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October 2019

VAN MORRISON - THREE CHORDS AND THE TRUTH

Three Chords Van

I am convinced that Van Morrison is as happy about his vocation as he has been since he was playing The Maritime Bar in Belfast in the early 60s. 

My thoughts on Van Morrison’s complicated relationship with the public in general and the press in particular is that a young Morrison simply wanted to play his music. Most unfortunately for Van his musical vocation coincided with an explosion of pop music and his particular vocational genius got caught up in an industry that was not at all in keeping with his shy personality. 

To be as deeply introverted, as Van Morrison seems to be, and then get caught up in the pop circus is not a match made in heaven. Rather than take swipes at Van Morrison’s contrariness we should be grateful that he didn’t just give it all up and walk away as he threatened to after Veedon Fleece in 1974. 

Forty five year after that little flirt with retirement, in the mid 70s, Morrison is now in his mid 70s and everything about his relationship with pop music is very different indeed. No longer does he have to fear his photograph on the front cover of music magazines or the pressure of hit singles. Yes, the odd journalist still tries to shoehorn inside his introverted mystery but even they are now few and far between.

As a result, Morrison is having the musical time of his life. He now plays smaller intimate venues like those he imagined he would be playing when he started out. As far as albums are concerned he can do what he wants, creating as much or as little as his own soul directs.

Hence, Three Chords and The Truth is his sixth record in four years. The last four records have seen Morrison liberally mixing jazz and blues covers, along with his own originals or re-workings of his classics. It all seemed free and easy, enjoyable for him and his fans. I wouldn’t say I loved every song but I am glad of them.

Three Chords and The Truth is not part of that outpouring. It is almost a bookend, the other being the first of the recent six records, Keep Me Singing.

Like Keep Me Singing most of these songs are original Morrison songs but more than that there is a different intention to the collection. This is very much a Van Morrison record in the vein of his very best. Indeed, you can hear echoes of most every era of Morrison’s eclectic career.

There is the wonder on the Don Black co-write If We Wait For Mountains. The opening song March Winds In February reminds me of Hard Nose The Highway. Dark Night Of The Soul could be a title from anything between Beautiful Vision and The Healing Game. I can hear Them play Early Days. Fame Will Eat The Soul is that recurring them on his albums since the late 80s. Days Gone By is a wonderful closer, as he re-writes Auld Lang Syne and infuses it with Van transcendence.

There are a plethora of different shades of the Van Morrison muse are stretched right across this tracklist. The return of Jay Berliner to the session players adds sublime guitar playing throughout. 

Nobody In Charge is not my favourite song on the record but it is the most politically intriguing. Is this as political as Van has ever been:

 

Politicians that waffle endlessly

People just don’t want to see

Getting’ paid too much for screwin’ up

don’t you think everyone’s had enough?

 

There’s nobody in charge

At that we know, that we know about

There’s nobody in charge

Nobody seems to have any clout

 

And speculation across the nation

Media implantation rules the day

Brainwash is easy, if everybody’s lazy

Everything always looks so grey 

 

This could be about the fact Northern Ireland’s Local Assembly has not met at Stormont in almost three years. It could also be about the daily newscasts from outside a Brexit divided Westminster. Some of my American friends would say that it has wider connotations! Surely, that Morrison feels at liberty to surmise on such issues is a sign of his new sense of freedom.

Don’t miss Van’s humour either.. When he sings “Free State” in You Don’t Understand it has local connotations in his Northern Irish homeland. The Free State is what my Granny and Van’s parent’s generation called the Republic Of Ireland. 

He articulates it here with the wry Van humour that he used at Self Aid in Dublin in 1986 when he introduced new songs from No Guru, No Method, No Teacher by saying that it would be out “on the Twelfth of July!” Or in that little snippet of The Sash on I’ll Tell Me Ma on his collaborative album with The Chieftains, Irish Heartbeat. 

Three Chords and The Truth is not the most iconic album of Van Morrison’s career or the one with the most hit singles. To compare it in such ways is to miss not only what Van Morrison is now doing and also what he always wished he had been doing. It is another wonderful record of inspirational music by a genius of the genre. It is a most satisfying listen. 


STOCKMAN IN MID WEST AMERICA - MY EXCITEMENT, STORY AND SCHEDULE

Stocki U2 Pop

I am getting excited about our little trip to America’s mid west on November 8th.

I have been enjoying such trips since 2003. My book Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 came out in 2001. Somehow along the way the book fell into the hands of Gail Heffner who told her husband Ken to read it. Ken did and invited me be the Keynote speaker at The Festival of Faith and Music in March 2003. 

