I was so sorry to hear about Nanci Griffith’s death this past week. There was a period in the early ‘90s when her albums accompanied me across Ireland. 

I was the Youth Development Officer for the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Ireland. The roads in the early 90s weren’t great. It could take hours to get from Dublin to Limerick or Cork or Donegal. A trusty portable CD player was my dearest friend.

I was mad into songwriters at the time. John Gorka, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jimmy MacCarthy… and Nanci Griffith was very much in that listing. She was a great lyricist. Songs like Trouble in The Fields, Once In a Very Blue Moon, covered beautifully by our own Mary Black and Love At The Five and Dime, particularly the storytelling introduction version on the live album One Fair Summer Evening to name a few.

However, there was another reason that I was drawn to Nanci. She loved the Ireland that I was working in and exploring as I listened. On Grafton Street gave the a seasonal feel in cold Dublin streets and even had Larry Mullen Jr on it; It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go had us in a taxi on the Falls Road dealing with our divisions; and I Would Bring You Ireland was a love song where the love of Ireland was a gift to the lover.

That last song has been playing very powerfully with my heart this past week. Most of the summer I have been driving across the Glens Of Antrim. From beaches, mountains, cliff tops and roads across cultivated, defined and beautiful farm land of forty shades of green I have been madly in love with the very Ireland that Nanci wants to send her lover. To live on this island of radiant beauty and to enjoy it day after day. I feel blessed.

Then you read the news. Some of us gifted the beauty of this place want to poison and stain it with the hatred that Griffith told us about in It’s Is A Hard Life Wherever You Go. Putting flags and political posters and photographs onto bonfires is a sectarian cancer that both our communities need to rid themselves of. Politicians from both communities need to work harder at eradicating it.

Ireland like a lover has me forever. I love this place so much. Yet at times it abuses me, hurts me deep. The bonfires of July and August have hurt and I was so thankful of Nanci Griffith reminding me of my love and the wonder of this utter gem of God’s creation set in the Atlantic waves.

Back to the loss of Nanci Griffith. I was most impressed by this social media post by Belfast songwriter Ursula Burns who wrote about how she met Nanci at the Belfast-Nashville Songwriting Festival: -

We met over breakfast at the Dukes Hotel and started playing a few songs..... 12 hours later there was up to 20 musicians.  I think it was the best day of my life. Nancy bought me wine all day and I played harp while she sang. Every year after that she came up to say hello and always remembered my son’s name and made a fuss of him when he was with me at the gigs.  I loved her. I loved her songwriting and her voice and her spirit. I was blown away that i got to play with her and will always be eternally grateful to the Belfast/ Nashville festival for making stuff like that happen on ordinary rainy February days!

Now that is my kind of songwriting hero. Love and prayers to those closest to her. Nanci Griffith songs will mean a lot to so many of us for a long time to come but they will ache and grieve her loss the most.


U2 and Garritz

We are out driving to a dog walk when I hear a familiar voice. A verse and chorus in and I realise that it is Bono Vox. Ah that must be that song that Bono and Edge feature in. Something to do with the Euros. It was telling that it was out almost two months before I got round to listening. My die hard U2 soul might be weakening. 

However, going home and listening to We Are The People reminded me of why I love this band. Not that this is a U2 song. It goes under the moniker of DJ Martin Garrix. It is only featuring Bono and Edge. Yet it is a perfect blend of electronic pop and the accessible sounds of Songs Of Experience. You can almost hear it as a U2 encore!

My very first listening had me thinking of a Damian Gormanism. I have learned so much from poet Damian Gorman since working with him at the 4 Corners Festival. One of his most interesting ideas is about writing words that he can then walk into. 

Let me explain. In his book As If I Cared Damian is very honest about his relationship with his father. It was not an easy relationship, sometimes violent. Yet, the last words in the book are “I love you dad.”

When I suggested to Damian that this sounded like a coming to terms with his relationship with his dad, Damian said that these were words that he wanted to walk into. He hadn’t fully reconciled his thoughts about his father but he wanted to. So he wrote those last words very intentionally so that he hoped he could walk into them.

I started to see this as the aim of the prophets. Their call to holiness and justice were words to walk into. I started to see my preaching as this encouragement to others. The call to be like Jesus is a call to follow him into the words he shared with prophetic hopefulness.

So, back to We Are The People. The U2 lyrical nerds, like myself, will see recurring themes. 


Broken bells and a broken church

Heart that hurts is a heart that works

From a broken place

That's where the victory's won


There was a victory won, by Jesus actually, way back on Sunday Bloody Sunday. In the more recent Cedarwood Road from Songs Of Innocence we hear “A heart that’s broken is a heart that’s open.”

