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September 2015

THE IT'S NOT FAIR (RHEMA THEATRE) IN FITZROY - Be Educated by Entertainment

Rhema Theatre Company

Marshall McLuhan once said that if anyone thought that there was a difference between entertainment and education that they didn’t know the first thing about either. Oh how a few sermons could have listened to that truth! I remember hearing one minister say, “If those young people think they are coming here for entertainment then they have another thought coming!” Oh dear, and we wonder at the soul drain from Churches!

Anyway, the art of entertainment is a powerful way of educating us in an array of issues. We use it a lot at Fitzroy. We believe the Bible is entertaining and educational! We believe McLuhan was right!

In the past two years, The Belfast Telegraph reported in June, 86 victims have been rescued from human traffickers in Northern Ireland. One third of them were under 18 years of age. The majority were Romanian, Chinese and Romanian but 15 were British and Irish nationals.

Our Justice Minister David Ford said: "Human trafficking is an appalling crime where victims are robbed of their basic rights and forced into a life of slavery.

International Justice Mission claims that there are nearly 2 million children involved in the sex slave trade worldwide. If we think that slavery ended with Wilberforce we need to think again.

Come to Fitzroy on Sunday October 11th at 7pm and allow the The Rhema Theatre Company to stimulate your thinking, touch your heart and inspire your souls with their ‘The It’s Not Fair’ production.

In a potent blend of theatre, storytelling and music. It will take us to cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, dingy bars of the back streets of Thailand and houses in London. It will then show us how anti-trafficking organisations are doing something about it!

Come to be gripped by the art (entertainment), be informed about the evil (education) and to go away to do something about it (discipleship)!

The Rhema Theatre Company presents

The It’s Not Fair

Sunday October 11th at 7pm

Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, 77 University Street Belfast

Age 11+ tickets £7 (£4) 

'International Justice Mission' and 'Stop The Traffik'.

info at 07492 591302


Onialeku PS

This is just a building


This is so much more than a building


This is one man’s vision

This is a miracle before our eyes

This is the Kingdom coming

This is out of the bright blue skies

This is our prayers being answered 

This is the heavens rent in two

This is a place of learning

This is the future peeking through

This is the changing of lives

This is a generous grace 

This is blessings coming back 

This is the redemption of space

This is communities transformed

This is the good news sent

This is God in the midst of us

This is what Jesus meant

This is building hope for a nation

This is just the beginning

This is injustice hammered down

This is the least of these - winning

This is all that we believe in

This is all the words we sing

This is all my tears of joy

This is the most beautiful thing.


This is just a building


This is so much more than a building.

A couple of years ago my Church, Fitzroy, embarked on a building project to restore and extend the halls around our Church. At a Fields Of Life event I came to a sudden realisation that if we tithed our building costs we could build a school in Africa. Fitzroy, having done such a tithing exercise in the past, quickly agreed and we became partners with the people of Onialeku, just outside Arua in north west Uganda. In the end, not by any design, we worked through Fields Of Life. 

This poem is what seeing that building that we funded expressed to me, deep in my heart, soul and mind.

Onialeku Plaque

This Sunday night (October 4th 2015) I will be sharing the story, people and context of our building in Onialeku as well as our own new halls that we moved into this very week and another building, The Belfast School of Music Building on Donegal Pass, that we have suddenly realised belongs to us.

They are just buildings... but they are much more than buildings.



In 1993, with a couple of Daves, I drove across the United States from Reading California to Upland, Indiana, to the best Ice Cream Parlour in the known world - Ivanhoes (don’t ask!)! During that trip one of my most played records was Shawn Colvin’s Fat City. It was just released and I loved it. I remember spending a couple of evenings with the late Rich Mullins, during that same trip, arguing that it was a better record than Colvin’s debut Steady On. I wish Rich was still around to argue with and who knows I might even concede he was right.  

Whatever, Shawn Colvin was a major player in the mid 90s. Her next record was a covers record, Cover Girl, and I remember being disappointed that we didn’t get new Colvin songs but her covers of Tom Waits, Jimmy Webb, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and Steve Earle couldn’t be argued with!

I have to confess that I don’t own Shawn Colvin’s last record All Fall Down. Personally, I don’t think Colvin has ever reached the heights of those two records that Rich and I argued over. However, after twenty years of apathy, Colvin has got my attention again. Her new album is another album of covers. It is quite the collection of songs. It is beautifully imagined. It is exquisitely put together. 

