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August 2021


Stocki 19

The summer is over, at least in terms of Stockman vacations, sorbets and sabbaticals. I am back to Fitzroy a week now and beginning to fill the mind that I emptied over August with new imaginings.

Being creative has been problematic during this past Coronavirus year and a half. All energies have been used up just keeping Church running rather than thinking about extras.

I am not sure how the next year will be. There is still a lot of uncertainty around us as we deal with not only the deaths caused by Covid-19 but also the serious illnesses and the consequent disruption to family, work colleagues and contacts.

Part of me is a little anxious about not knowing but I can feel my soul finding energy out of the rest. Time to conjure ideas to do the worship, spiritual formation, pastoral care and mission that a fellowship of faith does. Whether online or in Fitzroy we will find ways to be conduits for the grace of God. We need a Gospel According To… or two!

I am also excited about celebrating the 10th Anniversary of 4 Corners Festival in the first week of February 2020. We have some wonderful possibilities of theology, music, art, drama, interview and more under this year’s theme Common Ground Common Good. 

There is also this blog. Thank you so much for reading it whether you are looking for a good record, a fascinating book, some passionate thought on sport, ideas about peacemaking or radical thoughts on Jesus. This next year should see Soul Surmise We reach 1 million hits which blows my mind. Thank you for encouraging my self indulgence!

My friend and companion in peacemaking Fr Martin Magill has a big birthday coming up in September. For one whole month I have no idea what it must be like to be his age BUT by October 10th I will know! We have plans as to how we can make these celebrations work for those that Jesus cared most about… watch this space.

For those who are kind enough to listen when I am on the radio, I am on for seven weeks. I start this Wednesday 1st September for Wednesday mornings (new time is 7.20 or so) and the day after I finish those I start on BBC Radio 2, doing Thursdays from September 23rd to October 14th (5.45am). My first Radio 2 one is on my favourite Queen song - no idea! 

I am sure most of you know my mantra on vocation. Frederick Buechner puts it succinctly when he says that it is “where your deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need.” I thank God every day that I get to do my deepest gladness and pray that it can somehow meet some of this broken but precious world’s need.

Let’s do this!



Leading Fitzroy in prayer this morning I was aware of the world that I was praying into… Afghanistan… Haiti… our own hurting broken Northern Ireland… COVID 19… 

Instead of a big prayer for all of that, I prayed this prayer for all of us, as a community… it is an edit of a sending prayer I used in Communion... 


God, Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you”. So Lord, 


Lord, send us in to a world that is divided - with forgiveness

Send us in to a world that is broken - with healing

Send us in to a world that is hungry - with food

Send us in to a world that is lonely  - with presence

Lord, send us in to a world that is hurting -  with empathy 

Send us in to a world that is overachieving - with grace

Send us in to a world that is alienated - with love

Send us in to a world that is at war  - with peace

Lord, send us in to a world that is lost - with salvation


As the Father has sent me I am sending you

As Isaiah said when you were looking for someone to go… “Here I am Lord send me”.

Lord send us… in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.



Biden and Isaiah

As if US President Joe Biden doesn’t have enough to contend with, he has been getting some stick for his exegesis of Scripture. For the lay person, exegesis means a critical explanation or interpretation of a text and boy did Joe get it badly wrong.

To explain, if you missed it. Responding to the ISIS-K attacks in Kabul this week The US President vowed that the extremists would be brought to justice. He then used Isaiah 6 v 8. 

Isaiah 6 records an awe striking confrontation that Isaiah had with a holy God. God’s grace was amazing even back then and God moved to deal with Isaiah’s sin and guilt. Made new, Isaiah hears God ask “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” Isaiah full of the energy of new life responds, “Here am I, send me.”

Joe Biden abuses the Scriptural text to say, “The American military has been answering for a long time, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me.’”  

Isaiah though is neither American nor in the military. He is accepting a call to be a prophet for justice for sure but it doesn’t seem to be the kind that Joe Biden has in mind and hails from a very different Chief. 

