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September 2022

SOUL SURMISE - THE BRIAN HOUSTON PODCAST

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We relaunch the Soul Surmise Podcast this weekend with an in interview that we did with Brian Houston back in February.

However that Podcast has become current in that the album we discussed is being launched in The Empire Music Hall on September 29th - TICKETS HERE

As well as the in depth chat about the new album there is an exclusive recording of Brian's song The Fool from his 2008 album Three Feet From Gold.

 

You can hear the Podcast:

Apple Podcasts

Spotify

Amazon Podcasts

 

Read my review of the new record - HERE


SURMISING SHETLAND SERIES SEVEN

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The Seventh Series of Shetland has just ended on BBC 1. Led by the headline that Douglas Henshall was leaving his role as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez it has been by far the most talked about series. 

Having watched every series and itched for this new series I am surmising the finale with very mixed emotions. I am like so many gutted that Perez has gone. How will it be without him? It is difficult to imagine.

His way out was a concern throughout Series Seven. Surely they wouldn’t kill him off?! As the series progressed it became more and more obvious that there was a love interest and that Perez had maybe had enough of the pressure of so many murders on Shetland. The series is no tourist advertisement for anyone who cannot suspend TV fiction for the reality of life on a small island!

As I surmised this Seventh Series I felt that it was actually a poor show. Perez’s leaving was an emotional cover for the weakest plot of any series so far.

Oh there were cliff hangers. How did Tosh get out of that caravan?! Phew! Then there was a tug filled wit a bomb heading straight for a tanker. Well actually, there was no bomb on board! That last car chase when Perez himself headed out across the narrow roads chasing the killer, at last revealed. Surely he was leaving with Meg and not going to get blown up by Jamie Neary.

Jamie Neary. There was a dark horse. Now, I know that the screen writers of thrillers have a tough job these days. Twenty years ago they had ninety  minutes to fill whereas now it is six long episodes. They all struggle and contrive blind alleys like Tosh’s husband’s ex. I love Tosh but Alison O’Donnell struggled a little to act her way through that little thread.

Far too often in these six episode storylines, and this was one of the often, our real killer plays it low key and then suddenly comes into play after four or five episodes of wild goose chases. 

The twist in the tale was that Neary didn’t kill Bill Rogers who had recognised Lloyd Woods in a shop. He knew Lloyd was actually Walter Edwards who was wanted for a murder in Texas. Lloyd or Walter’s wife killed Rogers but Lloyd or Walter is in a cell awaiting extradition. In a 90 minute show this would have been enough.

Anyway as a side bar it actually gets us to the most satisfying bit of Series Seven. It leads us into what I have been accustomed to call The Gospel According To… Shetland. 

Perez believes Walter to be innocent. Just a hunch. It’s another feather light part of the plot that goes by because of the stronger consequences. Perez allows Walter to go, encourages him to flee the island. He knows that that will be the end of his career but is willing to sacrifice his career for such a noble gesture. 

Making sure an innocent man escapes injustice is a good way to leave the police is a paraphrase of how he puts it. It is a powerful five minutes. Gospel like. Maybe worth some of the weaknesses of the hours before.

That is the powerful ending not his his last conversation with Meg which a little dissatisfying too. She seems too easy to convince seconds after playing hard ball. It is hard to follow the Gospel moment!

And so Tosh, Sandy and Billy are left wondering. How can they go on? How can we go on? Will Tosh take the reins or will someone else arrive from the mainland? Surely not Ardal O’Hanlon who did on another crime infested island! 

Series 8 without Perez. It’ll be sad and different but I am sure murders are afoot on Shetland. Like Midsommer they always seem to be! Bring it on...


JULIAN LENNON - JUDE

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When it comes to his music, Julian Lennon has not had it easy. It is why he has released albums intermittently and this new one is eleven years after the last one, Everything Changes. 

You can understand. Either his work is being compared to his father’s, and let us face it no one can stand in a comparison with such a father, or I am wondering if he wasn’t John’s boy would I be buying his new record, Jude.

