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April 2016


Fitzroy building

Tomorrow morning (11am) we find ourselves trawling the last words of Jesus. The disciples were anxious, asking questions... what would happen if Jesus left as he seemed to be alluding to.

Jesus tells them he will not leave them as orphans and so we look at what this Holy Spirit is and will then look and see where that Spirit might be alive in our lives and community.

What is "The Father's Little Helper" for? Do we look for too much spectacular moments when the Spirit is there for the long ordinary haul... that is what is spectacular! 

We'll be asking what a Grace Nav looks like and how it can help us across life's terrain...

We will be praying for this week's election and Paul Bowman will be leading us in worship. All in a welcoming community...

As it is a Bank Holiday on Monday there is NO evening event tomorrow night...


Stockies In Mandela Cell

Robben Island sits off the coast of Cape Town. It’s a beautiful spot with lots of wildlife and stunning views back to across the sea to Table Mountain but it is has a history of brutality and captivity. Lepers and Mentally insane have been banished to the island over its long history. Then in the 60s it became the Alcatraz of the Apartheid movement. Black and coloured prisoners were sent here to a regime of boredom, pain and isolation. It was a hopeless place.

Yet, liberation came. Now you can visit Robben Island as a museum and get guided tours by ex prisoners. If you are very lucky like my family was in 2006 you might even get inside Nelson Mandela’s cell.  I have been on the Island on numerous occasions and always been fascinated at that quantum leap from being a hopeless prisoner to the joy of liberation. 

On one visit we were out at the lime stone quarry where prisoners were brought day by day to chip away the limestone, being blinded as as the sun shone off the rock; painful, futile and torturously dull. The prisoner started telling us that this was the University of Robben Island where they would break into groups and learn to read and write and do maths… learn economics and politics. 

I asked why they would do this as there was at that stage no possible sign that they would ever be liberated. The guard replied, “We always believed and we were getting ready for freedom before freedom came.” How I loved that phrase… getting ready for freedom before freedom came. 

When Christians pray the most prayed prayer in the world, the one that Jesus taught them they pray about God’s rule coming and that it would be on earth as it is in heaven. 

I love that idea that earth might be like heaven. Imagine that. There are no poor people in heaven. Or homeless people. Or refugees. The question is do I really believe in such a day that is coming. And if I do am I getting ready… ready for the liberation of heaven on earth… before it comes…

and then Vanessa played...

Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth?
Ooh heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We'll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh heaven is a place on earth

- Heaven Is A Place On Earth by Belinda Carlisle


Child refugees

The Refugee crisis is not going away. Many have warned us that this would be the case. Today Northern Ireland welcomed 14 more families including 20 children BUT earlier in the week the UK Parliament voted against welcoming 3000 refugee children. Social media is rightly rife with righteous anger against those who voted against closing the doors to vulnerable children. 

I have blogged before that for the follower of Jesus welcoming refugees is simply what we do. Jesus said that those who would get into heaven were those who fed him, gave him a drink, gave him a room and clothes. When do we do this to him? When we do it to the least of these. So, the call is there to respond to the stranger, the homeless, the fleeing asylum seekers. 

The Old Testament was also commanding a welcoming of the refugee. It is mentioned in Deuteronomy but expanded on in Leviticus. Leviticus chapter 19 verse 34 says, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” The people of God knew what it was to live in another country and were to treat people well, remembering that they were not. 

If the Old Testament people of God knew refugee, and indeed slavery status, then the New Testament starts with another such story. Jesus himself was a refugee. That Christmas story tells us that when the death squads hit the streets around Bethlehem Joseph and Mary were those parents heading somewhere else for safety. It is interesting to then take a wee side-look at why the death squads were sent. Herod was frightened that this baby would take away his place, his power, his comfort. 

Are we in danger of becoming the Herod of the refugee story? When our own comfort eradicates our compassion for those in need we have lost something at the core of our humanity. There is no doubt that welcoming batch after batch of refugees into our country might threaten our wealth and comfort. It might be hard to sustain. Well actually it will be hard to sustain at the same standard of living that we are used to. However, for the Jesus follower our wealth at the cost of other people’s misery is something the prophets condemned.

As I edited this blog I was caught by that last sentence… “Our wealth at the cost of other people’s misery”. It reminded me of the parable of Lazarus. It is a frightening story that Jesus tells about how the wealthy who walk past the poor, and do nothing for them, end up in hell with too great a chasm between the way they lived and the ways of God. It is one Jesus story that the present day western human being needs to read, listen and hear. We are the wealthy. The refugees sit at our city gate. When the maintenance of our own selfish decadent comfortable life votes out poor and vulnerable children we are a very sick and damned society indeed. 