As someone who shares the Christian faith of Bono and Edge it is not contriving anything to see “that broken place” as Jesus death on a cross.

The over riding message is of this anthemic mantra is -


We are the people we've been waiting for

Out of the ruins of hate and war

Army of lovers never seen before

We are the people we've been waiting for


Again, U2 over the years have put their faith in their audience as well as in God. They have always seen the best in people, always sung about the positives in humanity. Where my theology might leave my glass half full in such hope, U2's glass has always been almost bubbling over with what might be a naive hope that people have the power. Bono came on stage on the last tour to Patti Smith’s People Have The Power.

Yet, these might be words with Damian Gorman’s purpose of walking into. There is no better ambition to incite in the minds, hearts and souls of a Europe united around and celebrating the beautiful game in the European Football Championships. Let us all sing together words to walk into. 

Poets like Damian Gorman do it. The Old Testament prophets and Jesus did it. Preachers like me should be doing it. U2 have always done it.


We are the people of the open hand

The streets of Dublin to Notre-Dame

We'll build it better than we did before

We are the people we've been waiting for



You will not listen to a more emotional song this year… or any year. The White Ribbon Anthem has all the hall marks of a Disney movie anthem. Classical pianist Ruth McGinley lays down the most gorgeous piano that sets the mood, above which Jolene O’Hara’s amazing voice helps us hear the story in the verses and then an anthem chorus is like a hymn to hope.

When you become aware that the song is a collaboration between McGinley and Duke Special you sense the crossing of musical genres. This is art that is finding common ground for common good.

The White Ribbon Anthem has a weighty purpose. It was commissioned by Northern Ireland Opera, in partnership with the Ulster Orchestra and Women's Aid ABCLN (Antrim, Ballymena, Coleraine, Larne and Newtownabbey). It is a response to the devastating impact of domestic abuse. The statistics for domestic abuse are frightening and have grown in number in the social restrictions of lockdown - 8,300 domestic abuse incidents were reported to the PSNI during lockdown, from April – June 2020.

Ruth herself experienced abuse and having freed herself from a toxic relationship in London went straight to Derry Women’s Aid as soon as she returned home. As well as Ruth’s own experience she has been involved in songwriting workshops with other victims of abuse.

This a powerful song. It has a sound that the Hamilton generation will resonate with. Think Musical or big Disney ballad. Even more powerful though is the message. We need to get the song out. It needs to go viral. 

The White Ribbon Campaign aims to encourage us all to take the pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women in all its forms. That is more powerful than the song. We need to get the song out. It needs to go viral.


Mum's Skip

It was like a liturgical act, embedded with a hard spiritual truth. 

We were clearing my parents house. It was a beautiful house full of beautiful things but with mum having passed away and dad living in a Residential home with dementia the things were no longer needed. A few things found their way to family members, most of the furniture to Habitat For Humanity Restore and the rest ended up in the skip. It was all top end, expensive and tasteful.

Impermanent things. As we cleared I became aware that I was acting out a song and a Biblical truth.


“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. 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 the Gospel account of Matthew 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? We are back to me piling 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. A cold liturgical lesson in the emptiness of things.

On a more recent Himmelman 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?"


Van Key Ring

Look what I got for Valentine’s Day. The back story is…

Van Morrison has been often labeled a grumpy man. Much as I understand his gruff public persona attracting such a caricature, I believe that it is lazy judgement. 

How can anybody grumpy have sent out into the world the most amazing array of love songs. From Brown Eyed Girl to Moondance to Crazy Love to Tupelo Honey to Have I Told You Lately to Someone Like You to Carrying a Torch to In The Afternoon? 

Goodness me but there would seem to be more evidence to call this man a natural born romantic than a gump!

For Janice and I, Van has always been our romantic singer. Avalon Sunset was the album he released in 1989 the year we fell in love and Have I Told You Lately was the single on the radio that most romantic of summers. 

Have I Told You Lately though is a rare and wonderful love song. Rare because of its acknowledgement of and thanks to God in a love song. The recommitment to the lover is enveloped in prayer and the realisation that the love between lovers is a gift from a God who is love. 

The Scriptures tell us that we can only love because God first loved us. Here we have Van Morrison at his most romantic and spiritual in the same classic song. You can see why we were so drawn to it. 

Janice will tell you that I am not much of a romantic and so perhaps the most romantic thing I have ever done was phoning Janice when she was still working in London… and then… as she answered… saying nothing… and just… playing this song down the line. 

