Robb Elementary

In June 1998 I was in Nashville for the wedding of friends David Dark and Sarah Masen. As I was there over the weekend I was asked to preach at Downtown Presbyterian.


What would you like me to preach on?

What about telling us what it is like to live through the Northern Ireland Troubles? 


As I was pondering what to say I read an article in a local Nashville paper that The Presbytery of Nashville was encouraging their ministers and elders to hand in their guns. 

I had never heard anything so disturbing. I began to imagine a scenario, any scenario, where Presbyterian elders and ministers in Ireland had guns. It was frightening. I was able to get up on the Sunday morning and suggest that even though guns had destroyed our wee country for 25 bloody years that we at last were taking the guns out of our society. America was a much more dangerous society than ours, I suggested.

These last days I am heartbroken again at the news of another gun massacre of children at school, this time in Uvalde, Texas. In my job I have sat with parents who have lost children. It is not the natural way of things. It is viscerally heartbreaking. Parents are never the same again. Nineteen dead children. Two dead teachers. A dead eighteen year old killer. Seventeen injured. It beggars belief. It needs our prayers. And, sadly, it is not an isolated incident.

Listening to the polarisation about guns and gun control in America has bruised my heart even more. It is so difficult for us outside of America to comprehend the attitude towards guns and so I have found myself resisting throwing the trite Tweet into a debate that I simply cannot comprehend.

I have found myself being very grateful that in our own broken land with all of its unique disfunction and mostly outdated ideologies that at least I live in a place where eighteen year olds cannot easily purchase and carry guns; a society that feels the safety of tight gun control.

I am grateful that when an attack took place in my wife’s old school, Sullivan Upper, in 1994 that our gun laws prevented the attacker having such deadly weapons. He had to resort to a flame thrower and though tragically a few students were seriously burned, none were killed. One can only imagine what might have been. Gratitude!

Sadly, as I have surmised the American gun debate this week, I have to set lament alongside my gratitude. As America responds this week I have come to pray that God can give me resilience for the inevitable heartaches to come. Open hearts are prone to breaking. I cannot switch my emotions off or grow cold to news of innocent children being gunned down. I ask God to help me as we tragically respond to more places that will be added to Uvalde, Columbine, Sandyhook, Virginia Tech… 

God have mercy.


Worship Grief

On Sunday morning in Fitzroy (11am also streamed) we are going to try something poignant. We are attempting to do a Bereavement service for all of us who lost loved ones since the beginning of Covid.

If you can remember back two years, many of us lost loved ones and were unable, due to the restrictions, to have funerals. For many the thought was that we would do a funeral in a few months time. Two years later and those would be funerals are gone.

It is to recognise this loss, not only of a loved one, but of some of our steps of grieving process that we will dedicate the morning service to catharsis, lament, remembering and hope.

The songs and readings will be as would be at a funeral but with a little more opportunity to reflect on the Scriptures, to pause and to pray.

We will also have a liturgical act where those who have lost a loved one will bring a flower forward and lay it on the Communion Table, as appropriate music minsters to our loss.

Reflection as we partake in communion will be around the idea of Jesus as Shepherd, in Psalm 23 and John 10. 

We hope that this will be a pastoral help to all of us whose grieving was stunted by Covid. 


U2 Celebratoion

In October 1981 I used birthday gift record tokens to buy U2’sOctober album. Someone told me that they were Christians. I remember putting the needle down on the opening song Gloria and… BOOM!

By the time they released the 7” single A Celebration in March 1982 U2 were my band.  I loved the energy and exhilaration of their sound BUT beyond that they really did articulate something of my relatively new Christian faith. That a rock band could do that. My spiritual life had a soundtrack. A soundtrack that would travel with me through the rest of my life. I had found companions for the road.

A Celebration could feel rather hard done by. It has been, it would seem intentionally, hidden away in the annals. It’s first release on CD was 27 years later on the extra disc with the deluxe remastered October album. Even there it is hidden at track 9. In the sleeved notes Edge calls it “our attempt at a stop gap single”. He goes on, “It’s a little fraught, and shows the signs of being put together in the middle of a touring cycle.” 

I am not going to debate the songwriting or recording technique qualities  of A Celebration. Regardless, I will always love it for what it was at that stage of their career. It is the link, musically and spiritually between October and the band’s third album War. 

October was all personal spiritual ecstasy, almost worship. War was a band of young men, three of them Christians, trying to make sense of the world outside their home city and indeed fellowship group. They were starting to caress and collide their faith and the world.

Here on A Celebration they are still celebrating the liberation of Christ, as seen in the video that was filmed at Dublin’s famous Kilmainham Gaol. They are still invoking prayer and praise to the transcendent but they are now becoming aware of world wars and atomic bombs. Yes, the lyrics are a little generic in this “stop gap”song but they are taking more shape than the articulate speech in Bono’s heart on October

Author Philip Yancey, now a friend of the band, once described Christian growth from a verse in Isaiah 40 (v31),

They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Yancey points out how this seems to be the wrong way round. Should we not walk first? Yancey suggests that the early days of Christian faith is full of idealistic naivety. We believe we can make the world perfect overnight. We fly out of the blocks. Yet, later we watch friends get sick and die, we watch the TV news and realise that despite our faith all is not well with the world. We land with a thud. We are still running but later we are even walking because this faith journey is tough.

