SURMISING THE NAILING OF A MAN TO A FENCE IN BUSHMILLS

Bushmills Fence

How horrific? A man nailed to a fence in Bushmills, crucifix style. On one of our own streets. It never ceases to shock me what a human being can do to another human being. What century? In all its horror it was at last good to see that it was a headline one our news.

My best buddy Fr Martin Magill is involved in Stop Attacks that has been trying to raise the issue of paramilitary attacks that blight our society. On Sunday morning as I prayed for our city on the day of the Belfast Marathon, two friends who were over from England staying with us, were stunned that my statistics of 3,400 attacks since our 1998 Good Friday Agreement was not national news.

National news?! It's not even bothered with much in our local news. That in itself is horrific. Surely we should be rousing our society to end this, much of what can only be named child abuse as teenagers have bullets through knees and elbows.

Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, the writers of the critically acclaimed television drama Blue Lights started their careers with a short film called Rough. We showed it at the 4 Corners Festival in 2021 Festival. A black comedy about a paramilitary who dog has been attacked and wants "punishment" for the other dog but his stooges cannot bring themselves to shooting the dog so shoot his teenage owner instead.

The film was actually influenced by a few hours in Fr Martin Magill's life. On a Sunday night he found an injured pigeon coming home from church. He Tweeted asking what he should do? Later he also Tweeted about the most recent paramilitary beating. Days later Declan, who was following, realised that there had been very few responses to the attack but hundreds about the pigeon. 

Is one of the hangovers to our conflict that we have become too familiar with horrific physical violence? Do we think that these victims, so many not any older than children, must be wee rascals and somehow deserve it? There are questions needing to be asked about the deep down character of who are.

In that prayer on Sunday morning I prayed that God's kingdom and will would be done across our city. That would end the terror of these assaults. The answer to the prayer and a fairer, more humane society starts with us all - to keep highlighting, talk more about it and encourage neighbourhoods to be brave. NO MORE!


DANA MASTERS - IN A REAL GOOD MOOD

Dana 2

“We are finally here,” Dana Masters begins her introductions to her Mandela Hall concert. I know what she means. Preparing for our An Evening In Conversation with her at the 2023 4 Corners Festival I asked her about an album. “If you have £30,000 Steve…”

Well, finally we are here. Thank you funders, though why Sony didn’t throw a fortune to sign this woman is only the state that the music industry is in just now. Never mind. We are finally here. Dana Masters launching her debut record, all Dana pink, gamers and champagne. 

Of course the album might be better because of Dana’s maturity and experience working with Van Morrison, singing in church or fronting local jazz bands. She’s a lady who is confident in her own skin. 

It is the third time I have heard Dana, in recent years, and every time she has made me cry. Singing in St. Peter’s Cathedral here in Belfast, as part of the 2022 4 Corners Festival, an unaccompanied version of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. The silent Cathedral. The power of the voice. The hope filling the sacred air… and I felt tears dripping down my cheek.

The evening that I had that privilege of interviewing her at the next Festival, her poetic dream for Northern Ireland and her love song about us and this welcoming place called Call You Home. Again, tears…

Tonight I was actually bawling like a baby. For such an occasion as her debut album launch she actually had her mother and aunt in the house, all the way from South Carolina. As she spoke of family and place and her grandmother’s courageous civil rights activities I was so moved but then she sings Little Girl, an imaginary letter from her grandmother to her daughters and I am gone and then gone again as Dana’s own daughter Noor joins her for a We Shall Overcome ending.

This is all a vital part of Dana’s authenticity. She has on stage charisma, deep human character and ancestral planted courage. She has the persona of a star and the intimacy of a friend. 

Of course all that would be meaningless without the songwriting craft. Co-written and arranged by the genius that is Cian Boyland these songs are very strong, always inside the form of modern jazz, played by a banger band. Within that Dana sprinkles various influences and  eclectic sounds and moods. Sometimes sensual (Falling For You), sometimes raunchy (Bad Love), sometimes romantic (Somebody In Love), sometimes soulful (Real Good Mood).

“We are finally here.” We are… at long last… but all the very much better and brilliant for the wait. 