It has been one of our songs ever since! Before using phones while driving became illegal we were known to repeat that romantic moment it if it came on the car radio. 

And this morning, once again, we are using this Van key ring to share our love… I love it... thank you my dear.


“And it's yours and it's mine
Like the sun
At the end of the day
We should give thanks and pray to the One

Have I told you lately that I love you
Have I told you there's no one above you
Fill my heart with gladness
Take away my sadness
Ease my troubles, that's what you do”


Van Morrison? Call him what you like. For us he’ll always be our romantic soundtracker!



Rain rings trash can bells

And what do you know?

My alley becomes a cathedral


I’ve long loved this Bruce Cockburn lyric. The entire song actually. It is from his very first record in 1970. Cockburn asks almost as a prayer:


Oh, Jesus, don't let Toronto

Take my song away


It is as if the city is the bad guy. To hold on to faith and love and everything spiritual we need to get out of the city. 

Declare me guilty. I love those walks on Ballycastle beach that I mention so often in these blogs. There, with the sound of the waves and the wonder of God’s creation all around me, uncluttered I sense God.

Or I remember almost 30 years now, driving through the red stone deserts of Nevada and Arizona and understanding why the apostle Paul took three years in the desert to prepare for his ministry. There was something sacred about it all. Something that you don’t feel as you look down a back alley with black bins over flowing with rubbish.

Bruce Cockburn asks that the trash and traffic wouldn’t take away his song.

Yet, my Canadian songwriting companion has spent the rest of his career finding that the alley can become a cathedral. He finds God’s light so lyrically in some of the world’s darkest places. 

I was drawn back to Cockburn’s work reading Richard Carter’s book The City Is My Monastery. 

Rev Carter was a member of an Anglican religious order in the Solomon Islands who found himself in parish ministry at St Martin-in-the-Fields, smack bang in the middle of London.

I can hear him singing Bruce Cockburn…

Richard’s book is not some memoir of how he came to terms with that shift in vocational call and geographical space. It is a work book (Rowan Williams’ words for it) for how to make the city your monastery. Or as Cockburn put it how to find a cathedral in an alleyway.

Under the headings With Silence, With Service, With Scripture, With Sacrament, With Sharing, With Sabbath, Staying With and When The Me Becomes Us, Richard leads us into how to be a pilgrim, disciple, in the clang and clamour of a city in the 21st century. 

He does so with real spiritual insight and also with lots of beautiful poetry scattered through it. 


Our monastery is here and now

Where you are today

The person you are speaking with

The room you are sitting in

The street where you are walking

The action you are doing now

This is your monastery

This is your prayer

Eternity is now

The city is our monastery.


This is all a good thing when we stop to consider that the Bible is different to Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. We do not, as Joni suggests, have to get ourselves back to the garden. The culmination of Scriptures is not that garden back there BUT a garden city. The new world longed for is a a new Jerusalem coming out of heaven with a river running through it.  

We are delighted that Richard Carter is speaking at this year’s 4 Corners Festival. Imagine our lockdown house is our monastery… our cathedral. 


Discovering Our Ability To Be Resilient

To complete our focus on resilience today, the award-winning broadcaster and journalist Seamus McKee chairs a panel discussion that includes Rev. Richard Carter, Associate Vicar for Mission at St Martin in the Fields, London; Rev Kiran Young Wimberly, an American-born Presbyterian minister and folk singer based in the Corrymeela Community, on the north Antrim coast; and Br Thierry Marteaux, OSB, of the Holy Cross Abbey, Rostrevor, Co. Down.




This week Ireland is thrown into another Church scandal. Or perhaps more  findings about scandal that we already knew about. We are heartbroken and horrified at the thought of 9000 babies and children dying in the twentieth century in mother and baby homes run by Catholic nuns for unmarried mothers and their babies.

These homes were first brought to my attention in the mid 90s by Joni Mitchell and her song Magdalene Laundries. Here is what I wrote about Joni's song in the context of her other spiritual songs in my book The Rock Cries Out... 


It seems that one morning in the early 90s, with a cheerier tune at her disposal, Joni Mitchell picked up the Toronto Star at the grocery store. In it, she read about an Irish scandal of how the selling of a property of the Sisters Of Charity in north Dublin unearthed 133 bodies of the “fallen women” who were sent to Convent Laundries for sexual misdemeanours. Mitchell wrote Magdelene Laundries and, to give the song an Irish context, she first recorded it with the Irish traditional band The Chieftains on their 1999 release Tears Of Stone. 

