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February 2018

U2 - WAR - 35 YEARS AGO TODAY; A Personal Reflection

War U2

Thirty five years today I missed my morning lectures. Hebrew! You didn’t have to give me many excuses to miss a 9am Monday morning Hebrew lecture. This particular Monday I had a great excuse. U2’s new record War was released.

If I remember it was cold and wet. It might have been 9.30 before I got on my way. I walked the mile from my College Room into Belfast to the first record shop. There were so many in 1983. To my utter disappointment it wasn’t there. Nor in the next shop. Or the next. I trailed all the way across the city centre. 

The last shop was Caroline Records briefly located in Lower Garfield Street. I walked in and started flicking through records. As I did the door opened and a box landed on the counter. I kept me eyes on it, eager with anticipation. The staff opened the box and there it was. Before they had it out of the box I was on top of them. I’ll have that please. Without doubt I was the first person in Belfast to own War

I had been a fan for about eighteen months, since I risked a record token birthday gift on October and fell madly in love with Gloria, Tomorrow and With A Shout (Jerusalem), exuberant songs of spiritual energy that fired my recently converted spiritual imagination. I had been to see the band at the Maysfield Leisure Centre in December 1982 where Bono’s charismatic performance had blown my rock fan mind.

New Year’s Day had been out for over a month. It was the first single off the album, following the stand alone single Celebration. It had continued that spiritual kick. “Under a blood red sky” and “a world in white is under way” were apocalyptic and eschatological. I need that album. I failed my Hebrew that year and though that one Monday wasn’t to blame, I was well prepared for a resit to get a dose of U2. Of course we had heard the song about Belfast, Sunday Bloody Sunday at the Maysfield concert but to hear it on record was amazing. That is about my city, our Troubles and “to claim the victory Jesus won” was my faith being applied to peace making. 

Then there was Drowning Man that quoted Isaiah 40 and the whole thing finished with Psalm 40. I was not convinced about Red Light with Kid Creole and the Coconuts but Like A Song… and Surrender were immediate favourites. 

Thirty five years on and three of the songs, New Years Day, Sunday Bloody Sunday and 40 are still featuring in the live sets. Oh for Like A Song… to get a rare run out sometime! Some of it has perhaps not aged so well. A new arrangement of Two Hearts Beat As One might be interesting. 

For me, War will always have that special place. My mate Peter is on the cover! It was the first U2 record I got on the day of release. The first one that I had first.


Stocki Preach

This week’s theme has been a tester for me. I was thinking that I needed a character that would draw me towards Jesus and a Pause for thought punch line. As I was pondering how to contrive that, the opposite happened. Rather than a character inspiring me to Jesus… Jesus was the inspiration of my character.

About 25 years ago a retired priest called Joseph Girzone wrote what he termed a parable called Joshua. It imagined Jesus arriving in small town America, now. A carpenter called Joshua appears on the edge of town. He is a little eccentric, after all he was 2000 years old with head full of history, knowledge of God and divine insight into the souls of those around him. 

Joshua exuded an optimism and happy attitude towards life. This gave him a real patience with people who seemed to leave his presence with a renewed optimism for life. He carried no baggage about himself and no judgement towards others. The gift Joshua had to make people feel special inside the fiction somehow radiated out from the pages and made me experience a warm glow within myself as I read it. It was a book that I didn’t want to finish because I wanted to remain in Joshua’s company longer.

What caught my intention the most about Joshua was the quality time he had for people. No matter what he was doing, how busy his schedule was he had time to stop and listen to people and speak a nugget  of wisdom into their lives, oftentimes more astute, because of who he really was, than a stranger should have the knowledge to share. 

This time for people has been a trait that I have been conscious of ever since. It is not always easy in our frantic and demanding world. Every Sunday morning in the welcome area of our Church I am swarmed with people. Some I need to see. Some who seem to want to see me. Joshua’s priority on people and time has many times stopped me from finding an excuse to moving on… give this person time Steve. Listen! 

A non fiction writer David W. Augsburger has written that “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” Joshua listened. He heard people. He loved them. I love him for it!




U2 Red Flag Day

Red Flag Day takes you straight back to early U2. The raw exuberance, the spiritual energy. It evokes deep inside of me the same soul fuel that songs like I Will Follow, Gloria and New Years Day did back in the day. It wasn’t long, after first hearing, until it’s melody was randomly falling across my brain and having me sing it out loud.

