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November 2017


Malojian weird 2

When I listen to Malojian I cannot help thinking of Glasgow’s Blue Nile. Not that they sound like Blue Nile but that feeling of utterly loveliness, a sound that is like lying back in a big soft rug by the fire. Not that that means that this is easy listening. Oh no, Malojian shift gears and rhythms and conjure surprises in sound. You can hear the influence of middle period Beatles in some of their inventive effects. Not that they sound very like The Beatles either.

Malojian sound very much like themselves. Having recorded last year’s wonderful This Is Nowhere in the real rock n roll space of the Chicago studio owned by legendary producer Steve Albini of Pixies and Nirvana fame, they now found the least likely rock n roll place to record; the Lighthouse on Rathlin Island! Is that the puffins I hear at the end of Broken Light Company (Theme).

The emotional centre of Weirdness comes at the end. The penultimate track, Purity of Your Smile, with its sparse acoustic picking beginning and gentle strings that swell (strings are a success throughout). About songwriter Stevie Scullion’s young children, it is beautiful without being too mushy sentimental:


“You've got your mothers ways

That’s the way i hope it stays

Gentle innocent and full of grace”


The closing title track continues with a message to his kids about their weirdness:


“Your beauty comes from deep inside your bones

Let your weirdness carry you home”


Weirdness and children come together in A New Armageddon. Perhaps it is his new borns that make Scullion think of his own childhood and how life was simpler then:


“When we sat at the end of our street

‘neath the amp with the world at our feet

I knew where I belonged

I knew where I belonged”


He then plays on the apocalyptic Scriptural word Armageddon but sings it with word play on his home county… “ARMAGH…GEDON!” 

Another particular favourite of mine is Beard Song where the hipsters are the butt of the weirdness and humorous social comment:


“Just because you brow a beard

It doesn’t mean you’re cool

Anyone can do it”


Malojian are a local treasure. That they are ours and not from somewhere in Illinois or Minnesota. Goodness I am thrilled. They are currently ploughing a fertile, prolific imaginative furrow… or in “Armaghgedon” you might say the orchard has never been so ripe with the fruit of musical invention!




Fitzroy Church, 77 University Street, BELFAST

burgers on the barbecue from 5.30pm... service @ 6pm

with Botanic Primary School Orchestra and Choir

and special guest Noeleen Ní Cholla

plus puppets and monologues and (of course!) carols

and EVEN more Fitzroy Festive Fun

disco booth... face paints... balloon sculptures... 

Our annual community carol service, allows community to mingle over burgers before we enjoy the music of Botanic Primary School Orchestra and Choir. This year we are thrilled to have a special guest, Irish recording artist Noeleen Ní Cholla giving us a couple of Carols in Irish. We will then be looking at the stranger than fiction story that is Christmas with an angel phoning in the plans for the birth of God on earth and another phone call from the stable where Joseph lets his mum know some news... There will also be puppets. An extravaganza not to be missed that will set you up for Christmas!






It is a year ago today since my mother passed away. I am spending today reflecting. 

I had no idea what I was heading into last November. Mum passed away on a Tuesday and when I heard that the funeral was on Thursday I immediately thought that that was great I could then preach in Sunday. Really! I had no idea! Fortunately, a loving wife and compassionate clerk of session suggested that I should not consider that… and I enrolled for the learning process.

I can only best describe it as culture shock. I have been in those situations in other countries where culture shock hits. You are out of the familiar and things throw you off course, from out of the blue. The grieving process is like that. You haven’t been in this life before. You haven’t been this person. I learned that it would be weeks and then months. You come to never be surprised at what surprises.

I also learned that grief was tiring. I remember a day in July 2000. It was the first day I was building Habitat For Humanity houses on the Cape Flats outside Cape Town with my students. We were fresh and enthusiastic. We dug the foundations for two houses! I was so sore that I couldn’t even open a bottle of water to wash down the painkiller tablets! I was exhausted but I knew why. I had held the shovel and used it. You don’t see the work of grief but it is a heavy weight your soul drags around all day long, for a long time.

