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October 2020

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - LETTER TO YOU

Bruce

If we ever had the time again

Then I would make more time

In the meantime I’ll hear your whispering

In every Bruce Springsteen rhyme.

 

I wrote these words back in June when my friend Glenn Jordan died suddenly. It is still hard to take in. I attempted to capture Glenn in a poem that had me standing beside him, by his own secret gifting, watching Bruce Springsteen at the Kings Hall on a July afternoon in 2013. Glenn and our other mate Mark Houston were Bruce mega-fans. I wondered if I knew anything about Bruce at all when I was with them!

Not long after I wrote the words I heard there would be a new Springsteen album this year. I immediately considered what that would be like with out Glenn. As I listened to that record, as soon as it went on stream at midnight, I could hardly take in the extra poignancy.

 

The opening lines of the first song One Minute You’re Here:

 

Big black train comin' down the track

Blow your whistle long and long

One minute you're here

Next minute you're gone

 

The closing lines of the last song I’ll See You In My Dreams:

 

I'll see you in my dreams when all the summеrs have come to an end

I'll see you in my dreams, we'll meet again in another land

I'll see you in my dreams, yeah around the river bend

For death is not the end

And I'll see you in my dreams

 

Bless my soul. It wasn’t just that I was imagining Glenn’s thoughts about these songs. They almost became about him. If you’ve lost a fanatical Bruce fan in recent months this record is emotional, cathartic, and somehow with a little Springsteen genius, celebratory.

Bruce Springsteen has lost a lot of friends down the years. It is well known about the death’s of The E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici but it seems that it was the death of George Theiss from Springsteen’s first band The Castiles that inspired Letter To You.

Letter To You is as urgent a record as Springsteen has made in decades. It is loud and raw and rocks out with only that opening One Minute You’re Here showing any reflective quiet.

Every other song sees The E Street Band let loose, tight as ever and playing to the very edge of full tilt. Letter To You is a bang bang bang of boom boom rock songs. There’s no let up and no desire to even get up to turn the vinyl over. It is as gripping from start to finish as any Bruce Springsteen album has ever been.

Now that doesn’t mean that it is the best Springsteen album though with an artist like Springsteen that is a futile venture. You can’t set 50 year’s of a catalogue side by side never mind the different genres and reasons to make albums that Springsteen has dabbled in.

Letter To You is not full of hit singles or songs crafted to a sheen. If ever a record needed listened to all the way through this is it. It sounds like a band becoming aware of their mortality and deciding to get together and have a big blow out before they get blown out. The fun of playing with mates is all over this record. There is an urgency in the joy of it in the midst of the grieving around them.

If it had come out 40 years ago who knows how many of these songs would still be in the set list but if this band can get out the other end of Coronavirus intact then these songs will fly off the stage on the next band tour. Letter To You, Last Man Standing, Land Of A Thousand Guitars, Ghosts and even Power Of Prayer are songs full of the joy of bands and music. Live? It’ll be something!

Of course I am now considering that if I should ever see this live in Belfast my friend Glenn will not be there to stand beside me and enjoy it. I hope though that as Bruce rejoices about life and celebrates the love of lost friends on the stage that we will all be part of that emotion in the crowd. Bruce has broken that barrier yet again. He has spoken for us and yes Glenn I hear you whispering… 

 

Ghosts runnin' through the night

Our spirits filled with light

I need, need you by my side

Your love and I'm alive.


DOUGLAS COUPLAND - GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA

Douglas Coupland Girlfriend

"In your old life you had nothing to live for. Now you do. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go clear the land for a new culture...If you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world - if you're not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order - then you're wasting your day."

Do those words not make you want to rush out the door and go change the world? Could we not do with rethinking the nature of things? Should we not be about boiling the carcass of the old order? 

These are words of rebuke, in that I feel as I read them that indeed I have been wasting my day. Yet the rebuke comes with a motivating sense of invitation to just go and stop wasting anymore time. If there is still a reason for that Sunday morning ritual of climbing pulpit steps and preaching down to a congregation then these are the words what should be preached. 

I long to sit beneath that pulpit and hear these words fill me with energy and to head home to Sunday dinner with enough strength to be part of their revolutionary implications.

