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August 2017

EVERYTHING NOW - ARCADE FIRE

Everything Now

Everything Now the first single, and title track, off the new Arcade Fire record had me very excited. It was the most prophetic punch of pop to hit radio playlists I had heard since The Killers’ Human. That both band’s writers and frontmen are from Mormon backgrounds did cross my mind as more than a coincidence. Win Butler’s studies in theology and philosophy, with a particular love for Kierkegaard, adds to the intrigue.

It certainly adds to the poetic lyrics of Butler who has throughout the Arcade Fire catalogue been asking big questions of humanity’s condition and the seeking of redemption. Butler has been particularly good at holding up the culture to the light of revelatory critique. 

Having been absolutely smacked in heart and soul by the single, Everything Now and working out what the new t-shirt was about that I bought at their Belfast gig, I had the sense that that cultural collide would be all over the record. And…boy it is!

But before we get to that, let’s talk about the music. With their last record Reflektor Arcade Fire had me listening to sounds that I previously did not at all like. So it is again. Everything Now is all Abba dance grooves and elsewhere Human League are not far out of the mix. It’s all glitzy and boppy and incessantly catchy. 

Somehow into the lightness of the sound Arcade Fire have filled the ear candy tunes with soul colliding seriousness. I imagine though it might be a case of "those with ears to hear, let them hear” as I imagine many will miss the cultural thesis within.

As I listened to the full album I had an extra angle on the perspective. I had just arrived home from two weeks in Uganda. Having had that spiritual interrogation of my western decadent living, Arcade Fire then bombarded me with couplets that had my soul cowering.

The lyrics throughout the album seem simple in their writing but in their meaning they nail us. That opening single Everything Now, that appears three times, is about our need and expectation of having everything NOW but actually concludes that it is a fake claim that we actually have everything… or anything that counts. A week in Uganda would give us all a better clue as to what counts!

Creature Comfort is a song title that says it all. This is all about celebrity, self harm and suicide but a plea that whatever we are pray for can God make it painless! Comfort? Painless? Not words that most Africans know about in their everyday existence.

Signs Of Life is the futility of searching in the wrong hedonistic places for Signs of Life… and then doing it again. In the poorer areas of Uganda there is little time for such pursuits!

And on it goes… song after song… before Butler subtly changes the theme. A song called Good God Damn is a beautifully constructed guitar driven song. Good Good Damn begins with what seems like a luxurious, almost swaggering suicide “Put your favourite record on baby/And fill the bathtub up/You wanna say goodbye to your oldest friends/With a good God damn”. Then there seems a subtle shift, in the omnipresent word play of the record, and after saying goodbye to a meaningless world our protagonist finds that there might be a good God… damn! “But maybe there’s a good God, damn.” Too late! I might be contriving this exegesis but I think it Butler is having a gentle preach at the new atheists…

If that is not an intriguing enough take, let us go the last track, We Don’t Deserve Love. As a final subtle paragraph in the dissertation Butler finds himself in Christ’s passion. It looks like Mary has been left loveless by Jesus in the tomb but then a cry to come down from the cross and we find Arcade Fire’s Ecclesiastes' sermon with, “The ones you love always leave you alone/It’s always the Christ-types you’re waiting”… OH MY GOODNESS ME!

Brilliant as a pop record. Staggering in its brutal exposure of our empty western existence, even it you haven’t been to Africa recently. Utterly fascinating in the spiritual conclusions! Do you reckon I like it!


HAVE GOLF CADDIES TOO MUCH INFLUENCE?

Caddie Kevin McAlpine

It might be just me but I have been noticing golf caddies a little more, just recently. Obviously there is the Rory McIlroy's situation. PJ finally went his own way and Rory brought his old pal Harry Diamond in to carry his new Taylor Mades in his final Major of the year. Sadly it didn’t sparkle (ouch!). That PJ had made £8million pounds from his nine years with Rory seemed to be a reasonable return on his investment. Let us not feel too sorry for him.

Just about a month previous Phil Mickelson had split wth his caddie of 25 years. Was it a mutual decision? Who knows but one can only imagine what Bones earned in two and half decades carrying the bag of a five time major winner!

