30 years ago tonight I was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It is hard to believe. I was the assistant minister in the First Antrim congregation at the time and my over riding memory, among many, was the sense of love that they, along with my friends and family showed me that evening.
The three decades since then have built some resilience in my life but Janice and I have also experienced an abundance of grace by so many people and also the lavish blessings of God. I have had the very best 4 jobs I could ever have imagined.
That assistantship in First Antrim was a wonderful five years. My boss, John Dixon, showed me immense amounts of grace and also more trust than I reckon I would have given myself. I remember the Tuesday morning when I told him that we had planned a mission “Video Bar” and were going to call it Sex, Drugs and Rock N Roll - The Truth! He didn’t even flinch! My imagination started to find its stride in Antrim.
After First Antrim I got the amazing privilege of moving to Dublin where for three years I was Youth Development Officer for The Presbyterian Church for the entire Republic of Ireland. I would fill those three years with friends, missions, conferences and festivals. I would be in Limerick for a few days and Cork for a couple of weeks. I even did an entire month in Donegal! I have so many great memories that it is hard to believe we did it all in three years. Some might way I discovered the musical talents of Iain Archer and Juliet Turner during it all!
Having been travelling for three years, I started seeking ministry in community. One evening in 1994, in the strange location of the Ramore Wine Bar, someone told me about a job as part of the Queen’s University Chaplaincy at Derryvolgie Hall, living in residence with students.
The next fifteen years were full of characters and fun filled inspiration and challenge as I attempted to make Jesus relevant to a University age group. In Derryvolgie Hall’s Art N Soul room we blended Scripture and art in the most creative of ways and every other summer from 2000 to 2008 built almost 50 houses in the Cape Flats around Cape Town with Habitat For Humanity.
I loved living with 88 students. I got the privilege of bring involved in their lives, romances, heartaches and vocational dreams as well as their spiritual formation. It is with joy and a little pride that I continue to watch many of their lives changing the world, literally all over that world. I guess I could still be there and thought I would be. I mean which Church could I go to that would not send me insane and, more to the point, the congregation insane too?!
Fitzroy! I could joke and suggest that Fitzroy is from the greek word ‘Fitzo' which means ‘the perfect church for Stockman’. There is little doubt that it was the only place in Ireland that I could have been minister. That Ken Newell retired at a time when I was ready for a new challenge. Well, I did mention God’s lavish blessing. Ken had also set up a Church willing to risk, orthodox at the centre but pragmatically radical on the fringes. I stand on his shoulders and probably those of the late much missed Fr Gerry Reynolds of Clonard monastery who along with Ken formed the Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship that contributed to making peace in this wee country.
This is my ninth year in Fitzroy and yet again I have learned so much about my own life and my vocation. It has opened up opportunities that I would never have dreamed of. Even in this past month I have had the opportunity to spend time in Uganda and help organise the 4 Corners Festival across Belfast. Fitzroy have allowed me to cast a vision for the neighbourhood around us, we are involved in mission across the world and are imaginative in worship, pastoral care and spiritual formation. We are far from perfect but vibrant, welcoming and adding to our community rather than dwindling like so many city centre Churches.
When you add to all of this that I had my own radio show on BBC Radio Ulster for ten years, have written a number of poetry books and authored a spiritual biography of U2 that reached #99 in the Amazon chart, been privileged to regularly speak across America, been on the board of the Greenbelt Festival, had a sabbatical as Writer in Residence at Regent College, Vancouver, have had 600,000 hits on my Soul Surmise blog, and in 2016 was awarded, along with my partner in peacemaking Fr. Martin Magill, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council Civic Leader of the Year, well my goodness I have lived the life in all its fulness that Jesus promised to give in John 10:10. That 10:10 indeed has become my mission statement!
So, tonight I am looking back, with a heart bursting with gratitude. I am thankful to all the colleagues and interns who have worked alongside me, been my bosses, or congregations. I have had so many friends who opened their lives to me.
I have a wife who has walked almost every step of the 30 years with me. I still remember a card of apology from her being read out at my ordination, a good eighteen months before we fell in love. My daughters have been dragged along in the slipstream of a fast and hectic life. I hope you have gained much from the journey Caitlin and Jasmine and I haven't been as weird as you often suggest I am.
The night before that ordination, on February 21 1998, I listened over and over and sang along to Larry Norman’s song, I Am Your Servant:
I am a servant getting ready for my part
There's been a change, a rearrangement in my heart
At last I'm learning, there's no returning once I start
To live's a privilege, to love is such an art
But I need your help to start
O please purify my heart, I am your servant.
If you had told me that night that I would live the life I have I would scarcely have believed you. There have been very tough times, and I have felt hurt and isolated by many within my denomination along the way, but I learned from time spent with Rich Mullins to focus on Jesus and not the world or the church. So, I sing Larry’s song again tonight and commit to following jesus into the year ahead. Most of all, I thank God for the lavish and ridiculous grace down these past thirty years.