Previous month:
April 2018
Next month:
June 2018

May 2018

THE FISH EAGLE AND THE TIGER FISH - Thought For The Day 18.5.18

African Fish Eagle

I am currently reading the memoir of a family friend, Roy Comrie. Roy is an old style missionary. No pith helmet but crazily courageous adventure. It is hard core… a black mamba snake bite here, picking up a hitchhiker with an AK47 there!

He tells a story that when I read it earlier in the week I knew it was perfect for Thought For The Day.

He and his friend were out fishing on the Kabompo River in Zambia when they caught sight of an Africa fish eagle. It was so majestic that he and his mate put their fishing rods down to just gaze on the wonder.

The Fish Eagle circles and swoops and they see it’s talons open to catch a fish. As he rises again they realise that he has caught a tiger fish, a viscous beast of a fish. As they rise the fish starts flapping with a brute force that catches the eagle by surprise and they land back in the water. The tiger fish takes the eagle under. As all looks lost they reappear on the surface and the eagle who has never let go tries again. 

Once again the fish flaps so ferociously that that the eagles loses its balance and they plunge back into the river. This time the fish takes the eagle under to its drowning. Moments later it appears dead on the surface and floats downstream for a crocodile’s lunch.

Roy changed his opinion of this African Fish Eagle. He saw the initial catch as extreme optimism. As the eagles floated dead Roy realised that it was greed. The eagle never let go. He had made a wrong choice. He bit off more than he ever got to chew. He could have let go. His greed would not let him. 

Roy asked about his own human greed. His own bad choices. Greedy choices that cause us to be damaged, broken, maybe dead. Are there things even this morning pulling us down to drowning in our own bad greedy choices. Let me be graciously pastoral but is Stormont in limbo because of our communal bad choices and greed. Do we need to let go - to save us all.


I REMEMBER WHAT JANICE SAYS - An Old Poem For Our Anniversary

Jani and I Lake Victoria

Today, May 18, is our wedding anniversary. Twenty two years. 

So here is a poem about Janice important in my life and vocation. I wrote this back in 1993. Janice was in Pietermaritzburg for most of that year. There was no Skype or WhatsApp or email. Snail mail that took forever! 

During that year, as Ken Newell had predicted in a throw away line in Spuds Take Away, my denomination hurled me into a wilderness. I had been the rising star, invited to every youths service int he country. Suddenly people were writing letters questioning my core beliefs. It was the start of a long, painful journey. One that I would never go back to avoid but one that has had its lonely moments.

In the midst of it, I had phoned Janice to share the hurt. Maybe ten or twelve days later I got a letter of wisdom and encouragement to keep on following the Jesus I believed in and not to compromise from peer pressure to something less than God called me to be. I wrote this poem in Cork on July 6th 1993, reading that letter.

Twenty five years later and, today, twenty two years into our marriage, Janice continues to give me the courage to follow what I believe Jesus calls me to. She has joined me in those hurtful moments. We have cried, prayed and wondered about getting out BUT her hand in mine, her sitting beside me and most of all her determination that I would stay true to who God made me to be have been conduits of God’s grace. 

We are who we are, where we are and doing what we do because I often remember what Janice says… as she reminds me what Jesus says…

Thank you Janice… Happy anniversary!

 

I REMEMBER WHAT JANICE SAYS

 

Some days the sun, it will not shine

Even when the sky is clear and blue

Those clouds of misconceptions

Misinterpretations of things you do

Sometimes I sense the smile of God

Sometimes the smack of a hand

From those who claim God’s smile as well

Sometimes it is hard to understand

And in those times of confusion

I remember what Janice says

Find strength in mystical times with God

To walk his revolutionary ways.

 

Some days you feel your heart is heavy

Even though your spirit travels light

Your soul is sure of where it is

But your head’s not sure you’re right

Sometimes I like the face in the mirror

Sometimes I wish someone else looked back

Someone accepted and a little less vulnerable

Who still sees it all in white and black

And when I am lost in shades of grey

I remember what Janice says

Find strength in mystical times with God

To walk his revolutionary ways.

