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June 2019

HOW I CONNECTED IN UGANDA

Onialeku School

(Two weeks today I will be flying to Uganda for another Mission Trip with a team from Fitzroy. The next five or six weeks will see many Ugandan blogs. Here's an opener. How Fitzroy ended up there is the first place)

I went along because I felt it was the right thing to do. It was a Fields Of Life event in Fitzroy and at the time Claire Nichol was working for them and so I thought it was be a pastoral gesture to drop in.

My good friend Alain Emerson got up to speak. I knew his story. I could have got up and told it. Alain with his wife Lindsay took their church to Uganda to build a school with Fields of Life. During the trip Lindsay started getting headaches and sadly a brain tumour took her young life the following April. In her memory they built a high school called Light For All for £75,000.

£75,000! What?! The one thing Alain said that I didn’t know. About a week before our Church Session had decided to extend our halls to a budget of £750,000. It only took an accountant’s son a second to work out tithe. I was flabbergasted. Could we really build a school somewhere in the world for a tenth of what we were spending on ourselves. We must!

Session jumped at the idea. They had tithed a building project before. Of course, tithing a building means that you have to raise 10% more than you would have or you would be 10% short of your payment! 

There was no preference for Uganda. Fields of Life was just the place that I got the idea. We had no idea that it would be our destination too. We interview various Christian development charities. Richard Spratt told us about a school in Arua, right on the north west edge of Uganda and our committee were immediately convinced.

It took a year or two, to raise the money and make sure all was in order in Arua but in 2015 I had the privilege of opening Onialeku Primary School, or its brand new building at least! A joy of my life! 

In my speech that afternoon in August 2015 I made clear to our partners in Uganda that we in Fitzroy were not Americans. We don’t print money. This was a huge cost for us and there would not be anymore coming.

I have now said that in 2016, 2017 and 2018! We have put in a well, built a fence and last year a girls wash room so that girls do not have to miss school during their time of the month. As well as all of that we have gifted text books, many other things during teams that have gone every summer. Beyond that we sponsor almost 70 of the children.

That is a lot more than £75,000. Almost twice as much.

There is a reason for that. It is the reason that I had long hoped for a partnership in the developing world, long before that night when Alain Emerson shared the cost of Light For All. 

Fitzroy is renowned as a generous congregation but I was concerned that we were sending a lot of money into the developing world without any connection. I felt that that it would be much more challenging and inspirational to be connected to a community where we not only throw money but hurt when they hurt, rejoice when they rejoice. 

So, it has been. The reason that Fitzroy are so delighted to continue giving to Onialeku is that we feel that personal connection. Not only have over 30 of us now visited Onialeku but everyone has been drawn in, knitting, helping with crafts, sponsoring. 

Of course, we need to be careful that we don’t help until it hurts. We do not want our school to become dependent. Thankfully they have not an attitude towards that. However, we have one more building project to complete and then we will look at different ways to help. We want to upgrade the Nursery School building and our two thirds of the way there!

We continue to learn from our Ugandan partners. We gain more than we give. We are rich in shillings (the Ugandan currency) and Onialeku is rich in faith, resilience and initiative. This is a mutual partnership in mission. I am so glad I dropped in on that Fields of Life event in Fitzroy!


JONNY FITCH - AFRICA (WAVING AT YOU) - Single Launched

Fitch Africa Waving

This morning in Fitzroy we launched a single. Africa (Waving At You) by Jonny Fitch. It's a co write between myself and the very talented Jonny and is now available on Bandcamp!

I wrote the lyric on the 12 hour bus journey from Arua to Kampala on our first trip to Uganda in 2015. The waving was my way in, as on that journey every mile or two Ugandan children were waving at us, waving at them.

More serious is my prayer. It is basically that hope that, as Uganda and Africa develops, it doesn't get the bad habits of our wealth. Unaccountable wealth is over rated. Africans have riches in many more important things that I hope don't get squeezed out with decadence and greed.

The last lines might not be the best I have ever written but, when I shared them with my brothers and sisters in Onialeku Primary School at its opening in August 2015, they became my favourite!

Jonny has turned it into the catchiest of songs and added the "My name is not Muzungu" line. He has added that African sound of exuberance and the children you hear are the children of Onialeku Primary School in Arua, West Nile, Uganda. 

