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February 2021

DAVID GRAY - SKELLIG

Skellig

I loved David Gray. Century’s End, Flesh and Sell, Sell, Sell were like a prophet spitting out spiritual depth charge after charge. I remember researching my essay on his work in my book The Rock Cries Out and the abundance of provocative thoughts was so overwhelming that I could only listen to a couple songs at time.

I was so pleased when White Ladder finally took off. I had bought the original Irish release, out before anyone outside Ireland was interested.  It took time. Irish DJ Donal Dineen took Gray on as a crusade and I was so pleased the first time I heard Babylon on the radio. Recognition at last.

Something got lost though. Maybe it was just more subtle but I missed the angsty protest and social critique of Let the Truth Sting, Birds Without Wings and What Are You?. The more popular it got the less I bothered.

Until now. Skellig. Oh my. Skellig is a rough and wild outcrop of rock off the west coast of Ireland. In the 6th Century monks lived in stone beehives upon its dangerous jagged rocky edges. The extreme measures of it caught David Gray’s attention and through it he got mine:

 
"Each heart a burning vessel
Out on a pitch black wave
Chewing the bone and gristle
When it's the flesh of love we crave"
 
That's the sharp, insightful of all that's important about life, David Gray in the very best of his old traditional early 90s ways! 
 

Gray speaks of Skellig, the place, “Pondering that idea, of setting up a monastery in such a remote place, how close to God could you possibly wish to be? It blows my mind anyway, to get so close to God in a contemplative way.”

You can see why I am hooked. The thing is that the entire album seems to have the reflective spirit of those monks. It is as if his meditations on Skellig as he lived through lockdown. The entire album is like seeking the purity of our core humanity, stripping back, finding the wonder. 

Accumulation seems to the antithesis, like a throw back to Sell, Sell, Sell. What we need to find refuge and escape from:

 

Mindless need is loosed among us

In our homes and down our streets

Singing like some mythic creature

Of great Edеns, through the gates

And you can have bеtter suction

Even wanton destruction

And all of this at very competitive rates

 

There is something about the sound of the music that is like a 21st century sound of those monks praying. The album was made over 5 days, like a creative retreat. It is simple, quietly gentle, very organic. Contemplative.

It is beautiful, at times poetry, at times beautiful melody, always engaging. The backing vocals are not at all big but sound as Gray himself puts it, “like a Celtic Choir”.

To these ears it is soothing, interrogating, loving and uncomfortably challenging all at once. Like a Sacred Retreat might be. I am back to those pre White Ladder days when I was sure that it would be revealed that Gray had been brought up in Welsh Presbyterianism. I couldn’t believe it when he hadn’t.

Well, on Skellig it is not so much Presbyterians he is channeling as 6th Century Irish monks that he channeling and prodding my soul again… so beautifully. 


A WOODEN CROSS, SO CHERISHLY HONED (...AND I BELIEVE)

Jim's Cross

My dear brother Jim Deeds gifted me this beautiful rosewood holding cross. I had caught Jim doing a Facebook Live from his carving shed where he carefully works wood into beautiful things. I had commented on the wonder of this one and Jim being Jim later arrived at more door with it as a gift.

I am not sure Jim realised how spiritually significant it was. I have not been on full power these last few weeks and this little cross was more than a tonic for the troops. 

It reminded me of this poem and I have re-written aline or two to include Jim's cross. Every cross I see brings a refreshment to my soul. It is powerfully mysterious how it impacts me deep within.

So I wrote this back in the early 90s. There are nods to the CS Lewis film Shadowlands, Bruce Cockburn’s Southlands Of The Heart and Lies Damned Lies The Next Life. My friends Stuart McCrea, Nigel Reid and James Small turns dit into a song with their band Horsey Morgan.

Thank you Jim...

 

When you feel you are always one step behind

You’re arriving for the just departed train

When the slowest car on the road, it seems

Is at the end of the passing lane

Two twigs entwined

By a piece of string

Puts perspective on everything

And I believe

Yes, I believe.

 

When life doesn’t have to, but it still does

And you forget the beauty of her face

When the golden valley is shrouded in mist

And imagination is all laid to waste

The sweetest taste

Of bread and wine

Says a better day is mine

And I believe

Yes, I believe.