 

And Janice says, “ How can they understand

When they don’t know the freedom you know

When your Father has sent you down a road

That’s the one you’ve got to go

And don’t look for affirmation

In the things that anybody says

Find strength in mystical times with God

To walk his revolutionary ways."


FITZROY'S DAY OF RECONCILIATION - SUNDAY IN FITZROY 20.5.18

Christophe Mbonyingabo

In a church where Reconciliation is at the core of its DNA, Sunday in Fitzroy is a Day of Reconciliation.

In the morning we will be celebrating Pentecost by asking what difference such a moment in history should have on our forgiveness of enemies and community’s coming together in shalom. 

Christophe Mbonyingabo’s life has been shaped by ethnic violence, He was from a family of Tutsis from Rwanda. However because of violent tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples, his family had fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1959. Christophe was born there in exile. 

The moment that Christophe came face to face with the gospel in his local church, he faced a challenge; following Christ meant turning his back on ethnic divisions and hatred. It was a hard decision to make…

Christophe is Executive Director of CARSA (Christian Action For Reconciliation And Social Assistance) and is supported by Tearfund as part of their Inspired Individuals Leadership programme.

He believes in forgiveness and reconciliation and that the Church can be at the centre of such social transformation. He is a Biblical thinker and practitioner. Be ready for inspirational stories and a challenge to what Jesus’ call to discipleship costs!

In the evening we welcome back our former minister Rev Dr Ken Newell whose book Captured By A Vision is, in my opinion one of the bets book about how the Church should be involved in peace making.

He will be joined by Fr Ciarán O Callaghan, a Redemptorist priest from Clonard Monastery. The Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship who are unofficial hosts of this entire day is renowned across the world for their working together for reconciliation. 

Ken and Ciarán will be asking what it looks like for a follower of Jesus to live in a divided community and will ask whether if there is a united Ireland, should we stay or should we go as Arlene Foster recently suggested she might.

It will be a powerful Pentecost Sunday!


BAD RELATIONSHIP WITH THE BIBLE - YOU CAN'T LEAVE IT ON THE WASHING MACHINE

Bible

I have been concerned in recent days about our relationship with the Bible. Three real life scenarios will open up my fears. I was on a social media discussion and someone shared how she was ashamed of herself as she had come in from Church on Sunday, left her Bible on the washing machine in the utility room and had not lifted it for almost a week. My immediate reaction was, “I wish!” 

Wouldn’t it be great if the Bible was the kind of thing that could be set down? It was certainly never God’s intention that it could be left anywhere. It was his idea that it would become apart of us. Paul told the Colossians that they should let the “word of God dwell in you richly”. I find it pouring into my mind and heart and soul in all kinds of daily scenarios while the hard copy is back on my desk! It is not to be contained in lines on pages and bound by leather and gold edge. This is a book that is not so much about you reading it but it reading you. 

The next scenario comes from a sermon that was all about the dangers of the junk that modern culture fills our minds with. I have no argument with that! The preacher, however, suggested that we maybe watch as much as five hours television a night and then only give ten minutes to reading the Bible. Again this is a shocking understanding of the Bible and its relationship to us and our living. It seems that we have compartmentalised the Bible and entertainment. They live in separate rooms and there is no door between. The Bible was never meant to have its own place. It was meant to seep through every pore of our lives. As I am watching the news, film drama, music and even sport that the Bible, even without it open on my lap, is helping me think about all I am watching in a Biblical way. 

