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October 2016


Ballycastle sunset

(Sometimes Pause For Thought Scripts on radio need to be different than Soul Surmise blogs. This morning’s Pause For Thought on Vanessa Feltz was one such. In italics below was my original ending. It is more Blog than Thought!)

Ballycastle Bay. On the north coast of Northern Ireland. I have a house with my job, so we bought a house there by the sea. Christmas, Easter, half terms and a few weeks in the summer we get to walk the beach every single evening. Out of the city. Basking in nature. It never disappoints.

Between the green of the golf course and the blue of the sea, we walk on the beach, its patterns of sand and stones shifting with every tide.

A few miles out to sea Rathlin Island gives the horizon a rugged scenic beauty, maybe 15 miles behind it the Mull Of Kintyre. Walk one way up the beach and you are gazing at the majestic Fair Head, strutting veins of rock with heaven in the detail.

Turn and walk back down the beach and the town snuggles in and we time it to watch the sun setting in behind, beyond Kinbane Head, the red orange glow of the day’s farewell dancing across the sea to meet us on the shore.

This is our close to nature, our mystical retreat, our trysting place, our soul space.

And As I walk with my wife Janice and Odie our dog, I often think about God’s imagination. Somewhere in the dark chaos of an unformed world God imagined. The colour green. The colour blue. The hardness of rock. The fluidity of the sea. The softness of sand.

I often wonder did he imagine green meeting blue with a wee thin line of golden beach between… and what if we then turned the the big sky a glowing orange… and then imagine setting two lovers hand in hand walking the scene.


God imagined. Christians believe he imagined humans and actually made them to be like himself. So… if we pause for thought… we have that same imagination pulsing through us .

Maybe you don’t think so, but what colour is your bedroom walls, the curtains? How did you fix your hair in the mirror today? What are you wearing? We are always using imagination.

What then about the bigger things? What is up ahead this week? What are the crisis that might become interesting challenges with imagination The opportunities that might make a difference. Can we fire the imagination that fires our Ballycastle evenings to help us change a little bit of the world?



God Believes In You

“May the grace that brought you safe this far

Be the grace that takes you home”


I use these words from the hymn Amazing Grace at most weddings I officiate at. They are good words for a couple heading out into life. Some miracle of God has brought them together. They will need miracles of God to fulfil their vows. Grace…

They are even greater words for a life of faith. Christianity has this ludicrous idea at its centre. The greatest idea ever told. Our salvation, wholeness, possibility of living the full potential of a human being doesn’t rest with our efforts. They are a gift from God. That is grace.

It is all about God. Christians might quote Ephesians 2:8 & 9 as a proof text - “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.” 

Most Christians receive such a belief quite easily. It is after accepting the gift of grace that the difficulties begin. It is a gift that cannot be earned BUT once received it seems that we need to work like the clappers to keep it. 

That is where John Newton’s hymn kicks in. The same grace that gets us here, takes us home. If it is all about God to begin with, it has to be about God after the rebirth. 

There is a song that poetically catches this. If there was a universal taste in music and everyone loved the singer songwriting genre, then I would make everybody that I have any spiritual relationship with listen to Pierce Pettis’s God Believes In You:  


When you rise up just to fall again
God believes in you
Deserted by your closest friends
God believes in you

Oh, everything matters
If anything matters at all
Everything matters
No matter how big, no matter how small
Oh, God believes in you
God believes in you

When you're so ashamed that you could die
God believes in you
And you can't do right even though you try
God believes in you


Of all the songs I played on my radio show, or in the context of quiet reflective services, this is the song that has had the most response. 

It is an astounding song of pastoral tenderness and theological insight. It is a song of belief when belief is all but lost. It is a reminder not only that spirituality is about what God does through his grace rather than what we do through our smart ideas, theological cleverness or self righteous piety. 

It is all about the grace that gets us in, keeping us in. Relationship with God is about how God relates to us, more than it is about how we relate to God. That is a crucial truth. 

I spend time with so many people who are spiritually depressed and down on their souls because they are trying yet again to reach God, fix what they broke, undo their backsliding! But it is not about us reaching God by our efforts but about God reaching us just because God is love. 

