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November 2016

October 2016


Academy Crest

So, this is what happens at a Prize Day. I’ve never been invited before! 43 years. At last!

And I do need to say… it is not an exaggeration to say... that this is one of the honours of my life.  My dad worked here for 27 years as Bursar. The school is important to our family. This is an absolute thrill. Thank you.

For most of my 8 years here, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I did want to be invited to Prize Day to speak. I thought that would suggest I had done something with my life.

I wanted to be invited as a member of N. Ireland’s World Cup squad… or Europe’s Ryder Cup team… or a songwriter, like my mate Iain who wrote Hold Back The Rover with James Bay (which the Junior choir sang today). But… here I am… a Presbyterian minister! Come on! This was not my dream gig!

Let me tell you about a seagull who wanted to live a life of thrills. In Richard Bach’s book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Jonathan watched all the other gulls just eating and sleeping but he wants more. So he took off into the blue and soared and swooped aiming at speeds and thrills that no other gull had ever experienced. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull wanted to fly. When I was your age at Ballymena Academy, I wanted to fly.

Our logo in Fitzroy, where I am minister, is 10:10. It’s my birthday. I love seeing the youth walking round with my birthday on their sweatshirts! It’s also the mark you got to be here today! It’s also a verse in the ancient text of the Scriptures where Jesus said that he came to bring life and life in all its fulness. I wanted that. 10:10! 

Coming back here today has had me reminiscing at what happened to me here. And I realised the incredible number of things that are still impacting my life, nearly 40 years later. 

And I don’t mean here in the school. I mean here in this very Assembly Hall. 

I fell over… behind that curtain… with a huge pile of chairs in my hand when I was stage crew for the School Concert; avant garde percussion! 

On my last day at school… the second time… you can see why I didn’t get any prizes… I ran with buckets towards the edge of the stage. The First XV… not just any First XV but a Schools’ Cup winning First XV were all sat in the front two rows. As I ran towards them with this bucket they tried to scarper, their faces full of more terror than Bangor Grammar forwards gave them at Ravenhill. I laughed as, instead of the water soaking them as expected, paper like confetti floating harmlessly in the Assembly Hall air!

Those were fun memories. Other memories really did impact my life. I fell in love with The Beatles right over there. My very first School Christmas Party. I’d love to know who the UVI were who played Can’t Buy Me Love and Paperback Writer. BUT I have loved and been influenced greatly by The Beatles ever since. The last two t-shirts I got were Beatles t-shirts. It started over there, under those steps!

I then ended up being the UVI DJ myself. I had the best record collection in the school…sadly no prizes were given for that… but it did make me DJ for all the parties in my UVI and LVII years. 

This would lead to one of the most awful public moments of my life. It was the Prefects’ Party. We set up for the party and suddenly realised the that dancing down there was causing the needle jump off the records up here! 

No music… no dancing… not a happy upper end of the school… Back over here there was panic. We had to move the record player back up to the sound room up there. In the meantime, I was sent out to a baying crowd to explain. It was fierce. I felt isolated, humiliated and tried to make some joke and calm the hopeful dancers. 

The next morning I was a little embarrassed coming into class. Someone looked round and said, “Great work last night. If you could stand in front of that crowd, you’ll be able to stand in front of any crowd.” That was a huge moment in my vocational life. I have stood in front of all kinds of crowds since then. That moment was gain in the pain!

A much better moment was December 9th 1980. I know the date. It was the morning after John Lennon of The Beatles was shot dead. CU were allowed to Assembly and I spoke on the music of Bob Dylan and faith. A massive part of my vocation ever since has been travelling the world speaking about rock music and faith. I even wrote a best selling book on U2. It all began right here, where I am standing now!

Best of all that morning, the then headmaster Denis Jagoe walked off the stage with me. I had been nervous speaking to my peers and teachers. He encouraged me with kind words and then added, “and you didn’t insult their intelligence.” He believed many preachers speak down to their audience. Those words have rung in my ear for 35 years. In all the teaching I got in College about preaching. None surpassed that throw away phrase.