The other caddie to cross my radar was Rickie Elliott. Ricky is from Northern Ireland and caddied for Bruce Koepka when he won the US Open in June. The press speculated that the Portrush man won $200,000 that week. Probably after Rory he’ll be Northern Ireland’s best paid sportsman this year! 

Caddies eh!

Then this weekend at the Solheim Cup my surmising turned a little more serious. America’s Lexi Thompson’s caddie is a Scot called Alex McAlpine, a former professional player himself. As I watched how McAlpine helped Thompson I wondered, for the first time in my 45 years of following the sport, if the influence of caddies should be reconsidered by the golfing authorities.

McAlpine seemed to give Thompson all the lines on every shot but particularly on all of her putts. I think it was Laura Davies who said on commentary how this was a weakness of Thompson’s game and how much she depends on McAlpine. Thompson at times looked like a robot. McAlpine did all the thinking, told her what to do and Thompson’s gift was then following through on the advice. It seemed a little too much interference though. 

Which got me surmising. Is golf a level playing field? Do caddies give players significant advantage? If caddies have become coaches psychologists and crucial contributors to the outcome then should golf being recognised as a “doubles” events? Is golf comfortable with that? Or should caddies be just what they are, bag carriers? Then we would know the best player. They would all be on their own with no one to cover their weaknesses. They might then be cheaper too! 

Just surmising!


AS MURCHISON FALLS (Feel The Silence)

Murchison Sunrise

 

Jotted most of these lines down while our Uganda Team spent an incredible day at the Murchison Falls National Park in July 2017. It was my second time at the Park. we had two game drives to see the animals... and a Nile cruise to see Murchison Falls itself. It is a spiritual place. The beauty... the wildlife... the silence...

 

Feel the silence

The quiet of God’s calm

Distant from soul sucking static

That takes from who I am

 

Listen to the solitude

The calm of redeeming love

Restoring all that’s stressed

In our modern push and shove

 

The elegance of the kob

Our lingering crocodile fears

The gentility of the giraffe

The Elephant's swaying ears

The Crested Crane’s royal pose

The Kingfisher’s kamakasi drop

The Grandeur of the water buffalo

Egret grooming her on top.

 

In the liturgy of sunrise

The hymn of creation calls

Mystery comes flooding

As Murchison falls 

 

The water bursting through

The narrow crevasse space

Cascading all life’s fulness

A torrent of amazing grace.


THE DEVIL SETTLES FOR NICE - MY VOCATION DOESN'T!

Houstie Kisses

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

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

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

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

     - Kisses At The Door by Brian Houston

 

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

Then one night as he sang it live, it literally came alive. I am not sure of the context. It might have been in one of his many legendary gigs at Derryvolgie Hall and therefore touched a nerve in my vocational space as a University Chaplain at the time. Wherever it was, this chorus came thudding through and opened a door in my soul to ask for much more from my life and ministry. 

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

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

Jesus saves - absolutely. You know I believe it. But I am not saved for my own self indulgent gain. I am saved in order to love, to forgive and to serve. I am saved to sacrifice myself. Jesus was about a Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. That kingdom is not about kissing babies after the benediction, though that might be a nice thing to do. 

The kingdom is visiting the prisoner, feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty and welcoming the stranger. It is about living a subversive counter intuitive way that brings shalom and well being to ALL. 

Unless I am doing that and preaching that and making Church about that then Brian is right to wonder why he bothered. So, a song in a context can fuel the vocational energy, challenge and inspire. Thank you Brian for this one! In these words you touch the pastoral and prophetic of what I am called to do. I will get back into this vocation of mine and allow the Spirit to use your song to put the unpredictable wind in my sails!


I THOUGHT OF GIVING UP FOOTBALL - BUT... IT IS MY UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

City shirt in White Castle!

It is just great to have the Premiership season started again, though Manchester United look a little bit strong for my liking! Without a World Cup or European Championship, the soccer less summer seemed to go on for far too long. 

As it all gets going again, my mind has been drawn back to a Sunday afternoon in April when I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, turned up the stereo and tried to give up being a football fan! For a good five minutes it all seemed like a good idea. I could do it. Lots of my friends have no interest. 

What had caused this mad rush of blood to my head?! Well, my beloved Manchester City had just been destroying Arsenal for 45 minutes in the FA Cup Semi Final at Wembley. They should have been 6 up at half time in chances missed, did score a perfectly good goal and the score was still goalless. At that stage you know that it is not City’s day. Indeed, I had left when after a late equaliser, Arsenal went ahead in Extra Time and I knew… I could miss the rest  of that match and soccer itself for ever after!