Pierce’s song is a great reminder but it a song that goes slightly further. It has another audacious suggestion. God believes in our ability to achieve things in God’s Kingdom even when we feel far from able. He brings us onto his team, as salt, light, ambassadors, Kingdom bringers. 

To feed a healthy soul you could do worse than play God Believes In You over and over. It’ll help that grace that brought you safe this far… be the grace that…


Lewis's Pool

What a moment! I was speaking in Campbell College this morning and as it was the alma mater of CS Lewis I threw a Narnia story in. I didn’t have to contrive it. It is one of my favourite stories that I use in sermons. 

It is from the very first Narnia Chronicle, The Magician’s Nephew. In that first book the children, in this instance Digory and Polly, get into Narnia not through a wardrobe, as in later books, but with magic rings that transport them through a stagnant pool. 

On their arrival Lewis becomes a little stereotypically sexist. Let us put it down to his generational context. Anyway, Polly plays the cowering little girl who wants to go back home. She is frightened by this strange other world. Digory plays the tough boy and says to Polly, “There’s not much point in finding a magic ring that let’s you into other worlds, if you’re afraid to look at them when you’ve got there.”

I have used this quotation to ask the same question of Jesus. My preacher’s paraphrase is, “What is the point of Jesus being born, living, teaching, dying, being raised to life and ascending in order to bring us life in all its fulness if we don’t live that life in all its fulness.” 

That is what I put to the boys today. We were talking about living the fulness of life, finding where our gifting meets the needs of the world. We were wondering what we do with Jesus offer in John 10:10 of “life and life in all its fulness”.

There is more though. For me too many who have took hold of Jesus gift do not use it as Digory suggests we should use the rings. I see and hear a lot of Christianity that is content to simply creep into the new world Christ offers but is frightened of exploring it. It is as if we sit on the edge shouting at others to join us on the edge of Lewis’s pool.

However, we seem scared, like Polly, of exploring what the new Kingdom offers. We are hesitant about the adventurous, maybe dangerous, possibilities of reaching across divisions to love enemies, or find ourselves connecting with prostitutes or the lepers of the day, turning over the tables of the religious exploiting the poor, bringing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. We seem to prefer sitting fearful on the fringes, praying and reading about the new world rather than getting deep into its interior.

The amazing thing about this morning was that after the service in Campbell College the headmaster, my friend Robert Robinson, asked me if I wanted to see the stagnant pool! What?! We went down the back drive of Campbell and took a right into a little wooded area. It was without doubt, in my mind, “the wood between the worlds”. Right there in front of me, green with algae, the stagnant pool. Just 100 yards from where Lewis grew up, this surely was the place. I could almost see Digory and Polly on its edge. It was a lovely post sermon moment! Now let us explore…


Dylan Nobel

When news broke on Thursday that this year’s Nobel Prize For Literature was being given to Bob Dylan a few thoughts went through my head. My utter delight was tempered by wondering how on earth it hadn't happened before. Then I heard that people gasped when Dylan’s name was announced and I gasped that people might have gasped. 

When it comes to literature in the Twentieth Century there are very few that can compete with Bob Dylan’s brilliance and more importantly his influence. The Swedish Academy announcing the award said he was “probably the greatest living poet”

The gaspers were where most of my emotions were channeled. This was a vindication. It was a smashing of a 50 year snobbery towards rock music. This wasn’t a prejudice that was only suffered by great artists like Dylan but by those of us who were not only fans but artistic critics and commentators.

Over the past 50 years Bob Dylan has had more books written about him than perhaps any other artist. Most of the heavy hitting rock writers like Greil Marcus, Clinton Heylin and Paul Williams have had their say. Even beyond that the Professors have written their thesis. Michael Gray was the Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge, and published the first critical study of Dylan's work, Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan as early as 1972 with updates since.

Christopher Ricks  is the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University and has been Professor OF Poetry at the University of Oxford. His fascinating tome was Dylan's Visions of Sin.

