LENT 2020




Hagar was the focus of a sermon Rev Lesley- Ann Wilson preached in Fitzroy on International Women’s Day. Having just returned from a trip to the Wilderness in the Holy Land Lesley had some rich concert for the sermon.

I was very drawn to the story. It resonated with me as the Biblical outworking of a Martyn Joseph song and a great truth that all of us can take into our lives.

Hagar was like an invisible woman. A slave to begin with she is then given by Sarah to Abram to give them a child. Sarah then became jealous of her and mistreated her. She heads out into the dessert to escape.

Then this invisible woman becomes the first person in Scripture to be visited by an angel. After God blessed Hagar the text tells us:


13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen[c] the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi[d]; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.


I love this. God sees Hagar. She knows it and calls God, “the God who sees me” and the well “The well of the one who sees me”.

In a life that seemed invisible, where nobody cared and everyone seemed to be abusing her she is seen by God. Wow!

I was immediately drawn to on elf my favourite Martyn Joseph songs, I See You. 

From his first Sony album Being There released in 1992 Martyn himself described the song at the time:


“A simple statement of my personal belief, that no one will, or does, get any eternally with anything.”


That fascinates me. Martyn’s focus in writing seems to have been those who carried out evil acts. God sees them. They won’t get away with it.

I have always heard the song as being about the victims. God sees the victims. He sees the the impact of evil. 

To know that God sees us will change our sense of self worth and hope. Whatever we are struggling through. Whatever is going against us. God sees us as he did Hagar. Wow. I’ll take that encouragement:


“I see the playgrounds with drugs

Children’s cloths in the mud



What about salvation


I see you, nothing escapes my attention”


PLAY MARTYN JOSEPH’S I SEE YOU and let the fact that God sees you wash over your soul...


Joni Women



I'm looking for affection and respect

A little passion

And you want stimulation-nothing more

That's what I think

But you know I'll try to be there for you

When your spirits start to sink


I confess and seek forgiveness that Joni Mitchell’s song A Woman Of Heart and Mind cut almost as deep as Scripture into my male soul. I saw (and maybe still see) too much of myself in the judgement of her song. 

It is a powerful piece that takes no prisoners in a society where woman have become objects, often to be abused in in male attitudes as much as actions. I love it as a song but never ever listen to it without being cut in two. It slices me open like no other song I have ever heard. 

First-century Israel was not an easy place for women. Culturally, socially, religiously – all spheres of life were pretty hostile to the female sex. They were seen as less than men in almost every way – education was unavailable, they were unable to provide witness or testimony in court because their word was not considered trustworthy or useful, they were discouraged from public gatherings where they would have to interact with men who weren’t immediate family.

Into such a culture Jesus’ revolutionary ways overturns the societal norms. 


READ JOHN 4: 1-42


7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.


I could have used various Scriptures to go with Joni Mitchell’s words. Jesus’ many interactions with women in the Gospels rips cultural norms apart. He gives women back respect and dignity. He humanises them. In this incident with the Samaritan woman he rips a few cultural norms - religious, racial and political - as well as gender.

This scene is beautifully written by John. Jesus posture throughout is astonishing. Asking a woman for a drink. Engaging with her in religious conversation. Jesus changes the place of women in his society and prophetically challenges us in our attitude towards women today.

Sadly almost 2000 years later and Joni Mitchell is writing A Woman Of Heart And Mind and suggesting that we still treat women in a pre Jesus way. The Church has not been good at following Jesus in our treatment of women. We might rightfully be seen as the reason for their continued oppression rather than being the freeing power of Jesus. 

Let us search our hearts and minds during Lent as to how we relate to the women around us and across our society. Let us like Jesus, break the societal norms. As she sings: -


All this talk about holiness now

It must be the start of the latest style

Is it all books and words

Or do you really feel it?

Do you really laugh?

Do you really care?

Do you really smile

When you smile?

You criticize and you flatter

You imitate the best

And the rest you memorize

You know the times you impress me most

Are the times when you don't try

When you don't even try





Lord, when I'm broken (When I'm broken)

And I'm in need (I'm inneed)

Feelthat ocean (Feelthat ocean)

Swallowing me (Swallowing me)

Head ishanging (Head is hanging)

So sorrowfully (So sorrowfully)

Oh Lord (Ooh-ooh)

Come shine your light on me (Shine your light on me)


Coldplay’s singer and lyricist Chris Martin grew up in a Christian home and has constantly returned to that well for lyrical inspiration. He has distanced himself from that evangelical branch of Christianity and now calls himself an all-theist. 