Many of the other lessons I was learning I grabbed and squeezed into this next poem. Thank you to all those who shared some of these nuggets… and for your love, prayers, support… and even the calls and messages today.




I’m the reed by the lough shore

That suddenly swishes and sways

The deep fibres ripped from root

And all that I know gives way.


Culture shock silently creeping

I’m trying to track where’s next

It’s not that I don’t understand

But I cannot cue the context.


I know your mouth is moving

And I am here, I’m listening

It’s not that I cannot hear you

It’s the relevance that I’m missing


Being still to know that God is God

Working out, who now I am

Surmising where this wouldn't sting 

Crazy dreams of lions and lambs


Melancholy melodies salve a soul

Piano strings of redemption ring

That beautiful piece of heartache

Karin like an angel sings


Be gentle on yourself, my soul

Walk the valley right on through

Stretch your hand in the loving direction

To the hand reaching out for you.


Black McCarthy

Now this is a treat I fell upon. Jimmy McCarthy is Ireland’s equivalent of Jimmy Webb, a consummate songwriter and Mary Black is his Glen Campbell, the voice that made Jimmy’s songs her own. They’re both called Jimmy for goodness sake. Mary Black has been singing Jimmy McCarthy songs for twenty five years. Indeed the reason I was buying Mary Black albums in the early 90s was to hear McCarthy songs. I cannot overstate how much I love his lyrical adeptness and deft touch.

That is all on show here. Mary Black is a great interpreter, maybe more Joan Baez than Glen Campbell to be fair! As well as McCarthy she has showcased other writers including Noel Brazil (check out Columbus and Ellis Island) and David Gray before anyone else was showcasing David Gray. It is McCarthy though who is most deserving of this complete album of covers.

Some of the songs are from Black’s catalogue of McCarthy songs, some are new and all is topped off with a duet with McCarthy himself, an RTE recording of As I Leave Behind Neidin

Jimmy McCarthy has this ability in his songs to make them personal, universal and somehow stay them as Irish. No Frontiers, maybe know outside of Ireland better by The Corrs cover, is like a modern Irish classic. It might be romantic or phileo love but the yes of the beloved open visions of heaven and justice and hopefulness. With McCarthy there is a lot of hopefulness:


“When fear will lose its grip

And heaven has its ways”


There is often faith and the divine too. Bright Blue Rose has been a companion on my journey for twenty five years. In his own book, Ride On, MacCarthy shares a story of illness, hospital, a faith healer and waking up on Easter Sunday reaching for his notepad. He writes, “I generally regard a chorus as a logical conclusion so, picking up my guitar, I sang the chorus which came to me spontaneously, put it on paper and said, “Yes, there is a God and thanks be to God.” He goes on to describe it as a mysterious piece and how anybody “will be glad when you sing it.” I am always glad when I hear it.

Of the new songs, it’s another oldie that thrilled me. Mystic Lipstick is maybe the best love song ever written for Ireland. I will admit that Mary Coughlan and Christy Moore versions might have the harder edged vocal weightiness that suits the melancholy of an island’s bloody and broken history:


“Chroi O mo chroi

Your heart is breaking

Your eyes are red, your song is blue

Your poets underneath the willow in despair

They have been lovers of your sad tune

Lovers of your slow air”


Jimmy McCarthy is a stunning craftsman and Mary Black shows him off perfectly. This record is a record of the best songwriting in Ireland at this time in our history.

SENT IS OUR IDENTITY - 10:10 in Ten Sermon Series Blog #7

Stockdale Sent

Jacob Stockdale’s great aunt belongs to Fitzroy. The day after he scored two stunning tries against Argentina and in many ways arrived on the world Rugby union scene as a superstar I suggested that I saw all of Betty’s power, speed and grace in both tries!