Even with these serious academic studies of Dylan and other rock artists, rock has been treated like some shoddy art form. I have found over thirty five years of quoting rock songs own sermons a turning up of the “cultured” nose. 

Personally, there have been many situations when I have used quotes without citing the reference. Should it be a poet, playwright or unknown avant grade German the name brings weight and kudos. It is an advantage to name those. Dylan, Morrison or U2 would just get dismissed. Well, all you gaspers, get with the programme. Rock music is a serious art discipline in the imagination of its practice and in its profundity of it impact.

The ignorance of Dylan’s art form was also revealed in how BBC Radio 4 started getting ‘voices” reading Dylan’s work as poetry the afternoon after the announcement. Writer Steve Turner rightfully aghast at such stupidity,. Dylan’s poetry has a musical rhythm and playfulness with rhyme that cannot be mined with a reading. It’s never on the page. Indeed it renews and refreshes with every performance; rhythms shifting, words reshaped. As my friend Barry Bynum put it on Facebook, it would be stupid of him with his Texan drawl to attempt reading Rabbie Burns!  

The gaspers need to take a breath. This has been coming down the line for half a century. Many of those now handling the poetry are also handling guitars, pianos and harmonicas. Rock music is no longer about long haired youths trying to pull a girl. When Dylan’s literary wordiness crossed a bridge around 1965 to meet the melodies of the popped up Beatles heading the other way a whole new literary genre was born. It would in turn birth Cohen, Morrison, Waits, Mitchell, Browne and Springsteen among many others. 

The gasps are way over due but for some of us they are a vindication of what we knew. The snobbery has been outed. I can quote a Bob Dylan on Sunday morning and cite his name! 


Chrissie on Jules

This morning on the school run I was listening to Chris Evans on the radio. Friday morning is always exciting. He has live guests. This morning it was The Pretenders

When Chrissie Hynde broke into a live acoustic version of her new single Holy Commotion I let out that guttural noise that happens when I hear something and think, “Utterly brilliant but why on earth had I not thought of that years ago!” It’s the exasperated little gasp of the genius of the obvious never before unveiled.

The idea of a holy commotion being a movement of God in the world. Come on! Rhyming it with devotion. It’s so… spiritual… so me. I loved it.

Chrissie had me hooked. As the song went on my ears were opening wider and leaning further into the speakers. My soul was having the same reflex. What is she trying to say. Or more like it, wow listen to what Chrissie Hyde is saying.


“When the walls come tumbling down

And the love shines all around

And the dogs of war come around no more,

No more rape or torture or mutilation,

One love, one word,

One humanity

One word, one love,

One humanity.”


As a Christian this sounded to me like a rock n roll paraphrase of the Old Testament prophets or St. John The Divine on Patmos coming up with his own Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and calling it Revelation

This is the hope of the new day dawning, a new Kingdom coming. As I come to wonder how intentional Chrissie is with the Christian influence to all of it, as i wonder if I am reading too much into it as I am wont to do she sings:


“Come on Jesus help me.”


The acoustic Chris Evans Show version is very different for the pop sound of the album version. The recorded version, like the entire album is produced by Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. On Tuesday The Pretenders did the full band version of the song on Later… With Jools. This live version was a dirty southern swamp rock blues of a pop song, more in keeping with Black Keys than the recorded one. 

Listen for that pedal steel. Beyond that listen for the inspiration, imagination and apocalypse blowing through your soul.

VAN MORRISON - KEEP ON SINGING - A Review and Reflection on Healing

Van Keep Me Singing

One of the most fascinating commentaries on the work of Van Morrison has to be from John Paul Lederach. Lederach is a visionary author and practitioner in the fields of conflict transformation and peace building. Not the common or in the garden place to find a chapter on Van Morrison

Yet, in his book When Blood and Bones Cry Out; Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation that is what we get. Chapter 8 is called Following The Healing Muse and is fascinating in that it comes out of a time when Lederach himself was healing from a serious car accident and over that year he listened to the works of Morrison which he believes helped the process.

