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December 2021

January 2022


John Mellencamp 3

There’s a line in the Old Testament Book Of Ruth - “and as it happened”. It sounds like a a throw away linking phrase but holds a weighty theology of providence. Serendipity they now call it.

And as it happened I ordered a friend the biography of John Mellencamp for Christmas. I then got so intrigued by it that I ordered it for myself. 

The New Testament describes John The Baptist as someone who paved the way for Jesus. He came to make the paths straight, get us ready for the Christ.

Paul Rees’ biography did something like that, preparing me for the arrival of John Mellencamp’s 24th studio record. I had lost Mellencamp along the way and missed the revival of his essentiality these last fifteen years. 

When Mellencamp threw off the shackles of the demand for radio relevance, hit singles and big sales he discovered his muse, his reason to be an artist. T-Bone Burnett helped as producer and near pastor, working on Life, Death, Love and Freedom and Better Than This, and John Mellencamp has turned 70 making one of the best albums of his life.

Strictly A One-Eyed Jack grabs your throat in the tenderest of ways a few seconds in and refuses to let you go. It reeks of maturity like a long long oak barrelled whiskey. It reminds me a lot of Dylan’s Oh Mercy.

Mellencamp has been blessed. For many other singers such excessive smoking might have wrecked the voice. Instead Mellencamp has been given a new expressive instrument. His voice is now deep and ragged somewhere between Heart of Saturday Night Tom Waits and Mad Dogs and Englishmen Joe Cocker. 

Though at times he sounds ageing, this record comes across as musically vivid and vital. The playing is uncluttered but precise like the painter that Mellencamp has becomes over these last thirty years. 

I Am A Man That Worries is straight out of the Woody Guthrie legacy, protesty and campfire loose. And, when he is not trying, Say Did You Say Such a Thing could be a monster of a hit, so darn catchy and Springsteen on for good measure. The New Jersey Boss is on 3 tracks. Wasted Days could be on either’s record. It also gives us clarity to Mellencamp’s mind:


How many summers still remain?

How many days are lost in vain?

Who’s counting out these last dramatic years?

How many minutes do we have here?


The more rocking Lie To Me also talks about the shortening of time on this earth. Gone So Soon starts all crooners piano and end up as if it is lifted straight off an early Waits record. A poignant and beautiful piece of heartache. 

So, Strictly A One Eyed Jack is certainly one of the elders sharing how it is at the other end of life from Jack and Diane. It is personal. Eking out what is left. Missing those already gone. It is also littered with lies and seems to be implying there are liars afoot. Read that how you will!

The closing A Life Full of Rain lacks a little in hope, hope that has always appeared across recent Mellencamp records but even after its sombre close I am thinking that I hope that this guy has time for another few records yet. I wasn’t thinking that back in November!


Mercy Now

I created this prayer song and liturgy for a BBC Radio 4 Service that Fr Martin Magill and I did on January 23, 2022. In their infinite wisdom and in my opinion lack of taste and grounding in the real world, Radio 4 cut it out. I then used it in Fitzroy for our Sunday Service. At least I have a say there!

READ: LUKE 6: 35-36

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.


NO… listen… these prayers will not make sense if you don’t listen…



Lord we gather your Churches across the world

On the Week of Prayer For Christian Unity 

Across the miles

Across the ages

Across the denominations

Across the experiences of the week past

The anxieties and anticipations of the one ahead

And Lord… 

We could use a little mercy now


We think of our families

Ill, waiting for texts, facing tough decisions, grieving

Lord our families

Could use a little mercy now


We think of our Churches

Lord we confess we are not who we should be

On this Week of Prayer For Christian Unity 

We confess we are divided

A result of our theological arrogance and lack of mercy

We have paralysed ourselves as conduits of peace makers

Our witness has been weak, at times hurting others

Pushing away, rather than gathering in

We long for your forgiveness and your Holy Spirit’s oneness

Lord our churches 

Could use a little mercy now


We think of our country

This pandemic has taken a toll

We are at the end of our tether

And at times our leaders have been found lacking

Here in NI we seem to be as polarised as ever

Every single policy seems to divide us

Lord our country 

Could use a little mercy now


We think of planet earth

It is your art

So often we bask in its awe and wonder

Our favourite breath taking scenery

Yet, most days we our complicit in its destruction

The clock ticks on an environmental catastrophe

Lord our planet

Could use a little mercy now



Stumbling and tumbling after Jesus

Doing what we don’t want to do

Not doing what we long to do

Lord we ourselves

Could use a little mercy now


In Jesus name 



Stocki  Marti and Radio 4

photo: Sheila McNeill


On Week Of Prayer For Christian Unity Sunday I can be found in a few places in the morning.

