Previous month:
September 2017
Next month:
November 2017

October 2017


Neil Finn Out Of Silence

Neil Finn, New Zealand’s favourite song making son has never made the same record twice. Whether with Split Enz or Crowded House or with his brother Tim as The Finn Brothers, with his wife Sharon on Pyjama Club, on his own or with a myriad of collaborators on 7 Worlds Collide, his natural McCartney-like melody making has been given a plethora of forms.

After his last solo record, the full out and rocking Dizzy Heights, here is a quiet collection of songs. The creation of the record was live streamed to fans and the recordings made in a very short period of hours. Yet, don’t think it might be any less meticulous. These are not demoes or unplugged. These songs are tenderly layered with strings and harmonies. It is beguiling and very beautiful. I was suggest Finn’s most beautiful record to date.

Finn’s lyrics are full of images and intrigue that are often times more cryptic than quotable. The recurring theme on this record is uncertainty. In the emotional love of the heart and on the streets of a world where music fans are targeted by terrorists it seems to Finn that God is rolling dice with us. I think the latter is a in image of the uncertainty more than it is a theological surmise. 

Whatever the injustices personal and societal there is a hopefulness in the last few lines:


“And I’ll stay with you, if you’ll let me

And the whole world, can forget me

I know that, we came closer

To believing, that we’re through

I know different.”


Out of Silence is quiet and reflective catharsis in a world that loud and bright and brash and beating us all up. To lie back in these layered quiet melodies can only be a helpful retreat. Let the beauty heal, orientate and give hope. 


Winter Trees 2


Winter trees on a north coast headland

That drops into Murlough bay

Asking mystical questions

With  the serenity of their gentle sway

And I'm fascinated by the mystery

Did God peer down then bending

Pencil sketch them in the cloak of darkness

Or the distraction of the sun descending

They are so skilfully shaped like dancers

So brilliantly and beautifully bent

And I’m sure there ain’t no short cut

But a long slow consistent dent

And what of my life landscape

Do I stand there the shape of intrigue

Evidence of what can’t be seen

Like these winter trees?


A poem to fit a windy day like this one as we watch the trees in the garden whichever way she chooses.

I wrote this one afternoon at one of our favourite north coast haunts; Murlough Bay.

Being winter the trees stood out. Without their leaves, they looked like little sketches. I imagined their shaping by the wind off the sea, years in the sculpting. I think that an album by County Antrim singer Bob Speers called Northland was inspiring me. I think I also might have lost the run of myself and considered being influenced by Seamus Heaney!

The preacher in me then started surmising my own life and how the powerful wind of Holy Spirit was shaping me by the long consistent blowing across my life - "evidence of what can't be seen". We cannot see today's wind as it forces its way across our landscape. Evidence of its presence will be all over the news broadcasts.

The 'no short cut' line is the belief that one massive blast of the Holy Spirit cannot achieve this. God's influence is, most of the time, a consistent blowing. Eugene Peterson's Long Obedience In The Same Direction book on the Psalms of Ascent is in there too.

I had the privilege of joining this poem up with a lovely song by Sam Hill called Listen To the Breeze and it went on our album under the moniker Stevenson and Samuel called Grace Notes... 


Winter trees on a north coast headland

That drops into Murlough bay

Asking mystical questions

With  the serenity of their gentle sway

And I'm fascinated by the mystery

Did God peer down then bending

Pencil sketch them in the cloak of darkness

Or the distraction of the sun descending

They are so skilfully shaped like dancers

So brilliantly and beautifully bent

And I’m sure there ain’t no short cut

But a long slow consistent dent

And what of my life landscape

Do I stand there the shape of intrigue

Evidence of what can’t be seen

Like these winter trees?




“And no matter where I roam
I will find my way back home
I will always return to the Lord

In the gentle evening breeze
By the whispering shady trees
I will find my sanctuary in the Lord

I was headed for a fall
Then I saw the writing on the wall
Like a full force gale, I was lifted up again
I was lifted up again by the Lord”

        From Full Force Gale by Van Morrison



As the hurricane called Ophelia heads towards Ireland and we brace ourselves for the strongest winds in half a century, I couldn’t help be drawn to this Van Morrison hymn. Released originally on Van’s Into The Music record, Elvis Costello and the Voice Squad’s version on the Van Morrison tribute album No Prima Donna heightened the spirituality of the piece. 


It was that version that was used to make it into a choir introit to my installation service in Fitzroy in November 2009. On Friday it was Morrison’s original that was used as the processional as Alan and Philippa McNeilly left the Church after their wedding.


