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May 2018



I am delighted that in the past year two friends have used my poems in their memoirs. Alain Emerson included no less than two of my poems in his stunning Luminous Dark. The other one that I feature in is a missionary autobiography, The Unmistakable Hand Of God by Roy Comrie.

Roy is actually a friend of my in-laws, Bryan and the late Anne Gordon. Bryan and Anne were Irish Directors of Africa Evangelical Fellowship of whom Roy was a missionary in various countries in southern Africa. 

In 1995 I had an interesting juxtaposition of some of Roy’s missionary tales, that over twenty years later feature in The Unmistakable Hand of God, and PJ Harvey’s record of that year. I imagine the song Long Snake Moan might have caught my attention most.

Roy was bitten by a Black Mamba. Not many survive that. His Tarzan-like wisdom and speed of thought was one of the reasons he did. God’s grace the over riding one, he would add.

Roy, tells another story of picking up a hitchhiker in his VW Beetle, just after the Rhodesian war. The man was a freedom fighter and had an AK47 gun in his hand. After an aggressive start to the conversation by the freedom fighter Roy, unfazed by the confrontation, sneaked into the guys life, by speaking his language and drawing him in.

The man told Roy that hadn’t slept for months as a result of what he seen and done during the war. Realising that this was the most violent man he had ever met, Roy decided to take him to the most violent place there had ever been. Over decades Christians have been quick to denounce X rated movies, forgetting that the Christian faith is built around an X rated scene. Roy shared the story of Jesus’ cross.

When they arrived in Harare the man refused to get out of the car until Roy introduced him to Jesus. A week later they met at an arranged place. Roy says the man was running down the road towards him shouting, “Baba Comrie I am sleeping now!” Baba is the word for a dear friend. The man’s life had been turned around. 

Listening to Long Snake Moan, my head tried to play with the snake and the soldier, seeking tough PJ Harvey guitar riff language. I wanted something menacing, maybe a little dark but ultimately redemptive. A Belfast band of the time, Disraeli Gears, featuring Paul Archer now in Burning Codes and Jonny Quinn, now with Snow Patrol, might have been in my head too. So I blended these two of Roy’s most heroic stories. There is now a book full of them.

I am thrilled that Roy included Black Mamba Sleeps in The Unmistakeable Hand Of God, in which he also mentions an interview I did with him in the Presbyterian Chaplaincy at Queens at Derryvolgie Hall. He did get my name wrong though calling me Steve Stockwell!


Black Mamba sleeps

With a killer bite

Poison tongued intentions

Spitting his spite

Lingering death amusement

Fun in ferocious fear

On the very edge of hell

You take him away from here

To the lies and the spit

The slaps and clenching fists

To the whips and scourging lashes

To the thorns and angry twists

The hammer crash on flesh and bone

The shrieks of fury and pain

The breather into suffocation

Then the harrowing agony again

You stand and meet his stare

Sneak love into his silence

Treat him with precious respect

In an even more violent violence

None survive this merciless place

Yet you walk away somehow

Black mamba looks up at you and smiles

“Baba Comrie, I’m sleeping now…

Baba Comrie, I’m sleeping now!”



Seven years of silence… and then… from what seems like the far side of the universe… acoustic guitars strum. And then Jonny Quinn hits the drums and propels the new Snow Patrol record into the stratosphere. 

Every single sound on Wildness, and there are a lot of them, seem to have universes of space between them, yet something pulls them all together into the most majestic, ambitious, other worldly and dreamy of beautiful noises. 

It is a revelation, a thing of many imaginations. The strings, the programming, Johnny McDaid’s perfectly timed piano interruptions, Nathan Connolly’s guitar noises that change his sound far beyond what Achtung Baby did to the Edge. 

All tied in, or driven, by Jonny Quinn’s rhythmic thumps and touches. Drummers they say should not be heard but underneath. This is the record that Quinn begs to differ. There is a throb, a pulse, a cadence, a lilt to these songs that mesmerises.

On top of all of this floats Gary Lightbody, his voice shifting from guttural rasp to vulnerable otherworldly falsetto. His lyrics are always unique to Gary. They seem clumsy with fewer rhymes than the average 4 minute rock song. Never let that fool you as to the man’s ability to turn and twist a phrase. 

On Wildness, maybe more than ever before, the poetry and the melodies shift direction, stay longer than they should or sometimes shorter, always allowing your ear and, more importantly, heart and soul to ride upon them to places the line before never dictated and always to spaces that you are glad you’ve been taken too.

