PANORAMIC VISION FOR OUR STORMONT EXECUTIVE

Ni-execuitve-greenmount-jan-2020

(this was my Thought For The Day on GMU, BBC Radio Ulster, on April 15, 2021)

 

On Monday we walked around the Divis and Black Mountain Ridge Trail. 10,000 of my daily step count sorted. 

The sun and the sky were making for great views. The Mournes down one way and the lough out towards Scotland on the other. Belfast down below. We spent time seeking out places we knew. 

I remembered being at Stormont one afternoon and standing just outside the door, similarly gazing over the city. 

I remember thinking that as the leader of Fitzroy, this was my task. To look out over the entire congregation, know the depths of the stories going on across the congregation and then be in a place of vision as to what is best for the congregation as a whole. 

I was aware that some of the congregation would know a few people and hear stories about some others BUT I was actually paid to have a handle on the entire panorama.

I know that it is just a symbol but in the Bible you often find God on mountains and hills. 

The Old Testament people of God looked to the hills where their help came from, not the hills but the God they believed lived on the top of them. The 10 commandments, that vision of how to live across an entire community, were received up a mountain and when Jesus was giving his vision of how the world could live in peace and justice, he did it in the Sermon on the Mount. 

I began to think that this is what all great leaders need. A view of the entire place. Now, scattered across the city are little enclaves. In those are the community leaders, caught up in the horizontal. They are important. Vital. They lead their corners.

And of course I only look after Fitzroy. 

Our MLAs and Stormont Executive look after us all, not just Belfast but across Northern Ireland. It is their role to catch a good view of the entire community, know the eccentricities and brokenness of them… every unique little place… and then work a vision for ALL, seeking common ground for common goodness. 

Join me in praying for clarity of vision in their panoramas…


SURMISING THE GOOD NEWS OF CHURCH LEADERS SPEAKING TOGETHER

Church-Leaders-March-2021

In the midst of some disappointing news in Northern Ireland over the past week, there is something very positive happening.

The week long images of streets on fire across Belfast, and elsewhere, was a horrible reminder of how sectarianism can so quickly raise its ugly head and leave some of our communities polarised and too easily turn to violence.

Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol and the fall out of the Bobby Storey funeral has unsettled our fault-lines and when politicians seek to play to their voters in such shifts it can get even more dangerous.

Something is different though and I do not want us to miss it. Indeed I long that we notice it, highlight and encourage it.

The Churches are making joint statements and they are being heard. To hear politicians at Westminster quoting church leaders has lifted my soul.

A few years ago I was involved in Peace Talks with the politicians and military leaders of a country with its own divisions and violence. Professor John Brewer was explaining to this group that Northern Ireland’s Troubles were not religious. It was more political and tribal.

Much as I agreed that the murder and bombings of our Troubles were not about justification by faith, how we revere Jesus mother Mary or about what the bread and wine become and do during Communion, I did think that there was religious dimension.

I guess I was actually influenced by John Brewer’s writings about the churches lack of involvement in peace and reconciliation during those horrific years. Yes, we can look to Fr Alec Reid who was so instrumental in getting the IRA into talks and others like Rev Harold Good and Rev Ken Newell along with Fr Gerry Reynolds as contributors to the peace we finally found in the 90s.

However, my argument was that the hierarchy of Churches were not seen as crossing our sectarian boundaries. They skirted around each other, many of their clergy holding back real contributions. As a result though the war on the street was not at all religious, there was a religious apartheid that mirrored the streets, almost endorsed it. 

As well as that it meant that the Churches were not involved in their calling to be peace makers. We have every right to stand accused of a passive complicity.

Something has changed. It is a good thing. We are beginning to see 4 Church leaders together. We are seeing them not just having a civil cup of tea together we are hearing joint statements. During the Troubles, Churches were accused of pastoring their own communities rather than making prophetic statements into the whole community.

We must have it. I am delighted that at the moment we do. Watching Church leaders being honest about their differences but to find common ground where they can make comment about ways to fuel the common good. Standing together. Being photographed together. Speaking together. It challenges the divisions and gives an alternative. Thank you. 


DECLAN O'ROURKE - ARRIVALS

Arrivals

Is Declan O’Rourke Ireland best singer songwriter? For too long he was leaning on the success of the wonderful Galileo (Someone Like You) for what seemed like a little too long but then came the girth and deftness of The Chronicle Of The Great Irish Famine to make him a more serious contender.

Arrivals arrives with Paul Weller’s name attached as producer. Yet in truth what the legendary Weller does is keep himself out of the way and encourage O’Rourke to go minimalist. A few carefully placed strings are almost that is noticeable apart from the songwriter’s guitar or piano. 

