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November 2013

ON WORLD AIDS DAY; Sindy, AIDS and Meeting God

20A_0017 ( for World Aids Day I want to remember Sindy who passed away in 2006... She will live in my memory for as long as I live... here's how she impacted my by the very talented Gordon Ashbridge)

It was a very strange, near mysterious experience. Six weeks in Cape Town, working fourteen hour days to transport students around in mini buses with something significant to experience at the end of each journey, had me at the point of exhaustion. A Sunday night text home was sharing the excitement that it would soon be over. On Monday morning everything changed.

We were at JL Zwane Memorial Church to learn more about their HIV/AIDS ministry. There was a new challenge. We were to visit women suffering from AIDS in their own homes. We needed convinced that this was not a voyeuristic exercise. We were assured that culturally the Xhosa people saw visiting their homes in situations like these was an honour. So off we went. I decided to go with our second group to visit Sindy. The first group had appeared tearful and emotional but part of that had been to do with the sense of hope they had been able to share particularly when one of our students, Ashling, had sung to their patient.

Sindy was a very different case. It was a pretty hopeless scenario. She had been suffering from the virus for six years and had developed to a late stage of the disease. Her mind was not always able to focus and she was at time incoherent but a recurring theme was how bored she was with the drugs. What needs to be understood is that anti-retroviral drugs need to be taken on a particular schedule with a particular diet. When, like Sindy, you had been on this regime for a lengthy time and didn’t feel much of the benefit, frustration can is understandable. We left her home, nodding to her mother in some kind of speechless way that dared to give out whatever hope we could muster along with an abundance of deeply felt love. Yet, we felt useless, unable to help, in a place where death seemed to be loitering with grave intent.

The mystery for me was that on leaving Sindy I felt invigorated again. I didn’t want to go home anymore. I wanted to keep driving that bus. I got a new sense of energy to keep on keeping on. As I looked back over the visit I was a little confused as to where this change of perspective could have been birthed. Could it be that as I reached out to touch Sindy’s fingers, too weak to grip mine there was something mystical that happened.

The next day as I sat in the office of Dr. Spiwo Xapile the pastor at JL Zwane, he thanked me for what our team had done the day before. He told me not to underestimate the gesture we had made. He then made a staggering statement, “You know when they tell their neighbours they will not say that white people came to their house, they will say that God visited them.” We felt nothing like God and such a view would seem way overestimated to us but it made me think again about my own mystical experience in Sindy’s room.

Could it be that I met God in the eyes of the least of one of these as Jesus told me I would when I visit the sick. And could it be that as that Matthew 25 parable of Jesus is worked out we find that God lives particularly in that place where the one who serves touches the one who is served. That as Sindy experienced God in me, I experienced God in her. That this is what Jesus was encouraging us to in that parable.

After I got home someone told me that they had been reading the Christian psychologist Larry Crabb who said we didn’t fix ourselves when we concentrated on making ourselves better. That seemed a contradiction to my friend but in the light of my moments with Sindy it made perfect sense. In attempting even in vain to help someone else I had found God meeting with me, to help me. The selflessness of the Gospel of Christ is going to redeem our fallen beings far more than all the egocentric self helps of our selfish world.


Fitzroy 200 a

In the morning (11am) Jonathan Abernethy- Barkley writes, "What happens when God turns up but not how the religious think he ought too? We will be continuing in John chapter 5 as the religious leaders put the word made flesh through a job interview and don't quite recognise his credentials? We will be looking at how the world was in chaos and how the word becomes flesh and brings even more chaos with him. We will be asking do we really want this life Jesus came for us to have? While thinking about how the religious can get in the way of what Jesus is doing in the here and now! All with the help of Heidegger and that voice of a generation Billie Piper."

In the evening (7pm) we will be gently reflecting on how Advent impacts the Church and then taking some time to pray for Fitzroy, giving thanks for the past 200 years and seeking God for the years ahead.