The success is the choice of material. Uncovered is chock full of top notch songs, some of which we knew about and some maybe not so much. Colvin loves Tom Waits and this time she takes Hold On and raises it to sit beside those two top Waits tunes from the 1994 version The Heart of Saturday Night and Ole 55. She lifts Graham Nash’s I Used To Be A King and makes it sound as perfectly crafted as any of the Crosby, Stills & Nash classics she could have done. Robbie Robertson’s Acadian Driftwood is revealed as as brilliant as The Band’s staples The Weight or The Night I Drove Old Dixie Down. Stevie Wonder’s Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away had me investigating a Stevie Wonder record that I’d never much heard of!

That Stevie Wonder song was what most caught my spiritual ear. It is not as theologically sharp as it is in the cut of its challenge: 

"Where is your God”

That's what my friends ask me

And I say it's taken Him so long

'Cause we've got so far to come…”

Right throughout the album Colvin does, what she claims to love to do, throws a female hue across songs written by men. Springsteen’s Tougher Than The Rest is a case in point. It is more vulnerable and maybe actually tougher in Colvin’s hands. For me the song that brings out most from the Colvin light shone deep within it is Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street. Washed clean of its saxophone solo, brilliant and all as that was, the song gets a new edge:

“This city desert makes you feel so cold

It's got so many people, but it's got no soul

And it's taken you so long

To find out you were wrong

When you thought it held everything”

Just after the 1994’s record I went to see Shawn Colvin in Dublin. Near the end of the gig her plectrum hit the floor and I was close enough to reach out and grab it. When she came back for the encore she explained, with a sly grin, how she needed a plectrum for the next song but seemed to have misplaced hers. She looked into the crowd, straight at me, and I handed her her tools of work! Song over and Colvin looked back down and with a smile she thanked me and reached it back. It has pride of place in the front of the Cover Girl CD to this day. Maybe as I hand her back her place in my affections through a covers record she’ll now reach back and make two essential records like Fat City and Steady On. In the meantime I am loving this!


Fitz plans

Tomorrow in Fitzroy is a very exciting day that we have waited for for over a year and some time before that. Tomorrow after worship we will have the opportunity to walk round our brand new halls. We needed to fix damp in our ageing floors. As we looked at that we realised that this was an opportunity to fix up halls that were far from suitable for our contemporary ministries within the congregation and out into our neighbourhood community. So, we reshaped the old halls and have added three new rooms as well as a very attractive welcome area, a warmer entrance to all things Fitzroy. So... tomorrow we get a walk round before we begin to use this resource in these next days. Official Opening weekend is not until November 13-15 but tomorrow we get our halls back and more. Very exciting!

In the morning (11am) service I will be looking at the Book of Esther. Like other Old Testament literature we see a story not so much about the characters in the book but about the God who infuses their story. This is the book in the Bible where God is not mentioned by name yet it is a book more about God than Esther! We will be looking at a God who is subtle... to be obvious! A God who is present where he can't be seen. Some guitar crunched worship too!

In the evening (7pm) Desi Alexander continues his very insightful series in Leviticus. It is no exaggeration to claim Desi as a world expert in this book. 

All welcome!

WHEN WILL I EVER LEARN TO LIVE IN GOD - Sermon From Van Morrison Sunday in Fitzroy


(The day before Van Morrison celebrated his 70th Birthday (August 30, 2015) with a concert at the end of Cyprus Avenue we built our entire Sunday service around Van Morrison songs... Here is a written version of my sermon!)


When will I ever learn to live in God?

When will I ever learn?

He gives me everything I need and more

When will I ever learn?

In his book Hymns Of Silence Peter Mills writes of Van Morrison’s When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God:

“This song is one of Morrison’s most directly Christian tunes, which would sit unproblematically in the repertoire of any of the acts that use the pop-rock-soul- model to construct modern songs of praise.” 

When it came to a Church service built around Van Morrison hymns and songs this song was the obvious choice to launch the sermon from.

And up on the hillside its quiet

Where the shepherd is tending his sheep

And over the mountains and the valleys

The countryside is so green

Standing on the highest hill with a sense of wonder

You can see everything is made in God

Head back down the roadside and give thanks for it all

There is indeed, as Mills points out, a praise feel to those last lines. Giving thanks for God’s creation is a recurring theme with the Old Testament Psalmist. For me the line, “He gives me everything I need and more,” echoes Psalm 23: - “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing”. When the Lord is our shepherd we will have “all that we need and more”

When that verse clicked then I caught more similarities. Compare Morrison’s 

“And up on the hillside its quiet

Where the shepherd is tending his sheep

And over the mountains and the valleys

The countryside is so green”


with King David’s 

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

    for his name’s sake.