 

When the prickly thorns of the truth

Are sharper than the smell of the rose

Weeds strangle all the flowers of hope

When God only knows

A carved wooden cross

So cherishly honed

Tells my soul I am not alone

And I believe

Yes, I believe.


CHOOSING THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE FAIR TRADE FENCE

Sonop Other side

photo: Gordon Ashbridge - "The Wrong Side of the Fence" taken on the right side in Sonop Vineyard

 

Our very first visit to the Sonop Vineyard on the Western Cape Winelands was a more remarkable learning curve than we could ever have imagined, more provocatively challenging than we could have contrived.

I was there with Queens University Presbyterian Chaplaincy students where at the time I was Chaplain. For some time we had been a community interested in Fair Trade. In fact we had been endeavouring to make our Chaplaincy as Fair Trade as possible and were campaigning with Christian Aid and Tear Fund to push Queens University to become a Fair Trade University.

So we had a rough idea. Fair Trade proponents and pioneers The Co-op had put us in touch with this Fair Trade Vineyard about an hour’s drive out of Cape Town.

Meeting the workers at the Sonop Vineyard was an inspiration. They were so excited about their work but more importantly about their new found freedoms. They spoke about their ownership of land; they own their homes and have their own land where they have their own vines that they tend and sell on to the mother company.

In South Africa, of course, land ownership is a raging issue. For the non-white to own land is a whole new sense of security, dignity and freedom. No longer could they be tossed out of their homes and sacked on a white man’s whim. Yet more than that, education is so vital to the new South Africa. That which the oppressed used as a protest against apartheid by boycotting has now become the very avenue to consolidating the change by making sure the children get the education that their parents never had.

So we heard about the nursery school in their own village, the Primary School where the bus takes them and the possibility of University – all paid for! Even the adults are getting all kinds of practical schooling. It is a world not dreamt about ten year ago but very much a reality. The sense of dignity, self worth and driving purpose of these workers as they develop their land is a joy to inhabit.

But there was more… so much more. Moments later and just a few hundred yards away we were standing by a fence in the workers’ village.

On their side of that fence were beautifully painted houses and carefully groomed gardens. There was that little school and a play area. There was colour and beauty and all of that freedom and ownership we had just heard about was bursting with life.

But on the other side of the fence…was the neighbouring vineyard. There was literally the thinnest breadth of wire dividing. And on that other side there was dirty, faded, paint peeling houses. There were rough dust and dirt paths between them. There was no colour, no energy, no pride and no sense of hopefulness.

It was a stark contrast. It was the most challenging piece of land I had ever stood upon. The choice was clear and stark. Buy into one side of the fence and there is a sense of care and justice for the workers. Buy into the other and there is simply exploitation, disregard and neglect of workers and their children.

When my students stand in their local Co-op to buy coffee, sugar, tea, chocolate or whatever they now know they now have a visual aid to help them decide what products to buy. Their decisions have suddenly become a whole lot bigger and a whole lot clearer.

There is a thin line between justice and oppression and we stood right at the sharpest part of the fence. Which side will we be investing in? What side of the fence best describes the redemption of heaven? Which side is God most thrilled with? What does it mean in our everyday shopping for us to bring God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

So, when I stand and see products without a Fair Trade mark I wonder what happens on the side of the fence where the grapes were picked... or the tea... or the coffee... or the bananas... or whatever... and I just can no longer bring myself to buy. I have driven a few miles to another store at times to makes sure my choices are on the right side of the fence!

 


SURMISING PROSPERITY, PROFIT & THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL

Root_of_all_evil_by_akadrowzy-d4rmgxn

One summer in Cape Town (wintertime there!) around 2004 I was led into a wrestling with two Scriptures. A debate arose in my soul over the poverty that Amos raged against and the poverty that Jesus called blessed.

I had seen both in visceral reality. The blessing of mutual interdependence of neighbours on a township, alongside a cemetery with the weekly graves for baby after baby being dug. The debate raged inside of me and still goes on.

During Coronavirus I have another similar conversation going on. 

