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February 2014


Robinson to resign

The crisis at Stormont in the last few days has brought that old question back to the forefront of Northern Ireland’s future; how do we deal with the past? I have to say that there does seem to have been something askew and it would seem to me that the Unionists had the right to ask some questions. An enquiry is probably the right thing and the best thing to deal with the wrong that Unionism feels. I think the threat to resign was not a mature response and the First Minister’s response to the Prime Minister’s response when he said, “Why would I resign when I got what I wanted,” only highlighted the childishness. However, in an atmosphere where Unionism feels that they are losing ground to Republicans and there is no equality in how the past is being dealt with, it was an unhelpful situation.

That is not what this surmise is about though. How we deal with the past is vital to how we move forward. It is a thorny issue. It is emotional. Many have experienced deep pain at the loss of loved ones and in many cases the horrific violence with which they were lost. Whatever way we deal with the past we must always be a society that prioritises the pastoral care of those who lost loved ones and also for the thousands of “injured” who continue to live with the physical consequences of the Troubles. We also need to care whatever “side” the victim was from.

For all post conflict societies finding a way to deal with the victims and perpetrators of the past is key. I am no expert on peace agreements but I can imagine the compromise needed in such negotiations will have to include painful compromise on both sides. The prisoners being set free here in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement was a difficult image to come to terms with on our television screens. In the homes of their victims it was even harder to come to terms with. Yet, it was a necessary cost of a better future. Our current political crisis has been about letters being sent to killers on the run, who were never been brought to justice. Again wounds have been reopened and pain made more acute. Dealing with the past which was a crucial part of the recent Haass talks is again the conundrum we need to find a solution too.

I am surmising what the Church might have to contribute to all of this? We have theological words that I believe might be helpful. Forgiveness is a crucial one. Indeed the idea of grace that forgives unconditionally is the foundation that Christianity is built upon. Let me give you our theological deal. God made the world and humans were the pinnacle. Given freedom, an inheritance and vocation, human beings betrayed God, reached for independence and caused a deep enmity between themselves and God. God who was the victim of the crime seeks out the criminals and acts in time and space history to reconcile himself to humanity through his innocent son’s violent death. The peace that God brokered, the Good Friday Agreement if you like, did not begin with the criminal doing his time or even by the criminal repenting of his crime. The Gospel starts with the victim bringing the reconciliation after which transformation is a consequence not a condition of the salvation.

Now, I know that those outside of the Church do not need to pay any attention to such a model. Yet, even those who attend Church every Sunday seem to skilfully ignore it with theological gymnastics. My friend Gladys Ganiel, lecturer at Irish School Of Ecumenics, is someone whose research I value and use endlessly. Recently she interviewed clergy about reconciliation.

Among clergy in Northern Ireland, 85% thought it was very important to preach and teach on reconciliation between individuals and God, and 68% thought it was very important to preach and teach on reconciliation between individuals. But only 46% thought it was very important to preach and teach on reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.”

When it came to the laity only 36% thought it was important to teach on reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

I find it hard to believe that God didn’t mean his model of reconciliation to apply across the board. As a follower of Jesus I cannot receive God’s grace, forgiveness and reconciliation and then not apply it to others. Indeed the Lord’s Prayer, again so central to Church liturgy, has us saying, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God’s reconciliation is very clearly connected to our reconciliation with others.

Peace in a post conflict society is difficult. It is painful. It is hard work. The Christian Gospel of how God made peace in a post conflict world was difficult, painful and hard work. I submit God and his way of dealing with the past as a contribution to Northern Ireland’s future. I think it is worth us all having a surmise.  


Isaiah 43

(a poetic reflection on a few pastoral situations (outside my pastoral work in Fitzroy)... seeing ten minutes of an episode of Call The Midwife gave me the "God is not in..." start and the "Sometimes you’ve got to live on through/Until you find yourself alive again"... the last lines are from Isaiah 43 which I do use regularly in my Fitzroy pastoral work...)