Red Flag Day is the third song in a row that deals with the refugee crisis. American Soul challenges the United States’ original idea of being a welcome for the downtrodden of the world and Summer Of Love looks across, from a distance geographical and experiential, to the place that the refugees are leaving from.

In Red Flag Day we are inside the heads and hearts of the refugee. Someone is desperate to escape the hell of a war in Syrian and to take their loved ones with them. They are going into the sea, ignoring all the dangers. The red flag image is again perhaps what warns the U2 families of the dangers of that same sea when they holiday in France, the other side of the same Mediterranean.

There’s a potent little depth charge that sends ripples and waves up through our souls.


“Today we can’t afford to be afraid of what we fear”


That of course references those leaving the safety of the shore to sail out into a tumultuous sea. They have to get over the fear of their red flag. 

BUT… in the safety of our western European countries and in America we must get over our fear of the refugee seeking a place to flee the most violent of wars. Our fear of the terrorist abusing Islam in their bloody terror should not cause us to fear the ordinary Syrian Muslim who needs to find a refuge for their families. 

It would be easy for this song to be a frightening dead end but U2 never voyage towards hopelessness. Oh, there is fear and bodies shaking but in the end this is about the courage to risk all for a better day. The song becomes a clarion call for all of us looking for what’s better. 

Like Summer Of Love we are hearing about the sky clearing and paradise. Red Flag Day energises me for mission. It challenges me into more dangerous waters to achieve more incredible things for myself and for others… the refugee perhaps!


Summer Of Love

Summer Of Love is a phrase indelibly marked in the history of rock n roll. Bono knows the phrase and uses it with intent. The idea of that kind of hippy love and peace from the summer of 1967 that the youth of the day believed might redeem the entire world becomes almost theological in this song.

Summer Of Love is not the only well known phrase Bono plays on. He’s singing about the west coast but it is not the sunny west coast of America… not even the beautiful west coast of Ireland. This is the west coast of Africa.

Bono and his family spend their summers in Nice, across the sea from this particular west coast. As they party and get to introduce themselves to one another, after rock star schedules, their paradise has been tarnished by what is happening off the beach.

Just as at the core of Songs Of Innocence U2 gave us a section of songs with a theme, loss and finding a place of healing in Cedarwood Road’s “cherry blossom tree… a gateway to the sun”, so at the centre of Songs Of Experience they throw us into a trilogy of songs that tackle the refugee crisis. The previous track American Soul has just coined the phrase ‘Refu-Jesus’. 

Summer of Love finds us in a clear location “In the rubble of Aleppo” but this is a hopeful song. We are hearing about “Flowers blooming in the shadows”.

Summer Of Love is about a place of hopefulness. A place where all will be well. A place where the Syrian refugees will experience that brief moment of peace and love that the 60s Summer of Love dreamed of or the sense of belonging and love that Bono and other U2 families feel in their Nice vacational rest. 

In the end, the song is about all of us:


“We're freezing

We're leaving


That all we need is to head over somewhere

In a summer

To come

So we run” 


I am convinced like so much of U2’s catalogue that Summer of Love is theological. It is an eschatological metaphor. It is about the Kingdom of God. This is a prayerful dream of all being well with the refugees. A fulfilment of the hoped for Shalom. 

The ultimate call of the song is for us, whatever west coast we are geographically near, to find ourselves accountable to the Prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Bono said in a Hot Press interview over 25 years ago that he could do with a whole lot of that. It would certainly make for a magnificent summer of love!

Whether the refugee… or our very own souls…


“We have one more chance before the light goes

For a summer of love.”


Dad  and me


Today is my father's 84th birthday. His memory is gone. I find it very hard. When I drive up to visit I ponder deep thoughts to help me deal with it. In the last few weeks I have been surmising the idea of time. I wrote this.


Time is an invisible memory bank

Time leaves photographs counterfeit

Time turns and burns and churns

A tornado with nothing in control of it.


Time is a dance we do to its tune

Time is an artificial measuring space

Time it tumbles, rumbles and crumbles

A cage we make for us to pace.


Time is a capsule that is full of time

Time always seems to leak too fast

Time it breaks and cracks and takes

A hope of forever that never lasts.


Time has worn you out

Time has eroded your brain

Time has brought you down this cul-de-sac

With no turning circle back again.


Time if we could take it back

What time would we go back to

And if time took us back to there

What would I say to you

Would we use the word love

And would that word be enough.




Fitzroy Board

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy is a rock n roll Sunday. What's new some might shout!