Much has been said about Lightbody’s writer’s block, mental health and the benefits that he has had getting sober. It is all in here. The sounds take you out into the cosmos while the content brings it all back down to earth and into valleys of the shadow at that. 

These are the songs of a man who has looked at his demons and, as he has said, befriended them, maybe ejected a few. In doing so this becomes the most authentic, deepest and amazingly most hopeful Snow Patrol record to date.

Whether it is the “it doesn’t need to be the end of you” on Life On Earth or ‘Don’t Give in, don’t dare quit so easy” on Don’t Give In or “The lost tribes in the back of my brain/Making fires from what they've stacked for years in secret” we more often than not find healing given voice on Heal Me:


Oh this is love like wildness coursing through you like a drug

And this is hurt like kindness breaking you with gentle hands


into the chorus:


I call out your name, it feels like a song I know so well

And it whispers and roars like an orchestra

You call out my name like no one before

It sounds like I am called to a home that I never had


I did mention his turn and twist of phrase!

There are of course moment when things land. What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get is that big Lightbody ballad. You must see the video on Strangford Lough to get its full sense of heartbreaking isolation:


What if it hurts like hell

Then it'll hurt like hell

Come on over, come on over here

I'm in the ruins too

I know the wreckage so well

Come on over, come on over here


Soon resonates with me particularly as it recounts Gary going to visit his father who has dementia. He describe sit well. The loss of memory… the looking back in a son’s head when a father cannot… and a realisation as he look forward that we are next. His dad, in his every day the same as the last or the next, has less to fear than the son. Brilliant.

Every play of Wildness throws me in a different direction, throws back at me a different sound and leaves me repeating and reflecting on a different deft lyric of depth.



“Don't fall in love with the, with the way things were

It'll fuck up your mind, it'll fuck up your mind” (Gary’s choice of words, not the vicar’s!)


Isn’t that a word for Stormont and Northern Ireland in general, just now.

As the opening song declares:


"This is not the same as other days

This is something else"


Something else indeed!


Stocki Uganda tee with Drillers

This afternoon Janice, Jasmine and I arrived in Uganda. It was almost exactly 24 hours of travel, from leaving the Manse yesterday around lunchtime, to getting to our accomodation in Kampala.

I might be getting old but I found the journey a challenge. The claustrophobic nature of air travel. The five hours in Addis Ababa before the final flight to Entebbe. My body is all out of sorts. Then people chasing their own individualistic human rights against what I believe in more, the communal human right. Exhausted from a busier than busy June and year before it, I was a little frayed. That character that many love, Airport Steve, didn't appear but if he had...

Anyway we are here, being wonderfully welcomed already by the community that we have grown to love at Fields of Life. We got a walk around their brand new offices and hugged all that we knew and some we didn't yet. Ugandan women like to play games with me by completely changing their hair between my trips so that I get a little confused every time I walk in!

I bought a bag of Ethiopian coffee, in that Addis Ababa layover, and so in our cafetière travel mugs (thank you Christine Burnett) we have had a lovely coffee on the balcony of our apartment, a wee sleep and are now ready for whatever goes down.

We are looking forward to six weeks in Uganda. Our other daughter Caitlin will join us when a team of another 21 from Fitzroy join us for two weeks at the beginning of July. We will join that team as they go up north to our school, Onialeku Primary School, on the edge of Arua. After the team leaves Caitlin will remain. We miss her already!

If you are a Soul Surmise regular then you will know that Uganda has been prominent in our lives for some years. We have been there the past three summers and I was out again in January of this year. Our church formed a partnership with a school in Arua back in 2013. That partnership has been developing ever since. I was due a sabbatical. Presbyterian ministers are encouraged to take one every seven years and it has been thirteen since we had one in Vancouver. I never considered Uganda until my friend Grant Connor did a week of his sabbatical there last September. My mind started ticking.

What a great idea! My reasoning was layered. First, I wanted sabbatical space in a place I always feel refreshed. I also was aware that the big trips with my daughters were coming to an end. This was maybe the last chance of enjoying their company on sabbatical. My three women LOVE Uganda. It is where they are at their very fullest potential and joy. Watching them living 10:10 - life in all its fulness - maximises my own happiness and heals my soul. Let us go there.