God is not in the war

He didn’t drop the drones

But he is there in the debris

Among the screams and moans

You still waken in the night

The trauma reruns in your head

Pungent stench of bloodied flesh

Zipping body bags of all our dead.


The dark gets darker in your darkness

Not a glimmer of a flicker at its end

Sometimes you’ve got to live on through

Until you find yourself alive again.


God is not in the divorce

He isn’t into breaking hearts

He is in the coming to terms

Tenderly touching the jagged parts

You’re paralysed in the piercing pain

Disorientation in the drifting alone

Guilty at all the lives now fractured

Your children confused about home.


The dark gets darker in your darkness

Not a glimmer of a flicker at its end

Sometimes you’ve got to live on through

Until you find yourself alive again.


The rivers will sweep

I will be there

The waves will crash deep

And I will be there

The blazing flames will creep

And yes I will be there.



Our very first visit to the Sonop Vineyard on the Western Cape Winelands was a more remarkable learning curve than we could ever have imagined, more provocatively challenging than we could have contrived. I was there with Queens University Presbyterian Chaplaincy students where at the time I was Chaplain. For some time we had been a community interested in Fair Trade. In fact we had been endeavouring to make our Chaplaincy as Fair Trade as possible and were campaigning with Christian Aid and Tear Fund to push Queens University to become a Fair Trade University. So we had a rough idea. Fair Trade proponents and pioneers The Co-op had put us in touch with this Fair Trade Vineyard about an hour’s drive out of Cape Town.

Meeting the workers at the Sonop Vineyard was an inspiration. They were so excited about their work but more importantly about their new found freedoms. They spoke about their ownership of land; they own their homes and have their own land where they have their own vines that they tend and sell on to the mother company. In South Africa, of course, land ownership is a raging issue. For the non-white to own land is a whole new sense of security, dignity and freedom. No longer could they be tossed out of their homes and sacked on a white man’s whim. Yet more than that, education is so vital to the new South Africa. That which the oppressed used as a protest against apartheid by boycotting has now become the very avenue to consolidating the change by making sure the children get the education that their parents never had. So we heard about the nursery school in their own village, the Primary School where the bus takes them and the possibility of University – all paid for! Even the adults are getting all kinds of practical schooling. It is a world not dreamt about ten year ago but very much a reality. The sense of dignity, self worth and driving purpose of these workers as they develop their land is a joy to inhabit.

But there was more… so much more. Moments later and just a few hundred yards away we were standing by a fence in the workers’ village. On their side of that fence were beautifully painted houses and carefully groomed gardens. There was that little school and a play area. There was colour and beauty and all of that freedom and ownership we had just heard about was bursting with life. But on the other side of the fence…was the neighbouring vineyard. There was literally the thinnest breadth of wire dividing. And on that other side there was dirty, faded, paint peeling houses. There were rough dust and dirt paths between them. There was no colour, no energy, no pride and no sense of hopefulness.

It was a stark contrast. It was the most challenging piece of land I had ever stood upon. The choice was clear and stark. Buy into one side of the fence and there is a sense of care and justice for the workers. Buy into the other and there is simply exploitation, disregard and neglect of workers and their children. When my students stand in their local Co-op to buy coffee, sugar, tea, chocolate or whatever they now know they now have a visual aid to help them decide what products to buy. Their decisions have suddenly become a whole lot bigger and a whole lot clearer. There is a thin line between justice and oppression and we stood right at the sharpest part of the fence. Which side will we be investing in? What side of the fence best describes the redemption of heaven? Which side is God most thrilled with? What does it mean in our everyday shopping for us to bring God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

So, when I stand and see products without a Fair Trade mark I wonder what happens on the side of the fence where the grapes were picked... or the tea... or the coffee... or the bananas... or whatever... and I just can no longer bring myself to buy. I have driven a few miles to another store at times to makes sure my choices are on the right side of the fence!


Blind Man

(part 1 of a mini series on John chapter 9...)

