Previous month:
September 2020
Next month:
November 2020

October 2020

HOW U2'S ALL THAT YOU CAN'T LEAVE BEHIND CHANGED MY LIFE

Walk On cover

(It is the 20th Anniversary of U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind. here is why I am particularly fond of that record. This blog is more autobiographical for my own records. If you enjoy it then it is a bonus...)

 

During the year 2001 I was writing a book about U2. At that time Relevant Media were considering publishing books and somehow they asked me to write one on U2. 

As I was writing the book during 2000 it was probably only a Christian audience who might have been interested a book on U2. Oh they were still big but the Pop record and Popmart Tour had seen a little lull. As Bono would say at the early gigs after All That You Can’t Leave Behind came out, they were trying to get back to being the best band in the world. 

In 2000 they weren’t BUT Christians were still fascinated by the band’s faith. Did they still have one? Where was it in the songs?

I actually received two emails in one week. A guy I had never heard of from Relevant asked me what was on my heart? Another guy gave off about an article I had written about U2 that he had found on my website. He said they no Christian faith at all.  

I was intrigued by that first email. Enraged by the second. Having sussed that Relevant might be going into publishing, I answered the first by sending an email that read, “What do you mean? Are you thinking about a book?” I then started jotting down an answer to the second email and said to Janice, “Someone needs to write a book about the theology of U2. Like an apologetic.”

Well, the answer back from Relevant was that they were thinking of a book - had I ever thought of writing a book on U2?! Come on! I sent them the thoughts I had shared with Janice and that was that. I wonder if they thought I was Steve Turner? Maybe?

Anyway, as I got on with the book, U2 released the lead single Beautiful Day. Sales soared. I even had a daughter jasmine born on the day that song went to number 1 in the UK. When All That You Can’t Leave Behind came out to much fanfare the band were suddenly on the up. Then the Elevation Tour sent them even higher.

By the time Walk On; The Spiritual Journey Of U2 came out we were in a unique situation. Some might call it luck, others might define it as providence! No one had considered this resurrection of U2’s popularity. Certainly no publishers. As a result Relevant’s book with this unknown Irishman was all the fans had. Press U2 into your books search on Amazon in 2001 and Steve Stockman was what came up.

At one stage we were actually in the Amazon Top 100 books. Relevant did a great job too and soon Walk On was displayed on every book table in every major Record and Bookstore across America. We were suddenly being translated into many languages. 

The book opened up my life, way beyond Belfast. I was suddenly flying to America, first of all to speak at The Cathedral of  The Advent in Birmingham, Alabama and then at the first Festival Of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am thankful to Paul Zahl and Kenneth Heffner respectively.

As a result of those invitations, by two men who got my desire to unpack the spirituality of rock music, I have been going on little tours to America ever since, speaking at Universities and Churches. I even had the privilege of being Writer in Residence at Regent College, Vancouver. I have met many dear friends as a result.

Walk On also opened up opportunities in the wider world. I was on a panel about faith and music chaired by Melvyn Bragg in his famous South Bank studio. I was interviewed on Sky News after U2 won 5 awards at the 2006 Grammies. I got to narrate a radio documentary on BBC Radio Ulster on U2’s 1987 Joshua Tree Tour concert at The Kings Hall in Belfast.

I always say that many many people could have written Walk On. I  got the privilege to write it for a community of us. I also think that without the quality and radio friendliness of All That You Can’t Leave Behind and the Elevation Tour that followed it the book might not have been the success it was. However, perhaps Relevant Books’s foresightedness deserves recognition too. 

Whatever I consider myself so blessed for this particular chapter in my life and am very thankful for the role that all That You can't Leave Behind played in it. 


THE BEATITUDES - TOMORROW IN FITZROY 1.11.2020

Fitzroy Side

Tomorrow in Fitzroy (going live on-line at 11am) we will be unpacking The Beatitudes. Oh my goodness but what goodness there is in this poetic beginning to the Sermon On The Mount.