I am sharing how my years in this building might never have won me any school prizes but shaped me and honed me into finding out the vocation I would follow, the reason I was on the planet. My 10:10. 

I ended up a DJ on radio Ulster. I wrote books on rock music and faith. I became a preacher standing in front of many a difficult audiences. And I try to never insult the intelligence of my listeners. 

One of my favourite writers is Frederick Buechner, a novelist who doubles as a Presbyterian minister. He writes that vocation is where your deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need. That is where you want to get to… University Yes… a degree, Masters and PhD yes… BUT more important than pieces of paper and even size of pay packets or the right post code Is living life and life in all its fulness. 10:10!

And can I add that I know many people who have the pieces of paper, the big job titles, the house in the right location and all that money can buy BUT are not living life in all its fulness; living where their deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need. 

First to find your deepest gladness. What is it you are good at? What is it that you are made for? Usually this is something that you excel at and when you do it well you get a deep sense of satisfaction. This is your gift… your genius… your reason to live… finding this and going after it… that’s life in all its fulness! Maybe the prize you are getting today gives a clue to that. Maybe. 

When we find this we are not done. Practicing your deepest gladness is not life in all its fulness. Buechner suggests that it needs to meet the world’s deep needs.

So you could be the best graphic designer in the world… doing great work… but working for a company that oppresses its workers with unjust wages and working conditions might not be helping meet the world’s deepest need.

Let me take you to a school in Uganda that I have visited the last two summers. Our family sponsors two girls in this school; Jacqueline and Rachel. They have amazing smiles and are lovely kids. School was not as certain for them as for you. Their parents didn’t go and put their names down when the time came. They had to start their own school. Pay for their own teachers. Build their own classrooms. We in Fitzroy have helped them out by funding an amazing school building.

When we hope for Jacqueline and Rachel that they might be teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, traffic designers, business women etc etc it is not so much about Jacqueline and Rachel having jobs and wages. That is  important for them and their families but it is about more than their deep gladness. 

Uganda needs teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, traffic designers, business women. We want them to meet that deep need in their world.

Ballymena needs teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, traffic designers, business women. N. Ireland needs… the world needs…

When you find your deepest gladness and then give it to the community, the nation or the world, then you will receive something that will make you feel that this life is worth living. 

So congratulations on your achievements. You have shown application, hard work and intelligence in what you have won prizes in today. 

These prizes will give you a clue to what your made to do but make sure you make the most of your entire school life. I was a footballing playing rock fan and somehow found my way to The Debating Society one Friday afternoon. What was I thinking. Yet, over the next eight years, that debating society became the place that I put a public speech together. It was where I learned to debate. I use those skills every week, in the pulpit and as committee meetings.

So can I say thank you Ballymena Academy for helping me find my deepest gladness. Very few of my teachers are here. Very few of my fellow pupils. I was wondering as prize winners were announced are they children of my friends, doing the maths wondering could they be grandchildren!!! Or worried that I might have kissed one of their mothers! But I thank every member of my school community who made me who I am today.

And can I pray that you all find yours and that this world benefits from all that you contribute to it. Be like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Fly. Live the life in all its fulness  Jesus came talked about - 10:10. May your deep gladness meet the world’s deepest need. If it does you will be blessed and we will all benefit from your contribution. 

Thank you! 


Girlfriend Ina  Coma

The novel that I have enjoyed the most, reflected on the most and quoted most in my sermons is Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend In A Coma from 1998. 

Growing up in West Vancouver Coupland says he little annoyed that his parents were so distant from any religion that he didn’t even have a choice to reject God. He suggests he has been trying to make up a belief system ever since.

I love books that give me insight into he times I live in and inspire me to live life in all its fulness. What Coupland creates in Girlfriend In A Coma is a fascinating social critique and full of prophetic hopefulness. 