George Harrison ATMP

When they remastered and repackaged George Harrison's All Things Must Pass in 2001 I fell in love with it all over again. It reminded me of the utter magnificence of "third" Beatle’s post Beatles debut. A reminder too of the incredible output of the greatest pop band of all time. Before we get to George, let us consider the facts. These four Liverpool mop tops made no less than 12 studio albums in the 7 years that they were recording. Yes, maybe their early albums were churned out in next to no time with a few covers and a couple of fillers but there are still more classic songs in those first few years than most bands ever come up with. When they did start to take their time there was still a double album in 1968 and two albums in quick succession recorded in 69. Add to that that their singles in that period didn’t go on the albums and it is simple mind boggling in an era when bands like U2 can take 5 years between records. Add to that that in 1970 all four Beatles released albums and that Harrison’s was a triple and the story gets more and more convincing that The Beatles were the great song writing geniuses of the 20th century.

Harrison’s triple, the world’s first triple, did of course have that whole vinyl slab of rarely played jam sessions indulgence but it can be forgiven. For four sides he revealed beyond doubt that he had emerged from the shadows of Lennon and McCartney to make an album that apart from Imagine by John and Band On The Run by Paul, the famous writing team of Lennon and McCartney just never got close to in the solo years. Harrison, of course, had brought some fine tunes to the table in the latter part of the 60s. While My Guitar Gently Weeps was as good as anything on The Beatles (White Album) and Here Comes the Sun and Sinatra’s favourite ever song Something were easily the standouts of the fabulous Abbey Road. Quite how some of these songs never made those albums suggests that the most famous song writing partnership in pop were not just so keen to allow the youngest Beatles to steal past them on the song writing front.

So what we get in 1970 is the result of the great rock n roll laxative. The biggest band in history break up allowed Harrison to empty his song writing blockage. To hear it freshly remastered is to hear it in all its surprising beauty and big Phil Spector production. Harrison wrote in the Remaster's liner notes that he could be tempted to remix the whole thing. If his re recorded version of My Sweet Lord is an indication of what he might have done then maybe he should lock the tapes in a vault but you can see some of what he means. Maybe on What Is Life and Awaiting On You All there is a little pomposity. Maybe in hindsight though the title track All The Things Must Pass is not over cooked he might have seen something in The Beatles Anthology version that would led him to see that it should have been undercooked. But none of this should stop the thrill of this collection. Variety from the ballads like Isn’t It a Pity to the country influenced Dylan cover If Not For You and the opening co write with Dylan, I’d Have You Anytime, to the rockier What Is Life, this is an album as jam packed with quality as you are ever likely to ever hear.

Of course there is the obsessed eastern spirituality that has been evident in everything Harrison has done since and one wonders if it had not been the trendier eastern variety of deities that Harrison’s took to his heart would this have been so well received. My Sweet Lord even it did cost George half a million dollars for being to close to He’s So Fine is an all time great single and in some ways though it has it’s chanted Krishna improvisation it could almost be seen as a prototype for all the modern Christian worship that has brought about it’s very own industry. Simplistic but positively spiritual, the Chiffons never sounded so good. Indeed all his spiritual searching can be cross related to anyone seeking the transcendent.

Beautifully repackaged with 5 additional outtakes including the previously unreleased I Live For You and that reowrked My Sweet Lord (I even find that intriguingly lovely), the remastered sound lifts the instrumentation and brings a fresh sharpness that only increases the brilliance.

If you only buy one post Beatles album then this is the one.


George Harrison 1

“We were talking-about the love that's gone so cold and the people,
Who gain the world and lose their soul-
They don't know-they can't see-are you one of them?”

   From Within You, Without You by The Beatles

The spiritual contribution to the Beatles came from their guitarist George Harrison who in the middle of the material opulence of being in the biggest pop band on the planet realised that money, fame and all the hedonism and freedom in the world couldn’t buy you inner peace. Though Harrison would leave the faith of his Catholic upbringing to seek spiritual enlightenment right in the middle of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band he is quoting Jesus.

It is at a crucial time of invitation to follow him that Jesus tells his disciples that they must deny themselves and take up their cross daily. He then asks what would it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul. It was prophetic stuff when Jesus said it and prophetic stuff in the middle of the sixties on arguably the most prophetic rock album in history; a whole generation who “had never had it so good” in material terms were pulled up short and made to reconsider their idea of human fulfilment.