I also contrived to then use him as an example of Isaiah. When Jonny Sexton looked up and asked, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us to that try line?” Immediately Stockdale is on his shoulder, willing and ready to catch Sexton’s pass and steam towards the Argentinian goal line… “Here am I, send me!”

The story of Isaiah 6 is of a vision of God in the midst of a time of transition. In a world where the powerful force of Assyria is threatening, the vision of God’s might is in a holiness that gifts a grace interruption, freeing Isaiah from guilt and sin. Forgiven, redeemed and renewed Isaiah is enthusiastically up for anything and when God asks who he would send, Isaiah, is as fast as Stockdale, with his “Here am I send me.” 

This is of course in a sermon series looking at what it is to live life in all its fulness and asking what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus in 2017. Our identity is as those who are sent. Sending is a recurring theme in the Gospels - “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 

Janice and I attended the recent Scottish Baptist Assembly. I was the poet! Anyway, we heard some good key note addresses and went to a couple of good seminars. The theme of the conference was Messengers Of Hope and what struck us was the places that we were being encouraged to take the message. Rich Robinson had us playing bingo on a Sheffield housing estate and Juliette Kilpin had us worshipping in a Church full of Muslims in the Calais Refugee Camp.

I left the conference thinking that without doubt we got the message of the conference. My question was, had we what was needed to able to go to the places we were being sent to. I remembered a story Gordon MacDonald used in one of his popular books of the 80s. His son bought him a ferret that started eating the furniture. When they tried to get rid of it back to nature, they realised that it was too tame to survive in the wild. Just like the Church maybe?

At one of our Presbyterian Special Assemblies, a few year ago, David Bruce spoke about the bawn. You see it in a variety of Northern Ireland place names! It was where we Ulster Scot Presbyterians retreated for safety when we arrived from Scotland to colonise the land. David suggested that even now in the twenty first century we needed to get out of the bawn. We are still in siege mentality when God wants to send us.

This is one of the things Fr Martin Magill and I were thinking about when we started the 4 Corners Festival. We felt that the Week Of Prayer For Christian Unity was all very nice. Look we can read and pray together. We don’t hate each other. We wanted Jesus to not be trapped within Church walls but to be making a contribution to the peace and well being of the city on the streets as Jeremiah spoke about.

This all takes us out of our comfort zone. I am pretty convinced that we are socially special needs. I remember at the 4 Corners Festival homeless feast being out of my depth. What do I say? How do I connect? I feel the same in certain parts of our city. I feel like a tame ferret, stuck in my bawn for too long. And I don’t think I am alone!

It is time to go. To be vulnerable and courageous. I read this poem at the Scottish Baptist Assembly. For a Christmas PW (Presbyterian Women) event in Fitzroy, where the theme was “Being sent”, I wondered if there was any sending on the nativity story...


An angel was sent

To break to Mary the shocking news

To find out if she was up for the privilege

Mary was sent into a tail spin

That would need some cool prayerful courage

So she sent herself off to Elizabeth 

A companion who understood and affirmed.

An angel was sent, again

To calm Joseph’s shock and anger

And turn his disappointment and confusion into complicity.

A choir of angels were sent

To sing the news of peace and good will

To shepherds who were sent

Scurrying with joyous abandon

Right into the holy of holies in straw and filth.

Oriental stargazers were sent in awe and wonder

On the trail of a sign of seismic shift 

So, Herod sent for his religious scholars

To make theological sense of the conjecture

The King then sent his death squads

To kill the idea and the revolution being born.

An angel was sent, yet again

To Joseph in a dream to warn of a nightmare

Which sent Joseph, Mary and the baby off to Egypt as refugees

Because God so loved the world he sent

Himself to be present with us

To light our way in darkness

To overturn the tables of our greed

To give himself for our redemption

To bring God’s will to where he was sent

As it is where he was sent from.


As the Father sent the baby

We are sent.



