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January 2020


City of Grace


(inspired by a song by Mike Scott called Building a City Of Light)


Spin out the yarn and weave potent surprise

Building a city of grace

Rivet the steel in tough willed compromise 

Building a city of grace

See the wonder of enemies through Jesus eyes

Building a city of grace

Rhyme poems and histories without lies

Building a city of grace


Saracens transforming into surgical beds

Building a city of grace

Bullets repenting into colouring lead

Building a city of grace

The guilty redeemed into contributors instead

Building a city of grace

Our feasts all sacrificed so the hungry are fed

Building a city of grace


In every building

On all our streets

Love the language

As neighbours greet

In prison yards

And Church retreats

Grace the force

When politicians meet


See the wonder of enemies through Jesus eyes

Building a city of grace

Rhyme poems and histories without lies

Building a city of grace.



Cape Town made me wide eyed. Oh my, the beauty! Then it opened my eyes. To the ugliness of crime. I had just brought a group of students in. They were robbed. They lost all sense of security. We had to move them fast. 

If I had gotten the hold of the wee urchins who stole clothes and electric devices I would have pulverised them myself before taking them to the police. I was angry. I wanted justice. Vengeance probably.

The next evening, we were at a Ronan Keating concert! I know, not my thing but the students needed a night out and my friend was playing bass guitar! 

Keating didn’t grab too much of my attention but then he sang a cover of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto. Elvis didn’t sing many profound potent political songs. In the Ghetto might have been the only one.

That song changed my whole perception of the crime against us. Originally called The Vicious Circle, In the Ghetto does a few things. It rehumanises the criminal. It asks questions about a society that causes the crime. It points the finger at all of us for being blind to this.

A few years later I was talking to my friend Sandi. Sandi was from the Cape Flats and he told me that as a teenager he made a choice to get himself onto an Operation Mobilisation ship because if he had stayed on the townships without education, jobs and hope,  he would have ended up on drugs and in crime, probably in prison.

We can have a lazy response to crime. They deserve all that they get. They get it too easy. Put them in and throw away the key.

I believe this to be wrong in several ways. The dehumanisation of the criminal. Our blindness to the part of our complicity in not doing anything about the social injustice that allows crime to flourish. We also need to remember that almost all our prisoners will one day be back on the streets and those on probation are already in our communities, so a mindset of restoration, rehabilitation and redemption is for the good of everyone.

Of course, for the follower of Jesus this should be obvious. If I was a sportsman in the dressing room before a game, I would listen to all of what the coach says. What they might say first and then the last thing they say before leaving us to go and play might be the most vital advice to remember.

Jesus started and ended his ministry talking about prisoners. Then on the Cross Jesus promised a man sentenced in the courts to be with him in Heaven. Restoration, rehabilitation and redemption are at the heart of Jesus’ Gospel. 

We as Jesus’ followers need to be about that too. Jesus had no desire to leave anyone wallowing in a prison cell. He came to offer everyone “life and life in all its fulness.” (John 10:10).  It therefore seems to me that the Church should be working in close relationship, as individuals and congregations, with the  Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and others to transform the lives of all of those sentenced in our courts so  that they might eventually become contributors to a City of Grace that they should be benefiting from.  

No one is beyond the influence and redemption of Jesus. As I wrote in a poem awhile back... 

I came across Jesus

Hanging on a cross

Carved in sand on a Spanish beach

His sparkling eyes 

Cut through the night

Like no one was out of his reach.


Incredibly and very tragically, as I used this story of Sandi in my speech in Hydebank College and Women's Prison I had no idea that he had been taken seriously ill back in South Africa. By the time I used the story again in my Sunday sermon Sandi had died. He was too young. This goes out in his tribute and with prayers for his wife Zimbini and family. You made your contribution brother. Thank you!


Bill Fay CB

We need to give thanks for the gift of Bill Fay. He is a spiritual sage. We almost lost him completely.

My reviews of his previous albums told the tale of a songwriter who released two albums around 1970 and the disappeared into gardening. Forty years later he is tracked down and makes two of the last decades most beautiful records, Life Is People and Who Is The Sender?

At 75 Fay is at it again. Here are ten poetic spiritual reflections like no one else could gather, not even Cohen or Cave who might come closest.

Fay’s faith is central to the muse. The private nature of his persona means that we have no idea which of the countless branches of Christianity influences his thought. Is he Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox? Is he Hill Songs, Quaker or some weird cult? Does he practice or is it all personal? 

The art is all the better for not knowing. One of evangelical Northern Ireland’s greatest heresies is the relativism of truth dependent on who says or sings it. If we can label the preacher or artist we can dismiss Biblical truth on the iota of doctrine by which they differ from me. It is a repugnantly arrogant kind of bigotry that has sadly a strong hold.

No, with Bill Fay we have just the songs. Beautiful songs. On Countless Branches they produced some of the songs and then decided that the best way to present these particular ponderings was with the sparseness of a lonely piano and the odd other instrument. 

