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July 2013

SMASHING THE DEFAULT; A Secret To Peace in N. Ireland


It was one of those sentences that you know as it finishes you will never forget. It was a sentence that prophetically cut through the way things were with the key to unlocking how things could instead be. As it ended I felt that I was standing on sacred ground. We were in JL Zwane Church in Guguletu, Cape Town, and Rev. Dr. Spiwo Xapile the minister was talking to my students about the anti-apartheid movement and the process of reconciliation. Spiwo gave one of his gazes, where there is a piercing intentionality in his eyes, and then in perfect preacher’s timing uttered, “Every day I wake up and I thank God that I am a Christian, South African and black... because that means that every day I get a chance to forgive my enemies.” Wow! To a group of Northern Ireland students this was almost mind blowing. It smashed a gaping hole in our Northern Ireland default position. Where we are from we wake up every morning and thank God that we are British, white, middle class and Protestant... so that every day we can ask our Catholic neighbour to repent!

Spiwo’s morning prayer is one that gives hope of peace and reconciliation. Ours is one that perpetuates sectarian and hatred. There is humility about Spiwo’s Christlike alternative thinking and a self-righteous arrogance that bears no resemblance to Christ about ours. There is a powerful verse of Scripture in the Old Testament book of Second Chronicles. The people of God are told that if they “humble themselves and pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways I will hear from heaven and will heal their land.” This verse was used many, many times during the Northern Ireland Troubles as a call to prayer. Indeed there might have been no other place at no other time in history when more prayer was prayed. Yet, where was the healing? There were a couple of other things in that verse ignored. It is relatively easy to pray especially if your prayer is concentrated on changes outside of yourself.

The humility and turning from our wicked ways are a different call. They are more costly. They were conveniently lost in the equation as we blamed the Catholics for all the problems and demanded that they repented. Humility and our own turning from wickedness are a better formula for shalom or God’s Kingdom to reign in Northern Ireland as it is in heaven. We need to humbly confess our part. We need to be robust in our repentance and then as Dr. Xapile, and so many black South Africans like him, have modelled for us to be quick in the tender forgiving of those that society has deemed our enemies.


Killers 2

“And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes
Clear your heart
Cut the cord...”

-      From Human by The Killers

This was the lyric that I carried all the way through the process of leaving a job I loved in Queen’s University Chaplaincy to go back into parish ministry at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church back in 2009. For me, the invitation to consider becoming the minister at Fitzroy was a huge honour and I had to think about it but I had never considered going back into Church life. Fitzroy’s potential excited me but I was nervous every time I caught sight of that open door. Being a Presbyterian process, it took eight months between the initial phone call to think about it and to actually being installed as minister. Throughout that wait I sang over and over again this spiritual wisdom of Brandon Flowers.

I had to close my eyes and seek God in ways I had never done. Prayer, connecting with God, was vital. If I was going to take the risk that this would be for me and my family, I needed to find time to talk it over with God and to listen. I would need to be sure that the fit was right and that I was taking the next step in my following of Jesus.

Next up I had to clear my heart in readiness for a spiritual change, the way we cleared our house for the physical move. I needed to take all the selfish ideas of my own which might have been the selfishness for safety or the selfishness of being flattered that Fitzroy were interested and what a prestigious thing to be their minister. The heart needed cleared of me, to be given the holy space that might allow God to fill that heart with what was good.

In the end, after all was weighed up and without any doubt in my heart and mind that God was calling us to go... we had to cut the cord! The last might be the trickiest of all. It means leaving where all is safe and comfortable and jumping with faith and trust into the new world that beckons. To move on means not looking back. It is done and I am thankful to these words as the soundtrack to the entire process. Like Paul in Philippians, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Once again I thank The Killers for being spiritually helpful at that cord cutting time of my life.


