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April 2014


Belfast Marathon

Two years ago, it might even have been this week, I made a crazy declaration at the front of Fitzroy that we would put an Over 50s Marathon Team together and even more outrageous, I would run! I was almost 17 stone at the time and a little out of breath if I had to rush up my stairs. It was an outlandish commitment and was not even in my thoughts thirty seconds before I thoughtlessly spouted it out! Well, next Monday the commitment will be fulfilled… and I will run the longest leg and maybe the next leg too! All for the Fitzroy 10:10 Build Fund for our Hall renovations to serve the community at home and also to build a school in Uganda with Field Of Life.

I am quite delighted to be at the point where a leg of the marathon is quite easy to me and that I might join Ian McMurray for the one after mine. So, if you were kind enough to sponsor me then please don’t consider the reasonably fit 52 year old that will be standing at the start line on Hillview Road itching to get going. Instead remember the overweight and very unfit 50 year old who set out on this adventure. When you are writing that cheque then think of that first half mile, eighteen months ago, when it was a real struggle. Remember the 210 runs, covering just over 700 miles, when I went from that half mile to eventually running 13.1 miles. Remember that that first half mile was at a pace of 11 minutes per mile and now I am breaking 9 minute miles for 7 milers. Remember that to achieve this change in Personal Bests has taken a more disciplined diet as well as running in the cold and the rain. Take all of that into account as you give what it might deserve and give it to a good cause.

Our Fitzroy 10:10 Build project is about two things. We want to reach out into the community where are Church worships in and also reach across the world. The Halls project can seem a little self indulgent. It will come in at around £1 million. Yet, that is far from ostentatious. We are mainly bringing our halls into the contemporary nature that they need to be in to fulfil a contemporary ministry. We long to be a community focus for the Holy Lands, Botanic Avenue and Queens University. It is a varied neighbourhood with very real needs and we are determined to make our contribution. 

As well as making a contribution in our local area Fitzroy has always had a wider world vision. So, we are beginning a partnership with Fields Of Life to build a school in Uganda. We will hope that, as well as giving hundreds of teenagers an education, we will find ourselves in real partnership with an area of Africa that can be mutual beneficial to us all.

Anyway, that is what is going to benefit from anything that you might be kind enough to donate from this Marathon Relay. It is not why I have knocked my body into some shape but it might be a very useful outcome of it! 


Cheques payable to: “Fitzroy Presbyterian Church”

and sent to:

10:10 Build Fund Marathon Team

26 College Green



THE LIFE LONG LESSON OF GRACE - Pause For Thought, BBC Radio 2, 29.4.14

Scottish Dancer
You might think I am a slow learner when I confess that I was near the end of my teens when I realised that the iconic hymn Amazing Grace was not about a young Scottish girl. You see when I was ten the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards had it at number 1 in the charts so I saw kilts and thought rightfully Scottish and heard Grace and thought wrongfully girl! 
Maybe U2’s Bono learned the same lesson as he eventually wrote a song called Grace with the lines, “Grace, a name for a girl, and a thought that changed the world.” It is coming to terms with that latter idea of grace that changed the world that has been the crux of my life’s most important lessons.
The grace of amazing grace is the central idea of Christianity that God loves us without any of our merits or even our religiosity. It is a radical, near crazy, notion. It is not how the default of our world works. We live in a graceless world where the good looking pull the good looking, the cleverest gets the PhD, the best player plays for the best team and the most gifted singer is number 1… well that’s how it mostly works. We would of course argue, in court of we had to, that that is how it should work. Yet, it is reckoned that all our insecurities, inferiority complexis, addictions and psychological frailties comes from such a merit driven world.
Finding God’s grace in my life has meant a constant re-learning and  re-imagining. To believe that by grace none of my foibles, quirks and failures are credited against me. To look in the mirror and by grace not have to stay forever young. To get into my beat up car and by grace not need a fancy expensive one to be a somebody. To look at my enemies and have the courage to show grace towards them. God’s grace is received quickly and easily. However, to learn how to live it out in my soul and across society takes a lifetime. Yet, for me I’ve learned that this mad thought can indeed change my world and indeed the entire world.


