Previous month:
August 2016
Next month:
October 2016

September 2016


Emma Pengelly

So, some of our MLAs on the hill are at it again. Like children in the playground there is a new row over the naming of a boat! DUP Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen has had a fisheries protection vessel’s Irish name replaced with its English translation. Banríon Uladh has been renamed Queen of Ulster. Arghhh!

Yet, in the hours in which this news broke the Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship had the privilege of an inspirational evening with DUP MLA Emma Little Pengelly.

Let me stop you right there. Emma stopped us. She told a powerful story of canvassing for the last election. She knocked a door and a man appeared to tell her he wouldn’t vote for her as she was a bigot. Emma asked the man if he knew her. No, but she was DUP and then therefore was a bigot. 

Emma suggested that the man go back in the house and ask himself if the stereotyping that he had just done to someone he didn’t know might actually be bigotry! I am sure he didn’t vote for Emma as a result but the story stopped a few of us in our bigoted tracks as we listened to Emma’s story.

We have been doing these evening in the Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship for some time. We give a politician a small, listening, critical but sympathetic audience to share their ambitions for a peaceful Belfast and Northern Ireland. 

Up until now we have had the five main parties and others. What is always fascinating is that what we hear on an evening like this is always different to what we hear on the news, literally last night, on the way home in the car! 

Emma was particularly impressive and engaging. She shared a personal story that put a background to what she works for now. That work had less to do with borders and flags and the changing of boat names and more to do with educational under achievement, health, poverty and social justice. 

As Clonard/Fitzroy we were as always keen to probe what she was doing in reconciliation and what priority it had on the DUP agenda. I sensed that we were in the presence of someone who has that higher on their agenda than others within her party. 

However, she was right to point out to us that most of her time in Stormont as a SPAD (Special Advisor) and then in the last year as an MLA has been constantly about compromise. Every letter she helped write for years had to have the approval of both DUP and Sinn Fein.

When we stop to think we should know that. A power sharing coalition compromises every day. Yet, we do not acknowledge that because we are constantly being throw headlines like the one about the boat name being changed. 

Of course, the boat name has been changed and therefore everything is not being compromised. Emma was very clear about the red lines that the DUP don’t want to cross. However, she was right to point out that most parties have red lines. Perhaps those of us listening were beginning to ask why our red lines seemed less entrenched than the DUP or Sinn Fein. Maybe there is a plank in the eye needing attended too.

Evenings like these often bring us back with the media. Emma shared the number of joint statements, particularly in education, that don’t get picked up by the media. The boat name changes always do. 

What I would love our TV channels to do would be to create talk shows that would allow an evening like Emma Pengelly At Clonard/Fitzroy. What if the media helped us humanise our politicians? What if they weren’t always having to shout at each other on our screens but we heard about their lives, their upbringing, their hobbies, their families? What if we found ourselves sympathising or even empathising with their brokenness or their joys? 

Another recurring theme in my involvement in peace making came through again last night. Meeting people, having a coffee, asking about their weekend. These are the ways that peace drips up. We cannot ask our politicians to come up with some grand plan that will suddenly take our peace process to the finish line. We need to begin ourselves. 

Emma was able to share how her views had changed over the last ten years as she has met the traditional other, even enemy, in committees etc. She pointed out that most everyone in the process has changed. She also got us to realise that in the short time we have had since 1994’s ceasefires we have come along way and cannot expect to be sprinting on a post conflict journey that will take decades.

So, I went home and watched The View and got angry again at the pettiness and seeming intransigence of the boat’s name change. Yet, I had another conversation to hold up against it, to give it perspective. We need more of that in the media. We all need our prejudices challenged. We need to know that for every sensationalist boat naming headline there is an incredible amount of working going on where our MLAs and ministers are working together to deliver a better Northern Ireland. 