Joseph Arthur

I left Joseph Arthur’s small and intimate gig at The Errigle Inn, in Belfast, speechlessly quiet in my half yard of spiritual solitude. And it wasn’t the gig, though we’ll get to that. After the gig as this lanky, arty and obviously laid big dude just sat down at a table alone, someone asked about product. Not for Joseph the table at the back strategy. No he got up almost hesitantly and opened a bag full of EPs, some on CD but some on 12” vinyl with individually sketchings by the man himself. I stood in line, two from the front and one from the back, and when it came my turn I asked my prepared question.

During the gig I could not help, as a Presbyterian minister, be aware of the copious amounts of spiritual references. When he asked what people do for fun in Belfast and one, inebriated to the point of loud wag, shouted ‘Church’ and everyone laughed. Joseph said that after his 10 mile 4am run he always went to Mass. When asked what Americans do for fun he replied that he just sat in front of the TV and smoked pot. There seemed to me to be a great deal of irony in both statements and so my question stuttered out, “So, does the spiritual depth of your lyrics come from going to Mass or smoking pot in front of the TV?”

Arthur’s laid back eyes gained a sparkle and we began to converse about faith. He chatted excitedly about how it is his subconscious coming out and how it is his search and struggle and holding on to faith when the world suggests giving it up. I shared the frustrations of a preacher, the lines of whose picture are always too confining to really get to the soul of the human experience like a singer can; like he had just done. Immediately he proved my point, had the house sound switched off, lifted his guitar and sang to the thirty of us who remained a new song called Redemption’s Son that was simply breathtaking. It was all about Jesus being the only one who really knew him and the struggles of relationships of father and son. It was a prayer for the angel of light to shine upon us. And of course it was far from theological watertight, that is not his trade or his concern but it opened spiritual pores in the souls of that crowd that Billy Graham could never do. It was like he threw out these melodic seeds that fell, where they fell only God knows, but they fell and they were potent because as he threw them they were landing in the depth of the man who sang in the same sense as the ones who listened. Not the arrogant aural brutality that closes the heart but the humble, honest, vulnerable sharing of the search that smashed down the thickest doors in the gentlest way.

And ooh yes, the gig. Well I arrived not sure what to expect. I loved ‘In the Sun’ the most famous of his songs, covered by Peter Gabriel and the single off his last album Come To Where I’m From. Yet I thought that sometimes it was over cluttered and too harsh for my forty year old ears. When Arthur walked out and started singing I was blown away. The voice, the melody, the articulate poetry of the songs and the depth of the questions. Every few songs he’d use his foot pedal echoing effects to conjure rhythms and guitar layerings that made it sound big, big, big and though there were moments when he got so into his art that this became just a little over self indulgent, it made the gig flow up and down and kept the whole thing fascinating. Though a more than original artist there are the parts in Arthur’s influences, that add up to way beyond their sum. The poetry of a Cohen, the harmonica of a Dylan, the clutter and clang of a Waits, a bit of melancholy trip hop and the angst of a Cobain. Yet, that angst never goes the nihilistic way of Cobain because it is always wrapped in the flickers of light that the search always seemed to let seep in. God, and Jesus seems His incarnation in these songs, is a given but who and how and where are the search at hand. There are strongest hint of resurrection and eternity and the cross as a main mover in these things is never far away.


Ballad of Boogie Christ

I had two fascinating meetings with songwriter and visual artist Joseph Arthur. After a gig at the Errigle Inn in Belfast, way back around 2001, I approached Joseph after the gig and asked him about the spiritual references in his songs. He got animated, had the house sound turned off and played me, and my mate Gordon, a new song Redemption’s Son. Quite a moment (read about it on the page beside this one on this blog). About a year later I was in Calvin College interviewing Joseph before a concert he was doing in the college later in the day. I was excited about the idea of following up our post gig chat in Belfast. So I asked a question... And then another.... And another... it didn’t go well! “What books are you reading?” “Lots.” “What?” “Oh I don’t know their titles.” It was like interviewing Bob Dylan circa Blonde On Blonde! Arthur was not prepared to commit to any kind of detail or substance. The difference in the two experiences was a little surprising but looking back I understand. Here is a rock dude cornered in a Christian College lecture room being asked deep and meaningful questions. Avoid! The enigmatic nature my two meetings with him about sums up Joseph Arthur. This guy shifts soundscapes and styles in a whim. Almost every album has been different. Indeed that is one of the things he was firm about in that Calvin interview, saying that he was always eager to move from sounds and make very album a different hue from the one before.

