(A friend said that being asked to be Guest Speaker at Ballymena Academy Prize Day was like an MBE. It really was that big a deal to me. The day itself was amazing. We were treated right royally, loved every single minute. Little was I to know that my mother, who sat proudly on the front row, would leave us one month later. To have had her there has made that day even more precious. Thank you to all the staff and Board Of Governors who were so kind to invite us and be so welcoming.)
So, this is what happens at a Prize Day. I’ve never been invited before! 43 years. At last!
And I do need to say… it is not an exaggeration to say... that this is one of the honours of my life. My dad worked here for 27 years as Bursar. The school is important to our family. This is an absolute thrill. Thank you.
For most of my 8 years here, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I did want to be invited to Prize Day to speak. I thought that would suggest I had done something with my life.
I wanted to be invited as a member of N. Ireland’s World Cup squad… or Europe’s Ryder Cup team… or a songwriter, like my mate Iain who wrote Hold Back The Rover with James Bay (which the Junior choir sang today). But… here I am… a Presbyterian minister! Come on! This was not my dream gig!
Let me tell you about a seagull who wanted to live a life of thrills. In Richard Bach’s book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Jonathan watched all the other gulls just eating and sleeping but he wants more. So he took off into the blue and soared and swooped aiming at speeds and thrills that no other gull had ever experienced. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull wanted to fly. When I was your age at Ballymena Academy, I wanted to fly.
Our logo in Fitzroy, where I am minister, is 10:10. It’s my birthday. I love seeing the youth walking round with my birthday on their sweatshirts! It’s also the mark you got to be here today! It’s also a verse in the ancient text of the Scriptures where Jesus said that he came to bring life and life in all its fulness. I wanted that. 10:10!
Coming back here today has had me reminiscing at what happened to me here. And I realised the incredible number of things that are still impacting my life, nearly 40 years later.
And I don’t mean here in the school. I mean here in this very Assembly Hall.
I fell over… behind that curtain… with a huge pile of chairs in my hand when I was stage crew for the School Concert; avant garde percussion!
On my last day at school… the second time… you can see why I didn’t get any prizes… I ran with buckets towards the edge of the stage. The First XV… not just any First XV but a Schools’ Cup winning First XV were all sat in the front two rows. As I ran towards them with this bucket they tried to scarper, their faces full of more terror than Bangor Grammar forwards gave them at Ravenhill. I laughed as, instead of the water soaking them as expected, paper like confetti floating harmlessly in the Assembly Hall air!
Those were fun memories. Other memories really did impact my life. I fell in love with The Beatles right over there. My very first School Christmas Party. I’d love to know who the UVI were who played Can’t Buy Me Love and Paperback Writer. BUT I have loved and been influenced greatly by The Beatles ever since. The last two t-shirts I got were Beatles t-shirts. It started over there, under those steps!
I then ended up being the UVI DJ myself. I had the best record collection in the school…sadly no prizes were given for that… but it did make me DJ for all the parties in my UVI and LVII years.
This would lead to one of the most awful public moments of my life. It was the Prefects’ Party. We set up for the party and suddenly realised the that dancing down there was causing the needle jump off the records up here!
No music… no dancing… not a happy upper end of the school… Back over here there was panic. We had to move the record player back up to the sound room up there. In the meantime, I was sent out to a baying crowd to explain. It was fierce. I felt isolated, humiliated and tried to make some joke and calm the hopeful dancers.
The next morning I was a little embarrassed coming into class. Someone looked round and said, “Great work last night. If you could stand in front of that crowd, you’ll be able to stand in front of any crowd.” That was a huge moment in my vocational life. I have stood in front of all kinds of crowds since then. That moment was gain in the pain!
A much better moment was December 9th 1980. I know the date. It was the morning after John Lennon of The Beatles was shot dead. CU were allowed to Assembly and I spoke on the music of Bob Dylan and faith. A massive part of my vocation ever since has been travelling the world speaking about rock music and faith. I even wrote a best selling book on U2. It all began right here, where I am standing now!
Best of all that morning, the then headmaster Denis Jagoe walked off the stage with me. I had been nervous speaking to my peers and teachers. He encouraged me with kind words and then added, “and you didn’t insult their intelligence.” He believed many preachers speak down to their audience. Those words have rung in my ear for 35 years. In all the teaching I got in College about preaching. None surpassed that throw away phrase.
I am sharing how my years in this building might never have won me any school prizes but shaped me and honed me into finding out the vocation I would follow, the reason I was on the planet. My 10:10.
I ended up a DJ on radio Ulster. I wrote books on rock music and faith. I became a preacher standing in front of many a difficult audiences. And I try to never insult the intelligence of my listeners.
One of my favourite writers is Frederick Buechner, a novelist who doubles as a Presbyterian minister. He writes that vocation is where your deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need. That is where you want to get to… University Yes… a degree, Masters and PhD yes… BUT more important than pieces of paper and even size of pay packets or the right post code Is living life and life in all its fulness. 10:10!
And can I add that I know many people who have the pieces of paper, the big job titles, the house in the right location and all that money can buy BUT are not living life in all its fulness; living where their deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need.
First to find your deepest gladness. What is it you are good at? What is it that you are made for? Usually this is something that you excel at and when you do it well you get a deep sense of satisfaction. This is your gift… your genius… your reason to live… finding this and going after it… that’s life in all its fulness! Maybe the prize you are getting today gives a clue to that. Maybe.
When we find this we are not done. Practicing your deepest gladness is not life in all its fulness. Buechner suggests that it needs to meet the world’s deep needs.
So you could be the best graphic designer in the world… doing great work… but working for a company that oppresses its workers with unjust wages and working conditions might not be helping meet the world’s deepest need.
Let me take you to a school in Uganda that I have visited the last two summers. Our family sponsors two girls in this school; Jacqueline and Rachel. They have amazing smiles and are lovely kids. School was not as certain for them as for you. Their parents didn’t go and put their names down when the time came. They had to start their own school. Pay for their own teachers. Build their own classrooms. We in Fitzroy have helped them out by funding an amazing school building.
When we hope for Jacqueline and Rachel that they might be teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, traffic designers, business women etc etc it is not so much about Jacqueline and Rachel having jobs and wages. That is important for them and their families but it is about more than their deep gladness.
Uganda needs teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, traffic designers, business women. We want them to meet that deep need in their world.
Ballymena needs teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, traffic designers, business women. N. Ireland needs… the world needs…
When you find your deepest gladness and then give it to the community, the nation or the world, then you will receive something that will make you feel that this life is worth living.
So congratulations on your achievements. You have shown application, hard work and intelligence in what you have won prizes in today.
These prizes will give you a clue to what your made to do but make sure you make the most of your entire school life. I was a footballing playing rock fan and somehow found my way to The Debating Society one Friday afternoon. What was I thinking. Yet, over the next eight years, that debating society became the place that I put a public speech together. It was where I learned to debate. I use those skills every week, in the pulpit and as committee meetings.
So can I say thank you Ballymena Academy for helping me find my deepest gladness. Very few of my teachers are here. Very few of my fellow pupils. I was wondering as prize winners were announced are they children of my friends, doing the maths wondering could they be grandchildren!!! Or worried that I might have kissed one of their mothers! But I thank every member of my school community who made me who I am today.
And can I pray that you all find yours and that this world benefits from all that you contribute to it. Be like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Fly. Live the life in all its fulness Jesus came talked about - 10:10. May your deep gladness meet the world’s deepest need. If it does you will be blessed and we will all benefit from your contribution.