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March 2022


FL team

"Is this the real life/Or is this just fantasy" - Queen


“I suppose you’ll be happy if Brighton score twice in the second half and beat Liverpool?” says my father-in-law at lunch.

Bryan was 86 this week and like many of his age new tricks don’t come easily. I don’t think he can fathom at all my football fandom schizophrenia when I answer that 

I would like that Bryan because it would give City that extra wee gap at the top of the league but on the other hand I wouldn’t because I would like clean sheets for Van Dijk and Trent Alexander for my Fantasy League. A goal from Salah would help too!

Isn’t that what Fantasy League does for you in these last 10 games of the Premiership season. It is a sporting schizophrenia. In the real world you want this. In Fantasy League you want this.

Can I suggest that it is more difficult as a Manchester City fan. Pep’s squad rotation in the latter stages of the Champions League play havoc with your Fantasy League head and eventually after De Bruyne is rested for more games than you can afford you have to look elsewhere for Fantasy League consistency. As it stands I only have one City player in my Fantasy League team.

Jurgen plays a more consistent game although that is starting to change. Jota and Diaz seem interchangeable just now so Jota had to go. Salah though is in every team sheet. He is also the highest scoring player in Fantasy League and you never have to ask questions about who to captain as he rarely lets you down. He’s scored while I have been typing!

In the old days I would never have had a United player in my Fantasy team. I didn’t want to want Rooney to score a hat-trick to win my Fantasy League head to head. Now that I would sign them there is nobody worth signing!

As it was with United it should now be with City’s main rivals Liverpool but I take my Fantasy League more seriously now and need their points! I probably also like Liverpool more than I ever would United.

It all leaves me with a football schizophrenia. Football is a love that is deeply embedded at an early age. I do not remember a time that I didn’t have a ball at my feet and wasn’t watching football and working out the best players. 

Subbuteo was my first Fantasy League as my mate Frank Kelly and I choose our favourite players across clubs and indeed countries. Frank’s Peter Lorimer to my Colin Bell.   

As a result football results can effect my mood. City win I am a happy boy for days. They lose. Oh my. Don’t look at me. Janice suffers that mood! It is almost the same with Fantasy League. My captain scores, adds an assist and I have a clean sheet or two. Good times. On a week that no one making an impression… Unhappy.

So the next couple of months will know tensions inside of me, between my City fandom and Fantasy League interest. You might understand. Empathise. If you don’t, don’t laugh at me. Pray for Janice!



Away back in 1994 I was forced by an IRA bomb to live in an apartment block in Belfast city centre. I had no TV nor did I need one. From the window I could see the drug lift there, the prostitute rendezvous there. 

One morning I almost stepped over the night girls on my way to my office that was temporarily in the the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings. I moved quickly, no eyes connecting. And as I walked away I thought that that was a good Presbyterian boy. 

I had no more thought that when I was quickly drawn back to the Gospels. Jesus did not walk over prostitutes and scamper off all self righteous to Church headquarters. Quite the opposite. Jesus was comfortable in the presence of prostitutes. 

He would have sat down on the front step of our apartment and chatted with them. They always seemed drawn to his grace. 

It was bad not good discipleship that sent me off to some ivory tower with the inability to reach out to these women that God loves. I started asking why all those conferences and and books about discipleship hadn’t taught me how to talk to prostitutes?.

Of course had I sat with these ladies and done the Jesus thing I would have been looked on with some suspicion. My reputation might have been a tarnished (or even more tarnished than it is!!!). 

How far we have gone from following Jesus to following some middle class behavioural code that we erroneously call Christian?


Anam Cara

If you ask East Belfast troubadour Brian Houston about where he fell in love with all things Irish he will take you to a Canadian native Indian Cree Reservation where he was shocked to hear them singing doo wop worship instead of songs in their own cultural sounds. I’ve been there myself in Africa. 

This Cree Indian effort to sing other culture’s rhythms and melodies led the Irish songwriter, sometimes worship leader, to think about his own Irish heritage. 

Brian Houston is a raw spiritual soul and he jumped with his usual passion right deep into it. Even down to the Irish language that politically in Northern Ireland is not championed in the Braniel estate of Houston’s childhood.

Eventually all this brings us Anam Cara. The first sound is the Uilleann pipes of John McSherry. Now, for me that always sounds ancient and spiritual to me. It’s Ireland’s Soul Music. Perfect for worship. Throughout Anam Cara the pipes are like a musical code into an ancient Celtic soul stream.