There was also some work I wanted to do. I wanted to get more time in our school, to develop relationships, work out whether we are making a good contribution to the school’s long term sustainability. Relationships take a little time cross culturally. We have dear friends in Arua but our time to get to know each other has been limited. We think that more time to spend together will create trust and confidence for the partnership going forward.

Then… finally… out of the blue, the other piece of the sabbatical jig saw fell wonderfully in to place. Late one night on Facebook messenger Richard Spratt, the CEO of Fields of Life, appeared and asked me if I would consider helping Trevor Stevenson write his memoir. Trevor is the founder of Fields Of Life, the organisation we go to Uganda with. 

I remember back in Arua in August 2015 at the opening of Onialeku Primary School wondering about the man who started God’s sequence of events that led us to this sacred place. Now I would get to hear the story first hand - all of it!

So, the main emphasis of my sabbatical will be reading Trevor’s story and shaping it into something that everyone of you will want to read. It is quite a story. In my time in Kampala I will be writing full time and even in Arua I hope to spend half my day in the school and the other half writing. 

Many have asked as to whether this is a restful sabbatical. Well, as a youth I played golf, 36 holes a day. Today, I write! I love it and this sabbatical gives me space to write more than the 500 words per day of a blog. I am looking forward to its refreshment!

I will be using Soul Surmise as a diary, so if you are interested or intrigued, then watch this space!



There was something spiritually poetic about this morning’s prayer time before Church in Fitzroy. It was not lost on me.

We were sitting in the Onialeku Room, in Fitzroy, our Church in South Belfast. We were gathered to pray for a trip to Onialeku, a Primary School in Arua town in West Nile, right up on the north west corner of Uganda, less than 10 miles from Congo and just around 40 south of South Sudan. 

In a room here praying for a school, with the same name, there. The connection was tangible. 

The back story is that a wonderful leader in that impoverished community by the name of Bishop Isaac had a dream for the children running around his Church. He longed that they might have an education and started a makeshift school. 

A little after he got a school started, thousands of miles away, we in Fitzroy were extending our Church halls. Though the changes in our halls were very much overdue, and desperately needed, we did not want to be self-indulgent and came up with an idea to tithe our fund raising and do something for education in a Lesser Economically Developed Country. 

Investigation and prayer led us to Fields Of Life who linked us with Bishop Isaac’s dream. In 2015 we took our first team to Onialeku to be part of the school building opening.

In a few weeks we will take our fourth trip. There are 24 in the 2018 team, a wonderful mix of youth and experience. We will be doing Bible Clubs, Christianity Explored, Sexual and Health education, craft classes, guitar lessons, and some sport. 

The most wonderful thing is that though only 24 are actually travelling to West Nile, the entire Church are weighing in behind the project. Almost 60 children are sponsored by Fitzroy and money as well as resources are pouring in for this trip. 

All of this ends up in relationship, in partnership and in mutual learning. I will blog more about the impact of the partnership on Fitzroy this week. In Onialeku we are keen to see a school with quality education, preparing Ugandan children to take their place in the development of their nation. 

We have questions to ask though. It seems vital that we make the school sustainable without us. There are many gifted people working hard on that, on the ground in Onialeku. Bishop Isaac sadly passed away a year after we opened the school. He was a gifted and visionary leader, however, and has left leaders to take up the role. We are very keen that this would be a partnership.

So, this morning, in the Onialeku Room, the miles between us disappeared as I could see in the school playground, under the mango tree, the pastors and teachers and children. We prayed for them as we prayed for ourselves and looked forward excitedly together again in just a few weeks time. 


Fitzroy 10-10

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we will be looking at the heart of God and how God's character then reveals itself in loving actions towards humanity.

In the past few weeks the word KINDNESS has been all over the songs that I have been listening to. New releases from Ben Glover, Frank Turner, Peace  and Ray Lamontagne have all been preaching KINDNESS. That set me off looking for a robust definition. 

Tomorrow we will look into the vision that Isaiah had of God in the Temple from Isaiah 6 and think of that famous Gospel chapter of John 3. we will ask where God's action towards humans comes from in who God is. We will then ask how that impacts us.

We will find that the world that Glover, Turner, Peace and LaMontagne feel needs kindness might be exactly like the world that Isaiah sees his vision and that Jesus arrives into.

It is the world that the Church is asked to be the Kingdom in...

It will be wrapped up in guitar driven worship that blends the old and the new and a wee rocking' performance piece...