It was deep psychological hurt. A sense of real injustice. One up at half time and we were in the FA Cup Final. A bad lines man’s decision about the ball behind out of play, when it wasn’t, and my wee heart was in short term trauma. Too easily for a 55 year old man I hear you say but it is that ridiculous impact on my life that had me trying to give the whole thing up. Football fans invest a lot of emotion in their team. With such investment, justice is the least we deserve.

This however is not a blog about refereeing technology. It is about why I could not let go of the beautiful game. So why not? Why did I decide to get up after the inevitable final score at Wembley? 

Well, the first thing is obviously the near impossibility of it all. As Rod Stewart put it in the sleeve notes of his last album, “the two things you cannot change in life are your mother and your football team.” Soccer is an addiction. You can hear the kind of money being thrown around. Neymar’s transfer to Paris St Germain for £200m and Manchester City paying the same for a new defence seems utterly obscene if you have spent some off your summer in Uganda. BUT… the darn game gets into your blood before you are old enough. A transfusion is yet to have been found!  

As I left the room in April though I had decided I was sticking with it for a more positive reason. Football is a universal language that I have used across the world. 

It all started one night in 1990 in Shanghai. Walking the streets looking for a KFC we bumped into a Chinese chap wanting to learn English. He has been teaching himself through BBC World Service and he started enthusiastically talking about Packie Bonner’s penalty save in the recent World Cup. It was humorous but taught me something about this game. Thousands of miles from home it is a connector. 

Arriving in South Africa a decade later some of the first conversations we had on the Khayelitsha township was about a soccer team; the Kaiser Chiefs. Indeed it seemed almost everyone, male or female, old or young wore Chiefs shirts. The rest supported the Orlando Pirates. After discovering that the local team Cape Town Ajax were considered Dutch and therefore white, so no fans on black townships supported them, I became an ardent Pirates fan. The Chiefs seemed a little too Man United!

For the next decade I engaged with black South Africans through Orlando Pirates shirts and hand signals. I wore the shirt on the townships as much as the odour allowed. People would stop for a chat, in amazement that a white was a Pirates fan. In moments when I felt a little insecure I’d lift my sweat shirt to reveal my Pirates’ top and tensions turned to a laugh and African handshake. At every petrol station I asked what team the attendant supported and told them I never tipped Chiefs! 

Arriving in Uganda in 2015 it was English clubs that had me conversing. Arsenal and not Manchester United surprisingly rules in Uganda. At the school we partner with I took the name Ya Ya after City’s African player Ya Ya Toure. Immediately Gilbert was Ozil and Norman was Suarez. Two year later we all still are and the kids have a few Ya Ya chaats as I walk across the playground.

In a tricky situation on the wrong side of town, Jasmine and I found ourselves a little isolated. Looking down at a few tough looking guys, sitting watching us, I spotted a bicycle in the middle of them with a  Chelsea sticker and started some banter. All fear and tension immediately evaporated and we left with them laughing at the Manchester City supporting muzungu! 

Football frustrates me and angers me and with all the money too often lets me down but it was my best geography teacher as a child because I know where towns and cities and countries are by football teams. If your town ever made the FA Cup First Round I’ll know what part of England you are from! Most of all though it is a universal language that has given me inroads to connections around the world. So here’s for another season of painfully unjust afternoons like that one last April. Give it up? Don’t be daft!


YOUR EYES SING (GRATITUDE)

  Onialeku Happy Faces

When we arrived in Onialeku Primary School, in north west Uganda, in July our friend Pastor David told us that the children of the school were so excited that they might carry the bus into the school. Their welcome was as overwhelming as David's poet description.

Then a day or two later we were giving gifts to our sponsor children when I noticed the glow on Jacqueline's face when she lifted out a little pencil sharpener. It is a second in time that I will never forget. The utter joy and gratitude at something so small to western children who would have thrown it aside. 

Oh how much we have lost with all that we think we have gained. Pure unadulterated gratitude is one of the things we threw away with our very souls!