Yet these words did not come from the houses of God but from the pages of a modern novel. Douglas Coupland was go to novelist in the lat 90s and early noughties. Introduced to his work by my good friend David DarkGeneration X, Life After God and Hey Nostradamus had quotations scattered all over my Chaplaincy sermons when I worked at Queens University. My former students in Derryvolgie Hall will be yawning at this! 

Coupland grew up with no hint of religion in his home or his North Vancouver neighbourhood. He later resented his parents attempts to keep him away from such pursuits, claiming he ended up having to piece together his own religious worldview. Doing that in his writing, Girlfriend In a Coma (a nod to his fandom of The Smiths) leads him to the very edge of Christianity itself with the echoes of all kinds of theological ideas strewn through it. 

The novel is about the ills of modern society, the healing and redeeming of such and the saving of souls. Briefly Karen falls into a coma in her high school year. Before doing so she has an apocalyptic vision of the future. She tells her boyfriend, "It was just us, with our meaningless lives. Then I looked up close...and you all seemed normal, but your eyes were without souls". Karen becomes the girlfriend in the coma and misses seventeen years of her life before. 

Though the book deals with the changes from the world she fell asleep in, in 1981, to the world she wakened up again in in 1998 (she misses out on Princess Diana entirely), it is about the lives of her friends and the fulfilment of Karen's vision, when they become the only people left on planet earth. 

Another old friend who died in his early teens, Jared, appears as a friendly ghost, who reveals to them their "deep down inside" ills and redeems them. It is then he says that they can get the world back but only if they decide too. "You're going to have to lead another life soon; a different life. You can get the world back yet.” 

So to the climactic words at the top of this article which are worth repeating. They have been a dog at my heel for over twenty years., provoking my spiritual life. Now that is a novel with impact. 

If you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world - if you're not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order - then you're wasting your day."


HEALING IN AUTUMN WONDER

Gold Tree

photo: Janice Gordon-Stockman

 

The air is heavy in the atmosphere of Covid-19. 

One of the disciplines I have found helpful as I seek some resilience to help me make it through the challenge is to take time to take in the wonder of the world. A walk with Janice and Jed. Looking harder for goodness and blessing. 

Chestnuts. No great usefulness. Not even in the playground anymore. Yet, their beauty. The colour. The shine. You cannot leave them on the ground…

 

Sunny October Sunday

Underneath Manchester City skies

If Lucy walked among these trees

She’d sing of all the gold drip dyes

My mind falls through to old Grange Road

Scrunching home in crunching leaves

Churning up our childhood innocence 

In stories while a dear friend grieves

I take a breath of God fresh air

In an atmosphere fret and fateful

A little healing in autumn wonder

Gathering chestnuts of my grateful.


TOM PETTY - WILDFLOWERS & ALL THE REST

Wildflowers

A few days into listening across the 4CD set that is Tom Petty’s remastered and reconfigured Wildflowers & All The Rest record and I am wondering if my favourite 3 Petty albums are right here in the one package! 

In 1988 I had heard rumours that Tom Petty was doing a side project without the Heartbreakers. I loved the Heartbreakers but I had this wee desire for a stripped back acoustic songwriter record. Much as I loved Full Moon Fever when it eventually appeared but it was different than I dreamed. 

As I listened to the All The Rest vinyl disc from Wildflowers & All The Rest I began to think that this was what I had wanted. Something Could Happen, Hope You Never and Hung Over and Overdue. It is not just Petty and an acoustic guitar but this is a raw honed songwriting that I don’t find anywhere in a Tom Petty catalogue that I love the vast majority of. 

There is something special about Wildflowers. I do love Full Moon Fever and actually when Jeff Lynne came back on board for Highway Companion I loved that too but Rick Rubin did something for Petty’s craft and muse. 

Apparently Rubin sent Petty away to listen to The Beatles Esher Sessions. These were the post Rishikesh songs that the band demoed at George Harrison’s house. As a result of their origins in India they were very acoustical based and that acoustic sound is all over the Wildflowers songs, particularly the ones that the band didn’t get as much time with.

