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March 2019


Celtic cross

From September 1991 to August 1994 I had the privilege of living in Dublin. My job as Youth Development Officer took me out across Ireland to Churches from Cork to Donegal.

This poem began in South Africa. I had gone to visit Janice who worked in Pietermartizburg for most of 1993. I am not sure exactly what I was reading that led to the opening line but I know the Book of Kells line was from something that Doug Gay said to me at either Arklight or Greenbelt that year.

"Through villages and towns" has to be a straight steal from Deacon Blue's Dignity though I only realised it now.

The poem is about me going back to work. It is about me driving across Ireland, seeing all those Celtic crosses. They had become a serious theological statement in my journey of faith at that time. God's redemption in the centre of his creation.

It is also a bit of a love song for Ireland. 


Reading books in far away beaches

Of home and all it’s sadness

Stories of our peculiar contribution

To this world’s racist madness

Where it seems we are pushed and pulled

In thoughts of those who went before

We believe the fairytales and myths

Without rational reason anymore

And tomorrow I’m heading home again

To the midst of bigoted oppression

To try and be something better

In spite of my own confession

I’ll go on the trail of the Celtic cross

Through villages and towns

Balancing creation and redemption

’Til the Kingdom comes around.


Back home to lush and emerald fields

Blessing of our soft wet weather

Where mountains green and bluest water

Are so beautifully sown together

There are songs and rhymes of love and wisdom

And poets wrestling with the truth

Book of Kells showing how far we’ve fallen

From the saintly art of our youth

There are shrines and statues and painted walls

Telling our history in religious signs

Some that I will never understand

And others that I claim to be mine

I’ll go on the trail of the Celtic cross

Through villages and towns

Balancing creation and redemption

’Til the Kingdom comes around.


Love Your Muslim Neighbour

Like all of us, I woke up to the horrific news from New Zealand that a white supremacist terrorist had murdered 49 Muslims while they were at worship. 

As I prayed for the injured and the families of the dead and despaired at the evil and hatred that is poisoning our world, I was reminded of this true story shared by Jim Wallis. It speaks more eloquently than any words of mine. It describes beautifully the kind of world that I want to build and live in.

Jim Wallis tells the story in his book On God’s Side. It is of how Steve Stone, a Christian pastor in Cordova, Tennessee, was concerned when he heard that the Memphis Islamic Centre was moving onto his block, across the road from his Church. However, after praying, Steve decided that Jesus was telling him to love his neighbour. Having put a sign in front of his Church that read, "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Centre to the Neighborhood,” friendships developed and both communities learned more about one another. They became good neighbours.

It remind me of two phrases that we at the 4 Corners Festival have been sharing. Fr Greg Boyle at this year’s Festival said, “It is hard to demonise people that you know.” It was an echo from a line in a musical evening about World War I by New Irish Arts a few years ago - “Hatred is compromised by relationship.” Christians and Muslims in that community of Memphis had indeed compromised hatred!

Yet, the story goes. When a national media hot story arose over another pastor Terry Jones’ planned burning of Qu’rans, CNN ran a piece that interviewed Steve Stone and his neighbouring Imam. Their obvious friendship had prophetic impact.

That impact was not just in America. A group of Muslim men seeing the news package in a Mosque in Kashmir, north-west India, responded in a remarkable way. 

They were so moved by Stone’s welcome to the Islamic Centre that one of them went to the local Christian Church and cleaned it inside and out. They phoned Steve Stone to tell him that they would now be supporting this neighbouring Christian community in whatever way they could. 

This is not a diluting of Steve Stone’s theology or his belief in Jesus. It is the very opposite. This gives the life, cross and resurrection of Christ robust proof and positive witness. The radical way that Jesus laid down his life for the world is preached in our actions as the word is literally made flesh in our neighbourhoods, media centres and across the world! 

