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October 2019

September 2019



Coming off the beach one evening this past summer, I discovered Tim Magowan and his father playing a little evening tennis. Stopping for a chat he told me he was reading a fascinating book by a surgeon called David Nott who did surgery in the war zones of the world. Tim seemed inspired by it all and I have often been inspired by Tim, so as soon as I got back home I ordered it.

War Doctor is indeed inspirational. David Nott is Professor of Surgery at Imperial College London and works across various London hospitals. Since 1993 though he has been going to the world’s worst war zones to do surgery in the most brutal conditions. It is all voluntary. He takes unpaid leave and gets a few volunteering pounds. 

On his very first trip to Sarajevo, Nott ended up in the make shift theatre all alone, as a bomb went off and everyone else scarpered for cover. Since then he has been to places like Darfur, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. He has had a particular connection with Syria, the book ending with him advocating at high government levels for ceasefire so that doctors and children could escape the barrel bombs of Aleppo.

What Nott does is to make these war zones, that have cluttered our news headlines for thirty years, personal. When you are seeing Syria from a operating table, and the children and other innocent people that are on them without limbs and much hope of survival, the headlines move from the familiar in your mind to deep ache in your heart.

Medical people will particularly love the book. Nott details many operations. If you are squeamish give it a miss. Bodies are pulled apart and veins held tight with fingers while organs are fixed. It is graphic.

It is not overly spiritual. However there is a beautiful passage when, in Syria, Nott finds himself in a little chapel. He writes:

Michael disappeared for a moment, returning with a small cup, which he filled with wine. He placed a wafer on my tongue and offered me the cup. He then placed his hand on my head and prayed. For the second time in my life I felt that contact not as something physical but as spiritual connection; it did not feel like a man’s hand but something much more powerful and profound, radiating energy. An electric shiver ran through me, filling me with love.

In the end it is a book about a remarkable man, driven by a deep compassion for humanity and perhaps an unhealthy addiction for exhilaration. David Nott has lived a catalogue of incredible near death experiences for the benefit of the world’s marginalised, victimised and forgotten. Simply that he has survived is a near miracle. It is all inspirational. 



Devine Aswa from Arua, Uganda was a gifted child. He had a clever mind. His English was more fluent than Ugandan children of three times his age. He knew his mind too. Even as a two year old he wanted to be called after the family name rather than his given name. He was a vibrant wee man. Entertaining. Charismatic. Very funny. This past summer particularly he was like our Fitzroy team mascot. With us every day in the school. Loved by all of us.

We heard this week that little Devine had passed away. He was only five years of age. He had been born with heart defect. Not that you would have known from his energy. Even heart surgery in India didn’t end up saving him. 

We in Fitzroy are heartbroken. We dedicated this morning’s service, which was a feedback about our trip this past summer, to him. There were tears. Lots of them.

This is what our partnership in Onialeku is all about. Tears and heartache. 

I had watched for thirty years as churches raised amazing amounts of money for mission and development. It was then sent to a big organisation who took it and did amazing things with it. BUT… there was a lack.

There was a lack of relationship. A lack of mutual sharing. Of mutually sharing our poverty and wealth. Without relationship our giving is easy, one dimensional, impotent and not the God modelled way. 

Relationship is the entire point of God’s design. Eden sees the masterplan. Relationship. The Fall broke up all the original relationships. The New Jerusalem sees the vision of all things restored. With God everything is about things is relationship. 

In between Eden and that new Jerusalem, God came among us in relationship. Emmanuel - God with us. Jesus incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension were about veils being torn, walls broken down - restored relationship.

In mission we need to be in relationship. We don’t work for so much as being with. We can work for people, without ever knowing anything about those we work for. God’s model is BEING WITH.

This is why I encouraged Fitzroy to get into relationship. I wanted us to send our money to a community that we would be in partnership with. We cannot therefore hide from the poverty that they have to live through. We have to respond to it in our own lives. Also in such partnerships they can pray for us and teach us about our own poverty. Mutual sharing.

This week we mutually share with our Onialeku community the grief of losing our little brother, son, nephew. He is buried with his Grandfather Bishop Isaac Aswa whose death broke our hearts back in 2016. Aswa family be assured of our prayers, our tears, our love, our mutual grief. 

Our consolation is that for 10 days this past July we gave little Devine the time of his life… as he did us… we got to share 10:10 (life in all its fulness) with him!


Fitzroy 10-10 Mission

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we will be thinking mainly of Uganda. We will be hearing from our Summer Mission teams and their experiences. The majority went to Onialkeu in Uganda. What were their highlights and what did we learn? I will be asking how we should BE WITH Onialeku in our on going BEING WITH series. Expect some African vibrancy. Speaking of which... if you have any African clothing wear it. Whether you were on this year's team or not. 

