Stocki and Pope

(Honoured to have been asked to write an essay for Working Notes, a publication of the Jesuit Centre of Faith and Justice... this is available in issue 92, March 2023.)



It is quite a moment. Unforgettable for sure. After lining up with the thousands already going through security at St Peter’s Basilica at 8am on a beautiful Italian spring morning we are suddenly ushered away. Like the chosen few we are now walking through wide corridors, nodding at the Swiss police standing to attention. Then up what seemed like an awful lot of steps, through a long series of throne rooms to the last one, a waiting room. 

We wait for about twenty minutes, admiring the art work. Then there is movement. A Dutch Bishop opens a door and walks through to us. The anticipation is heightened. The young women fix their dresses. The young men their ties. My plastic clerical collar had snapped in two as we were going through security. My wife, Janice, is making sure it stays in.

Suddenly our group is moving. Slowly. Janice and I are wondering why. Then suddenly we round the door and Pope Francis is standing in all his charismatic humility. He reaches out his right hand out to welcome us into his Private Library in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican.

It is quite overwhelming, as it is when you meet someone who is that famous. Even more so as we had imagined him already seated and us being shown to ours. No, he is determined to greet us personally, to make us feel special. So, Pope Francis looks me in the eye and shakes my hand. I lean in and say, “I am the Presbyterian in the group”. He reaches for my arm with his other hand and says, “Well, then you are particularly welcome.” We smile again.

How did a Presbyterian from Ballymena, the Bible Belt of Northern Ireland, end up in a private audience with the Pope? It is quite a journey. It is my journey. I am so thankful for that journey, everywhere God has led me, everything God has taught me, all that I have experienced, got wrong, confessed and, like that clerical collar, made right again. I am most surprised and privileged at reaching this particular destination on my journey. 


Love Your Enemies

“No Pope Here!” That was a slogan I was familiar with growing up. Who knows, as a child I might even have shouted it with my mates. There are many who still stand by the sentiment. There are many who felt angry and maybe even betrayed that I shook hands with the Pope. 

In a fascinating new book How to Inhabit Time, James K. A. Smith writes;


“Our past is not what we have left behind; it’s what we carry. It’s like we have been handed a massive ring of jangling keys. Some of them unlock possible futures. Some of them have enchained our neighbours. We are thrown into the situation of trying to discern which is which.”


If Smith is right, and I believe he is, then I carry not only my personal family past with me but the societal past too. I grew up in a middle-class, white, mid-Antrim family in a predominantly Unionist town. There are a lot of jangling keys there. Then as a teenager I had a Damascus Road conversion to a Presbyterian, evangelical faith. More keys!

Deciding to follow Jesus as a seventeen-year-old was dramatic for me. I had been an atheist from about the age of seven. It was a humiliating about-face and change of direction. Though momentous, it was also quite naive. I was excited to follow Jesus but had no idea about the keys from the past that I was now going to get caught up by.

As I look back now I believe that at the time of that conversion I was a peacemaker in its purest form, but it all got encrusted. I came to Jesus via The Beatles. In my teens, music was my way in to work out the big questions. I was an atheist and The Beatles attempted to filled the god-shaped hole. “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance” were slogan choruses that I could stand behind.

I then realised that The Beatles were asking the right questions, pointing to some answers, but their answers lacked a robustness. The flower power of 1967 was all turning violent by 1969. As singer Larry Norman once sang, “The Beatles said all you need is love but then they broke up.” When I started reading about Jesus I saw someone who was also concerned with these issues but somehow had some spiritual energy to make them happen.

Chapter 6 of Luke for me is the hardest ask in the Gospels. There are so many counter-intuitive challenges to following Jesus but it gets no more hard-core then when Jesus says, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Luke 6:27-28 NIV).” This is the kind of exhilarating vision that a teenager responds to. This is beyond eating and working and sleeping for 70 years before you die. This is a life worth living, if you can reach it!

When I read “love your enemies” in 1979’s Northern Ireland, it did not take me too much thought to apply it. Ballymena, where I grew up, might not have been an epicentre of the bombs and bullets but I knew we were a divided country. I now knew that Jesus wanted me to love my enemies. 

Peacemaking, it seemed to me, was at the heart of the Gospel. Right there at the birth of Jesus, there were angels singing to shepherds about peace on earth. That should not be much of a surprise as shalom – a word whose meaning transcends merely ‘peace’ to suggest a wholeness and completeness that spans not just society but all of Creation  is a major concept in Old Testament theology and practice. A slip towards error is when we see the peace that Jesus came to deliver as entirely personal. If we miss the societal aspect of shalom, we confine and restrict the breadth of the Kingdom of God that Jesus emphasises in his taught prayer. 

The Church has a peacemaking vocation that is lost in our sectarianism. The Gospel is not about justice or vengeance; it is not about proving who was right or wrong. It is not about us and them and us winning. The point of this mission that God had in coming to earth was peace. That peace was not just for my soul. It was about peace on earth. Anyone following this Jesus whose birth is heralded in this angel’s song should be all about peace. 


Converted Again Through Friendship

About a year after my conversion, I got involved in a spat in the letters page of our local paper, The Ballymena Guardian. I wrote about this love for the enemy. My spiritual innocence was shocked when another Christian wrote a letter attacking me the very next week. Attacking me for quoting the Bible? The shock soon became sadly too familiar. 

Looking back, thirty-five years later, I realised that this was the start of my encrusting. Very quickly that young adult, with a yearning to cultivate peace in his surrounds, got his soul weighed down with cultural, societal and, worst of all, ecclesiastical myths and fears that stopped me from following Jesus as I should.

That set me on a path: A slow, unchallenging one. For thirty years I was what Professor John Brewer would call a “passive” peacemaker. I was a believer in peacemaking and as a chaplain at Queen’s University Belfast I taught it to my students. We took student teams to South Africa where we engaged with reconciliation with the help of International Centre for Transitional Justice. Yet the encrusting still stopped me short of engaging with the “other side.” 

Then near the end of my time at Queens, the other two full-time chaplains and I took a decision to welcome and try to work alongside a new Catholic chaplain, Fr. Gary Toman. His friendship was like a John the Baptist preparing the way for what Professor Brewer described as the better way of active peacemaking.

In 2009, I became the minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in the shadow of Queens University. I was by now much more prepared for the congregation’s peacemaking DNA and their ongoing relationship with Clonard Monastery in West Belfast. The Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship had been active since 1981, originating on the simple foundation of a friendship between Very Rev. Dr Ken Newell and Fr. Christopher McCarthy. In 1999, Fr. Gerry Reynolds and Ken won the Pax Christi Peace Prize. I was standing on the shoulders of these peacemaking giants. I was soon visiting Clonard Monastery regularly and was a guest speaker at their 2010 Novena. I began to believe that the Holy Spirit was chipping away at the encrusting, trying to free me from it.

If I can mix metaphors for a moment, I began to see that encrusting as a hard layer on top of the soil of my soul. Jesus’ telling of the parable of the sower speaks of God’s word landing on hard ground. You don’t need to be agrarian to see it bouncing down the path. All those things that I had feared had encrusted my soul so that I was hardened to hear God’s word of invitation to reconciliation.

Thankfully, the encrusting was about to meet its end. I had recently struck up another friendship across the divide, Fr Martin Magill. He was parish priest in St Oliver Plunkett’s, Lenadoon at that time. He wanted to do Irish language classes that brought together both communities. He knew Protestants would find it hard to go to Lenadoon but felt that Catholics would go to Fitzroy, where an Irish language service An Tor ar Lasadhwas already being held once a month.

Martin and I met for a coffee and something happened. It was a kairos moment. Like meeting God, like meeting Janice my wife, that coffee seemed like something significant had happened. It was like a vocational friendship. Over the next few months we met up, attended each other’s churches. Then came the invitation that led to that smashing of my encrusting.

Fr. Martin was invited to hear Gerry Adams’ closing address of the 2011 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis that was taking place in Belfast. Having asked my predecessor in Fitzroy, Ken Newell for advice, Ken told Martin that he should go… and, being aware of our new friendship, that he should take me with him. 

It was at that point that the encrusting did its deadly deed. As I pondered whether to go along with Martin, I could see a TV camera scanning around the hall catching me sitting beside a Catholic priest listening to Gerry Adams. What would my family think? What would my hometown of Ballymena think? What would my denomination think? Would I get myself onto to those awful talk-shops on the radio where I would be asked difficult questions and other contributors would shout “Lundy” at me? Would I be judged as ‘unsound’ and damned by Presbyterians across Ireland? I knew what I should do but the encrusted ground stopped me from doing it. I said no. Fr Martin went to hear Gerry Adams on his own.

The very next morning the encrusting was finally smashed. I got up in Fitzroy during our Sunday morning service and repented for not attending the previous night’s Ard Fheis. I shared all my fears and told my congregation that it was utter disobedience to God’s call to peacemaking and I allowed my fears to get in the way of following Jesus. As I look back I believe that it was a turning point in my life and ministry. I broke through the encrusting that had confined me as a passive peacemaking where I could talk a good game but was too fearful to move into active peacemaking. 