BEN GLOVER - AND THE SUN BREAKS THROUGH THE SKY

Glover Sun Breaks

Nashville based songwriter Ben Glover’s original home was the small village of Glenarm on the beautiful green glens of east Antrim, where they gently roll down to the sea, all already covered across his catalogue.

Ben’s music is set in the classic Americana songwriting streets of Nashville but to that he brings the sounds of that Irish home. His songs are like a refreshing retreat in those quiet glens. It shouldn’t be lost on us that his last record release was with his side project The Orphan Brigade taking in places and mythical stories of that north east of Ireland.

I am writing a lot about home just now. Coincidently we are only a few weeks after Cara Dillon’s Coming Home record. Cara is from the north west of Northern Ireland and this latest album with a book is Cara taking herself back home during Covid and writing poems about it.

Glover’s theme is also home. On the nine songs on And The Sun Breaks Through The Sky, Ben is either at home or leaving home or searching for home. 

The opening is self explanatory Make My Way Home. The home that Glover is chasing is as much inward as outward:

 

I have searched for the meaning

I have searched for the song

I have searched for the place

In which I belong

 

Co-writes, The Meadow with Mary Gauthier and Arguing With Ghosts with Gretchen Peters and Matraca Berg are highlights. In the former he is driving with regret and seeking reconciliation while in the former he is lost in his very own town. Already released on Peters’ Dancing With The Beast it is up there with anything written in songwriter city in years. 

That reconciliation is a heavy theme in the title track, which conjures the most tension across the record. Here we seem back his first home place of Northern Ireland and the fighting too real during Glover’s growing up. Hence, the longing for the new day when the sun breaks through:

 

Have you seen forgiveness?

Have you seen forgiveness?

Like two brothers bleeding

But in the middle meeting

Have you seen forgiveness?  

 

In many ways it seems like a follow up to The Orphan Brigade’s Mind The Road a song where forgiveness was needed:

 

“Slow river cuts through the land

The dead are talking to the dark

Tribal, twisted, stained

The lingering shadow of a gunman

 

Mind The Road was a closing prayer/benediction to The Orphan Brigade’s album of those songs to that Antrim East Coast and there’s another such closing blessing here on the utterly soul tingling Til I See You Again. Glover’s voice is in the room, pastoral like a priest with hands above you. It is again a co-write with surely best song writer there is just now, Mary Gauthier. There are echoes of Kindness, from Shorebound, too - 

 

May you never be a stranger, may you never feel alone

May you reunite with family and friends may they walk you home 

May love embrace you in a dance that never ends

May you rest in gentle arms till I see you again

 

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again BUT Ben Glover simply gets better and better.


CHANGING OUR PLACE IN SPIRITUAL SPACE

Stocki Irish News 1

Grace gives us a new place and space in the spiritual universe.

We are drowning in a sea swell of our fallenness, evil is ripping the fabric of our soul and the water is getting. 

How do we survive?

Can we save ourselves?

No. The life and teaching of Jesus and writings of the apostle Paul tell us that we do not live in a meritocracy. It is not by our own achievements that we are dragged out of the damning mire. 

It is by the grace of God in the love of Jesus.

The Lamb of God (not religious actions) take away the sin of the world. 

Jesus hauls us out of the rip cords of our human made doom and by his life, death and resurrection sets us on an island where we move from a position of alienation from God to being heirs of God the Father and joint heirs with Jesus.

It is positional holiness, justification if you like and from it the Holy Spirit works on a practical holiness, sanctification if you like. Something finished. Something still to work on.

As the song goes - 

 

“You broke the bonds

Loosed the chains

Carried the cross

And my shame

You know I believe it

But I still haven’t found what I am looking for.”

 

(This is an outline of my sermon in Fitzroy on April 28, 2020. It is part 3 in a series BEWARE of GRACE KILLERS...Listen to the whole sermon here )


DEACON BLUE - PEACE WILL COME

Peace Will Come

We have been used to unplugged Deacon Blue since the second release of Dignity as a single in January. 1988. A piano version of Raintown was an extra track and quickly a favourite. Don’t Let The Teardrops Start on Ooh Las Vegas was different, a busk if you like with acoustic instruments. These became highlights in the middle concerts, the band huddled out front.