There is a stew lunch afterwards to raise money for our youth bursary for summer trips.

In the evening (7pm) our youth will led us in a night of vibrant worship. The Passion services have been excellent and this one has the them Jesus Is For Losers - with a couple big ideas Jesus loves those who've lost their sense of worth. Jesus even loves those who have lost their passion!!



Very occasionally, I end up with a sermon that I think is so prophetically edged, that I cannot wait to preach it BUT I am terrified that I won’t be able to do it justice. To The Edge of The World is an album that I am terrified to review because I worry that I might not quite nail it, explain it, express my love for it. 

Late last year I had the privilege of a cup of coffee with Ben Glover in my office. He’s a songwriter I admire and I loved his last solo record Shorebound very much.

In the course of the conversation he told me that his collaborative with Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt, The Orphan Brigade, were going to write an album about the East Coast of Antrim. My head blew off and we talked about The Children of Lir, Ballycastle’s Black Nun and how he hoped he might get John Prine to sing on a song about Slemish.

To say I was excited was an understatement. Our house is in Ballycastle and we spend a lot of time down that East Coast. I spent my youth gazing out at Slemish and climbing it many Easter Sunday mornings. Imagine an album of songs about my places. Like Springsteen’s New Jersey. My stories almost canonised in song.

I became aware early this year that The Orphan Brigade were indeed in Northern Ireland and I surmised how it might be going. Then in August Ben honoured me by sending me those songs. 

I walked over to the Bonamargy Friary in Ballycastle and listened to Black Nun at Julia McQuillan’s grave where they had actually written the song. The next day I headed down to Kinbane Head where they wrote the title song. Then I walked along Ballycastle beach looking out at the cold seas of Moyle listening to Children Of Lir. I had never experienced an album in this way before or with more pride and joy as I listened in the places that what I was hearing were created.

Writing in the outdoors was a unique The Orphan Brigade way to go about their art. Their debut was done in a haunted house in Kentucky, their sophomore in caves in Italy. The Antrim coastline seems like a breeze in comparison. The Northern Irish breeze can be felt in the sound, right the way through.

It is amazing how many young fair maidens have reportedly died in tragic circumstances in the 30 or so miles from Glenarm, home village of the aforementioned Ben Glover, to Ballycastle. These songs cover four such tales and add a Spanish nobleman from the Spanish Armada who drowned and was buried under a chestnut tree near Cairncastle. Add to that a prophetic nun and St. Patrick himself and we have the makings of a drama more fascinating than Game Of Thrones, also associated with the scenes of this album.

The sound is wonderful. There’s an American folk blues foundation throughout but the mandolins, flutes, fiddles and pipes impregnates everything with the Irish location. I was gazing across to Fair Head from Kinbane Head, Rathlin to my left, and Scotland ahead. There was a wind upon on the water and when Barry Kerr’s uilleann pipes came in it was spine tingling - the sound perfect for the view. The campfire sound of Children Of Lir was perfect for a beach walk listen. You can feel the boat rocking from side to side in Glenarm Bay for Captain’s Song (Sorley Boy). In the latter John Prine comes in and it is utterly wondrous to imagine that voice singing about our Sorley Boy, on our seas! 

I could go on… let me. St Patrick On Slemish Mountain is pure Gospel in a sound that would be likely to appear if Woody Guthrie came across Mumford & Sons; The Lumineers could cover Fair Head’s Daughter; Under The Chestnut Tree has the sweetest melancholy in a beguiling Celtic swing; Mind The Road like a closing prayer takes us into Ireland’s terrible beauty of glens and coastline along side "the lingering shadow of a gunman". 

When Ben left my office after that coffee I was excited. I had anticipation at what this, yet to be written, record might be but I was also apprehensive. What if it was no good! I should have had more faith. This is, I believe, The Orphan Brigade at the peak of their powers, all three individually and the three as collective. It is the spirit and breeze of my favourite coastline in the world made song. Thank you guys! 


A St John cover

I have so wanted to hear this record since I stopped for a brief chat with Amanda St. John coming off Ballycastle beach and she told me that she was going to record in Muscle Shoals. How exciting is that I thought, as I hurried to catch up with the family.

I have had to wait for a while but here it is. It does not disappoint. 

Amanda St John has a voice. It is a big one. It has that traditional gritty soul sound of Janis Joplin and yet has that contemporary pop sound of Emeli Sande. She could be Co Antrim’s Mary Coughlin but Amanda's voice is clearer, purer and wider in range.