Radio Ulster

The movie Philomena has been lingering around in my brain since I saw it recently. It is a poignantly sad but also spiritually inspiring film. If you haven’t seen the movie here’s a quick synopsis. A women goes seeking the son she had lost to adoption from a Magdalene Laundry some 50 years previous. It turns out that the Convent, for whatever reason, has done everything to prevent the mother and son finding each other. Journalist Martin Sixsmith who is helping Philomena in her search gets exasperated and storms through a few private doors of the Convent to confront a nun he thinks is complicit. As he is going off on one Philomena appears and in her quiet tone tells the nun that she has forgiven her. “Just like that,” Sixsmith retorts. “No not just like that,” Philomena replies, with a facial expression that speaks a thousand words of the courage and pain that forgiveness takes. When Sixsmith goes on about how he feels about the injustice of it all, Philomena looks at him with sympathy this time and says, “That must be exhausting”. 

It made me think of our own wee country. It has been exhausting holding the bitterness and hurt of the past. And I am aware of the courage and pain that forgiveness takes. But is Philomena’s example not a helpful one. Jesus was a great advocate of forgiveness. It was central to what he was about and to what he taught his followers. Indeed was Jesus doing what was best for us when he asked us to forgive. For Philomena it brought peace and for Martin Sixsmith not forgiving caused exhaustion. 

Jesus of course didn’t just talk about forgiveness. At the Last Supper he loved his betrayer Judas and even washed his feet. John tells us he was troubled in spirit at the interaction. And of course on the cross, that we remembered just over a week ago, he prayed for his executers, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they do.” And in Northern Ireland? Will we find the peace of forgiveness… or remain exhausted?



It was a fascinating day and I have to say I was impressed by almost every part of it and many parts there were. My father-in-law was an elder Old Park Presbyterian and once asked what I would do if I was minister. One of the ideas was to become a Chaplain to Cliftonville FC. So, when my good friend Fr. Martin Magill, now parish priest in the parish that Cliftonville’s ground is situated in, asked me if I would attend a match with him I was quite keen. After last weekend’s heroics when they won the Irish Premier League, for the second year in a row for the first time in their history, I thought it would be a good day to go. Though I attended a few matches when my friends Alain Emerson and Chris Guiney were playing for Loughgall I realised that it was the year they were getting promoted to the Irish League and so this was the first Irish League level game I had been to since the 1989 Irish Cup Final when Ballymena United beat Larne 1-0 in the worst game of football I had ever seen. That I hope to be at another Irish Cup Final next Saturday when Ballymena United will play Glenavon… like buses…

So first up, as this was a football match, let me say that I was immediately impressed with the quality of the football. Let me of course say that the season was over last weekend and the tile had been won. That certainly made this a little passionate and feisty that it might have been. However, that might have given more opportunity for players to express themselves without heavy tackles raining down on them. Cliftonville particularly looked like a side that can play a bit. There was some lovely one touch football and Chris Curran’s second goal in particular was beautifully worked and very well taken.  Crusaders made their contribution too and were far from outplayed in a 3-2 defeat.  It was a huge step up from that 1989 Cup Final! 

Today was however about much more than a game of football. It was the first time I have ever been in the Director’s Box. I was a guest of Fr. Martin who was a guest of Chairman Gerard Lawlor and I have to say Gerard was a superb host on a day when he had much on his mind. I shared with him how Solitude was the first place I had been taken to an Irish League game by my Uncle Bert and how I’d been to the 1969 Cup Final there. I enjoyed checking out the historical photos on the wall and the Trophy Cabinet.  It was a treat for me to have a pre match cup of coffee in the Board right beside the Irish Premier League Trophy. It is as close as Ballymena man might ever get to that particular piece of silverware! 

The sandwiches and and buns at half time was just as welcome but what struck me more were the speeches by both Gerard and the Crusaders’ Chairman Stephen Bell said a few words. What came out of a few words was the intentionality of both clubs to cross the community divides and make a better news story for North Belfast. Again I was impressed. It didn’t seem just words in the Board Room and it was actually very evident too in the stadium. 

There were a couple of moments that presently surprised me. Football is not a sport where civility is any longer a virtue. The booing of injured players, the abuse to opposing managers and the unfriendly reception given to former players is an awful indictment on the sport. It was therefore great to see that when a Crusaders player was stretchered off that the Cliftonville fans clipped him all the way into the tunnel. Then as Crusaders’ manager Stephen Baxter left the field he sportingly clapped the Cliftonville fans in recognition of their two Premierships in a row. Refreshing.

