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February 2023


Follow Me

(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #7)


I am always concerned that Christian discipleship has been blunted, dulled and made easy. It has turned into some formula, leading to a comfortable life of niceness and keeping the status quo.

It is instead about a radical life turn, an unlearning of how we have been living and relearning a counter intuitive life that is costly and sacrificial. 

When Peter answered Jesus question, "Who do you say that I am?" with a "The Messiah of God," Jesus then told him the response to such a belief - “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me."

That is nothing short of subversive revolution. Christianity has been blanded down to putting your hand up at a mission, believing a few doctrines and fighting for whatever seems to be the sound defining doctrine of that age, and doing a daily Bible reading and prayer.

If only... if only Jesus had said that to Peter. That would be an easier deal to follow... but dull... very dull... and nothing like the John 10:10 'life in all its fulness".  


If only Jesus had said to Peter…

Put your hand up at a meeting…

Pray this prayer after me…

Go to Church…

Sing new worship songs…

Believe all these doctrines…

If only Jesus had said to Peter…


But he didn’t 

He said

Follow me

Follow me into the minutes and hours of each day

Follow me among the people you wouldn’t really want to be with

Follow me into the dilemmas of spiritual decision making

Follow me into the dilemmas of making value judgements

Follow me into dangerous and dirty and hostile places

Follow me into the concerns and heartache of family and friendship

If only Jesus had said to Peter...


But he didn’t

He said

Follow me and let us love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength

Follow me as we love our neighbours as ourselves

Follow me as we learn to love our enemies

Follow me into serving those who are not as well off as you are

Follow me to the cross of uncomfortable and painful sacrifice and self denial

If only Jesus had said to Peter...


But he didn’t 

He said follow me

Follow me and let us journey

Towards the person I died that you might be

To make the contributions that I was resurrected, for you to make.


War U2

Forty years today I missed my morning lectures. Hebrew! You didn’t have to give me many excuses to miss a 9am Monday morning Hebrew lecture. This particular Monday I had a great excuse. U2’snew record War was released.

If I remember it was cold and wet. It might have been 9.30 before I got on my way. I walked the mile from my College Room into Belfast to the first record shop. There were so many in 1983. To my utter disappointment it wasn’t there. Nor in the next shop. Or the next. I trailed all the way across the city centre. 

The last shop was Caroline Records briefly located in Lower Garfield Street. I walked in and started flicking through records. As I did the door opened and a box landed on the counter. I kept me eyes on it, eager with anticipation. The staff opened the box and there it was. Before they had it out of the box I was on top of them. I’ll have that please. Without doubt I was the first person in Belfast to own War

I had been a fan for about eighteen months, since I risked a record token birthday gift on October and fell madly in love with Gloria, Tomorrow and With A Shout (Jerusalem), exuberant songs of spiritual energy that fired my recently converted spiritual imagination. I had been to see the band at the Maysfield Leisure Centre in December 1982 where Bono’s charismatic performance had blown my rock fan mind.

New Year’s Day had been out for over a month. It was the first single off the album, following the stand alone single Celebration. It had continued that spiritual kick. “Under a blood red sky” and “a world in white is under way” were apocalyptic and eschatological. I need that album. I failed my Hebrew that year and though that one Monday wasn’t to blame, I was well prepared for a resit (I did every year anyway) to get a dose of U2.

Of course we had heard the song about Belfast, Sunday Bloody Sunday at the Maysfield concert but to hear it on record was amazing. That is about my city, our Troubles and “to claim the victory Jesus won” was my faith being applied to peace making. 

Then there was Drowning Man that quoted Isaiah 40 and the whole thing finished with Psalm 40. I was not convinced about Red Light with Kid Creole and the Coconuts but Like A Song… and Surrender were immediate favourites. 