Why do I bring that book up in a review of Van’s new album Keep Me Singing? Well, one part of Ledearch’s theory is very much alive in Morrison’s new collection of songs. Maybe Morrison has actually read When Blood and Bones Cry Out because the lines in the title track “I got to go back in my memory bank/See how it ought to be now” is exactly what Lederach is stating.

Lederach has the idea that to heal we might benefit from going back into good memories of the past to help us heal in the now. You can see why he finds an affinity with Morrison. 

Van Morrison has constantly worked a rich seam of his early Belfast memories. We might feel that the transcendent moments of a Hyndford Street childhood, “dreaming in God’ or being “caught one more time up on Cyprus Avenue” were subjects to create songs. Maybe they are more. Maybe Lederach is revealing the power of Morrison’s healing muse.

Keep Me Singing is a record that trawls all of Morrison’s favourite past fishing gorunds. It is a record full of memories. We even have a song called Memory Lane. It is also never far from pain and sorrow. Van steals a line from the old Spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen/Nobody knows my sorrow” on Holy Guardian Angel

Holy Guardian Angel is one of those prayers to the transcendent, so common in Morrison’s 80s and early 90s work. Call me theological squeamish but for me it is a brilliant Morrison moment but it loses some substance by being directed at an angel.

Why I really wanted to bring Lederach’s thoughts to bear on this record is that the entire piece sounds like  Van Morrison is in a very good place of spirit. It is as if the healing has begun. The last two records of new originals Keep it Simple and Born To Sing; No Plan B had good songs, Behind The Ritual on the former, Mystic Of The East on the latter, but there is something free and easy about this new collection. There is less angst. There is still hurt, yes but there is more inner contentment. The music flows. The songs are strong. The feel is buoyant. It is Van Morrison at his best.

There is beauty in the sadness of Everytime I See A River and Out in the Cold Again. There is the aforementioned transcendence on Holy Guardian Angel, on which those recurring themes of the spiritual and Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Hour blend. 

The very best of the collection is In Tiburon which takes Van back to his early 70s time living in San Fransisco and all of us musically back to the Inarticulate Speech Of the Heart with the stacked up images and literary references. This is A star Morrison. Utterly brilliant!

Going Down to Bangor is not as classic as In Tiburon but is particularly exciting for the Northern Irish like me to hear Bangor’s Pickie Pool and the Cavehill sounding as romantic as San Frans North Street Alleys and Geary Street. There is yet again a sense of healing in the remembering.

Morrison’s most consistent work since The Healing Game for sure… and there’s that healing idea again!

U2 - OCTOBER - 35 Years Ago Today - How It Changed My Life!

October U2

Thirty five years ago this week I turned 20. I had just started University a few weeks before. With birthday present Record Tokens (my very favourite present still!!!!) I made one of the most meaningful LP purchases of my entire life; U2’s October album.

There was quite a buzz about U2 in Ireland at that time. They had played my new Queen’s University’s McMordie Hall (now known as the Mandela Hall) at the start of that year and I had caught a little of the footage when shown on BBC TV, though I was far more interested in Stiff Little Fingers who were shown in the same series. There were also rumours that they were Christians which seemed pretty cool to me, a recent convert myself!

I can remember deciding to buy October in Boots on Royal Avenue. I brought it back to my room in Union Theological College, a room I would live in for six years and I actually do remember setting the needle down on side one. The sound of Gloria filled that wee room and, it has to be said, my heart, my mind and my soul. I guess my life would never be the same again.

These songs cut right into my spiritual journey, into my vocation as a communicator of Christianity, in a plethora of settings. I was plunged into a deep well of quotes, images and ideas and twenty years later I would get the privilege of writing one of the best selling and received books about the band; Walk On; The Spiritual Journey Of U2.

It all started with October. Gloria, Tomorrow, With A Shout (Jerusalem) all grabbed the attention of my soul. I arrived at Queen’s University to study theology having had my life turned around by a God encounter a couple of years before. I was twenty years old and this music opened up ways that I could communicate that faith, initially in the privacy of my college room. 