The song points out the same fundamental flaw as another Joni Mitchell song Tax Free did for the Televangelists. It is the seeming hypocrisy – “Why do they call this heartless place/Our Lady of Charity” she sings before a painful shrugged chortle proceeds a repeat of the ironic “charity”. That Mitchell is not dismissing Jesus with the abhorrence carried out in his name is heard later when she goes on, “These bloodless brides of Jesus/If they had just once glimpsed their groom/Then they’d know, and they’d drop the stones/concealed behind their rosaries.”

Years later a movie about the Laundries, Magdalene Sisters, would be released. In an interview with director Peter Mullan for BBC Northern Ireland Ralph McLean asked Mullan how such things could have happened. Mullan had asked a nun involved in the Laundries the very same question and she answered “an absence of doubt.” 

For many believers doubt is treated with suspicion but the Sister had put her finger on a great truth. When humans take the strength of their belief and ease it across the thin line to absolute knowledge then arrogance can lead to all kinds of things being done in the name of God. Mystery is what saves us from such abuses as Mitchell is highlighting. As the apostle Paul reminds us in a chapter that Mitchell had used in her song Love “we see but through a glass darkly.” 

The mistake of believing that we can see any clearer can have repugnant results. Nations can invade nations, Churches can exclude those who do not think like them, individuals can treat their neighbours in the most dismissive, judgemental and damaging ways. A look back at Slouching Towards Bethlehem finds Mitchell summing it up thus; “The best lack conviction/Given some time to think/And the worst are full of passion/Without mercy.”

Joni Mitchell’s repugnance with things carried out by the orthodox Churches, masquerading as in the name of God, never completely unravelled a conversion experience that she talked about three decades before she wrote Magdalene Laundries? In a Mojo interview with Barney Hoskins in 1994 she talks about the difficult life she has had. It is easy to overlook a life that was struck down early by polio, had to give up a daughter for adoption, experienced a miscarriage as well as the usual romantic heartache. She is not looking for special attention. She says, “I have had a difficult life as most people have…a life of very good luck and very bad luck…but I don’t think I’ve ever become faithless; I’ve never been an atheist, although I can’t say what orthodoxy I belong to.”

The visions and dreams of her early song Woodstock are far from lost in Mitchell’s later work. Passion Play from the album, Night Ride Home, is a song of gospel story and gospel truth. Mary Magdalene is “trembling and gleaming,” getting better press than she would an album later in Magdalene Laundries and Zaccheus is “a sinner of some position.” To those in need comes redemption and a heart healer. 

The Messiah arrives into a world that is “divinely barren and wickedly wise” and from the context it can only be Jesus Christ, “Enter the multitudes/The walking wounded/They come to this diver/Of the heart/Of the multitudes/They kingdom come/Thy will be done.” In looking hard for the kingdom, Mitchell is taking another look back to the garden and the chorus is “who’re you gonna get to do your dirty work/When all the slaves are free?” The Kingdom that Jesus came to bring is a future day but it will take us back to our original intentions in that garden where we were stardust and golden.




It all started in Glenarm. Well, a singer from Glenarm anyway. The Antrim east coast’s most successful singer Ben Glover has a song on his brilliant new record Shorebound called Kindness:


“May you know kindness 

May kindness know you”


It is beautiful, like a prayer. 

Then I turned south, down the coast. Frank Turner’s Be More Kind album features 4 co-writes with Bangor’s Grammy nominated Iain Archer. Though Iain was not involved in the title track, that song is called Be More Kind! 


“In a world that has decided

That it's going to lose its mind

Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind”


I blogged these lyrics and someone pointed out that I missed another quotation from an album I had just reviewed at the time. The title track of Courtney Marie Andrew’s superb record suggested kindness more powerful than wealth:


Fortune might buy you diamonds, all shiny and new

But it can't buy you happiness, or love that is true

And if your money runs out, and your good looks fade

May your kindness remain


Finally, Ray Lamontagne’s title track Part of the Light sees kindness as a light in the world:


When kindness is the greatest gift that one can share

Why choose hate to subjugate your fellow man

I don't know, I don't know, I don't know

I want to be a part of the light

Please let me be a part of the light

I want to be a part of the light


I would suggest that there is a Biblical argument for kindness being part of the light as Lamontagne sings. There it is in the fruit of the Holy Spirit as the apostle Paul lists them in Galatians 5“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” 

How does kindness stand out in that list? Well, a quote by a Bible scholar caught my eye, “It (kindness) is the grace which pervades the whole nature, mellowing all which would be harsh and austere.”