Harrison would later get some criticism for the preaching tone of his work and it begins here. The “are you one of them?” was an extraordinary slap in the soul and I think what needs to be remembered is that albums like Sgt Pepper in the sixties were not just lapped up by the fans but the stars themselves were almost conversing with each other in the records they made. Harrison’s question was not just for the wider world but for his rock star community too. Within You, Without You might be the least known song on the album but is certainly the most powerful message at a time when the world was looking for message! 

LORD MAYOR'S PHILIPPINES BREAKFAST; Stocki's Devotions on Resurrection and Suffering

Lord Mayor Philippines

(this morning I was privileged to be asked by Tearfund NI to share a devotional thought at The Lord Mayor's Breakfast that Tearfund in partnership with Trocaire were hosting at the Refresh cafe at Skainos in east Belfast. It launched a day where the Lord Mayor is encouarging the people fo Belfast to support the people of the Philippines and recognising what the Philippino community has given to Belfast down the years. This is a mix of what I planned to say and then eventually did say...)

I owe The Philippines. It was a trip there in 1990 that changed my life and started me on a spiritual journey that led me to breakfasts like this one. My theology and views of my faith were contained in a match box until God opened my world view, understanding of Scripture and the reach of Jesus missional intent in the city of Manila and the island of Mindinao. I watched a three year old child, who lived in a house made of hardboard and tin, pushing a few peas around a plate. It was all she had or was going to have. I went rural. No electricity. Three people and a child on a motorbike taxi because there were no roads. I got caught up in a coup d’état and had to help push my jeepney over mountains. I saw the infrastructure of a different world than mine. When Typhoon Haiyan hit The Philippines my mind was back there among those shacks and on those mountain tracks. I had a glimpse back then but now I could only imagine.

Yet, those were not my first thoughts. While in Manila, I had the privilege of spending some time in Diliman Bible Church in Quezon city. A young women, in her early 20s, reported back to us how she had just returned from a mission trip to help people caught up in floods and storms. She told us about swimming flooded rivers grasping at telegraph posts and wires with a backpack of aid. As I make my pathetic contribution at a breakfast this morning, where getting out of bed before my children seemed unbiblical, I am aware that right now people are risking their very lives to help the lives of others.

When Paul explained to the Philippians (not The Philippinos!) that He wanted to know Christ he added two things; the power of his resurrection; and sharing in his sufferings. Christianity is not about the next life. That is a glorious by product. We are not called to heaven. We are called to follow Christ here on earth. Paul gives us insight into the desire that the Holy Spirit is looking for. First that we would have the thrill to live in the power of resurrection. The resurrection is about Jesus saying here is something new, powerful, transformative. We are bursting through the stone of the tomb into a new world of hope and change. We are to work with Jesus to make Resurrection life a reality on the streets of Belfast and the devastating wreckage of the Philippines.

What that means, Paul adds, is putting ourselves in the line of suffering as Christ suffered. The salvation of the world cost. A chapter before Paul spoke of Christ’s humility to become a baby in straw and to serve the world, even by being prepared to go to the cross. Follow me he whispers from every Christmas greeting you see in the next four weeks. Follow me. Swimming flooded rivers. And we are back to the Philippines and that girl from Diliman Bible Church.

A week ago we lost Fr Alec Reid, architect of peace process. A friend recalled this week how he had been at an event with Fr Reid where everyone was asked to say who they were and why they were there. Fr Reid answered, “I’m Alec and I guess I am here because I am always here.” As we remember Jesus birth coming up to Christmas that is what in some ways he was saying. This event is about God moving into the neighbourhood. God is always here. And us? Are we willing to be always there. Always seeking resurrection whether in typhoon devastated Philippines or the streets of our own city? Always prepared to suffer for the common good of all?