Thirty five years on and three of the songs, New Years Day, Sunday Bloody Sunday and 40 are still featuring in the live sets. Oh for Like A Song… to get a rare run out sometime! Some of it has perhaps not aged so well. In my 35th Anniversary blog I asked for a new arrangement of Two Hearts Beat As One and it is arriving soon on Songs Of Surrender, though incomprehensibly Surrender is not! 

Even more fascinating as I look at the cover today. The innocent boy on the cover of Boy seems to be very frightened. It's a great image for an album named War. However, I have had the privilege of getting to know Peter Rowen and he is not a human who fears easily. I have seen him do mad things on skateboards, motorbikes and snowboards. He doesn't seem to have his brain attached in any way to his nervous system. So this look of fear is a marvellous piece of acting at such a young age!

For me, War will always have that special place. It was the first U2 record I got on the day of release. The first one that I had first.


Operating Theatre

(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #6)


Lent can be like an Operating Theatre.

Operating theatres make me apprehensive. I am sure I not alone. Are you ever as vulnerable as you are on a hospital trolley, at the mercy of strangers, no matter how well they are qualified?! Will it be painful? In my case it might! 

Yet, when you are suffering, you are almost eager to get in there. Do something! Make me well!

As well as apprehension, there is anticipation. You dream of being well again. You imagine being free from pain. Feeling creative again. 

Doctors and consultants are a blessing when they can bring your life back to its full health and strength. 

God is the soul doctor. The soul surgeon.

To bring our lives to the “life in all its fulness” of John 10:10, we need to be prepared to lie down in the operating theatre of the Holy Spirit.

We need to be prepared to be vulnerable before God. We need to be courageous about the pain. Of course we will be apprehensive.

Yet, the anticipation should excited us. To find ourselves living life in its fulness. To reach for the wonder of our fulfilled humanity.

Some of us grew up thinking that God was wanting us in surgery to spoil our fun, the confine our living. Such an impression of God will heighten our apprehension.

A healthy view of a loving God changes this. When we realise that God’s call to denial and cross carrying is actually to lead us to full humanity, not handicap us, then we will be more ready.

It might be forgiveness. Holding bitterness towards someone who has hurt us is a sure way to have our humanity robbed from us. The hurt they caused is added to with those twisted feelings of revenge churning within us. 

We might have a right for justice. Yet, something happening to another is rarely likely to heal the scars within us. God’s gift to such a pain of soul is to forgive. To let go. Then we can start again without that awful feeling deep down within us.

We will be apprehensive to forgive. We will be vulnerable, and it will almost always be a painful act, but God calls us to see the potential of rebirth and anticipate a better life when we come out of God’s theatre of soul surgery.

Lent is for our ultimate good.


Searching Of The HEart

(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #5)


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.

These last verses of Psalm 139 are almost the ultimate Lenten words. This is a spiritual season where leading up to Christ’s cross and resurrection we search our souls. The Psalmist asks God to do the searching.

It was rather easy for me to think of these verses when I first heard Leonard Cohen’s song Villanelle For Our Time. The words  are actually from a poem by F.R. Scott a Canadian poet, intellectual and constitutional expert:

“From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.”

While Scott was at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar he became influenced by the R.H. Tawney a Christian Socialist. That makes a lot of sense as we look at these lyrics. There is a deep sense of personal spirituality and social transformation and where those two things connect. 

Cohen or Scott, or both actually, are saying that the social coming together of people will find its spark in the personal searching of the heart. 

That in itself comes from a personal faith that finds its way into the world in humanity finding their vocational places. We play our part, as one of my many mantras goes, when “our deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need” (Frederick Buechner). Our work coming out of faith is what will bring Commonwealth or God’s Kingdom or however you want to describe a new world order.

“Social holiness” is a new Wesleyan phrase that I learned recently that rather caught my attention. In evangelical Christianity we have been rather over focused on personal piety and have neglected our social holiness. 