That Julian called the record Jude, after that song by his dad’s band, written about him by his “Uncle” Paul, is a sign that the oldest Beatle son has come to terms with his legacy. At 59 he seems to be more content in his own skin.

Jude is a fascinating work in that it has been written and recorded over a thirty year period. Some of these songs re-appeared when Lennon’s former manger sent him tapes and demos that he was about to throw out. The first success of Jude is that an album written over such a period of time sounds so cohesive.

As a result we might have an accidental concept album of a man raised in unique circumstances finding his way to finding himself. Being a Beatles’ son might have been enough but when said Beatle leaves your mother and you when you are about 5 years old and is then murdered when you are just 17. Goodness, that is a turbulent life to navigate.

So across these songs we find themes of salvation, freedom, love and hope scattered all across a strong collection that shift shades from the opening hypnotic build of Save Me to the piano and strings ballad of Love Never Dies to the deep groove drive of Every Little Moment and then the experimental closing Gaia, an experimental collaboration with French singer Elissa Lauper with added vocals by Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan. 

Back to that opener Save Me beginning like a tentative stream and ending like a full waterfall crashing into a big big life. This album declares in humble, vulnerable but also confident ways that Julian Lennon has found his life and made his lifework. The proof is within the vinyl groove! 


QUEEN ELIZABETH II - A REFLECTION (Pause for Thought)

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(This is my script on Pause For Thought on BBC RADIO 2 this morning... The theme, needless to say, was Reflecting on Queen Elizabeth II...)

 

The new King, Charles III, was welcomed into Northern Ireland yesterday.  I didn’t get to see him but I hear my cousin climbed a ladder and did! I think the only time that I actually saw Queen Elizabeth II was in Edinburgh. It was the Commonwealth Games in 1970. I was 8 years old. I knew it was a big thing. 

As I was growing up The Queen was all about sport. FA Cup Finals and of course that big day in 1966 when England won the World Cup and Bobby Moore cleaned his hands on the cloth just seconds before shaking her hands as she handed him Jules Rimet.

As years went by Queen Elizabeth seemed to appear less at Cup Finals and I became a little cynical about what a Queen could really do. 

And then in 2011 she made a visit to Ireland. My apathetic cynicism had me dismissing the visit as another lovely walk about from an old lady with nice hats and a fascinating way to hold a hand bag…

BUT then… suddenly I was watching a women acting prophetically into the centuries old divisions in Ireland.

Britain and Ireland have been inflicting pain and heartache upon one another for hundreds of years. The Queen herself felt the deep loss when her husband’s favourite uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten was murdered by the IRA, blown up on his boat off the Donegal coast in 1979. 

Yet in Dublin in 2011 Queen Elizabeth made symbolic gestures that spoke powerfully of forgiveness and reconciliation. Laying a wreath at the War Memorial for Irish soldiers who fought in the War Of Independence against Britain, starting a major speech in Irish at Dublin Castle and visiting GAA headquarters at Croke Park where British soldiers had opened fire on the crowd and players in 1920. 

These were seismic symbols. The queen suddenly had my attention as she continued this courageous work of reconciliation, a year after Dublin she shook hands with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.

That Queen that I thought was ineffectual was a prophet for our times, building her prophetic message on the God she trusted in, the Bible where she found her values and the Jesus that she followed, whose own work on earth was centred on forgiveness and reconciliation.

I always feel that the days around death are sacred. We tell stories. We laugh. We cry. And I am always leaning in to hear any lessons for my life that I can learn from the one who has just passed. Queen Elizabeth has left me so many. 


SURMISING A GRIEVING KING - COULD WE BE MORE PASTORAL NEXT TIME?

Elizabeth in State

My mother died around lunch time on a Tuesday and we buried her on Thursday afternoon. I remember in my naivety saying that that was good because it meant that I could therefore preach on Sunday. 

Both my wife and my Clerk Of Session quickly reasoned that I had no idea about grief and that I should not only take Sunday off but the Sunday afterwards as well. I was glad of their wisdom and did not make the same mistake when my father passed away back in April.