Noel Gallagher Moon

I couldn’t stand Oasis. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t sing a long to a chorus of Wonderwall if he was supporting U2 at Croke Park but for me they were always a Beatles Tribute band that shouldn’t have made it out of their local pub! There had to be something in the mid 90s zeitgeist that made Oasis dull unimaginative derivative plod popular; a PhD dissertation? Near the end though I couldn’t help thinking that Noel might actually be better than Liam is allowing him to be!

Liam? Well he might support Manchester City but that pseudo strut of an imbecile, hands behind back stretch for the microphone and dim witted drawl. Oh dear! Only my mate Iain Archer co-writing on his new album could get me even anywhere near streaming him!

Noel? Well I have been rather tempted with his High Flying Birds’ records to think again. Maybe? So, finally for me, and ironically in the midst of awful reviews, I am liking Who Built The Moon. Now, here is the other surprise to me. Perhaps the reason I am finding it more artistically interesting than anything else Gallagher has touched is the production of David Holmes.

Now, Holmes is a Belfast boy and we are proud. From a fifteen year old dj in Belfast pubs to Oceans Eleven and the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics. He’d our! But for me, his electronica and dj beats is just not my thing. 

Gallagher and Holmes together have grabbed my ears in a way that neither could a solo act. Who Built The Moon adds groove and beats and horns and even tin whistles to Gallagher’s songs and it means that for me there is always something drawing me in. It’s psychedelic and at times hypnotic. 

Holy Mountain starting with Roxy Music funk rides on lighter wings than the old Oasis clunk; Keep On Reaching is a little Stevie Winwood or maybe latter day Paul Weller, all horns and winsome; Be Careful What You Wish For slows it all down but still doesn’t plod; and If Love is The Law might be what he’s picked up from supporting U2 across much of 2017.

I am never expecting anything prophetic or originally poetic from even the smartest Gallagher but all in all, Noel has me. I think it will be a great album in the car. It speeds and slows and with Holmes’ musical scenery it keeps you interested until journey’s end. 

Liking a Noel Gallagher record. Goodness does that make him a guilty pleasure?


Sterling v HFTFC

After the near forty years of utter misery supporting Manchester City, surely my friends will allow me a day in the sun. Paris St Germain are probably the only team in the world that would dare suggest that they are better just now! It’s a long way from 1999 and away days at Macclesfield Town, trailing around mid table, two Divisions down, for a part of the season while our neighbours won the Treble!

It was at a wedding a couple of years ago, speaking to a man who knows nothing about football, when I realised that the future, that we are already experiencing now was assured. My friend is working in the middle east seeing through a University hospital project. When he told me that they did not know the word failure and invested money until they succeeded I smiled. I knew then that City would have Pep Guardiola and silverware was pretty much guaranteed.

However, with all the winning streaks and free flowing football, City are far from completing the project. The project is to be one of the best teams in the world, challenging for silverware and selling shirts across the world. The Chairman admitted a few weeks ago that there is a long way to go. He is right. I have been monitoring it on my last three summer trips to Uganda

What have mission trips to Uganda to do with football, you might ask? Well, it is the football shirts. There is an abundance of soccer shirts across Uganda. Arsenal are the most popular. Apparently that goes back to the invincible team of 2003-04 that had African players Kanu and Toure in the squad. Anyway, in 2015 there were a decent amount of City shirts. This last summer, no improvement and if anything not so many. 

To become a global force you need to be continually winning trophies. A League Cup is not a good enough return over the last two years for a team with ambitions to be world contenders. After their Premiership successes of 2012 and 2014 City have been very much underachievers. On paper it is a travesty that they haven’t won the Premiership since 2014. It is time to put that right.

So the team is getting there. I fancy that when Pep puts his final touches to the squad next summer that City will be near invincible over the next few years. That sounds frightening considering that they have just gone 18 wins in a row in all competitions. I just do not think Pep has finished his build. 