The last story is about someone who was worried about their relationship with God. When asked in what ways, it all came down to the amount she was reading the Bible. Though my friend should rightfully have sought some help in re-igniting her Bible reading the fact that she was not reading it has little to do with her relationship with God. Yet she has been taught that it was. Indeed she has been taught that it was the be all and end all of her faith. Of course it is not. For centuries after Christ’s ascension nobody had a Bible to read. Did they have no relationship with God? Of course not! Bible reading notes are a phenomenon of the last fifty years so were the Christians who never heard the words “quiet time” for 1900 years, all living in a dodgy relationship with God. Of course not!

All three of the above stories reveal a fatally faulty mindset when it comes to our relationship with The Bible. And before anybody sees my motives as diminishing the importance of the Bible to our Christian tradition let me state that my concerns are quite the opposite. The above stories are the effects of our containing and confining the Scriptures, of making them too small in their impact. It could well be one of the devil’s crucial distractions that realising we are committed so much to Scripture he abuses that commitment to distort its place. In the end the Bible becomes an end in itself instead of a means to transform our lives and the world!

Bible reading is not so much discipleship as a resource for discipleship. Doing a quiet time is not following Jesus, he never did one! Jesus hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. That is what we should be doing. The Bible is the wisdom to resource our discernment and give us courage in our decisions as we try to do what Jesus would have done! So on a night where we watch five hours of television and do a ten minute quiet time the entire evening should be a resource for Bible study because as we watch we should be wrestling with its truth and how it applies to every scenario on the screen. And if it comes alive in your dealing with the issues that culture raises then your thinking will be released into every conversation in every area of your life and therefore society and the Bible will suddenly be alive all around us instead of lying like some dead book on the washing machine!

Now something that needs said as we draw this thought to a conclusion. Before it can read you, you have to have read it. So if it is not dwelling in you richly don’t leave it on the washing machine. Get into it. Read it until its coming out of your ears (heart, soul and mind!) but do so not in order to make yourself feel smugly in touch with God today but so that eventually you will not be able to leave it down because it will go absolutely everywhere with you, pages flicking up to teach us, rebuke us, correct us and train us in righteousness so that we are thoroughly equipped for every good work as Paul told Timothy it would do!

So where is your Bible?


RY COODER - THE PRODIGAL SON

Ry_cooder_the_prodigal_son_0518

When Bruce Springsteen released his Seeger Sessions record back in 2006 I was in the middle of a Masters in Theology looking at the transformational power of songs. I was particularly interested in James Cone’s book Spirituals and The Blues, where the black theologian and civil rights activist looked back to the Spirituals to find the fuel for social change. 

What was it about these spirituals, made up in the cotton plantations of the deep south of America by slaves. who never thought they would reach the next farm never mind cross centuries, to still be being used by a white rock star in the twenty first century?

Ry Cooder takes up the same endeavour. His last record, six years ago, was about an American election. Now in 2018 with America somehow stuck in the Trump years with racism growing, Cooder looks to these old religions songs to bring some sense and hope to our times. He takes songs by the likes of Blind Roosevelt Graves, Alfred Reed, Carter Stanley and Blind Willie Johnson, adds a few of his own and comes up with an absolute beaut of a Gospel blues album. 

His main collaborator here is his son Joachim a drummer by trade but on Prodigal Son a mood creator, being to his dad what Daniel Lanois has been to Bob Dylan, the Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris and the like. There is a sense of reverence about Prodigal Son. It sounds as spiritual as the songs proclaim. Joachim lays the sounds and above that his dad plays banjo, guitar and slide in that virtuoso way that only he does. 

The songs speak. One of Cooder’s originals is called Jesus and Woody and in some ways that says everything about what he is trying to do. In another time when America needs change, Woody’s social comment is blended with Jesus spiritual wisdom. Both are dreamers: - 

 

Once I spoke of a love for those who hate

It requires effort and strain

Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice

Which leads to destruction and pain

 

So we find Cooder in Damascus in the New Testament story of St Paul’s conversion in Straight Street; a powerful outworking of The Prodigal Son parable; an almost ethereal version of Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine; seeking eschatological hopefulness in I’ll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called; and preaches it to the American Church on You Must Unload, where there are warnings against love of fashion, riches and power.