"Come on and shake, shake, shake
Like you're changed, changed, changed
Brand new looks so good on you
So shake like you've been changed..." (MercyMe)


1 WORD... 3 SONGS... 3 ARTISTS... 1 WEEK... - BBC GMU Thought For The Day 25.5.18

Kindness is the New Rck N Rll

A few weeks ago a word bombarded me, wrapped in melody, through my car stereo. One week. Three different songs. Three different artists. One word - Kindness.

It all started in Glenarm. Well, a singer from Glenarm anyway. The Antrim east coast’s most successful singer Ben Glover has a song on his brilliant new record Shorebound called Kindness - it goes:


“May you know kindness 

May kindness know you”


It is beautiful, like a prayer. 

Then I turned south, down the coast. The new Frank Turner album features 4 co-writes with Bangor’s Grammy nominated Iain Archer. Though Iain was not involved in the title track, that song is called Be More Kind! 


“In a world that has decided

That it's going to lose its mind

Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind”


Staying with Iain Archer, an actual co-write of his, released the same week, by the band Peace, Kindness is The New Rock N Roll. With a rock strut they sing: 


“Kindness is new rock and roll

Kindness is the climax of the soul

It's all full of love bursting from the seams

So lets make kindness the new rock and roll”


Kindness!? Off I ran to search for the meaning of kindness. There it is in the fruit of the Holy Spirit as the apostle Paul lists them… “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” How does kindness stand out I asked?

I settled for a quote by a Bible scholar who wrote, “It is the grace which pervades the whole nature, mellowing all which would be harsh and austere.” Oh yeh, more of that I thought. 

So, it is the posture in our inner souls that changes all our relationships towards love. Like God, sending Jesus to save the world. Out of the posture of his deep rooted kindness, God loved us enough to act towards us in a way that would heal our brokenness. 

Kindness! And then would you believe it. This week. Another song. Ray LaMontagne sings:


“When kindness is the greatest gift that one can share

Why choose hate to subjugate your fellow man?”


Sing it guys. Preach it. Amen!



Jazz et moi

I saw you through the window

Your face lit up my heart

What Ernest did for the atom

You came and split me apart

Opened me up to miracles

To love what never before existed

A place at the core of my very soul

Glorious joy on every visit.


I saw you through your birth

Weeping at the glimpse of your face

God’s goodness gifted in tiny girl

It was so right to name you Grace

I remember you a tiny bundle

Snuggled in my upper arms

No way to tell me what you needed

But convincing me with all your charms.


I believe that you can change the world

I know you know you should

You have all potent anger needed

It is righteous and it is good.


I saw you on a playground

With children all around your feet

I saw the smile inside your soul

Where your gladness and Africa meet

I knew that I could let you go

When I saw who you were going to be

Whether I tell you enough or not

You are the great pride inside of me.


I believe that you can change the world

I know you know you should

You have all right anger needed

It is righteous and it is good.



I loved Ray LaMontagne’s first record. I played How Come a lot on my radio show. I loved:

“I said how come

I can't tell

The free world

From living hell

I said how come

How come

All i see

Is a child of god

In misery

I said how come”


After Trouble though I lost a bit of interest. I have God Willin' And The Creek Don’t Rise but I don’t think I ever played it until this week.

This week I discovered his brand new record Part Of The Light because my mate Doug Gay highlighted a track on Facebook. It peak my interest and I gave it a lash.

On first play, I thought that I had confirmed to myself why I didn’t listen to Ray LaMontagne anymore. Then I listened again… and again… Oh my. It has now seeped into my very core.

It is a long way from Trouble to Part Of the Light. In between LaMontagne got fed up too, then reinvented with a Dan Auerbach produced record Supernova before finding Jim James on his last release Ouroborus. 

James took LaMontagne very close to Pink Floyd, shimmering Dave Gilmour-esque guitar and atmospheric layers. Who’d have thought it!

Part Of The Light follows Ouroboros or maybe takes it back a smidgeon. LaMontagne has kept a couple of James’ My Morning Jacket band mates and though not in the producers chair anymore, James’s influence is rife. LaMontagne takes his big voice that is now so in vogue with Hozier and Rag'n'Bone Man and subverts it, layering it out, under the atmospheres. It becomes more intoxicating as a result.

When I say a smidgeon back, I mean that Part Of the Light is less a concept album and with more variety and songwriting core than its predecessor. 