Awkward Dance of Reconciliation

I find what happened next, wonderfully Biblical, poignant and very amusing. Four years later I got a phone call one afternoon from Declan Kearney, the northern Chairperson of Sinn Fein.

  • Steve, the Ard Fheis is in Derry this year.


Ha! The soil is fertile. I know how I am going to answer this. I’m going to say, “Yes Declan I would love to attend.” 



  • And we were wondering if Fr Martin and you would like to come along and address the Ard Fheis.


A deflated silence on my end. What?!?!

  • Ah… ok Declan… can you give me some time to think about that!


The apostle John, in his first letter, writes “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins…” (1 John 1:9 NIV). I call that the cuddly part of the verse. I knew and welcomed God’s forgiveness that morning in Fitzroy when I confessed to the impact of all my encrusting. I was forgiven.  However, the verse then moves from God’s caress of grace to his clashing with our selfishness. God loves us enough to forgive us but loves us even more to fix us. That means changes in behaviour. So, John continues, “… and purify us from all unrighteousness.” I often joke that maybe if I had just gone to that first Ard Fheis I wouldn’t now have to consider speaking at the one in Derry!

The work of reconciliation is not easy. Fr Martin and I took time to consider the invitation. We spoke to many people in many walks of life. I spoke to close friends who had lost loved ones in the Troubles. I needed their permission. We were careful about every word we spoke. Breaking through the encrusting and ploughing up the soil to be more fertile for God’s Word did not mean that there were not dilemmas and complexities. As I put it in a poem at the time:


This is an awkward dance

With partners disconcerting

The tender tentative steps

With all our wounds still hurting

Take two up and one back

Move close to hold the seams

Swirl in the suspicious space

To swoop in audacious dreams.


The Gospel is an awkward dance. 

I preached a short series in Fitzroy recently based around a definition of sin by the American Presbyterian minister and author, the late Frederick Buechner. In his book called Wishful Thinking; A Seeker’s ABC in which he defined lots of theological words with wit and depth of wisdom, he wrote this about sin,

“The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left. ‘The wages of sin is death’ is Saint Paul's way of saying the same thing.” 

As a more pragmatic-than-cerebral theologian who constantly surmises the outworking of the Scriptures in everyday life and particularly human relationships, this works for me. It is a simple but powerful image of the effects of sin. Whether personal or societal, political, or indeed ecclesiological it pushes away the Other. 

The first three chapters of Genesis are all about pushing away. As Adam and Eve reach for the forbidden fruit hoping that it will make them more than the humans that they were created to be, and become more like God, they end up less than they were, as broken fallen humans. That worked out in pushing away God, pushing away each other, pushing away the pieces of our very own souls.  

Jesus’ Gospel, on the other hand, bridges the gaps. He draws people in, first to God, then to self, our neighbours, our enemies, and stretching out to all of Creation. That is what the peace that the angels of the nativity were singing about does. God comes to earth in human form to draw us back. The Gospels are strewn with awkward dances of reconciliation. Think of Zaccheus, the woman caught in adultery, or the Roman centurion who servant Jesus healed. Jesus in all his encounters was reconciling. Jesus on the cross was reconciling. It was not smooth or painless. It was denial of self and sacrificial (2 Cor 5:11-21 NIV).

The work of the Kingdom of God is reconciliation. Peacemaking is not a deluxe add-on to following Jesus. It is right at the core of it. It is what it is about. With all my encrusting blasted, I was able to finally live it. 

Fr Martin and I did address that 2015 Ard Fheis in the Millennium Theatre in Derry. We spoke about grace. We called it the gem of Christianity, that it means unconditional love and that God loved us and made the first move. We shared how we believed that only by grace could relationships be restored. 


4 Corners Festival and an Invitation

Three year earlier, in 2012, Fr. Martin and I, with an amazing bunch of soul mates, founded the 4 Corners Festival. The Festival is held annually in Belfast and aims to bring the city together with different arts, talks, storytelling, and sports events. Last year was our 10th anniversary and we were delight that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby agreed to speak. 

It was at this stage of our planning that put in motion the immediate chains of events that led us to the Vatican. My friend, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, invited me to review Pope Francis’ book Let Us Dream; The Path To A Better Future for the Anderstown News. I could see his angle. A Presbyterian minister reviews The Pope! He had no idea what he started.

I found the book prophetic. Yes, there was a lot of Catholic discussion that either seemed irrelevant or not theologically for me, but there was much which challenged me deeply. I loved how he talked about Covid-19 as a ‘stoppage’. He went on, “In every personal ‘covid’, so to speak, in every ‘stoppage’ what is revealed is what needs to change; our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected.” I have used that some in my sermons since.

I loved his emphasis on the common good and the danger of what he called “hyper individualism”. I was whispering Amen to his belief “that wealth must be allowed to roam unhindered in order to provide prosperity to all.” When he wrote about the “great danger in remembering the guilt of others to proclaim my own innocence” and of “reducing a person’s history to the wrong they did,” I was listening in my own context of Northern Ireland.

I loved it so much that I found myself jokingly suggesting that we book him for the 4 Corners Festival. In the midst of the laughter, the soundtrack of most of our planning meetings, someone said that Austen Ivereigh had helped Pope Francis write the book. Who? I was told about Austen and immediately suggested that we find a way to bring him over for the Festival. So, we did and Austen opened our Festival in the Anglican St Anne’s Cathedral while Justin Welby closed our Festival in the Catholic St Peter’s. Even more amazing than this, Austen had been with Pope Francis days before the Festival and got us a two-minute video message. 

After the first Sunday evening event, Austen came back to our house for some refreshment and outrageously suggested that he should try and get Fr Martin and I into a private meeting with Pope Francis to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of 4 Corners. It would also coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queens University. We could go together. We laughed out loud but a few weeks later and the invitation came.



When we all had sat down in Pope Francis’ private library, he quickly grabbed my utter respect. He told us that his speech was translated and printed and on our chairs. So, he went on, you can read that later. Let’s have a chat instead. Any questions? What he had just done was far from lost on me. Here was an 86-year-old man giving up his control of the meeting. A man of that age to have the confidence to let go and believe that he was going to be mentally sharp enough to answer any question that might come his way. Questions not given in advance. A challenge at any age but at 86 but then he is the Pope!

As well as sharp, I found his conversational style warm, intimate and humorous. When the students asked about how they could share the faith with their friends, Pope Francis first of all eased their intensity. He told them to have fun and be students! He even suggested that he himself did only as much as he needed to pass his exams. I related! He spoke of about the importance of having a drink and a laugh with friends.

Pope Francis encouraged us to get ourselves a little book of the Gospels. Keep it in our pockets. Read it when the opportunities came. If we steep ourselves in these stories of Jesus we will eventually wear him. He discouraged preaching at your friends. It puts them off. Then, my favourite line from the day, “The soul is moved by witness”. 

Perhaps it was having a couple of Presbyterians in the room but he then shared about being out walking with his grandmother at around the age of five and bumping into two women from the Salvation Army. Though not Catholic, his grandmother was very positive about them. He said it was his first ecumenical moment. He encouraged the students to see their Protestant friends as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Pope didn’t seem to have any time for those who keep us divided. He suggested, with that humour again, that we should send all the theologians out onto an island where they could debate the theological differences while the rest of us stayed in the real world and got on with it. That ‘it’ was very clearly the living out of the Gospel, working together in Kingdom building, justice and peace.

I thanked the Pope for his message to our 4 Corners Festival and how amazing it was to have him open the Festival and then have Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, close it. His eyes lit up at Justin Welby’s name. He spoke very fondly about his him as a dear brother and their work together for peace in South Sudan. He told us that they were keen to meet the South Sudan leaders in July but that the Pope had refused to respond to their invitation until Justin Welby and his wife Caroline were invited on an equal footing to himself. That humility again; that working together. 

I have one regret. As we left, the Pope again stood at the door and greeted each of us, gifting us with Rosary beads, even the Presbyterians. I was at the end. It was again very personal. As I went to leave he asked me to pray for him. I felt that humility yet again. I cannot tell you how sorry I am that I didn’t put my hand on his shoulder and pray right there and then. Maybe next time!

As we left he asked that I would pray for him. I heard from a Belgian priest outside that Francis has arthritis in his knees and is in some pain. I told him I would pray for him, especially his knees. He thanked me and I was gone... gone to continue to follow the same Jesus my brother Francis follows.

God had taken me on a long journey, both joyous and painful at times in differing measures. Through His commitment to dealing with the encrusting of my heart—slowly closing me off from fraternity with people of different traditions— I can now recognise the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work to loosen its stranglehold over 35 years. Ultimately, answering God’s call to active peacemaking was the tipping point causing the encrusting to shatter thereby opening me up to a new world of opportunity and possibility. I no longer had to be shaped by fear, defensiveness, or the court of public opinion, but could step confidently into the life-affirming reconciliation work of the Kingdom of God. To understand that peacemaking is at the heart of the Gospel, and to live in the grace and rhythms of that practice, has changed my life, my ministry, and my relationships. It has made all the difference.


Jonny Rowen

With the release of his new album Battery and Electrical under the moniker R S Rowen I interviewed Jonny Rowen about the record, his influences and how and why he writes songs. 


A solo record, 25 years after Pelvis, 10 after Lofires, why now?