Those of us in the rest of the world are more than uneasy with the equating of America and the prophets of God, as though they are conduits for God’s keeping the world right. The Taliban might be saying similar things!! 

Biden’s exegesis is frightening BUT more frightening is that his misuse of Scripture is an everyday occurrence all over the world. It could happen in a pulpit near you tomorrow!

Let me surmise two lazy acts that we need to beware of. The first is that someone has quoted the Scripture therefore they can be trusted and the statement has to be true. 

I have listened too many times to “lonely verses” being ripped out of their Scriptural context and preached as Biblical truth. I hear people walking around pontificating (and I use the word intentionally) that they are Biblical because they quote the Scriptures and quote them more than everybody. 

Throwing a “lonely verse” up in the air doesn’t make us any more Biblical than Joe Biden was! Let us beware of being fooled by a Biblical quotation. Let us not be lazy about what we hear. Let us listen carefully. Let us search the Scriptures to hear the deep meaning of the text and not just the careless throwaway use of it, as if it is some magic set of words.

Secondly, let us not be lazy about how we use the Scriptures. Welcome to my world. I need to confess that I feel insecure every single week as I step up to a lectern (or in front of a camera). I have a fear that I might abuse a holy text. It is not a fear of inferiority, either as a theologian or as a preacher. It is a holy fear that I represent God correctly. 

In every situation that I am in, I am determined that I will go as far as I can to understand the text in the context of its time and in the context of the entire Biblical narrative and then apply it as carefully as I can into the context of Fitzroy in 2021. I know that at times I will get it wrong but I am determined to pray and study as much as I can to not misrepresent the Jesus teaching, God's amazing grace and the radical ways of His Kingdom.


Killers Pressure Macine

There’s been a lot of talk about The Killers’ seventh studio album Pressure Machine. It’s different. It is their version of Springsteen’s Nebraska. I am not arguing with most of the opinions but I would say that for me it sounds like an entire album built around the characters of Springsteen’s song The River rather than the more fictitious album Nebraska. 

The River is Bruce looking around at his family and those that he grew up with. He is looking at the dreams and promises that they are made in their everyday lives.

Pressure Machine is about such. It’s about those ordinary small town things of work and family. It is about hopes and fears and promises and whether they will be broken or not. It is the everyday ordinary life in the midst of the American dream of things and happiness that consumes. 

There are also echoes of U2’s Songs Of Innocence idea of going back to childhood to find inspiration for a record. Like Bono there are hints of Flowers’ own childhood in these songs, particularly how his parents taught him how to work hard whether a blue collar worker or a songwriter. 

In the main though Flowers is writing little four minute vignettes of fiction. That’s where the Nebraska comparison comes from. However, unlike Springsteen, who set his characters in a far away State, Flowers locates scenes around the Utah town of Nephi where he grew up. There are even little speeches from Nephi before each song. Initially irritating I got over it and see them now as part of the artistic deal! Flowers does a great job at continuing to tell their stories. 

The other obvious influence for me is novelist Flannery O’Connor. If Flannery had fronted a neon lit up Las Vegas stadium filling rock band this might be her best work. Pressure Machine is God haunted from the very album cover art - 3 crosses across, behind a barbed wire fence on a bleak an American landscape.

The lyrics are God haunted too:


And if there is a judgement 

When He pulls my chart

He'll reject my actions

And He will know my heart" (Quiet Hills)


In this quiet town, they know how to live

Good people who lean on Jesus, they're quick to forgive

In this quiet town (Quiet Town)


Around here, we all take up our cross and hang on His holy name

But the cards that I was dealt will get you thrown out of the game (Terrible Thing)



So who's gonna carry us away?

Eagles with glory-painted wings?