We will read them with an American accent just two days before the US Election ask what these words say to those who have feelings of entitlement. We will also look at the Beatitudes in these challenging days of Coronavirus and ask where the secret of deep souled contentment lies. 

There will also be announcing good November news for Fitzroy and hearing a new song based on an old one written by John Trinder, sung by Norman McKinlay and played like a Fitzroy Blues Band to lift our souls as we long for that sense of home of gathering together. 

You are welcome to watch whenever and wherever you can.


I HAVE A NEW BOOK OUT FOR CHRISTMAS - FROM THE KILLING FIELDS TO FIELDS OF LIFE

Stocki in Fitzroy Room

This photo was taken by Janice. It is July 2018 and I am working on the book in Pastor David Emazu's office in Arua, Uganda.

 

It was three years ago this weekend that I met up with Trevor Stevenson to discuss helping him write his memoir. At last, after three long years we are about to go to print and you can have From Killing Fields To Fields Of Life in your hands before Christmas!

In the Foreword to the book I tell the story of when I first said that I wanted to hear Trevor’s story. In August 2015, I was in Arua in north west Uganda, speaking at the opening of Onialeku Primary School. Fitzroy had funded a school building and we had partnered with Onialeku through Fields of Life.

As I wondered about all that had to happen in order that I would have the privilege to see this building and be somehow involved in it I took the story back to the beginning of Fields Of Life. A man leaving Ireland in 1993 set all this in motion. I had an urge to know how that came about.

Maybe God was listening and fancied a laugh. Maybe I was involved in Trevor’s story telling already and God hadn’t yet let me know. Whatever… at Halloween in 2017 I sat across from Trevor in a Bray hotel and agreed to help him write that story.

What a privilege it has been. When I get involved in an organisation, in the way Fitzroy did with Fields Of Life, I commit. I want to know everything. I want to get as involved as I can. Over the last three years, as I have worked on this book I have felt privileged to have spent time in both the Lisburn and Kampala offices, got to know all of the staff and got to visit some of the crucial places in the story of the organisation.

After that meeting with Trevor in 2017, I was privileged to travel to the Teachers’ Conference in Mukona in January 2018, be there for the 25th Anniversary celebrations of Fields Of Life, before spending a week travelling with Trevor around Uganda, even up to Karamoja for the cutting of the ground for a new school funded by Fields of Life Alumni.

In June of that same year I took a sabbatical and travelled to Uganda to work on the book. Trevor sent me 130,000 words. I had to cut it in half, shape it and make it gripping. As someone who always dreamed of being a writer I was in my element. Every day, Janice, Caitlin and Jasmine would go off and work with Fields Of Life, visiting schools etc. Jasmine did her School placement in the Child Sponsorship department. I would sit in the apartment beside the office and scribble and type. 

We headed north to Arua and I continued to shape. It was so poignant writing chapters about the northern part of Uganda, actually there in the areas that it happened. We drove through Luwero. That is where Trevor’s Ugandan story began. The Luwero Triangle was known in recent Ugandan history as The Killing Fields. Trevor wanted to transform them into Fields Of Life.

Books take time. They take longer when none of those involved are professionals. After the sabbatical I did not have the time to concentrate on a book. Trevor runs a church too. Then there are professional editors and designers and printers never mind a few lawyers. Oxford commas!

I think it is worth the time and the wait. There is drama. Lots of drama. There is terrorism, bombs, crash landings, a financial scandal, suspected Ebola, an Irish President Mary McAleese landing in a helicopter in the middle of nowhere and the President of Burundi coming to Hillsborough Castle after a throwaway invitation!  

There is vocational wrestling, cultural adaption, spiritual discernment and organisational development. There is dancing and tears, fears and prayer, loyalty and betrayal. There is a stuttering beginning and a 25 year celebration that reveals the incredible  impact of Fields Of Life across East Africa - hundreds of thousands of children educated and three quarters of a million people given the gift of clean water.

Trevor’s story is the first chapter in Fields Of Life’s story. Above and underneath is the story of God using one ordinary man and his wife Ruth to do extraordinary things. It is a book about discipleship, vocation and mission.