Arnold Palmer autograph

Arnold Palmer. Muirfield 1973. I remember standing in his space. It is what I did as an 11 year old. I was an autograph hunter. You found your way to your heroes and then stood in front of them with your autograph book primed. Sometimes you said, “Mr Palmer can I have your autograph please.” Other times you were in packs and whoever just signed the next one of a line of you, or more likely a scrum.

You didn’t always get. That same day I first got Palmer’s, Jack Nicklaus had refused, saying he didn’t sign during the round. Fair enough. I got his a few years later. Another time Peter Thomson, who wasn’t even playing at the time refused, making some snide comment to whoever was with him, that he wasn’t anybody. Well before it he was a five times Open Champion but he was right, after cold blooded dismissal of a teenage boy he was an absolute nobody from then on!

Palmer signed. My dad was as excited as me. Palmer was the King of golf. Oh Nicklaus had more majors but Palmer had revolutionised the sport. He has made it popular. His followers were known as Arnie’s Army. Even on that practice day at Muirfield he had a bigger following than Nicklaus, Jacklin and Trevino, the three real contenders in golf at the time. They actually finished first, second and third at that Open Championship. 

No, Palmer was the man. Although Nicklaus won twice as many majors, Palmer did win nine between 1958 and 1964. Although Nicklaus would win seven more after that Muirfield Open and Palmer would never challenge again, it was still Palmer who was holding court with the fans. 

I really never rated his swing and had gotten into golf almost a decade after his last Major win but I knew who was the pop star golfer. Palmer was a charismatic figure, a man who could draw the ordinary person into golf. It was he who turned the British Open into a major event again when he came across the Atlantic to play in it and win it in 1961 and 1962. 

I have many autographs. I often flick fondly through soccer players George Best, Pat Jennings, athlete Ron Clarke, boxer Henry Cooper and golfers like Nicklaus, Watson, Ballesteros, Trevino, Jacklin, Norman and Faldo but Arnold Palmer’s was special. Arnold Palmer for goodness sake. It maybe never gets more legendary than that.



(I wrote this poem/reflection for a wedding a few years ago. On Saturday, as I had the privilege of speaking at Ali and Gregg McKeown's wedding, I  took their readings and their story and tweaked it to make it personal to them. It still speaks to us all I think...)

Let the adventure begin

To fulfil the promise

Of the promise of what you can be

By the promises you have just made

Let the adventure begin

Like Cycling close to edge of some Rocky Mountain Ridge

Wheels spinning faster down some Mournes forest ridge descent


Pushing the thrill

Living it to the maximum

Jesus called it "Life and life in all its fullness"

Experiencing the exhilaration

Falling in disappointment and pain

The fullness of joy

The fullness of hurt

Let the adventure begin

The adventure of love

Not pleasing yourself

But sacrificing your thrill

For the thrill of your lover

Two can now be

Stronger, faster, higher

Wiser, braver, more discerning

To take your lives and find the place

Where your deepest longing

Meets the world’s deepest needs

Being joyful in hope, 

Patient in affliction, 

Faithful in prayer

Let the adventure begin

To find the love that God created

The tinder that swiped and sparked

The love that glows into blazing fire

Love that can never be quenched

Let the adventure begin

And may the grace that brought you safe this far

Be the grace that takes you home.


Father God show Ali and Gregg a bigger picture

Jesus put more grace notes into their traditional song

Holy Spirit put them on a road that’s deeper and more scenic

Than the one they’ve been on




U2 producer Daniel Lanois suggested that Bono wrote a Gospel song. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was the result and when you hear the Harlem Gospel Choir version on Rattle and Hum you realise how successful Bono was. I am surprised it hasn’t become a staple hymn if Church services across the world.

However, the reason it hasn’t might be that most Christians, remarkably and almost unforgivably, missed the theological depth and punch of the song. This was the U2 song that has had me discuss their faith or loss of it across the world. Maybe even the reason that I had to write an apologetic for their faith and their faith in their work; Walk On.