With a voice as big as this, it is about discipline and control, instead of every song being overwhelming. She does this wonderfully. One of the albums strengths is its variety. 

There is the tenderness of Walk Away; the acoustic singer songwriter feel of Take A Leap written with Gareth Dunlop; the rocking Don’t Think That You Know; the brooding Bring Me; the piano led Truth; the more contemporary, almost Christine and The Queens, beats of Made Myself Known.

St. John is an honest writer. These are songs full of soul. To the very depths of it. These are resilient songs from a women overcoming her fears and finding faith in herself, in her art and that amazing voice. 

It might seem a long way from Glenariff, County Antrim to Muscle Shoals, Alabama but Amanda St. John’s voice wasn’t just up to inhabit the legendary studio - it graced it. She went. She conquered. She brought it home!



This is the script of my Pause For Thought on Vanessa Feltz, BBC Radio 2, on September 25, 2019. The theme was For The Love Of Music...


I have lived for the love of music since my cousin Sharon introduced me to Donny Osmond and David Cassidy when I was 10. 

Ever since I have often found solace in music.  When yet another girl rejected me or  Manchester City got beaten I went into my music room, the privilege of being an only child, and put some vinyl on the turntable and set the needle down. The songs calmed my angst. 

In my pilgrimage of following Jesus, songs have continued to be sources of solace but also conduits of guidance, thermometers to take the cultural temperature and fuel to fire my imagination. 

A number of years ago my friend and songwriter Martyn Joseph was chatting to me about how he saw songs as companions for the journey. He wrote a song about a woman called Clara that spelt out what he meant. 

It is a true story. A young black woman, called Clara, gets a job nursing a baby that his rich parents didn’t really want. Years later that baby has grown up and his feeling of worthlessness, as an unwanted child, has led him to the brink of suicide. As he heads out into the desert to take his life a song comes to him, from he doesn’t know where, and it stops him. He goes on to live the life of a successful writer 

Meanwhile an ageing Clara seeks out the child that she used to look after. She finds him, they meet up and as she goes to leave him she sings a song. It is that song. Suddenly the writer knows who saved his life.

Songs can be such companions. The Psalms in the Hebrew scriptures were companion songs for the Jews. They would sing them on the way up to Jerusalem for Festivals. They sang them in exile by the rivers of Babylon. When Jesus is dying he is heard quoting a Psalm.

Often I look for a song to see me through. It might be a song to celebrate, a song to help me to be still, a song to stimulate vision, a song to soothe my blues.  I am thankful that my cousin gave me the love of music and that I am blessed with quite a few Claras.



The Belfast Half Marathon. It might be the highlight of my ten years at Fitzroy. There was our Van Morrison Service the day before his 70th Birthday Concert on Cyprus Avenue that attracted one hundred visitors from all over the world! There was our first Live Nativity that made UTV News. We’ve had some amazing U2 nights. We’ve welcomed Bruce Cockburn, Ricky Ross, Jim Wallis, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Barbara Brown Taylor.

Yet, yesterday’s Sunday morning was as satisfying a day at the office as I have ever had. First there was the sense of Church community as we gathered at the front of Church in the rain. The worship band started rehearsing on the Church doorway. The kids started setting out jelly babies and oranges.

The first runner was not long in arriving, just after 10 o’clock. A Kenyan floating over the surface and hardly breaking sweat. He waved as we cheered him down University Street. Not long after that our own Fitzer Gladys Ganiel turned the corner. The noise level went up a notch as we cheered one of our own, only second (!!!!) in the Women’s Race but only because we hadn’t tripped up the leading woman a minute our two before.

And something happened. Who knew but there is something addictive about cheering half marathon runners. Not long after Gladys we were past the elite runners and, as we were situated just before the 12th mile mark, the runners seemed to benefit from the music, the clapping, the cheering. The smiles on their faces, their waves. You could tell that we were contributing.

It was one of those moments when I realised that a hunch, that might not work, had worked beyond my wildest dreams. My plan had been to cheer the half marathon and then do a short worship service half an hour later than our usual time.

My sermon series just now is entitled BEING WITH and so I had scheduled this week’s to be BEING WITH THE CITY. The sermon was based on Jeremiah’s advice to the Jewish exiles in Babylon -  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer 29:7)

As Jesus was called Emmanuel which means God With Us so he sends the Church to be with. In Fitzroy’s engagement with the city on University Street, during this half marathon, I have never sensed such a BEING WITH. I was so pleased that we were not inside the building sending praise up to God like worship was some Sunday Cul-de-sac. This was the Church out of the walls loving the city.