That is the world I want to live in. That is the Jesus I want to follow. Let us stand against these atrocities against God and humanity in Christchurch. When it seems too massive an evil for us to make an impact, then remember those most powerful weapons of peacemaking from the 4 Corners Festival and compromise this hatred with relationship. Love your Muslim neighbour... and any other neighbour... just as Jesus called us to do! 



“All these impermanent things
Well they're trying to convince me
Baptize my soul and rinse me
Purge my mind of honesty and fire
All these impermanent things
Well they all add up to zero
They make-believe that they're my hero
Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires

Why keep hanging on
To things that never stay
Things that just keep stringin' us along
From day to day”

-          From Impermanent Things by Peter Himmelman

Wikipedia will tell you that Peter Himmelman is an orthodox Jew who prays 3 times a day and is the son-in-law of Bob Dylan. The Jewish part explains Himmelman’s deep spiritual insight. When I did my weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster I played Himmelman very often. Impermanent Things was the most played.

As a preacher it is one of my very favourite songs. I have used Himmelman's words in a sermon on Matthew chapter 6 v 19-34. If you didn’t know about Himmelman’s deep Jewish faith you would be sure that he had used this passage as his inspiration. Of course Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel most intent is revealing Jesus as a continuation of Jewish tradition so perhaps it is not so surprising that he and Himmelman would be on similar themes.

Jesus is saying in the second half of this most famous Sermon that where are treasure is our hearts will be also. He is suggesting that we invest our lives on eternal things that last rather than the impermanent things that Himmelman so poetically describes in this song.

Jesus goes on to talk about how we shouldn’t be worrying about impermanent things and Himmelman puts it beautifully here how these impermanent things play tricks with our heads and hearts and throw us of the better more lasting course. Jesus is on the same idea.

So why do we get obsessed with impermanent things? A couple of years ago I piled my parents' things onto a skip outside their house. So many things. A few months before they were vital things in my parents lives but now they were useless; rubbish even! It made me ponder Himmelman's song and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. It was a cold lesson in the emptiness of things.

On Himmelman's most recent record There Is No Calamity, the first song 245th Peace Song begins:

"The holes in people’s lives need to be filled
I get that. I understand that.
But you’ve got to be careful what you fill them with
Do you get that? Understand that?"


Me  Marty and Cups

(Fr Martin and I are writing for the Youthscape Website this month... here's my contribution.)

READING: LUKE 6: 27-36

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Growing up during the Northern Ireland Troubles, I decided to follow Jesus as a 17 year old. When I read “Love your enemies” I did not need to think too hard about what that meant and who they were. Yet, for maybe thirty years I was what I would call a passive peacemaker. I was against the violence. I wished for peace. Prayed for it, even. Yet, I wasn’t doing very much about it. 

These words of Jesus are a radical challenge, an other worldly attitude towards your enemies. This is not just passive non retaliation, this is actively living in a way that benefits the conditions of your enemy. It is serving your enemy. It is loving your enemy. It is doing for others what God has done for us, in Jesus. 

The Amish community live this out in their everyday lives. Their idea of forgiveness is to reconcile with the enemy to the point where you make them a friend! 

In 2006 Charles Roberts entered an Amish Schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and shot ten young Amish girls, killing five of them dead.

Within hours of the shootings, the Amish had visited the killer’s wife and family. They not only told them that they forgave them but they actually set up a charitable fund for the killer’s children.

Love for the family of the killer of your children. This is loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate and mistreat you. Forgiveness for the Amish is not about wiping some objective slate clean. Forgiving is a loving act that seeks to build friendship with those that they should be at enmity with. Every Thursday night Charles Roberts’ mother now reads and prays with a severely brain damaged little girl her son shot.

This kind of mercy and love is at the heart of the Christian faith. God doesn’t only forgive us… he reaches out to build relationships with us. When we find ourselves in spaces where there is need of reconciliation we find ourselves in places where we can get closest to the heart of God and with opportunities to follow our call to follow Jesus.