I’ve always been a songwriter, at least, in my own head. And the song ideas keep coming. I’m not a businessman, nor a hustler. I’m not in any way, an extrovert. But I write songs. 

Not having had an album out for so long is what happens when you don’t advertise yourself, beg for help, busk, hustle, hassle, or other. 

I’ve learned there’s no point in putting an album out yourself no matter how good the songs are - you simply don’t get noticed. So, having been introduced to the owner of Zen Ten Records, I asked for advice. 

On hearing a few recorded songs, Carlton, already a fan of the Pelvis album from many years earlier, was blown away and that’s where this album began.

You have taken your dad’s moniker? Why did you go for that?

My dad was a battery wholesaler who had started out in business on his own the year I was born. 

Whilst toying with name possibilities for this project I remembered one of his first vans still parked at his house from around that time. I knew it looked it’s age, as do I, and it was roughly the same age as me. 

Red rust on a blue background, the painted letters attempting to ‘hold their own’ against time and decay. The battle-weariness of the image really appealed. 

I was aware, at the same time, that my dad, elderly and unwell, would not be with us for much longer so it was also, in my mind, a tribute to him and his hard work down the years. 

Why the title? - it was all there in front of me, as it had been my whole life. The beauty of something which already existed, having such a rich history for me, needed only to be captured in photograph.

You have talked about growing up in a room full of records of big brothers. What of those records back then have influenced Battery and Electrical?

I’ve always been drawn to melody - or that’s what I would have said when I was younger. But now I realise now what I meant, was, in fact, the combination of melody, harmony, rhythm, arrangement and production. 

The importance of lyrics came later for me. 

All of the records I listened to, as a kid, were from my older brothers’ collections, so I did get a great education from the earliest age. Space Oddity was a big album in our house in the mid 70s, as well as Transformer, the Top of the Pops albums, I recall a Hallmark album of rugby songs, no idea who brought that one in. Oh Dear! What Can The matter Be? - but it was played for its comedic value on occasion. Monty Python Live At Drury Lane, Ziggy Stardust, Revolver, Handel’s Water Music, Jim Reeves - 12 Christmas Carols. I know there were so many 45s I loved, to add to the list. 

As regards influences for Battery & Electrical, I’m sure there’s lots in there. I focus more on moments in songs from the past that resonate strongly with me - there’s so much tied up in my childhood, I’m very nostalgic, so those records are hugely important. The big names for me from those really early days are The Beatles and Bowie and a host of singles by other artists.

Songwriting? What inspires a song to start?

My early memories are of the amount of singing that happened in my home. For me, songs were as commonplace as speech. I preferred songs. Most of my time was spent listening to records and singing along, or going to church/Sunday School and singing the hymns, or every car journey was me singing the whole way there and home. 

But it wasn’t only me; my dad often sang with us, my brother and I would both sing along with him - if we knew the hymn, and if we didn’t have to listen to Brian Johnston ‘Down Your Way’ half-tuned in on the LW battling the white noise and fading signal. In the rain. Heat on full. Wipers, brown-tinted windows, and condensation for added claustrophobic effect as we squeezed into the loaded car in our three-piece suits, shirts and choking neck ties. Sundays had a habit of returning very quickly.

When you looked back on this collection were there any interesting things you learned about yourself and your views on the world?

With the background I have described, there was no other way it was ever going to be, as far as I’m concerned. I love music. I was born to be a songwriter; I believe it’s a gift from God. That doesn’t mean I was born to be a successful songwriter, just a songwriter. 

It’s has such a cathartic effect on me, like prayer, but for the obvious differences. Of course, some songs are prayers. My best songs usually have such small beginnings. Great songs are, most often, I think, very simple in their essence. It can be the hardest thing to do; to keep it simple, clear, obstacle-free in structure and melody whilst presenting something with some originality from the writers’ own experience and vulnerability. 

The Artists’ job, as I see it, is to detail the world around them, and in them, as they see it, and, sometimes, hopefully, to even hint the next move, or at least, question what it might be.

I often sit with the guitar and mess around with intention of writing, I suppose, waiting for a happy accident - a flash of inspiration. The connection for me when a song begins to suggest itself, comes when something happens with melody against the chords being played that sparks an interest, emotionally. 

Once that fragment of melody has appeared, the continued melody begins to suggest itself and I find the chords to suit. That can take a while. Often by the time I have the melody, I’ll have come up with a decent line from which the completed lyrics begin to take shape around that one line. 

A lot of the songs on Battery & Electrical are dealing with themes of loss and isolation, but not without hope. It wasn’t planned that way, but as I look at the songs that’s what they are. Sometimes the journey is messy but when we know what awaits us at the end, that makes the hardships along the way worthwhile from the point of view of what we may have learned, and how we continue to grow.

The record business has changed utterly since Pelvis? What are your hopes for this record

The record business has changed utterly since the late 90s, I’m not sure what to expect. 

But for me to have an outlet, somewhere to bring my songs where they can be accessed by anyone who may be interested in hearing them, that’s a real bonus and a step in the right direction. 

I think being on a great independent label, Zen Ten, and working with Carlton, is a pleasure, and I hope to be releasing more in the future. 


Graeme Edge

I was saddened to hear that The Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge had passed away and any hope of more new music from the band with him, though his retirement a few years ago had already signalled that. Edge was a founder member of the band, the only one left 58 years on. He was also so much more than an amazing drummer.

Two things drew me to The Moodies. One or maybe two classic singles and Britain’s first 1 million pound soccer footballer.

Taken from their very first record Days Of Future Past released in 1967, Nights In White Satin was re-released just as I discovered the radio in 1972. I loved it. 

Unlike some of the Glam pop hits I was buying then it was still on my turntable around my mid to late teens. It was then that I was provoked to search further.

I used to buy Shoot magazine. It was a younger version of my favourite - Goal. I was reading Goal from 7 years old but I was able to condescend to buying Shoot too! One of my favourite sections was their quick questions to a star player. My favourite question was Favourite Band? Trevor Francis answered The Beatles and The Moody Blues. I had just fallen madly in love with The Beatles so I wondered who the second band were. I had bought Blue Guitar by two of the band Justin Hayward and John Lodge.

Then Wings stuck a cover of Go Now onto their triple live album Wings Over America. It was an early Moody Blues single too and Denny Laine who sang it on Wings Over America had even been the Moody Blue who sang it back then! 

Both Go Now and Nights In White Satin became the smooch dances at our home teen parties. I had no luck with the chicks but I discovered a band.

I bought Caught Live Plus 5 and loved the Plus 5. Then it was Santa bringing To Our Children’s Children’s Children and Blue Jays by Hayward and Lodge and eventually acquiring all I could find. 

Delving back in to The Moody Blues as I do in concentrated phases over the years it took a long time to appreciate Graeme Edge or see his vital importance. Hayward and Lodge wrote the more accessible stuff. Edge was a spoken word yang to their yin. 

Yet over time as I fell in love over and over again with the band’s first seven records you have to eventually catch on. The first voice of the first track on the first album by the classic Moody Blues line up was Graeme Edge’s. His poems and mostly his voice kicked off 5 of the 7 classic records that ended with Seventh Sojourn in 1972. 

That is being more than a drummer. Edge set that Moody Blues mood. Those atmospheres that were so unique and cosmic and haunting. That yang again. I cannot imagine Caught Live Plus 5 without the 58 second The Dream to give it a unique artistic shift.

Graeme Edge passed away the day after I ordered Marc Cushman’s The Long Distance Voyagers; The Story of The Moody Blues Volume 2. It will herald in a new phase of Moody Blues obsession for me. It was ordered for Christmas but I think Edge’s sad passing will be the cause of cracking it open as soon as it arrives! 

Graeme Edge… thank you for the yang!


Paul Distilled

In the first weeks of Lockdown in 2020, Gary Burnett did a wonderful series in Fitzroy on the theology of Paul. He took 10 themes in Paul's letters and gave 10 minutes teaching session on each. Gary's research in into Paul's writing and the social history of the first century was wonderfully illuminating.

A year later and Gary has added a few more themes and put it all down in a book that is launched on March 10th 2021. I had the honour of endorsing the book with these words:

"Gary Burnett has an academic mind, a devotional heart and a cultural perception. This unique blend gives him the ability to take big theological ideas and distill them into short accessible teaching sessions. They are inspirational, insightful and instructional. You will read the text afresh and hear the call to live in challenging ways."

I got a chance to ask Gary a few questions about himself, the book and of course Paul.


When did you start taking theology seriously?

About 30 years ago, after having been a Christian for many years, and thinking I knew my Bible pretty well, I went to a year of evening class study at Belfast Bible College – and realized how little I really did know! That spurred me on to do a theology degree and then I couldn’t get stopped, so I did a PhD. After that I began teaching, mostly in Union College, but also in the Bible College and Stranmillis College


What then drew you particularly to Paul?

The church I grew up in was a great fan of Paul and so I knew Paul’s letters pretty well. But during my studies I discovered there were a great many other approaches to Paul than what I’d grown up with, so it was very intriguing to start to drill down and see if I could get a better handle on him. 