The majority of our MPs voted “No room for Jesus in the UK Inn”. 

Don’t get me wrong. It will cost us to take in 3000 refugee children. Jesus told those of us who were Christians that it would. “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” is perfect advice for such a time as this. Humanity is in a crisis. Humanity is made in the image of God. God’s heart goes out to humanity in such a crisis. God demands that we follow Jesus into such a crisis and lay down our lives for those he loves.

The call to give up our lives and comforts for others was not a nice wee refrain to fill up our Sunday Church readings with lovely literature. It was a command to revolution... at all costs!


Ken Captured

There is that provocative moment at the end of Jim Carey’s film The Truman Show. Truman has been born on a TV set, a soap opera built around him, where everyone in his life is an actor and where they even read out cereal ads from his kitchen while he has his breakfast! He is unaware of this and accepts it all and knows no different until a few editorial errors has him rethinking the nature of his world. 

The movie then climaxes as he courageously makes an attempt for freedom and an alternative world. When the producer is asked why Truman didn’t question for so long, he responds with this incendiary phrase, "We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented." Note the use of “we” and not “he”.

Ken Newell grew up on the Shore Road in Belfast accepting the reality with which he was presented. He commits his life to Jesus, is excited to join the Orange Order and becomes a student for the Presbyterian ministry. However, Ken was too alert to the script and saw some flaws. There were moments of epiphany. Parading past St Patrick’s Church on a Twelfth of July and catching, through an open door of the Church, Catholic worshippers silently praying. In his first trip into a Catholic Church in Amsterdam he realised he had been looking down on Catholics.

Ken carefully researched and engagingly written Memoir is an insightful record of a follower of Jesus reading Scripture and listening to people and finding a different reality in the call to love neighbours, even enemies, and to realise that the ministry of reconciliation is not some deluxe Christianity for a few but just bog standard Christianity for all who claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth.

That personal story, as personal stories always do, changes the places and people Ken engages with. Fitzroy Church, where he becomes minister, is changed. Clonard Monastery, home of Fr Gerry Reynolds who became Ken’s great friend and co conspirator for Christ, is changed. Even more important our country is changed as Ken and Fr. Gerry become involved with politicians and paramilitaries to negotiate the cease fires and peace agreements that we benefit from today.

As I have read the book I have been reminded of the worst days of our troubles, and the amazement of the 1994 Ceasefires. I had forgotten the slowly by slowly journey from there until in 2007 when we got a solid foundation for power sharing at Stormont. Retreading these events with Ken gives you the feeling that you are watching it through a camera on the jacket of a participator. It is a fascinating way into our recent history.

I am personally captured by Ken’s vision or, as I imagine he would say, the vision God gave him. I read it as part of my own story even though I am not actually in it. Ken’s courageous leadership and friendship have deeply impacted my own discipleship and ministry. The book spoke powerfully and directly into my own attempts to follow Jesus. It also helped me to understand Fitzroy where I followed Ken as minister. We are who we are because of what Ken goes through in this book. Finally as I dabble my feet in the ministry of peacemaking and reconciliation myself this helps me to make sense of where we are as Northern Ireland in 2016.

My favourite story… In November 1997 Ken Newell was being interviewed on the radio. He was about to attend the inauguration of Mary McAleese as the President of Ireland. Unionists were doing the usual boycott. The interviewer asks Ken how he can go when his leaders are saying no self respecting Unionist should. Ken answers, “My party leader is Jesus Christ and he told me to go.”

Oh yes!



Songs From My Father

Yer a quare brave man, Brian Houston! Albums of Irish traditional songs have been done before and when you go this road you are immediately competing with Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy

Well, as usual Houston more than holds his own. Though I love Morrison’s Celtic Heartbeat, a collaboration with The Chieftains, and Kennedy’s two On Song albums Houston just has them. Songs From My My Father is a little more focused and more carefully constructed than Van’s and has a little more rock n roll authentic clout than Kennedy’s

When I say more carefully constructed, there are not the number of instruments at work in Houston’s songs. It is based around Houston’s guitar which might have been flashier across his catalogue but rarely as dexterous, rhythm driving or authoritative as on Whiskey In The Jar or Irish Rover. Added to Houston’s maturity of arranging and playing there is really only uilleann piper and low whistler John McSherry

West Belfast’s McSherry’s trad genius is what sweeps Irish grace notes across the piece. Indeed the throwaway pipes jam Ode to Jenny, that became a Houston/McSherry original, might be the song that would be most at home in a West Belfast bar session. East and West of Belfast collaborating in a toe tapping celebratory jig for these wonderful new peaceful days of our city. More of that says I!