God’s love led him to action. He didn’t just talk about his love. He didn’t just believe it as an idea. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). There was nothing passive about that. We don’t follow Jesus into ideas… but to action. Revolutionary action.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

    for they will be called children of God (Matt 5:9)


PRAYER: Lord, lead us close to your heart, to be about what is closest to your heart that you might make our hearts like yours. 



Brother Thierry

Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast

20th January 2019



“God knows that when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” (Gn 3:5)

Since the beginning of human history, the words of the serpent have found an echo in our hearts and minds. We all are moved by this desire to be like God on our own terms, in our own way. We can say that all our sins are marked by the stamp of the false promise that we can be like God while relying on our personal or collective strength and intelligence.

We are told that the serpent “was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made” (Gn 3:1). Indeed it was! The serpent knew that our resemblance to God was/is at the core of God’s creation. God did not create us and the world without investing himself in it. He “created humankind in his image” (Gn 1:27). Despite the sin of Adam and Eve, there is within us a longing for something more original than the first sin, our original likeness to God.

As we wrestle with this longing, God does not leave us without help. In Jesus Christ, he gives us a sure way to resemble him, to become like him: it is the way of forgiveness. When we forgive, we are like God, but on his terms, according to his will and his power working in us.

In the same way that St Paul writes: “Jesus Christ is our peace” (Eph 2:14), we can say that he is our forgiveness. When we forgive, we become Christlike. The more we forgive, the more we are transformed into the Lord’s image, the more we reflect him (cf. 2Co 3:18) and the more the world, this world – not a place somewhere far away – can reflect something of the beauty of the original creation.

Why is it so difficult for us to forgive?

It is hard to forgive because forgiveness is about the Cross (cf. Heb 9:22). For Jesus, our forgiveness passed through his death on the Cross, for us to forgive cannot be any less costly than to die to our self-sufficiency and pride. To forgive is to let go, and since we seem to be wired in such a way that we cling to everything, even to what seemingly hurts us, it will always be difficult for us to forgive.

The first stumbling block on the way to forgiveness is labelling. Despite St Paul’s warning that “we know only in part”, seeing things only in a mirror (cf. 1Co 13:8.12), we want to believe that we know everything about people and their motivations. So in our desire to be in control and to feel secure we label ourselves and others. 

One consequence of the labelling process is that we end up identifying ourselves with our wounds, clinging to them. They become the expression of our whole identity. While it is true that who we are today is the consequence of all that happened to us over the years, we must be careful not to think that we are our wounds and failures. The Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf is very clear on the subject: “Christians believe that neither what we do nor what we suffer defines us at the deepest level. (…) No human being can make or unmake us. Instead of being defined by how human beings relate to us, we are defined by how God relates to us. We know that fundamentally we are who we are (…) because God loves us. (…) Absolutely nothing defines a Christian more than the abiding flame of God’s presence, and that flame bathes in a warm glow everything we do or suffer.” (The End…, p.79)

To reduce ourselves to our wounds and reduce the one who hurt us to his or her evil deed is to dehumanise our self and the other. We have to remember who we are, what our true identity is. To forgive is to respect our own identity as well as the identity of the one who has hurt us.

St Paul warns us: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)

When we refuse to forgive, we make ourselves prisoners of what has been done to us and we hold captive those who have hurt us. Could this situation not be the best definition of what hell is?

The link between forgiveness and liberation is rooted in the Sacred Scriptures. Almost all the authors of the New Testament use the Greek word aphesis with the double meaning of liberation and forgiveness. This word is found in the passage from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus reads in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Is 61:1 in Lk 4:18). “To let the oppressed go free” could be translated “to let the oppressed go forgiven”, a translation which does not sound too odd if we remember that “unforgiveness” is a force of oppression and imprisonment.

The main symptom of the refusal to forgive is the inability to move on in life. When I have been hurt, the temptation is for me to be an eternal victim or when somebody has made a mistake, for them to become a failure. The labels are powerful, they stick; they prevent us from growing in freedom, from having life and having it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10).