And even this season… City who are good at writing cheques need to, in May, cash the cheque of this early season promise. Winter is coming. It could be Baltic! There is a long way to go! Those of us who have been fans for decades are all too aware of our teams's ability to Manchester City it! Failure from the jaws of victory. Too many times! I have been wondering which I would prefer; Jose pragmatic boredom week after week with scrappy 1-0 wins for a moment's joy as the trophy is lifted in May or the weekly ecstasy of beautiful Cruyffian football for a moment of deep disappointment at the finish line! Please, no! Pep needs to make sure that the best squad on paper has the best points tally at season’s end. 

It is is urgent to stop the slide in Ugandan shirt sales! It is vital if the club are to achieve the success that Sheikh Mansour has invested in. There's a long way to go. The going needs to start now! No pressure Pep!


Fitzroy organ

Tomorrow morning (11am) is an exciting morning as it is our Ethical Shopping Fair. Where Jesus was angry at those exploiting the poor in the house of God, we turn that around. In the morning, before and after the service, you can buy Christmas gifts that help the poor across the world. There will be various stalls of beautiful things from different organisations. The Stocki women have been working feverishly getting their stock ready. Made out of Ugandan fabric, you can buy cushions, shopping bags, table mats, shoe laces etc etc. Every penny spent goes back to West Nile in Uganda to help education at Onialeku Primary School. Goods that are not just good but good for something! - from 9.45am!

I am back on my 10:10 in Ten series (my intro was blogged HERE). You can even get a nine miniute audio and visual (!!!) of the first six in the series HERE.

Tomorrow we are in Isaiah chapter 6. It's a powerful story from Isaiah's life, deep in spiritual subjectiveness, heavy in theological insight. We will unpack some of that but there is another invitation to go with "I have come that you might have life in all its fulness"; "follow me"; "love the Lord Your God..." and "do not be conformed". God needs messengers. Who will go and do his work? Isaiah responds, "Here am I send me." We will be using poetry of Irish pubs, poetry of the nativity, stories of tame ferrets and where it is God is sending us to.

Tomorrow evening (7pm) I will be enjoying the installation of on elf my successors in Queens University Chaplaincy as I do my job as Moderator of Presbytery at the installation of Dave Gray as the new Presbyterian Chaplain. 

I will leave Fitzroy in capable hands as Desi Alexander, lecturer at Union College, author of  esteemed commentaries in the Old and New Testament and associate editor of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible who will start a series to help us prepare for the arrival of God on earth at Christmas.


White Buffalo

When I heard White Buffalo on Later… With Jools Holland I thought great voice, rocking band, but it seems a little on dimensional. Was I ever more wrong?!

White Buffalo is the moniker for songwriter Jake Smith. When your songs are as bawling and brawling as some of Smith’s using your own name like the introspective Jackson Browne or James Taylor doesn’t  seem right.

The first thing to hit you with Smith is his voice. It is a baritone that sounds aged, with a deep rasp like an Old Testament prophet must have boomed. Imagine Jeremiah fronting a southern states bar band reaching almost post punk on some songs here.

But what I have learned by falling on love with Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights is that Smith has way more than one dimension. White Buffalo songs shift in the few seconds between tracks from being as rowdy as a Saturday night brawl to the sensitive spiritual searching of a Sunday morning homily.

On Robbery we have “Guns blazing hell and steel” and a vulgar word, then on The Observatory we have a tender look into the soul of humanity, "Everybody cries, everybody dreams, everybody wants, everybody needs love – and I am one,"

Nightstalker Blues Explicit puts the foot down on a freight train and I Am The Moon is fragile midnight lullaby, on the rocking chair by the hearth. The Heart and Soul Of Saturday Night is a cousin of Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting in its hedonistic anarchy whereas If I Lost My Eyes is fragile yearning for love. I guess the contrasts are in the title of the record!

The other thing I thought watching them on Later… With Jools Holland was Steve Earle. That rugged organic Americana country rock sound. It would be easy to see Smith as next generation Earle. Part of me sees that as a fair assessment, a compliment to both. Another part of me thinks that White Buffalo might be a cut above, more variety on the palette, more genius in the artist. In the meantime Darkest Darks, Lights Lights is mouth watering anticipation of a great career. 