It is not too contrived to see When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God as a Van Morrison Psalm. What I like about the song is that unlike a lot of the modern praise, that Peter Mills likens it to, When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God is not worship cul-de-sac. I often fear that modern worship goes up to God in some warm and almost feely weely vertical way but doesn’t come back down to make an impact on our horizontal lives. Worship should not be a cul-de-sac for Sunday but an energy that becomes a highway out into Monday and the week ahead. There is no point in singing to God if we are not going to learn to live in God. 

One of the Lectionary readings this week is from the New Testament letter of James (3:19-27). It seems to be all about learning to live in God. James tells us, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”The entire reading is potent but what an ending, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

For those of you who are visitors with us this morning, this is why we meet every Sunday morning to worship. We want to learn to live in God. That it would transfer us and also that we would be transformers of our society.If you are a visitor forgive me if I look for a moment at the Fitzroy flock and ask them a few questions.

Fitzroy we say that Jesus cried out on the cross that “it is finished”. We believe that that redeems us and somehow deals with sin. Yet, have we learned to live in that truth or do we still feel guilty and captive of our past?

We remember that Jesus told us to lay up treasure in heaven and not on earth where it lists away. Yet, have we learned to live in God and not be distracted by the momentary and material in order to invest our gifts and life in more lasting returns?

We remember that Jesus told us to love our enemies. Yet, have we learned to live in that and be those who are striving for peace and reconciliation in the Northern Ireland where we are called to live this out?

In the above passage James tells us that real religion is to “Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” Have we learned to live that out in how we respond to the refugee crisis on our news right now? We believe that Jesus himself was a refugee!

So, Fitzroy, in my preaching let us see where we need to learn to live in God. As Van sings:

“Whatever it takes to fulfill his mission

That is the way we must go

But you've got to do it your own way

Tear down the old, bring up the new”





Wrong Is Right

I have used an illustration very regularly over the last four days that I think needs some surmising as we deal with, what I have suggested before on Soul Surmise is, the god of being right. I am convinced that being right and standing for what is right sounds like the right thing to do but actually is a curse that can cause battles to be won on technicalities but wars to be lost for the grace and the Spirit of God. 

It didn’t take headline precedence over Japan’s amazing World Cup Rugby Union win over South Africa but it was the most controversial sporting moment of last weekend. It was an 18” putt on the 17th green of a Solheim Cup match. The European team did not give the putt to the Americans, the Americans thought that the European team’s movements on the green suggested they had, the Americans picked up their ball and the Europeans claimed the hole. It can only happen in match play golf. In stroke play, the golf we see all year round, every shot has to be taken. In match play if you are close to the hole your opponent can tell you that they give you that putt and you can lift your ball. 

If we go back to Sunday morning in St. Leon-Rot, Germany the whole thing became very messy. It would not surprise me that match play soon makes it a rule that all putts are finished off to prevent such a situation again. Anyway, the European player Suzann Petterson was technically right in claiming the hole and therefore the match. However, the spirit of golf and the sportsmanlike culture at the core of the game suggested something different. Though technically right by the laws of the game, Petterson might have responded to what was a miscommunication on America’s part and given the putt. They would still have been in the lead with one hole to play. 

What happened next is a lesson on the dangers of always doing what the law sees is right and in not getting so caught up in winning the battle that you actually end up losing the war. After the victory that winning this hole gave the European team, they went into the afternoon singles with a huge lead of four points. It was reasonably guaranteed they should win. However, that wrong decision to stand for what was right changed the momentum of the Solheim Cup. Not only did the situation fire up a now angry  American team to play out of their skins but the uncertainty and embarrassment of the Petterson incident dropped the morale of the European team who were now playing with regret and the thought that even if they won the Cup that that incident would tarnish the victory. America won the war! 

I have come to believe over thirty years in Church ministry and watching Northern Ireland politics that one of the main barriers to peace, reconciliation and indeed missional impact is our obsession with the idol of being right technically by the law rather than grace interrupting to transform lives, communities and nations. 

On the hill at Stormont, the MLAs in our Local Assembly battle for what is right by the law. They put having the morale high ground at the top of their agenda. They then point the finger at the other and claim to be right. We are the good guys and they are the bad guys. We want to know who is to blame for this and to prove we were not to blame for that. Even when one side is proven wrong they suggest quickly that the other side is worse. In all of these scenarios, like the golfer Suzann Peterson, they might be technically right and win the battle but on the long term war for peace, reconciliation and a land of well being for all of our citizens they are losing the war. They are not working in isolation. Those of us who vote for them vote for them to stand for the idol of being right!