That fidgety approach to his records has had me lose a little interest in Arthur now and again and feel that nothing ever reached the heights of 2002’s Redemption’s Son. The Ballad Of Boogie Christ Act 1 has my attention again. It is as also an eclectic sprawl of styles from orchestral to horns to soul singers to psychedelia and even throws in some mid sixties Indian meets rock! It all blends beautifully and more organically than some of Arthur’s recent albums. It rocks with literal boogie, filled with melodies big of sound and wonderfully artistic of instrumentation.

For me the lyrics set it apart. One of the reasons for this might be that the songs started out as poems. They are wordy, clever of couplet and original of rhyme. The content has certainly that transcendent mature that drew me to Arthur way back when. He himself describes it as a fictional record about “about redemption and what happens after you find it and lose it.” It seems Joseph hasn’t lost his draw to that redemption things in the time since he sang Redemption’s Son to me in that small bar in Belfast. At Calvin when I pushed his obvious identification with Christianity he was most animated at denying that, saying that there were lots of religions that could be identified with his work. I did point out that the word Son after Redemption did indicate Jesus. Here again it is Christ he use in naming the transcendence at work in the redemption and Jesus gets various name checks. Yet, again it is not easy to pin down any creed that could be theologized. He needs saints, divine love and even the Holy Spirit gets called for. Yet, there is much doubt too. It’s all intoxicating heady stuff and most satisfying indeed!

ADDICTED TO KISS HER (She Punched Me In The Summer)

Belfast Summer

A love song for my beautiful wee country as she abuses me with her violence...

She is love at first glance

Stunning shape, pretty skin

Quaint and gentle accent

Funny, warm words within

She wooed me for forever

I’m addicted to kiss her

In the times when we are parted

She’s the ache of I miss her

And I guess you know I love her

Cos I know there is no other

I’m addicted to kiss her

She’s the ache of I miss her.


She punched me in the summer

Gave my heart cuts and bruises

Hurled my soul onto the street

Like a thing a rapist uses

She threw me up against the wall

To force her own selfish way

And in the blindness of her fury

Closed her ears to all that I say

But you know that I love her

‘Cos I know there is no other

I’m addicted to kiss her

She’s the ache of I miss her.


Belfast 12th

One of the many things that the deplorable violence on the streets of Belfast in these last few evenings should waken us up to is that there is a difference between analgesic and cure! Fifteen years on from the Good Friday agreement things are so much better in so many ways in Northern Ireland. However, when we experience the kind of civil disobedience that we have in the past few days, over a band parade down a few hundred yards of street, we realise that all is still not well in with our soul. We might have erased the pain, and life might be more comfortable as a result, but there is a disease lurking deep within us that has not been dealt with. In fact the removal of the pain might actually have caused us, over these last fifteen years, to become so complacent that we might be causing continued damage where it really matters.

Power sharing, or conferences about shared futures for all, seem to be lacking in many things. Important ideas like compromise, reconciliation, forgiveness and hope are words that need to be opened up. Societal discussion needs to be had in a grace drenched space. We need real pragmatic decision making. We need imaginative vision that creates new ways of seeing the other. We need courageous leadership willing to take risks that reach out to everyone and not just their own. It might be easier to take a pill, washed down with a cup of water, than it is to face open heart surgery without anaesthetic but our sickness cannot be allowed to perpetuate the events of this last week.