If Martin is drawing on all faiths and none in his songwriting then for sure he has gone back to his parents faith here. This lyric reminds me of a psalm or those hopeful poetic sections of the Old Testament prophets. BrokEn is like a Psalm. It is a first person prayer and praise to God. It approaches with needing asks for some light.

For the scripture with song this time I chose a few verses from Isaiah.


ISAIAH 60: 1-3


“Arise, shine, for your light has come,

    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.

See, darkness covers the earth

    and thick darkness is over the peoples,

but the Lord rises upon you

    and his glory appears over you.

Nations will come to your light,

    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.


There is a hopefulness in the faith of the people of God. It marks us out. Always has done. Slaves, exiles, oppressed by Empire. There is always hope of morning… of light. 

The same goes for the individual pilgrim. Lost, broken, grieving. God’s light gets in. 

On Coldplay’s Everyday album this Gospel sound arrives in the middle of heavy songs about serious topics. It shows that human desire to see comfort in times of need. 

Listen again to BrokEn (a Reimagined version is available too). In your Lenten journey, use it as a prayer for hope… for you… for a loved one… for the world!


Bono and Ali



I could never take a chance

Of losing love to find romance

In the mysterious distance

Between a man and a woman


The marriage of Bono and Ali is a wonder of rock history. Bono and Ali have baffled the celebrity press for a long time. They have held family values to the fore in the midst of the madness of a rock star lifestyle. In the press around the time How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was released this album’s release the tabloids had a “Six In a Bed” headline that had nothing to do with super models but about the bigger bed Bono and Ali had to buy to fit their whole family in to their sleeping arrangements. 

Bono would tell Irish tabloid Sunday World, “Ali is the most extraordinary woman. I still can’t figure her out. I still feel I don’t know her. She’s a very mysterious woman and she’s very independent.” Hence the mysterious distance of a man and a woman.

What the song does nail is the Holywood lie of romance. In the world that revolves around Bono, catalogued best by gossip columns of the celebrity glossy magazines, marriages fall apart in just a couple of years. Pre-nuptial agreements are more vital than the vows. No one seems to intend to keep them. They have become no more than some romantic day out. 

‘A Man And A Woman’ challenges the core of such shallowness. Bono declares that he could not risk love for romance. In ‘Miracle Drug’ he has already said that he’s had enough of romantic love and here he is saying that there is something deeper, more important, and much more satisfying. 

Bono admits it is a personal song but it is also a raging antidote to all the examples of love that his peers pump into the minds of teenagers and those much older than that. 

Listening to this song in Lent drew me to Ephesians 5: -


21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.


These verses have been abused, and women with them, for centuries. They have been used to stop women being leaders in Church and society. They have been abused by those who wanted Biblical support for the most oppressive marriages. 

As I read them in Lent, I hear words of self denial, for both the man and the woman. Submission to one another. Christlike cross carrying love. Marriage is tough. It is a revolution. If our wedding vows are to be followed through on and fulfilled then it will take Lenten like self denial. It will take a discipline that puts the sacrificial servanthood love of Jesus over the Hollywood feely weely romantic. Not that I, or Bono, don’t believe in romance but love is a tougher and I believe in the end the more satisfying decision. 

Lenten love is not just vertical or horizontally social. I must love the one whose ring I wear. 

PSALM 116 - A Surmise


When I was a teenager, growing up in Ballymena in the 70s, Queen’s University’s Rag Week magazine was the closest thing we got to porn! Every year a few copies found their way across our classrooms faster than a modern day Tweet.

When I came to faith in Lower Sixth I gave up PTQ. The jokes and images were not in keeping with my following of Jesus.

Little did I know though that the dirty magazine got its title from a Psalm.

The notorious magazine’s title came from the City of Belfast’s Latin motto "Pro tanto quid retribuamus." This is taken from Psalm 116 Verse 12 in the Latin Vulgate Bible and is literally "For (Pro) so much (tanto) what (quid) shall we repay (retribuamus)" 

The verse has been translated in Bibles differently – for example as "What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?" It is also translated as "In return for so much, what shall we give back?”