So opens Beannacht. There’s that Irish language. Blessing! The language is sprinkled across these songs, apart from on Óró sé bheatha abhail, where it dominates. The Irish language is so beautiful and on this song the shifting from Irish to English really works There’s a Clannad almost Horslips feel to it.

Come Let Us Worship Him with its visceral bodhran, harmonies, flute and ‘heys’ could be heard round a 5th century gathering of the faithful round an outside fire. 

God Is Great has similar drive but not so ancient and could be heard any Sunday in any modern Church where Bethel worship songs reign supreme.

Uisce Beatha (Water of Life) has those pipes again and is a mediative piece full of peat fires, glens and sacred shawls in a mesmerising mediative piece that has a geographical centre as well as a transcendent one. 

In the end what we might have here is one of Houston’s most original and satisfying albums. Take the closing The Voyage Of St Columbanus where Brian has arranged a short sacred Celtic poem with the pipes throwing atmospheres of the sea, sky and weather in a spoken word poem of pilgrimage. 

Like the entire album it’s ancient, it’s Irish, it’s spiritual. It’s unique as an East Belfast songwriter engages with his island’s heritage, culture, language, music and spirituality.

Maybe Brian Houston’s most artistic and adventurous piece of work.



Crap Tuna Tins

I love Charlie Mackesy. Oh his book of illustrations and succinct wise quotations, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, for sure BUT what I really have grown to love are his sermons for Alpha! He’s an amateur preacher and all the better for it. His understand and passion for the grace of God is refreshing as is his disdain for the negative characteristics of the Church.

Mackesy has a profound belief in a Jesus that he is quick to declare was kept from him by a judgemental Church that screamed STOP STOP STOP and laid upon people guilt and shame, instead of love.

Mackesy has a simple but profound illustration. Once, while in Romania, he was offered some tuna. Outside the tin was the word CRAP. Mackesy rightfully says that the outside would put you off and as a result you might miss the glorious wonder of the taste inside.

The Church is Jesus worst PR! It seems to have been for a long time. I say that as someone who has committed his life to that Church but also as a follower of Jesus who cannot contradict the case against it.

I have become too aware of this in books and film recently. 

Kenneth Branagh has the guldering (loud angry shouting) of the preacher. It does not have a positive effect on the young Brannagh. It causes him sleepless nights and the inclusion of the this scene in his autobiographical movie suggest a long term barrier to God.

I was watching Belfast while I was reading Jan Carson’s novel The Raptures about Church in rural Northern Ireland. Again, throughout the novel, CRAP seems written all around the Church. Oh it is not all bad but neither does it draw you, welcome you or embrace you with love.

Sadly, it is not just in film and novel that CRAP is branded across the Church. A friend, whose faith in Jesus is stronger than her faith in Church, told me recently that at her very own father’s funeral she was approached and told that her dad would love it if she repented and returned to Church. Yes, read that sentence again. At a time of grief, instead of hug she got a pointed finger! That has CRAP written all around it.  

Another friend while speaking to an American College group said, “My Christian journey almost robbed me of the wonder of my humanity.” How can those who follow Jesus who spoke about bringing humanity in all its fulness have gotten it so wrong as to steal someone’s humanity.

We are in a world where everyone around us is looking for love, forgiveness, a welcome and a belonging. Jesus life gives us an invitation to all of those in abundance. Roman Centurions, Samaritan women, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers and outcasts. None of them are made feel guilt or shame, just utter love and transformation. 

This is the amazing grace inside a tin with CRAP on the outside. 

It reminds me of The Proclaimers song The Light where again faith is a wonderful thing but for some bizarre reason Christians get the PR wrong:


But I can't put my faith in

(Your words)

Your words and demands

(I believe)

I believe in God alright

It's folk like you I just can't stand


In his best selling book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller wrote about how at University the Christians set up little Confessional booths all over the Campus on the most hedonist night of the year. When people went in expecting self righteous peers to listen to their sins, the Christians confessed the errors of Christianity instead!

As a minister in the Church I am happy to, if sorrowful that I have to, confess our failings. In the secular world we live in Jesus is for me the way and the truth and the life. Jesus came to bring us amaz and life in all its fulness. We need to stop hiding that behind a banner that says CRAP!

Charlie Mackesy shows slides of his garden. To get in you need to get through a gate that says BEWARE OF THE DOG. It could be frightening. Once inside if you look around you will see a bronze sculpture. Near hidden in the briars of his garden, it is the Prodigal Son being embraced by his Father, Mackesy says that it is the great truth that we are loved unconditionally  in a world that is messy.

Preach it Charlie… and those of us in the Church too.