This is a novel about the ills of modern society, the healing and redeeming of such and the saving of souls. Briefly Karen falls into a coma in her high school year. Before doing so she has an apocalyptic vision of the future. She tells her boyfriend, 

"It was just us, with our meaningless lives. Then I looked up close...and you all seemed normal, but your eyes were without souls". 

Karen becomes the girlfriend in the coma and misses seventeen years of her life before coming out of it. Though the book deals with the changes from the world she fell asleep in, in 1981, to the world she wakened up again in in 1998 (she misses out on Princess Diana entirely), it is about the lives of her friends and the fufilment of Karen's vision, when they become the only people left on planet earth. 

Another old friend who died in his early teens, Jared, appears as a friendly ghost, who reveals to them their "deep down inside" ills and redeems them. It is then he says that they can get the world back but only if they decide too. "You're going to have to lead another life soon; a different life.

"In your old life you had nothing to live for. Now you do. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go clear the land for a new culture...If you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world - if you're not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order - then you're wasting your day."

What inspirational words. "If you're not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world...then you're wasting your day." 

Those words make me want to rush out the door and go change the world? I want to rethinking the nature of things? I want to boil the carcass of the old order? These are words of rebuke, in that I feel as I read them that indeed I have been wasting my day, and yet the rebuke comes with a motivating sense of encouragement to just go and stop wasting anymore time. 

If I could inspire as much every Sunday morning I would be a very happy minister!


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - BORN TO RUN... Autobiography Reviewed

Bruce Born To Run

When I read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born To Run I rationed myself, reading short sections, staying in it, almost like I was able to spend some time in the great man’s presence.

It was easy to read in small chucks because of the way Springsteen wrote the book. It seems that the whole idea began when he wrote a short piece on the E Street Band’s half time performance at the 2009 Super Bowl. That led him to prose. The short chapters are themselves broken down. The entire life of a rock star in little vignettes.

And those vignettes are beautifully written. That cinematic Springsteen lyricism finds a new outlet in prose and you can almost see the street that he grew up in, almost step into it.

I have read many Springsteen biographies, I have written a chapter myself for goodness sake, so what you are looking for in a memoir is more depth, more personal details around the facts, commentary and opinion. Springsteen delivers this very cleverly.

You do get into his life. He is very honest. That relationship with his father that we have heard about in concert monologues, between and during songs, gets teased out a lot more. He does admit to suffering from depression which for fans who watch him do up to four hour shows, pumped and vibrant, is hard to come to terms with. Rightfully this openness has been lauded. 

The clever thing that Springsteen has done though is to tell us more without telling us everything. He writes candidly about himself, band members, parents and wife without ever invading their privacy. 

It is all enough to give us a fascinating portrait of the artist and an insight into all the influences that have honed him. Catholicism, his Freehold New Jersey small town and the bigger vision of America. This is a story of songwriter seeking identity. He lets us in to his place in his own psyche, his family life, his life in the community of band and his engagement and place in the nation. 

I found too many things fascinating to write about here (there might be a series of blogs) but let me pick out a few favourite bits.

The background detail to the making of his first two albums had me enjoying Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ afresh and appreciating The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle more than ever before. Then the layered precision and intent of Born To Run and introduction of Jon Landau.

The evolving creation of and the inner dynamics of the the E Street Band revealed the relationships and politics of a long running rock band. Springsteen’s intensity of solo vision yet ability to hold such a gifted band together. Then there is dealing with the deaths of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons and Clarence’s nephew Zak joining the band. He shows what it is and maybe why he is called The Boss. Intriguing.

The Born In The USA years were also interesting. The thought out decision Springsteen and Landau made to go for megastardom with a hit single laden album, the effects of that even on his first marriage to Julianne Phillips, and then the conscious deconstruction of that with Tunnel Of Love

Springsteen’s relationship with Patti Scialfa has been pivotal to almost thirty years of his life. He tells their love story beautifully again without exposing Patti’s or their privacy. Similarly with his children. 