Like the people of Israel who is called to leave the land of slavery, to forgive is to humbly consent to engage ourselves on a journey which may be long and arduous, yet we believe that, guided by the Lord, it is a journey which leads us to the land of freedom and renewed life. On the contrary, the refusal to forgive is a futile and desperate attempt to remain in control of the course of our lives and it is a sure and sad promise of mere survival.

And here we face another stumbling block to forgiveness: for the offended and for the offender the real cost of forgiveness is change… and we do not like to change.

It is clear that the offender has to repent and experience a conversion. But the offended has to change too. For the offended, the change implied by the process of forgiveness is first a conversion of the memory.

Maybe it is important to stress that forgiveness is not about ignoring the hurt which has been done to us, it is not about pretending that nothing happened, it is not about forgetting. Forgiveness is about remembering correctly – in a life-giving way.

To refuse to forgive is to remember in an unhealthy and unchristian way. Whether we are victims or wrongdoers, and we all enter into both categories to some degree, the refusal to forgive and to be forgiven imprisons us and others in the past. It makes us connect to our past in a harmful way, it is a form of self-harming.

Let us be honest, often the main problem is not the hurt which has been committed, but the feelings of humiliation, anger and resentment which accompany the hurt. These feelings keep the hurt alive and hurtful. So the problem is that of a memory which ruminates the events and allows them to fuel the pain and to distort our right judgment. When this happens, our whole life is focused on the hurt, our whole existence rotates around the offence.

It is normal to feel resentment when we are hurt and when a relationship has been betrayed or broken. In a way this is a healthy reaction, it is a question of self-respect. But resentment, anger, and disappointment are only one step on the journey, a first and necessary step perhaps, but certainly not the last. The next step is to renounce resentment, to accept to let go of it, because it is becoming an enemy within us, a poison which consumes our heart, drains our energies and kills life within us.

Moreover, from a religious perspective, to withhold forgiveness, to refuse to engage into a process of letting go, to look at everything through the prism of one hurtful event, could be considered as an act of adoration of the past, a form of idolatry, when in fact it is the present which requires our attention and our energies. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, our eyes and attention should be fixed not on our wounds but on Jesus alone (cf. 12:2) – Jesus who is our wounded healer. The words of the psalmist exhorts us: “Look towards him and be radiant, let your faces not be abashed” (33(34):6)

Our memory has to be converted, purified and evangelised over and over again. A wounded memory – and we all have wounded memories – must learn to put things into perspective and come back to what is essential: if this brother or sister of mine is lost to me, I am lost to God. The words of Martin Luther here are a warning to all of us: “A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbour through love.” (The Freedom of a Christian, in Faith in Christ and the Gospel, p. 105)

The last point which challenges us deeply in our attitude towards forgiveness is that the process must be initiated by the victim.

This affirmation goes against all we spontaneously believe and experience. When we are offended our first reaction is to wrap ourselves up in our dignity, to cling to our special status as a victim, and to wait stubbornly for the offender to come and beg our pardon. We feel forgiveness ought to be initiated by the offender.

However this is not how God deals with us, his pardon is given to us without any prerequisite. It is not repentance which makes us gain God’s pardon, but it is the free and gracious gift of God’s pardon which makes us repentant. 

If we want to be like God, if we want to resemble him then we cannot make repentance a precondition, we cannot say; “I will not forgive you until you come to ask for it”. When we do that, we fence in grace at work within us. Let us remember St Paul’s words: “God proved his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).

The initiative is from God, the offended party, who comes to us, the offenders and forgives us.

Let us return to the Garden of Eden and we see that it is always God who takes the initiative. He looks for Adam and Eve, and ever since then, it is always the Lord who takes the first step in our direction. The Lord is unceasingly looking for us, coming to us, over and over again the Lord says to us as he said to Zacchaeus: “I must come to your house” (Lk 19:5).

