

My ritual is to read the Lectionary passages early in the week... then marinate... read the commentaries... go on a prayerful journey in my thinking of where the text needs to reach the Fitrzoy context I will be preaching into.

This week I had just read the passages in Luke 14: 7-14 and Proverbs 25: 6-7 when Grant Connor posted a photo of a Church Notice Board that said, "Christian Snobbery Is The Curse of the Church." Now there's a depth charge. 

So with the Scriptures in one hand and Facebook in the other we will unpack the subversive and radical approach to relationships that Jesus was modelling and talking about. \

We will then be asking if we are snobs; socially, theologically, ethically, culturally, racially etc.

Some help might come from Rich Mullins, Marilynne Robinson, LDL and MLK...

Service at 11am... ALL WELCOME!

Still no evening event this Sunday night.



U2@40 - Song #10: OCTOBER

October U2

(On September 25th 2016 we will celebrate 40 years to the day that U2 met in Larry Mullen’s kitchen for the very first time. In the 40 days leading up to U2@40 I will blog one of their spiritual songs...)

And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on.”

Perhaps U2’s first moment of controlled and crafted genius, Edge’s piano changes the band’s soundscape entirely and brings to the early catalogue a song that is sophisticated, economical and deep; Eno before Eno! Christian hymn writers have often used few words for impact – Taize would be a good example – but it is more likely that Bono, with his lyric boos stolen and the album deadline pending, simply didn’t have the time to elaborate. However, what might be nothing more than a sketch at the time begins to feel perfectly complete as the time goes by.

October is a haunting piece that sits in the vortex of change and a change that is not a welcome. Bono often speaks of having the title first and of thinking that the hopeful spring of the sixties had given way to a colder, bleaker time in 1981. As well as that global vortex of change the band were in their own personal vortex. Camped out with the Shalom Christian community on Portrane beach just north of Dublin, Edge and Bono were wrestling with rock stardom or not; was it compatible with the intensity of their Christian commitment. The trees were bare in their own souls and it worked its way into this piece of lament. 

Holed up in a caravan, fasting, praying and reading the Bible it was inevitable that Scripture would creep into the creative process. October is very much in the lament tradition of the Psalms or other Old Testament books, that would find their way into their next album War. October is Psalm-like while 40 on War would be an actual Psalm. Isaiah would feature a couple of times on that follow up album too. In October’s lament comes hope; in the midst of tossed about confusion comes truth; in the midst of negative change comes the constant to be trusted in. God doesn’t change. The seasons do, the politics of history does but God... “you go on and on.”


GB & NI Olympics 16

Oh how I am enjoying being in bed before midnight. Just when I thought I had got rested over the summer, the Olympics kicked in and kept me up to all hours watching Farah, Bolt, Ennis Hill and the rest. 

Mind you, wasn’t it brilliant. It was a remarkable festival of sport.. and for me it ended up almost like a spiritual retreat. I will remember the Rio Olympics as the Games that asked hard questions of my soul.

What on earth do I mean? Well, I found that the post race, match, jump, pummel horse back flip interviews were more teary than ever before. The reason for the tears would then come out in all the emotional interviews. Was it just me or was it that more than ever before the cost of winning medals or just being an Olympian was highlighted.

And that is where my soul took a pummelling. What people were prepared to sacrifice for a medal kept asking me questions of my own life and faith. How committed am I prepared to be for what I believe and want to achieve in my life.

I was most struck by an interview with one of the victorious GB & NI Women’s hockey team. When asked about the sacrifice she had made she said that it hadn’t been a sacrifice - it was a life choice. Again I was challenged and inspired. What are my life choices and how do I go after them.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” 

Though Paul is speaking directly to those of us who share a Christian faith, the Olympics sermon is for us all. Who’ll be the Mo Farah, Helen Richardson-Walsh, the Jason Kenny, the Laura Trott or the hilarious Irish rowers The O’Donovans in the school. office, factory floor or local Assembly this morning.

So now that they are over… I’ll get more sleep… at least until the Paralympics start in a couple of weeks… but I think the inspiring sportsmen and women of Rio will go on provoking my soul to live life and life in all its fulness.

U2@40 - Song #9: IRIS (HOLD ME CLOSE)


(On September 25th 2016 we will celebrate 40 years to the day that U2 met in Larry Mullen’s kitchen for the very first time. In the 40 days leading up to U2@40 I will blog one of their spiritual songs...)

One of the things that stands out on this new U2 record is the personal raw emotion of the songs. The heart of the record is where the hurt is, to paraphrase an old Bono line. 