Let us be a Belfast that backs the Philippines and let us back Belfast too. Let us “want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”


Grace breathing

“Grace is the oxygen of another world and we like breathing our own.” I used this phrase as an illustration this week and immediately thought that it was worth writing down and surmising a little further. Jesus truth was grace. God was interrupting the way the world was with the way the world could be, God’s way. It was a scandalous truth that ultimately got Jesus crucified. The world couldn’t handle anything so subversively ridiculous. Jesus illustrated it well in his parable of the Prodigal Son. As the religious leaders of his day listened in, Jesus painted a vivid picture of a rascal who took his father’s inheritance and squandered it on sex and drugs and rock n roll, to give it a modern twist. Finding himself destitute he heads for home. As the story moves towards climax you can almost hear the Holywood soundtrack building the tension. Jesus says that the father sees the rogue from afar and the religious leaders are getting all excited about what judgement is going to come down... and... the father wraps his arms around him, puts a ring on his finger and throws a party. Jesus mentions the loyal, good living, brother as a comparison to the wild hedonist which makes even more acute the sense of the injustice. Grace. It seems madness but it is our only hope. It is God’s way of love; loved as we are without merit. Did I say ridiculous?

The follower of Jesus is more than aware of the amazing grace that embraces the wretch and brings the wholeness of salvation. As Paul put it so well in Ephesians, “It is by grace you are saved through faith...” In Philippians he spoke of this in his own life, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” For Paul this was a whole different oxygen. From attempting by his own efforts at holiness to relying on God’s interruption of grace what Jesus achieved for him in his life, death and resurrection.

Down though the history of Christianity it has been a struggle for those who, like Paul, get this theological eureka moment. Falling into the arms of God’s grace like Jacob, Moses, David, Zaccheus and Paul before us we then go back to preferring the oxygen that we grew up on. We start to set little legalist systems and then pummel ourselves under the guilt of failing to live up to them. No matter how much we believe in the doctrine of grace we look in the mirror in the morning and would rather be better looking, thinner, more successful and more holy. We never allow ourselves to be loved as we are, as grace informs us we are. Then as we go back to breathing that old oxygen we cut off the supply of the new oxygen that not only loves us as we are but has the transformative power to love us into who God can make us be.


Lady Gaga 2

Lady Gaga’s recent appearance on The Graham Norton Show on the BBC really impressive me. She was wonderful in her interaction with June Brown; Dot from Eastenders. It was great TV. During the show I came to realise that Lady Gaga is not really a pop star so much as performance artist. It gave me a new respect for her art.  There seems to be a lot going on in her whacky outfits and songs. As she spoke I could see echoes of so many artist friends who are a fascination when they get explaining their brain process in the creation of their work.

In the affectionate empathy of Gaga and Brown’s chatter, June did the 87 year old Granny-like thing and shared her concern about the first song Lady Gaga had performed on the show; Do What U Want. Gaga immediately responded like the granddaughter defending herself. The song is about the press and how they can do anything they want with my body but they can’t get to my heart and mind, she explained.

It is a worthy thought but it is Art Pop heresy just as it has been theological heresy for many a century. Down through the history of Christianity there has been a danger, often realised, in splitting the body and soul. It is called dualism and to put it crassly there are some who would think that the sinfulness of the body can get in the way of the holiness of the soul. This has led to all kinds of error in the working out of the Christian faith right down to the reaction to Elvis’s hip wiggle and the evils of rock n roll!

Lady Gaga has come up with a whole new dispensation of dualism in her meaning of this song. I believe there will be error in the working out of that too. If Lady Gaga, or dear wee Miley Cyrus, thinks that the body is almost an irrelevant bundle of matter, the use of which has nothing to do with their hearts and minds, then I think that is a very flawed understanding and will have repercussions not only in their own lives but also the lives of the generation they influence.

The use of your own body or the way others abuse your body has implications, psychological and spiritual. It is more than likely to come back to haunt them and beyond them the entire female gender and the male gender too. The use or abuse of our bodies in sexual ways should never be dislocated from our minds, hearts and souls. The body is an integral part of who God made us to be. The heart, mind and soul are all integral to the fulfilment of sexual satisfaction. The compartmentalising of them makes everything less than it should be.