I have already blogged about Fr Martin Magill and I doing the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Service (8.10am). We were asked on this particular Sunday to share our story. So we do. We share our journey but also the Biblical basis for what we believe we are called to do. 

I am very frustrated that being Radio 4 they have changed my music. I compromised as it was BUT felt that there is no better way to end prayers than Mary Gauthier's Mercy Now. Even that has been replaced... so I am afraid that this is my first and last Radio 4 Service. The music is as important to me as what I say so to have no creative control of that is so disappointing.

Anyway, that Service is also repeated on BBC Radio Ulster at 10.20am after David Campton, Mylie Brennan and Sue Divin talk about 4 Corners Festival .

Then at 11am I will be live in Fitzroy and streaming on Fitzroy TV.

At this service I will be preaching about Fitzroy's Peacemaking history and the Biblical basis for that. 

I would never call myself as an ecumenist though many of my critics would wonder why. I am far more interested in peace making, of reaching across our sectarian and denomination divides than I am about one massive global ecclesiological entity. I'd be suspicious of that.

I do believe though that we can learn from brothers and sisters, following Christ, in other denominations. I also think we need to be united in God's mission, in bringing God's Kingdom and in the Biblical mandate for peace making.

Fr Gerry Reynolds, so vital in Fitzroy's peace making work with Clonard Monastery, once said, "A divided Church has little or nothing to offer towards leading a divided people into the way of peace." How I agree. Prophetic.... but more of that in the morning! 



Meat Loaf

It was with sadness that I heard the news this morning of Meat Loaf's death. I am first and foremost a pastor and my thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Deborah and his daughters Pearl and Amanda. Below is my personal tribute, from a blog I wrote two years ago...


Meat Loaf might be seen as a really guilty pleasure. I was watching a documentary on Meat Loaf recently and it took me back to early 1978. 

I do not only remember Meat Loaf’s debut performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test but also the conversations the next day in school. Those of us particularly interested in music were all over this performance. We had seen or heard nothing like it. Bat Out of Hell blew us away.

The album however was not easy to get. Bat Out of Hell was originally a slow burn (forgive the pun!). It took awhile to find its way into Ballymena record shops. My first copy was a recording on cassette. It would be the end of the summer before I bought my own copy, during The British Open at St. Andrews!

I remember days where I listened to that record all day long. That was not something I tended to do. I had played Sweet’s Block Buster so many times in a row that I got bored with it so my policy was always play something else before replaying a single or album.  

I could not get enough of Meat Loaf and even now I can see what it was that caught our attention. Bat Out Of Hell was Queen through a blender with Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, E Street Band member Roy Bittan played piano and it was how a friend introduced me to Born To Run. Bat Out Of Hell was bombastic and dramatic but Jim Steinman’s songs were so strong that you forgave that and maybe secretly liked it. I mean Two Out of Three and You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth are great songs. When my daughters play The Greatest Showman or Hamilton I hear Steinman!

Bat Out Of Hell was full of desire, a lot of it sexual. It is not lost on my looking back four decades later that I was sixteen and not doing well with girls so it probably reached my teenage hormones. Jim Steinman’s songs though have more going on than sexual lust.

There is a lust for life. These are songs about milking all that life has to offer. I was a year away from finding Jesus. In my favourite verse in John 10:10 Jesus speaks about “life in all its fulness.” Bat Out of Hell might not have the creed, though heaven and hell are a core part of Steinman’s lyrics, but it is an adrenaline rushed soundtrack of that life in all its fulness.

To be fair it really helped that producer Todd Rundgren understood songwriter Jim Steinman’s vision and crafted the songs into a stunning piece of rock music. The melodies are strong. The playing has flourish. Meat Loaf has charisma. Some songs are long but there is not a wasted second.

For Meat Loaf it never got better. Oh I enjoyed Jim Steinman’s solo record Bad For Good and Meat Loaf’s eventual follow up Deadringer but nothing ever quite reached the heights.

Indeed when in 1993 Bat Out Of Hell II was contrived from its sound to its cover to how they sold it. The music business svengalis conned us all into buying the follow up. They gave us the sound, the image and took us back but I was almost twice my age with different tastes in music and at a different stage of life. We all bought the nostalgia and though there were some good songs, it was no longer who we were. When I took it to a second hand shop they refused to take it. They had so many already!

Yet, down the year I still came across Meat Loaf’s songs that I liked. A song on the radio or a documentary on television had me seeking out familiar songs and trailing new ones. At regular intervals, I want to hear that voice, that Steinman arrangement, a little bombast.