In the deluxe edition’s extra tracks we get to hear a couple of the full band versions. Personally I think they made the correct decision. How Long, How Long in particular loses something of its mood in its fuller incarnation. Having said that if they bring the full band version out before Christmas I would buy it too! 

It is all about the content. Fay surmises time and eternity, the harsh realities of life and the hope of a love that remains. The apostle Paul, Isaiah, the Psalms, the covenant to Abraham, Jesus Beatitudes. Fay dabbles in them all and draws out this yearning for redemption that is not some momentary fix but a life long change of thinking and living. These are ten sermonettes to resource such a redemption.

A God given gift!


Fitzroy Board

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we will be looking to see. John's Gospel account of Jesus life is all about seeing. John the Baptist tells his disciples to "Look the lamb of God who takes away the sin of there world". Jesus invites a couple of those disciples including Andrew "to come and see" and when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus he says to him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." Being born again is about seeing. Seeing in new ways. Seeing the kingdom already in this life as we wait for the next.

So, we will look about seeing and how the born again see differently. See everything differently. I will be using examples from Friday evening's 4 Corners Festival event inside a prison. Seeing the criminal and the reasons for their crime as well as their precious humanity and potential for redemption is as difficult combination of things to see differently as any.

With a little help from U2's Walk On, Elvis Presley's powerfully prophetic In The Ghetto and Bryan Stevenson hero of the movie Just Mercy, all wrapped in contemporary worship.

In the evening we touch perhaps the headline world issue of the day - the environment. With Australia seemingly on fire and experts giving some frightening warnings what should the Christian response the environment be. David Livingstone will close our short series on Global Challenges by provoking thought and being provocative. One of the things we are proud of in Fitzroy is opening discussion and debating the issues of the day. You are welcome to join us. 


Stockman in Taylor

In November 2019 I had the privilege of speaking at Chapel in Taylor University, Uplands, Indiana.

It is a University I had been to many times and love very much. 

This year I brought a few things together in my talk - BEING WITH OUR ENEMIES. Basing it in Luke 6 where Jesus asks us to love our enemies, I unpacked a 10 week series I had preached in Fitzroy on Sam Wells' idea of BEING WITH. What is it like to be with our enemies? I then used 4 Corners Festival as an example of how we are trying to be with.

In the end this is a very good way to hear a lot of what I preached at the end of 2019 crammed into 25 minutes... follow the link below...


(with thanks to Sam Wells and Jim Wallis, from whose work I got my American illustration)



Left Side Up

Local Belfast theologian and author Andrew Cunning has started up a podcast called Left Side Up that looks at issues of faith on the edgier side of that kind of town. 

I was privileged a while back to sit down with Andrew in my office and just converse about the issues that are dearest to my heart. We talked about the incarnation, about imagination, about where the arts blend and blur with faith, about the discipleship of peace and reconciliation. Andrew then went off and edited that conversation into a coherent podcast that I am surprisingly pleased with.

Andrew is doing something very interesting. He is conversing with interesting people about big theological ideas but he is rooting them in personal lives and the sense of place that we think the ideas in. That is mainly Belfast and wider Northern Ireland.

Andrew is a provocative thinker and all the more necessary for that. He has an audacious desire to interrupt our ordinariness so that we might see God face to face in that ordinariness.




I wonder if Pierce Pettis is the songwriter that I have used most in devotional worship. Particularly in Fitzroy communion services. I have been using God Believes In You and You Did That For Me for some years. On Sunday I added another.

Instrument is the closing song on Pierce’s first record in ten years - Father’s Son. It is that kind of work that we are well used to from the Alabama songwriter, guitarist and humble man of faith. These are literary songs on fascinating subjects with exquisite performances from Doug Lancio on guitar and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. 

The last three songs are perhaps the most potently spiritual. More is about mortality, co-written with one of the most respected writers in Christian music today, Andrew Peterson.

Look Over Your Shoulder is the obligatory Mark Heard cover on the new record. Heard produced Pettis’s debut and then passed away far too young. Pettis was so influenced by Heard that he committed to putting a Heard song on every album he would make. Look Over Your Shoulder is one of those subtle, deep and mysterious songs of dense theology that Mark Heard seems prolific in.

Instrument though is a special kind of song. At least for me. Music is my spiritual medium. Songs speak to me and I use them to reflect, to listen, to pray and to commit. 

Pierce has never worked in the Christian music industry but the spiritual depth of his work is second to none. 

Instrument is a grab you by the throat of your spiritual pilgrimage in the gentlest of ways. 


Let me be an instrument of your peace

Let me be a tool in your hand

Crooked and warped though I might be

Let me do some good here while I can


If I still had my radio show this song would blend beautifully into the Prayer of St. Francis, Make A Channel of Your Peace perhaps the Sinead O’Connor version or Sarah McLachlan’s. They very obviously link and Pierce dedicates the song to Denis Grady a secular member of the Order Of St Francis who has a penchant for music.