With such themes and such quality of music it is no surprise that this will be in the upper echelons of of Records of 2018.


HOLY AND PEOPLE FULL OF HOLES - SURMISING THE TRAGIC DEATH OF FRIGHTENED RABBIT'S SCOTT HUTCHINSON

Frightned Rabbit Holy

The music world was devastated by the discovery of the body of Scott Hutchinson in the Firth of Forth last week. The main man from Scottish band Frightened Rabbit had left Twitter messages: "Be so good to everyone you love. It's not a given. I'm so annoyed that it's not. I didn't live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones.” Shortly afterwards, he added: "I'm away now. Thanks.” Oh how these messages break the heart.

Anyone who knows the work of Frightened Rabbit will know that there were many clues in Scott Hutchinson’s songs about his depression long before those final Tweets. At the weekend, the songwriter Karine Polwart wrote a beautifully poignant reflection on Scott’s sad passing, based around his song Swim Until You Can’t See Land:

 

“Dip a toe in the ocean, 

oh how it hardens and it numbs

The rest of me is a version of man 

built to collapse in crumbs

And if I hadn’t come now 

to the coast to disappear

I may have died in a landslide 

of rocks and hopes and fears”

 

Oh my goodness!

I was drawn to his song Holy. Again, the video seems sadly prophetic, ending with a woman walking into the sea. It is obvious as a Church pastor that I would be drawn to a song of that title. Yet, as a Church pastor it comes with a biting sting. As I reflect on the life of someone so depressed that they had to end their life, I am asking what could those who believe Jesus, who comes with a power for healing of heart, soul and mind, have done to help.

Scott is not complimentary in his description of us:

 

“While you read to me from the right, act way on high, high

Clutching a crisp New Testament, breathing fire, fire

Will you save me the fake benevolence, 

I don't have time, I know I'm full of holes, full of holes.”

 

The juxtaposition of holy and holes hits hard:

 

“You're acting all holy, 

Me, I'm just full of holes, full of holes”

 

The tragedy of how religious people define holy and the acting out of it as a self righteous arrogance has not only not helped the world but damaged many a vulnerable soul. One of the key traits of the holiness of God, God’s separateness, God’s otherness, is God’s compassion and unconditional love for human beings, no matter how full of holes they might be.

As another songwriter, my good friend Martyn Joseph, put it in a song about Christ’s cross:

 

“Strange dissident of meekness

And nurse of tangled souls

And so unlike the holy

To end up full of holes”

 

A very different juxtaposition; the grace of God’s redeeming act on Good Friday.

The bottom line is a line I have been using for some time. May we not see holiness as something that feeds our own self righteousness but as something that feeds the world’s deepest needs with love and grace and compassion. 

That is holy. Divinely designed for those full of holes. As my heart breaks over the death of Scott Hutchinson there is an extra jagged edge for a song that suggests that what he knew of God was not helpful in his life full of holes. May we be forgiven.


ASCENSION - ITS VITAL THEOLOGICAL IMPORTANCE

Ascension

I never remember much fuss about Ascension Day in any Church I have worshipped in. My friend Dani tells me that in Germany they have a school holiday. Here in Northern Ireland, Protestant Churches probably think that celebrating the Church year is a bit Catholic! We need to realise that the wars of Reformation and Counter Reformation are over and we can bring back some babies thrown out with he bath water back then.

Jesus’ Ascension is of vital theological importance. In Luke 9 when Jesus sets his eyes on the culmination of his ministry Luke doesn’t suggest that that is not his cross or resurrection but - “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem”.

A look at Paul’s salvation theology from Ephesians 1:19-23 reveals the consequences of the ascension - “That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

It is time for us in Protestant Northern Ireland to recognise the ascension as a major Jesus moment, alongside the nativity, the cross and the resurrection. This cosmic rule of Christ is how we find resilience, hope and imagination... the power to live the faith and redeem the world.  