Before becoming an Anglican minister Trevor had grown up a farmer. One day resting on a hay bale he had the chat with his dad about maybe leaving the farm and giving his life to the ministry. As I sat with Trevor at the 25th Anniversary Celebrations in Mukono I leaned over and suggested that the story of Fields Of Life’s impact on lives, communities and indeed nations was a harvest that no farmer could ever even dream of. “From hay bales to hallelujahs," I said. We laughed and thankfully it remained a joke rather than the title of the book! 

 

I have some books if you would like to call and pick one up... £10

Or you can order it online FIELDS OF LIFE SHOP


CRAIG BROWN - ONE TWO THREE FOUR: THE BEATLES IN TIME

1 2 3 4 Beatles

 

I have read the good, the bad and the ugly of Beatles books. If we include individual blogs it is probably well over 100. I rarely review the bad ones. I concluded that Craig Brown’s deserved a review. 

Brown writes in his own signature kaleidoscopic way that he used in his last prize winning book Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret. It is a quirky lay out. To prove the point the last chapter is a chapter about Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein and begins with his death and goes backwards so that the book ends with his first appearance at The Cavern in 1961. 

So, we get a smorgasbord of 150 chapters. At times bizarre. Funny. Frivolous. Serious. Flighty. Shifting subjects and places. 

Usually, I like to hear about the songs. Craig doesn’t concentrate so much on that though the insights into Hey Jude and particularly I am the Walrus were helpful. 

Where Brown is strongest is writing about the people. The subtitle The Beatles In Their Time is more about the people around them in their time. Other singers and artists and celebrities, a range of fans and even tour guides from today. 

Brown does with some of this supporting cast something no one else has. At least in my reading. He brings some of them alive. They stop being names in the story. They become human with feelings and joys and mainly hurts.

Pete Best was no longer someone who played the drums before Ringo. In Brown’s writing I started to get inside Best’s story. I started to feel for him and to sense not only his disappointment but what must have been nothing more than utter betrayal. For a few pages The Beatles came down from their pedestal as cold and heartless. It is not the best part of their story. I was a little angry with them. I wondered how Paul feels looking back at what he did.

If we stay with the drummers I realised how almost traumatic his few days with the biggest band on the planet was. Why they made him part of the press and photographs is a little mystifying and it seems that he suffered for it. I was suddenly trying to wonder how I would have coped with such a bizarre incident in my life.

Then there was Cliff. At the beginning of 1962 Cliff Richard had no competition. A year later and he had been eclipsed from a planet that wasn’t in his universe. Even Elvis felt the Beatles’ effect. As he celebrates his 80th birthday just a few weeks after John Lennon's we should commend the Peter Pan of British pop for surviving that Beatlemania onslaught. I am only glad that as Cliff plugs his new autobiography The Dreamer he is using a John Lennon quote “Before Cliff Richard and the Shadows, there was nothing worth listening to in British music.” They who out-cooled him are giving him his cool back some 60 years later! 

Finally Brian Epstein. The man who made it all happen is another sad story in the tale. Brown gets us inside the mind and soul of the businessman who knew nothing about rock n roll and yet honed these four unruly boys into musical icons.

Craig Brown doesn't come to his work with the same full hard drive of a Steve Turner or Ray Connolly. Yet, overall the short snappy chapters always allowed something to regain my attention quickly when the interest wained. I do recommend it.  


GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY - A SHORT REFLECTION

Get Out Of Your Own Way

 

I was preaching on Psalm 46… The Friday before, my friend Jim Deeds led us in prayer at a 4 Corners Festival planning meeting… Jim used a Richard Rohr quote about getting out of the way… Ah, thought I… that’s maybe where Bono get’s the line Get Out Of Your Own Way… Bono is a big reader of Rohr… my sermon took a meditative shift…  

 

Be still and know that I am God

- Psalm 46: 10 (NIV)

 

Stop striving and know that I am God;

- Psalm 46: 10 (NASB)

 

Healthy religion is always about love. All we can do is get out of the way. 