Indeed the record is topped and tailed by songs that speak into these Northern Irish post conflict days. The Battle’s O’re strikes a chord, with its: 


“March no more my soldier laddie,

There is peace where there once was war.

Sleep in peace my soldier laddie,

Sleep in peace, now the battle's over.”


Then at the end, and maybe the highlight for me, is the least Irish song on the collection. The Band Played Waltzing Matilda was written by a Scottish born Australian Eric Bogle. Though covered by Irish folk singers like The Dubliners, Liam Clancey and Christy Moore ,it is very much about Australian soldiers fighting in Gallipoli in the First World War. That experience was probably very much what Houston’s East Belfast fellow citizens experienced at The Somme which we remember 100 years ago this July. The song is as good a piece of art about the futility of war as any poem from Wilfried Owen or Siegfried Sassoon and Houston gives it a powerful poignancy, McSherry tugging emotions throughout.

Songs From My Father is exactly that, songs Brian Houston’s father used to sing. It is Brian Houston ploughing new fields. It yields a wonderful harvest. There might be more to glean. Across the hedge from this field, a neighbouring field has fertile collaborating instruments of fife and drum. I’d be fascinated with what that might conjure… and an album of Houston/McSherry originals would be very welcome too… maybe with fife and drum on them!

In the meantime… I'll take four nights in Ballygrand... Sweet!


Marilynne Robinson

On Friday night I had a decision to make. Should I prepare Sunday's sermon or should I go and hear author Marilynne Robinson in my neighbouring McCracken Church. Little did I know that I could do both. Marilynne was the best sermon preparation I could have had. The Revised Lectionary text for tomorrow is John 13: 31-35 and my title is '...if we love one another'. 

Marilynne dealt with that wonderfully telling us that love in Scripture is 'more than unconditional; it is metaphysically central.' Robinson seems intent, and perhaps this is what her work really succeeds in, on getting us looking at each other in deeper ways. Everyone is 'sensitive and brilliant', and we should see other people as 'unaccountable mysteries of existence'. That would help us love. 

All of this will infiltrate into tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy. We will be looking back at the past year and giving thanks. We will be asking how we begin to love our neighbours. We will look at love as much more than a sentimental word but a revolutionary act that will take courage and will cost us. We will see this as the 10:10 'life in all its fulness' that we believe is central to our existence and mission.

In the evening (7pm) we have the first in a new Mini Book Festival... 4 Authors, 4 Books For Fitzroy...  details here... Tomorrow's is: -

David Mitchell:Politics and Peace in Northern Ireland - Political Parties and the Implementation of the 1998 Agreement.

Politics and Peace in Northern Ireland is a penetrating and accessible examination of the post-settlement experience of a region widely regarded as an international beacon of the possibilities of peace. Drawing on extensive original research, this book explains the promise and limits of the Good Friday Agreement. It also explores post-Agreement Northern Ireland through the eyes of each of the five main political parties and reflects on the likely direction of parties and politics in the future.

In the book, author Dr Mitchell (Associate Professor at Irish School of Ecumenics) provides a fresh theoretical account of the conflict and post-1998 politics which foregrounds how the ‘extremes’ sustained and nurtured each other and shows how and why unionists’ and nationalists’ mutual insecurities repeatedly derailed peace implementation.


CARE FOR THE EARTH - BBC RADIO 2 PAUSE FOR THOUGHT 22.4.16 (the longer script)

Care For Mother Earth

(The theme they gave me for this morning's Pause For Thought was Care For the Earth... This is a fuller script than the one appropriate for Radio 2)

I have a friend who is an environmental crusader but also professes to be an atheist. However, when he speaks to Christian groups I have invited him to he always says that Christians should have a vested interest in Caring for Creation. We say that our God made it! I agree. I have always seen the earth and the universe beyond as God’s masterpiece of art. I call him Father in the Lord’s Prayer. I should be about protecting my Father’s art!

Two weeks ago today I had a wee Pause for Thought. Not on Radio 2 but in Rest Rooms of a Christian University in the mid west of America. I love this University very much. I love being there. BUT the Rest Rooms... as I was drying my hands I caught myself reading the words on the hand dryer. “These hand dryers are environmentally and financially beneficial.” 

I should of course be encouraged that this college was caring for mother earth BUT the second bit angered me. It seems that this message was on the dryers to somehow argue for them being there for financial reasons This was a Christian College and they still felt the need to convince care for God’s creation with some financial argument! My blood boiled!