Christian thinker and writer Os Guinness once stated,Christians would die rather than think. In fact most do!” The Christian response to I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For proved his point. The unthinking Christian quickly decided if U2 haven’t found what they re looking for they must have lost Jesus along the way.

My critique of the inability to understand the song is twofold. Firstly, to dismiss the song in the way that Christians did suggested they didn’t understand what Paul was writing in Philippians 3. St. Paul adds to his testimony that he has found faith by a righteousness that is beyond the law – “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” St. Paul it seems still hadn’t found what he looking for either!

Secondly, missing the power of this song shows little attention being given to the song. – “You broke the bonds/Loosed the chains/Carried the cross and my shame/You know I believe it.” This succinct theology of the work of Christ’s cross was number 1 in the USA for four weeks and Christians missed it. For a cheap laugh in my talks about the song across the world I have added that when the darling of Christian music Amy Grant got to Number 1 she was singing “Baby Baby!” Like many of U2’s songs the Biblical foundation is robust and profound. 

My very favourite version of the song though is not about personal search but about the Kingdom coming. In between Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree, Steve Van Zant’s had put together the Artists United Against Apartheid project. That album that featured Silver and Gold that Bono had recorded with Rolling Stones’ Keith Richard and Ronnie Wood; a U2 version would appear as a b-side for Where The Streets Have No Name

When I first heard I Still Haven’t Found... the lines “I believe in the kingdom come when all the colours bleed will bleed into one” took me immediately to South Africa. These lines described what Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the Lord’s PrayerGod’s kingdom was all about and how God’s will might come in South Africa as it is in heaven. 

Twenty years later I would sit in Cape Town’s District Six Museum reflecting on how apartheid’s ideology, built on a Christian theology, could so smash the Kingdom Of God vision that St. John had in the Book of Revelation, as they bulldozed a huge chunk of Cape Town to divide white from black. 

U2’s vision of God’s Kingdom was an antithesis of apartheid and was built on those lines that followed, “You broke the bonds, loosed the chains, carried the cross and my know I believe it.” U2’s Kingdom was no ethereal pie in the sky but was built on the life and work of Jesus.

On a U2’s Fan Club giveaway U22 we got a potent, perhaps definitive version of the song and these ideas. This lavish souvenir package of the U2360 Tour was given to Fan Club members in May 2012. It treated us us to 22 live highlights. One was for me a definitive version of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

During their gig in the FNB Stadium, Johannesburg on 13 February 2011 U2 welcomed Hugh Masekela, South African trumpet playing legend and exiled anti-apartheid campaigner into the band for these very words. It is a musical highpoint of the U22 and it is a political and spiritual tour de force. As his black jazz trumpet blends into U2’s stadium rock groove the Kingdom of God of the words becomes sound to dwell for a moment or two among us. 

It is the holy beauty that the best of art should always be. It gives us a vision of a better way and a foundation to build the world that we still haven’t found but by God’s grace we continue to look for. 

And forty years of U2, that fans across the world have been celebrating today, seems to have been all about this search for a better world, God’s Kingdom come. They have been wonderful companions on the journey of faith.


U2 79

Listeners to my sermons, readers of this blog and converters with me over coffee will know that one of my favourite lines in the world and very very often repeated is Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation; “where your deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need”

The lead off song on U2’s Songs Of Innocence is all about U2 in general and Bono in particular finding that vocation -


“I was young, not dumb

Just wishing to be blinded

By you, brand new

And we were pilgrims on our way…”


The anchor for the song is the band’s mate Guggi, who has the song Cedarwood Road dedicated to him later on the record, finding an exit door to sneak U2 in to see The Ramones. Teenagers finding their way in music this gig was seismic. Bono discovered another singer that, as he describes it, sang like a girl. All musical things became possible. 

But, as with everything U2, there is more to “the miracle” and the pilgrimage than a career in music. If we tack this song out of its track listing order and hear the songs later on where Bono loses him mother, as does Larry, and the resulting volcano is bubbling, this is another song of redemption. Miracles are spiritual and for Bono the music is blended in to his discovery of faith and his pilgrimage ever since has been very much about both. 