Bono and Bulb

No one will be surprised when I write this BUT for me the rock band in the world that best speaks into time of war is U2.

As early as 1983 and their third record War they ere speaking into the Irish Troubles with Sunday Bloody Sunday. In November 1987 they used that song powerfully to protest the Enniskillen bomb. You can watch that on the Rattle and Hum film. 

Since then they have prophecies or pastored into Sarajevo, Omagh bomb and 9/11. With the latter the second half of their Elevation Tour was aimed as a salve on a country’s shock and grief. 

More recently there was the terrorist attack, during an Eagles Of Death Metal concert on the Batalclan Theatre in Paris on November 13th 2015. 

Five days later I was watching the Songs Of Innocence Tour in Belfast. I had wondered all day how U2 would speak into the feeling of horror and darkness across Europe at that moment.

Bono didn’t let me down. 

It was during a song that started Songs Of Innocence in one form and ended Songs Of Experience in another.

Song For Someone is another of those beautifully crafted songs from Songs Of Innocence. A love song for his wife Ali, Bono explained he was trying to  impress her as a teenager and she told him she wasn’t interested in perfect. Bono confesses his imperfection:

And I'm a long way

From your hill on Calvary

And I'm a long way

From where I was, where I need to be

The image of the Innocence & Experience Tour was a lightbulb and this song is where it is found. 

In the song days after Bataclan Song For Someone new incarnation and wee tweak to the lyric. In the new creeping dark, evil prowling Bono sings with grace and empathy and hope:

"I know there's so many reasons to doubt

But there is a light 

Don't let it go out"...

The song will reprise revisited as Light #13 on Songs Of Experience. By the end of that next Tour its ends another glorious Belfast concert.

Tonight, after all the experience of Zoo Station, The Fly, Vertigo and Whose Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, Bono walks back down the centre of the SSE in search of that innocence. He sings 13 There Is A Light. The visuals signal Cedarwood Road and there, again as if by magic, a house. Bono walks up and lifts off the roof before pulling out a light bulb. 

Bono throws the bulb into the Saturday night sky of experience. It swings precariously. Bono leaves… and it swings… benediction, the end… of the night… 

And that is what I have listened to these past days and remembered in my mind. As it became at post Bataclan so it could be now. Hope! As we watch our news with so many reasons to doubt - “There is a light, Don’t let it go out.”


How To Pray

We are looking at Pete Greig's helpfully practical book about prayer, How To Pray,  during Lent.

Tomorrow we will look at how we approach God. Who is God? What is prayer? It is not mathematical. It is a mystery that we are called to and called to for our own good. 

AW Tozer once said that whatever we think about God is the most important thing about them. So it is with prayer. How do we live and engage with an entity way beyond our mortal minds? With someone we call Father but also hallow his name?

With the help of Bruce Cockburn's Lord of the Starfields:

"Lord of the star fields
Ancient of days
Universe Maker
Here's a song in your praise"


We gather in Fitzroy at 11am. It will be streamed live on Fitzroy TV... and then a recorded version will appear on Monday morning - Fitzroy TV



Sandra McC

Many of us might make playlists of those important songs. The ones that have carried us through loss and broken hearts and grief or even  the soundtracks of joyous moments of love and happiness. 

Sandra McCracken decided to go one better and record an album of songs that have carried her. She sang on Fool’s Gold from her 2018 Songs From The Valley album “Nobody needs another love song / Sometimes you need to sing your own song.” 

I reviewed Mary Gauthier's book Saved By a Song recently and this is McCracken declaring with honorary performances songs that have carried her. She is singing the songs of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, U2, REM, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and more.

McCracken has this wonderfully rich and varied body of recorded work, shifting from modern worship to standing up as a songwriter in the real world. I first became a fan listening to her 2004 album Best Laid Plans and obviously loved Portadown Station from Gravity/Love.

Twenty years of listening to Sandra McCracken will tell you that she is an artist of taste. That comes through beautifully in this collection. 

Production is far from over bearing in these arrangements but they all so interesting; the near vaudeville piano of Most Of The Time; the strings on Everybody Hurts; the percussive shuffle of Only Love Can Break Your Heart; the subtle harmony on It Ain’t Me Babe.

There is a hypnotic fluidity to the guitar playing, particularly on One and the utterly sublime on Weather With You.

The stand out throughout is Sandra’s voice. Rocked up, country twang and gentle songwriter emotion. She brings new nuances from every single track. Anthem has never been more hymn like and I think Leonard would smile down at that.