After I preached on the drama that took place after Jesus healed the blind beggar in John chapter 9 I couldn’t help but slip seamlessly into of U2’s new song Invisible. Unlike so many of my surmises I don’t believe for a moment that John 9 was in Bono’s mind when he was writing the song. I do believe though that those that Bono was writing about inhabited a similar place on the edge of our society. Let us look a little close at these words from the song: -   

“I’m more than you know

I’m more than you see here

More than you let me be

I’m more than you know

A body in a soul
You don't see me but you will
I am not invisible.”

It is not at all contrived to realise that Jesus sees an invisible blind man and heals him with tender touch. The rest of John chapter 9 is an unfolding drama revealing that the religious leaders of Jesus day saw the blind man as nothing more than a theological conundrum, an object for debate. Jesus on the other hand saw much more than the religious knew or saw. Jesus saw the body and soul behind the invisible man. It is not lost on me that the blind man was not seen by the religious who claimed ultimate insight!

The religious, or indeed the neighbours and even the disciples of Jesus, didn’t see the blind beggar. The whole society indeed had dismissed him. They didn’t see him but they would. Soon this invisible man would be the centre of a debate that would expose the religious as living in their own blindness. They would throw the blind man out of their community yet again but Jesus would find the man whose own revelation of Jesus would see him moving into the life that was the light of all mankind that John had pointed out in his prologue in chapter 1.

Let us not tut tut the Pharisees though. Let us ask ourselves who the invisible people are in our world. Could there be someone we have ignored who Jesus might work through and our own locked in religious systems might not only miss but judge and cast out. Might there be light shining into someone else’s life while we continue to stay stuck in our darkness.

(part 2 to come...)


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Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we head into that most literary and artistic of all the chapters of all four Gospels - John 9. This is an asounding layered piece of writing and as we unpack it we will deal with apathy about, resistence to and acceptence of the light and love of God. We will see how tenderness of love beats hard cold theological correctness in God's future breaking into the present. We will also look at our deep seated fears of being cast out of the group and which kind of belonging matures faith. It is simply intoxicating stuff. Guitar edged worship too!

In the evening (7pm) Roz Stirling the Director of Cleopas gives us an evening to find spiritual space for the nurture of our souls. Expect Biblically directed solitude and time for the Spirit to minister deep.


4 Corners

(this is a review Fr Martin Magill and I wrote for today's Irish News)

The 4 Corners Festival never ceases to amaze us. A cup of coffee and a vague idea has suddenly become what the Lord Mayor described as “a permanent fixture on the Belfast Festival calendar”. It is only 16 months since that coffee and we still have no budget or staff but the 4 Corners Festival is making its impression on the two of us as much as on anyone else. We cannot count the times this Festival when we looked across a room at one another astonished at what is going on around us. A meal for 80 homeless people in the City Hall Parlour, hearing the human stories of five politicians in the Stormont Long Gallery, four church leaders sharing how denominationally interwoven our stories can be, Commissioners and public leaders sharing their prayer requests at a Prayer Breakfast, people sharing deep hurt at Listening To Your Enemies as Riot Police walked past as well as great art, and new and unlikely connections of people across our 4 Corners. It is a small contribution to the coming together of Belfast but a contribution it is. We are thankful to God for doing with a vague idea more than we could have asked for or imagined.

Now that we have had a little time to take a breath and reflect a few things rise to the surface that we will need to consider as we move on in life, parish and the Festival itself. The privilege of listening to people’s stories immediately comes to mind as a recurring theme. This was at times very intentional but at other times stories sneaked in. The Stormont evening was particularly fascinating. To hear our politicians speak of their grandparents and Irish stew, Irish dancing or even gambling problems; or their family situations and how they had dealt with illness and loss; or how all of them had all crossed the 4 Corners in their commitment to community work and a better city for all. It re-humanised political labels and policies and election jingles. It is something our media should learn from. We need more platforms to share common stories than the many places we already have where people shout at each other about what divides us.