Full Force Gale a simple song of trust and dependency. It is a song of belief that God will draw us back and lift us up in the image of the Spirit as a full force gale. The strength of the Spirit blowing through our souls will bring life.


The Old Testament Hebrew word ruah and the New Testament Greek word pneuma mean wind but are used for the Holy Spirit. The image of the Holy Spirit is of a wind that blows through, sometimes gentle and refreshing, other times like a hurricane or full force gale.


The image of the full force gale in the life of a follower of Jesus that I love most is found in John chapter 3 where Jesus is talking to Nicodemus. In verse 8 we read, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 


Now, first of all, let us note that the wind that blows here is not the Holy Spirit but the one born of the Spirit. As we watch the force of Ophelia this afternoon and evening, hopefully from the safety of our homes, let us ask if the image we have of followers of Jesus is one of such power and energy and unpredictable force. If not, the Church needs to ask, why not?


If I go back to the sentiment of Van Morrison's song then my prayer is that those of us who feel that our lives are a little lost and directionless might find the full force gale of the Spirit itself lifting us up and returning us home. 


MJ Kiss

Martyn Joseph’s song Kiss The World Beautiful is a beautifully crafted song about loving the world. It is about hope and change and good and right and a shalom-like balance to the way everything that is turns out. 

Though an overall success, some of the lines seem to find Joseph groping for the poetry, the direction to meet the huge ambition of the idea. 

There is for me one couplet that is a dog-at-my-heels line that touches the depths of my psyche and shapes my every day. After he has addressed the world and went for a chat with God, Joseph brings it all back down to loving the one he’s with. As he turns to that loved one and longs to kiss her lips he finds a truth that is explosive particularly in the religious world that Joseph and I have been weaned, damaged and healed in: 


“Sometimes it’s just more important to love

Than to always have it right...”


This is a line that Jesus might have used against the Pharisees. In the conservative Christian world that Martyn Joseph and I grew up in, there is an over emphasis on being right and an unloving damning dismissal and demonizing of those who don’t think exactly and correctly, as we do; the Pharisees were as much about conformity as legalism! The idea of worshipping at the altar of being right might be an idol of some sections of Christianity in the 21st century.

This can portray an image of God that is far from loving. Indeed I remember at college coming back from hearing one of the popular preachers of the day and someone saying with a condemning sneer, “I suppose it was all about love, love, love?!” I was young and a little naive and thus very confused!Jesus seemed to be all about “love, love, love” from what I read in my Bible. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath they told him it wasn’t right; he thought it was more important to love the man with the withered hand. 

When they wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery and Jesus got them to drop the stones, they had the law on their side; but Jesus thought it more important to reach out in grace and forgive the woman. 

When he touched the leper it was not the right thing to do; but Jesus thought it important to show tangible love to the outcast. 

When asked what the most important commandment was Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40). He even spoke of loving enemies.

This of course should be no surprise to those who have a handle on the entirety of Scriptures. Jesus was reminding us of the Jews daily liturgy of Shema in Deuteronomy 6 and the commands to love neighbour in Leviticus 19.

Paul too knew the centrality of Jesus’ Gospel of love. After an entire poetic chapter on love in his first letter to the Corinthians he concluded, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Biblically, loving God and your neighbour as yourself, never mind your enemies seemed more crucial to the soul of Christian spirituality than knowing all the theology of legal manoeuvres. 

James K A Smith from Calvin College has spoken about how we are not what we believe, we are what we love. The identity of a Christian is not in being right in every theological doctrine or contemporary issue. Our identity is in how much we kiss the world beautiful. That is how the world will judge us.




Park Stone Kingdoms

So in 2015 the week before I went to Uganda, I walked into No Alibis Bookshop on Botanic Avenue and said to David Torrans that I wanted a book that would accompany me on that journey. Without a word he reached into a box and handed me Ishmeal Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow. Though set in Beah’s native Sierra Leone it was an evocative companion on that trip.

So, in 2017 I returned to tell David of his 2015 success and test him again. Again, not a word, a quiet moment of thought, and off he went. He returned with a David Park book called Stone Kingdoms. Now I know Park. The Truth Commissioner and The Light of Amsterdam are up with my favourite reads. How could I not have known about a mid 90s novel set in Africa!