All proceeds from the sale of the song go towards a new building for the Nursery School in Onialeku. Feel free to donate more than the pound you are asked for!

 

buy the Africa (Waving At You) at jonnyfitch.bandcamp.com

 

Africa, I am waving at you

And you always wave back and smile

Roads teeming with fascination

Red dust mile after red dust mile.

 

Africa, I am staring at you

All the wildlife through the trees

Elephants under the mangos

The smell of your welcoming breeze.

 

Africa, I am singing with you

Your joyful songs of being free

Ubuntu, what a great refrain

Without you, I can’t be me.

 

Africa, I am praying for you

Water and education and health

That you don’t get all our poverty

With justice, peace and wealth. 

 

My name is not muzungu

We may have a different skin

But all of our blood is red

The same grace colour

That Jesus bled.

 


TOMORROW IN FITZROY - 23.6.19

Fitzroy Board

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy is a Family Service and will be an amazing Church experience.... Worship will be led by the extraordinary Sounds Good Orchestra ( a Fitzroy collaboration all ages)... we will also welcome Trinity Presbyterian, Atlanta, Georgia who will lead us in a song... and Jonny Fitch will launch his brand new single (co-written by yours truly) that features the Children of Onialeku Primary School... after all of that I will be haring in 5 minutes what we will be teaching the children of Onialku in Uganda in 5 days in two weeks time. Then all our summer missioners will be commissioned by Paul Bowman.

There will be a Third World lunch afterwards for Tear Fund. Join us for a community gathering that will also change the world!


TAKE ME TO THE PLACE - A Song And A Story For Northern Ireland's Day Of Reflection

 

Belfast Troubles

 

"Take me to the place where your heart hurts most

Lead me through the dark world gates down there

Where all the ghosts of sorrow and pain

And fear and despair stay hiding

And well walk right through to our own way, our own place"

- from Take Me To The Place by Deacon Blue


I had an amazing experience using this song in a Day Of Reflection event in 2012. June 21st, the longest day is when Northern Ireland takes time to remember those who were injured or lost loved ones in the Troubles. Invited to be part of an event I reached for this amazing pastoral song by Deacon Blue. It was a b-side, not one of their best known songs.

After the event a woman asked to speak to me. She had lost her husband near the end of the Troubles. Loyalist paramilitaries walked into the printers that he was working in and shot him. He was not involved in The Troubles. He had been a Deacon Blue fan and on the way to the event we were at she had reached for a Deacon Blue CD as a way of remembering. When I played this she sensed that something beyond us was happening. It was moving for us both and a reminder to me how important music is in our healing.

Donald and Emily Saliers wrote a fascinating book together called A Song To Sing, A Life To Live. The fascination is that both of this father and daughter duo are musicians, Don a Professor of Theology and Music and Emily one half of the popular rock duo The Indigo Girls; thus bringing Saturday night and Sunday morning together in their ponderings. Sharing their own personal loss of Emily’s younger sister they write, “Music was one of our primary ways of coming to terms with her death.” I believe that one of the conduits for God’s comfort is lament.

The Bible is full of it - angry, frustrated, painful. Songs of lament do something deep in our souls. They can drill to the nerve centre of our pain, somehow empathise, soothe and mysteriously be companions as we journey through dark days. As a pastor I often give friends or parishioners a song or some music that will be a resource through their grief.

Deacon Blue’s song Take Me To The Place is the most perfect catharsis song I have ever heard. It was written in memory and dedicated to Italian Scottish photographer Oscar Mazaroli. Growing up in Church writer Ricky Ross has a real sensitivity for such scared places and spaces and based the song on the hymn Abide With Me and the traditional melody “eventide.” It’s stunning poignancy in Ricky’s yearning breaking voice, Lorraine Macintosh’s angelic wail, the sorrowful stark piano, the words and the tune, opens doors to the soul and let’s out the raw ripped up heart pain and let’s in some healing holy balm and the daring and courageous almost alien thought of hopefulness and grace.

I offer it as song to be used on every Day Of Reflection.