There was a time in the first lockdown where I feared that the government would side with businesses staying open against numbers dying of the virus. The phrase was Wealth against Health.

It was a lazy phrase. It was like the shallowness of a tabloid headline. As I worried about Business being the weight to decide our national response to a pandemic I was prayerfully concerned for local businesses, making decisions to help them stay afloat in that crisis.

It had raised something that has irked for most of my life. From Fair Trade, to stocks and shares in the arms trade, to the horrendous prices of antiviral drugs during the AIDS catastrophe it always seemed to me that profit had become the god of the age. People were less important than the price of shares.

So, like my dilemma with the poverty of Amos and the Sermon and the Mount so I am now unpacking the difference between Jeremiah asking us to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) and Jesus telling us not to store up treasure on earth (Matthew 6:19) or Paul warning Timothy that money was the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim 6:10).

I hear Jeremiah and pray for the prosperity of Belfast but I remember that it is the city, not some parts of the city being prosperous while other parts know nothing about it. 

I am aware of the need of viable businesses that do not only give the citizens of a city their living in terms of paying their bills, the goods a city needs and also, let us not forget, the sense of vocational well being. That job satisfaction seems to me to be part of the deal of the prophets prosperity.

I am also acutely fearful as a pastor of the dangerous temptation of wealth. I have literally been taken aback during the preaching of sermons at the clarity of Jesus warnings against any kind of love for money. Wealth has always seemed to be the most seductive of things.

My church community live and work in places rife with temptation. Much more rife I would suggest than sexuality. Making pontifications on the people’s credible faith based on sexuality while ignoring this glaring spiritual dilemma is a little Biblically amiss.

So here I wrestle between Jeremiah’s ambition for prosperity of the city and Jesus declaration that we cannot serve God and money. It is discussion that is very tight with tension. It needs a clarity of Biblical thinking. It needs the discipline of the Holy Spirit. It needs a higher priority than I suggest we have given to it.

How can the four corners of city become prosperous without us losing our souls to wealth. I look forward to pursuing this when I can support a local cafe’s business and have a chat around the table with some business heads seeking a holy approach to profit. 


DEACON BLUE - RIDING ON THE TIDE OF LOVE

DeaconBlue Riding

I took the ear plugs out and told Janice that I was listening to Deacon Blue. 

“Oh they were just on the car radio”

“Riding On The Tide Of Love”

“No one of the older ones”.

Welcome to the Deacon Blue story. Hit laden between 1988 and 94 and then almost 20 years of nothing before Hipsters in 2012 set them off mining a rich seam culminating in the stunning City Of Love album just a year ago. It is almost like two bands, two stories even though two thirds of the band are the same. 

The music is the same too, sophisticated songwriting on the fulcrum of rock and pop adding a plethora of other influences to the mix. 

Riding On The Tide Of Love is actually being presented as “a continuation” and “a companion piece” to last year’s City Of Love. Thematically that fits well but don’t think it is just more of the same. Deacon Blue are always adventuring for new nuances.

That title track. This is a whole new Deacon Blue sonic space. For maybe a bizarre reason it took me back to Don’t Let The Teardrops Start from their Ooh Las Vegas record, not in the busking sound but in the loose organic mischievous feel.

As I say Riding On The Tide Of Love is no busk. It is like a Vaudevillian Fairground romp. If Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan decided to write a song for a radio friendly rock band then this would be it. A unique Deacon Blue original 35 years in.

That one song is enough good reason for an extension to City Of Love in itself but there are no fillers with Deacon Blue. They used to put records together of the tracks they couldn’t squeeze on the official releases. Riding On The Tide Of Love’s other seven tracks offer seven other songs that are Deacon Blue all over but not like any Deacon Blue song before them.

From the stripped back Look Up, showcasing Lorraine McIntosh’s angelic voice in a sober Fairytale in New York, to the Bacharach echoes on It’s Still Early to the Memphis Soul of Send A Note Out to the gorgeous piano lead and brass of She’s Not Gonna Be That Girl.

That latter song is written with Nashville songwriter Tia Sillers and throws another hue. The imagery and storytelling took me back to Raintown closer Town To Be Blamed and perhaps hinted at the 35 years of artistic maturing in this soul filled band.