It was not too far in before I was shaking my head at Torrans' genius. The novel is written from a female point of view. Naomi was brought up as the daughter of a minister! U2 get an early reference. Then we discover that before she went to Africa she worked in north Belfast and we find ourselves wrapped up in Fr Alec Reid giving the last rites to those British soldiers horrifically murdered at IRA funerals in March 1988. I had just written a review of a book about Fr Alec when I started Stone Kingdoms.

The most of the book though is set in Africa as Naomi seeks an escape from her childhood and The Troubles by working in a Refugee Camp. Like many of us she finds escaping in this world much harder than she had hoped and her relationship with her father, the violence or Ireland and the abject poverty of Africa make this a dark novel. Do not read it unless you are up for some violence and the painful consequences in body, mind and soul.

For me, as a companion on this year’s trip to Uganda, it was very helpful. Park is a lyrical writer. He can conjure the look and smell and feel of a place. As someone on mission he also brought out some helpful insights in how sentimentality needs to give way to pragmatism when you go to help in Africa! 

Stone Kingdoms is serious... tough... beautifully written harsh realities. 

David, I’ll be back soon…


Fitzroy Church Weird Light

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy I will be into the third in my 10:10 in Ten series. We will be looking at the words always on the lips of the Jewish people and what Jesus answered as the most important commandment. This was the Shema that was an identity maker for the Jews. Is it our identity maker? "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." This the vertical relationship with God from which everything horizontal flows. There might be a bit of vintage Neighbours!

In the evening (7pm) Gary Burnett will look at The Gospel According To... St Paul and ask if Jesus and Paul preached the same gospel? Or did Paul usurp the simple message of Jesus and make something too complicated of it? Gary's teaching evenings last year were among the highlights of the Fitzroy year; gripping and insightful. Expect Gary's usual imaginative techniques of taking us back tot he first century including an appearance from someone from the 1st century AD and some great music!



Stocki City Shirt

56 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. Need to get back on the roads again. Test the old knees. I hope my 57th year will see more miles than the last one! Wouldn't be tricky! 

For the last six years or so I have 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. There's a school in Uganda that chants my birthday and John 10:10 at me every day I am there - "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 56.

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, 56 today. I had an amazing day with my girls. 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, building an educational hopefulness in Arua, Uganda, doing some radio stuff, writing a regular a column in the Irish News, dabbling in the arts and having people like yourself reading my blog surmises (thank you for indulging me). With Fr Martin Magill I was awarded the 2016 Civic Leader of the Year by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, for goodness sake! I call it lavish and ridiculous grace! It is indeed 10:10!

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!


Apps icons and faith

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we are asking what icon you need to click on to find your way into the Kingdom of God and towards the 10:10 life in all its fulness. This is the scenic part of a new series called 10:10 in Ten and is pretty much my life work in sermons. In what is almost a back to basics of the faith, using ten passage sou Scripture and all my best illustrations, I am attempting unpack what followers of Jesus should look like in 2017. We will also be gathering around the bread and wine in a communal statement of revolution! 

In the evening (7pm) I will be look at the recent phenomenon of social media. Is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc demonic or is it a new way of communication that gives is opportunities to spread the Kingdom Of God and hone our discipleship? I have spoken at various events on this subject but never in Fitzroy. 

All welcome!



I was gutted to hear of the passing of rock star Tom Petty on Monday evening. As the news reached me on social media I uttered a loud “No! No! No! No!” It told me all I needed to know of my love for Petty.

Those who know me know that rock music has been a constant companion in my life since my cousin introduced me to Donny Osmond when I was 10! Thankfully I moved on from Donny but songs have been helping me look at the world, at God and at my place in God’s world, ever since

Petty was a spiritual contributor to my journey of faith. Of all his songs the one that has lingered in my soul the longest is Fault Lines from his Hypnotic Eye record in 2014. 


“See those fault lines
Lay down like land mines
It's hard to relax
A promise broken
The ground breaks open
Love falls through the cracks

And I've got a few of my own
I've got a few of my own fault lines
Running under my life”


Petty had lived in California for some 40 years and that idea of the San Andreas Fault lying beneath you all the time could be a frightening thought if you allowed it to linger. Petty’s song though is not about tectonic geographical shifts. He is using the image to dig deep in his own life.

Fault lines are not necessarily sins. They are those things that have somehow rattled us to our core. They are events or circumstances that have happened to us or around us that have somehow bruised, broken or beaten out of shape our soul. They might not be bad things, just circumstances but until we come to terms with them we live on top of the potential danger.

I remember a teacher telling us that all great people knew their weaknesses. I often look inside and ask where there might be weaknesses or fault lines running under my life; a result of where I was born; the family that I was raised in; my social class; the creed that I was spiritual formed in; the political ideology I was steeped in; the era I was born into.