Having experienced grief and understanding the need for time I have been surmising how we have treated the Royal Family and particularly the new King at this sad time of mourning Queen Elizabeth II. 

This afternoon in St Anne’s Cathedral, in Belfast, King Charles looked weary. I felt for him and said a wee prayer that he wouldn’t dose off. I saw Camilla glancing at him, a little concerned. 

Grief in itself is heavy and exhausting. Yet, in such grief, since his mother passed away King Charles has been quickly on television, being ushered in as King and then off back to Edinburgh for a Church service after a long walk up the Royal Mile. Today it was Belfast and he’s already flown back to meet his mother’s body arriving at Buckingham Palace tonight.

Now I know that there is protocol and that it all goes back centuries. However, there is time for change and I would suggest as a pastor that this is bad practice and perhaps a bad example to the nation. 

It would not have taken much for the nation to give the new King and his family a few days before all of the protocol kicked in. take the duty off his shoulders while he carries his mother's death in his heart. Just a few days to come to terms with what has happened to them before they think ahead to what they have to do next. 

Grief takes a long time and cannot be scheduled but those first few days are so important and difficult. All I am surmising is that we find a more modern and humane protocol at the death of a monarch than the one that we have moved into this time around.


TOMORROW IN FITZROY - REFLECTING ON QUEEN ELIZABETH II

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Fitzroy will be a little different in the morning.

As a result of the death of Elizabeth II we will be concentrating our worship, thoughts and prayers on the late Queen and her grieving family.

Fitzroy is a very mixed community, many who would see themselves as British and many who would not. As a result of Northern Ireland's political sensitivities, and also our Presbyterian theological belief that Jesus is the only head of the Church, we have no flags and do not play the National Anthem.

However, in respect of the late Queen, we will play the National Anthem briefly tomorrow followed by a moment's silence.

The hymns and readings will reflect the life and particularly the faith of Queen Elizabeth II and I will preach A Gospel According To... The Queen.

 

Fitzroy gathers at 11am and the service is streamed live and recordings can be be found HERE on Fitzroy TV

 


THE PIETA - ON SUICIDE AWARENESS DAY

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Today is Suicide Awareness Day and two things fill my thoughts.

My first thoughts are with dear friends who lost their amazing son to suicide back in March. Without warning, without seeming reason, Daniel took his own life. To sense the daily pain of Daniel’s loss in the depths of his parent’s hearts has been heart breaking.

My second thought takes me to Rome. I am standing beside The Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. 

My friend, Rab, had spoken to me about it a few years ago. Rab would describe himself as “relatively agnostic but interested in many aspects across religions” so when he shared with me how taken he was with the Pieta I took note and cannot thank him enough.

His wife was investigating the Basilica and Rab kind of drifted over and caught sight of the Pieta. It is the work of Michelangelo. A beautiful 15th century sculpture in marble, the Pieta depicts Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, in her arms. It moved Rab to tears. 

My experience was similar. We had met Pope Francis earlier in the day. I needed time to surmise that and all the things that he said. We went through the Vatican Museum and much as it was impressive I was still pondering the events in Pope Francis’ private library. 

Janice went off to marvel at the art and beauty of St. Peter’s. I was at a loose end and remembered - Rab’s Pieta. I found my good friend Fr Martin Magill and asked about it. He took me over to it and it was that same wow factor as Rab had experienced. 

We encouraged Janice over to join us and all three of us stood and wept. 

The theologically squeamish might shout, “It is not in the Bible.” No, it is not. That does not mean that between the cross where Mary stood watching her son die and the tomb he was laid in that she didn’t cradle his body.

However, fact is not the point. This is not theological. This is artistic. Whatever the facts, Mary did watch her soon die. She went through her valley of the shadow. She experienced that trauma. Michelangelo expresses that experience of Mary’s; beautifully, poignantly, painfully.

For Janice and I we were remembering our dear friends, Daniel’s parents. It is not the order of things for a parent to cradle their child’s body. Our friends experienced it. They said that they could have held him forever. Michelangelo captured their heartache.