In 2001 I was sent a photograph of something gaffer taped to the stage of the U2 Elevation Tour. It was those words from Psalm 116 (12-14), this time Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message:


What can I give back to God for the blessings he's poured out on me? 

I'll lift high the cup of salvation - a toast to God! 

I'll pray in the name of God; 

I'll complete what I promised God I'd do 

And I'll do it together with his people.


Bono would read these words every night of that tour before singing Where The Streets Have No Name.

These are powerful words of commitment. They are a recognition of all that God has done for us. They are seeking deep down in the soul how we might respond to such blessing. The answer is a vow of commitment to lift up the gift of salvation, not squander it and then to fulfil those vows in the community of God’s people.

The Psalmist’s words that named a filthy rag, then prayed by the biggest rock band in the world on stage have been words I return to again and again to renew my passionate commitment to God and his Kingdom.


This is my contribution to a series of reflections on the Psalms for Lent 2020 by Youth Ministry Network (Ireland) - READ ALL LENT PSALMS HERE


Cohen Search



Search me, God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.


See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.


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

It was rather easy for me to think of these verses when I first heard Leonard Cohen’s song Villanelle For Our Time.

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


The words of Leonard Cohen’s song Villanelle For Our Time are actually from a poem by F.R. Scott a Canadian poet, intellectual and constitutional expert.  

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

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

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

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

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


Search me, God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.


See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.



PLAY: Peter Himmelman - Impermanent Things


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

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

-          From Impermanent Things by Peter Himmelman


Wikipedia will tell you that Peter Himmelman is an orthodox Jew who prays 3 times a day and is the son-in-law of Bob Dylan. The Jewish part explains Himmelman’s deep spiritual insight. When I did my weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster I played Himmelman very often. Impermanent Things was the most played.

As a preacher it is one of my very favourite songs. I have used Himmelman's words in a sermon on Matthew chapter 6 v 19-34:


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

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendorwas dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.


If you didn’t know about Himmelman’s deep Jewish faith you would be sure that he had used this passage as his inspiration. Of course Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel most intent is revealing Jesus as a continuation of Jewish tradition so perhaps it is not so surprising that he and Himmelman would be on similar themes.

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

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

So why do we get obsessed with impermanent things? A couple of years ago I piled my parents' things onto a skip outside their house. So many things. A few months before they were vital things in my parents lives but now they were useless; rubbish even! It made me ponder Himmelman's song and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. It was a cold lesson in the emptiness of things.

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


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


PLAY: Peter Himmelman - 245th Peace Song



PLAY - U2’s song 40

I waited patiently for the Lord

He inclined and heard my cry

He brought me up out of the pit

Out of the mire and clay


I will sing, sing a new song

I will sing, sing a new song


U2’s co-write with King David is a beautifully mediative piece, that fluid bass guitar, the building of the communal sing on “How Long, to sing this song”

The “How Long” is of course not in Psalm 40 but it is a recurring theme in the Psalms - 6, 35, 74, 79, 89 & 94. 

Let us pray through Psalm 13


How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?



Take a little bit of time to be honest with God. Are there are places personally, family, community or nationally where you are angry with God? Is there a prayer you have been praying and wonder How Long? 


Use silence or play U2’s 40… The Frames have a version too



Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.



Take a little time to look for answers to your prayers that you might have missed… opportunities in dark places to be a source of light…



But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.



Remember in the silence that God loves you and that salvation in Jesus is sure, no matter what is going on in your circumstances. Sometimes it is easier to believe in God that to trust in God. Seek God’s help to trust on what is sure in the midst of uncertainty. 


Back to the U2 lyrics of Psalm 40


He set my feet upon a rock

And made my footsteps firm

Many will see

Many will see and fear

I will sing, sing a new song

I will sing…


Now play Neil Young’s Walk With Me and use it as a prayer to journey into Lent. A grungy walk in times of uncertainty...


I feel your love

I feel your strong love

I feel the patience among conditional love

I feel a strength

I feel your faith in me

I'll never let you down no matter what you do

If you just walk with me and let me walk with you

I'm on this journey I don't wanna walk alone


Walk with me

Walk with me

Walk with me

Walk with me


Walk with me

Shine me a light

Walk with me

Walk with me