In Christ, God comes to us and makes peace with us, he alone is able to move us away from a situation of enmity to a positive life-giving relationship. Christ is the central agent of overcoming sin by forgiveness, he frees us and opens the way forward. In our relationships with one another, we, as Christ-bearers, have been confided the message and the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation (cf. 2Co 5:18-19). In his generosity and humility, God gives us the grace and the power to become like him and to break the deadly circle of bitterness, all forms of violence, including those most subtle forms of violence which are the silent treatment and exclusion of others.

In our hearts, in our families, in our Churches and between our Churches, we are called to refuse to let hurt and violence committed against us contaminate our souls and poison our relationships. Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jewish woman killed in 1943 in Auschwitz, wrote in her journal: “Every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable”(J. 23.09.1942, p. 259). As Christians, what kind of atom do we want to add to our world?

Forgiveness is a small and narrow door that cannot be entered without stooping and struggling. It requires the courage to be humble, to hope “against all hope” (Rm 4:18), and to choose life, to choose the Lord who is life (cf. Jn 11:25).

Today and every day, the Lord knocks gently and with patience at the door of our hearts, repeating the words said to the people of Israel: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30:19).



John Smith, Australian preacher, author, biker and radical follower of Jesus, passed way last week. John had a massive impact on my life back in the late 80s and early 90’s. Here is my personal tribute.

It was one of the clearest representations of the Jesus life that I have ever been a witness to. I had left him off around 11 in the morning at Dublin’s Merchant Hotel. He was meeting the biggest rock stars in the world - Bono, Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. 

I came back to pick him up at 1. He didn’t seem to be there. A good few minutes later, I looked up the street and there he was. He was lying up against the window of Dublin’s prestigious shop Brown Thomas, sharing a KFC with a homeless guy. Now that’s a powerful dichotomy. From rich rock stars in the wealthiest hotel in town to a down and out on the street!

During his mid to late 20s John Smith was a very ordinary Methodist who claimed that his only concession to fashion was a stripe in his tie. He then had what could only be described as a conversion experience. He discovered in the Gospels a more authentic Jesus. This was a Jesus who lived on the margins with the outlaws. So Smith started a biker gang and started living where Jesus lived.

John Smith’s conversion rippled out to cause many other ones. I had never been comfortable with respectable middle class Christianity. The faith community I was nurtured in gave me a robust understanding of Scripture and prayer but always seemed very clean and tidy and safe. Jesus didn’t seem that way at all. 

My reading of the Gospels gave me a vision of a man on the street, among the ordinary people, not so bothered by suits and ties, the length of your hair or even the odd swear word. Jesus seemed more likely to be in the pubs than commanding we stayed out of them. He seemed edgy and revolutionary to me.

John Smith might have been the first person who I heard preaching about this Jesus. I listened to as many cassettes of his talks at Spring Harvest or Greenbelt that I could find in Faith Mission bargain bins! He made the Gospel bigger, louder, brighter and so far more reaching. 

He took the Bible out of its leather back covers and had it caress and collide with films and rock songs. He burst the bubble that sanitised and confined the truth of Scripture and started allowing it to roll all over injustice. He unveiled the Kingdom of God massive, that included the individual and the community and society and the culture. It was about the rule of God breaking in, not only into my life but into every nook and cranny of planet earth. It was about nourishing souls and feeding the world.

It was about befriending the biggest rock stars on the planet and about feeding the poor man on the street. A day or two later we had another rendezvous point. John was already 30 minutes late in his schedule but was again nowhere to be found. I went for a walk and round the corner there he was. He had found the homeless man from the KFC lunch and hooked up with him again. This is the kind of incredulous that gets Jesus a good name!

Those few days were a joy for Janice and I. We left John off at the opening of The Kitchen, U2’s brand new night club. We had Bono and Larry drop in to one of John’s talks that I had organised in Abbey Presbyterian. 

After John left Dublin, Bono even phoned our house looking for him. I was out of town but my mate Dave had to phone Bono back with a number for John. He promised to keep Bono’s number to himself but we had it highlighted on our fridge for a few days after the itemised bill came in!