We became used to, and excited, with acoustic versions. Would we get an acoustic record? Ricky Ross’s two volumes of Short Stories kind of made that a redundant idea but a box set left a perfect or maybe imperfect way.

Imperfect? Well when the box set of You Can Have It All was released I was a little disappointed. This extra acoustic album was all I wanted but I was not pleased at having to pay £80 (reasonable for 14 discs!) to get it among other albums. I had bought all of those records, some of them more than once. It often seems that true fans have been punished by the obligatory extras.

This Record Store Day release is almost a redemption to such a record industry quandary. For the faithful who have the rest, here’s the opportunity. Limited edition. No one should be aggrieved now, certainly not me!

The record is as expected, an utter delight. Far from rushed, or packaged from other sources, these are all new recordings. The track list has been considered and though there are representatives from the early years, the more recent albums hold their own. 

There are no Real Gone Kids, Wages Day, Fergus Sings The Blues or Dignity those songs that get the 80s and 90s only fans on their feet at concerts. Just strong songs, sounding perhaps even stronger in their less robust production. 

You get to hear why Ricky himself raves so much about the recent Delivery Man and is it just me or is When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring) stripped of its soul music even more soulful? Lorraine McIntosh’s sublime voice on Cover From The Sky gets the most gorgeous piano. 

Happily, as I would have wished, we get a couple of covers. Dylan’s Forever Young so familiar now at concerts has all the depth of prayerfulness. Stripping the Courtney Cox dance out of Dancing In The Dark and taking Bruce Springsteen’s unplugged approach which gives the song a whole new sense of alienation and melancholy. I think I once read that it was about writer’s block.

All that makes up the character of Deacon Blue is here. It is about love, life and that bright hope for a better world. All Over The World comes across as a communal hymn of belief that might have been sung at a Dr Martin Luther King rally and Peace Will Come, again familiar at recent gigs is a like a blanket benediction thrown over a world struggling with Ukraine, Gaza and many other places. Indeed, Peace Will Come might indeed be the most relevant song released on this Record Store Day.


T BONE BURNETT - THE OTHER SIDE

The Other Side

For me T Bone Burnett is one of the rock music era’s great artists. Whether it is the eclectic mix of his solo work, poetic, musically sophisticated records like Trap Door, Proof Through the Night, The Criminal Under My Own Hat or his production work that includes some of the best of Counting Crows, The Wallflowers and Elvis Costello never mind Robert Plant & Alison Krauss or his soundtrack work that includes O Brother Where Art Thou, Cold Mountain and The Hunger Games. 

It’s a full and brilliant life’s work.

Having latterly worked more with other artists and on soundtracks it is a thrill for fans of his own work when a solo record arrives. The last few have been electronic ambient experiments so The Other Side is so so welcome.

Of his previous work reviewers have name checked his early album Truth Decay but it is far more like a companion piece to his eponymous title from 1986.  

For4 this tweet surprise we have an album of slow Texan blues waltzes with gentle rumination on life, scattering humour throughout and always enveloped in the spiritual. It is classic songwriting, pretty much all acoustic and uncluttered with helpful if understated guest appearance from Roseanne Cash, Steven Soles and, on no less than five songs, Lucius.

I mentioned the spiritual and that is where I love T Bone best, when he is throwing his Christian beliefs, cleverly, often wittily and usually with thoughts that linger deep. He has said that this record is gentler in his preaching than his previous records. I would call it pastoral. 

Like Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, Burnett’s work is God haunted. The opening He Came Down suggests as much:

 

“After he set the prisoners

After they hung him from a tree

Nothing was as it used to be

He came down, He came down”

 

The seemingly jaunty (I’m Gonna Get Over This) Some Day also has the wisdom and spiritual direction of Proverbs:

 

“I don’t want to be the judge

And I don’t want to hold a grudge

I’m going to get over this one day

I might as well get over it now.”

 

As Burnett says he has toned down his prophetic judgement of the world around him but The Pain Of Love still philosophises

All in all. It is an utter joy and welcomed much as Bruce Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon was last year. 