Fr Martin recognised who we would be particularly thinking of. He added his own experience of far too many young suicides in west Belfast. Indeed just last night we attended a concert of Celtic Psalms performed by Kiran Wimberly and The McGrath Family, in St John’s on the Falls Road, in aid of the work going on in West Belfast to help families who have experienced loss and those who might feel suicidal.

All of our tears, as we stood before The Pieta, were deeply felt. Fr Martin suggested a prayer and I prayed for my friends and then all the other parents who had experienced what Mary went through. The love and sorrow that mingles. Again, this is something of the Gospel story that understands our humanity and our brokenness.

Let us today remember those who have taken their own lives and those they have left behind and make a contribution towards Suicide Awareness.

 

Donate to Suicide Awareness in memory of our friend Daniel HERE


QUEEN ELIZABETH II - A TRIBUTE

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I was so sorry this afternoon to hear that Queen Elizabeth II was gravely ill and that the family were gathering at her bedside. I gathered at my own dad’s bedside back in April. It was a tough few days and I prayed that the Royal Family would not a sense of the presence of God that I did back then. I am surprised at how emotional I am tonight hearing that she has passed away.

I am no monarchist. I struggle with entitlement, titles by birth, the decadent wealth of palaces and all the pomp and ceremony. I struggle with conquering Empires. I am sure someone could tell me that all of the investment in the Royal Family brand has a big return in Tourism so I will not surmise that now.

I did however really like Queen Elizabeth II. She’s been a constant in my 60 years on earth. During her recent Platinum Jubilee I marvelled at someone who has so committed to their vocation for 70 years. I mean most of us are looking forward to retirement heading towards 45 years in the workplace. Here is a woman still working, and serving for others, at 96. Fair play!

In her Christmas messages the Queen always went back to Jesus. She would always quote some Bible phrase and share some Christian wisdom. In the modern world where she was still Queen this was courageous and a sign of her own faith.

I most admired Queen Elizabeth II for her contribution to the Irish peace process. We could talk about that handshake with Martin McGuinness but I’d like to surmise her 2011 visit to Ireland. 

I had looked at it as a nice anaemic trip that would be a security nightmare. To my surprise it turned into a bombardment of iconic moments.

Suddenly the Queen of England is walking onto the pitch at Croke Park, home of the GAA and the place where the first Bloody Sunday took place in 1920; the British army murdering 13 fans and a player in brutal reprisal for their own agents and servicemen killed that morning. 

Then the Queen was opening her speech in Irish before getting as close to apology as any monarch can in her, “"things we wish had been done differently or not at all", and “we can bow to the past but we don’t need to be bound by it.” 

This was the ushering in of a new Ireland, still divided by a border but more united in its feelings and atmosphere than maybe anywhere else in its history. In her speech she also reminded us that she wasn’t on some safe throne away from the subjective pain of the Troubles but that she too has suffered, alluding to the death of her cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten at the hands of the IRA.

Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese were Heads of State and in some ways get little chance to change anything; that is the job of their Prime Ministers, Taoiseachs and governments. On this occasion, however, they seem to have outdone the powerful ones. 

Like me, but on the other side of our border, songwriter Luke Bloom watched on. Like me he expected little of significance. Like me he was suddenly engaged and moved by one simple moment when two women, significant in position but rarely potent with power sowed a seed that could change our island forever. 

For Luka as a Queen and a President remembered their dead together something happened. It was not dramatic but it was significant. Luka wrote the beautiful A Seed Was Sown:

A seed was sown

With a simple bow

Where we remembered our heroes

She said the time has come now

She laid her wreath

With dignity and grace

An eloquent silence

And softness in her face

She lowered her head down

And held the pose

My tears flowed freely

God only knows

She remembered our losses

She remembered her own

And in that moment

A seed was sown…..

Death is a sacred time. Part of it is the remembering of a life, the stories that we share. Some stories are new to us or come from a different angle. Some are funny, some warm hearted and some real lessons for life. 