Plus, I’d become very interested in the social history of the first century world, and I really appreciated trying to understand Paul within his own context. In the light of what we know – and we know a great deal – about his world, how might we understand what he has to say? And what relevance might that have to our world and our lives?

So, as I approach Paul, I’m always reminded of what John Stott said was the job of preachers – to try and understand the two worlds of the first century and our own, and then to build a bridge between them. And that’s pretty much what I’ve tried to do over many years. But there’s hard work involved!


Paul Distilled started as a teaching series. What was the original inspiration for that?

Well, last Spring the pandemic had hit and the whole world was turned upside down. We went in to lockdown for the first time, and we were aware of a great deal of suffering all round the world because of the havoc caused by the virus. So, I suppose I just wanted to do something positive, to provide a little bit of encouragement and inspiration for people.

So I knew that there was great potential for that in Paul’s letters – something, of course, that I know a little bit about! What he has to say about resurrection, about anxiety, joy, the power of the Holy Spirit and about love seemed to me to be the perfect antidote to the malaise we were all feeling.

As a result, I did this series of ten “Paul in Tens” – little video presentations, taking a theme in Paul and trying to make it engaging and hopeful for everyone, and doing each one in just 10 minutes. And they seemed to go down quite well, so after the videos were completed, I talked to the guys at Wipf and Stock about turning the material into a book and they were enthusiastic. I then set to work to augment and re-arrange the material and turn it into Paul Distilled.


In your introduction you suggest that many people have issues with Paul. Why do you think we ended up with a wrong take on him?

Well, you’ve got to admit, some of the trains of thought in Paul’s letters can be a bit confusing! Even the apostle Peter said that he thought brother Paul’s letters were “hard to understand.” And he lived in the same world as Paul! So perhaps we can be forgiven for getting the wrong end of the stick sometimes.

And then, of course, we have 2,000 years of theology to contend with – much of which is good and helpful, but some of it is a product of its time and its own social setting. So, along the way, Paul has been used to support slavery, despotic regimes and dreadful treatment of women, for example, and that legacy lingers on. But, trying to understand Paul in his own world can be a great help in untangling some of the knots we’ve got ourselves into at times.

Knowing something about the Roman Empire, its religion and its values, for example, can be a great help in seeing that Romans 13 isn’t the only passage in Paul that can guide our attitude to the powers that be. There are other passages where he is really being quite critical of all that Rome stands for.


Your subjects are intriguing. Usually Paul is all about "justification by faith” but though you use a Bob Dylan quote to almost take that as read, you are dealing with poverty, peace-making and justice. Why do we often miss these themes in Paul?

Yes, it’s maybe strange to have a book on Paul which doesn’t cover what most people think of by the term “justification by faith.” And, of course, that is important. But I did want to highlight some of the areas many of us have missed – perhaps by the very concentration there has been on that phrase. 

Once you start thinking about what the idea of the “gospel” was to a first century Jew like Paul, then you are immediately into the idea of the expectation of the kingdom of God arriving on earth. And that was his expectation – except now, it all revolved around the person of Jesus the Messiah. His coming, death and resurrection, Paul saw, were the way in which God’s promises to Israel were being realized. And that meant the peaceful world that Isaiah had envisaged; that meant the great reversal of rich and poor that Mary had seen; that meant the new day of justice that Israel’s prophets had looked for was now arriving; and that the transformation of the world was beginning.

So, I think, once you get that clear, and you see that the gospel is not simply “getting saved and going to heaven,” then as you read Paul, you’ll begin to see ideas about peace and love and justice popping up everywhere. 

What I really like about Paul’s letters is that in them we can piece together this grand vision that Paul has for seeing the significance of the coming of Christ. Which will culminate in the day of resurrection when God comes to renew the world. But, for Paul, that day of resurrection has already begun – which has enormous implications for our individuals lives, but also for the world. We Jesus-followers are called to anticipate God’s new creation in the present by seeking peace and justice in our church communities and in the wider world.       


And then the woman issue. Paul is often seen as against woman. You challenge that assumption.

Sadly, Paul is often seen as restricting the role of women in leadership. With the result some people just give up on him, thinking he is some sort of misogynist. Part of the problem is that there are a couple of verses in his letters that have been magnified out of all proportion. But if we start at the right place – which I argue in the book is Romans 16 – then we begin to get a much different understanding of Paul. One where he clearly works with and appreciates a whole range of women leaders in the early churches. So, the evidence from the New Testament really does not support restricting women in leadership. Far from doing that, actually, Paul supports women in church leadership!


How do you hope people might use the book?

I hope that the book is a good starter for people. That it gives them a way into Paul and opens up their thinking about the way that he thought about the gospel, about Jesus, about the world and the potential for transformation. That it might whet their appetite to study and think more about Paul’s letters. 

But also, I’ve included a set of questions at the end of each chapter, so that the book could be used in a church or home group setting. Where, perhaps, people could read a chapter and then come together to chat about some of the issues it has raised.

But again, like the Paul in Ten videos, I hope people will find this little book interesting, challenging and inspiring.


More details at


Thumbnail_Anthony Toner by Andrea Montgomery

illustration: Andrea Montgomery


Northern Ireland singer songwriter Anthony Toner has just released an album of covers called Ghost Notes Vol 1. It is an excellent piece of work and I had the privilege to ask Anthony how he chose the songs and what a covers record might teach a writer about his own work. 


So why now for a covers record?

I’ve been recording at home a lot over the last few years – I have a rudimentary set-up at home, so I’ve been putting down basic things like acoustic and electric guitar, some percussion, etc. And the first thing that struck me was that I’d like to do an album of some of my own songs, stripped right back. I think I’ve over-arranged a lot of my songs in the studio over the years – that’s been a lack of confidence, I think. And I wanted to re-work some of them, take them back to the place where they started. So… that’s been a project on my list, and I think this collection is maybe a ‘dry run’ for that, I don’t know. I’d also love to do an album of all blues, maybe an all-Dylan album, I don’t know… the possibilities are endless. I called it Volume 1, thinking I would hopefully be able to put a few of these out as the years go by!


There must be 1000 songs. What is it in a song that draws it out of the batch for you? For example, of all the Morrison songs why ‘She Gives Me Religion’, of all Neil Young's why ‘Sugar Mountain’ and of Rickie Lee Jones', why ‘On Saturday Afternoons in 1963’?

Songs jumped out at me for the strangest reasons. I de-tuned the guitar quite a bit when I was working on this collection, and found that in one particular tuning (for guitar nerds, it’s Dropped C Dropped G) I could play the little two-chord introduction to ‘On Saturday Afternoons in 1963’. Otherwise, that song wasn’t even on my mind. I’d always liked it, but it wasn’t on the list until that fell under my fingers. ‘Sugar Mountain’ I’ve been playing for years, originally as a lullaby for my daughter… and some of the songs were tunes I would have played for my parents, if we were having a few drinks and a sing song – the Charley Pride track, the Steve Earle song, for example.


The range of genres is obviously intentional?

Not really. Actually, in musical terms I’ve always loved everything, with the possible exception of death metal, musicals and free jazz – and even then, I’ll give it a go. I grew up listening to my mum and dad’s rock and roll and country records as a small child, before discovering pop, hard rock, disco, singer songwriters, rap, jazz, folk, soul and classical in my teens and young adulthood. I once got slagged off for buying AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and Bach’s Violin Concertos on the same shopping trip. With this project, I think I wanted to test that old saying that a good song will survive any treatment, so I was trying to reduce everything to its barest bones.


Were these all favourite songs at different parts of your life? 

Not all of them – some of them just worked in this context, but others have been big songs for me for various reasons. ‘Back on the Chain Gang’ still breaks my heart the way it did when I first heard it in the early 80s - I was already nostalgic at the age of 22 – where does THAT come from? ‘She Gives me Religion’ was such a stately, beautiful thing when I first heard it, and I just loved the chorus. Loved that whole Beautiful Vision album. And I always adored ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ – I first heard it as a devil-may-care dancefloor classic, and then one day, listening to the lyrics, I saw what a heartbreaking message lay behind it. I always love it when songs work on a couple of levels like that.


Were there any songs that you wanted to do that just didn't work?

That’s an interesting question. I had an idea that I would do some ‘proper’ acoustic folk thing, like ‘The Parting Glass’, but I abandoned it pretty quickly. It just sounded really corny – it used to be an interesting choice, but it feels like everyone does ‘The Parting Glass’ now, and my approach wasn’t very exciting. I also considered some James Taylor – but he’s such an influence on my playing and delivery that it just sounded like… James Taylor. And there’s no point in doing that – he already does that, better than anybody else.


As you begin to live with these songs a little deeper did you find anything out about them that you didn’t know?

Songwriter Chris Smither has a great riff that he shares about ‘sturdy’ songs – songs that will survive any kind of treatment (he sings Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene’ in a minor key, for example, and it works wonderfully well) – and I realised how sturdy these songs are. In some cases the melody is where the strength is, in other places it’s a lyric – it’s interesting to see where the supporting walls are, from song to song.


Do you find anything out about your own writing that you didn’t know?