When Jesus encountered people he was intuitive about their fault lines. A Samaritan woman, a Roman centurion, a Pharisee called Nicodemus, Zaccheaus the  tax collector. Jesus sussed out all their unique fault lines before bringing his redemptive words and actions.

Of course we need to remember the fault lines that run under our wider society here in the north. The events of the past, going back centuries have shaken our foundations with consequences. The grief and hurt has ripped open fault lines, sectarianism created by apartheid living has caused a few cracks underneath us. Understanding that the fabric of “our” side has been damaged  as well as seeking to understand the cracks within the “other” community can only help us as we try to create a firmer foundation of a more peaceful future for us all. 

I am sure Tom Petty will be all over our radios in the next few weeks. Maybe somebody should play Tom Petty’s Fault Lines up at Stormont!!


Runnin Down A Dream

I remember being quite interested in Tom Petty’s first solo album Full Moon Fever because I had been a Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers fan since Damn The Torpedoes and the thought of Petty doing something more stripped back, as I foolishly thought solo might mean, was very appealing. Produced by Jeff Lynne was hardly going to make it unplugged and though the hits Free Fallin’ and I Won’t Back Down did make their impression much of it passed me by. 

It wasn’t until Petty named his Thirtieth Anniversary documentary movie and coffee table book Runnin’ Down a Dream that I caught the depth of the transcendent wonder of the song that named the book!

A friend once told me that until you open the windows on an American freeway, under a warm blue skied Californian sun, and turn the stereo up loud you will never know what rock ’n roll was created for. Runnin’ Down a Dream is the kind of song for such a revelatory moment. 

The first verse even starts exactly as my friend described, Del Shannon being the sound on the radio. Though the weather changes as the song goes on, there is something spiritual going on in Mr. Petty’s soul. He is longing to know more than the ordinary and the mundane. He is following in Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps in his effort “to suck the marrow out of life” For Petty it is to run down the hill of a dream; what a great image.

The song goes on “working on a mystery, going wherever it leads.” There is so much in that line. That a mystery needs worked on, that you need to not pass it by in a flighty manner. That it needs to be recognised as beyond us but also explored and at least some attempt made to unravel it. To live in the vortex of a dream or a mystery. Wow! 

Petty’s Southern roots are dragging him back again to those prayers his mother prayed by the window on maybe his finest song Southern Accents, a song so wonderfully claimed for his own spiritual story by Johnny Cash. Jesus and God are never too close to Petty’s rock n roll testimony but neither are they ever too far away. See the credits on albums or the references on songs like Free Fallin’ or Saving Grace and you will find that Christianity is the faith stream of his mystery.

That mystery seems to be something deeper in meaning on a vocational direction. Petty would not deny that most of his dreams were more than lived out; he might have in a wild dream have considered being welcomed into the Rock ’N Roll Hall of Fame but he cannot have dared to have imagined back in Gainesville that he would be asked to be the backing band for Bob Dylan or that a Beatle would ask him to join his super group, The Traveling Wilburys

This is life in all its fullness for Petty, literally he has run down the steep hill of a dream with all his adrenaline firing! In almost surrendering to the mystery he follows a transcendent hope or meaning that will drive his vocation. If he can find himself in the mystery then he will find the truth of his life’s potential and in turn run down his particular dream.

As I was concluding this article I was surmising whether I was close to the truth or way off base; both conclusions are always possible. Then in almost the last page of the book Runnin’ Down a Dream, Petty starts declaring how right I had gotten it. He says, “When I wrote the songs for Highway Companion, I didn’t sit down and say, ‘Well I’m gonna write about this or that.’ I just started to play and the door swung open. In came the songs, I just tried to capture it as quick as possible. From there it was just a matter of thanking divine grace or whoever threw the songs in my path.” 

He then asks if anyone could capture these songs but sees a specific vocational calling. “I  believe that it’s a bit like being singled out for something, like there’s some greater force that says, ‘Okay, well, this guy’s going to have a powerful enough antennae to bring this stuff in.’” 

Petty cites Johnny Cash as the one who taught him the importance of his trade. Johnny Cash said this to me one day, ‘This is a noble work... Yeah, it makes a lot of people happy.’” Petty reveals very clearly how he sees this transcendence and his vocation as a songwriter. Runnin’ Down A Dream is a confessional. To find who we are in this life we need to tangle and engage with a transcendence that guides us to the something more that this life is all about.