AND... when I say the events of the last week I do not want to single out the loyalist community. Their actions are deplorable and a lose/lose scenario for everyone including every cause they claim to be standing for. BUT... we also need to diagnose that the events of our inglorious Twelfth have been caused by a lack of compromise on all sides of our community and a difficult decision that had to be made by the Parades Commission. The analgesic allowed this current crisis. Dealing with the disease will be the only way to end it! We will need to face the pain that we will need to endure to be healthy.

It is also important to make sure that the analgesic option is not used on the loyalist violence. Yes, it needs to stop immediately but when it does we should not see the problem solved but make sure that as soon as it stops we get to work on the causes. On Sunday evening in Fitzroy our assistant minister, Jonathan Abernethy-Barkley, was doing a meditative evening using the thoughts of eccentric but perceptive Irish spiritual philosopher John O’Donohue. It was very personal reflection but I couldn’t help, being aware of petrol bombs being hurled at the police just a mile or two away, to be struck by one reading about belonging: -

“Merely to be excluded or sense rejection hurts. When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness. We become vulnerable to fear and negativity. A sense of belonging, however, suggests warmth, understanding and embrace.”

It didn’t take long for me to be thinking about a community in our society that feels isolated. Loyalist communities are feeling cut off and adrift. They have watched their belonging in Northern Ireland become precarious. They feel they are being left behind and that they have lost their voice. It would be easy to have a discussion about whether they are right or wrong but when it comes to belonging it is not about debate. It is about feeling. If we really want to find the cure for our critical illness then we can’t dismiss this symptom. It is time to not just condemn the mindless and horrendous violence but to address the underlying causes. This is where our political and community leaders need to concentrate their vocations. This is where I need to reassess how I feel about those on the streets.

As a Church leader I have been challenged in the past week to shift my energies from condemnation to beginning to ask what to do constructively. What would Jesus be doing about our current situation? Would he stand at a safe distance in self righteous judgement? Or would he have a deep concern for those whose sense of isolation has caused them to lose their “flexibility and natural kindness”? Would he be directing his grace towards building up or further pulling down? Would he be reaching out to bring a sense of purpose, hope and belonging to the loyalists on the streets? Would he be asking some piercing questions of my own prejudices, sectarianism and lack of love? How has my impatience, lack of empathy, snobbish self righteousness added to the feeling of isolation in my fellow citizens? What can I do and say to raise their sense of belonging and make them feel a valued part of our shared future?

So, that is what I am surmising? I am yearning to get to the heart of our illness. The President of The Methodist Church, Rev Heather Morris, has Facebooked some very practical ideas about what we might start doing. I am keen that in the work I am involved in, across the city and the divide, to begin to ask more serious questions of what we do. One of Heather’s suggestions is that we write to our politicians and tell them we want peace. Again, perhaps instead of ranting at the failings of our political leaders we need to give them encouragement and a population swell of support to be brave and risk taking. Whatever, I need to reassess in my own soul whether I am part of the cure or just a contributor to the sickness.


Peace Bridge Banner

I have used this prayer poem a lot on Soul Surmise and it seems perfect for this weekend. I used it this morning at the end of my sermon as I asked us all in Fitzroy to allow God to search us deep down and reveal any sectarianism within us. It is based on two things.

Firstly, Psalm 139's deep soul searching, which coincidentally Rev. David Campton blogged this morning.

Secondly, it's immediate inspiration was a meeting that my students had with F.W. De Klerk in Cape Town in 2002. The former President of South Africa shared that country's peace process with us. As a member of the Dutch Reformed Church he was open with us about the Christian influence on his decision to reconcile his people with the black majority and set in motion a process that would lead to Nelson Mandela's election as President. The first two rules in working for Reconciliation he told us were first, to search yourself to the marrow of your soul to see what prejudice you bring to the process. After you have rid yourself of those prejudices the second thing to do was to search again and see if you have deluded yourself into thinking you had rid yourself of all of your prejudices!

