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August 2017

PRINCESS DIANA... BIRD ON A WIRE - Pause For Thought 31.8.17


(As I am currently doing a wee series of Fridays on BBC Radio Ulster's Thought For The Day, I had forgotten that before the summer I had agreed to do a couple of Pause For Thoughts for Radio 2. It was going into a restaurant last night that I discovered I was on this morning and they had needed my script a few hours before!!!

The theme was obvious.... "Where Were You When (Remembering Princess Diana). I order my food but the family didn't get much attention until I had typed a thought...

I like a little Bible in my thoughts. It is what I do and there is no point of a minister being on to just say nice things. However, the contrived handbrake turn that shoves a verse of Scripture in awkwardly is not an ideal approach either. This one is about being the free and committed person Jesus wants us to be. It might be more implicit than explicit this time!)

I was in bed. We were having a rare leisurely Sunday morning off and I flicked on the TV, immediately joining the nation's shock and experiencing that deep deep sadness that many of us will feel again today. Diana really was the people's Princess and even the days that followed are indelibly marked in my mind. That very evening I had to replan the playlist of my radio show. I married two very good friends on the day of her funeral. Candle In The Wind. The applause after her brother's tribute. The flowers on the hearse's windscreen. I remember where I was when...

The rest of that Sunday, twenty years ago today, was searching for songs for that radio show. Trying to find songs that would bring catharsis and some sense of spiritual meaning… deciding it was too early to dare to bring in any hope in those first tender moments of grief. Healing always comes a little later. 

"Sad Songs They Say So Much" as another Elton John song puts it. Music can delve deep, be a balm on open wounds. 

I remember scanning my huge CD collection and stopping at Leonard Cohen. There. Bird On A Wire. Melancholy. Last lyrical swipe at the naysayers! There were maybe 11 other songs on Rhythm and Soul that night. BUT that one...

"Like a bird on the wire

Like a drunk in a midnight choir

I have tried in my way to be free"

That one captured Diana. To be free. To be yourself. To try to change your world, to leave it better than you found it. And staying true to your values and beliefs no matter what the neighbours or the press say. That is what… and who… I remember. And maybe someone someday might say the same about me...



It is the little things. 

It was last year’s trip to Arua in Uganda that the Stockmans caught the importance of soap. We had brought a few gifts of soap but when we brought a few out one afternoon and a woman almost grabbed it from our hands we started asking about soap. I mean how many of us consider the presence of soap in our lives. It has always been there, beside whatever sink we wash our hands. That afternoon I realised that in Africa soap is a precious commodity and never taken for granted in.

And so we thought that it might be nice to give a gift of soap to the teachers in Onialeku School where we partner in Arua. In fact, getting ambitious, we wondered could we gift a soap to all the children in the school. 

I then put a simple message up on Facebook asking if anyone knew anyone in the hotel trade. Within minutes Janet Whitelaw-Jones and Rita Ebbinghaus-Ferguson had given me leads to Jonny Topping and Kenneth Sharp.

When I told Jonny and Peter what we were thinking they immediately said yes. Within a week or two Janice and Caitlin were picking up a couple of hundred soaps from Jonny Topping at the Stormont Hotel and even more excitedly, dancing around our hallway astounded and flabbergasted at the box of 1000 that the generous hearted Kenneth Sharp, owner the Salty Dog Hotel and Bistro in Bangor had delivered to the door.

On July 13th we had the thrill of giving out those soaps. It is always a joy to give gifts. When you know how much gratitude that the gifts are received, and the impact the gift will have, it is even more satisfying.

In Africa the lack of soap has literally deadly consequences. Hand-washing with soap can significantly reduce the incidence of diarrhoea, which is the second leading cause of death amongst children under five years old. 

Regular hand-washing with soap at critical times of the daily routines can reduce the number of diarrhoea bouts by almost 50 per cent. Good hand-washing practices have also been shown to reduce the incidence of other diseases, notably pneumonia, trachoma, scabies, skin and eye infections and diarrhoea-related diseases like cholera and dysentery.

This year we actually taught the school staff how to make liquid soap which can be a little earner to sustain the school. Soap! A vital commodity!