 

You could carry the bus

With your joyous effervescence

Your energetic innocence

You lift me high

You could carry the bus 

With your happiness so contagious

This thankfulness beautifully outrageous

You lift us high

 

When you don’t have nothing

Then anything is something

A little thing is everything

It makes your eyes sing

It makes your eyes sing

Oh how it makes your eyes sing.

 

Just a pencil sharpener

You were Christmas Day beaming

You were Disney World gleaming

Tear in my eye

Just a pencil sharpener

A glowing gasp of utter glee

Like the purist gratitude must be

Tear in my eye.

 

We have lost something

With all that we have

That appreciative smile

That enraptured laugh

I cant helping thinking

How clever Jesus words

The ones of losing souls

And gaining worlds. 

 

When you don’t have nothing

Then anything is something

A little thing is everything

It makes your eyes sing

It makes your eyes sing

Oh how it makes your eyes sing.


THE MORINGA TREE - AND OUR CULTURAL BLOCKS TO PEACE IN IRELAND (published first in Irish News 10.8.17)

Moringa Tree

In the last few weeks, I have been thinking about cultural stigmas that could cause us to reject the potential of a better future?

In the early part of July I was in David Sharland's garden, in Arua in the very north west edge of Uganda. David is married to Heather who was brought up in Draperstown. Some of you might remember her as Heather Sinclair who made news headlines in 1987 when she was kidnapped by Sudanese Rebels (SPLA) and held for some weeks. You might even have prayed for her. 

Anyway, that is another story. David works in agriculture and his garden is amazing. I watched him as he captured the attention of our teenagers, entertaining them with stories about all kinds of herbs and plants and trees. 

When he came to the Moringa tree he shocked me. He waxed lyrical, with his usual enthusiasm, about its many wonders and then he told us that the Moringa leaf could relieve the nutritious needs of millions of malnourished people in Africa. 

Moringa leaves have 9 times the protein of yogurt; 10 times the vitamin A of carrots; 15 times the potassium of bananas; 17 times the calcium of milk; 12 times the vitamin C of oranges; and 25 times the iron of spinach! In most places it easily available, just growing at the side of the road.

BUT… in African culture to eat leaves is what you do if you are so poor that you are dying of starvation. So, you couldn’t be caught eating leaves. It’s a cultural no no! As David spoke I was staggered at how some cultural taboo could get in the way of saving lives.

It would have been easy to have left David’s garden thinking about how stupid those impoverished Africans are. My mind, however, was already back home in our wee corner of the world. 

There is a stain glass window at Belfast City Hall. The plaque beside it speaks of the window representing the successes of the city over 100 years. There is a tree at the top of the window. The plaque reads, “The tree with the sun behind it symbolises hope, growth, regeneration and reconciliation.” It then quotes Revelation 2:22, “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

Could it be that the metaphorical leaves of hope, growth, regeneration and reconciliation are all around us but we too are damned by our cultural stigmas. Could it be that the cultural traditions of bonfires, flags, language and our dealing with the past cannot be overcome to save us all? What would our neighbours say?

Jesus ignored the neighbours. He broke the stigmas to eat and drink with prostitutes, tax collectors and Samaritans. In the end it is what put him on a cross. His people could not bear him smashing the cultural taboos.

It is a month since I walked around David Sharland’s garden in the pleasant warmth of an African evening. The image of the Moringa leaf won’t leave me though. It tugs like a dog at my heals. Eat the leaves!


WHO WOULD WE BE WITHOUT YOU (FOR ELVIS)

Elvis-presley

Where would we be without you?

Not where we are today

There would have been no Heartbreak Hotel

Or Highway 61, never mind revisited

No Strawberry Fields Forever

Or Penny Lane

Would we ever have been caught up on Cyprus Avenue

Or sailed up the west coast in a ship called Dignity

Would we have found ourselves Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

Would there have been a Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Or a Stairway To Heaven

And would we have been received in Graceland

Where would we be without you?

Not where we are today.

 

Who would we be without you?

Not who we are today.

Would we have been All Shook Up

Or found our Teenage Kicks

Would we have been Born To Run

Or known All You Need Is Love

Would the Times have Been A-Changing

And given us an Alternative Ulster

Would there have been cracks for the light to get in

Would our souls and spirits have ever flown Into The Mystic

Would we be pilgrims on our way

And I be someone who makes you feel beautiful

Who would we be without you?

Not who we are today.