October vibrated with a faith that was committed and yet vulnerable, honest in frailties but confident in hope. Words like Rejoice and Jerusalem, ideas of worship and theology were not common in mainstream rock music. U2 were not in some Christian ghetto but as Steve Turner would say at Greenbelt some years later were involving themselves in the conversation of the rock world. Turner would go on to say that they didn’t only get involved in such a conversation but began to change the very vocabulary of the conversation; Simple Minds song Sanctify Yourself just one example of such.

In many ways, for me, this juxtaposition is where I have lived ever since and of course U2 have travelled down three decades of spiritual growth along with me. Perhaps everything of my faith is still articulated in U2 records, live shows and interviews. Perhaps Walk On is my own spiritual memoir through U2 songs!

As Bono wrote the almost half baked lyrics of October he was struggling with his faith and vocation and thus aware of his own fallibility. It is a humble way to carry the conviction of faith also present. Conviction of Creed can very easily cause an arrogance of faith that becomes Pharisaic and no friend of Jesus. Here in the full flush of belief U2 are caught in a vortex of struggle which keeps them grounded. These songs fly naively and land with a thud sometimes in the very same songs.

This is also the album most infused with the Shalom Fellowship that Bono, Larry and Edge were very involved with in their early days. There were many such fellowships in Ireland, north and south, at that time. Most of these kinds of groups are forged in a youthful idealism. Such groups broke away from traditional Churches and attempted to return to the spirit of the fledgling house churches of the New Testament.

It is no coincidence that such a phenomenon appears just a few years after the hippy sixties. The freedom of that decade caressing with the charismatic movement birthed an exuberant, communal and organic form of Christian fellowship that in most of its incarnations burned pure and bright for a short period before either falling apart as Shalom did or became a little more mainstream as many others did.

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 spoke of how the studio was filled with other members of Shalom and how the sessions would break into worship.

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. Nowhere else in mainstream music is there a record that best records the Charismatic House Church movement.

In the big picture of U2’s career October is the least important album. It sits between one of the best debut albums ever made, Boy, and the album that would begin U2’s conquering of the world, War.

It was an album strewn with difficulties; it was rushed, the aforementioned spiritual turmoil and the fact that Bono lost the lyrics. The songs come across almost half finished though Van Morrison’s spiritual streams of consciousness lyrics of the same era throws them some forgiveness. Whatever, it is not U2’s greatest artistic moment but in its uniqueness, exuberance and Christian context it is an essential place in U2’s story and very important in the story of many of the rest of us; me in particular!


Two Small stones

Treasured Possessions is a theme that could go so many different ways. I have been pouring over it for weeks with Deacon Blues Real Gone Kid ringing in my ear “all the old 45s/And the paperback rooms/And it's scattered all the photographs/Of summers and suns…”

In the end I have chosen a couple of tiny bits of stones. Yip, nothing very valuable but very treasured for what they stand for. I have a tendency in places of poignancy to reach down and pick up a piece of the almost sacred earth and bring it home. These two little bits of rock sit in our mantelpiece  piece… probably going unnoticed… maybe even to my wife!

The first is from the Onialeku school that our Church is connected with in Arua, North West Uganda. West Nile is on the distant edge of Uganda, infamous for Idi Amin and at times it seems marginalised and isolated even by its own fellow citizens. 

When we in Fitzroy were building new halls we decided to give a tenth of our fund raising to an education project somewhere in need. When I arrived in Onialeku last summer and saw the new school building, I saw hope made bricks and mortar. It was only a building but there it was so much more than a building. I treasure my tiny little piece of it…

The other is little bit of limestone from Robben Island off the Cape Town Coast, where Nelson Mandela did so many years in prison. I have been round that prison so many times and every time I feel inspired and hopeful. How can that be? It was a place of apartheid, unimaginable cruelty and great injustice. How can I feel good walking across it.

Because it is redeemed. The prisoners are now the tour guides. They tell their story of incarceration… and then freedom. Of being treated as less than human… and then voting one of their very own in as President of the Nation. A New nation. A forgiving nation. A rainbow nation. Redeemed ground. I bent down and stole a piece…

So, those two stones. pieces of rock. They remind that my Christian faith is all about hope. And not a hope that is for the sweet bye and bye. A hope that is for here and now. Earth can be redeemed… can be as it is in heaven. Those two stones… fire the imagination and the actions of my day! Treasured!