Through the generosity of The Salty Dog and Stormont Hotel many people were overjoyed at their gift and implications for many families was so positive… with just a bar of soap. Thank you again Kenneth and Jonny… and Janet and Rita too!



As I am listening to The War On Drug’s follow up to their breakthrough record Lost In The Dream, I cannot help but imagining that this is what would have happened had Neil Young, during that 80s period when David Geffen was seeing him for not sounding like Neil Young, sacked Crazy Horse for Talk Talk, brought in Talk Talk’s producer Tim Friese-Greene and co-written with Bruce Springsteen

There are yearning harmonicas straight off The River or Harvest. There are the vocal intonations of Bruce, on In Chains. Neil Young guitar work outs are omnipresent. Adam Granduciel heaps all these influences through the blender and comes up with a sound all his own.

Like Friese-Greene, Granduciel is meticulous in his layering of instruments but with the density of the production the finished rock symphony glides gently over your soul. A Deeper Understanding is another huge slice of hypnotic ambient gorgeous lushness with psychedelic guitars and big wash synth. It is utterly beautiful.

Lyrically, A Deeper Understanding is caught between the dark and love. Those words are recurring throughout. Thinking Of A Place sets the content of this dichotomy of place: -


I'm moving through the dark

Of a long black night

And I'm looking at the moon

And the light it shines

And I'm thinking of a place

And it feels so very real

Oh, it was so full of love.


Pain best describes what Granduciel is seeking in that place: -


Pull me close and let me hold you in

Give me the deeper understanding of who I am

Yeah, I'm going back again, I'm waiting here


A Deeper Understanding is not so much a revelation of the answers to life’s dilemmas, it is more a beautiful piece of soundtrack to help us meditate on where we are, as we seek the guidance and the strength to find where to go next. 

It is another album of astonishing achievement and beauty.


Follow Me


I am always concerned that Christian discipleship has been blunted, dulled and made easy. It has turned into some formula, leading to a comfortable life of niceness and keeping the status quo.


It is instead about a radical life turn, an unlearning of how we have been living and relearning a counter intuitive life that is costly and sacrificial. 


When Peter answered Jesus question, "Who do you say that I am?" with a "The Messiah of God," Jesus then told him the response to such a belief - “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me."


That is nothing short of subversive revolution. Christianity has been blanded down to putting your hand up at a mission, believing a few doctrines and fighting for whatever seems to be the sound defining doctrine of that age, and doing a daily Bible reading and prayer.


If only... if only Jesus had said that to Peter. That would be an easier deal to follow... but dull... very dull... and nothing like the John 10:10 'life in all its fulness".  


If only Jesus had said to Peter…

Put your hand up at a meeting…

Pray this prayer after me…

Go to Church…

Sing new worship songs…

Believe all these doctrines…


If only Jesus had said to Peter…

But he didn’t 

He said

Follow me

Follow me into the minutes and hours of each day

Follow me among the people you wouldn’t really want to be with

Follow me into the dilemmas of spiritual decision making

Follow me into the dilemmas of making value judgements

Follow me into dangerous and dirty and hostile places

Follow me into the concerns and heartache of family and friendship


If only Jesus had said to Peter...

But he didn’t

He said

Follow me and let us love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength

Follow me as we love our neighbours as ourselves

Follow me as we learn to love our enemies

Follow me into serving those who are not as well off as you are

Follow me to the cross of uncomfortable and painful sacrifice and self denial


If only Jesus had said to Peter...

But he didn’t 

He said follow me

Follow me and let us journey

Towards the person I died that you might be

To make the contributions that I was resurrected, for you to make.



Stocki Preach

It will be exciting to be back doing my preaching vocation in the morning. I feel rested and ready to go. We are still on the Lectionary tomorrow BUT tomorrows readings are going to seamlessly lead us into a new little series called SUBVERSIVE REVOLUTIONARIES in which I hope to look at crucial passages of Scripture that tell us how we should now live in the following of Jesus. More about that in a blog to come...

Tomorrow... we are the cross roads. Who is this Jesus? As the crowds were looking back to the past, the new way arrives. It will take some relearning. Hence my new series. We will suggest Jesus is the base from which we follow after him... now there's an Irish one!

Guitar riffed worship from John Trinder and his merry team... it will include an I Will Follow... it would be a sin not to!