So as I sat surmising I was beginning to think that football has a contribution to Northern Ireland’s fractured society. For too long sport has been a contributor to our sectarianism in both unintentional and intentional ways. If we could take the example of Cliftonville and Crusaders perhaps things could be different.

Oh, and congratulations to Cliftonville. Quite a feat. Now for Ballymena United in the Cup Final next week!


Fitzroy inside

Tomorrow morning (11am) I will taking us to our series through The Gospel According To... John. It is a rich text of friendship, denial, betrayal and the love Jesus shows his disciples and the demands they show to each other. It is a powerful passage to consider the week after Easter. Where is the Judas and Peter in us all? How revolutionary is the love Jesus reveals and asks us to follow? All wrapped up in crunchy guitar worship and a wee bit of Bob Dylan - "I gaze into the doorway/of temptation’s angry flame/And every time I pass that way/I always hear my name."


Tomorrow evening (7pm) we will be praying for post Easter power of resurrection in our Church life, family lives and our social holiness. 


Lesley Carroll




with Rev Lesley Carroll and Padraig O Tuama

April 30th @ 7.30pm

Clonard Monastery, Clonard Gardens, Belfast, BT13 2RL

On Wednesday evening April 30th, The Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship welcomes, as its main speaker, Lesley Carroll is minister of Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church. Lesley has been a tireless worker in the peace and reconciliation field for many years. She has been a major contributor to the Churches’ contribution to a better future in our country. The Biblical idea of Shalom expresses the breadth of her interests; a peaceful and just future for the benefit of all, in all areas of our social life. 

On Wednesday night Lesley will speak about how we can learn from our past in order to shape our future. She will bring her experiences on the streets as well as her experience on the Eames-Bradley Panel to the discussion. We are constantly in these uncomfortable conversations about how we deal with the past that has scarred us in order to find a future that might bring healing. Lesley has much to offer to such conversations.


To add to the conversation we are also delighted to have poet and peace activist Padraig O Tuama reading from his book Sorry For Your Troubles which is full of uncomfortable conversations that we need to be listening to. Padraig’s deftly wordsmithery opens up such conversations in artistic and provocative ways that fuels the soul with alternative imaginings.

This is a night not to be missed if you are keen to stimulate your own contributions to God’s Kingdom coming in Northern Ireland as it is in heaven. EVERYONE WELCOME!

U2'S JOSHUA TREE - A Personal Story

Joshua Tree

So it was 27 years ago today that Joshua Tree went to the top of the US Billboard album chart and U2 took over the world. They had of course taken over little worlds before that. Indeed they took over my world, six years earlier, in October 1981when I purchased the appropriately named October record with some of my birthday gifts tokens. I can remember setting the needle down on the opening track Gloria and a life long journey with these four Dublin guys being launched. I wasn’t to know that thirty years later I would write a book about their journey and end up talking and writing about them for the rest of my life.

They must have conquered enough other little worlds by the launch of Joshua Tree because the night it went on sale there was a huge crowd outside Makin’ Tracks record store in central Belfast to be the first to get their hands on it. It was the first of a long tradition where U2 records would go on sale at midnight Sunday. From the first minute of Monday the album would receive its sales credits for the next week’s chart placing. It had never happened before but it caught the imagination of hundreds of fans. I was coming out of our Church’s Youth Fellowship when I told a few of my fellow leaders that the record was going on sale. We were 20 miles away with a great sense of camaraderie and what better way to end the weekend!

We were in a little disbelief when we found ourselves in a long queue on a cold March evening. I remember a lot of banter in the passing of time but it all became worth it when a commotion at the door of the store came filtered down the line that the band had actually appeared! They had been recording an Old Grey Whistle Test Special at Belfast King’s Hall and here they were to sign records. 

