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December 2013


Deacon Blue You'll Know It's Christmas

(this week saw the release of Deacon Blue's Christmas ep featuring You'll Know It's Christmas. It is far from Deacon Blue and Ricky Ross's first foray into Christmas songs. So, I decided it was time to put together my Christmas playlist. I like it. We start by setting the seasonal scene, then the single. Then we are into the "sermon" with Starstruck, Calvary, Holy Night and Bethlehem's Gate (I prefer the piano version)... we then head back out into the party songs. Enjoy!)


“They could hear choirs, those heavenly choirs
Choirs of angels, those heavenly choirs...”


“If there’s a star in the sky

If the air is filled the mystery

If there’s a babe in the Church with a choir”


STARSTRUCK (Deacon Blue)


“Mother’s still feeling sore

Daddy’s looking sheepish

A little unsure”


CALVARY (Ricky Ross)

“A Baby comes, folks don't sleep
Those shepherds keep you up later than you meant to be
One child's grows and people notice
he's breaking chains
and making poor folks' lives so heavenly
(the way it's meant to be)”

HOLY NIGHT (Ricky Ross)

“Holy, holy night
Three tired travellers
Move till morning
One drives, two hold fast
To gifts and bags
And memories
Of holy, holy nights”


“The world groans and strains
For the hope of a time
Like a prayer that
Is wished and willed
To exist”


“We're deep in the heart of town (just a few)
Miles from where you stay
But it's coming near Christmas time
And I can't help wondering if you know
The way from yours to mine
When the streets are covered in snow”


“What last most myth or memory

Or this world born again...

Were you here in Scotland’s winter snow”




“The Campsies over Christmas

And I still dream of Memphis”




The church bells in town
All ringing in song
Full of happy sounds
Baby please come home”


“The champion of love
The queen of the new year”


Mary's Song

“There was nothing promised that is easily imagined,
And questions of the future leave me puzzled and concerned.
I don’t know where tomorrow leads,
But his grace today is all I need;
I know his love and love him in return.

And my senses overwhelm me
When I estimate his majesty
Every fibre of my being
Joins with all creation singing
Songs of how the weak are lifted up,
Songs that tell the richness of his love.”

These lyrics come from my friend Dave Thompson’s Mary’s Song. What I loved about the song is that in it we don’t find a Mary looking back with 2000 years of hindsight. She has faith to go along with this crazy and mysterious plan of God’s and, in its absurdity and great cost for her, just trust and believe. There is also a realisation that if what she thinks is happening to her is true that she is involved in an advent that will have deep seated affect among the poor and marginalised. God’s love is on the move and she feels it in her womb. She then finds the courage to play her part and praise the one who set it all in motion.

I have been linking this Biblical song of Dave’s with one he wrote about Van Gogh, available on his debut album Newsprint Sky. This song called Dear Theo is based on the letters Van Gogh wrote to his brother. Dave paraphrases my favourite line of Frederick Buechner that I use as a near mantra for the secret of purposeful living, “where your deepest gladness meets the world’s greatest need.” Dave writes it this way: -

“This is my calling and my creed,

This is my gift and deepest need.

Where I am at my most complete,

Where earth and heaven’s best intentions meet.”

 It captured Van Gogh for Dave, it captures Mary in this Advent drama for me and Frederick Buechner thinks it should be what captures us all. What are we offering God? What is our reason for living? Where is that place where earth and heaven meet in and through us?


Mandela 2

I thought I knew what he meant to me but when I was on my way home from a Church meeting and heard that Nelson Mandela had passed away I was still surprised at my immediate out pouring of tears. His health over the past summer made it less of a shock but I had been dreading this day for many years and here it was inevitably and eventually. Somehow it all felt more personal than I ever imagined. Over the past ten days I have struggled to articulate why Mandela meant so much to me or how to confine my thoughts to a manageable blog. This was such a huge life that confining it to a few thoughts is almost impossible. Here’s my attempt. I want to look at his political genius, what he taught me most in my personal life and the most powerful part of my reflection on his life!

What Mandela achieved politically can never be overstated. From where he achieved it from is as near to a human miracle as you can get. I have had the privilege on more than ten occasions to take a near sacred pilgrimage to Robben Island and every time I walked past that tiny cell and heard what he endured there I found it more and more remarkable that Mandela came out of that torturous prison with grace and forgiveness. I have also had the privilege of spending an hour with FW De Klerk the President who released Mandela and set South Africa on the road to democracy. I have always felt that De Klerk was the forgotten hero of the South African story. He was a courageous leader who sacrificed power for what he had eventually come to realise was right. De Klerk made it clear to us that Mandela was a tough political adversary. Yet, somehow Nelson Mandela underneath that no compromise steel had a heart of tender peace and reconciliation that resisted the temptation for vengeful justice to bring his former enemies with him and create a rainbow nation for every human being in South Africa. It is a truly extraordinary thought never mind making it come true.  I am constantly aware that in my own little country that is as divided and often times as violent as South Africa that such visionary and inclusive leadership is elusive but necessary.