OVER THE RHINE in FITZROY - JUNE 21st 2024

OTR 50

OVER THE RHINE

in FITZROY 

on Friday June 21st 2024 @ 7.30 (doors 7pm) 

BOOK TICKETS HERE

 

It was late August 1992. It was in a tent in a field. It was the first night of Greenbelt. Pip Wilson and Martin Wroe were doing their The Very Stinking Late Show. As ever the first night had the video of The Call’s Let It Begin blasting out it’s blessing on the weekend, chats with the seminar speakers and a live song or two.

I had read about Over the Rhine in the Greenbelt magazine Strait bitty I wasn’t ready for Karin Bergquist to open her mouth or the melody or the poetry of the lyrics. It was Paul And Virginia. It was “cool and quiet” as Karin would describe it on Live From Nowhere Vol 4, years later. It was utterly breathtakingly beautiful. It was the days of Mazzy Star and 10,000 Maniacs and these guys were best of all.

And I was in love. With Karin (Janice made an exception for that crush!), with their songs and words and hypnotic atmospheric sound. So many imagine that U2 have been my favourite band. No. Ohio’s  Over the Rhine have been my favourite band for a long time. Their double album Ohio has long wrestled with The Beatles' White Album and Abbey Road as my favourite record of all time.

The day after The Very Late Stinking Show, the band played The Big Top and as soon as the gig finished, now mesmerised by Ric Hordinski guitar playing, I went off to find the albums. In another tent I was captured by the complete vision. 

You didn’t find Till We Have Faces or Patience in a card board box. Standing out from all the other product, there was this table all decked out in cigar boxes and little bottles of Bailey’s Cream, set on top of a lovely little cloth carefully placed. 

My expectations of every record that this band has released ever since has been heightened by that vision. I have never been let down. This band believe that every song they write and produce is a piece of art. Fellow Cincinnati artist Michael Wilson’s photographs have dressed every album in the most splendid  cover art.

In 1996 the Hordinski years closed. Drummer Brian Kelley left soon after and the married couple that is Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have been Over the Rhine, drawing in musicians to add what grace notes their imaginations hear.

The post Hordinki years have been more like the cool quiet end of Neil Young. If Ric had given then the guitar power, heat and loud of Young’s Hurricane and Powderfinger, Linford and Karinhave settled into the more acoustic, rustic Neil Young of After the Goldrush and Helpless. Indeed they have covered the latter song. 

The old Over the Rhine format's last record was an independent release called Good Dog, Bad Dog. The first line on the first song Latter Days, “what a beautiful piece of heartache,” have summed up the band ever since.

Karin’s voice is… well you have to hear it. It is utterly seductive in the most spiritual of ways, wooing your heart and soul. I think someone told me that Julie Miller, wife of Buddy, said that in heaven we all got to sing like Karin Bergquist. The women anyway! 

Linford does a song or two himself but he brings this ability to make a piano talk the way Springsteen said he had learned to do with a guitar. There is an emotion in their tunes and melodies that I don’t often find among their peers.

On top of all this are the must sublime literate yrics  It was Frederick Buechner who said that art was cutting a vein and letting it bleed onto the page and then at another time warned that what art we put into our bloodstream can poison or nourish. Over The Rhine are those who bleed on the page and if you use it for soul transfusion you can only find redemption and peace within. 

Redemption is their overriding theme. It is not a redemption that is so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly use. They don’t use it to lambast you like preachers who insult your intelligence. These songs don’t ring like the naive clang of a huge bell ringing. These beautiful pieces of heartache are like tinkles of grace and hope in the valley of the shadow.

Over The Rhine have found a severe mercy in the midst of their personal, as well as humanity’s deepest darkness. They have delved deep to find hope in the tragedies our darkness creates. They have found a place of joy in the midst of the certain-to-come-our-way tears. They have used all their wrestling to weave poetry and music into a tapestry of utterly astonishing depth of soul.

 


JESUS' YES FACE AGAINST THE PHARISEES NO FACES

NO YeS FACEs

In his book Grace Awakening, Charles Swindoll has another way of looking at the legalists who as religious leaders grind us down with guilt and long lists of dos and don’ts.

“Their God is too small, their world is too rigid, and therefore their faces shout “NO”!”