- Richard Rohr

 

The slaves are lookin' for someone to lead them

The master's lookin' for someone to need him

The promised land is there for those who need it most

And Lincoln's ghost said:

Get out of your own way

- U2

 

 

Get out of your own way

Moses had to do it when he made feeble excuses at the burning bush

 

Get out of your own way

His brothers had to do it when little David arrived to fight Goliath with only a sling 

 

Get out of your own way

Jonah had to do it when sectarianism prevented him fulfilling his calling 

 

Get out of your own way

David had to do it when he acknowledged his transgressions

 

Get out of your own way

Isaiah had to do it when he came face to face with a holy God

 

Get out of your own way

Peter had to do it when Mary told him tall tales about an empty tomb

 

Get out of your own way

Thomas had to do it when he doubted

 

Get out of your own way

Paul had to do it, all wrapped up in his legalism, on the Damascus Road

 

Get out of your own way

Where do I have to do it?

 

Get out of your own way

 

Stop striving

 

Be still… and know that I am God


WITCHES AND GHOULS - KEEPING OUR STREET SAFE FOR HALLOWEEN

Halloween 2

So many of our immediate neighbours have young children. in about 13 years the teenage parties will be loud! This year they have gotten to that age where Halloween has become important. Our walk with Jed late at night has become like walk through haunted houses. The webs (spiders not worldwide) covering hedges, a massive spider on a gate, the pictures in windows and… yes… moving pictures projected on the house.

As I walk I ponder. Is this not all that I have been trying to say in my annual Halloween blog these past few years? As I look in at these houses I feel that their decorations of witches and ghouls will scare all evil things away! 

As a diligent young Christian I stayed away from all things Halloween but the arrival of two daughters made me have to think again. They enjoyed the dressing up. How was I going to deal with it?

It wasn’t long before I took a more measured approach. 

My children were always imagining and dressing up, they were often reading stories of fairies and ghosts and witches including CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. Then there were all those games like Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosies  and rhymes like Rock-a-Bye-Baby based on some pretty dark themes. 

When I caught my then three year old daughter rhyming about catching an old man by the left leg and throwing him down the stairs, and showed some alarm, she said incredulously “it is only a rhyme daddy!”

Yet I still surmised. In my surmising I did some research and discovered that the reason for costumes may not have been about aligning yourself with demons and the dark side but actually about Christians protecting themselves from the dark side. The costumes may have been disguises to navigate a way through times of heightened evil presence. 

Perhaps once again Christianity has twisted the meaning of things with our lack of research, imagination and understanding. Sensationalist negativity has often been one of our weaknesses.

It all took me back to Bono, CS Lewis and Martin Luther... as it does! When Bono dressed up as the devil, on the Zoo TV period of U2, Christians circled the wagons for another cheap pop at his faith.

In my book Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 I pointed out that when asked, by a fan dancing with him on stage in his McPhisto outfit, if he was still a believer he answered her by asking if she’d ever read the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis... and the penny dropped. 

Another Christian author Os Guinness once wrote, Christians would die rather think. In fact most do." So, for that huge audience of thoughtless Christians, Bono slipped that CS Lewis book into the video for the Batman soundtrack U2 song Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me as if to reveal his cunning strategy. 

In CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Lewis gets inside the persona of a Senior and Junior devil to expose the devils schemes as he attacks the Church. In his Preface Lewis used the phrase, “mock the devil and he will flee from you,” paraphrasing the New Testament letter of James, “resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

As well as the verse in James, Lewis seems to have been recounting what Reformer Martin Luther once wrote, "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn."

Fascinating stuff. Enough to surmise that these haunted houses I walk by every evening are not celebrations of evil but quite the reverse. Mock the devil and he will flee from you. With wonderful imagination... all is very safe on our street! 

HOUSE PROJECTIONS


STUART BAILIE - 75 VAN SONGS

75 Van Songs

Imagine if a small city in a small part of the UK or Ireland (depending on the lottery of your birth) not only produced one of the icons of the rock genre but also a world class journalist who could write about it.