I will be looking at the latter part of Mark chapter 8 through the lens of a couple of song lyrics. The title for the service is form a Bruce Springteen  No Retreat, Baby... No Surrender. We will be using that as a phrase to hang Jesus' rebuke to Peter, "Get behind me Satan!" There's a wee pinch of Times They Are A-Changing that seems to fit there too!

We will be continuing on from last week's Lent on the front foot theme. When Jesus continues, 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it." we are thinking of  U2's near paraphrase, Get Out Of Your Own Way!

As we look at where Jesus said these things, Caesarea Philippi we will perhaps use Stormzy's speech at this week's Brit Awards to give a clue to the context!

In the evening (7pm) we will be beginning a Five Week Lent series based in Mark's Gospel. 


Stocki  and Justin

So, yesterday I blogged about the 30th Anniversary of my Ordination. The morning after at 8am I was shaking hands with Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Clonard Monastery. I did say yesterday that my life was 10:10 - “life in all its fulness”.

The Archbishop is in Northern Ireland for a few days with 60 senior leaders from Anglican Churches across England. They were here to look at peacemaking. This morning started with them joining with those in Clonard Monastery for prayers and then a peace walk around the Peace Walls, led my Ed Peterson. 

I had the privilege, if at first I had considered it an ordeal, to give a blessing to the entire Anglican group, after Fr Noel Kehoe, Rector of Clonard had prayed a blessing over the Archbishop. It seemed to me that an Archbishop asking me to share a blessing was like Kevin De Bruyne asking me to take a free kick!

I had met the Archbishop very briefly before, after a prayer vigil outside Belfast City Hall on St Patrick’s Day 2015. He had shared the prayers, as he had the speaking earlier that evening at a St Patrick’s Day Peace Party in the Waterfront Hall, with our Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon. What I shared  about the Archbishop that night (read here) came across again this morning.

Justin Welby has a fantastic ability to come out from behind titles and robes and mitres to be an everyman (and woman) Archbishop. We were casually wandering around the Falls and the Shankill. There was no razzamatazz, apart from a newspaper photographer. The locals were unaware that they were walking past one of the most powerful religious leaders in the world. 

It seemed extraordinarily ordinary for me to be chatting to the Archbishop of Canterbury about peacemaking, royal weddings and our mutual friend Cole’s triplets. He even gave me grief, exactly as Cole does, about my beloved Manchester City having sold their soul!  Quite an opportunity for 60 church leaders to spend a few days with their leader, in this kind of casual way.  

Before prayers in Clonard, and the walk, the Archbishop’s Chief of Staff David Porter had given a short talk on his own journey in peacemaking and contribution through ECONI to Northern Ireland’s 1990’s peace process. It was good to be reminded of how ECONI brought much robust theological reflection to the need for peacemaking. Bringing the text of Scripture into the context of divided community was vital at the time and listening to David I realised how vital ECONI was to my own journey in peacemaking. The first thing that any Northern Ireland Church will ask about a venture is whether it is Biblical. ECONI’s years of Scriptural research and publications were crucial in my own spiritual formation.

The most startling and challenging phrase of the day, though, came from a short introduction by the Archbishop. He said, “Christians are often the best at hating.” It is a wow sentence. We have known the truth of those words here in Northern Ireland for centuries but the stark raw way the Archbishop shared it, struck me with renewed and incredulous force. 

I believe that being good at hating our neighbours and enemies rather than loving them is not only the cause of our Irish conflict but also the greatest impediment to all of our attempts to do mission. We need as Christians to ask God to search us deep in our souls and rid us from this most anti-Christ of traits. 

After my 30th Anniversary reflections last night, I am sitting 24 hours later basking in the privilege of beginning the next chapter with the Archbishop of Canterbury and my dear friends at Clonard Monastery. You couldn't make this 10:10 life of mine up! I am also more convinced than ever that there is indeed still loads to do in our Christ centred ministry of reconciliation. 


Lyle  Stockman  Dixon and Bownes

30 years ago tonight I was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It is hard to believe. I was the assistant minister in the First Antrim congregation at the time and my over riding memory, among many, was the sense of love that they, along with my friends and family showed me that evening. 

The three decades since then have built some resilience in my life but Janice and I have also experienced an abundance of grace by so many people and also the lavish blessings of God. I have had the very best 4 jobs I could ever have imagined. 

That assistantship in First Antrim was a wonderful five years. My boss, John Dixon, showed me immense amounts of grace and also more trust than I reckon I would have given myself. I remember the Tuesday morning when I told him that we had planned a mission “Video Bar” and were going to call it Sex, Drugs and Rock N Roll - The Truth! He didn’t even flinch! My imagination started to find its stride in Antrim.