All the famous stuff though is not what lingers in my life, twenty five years later. It is that image of John sitting against that window with that homeless guy. Eccentric and all as John was, and he was, he was the real deal. I watched him walk his talks in those few days in Dublin. He was the Jesus that the Pharisees hated and the one that I wasn’t seeing in the Church pews or pulpit on a Sunday. 

Thank you sir! 


Stocki and Houstie

(Faith Matters in the Irish News published this article written by Fr Martin Magill and myself... help from Martin O'Brien and photo by Neil Craigan)

Sectarianism was headline news again the other week. The story  emanated from the west of Scotland where Rangers and Celtic fans for once were as one as they hurled their vitriolic sectarian abuse, first Celtic fans at Kilmarnock Protestant striker Kris Boyd and then Rangers fans dealt out the same to Kilmarnock’s Catholic manager Steve Clarke. It seems senseless and we wish it was past its ‘sell by date’ but sadly sectarianism is alive and well in the west of Scotland.

Of course, we should not be smug. Sadly, sectarianism is still part and parcel of our society 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Tackling sectarianism here in Northern Ireland is as great a Christian imperative as it has ever been.

Indeed, the collapse of the Good Friday institutions two years ago and the absence of a functioning government has inevitably hampered efforts to promote reconciliation and address the cancer of sectarianism.  

So, what can the rest of us do? Do we wait until our politicians overcome their differences? We could be waiting a long time. So, of course we can’t wait. 

We have been saying for some time that mercy, forgiveness and a stable peace are not going to drip down the hill from Stormont. We believe that they must ‘flow up the hill’ from the grass roots of our communities who seem to be further ahead in their work of reconciliation than our main political parties.

We believe we have seen the evidence of that from the recent 4 Corners Festival which ran from Wednesday 30th January until Sunday 10th February.  These 12  days were made up of music, theatre, film, art exhibition, sport, a walking tours, a bus tour and key note talks. The 2019 Festival had many highlights: - 


•          Michael Longley reciting his poem ‘Ceasefire’ at the end of Heaney’s ‘The Cure at Troy’ in which, victim/survivor of The Troubles, Paul Gallagher, played Philotetes, the wounded hero, surrounded by politicians as his fellow actors.

•          Brian Houston from the Braniel singing in Irish on the Falls Road.

•          A former UDR soldier in deep conversation with a Catholic bishop after the play ‘Beneath the Harp and Crown’.

•          Alan McBride, Eugene Reavey and Beryl Quigley sharing how they dealt with the violent deaths of loved ones during Rostrevor man Jonny Clark’s new film ‘Guardians of The Flame’ and in their panel discussion afterwards. 

•          Almost 100 children and young people from the four corners of the city playing Gaelic football, soccer, rugby and basketball as well as coming together to explore the festival theme of forgiveness. 

•          One man sharing how he had protested the building of Church of the Resurrection and Holy Family Parish Centre 30 years ago but was now going into the building for our Prayer Breakfast. 

•          Protestants piling into St Peter’s Cathedral to hear a powerful musical evening on the Christian idea of grace and forgiveness by the New Irish Orchestra and Choir. 


That last highlight spells out why we started the 4 Corners Festival seven years ago and why we are thrilled to see it thriving. 

When we conjured up the idea of 4 Corners Festival over a cup of coffee, we realised that there was a geographical apartheid to our city which kept people - for the very good reason of safety and security during the Troubles - in their own corners. 

But we believed, post Troubles there was a new God-sent opportunity for people to venture out of their respective corners and cross divides, geographical, religious, cultural and of course psychological.

We believed that everyone should be able to call Belfast "our" city. 

The Festival, in many ways, is our attempt to break down sectarianism. 

There are three things we hope that 4 Corners Festival will continue to do. 

We hope that it will: 


•          take people out of their corner of the city into places they have never been before; 

•          enable them to meet people in those corners that they might never otherwise meet; and   

•          throw some Christian insight into how we might live together in our broken and wounded yet still beautiful and wonderful city.