Stuart Bailie was assistant editor of NME at the height of Brit-pop 90s and has been accused of starting the Oasis - Blur war by Noel Gallagher! He has written in every rock magazine worth reading,  as well as books about Thin Lizzy and the Northern Irish Troubles, even sleeve notes for U2.

One of the revelations of 75 Van Songs is that none of the above would have happened had it not been for his landlady while he was picking fruit in the south of France in 1983 making him listen to Van Morrison’s Madame George on a cassette in the kitchen.

It was a conversion moment of sorts for Bailie. He writes in the Introduction “The songs of Van Morrison have given me decades of joy and fascination. They have  been companions through many life changes, instances of hurt and homesickness, romance and reflection.”

Part of me asks why it has taken so long for Stuart to finally write a book on Morrison. Another part of me thinks it might be better for the fact that it has been 37 years in the incubation. Almost four decades of Bailie listening, meditating and surmising on all of these songs.

And in some ways that is what we get. It is almost like a book of spiritual meditations. Janice and I took the opportunity in Kickstarter to be patrons of the book and were asked for our favourite song. Our song is Someone Like You which I didn’t even expect to be in the book. 

Yet, there it is and with “our” song Stuart does what every page of the book does. It is like he pries the song open and helps us hear, see and feel more:

“Someone Like You is the voice of a pilgrim who has done his searching and craves the illumination. He submits to us that, finally, he can see the light, but there’s no elation in his voice. It’s a quiet consolation, although when he talks of the best days ahead of him, it figures that the load has been lifted.”

It is beautiful and spiritual. Each entry is like a sacred manuscript, like a cross between Leonard Cohen’s Book Of Longing and Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs with a wee piece of John O’Donohue sprinkled in. You could do worse in your day than meditate on these reflections, listening to the song and taking a few minutes for quiet after.

Of course Stuart Bailie’s particular strength as well as his gift of writing is that he knows the city of Van Morrison. If anyone from wherever in the world wants to find the place of Van Morrison’s inspiration then Bailie takes us to the streets, churches, shipyards, windowsills and chip shops.

The book ends in an other worldly way fitting to the book and the work of Van Morrison. By seeming serendipity Bailie gets connected with the son of the man who owned Davy’s Chipper on the Beersbridge Road as featured in Sense Of Wonder. A photograph arrives of the Castlereagh Road in 1952. Stuart’s keen eye finds so many Morrison references in just one shot.

I have waited a long time for Stuart Bailie to write a book about Van Morrison. It was worth the wait. Everything I hoped for… and a lot of spiritual insights beyond!

 

You can purchase 75 Van Songs in No Alibis Book Shop on Botanic Avenue, Belfast or on line at https://www.musicglue.com/trouble-songs/products/75-van-songs 


AS COVID MAKES US FRACTIOUS - PAUL'S ADVICE MODELLING JESUS

Tether Cartoon

We are at Tether’s End

Question upon question

Distanced too far apart

Too much isolation

We are at Tether’s End

Months of dismal headlines

People dying every day

Friends risking on the frontlines

 

Seven months of this strange world. A tightening of restrictions last week might just have taken us to the end of our tether.

One of the outworking of our reaching Tether’s end, it seems to me, is fractiousness. I noticed it in television programmes, social media threads, Zoom meetings, conversations, even in my own disposition. I had to apologise for over reacting at a meeting.

At Tether’s End we seem to fall into serious bouts of knowing it all. We know better than the scientific experts, than the doctors in ICU, the politicians and the economists. There is not an expert in the world that we are not smarter than! Give us all a minute and we can fix it!

What we all need in such a place and in such a state is a radical humility and a whole lot of tolerance .

The apostle Paul has some advice and a good model for such a situation. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is written into a fractious situation. As their pastor in the first verses of chapter 2, he asks them to make his joy complete by being like minded and to find a unity of purpose.

To give them an illustration of what he means he sets down in verses 6 to 11 what seems to me to be the most succinct explanation of the Gospel in all of the New Testament. 