Following on from that last question, it struck me as I went over them and over them, that I need to think about those structures and strengths when I sit down to write my own songs – Does this song hang on the melody? Does it hang on this chorus? Am I giving that melody enough room to breathe? Are the lyrics strong enough to support that chord progression? All too often, we follow instincts in the songwriting process, and it pays sometimes to also have construction in mind, to be aware of the techniques at work, the same as joinery or cookery. You know… the really good painters look at a million paintings by the masters before they start on their own work. The great poets tend to have absorbed a million pages before they grab hold of their own masterpieces.


Again spending such time with these songs, in your writing just now are their influences from the songs seeping in?

I don’t know – is the short answer. It will be interesting to see if that happens – I’m always struck by how simple the really good songs are, so it also reminds me not to be too clever. I'm also certainly encouraged by how much everyone likes the ‘stripped back’ sonic approach on this album, the lack of layers and overt ‘production’. I take that very much to heart as I move onto the next project.


At 4 Corners Festival you sound checked with McCartney's ‘My Love’. I was surprised it wasn't on here. Vol 2? 

Yes, I think so – it’s a beautiful song, and I’ve been playing it for years in a kind of folky, quickstep sort of approach, so it was such an obvious one to do, and I’m not sure why I didn’t include it.


As an independent songwriter how will Coronavirus impact you?

Well the immediate impact is that the diary empties out, and you start to scramble to get things postponed, pushed back in the year, rather than cancelled altogether. But I’m lucky that I’ve just come back from a short tour, so I had a chance to bring in a little bit of income before the shutters came down. And I have this project to talk about for a while, and reactions have been good. The enforced isolation is perfect for getting some work done of course, but I miss the sociability of playing live, connecting with people, meeting other artists and so on. But there are new original songs in the pipeline for hopefully another album in the summer, so I’ll be happy to sit down with the guitar and the terrifying empty page for the next few weeks.


Is there anything a fan can do to help you?

Of course – just making a connection is always helpful. The new album is available as a physical CD for mail order from the website at, and orders are very much appreciated – most of the back catalogue is also available there. You can also sign up for my mailing list on the website, to receive the regular newsletters. And if you feel like contacting any of your favourite radio presenters and requesting any of my songs, that would be most useful. Otherwise, feel free to share, stream, download or just spread the word. And hopefully we’ll get the chance to physically share some space together again in the near future.


Amanda Int

Friday September 20th 2019 sees the release of Amanda St. John's second album, The Muscle Shoals Sessions, with a launch gig at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. Amanda took some time to answer a few of my questions about how she got to record in the legendary studios of Muscle Shoals, how she writes her songs and what is going on in them. It's the story of how she committed to sing after a near death experience. It's a journey from Glenariff to Muscle Shoals via a 300 foot fall off a road near Ballycastle. 


Amanda, when did you know you had that voice?

I've loved to sing ever since I was a small child, and I suppose I was about 6 or 7 when my family stared commenting on how good I was that I realised I had a talent. Up until then I just sang because I loved it and never really thought about how I  sounded. I started out singing folk songs and it wasn't until my 20's that I started getting interested in soul music that my voice developed.


You had a long time using that voice for other. Tell us about who you loaned it out too?

I spent my teens and early 20's singing in cover bands as I didn't have the courage to sing my own songs. I never thought I was good enough and eventually stopped singing for about 5 years after getting nodules in my mid 20's.


Then it was quite a serious event that made you step out from the shows of others. Tell us about that.

Yeah I had a really bad car accident when I was about 33. My car went 300ft down the side of the mountain on the road home from Ballycastle. I was unconscious with a bad head injury and no pulse when the fire brigade arrived. I remember battling to stay alive and I asked my higher power (or God, the universe, whatever you want to call it…) what I needed to do to get out of this alive? As clear as day I heard a voice said 'Sing' and I vowed that if I got out of it alive then I would sing and never hold myself back again. It was a very liberating experience because all the silly negative thoughts that had held me back up until that point no longer seemed significant. And on another level I was nearly scared not to sing in case something else happened to me for breaking my promise. Lol. It's funny though, as soon as I committed to myself at this level I couldn't stop the ideas flowing and my voice got stronger and stronger (my range even increased dramatically). It was as if someone had opened the floodgates and everything became so effortless to me.


Then Grow was your debut record?

I poured my heart and soul into my writing after that. I released an EP called 'Where is the Man' in 2014 and then an album called Grow in 2016.


So, how did Muscle Shoals come about?

I wanted to raise the bar for my 2nd album and create a story around my next release. I applied for an Arts Council grant for an International project and wanted to record an EP in Nashville. I met with my good friend Ben Glover (who is now based in Nashville) to ask his advice on recording studios and session musicians out there and he said he thought my sound was more suited to recording in Muscle Shoals. I laughed at him and said that I wasn't a big enough name so didn't think they would consider me. With his encouragement I sent FAME Studios a couple of songs and asked if I could get booked in with them. They came back saying yes and I was shocked and delighted! I decided that I would cut a full album there rather than an EP as it was a chance of a lifetime and I wanted to make the most of it.


Did you arrive there with the songs all done?

All the songs were written but there were a few that we hadn't decided on exact arrangements for. Myself, Paul Tierney (my guitar player and main collaborator) and Michael Mormecha (my other main collaborator, producer and drummer on the record) went out to FAME together and I hired 2 of the original 'swampers' house band to play bass & keys for live tracking.  Myself, Paul and Mike are all very in tune with each other and like to work very organically and play a song round a few times to see how the arrangement feels. We live tracked bass, guitars, keys, drums and vocals for 11 songs in the 5 days there. We even got to use the Wurlitzer piano used by Aretha Franklin.


How do you write? 

My songs are very much about processing my own feelings and emotions or telling a story of a certain moment in time. I generally get inspired with a melody or lyric line and when I do I record it into my voice memos. I'll sometimes just sing and sing and try to develop a few different song sections from this idea before I bring it to guitar. I'm quite a basic guitar player though so it limits me when I try to write with my guitar. I generally work on these ideas vocally and bring them to my main collaborators (Paul Tierney  and/or Mike Mormecha) to develop and help with arrangements. Some other songs are ideas Paul has brought to the table and we bash them out until we get something that inspires us, we work really organically like this. I've also got a few songs on the album that were co-written with other artists; Gareth Dunlop (on Take a Leap), Matt McGinn (on Muscle Shoals) and a guy from Nashville called Justin Wade Tam (on Made Myself a Name). I love writing sessions like these were you just sit down with the person and discuss ideas until something flows. 



When the lyrical idea comes how do you know whether it will be a driving song like Talk It Out or a softer touch like Take A Leap?

The emotion of the song normally dictates the pace as we're simply using music to tell the story. Funny enough though, when I wrote Talk It Out I had a much softer, acoustic feel in mind. It was the band in FAME Studios that took it in that upbeat, driving direction. Sometimes you have to jam it out and see where that leads. 


These songs seem to be about personal transformation, giving up fears and literally taking a leap? 

There are a lot of different themes in the lyrics, I was going through a really difficult period when I was writing this album and I was under considerable pressure with life and work commitments.  These feelings of being under pressure, heartbreak and overwhelm are reflected in the lyrics and there are even a couple of songs in which I'm really angry with life (as well as my first ever political song which is pretty angry but personal transformation is something that is very important to me, making the best of every situation, learning from it and growing as a person. I'm glad that that has come through.


Fear seems to be the ever present demon?

Yeah, I had to break through my fears years ago to even start to release my own music as I had no faith in myself as an artist. This is something that keeps rearing it's head I suppose but with this album the fears are different, there was so much uncertainty in my life at the time of writing and I wasn't really coping well with the pressure. 'Bring Me' is a good example of how low I actually got at one point....I was just overwhelmed and weighted down by it all. There have been a lot of life changes since then and I'm glad to say that I'm back to feeling hopeful and positive about the future and I'm trusting that whatever's meant for me will unfold naturally. 


What would you love people to get from the album?

Self belief and faith in themselves I suppose as well as the power of committing to yourself and your dreams. The recordings in Muscle Shoals were and absolute dream come true for me and I will be forever proud that I was able to make that happen. 


And the launch gig. How will these songs be live?

I have a fantastic band with me for this tour so the live performance will be a good representation of what's on the album. I only wish I had the budget for live horns and strings too though. Lol! 


Orphan Brigade 2

The Nashville songwriting collective known as The Orphan Brigade have their third album released on September 27th. It is written, recorded and about a stretch of East Antrim from Glenarm to Ballycastle with one detour inland to the slopes of Slemish mountain. I will review this unique and stunning (in my subjective opinion) album just before its release but here is an interview that I did with Glenarm's Ben Glover, the man who brought his two songwriting buddies to the rugged, wild and beautiful Antrim Coast Road. The Orphan Brigade play Belfast's Black Box on October 12th and Carnlough's Londonderry Arms on October 13th. 


Ben, I am loving To The Edge Of The World. It is a wonderful thing! Tell us a wee bit about The Orphan Brigade. How you got together and those records in a haunted house and in Italian caves?