The result of all this was that the first time I heard Bullet The Blue Sky I was actually standing beside Edge who was muttering humorously about putting Simply Red on instead. I have to say Bullet The Blue Sky was a disconcerting sound, so much heavier than the U2 we had been used to. As we approached  the counter, to get our records signed, my friend Nicola asked if I had anything she might get signed, as she hadn’t bought a record (silly girl now!), so I reached into my pocket and, as all assistant ministers do, pulled out my pocket Bible. As Nicola opened it to get signed Larry walked across, quiet and nonchalant as ever, turned over the cover to check what it was before walking away with a little smile. Bono looked up as he signed it and said, “That’s a great book.” 

It was over very fast but, as you can read, indelibly marked in my mind. I remember then rushing back to my college hall and, as I have done with the midnight purchase ever since, listening to the entire thing in one silent sitting. If the sound of Bullet The Blue Sky was a little disconcerting then the lyrics of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was the spiritual conundrum. I will be honest and say that it took me some months, maybe years, to come to terms with the spiritual depth of that song. As my good friend David dark often says, “When you first hear a U2 album you think they’ve lost their faith and then after awhile you wish you had their faith.” I have explained that song in almost every continent of the world and perhaps it was at that moment, though I didn’t know it for thirty years, that someone had to write a book to explain the deep theology at the heart of this rock band. 

Millions of us believed that U2 were the real deal before Joshua Tree went to number one on Billboard but after it there was no doubt. It is indeed an iconic record, from its amazing cover to the range of subject matter, the new maturity of how faith and the world caresses and collides and the atmospheric art of the sound. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois had taken it to another level, helped for sure by the development in Bono and the band’s songwriting. Here was a band in the latter part of their twenties, with their apprenticeship behind them, coming to terms with a post adolescent spiritual faith and big vocational ambition. It was a potent mix. It was a great record. It was a turning point in many ways for many people.


Antrim Coast Road

Cairns and crags

Mountains and glens

Ever changing sky shapes 

Where the coast road bends 


Ruins and thatches

Crevices and caves

Soul space beaches

White horse waves


The fiddle and the bodhran 

The fife and Lambeg drum

Flow in image and rhyme 

And the passionate strum 


This is Ireland

Thanking God for the sea

Sod to keep our feet dry

Sweet home to you and me.



It is not good for the beautiful game to have created such an ugly way to dismiss their managers. What would it have been like to have been a member of the Moyes family yesterday with all the news outlets making clear the news that wasn’t yet news? It is not pretty. I should know. As a Manchester City fan our last two managers have gone in similar fashion. I remember the shame and even more so when one of the “you’re getting sacked in the morning” news leaks was before an FA Cup Final. The game is deep in the muck of disrepute again this morning. 

Looking back at my blog in January about United, Moyes and Sir Alex, suggests that I saw this coming. It was an appointment that smacked of old traditional values that have long gone. Instead of going for the big name who had done it at the top level go for a man with a work ethic and a sense of loyalty. It might even have worked in 1985 when a friend’s ma told us to go and watch the news as Alex Ferguson was about to be announced manager of Manchester United. No Twitter back then so we really were in the know. My friend’s uncle was debating whether to stay at Aberdeen or go with his mate Alex as his assistant. My friend’s ma asked, “Are Manchester United a big club?!” Well, they kinda were then but not as big a club as poor David Moyes got lumbered with last summer.

It seems that Sir Alex was an utter genius. I mean we all suspected it but if ever a season proved it, it is this one. I mean he won the Premiership at a stroll last season with a team that is stronger on paper now than it was then, even if only Fellaini and Mata were added. Yet, the new manager who was able to take a poorer squad to 5th or 6th, year after year, is struggling to repeat those former achievements. Actually what it has proved is what we all thought, “How did Alex do that, with that team.” Genius indeed.

Yet, big flaws in the genius. Not realising that the team’s success was down to his own ability Ferguson left Moyes with an awful squad and made a very difficult job even more so. As well as that Ferguson seems to have been so focused on what he was achieving at United that he had lost touch with how modern football worked. It seems that it was his recommendation to go for a solid Scottish chap with a reasonable CV. Sir Alex’s thinking that the unproven Moyes could compete at the top level of world football in this day and age seemed a little naive. Modern soccer is no longer about managers staying for thirty years. If you have any ambition at all, it is now about getting a successful European manager.