All in all, these eight songs are more silver linings of Coronavirus lockdown. As an anorak fan of artists I would love to trawl their home studios for the demoed gems we never heard. Imagine these being left on the Ross shelf.

I go back to the beginning. Riding On The Tide Of Love has verses filled with the menace of life’s challenging dark but then takes us to the lightness of a chorus filled with hope and light and love. If there is a vocal sound that best describes such a tide it is that blend of Ross and McIntosh voices, jousting, healing, soaring bringing harmony and beauty to the friction.

Ride on the tide of it when all remains is a city of… love!


SURMISING JAMES MCCLEAN'S SOCIAL ABUSE

James McClean

The social media abuse of footballer James McClean is in the headlines and provoking my surmising. There are a number of surmises below the headline but the first is a simple one. Abusing and threatening people’s lives and families on social media platforms is wrong. It has to stop. No reasoning or debate. It is wrong. 

New forms of communication have been shuddering the foundations of societies since the first picture was carved onto the wall of a cave, or a word could be written down, or the printing press was invented, or the radio, the telephone, television and the world wide web. At every stage there has been immediate suspicion, a time of coming to terms with and finally social behaviour patterns to deal with it all.

To the repetitive discussion about whether social media platforms should become more accountable my anger is an absolute yes. I believe though that that will take time to get right as the world re-knits after the shuddering. 

I want to argue that there is something more at the core of society that needs to get up to speed. James McClean is not getting eyeballed in the street. His wife and children are not being confronted in school or the school gates. Why? It is not because the police are omnipresent. Even when our behaviour is not policed we behave in civil ways. There are even behaviours we call anti-social.

As the shuddering slows around this impact of social media we need all of us across society to step up and stamp civil behaviour in these new spaces. We need Church leaders, school leaders, community leaders and political leaders to step up on what has long been a serious issue. We need new behavioural patterns honed and modelled and delivered down.

That is why I am so impressed and delighted to see politicians like Arlene Foster, Steve Aiken and Gregory Campbell stepping in. Fair play to them. I am sure they are poppy fans. I am sure they would rather James McClean wore one BUT they stepped across the sectarian lines and showed strong leadership. Even The British Royal Legion spoke out. More of it and not just on issues of social media abuse. 

Of course the churches need to step up too. Oh we know that we need to stand up or rather bow the knee in repentance for social behavioural misdemeanours down the centuries but wider society needs to come to terms with the fact that Judeo-Christianity has shaped our behavioural patterns for hundreds of years. We need to show leadership in this as every other issue and make prophetic contributions. The church needs to be on this. I fear that we are not aware of the urgency. 


LENT 2021 - COVID ADDS MORE POTENCY

Janice and I with ASH

Lent can be a little directionless. Maybe I am just speaking as a Northern Irish Presbyterian. We are not taught in the art of Lent. It seems to be all about giving things up. A chocolate/chips/alcohol fast for 6 weeks. It can end up as little other more than a New Year’s resolution. Perhaps I’ll lose a little weight but is that the point?

Lent should have more of a spiritual intention. Leonard Cohen sang the words of poet F.R. Scott:

 

“From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part. 

 

A searching of the heart. The Psalmist puts it well at the end of Psalm 139: -

 

“Search me, God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.”

 

Now this seems more like it. A time of reflection and soul critique. Yet, not only a looking in but also a looking forward to the changes the searching should bring.

For me Lent has much more potency in this particular year. These strange times give a near perfect context for some serious Lenten practice.

Here are six weeks to look back at the “old normal” tossing it up in some winnowing and seeing what chaff is blown away by the Holy Spirit and what valuable grain falls back into the fan basket of eternal value. That will help us to begin to shape what might be called “the new different”.

I remembering as far back as last April interviewing Deacon Blue’s lead singer Ricky Ross for my blog. I was asking about how the lockdown impacted his work and life. After telling me about the work that was on hold he went on, “what we are experiencing changes everything. It changes what we thought was desirable and what we deemed as necessary. It changes our expectations of life and the degrees in which we find satisfaction.”

We have had longer to ponder the “old normal” than we thought. I fear that we might lazily find ourselves out the other end and have nothing nearly as exciting as the “new different” might be. Let us not just shine up the old tack but rebirth an entirely new way to live.