Evening events will begin again on September 10th. We have some tasty stuff in the planning.






Mum's bags

It was my daughter’s genius, my mother’s things and a real gift for the teachers in Onialeku Primary School. 

When we were clearing my parents house in April, it was a mad week or two, ending with all hands on deck madness. Anyone who has had to do such a thing knows how emotional and crazy the process is. At one point, unbeknown to me, Janice found our daughter Caitlin piling my mother’s handbags into a bin bag.

 “What are you doing with those, Caitlin?

“Taking them for gifts to the teachers, mum?”

Caitlin had been listening when a veteran Fields Of Life Team leader told us that the ladies in Uganda love a good handbag. When we were sorting my parents stuff into Family, Charity and Skip, Caitlin saw a very specific usefulness for mum’s bags. My mum bought quality and there were about 20 very classy handbags, all ready for a home. From there Caitlin and Janice started plotting the gifts of, and other gifts in, the bag!

I have to say that the night before we met with the teachers in our beloved Onialeku Primary School, to give the gifts, and my mum’s handbags were laid out on a table, in the Christus Retreat Centre where we were saying, it was quite emotional. However, I was so delighted that Caitlin had conjured the idea and that there would be a little bit of my mother all around Onialeku! We took ties from my dad’s wardrobe too, for the male teachers!

One of the last times I had had a good conversation with my mum, she was asking a lot about Onialeku. She wanted to know why we had still one child at that time not sponsored. She was keen to sponsor him herself. My mum never liked it when we were in Africa. She missed us and worried about her family in a faraway place. However, I knew in that conversation that she had grasped our passion and that that compassion that she had for that last sponsor child was something of what inspired me.

Mum also felt that I had never quite preached enough about how Fitzroy tithed our own building project to fund a school in Uganda. 

“Why does everyone not do that, Steve? 

It’s such a good example to others. 

You need to challenge other Churches to do it.”

So, as I thought of her grand-daughter’s clever thoughtfulness about those handbags, I thought that mum would want me to preach about Caitlin’s example too. I hope mum is delighted that she has made so many women in Uganda happy. The delight on their faces as we gave them all a handbag was precious. I know for sure that she would be saying that I should tell everybody about what Caitlin and Janice did and to share how easy it is, with a wee bit of thought, to give to others what they will so appreciate and that we no longer need.

So… I know that many of you will have to go through the difficult task of clearing your parents’ houses. With a wee bit of imagination, there are resources of joy in the pain.

THE CULTURAL STIGMAS THAT DAMN OUR PEACE... BBC Radio Ulster Thought For The Day 25.8.17

City Hall Tree


In the early part of July I was in David Sharland's garden, in Arua in the very north west edge of Uganda with a bunch of my Fitzroy congregation.


David works in agriculture and his garden is amazing. Against the run of play he captivates us with stories of plants and trees and herbs.  


When he came to the Moringa tree he shocked me. He waxed lyrical, with his usual enthusiasm, about its many wonders and then he told us that the Moringa leaf could relieve the nutritional needs of millions of malnourished people in Africa. 


Moringa leaves have protein, vitamin A, potassium, calcium iron in spade loads! It grows easily.


BUT… in African culture to eat leaves is a cultural taboo. As David spoke I was staggered at how some cultural stigma could get in the way of saving lives.


There’s a tree at the top of the Centenary Window in Belfast City Hall. The plaque beside it reads, “The tree with the sun behind it symbolises hope, growth, regeneration and reconciliation.” It then quotes Revelation 2:22, “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”


As David’s tale of the Moringa tree shocked me I wondered about those metaphorical leaves of hope, growth, regeneration and reconciliation. Are they all around us here in our wounded and wonderful wee country BUT we are damned by our cultural stigmas. Are we allowing the cultural traditions of bonfires, flags, language and our dealing with the past get in the way of a better future for all? Are we paralysed by the fear of what the neighbours would say?


It is a month since I walked around David Sharland’s garden in the pleasant warmth of an African evening. The image of the Moringa leaf won’t leave me though. It tugs like a dog at my heals. Eat the leaves Steve… don’t let cultural stigmas get in the way.


(This was a shortened version of our regular Column in the Irish News recently. For a fuller version of these thoughts click here


Colin Davidson

“The arts can help us to create and bear witness to a better future.