It all started back in 2013 with Neilson Hubbard being the introducer of sorts. He had produced Joshua Britt's band, The Farewell Drifters, and Neilson and I were just getting ready to make my album Atlantic. There was a suggestion that we go and record some songs in Octagon Hall, a Civil War-era house in Kentucky, so we all met up there one evening nearly exactly six years ago. Octagon Hall is a pretty remarkable location, to say the least. It's got a very unique atmosphere and is allegedly one of the most haunted houses in the US. That night we discovered that the sonics in the place were indeed great but also Neilson, Josh and I decided to explore it further and write songs in the house over the next few months. Those songs turned into our first album "Soundtrack To A Ghost Story" which we recorded in Octagon Hall in 2014, the band comprising of the community of friends we regularly made music with in Nashville. It was an amazing experience and the three of us loved digging into the spirit and stories associated with the location. At the time, however, we thought it was a one-off project but then we toured Italy in 2016 and at that point, something clicked and it turned into a 'band.'

During that tour, we visited the town of Osimo in the Marche region of Italy, which is known for its 2,500-year-old tunnels and caves that run under the city. It has a fascinating history, carved by Romans, Templar Knights, Masons, mystics, saints, basically people who were seekers. It has the 'Da Vinci Code' vibe! So we felt an attraction to it straight away and in 2017 we spent two weeks there writing our second album 'Heart Of The Cave." We were just following this new-found creative quest we had of fully absorbing a place and almost allowing ourselves to be channels to whatever story wanted to be told.


When did you come up with the idea of the third album being about the Antrim Coast?

Italy seems to inspire good ideas in us as it was on our 2018 tour there that it became obvious that the third album had to be in Antrim! It felt like a no-brainer. The Antrim Coast is where I grew up and part of the Orphan Brigade ethos is to creatively explore our roots. Octagon Hall, the site of the first album, is in the home town of Joshua in Kentucky, so this theme of roots-exploration is an integral thing for us


Was the research about the myth, folklore and story of the coast entirely yours?

I was chief-researcher for this one, I gathered in the bones but we built the body together! I loved this process of digging into the stories of the area and spent a few months doing it. I had a long list of stories and folklore and then the three of us honed in on what resonated with us. What we try to do is not re-tell the story but find the universal connection in it. That's the secret.


Did Neilson and Joshua take any convincing?

Neilson and Josh were actually the initial champions of the idea of making this album on the Antrim Coast - I have to credit them with that. At the start, I had a little resistance but I knew it was going to be a very personal project, but I've learned by now that when there is creative resistance there can often follow magic. So to sum up, Neilson and Josh needed no convincing to set up camp on the coast! They absolutely love Ireland and both feel a strong bond with the place.


So, Neilson and Joshua arrive. Where did you start?

We started at the Mad's Man's Window, a limestone rock formation about a mile outside Glenarm. Legend has it that a beautiful young woman drowned whilst swimming in Glenarm Bay. Her sweetheart was so distraught that he lost his sanity and each day for the rest of his life he sat and gazed through the gap in the rock awaiting her return. We actually wrote five songs that first day, I'm still not sure how we did it!


You bring local knowledge. Like Sorley Boy, we all know that name here but I imagine the other guys didn’t. How did you get the guys up to speed on the Black nun, the Children of Lir and all the rest?

These are really wonderful stories and capture the imagination immediately, so it was very easy for the guys to invest and relate to them There is such a beauty and also at times darkness, and Neilson and Josh and I are suckers for those themes. I had done enough research on the stories that gave us a jumping-off point for the songs and after that it was just a matter of showing up with guitars on our backs!


You actually wrote the songs on location. Tell us about those and what that added to the songs. 

It was integral to the songwriting process and without a doubt the atmosphere and spirit of the locations got on the music. On the first day after hitting the Mad Man's Window, we headed to the Ghost Room in the Ballygally Castle Hotel, a graveyard and then a midnight visit to Glenarm Forest. 

Day two was equally memorable as we climbed the slopes of Slemish Mountain and then spent the afternoon in a boat in Glenarm and Carnlough Bay. The final day writing we went further up the coast to the caves at Cushendun, Kinbane Castle and Bonamargy Friary in Ballycastle. When you write outside in the elements it invites in wildness, rawness and a sense of space that is not available in a normal indoor writing scenario. It's incredibly inspiring, at times ridiculous but never boring!


Were there any difficulties doing that?

We were writing these songs outside in March and that's when that north coast wind likes to blow, so it was certainly chilly. It was also physically tiring as we were climbing mountains and cliffs and at times it felt like a workout. But I wouldn't call these difficulties, just eclectic elements that made the adventure all the more interesting and memorable.


How do you work as a trio? Do you share the responsibility of driving the song’s development?

It is very democratic and very collaborative. Sometimes one of us might have a melody idea or a lyric line that is a door opener but after that the there is a flow that kicks in which really is a shared thing between the three of us. For whatever reason we can work very fast and intensely together. It's like the muse is incredibly generous to us and gives us a few days of amazing flow, but then there is a moment when she disappears and it's over! 


How did the record develop as a concept?

It came together very organically and quickly. We wrote all the songs in four days and we knew we had it in the bag by the end of that fourth day.


Then you recorded it in Glenarm?

We did, and this was a vital part of this record. The congregation of St.Patrick's Church of Ireland in Glenarm was extremely kind and allowed us to have the space for three days. It's such a beautiful and old building with wonderful sonics and atmosphere and it allowed this record to be what is it. So we wrote the record in four days and then recorded it in three.


I feel that you gave a real identity to the north east coast and was contrarily thrilled you stopped at Ballycastle. Was there any reason for that? 

I was always intrigued by the story of Julia McQuillan, the Black Nun and every time I have visitors over I always bring them to Bonamargy Friary. I remember mentioning the name 'Black Nun' to Josh and Neilson and their ears pricked up right away! Sorley Boy McDonnell is buried up there too so it was a site we had to go and create on.

The furthest point we hit was the ruins of Kinbane Castle, just north of Ballycastle. We had sourced some other great locations further up the coast, but the stories associated with them didn’t resonate as strongly  with us. We landed on the places which we felt we had the deepest connections with, the places that drew us to their story. You could say we took our direction from the creative compass.


What did you yourself learn about your home coast line?

Sometimes what is on our doorstep can be truly remarkable and inspiring.  The making of this album just was reinforced that truth deeply in me. 


How did you get John Prine singing about Sorley Boy. Just writing that sentence is wondrous to me! How was it for you hearing him sing a song written off the coast in Glenarm?

Just reading that sentence is wondrous to me! Honestly, I'm not sure if I have fully come to terms with the fact that one of the real masters and one of my musical heroes, John Prine, sung words that we wrote in a boat in Glenarm Bay. Neilson and Josh also have a video making company and they have worked with John in that capacity. They mentioned to him a while ago that we were planning to make this album and he casually said he'd like to sing on it. It came about as organically as that. I'll never forget the moment I heard John's voice coming through the speakers in the studio. It's still hard for me to get my head around.


Will it be any different when you perform it live? 

For the most part we recorded this album live in the church, so I know the same passion and intensity that was on the recording will be in the live performance. We'll be touring as three-piece in England and Scotland in October but I'm excited that we'll have the full band for the Belfast gig in 12th October...that's the addition of Colm McClean (guitar) and Conor McCreanor (bass), both brilliant players who recorded with us in Glenarm 


Will it be any different doing it live in Belfast and Carnlough than elsewhere?

I think so. The songs will be coming home to where they were born and that will bring something special. I can't wait to perform them live in both those places in October.


Are you satisfied with it and what do you hope the listener gets from it?

I'm deeply proud of this album. It feels very personal for me and I don't think I'll ever be able to make such an album again. We did what we intended to do and that was dive into the richness of the creative spirit in the Antrim Coast and I hope the listener is moved by what they hear. Maybe too for natives of the area it will uncover a few local tales that they weren't aware of. 


How do Neilson and Joshua see the Antrim Coast now? Is making an album with people better than handing them a Tourist Brochure?

Both Neilson and Josh feel a deep connection to the area. They've been there several times now and I sense that it stirs something up in them. The Orphan Brigade feels like a brotherhood and it's a special thing for each of us that we get to explore each other's homelands in song. A Tourist Brochure barely scratches the surface of a place, songs and music have a way of revealing its soul. 


Rebecca Art

Rebecca Billingslea is from Colorado and has recently moved Belfast to work with Fitzroy, 4 Corners Festival and Duncairn Arts Centre For Arts and Culture. 

She has her first art exhibition opening on July 4th at Duncairn Centre For Arts and Culture. A study in her own personal grief it might help us all in Northern Ireland as we continue to give post Troubles. 

It was actually the recent grieving of a friend that caused Rebecca to reach for a brush and un-tap an artistic vocation that she didn’t know was there.  

I asked Rebecca a few questions about that process, about how she discovered the therapy of art what she might want us to find from her exhibition. 


When you appeared last year in Fitzroy you never told me you were a painter?

My knee jerk response is, “I wasn’t at the time!”  But I’m learning we are all artists.  We are carry the Divine mark of “creator.” Whether that’s in food, music, dance, painting, design, words, fabric, or whatever our medium of choice may be.  But in all reality, I haven’t ever painted seriously until this year.  


When did you first start doing art?