In the seeming diminutive frame of Sandra McCracken there lies a musician, songwriter, worship leader and theologian. She’s an imaginative artist that knows what to do with a song. She does it all here… and if you want a playlist of songs to carry you…

AND... literally as I go to press with this blog Sandra has released a single - her version of Dreams, not the California West Coast Stevie Nicks one but the west of Ireland Cranberries one. Again the guitars... and this time Molly Parden on harmony vocals...

THE SOUL SURMISE PODCAST #1 - How Do We Help Ukraine? With Norman McKinley MBE

Me and Norman

The first Soul Surmise Podcast is now available on iTunes and Spotify. 

It is an emergency podcast in some senses. I was intending to have Norman McKinley as our guest later in the series but the war in Ukraine, people's generosity to help and Norman's experience at what might be the best way to help and pray is so good that we rushed this one out.

Norman McKinley received an MBE in the New Years Honours List just as he was retiring from his role as Executive Director of UK Operations at British Red Cross.

I was interested to know what happens in such organisations at times of crisis? How do they mobilise? What is the best ways for churches and individuals to help? Cash or things? How do we pray?







Ukraine On The Ground

(I wrote this prayer from little bits of news coming out of Ukraine through prayer requests from members of Josiah Venture on the ground... I used it at an Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service in Fitzroy)


On the ground NOW

Ukrainian citizens cowering in underground car parks

Seeking shelter from Russian attacks

Lord may the word become flesh

To move among them.


On the ground NOW

Teenagers, young men and woman, older men and women

Volunteering to defend their country against Russia

With no previous military experience

Merciful Emmanuel, God be with them


On the ground NOW

Women and children on buses across Ukraine

Seeking safe routes to safer places

May you be their refuge and strength

And an ever present help in their troubled journeys


On the ground NOW

Refugees in long queues at border posts

Or already over the border

Leaving home with nothing at all

Lord may they today be delivered from evil

May those who take them in, have daily bread to give them


On The Ground NOW

NGO’s Gathering local information

Imagining how to deploy the aid

May we send what they need

May that help as circumstances change

Lord do do immeasurably more 

than all we ask or imagine, 

according to your power that is at work within us


On the ground NOW

International leaders

Imagining, planning how to end this war

How to put pressure on Putin to draw back

Without escalating the violence and deaths

God we pray you would bless the Peacemakers

That the baby Jesus would pour out

Peace on earth and good will to every human soul.


On the ground NOW

We gather here in safety to worship you

May our gathering and our praise and our prayers

And our visual commitment tonight to follow you

Somehow blend into your will for our world

So that swords would become ploughs

Spears would become pruning hooks

Tanks would become tractors

Bomb silos would instead be filled with grain

May your Kingdom come in Ukraine, its surrounding borders

And all across the earth as it is in heaven.


Hope for Ukraine

(This was my Pause For Thought on Vanessa, BBC Radio 2 on March 2nd 2022... The them was Resisting Temptation... but was soon in the context of war in Ukraine...)


Today like many Christians all over the world, including my Pause for Thought colleague George Pitcher from yesterday, I will go to an Ash Wednesday service and have my head ashed. I will have a cross will be smeared on my forehead - to the words  "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I will do so as part of only the second ever, we think, Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service to be held in Belfast. As a Protestant I never got ashed. Across the world today many Protestant Churches will have ashing services but not in N. Ireland. On Ash Wednesday in N. Ireland you could literally tell what side you were on by whether you had ash on your forehead or not. 

The first Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service, 2 years ago, led to by far the most meaningful Lent that I have ever had. Without doubt its public commitment gave me spiritual resilience as I struggled to resist temptation.

So begins the 40 days of Lent, a time when Christians heighten our self denial, increase our prayer lives and prepare for the events of Jesus death and resurrection.

This year we begin that journey in the shadow of war in Ukraine. 

A war that can be beamed into your front room. For the Christian there is the dilemma that you pray for peace while actually watching bombs exploding. Watching war on a 24/7 news loop can leave you feeling hopeless.

It was in Nakasongola in Uganda that I saw the phrase HOPELESS IS A BIG ILLNESS. How right is that?

So this Lent it might be all about not resisting the temptation to give up hope for Ukraine and indeed the world.

That’s where I will come back to our 2nd Ecumenical Ash Wednesday Service. Twenty years ago, that could never have happened here in Belfast, for sectarian and religious reasons. That it will take place tonight without a protest outside is a sign that things can change. Peace moves slow BUT it is moving. 

As Christian writer Jim Wallis defined it, hope is “believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.” As I am ashed tonight I will publicly commit to resist any temptation to lose that kind of hope for Ukraine and us all.