As I have caressed and collided the Word of God with the World of Belfast's Twelfth weekend I have had to do some soul seraching. To live out the sacrificial, self surrendering and suffering life of Christ in our city is a hard call. We are a country rife with sectarianism; political, religious, cultural, social, sporting and class. The call of Christ to me is to start with my own soul and then give myself to whatever it will take to bring shalom for all.

Once again I use Psalm 139 and F.W. De Klerk's wisdom to get me started.


Search me oh God

Down to the very marrow of my soul

Take every selfish part of me away

That would stop me from being whole

Help me peer inside my prejudice

To judge the incentive of all my actions

Make kind the reflexes of my heart

And gentle the strength of my reactions

Help me squint at every weakness

That comes from family and neighbourhood

To smash the idols of sectarianism

And create shalom for everybody's good

So, search me oh God

Down to the very marrow of my soul

Take every selfish part of me away

That would stop me from being whole

And when I’ve let you search oh God

Believing to be in Your Spirit’s collusion

Let me look just one more time

For any remnants of my own delusion.


12th riots

The debris lies strewn across streets of my home city in the aftermath of the Glorious Twelfth Day parades yesterday. Debris indeed; chunks lifted out of our peace process, as well as our pavements, and thrown at whoever we can project the blame onto. Facebook is highlighting the dearth of response from Church leaders and I feel bound to make a tiny contribution. Where do you begin though? Where will it end we ask? These are initial surmises and may need longer time to marinate so bare with me!

Maybe the first thing to say is that this is an annual event. Not just the Twelfth but the rioting. It is of course a sign that for some we are literally no further forward than we were 323 years ago, which is an awful indictment on our society. Yet, it has got to be seen for what a good part of it is; recreational rioting. In the late 90s I remember driving through the Protestant “Village” area off the Donegal Road on the afternoon after the contentious parade of that time, Drumcree. Young men sat on walls downcast. Why? Well the Parades Commission that year had allowed the Parade! The disappointment was that that had left no reason to throw bricks at the police and set fire to cars.

Now, it would be easy to go off on one right there. What kind of thugs are these? What kind of mindset... Let us stop and reflect on a city that has left its youth looking forward to a summer evening’s riot for fun and sense of meaning. There are all kinds of issues at the root of our violent outbursts and we need to be looking at social and spiritual as well as the tribal and political solutions. As a city, across our divide, we need to have a look at education and employment and many other contributing factors.

It is also easy to throw verbal abuse at the rioters with the same venom that they throw bricks. As well as the recreational purpose it gives, the disturbances also scream at us that working class Protestant communities are in a very fragile place. At a recent Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship meeting PUP’s John Kyle shared with us many of the factors that have caused this community to feel isolated. Two of those factors, he said, were the seemingly one sided approach of the parades issue and the demonization of flute bands. For almost a century Unionist political leaders gave their community a Protestant state for a Protestant people and now that there needs to be some balancing done to bring justice across the society, parts of that community feel that they are losing everything. Whether they are right or wrong, that feeling needs to be addressed in a sensitive way. How we birth and mature a shared future for all our citizens needs very careful strategies and visionary discernment. We need to not demonise and caricature even though the scenes from last night tempt us too easily to do so. There is a vicious circle at work. The working class Protestant communities feel isolated and then kick out like a cornered animal in their frustration which in turn causes more isolation. Lack of political representation then leaves them feeling that violence is the only voice they have to get heard.

As a middle class Presbyterian from south Belfast I need to be asking about my own response? I find it very hard to understand why the tensions in a divided community should boil down to, and boil up over, a few hundred yards of road to march a band down. However, though I might not care for marching, I need to care for those who do. One of the problems for working class Protestants is that they are now not only divided from the traditional Catholic enemies but are now also far adrift from their middle class Protestant neighbours who are appalled at their behaviour. Let us realise that this isolated community need cared for if they too are going to be part of our hoped for shared future.