In high school and college I was much more invested in creative writing, poetry, and spoken word.  Maybe 2 years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a style of abstract art.  I always thought of Picasso when I thought of abstract art, so this new style was something I’d never seen before. I remember Simon Kenny and Cody Hooper’s art bringing tears to my eyes at one point.  Abstract art was something I felt more that I critiqued or analyzed.  Which is funny, because I’ve always seen people, memories, emotions, and music in colors.  I meet someone and they are mint green.  I look back on a memory from my childhood and it is lavender with flakes of silver.  I hear “Happy” by Brandi Carlile and it’s soft pinks and rose golds.  My mind has always done abstract art, I think… long before my brush hit the canvas. 


Have you ever done it seriously? 

I haven’t.  When you grow up in the wild, wild West of America, there isn’t a lot of art happening.  There’s a lot of bow hunting, fly fishing, shotgun shooting, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking…. Not a lot of art flowing out of the town I’m from.  It just doesn’t have a high value for the people who live there, I don’t think.  You live in Colorado to ski and rock climb.  You live in New York to dance and paint.  


Can I ask you then the process?  When did you start using the art to deal with the loss of your friend?  When did you think it was good enough to exhibit?

My friend Carly passed away on January 15, 2019.  I had been seeing a counsellor when I first moved out here because I have a bit of a predisposition to anxiety and depression. And by a bit I mean more than a bit. I decided to be proactive and see a counsellor here just to stay on top of my mental health and I’m so glad that God went before me in that.  

I honestly had no idea this was coming, but I already had an established relationship with my counsellor.  My counsellor and I started working through some grieving techniques.  She knew I was a bit of a creative brain to begin with, so she gave me a few blogs about grief to read and encouraged me to think of creative ways to work through my emotions.  

Because no one knew Carly here, I felt like I was completely alone in my grief. No one else around me was sad about it, no one knew her here, and no one even knew I was grieving and I didn’t know how to tell all of these strangers I had only met 6 months ago that I was coming off the rails every single day. This emotional loneliness put me in a very dark place. 

I felt like I was actually losing my mind.  I knew I needed to do something but I had no idea what.  I began reading a lot of poetry from my favourite insane person…. Edgar Allan Poe. I read from him one day, “I do not suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it.” 

I decided to try and shift my posture from fighting the feelings of insanity and instead, leaning into it.  So I started creating a playlist of songs that was making me feel “The Big Sad” (my joking and loving term of endearment for when my crippling depression hits).  

I was listening to Foy Vance’s “Joy of Nothing” and the music and emotions and memories of Carly were all a swirl of colours for me.  Greys, blacks, and hints of red… so I ordered canvases that day to see if I could transfer what was in my head and heart to the canvas and maybe just maybe, people could join me in this and I wouldn’t be on this island of grief alone anymore.  I wondered if my art could be the boat that brought me back to humanity and back to sanity.  

In a lot of ways I still don’t feel like it is good enough to exhibit, but the longer I’ve been in Belfast, the more I realise this is a grieving city.  The longer I’m here, the more I realise everyone around me is grieving a loss in some way. I felt the concept was something worth exhibiting, even if my art wasn’t.  


I know art is a mystery but can you attempt to articulate how grief comes from your soul, through your imagination and then through your hands onto the canvas?

When I was explaining my grief to my counsellor, I used the analogy of feeling like I had this massive wound I needed to lance and drain in order for it to heal.  I needed to get the infection out even if it was gross and messy.  That has been my process in a lot of ways.  

I am still amazed at how often I’ve cried while I’ve been painting this series.  It has been magical, cathartic, dark, painful, and healing all at once.  Leaning into the grief and insanity instead of fighting it is what sparks my creativity and imagination.  Once I quit fighting it is when I started seeing the finished product of my pieces and felt proud of what was on the canvas.


What has the process taught you about grief?  About yourself? 

For me, this process has illuminated how complex grief can be.  There are no rules when it comes to grief.  No timelines. No prescriptions. No formulas. I never realised how essential remembering is when it comes to grief.  

Someone asked me about two weeks after Carly had passed away what some of my favourite memories were of her.  Such a risky question. I think grief scares people.  They don’t want to send the person grieving into a tailspin, so often they don’t ask questions like that.  

I needed questions like that.  I needed to remember her. I needed to talk about her.  I cry even now as I write that because I never want her memory to grow faint in my mind.  I never want her laugh to slip through the fingers of my soul. I never want her light to set behind the clouds of years gone by.  

I learned so much about myself in this process.  The main one was that I had to forgive myself.  I didn’t realise how much resentment I had towards myself.  The 4 Corners Festival was just about to kick off when Carly passed.  The theme was “Scandalous Forgiveness” and I think God knew I needed that to be the theme that echoed in my soul those first few weeks of grief.  

I should have written Carly her more when I moved away. I should have told her I loved her more.  I should have tried harder to see her at Thanksgiving when I was home.  I could have tried to help her more.  I could have… I should have… 

My counsellor and I began to work through self forgiveness.  I decided to paint a piece entitled “I Forgive You.”  People may think that is me forgiving Carly, but it was easy for me to forgive her.  This piece was about the struggle of learning to forgive myself.  Each abstract I’ve painted in this series, there is a song that correlates to that piece that helped me get out what I needed to in the creative process.  

So I flipped on, “Come Away With Me” by Jason Polley and the paint flowed so easily onto the canvas.  His lyrics, “And turning from your past mistakes ain’t as easy as it seems. When you won’t accept forgiveness, You’re left to your own schemes” helped birth this abstract.  You’ll notice how soft and gentle the colours are in this piece.  I have learned how gentle we sometimes need to be with our own hearts, our own mess, and our own grief.  


Are you going to do more art?

I am doing more art, yes.  I have a concept in place for my next series and the Duncairn and I are chatting about hopefully showing it in March 2020.  I’ll also be showing more of my work at Fitzroy hopefully in the Fall when I return from visiting the states.  It is so special for me that Carly took me by the hand and helped me unlock this undiscovered chamber in my heart of abstract art.  I’ll do more art for her and for myself.  


What do you hope people get from your exhibit? 

I hope people feel something.  That’s all I want.  Whether they feel their own grief, remember their own loss, or stare at a canvas and feel despair, joy, freedom, distance, frustration, hope, curiosity… anything.  I also am hopeful that people will feel a sense of unity through this exhibit.  Perhaps someone feels like I did.  Insane.  Alone.  Lonely.  

Maybe this exhibit will show them that they aren’t alone in those feelings and it truly is what unites us all and makes us human and in desperate need of one another.


Sorrowful Rejoicing; An Abstract Art Grief Series opens on July 4th. Rebecca will be speaking at 6.30. The exhibit will then run until July 10th.



This week saw the premier of a new documentary film Guardians Of The Flame. It is powerful piece of journalism in which Jonny Clark takes us to the centre of the pain and grief of the Northern Irish Troubles through the eyes and hearts of three people who lost loved ones; Eugene Reavey, Beryl Quigley and Alan McBride.

It is a tender and poignant journey as they share their stories and then speak about their response, in the immediate aftermath and indeed until this day. 

I am not sure that it was scripted but in the end we are in a discussion on forgiveness and different approaches on how to move on after murder has smashed your heart into pieces. 

Guardians of The Flame is a hopeful, inspirational and insightful piece work. 

I asked Jonny Clark a few questions about the film… 


SS: Jonny, when did you first think about making the film? 


JONNY: This kind of film has been a day dream of mine for years, probably since the days when we lived in the lower Shankill from 2002-2010. During that time we would offer scholarships to young people from post-conflict nations to spend a year with us in Belfast. We had loads of Zulus from South Africa, Palestinians, Israelis, Rwandans, Lebanese, Syrians etc. What I was struck by were the similarities in the very different narratives of these countries. 

So my original idea was one film comparing the conflicts in each place and highlighting both the toxic and redemptive power of religion. 

In September 2017 I was running our annual YWAM reconciliation conference in Lebanon and met an English guy called Josh Eaves. He was passionate about peace building and had been working in Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon as well as with our partner project in southern Lebanon, the Foundation for Forgiveness and Reconciliation. He was also a film maker and worked for a company called Global Fire Creative. 

Josh felt that instead of one film we should make a series of films looking at each of these national conflicts with the Northern Irish conflict being the focus of the first episode. Josh was committed to partnering with me to make it happen. Josh is a great guy and a gifted film maker and so together we were able to turn a day dream into a reality. 


Why did you choose Alan McBride, Beryl Quigley and Eugene Reavey to concentrate on? 


I chose these Eugene, Beryl and Alan because their stories were all quite different. Firstly, they straddled three decades of the Troubles, the Whitecross killings were in 1976, Beryl's husband was killed in 1984, and the Shankill bomb was 1993. 

Also their reaction to the killings of their loved ones was also different. Beryl has a strong Christian faith and looks back on a powerful encounter with God moments after the attack on her husband Bill McConnell. She felt a strong compulsion to forgive and is certainly an amazing witness of the freedom that can come from forgiveness. 

Eugene's three brothers were killed while watching Celebrity Squares in their living room by the Glenanne Gang. I had met Eugene at one of Tommy Sands' Music of Healing events which we host in our centre in Rostrevor, An Cuan. I was struck by this salt of the earth man but also the stunning story of his Mum. 