At our first Sunday night event we welcomed Fr Greg Boyle SJ who heads up the biggest gang intervention programme in the world to Skainos on the Newtownards Road. He had alongside him three former gang leaders who stood as the proof of his redemptive work. Also, on the platform was Tim Mairs, Temporary Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI. 

The geographical location was significant. Just the week before Ian Ogle had been murdered in Cluan Place, not far away. Crowds were on the streets protesting his death. We had a Catholic priest speaking in a Methodist inspired centre, Skainos,  as well as well as a senior police officer breathing some hope and wisdom at the centre of that community. That mixed and overflowing gathering at the lower end of the Newtownards Road gave us an insight into how people from our different traditions can enrich all of us.

Fr Greg threw out a phrase that Tim Mairs caught and reiterated - ‘It is hard to demonise people that you know.’ It was an echo from a line from a musical evening about World War I by New Irish Arts a few years ago - ‘Hatred is compromised by relationship.’ 

4 Corners Festival this year and every year attempts to create such compromise, to rid us of the demonic, to make friendships across our sectarian boundaries and see the lines of sectarianism erased. In short, as this happens, we will be developing a new culture where we will be able to celebrate -  and be enriched  - by our denominational differences. 

It is also our fervent hope that the spirit of 4 Corners Festival percolates throughout our city and elsewhere the whole year long through to Festival 2020 and beyond.



Operating theatre 2

I am home. On Thursday I went into the Ulster Hospital for a small procedure. It seems to have gone well. They did keep me in for two days but that was more in order to flush out my system than anything to worry about.

It was a small procedure. It was not life threatening. I hope that it clears up a few months of urinary infections and that I can come off constant antibiotics that have been making me weary.

Many people have been in hospital this week, getting more serious treatment than me. I only have to look across the Fitzroy horizon to know those who need more prayer than I have needed this week.

However, when you are on any operating table, when you are under any general anaesthetic, you are looking for all the prayer and divine help you can get. Others might have more serious conditions but this is your condition. These are your fears. 

I was anxious on Thursday. Actually for a few days before. I wanted this done. I wanted to be well again. Yet, I was fearful. Some of those fears have to do with the procedure itself but much of my apprehension was about my vulnerability. 

You are laid out on a bed with people pushing you through hospital corridors. You arrive and see all the operating theatre paraphernalia. People are then looking down at you, explaining what they might do. You have to give yourself over to them in some kind of trust. Then you are gone…

… You come round and do not know where you are. Or who this nurse is. Or whether your operation worked. You are pushed back through the corridors, this time a little less yourself than you were the last time. You hear that your wife is waiting in the ward and you focus on that. Someone you know. Someone you trust. You reach for her hand. An utter rock in the recent sea of uncertainty.

It has in some ways only just begun. For the next days everything is a new task. Getting out of bed with wires and leads sticking out of your body. Washing and brushing your teeth become unfamiliar acts that need carefully thought through. There is discomfort, pain and many moments of indignity. You press the button for a nurse. And that is a chance to thank all the staff. Amazing!

I was only in for two days and though I was not sure that I would be in at all, it was a short time. However, nothing was straightforward. I was constantly fearful of doing something embarrassing. I was in a place of weakness where I couldn’t really play any of my strengths.

Vulnerability was the meditation. God became vulnerable. Jesus crossed a border from safety to be born as a baby, laid in straw and then the run as a refugee. He was eventually laid out on a piece of wood and nailed to it. Naked. Made fun of. Alone. He emptied himself of all of his strong cards!

“Follow me,” Jesus invited us. Follow me into vulnerability. Do not hide behind your natural strengths. Do not stick to your safe places. Do not hangout with your same old friends. Open yourself to weakness. The apostle Paul would later write that “God’s strength was made perfect in our weakness”. 

Quite the start to Lent!

As they wheeled me out of theatre I couldn’t help but think that any one training to be a pastor should have a small procedure as part of the course! Seeing it from the other side was eye opening.