 

 

 

 


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - WESTERN STARS

Bruce Springsteen_WesternStars

I remember back in 1993. I was in Wichita with songwriter Rich Mullins. He was playing versions of his next record, A Liturgy, A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band. We had heard the songs, live in our front room in Dublin, just after they’d been written the summer before. Here they were recorded but Rich told us that all was left to do were the strings. NO! Our last words before we left Rich was, “No strings Rich, no strings!

I hated strings and any kind of orchestration in rock music. It was soft. Easy listening. Twenty five years later and I am listening to a Bruce Springsteen album covered in orchestration and loving it. Whatever happened in between?

Jimmy Webb is the simple answer. My primary musical love is the song and songwriters who hone them into 4 minute perfection. Discovering Jimmy Webb’s Ten Easy Pieces record drew me into the genius of his craft.

From there I had to listen to those 70s orchestrated pop versions of Witchita Lineman, By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Galveston by Glen Campbell. Webb had torn out my bigotry towards the cinematic strings.

Western Stars suggests that Springsteen has gleaned more from Jimmy Webb than the strings and brass. Western Stars, just like Webb’s songs, are filled with those American places names, usually on the edge of the desert. Springsteen has even used Galveston already - Galveston Bay on The Ghost Of Tom Joad.

Around 1989 I heard Springsteen say, “I realised that now that I put all these people in all these cars I was going to have yo find some place for them to go.” He went on to talk about connection and community. 

Thirty years later and he has made an entire record of people who are out on the highway with nowhere to go. There are thirteen punters on this record and most of them are somewhere out on the road either by choice or life’s unfortunate fate. A stuntman, a failed actor, a failed songwriter and on it goes.

I am left thinking that this is as bleak an album as Springsteen has released since Nebraska. Most of his recent records have swathes of light, shining across the realities of 9/11, the Iraq War or the economic crash. Even those western stars don’t twinkle much light across this album. 

Why? Is Springsteen saying something about his own life? Is this some comment on the state of America? Or did he just want to see what would happen if he hadn’t found all those people, in all those cars a place to go! The gentle reflective closer Moonlight Motel has the jilted lover parking outside the boarded up motel they used to go to, pouring a glass of Jack Daniels thinking at least, “It’s better to have loved.”

Whatever Springsteen’s reasons these are fascinating characters to engage with. There is no smaltz in the lyrics!

The sound does takes time. With Bruce Springsteen we are more comfortable with Tom Morello adding his noisy guitar sound than the tremolo guitar favoured on Western Stars. I will warn that for some Springsteen fans this new sweetness of sound might take time to orientate to. 

It was about four listens before Western Stars sneaked through the door of my heart. Like Webb there is some serious song craft here. The melodies and the the half melodies are gorgeous. Before you know it you are singing along to The Wayfarer, Tucson Train, Sundown, There Goes My Miracle, Hello Sunshine and the title track! 

Though it is another original turn n the road for Springsteen you can set Western Stars on the shelf between The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Tunnel Of Love. If you make it through your disorientation, you will find that alienation has never sounded so utterly beautiful.


BOB DYLAN'S ROLLING THUNDER REVUE - THE BOX SET AND FILM REVIEWED

Rolling Thunder Revue

The first time I heard anything from the 1975 leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour  I was enthralled. It was over the PA before The Waterboys best gig of all-time at the Ulster Hall, Belfast in 1986. Bold to be playing a bootleg but for The Waterboys it was a touchstone to exactly what they were trying to achieve in that particular period of the band.

Mike Scott was always a Dylan fan and perhaps when he left London for Dublin and finally Spiddal in Co Galway, he was seeking the spirit of Rolling Thunder Revue. Certainly on that Ulster Hall stage that night he found it. It was this loose traveling band type feel with Steve Wickham doing his best Scarlett Rivera on whirling dervish fiddle. They even finished with the same song with different lyrics This Land Is Your Land!

From that night Rolling Thunder Revue was my Dylan holy grail and when the fifth in Dylan’s amazing Bootleg Series was from those 1975 gigs I was a happy boy.

Now, we have a fourteen CD box set of five full concerts from the tour as well as rehearsals and rarities and, on top of that, a Martin Scorsese film Rolling Thunder Revue A Bob Dylan Story.

So what do I think?

Well, what these new releases have done has been to take me back to that era of Dylan’s career and fall in love with it all over again. These live shows are a few weeks before Dylan released Desire and I had forgotten how great that record is. 