Indeed, John Stott said that our neglect of social justice issues was the great evangelical heresy of the Twentieth Century. So, Cohen and Scott’s poetry is an inspiration to live holy lives in both spheres. Indeed, they go together and should not be separated.

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.


Jack white

(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #4)


In an interview with the Observer Music Magazine Jack White from rock band The White Stripes pointed his finger at the spirit of his age. ““It’s pathetic in America. Everyone thinks they can have whatever they want. They’re really spoiled and gluttonous; they always want more and bigger and better and all that jazz, and the fastest and the newest toy – and it’s not necessary. People in America, especially don’t want anyone to tell them that there’s any sort of rules, or limitations. They don’t want, “You can’t do that,” or “You can only have this”. Everyone wants to eat their dessert first.”

In a sermon in Fitzroy, a few years ago, I opened up the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man which basically damned the Rich Man to hell for his conspicuous consumerism and desire for the dessert first. It is a hard word to a congregation full people who fit the character sketch and CV of the rich man and not one that looks or lives anywhere near Lazarus. It is a story that goes with Jesus comments “blessed are the poor” and “woe to you who are rich.”  We could paraphrase “Woe to those who got their dessert first.”

As Christians we need to be alert to the weaknesses of our conditioning. White’s words are an astute analysis of the soul of our times. We are its victims. It is all around us, sucking us in, moulding us and shaping us. Being the victims does not excuse us. We need to bring to bear on our disposition the challenge of the Gospel. It is not just a marked contrast; it is an antithesis of all that the world would sell us.

Jesus birth rings in a new way to live. Here is the King of all Kings on a bed of straw, poor, vulnerable and dependent, soon fleeing like a refugee to escape the political death squads. God has shown us the selfless sacrificial alternative; an opposite way that sees life lived for what is given away not accumulated. It is a life of precarious bravery not comfortable safety, of giving up his rights for the salvation of others, not demanding or even expecting everything to fall into place. This Jesus way is about abundant blessing but not the blessings expected in a world where we want to eat our dessert first. 

And Jesus whispers still; follow me. It is impossible without the daily taking up the cross and heading off no matter what the cost. The cross is not made up off quality silver and bought in the coolest high street jewellers. WWJD is not something to be worn as a fashionable wrist band. What Would Jesus Do is a moment by moment question that inconveniences our lives and leaves us with the nuisance of having to befriend the unlovely, the stigma labelled outsider and the violent enemy.

The revolution that was Jesus birth became his teaching. The Beatitudes are simply ridiculous in the context of the world we live in. In our world the rich are blessed, the promotion is blessed, the expensive car is blessed, the prestigious post code is blessed; they are the way to get voted into eldership certainly!

The kingdom of God is upside down. The poor are blessed, the meek inherit, the peacemakers get the kingdom of God. It is time that we as the Church of Christ heard the words of Jack White and then examined the lifestyles of those of us who claim to follow the humble, impoverished carpenter who was tortured and rejected and ask whether we reflect the world or are the torch bearers of a new way, living out the words of the one we say we are following. 



(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #3)


“Surrender don't come natural to me 

I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want 

Than to take what You give that I need 

And I've beat my head against so many walls 

Now I'm falling down, I'm falling on my knees 

In his song Hold Me Jesus Rich Mullins describes the outer and inner posture of Lent. Lent is a spiritual season when Christians consider self denial, or surrender, on the run up to Easter. Of course, self denial should not be for just 40 days. It is the call of Jesus by his grace to follow him; “anyone who comes after me must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” “Daily” he calls, not “annually”.

Mind you if there has ever been a time in history where these words are difficult it is now. In a world where self gratification is instant in that we can message, bully, buy and sell instantaneously from our phones Jesus call really is counter intuitive. It breaks the defaults of the conditioning of our society.

Rich Mullins’ words here say it all - “Surrender don't come natural to me/I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want/Than to take what You give that I need." 