My sermon on ascension in Fitzroy was built around a poem by Malcolm Guite. Malcolm is an Anglican priest, poet, songwriter and educator. Check out his website - https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com

Ascension - Malcolm Guite

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.

Let us look…

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place

Luke records Jesus ascension in both Luke 24 or Acts 1. I wonder what they were feeling…

As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.

Here is the Cosmic zig zag. In the nativity God becomes human. In the ascension, God as a human, flesh on, returns to heaven.

We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,

Before his ascension, indeed before his cross, Jesus spoke to the disciples about the oneness between them as he and his Father were one. He spoke of the vine and the branches. Mysterious he brings us with him and rules over the cosmos for the Church.

Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed

I love Malcolm’s images here. He is the songwriter and the idea of Jesus singing his intercession for us in heaven and us left to “sing the waning darkness into light.”

The ascension… Jesus now as ruler of the Cosmos… holds the power… for us to be witnesses… The disciples who watched Jesus disappear are those who were called to be witnesses. For us that is to be in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and to the ends of the earth.

 

Malcolm Guite's book Sounding the Seasons is published by Canterbury Press,


TOMORROW IN FITZROY - 13.5.18

CAVAN photos

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we are looking at the importance of the Ascension. My friend Dani was telling me that in Germany they get a school holiday for such a seismic theological event. We will ask why we treat the seasons of the Church so badly here in Northern Ireland as well the importance of the event. Heavy dependence on a Malcolm Guite!  All that with a couple of sacraments and prayers for Fitzers going off to do interesting things. A more traditional Sunday of worship... well as traditional as Fitzroy ever gets!

In the evening (7pm) we have an absolute treat in store. Just a couple months ago photographer David Cavan was in the Bidi Bidi Refugee Camp in north west Uganda with Fields Of Life. This is the biggest refugee camp in the world and within a couple of hours of Fitzroy's partner school in Arua. David will show some stunning photographs and share stories of who and what he met with at Bidi Bidi. It will be an amazing evening.


40 YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS - THE RESILIENCE AND HOPE OF A MAN CITY FAN - Thought For The Day 11.5.18

Man-City Prem trophy

It was in the Gracehill Primary School playground. I was only 8. But for 40 years it was a very bad decision. Derek Cunningham and Stephen Martin peer pressured me into changing allegiances from Manchester United, George Best and all, to support Man City. City had just won the Cup after the League the season before. What could possible go wrong. It was 42 years before they won the FA Cup again and 44 before a League title. Indeed 20 years after my decision City were two divisions down! Forty years in the wilderness. And for about half of those 40 years United win everything every year!

BUT… here we are. Most wins in a season. Most points in a season. Most goals in a season. City are Champions! And I can say that the winning days now are all the sweeter for those 40 years in the wilderness.

That phrase is too good a one to not do a handbrake turn into a Bible image or two. If you follow the people of God at all you could easily describe them as Man City fans. In Egypt? No hope for many years before escape. The wilderness for 40 more before Promised Land. Exile in Babylon for years before homecoming. Jesus also speaks of a Kingdom coming but still to come.

Like us City fans it was about resilience and hope against hope. Bangor singer Iain Archer who co-wrote James Bay’s Hold Back The River has his own song that repeats  “Some other day, when my morning comes, I’ll be the one that’s waited all night” 

Away from the frivolousness of soccer, I was always inspired meeting the Black South African prisoners, now tour guides in Robben Island Prison who waited all night in torturous hopelessness for their morning of freedom and democracy. 

Christian activist Jim Wallis described hope in the South African apartheid context as ‘believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change” 

Whatever it is we are in the midst of the hopeless years of… something personal… in family.. lost in society… right down to our own hope of peace here in Northern Ireland. Resilience. 40 years without a trophy… or a home… or a vote… Let us find belief in spite of the evidence and watch that evidence change. As a City fan I can tell you it is worth it!