There is a lot more acoustic guitar here. The title track is and Let’s Make It Last are delicate while Such a Simple Thing is nearer fragile. As for Black As Blood Is Blue it could be Foo Fighters and maybe my very favourite No Answer Arrives is all psychedelic late 60’s guitar strut. The final Goodbye Blue Sky is part Moody Blues, part Crosby, Stills & Nash, all wrapped in a soft warm covering of layered beauty.

Indeed, that is where Ray Lamontagne is. He has taken his Woodstock-like organic acoustic sounds of a decade ago and pushed them towards the pre Band psychedelia and taken psychedelia and brought form and accessibility to that oftentimes over indulgence.

You can tell that I love it! I so want to be apart of Lamontagne’s light too:


“When kindness is the greatest gift that one can share

Why choose hate to subjugate your fellow man?”



It is so easy to miss your life in bloom.

If you are like me there is oftentimes a rotten tree in the way. Right there, in front of you. Right in your face! Blocking out a meadow of flowers behind it.

It might be that we’ve have been misinterpreted. There is nothing as rotten as being misunderstood. It might be that we’ve have been criticised, unfairly. Maybe it was a misinformed rumour. Maybe someone heard us wrong. Maybe it is a an issue we have at work, a difficult situation that we need to deal with. Or in the family. Maybe there is stress. Worry. Fear.

Rotten trees. They take up your entire vision.

Have you ever seen the film A Wonderful Life. James Stewart’s character George Bailey has got stuck in front of a rotten tree. He is contemplating ending it all. An angel appears and takes him back through his life, showing him all the flowers that he caused to bloom that he was missing because of that tree.

The apostle Paul knew about rotten trees too. A time in prison here, a shipwreck there. A church in crisis. A thorn in his side that he never explained. He was often in need and wondering how those needs would be met. 

BUT… Paul spread the Church across the world. He founded Churches. He pastored them with some of the most profound letters ever written. How many weddings do you hear his poetry, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” St Paul had set the entire world of his day in bloom.

And what about us? Is there something rotten, that is taking up our energy, bringing us down. This week, as I see the Chelsea Flower Show all over the media, though to be fair the colours do not look great on the radio Vanessa, I am praying that God will help me see past any rotten trees that are filling my horizon, so that I might get a glimpse of my life in bloom. 


Turner Kind

I have to confess that I haven’t paid much attention to Frank Turner. Even with tip offs from my mates Neil Sedgewick and Dave Thompson I owned nothing. Then my mate Iain Archer co-writes with him and I need to give it a listen. 

It is right up my musical street; social commentary, deep introspection, spiritual advice and all said in the craftiest of crafted lyrics. Goodness me but Turner can play most imaginatively with words. That twisting and tumbling of inventive rhymes is put to great use.

I have to say, and people would expect me to, that the Archer co-writes are the strongest songs of a very strong collection here. Archer has the unique ability to make bring near pop-like sensibility with a depth that belies it. 

Don’t Worry with its effective little handclaps and Little Changes with its effective little Gospel like backing vocals, Blackout within an anthem sing along and the guitar riff intro to Braveface is sublime before another chorus that you cannot but singalong to. Brilliant!

There are three layers to Be More Kind. First, there is a world in a state of chassis, as Joxer Daly put it in Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and The Paycock, back in 1924. Turner actually has a song on here called 1933, his fear that the spirit of European fascism is back in vogue.  21st Century Survival Blues, Make America Great Again and The Life Boat lay out a world that is dark and dangerous, whether Trump, Brexit or social media has tossed us into disarray.

With the objective and universal in chassis, Turner turns to the subjective and personal. Brave Face, Blackout and There She Is finds hope and escape in love. 

There is a third thread, though. It is not about cuddling into a personal romance and letting the world go to hell. Turner wants change. There’s the final track hope that we will eventually work it out and Get It Right. The title track is stolen from a Clive James poem and the preach is in that title. Little Changes is literally a preach as he asks, “Let’s not just pray/Let’s make a change.” 

My favourite preach is on Common Ground, with its Prefab Sprout like sounds. I do not believe Turner is talking about Northern Ireland, there are more divisions in the world than ours, but oh my it is a clear message to Arlene and Michelle:


“If we are to find a way to live

Then we need to build ourselves a bridge

And if we were to build ourselves that bridge

We could meet in the middle and forgive”