From Iris (Hold Me Close) to Cedarwood Road we are on a four song sequence that is a painful journey from tragic personal loss to the door that finally opened towards redemption. I believe that section to be the heart of the album. 

To record an album of songs about youth is nothing new to U2Boy was exactly that but it was actually written in their youth as they left the exit door from adolescence. These songs have been thirty five years in the bubbling, brooding and making sense of. 

Where the other songs on Songs Of Innocence are all in different ways crucial building blocks that made Bono a man, the section from Iris to Cedarwood Road are the trauma, the deepest fault lines of Bono’s shaping.

Iris (Hold Me Close) shifts the entire mood of Songs Of Innocence. There is a bright and bouncy start to the record; The Ramones, the ocean and Beach Boys’ Santa Barbara. Iris leads us into a heavier sound and Bono’s lingering grief of losing his mother at 14. Larry lost his mother at a similar stage. 

Since War back in 1983 my first listen to a new U2 record has been a near sacred experience. I listen right through, usually letting out little gasps as a line strikes a chord in my soul. 

By poignant coincidence, the surprising drop of Songs Of Innocence into my iTunes account meant that my first listen was on the same day that a friend was marking the anniversary of the brutal killing of his father in the Northern Ireland Troubles. My friend was just two years of age at the time.

Listening to Iris (Hold Me Close) in such a context took its potent emotional power to even deeper levels: -


“the ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am”

“The darkness just let’s us see who we are/I’ve got your life inside of me.”

“hold me close like I’m someone you might know.”


As a pastor who believes in the cathartic power of music and often uses music to help in pastoral care Iris resonates deeply. The loss, the memories, imagining the parent holding you now. It is painful yet redemptive. Like this entire section, I call it “post blues”. 

The melancholic despair of the blues is very real but it doesn’t stop in the blues, it transitions into Gospel music’s hopefulness and spiritual healing. That is very much the tradition of U2 but perhaps in this section of songs they have achieved it in ways they haven’t done before.

U2@40 - Song #8: WAKE UP DEAD MAN

Slane castle U2

(On September 25th 2016 we will celebrate 40 years to the day that U2 met in Larry Mullen’s kitchen for the very first time. In the 40 days leading up to U2@40 I will blog one of their spiritual songs...)

On Soul Surmise, I have used Wake Up Dead Man in a series over Easter weekend. Christians, at least in my experience, are not sure what to do with that day inbetween. For well over an entire day Jesus is in a tomb. The dream seems over. Hope is dead.  If there was ever a song for Easter Saturday then it is Wake Up Dead Man. 

There is a believer calling out to Jesus, like the Psalmists that Bono loves, but he is finding no solace, no hope, no way through. Jesus is in the tomb and things look bleak. 

The most poignant version of this song was performed at Slane Castle in 2001 when U2 stripped it down to a mournful dirge at the end of Sunday Bloody Sunday after Bono has named all the dead from the Omagh bombing of 1998. It is eerily cathartic in this incarnation and becomes everything that the blues section of the Old Testament Psalms can conjure. 

On record, Wake Up Dead Man has a very pivotal place in the U2 canon. Bono once said that in the 80’s the band sang about what they believed in but in the 90s they sang about what they didn’t believe in. The media and commerce took the wrath of U2’s artistic critique during 90’s ZOO TV and Popmart tours. It was a bleak outlook for humankind. 

That the last song on a 90s U2 album was suggesting that Jesus needed to rise from the dead was the darkest of full stops. When in hindsight you know what their first song of the new millennium would be it is even more intriguing; too brilliant to be contrived... but that is for tomorrow’s blog! 

Until then: - 



“Tell me 
Tell me the story 
The one about eternity 
And the way it's all gonna be 
Wake up 
Wake up dead man 
Wake up 
Wake up dead man 

I'm waiting here boss 
I know you're looking out for us 
But maybe your hands aren't free 
Your Father 
He made the world in seven 
He's in charge of heaven 
Will you put a word in for me Wake up 
Wake up dead man 
Wake up 
Wake up dead man.”

U2@40 - Song #7: LUCIFER'S HANDS

U2 #1

The morning after purchasing the deluxe version of U2’s Songs Of Innocence I left my children to school and as I started the return journey pressed play on disc 2. In rumbled Lucifer’s Hands and 3 minutes and 55 seconds later I was lifted with elation. What a song! 

I would have had it on the main disc released free to iTunes customers, with gratitude or controversy, through Apple the month before. Whatever the reasons why it wasn’t, and that could take another blog, this was a joyous Monday morning surprise.

The first thing to hit me was the sound, the grinding clanking stutter of Zoo Station jumping into the glam rock groove of T. Rex's 20th Century Boy. That was my era, when I discovered music as an eleven year old. The same age as the members of U2, I am sure that they were taking me back through sound exactly as intended. 