Interpreting people’s experiences and stories is vital to healing trauma and mending communities.

The arts can give voice to marginalised and stigmatised groups and help to foster empathy and tolerance.

Arts provide a positive mode of expression and an alternative to threatening and destabilising actions. They humanise rather than dehumanise and provide a language that we all can share in.”

The above quotations come from an article by Winston Irvine on Eamonn Mallie’s blog called Gauntlet thrown down to Custodians of Arts in Northern Ireland. 

I was immediately shouting Amen! Preach it Winston! My co-conspirator in reconciliation Fr. Martin Magill took up Winston’s theme in our column in the Irish news today. I have been preaching how vital art is to our healing and transformation for a long time. It was the subject of my Masters in Theology.

It was taking regular Chaplaincy trips South Africa in the noughties that I started to see the importance of art in the healing of a nation. Now, don’t get me wrong, South Africa has a long way to go on its journey but in many ways it is ahead of us and the violence on our streets this summer, the bickering at Stormont and the cold war in our churches. 

I always remember the first time I visited the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. The story is that the Apartheid Government declared District 6 a “whites only” area in 1966. Like its equivalent Sophiatown, in Johannesburg, District 6 had been a huge challenge to the Government, being a wonderfully harmonious mix of all races, religions and colours. On the edge of the city centre, snuggled under Table Mountain, District 6 was an eclectic mix of culture and art that needed destroyed so that it didn’t disprove the bizarre theories of a separatist approach to nationhood. So the bulldozers came and levelled it.

In the Museum, I headed for the book shop to pick up The History Of District 6. There wasn’t one. There were poetry books, photographic books, plays, memoirs and even a fascinating programme to The Public Sculpture Project but nothing more concrete (did I really use that word). It was in this little alcove, that I started surmising the power of art to tell stories of past divisions. 

We in Northern Ireland have an obsession for the tribunal, the inquest and the history book; we are focused on finding justice. South Africans seem more interested in healing and restoring souls. The poems, the plays and the prose seem to be seeking catharsis and a re-humanising of one another.

Certainly when I was spending those long summers in South African I sensed more empathy, more re-humanising of the other, more desire to tell the truth, forgive and move on into a shared future. As I said, South Africa has a long way to go on all of those but there seemed more soul in the reconciliation, dare I say more grace than law.

So I am with Winston… and Fr Martin. We need soul and grace and to re-humanise the other. We need to invest in our Arts. We need to make the arts accessible to all corners of our society. We need to encourage our writers and painters and singers to see themselves as the prophetic transformers of our society.


Onialeku Welcome

The best moments of mission teams are in the facial expressions. It is in the moments that people are so suddenly overwhelmed by something that their mouths and eyes cannot hide it. One of those was the joy one of one our sponsors children’s faces when she saw that there was a sharpener in her gift pack. A sharpener for goodness sake! Her face lit up. I found myself basking at gratitude in its purist form in these moments.

It is not only the Onialeku children where the face told a wonderful story. A parent of one of our teens has told me that as she looked at photographs of the trip she asked when she had last seen her daughter look that fulfilled and concluded that it was the last time she was there. With more adults on our team this year it was emotional, for Janice and I as leaders, to see their emotion at the welcome we received on the first day and then at the experiences every day after!

This year we had the joy of opening two major projects funded by Fitzroy. Since we tithed our own building project to fund Onialeku Primary School in 2015 we have watched a congregation taking this community to its heart. Two of our congregation, Richard Guthrie and Michael Fitch, cycled to fund a perimeter fence which it was a joy to have Michael and his wife Gillian open. Michael named the fence Richard!

Someone in the congregation anonymously donated money for a bore hole well. It was a joy to see the joy that Elma and Peter Greer had opening that. Every day I glanced across the school as people used that well, thinking of what a contribution that is to the school and wider community. Clean water. Right there. So many problems dealt with right there. 

Of course we were not there to just open things or to observe facial expressions. However, these expressions are a symbol of why we partnered with Onialeku Primary School through Fields Of Love. Our aim is a mutual sharing of our wealth and poverty. We are wealthy in shillings. Onialeku is poor in shillings. On the other hand, in resilience, gratitude and imagination Onialeku share their wealth with us and do it lavishly. This is mutual discipleship as we are inspired, challenged and learn more about the life in all its fulness Jesus brings (10:10!!) from one another!