Sometimes with artists with such longevity as Petty I find that some records found more traction than others, not because of the quality of the record but because of where my life or listening was just then. For me Long After Dark was somehow more a favourite than Wildflowers which is in retrospect is without Petty’s finest moment, even Petty himself agreed.

Whatever circumstances in my life (moving city and job maybe) that caused me not to connect with Wildflowers in 1994 is all for my benefit now. Oh I knew the songs - You Don’t Know How It Feels, You Wreck Me, the title track - I just didn’t know the entire record. So, now I am discovering my favourite Tom Petty record 25 years later than I should have.

As if to help me do it, Petty’s daughter has gifted us all the original Wildflowers record with 10 tracks All The Rest that should have been on it. I would love to have heard Petty's 1994 sequencing but hey. Then... there's more... another CD full of home recordings. After a listen to those Home Recordings I am actually thinking that the deluxe box set of Wildflowers now holds my favourite 3 Tom Petty records. 

These Home Recordings are not flimsy, half recorded sketches of songs we hear on the actual record. They are complete. They are of a high quality. That acoustic record I had longed for. Here it is. The harmonica on Only A Broken Heart and the piano on Wake Up Time remind me of Neil Young’s Harvest. Yet, the entire batch has its Beatles’ moments. Petty’s voice is totally committed and never so vulnerable. 

Then there is a live CD that brings it to Heartbreakers-ville. Oh yes, they all play on the actual Wildflowers record but when these guys took songs onto a stage they brought different incarnations, more jammed out, improvised, soul filled. 

My only annoyance is the delivery of this treasure trove. Double Cd. Triple LP. 4 CDs. 7 vinyl discs. 5 CD set. 9 vinyl discs and even an ultra deluxe version of the 9 vinyl.

This is the artist who is renowned and revered for challenging the price of an album back in the early 80s because he thought it might price fans out. Now he has his name to packages at $250 and $500. Come on.

Now, I know that Adria Petty has been meticulous in the packaging, which in every format is detailed and delicious, but as a big fan who has bought all Petty’s albums some on both CD and vinyl I would like all of his stuff and I cannot justify paying $100 for one extra CD for the 5CDs. If I did spend that money I couldn’t support other artists by being able to invest in their work. It is time to rethink these deluxe editions. 

Having said all of that, this is as good as box sets get. I cannot get enough of it. I’ve waited 32 years for these records. They are utterly wonderful.


MARILYNNE ROBINSON - GILEAD

Gilead

Since I discovered Gilead in the summer of 2009 its writer Marilynne Robinson seems to have been everywhere. That even includes Fitzroy where I got to greet welcome her to the book launch of my predecessor Rev Dr Ken Newell’s memoir Captured By A Vision.

Friends have published Doctorates, Masters thesis and other academic papers on her writing. She has become a strong voice in the public conversation of today’s fragmented and fractious America. She is intelligent and articulate. Even more exciting is that at the core of all she thinks, says and more importantly writes is a theological core.

Some might think that the story of a dynasty of minsters might fit too obviously into my reading schedule but quite the reverse.  I try to avoid anything that smacks of my job for my holiday reading. It is a holiday! 

For me to read about ministers in our Ballycastle hideaway, the writing would need to be something special!  Well Marilynne Robinson is something special.  When Bryan Appleyard’s back cover endorsement calls her “one of the greatest living novelists” he is not exaggerating. Pulitzer and Orange prizes (for Gilead and the follow up Home respectively) back up his assessment.  

Robinson writes with poetic prose that captures stunning images and with deep insight into the intricacies of the human psyche. More than that she goes to deep soul and asks her questions of love, forgiveness, loyalty, sin and redemption from a specifically Christian context, leaning at times on the Calvinistic; portraying all of that in its better hues!

The book is written in the form of a very, very long letter from an ageing minister to a very young son of a second late marriage, to a much younger woman, but ends up as the journaling of a tough relationship between the narrator Rev James Ames and Jack Boughton his best mate another minister’s son.  

In the midst of his wider life story and this more specific scenario you get a liberal sprinkling of spiritual nuggets that reveals that theological interest that I mentioned earlier.