Denis Grady says of the prayer, “We say the Prayer of St. Francis daily—it’s really challenging when difficulties come up on our path. ‘Where there is hatred, let me sow love.’ I believe this is impossible for one to do alone, but with God it is possible.”

You can see where Pierce would get inspired. His song goes on:


Let me be a vessel for your grace

Let me the first one to forgive

Though the world may curse me to my face

Let me learn to bear it like you did


This is a deep study in following Jesus in five short verses. It has a wonderful altar call ending:


Make me faithful, make me grateful

Make me useful in this life

All this living without giving

Give me one more chance to try


It is potent stuff! What I love about Pierce’s songs is that the depth of his spirituality is never ethereal but always plugged into every day practice of ordinary living. 

Instrument will be a song that I will use regularly in personal devotionals and also in Fitzroy in communal worship. It is a spiritual classic both as song and as Christian teaching. A rarity in its creation. Let us pray that it doesn’t not end up rare in its use.  



Every year I get excited by the music that features across the programming of our 4 Corners Festival.

This year there is a plethora of musical gifting on the bill and also the undercard.

Obviously Gary Lightbody (In Conversation) and Ken Haddock (Belfast Songbook) are the big musical events. Both are sold out with a waiting list.

Do not miss though all the other performances.

The world renowned folk singer Tommy Sands will be singing twice at the Festival. He will be a major contributor to Grace Beneath The Cranes where he will be the singer between two poets Linda Molloy and Beano Niblock.

Tommy will also be part of the Stephen Travers: Life In Songs event. Stephen will tell his story of being in Ireland burgeoning Show Band scene to fighting for his life after the Miami Showband massacre and then up to date.

We are thrilled to have Brian Houston performing one of his new Celtic worship songs at our BBC Radio Ulster Sunday service. Brian’s new songs seek to have authentic cultural worship for the Irish. An exclusive!

Beki Hemingway, our American Songwriter with the awesome voice living in Dundalk, has closed the last two Festivals. This year she sings at Grace Moments in St Anthony’s where Bishop Alan Abernethy and Brendan McAllister will be the speakers.

We are thrilled to have Anthony Toner back at 4 Corners too. Anthony’s recent record Our Lady Of The Wind and Rain was one my favourite records of 2019 and Anthony will be showing us the power of words in a poetry and song mix up with Damian Gorman who will be in conversation with Jude Hill.

Dave Thompson who has brought his songwriting to the Festival a few times is back as part of our Considering Grace event. This is an evening when we will read Presbyterian responses to the Troubles in St John’s Parish on the Falls Road with Seamus Mallon responding.

Finally we are delighted to add Jamie Neish to the bill for our closing evening when Peter McVerry and Ruth Koch will be telling us how we can be instruments of grace across the world and literally on our doorsteps.

This is a lot of music and as with all things 4 Corners Festival… all of the very best quality.

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It is hard to believe that a record by a legend of rock music for over 55 years, guitarist when Bob Dylan went electric and main writer in the iconic The Band could shank out unnoticed but I wasn’t the only fan to miss the release of Robbie Robertson’s new album Sinematic. Thank you Gar Saeger for having it in your 2019 Records of the Year and tipping me off!

It is a shame to have been such a secret. It is a work of deep quality. Not that we would expect anything else from Robbie Robertson but I have to say that this for me is the most satisfying Robertson solo record since his eponymous debut in 1987. 

With the Oscars coming up in February it is cutting edge that the lead off track is I Hear You Paint Houses, a line from the film that Robertson did the soundtrack for. Morrison as a De Niro type character works for me!

Morrison is not the only Irishman helping out on Sinematic. Glen Hansard features on the political comment song Let Love Reign, my personal favourite. Best featured vocalist of all is Felicity Williams Particularly on Walk In Beauty Way. 

Robbie Robertson’s memoir Testimony rates, in my opinion as one of the best ever rock biographies and it is hard to imagine that it didn’t impact Sinematic. Dead End Kid and has particular autobiographical detail. I love that it mentions the Scarborough Bluffs a beautiful area of one of my favourite cities Toronto where Robertson grew up.

Robertson has rarely been so introspective or so keen on political opinion: - 


As world leaders take us

On a guided tour of Hell 

Let love reign!


The spiritual dabs in and out too. Morrison sings 


Hope my father up above

Will forgive me for my sins 


That is not the end of the spiritual. Some of us, Robertson says are Hardwired to God:


People falling to their knees

Tryin' to keep the faith

There's a man upstairs lookin' down

With pity on the human race


Most of all Let Love Reign takes a lead from the teaching of Jesus:


Oh, let love reign

On your enemy

Let love reign down

Over you and me


And has a prayer time too:


In my time, we’ve bowed our heads

In sorrow of mankind

Raisin' hope that tomorrow

There may peace of mind


Right across Sinematic there is that smooth gentle blues atmosphere that only Robertson can conjure. What lifts Sinematic above his other five records is the subject matter and songwriting. Writing a biography and working on soundtracks with Martin Scorsese has led Robertson into the seam of a rich zone.