We keep on waiting for the miracle to come

Pour down the mountain like a heaven-fed stream (Cody)



Leave the mountainside cold and bare

But when the longer days of sun appear

They'll be rising like an answered prayer and I know that (Sleepwalker)


Like runaway horses, it's a long way back home again

When every step is a silver prayer in the face of a hard wind (Runaway Horses)


We got a place with a fence and a little grass

I put this film on the windows and it looks like chapel glass

But when she turns, it's like the shadow of the cross don't cast

No blessing over our lonely life (In The Car Outside)


Hope'll set your eyes agleam

Like four feet dangling in the stream

But the Kingdom of God, it's like a pressure machine

Every step, gotta keep it clean (Pressure Machine)


Green ribbon front doors, dishwater days

This whole town is tied to the torso of God's mysterious ways (Just Getting By)


God drenched! And all of it has me asking big questions. What is the miracle that we all want? Is it anything like God’s dream for us? Or is is all caught up in some other futile happy materialist dream? 

I guess for fans looking at our perfect Killers’s live set lists we might hurry to pick out songs from other albums. Not that I can’t hear crowds singing along from this one too - 


Everyone is afraid of losing

Even the ones that always win

Hey, sleepwalker, when the mountain comes back to life

It doesn't come from without

It comes from within (Sleepwalker)


Or that phone lights won’t be swaying in the dark as Phoebe Bridgers guests on Runaway Horses. In A Car Outside too seems as British 80’s popped up and stadium ready as anything on any other record. 

Pressure Machine might always be the black sheep in The Killers’ shiny indie rock catalogue. Yet if I had to listen to an album all the way through, it might end up that this one is the most cohesive, slow burning, long lasting album of all! 




"When they said (they said) repent (repent), repent (repent)
I wonder what they meant"

- Leonard Cohen


REPENT. At first it wasn’t so surprising. Random Biblical words appear all over north Antrim. Evangelical giants have been posting messages for centuries, higher up trees than Zaccheus ever ventured. “Eternity where?”

Walking over the scrawled word REPENT as we made our way to our favourite beach in Murlough Bay did catch my attention though. Maybe it was my more fertile holidayed mind but I started asking questions.

What did the scrawlers mean? Why did they scrawl it there? It got a little confusing as I walked on. The rest of their “pavement art” was not as philosophical or religious. Boys names and farm names seemed to have taken over from converting the world.

REPENT. It has all kinds of connotations in this particular part of the world. Conversion is usually the aim of such statements but what are they converting us to? That the “artist” thinks that this generation automatically fill their minds with an every Sunday churched theology when they see the word is a little out of touch with a post Christian society.

Anyway, what it might have meant to those who wrote it I didn’t really know. In fact I was being a little bit naughty to caricature what I thought they might have meant - “stop drinking, smoking and swearing and read your Bible and pray everyday”. Maybe I too am out of touch. Maybe it was just kids having a laugh!

Whatever, I started surmising the word in its Gospel context in Mark 1. Then all of the books I had been reading and songs that I had been listening to on this summer holiday started throwing up clues as to what Jesus meant by REPENT. 

So, thought I, that might be a great way to start back preaching In Fitzroy this Sunday. A strong Gospel word, surmised with Scripture in one hand and all my recreational reading and listening in the other. 

Sue Divin’s amazing novel set in Derry/Londonderry/Doire has a wonderful moment of repentance that will give the sermon a liturgical act of homework. 

Sue’s book though is as much about Northern Irish society as it is about two teenagers falling in love. There are questions of repentance for us as a society too. Jackson Browne’s new album Downhill From Everywhere calls for that a societal and environmental repentance. 

There are lots of other songs and book references and, beyond that, loads of little social media quotations coming together. The magpie preacher in me is full of buzz and imagination. Watch out on Sunday as I build a space for us to make big decisions with our lives. REPENT.


Fitzroy Sunday Gathered Service is at 11am and you have to book -

Fitzroy On Line Sunday Service goes live at 11am on Fitzroy TV


Jackson Downhill

Almost 20 years go I wrote a book called The Rock Cries Out: Discovering Eternal Truth In Unlikely Music. My Publisher Relevant Books picked the name and I was happy with that. My working title was Secular Saints. 