Maybe I am looking at that wee bit of nostalgia that was overdosed on Bat Out Of Hell II. Maybe I am looking for that adrenaline rush that thankfully for me is more than a rock roll dream come through but a real life imaginative way to live!

Thank sir. Thank you for the music and the memories. 


Ailing graduation


(My Thought For The Day on BBC Radio Ulster on January 20, 2022.)


When former South African President FW De Klerk died late last year I remembered a lesson he taught us about Peacemaking. Speaking to a group of my Queens University Presbyterian Chaplaincy students back in 2002 he told us that before we did any work of reconciliation that we needed to search our own motives right down to the very marrow. 

Deep deep search. It reminded me 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.


FW’s advice came back to me this week as I tried to come to terms with the tragic death of Aisling Murphy. 

As a pastor the news of Ashling’s murder hit me deep in the heart. How do parents deal with that news. That loss. That heartache. Jesus called the Holy Spirit a Comforter and we have been praying in Fitzroy that Aisling’s family and friends would know that comfort.

But something more is rising out of Aisling’s needless murder. Men’s attitudes toward women. The fear that women feel. Aisling just went for a run BUT as a woman she would  always have been looking cautiously  ahead and fearing what might be behind her. 

I have two daughters almost the same age and this fear that women live with needs to change. We need societal turnaround in how men respect and act towards women.

I am back to FW De Klerk. In these days as the island grieves Aisling, men need to search themselves down to the very marrow. What do we think about a women’s place in society? Or in the Church? How do we treat women? Do we see women as equals? How do we look at women? How do women see us looking at them. We need to search ourselves… deep.

FW De Klerk’s second piece of advice… once you’ve searched to the marrow. Search yourself again. In case you have missed something.

We don’t need to lose any more young women in the prime of their lives. The answer lies with men. And we need to start now. First we have to search ourselves right down to the marrow… and then… search again.


Bono 5

I was not surprised or shocked by Bono suggesting in a recent podcast that he hates his voice and that he turns the radio off when U2 songs come on. This is nothing new. Bono has been talking about his voice for years and about how he had to learn how to sing over decades. 

As for songs, the band talked a lot around the time of Songs Of Innocence about trying to write songs. They released 5 of the songs on that record in acoustic form. I think that was to highlight their sing-ability. I have often said that Every Breaking Wave off that record was their most perfectly constructed song. Song For Someone that morphed into 13 (There Is a Light) on Songs Of Experience is very much another song. Songs. 40 years into their career!

In all honesty I can kind of understand Bono's critique. 

I mean if I think melodies that can fill radio shows I am thinking The Beatles. So catchy that my children were singing a long from a very early age. They didn't get into U2 so quickly. In fact it was Songs Of Innocence before I heard my daughters paying any attention to U2.

If I think poetic lyrics I am thinking Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or maybe Jackson Browne. U2 worked on wordy sketches in their early years. They lost the lyrics for October and felt Pop was lyrically rushed.

If I think about best rock voices I am thinking Rod Stewart around 1972 or in a contemporary sense Hozier. Bono was a front man before he learned to be the singer! I don't talk about his voice in the early gigs as much as I talk about him climbing up amplifiers!

So, I can get where Bono is coming from. Their best work has been about experimental soundscapes and creating anthemic atmospheres. My 40 years fandom with U2 has not been so much with songs or vocal accomplishment as theological content and spiritual experience.

My first listen to a new U2 record is always about content. I am always listening for what they are trying to say. As what is called a Theo-musicologist I am listening for spiritual nuggets and prophetic statements. No one else has ever contributed God into the rock song conversation like U2. I love that they took a Gospel song to number 1 in the US charts:

"You broke the bonds/Loosed the chains/Carried the cross and my shame/ You know I believe it..."

To be fair that's a theologically succinct lyric and when the choir were added on Rattle And Hum it was quite the song! 

Similarly live, they create this spiritual energy. I remember standing at Croke Park as the band played Moment Of Surrender and Bono stands centre stage with his hands open and eyes to the sky and the hairs on the back of my soul are standing to attention.

Bono should get over his weaknesses and stand over his strengths. I am imagining he knows!

There is something maybe even more significant about Bono hating his songs and his voice. It is typically self deprecating. That I say 'typically' might surprise people. Many people have an opinion of Bono that he is arrogant and egotistical. I believe such an opinion to be lazing and founded upon caricatures, never minding missing the irony at work in U2.

When Bono put on a gold lame suit and preened himself in front of the mirror he wasn't being egotistical. He was being ironic, pointing out the ridiculousness of the rock star. In some of those songs that he might not like he is constantly talking about the trouble with a big mouth or that his wife is the best thing about him. Bono comes across arrogant but has always held a humility alongside it.