Back to the question of O’Rourke’s singer songwriter standing. Arrivals is like a panoramic gaze across the entire genre. In Painter’s Light sets out the stall. It has that introspective honesty could be Joni Mitchell around Blue. Declan also has that Mitchell knack for throwing in a few syllables that the tune doesn’t seem to have room for. 

The title track itself could be Jackson Browne, piano and all. Then there’s Have You Not Heard The War Is Over. That little political edge brings Crosby, Stills and Nash to mind. 

Of course Declan O’Rourke lives in Galway in 2021, not Laurel Canyon in 1970. He flits through his own family’s generations but a wider history too. Olympian tells the tale of a Syrian swimmer who swims for her very life before going for a medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

Then there is Convict Ways about slavery historical and up to date that has us thinking about 19th century convict John Boyle O’Reilly Irish Republican sent to Australia who escaped and made a career as a writer in Massachusetts. U2’s Van Dieman’s Land is also about O’Reilly. 

This latter song as well as the majestic autobiographical love song The Stars Over Kinvara, the one that I can't stop singing, place O’Rourke very much as an Irish writer. You can hear Christy Moore cover Convict Ways and The Stars Over Kinvara is very Luka Bloom, Christy’s brother who also resides out west.

It is his Irishness that gives O’Rourke his edge, his originality. The gruff Irish depth in his voice covers generations of Irish folk. He sounds like a modern Luke Kelly carrying the tradition forward.

Almost best of all is the closing This Thing That We Share could be Nat King Cole with Chet Baker giving it that midnight jazz ambience. Spiritual, reflective  encompassing our full humanity. It is a perfect closer and might be where Weller has most influence, you can almost hear it on the first couple of Style Council records. 

All in all, Arrivals is just that, the arrival of songwriting force that his peers have been well aware for some years and hopefully the general public will come to acknowledge and enjoy. 


LUCINDA WILLIAMS - RUNNING DOWN A DREAM; A Tribute To Tom Petty

Lucinda does Petty

Now don't let this bundle of utter joy slip through without your noticing. I almost did!

It seems that Lucinda Williams used the year of lockdown to create a few good intentions. With touring time down she had the space to get her bluesy voice around a plethora of cover albums. Literally a plethora. Apparently she had envisioned Lu's Jukebox for some time and now the time was given, the time was right. 

So, if you go searching she has done 6 albums worth, a Christmas one, a classic country one, a Memphis Soul one and then three pearlers - The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty.

The Petty one is Lucinda Williams perfect for such an idea. Petty was a Southern man and Williams is a Southern woman. That southern drawl is heaven made for songs like Rebels, Southern Accents and Gainesville that was only recently realised on Petty's posthumous An American Treasure

Yes, we get I Won't Back Down, Running Down a Dream, You Don't Know How It Feels and You Wreck Me but it is these songs about the south that make this essential cover album listening. 

Lucinda's twang as she throws out all the place names in Louisiana Rain is the best argument for the entire project. They should have her do Sat Navs. My other favourite is Down South. What a lyric, delivered with Southern authenticity:

Headed back down south
Gonna see my daddy's mistress
Gonna buy back her forgiveness
Pay off every witness
 
One more time down south
Sell the family headstones
Drag a bag of dry bones
Make good on my back loans
 
There's a world of local history, policies and personal issues in those lines.
 
Every time Stevie Nicks asked she was rebuffed with "There are no girls in the Heartbreakers". On the end of this Stevie wouldn't have been first in line. Of course Petty actually covered Williams when he recorded Changed The Locks for the She's The One soundtrack. If The Heartbreakers want to take Petty's songs out there again they would do worse than having Lucinda Williams as their southern girl. Mind you, Lucinda didn't wait for them to ask and her own band do an awesome job about locating these stories in southern swampland grooves. 
 
Oh... and all proceeds are to help independent music venues through the Coronavirus days. So - BUY, don't stream!

TOMORROW IN FITZROY - 11.4.21

Stocki in Ho's TV

No live gathering in Fitzroy tomorrow BUT we will be on-line as usual (going live at 11am) on Fitzroy TV. We will still be scanning the scenes just after Jesus resurrection. Jesus pastoral care for Thomas is my own personal conversion story. We will also look at what Jesus meant when he said "Peace be with you" in a week when Belfast wasn't very much at peace and the challenge of one of my other favourite Gospel verses, "As the father has sent me, so I am sending you."

In the evening (going live at 7pm) you can see the next in Gary Burnett's brilliant series Paul in ten where he leads us through some of the apostle Paul's teaching in just ten minutes. This series is so good that it has been published as a book - Paul Distilled. Tomorrow night's theological theme is "The Cross Shaped God". 

FITZROY TV


JAN CARSON - THE LAST RESORT

Last Resort

Jan Carson has this County Antrim conversational literary style. You can almost hear the accent. It is so easy to read, so enjoyable. She is great at painting pictures of her characters. They are real. There’s honesty, humour and drama. You feel that you have met them. In their stories Jan leaves her deep thoughts.