“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred

Heard a song that made some sense out of the world

Everything I ever lost now has been returned

The most beautiful sound I ever heard”


Bono has never taken more time or care over his lyrics than he does on Songs Of Innocence. Here is some of the evidence. This is succinct, subtle and solid lyrically and theologically. A young man lost and confused finds a miracle to make sense of it all. 

Readers of this entire series will see the recurring them in my song choice that is a recurring theme in U2’s recent work. The line “The most beautiful sound I ever heard” is key. This is where sound and spirit really do become one. Bono has been known to love the old hymn Amazing Grace and has spoken of his love for the line “amazing grace, how sweet the sound”. 

This is the time of Bono’s miracle for sure but as well as the punk figure of Joey Ramone the gem of Christian theology that is the unmerited favour of God’s grace to lost confused humanity is centre of the mix.

Bono goes on about it later in the song, “I get so many things I don't deserve”; grace defined beautifully again! U2 have awakened to transcendent interruption. The deepest gladness of their art will evermore be given to transform the deep need of their own lives and the world too. 

The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) is as close as we get to September 25th 1976 in Larry’s kitchen. The charts were bland that week, pop needed punk. When punk came from one direction, the Holy Spirit came from another and this band were pilgrims on their way to changing the world!


Fitzroy Window

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we will be working under the title MONEY DOESN'T TALK, IT SWEARS. That Dylan quote seems appropriate as we delve into the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man and some damning prophetic words from Amos. It's about the rich and their lack of love for the poor. God judges when we do not love because God is love. If money distracts from the love, money angers God. Let's look too at apocalypses in our lives and about how Lazarus got named. All with a guitar strutting bit of blues and rock firing our worship.

In the evening (7pm) we start a 3 week apologetics series on Barriers To Belief. This will be a stimulating set of talks. Barriers To Belief info... click here

U2@40: Song #38 - GRACE

U2 Grace

After Bono’s heavy involvement in Jubilee 2000 it was expected, by more than me, that some politics might make their way into the All That You Can’t Leave Behind album. When it came out there wasn’t so much. It was a very personal record. 

Bono would later say that Grace was the social justice song. “What!” I shouted. Over time I have not only come to finally agree with Bono but also to have learned Biblical insight from it.

The key line, among many lines, for me is: 



It's a name for a girl

It's also a thought that changed the world”


Indeed we named our daughter Jasmine Grace because we agreed.

It is this “thought that can change the world” that is the depth charge. 

Let me come back to that…

Before I do, let me spend time in the personal impact of grace upon a life. If we listen to the opening lines we see echoes of U2’s exposition on the cross of Christ in I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For: 


“You broke the bonds

Loosed the chains

Carried the cross

And my shame.”  


On Grace we hear:


“She takes the blame

She covers the shame

Removes the stain

It could be her name”


Grace is Bono’s word in the past twenty years. He quotes the hymn Amazing Grace a lot. As I have written already in the Get Your Boots On entry in this series, when U2 sing about a sound, it is “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound”. Bono was also influenced by a seismic Christian book written in 1997, Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.

Bono himself has explained his theology of grace on many occasions. At the time of the record’s release he said: -


“I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma and into one of Grace…You see at the centre of the all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal or opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the every heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that, “as you sow, so will you reap” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is every good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…I’d be in big trouble if Karma was finally going to be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”


It is in the song:


“She travels outside

Of karma, karma

She travels outside

Of karma.”


That is the gem at the heart of Christianity. God loves us. His love is unmerited. The word we use for that is grace. Pivotal verses in New Testament Scriptures explain this: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2: 8-9)

Back, though, to Bono’sthought that can change the world”. What Bono is suggesting here is that not only is grade the key in the relationship between humanity and God. If we as humans then lived that grace in all our relationships, it would literally change the world. Grace is not just the key into the Kingdom of God, it is the life we live in that Kingdom.