The church leaders did a similar thing in helping us to see that our monochrome world of denominations is actually not how it is. Each spoke of how they had been blessed by the other Churches and with a great deal of humour were honest and open about the weaknesses and strengths of the Churches involvement in reconciliation. Padraig O Tuama’s Sorry For You Troubles poetry evening took us into the lives of many peoples’ stories in our recent Troubles and told those stories with great sensitivity, dignity and prophetic challenge and inspiration. Singers Anthony Toner and Dave Thompson along with poet El Gruer dug deep into their own and the stories of others in Where There Are Stories There Are Songs.

After all the story telling it was perhaps the need for the audience to tell their stories that struck us most. Our keynote event before the Festival, and the one that sadly gave us headline news during it, was Listening To Your Enemies with Jo Berry, who lost her father in the Brighton bomb, and Patrick Magee, the Brighton bomber. Sadly some in the eastern corner of the city were not ready to listen to an enemy from the western  corner and trouble flared as a crowd protested outside. There was a visually powerful moment when, as Jo and Patrick were speaking, the audience watched around fifteen Riot Police walking down the side of the building! Inside the meeting Patrick Magee shared how poignant and important it was for him to share his story in the east of the city. It is a powerful thing when someone shares how they have to live with the fact that they killed Jo’s dad and Jo is sitting beside him. Their tentative journey towards friendship and making contributions around the world to peace is an honest and helpful one.

They were not the main act of that particular night though. Uncontrived is a word that we both hold dear. The rest of that evening at Skainos was very much uncontrived. When Rev. Lesley Carroll opened it to the floor we were not sure what might happen considering what was unfolding outside. The first to speak was Mary Brady whose husband was killed in retaliation for the Brighton bomb. She gave a lovely tribute to him and gave Lesley a framed photograph of him to hold. She spoke of a thorn in her head and her heart and how she felt she needed to come and share her story. Soon after Mary another man shared how he had been blown up in a bomb 38 years ago that very night and his friend had been killed. Again he told us that he felt he had to be at the event. Suddenly the evening became a place of catharsis. Gladys Ganiel, from Irish School of Ecumenics and a 4 Corners organiser, has since written on her blog how countries that find a place to tell such stories move forward faster. We will need to think about this as a Festival and a country as we move on.

Another recurring theme also needs wider consideration. Fear. In his superb address The Psychology of Peacemaking From The Sermon On The Mount Roddy Cowie opened up fear as the greatest hindrance to peace and showed us how Jesus dealt with fear in that iconic sermon. He also reminded us that it is the most repeated command in Scripture, “Do not be afraid.” At the 4 Church Leaders event Norman Hamilton shared how his wife had shared a few verses from Psalm 27 with him as he headed out into the Holy Cross crisis;  “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” Padraig O Tuama touched on fear in his poetry and there were other implicit and explicit scenarios of fear, top of the list being the arriving and leaving that Listening to Your Enemies event, throughout the Festival.

All in all, two wonderful weeks. As we look ahead there might be some pressure to develop and expand. There might be a call for a budget, a bank account and a more thorough organisation structure. We might be resistant to that as perhaps 4 Corners Festival’s most inspirational contribution is its DIY approach. Anyone, even us, can do something.


Bruce Almighty and God

I love the movie Bruce Almighty and every time I watch it I see new theological nuances and behavioural challenges in scenes and lines. Bruce is wrestling in a Psalm-like way with God over life in general and career in particular when God arrives and tells suggest if he can do a better job, to get on with it and passes on His attributes to Bruce. Getting God’s attributes would go to any young man’s head and it does, with him lifting ladies skirts on the street and drawing the moon in closer to heighten the romance and ultimate lust with his girlfriend GRACE who by the way is named for theological impact.

There are other threads in the plot, and many spiritual discussions are opened for discussion or closed to debate, but Bruce and Grace is where it begins and ends. Ultimately it is about the humbling of a man, any man, to see others as more important than him. It is a lesson in how to love. Bruce is all about himself and his career. There is a scene where having asked Grace to get dressed up and taking her to their most important restaurant Grace expects to hear the words “Will you marry me?” and gets “I got the anchor job” which he has used his divine gifts, again selfishly, to steal at the local news channel.