The Last Resort is another beautiful read, more evidence that she is more than worthy of the awards and Radio 4 reads. 

The Last Resort was written in Lockdown. It is set in Ballycastle where I wish I was reading it but Covid restrictions meant that I had to make do with Belfast. We’ve all been static for so long hence the setting of a caravan park. 

My biggest critique would be that I am not sure about her research in Ballycastle. She doesn’t describe the town I know. It sounds more like Kellys and Portrush but she needed a cliff! 

The book is short. It is not unlike David Park’s short novel from last year A Run In The Park. Short stories of different lives drawn together in a common space interweave and throw out lessons of life.

Where Park’s book is about moving on, Carson’s is about lives that are stuck. In the stories all linked by the caravan, the cliff and the loss or theft of things we have an array of Northern Irish issues, The Troubles, Church, migrants, gender, dementia…

In keeping with the magic realism of Jan’s other writings the magic in her work arrives in the form of the child ghost Lynette. Blown up in her RUC father’s car at the caravan park decades earlier she reappears much the same way that Douglas Coupland’s Jared appears in Girlfriend in a Coma. Like a holy ghost Lynette seeks the letting go of the fears that keep our characters and our wee country static.

The Last Resort is my favourite of her books to date. I loved it so much that I would have loved more. It has me looking forward already to what the wonderfully gifted Ms Carson will do next. 


FLOWING TIDE - THOUGHT FOR THE DAY 8.4.21

Cross in crowds

Did you hear the one about the minister who mistook a pub for a sermon illustration?!

Almost 30 years ago, I was leaving my Dublin office with my mate Chris. As we were heading out for lunch, Paddy who did the door for the Keep Fit Class that hired the hall beside the office said, “Out into The Flowing Tide lads”. 

Goodness we thought, Paddy has got all philosophical. What a great image of O’Connell street just yards away… a flowing tide. 

We laughed over lunch but I decided I could put Paddy’s phrase, Into the Flowing Tide into a poem. Chris conjured a song.

We were comparing notes of said poem and song in the back of a car about a week later. Brian who was driving looked back and said:

 

- That’s the pub across the road from your office. 

- What is?

- The Flowing Tide!

- What?

- It’s the pub on Lower Abbey Street?

 

We burst out laughing. Paddy wasn’t so philosophical after all! And yet, Chris’s song got written and my poem. I took the Flowing Tide image and set it in Holy Week.

Last week Christians all over the world remembered the death of Jesus. I realised as I wrote my poem that Jesus died out there in the flowing tide of the city among thieves and gamblers and soldiers and scoffers.

The truth is that it these were Jesus people. He talked a lot to the religious people about it being the sick who needed a doctor. Jesus love was always intended to reach way far beyond the church walls.

A couple of years ago I saw a sand sculpture of Jesus on a cross on a Spanish beach. The sand artist had added luminous eyes. 

As I marvelled at the art I couldn’t help but be drawn to those eyes. It didn’t seem that anything or anyone could be out of their reach.

And so this week, the week after Holy Week, no one in the flowing tide of humanity is beyond Jesus loving gaze…


SURMISING THE POLITICIANS' RESPONSES TO THE STREET RIOTS

Rioting

I have just been watching the Northern Ireland Local Assembly discuss the violence that has been on our streets for these past few nights. After the frustration and hopelessness of the images of burning cars and buses and teenagers throwing whatever they could hurl it was a little chink of light.

The Assembly is on Easter break and needed a 30 signature petition to be recalled for a special one off motion to call an end to the violence and to support the PSNI. 

I listened to the speeches from across the parties with some encouragement. All were agreed. All were concerned about those teenagers, drawn in by paramilitaries, in violent actions that could damage their futures. All were seeking dialogue as to the way forward. All were asking for a better future than our past. 

I was drawn back though to the Easter snow falls earlier in the week. I wished to be in Ballycastle but the Covid-19 restrictions said no and so I was reading Jan Carson’s new book The Last Resort. It is set in a Ballycastle caravan park but here I am statically stuck in Belfast.

Then the snow started. Not light flurries but blizzard like, blowing fiercely at right angles. So much of it. I loved it. Watching it out the window was like post Easter show of God’s to keep us amused when there was very little of anything else new to do.

Yet, in all its visual wonder, in all its blow and bluster it was the biggest waste of snow I had ever seen. It wasn’t lying. There was no chance of it lying. What point is there in all the flouncy white flurry if it wasn’t going to stick. 

Maybe it was my Bank Holiday novel reading mindset but I was immediately recalling a Douglas Coupland quote from his novel Hey Nostradamus that goes, “We are judged by our deeds not our wishes. We are the sum of our decisions.” 