That is exactly what the Old Testament prophets and Jesus were calling for. Grace towards the poor. Grace towards your enemy. The Shalom that is hoped for. The Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. How can that be made more of a reality. Grace - it’s “a name for a girl/and a thought that can change the world.” 


U2@40: Song #37 - GLORIA


I remember the very second when I put the needle down on Gloria. It was my first seconds of hearing U2. Wow! It was like pumping an adrenaline rush right through my soul. Here was an explosion of spiritual rock sound that expressed all the vibrancy of my teenage faith. I was a pilgrim on my way!!!!

Gloria was not a new word in the rock canon. Van Morrison had written a two minute song in Belfast, 100 miles north of U2’s Dublin, fifteen years earlier. It has since become a song that in some senses encapsulates the 60’s. At that stage U2 might have been more influenced by Patti Smith’s rework of Morrison though what they were doing with a song of the same name was what Morrison would do a couple of years later in Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.

U2's Gloria was not about a girl, as Morrison’s song. It was about God, that Morrison was now singing about. It was an attempt to articulate worship to a transcendent presence that is very difficult to do. The mystery of God is hard to capture, confine and define. Even in the Bible writers like Jeremiah of the apostle John might start sentences with ‘It was like…’ trying to find images to do justice to God.

Gloria is not Dylanesque. It is a very simple, with Bono ad-libbing as he does across almost the entire album having lost his lyrics note book in the US before the recordings began. If the live on-mic writing effected Gloria and the entire album so did the fact that it was this point that U2 were most immersed in the Christian fellowship Shalom. 

When I spoke to school friend of U2 and fellow Shalom member William MacKay, as I researched Walk On, he spoke of the spontaneity of the October recording sessions. William told me that the recording sessions often had a crowd from the fellowship around and worship was going on continually. 

There is a youthful Christian exuberance that fuels Gloria and the entire record and that sense of spontaneous praise and the need to go into another language to express the spiritual intensity is evident here.

When Neil McCormick, another school friend but not Shalom member, wrote the CD booklet notes for the Remastered October release in 2008, he mentioned how the rehearsals for the songs were done in their old school Mount Temple and I wonder if this is what William has memories of. Whatever, October is a document of that phase of Christian history.

There is yet another factor at work here. As this album was being birthed U2 were asking themselves of there was a place for Christians in the rock industry. Someone in Shalom sensed God was telling the band to give up the music. There was a real wrestling going on especially with Bono and Edge as to whether they were called by God to be rock stars. 

Here in Gloria you can hear the vocational searching – “only in you I’m complete” and “if I had anything at all I’d give it to you.” Eventually U2 would conclude that their vocation as in rock and how has the test of time proven them right. What would rock music be had they took the wrong option? What lives would they be living of they’d followed a different path? 

Even as they wrestled here, a little confused, they conjure in their raw power and uncertainty a spiritual energy that has rarely ever been achieved in a hymn and that is what Gloria is... a really powerful hymn!

PS. can you imagine if Bono and Edge had listened to the prophecy to give up music. What is that person thinking today!

U2@40: Song #36 - YAHWEH

U2 Yahweh

Yahweh is an Old Testament name for the God of Israel and Judah. I have a masters in Theology, though it is in music and social transformation, so I could have gone looking for an explanation. In the end I left the theological tomes on the shelf and turned to U2 by U2 where the theologian who is Bono explain eloquently:


“It’s a big word. A name not written down in strict Hebrew circles. And even some not so strict have it without vowels, just YWH. And I understand that we should come towards God with a  sense of awe. Because Christianity has allowed Christ to become a friend to us as well as a Master and Lord, we may take that access a little for granted. But Yahweh was one of the names for God. When Moses spoke to the burning bush, he said, ‘Who are you?’ And the bush spoke back to him, ‘I am who am.’ Yahweh. The Great I Am. I came upon it while singing without knowing really what I was singing, it’s a sound I was making in my mouth that turned into a prayer. I hoped it didn’t sound Sunday School or naff. I think every line is underscored by a desperate need for me to know what to carry, too turn off my critical eye sometimes, to be fit for the shoes I’ve been given. I love singing it.”