Jani's photo at 55

55 today! Unbelievable. I remember looking back at my 50th birthday and thinking how fast, how packed in and how full my life has been. It hasn’t slowed down. I do feel not as fit to keep up but then I’ve also lost weight, gained weight and got my running up and going again. Still doing a few miles though I hope my 56th year will so more miles than the last one! 

The last five years have been lived with an over riding mantra. 10:10! It is of course the date of my birthday. I love seeing my birthday decorating Fitzroy Youth Sweatshirts! Of course it is not for my birthday but for John chapter 10 verse 10. Jesus says, “I have come that you might have life in all its fullness.” 

That is what I want to be about in my own life and in the lives I get to influence in Fitzroy and beyond. I spent last July sharing this verse in Uganda where I got an entire School shouting 10:10. 10:10 Amen!

Two moments in my life helped me to live this 10:10 life! I am open to major hits of the Holy Spirit but not in an everyday Sunday service party piece way. In my life there have been two real prophetic moments. Ken Newell would not even remember the moments, almost throwaway comments, but they made me who I am and what I live for at 55.

The first moment was as he got up to leave a meeting with David Montgomery and I in Belfast’s best takeaway, Spuds in Shaftesbury Square, way back in 1991. In his goodbye he said, “I have been reading your poetry book and it is very good but they are not going to like what you are saying. You will probably find yourself in a wilderness but if you hang in for ten years or so you’ll find a voice in our Church again.” 

I was speechless and very confused if delighted that he liked my book! I at the time was in no wilderness but within a year the green dried up and I started seeing the parched lands of that very terrain. The colleagues who had previously been friends began to shun me and I was suddenly not invited to speak in the places I had been before. It is a longer more painful journey than that expresses but Ken’s words were manna through the wilderness.

A few year later I had become Chaplain at Queen’s University and as Ken was minister of a Church in the area he invited me up to his Manse for a quick coffee. In the twenty minutes of that coffee Ken said, “Steve, when you get to fifty make sure you know who you are. Many of my colleagues have looked over their shoulders and are now confused about who they are and what people think they are. Be yourself.” 

I was thirty five then and it is not lost on me that twenty years later I am now living in the very Manse where Ken shared that coffee and advice with me. I became his successor as minister of Fitzroy and could never have been vocationally able to do so had he not spoke into my life. It is quite a “coincidence” when you think about it.

So, 55 today. It fell on my Monday day off and I got to celebrate with my wife. I surmised where I have come from, where I am and where I am heading towards. I feel utterly blessed to be minister of a vibrant Church, involved in a relevant festival (4 Corners), engaged in some interesting reconciliation work, doing some radio stuff, dabbling in the arts and having people like yourself reading my blog surmises (thank you for indulging me).

It is all with the audacious intention of contributing to a better world. It’s what Jesus talked about and as one of my very favourite quotations from Douglas Coupland puts it, “If you're 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.”


No wasting days here! 10:10 Amen!


God Don't Never Change


An Exploration of the Life, Faith and Legacy of Wille Johnson

Sunday October 16th at 7pm

Fitzroy, 77 University Street, Belfast BT9 6HL

live performances from Chris Wilson, Caroline Orr, Shannon Clements, Norman McKinlay, Peter Greer, Ken Frame & Gary Burnett

commentary on the songs and Johnson's life by Gary Burnett, author of The Gospel According to The Blues and writer of Down At The Crossroads blog (press here)

It has been a while since Fitzroy' last Blues Night. This will be a fantastic return. Earlier this year the album God Don't Never Change; The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson (for my review click here).

As I enjoyed the record I spoke to Blues authority Gary Burnett about it and he took me into the story of Johnson's life that created the songs, pointing me to pages of his book (to read my interview with Gary about his book click here). It was illuminating.

If you are interested in music or faith or both then this will be an amazing evening. There will be fabulous performances of the songs by the Fitzroy Musical Collective and then Gary will lead us deeper into those songs.