These are the thoughts that I thought I might need at the start of the season. I actually hoped I wouldn’t get around to using them. I liked David Moyes. I was intrigued by his faith. I actually hoped that United might bring some traditional values back into soccer. As I said, a little sarcastically, it would be the first time in a while that they had made a positive contribution in that sphere. Sadly, now that I have to finally write this blog there is a massive flaw in my argument. 

The flaw is, my fellow County Antrim man, Brendan Rodgers! Rodgers was also lacking in the necessary CV to manage a top 4 club. He wasn’t chosen for his European achievements. Rodgers advantage was that he didn’t have the pressure that Moyes has had from the United fans who were too used to success. It is interesting to note that Liverpool finished 7th in Rodgers first season! It seems that it was Liverpool not Manchester United who were prepared to stick by their traditional values. Many will say that Liverpool finished 8th the year before Rodgers took over and hadn’t won the title for 24 years. Is that less pressure? Shouldn’t United have had enough success in recent decades to have given Moyes a little time? Maybe in the end the answer is that Brendan Rodgers is a soccer genius and David Moyes isn’t!

Whatever, the answer to that one, I reckon you can now put your money on United doing what perhaps they should have done and appointing a world renowned manager. Mind you Roberto Martinez is doing well at Everton!


Easter done doing

It has been all over the internet. U2’s Window In The Skies made its mark on social media this Easter Sunday. It is brilliant with its, “The rule has been disproved, the stone it has been moved, The grave is now a groove, all debts are removed.” Succinct. Poetic. Theological. Joyous. For all who Facebooked it or Tweeted it. I am with you. It has been all over my blog. Yet, it was something else in the song that I found most profound in its explanation of the Easter story. 

My sermons come together very late in the day. Most weeks the clarity actually comes far too late for my own good. I have tried to sit down, all efficient and professional, on a Tuesday, and get that sermon written like a Lab Report but nothing happens. Instead like some arty dude the whole thing rattles and rolls around my head for days, sometimes going nowhere, and then as it all seems like it will never come together in any coherent way it all sorts itself. I have found very regularly recently that I go to bed with no sermon structure and in the first five minutes of the next morning, between becoming conscious and getting out of bed, it is all there in an almost complete way. Like the songwriter I jump out of bed and write it down, in near disbelief. 

Anyway, back to Window In the Skies. I decided that I should quote it in my sermon. That was a late call but as I was using Bono’s “Interruptions of Grace” idea I thought it would be appropriate to use his brilliant summation of Resurrection on Easter Sunday. So, having decided that I sent off my sermon script from laptop to iPad and went in to brush my teeth. As I did so that line kept repeating in my head, “Can’t you see what love has done/Can’t you see what love has done/Can’t you see what love has done/ And what it’s doing to me.” And… there it was. Our Easter Day service begins with Communion remembering, as Jesus asked us to, his death. It is after that remembering that we get one of our women to declare the resurrection. 

And, in that particular juxtaposition of those two events, those words encapsulated it perfectly. During the sermon itself I walked over to the Communion Table and gestured to, “look what love has done…” but then added that the past tense was not the end of the story. On Friday Jesus had cried, “It is Finished!” However, on Easter Sunday we declare, as I did in a post Communion poem, that the new life starts here. We must not lose the present tense of “what its doing to me.”

Indeed, as I read the Facebook updates first thing on Easter Sunday morning I was rather shocked at the lack of theological joy. Many statuses were still filled with Good Friday’s doctrine of sins dealt with and heaven attained. Many Christians actually seem to live between the Fall and The Cross. The God story is so much more eternal than that and much can be missed if we forget the Creation before The Fall and then the Resurrection and ongoing Kingdom after the Cross. 

Paul understood this in Philippians 3 where he declares that he knows what love has done for him in his finding a “righteousness that is from God”. Yet, believing in what God has done for him is only a beginning for Paul. He adds that he wants “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Christ’s resurrection is not just a symbolic act to tell us that death is now dead. It is another grace interruption, a new impetus of power that Paul believes energises us to follow Jesus. It is what love is now doing for our Kingdom living life. The old life is finished at the Cross but the new creation is birthed at the empty tomb. The tomb is a womb for new birth. Like Jesus himself, we’ve got to get beyond the cross. It is not Friday that launches a whole new world. It is Sunday. The new life indeed starts here. 

“Can’t you see what love has done and what it’s doing to me.”