Ken is a man of influence and it was not long before I was getting other invites to speak. I remember a particular favourite in 2004 when I did a Chapel Talk at Messiah College, Pennsylvania on Radiohead’s No Surprises.

On that same trip in 2004 I found myself at Taylor University. Steve Austin was mentored by Ken Heffner. 

In 2005 I had hoped to return to Calvin for the second Festival Of Faith and Music. I was obviously not the Keynote again so the budget didn’t really cover a seminar. I pulled out after my name appeared on the speakers list. A woman from Ohio emailed me to ask if she could meet me at the Festival. I explained that I would not be going but if she knew a College would supplement my flight, and have me speak there too, I might.

Lisa Ho was that woman, part of the Chaplaincy team at Ohio Wesleyan University. She wanted to meet me to discuss a Student trip to Ireland. She immediately found the money and I made my first trip to Delaware, Ohio where almost as soon as I landed I became best friends with Lisa and her husband Lung.

And so, since then, I have been visiting Calvin, Taylor and Delaware very regularly. Ken and Gail at Calvin, Steve as well as Jennifer and Scott Moeschberger at Taylor and Lisa, Lung along with Robb and Julie Morgan at Delaware City Vineyard and Jason and Christian Allison at Terra Nova Church are all people I love spending time with. I find these trips more energising than tiring no matter how much travel there might be.

In the years in between the partnership with these three places has seen students from Calvin, Taylor and OWU coming to Belfast. It has been an enriching experience to plan and speak to such groups. A few years ago I met Hannah Warstler at Taylor and she became an intern at Fitzroy. I am thrilled that I will get to spend some time with Hannah, now Miller, on this trip!

What is so exciting about this year’s trip is that Janice is coming along with me. Janice has never been. While I went off to the States, she stayed home and looked after our daughters. Yes, she has met the Heffners, Hos and Moeschbergers but on this side of the Atlantic. So, I cannot wait for her to sit chatting in the Heffner’s kitchen, play with the Ho children in the Ho’s living room and have an ice cream in Ivanhoes. Even more exciting on this trip is partnering again with an old friend Shane Tucker who lived for a time in N. Ireland and now, what are the chances, lives in Delaware, Ohio!

 

Here’s a rough itinerary: -

Saturday, November 9th - 6.30 - 9pm CONVERSATIONS IN ART, FAITH AND MUSIC at GATHER (53 N Sandusky St, Delaware, OH 43015) tickets available HERE

Sunday November 10th - 9.15am and again at 11.15am - Preaching on BEING WITH THE OTHER at DELAWARE CITY VINEYARD (32 Troy Rd, Delaware, OH 43015)

Monday November 11th - 10 - 11am - Speaker at TAYLOR CHAPEL- Rediger Chapel Auditorium at the Boren Campus Center, TAYLOR UNIVERSITY, 236 W Reade Ave. Upland, IN 46989

Monday November 11th - THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO… MUMFORD & SONS, KANYE WEST, U2 and OTHER POP STARS - venue and time TBC - TAYLOR UNIVERSITY, 236 W Reade Ave. Upland, IN 46989

Wednesday 13th - 10am - Speaker at CALVIN CHAPEL - Calvin University, 3201 Burton SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

There will be other smaller events, meeting Irish teams coming to Ireland, past and future.

If you are anywhere near these venues and fancy coming along to listen or to share a coffee, then message me...


CAROLYN ARENDS REFLECTS ON KANYE WEST'S JESUS IS KING - a guest blog

Kanye Jesus

This appeared on, Canadian singer songwriter, Carolyn Arends' Facebook page. I found it beautifully written, sensitively expressed and very insightful, not only about Kanye's new record but about arts and Christianity in general. I am honoured that Carolyn allowed me to post it on Soul Surmise as a guest blog.

 

No one, I'm sure, is curious what a middle-aged folk-singing woman thinks of the new Kanye album. But my son, Ben Arends, asked me to listen to it, so I did.

And here's the thing. I love it.

I think that good songwriting is NOT propaganda but it IS witness, in the sense that the songwriter bears witness to what he or she sees or experiences - whether that's romantic love, or grief, or quest, or malaise, or injustice, or delight or, most ultimately (in my admittedly biased view), encounter with God. In great songwriting, the songwriter has a particular genius for bearing witness in fresh, visceral, paradigm-shifting ways, for making us instinctually respond with “Yes! Life IS like that!”

I believe that Kanye is bearing witness to something real on his new album. And I am gobsmacked by the creativity and craft with which he does it.