Rich's words sends me off immediately to the last few verses of Matthew 6: 30-34. Eugene Peterson's paraphrase (The Message) puts it poetically: -

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes."

Jesus tells us to stop fighting and worrying about getting things and start responding to God's giving. This is wisdom for any age.

God doesn’t call us to self denial to spoil our fun. We fight God to hold onto what in eternity and even in the here and now we don’t need. We don’t take what God has to offer that would transform not only our own souls but the world we live in. Those who lack attachment are those who make the difference and live at peace. This Lent may Jesus' grace ring out deep and may it redeem us into what we were made for.




It is ever impossible to listen to Inhaler without at least a thought about U2. Elijah Hewson is following in the family business, never harder when your dad is the front man for the biggest band on the planet. 

The first thing I am thinking about the comparison is how confident a young rock vocalist Elijah Hewson is. His father was stretching to find his voice, confident that he and his band mates had found a God given vocation and they were on the cusp of destiny. 

Elijah sounds in control with a near Bowie cool. With these guys, it’s not about who they are going to be but about who they are now. 

Inhaler have followed their debut record speedily and with a big dollop of aplomb. It is not a heavy sound but punctuated guitar riffs and bass rolls give Hewson’s songs of love and heart ache and healing and hope.

You can see a crowd swoop to the early drive and pout of Just To Keep You Satisfied and Love Will Get You There but there is swoon too in If You Are Gonna Break My Heart and Perfect Storm. Dublin In Ecstasy will have a home crowd bouncing.

Sam Fender is perhaps closest to what Inhaler are doing out there. Personally I am not sure that Fender has the finesse of Inhaler but he does have a content that has a social resonance and makes his songs more memorable as a result. Young Hewson might learn from his dad in that department.

Apparently Fender has suggested that both acts are alternative pop. You can see why. Nothing experimental or future-esque, just great songs, catchy melodies and a bouncing beat. 

Very good. 



(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #2)


If we stopped in Lenten reflection we might find that every single day we are bouncy about in a consumers’ world of rattling trinkets. What Jewish singer songwriter, and son-in-law of Bob Dylan calls impermanent things:

“All these impermanent things
Well they're trying to convince me
Baptize my soul and rinse me
Purge my mind of honesty and fire
All these impermanent things
Well they all add up to zero
They make-believe that they're my hero
Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires

Why keep hanging on
To things that never stay
Things that just keep stringin' us along
From day to day”

When I did my weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster I played Himmelman very often. Impermanent Things was the most played. As a preacher it is one of my very favourite songs. I have used Himmelman's words in a sermon on Matthew chapter 6 v 19-34:

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus is saying in the second half of this most famous Sermon that where are treasure is our hearts will be also. He is suggesting that we invest our lives on eternal things that last rather than the impermanent things that Himmelman so poetically describes in this song.

Jesus goes on to talk about how we shouldn’t be worrying about impermanent things and Himmelman puts it beautifully here how these impermanent things play tricks with our heads and hearts and throw us of the better more lasting course. This is what Jesus is preaching.

So why do we get obsessed with impermanent things? A couple of years ago I piled my parents' things onto a skip outside their house. So many things. A few months before they were vital things in my parents lives but now, even the expensive things seemed nothing more than rubbish! It made me ponder Himmelman's song and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. It was a cold lesson in the emptiness of things.

On Himmelman's most recent record There Is No Calamity, the first song 245th Peace Song begins:

"The holes in people’s lives need to be filled
I get that. I understand that.
But you’ve got to be careful what you fill them with
Do you get that? Understand that?"

We see need to guard our hearts to being sent out of line by the tickets rattling around us.



(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #1)


On of my most important spiritual exercises is realignment. It is the reason why I think Sunday worship is so important. The most important thing about the Sunday service is not the sermon… or the hymns… or the prayers… or the Bible Reading… or the offering… or fellowship together.

The Sunday morning worship service is a realignment.

All week long we are pushed and pulled out of alignment. For six days the human race perpetuates the great error of Eden. 