In the live setting Isis is a theatrical drama of a spoken word/poem/song. When Dylan runs Oh Sister, One More Cup Of Coffee and Sara together it is, for me, the breathtaking highlight of the shows. We haven’t even mentioned Hurricane, written for wrongly incarcerated boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Scarlett Rivera’s fiddle adds that extra vibrant dimension to Dylan’s songs. I cannot get enough of it.

Having said that, I would not have anyone rushing out to buy the box set. Like too many of Dylan’s recent Bootleg releases there is a lot of music that is a little repetitive. Five full gigs of similer sets is a not that necessary. The rarities and reversals are interesting but sound quality lacks in places. 

The film? Well as a documentary it is cluttered with some nonsense and we see nothing of the other live acts on the stage. The up to date interview with Dylan is interesting enough without anything too revelatory. The Joan Baez interactions are fascinating. Joni Mitchell joins the band and seems to be writing Coyote, or at least finishing it, on the tour which was news to me. What is better is Allen Ginsberg summing the whole thing up with a poetic review of the Revue that highlighted the shire for freedom, imagination and community in the art.

For the most part though the in-between songs bits are dull and distracting. I would have much preferred that they had just given us the music. The live footage is Dylan at his very very best. If I had a time machine to go back to any Dylan tour this would be the one. Dylan is in the zone, there is passion in his voice and intentionality about every phrase. The extraordinary band are utterly tight in their looseness! 

A few month later, Dylan will be out on tour again and though I do love the Hard Rain record that resulted, the loose casual freedom of the feel is gone and Dylan is roughing the riffs to take on punk.

Now where is my Desire, Abandoned Love, Catfish and Golden Loom…


MANDELA AND JESUS BEING REMARKABLE AND REVOLUTIONARY

Mandela

This is the script of my Thought For The Day on BBC Radio Ulster on June 19th 2019...

 

I hope you are enjoying the long evenings. Daylight to near 11 o’clock. I love it. In my youth I eeked out every minute of light for another game of football. Yet, come Saturday and you’ll hear it all round the country - "nights are fair drawing in!"

Friday is the longest day. It’s all down hill to 4.30pm darkness in the heart of December.

I wonder how many are aware that June 21st is a Day Of Reflection in Northern Ireland, a chance to remember those killed or effected by The Troubles. Started in 2007 by Healing Through Remembering, it is offered as a day of private reflection rather than for any large public events. I always take the opportunity to reflect and pray. 

The Summer Solstice seems a good day to look back and forward.

Of course our looking back can often hamper our going forward. Even in our remembering.

I recently remembered something I heard on Robben Island, that island off Cape Town where Nelson Mandela was in prison for all those years.

Apparently, when the prisoners were finally allowed to study for High School or University qualifications, some of the white wardens wanted to study too. The ANC prisoners were enraged but Mandela told them to stop the protest. The Wardens he said were as much victims of the apartheid system as they were. 

Seeing your oppressor as much a part of the injustice of the system as you are is quite an attitude. Mandela was showing an empathy with his enemy that was as remarkable as it was revolutionary.

I think Jesus was onto the same remarkable and revolutionary when he told his disciples to love their enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who mistreat you. Jesus was speaking this into the same kind of brutal violent society as apartheid South Africa… or indeed Troubles effected Northern Ireland. 

So, on Friday, the longest day, the day of Reflection, as we look back and ahead, I wonder what it would do for the future of our wee place, if we saw our enemies as Mandela and Jesus did… everybody a victim and everyone to be loved, blessed and done good to.


ROMANTICA LIVE IN FITZROY, BELFAST - 17.6.19

Romantica

There were a few moments during Romantica’s concert in Fitzroy, when I closed my eyes, raised my clasped hands and felt my soul utterly bask in a sound as beautiful as I have ever heard in my entire life. I have been to a lot of concerts, seen most of my very favourite artists and enjoyed them more than immensely but it is the first time I have ever caught my body and soul in this posture of utter bliss!

You can tell that I enjoyed it! 

I found myself in the whispy thought trails of my post gig imagination asking why? Romantica’s sound is so effortless. I am reminded of the Pernice Brothers or Band Of Horses. It’s a sound that gently washes over you like the caressing of a refreshing wave. It seems so effortless and simple.