That would be enough to make someone a legend but Mandela had more. What struck me as I read everything I could about the man they called Madiba was his personal touch. For me that personal pastoral genius can be seen in two places. The movie Invictus showed us how Mandela targeted South African rugby as a way to lift the morale and identity of the white population of the country. His strategy was worked out by befriending the captain Francois Pienaar and getting to know the names of every player in the 1995 World Cup winning team. He might even have played a psychological part in that team winning the Cup. It could have come across as a contrived political strategy but that was never the intentions of Mandela. Everything he did was authentic and genuine and came from the heart.

That personal touch was also seen in how he dealt with those around him. There are many people that make a President, a world leader and a historical icon. What I loved about Mandela was his eye for detail in his relationships with the people around him no matter how seemingly inferior their position and role. I remember reading an article in a South African newspaper during one of the many times that I was in Cape Town for his July birthday. It was written by the secretary in the Presidential office when Mandela arrived in 1994. She was white, she wasn’t a fan, she was suspicious of him and she was expecting to lose her job.  She testifies how Mandela arrived and with genuine connection made her feel special and turned around her fears. She soon found a love and respect for her new boss. We are back to that political genius of including his former enemies and in personal as well as ideological terms. Incredible!

In the end what has struck, inspired and challenged me most is that the achievements I mention, and the trillions I haven’t had room to, were all achieved by an ordinary human being. Mandela was not only a human being just like me but actually he had traumas in his life that made him less likely than me to show the kind of love for his enemy that I can. He shows us all that it is possible to make choices where the common good take priority over the partisan. He has revealed the potentail within our human prejudices to decide for forgiveness, grace and affectionate attention in how you deal with enemies as well as neighbours. As we in Northern Ireland struggle in our ability to listen to one another, make room for one another and find the will to be reconciled and live at peace with one another Mandela’s life leaves us embarrassed at our lack of bravery and tattered image of humanity. Blessed are the peacemakers and all of us can be blessed if we can find the honesty, healing and hopefulness of a Nelson Mandela.

After all that, what is perhaps most remarkable about this spectacular life, lived out in a human being who is just like us all, is that he literally changed the world but in doing so somehow reached into our personal lives and changed those too. How a man I never had the pleasure to meet could have such an impact on my heart and soul is a mystery that will live with me as long as his influence impacts my living. Thank you Madiba.


Do not be afraid 2

Luke 1:13; 1:30, 2:10

Four words have been lingering on my head and soul this last week as I have hovered around that Advent story. Three times an angel says to humans, “Do not be afraid!” It has made me surmise this week. Should we be so stretched and challenged by what God is asking us to do that we should hear those reassuring words more often in our daily lives. Focusing on Mary for a moment. For her to follow God’s will for her life was a more than frightening prospect. Should it be any less life changing for us? Perhaps if we are not needing to hear a “Do not be afraid” from God we are not living in the dangerous risk of living out his subversive Kingdom coming revolution.



Tomorrow morning (11am) will be a shorter Family Service, when we will be treated to the play Navititeen... a teenage twist on the old old story... directed by Natalie Gilbert... low budget... highest truth!

In the evening (7pm) we have an evening of storytelling... Chaired by David Ross this is our second such evening and the first was superb. Based on Padraig O Tuamas 10x9 event our theme this time is A Gift Received... Will be a wonderful night!


Mary 1

My name is Mary

And I am sitting here wondering

Can It be

Is it possible

You see I think I might be pregnant

Now I know what you are thinking

She’s not married

She’s too young

She’s been a bit of a...

But it is not like that

Between you and me

I am a virgin

Actually I have no embarrassment about it

You can tell the whole world if you like

Call me Virgin Mary if you want

I am a virgin...

And pregnant

And I am engaged to Joseph

I love him

And I haven’t slept with him


So you see it is a bit strange

A bit of a dilemma

How do I tell my parents

How do I tell the village

How do I tell Joseph



It couldn’t be true

Could I really have seen an angel

Could God really have chosen me

The Messiah is coming

And I am going to be his mother

God’s mother



I do know though

That all things are possible with God

We’ve waited a long time for the Messiah

And if I am really part of that plan

Then I need to stop sitting here wondering

And get up

And obey.



(my series of different angles on Christ's birth continues with a look at how Abraham has faith that God would do something, though he had no idea what... FAITH!)

GENESIS 22: 15-18

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring[b] all nations on earth will be blessed,[c] because you have obeyed me.”

I’m Abraham

I’m a man full of questions

Where am I going

I was just told to go

But have no idea about destination

I just went.


How can this be

The thing I am told

I’m going to be the father of a nation

A nation

My wife and I can’t have a child

But God took me out one night

We just looked up at the stars

Like this he said

Your descendents will be as many as these stars

Count them

What do you mean count them

You have to laugh

My wife laughs a lot

But if it is true, then

I guess one of these stars is for you

But I can’t even imagine you

I cannot understand

So full of questions.


Where am I going

I don’t know

My wife laughs

Children at her age

But something tells me to keep going

And up ahead somewhere

Some time

Some way

And God will do it


I believe

And he credits that to me as righteousness

Yes, I am a man full of questions

But I believe!