At one point she writes, through old Rev. Ames, “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”  It is the attention that Robinson gives that planet that brings a new vitality, indeed transcendence to things that become too familiar, losing their sacredness. Robinson’s intrigue and fascination with the human being is obvious in everything she does

For me work did sneak in. Gilead elevated the familiar in our church liturgy and sacraments. She described baptism as “sacredness under my hand”. There's the preciousness of the human being again. 

Even more, the benediction. For too long that had become like the credits scrolling at the end of a movie. You didn’t even need to stay until the end. Many new churches have jettisoned it as a result. Ms Robinson gives it back all of its potency - “it was an honour to bless him.”  That privilege of blessing each other has become a vital part of our Sunday in Fitzroy. 

In the end the words, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.  You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see,” sum it up.  Gilead refocused my eyes and strengthened the ardour of my willingness. It was a joy to read and its benefits go on.


TOMORROW IN FITZROY - 18.10.2020

Fitzroy TV

Tomorrow in Fitzroy we are ONLY meeting on-line. The service will go live on YouTube at 11am.

I am very excited about Philippians 2. I am thinking it might just have become my favourite chapter in all of the Scripture. Robust theology. Christology in poetic form. Applied in everyday relationships. A pastors heart shaping the choice of theology and the application. I  suggest that Covid 19 might be for our spiritual fitness what sand dunes are to preseason soccer players.

In a week where we all seem to be at Tether's End we will look to see how we can see this theology of Jesus as the help for us to see each other through and become better disciples. An original poem and song as sonic aids.


TETHER’S END

Sign Tethers End

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

 

We are at Tether’s End

Dizzy and out of control

Hurled against our will

Weary and fractured souls

 

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.

 

We are at Tether’s End

Where do we get tested

Rules changing all the time

After all that we invested

We are at Tether’s End

When can we visit grandma

Is the baby counted in the bubble

And what’s wrong with the cinema

 

We are at Tether’s End

Exhausted from the fall

Fractious and pontificating

Like we know it all

 

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.


TRIBUTE TO MY FRIEND JAY SWARTZENDRUBER

Jay Swartzendruber

Late last night as I was scanning Facebook my friend Gar Seeger posted about the death of Jay Swartzendruber. I took a double take. Surely not. There have been far too many deaths of friends in recent months, so many younger than me, and Jay’s rattled me more than most. Jay death was sudden. He was only 52.

Jay Swartzendruber was a man of real authenticy and integrity. He was a man of God of the very best kind. He was a creative. Like me he used his creativity to promote creatives. He was a writer who enthused about music and propelled artists with his journalistic skills into the wider conscious.

When I met Jay he was editor of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) magazine that in the mid 90s was the voice of a huge industry. He was the friend of the artist. He was passionate about both the "music" and the "Christian" parts of the title.

Soon he was helping Steve Taylor launch Squint Entertainment and launching artists like Sixpence None The Richer out of that CCM ghetto and into the mainstream charts. I remember him sending me the video of Kiss Me that I showed to my students long before they were all singing along to it. It gave me some cred!

It was his place in that world of musicians with a Christian faith that got him his mention in my book Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2. In 2005 Jay was a conduit for Bono meeting up with some of CCM’s most influential musicians in the Art House in Nashville. 

While trying to convince President George W Bush to contribute more help to the HIV crisis in sub Sahara Africa, Bush had encouraged Bono to reach out to the evangelical Christian community of America. Bono did six weeks in the heartland and the Nashville meeting was an influential part of that. Jay was at the heart of it.

Jay was probably more conservative than I was both theologically and politically. For the last ten years he has been Copywriter at Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He also liked George W Bush. We discussed that a few times.

With Jay, though there was never an argument. He held his views. He held them strongly. Yet, he shared them gently. As I spend time in the sacred space of reminiscing Jay’s passing it is that that rises to the top. Oh I loved that we loved music, the same music and how he enthused. 

Yet, it was his openness to listen and the gracious way he shared his views and never belittled the opinion of others that I treasure and am most inspired by. Jay was the epitome of grace, not grace as a theological concept so much as a way to live. The tributes from a wide range of friends is testament to a man who was consumed by the grace of God in fun, laughter, love and enthusiasm.