Do I think he gets everything theologically correct? Oh, heck, no. (I don't think any of us do, but Kanye's theology seems particularly in-process to me). Do I think he can be relied upon, going forward, for steady and uncomplicated growth in godliness, free of setbacks? Probably not. (I'm not sure any of us can, but how much harder must it be for a man as gifted and fragile and amplified as Kanye?)

But has Kanye made a good record? Oh yes, I think so. And good not only in the “you can dance to it” sense but also in the Good and True and Beautiful sense.

To my fellow Christians I want to say, let art do what art can do – let it bear witness to Encounter without having to become propaganda or an iron-clad contract. Part of the shadow-side of Kanye’s gifting, it seems to me, is a tendency towards a Messiah complex, and his greatest temptation now is probably to become a Messiah for the Messiah. Let’s not inadvertently feed that temptation by either extolling him as a Great Hope or excoriating him as a Great Risk. He’s a great songwriter, with an uncanny knack for influencing pop culture, and he is currently heartsick for God. (As far as I can tell, God has been haunting Kanye’s life and work for a long time, it’s just reaching a particular apex at the moment). Will it last? I sure pray so, much more for his sake than for ours, although, selfishly, I would so enjoy seeing where his faith takes his art. (It is songs like “Follow God” – where Kanye seems to resonate with the Apostle Paul that sometimes we do not do what we want to do and sometimes we spaz when we don’t want to spaz - that actually connect the most powerfully for me. They make me say, “Yes, the life of faith is like that!”)

Disciple to disciple, I’d say to Kanye, “Keep seeking God, and, more importantly, know that He is seeking you.” At the same time, Middle-Aged Folk Singer to Pop Culture Icon, I’d say to Kanye, “Dang man. That’s a good record!”

 

Carolyn Arends has been a favourite songwriter of mine for 25 years. She is a poetic songwriter and has easily used her word-smithery to author books as well as songs. You can keep up with her work, ideas and product at https://carolynarends.com


MUMFORD & SONS - BLIND LEADING THE BLIND

Mumford

The Grenfell Tower tragedy has inspired two songs released in recent days. First we had Guy Garvey taking it on in White Noise White Heat from the new Elbow record Giants Of All Sizes. Now it is Marcus Mumford on the new Mumford & Sons single Blind Leading The Blind.

Both songs deal with the injustice of the British class system. Whatever which way we look at Brexit the evidence of an acute division between rich and poor is evident. Sadly it became most tragically exposed in the 72 deaths in that Grenfell Tower fire.

For Marcus Mumford Grenfell is personal. Up in the night with his one year old daughter he watched the tragedy unfold out of his west London apartment. He attended the Memorial Service. 

In this new song, Mumford take us all on, himself too. This is a song that asks questions of our society, our leaders and our own personal actions. In a world where he fears that the blind are leading the blind, Mumford asks us to bring the injustice back down from the political to the personal.

Awhile back Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys took a swipe at Pause For Thought on BBC Radio claiming it to be pointless and dull, just people telling us to be nice to each other.

Jesus refrain “Love your neighbour” is not pointless dull or simply being nice. “Love your neighbour” is a revolutionary act. It is a subversive rebellion against everything that John Humphrys was talking about as he presented radio.

It is that revolutionary potential of “love your neighbour” that Mumford & Sons seem to be advocating on Blind Leading The Blind. 

 

I need to know the name of my neighbor

I am not known if I’m not seen or heard

 

We need to love our neighbour. It starts by asking their name. It is about being prepared to stop making them invisible. Relationship dilutes our fears. 

The lack of love for neighbour, even the awareness of neighbour enrages Mumford. The cynicism and apathy in our society causes him to use the F word that some will spend all their time obsessing about. It will be travesty if we are more concerned about the use the word than the injustice that it is used to rage against. 

In the end the potency of revolution is profoundly simple:

 

So, put your hand in mine tonight

And I will be here

When you’re crying out tonight

I will be here

 

These could be the words of Marcus Mumford as he seeks to be there for his injustice stricken neighbours or they could even be the words of God himself. Or perhaps the two might blend as the love of God is transmitted in the outstretched hand of a compassionate human being. 

I need to ask your name!