(In 1996 I wrote a series of Advent monolgues to take an event through the entire Biblical story... Here is the first... What did Adam think about Advent?)


Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspringand hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

My name is Adam

Look at the state of me



Alienated from the world

Alienated from my wife

And myself

Alienated from my Creator

It wasn’t always like this

Oh no, I had it all

More than any of you ever had.

More than anyone ever, ever had

A garden

THE garden

Such an inheritance


Everything that a human being could ask for

And a relationship with the One who made it and me

The purest human to God relationship that there ever has been

God walked with me in the garden

But we, myself and the companion God gave me,

Thought we knew better

We didn’t need God and God’s ways

We could be like God ourselves

We could make our own decisions


That was our cry.

So we reached to be more than we were

And ended up less than we were

We took our chance

For a just the taste of a piece of fruit

Sweet the bite

But bitter the taste in my soul

We were lied to


You won’t surely die

Lied to


For a piece of fruit





Yet, clinging to some words that we heard our maker say,

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heal.”


Behold The Lamb 

Andrew Peterson took the Biblical story telling part of Rich Mullins legacy and has ran with it to great aplomb.  Peterson is a crafted songwriter in the traditional sense and has been able to weave Biblical story to song as no one else perhaps in his generation. His Christmas album started as a live extravaganza with friends like Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Jill Phillips, Ben Shive, Andrew Osenga and Randall Goodgame. The collective continue to tour this suite of songs every December; you can even buy the video.

It is a carefully constructed story of the incarnation from thousands of years before the birth to reaching beyond the manger though crosses are not mentioned just yet! If you minted the CD onto vinyl there are two sides. Side One is the Old Testament looking ahead to the Deliverer’s arrival, culminating in a haunting and musically intricate instrumental of the Carol O Come O Come Emmanuel. That beautifully describes the yearning among God’s people for this big arrival.

Side Two is then the New Testament story beginning courageously with Matthew’s Begats; and yes he succeeds. The nativity is spelled out and in no better song than Labour Of Love which smashes the cosy view of Christmas and focuses on a teenage girl, away from her mother, in a outdoor space giving birth with only a carpenter to help. It is a staggering story so often lost underneath tea towels on children’s heads that we have confined this incredible theology to.

Peterson has created an authentic record of the season. Where many of our carols get it very wrong, check the temperature in Bethlehem and bleak and mid-winter it will not be, Peterson gives us an opportunity to sneak a look at the real Christmas scene.

Christmas Day Playlist:

Deliver Us

Matthew’s Begats

Labour Of Love


Rowen 2

READING - LUKE 2: 8-15

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

U2 took on these words, that the angels sang to the shepherds, after the Omagh bomb took 29 lives in one horrendous Saturday afternoon of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Bono often eyeballs such dilemmas with an honesty and vulnerability that seems to me to be a courage and bravery of faith rather than the cowardly cop out. So you are watching the 1998 review of the year in the midst of your children’s nativity plays. How do you reconcile the twenty-nine lives so violently and needlessly ended by the terrorist bomb in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, with the aforementioned song of the angels. Don’t lose your faith over it either;  wrestle with it! Bono takes it all on. Longs for heaven on earth and yearns for the time when that might be some kind of reality and tells God that indeed he is tired of the waiting. He asks God to answer the cries of those who have lost their children now silent in the ground. He concludes by telling Jesus that the words of that Christmas nativity sticks in his throat and he asks Him what it is worth - this peace on earth.

I wrote this prayer in the early days of the war in Iraq and U2 words seemed to fit.

God as we journey towards Christmas
Our world is at war
God as we journey towards Christmas
There is tension and murder on our own streets
God as we journey towards Christmas
There is bloodshed in the very place of that first Christmas morning
When angels sang
Peace on earth
God "we're sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there's gonna be peace on earth
So Jesus could you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on earth." ***

God help us to see the world as you see it
With grace filled eyes
With a hopeful heart
With an imagination full of possibilities
This Christmas
As we stop outside that stable door
As we park for a day at that manger
May we not get distracted
By the tinsel and glitter of our streets
By the dressing and stuffing of our tables
By the anaemic nativity plays of our churches
May we not miss the wonder of what is happening
This symbol of God's love towards us
This affirmation of how okay it is to be human
And this great truth
That He who was beyond our comprehension
Moved into the very midst of us
The holy in the filth of animal dung
The Almighty dependent on a young girl
The unapproachable with shepherds at ease by His side
The word made flesh
And God may we leave that day at the stable
May we leave that day at the manger
Inspired to be like that baby
To bring some peace on earth
In a world where words are no longer as important as experience
Where modernist objectivity is being replaced by postmodern subjectivity
May we see the secret of peace on earth
That in these days more than any other time for centuries
Actions need to speak louder than words
May Christ's birth that we remember
May Christ's life that we celebrate
May Christ's cross and resurrection that we will come to
Empower actions that scream and shout
Into our world
Onto our streets
Deep down into our lives
May indeed the word become flesh
And live among us.