On the BBC news, as I type this blog, they are reporting shocking levels of child on child abuse in the UK. In the report Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz  suggested that the music and pornographic industries have a great deal to answer for in creating such attitudes, with young girls being treated as commodities within gangs, passed around as sexual toys or used to ensnare rival gang members. Into such a tragic set of attitudes is Lady Gaga’s preach that you can do what you want with her body a healthy song for the soul of our society?     

U2; ORDINARY LOVE - An Early Surmise

Ordinary Love

U2 are back. With a new album due in the early Spring of 2014 the Dubliners have an opportunity to whet the appetite and get back in the room with a song from the soundtrack to Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. U2 fans will immediately know that Bono and Edge have already been connected with Mandela and the very title of that movie. In 2003 they were involved in the 46664 concert in Cape Town when they sang a couple of songs that never found a studio release and one was called 46664 (Long Walk To Freedom), written with Joe Strummer and Dave Stewart. 46664 was Mandela’s prison number on Robben Island and Long Walk To Freedom the name of Mandela’s autobiography. To me the very sound of Ordinary Love has a similar feel to 46664 (Long Walk To Freedom). It is not a traditional U2 sound though the prominent piano does echo their 2007 single Windows In The Sky. There are also lyrical similarities to the 46664 song. That Long Walk To Freedom from ten years ago finished with “waves breaking on the shore” and this one starts “The sea wants to kiss the golden shore.” Having been out to Robben Island over ten times now I can see the scenic view back across to Table Mountain from where the lyrical inspiration must surely come.

In the context of Mandela and a soundtrack, there are a lot of recurring U2 themes. “All the beauty that's been lost before/Wants to find us again” reminds us of the redemption at the heart of their theological song Grace. The breeze and the wind is the transcendent Spirit filled help that carries those who need carried.

The “ordinary love” idea has been spinning around my mind for a few days now. It is Bono at his proverb-like best. This is not about bringing love down to a common denominator. This is about elevating love to its potent heights. It is not saying there is a love that is spectacular and a love that is just ordinary. It is saying that the ordinary is always extraordinary. There is nothing less.

“We can't fall any further
If we can't feel ordinary love
We cannot reach any higher
If we can't deal with ordinary love”

This is the spiritual bottom line. The secret of the Universe. Without the involvement, connection and giving of love humanity is bereft of hope, meaning or the possibility of transformation. Humanity is at its very lowest. If we can’t take love on and live it, brave and self sacrificial, then we can’t reach the fulfilment of humanity’s potential that Jesus called “life and life in all its fullness” (John 10:10).

Nelson Mandela lived that ordinary love in the context of South Africa where the radical revolution of his life said, “I can't fight you anymore/It's you I'm fighting for,” in a post-prison political leadership that was for the common good that included his enemies as well as how own. This was not, sing U2, some beyond normal act of love. This is love. Ordinary and every day. It is always that amazing and unbelievable. It changes the world. It is the ordinary love we need in the divisions in Northern Ireland. It is the ordinary love that Fr Alec Reid, who we lost this week, showed us in his Mandela and more importantly Christlike actions.

If the U2 album that we are waiting for in 2014 is as depth charge filled as this we are in for some serious soul surmising!


Fitzroy notice board

Tomorrow morning (11pm) Fitzroy continues the 200 year Anniversary festivities of last weekend as we welcome one of our former interns Rev Whitney Wilkinson to preach. Whitney is a PUSA minister and  always Biblically astute and inspirational. We will also be hearing Vox Pop greetings from old interns. We will take a moment to reflect on the life of Fr Alec Reid who passed away on Friday just 36 hours after we had shown 14 Days as part of Fitzroy 200. Worship will be guitar edged...

In the evening (7pm) it is our Faith On Trial series and this month we have Simon Jeffery from Armagh Observatory. His title is "Redefining Cosmology: Genesis, John and the Big Bang." Should be fascinating!


Fr Alec 2

On Wednesday evening the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship showed the BBC documentary 14 Days on a big screen in Fitzroy. Seeing it in a Church took the film into another dimension and, after we watched, Ken Newell took us out of it in prayer and challenge. For 36 hours I was surmising what the greatest sermon I have ever watched was teaching me. Then on Friday morning, while sitting in the BBC, I heard out of the corner of my ear the radio talking about the iconic photo of Fr Alec Reid kneeling over a dead soldier. Why were they talking about that I thought and then realised the saddest scenario. Fr Alec Reid had passed away. Even more reflection on a life.