SHE WHO REFLECTS THE LIGHT (Love Poem To The Arts)

Sunset-on-porthmeor-beach

(I am speaking about cultural engagement in Fitzroy in the morning. Here is a poem I wrote about the arts back in 1994 on a holiday with our good friends Sam and Isobel Hill in St. Ives)

 

She's got colour on her palette

To paint the beauty here

Trying to catch the moment

The riches of Porthmeor

Sun is gliding on the water

To intimately kiss the shore

This has to be the canvas

That fifth day Eden wore

 

She walks beside the water

To where their lives had met

She looks for inspiration

In the indigo sunset

She reaches for the memory

And takes it by the hand

No one else can see her

This ballerina in the sand

 

It's she who ask the questions

She who provokes the night

She who shapes another angle

She who reflects the light

It's she who draws the meaning

She makes the world shine bright

She laments the hurting heart

She who reflects the light. 

 

 

 

 

 

 


TOMORROW IN FITZROY - BEING WITH CULTURE - 27.10.19

Fitzroy 2

Tomorrow morning (11am) we will be looking at how followers of Jesus can BE WITH culture. On the week that children wear devil's horns and tails we will ask how we respond and actually at how originally this was how Christians protected themselves from the devil! We will then look at how Paul used culture in positive ways when he preached in Athens as Luke records it in Acts 17.

Marin Luther, John Stott, Bono and the apostles Paul and James will help us unpack! You can imagine correctly that this will be a theological apologetic for Fitzroy's Gospel According To... series BUT much more. Double listening to the Word and the world and treble listening when the world points more to Scripture than the church! Expect some culture engaging worship too!

In the evening (7pm) Chris Fry will engage our brains and souls. His talk last week was gripping and thought provoking. Tomorrow night his title is THE COMMUNITY OF DECAY: Psychoanalysis, theology and resources for uncertainty. 


JANICE'S DREAM AND WHOSE PICTURE OF POWER WE SET UP

Images

A few years ago, my wife had a dream. She was about to marry someone else but I arrived to try to change her mind. As she surveyed how her husband to be and I were setting up the Church for the weddings we both wanted she recognised a difference. 

The other guy had set up the room with pictures of himself BUT I had set it up with photographs of Janice. She quickly realised that one wedding was all about him and the other all about her. He loved himself and I loved her. She chose me. I wish I was so selfless but I am glad that Janice should have such a dream.

At the same time I was spending time preparing for a sermon in John 18 where Pilate and Jesus are in confrontation. As Pilate is interrogating Jesus about whether he was King or not and Jesus was answering as the King of Kings but in a way Pilate could not understand I realised that Jesus was modelling a different kind of power. 

Jesus was laying down his life for the world not slaying the world for his own gain. Jesus as King of Love was declaring a new way of humility and grace. This is so utterly other worldly, as in indeed Jesus states clearly to Pilate, that there is simply nothing more prophetic, profound, radical and revolutionary. 

It turns everything on its head. Jesus didn't come to bring us a nicer cleaner sanitised version of the way the world is. He came to rip it to pieces and give us an entirely different dissonant way to live. It was about turning the other cheek, giving the extra coat, going the extra mile. Crazy mad stuff!

I was wondering how I could illustrate the difference between Caesar and Jesus, the despotic Kings of Jesus time and Jesus’ alternative Kingship. Janice’s dream opened this up profoundly. I couldn’t help but see that the traditional Kings put up pictures and image of themselves. Images of Caesar were everywhere in the Roman world, on coins, kitchen utensils, statues at libraries and sports arenas; everywhere! 

Instead Jesus put pictures of us everywhere. As Paul put it in Romans 5, “God demonstrated his love for us in this while we were sinners Christ died for us.” Us! It is the beloved that this King lives for and gives himself for.

Whatever our opinions in the very divided political world of 2019, I started to ask whether our politicians modelling Jesus or Caesar? Is power about them or about the people? Is it their flags, their red lines, their images and their rights or is it about what is best for all of the people across our society? 

Oh that they would find themselves at the centre of history, in the passion of Jesus, where Jesus overthrew the idea of power over others and gave us the humble King of the manger, the donkey and the cross. Oh that the image of a King who laid down his life for the good of those he was at enmity with would be imprinted on our lives and actions.

It is from that Jesus model that we are called to love neighbours, to love enemies, to be peacemakers, to break down barriers of hostility. 

“You may say that I am a dreamer” as John Lennon sang. You might be right. The Caesar model is always the default in a broken world. However, it is in that default that Jesus calls his followers to be so upside down and rebellious. God might be asking us today, what picture we have up? Any hoped for redemption in our world will depend on the answer.


NEWS OF TWO BOOKS I AM INVOLVED IN BEING PUBLISHED IN 2020

Muzungu Collective

photo: some of the Muzungu Collective creating with Levixone

 

Some news on Book Week NI. I am hoping to be involved in two books being published in 2020.