I argued that artists with no faith or at least with no Christian faith could say things that followers of Jesus could caress and collide with. Joni Mitchell, Kurt Cobain, Radiohead, Bob Marley and George Harrison were among the final choices. 

Of course Jackson Browne was in there too. Indeed, if one single artist could have defined for me what a Secular Saint was it was Jackson Browne. I am talking about an artist who’s music encompassed the personal and societal transformation that Jesus was on about in his incarnation. 

From the very beginning of his career Jackson Browne’s songs bombarded the listener with introspective challenges and inspirations for heart and head and soul. He was also sharp with the social or political. I learned to think about social justice in the 80s with Jesus and the Old Testament prophets in one hand and Jackson Browne records in the other.

I remember standing watching Browne in Botanic Park in 1996 and being utterly inspired as he sang “I want to live in the world, not behind some wall/I want to live in the world, where I will hear if another voice should call”. It seemed like the kind of call Jesus was giving to me.

Downhill From Everywhere comes from a man who is for much alive in his world. He asks us all on Until Justice Is Real:


It's a good question to be asking yourself

What is well being, what is health?

What is illusion and what is true?

What is my purpose - what can I do?


Here is a man in his 70’s hearing the voices of God’s damaged creation and broken humans and seeking to encourage those with ears to hear to do something about it. 

There are many questions on Downhill From Everywhere. It provokes soul and society. It walks through the valleys of shadows and always finds that light and inspiration to keep going in bringing something better.

Maybe one of the two songs on the record written about Haiti puts this best. In Love Is Love, a lifetime creed, of Browne tells us about Rick:


“Rick rides a motorbike through the worst slums of the city

The father and the doctor to the poorest of the poor

Raising up the future from the rubble of the past

Here they say - L’espua fe viv – Hope makes life”


Rick is a Catholic priest who came to Haiti after the 2010 Earthquake and realised that the people didn’t need a priest but a doctor. So he went home and studied to be a doctor and returned - “The father and the doctor”. It is that wow of love where hopelessness could reign that makes me love Jackson Browne.

I am also loving Human Touch, written with Leslie Mendelson who I heard a few years back supporting Deacon Blue and Steve McEwan for the film 5B about the first Aids hospital ward opened in America in the early 80s. McEwan has been a favourite writer of mine since his late teen days with South African band Friends Again. I loved his band Unamerican. He also wrote the very popular worship song Great Is The Lord. In Human Touch he provokes a self righteous Church and sneaks in a wee bit of 1 Corinthians 13! 

There are so many good songs here. It is musically so vibrant and there are no fillers or anything half baked. It is an incredibly strong Jackson Browne collection. I might dare to suggest that it is up there with some of his best. Good music that is good for something. What Secular Saints do!



Dani Larkin is a young lady with some range. 

Her debut record Notes For A Maiden Warrior has a historical range from the influence of ancient myth to personal pondering under Belfast’s Samson and Goliath, that plays poetically with Biblical text and modern Belfast context and adds Larkin’s own introspection. It’s pretty epic.

It has a musical range too, from Irish trad to John Martyn guitar driven early 70s folk to standing with Joshua Burnside in contemporary Irish song imagining. 

Listen too with wonder at the range of her voice, which is a wow; it’s strong and delicate. Go to the closing Three Wise Women for more than enough proof. 

Larkin’s guitar playing is ridiculously good. Magpie reminded me of Iain Archer’s playing around 1996, highlighted in his Crazy Bird record. I name check John Martyn again, certainly he influenced Archer.

Growing up on the Armagh/Monaghan border Larkin was steeped in the traditional Irish music and story. I particularly love the way she has taken that old traditional folk song structure and played with it creatively, making something new, without losing the essence. Too many of her peers have deconstructed too much without bettering in their reconstructions.  