We broadened our contributions this year. As well as our youth team telling the story of Joseph through drama, music and crafts we did the I Am Girl programme which proved successful in sex education and building relationships. We taught the teachers to make soap and got to sell some at a the Community Day. Peter Greer started a guitar class and Janice’s knitting class has grown to 60 plus. We are hoping that soap making and guitar and knitting classes will continue!

This is our third summer in a row in these favourite two acres of land in Arua, north west Uganda. Every year you get to go a little deeper. Friendships strengthen, knowledge of the area increases and you become more and more aware of both the opportunities and barriers to progress. Pastors David and Joel, teachers Alice, Charles, Norman and the rest, the children Jacqueline, Rachel, Dinah, Jonathan and the 40 we sponsor never mind the other 250. Our love grows!

Since we were in Arua last summer, one million refugees have crossed into the area from South Sudan. Arua city centre was much busier. Of course most of the refugees are in Bidi Bidi the biggest refugee camp in the world. Ugandans are amazingly welcoming people and in their willingness to open their borders they send a discipleship challenge across our selfish British hearts. Those who have nothing give what they have. Those of us with much ashamedly don’t want to lose their decadent wealth!

If the refugee crisis has had implications in Arua as a whole it has also had implications in the school, with teachers being offered higher wages by the UN to teach in Bidi Bidi. Holding on to teachers is a huge challenge for poor schools. We need to help with a strategy to entice top teachers. 

We also find that some of the pupils who have done well at Onialeku have little chance of progressing. This year one of our P7 girls showed great ability but with 5 in her family it is unlikely her family can afford her to go to High School. That is a huge waste of potential for her and Uganda. We are home to ponder that dilemma!

These are the challenges and it is an honour to be partnering in working them through. A few more of the Fitzroy community have caught the bug. The sharing of mutual poverty and wealth is increasing. We are home with a lot of things to apply to our lives. We hopefully leave some hope and potential. We thank Fields of Life for the amazing work they do behind the scenes to make all of this possible. 


Walk and Not Faint

This is the poem of a pastor, watching his congregation going through all kinds of pain.

I am aware every Sunday morning, as I look out on my Fitzroy family, that almost everyone is hurting in some way. Most of us have family members we are walking alongside through very difficult situations. Most of us are struggling ourselves, with many issues of life. 

There can be many unanswered questions in these pastoral scenarios and we live with our faith and the awkward dances of hurt and pain and grief.

The third verse is inspired by Philip Yancey. In a seminar at Greenbelt one year he was speaking about spiritual growth. He took those familiar verses in Isaiah 40: 30-31 -

Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint. 

... and gave them another slant. He suggested that when we are young in faith we start out with almost naive enthusiasm. We fly. Everything is possible. We can change the world. We can do it now. Then however we are hit by life's realities - broken hearts, death of loved ones. We land. We are still running. By the time we fully mature in our faith and how it works in a broken world we are down to a walk. In the physical life we walk, then run etc but in the spiritual life it is the other way around. 

So if you are trudging and as a result feel you are showing spiritual immaturity. Maybe not. Perhaps it is a mark of your growing up in faith, learning to somehow trust, through the awkward dance of mystery.

It interested me that when I google imaged "walk and not faint" all I got were pictures of eagles. Maybe we are not up for the maturity that Eugene Peterson called 'a long obedience in the same direction'. 


When a loved one’s tossed in turbulence

You watch them smashed whichever way

And God never seems to bring the calm

No matter how hard you pray

May unseen threads of mercy

Weave in, the unravelling doubt

May God grab you by the finger

Before life’s hurting drags you out


Knowledge loves the questions

Cos it has a seamless answer

But mystery shimmies all around

She’s an awkward little dancer

And when she dances out of sight

Leaving the soul that lonely ache

May God send a holy comforter

Before you crack up in the heart break


Lord, we flew on wings like eagles

Then landed with reality’s thud

We ran but soon were walking

Now crawl through this tear soaked mud

We mature in a world that’s broken

Confessing what our part is

We sing these songs to temper grief

And hope in their catharsis.