U2 have spoken about listening to the music of their youth for the Songs Of Innocence project and Bono has spoken about how those sounds opened doors in his memory to start writing about those formative days; and no matter what the title suggests they were not all innocent.

On top of this wondrous sound we find ourselves, as we do for most of the album, in the late 70s, and in this one particularly, the charismatic revival that as sweeping across north Dublin and Mount Temple School. 


The spirit’s moving through a seaside town

I’m born again to the latest sound

New wave airwaves swirling around my heart


In his life and vocation Bono’s Christian faith and his music swirl around, blending and blurring. In the next verse the NME and the Scriptures, particularly John’s book of Revelation, are interwoven. If the rebirth he found in the Spirit brought some sense to his grieving teenage life, then music brought an outlet for the anger. 

This shouldn’t be seen as a surprise as Christian faith has always used music as a conduit of engagement with God and in both directions of that. Worship to God, the seeking of catharsis from God. They are the heart of the Christian experience.

The main point of Lucifer’s Hands is freedom.  


You no longer got a hold on me

I’m out of Lucifer’s hands

You no longer got a hold on me

You’re no longer in control of me

I am


Note the “I am”. On the How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb record this Old Testament name for God was all over the book that came with the album and also the core of the song All Because Of You. It is another clue to where the freedom comes. 

Neither is it the first time that Lucifer’s Hands have turned up on a U2 song. On Joshua Tree’s central theological song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for -


I have spoke with the tongue of angels

I have held the hand of a devil

It was warm in the night

I was cold as a stone


There is yet another reference back to U2’s past in Lucifer’s Hands. Bono turns around the lyrics of Rejoice from the October album when he now claims that he can change the world but can’t change the world in himself. 

Thirty three years after Rejoice was written Bono has literally changed the world through his work for development, AIDS and Fair Trade. He still struggles with the foibles and quirks within himself. He understands why people don’t quite get him. He is more than aware that the world within himself, the world with its beginnings declared on Songs Of Innocence are still not sorted. It is why he still needs the music. 

What the freedoms are that he is eulogising about in this song are not clear. School? Culture? Death? Himself? Even that community where St John Divine’s Scripture is centre stage? Whatever it is this is the song of a man who knew from his teens that there were personal and universal demons that could oppress. This is a song of liberation. 

Which is how I felt after that school run. I got out of the car set free!

U2@40 - Song #6: VERTIGO

U2 Vertigo

(On September 25th 2016 we will celebrate 40 years to the day that U2 met in Larry Mullen’s kitchen for the very first time. In the 40 days leading up to U2@40 I will blog one of their spiritual songs...)

Vertigo was the first single off How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb in 2004 and as with many U2 albums at that time it was met with uncertainty. Since Desire led off Rattle and Hum, first singles off U2 records had tended to be slow to gain access to the ear. The Fly from Achtung Baby – my goodness me! Discotheque from Pop – are you kidding! Even Beautiful Day, that within a very short time became a stone cold classic, had a jury undecided for the first few weeks of its release.

Vertigo has stood the test of time. It is right there in the lead off section to the Innocence and Experience Tour in 2015. It is three minutes and ten seconds of full on rock out; a sonic explosion of spiritual shrapnel to lacerate the soul. Or rather to lacerate the soul of society.

On Vertigo Bono seems to be dizzy with the temptations and darkness and choices of the world he lives in. The mind is a jungle but mustn’t rule your heart and: 


“Your eyes are wide 

And though your soul

It can't be bought

your mind can wander.”


In the darker quieter shadow casting shift of pace and sound level, the devil gets his say and an inviting say it is too. Quoting what the devil said to Jesus on what the Gospel According to Matthew calls a very high mountain: -


“All this, all this can be yours

All of this, all of this can be yours

All this, all of this can be yours

Just give me what I want

And no one gets hurt...”


In the end the lesson is learned...


“You're teaching me ...aaahhh

Your love is teaching me ...aaaah

How to kneel



These thoughts on Vertigo are taken from a blog I wrote the week of release. In the book U2 By U2, that came out in 2006, Bono described the song as being set in a nightclub and then adds :


“It's that woozy, sick feeling of realizing that here we are, drinking, eating, polluting, robbing ourselves to death. And in the middle of the club, there's this girl. She has crimson nails. I don't even know if she's beautiful, it doesn't matter but she has a cross around her neck, and the character in this stares at the cross just to steady himself.”


I don’t always… but this time I got it pretty much right! Vertigo is a vibrant gem of spiritual writing that collides with and then caresses the soul. 


Steady yourself now!