After First Antrim I got the amazing privilege of moving to Dublin where for three years I was Youth Development Officer for The Presbyterian Church for the entire Republic of Ireland. I would fill those three years with friends, missions, conferences and festivals. I would be in Limerick for a few days and Cork for a couple of weeks. I even did an entire month in Donegal! I have so many great memories that it is hard to believe we did it all in three years. Some might way I discovered the musical talents of Iain Archer and Juliet Turner during it all!

Having been travelling for three years, I started seeking ministry in community. One evening in 1994, in the strange location of the Ramore Wine Bar, someone told me about a job as part of the Queen’s University Chaplaincy at Derryvolgie Hall, living in residence with students. 

The next fifteen years were full of characters and fun filled inspiration and challenge as I attempted to make Jesus relevant to a University age group. In Derryvolgie Hall’s Art N Soul room we blended Scripture and art in the most creative of ways and every other summer from 2000 to 2008 built almost 50 houses in the Cape Flats around Cape Town with Habitat For Humanity.

I loved living with 88 students. I got the privilege of bring involved in their lives, romances, heartaches and vocational dreams as well as their spiritual formation. It is with joy and a little pride that I continue to watch many of their lives changing the world, literally all over that world. I guess I could still be there and thought I would be. I mean which Church could I go to that would not send me insane and, more to the point, the congregation insane too?!

Fitzroy! I could joke and suggest that Fitzroy is from the greek word ‘Fitzo' which means ‘the perfect church for Stockman’. There is little doubt that it was the only place in Ireland that I could have been minister. That Ken Newell retired at a time when I was ready for a new challenge. Well, I did mention God’s lavish blessing. Ken had also set up a Church willing to risk, orthodox at the centre but pragmatically radical on the fringes. I stand on his shoulders and probably those of the late much missed Fr Gerry Reynolds of Clonard monastery who along with Ken formed the Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship that contributed to making peace in this wee country. 

This is my ninth year in Fitzroy and yet again I have learned so much about my own life and my vocation. It has opened up opportunities that I would never have dreamed of. Even in this past month I have had the opportunity to spend time in Uganda and help organise the 4 Corners Festival across Belfast. Fitzroy have allowed me to cast a vision for the neighbourhood around us, we are involved in mission across the world and are imaginative in worship, pastoral care and spiritual formation. We are far from perfect but vibrant, welcoming and adding to our community rather than dwindling like so many city centre Churches.

When you add to all of this that I had my own radio show on BBC Radio Ulster for ten years, have written a number of poetry books and authored a spiritual biography of U2 that reached #99 in the Amazon chart, been privileged to regularly speak across America, been on the board of the Greenbelt Festival, had a sabbatical as Writer in Residence at Regent College, Vancouver, have had 600,000 hits on my Soul Surmise blog, and in 2016 was awarded, along with my partner in peacemaking Fr. Martin Magill, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council Civic Leader of the Year, well my goodness I have lived the life in all its fulness that Jesus promised to give in John 10:10. That 10:10 indeed has become my mission statement!

So, tonight I am looking back, with a heart bursting with gratitude. I am thankful to all the colleagues and interns who have worked alongside me, been my bosses, or congregations. I have had so many friends who opened their lives to me. 

I have a wife who has walked almost every step of the 30 years with me. I still remember a card of apology from her being read out at my ordination, a good eighteen months before we fell in love. My daughters have been dragged along in the slipstream of a fast and hectic life. I hope you have gained much from the journey Caitlin and Jasmine and I haven't been as weird as you often suggest I am.

The night before that ordination, on February 21 1998, I listened over and over and sang along to Larry Norman’s song, I Am Your Servant:


I am a servant getting ready for my part

There's been a change, a rearrangement in my heart

At last I'm learning, there's no returning once I start

To live's a privilege, to love is such an art

But I need your help to start

O please purify my heart, I am your servant.


If you had told me that night that I would live the life I have I would scarcely have believed you. There have been very tough times, and I have felt hurt and isolated by many within my denomination along the way, but I learned from time spent with Rich Mullins to focus on Jesus and not the world or the church. So, I sing Larry’s song again tonight and commit to following jesus into the year ahead. Most of all, I thank God for the lavish and ridiculous grace down these past thirty years.