Yet, when you marinate on how they make it seem so easy, you become aware of the complexity. The melodies, the poetry, the harmonies, every guitar lick, bass note, drum beat and that gorgeous yearning pedal steel cry. It is all so intentional. All so utterly perfect to my ears.

Then there is Ben Kyle’s voice. Oh my goodness. There is no need for rasp or power. Like velvet. Seductive of ears and soul. 

During the set, Kyle courageously opened up to the audience, asking for questions. When asked how he kept the passion he answered in a humble Ben Kyle way, “You take what you’ve been given…”

That is what he does with that voice. It’s a divine gift and Ben takes what he has been given and sets the most most spiritual nuggets of wisdom into every day songs. This is not some throw back to Christian music in the 90s. This is the authentic alt country thing. Yet, into every day songs of friendship, love and family, Kyle dabs little couplets of light, sometimes into dark places of heartache and grief.

I was, as the fan in me always is, chuffed to have God Walks On The Water dedicated to me. A song I have used to deal with grief, there comes that dab of light:

 

God walks on the water

I walk through the rain

One day we're gonna walk together

When he comes back again

 

Being greedy I shouted for Drink The Night Away about School’s Cup winning hockey buddies of Ben’s who died in a car crash in Donegal. There’s teenage bravado in drinking the night away and Ben asks what Jesus was thinking of to have these boys die… but then finished with:

 

"What was Jesus thinking, 

When he let you sink in to the arms of the Lord?

When he took the cup, 

Lifted it up, 

Drank the night away”

 

It is one of many moments when I let out a little gasp!

After hearing with a post song gasp, Get Back In Love, Give Your Heart Shelter, Don’t Settle and Mercy I was becoming aware that maybe the most of my favourite songs from the last few years have come from this Belfast boy now living in Minneapolis. 

Best of all is Harder To Hear, a song about a soul seeking a compass in a world that drowns out the voice we most need to hear:

 

It’s getting harder to hear from God these days

Harder to hear from God

There’s so much religion in the way

So much superstition in the way

 

Oh somebody save me

Somebody save me

I don’t want to be cool

Somebody shine a light

somebody shine a light on this soul tonight

I don’t wanna be right

 

I cannot get enough of this. So thrilled to have them in what pretty much is my office on a Sunday morning. It’s always good to have a soul soaked bask in a familiar space!


GO, BE GRACE

Be Grace

(written for a post communion sending liturgy, in Fitzroy) 

 

Go, be grace

In a graceless world

Be grace to those whose labels

Exile them from belonging

Be grace to those whose failures

Have them losers in the winners’ enclosure

Be grace to those pushed and pulled by Empire

Until they lost the grace within themselves

Be grace to those who don’t think like you

They are not bad people, just wrong

(Or maybe we are!)

Be grace to those who have hurt you

Love them, pray for them, bless them

Go, be grace

In a graceless world!

 

Go, be grace

Like Jesus

Who humbled himself

Became meek

Who mourned focus

And hungered and thirsted for justice for all

Go, be grace

Like a loser

Cursed on a tree

Dying to power

Then rising, to be grace

From the right hand of the throne of mercy

As God gifted us a lavish and ridiculous grace

Go, be grace

In a graceless world.


REACH OUT AND TAKE MY HAND (A PARENT WITH DEMENTIA)

Dad's hand in mine

photo: Caitlin Stockman

 

Sam, reach out and take my hand

Even though you don’t know who you give it to

Like when I used to put mine in yours

To do everything I wanted to do.

 

You taught me, keep my eye on the ball

And then to swing the club right through

They talk about the sins of the fathers

I got so much more than that from you

You did your job as my front runner

I tucked in and you set my pace

It’s hard to watch you step off the track

To leave me to find my own space.

 

I turn off Tim Wheeler at the Roundabout

A round about a mile away

Take a long deep breath in the silence

To find the resilience and something to pray

The knot in my soul when I’m going in

Is only bigger and tighter when I’m leaving

Walking and talking in your glass coffin

Living in the pain of perpetual grieving.

 

Sam, reach out and take my hand

Even though you don’t know who you give it to

Like when I used to put mine in yours

To do everything I wanted to do.