I particularly loved the vignette with Frank Sinatra. That this young Freehold boy grew up to become a friend of Sinatra, to even be invited to his funeral, is a mark of Springsteen’s place in Twentieth and Twenty First Century music. There is a moment at the piano when Sinatra and Bob Dylan acknowledge Patti’s singing voice. Sweet moment in the book and maybe one of the sweetest in Bruce’s life. 

For me the theo-musicologist Born To Run could have undone all my theories about Springsteen’s spirituality. The shadow of the Church next door certainly never leaves him and God and grace make regular appearances throughout the book. I of course would have liked much more but again Springsteen reveals enough but not too much about his faith.

I had a friend back in 1988 who didn’t get Bruce Springsteen. She was too young and Springsteen arrived on her radar in his pop star Born In The USA days. I always found that a shame and hope that she later discovered his poetry, story telling and the subjectivity of his story that can feed the objectivity of all our stories. As I read Born To Run I wanted to send her it. She would love the literacy of the book itself and the artist whose story is told within. 

If you haven’t realised it already, Born To Run confirms Bruce Springsteen as one of the most substantial artists of our time. It is gripping from first page to last.

BONO ON HIS WIFE ALI & SPIRITUAL BEAUTY... BBC Radio 2, Pause For Thought: 25.10.16

Bono and Ali

"Faith in the World Week will provide an opportunity across the week on Radio 2 to look at the moral, religious and ethical issues surrounding beauty. Is striving for beauty and perfection a damaging obsession? Many religions say that beauty is a blessing with little worth and no significance unless it is accompanied by inner beauty. But what is inner beauty? What makes someone look beautiful? Is it the symmetry of a face or their personality? Why do cultures define beauty differently? What about disability and old age-how do we measure beauty here? These are some of the questions that will be asked in features and interviews throughout the week on R2.”


In one of U2’s most beautiful songs, called Song For Someone, Bono begins with the words: 


“You had a face not spoiled by beauty

I had some scars from where I’d been…”


What does he mean “spoiled by beauty” and I wonder what are these scars Bono carries?

It seems to me that Bono is dealing with the difference between physical and spiritual beauty. There are no scars from what I can see on Bono’s face but when he fell in love with Ali Stewart as a teenager in a Dublin school he was carrying the scars of loss. 

Bono’s mother died at her own father’s funeral. Bono was 14. Bono had been spiritually scarred from where he’d been.

Bono’s wife Ali is a very beautiful woman. Or should I say Bono’s wife Ali is culturally a very beautiful woman. Cultural beauty is a beauty manipulated by society. In our society  magazine editors, Hollywood directors and pop star moguls have defined beauty in a specific way; a woman’s figure, shape of cheeks, size of nose, colour of hair, slimness of physique. 

I used to say to my students that being frighteningly thin might be of cultural beauty in the UK but on an African township or village it’s not culturally sought after at all. 

Anyway, back to Bono. It seems to me that he saw something more in his girlfriend than just good looks. Here was a woman who didn’t spoil the real beauty within her to chase, be distracted or obsessed with how she looked on the outside. She had found the difference between cultural beauty and spiritual beauty. It is a spiritual beauty that has been of great importance in Bono’s life ever since.

Later in the song Bono brings in the Christian story. He sings: 


And I'm a long way

From your hill on Calvary

And I'm a long way

From where I was, where I need to be


Calvary is where Jesus was crucified, Christians believe, to heal all the spiritual scars of humanity. To give us all faces not spoiled by beauty but renewed souls fired up to do beautiful things in our world.



78 Eaton Wood Green

I wrote this when I left Dublin in 1994. I lived in the house that Rich Mullins wrote an instrumental about. The first time he played it was in the front room. It was an iconic wee address. It was an amazing place to live. The neighbours called it the community! We enjoyed the fact we were!

My friend Fr Martin Magill is leaving his parish in Sacred Heart off the Old Park Road this week to move to Ballyclare. He asked for a few words of a song he could use at mass, to say goodbye. I searched high and low and then rediscovered this. I am quite fond of it. 