Robben Island Limestone

Just a few miles off the coast from Cape Town Robben Island has a history that is almost exclusively bound up with incarceration. A little like the better known Alcatraz, it has for centuries been seen as the ideal place to send the undesired, knowing that they cannot hope to escape from an island surrounded with ferocious waters. So rebels, lepers and the insane were thrown out of society. The last batch were the anti Apartheid campaigners. 

The bus trip around the island takes you to the Lime Stone Quarry where they brought Nelson Mandela and his friends to do tedious and meaningless work in the South African heat while being painfully blinded by the glare of that sun reflected off the limestone. It was a brutal regime.

Yet, mysteriously, it oozes joy and hope, which is strange, but I guess it’s something to do with a sense that you’re are walking on redeemed ground. Mandela and his comrades freedom against all the odds gives hope for others hoping for freedom. 

On one trip, a former prisoner told us that in that limestone quarry the older prisoners were teaching the younger ones to read and write, multiply and divide, and think political thoughts. “Why?” someone asked. “We were getting ready for freedom before freedom came.” That sentence has fired my imagination ever since.

I do not think it is too contrived for me to make a comparison between those captives on Robben Island and those of us daring to follow Jesus. Jesus asked his followers to pray, in what has become known as The Lord’s Prayer, that God’s Kingdom would come... on earth as in heaven. 

In Lent we are heading towards the season of the Church year where we remember Jesus death and resurrection. These events are huge interrupting events in the breaking in of the Kingdom. God's plan of redemption is going into turbo charge. As Christians prepare for those seismic moments we often give things up. It has become an annual season of giving up chocolate or crisps, coffee or even Facebook.

Perhaps a better way is take a front foot. Maybe we should be getting ready for the Kingdom before the Kingdom comes by doing Kingdom things. 

Let me do an action that loves neighbour and enemy. Let me do an action that seeks out and finds Jesus among the marginalised. Let me make myself, who my fallen nature has a default position of putting first, last and the person I judge as last, first. Let me me love others as I would wish to be loved. Let me seek God first and not worry about all that stuff that has the world at war and individuals in therapy. Let me not just hear Jesus words but be a like a wise man who builds his house on a rock by doing them.

We now live in the space between redemption won and the final fulfilment of God's will being done on earth. Getting ready for the Kingdom before the Kingdom comes. Now that is a fantastic spiritual exercise for Lent. Wonderful preparation! 


Morse L & T

Neal Morse has finally got my attention. Not that Neal was trying or worrying that he hadn’t. My music buddy Geoff Bailie has been going on and on about Morse and Spock’s Beard for many years, moving from fan to friend to a co-write on this very record. So, of course I was going to listen to Manchester but Neal Morse is prog and I, apart from a little early Marillion and Meat Loaf (do they count), am certainly not!

BUT… a listen to that song Manchester, in which Geoff’s co-write is for putting his hero right that the English one wasn’t actually by the sea or on a bay, and the video of a poignant anti-war song He Died At Home, had me prepared for a reassessment. It was clinched by a song that Morse wrote and YouTubed the day after the recent Parkland school shootings in Florida, What If It Was Your Child. Maybe, underneath the ten minute prog rock workouts there was an introspective singer songwriter that my musical taste could embrace.

Well, that is exactly the case! Neal Morse has reinvented! Now, when I say reinvented I cannot imagine that he will not continue to chase his prog vocation with his own band or other collaborations like Transatlantic or Flying Colours. However, a wee bit more of this would be a wonderful sideline!

Life And Times is a selection of the deftest of songs. The lead off track Livin’ Lightly sets the scene. A song about stepping out of the crazy world into some vacation or sabbatical, the mood pervades the entire record. Selfie In the Square and Manchester are like postcards from the tour and Wave In The Ocean keeps everything buoyed! It even seems sunny in Manchester!

Don’t be fooled though by the almost Eagles’ Californian sunny sound. In between there are songs of heartache and an anti war song of some research and insight. A mother caught Morse's attention when she asked him to pray her military son who told him about how many were dying at home, from suicide, Morse found an article about William Busbee and wrote He Died At Home, again while on tour, about him. 

The last track If I Only Had A Day gives another clue to the intentions of Morse. Imagining a short time left in his life, and all that he might do, you look back across the songs and hear a man looking at life’s priorities and singing songs of love and family, faith and country and the rest of the world actually. 

Life and Times is a very strong collection of songs and cohesive too. It reveals that beneath the prog rock bombast is one seriously gifted songwriter. I might have to look into his back catalogue. I do hope that he’ll do any one of these very soon!