Which brings is to where perhaps I should be venting my anger; their leaders! At the time of the flags protests, at the turn of the year, and this marching season which was always going to be more volatile as a result, we have not seen much in the way of community or political leadership. Speeches and statements yesterday did little to prevent the violence or lead people in more constructive ways. Indeed, the enflamed speeches that stoked up, and almost legitimised the anger, were irresponsible and the statements sent out later for calm was simply a nonsense and very poor leadership.

Can I also say at this point that I don’t only mean the leadership on the Unionist side. That same Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship had a very constructive evening with Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney a number of weeks ago. If Sinn Fein are as keen on reconciliation and a shared future as Declan suggested, and I have to say I believed his sincerity, then they too will need to consider carefully the best ways for that equality to happen. There has always been two sides when we lived in our inequality and there needs to be two sides when we seek a future of equality. Yet, again yesterday we realised that the divisions at a political level are still vast. When our leaders at Stormont cannot negotiate and compromise how can we expect the people on the streets to.

Where are the Churches? That is a question being raised this morning on social media and it is one that needs to be answered. Professor John Brewer, heading up the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University, challenged us at one of our Faith on Trial evenings at Fitzroy recently by suggesting that though there is a prophetic presence from the Churches in the Northern Irish conflict we lack leadership presence from the Churches. What he means is that there are quite a few maverick Church men and women working below the radar to heal the divisions but that the Churches as entities from the top have made little contribution or sent out visionary alternatives. Though we in Fitzroy, where I am minister, have built up strong, helpful and very blessed relationships with Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road and St. Oliver Plunkett’s in Lenadoon I feel we are impotent to connect with inner city working class Protestant communities. If we believe that the Kingdom of God is for the well being of the city, as the Bible tells us, I need to be asking how can we begin to engage again? Can the Churches across the divide show a better example of compromise and shared future than our political leaders?

In whatever area of leadership we are called to it will take courage. Some might lose votes. Some might be called heretics. As this has all been happening I have been back studying the Gospels for an autumn/winter sermon series on John. I have been more acutely aware than ever that the only way to beat the darkness was for the light to suffer, to give up comfort and rights and to be prepared to be sacrificed for the good of the world. Jesus has asked us to follow him into the pain of bringing redemption. He asks us to take up our cross daily, deny ourselves and follow him into the bringing on earth of God’s Kingdom. What does that look like in Northern Ireland? It doesn’t sound anything like yesterday’s speeches. It doesn’t look anything like yesterday’s events. For many the Churches might actually be a huge part of the problem. As I caress and collide the newspaper and website pictures and reports of the Twelfth with the words I have been reading in the Gospels I am more convinced than ever that a radical reassessment of what Jesus was on about, how he lived, died and was raised to life, and the life that should enable his followers to live should not exasperate the problem but should be our only hope and vision.  



Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy I will be looking at the blessing of Benediction right before the sending out. Far from the credits going up at the end of the Sunday morning show this is a profound part of our Christian worship. We will pay particular attention to Biblical benedictions and use Marilynne Robinson's profoundly spiritual novel Gilead for insight... "I'd have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment." All wrapped in some Gary Burnett worship. A tasty Fitzroy summer Sunday morning!

The evening (7pm) will be a lovely continuation when Jonathan Abernethy-Barkley uses the late great Irish benedicter John O'Donohue who tells us to be excessively gentle with ourselves so in response as we enter this holiday season we will ... A slow paced reflective evening with poetry prose and prayers ...

MORNING MEDITATION (on the 12th of July)


Shamrocks carpeting the forest floor

The Trinity holding us underneath

Foxglove stands like Church bells

Ringing out the beauty God bequeathed

Fuschia scarlet, along the hedgrows

Line my trail in redemption's blood

The ocean wide and deep and far

Like Christ's love and not the flood

It's my Ireland, it's your Ireland

It's our Ireland together

So let us march round tumbling walls

For one Lord of all forever.