The Nordy magazine Dig With It review tipped me off to Dani Larkin and the more I have listened this summer, the more I have come to love it. It impresses on first listen but it reveals itself with every listen. I cannot see it being far from the top of my best of 2021. 



This past few weeks, I have been emerged in some great Northern Irish music, listening to all the eligible singles and albums up for the NI Music Awards 2021. To highlight how good our local music scene is I have made this playlist to introduce you to my favourite 25 songs... 

You can listen HERE


HANNAH PEEL - Wind Shadow

I discovered Hannah in her strings work with Paul Weller and then found out she was from here. Fir Wave is a gorgeous album of ambience.



These teenage girl rockers are in the line of The Undertones and Ash. Love them.



Paul Archer still buzzing with his indie driving soul.


ROE - A Quiet Place

Pop hooks with words to ponder. She’s something!



Written in Lockdown with fans over social media. Quite an achievement. 


RYAN MCMULLAN - If This Is The End (with Ulster Orchestra & Paul Campbell)

Our most popular songwriter with Orchestra. Tasty. 



Vail does it again with a blend of his electronics and Ruth McGinley’s classical piano. Imaginative and beautiful.



Jealous of the Birds remind me of 10,000 Maniacs. Wordy and catchy.


SAINT SISTER - Oh My God Oh Canada

Haunting harmonies and atmospheres.


ARBORIST - THE Mountain Will Come To You

I love Arborist. I bought this on vinyl!


BRONA MCVITTIE - The Man In the Mountain (feat Myles Cochran & Richard Curran)

I’ve just discovered this ethereal mix of trad and classical. She even has the wonderful human Richard Curran on this. He played on my album too!


DANI LARKIN - Samson & Goliath

New folk girl from the Armagh/Monaghan border. Great guitarist. Wonderful voice. Irish through and through.


JOSHUA BURNSIDE - Never Was, Never Were

Burnside is a songwriter full of quirks and sweet surprise.



I love Bronagh’s voice and that blues rock sound. So underrated.


OWEN LAMONT - Lady Love You

Another recent discovery. Love the voice.


SUSIE BLUE - May God Forgive You

This woman has talent and attitude to burn.



Another of our stellar songwriters.



One of our top pop exports, he just has a way with accessible melodies.


CONOR MARCUS - Love You Again

A few years younger than JC Stewart but this young man is maturing beautifully.



Young Fitch is maturing too. She adds imaginative intrigue and depth to her pop sounds.



Classic Irish songwriting very well honed.



A teacher by profession Patterson is no amateur when it comes to songsmithery. Always pleasant to the ear and provoking of the soul.


REEVAH - Daydreamer

Yet more brilliant Derry indie pop with sounds and depth.


CONCHÚR WHITE - Vocation Vacation

Wordy with theatrical sounds. White is finding his own way.


THE DARKLING AIR - Beholding You

Let Michael Keeney and Rachel McCarthy seduce you with their ethereal beauty. 


Gentleman In Moscow

Amor Towles’ A Gentleman In Moscow is a strange one. It is a strange one as a book and it is a strange one to review.

Let me start with the book. It came highly recommended. What is it? Well it is a beautifully written novel. Wonderful prose. Full of insights about history and politics and economics and class and love. 

At the heart of it all is Count Alexander Rostov. He is the gentleman and in 1922 is is given a life sentence by the incoming Bolsheviks, not to Siberia but to the Hotel Metropol just across from the Kremlin. He is almost a library and a sage who can turn his hand to anything, including parenthood in the strangest of ways. More than anything else he is a charming man. A gentleman. Easy to spend a book with.

Confining himself to one building, big as it might be, Amor Towles has done a great job to give us 462 pages over 31 years. He has filled a book with genres -  part history, part political, part philosophical, part romance, part espionage. 

It is, however, bereft of plot. That at times proved a hindrance to me fully loving the book. At times I wasn’t gripped.