14 Days is an amazing piece of documentary. When the directors, Dermot Lavery and Jonathan Golden from Doubleband Films, started thinking about remembering 25 years of the worst 14 days in the Northern Irish Troubles they felt that it was too inflammatory. In that short time span three unarmed members of the IRA were murdered in Gibraltar as they planned a bombing. That they were shot and not arrested raised tensions in Republican communities. At their funerals a mad loyalist terrorist Michael Stone started shooting and throwing hand grenades, killing three and injuring sixty mourners. Then at the funeral of two of those victims two British soldiers got somehow caught up in the huge cortege and were dragged from their car and murdered.

It was a time of bloody carnage and poisonous tension. Both sides could have beeb enraged at the remembering. In the midst of all this Dermot and Jonathan started to investigate Fr Alec Reid’s story. They discovered a Catholic priest pastoring his own community in mourning and doing what he could to stop the violence getting worse. Reid tried to save the British soldiers by covering them with his own body from the terrorists seeking vengeance. He was told to leave or he would be shot and then returned to find the soldiers, now dead, attempting the kiss of life. He was photographed kneeling over them with their blood on his face.

That was almost a story... and then... the eureka moment. As Jonathan researched Fr Alec’s story the modest priest suddenly mentioned “the letter”. What letter? Well it seems that Fr Alec was at the second funerals in order to pick up a letter from Gerry Adams to hand to John Hume. The letter was the terms for negotiations and a way into a peace process. Fr Alec had that letter in his pocket when he gave the British soldiers the last rites. Indeed he explained that he had to change the envelope because there was blood on it. After that day when most of us would have gone home traumatised to seek some sanity Fr Alec Reid drove to Derry with a letter from Sinn Fein to the SDLP that set out the building blocks for what in six years time would yield a cease fire and the peace process we enjoy the fruits of today. Dermot and Jonathan had their way to tell the story of that dark fortnight. They had the light that was flickering into life at that darkest of times. Fr Alec Reid had redemption in his blood stained hands. It is responsible and prophetic journalism that is so often so sadly lacking.

As I have listened today to the newscast tributes of Fr Alec Reid’s life I suddenly came to terms with the fact that Fr Alec wasn’t the messenger boy that Adams and Hume used to take letters back and forth. Fr Alec had talked them into starting to talk. He was not a resource of Northern Irish peace, he was an architect of it.

The two most striking things I am learning from this man’s life were well described today by Gerry Adams who said, "What Alec Reid did was, he lived the gospel message. He developed a view which was contrary to the official view, that there had to be dialogue, and he was tenacious." First, Fr Alec believed that the Gospel was incarnational. It had to be lived in the neighbourhood you lived in. He spoke in 14 Days about the danger of Church people hiding behind liturgy and preaching. It needed lived and as he said about that moment of horror when he wrapped himself around those British soldiers hoping to protect them, this shouldn’t happen in a civil society and he needed to work to get rid of it. For him that was what following Jesus meant.

That leads into that second thing that Gerry Adams’ quote reveals. Fr Alec had an alternative imagining. He didn’t settle for how it is. He believed that the God he served could make it into how it could be. “He developed a view which was contrary to the official view.” There is a secret. Thinking outside the box. Smashing the default. The official line was not to talk to terrorists; don’t negotiate. Like Jesus, his example, Lord and Saviour, Fr Alec didn’t play the expectations. He was thinking and colouring outside the lines. If the lines hadn’t been smashed we would still be captives in the violence. Sadly, the Church most times creates the very lines that Jesus lived outside. There were times when Fr Alec was misunderstood, even thought to be a little dangerous. Had he not been...

In many of the Facebook messages about Fr Alec's passing Professor John Brewer has been adding “His legacy is evident around us but his greatest achievement would surely be if the next generation of Alec Reids would come forward and complete the task of peace building.It is a challenging thought to end a few days of deep reflection. Or will I hide behind my liturgy and preaching and remain inside the lines?