We are tempted to be like God. We want to be in charge. We want to know as much as God knows. The temptation is to stretch out to be more than we are as human beings. As it was in Eden such actions lead to us becoming less than human and we dehumanise others in our wake. 

Lent can be a six week version of Sunday worship services. An opportunity for us to get realigned into God’s best order of creation. 

Lent is an opportunity to give God back his Lordship over all that he has designed and crafted but also sustains. If we do it correctly we should discover that it is not an oppressive Lordship. 

God does not dehumanise us for his own self centred ego. Indeed, God has “de-divined” himself to become human and even dehumanised himself to death on an inhumane cross.

God as Lord is for our best. When Jesus offers us life in all its fulness (John 10:10) he is offering us the full potential of the life that he gave us. With God as Lord and we as the stewards of creation we live out our human vocation and there we will locate the deep gladness of realignment. 

Psalm 8 tells us who God is and why he looks at us twice. It points out our role in creation as stewards over animals, birds and sea creatures. 

When we are better aligned we always begin by looking to God who knows how, why and what we were made for. With God in place we can then look down from where we are and treat the world with the care and compassion of God, as seen in Jesus.

So as Lent begins, let us seek realignment, search our place in the great order of things, explore the fulness of who we can be as individuals and a collective. We’ve been rattling about with the trinkets of the milieu, denting our heads and hearts and souls and being knocked out of line.

Let us do Lent For Re-alignment. 


Janice and I with ASH



FEBRUARY 22, 2023 @ 7.30



Without question the most spiritually satisfying experience of Lent that Janice and I ever had was in 2020 when we were ashed at what was believed to have been Belfast’s first Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service in St. Mary’s in Chapel Lane. 

It was the second time I had been ashed. The first time it was a bit of a surprise - shock to be honest. 

I was to be a guest speaker for a few days at an Episcopalian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The Cathedral of Advent is one of the most evangelical Episcopalian churches in America. 

I was picked up from the airport and driven straight to an Ash Wednesday service. Sitting near the front I soon realised that they were all getting ash on their head.

This was not the practice of Protestants in Ballymena where I grew up. I will be honest. I felt awkward. In Northern Ireland we are conditioned to what is Catholic and what is Protestant. The differences are dug deep. 

There was nothing I could do though and I reckoned if I was going to preach in this Church the next day that I better go forward. So, in a prayer blessing I received my ash. I will be honest again. I was glad that I was in Alabama as I left, looking like a Catholic!!!! 

Of course, the truth is, that like my evangelical brothers in Alabama, it is not only Catholics around the world who get ashed! In other parts of the world many Reformed Christians are happy wearing the mark of Christ’s death.

Our 2020 experience could not have been more different. Of course we had spent more time in Catholic circles and discovered that the caricatures of what Catholics believe was more myth than reality. Oh do not get me wrong there are differences in some theology and practice. However, we had also been enriched by sharing our love of Jesus with Catholic brothers and sisters, learning particularly in contemplation and prayer. 

To be ashed in St Mary’s was still a little awkward, particularly on the way home where you realised that people’s prejudices were stereotyping us. 

In the end that decision to come forward and commit to deeper disciplines during Lent came back to us as we walked through it, particularly in that most of that Lent was spent in strict Lockdown. 

Having that ash put on our heads, a reminder of our human frailties, also reminded us of our passion for Jesus and his ways. When I stumbled through Lent 2020 I was brought back to the tangible decision, a picture of our public profession.

This year's Inter-Church Ash Wednesday Service takes place in Clonard Monastery on Wednesday February 22nd at 7.30pm. We are delighted to have Methodist minister Rev Dr Janet Unsworth as our preacher. 

Why not come along and experience the richness of such a service. There is no obligation to receive the ash but as a sign at the beginning of Lent of our journey towards Jesus’ death and resurrection, let me invite you to consider it.