The repetition of  “I believe” in Celebration sounds like John Lennon’s song God, from his Plastic Ono Band album, where the Beatle sings about what he doesn’t believe in (including Beatlesactually!).  U2 would further develop this responsive conversation with the late Lennon on Rattle And Hum’s God Part 2

It doesn’t seem too contrived, to rush up the road and five years hear… “I believe in the kingdom come… but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

A Celebration is the perfect hinge between the flying and running in the spiritual life and U2’s next few records, maybe their entire career, would continue to live out Yancey’s commentary on Isaiah 40… a verse U2 would actually use on Drowning Man, a song on that next record War.


Gundoganwinner - cropped

“Are you watching that again?” Janice asks at tea time when I am watching Ilkay Gundogan’s winner against Aston Villa that won the Premiership for Manchester City.

“Again… and again.. and again.. and again…” I reply.

As a minister I take Monday’s off and today was dedicated to coming to term with yesterday’s final day of the football season and all its drama. I watched Match of The Day, then the aftermath of the Sky Sports live coverage. I watched various videos on the City website. At tea I am watching that goal… again… and again… I am watching City’s victory parade as I type!

Looking back it was almost predictable. As I sat down with my mate Boyd, with Monty and Philip on our WhatsApp Match Day Support Group, we were nervous. We all remembered QPR from 10 years ago. Lightning surely wouldn’t strike twice. We couldn’t save ourselves in injury time again. 

If we went one down… we did… if we we went two down… we did. We were there again. It was almost unbelievable but we had almost felt we would. Against a team whose season was over and should have been on the beach we find ourselves huffing and puffing with no real threat and we’ve conceded almost two similar goals to that game ten years ago.

As we said… it couldn’t happen again. Our heads were down. Our hearts were sore. It is hardest to take losing the title when you throw it away in the final game. 

We were starting to ask the what ifs? We were starting to question Pep’s team selection in big games. We were starting to complain about having no out and out striker. We were starting to say how Liverpool can get themselves out of these games but we struggle…

And then Sterling gets the ball. What’s he doing… that shimmy to the byline… that cross… GUNDOGAN… goal!

Wait a minute… well a couple of minutes and Zinchenko cuts inside like a tricky winger… precise pass… Rodri with pace and perfect placement… goal! 

What is happening? Can it happen again. It is the hope that kills you… loose ball… watch Kevin De Bruyne beat three defenders to the ball… pass… GUNDOGAN again… GOAL! Boyd and I are on our feet screaming with every sound that our bodies can release. 

What just happened. It will go down in Premier history as the magic mad five minutes but… stop… stop Stockman… surmise…

Stop questioning Pep’s big game implosions. Pep fixed it. Today he changed it at half time. Zinchenko on the left and Sterling on the right. Instead of cutting in where Villa had more than matched us, take them wide. Then Gundogan. He has been our most natural midfield striker. He seems to know just where to be and when to arrive. Today he knew that to perfection. Pep got it right.

Stop questioning the character. Not only were we two down this weekend. We were two down last weekend at West Ham. Two games in a row we needed to show courage and resilience and belief.

Start remembering this decade. 4 titles in 5 seasons. 6 in 10. As a City fan I couldn’t have dreamt this 15 years ago. Oh and I know that is the cue for people to talk about money from the Middle East. It sits very uneasy, I will admit. I wish it didn’t have to be like that. 

I wish it could be 1975 but it isn’t. And you can’t buy it. United have spent a lot of money and got worse. We bought Rodney Marsh in 1972 and it cost us the title!

I feel for my Liverpool supporting mates. They’ve topped 90 points twice recently and we’ve sneaked it. Maybe all teams that get 90 points should be given the title! They are also on for a possible treble though I’d say don’t assume anything at any time against Real Madrid!

In the 44 years between our 1968 and 2012 titles I thought winning once would be enough. Winning regularly could get boring and less emotional. I’ve had to rethink that surmise too. When you win it with all the drama, nerves, pain and utter euphoria of yesterday it is not at all boring. 

So let us see how Haaland makes us better next season? Whether Grealish can come into his own? How good Foden can become? And… if we can hold Liverpool off one more time! See you in August. All to to play for… and in the meantime… CHAMPIONESE! 

Now... Match of the Day...one more time.


Derry Girls

The Derry Girls. What a phenomenon. It is easy to see it as a lovely wee funny show about 4 quirky Irish girls and a their English cousin. 

Maybe that was the intention at the outset but by the time we got to the big one hour long finale at the end of series 3 this has turned into something so much bigger.

The production, the staging, the writing and the guest stars. It was an epic show. Yes there was that near slap stick conversational humour but somehow alongside it writer Lisa McGee worked the personal and the national into something magnificent, almost prophetic.

Derry Girls was always about teenagers coming of age. The genius that finally came to ultimate fulfilment was setting it in the 90s. The nostalgia of Catholic and Protestant school kids going on overnights to meet and understand each other sounds uninviting but McGhee wrote it well. 

So, the big finale. It is easy to understand teenage girls falling out. No contriving needed there. To link their reconciliation, compromise and forgiveness with the Referendum over the Good Friday Agreement lit a spark.

To make such a seismic political moment into comedy could have all gone very very awry but again McGee created it beautifully. 

In the midst of the laugh out loud - Ardal O’Hanlon! - the questions were asked about amnesty for those who murdered, the bitterness that needed swallowed and all the what ifs it went wrong.

In the end though there was a positivity about the vote as there was about the Derry Girls coming of age. As they find the maturity of compromise in their own friendships McGee is suggesting that perhaps our society might grow up too. 

The finale of Derry Girls leaves us with an amazing potential of a so much better future. It left me laughing, sad that it was all over and wondering if almost 25 years after the events acted out if we have made the most of the positivity of ’98. There's still work to do.