I felt that in its scope - geographical, historical, political and relational - that it might be to my 2021 holiday what Colum McCann’s Apeirogon was to 2020. Sadly not. 

It was stimulating though. For the first time in my life I considered the geographical vastness of Russia and how little I know about it or the people who live in it.

Rostov was thought provoking. I guess the over riding idea is found in “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” The Count certainly does master a hotel, communism and everything else thrown at him and that speaks of wisdom, resilience and imagination.

I was also taken by the battle with time. Towles has set this book in that century where values, ambitions and priorities were going through a bigger revolution than the Bolshevik one. “When the Count was a young man he prided himself on the fact that he was unmoved by the ticking of the clock.” In the early years of the 20th century it seems that people “generally spent their days in the pursuit of the second hand. Rostov had opted for “the life of the purposely unrushed.”  

I was also taken and challenged by “...what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.” 

It is almost like a book of Proverbs. I enjoyed them very much but there were times when I wasn’t excited about the paragraphs between the poetic wonders.

A Gentleman in Moscow might not be for everyone but maybe everyone will have to read it to find out if it for them or not. Strange!



I was so sorry to hear about Nanci Griffith’s death this past week. There was a period in the early ‘90s when her albums accompanied me across Ireland. 

I was the Youth Development Officer for the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Ireland. The roads in the early 90s weren’t great. It could take hours to get from Dublin to Limerick or Cork or Donegal. A trusty portable CD player was my dearest friend.

I was mad into songwriters at the time. John Gorka, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jimmy MacCarthy… and Nanci Griffith was very much in that listing. She was a great lyricist. Songs like Trouble in The Fields, Once In a Very Blue Moon, covered beautifully by our own Mary Black and Love At The Five and Dime, particularly the storytelling introduction version on the live album One Fair Summer Evening to name a few.

However, there was another reason that I was drawn to Nanci. She loved the Ireland that I was working in and exploring as I listened. On Grafton Street gave the a seasonal feel in cold Dublin streets and even had Larry Mullen Jr on it; It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go had us in a taxi on the Falls Road dealing with our divisions; and I Would Bring You Ireland was a love song where the love of Ireland was a gift to the lover.

That last song has been playing very powerfully with my heart this past week. Most of the summer I have been driving across the Glens Of Antrim. From beaches, mountains, cliff tops and roads across cultivated, defined and beautiful farm land of forty shades of green I have been madly in love with the very Ireland that Nanci wants to send her lover. To live on this island of radiant beauty and to enjoy it day after day. I feel blessed.

Then you read the news. Some of us gifted the beauty of this place want to poison and stain it with the hatred that Griffith told us about in It’s Is A Hard Life Wherever You Go. Putting flags and political posters and photographs onto bonfires is a sectarian cancer that both our communities need to rid themselves of. Politicians from both communities need to work harder at eradicating it.

Ireland like a lover has me forever. I love this place so much. Yet at times it abuses me, hurts me deep. The bonfires of July and August have hurt and I was so thankful of Nanci Griffith reminding me of my love and the wonder of this utter gem of God’s creation set in the Atlantic waves.

Back to the loss of Nanci Griffith. I was most impressed by this social media post by Belfast songwriter Ursula Burns who wrote about how she met Nanci at the Belfast-Nashville Songwriting Festival: -

We met over breakfast at the Dukes Hotel and started playing a few songs..... 12 hours later there was up to 20 musicians.  I think it was the best day of my life. Nancy bought me wine all day and I played harp while she sang. Every year after that she came up to say hello and always remembered my son’s name and made a fuss of him when he was with me at the gigs.  I loved her. I loved her songwriting and her voice and her spirit. I was blown away that i got to play with her and will always be eternally grateful to the Belfast/ Nashville festival for making stuff like that happen on ordinary rainy February days!

Now that is my kind of songwriting hero. Love and prayers to those closest to her. Nanci Griffith songs will mean a lot to so many of us for a long time to come but they will ache and grieve her loss the most.