Now, here is the final twist. I only met Jay once in person. We were both involved in the marriage of our friends David Dark and Sarah Masen. Jay might have been the reason they got together.  

Jay is one of the reasons that I argue that social media is not an alternative to real life connection. It is a supplement. Indeed, there are many like Jay whom I meet rarely, if ever, but feel a spiritual kinship. Originally Jay and I were on an email community called Time Being set up by our mutual friend Lee Smithey. Then it was Facebook. Friendship continued.

In the last 24 hours I have read endless tributes to Jay. I recognise every one. The man I felt I knew thousands of miles away on social media is the same human being thanked and loved by those who knew him better. Love and prayers tonight to his close friends and to his wife Jaimie who will be most heartbroken of all.  


6 FIXES OF SOUL - STOCKI'S SPIRITUAL RULE OF 6 - SEARCHING OUR FAULT LINES

6 Yellow Tape

In recent sermons I have been speaking about my Spiritual Rule Of Six. It has been tweaked from an idea in the Oxford Diocese. My suggestion is that we set a target of 6 months to Easter. In that time we see 6 Fixes in our own souls, 6 People to care for and 6 Acts of Salt & Light in neighbourhood and world.

In this blog I open up the 6 Fixes.

 

“See those fault lines
Lay down like land mines
It's hard to relax
A promise broken
The ground breaks open
Love falls through the cracks

And I've got a few of my own
I've got a few of my own fault lines
Running under my life
Running under my life”

This Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ song rattles around my brain a lot, challenging my spiritual life. It is a great song and this is a great image. Petty has lived in California for some 40 years and that idea of the San Andreas Fault lying beneath you all the time could be a frightening thought if you allowed it to linger. Over 200 people have lost their lives in earthquakes in that State since I was born in 1961. 

Petty’s song though is not about tectonic geographical shifts. He is using the image to dig deep in his own life. Another song on the same Hypnotic Eye album goes, “Meet me tonight at the Red River/And look down into your soul…” There is a lot of soul searching going on here and so I looked deep down into mine.

Fault lines are not necessarily sins. They are those things that have made up your core. They are events or circumstances that have happened to you or around you that have somehow bruised, broken or beaten your soul out of shape. They might not be bad things, just circumstances but until we come to terms with them we live on top of their potential danger.

My old history teacher Bob Mitchell probably didn’t teach me much history but a phrase of his has lingered with me since I was 17. He once told us that any great human being was someone who was aware of his or her weaknesses. A great boxer, he went on, knows that vulnerable spot, maybe a vulnerable eye that can get easily cut. Knowing this weakness he will defend that eye. It will be vital if he is to be a champion.

I have many times taken Big Bob's advice and looked deep inside and asked where there might be fault lines; because of where I was born; the family that I was raised in; my social class; the creed that I was spiritual formed in; the political ideology I was steeped in; the era I was born into. For me, among many others, one of the crucial fault lines is that I am an only child and that brings with it all kinds of formations at my core.

When Jesus encountered people he was intuitive about their fault lines. He meets the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 and he opens up her fault lines. She is a Samaritan and a woman who came to the well alone in the heat of the day. He had a few clues as to where to bore into the strata of her life. It is all very different than Nicodemus’s fault lines in the previous chapter of John. 

Before pastoral care or spiritual formation can be effective there is a need to analyse the fault lines. For me personally I have to be constantly searching my own fault lines.

I need to be aware of them if I am going to allow God’s objective redemption, that is mine, to become subjective in how it works itself out in my living.

Then as a pastor, my pastoral care cannot be a one fits all blue print. Every member of my congregation has different fault lines and to care for each is going to need a different approach depending. Any pastor will benefit when his flock are good in their own self critique and awareness of the fault lines running under their lives.

As we consider the 6 Fixes in my Spiritual Rule Of 6 then the place to begin might be our fault lines... Take Psalm 139 at its word:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Invite the Holy Spirit to seep deep down in the strata of your soul to see where those inherent weaknesses and fault lines are. See it is a health check of the soul... but not drive in!