It is the same in many of our Churches. Much of my week is currently spent in Churches where relationships have broken down and where the name of Jesus and all that he lived, died and was raised to life for is taken in vain. It is an insult to His Gospel and a hindrance to His Kingdom. Many of those, sometimes on both sides of the argument, are technically right by the law but they are wrong in not living out the grace of God’s Kingdom. They are trying to win their wee petty battle but losing the war.  

The Pharisees were Jesus great opponents. The battles between Jesus and those religious leaders takes up a good deal of the four Gospels in the New Testament. The Pharisees get a bad press and often times that might be fair. However, they were always right and never wrong by the technicalities of the law. Jesus was interrupting the technicalities of the law by his grace because he knew what Paul would later write, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”” (Galatians 3:10). 

As I have written before the Gospel is built on wrongs. It is wrong that the sinner should go free. It is wrong that the sinless Messiah should die for the sins of the guilty. Wrong technically. So right by God’s grace.

So, I keep praying for our politicians that they would get away from the idol of the god of being right. Start to do what seems technically wrong in order that we might win the war of peace. Don’t be all delighted when you win the 18” putt legally but then set in motion the losing of everything. See the bigger grace filled picture.

To Churches too. Let us bring the Spirit of God into play. It is not like the human default position. It is not about always being right. It is about always being like Christ who continually smashed the Pharisees technicalities for a much greater cause. As Paul put it, You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:13-15)

Now… are we going to do what’s right and claim that hole… or… do something better than being right!?

By the way… because in Northern Ireland you have to say what you don’t say as well as what you do… I am not saying here that we should ALWAYS be wrong. Don’t be daft!


Didn't He ramble

In a concert in Vicar Street last December Glen Hansard debuted a new guitar. Fans will be aware of his old one, gloriously battered and bruised and full of holes. Hansard explains how his friend Rene made the new one from a Church bench from a Protestant Church in County Down. Joking about the Protestant nature of it he also talked about how the mahogany wood would have traveled to Ireland 150 years ago and then been sat on by all these “proddies” before becoming this thing that looks and sounds beautiful. 

I love the story but I tell it because it is a great illustration of this new record. That guitar is a very different entity than the Church bench or tree but the history is within it. So… this collection of songs. Hansard has taken all the songs that he has loved for 50 years and made them into something fresh and vital. 

In recent years Hansard has released songs by Bob Dylan (Pressing On on A Tribute To Bob Dylan In The 80s Volume 1), Bruce Springsteen (Drive All Night on an EP) and Van Morrison (Into The Mystic as Swell Season on The Five Year Engagement (Music Form The Motion Picture - EP). Those three songwriters are riven through the DNA of Didn’t He Ramble. This is classic songwriting and the most mature work in Hansard’s wonderful 25 year old recording career with The Frames, The Swell Season and as a solo artist.

So the acoustic strum and lyrical style of Dylan is here; Springsteen is here too, maybe more particularly with how he has used brass in more recent times; and well Van Morrison has always been dear to Hansard and “Through summers long and winters cold” sees him echo Van’s nature lines. 

As well as the song writing traditions of Dylan, Springsteen and Morrison, Hansard is also recycling their spiritual concerns and language. Bob, Bruce and Van have come at the spiritual from very different angles and again Hansard is not coming with any of the creedal works of Dylan, Catholic substance of Springsteen or the comparative religions of Morrison. He has trawled the concepts, language, the soul and Gospel feel of all of that work and used it for his own purpose.

The blend and distilling is beautiful and potent on a record that shouts for your attention lyrically more than any Hansard work until now. For me the theo-musicologist and pastor I am salivating at some of the verses, couplets and lines. I am jotting down Grace Beneath The Pines for a sermon illustration:  

“Now I've found some

Grace beneath the judge's gavel

Grace among my brothers on the firing line

Grace upon this road less traveled

Grace beneath the pines the pines”

Regulars to Soul Surmise will know that Grace is my favourite word and Glen preaches it perfectly!

Winning Streak come across like Dylan’s Forever Young, John Martyn’s May You Never and The Rolling Stones’ Shine A Light.  Again my soul scope is lighting up with:

“And may the sign of the cross

Be some comfort when you're lost,

Help you when you're all broke down,

May the spirit of good brethren

Turn you around”

We are back to the close relation of grace in Her Mercy. The words are almost interchangeable and this time Hansard is singing about impact:

Mercy, mercy, coming to you,

Feel her beauty flowing through you —

She will unbind you, set the word free.