No faces. We know who they are. They discourage us. They burden us. They make us feel guilty. 

The Pharisees had NO faces.

Jesus, on the other hand, had a YES face. 

I had never seen it, in all the times I have preached it. John’s Prologue to his account of Jesus life -  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

I have always used this as a theological text to incarnation. Yet Swindoll opened it afresh to be. “Grace and truth” is also the posture that Jesus carries into his ministry.

Always a YES face. At that wedding in Cana. Welcoming Nicodemus at night. Inviting a Samaritan woman in the heat of day into conversation. Jesus was drawing people to him with his YES face.

I know the story of the Parable Son was fiction but surely we can read into it that the Father had such a YES face that the Prodigal felt that he could go home. When he stepped onto the lane back to the farm that YES face was running down the road to throw his arms around him.  

Be assured that by his grace through faith that it is a YES face that looks at you today…

 

LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE SERMON HERE


KILLERS OF GRACE... ON THE LOOSE!

Killer On The Loose

“There are killers on the loose today. The problem is that you can’t tell by looking. 

They don’t wear little buttons that give away their identity, nor do they carry signs warning everybody to stay away. 

On the contrary, a lot of them carry Bibles and appear to be clean-living, nice-looking, law-abiding citizens. 

Most of them spend a lot of time in churches, some in places of religious leadership. 

Many are so respected in the community, their neighbours would never guess they are living next door to killers. 

They kill freedom, spontaneity, and creativity; they kill joy as well as productivity. 

They kill with their words and their pens and their looks. 

They kill with their attitudes far more often than with their behaviour.”

 

The opening words of Charles Swindoll’s classic book, Grace Awakening. I read these words in 1990 and it literally changed my life. North Antrim where I am from is fertile for Grace Killers.

Preachers were focused on the fact that the human soul is saved by grace not be works as Paul set out in Ephesians 2 verses 8 and 9 - “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

It was after the saving by grace that the error or heresy crept in. For too many of us we were taught that it was by God’s gift that we were saved BUT then it seemed that we were thrown a weighty burden of things that humans had to do to keep that salvation. 

Paul’s next sentence in Ephesians 2 suggests that the work to gain salvation is God’s and the work after we are saved - For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Here we see that post salvation it is still God working. Still grace.

Sadly that was not how it was in reality. You couldn’t go to pubs or the cinema. A glass of wine was drinking the devil’s vomit! It was best that you didn't talk to Catholics. If you didn’t reading the Bible in the morning the day could be dangerous. It was all about ticking what we should and should not do.

It was very legalistic like the Pharisees. They were the Killers of Jesus day, oppressing the people with laws upon the laws. Jesus was setting people free, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”, being a key to his new dispensation.

The Killers give us a wrong view of God. He becomes an Oger to be afraid of rather than a father of love waiting to embrace us as in the story of the Prodigal Son. 

The Killers give us a wrong view of God’s love. They make it conditional. We are at the mercy of a meritocracy. 

The Killers finally give us a wrong view of ourselves. Our relationship with God is always precarious. Dependant on us. That heresy is back. It is as though God sits with a rubber to erase us from the Lamb’s Book Of Life if we step out of line.

Killers…

 

Listen To the Entire Sermon Here


BRIAN HOUSTON IN CONVERSATION WITH STEVE STOCKMAN

Stocki and Houstie

BRIAN HOUSTON

in Conversation with Steve Stockman

and NEW ALBUM LAUNCH

MAY 24th 2024 @7.30 (doors 7pm)

FITZROY, 77 University Street, BELFAST

£10 on door

For thirty years Brian Houston and I have met very regularly for coffee, tea, breakfast and lunch and to chat about songwriting, performance, worship and Church. All enveloped in Jesus.

These have been fascinating and frank and though I cannot speak for Brian very helpful in my discipleship as well as thinking through issues of music and faith.

So, we thought we would make our conversation public for one night only. Oh I have interviewed Brian on my old radio show, at Greenbelt, the 4 Corners Festival and on my podcast but this will be unique.

With performances interspersed I will be getting Brian to talk about his new record released this very night, the craft of songwriting and also the art of worship leading.