In the end Grace leaves Bruce and in his final surrender to God Bruce gets knocked down by a truck and eye balls God himself on the brink of judgement. There, at the end of his tether and the end of his pilgrimage, God asks him what he wants for Grace and Bruce prays a prayer that is insightful and Christlike, “I want her to be happy, no matter what that means. I want her to find someone who will treat her with all the love she deserved, for me. I want her to meet someone who’ll see her always as I do now; through Your eyes.” Bruce has put his own selfishness to death in order that someone else might be loved. This is when Christ’s redemption becomes personalised and realised in Bruce and that redemption does not only clear his sin slate clean but re-moulds him as a Christlike person.

I think of this parable of redemption when I listen to Iain Archer’s song Frozen Lake, from his gorgeous new album To The Pine Roots. This beautifully tender and fragile tune, sung at the top of Archer’s gifted vocal range is about living to love others; wife or the whole big world!

“I want to be someone who makes you feel beautiful

I want to be someone who does

I want to be someone who makes you feel beautiful

I want to be someone who covers you with love”

Archer 4

This is music as a prayer. Where Tolstoy spoke of art as intercourse between human and human, it can also be an intercourse in the depth one’s own meditating, reflective soul or between human and God.

What I was drawn to in both Bruce Almighty and Frozen Lake was the use of the word “someone.” There is a psychological need at the heart of every human being to be “someone.”In both of these pieces of art the “someone” is the one who lives to love, to serve others and indeed feed other people’s “someone-ness.” If we want to find who we are, it is not in living for what we want. Indeed, another great line in the movie is when Bruce tells God he gave everyone what they wanted in their prayers and God responds, “Since when has anyone a clue about what they want?”

The Bible constantly suggests that we will find ourselves when we give up what we think we want. Jesus asked what good would it be to gain the world and lose our souls, our very self? Paul was constantly writing to believers telling them to put the interests of other above themselves. In Philippians 2 he theologised this idea, perhaps quoting an early Church hymn, and inspired us to what discipleship really is – doing what Christ did in giving up everything for others. Then, like Bruce, we pray the right prayers. Then, like Iain, we become the “someone” we long to be; what God made us originally to be and what Jesus died that we might become again.

ISAIAH 61; RENEWING THE RUINED CITIES (for Belfast and Birmingham, AL)

Justice Like A River

I have been blessed by countless trips to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for so many years. One of the guides who was a former prisoner told us that the prisoners had used the island as a University. They learned to read, write and even economics and politics. The guide then profoundly added, “We were getting ready for freedom before freedom came.” Writer Jim Wallis once wrote, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.”

Isaiah 61-63 is about the place where we live in God’s story. It is that place where in spite of the evidence of the evening news we believe that redemption is already coming and will finally come. It is the place where the truth is setting us free before the fulfilment of freedom finally comes. For 39 chapters Isaiah waxed lyrical about a world that needed judgement. Isaiah 40 onward sees redemption breaking through. The first words of Chapter 61 are the words that Jesus read to launch his ministry, in the synagogue in Nazareth. His exposition was that he was a fulfilment of them. Jesus came to herald in the hope of the redemption so poetically prophesised in these chapters.

They struck me with power and a good deal of emotion recently in Belfast. I am the organiser of the 4 Corners Festival which attempts to bring the broken pieces of Belfast together. One of our events was a Prayer Breakfast where we asked some major public figures to share with us what the Churches could pray for them; the Commissioners of Justice, Equality and Youth as well as our Lord Mayor. It was a poignant hopeful morning as Christians sought to contribute. Minutes after the event I was sitting in my car outside my 4 Corners partner Fr Martin Magill’s Church and while I waited I thought I better read these verses and start my thinking for this devotional. I read:

“They will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
    that have been devastated for generations.”