Mercy, Mercy

Bible images are back again on the Irish traditional influenced McCormick’s Wall with its wonderful fiddle outro:

For all guitar makers;

for the prisoners and the law;

And the fine wine drinkers

Who drank their bellies raw;

And to all the good samaritans,

Whoever found us in the dark;

And to all who’ve been

Or come between

The lovers in the park;

And to all the Ó Díomasaigh singers

With their roots in holy ground.

And forgiveness still lingers

In the bells above the town.

For me the very best lines are those last ones, “And forgiveness still lingers/In the bells above the town.” That sentiment is almost over riding feel of the spiritual influences of the record. Like Springsteen, Hansard’s Catholic upbringing seeps through in his life and in a country, society and culture that has almost rid itself of all things Christian or Church the best of what Jesus brought is still lingers as the Church bells ring… and again we might hear that recurring line in Morrison’s work when his Protestant “Sunday six bells chime.”

I am distracted as I would be by the spiritual content in these songs. It is not too contrived to hear these songs as prayers or pastoral encouragements. So,  I need to add before closing that the Gospel choir sounds, the New Orleans brass sounds and the Irish Traditional all blend without jarring on songs that are honed by the instrumentation and arrangement. In the end the most important thing are the songs and what a collection of songs this is. Uplifting, hopeful… spiritual!



I wrote this 12 years ago after my friend lost his wife. They had a very young daughter. Today I noticed on Facebook it was the anniversary of her death and I had a vague memory of this poem. I never felt it was finished or right. Anyway, I post it for Andy and Cara-Grace and in memory of the lovely Donna. 


They say the pain now

Is equal to the joy then

So I see these tears as harvest

Of the laughter planted when

I saw her as more than a friend

I took her as more than a wife

She gave me more than a daughter

She made my moments much more than a life

So I’ll bring you to her grave

Every year in summer solstice June

And trace her name across this tombstone

Beneath a romantic sunset moon

And then on the twenty first day

Of a leaf turning late September

The things your father will not forget

He will teach you, so you remember

When God gave the gift of love

Like so often he poured it out lavish

But it can be so quickly stolen back

At the hands of death’s demented savage. 


Belfast – October 5, 2003


Onialeku PS

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy is an exciter! It is a Family Service that will be led by the Youth team who went to Uganda with Fields Of Life this past summer. There will be video, African songs, drama, an original song by Jonny Fitch and excited and vibrant young people telling the congregation about what they experienced. I will be thinking too about the school building that Fitzroy funded and how transformational that is for an entire community in Onialeku, Arua, Uganda! If you helped fund these young people it would be a thrill to see you there, hearing about what you contributed to! Everybody Welcome!

In the evening (7pm) We continue our series on Leviticus. For a year now we have been doing short series on How To Read The Bible. We have been helping in contextualising the genres and histories of Biblical books. This series is taken by Dei Alexander, lecturer, author and even recommended recently by Tim Keller Wisdom on Twitter! Again everybody welcome!



Breathe in

Breathe out

Run the other way

From all the doubt

Dark beats the light

We push others away

Light blinds the dark

In a brand new day.


We need a breath of hope

In this dying place

In this valley of death

We need a kiss of grace.


Breathe out 

Breathe in

Let’s search our souls

And find we are forgiven

Being right’s so wrong

Confession is so wise

Wrongs can lead to right

From sacrifice we rise.


We need a breath of hope

In this dying place

In this valley of death

We need a kiss of grace


Will I be the dark

Will I be the death

Will I be the kiss

Will I be the breath?


This is a random collection of thoughts on the current Northern Irish political collapse. A whole range of things came together around a phrase that Corrymeela’s Susan McEwen used at a meeting I was at this week. Susan suggested we need a breath of hope.

I was at a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert later that evening and in the very first song their blissful harmonies hit me with the breath of hope:

“Carry on

(Carry on)

Love is coming

(Love is coming)

Love is coming

(Love is coming)

To us all”

Elsewhere in these couplets there is a Saint Ignatius’ thought that Fr Martin Magill shared with me that we should run the opposite way from how we feel. I needed to turn away from my disillusionment and discouragement and breath in some hope so that I could breath out some hope. 

I also believe that the idol of Northern Ireland life is the need to be right. Sometimes what is right is not always what is good or that which will bring peace and well being. The Gospel is actually about wrong things. We believe that it was wrong that Jesus should die on a cross and wrong that the sinner should go free. If God had stuck with right then redemption and the Kingdom coming would never have been possible!