We were recording today. Sorry if I blow the cover. Fr Martin and I were putting together Sunday Service for BBC Radio 4. 

This week is The Week Of Prayer For Christian Unity and so Martin and I were sharing our journey of friendship. I will be honest. It wasn't easy. On two counts.

Firstly, the music. I am too old to be a Radio 1 man but I am certainly more Radio 2 than Radio 4. When it comes to music for a Radio 4 service... It took me a long number of hours, scouring across music streams but even without my usual freedom I hope I have brought a little taste. I am particularly delighted to have brought Mary Gauthier's Mercy Now to the prayers.

Secondly, Martin and I were playing tag team. we were attempting to be more conversational. I loved the imagination of it and Martin and I are used to conversational communication. However, it was trickier to actually do in front of the microphones. 

I hope we captured something. I hope you will listen. Sunday morning on BBC Radio 4 at 8.10am and then again on BBC Radio Ulster at 10.20am. See if our friendship can seep through. 

Thank you Shiela and Katherine for readings and prayers.


Mellencamp Rees

Paul Rees account of the life of John Mellencamp didn’t paint over the warts. On every page we hear about Mellencamp’s hard headedness and belligerent behaviour towards his friends and bandmates. You wonder why any of his band ever stayed around. Yet, though there was a trail of members leaving, they are usually after decades of Mellencamp’s authoritarian anger.

You also find yourself wondering how Mellencamp made it at all. His early efforts at writing songs and making records don’t seem to be a genius being unlucky when it doesn’t happen immediately so much as a very average songwriter being lucky enough to get another chance.

Somewhere out of the Indiana blue this 30 year old making his fifth record hits a rich vein of form and takes off into the rock star stratosphere. Jack and Diane, Hurts So Good, Pink Houses, Small Town, Rain On The Scarecrow and Paper on Fire. Song after song. In the end we are the lucky ones that he got the chances. 

Into his 40s and Mellencamp has enough success to keep himself in the mix but the muse just doesn’t seem to be right. He takes up painting and not just for fun. Today, he might be as good at the painting as the writing.

Now, this is where it all got very interesting. I last got excited about John Mellencamp when I played Peaceful World up loud in brand new high end 4x4 that the car rental company gave me for the two days that our minibus was broken down in Cape Town.

Paul Rees and John Mellencamp suggest, I now believe rightly that Mellencamp found his musical identity in his 50s. Perhaps with Freedom Road but particularly with Life, Death, Love and Freedom John Mellencamp discovered himself as an Americana songwriting troubadour in the same tradition as Dylan, Cash and Guthrie.

Helping him do this was T-Bone Burnett who was able to gain Mellencamp’s respect and pastorally deal with his artistically highly strung disposition. Life, Death, Love and Freedom followed by No Better Than were eureka albums in Mellencamp discovering his place and finding his very best work would take place in his 50s and 60s. 

Rees’ book is like the evolution of an artist whose best work might even be in his 70s. He has a new record coming out called Strictly One-Eyed Jack, three songs on which Bruce Springsteen guests on. I feel lucky that we all get to hear it. 


Fitzroy TV

On recent Sundays in Fitzroy we have been taking Brian Zahnd's advice and building a theology and radical way to live on wonder.

We have stopped at the manger and peered in. We have realised that the moment that Mary's waters broke was a watershed in history. The spiritual wonder of what happens in these nativity scenes is multifaceted. Who God is? Who humans are? How then we should live?

We have been seeing the seismic shift in how faith works out post Jesus incarnation. We have soundtracked  a Waterboys' chorus to it - "That was the river, this is the sea". All of it highlights the utter wonder of who this God is.

Tomorrow, we will be shaken by words Jesus uses to his disciples about love being the fuel that keeps commandments. This really is the sea!

With the help of very old Neighbours' episodes, a little bit of the apostle Paul and maybe a quick look at Boris Johnston's work parties...


You can gather with us at 11am in Fitzroy, watch live on Fitzroy TV or watch later when a recording loads on Youtube - HERE

DARK DARK WORLD (for Aisling Murphy)



It’s a dark dark world

When will we scream “Enough”

The snuffing out the light

The ripping out of love

In strange days of isolation

Missing loved ones last breath

Evil throws us another punch

In her meaningless death


It’s a dark dark world

Too often it seems to be her

Wolf whistles, cat calls

Ending up in murder

Peeling her eyes up ahead

Fear of who is behind her

She was always vulnerable

Just because of her gender


It’s a dark dark world

The sun is going to rise

From a small glimmer caught

To finally blind our eyes

And I pray that just a ray

Will seep in underneath

To flicker in their night

A gleam of comfort on their grief.