Many scholars say that these verses are from an early Church hymn. Modern worship writers should take note. In these few verses we get this radical ridiculous Gospel of Jesus in a nutshell. God left heaven, became human, as a servant and died for the world. That wasn’t the end, he was resurrected and ascended and at the end of time every knee will bow. 

It is that radical humility of God that Paul suggests is our model in fractious times. Just as God put us above himself so we should put one another above ourselves. That will lead us to be tolerant and comforting and compassionate to each other down here at Tether’s End.

It seems to me that we all need to stop and take a deep breath just now. Inhale the love of God. We all need to be gentle with ourselves, understand that some of this angst within us is a result of the state of the outside world. We all need to be tolerant towards others and we then need others to be tolerant to us. 

 

At Tether’s End

We need tolerance and grace

Tenderness and compassion

A comforting embrace

At Tether’s End

We need a radical humility

Others always above ourselves

The Spirit of like minded unity.


TOMORROW IN FITZROY AND ON-LINE - 25.10.2020

Fitzroy front

Tomorrow in Fitzroy's on-line service we will be taking a close look at Martin Luther's favourite Psalm. Psalm 46 is perhaps the section of Scripture that I have used most in my ministry but I have never preached on it.

I am thrilled to get a close look at it tomorrow in both the main on-line service (from 11am) and then the Reflective Gathering in Fitzroy at 5pm (only those who booked can get in). 

Outside help from Martin Luther but also a little bit of Richard Rohr and Bono "Be still and know that I am God" and "Get Out Of Your Own Way". 


4 CORNERS FESTIVAL 2021 - 5 THINGS EXCITING ME

4C 2021

So, after many months of hibernation and imaginative incubation we are delighted to tell you that the 4 Corners Festival 2021 programme is almost in the can for 2021. No pandemic is going to stop us from attempting to bring Belfast together and contribute some goodness into the ether.

5 things I am excited about:

 

1. Our theme. Breathe 

As the website says, The Hebrew word Ruach means ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ – the source of life. In our 2021 Festival, we seek to tap into that spirit and breathe hope into our city, fostering creativity and resilience as we respond to the challenges of the pandemic.”

 

2. Our logo…

Brian O’Neill has done a great job by taking the Breathe… theme and giving it a Belfast signature. You can tell that Brian has been blowing some bubbles with his young son Ronan because as soon as we told him the theme he had Nuala breathing out big imaginative bubbles all over the city.

 

3. Our platform… Virtual/Actual/Hybrid

We felt particularly blessed in 2020 that our Festival was one of the last in Belfast before the world went into lockdown. Coronavirus has threatened so many festivals but from our first planning meeting we were focused on having a 2021 Festival, no matter what.

Well, we might be locked down but we are rocked up and ready. We want to highlight how even staying well within the restrictions that are attempting to fight off this virus that we can present a quality festival. Enjoy it from the comfort of your own home. There will be no postponements due to the weather!  

This has added to the challenge but has been another instigator of imagination. 4 Corners Festival 2021 will be unique as a result.

 

4. Our Keynote… John Paul Lederach

At last. We have been trying so hard to have John Paul Lederach as a key note speaker for so many years. One of the advantages of these “lockdown” days is that we can welcome him virtually from Indiana right into every corner of Belfast.

A world authority on peace and reconciliation with a working knowledge of Belfast there is also a fascinating chapter in his book when Blood and Bones Cry Out where he unpacks how Van Morrison’s catalogue healed him after a bad car accident. 

 

5. My In Conversation With Duke Special

I cannot lie but my 4 Corners Festival series interviewing some of my very favourite songwriters has been a personal thrill, not only of the Festival, but of my life. This year we follow an amazing series of Gary Lightbody, Brian Houston, Ricky Ross and Iain Archer with an evening with Duke Special.

I have known his Dukeness for twenty five years and am looking forward to talking to him about how Belfast has influenced his work not only on record nut in this theatre work and his PhD thesis. Expect some compelling chatter and even more compelling music. 

I will even enjoy the over indulgence in Duke Special’s work between now and then… Quiet Revolutionaries Vol 2 ordered already!

 

See the full programme and book your spots here: 

https://4cornersfestival.com