I also realised once again one of the positive aspects of social media,  Facebook particularly. I was glad I hadn’t gone off that for Lent. I was so grateful for all your prayers and wishes and good luck messages. From Fitzroy to Fields Of Life water drillers to the 4 Corners Community to American College Campuses to Monasteries to U2 fans worldwide to Moderators to Deacon Blue Tour buses. They were an utter tonic. Thank you every last one of you!

The healing has begun... if you are the praying kind... and if you aren't send up a wish for me.


Deny Yourself


“It's a funny thing about humility
As soon as you know you're being humble
You're no longer humble
It's a funny thing about life
You've got to give up your life
To be alive
You've got to suffer to know compassion
You can't want nothing if you want satisfaction


It's a funny thing about love
The harder you try to be loved
The less loveable you are
It's a funny thing about pride
When you're being proud
You should be ashamed”

from Trap Door by T-Bone Burnett

Those lines, "It's a funny thing about life/You've got to give up your life/To be alive," are very profound lyrics to take into Lent.

This is the subversive secret of the Kingdom of God. As the world seeks getting and gaining and hoarding, God’s way to human fulfilment is the opposite.

Lent is often defined as a time of denial. It is certainly a time to reflect on what distracts us from the more important things. The clutter and fuss of our lives clog up our souls from the refreshing life giving air that the Spirit wants to pump through us.

Jesus did not give his life for our own self indulgence but so that we might give our own lives for the service of God and others. It is in that service that we find the life in all its fulness that God desires for us. 

Lent is ultimately about that. The denial is for our flourishing. Lent should be seen as a time when we return to God’s intentional flourishing of our humanity.

Jesus did not ask disciples to pray a prayer, believe a few creedal statements, go to Church every week, sing new worships songs or give up chocolate for six weeks before Easter

Long before T-Bone’s clever lyrics Jesus put it like this - “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” In that following, he knew, we would flourish.


Stocki Pop

Every Lent is different. Most times I purposefully make it so.

This year’s difference is a little out of my control. This year, the day after Lent begins, I will find myself in a hospital theatre for a small operation. The six weeks of Lent will be about me getting my body healed and back in shape. Though I hope to be back preaching a couple of Sundays after the operation, I have given myself to Easter Sunday to be fully restored.

The simultaneousness of my physical healing and the use of Lent to seek my spiritual healing makes this a very unique year.

Even from the start. On the second day of Lent I lay myself down on an operating table and put myself vulnerably into the hands of others. I have had a few months of bad health. Infections and now TEN antibiotics have played havoc with my body and indeed my mind. I have been physically tired and creatively a little dull.

The worst days physically had me longing for this operation. I wanted to be well. As the day arrives I am more apprehensive. When I come round from the aesthetic will I have any pain? Will the few days afterwards be comfortable? How long will it be until I heal? Please God, this is the end of the problem? 

I am appreciating the immense prayer support from around the world. I recently watched that West Wing episode where President Bartlett was talking to Arnie Vinnick who was hoping to take over from as President. Bartlett says, “The only thing you can pray for in this job is the strength to get through the day. You can try coffee if you want, but prayer works better for me.” Amen Jed. It’s why we call our dog after you!

Thank you all for your prayers!

My apprehension is way over imbalanced by hope. Hope for that creativity to come back. Hope that I won’t need any more antibiotics or fear that when a course finishes the infection will come back. Hope that some week up ahead I will be back to 10:10 - life in all it fulness!

It is more than an operation and healing. In the last four months I have put on some serious weight and am very unfit. On Friday morning I hope the operation will be done and the healing of the scars will begin. However, I have targeted Easter to restore my health and even after that want to use the spring to be ready for Uganda in July.

So, all of this throws a little more focus on Lent. Can I do with my soul what my body is going to go through? Can I open myself to God? Be vulnerable. Be prepared for the spiritual knife of the Spirit? Can I find the hope in amongst the apprehension as I allow God to do his work as the Soul Surgeon. Am I then up for the healing, six weeks of giving myself to be spiritually more healthy on Easter Sunday morning.

Let’s do it… pray for me as I do.