I paused to think that this is a heresy within the Christian community but also a wider crisis in our world right now. Money is the bottom line. It is almost the altar at which we all worship. Everything is done to serve the creation of more wealth. Where money is the most important thing then mother earth can be abused for profit.

I remember when my children were young watching an experiment on television that was aimed to reveal whether your child was intelligent. The child was left alone in a room with a sweet. He or she was told that if they didn’t touch the sweet until someone came back that they would get another sweet. 

The camera showed the child looking at the sweet… looking around to see if anyone was there… looking back at the sweet… faces contorted… patience strained… it was so difficult not to eat this one right now. Most gave in and ate the sweet. The theory was that if you were clever you would sacrifice the instant hit in order to have more in the end.

Maybe us adults are doing the same experiment. We want to care for mother earth… I mean we love going off and seeing it on our holidays… and we don’t want to see the poorest people of the earth dying in famines or floods… we want to leave a healthy planet for our children. 

We want to care but like the child in the experiment it is just too difficult to resist the bigger car, the long haul flights, the convenience of plastic, or the annoyance of recycling. 

We want the sweet now no matter what. Oh that we have the intelligence to reconsider before it is too late… and as Christian we have a vested interest so let us show the way…



Prince was an artist who intrigued me and whose genius and influence I respected but who I never was fan of. The funk and dance that blended with rock to make that Minneapolis Sound just pushed Prince out of my more conventional preferences. 

I guess there was the sex too. I was obviously very interested in his God references and the clear Christian messages that were threaded through his work but I remember watching a concert and just not being able to quite justify his presentation of sex. Call me a prude but it was just too weird a juxtaposition.

My favourite two songs were obviously the two most Christ centred. I came across 4 The Tears In Your Eyes on the We Are The World album which I bought for Springsteen’s rarity Trapped. 

4 The Tears In Your Eyes was just so up front Christian, even though it spoke of Jesus turning rocks into bread which not only did he not do but when tempted by the devil refused to do. For me it was also opening up the social implications of the Gospel. 

This was 1985. Bob Geldof had opened me up to how we might respond with poverty with Band Aid and Live Aid. U2 were helping blend Christian faith and world issues together and John Stott's Issues Facing Christians Today had just been published too. My mind and soul were expanding and this Prince song added to my Attention Collection to steal my friend David Dark’s phrase.

This was the kind of Jesus I liked: 


Many people came from all around

To hear this man preach, glorious sound

He spoke of man in harmony and love abound

He died for the tears in your eyes, your eyes

Your eyes, your eyes


He died for the tears in your eyes

For the tears in your eyes and the tears of sorrow

Four cents may be all that they're worth

For the rising sun each day assures us

The meek shall inherit the earth, the earth


Prince went further into the Christ theology in 1987. Just three weeks after U2’s Joshua Tree, Sign Of The Times arrived as a double album Prince certified classic. And… right in the middle of this great work is The Cross.

The cross is of course at the centre of Christian thought, this place where in his death at the hands of the world’s injustice Jesus somehow brought justice, dealt evil a trump card, pitched power structure a curve and made everything different ever since. Prince sees it as a place of transformation.

Salvation, redemption, hope are all made tangible by a knowledge of this cross and all that it stands for. The Blind Boys Of Alabama made it even more Gospel in their version.


“We all have our problems

Some BIG, some are small

Soon all of our problems

Will be taken by the cross


Black day, stormy night

No love, no hope in sight

Don't cry 4 he is coming

Don't die without knowing the cross.”


  QE 2 2

Their hands shook

History felt the tremors

Forgetting deep hurt

Where everyone remembers

And did memory stab

That boat on the ocean

As her courage broke

Through her heart’s emotion 


Their eyes connect

Like wires to detonate

Blow up the past

Raining fragments of hate

Did he see the loss

In her smiling face

And feel the forgiveness

Majesty of her grace


She spoke their language

She bowed her head

Bent down on her knee

To honour their dead

She marched right through

The ancient palisades

Left the traditional walk

To lead a brand new parade.


Recovering Sectarian

The phrase Recovering Sectarian was coined by my predecessor at Fitzroy, Ken Newell. My friend Rhoda McClure took the idea and put it on a Norn Iron Tees shirt. At Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing, Kelly Brown Douglas used the phrase Recovering Racist about America and I knew we were not alone...



On the wagon

Always frightened of falling off.


It could happen at any time

A quick shift in the journey

A bump in the road

A sudden curve not seen


Mind always alert

Eyes always focused

Heart always steeled

Soul always tuned.



Never cured

Always susceptible

Too easily prone

To lose control

Damage self

And destroy all those around me.



On the wagon

Always frightened of falling off.


Recovering Sectarian.