I think, apart from the address, especially verse two captures the universal feeling of moving on.


Life has us changing companions

I seem to change more than most

Memories of these years will linger 

Like a blessed and friendly ghost

We touched some lives together

And many more lives touched us

You taught me how to question

And that taught me how to trust

You gave me room to find myself

And what life is meant to mean

Home, the everyday most spectacular

78 Easton Wood Green.


I’ll just say fare thee well, for now

Because this is no long goodbye

There’s still too much for us to share

Both before and after we die

I remember the hurt and the frustration

The weddings, songs and brand new dreams

Tears at things that clouded our vision

And the laughs at the silver seams

You gave me strength for what’s to come

I go in the light of what has been

Stay the way grace is changing you

78 Eaton Wood Green.



Devil costume

Halloween is a strange time for Christians. There is an abundance of ghosts and witches and ghouls. There are devil outfits for children with horns and tails and pitch forks. It all seems alarmingly unchristian. 

As a diligent young Christian I stayed away from all things Halloween but the arrival of two daughters made me have to think again. They enjoyed the dressing up. How was I going to deal with it?

It wasn’t long before I took a more measured approach. My children were always imagining and dressing up, they were often reading stories of fairies and ghosts and witches including CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. Then there were all those games like Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosies  and rhymes like Rock-a-Bye-Baby based on some pretty dark themes. When I caught my then three year old daughter rhyming about catching an old man by the left leg and throwing him down the stairs, and showed some alarm, she said incredulously “it is only a rhyme daddy!”

Yet I still surmise. In my surmising I did some research and discovered that the reason for costumes may not have been about aligning yourself with demons and the dark side but actually about Christians protecting themselves from the dark side. The costumes may have been disguises to navigate a way through times of heightened evil presence. Perhaps once again Christianity has twisted the meaning of things with our lack of research, imagination and understanding. Sensationalist negativity has often been one of our weaknesses.

It all took me back to Bono, CS Lewis and Martin Luther; as it does! When Bono dressed up as the devil, on the Zoo TV period of U2, Christians circled the wagons for another cheap pop at his faith.

In my book Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 I pointed out that when asked, by a fan dancing with him in his McPhisto outfit, if he was still a believer he asked her if she’d ever read the Screwtape Letters by U2 and the penny dropped. Bono slipped the book into the video for the Batman soundtrack U2 song Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me as if to reveal his cunning strategy to a wider Christian audience.

In CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Lewis gets inside the persona of a Senior and Junior devil to expose the devils schemes as he attacks the Church. In his Preface Lewis used the phrase, “mock the devil and he will flee from you,” paraphrasing the New Testament letter of James, “resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

As well as the verse in James, Lewis seems to have been recounting what Reformer Martin Luther once wrote, "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn."

Fascinating stuff. Enough to surmise that this week when we see a little nine year old dressed up as the devil that he or she might not be evil incarnate but a young zealous Christian seeking to give the devil a hammering! It might just be an opportunity in the midst of the festival to explain the difference between the two!


Fitzroy Church Weird Light

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we will be looking at the Parable of the Pharisee and Publican. Is it just a story about humility or what else is going on in there. Could it point to St. Paul's big theology? Could it ask us questions of who were are not connecting with. A great wee worship band and a wee cover of Norah Jones!

In the evening (7pm) we will have a look at loyalism in Northern Ireland. Fitzroy has been given a building on Donegal Pass. We will be looking at what we have been doing to work out what to do with the building. As it is in the heart of a loyalist community we will be looking at the issues going on in loyalism today. Has the Church to repent of its contribution? Has the Church anything to offer loyalist communities today?


Catalyst Live



St Martin in the Bull Ring

Wednesday 16 November



Concert Hall

Thursday 17 November


Very excited to be invited to share some poetry at Catalyst 2016. This is a big deal for me. I performed at a BMS Conference in Cardiff back around 2002 (with my songwriting buddy Sam Hill) and I am rather flattered that they deem me worthy enough to be involved in these two major days.