Preparing a recent sermon I discovered that the RSV version of the Bible translates Micah 6:8 with a kindness:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Kindness gets a little more weightiness in this context. God here is asking for our relationships to each other to be profoundly impacted by our attentive walk with God. Kindness is the currency at its heart. 






Doug's song about lockdown was put to a Fitzroy video and used in a service. I first watched the video while in hospital waiting an operation and cried like a baby... it is still my hope... "one day there will be such a gathering, we'll walk together again, we'll sing together again..."

Until it is released... EP... or next album... only available above or on Fitzroy's SOUL FM 



A Stephen Fearing song that beautifully expresses the theology of grace in song... I will turn to this one over and over. Stephanie Hall did a great version one Sunday morning in Fitzroy's online service.

"I look for grace when I am broken

A deep sea diver reaching for a pearl

One tiny light in all this darkness

Til the morning, til the morning

Until the morning shines upon the world."



Not just because it begins in Ballymena's People's Park where I scored a lovely double in a Cup Final but the entire tale pulled me in. Forgive the ending... Very funny though!



Leaving my daughter to University, this one was the tear jerker. Oh my!



Hot Press did an amazing series of Van Morrison covers by Irish artists leading up to his 75th Birthday. I watched every new video going live every night of our holiday in Ballycastle. Bronagh slow burns and then sets the whole thing ablaze with her Holy Lands reminiscing. My favourite by far. Check this one... and them all... on Youtube.



Talk of sickness and healing... this one fitted 2020's mood.



Blue rocks out like the teenager he is on Crash Test Kid and then closes with this deeply introspective beaut, that is so Joni Mitchell. This might be the best crafted song of 2020.



Andy put a "best of" album together with his new Ages record. The remix of this brought it more alive than ever and Janice and I sang all summer long:

"I want to

Run to the ocean, run to the sea

Throw all the world away from me

Follow the voice that set me free

Like walking to sea again..."



Martyn's song to help us through the first lockdown... it hot the spot and thrilled he allowed us to use it in Fitzroy.



Love Anthony's stripped pack version of this old Van song... at times I needed something to refresh me, I often turned to this one... it brought some calm to my soul.





A friend tipped me off to an Advent gem of a song called Winter Song. A cover of the song by Sam Fender had caught my friend Alison's attention and she tipped me off. What a song. Apparently it was recorded for Elton John’s Aids Charity event on World Aids Day. 

Fender is a modern young rocking songwriter writing with some social critique and transformational intention in his work. He is a Geordie boy and proud of it. He plays on his accent while singing and he seems invested in the geography, history and music of his home place.

Indeed I watched a documentary about Geordie band Lindisfarne, on TV, presented by Sam Fender. Winter Song features strongly across the show with songwriters like Elvis Costello waxing lyrical about its brilliance.  The song was written by Alan Hull, the main songwriter in Lindisfarne.

You can see why Fender would be drawn to Alan Hull's songwriting in general and Winter Song in particular. Lindisfarne were from the same north east of England from where Fender hails and Winter Song has that biting social message in the craft of a very fine song. It does what Fender is attempting to do, and succeeding very week, in his own career.

The song sets the scene. It is bleak mid winter type poetry. 


When the wind is singing strangely

Blowing music through your head

And your rain splattered windows

Make you decide to stay in bed

Do you spare a thought for the homeless tramp who wishes he was dead?

Or do you pull the bed-clothes higher

Dream of summertime instead?

When winter...

Comes howling in


Hull then throws in the Jesus of Christmas. That is not so common in the modern Christmas song. You can listen through Robbie Williams and Jamie Cullum’s recent albums of original songs and find little mention of the Christ part of the season.

To hear Fender sing about Jesus and a Jesus kind of Jesus is powerfully effective.


When the turkey's in the oven

And the Christmas presents are bought

And Santa's in his module

He's an American astronaut

Do you spare one thought for Jesus, who had nothing but his thoughts?

Who got busted just for talking

And befriending the wrong sorts?

When winter...

Comes howling in


Now, I have said it a few times in my blog, this is the kind of Jesus that I decided to commit myself to as a teenager. I don’t think that it is anything like self righteous, dull and irrelevant one that the world rejects. 

I get quite frustrated and a little depressed at the kind of PR that the Church have given Jesus. It is the one that Alun Hull wrote about and Sam Fender sings about that I want to shout about. Unchained from the institutionalising, catechising and hymnalising this Jesus is someone I want to listen to, to be around and to follow. Thank you Sam Fender for sharing…