My immediate thoughts just hours after we celebrated Easter Sunday and before that remembered Good Friday was of the Church.

That image of snow falling without making a mark and Coupland’s need for deeds reminded me of what James wrote in his New Testament letter, “faith without works is dead” or Jesus going on about people calling him Lord Lord and he didn’t even know who they were or him going on about how it by their fruit you shall know them.

Oh Paul reminds us in Ephesians that we are saved by grace and not works so that no one can boast or become arrogant about it but society can rightfully judge the church by how the energies of Jesus Easter weekend changes the lives of the homeless, the hungry, the sick and the prisoner. 

This afternoon though the snow showers were in my head again as I listened to our politicians toss appropriate words out like floating flurries of goodness. Will they just disappear in the air without any lasting impression? Words without transformation are dead.

What we need now is some reassessment. Sinn Fein need to accept the shocking error of the numbers at Bobby Storey’s funeral. And, before the DUP gloat, Arlene Foster’s refusal to speak to the Chief Constable has implications as to how unionist and loyalists see the police on their streets. The depth charges of these two things have been rippling out. 

If we are going to get the mature dialogue hinted at in today’s speeches then we need to be big and strong enough to confess mistakes and to make a clean sheet for moving forward. Those would ripple much healthier messages across our society that has understandably been thrown by Covid-19 and Brexit.

Today I am praying for every MLA. I am praying that you find the courage and vision to sit down and listen and compromise and find pragmatic ways forward for the common good of us all and let go of the ideologies that are about "just us". "Just us" never brings justice. 

And then to us all… Let us watch to see if these political words land. Let us refuse to be stuck like some static caravan in a Jan Carson novel. Let us hear Douglas Coupland’s quotation in our ears at the ballot box… Let’s not vote for wishes but deeds. Let us vote on the sum of each party’s decisions! 


RICHARD OSMAN - THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB

ThursdayMurderClub_1200x1200

Richard Osman is all over the TV and seems like an all round good guy. Naturally funny and clever too. The idea that he could also be a novelist was not a leap of fiction. Nor that he would be good.

His debut novel Thursday Murder Club has been making the year’s shortlists and it is again easy to understand why. This is a beautifully easy read with great characters, lots of charm and humour and full of drama and twists.

Our main characters all live in Coopers Chase a rather high end Residential Home. Don’t get the idea though that this at all dottery  Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron are feisty characters and what of course we should know but too easily forget have full lives of intrigue and wisdom and skill. 

Starting out as a wee club these guys find themselves, beyond their wildest dreams in some ways, up the their neck in not one but two murders in their very own neighbourhood and loads of historical secrets get turned over as they help and outwit the local police in the investigation. 

Osman does a lot for the rights of our societal elders. He highlights what they have on us - memories, experience, life. Under the smooth top layer of this yarn we have regrets, broken dreams, life long love, heartache and need for confession.

You would need to be a literary snob to read this and not be looking forward to the follow up, slated for later in 2021. So enjoyable. 


FIRST AID KIT - WHO BY FIRE; A LIVE TRIBUTE TO LEONARD COHEN

First Aid LC

First Aid Kit doing Leonard Cohen. It is a tasty thought. The reality is even better. Don’t get any idea that the Söderberg sisters went into a studio and trotted out their folk pop harmonies on a few favourite Cohen songs. 

That would have been worth a listen of course but this has more thought, craft and drama. What we have here is an evening at the theatre, Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre in fact, where the sisters curate an evening of the Canadian sage’s poetry and songs and then invite actors and singers and musicians to put it together sublimely.

There is nothing lazy about the set list either. As well as songs they use poems from Cohen’s Book Of Longing. The interplay of poems with songs adds nuance and poignancy.

The spoken Prayer For Messiah’s before an acapella version of Bird On The Wire is for cathedral. Taking Cohen’s famous last letter to the dying Marianne and wrapping it around So Long Marianne. Oh my what a poignant farewell note. Gently and heartbreakingly sad with deep love and companionship for the journey off planet earth to some hoped for place down the road.

The musical choices add sweet surprise too. There has to be a sense of jeopardy these days for anyone who tries to take on Hallelujah. Here there is a delicate fragility, even as the music and vocals build - it does feel “broken and cold”.

There are deft touches elsewhere, adding just a dash of Anthem to Famous Blue Raincoat, a male voice to shift the spiritual lightsome on Show Me The Place. You Want It Darker into If It Be Your Will brings more depth of spiritual reflection. The Future with spoken word weeks out it’s prophetic breadth.

There are a plethora of ways that this is great. If you’re a First Aid Kit fan, you’ll love it. If you are Cohen fan, you’ll love it. If you want a musical night at the theatre you’ll love it. If you want to take Leonard Cohen into some place of spiritual retreat then you’ll love it.