DO NOT BE CONFORMED... 10:10 in Ten #5

Stocki Saphara

(I have been preaching a sermon series called 10:10 in Ten... This is one of them in blog form. I hope they will all appear but perhaps not in order!!)

Brian Zahnd dangled himself over the fiery furnace of heresy in a recent blog by beginning with the words…

“I have a problem with the Bible. Here’s my problem…

Now you see “sound” Christians do not have problems with the Scriptures, so Zahnd was dangling big time. Then with a preacher’s timing that is very much like the timing of a comedian he continued…

“I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.

That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.”

Ah, sighs the theologically correct police we can listen again as the problem is not with the Bible but with the reader.

What Zahnd raises in his red rag to a bull is indeed a huge problem. Most western Christians are of the middle class western variety and live very comfortable lives of entitlement. We even think that the Church is entitled to a voice. 

To read the Bible correctly we need to be slaves, refugees, under Empire. When I was a child I used to get Pharaoh and Herod mixed up. There was no need. They are the same and you can add Nebuchadnnezer and Caesar to the list. The children of God are under Empire, subversive agitates, even threats and always imaginative hope filled, grace drenched alternative imaginings to Empire. 


So when we read Paul’s words in Romans 12: 2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” we need to immediately confess that we are conformed. We have been part of a powerful Empire, we are invested in the powers of commerce and we enjoy the comfortable  spoils of it. For us western Christians this is a tough call. Jesus suggested it’s as tough as an camel going through the eye of a needle.

So if we are wanting to be transformed, Paul suggests that it begins with renewed minds. It is about a different seeing. It is about the alternative imagining of God’s way, dreaming heaven on earth. For the early Christians this was about looking through Caesar’s Empire to find Jesus’ Kingdom.

In their book Colossians Remixed Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat unpack this resistance to Empire. They reveal Colossians 1 as a subversive poem reimagining Jesus as Lord rather than Caesar. Everywhere in the Roman Empire were images of Caesar, bearing down, oppressing and dumbing the thinking. Walsh and Keesmat see Paul as trying to renew the imaginations of Christians with that long description of Christ. Walsh and Keesmat go on to then ask the appropriate question - what are the dominant images that have conforming power over us in 2017? What dumbs us down?

They point out commerce. We are bombarded with advertisements to tell us what the Empire expects us to buy as we follow a reckless and unaccountable capitalism where the bottom line of the profits is almost The Emperor. Material comfort, leisure and our own right to be entitled to such a life is where that all leads. Individualism. My security. My privacy. My needs being met. And there we are… we are ancient Egyptians, comfortable Babylonians and Romans living in villas. 

The rest of Romans 12 is an antithesis of such an Empire. Paul tells us we are all connected. He goes as far as to tell us that “we belong to each other”. Our individual rights are restrained by being part of something bigger. We are called to sincere love, sharing with those in need, living in harmony, being willing to associate with those of a lower disposition and not repaying evil for evil.

As I prepared this idea as a sermon, we had a touring group of Storytellers in Belfast from Uganda. They were sharing their stories. Once they were hopeless children without a future but were sponsored by strangers from far away. Now they had graduated college and were working. What struck me was that they were giving away anything they had, sponsoring others through school. One was sharing her home with none homeless children. They were remarkable stories.

I couldn’t help but think that they did not have the same problems with The Bible as Brian Zahnd and I have. They were not living in Roman villas or under our Empire. Having less, remarkably enables them to be more open and willing to be able to share what they have. Uganda is a country who have welcomed one million over their border in the past year from South Sudan. Their generosity has been widely recognised. We with oh so much more to share voted Brexit and are attempting to close our borders! 

Do not be conformed… Oh, I have a problem with The Bible…

read Brian Zahnd's article here