Needless to say as a clergyman, as a theo-musicologist, as someone who at the time was writing an updated version of my book Walk On;The Spiritual Journey of U2, I was overexcited about this song appearing on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. I didn’t have to agree that this one was about God!

There was a lot of falling on your knees on How To Dismantle and Atomic Bomb. Yahweh as the closing track was the ultimate fall on your knees song. In his description of it Bono sees it as a confessional, commitment prayer to his faith in God. It is nothing short of a modern hymn. I have seen it used that way in Church and very powerfully. 

There are traces of Frances Ridley Havergal’s 18th century hymn ‘Take My life (and let it be consecrated Lord to thee)’ in which the English poet offers his hands, feet, silver and gold, will and love over to God. Likewise, Yahweh is song about giving over to God to sort out your life. Lips that judge need to be kissed. Yahweh is a song of deep commitment and allegiance. It is also an unlikely yet powerfully poignant ending to a rock album.

The radical impact of Yahweh came in the live setting where Bono was able to take the recording and tease out the words and gesture with it. At the height if the Vertigo Tour when U2 were clearly the biggest rock band in the world, they would end their concerts with this moment of surrender, of emptying of self, of giving over to a transcendent bigger. When all the social commentaries of rock music lean towards its excess, its hedonistic sex and drugs and gaining fame and fortune, here was the biggest band on the planet posturing themselves before the Divine and closing out their concerts with:


“What no man can own, no man can take

Take this heart

Take this heart

Take this heart 

And make it break”


Come on! What is happening here. I want some of it.


U2 Every Breaking Wave

Every Breaking Wave is surely the best crafted song in the 40 years of U2. They had certainly taken their time perfecting it. It had been slated for No Line On The Horizon, had an outing or two on the U2360 Tour and was said to be one of the key songs on the Songs Of Ascent record that has yet to be released. It seems that OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder was a co-producer who finally kicked it into its beautiful shape.

On my first listen to the record there was line the had my soul doing back flips:


“I thought I heard the captain’s voice

It’s hard to listen while you preach…”


Goodness, there is a line for a minister. The preacher, whether the ordained kind like me, or a lay one of faith or no faith can be so arrogant in our own opinions that we do not listen. Bono was again having a go at himself, something that those who judge him as arrogant or egotistical; seem to miss. Yet, it wisdom for us all, especially us preachers!

In a Rolling Stones article Bono described the song as being about the difficulty of "giving yourself completely to another person", with lyrical characters who are "addicted to sort of failure and rebirth.” 

Like all U2 songs there seems to me to be other dimensions. That the song was to be on Songs Of Ascent, title taken from The Psalms, via Eugene Peterson’s book Long Obedience In the Same Direction I imagine, points to a spiritual intention. That “the Captains” voice was originally “the Master’s” voice suggest God is in the mix. 

Author Donald Miller article spoke about the need for us to take our own initiative in our spiritual lives. It is this taking of initiative that I think Bono is on about in Every Breaking Wave

My take on the song is that we can simply go with the waves. There is an undertow moulding, shaping and honing us. We can enjoy the waves. Seek them. The thrill of life. Materialism. Success. Yet, the song suggests that it never quite reaches what we ultimately need. Shipwreck and drowning are words in other parts of the songs.

Bono’s break from the breaking waves is to allow ourselves to be swept off your feet. As a result of Bono’s beautiful obsession with the Christian theology of grace I am thinking that the “swept off our feet” line is about the love of God. That is the intimacy that the shipwrecked souls in the song have craved; relationship with the divine restored.