The days are filled with a vibrant programme of short talks on mission form some heavy hitting practitioners. I am particularly delighted to be on stage just before Vinoth Ramachandra the Sri Lankan theologian, author and speaker. I look forward to gaining much more from the Conferences than I will give.

I have between 10 and 20 minutes to use my spoken word, rhyming lyrical sermonettes to somehow contribute to the conversation. I am scanning my old books and thinking of writing fresh things. Incarnation and Grace, two of my very favourite theological ideas with emphasis on my writing on those subjects in a Belfast context, are the themes I am working on at the moment. 

click here for info




CS Lewis festival 16


November 19th, 2016

Walking on Water: Faith, Art and Risk


Canteen Kitchen Cafe, Belmont Road

£8 event only; £13.50 event + sharing plate (Food must be booked by 12 noon)

An evening of words, music and discussion with singer/songwriter, Jamie Neish, broadcaster and poet, Steve Stockman and novelist, Jan Carson. Join us for an intimate evening of performance and discussion as they explore the various ways in which faith and religious experience has influenced their artistic practice.

BYO alcohol or avail of a wide range of tea, coffee and soft drinks. Canteen will be serving dinner before the event with a special offer of 3 courses for £15, or enjoy a sharing plate of meats, cheeses, breads and dips during the event.

Quite excited and feeling an acute inferiority complex to be performing and discussing art alongside two of the city's finest. I don't do my poetry much. Very rarely in such a context. However, I thought I would stretch myself and respond to the honour of being asked. I also get in free to see Jan and Jamie! Be great to see familiar faces... Will be a great night.

for full CS Lewis Festival 2016 programme click here



It seems that there is to be Rory Gallagher statue erected at The Ulster Hall in Belfast? My immediate response is - of course!

The Troubles rarely touched my hometown of Ballymena. Where we were impacted was in the fact that I rarely travelled the thirty miles to Belfast AND… that few rock bands came to Belfast in the 70s. Even our international soccer team played their home matches in England. Belfast was out of bounds.

One man was always dependable though. Rory Gallagher played a stint at the Ulster Hall every turn of the year. Year after year. He was your rock concert anchor when everything was being tossed around in the stormy seas around us.

So… as a seventeen year old in January 1979 Rory Gallagher became my first ever rock concert. The gig was actually delayed for a few days because of some weather issue with the Stranraer to Larne Ferry. In the end it was a Saturday matinee performance. I went up in the bus with my mate ran McConaghy, Frank Delargy and Michael Hyndman. And it was epic!

Ballyshannon born Cork man, Rory Gallagher is an under rated legend of rock music. A guitar player of astounding genius and dexterity he could finger dance on an acoustic guitar like the very very best but he he is probably remembered visually and sonically for the hard rock blues sounds that he emitted from his well-worn sunburst 1961 Stratocaster. That that guitar was born the same year as me is not lost on me!

Gallagher could make that thing talk and sing and rant and rage. At that first gig in 1979 Rory was touring Photo-Finish and probably for subjective reasons that is by far my favourite Gallagher record. Other albums might be more versatile and technically better in writing and playing. Maybe! Yet, Photo-Finish was special for me as it was perhaps his more commercial sounding piece. Shadow Play was actually released as a single and Shin Kicker just kicks everything in sight. Brute Force and Ignorance and Last Of The Independents also rock along on a catchy train track while Overnight Bag is an autobiographical song on the touring life.

It is over twenty years today since Rory passed away. It is a great time to reassess his genius. You can keep your Jimi Hendrix. Rory Gallagher was less flash but I question if even Hendrix could shape the strings of a guitar like Rory, and he sang the blues with a guttural authenticity. he used to shout at the end of songs or in introducing a song, “Hope you like it!” I loved it and having finally bought Photo-Finish, 36 years later, am beginning to love it again!

A statue? Absolutely!