This is why we had got up early. This is why we had heard our public leaders. This is what we had prayed for. This is what we needed to now believe and live. This is what God wants for Belfast. In just a few days time we would sit in another 4 Corners event where peacemakers were speaking inside a Church and the Riot Police were keeping a crowd not so keen in peacemaking calm outside. We are a city long devastated; devastated for generations. We were believing in spite of the evidence. We were a long way from freedom but Isaiah 61 was calling me to get ready for freedom because it is coming. These verses brought tears to my eyes, called me to prayer and recommitment to the vision of God for Belfast.

Last time I was at Cathedral of Advent I walked down to the Civil Rights Institute and sensed the connections of Belfast and Birmingham. I pray for you my brothers and sisters in Birmingham as you believe in spite of the evidence and pray your evidence will change. I pray that God will inspire you to imagine freedom in every corner of your city. Let us pray for one another.


Andy and Red Shawshank

In John chapter 8, Jesus is in the Temple and his confrontation with the Religious leaders is heating up. At the Festival of Tabernacles when a Candelabra is symbolically lit to remind the people of the pillar of light that followed the children of Israel in the wilderness Jesus stands up and cries, “I am the light of the world.” It is another cosmic bomb that Jesus drops that shatters the ground beneath the religious default of his day. No wonder there is a reaction.

A few weeks ago the 4 Corners Festival, that I am involved in organising, invited Jo Berry whose died was killed in the Brighton bomb in 1984 and the bomber Patrick Magee to share their journey towards understanding each other and friendship in the Skainos Building of East Belfast. Like Jesus’ words in the Temple, a former IRA bomber in East Belfast caused a response. The event needed the riot police to keep the calm. I understand that we challenged the default of some.

In that Temple confrontation Jesus also said that the truth would set us free. It does but the truth is difficult to face. It costs to find freedom. In the end we need to decide we want to. In my favourite movie Shawshank Redemption people are struggling with the cost of freedom. Brooks has been released after nearly half a century in prison and cannot cope with freedom so he hnags himself. Back in the prison yard the prisoners are reflecting on this and Red says, “These walls are funny...  first you hate them... then you get used to them... then you come to depend on them. “ We are so easily conditioned to our situations. The Jewish leaders were in Jesus time, those unhappy with our Peacemaking event in East Belfast a few weeks ago. What about me? What about us? Where have the walls got us. Are we able to deal with the truth?

Going back to the Temple Jesus saw something going on under the surface of these discussions. It was about light and darkness. It was about reaching into the secret of the souls, spiritual communities and society as a whole. As well as that pillar of light in the wilderness the mention of light to Jews would have brought to mind Psalm 115:5 -  Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” John saw Jesus as that Word made flesh. To live by the ways of this Jesus was the way to life in all its fullness as John 10:10 declares. Resisting this Jesus is a way to darkness, captivity and as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it dead end living. As our hero In Shawshank Redemption puts it, paraphrasing Bob Dylan, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Dying is easy; continue as you are. Living? That will take courage as you allow the cosmic bombs of Jesus to shudder the ground beneath your feet and find new ground in following him into light and truth and freedom.

Listen to the entire sermon of this here....


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Tomorrow morning (11am) at Fitzroy, Jonathan Abernethy Barkley will be preaching.

Close your eyes ... and

Welcome to a world of darkness

Close your eyes... and

Stumble through a story that

In the light of day you could walk through

Close your eyes... and

See through a different lens

Open your eyes.. and

See what you haven't been seeing all along.

With the help of John Ch 9, Mark Twain, Mother Teresa and a drop of imagination we will see a man move from darkness to light as the light of the world restores his sight and ask the question of ourselves - how is our vision?

Our evening service (7pm) will change venues to McCracken Memorial at the top of the Malone Road. Trevor Ringland, former Irish and British Lion Rugby star and now Chairman of NI Conservatives, will discuss the courage needed for future Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Can I also point you to other events coming up in Fitzroy...

Alastair McIntosh on Ecology and Faith; Feb 28th

6 Week Series on Christianity and Modern Thought...