So let me invite us all to take Lent 2021 seriously. There are so many passages in the Scriptures that can help us unravel this great possibility. Most of Jesus teaching can speak directly into this very time. Jesus was asking the same questions of First Century Galilee and Jerusalem. 

The focus of Jesus teaching was our desires and ambitions. The things we put our life energies into. The goal of Jesus teaching was that we would fin ultimate soul satisfaction and find the deep secret of living as human beings.

So, I am giving up the chocolate and the dessert. I pray that makes me physically more healthy for a binge of Easter Eggs on Resurrection Sunday!!! However, my real yearning is to be spiritually healthier. So let us get down to challenging all the values of the “old normal” and create something so much more spiritually fulfilling and therefore socially valuable in the “new different”.


TO THE MARROW OF MY SOUL

Ps 139

Search me oh God

Down to the very marrow of my soul

Take every selfish part of me away

That would stop me from being whole

Help me peer inside my prejudice

To judge the incentive of all my actions

Make kind the reflexes of my heart

And gentle the strength of my reactions

Help me squint at every weakness

That comes from family and neighbourhood

To smash the idols of sectarianism

And create shalom for everybody's good

So, search me oh God

Down to the very marrow of my soul

Take every selfish part of me away

That would stop me from being whole

And when I’ve let you search oh God

Believing to be in Your Spirit’s collusion

Let me look just one more time

For any remnants of my own delusion.


GOD IS LOVE

Love Cosmos

GOD IS LOVE

Stop

Say it again

GOD

IS 

LOVE

Forgive your familiarity

Crack the cliche open

Attend to the wonder

The size of it

Hear the words

And listen

Listen 

Deep down

Be awestruck

The marvellous mystery

The spectacular magnificence

The Cinematic imaginings

Of the Creator and Sustainer

Of the Cosmos 

Cramming it

Every minuscule quark

With astronomical grace.

 

The words of wonder 

Became flesh…

 

GOD IS LOVE

We love

Because 

God first loved us

Love is a force

That draws in  

The spinning broken pieces 

Of our world

Our relationships

And ourselves

Love is always mending

Love is never ending

Love is ever sending

The loved 

To love

GOD IS LOVE

So love.


VALENTINE'S GIFT AND OUR SONG...

Van Key Ring

Look what I got for Valentine’s Day. The back story is…

Van Morrison has been often labeled a grumpy man. Much as I understand his gruff public persona attracting such a caricature, I believe that it is lazy judgement. 

How can anybody grumpy have sent out into the world the most amazing array of love songs. From Brown Eyed Girl to Moondance to Crazy Love to Tupelo Honey to Have I Told You Lately to Someone Like You to Carrying a Torch to In The Afternoon? 

Goodness me but there would seem to be more evidence to call this man a natural born romantic than a gump!

For Janice and I, Van has always been our romantic singer. Avalon Sunset was the album he released in 1989 the year we fell in love and Have I Told You Lately was the single on the radio that most romantic of summers. 

Have I Told You Lately though is a rare and wonderful love song. Rare because of its acknowledgement of and thanks to God in a love song. The recommitment to the lover is enveloped in prayer and the realisation that the love between lovers is a gift from a God who is love. 

The Scriptures tell us that we can only love because God first loved us. Here we have Van Morrison at his most romantic and spiritual in the same classic song. You can see why we were so drawn to it. 

Janice will tell you that I am not much of a romantic and so perhaps the most romantic thing I have ever done was phoning Janice when she was still working in London… and then… as she answered… saying nothing… and just… playing this song down the line. 

It has been one of our songs ever since! Before using phones while driving became illegal we were known to repeat that romantic moment it if it came on the car radio. 

And this morning, once again, we are using this Van key ring to share our love… I love it... thank you my dear.

 

“And it's yours and it's mine
Like the sun
At the end of the day
We should give thanks and pray to the One

Have I told you lately that I love you
Have I told you there's no one above you
Fill my heart with gladness
Take away my sadness
Ease my troubles, that's what you do”

 

Van Morrison? Call him what you like. For us he’ll always be our romantic soundtracker!