On the night her sons were killed she lit a candle and said a prayer for the men who killed her sons. She would do that every night for the rest of her life, 30 years. To me I find that story just so excruciatingly beautiful and yet tragic at the same time. I said to Eugene on Sunday night that his Mummy is the hero of the film. 

I was keen to interview Alan McBride for the film because his wife, Sharon, was killed in the Shankill bomb, an area in which I had lived and worked for 8 years. I remember early on in my time living in the Shankill I met an old couple having lunch in the old Shankill Mission. They told me that many people in the area were still traumatised by the 1993 bombing. 

Alan explicitly says he has not forgiven the bombers because his mother-in-law would never forgive him if he did. But he describes letting go of the anger and hurt. He also details his work which he does along with Eugene Reavey and Stephen Travers of the Miami Showband massacre, with people from all sides of our community. 

So they all have unique stories and slightly different takes on reconciliation. They are all works in progress and we try not to create a one dimensional picture of them as saints, but as normal punters dealing as best as they can with the events of the past and each on the journey of forgiveness and reconciliation. 


Did the original idea for the film change at all during the making of it?


I think my original aim was to make a film that had a stronger critique of religious nationalism. In the age of evangelical support of Donald Trump in America it felt like this needed to be addressed.Trump-vangelicals are very similar to the church goers that supported Ian Paisley and his ilk, citing their faith as the reason for their devoted allegiance to Queen, Country and God. 

In the end however as we zeroed in on the stories of Alan, Beryl and Eugene it felt inappropriate to use their tragedies as a backdrop to taking shots at political leaders and faith leaders. We moved away from a narrative about good guys and bad guys, to a more gentle approach: hearing the stories of victims and allowing for commentary from various religious leaders. 

The quote we use for the title of the film comes from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' book the Dignity of Difference: "Religion is like fire and like fire it warms but it also burns, and we are the guardians of the flame". This is what we were originally building the film around. In the end we have focused more on these heroic guardians who are active builders of reconciliation today rather than critiquing those who are holding us to the sins of the past, of marrying allegiance to God with national or religious identity.


What are your ambitions for the film?


We hope the film will be picked up for TV, but in the meantime we will continue to arrange screenings and in a couple of months it will be available online to purchase or rent. We hope to start work soon on the next instalment of the series where we will look at Lebanon. We ran a Kickstarter to get this project off the ground so we also hope more investment will come in for it somehow.




This week saw the publication of my friend Alain Emerson's book Luminous Dark. It is the story of a young man who loses his wife to cancer when she is just 23 years old. It is the story of a grappling with grief, a wrestling with God and personal journey through the rough terrain of the valley of the shadow of death. It is Alain's story. I asked Alain a few questions about how a story he never wanted became a story that he wrote down for all of us to read and learn from.

I remember at the time that Lindsay passed away that you told me that this was never supposed to be your story. When did you come to to terms with the fact that it was your story?

I distinctly remember the moment, one week after Lindsay died. My mum and brother-in-law Stuart had helped me clear out the one bedroom apartment Lindsay and I lived in. We went back to my Mum and Dads house where I was going to stay until I got myself sorted.  

My ‘new’ room was my sisters old room - pink and purple colours surrounded me - and the boxes containing the content of Lindsay’s and my home sat around my feet. I distinctly remember saying to God, ‘This is my story now and I don’t want this to be; How have i found myself in this place with this story. It’s not what I signed up for.’

Coming to terms with the fact that it was my story was a long process. Reality is cruel in such days. The brutality and finality of death simply force you to come to terms with it. It makes you come to terms with it. Because when you still love someone so much and the object of that love has been removed, all traces of their body taken from you, you become completely grounded in the distinct reality of the moment. That doesn’t mean you have processed it, that long, arduous journey is only beginning, but you comes to terms with it because the sense absence is all-encompassing. 


When did you get to the point where you thought that you needed to write your story?

During the months of Lindsay’s operations and treatments and sickness I was keeping friends and family up to date with her progress through my blog.  People were faithfully praying and walking as best they could through the journey with us. 

When Lindsay died, I suppose I felt a degree of connection with people, even virtually.  They had left loving and compassionate comments, gathering to pray together etc. throughout her sickness and I guess there was apart of me that was aware that after she died these same people where now praying and directing their loving thoughts towards me.  

So I began to share some of my thoughts with them.  I also found a degree of catharsis in the process. My observation was that as I posted something, (maybe once a week), during the weeks of my grieving and I tried to be as honest and true to what I was experiencing as possible, it seemed to resonated deeply with lots of people.  

The comments on the blog, moved to privates messages and emails, and then to people calling to see me.  I became aware of a whole section of people, who have never been given permission to grieve properly and fully; people who simply wanted someone else to ‘get them’; someone else who could give a language to describe the turmoil of their soul. 

Many of these people where ‘stuck in a moment, and they can’t get out of it.’ Initially I wanted them to know that was ok and then as I began to fully embrace the pain, I found that this gave way to the first shimmers of hope.  I didn’t want them to stay in that place of darkness forever as much as I can understand not wanting to ‘move on.’  I wanted them to move with me towards hope. 

It was the experience of how the vulnerability of my own story was resonating so deeply with others, that I realised I would someday love to collate my blogs, journals, and reflections into a book that could be some kind of resource and connection for those walking through the Valley of the Shadow. 


You were writing this part of your story at a very different time in your story. How was it living in that sadness with all the happiness of your family around you?

It was interesting process! First and foremost though I wrote the book because Rachel encouraged me to.  She felt I had something to say for people moving through such a dark season of life and she wanted me to do this.  

In fact on our sabbatical 5 years ago in Vancouver where we had lots of time as a family, is when I started the book. I would get up early in the morning take myself down to Starbucks and spend 2-3 hours writing.  

Rachel would sort our two children out in the mornings, releasing me to write and then we would spend the rest of the day together. I couldn’t have written this without her. I think writing from a pretty ‘healed and whole’ place was really helpful.  

While much of the book draws together the raw extracts from my journal and blog in those intensely painful early days of grief, piecing it all together in the structure of a book, could have only been achieved maturely and appropriately with the wisdom that comes from walking into wholeness. 

Practically too, having the girls around me as I wrote the book, give me a beautiful reminder, that though I was trying to enter into the moments of grief again to add weight and feeling to my writing, the reality was this was not my reality anymore. A new chapter of my life had opened up - I had a soul-mate in Rachel and was a dad to two beautiful girls Annie and Erin - and I was fully living that chapter out as I had the previous chapter of my life.  That new perspective a great space to write from.


What did you learn most from writing the story down?

I learned that I process a lot! Seriously, I think writing the book confirmed the insights I was discovering as I was walking through the darkest days.  In those days it was like I instinctively knew any chance I had for healing was only going to come by being ‘true’ to the pain I was experiencing. Further, that God wanted me to, no matter what they meant I had to say to him. It was so disconcerting at the time but I knew I had to do it. 

So writing the book and searching the scriptures taught me that, you can this kind of stuff scattered all through the Bible. It is the story of God, interacting with ordinary human beings like me in the most earthy and real ways. 

The Bible is full of trials and tragedies in a broken world and it takes raw, gutsy and honest faith often to believe we will see ‘the goodness of God in the land of the living.’ Writing the book taught me that as important as it is for us to have a theology of victory, which I whole-heartedly say ‘Amen’ to, we also need a theology of suffering and in the church today we haven’t always been brilliant at articulating that. 

Actually to be a follower of Jesus, to experience His life to the full, involves what Paul described as knowing Him not just 'in the power of His resurrection and in the fellowship of His sufferings.’  I learned, even though it is totally counter-intuitive, that it is an awesome privilege to be allowed to share with God in His sufferings and the pain of His heart for this broken world he loves. 

I think when we share in his sufferings, he is allowing us to feel what he feels about the world. He is trusting us with part of His heart and there is something for us to steward well with what he has entrusted us with.  

Writing the book, reminded me that through this experience, I got to love a girl who was going to die when she was 23. I got to experience a deep oneness with her that I never knew one could experience. And through her death and my encounter with God in the dark night of my grieving I have been transformed. If I’d been given the chance beforehand I wouldn’t have chosen this way, but living through it I would never give it back.  I wouldn’t be the same perfectly loved, whole son of God that I am now, and I don’t think I would be as compassionate and anywhere close to being like Jesus as I am now!! Still a long way to go on that though!


What would you like people to get from reading your story?

I would love people first of all to feel permission to grieve where they feel they have not had that.  I would love people to find some kind of language that validates their pain and even ever so slightly feel a little bit more ‘got’ in the midst of the agony of soul. 

I would also love people to see how honest prayer can be.  What you may perceive as ‘bad’ prayers are better than no prayers. Pour it all out before the face of the Father, no matter what way the words (or groans) tumble out of your mouth and soul. 

I would love people to know that there is HOPE, not in some fairy tale kind of way.  Not even because the circumstances of life can turn around for the better, although they can and that is often a sign of God’s promise of our lives.  But more because HOPE is a person - Jesus. 

So even through the darkest of nights, we find him there.  And though we may not be ready for hope at that point, the one we find weeping with us - silent in our pain but certainly not absent - that One is HOPE. My deepest prayer is that people would realise from the book that whatever our circumstances in life, we can get Him. We can get Jesus and He is more than enough.