Firstly, the book that I have been working on with Trevor Stevenson is in its final edit. It has taken longer than we thought but it is nearly there! Trevor is founder of Fields Of Life which Soul Surmise readers should be well aware of.

It is a fascinating story about how one man in simply following the next step that he sensed God was asking him to take ended up with an organisation that educated hundreds of thousands of children across East Africa and will soon have reached one million people with clean water. I have enjoyed being involved in help shape Trevor's memoir - LIFE IN THE KILLING FIELDS OF EAST AFRICA. It's a gripping story.

Secondly, there is a poetry book in the works. This will again be a collection of writings about the time I have spent in Africa. I will be mixing poems and short surmises that will deal with the beauty of the country and the people of Uganda and what I have learned about life, faith, mission and the environment from my time spent there.

This book will be called THE SAME GRACE COLOUR and we hope that there will be an album of music based on the lyrics available with it. There is even tentative plans for a vinyl version. This will have a variety of songs and music by what we are calling MUZUNGU COLLECTIVE. It will be of a very high quality, I promise! If you would be up for a very limited vinyl edition at a little bit higher an expense (maybe £25) then message me or leave a comment and email address below this article. ALL PROFITS TO ONIALEKU NURSERY BUILD FUND. 

 

 

 

 


THE WORLD HAS MORE THAN SEVEN WONDERS (2019 Re-Write)

Jani Falls

(I started this poem in 1993 and rewrote it a song version on Grace Notes, our Stevenson and Samuel album in 2001. A sermon in Fitzroy by Jonny Hanson inspired a 2019 version, bringing Uganda into verse 3 and Job 26 into the "chorus".)

 

I gazed across the Himalayas

Looked into the eye of God

He winked at me in the dawning

With a reassuring nod

Mountains glistened in the sunlight

The art of the Creator

Scientists only glimpse his thoughts

And even then a whole lot later

 

The world has more than seven wonders

More than seven wonders

And all this is merely a whisper of God

Only gossip of the power that thunders.

 

I stood on the rim of the Canyon

My mouth hung open wide

I was in awe just peering in

Never mind what went on inside

I sense creation screaming

And I’m listening as best I can

But eternal glory is way beyond

The grasp of this mortal man

 

The world has more than seven wonders

More than seven wonders

And all this is merely a whisper of God

Only gossip of the power that thunders.

 

I’ve looked up the Nile at Murchison Falls

Reaping unfailing love

Felt the torrent of God’s good grace

Little splashes of heaven above

Caught the image of God’s best creation

In a wide eyed child like grin

Giving me hope to carry on

On an earth beautiful and broken

 

The world has more than seven wonders

More than seven wonders

And all this is merely a whisper of God

Only gossip of the power that thunders.


ELBOW - GIANTS OF ALL SIZES

Giants Elbow

Elbow fascinate me. I would not call them a favourite band but I have so much appreciation. Their last record Little Fictions didn’t cross my radar but I have loved Seldom Seen Kid and The Take Off And Landing Of Everything. This one is up with those.

There is a near eccentricity about Elbow’s beautiful layering of instrumentation and then of course Guy Garvey’s lyrics are on the poetic end rock lyrics. Garvey’s love of Joni Mitchell explains his rather unorthodox lyrical shape but it plays havoc with melodies. That might just mean that Elbow records need more listens, a little harder work. 

Garvey’s subject matter, introspective honesty and social and political astuteness is what makes Elbow a vital, almost urgent, listen.

This is where Giants Of All Sizes is exceptional. His father’s death and the birth of his son is the personal arc of the story. Garvey has said "Jack's arrival really helped me through Dad's death, because it made Dad's death part of things, rather than the end of things. And it made my own life part of things, rather than the point of things.” We all need such perspective.

World issues get a wrestling with too. Empires, my favourite, reminds those of us stressed about Brexit that every day across our globe is an end of the world for some. It is sensitivity sobering and a agin a perspective shifter. 

White Noise, White Heat moves close to protest music. This is all about Grenfell Tower and the injustice that the poorer communities in our societies suffer. Garvey sees himself as “some Blarney Mantovani with a lullaby when the sky is falling in”. 

The opening line of the entire record is “And I don't know Jesus anymore”. I am not sure that it is a statement of lack of faith in Jesus as much as a line that speaks into a culture of deep dark uncertainty. Elbow throw us into a vortex of grief, personal and societal. They also bring us back to lover and child as the place to find stability and hope through the tossing about. 

It makes for an album that allows Elbow’s dramatic near prog sound to ebb and flow. Garvey holds it all in with his honest poetry.