As we watch and read obituaries this week, as we watch documentaries I pray that in our reflections we will be moved, particularly those in Northern Ireland who claim loyalty to her, by these brave, grace filled and prophetic actions of Queen Elizabeth II. 

Tonight I pray for the Royal Family in their grieving. We all know that heartache. I pray for a nation that cherished Queen Elizabeth II. God be with all who grieve. I pray also that we all might follow our now late Queen into the forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation that she has modelled for us all.


FINALLY MAKING PRIZE DAY, 40 YEARS AFTER I LEFT SCHOOL!

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(My script for Pause For Thought on BBC Radio 2 on September 7th 2022. The them for there week was Back To School...)

 

I got the very best way to go back to school. When I was at school I always dreamed that one day I would be invited back as the Guest Speaker at Prize Day. Prize Day speakers all seemed to be successful at sport - which I wanted to be - or at something else. Prize Day speakers had made it.

Well no, you didn’t somehow miss it when I won The Open or a gold medal at the Olympics or led Northern Ireland at Wembley… I didn’t… BUT I got the invite. I was Prize Day Guest Speaker and it was amazing. My mum sitting proudly in the front row, just six weeks before she passed away.

In my speech I shared with the Prize winners some things that had happened in the very assembly hall where we were now gathered. I fell in love with the Beatles at my very first School Christmas party. I fell on my backside behind the curtains as stage manager at a School Concert.

Two other moments deeply impacted my life. While I was DJing a Sixth Form party - the dancing caused the needle to jump on the record player on the stage. Not good. As we moved it to safer place I took the abuse from my baying peers. Worst moment of my life but the next day someone said to me that if I could stand in front of that crowd, I could stand in front of any crowd. That was good to know!

And once after I got to speak in Assembly my headmaster complimented me and said “you didn’t insult their intelligence”. That was the best advice I was ever given on preaching. 

But for me the best bit was that it was the very first time I had been to Prize Day. I even started my speech by suggesting that now that I had been to one, I would still rather be doing what I used to do. Us non Prize winners all got the afternoon off, I’d have been playing football by now.

I actually thought that my story would have been better shared with those who hadn’t got a prize. I was proof that you didn’t need a prize while at school to make something of yourself later in life.

To paraphrase Jesus words - the first can be last and the last might end up first… and be back to school for Prize Day!

 

Read My Prize Day Speech HERE


MARY PETERS GOLD MEDAL - 50 YEARS - PERSONAL SURMISE

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It is impossible to get through this weekend without a blog on Mary Peters. 

Fifty years since that amazing evening in Munich when she became the only Northern Irish person to win a solo gold medal at the Olympic Games. 

I remember it so well. The personal bests, particularly the high jump. Fearing Heidi Rosenthal’s long jump. That last race. “Run the race of your life Mary!” And then… that seemingly long long wait, Mary and Ann Wilson watching the screen, before… jumping into my excited mother’s arms and almost knocking her tooth out!

I was 10. I had only just started P7. I was just discovering Donny Osmond and T. Rex. Yet I was in the zone for the Olympics. I even remember getting up early to watch the Mexico Olympics as a 6 year old. 

My parents were athletes. The big clock on our mantle piece was a wedding gift from the Ballymena Athletics Club. My dad was disappointed he didn’t make the 1958 Commonwealth Games. My mum even claims to have been in a relay team with Mary Peters.

Two years before Munich we had great seats at the 1970 Commonwealth Games when before the hurdles race in the pentathlon my mum shouted down at her and Mary looked up and answered. Colour the son impressed.

As a ten year old my sporting views of my wee home country were a little askew. George Best was the best footballer in the world and Willie John McBride one of the best Rugby players. At those 1970 Commonwealth’s I has watched Mike Bull win a gold medal in the pole vault! I foolishly thought it would always be this way!

I was too young to make comment on how Mary’s gold medal lifted a country at the height of the Troubles. I do know though that that historical night in Munich was a very special one in our house and my memory. I have so enjoyed celebrating it. Thank you Mary!