Oh you might say that cheering a few runners is not world changing but the metaphor was inspirational and for the runners it was way more than metaphorical. The changes in runners’ faces was immediate but the social media response afterwards was incredible. So many spoke of the lift that they got as they turned the corner on Botanic Avenue and heard our music and cheering.

In my sermon I reminded the congregation that I had eyeballed politicians about the Half Marathon interrupting Worship in the city and how they needed to respect us more. I then asked a question. What is the best way to BE WITH the city? What is the best way to love the city? To shout and demand our rights or to be on the street clapping, cheering, loving?

What I never expected was how much our congregation loved the experience. What it did for us as a community. It was service of the lightest touch BUT it was joyous. At 11.30 almost all of the runners were past us BUT it was not easy to get Fitzers to stop cheering and come into the service. Sometimes serving is more worshipful than a worship service! 

Thank you to all the runners for running for so many good causes. Thank you runners for smiling, waving back and then for your emails and social media postings. To be called the highlight of the route or the best entertainment of the day was as much of a lift to us as any of our cheering was to you. See you next year!


Fitzroy from across the road

Tomorrow morning in Fitzroy is a little different. Our service clashes with the Belfast Half Marathon. This has happened for a few years. When it began I was a little angry that Churches were not being considered in our city, considering the contribution that churches have made over the last couple of centuries. 

Then one year a member of the congregation asked why I looked a bit down. Telling him, he responded by asking how I thought the authorities saw the early Church. It was a revelation to me and I changed my attitude completely.

So, this year, we are going to join in the marathon. Fitzroy will be out front cheering the marathon runners on. Fitzroy folk, if you could arrive anytime between 9.50 and 11.30, you can join with the city in celebrating the runners and all the charities benefiting from their running.

At 11.30 we will come inside and have a short service in which we will follow our current series BEING WITH asking how we can be with the city. I will be seeking advice from Jeremiah and how he told the people in exile to live. I will be using a reflection written by my good friend Doug Gay and paraphrasing my own version of Doug's piece. 

In the evening (7pm) we have the next in our How to Read the Bible (HtRtB) series. Old Testament authority, lecturer and commentator Desi Alexander will be telling us why the book of Isaiah was written. We will look at the time of its writing, its connect, insights and how we should apply it today.

Do not forget that on Thursday night at 7.30 we have an evening called THE NEW AFRICA when I will be joined by Belfast author Tony Macauley to interview two amazing young Ugandan men called Levixone and Trinity who will blow your minds with transformed lives transforming other lives and communities. It will be inspirational!











REVERSING OUT OF THE DRIVEWAY (for Caitlin and Jasmine)

Stockies SP


Reversing out of the drive way

Your mother is at the gate

Be good and drive carefully

And don’t be home too late

Enjoy your children’s childhood

Everyone is told and yet

When adulthood starts racing in

We all live with the regret


Reversing out of the driveway

I hold your mother at the door

A quiet prayer to God above

We can’t protect you anymore

It won’t be what we said to you

That shapes the future you do

But all the throwaways thing we did

Will be in you, through and through


No one tells you about the anxiety

And that the worry will never subside

No one tells you about the depth of love

And your heart bursting open with pride

Know that every time we wave you off

Our souls are smiling in awe

To see you discover the you you are

Your kardia finding your grá.


grá is an Irish word... I explain my use of it HERE


Jani and Jed on beach

This was my Pause For Thought on Vanessa Feltz, BBC Radio 2 on September 18, 2019. The theme was The Still Small Voice...


The north coast of Northern Ireland has been in the spotlight recently. Not only Game Of Thrones but the British Open golf. The Open was played in Portrush. As a child I loved Portrush. It was loud and bright and busy. Amusements, Rollercoaster, big beaches.

Ballycastle along the coast, I really did not like. It seemed a little dull. Yet twenty years later my wife and I bought a house there because it was cheaper. And in the last twenty years I have come to love the quieter town… smaller… less crowded… more scenic beach views.

We live in a bright loud world and being still and reflective has become a lost art, a rarity, a very difficult task. Almost by default Ballycastle beach has become my meditative space. In the late evening we walk across the beach and marvel at the sunsets behind Kinbane Head and Rathlin Island.

It is on these walks that I hear most God’s still small voice. This is where my body, heart and soul slow down. When I stop for a deep breath. Here I often have a sense that in a very ordinary evening walk something extraordinary is going on. 

Like a while back. Out for the nightly stroll I looked across at my wife Janice… our beloved dog Jed. I then looked out at Fair Head, our high cliff shelter, all its veins jutting out in strength and beauty.

And the still small voice inside me whispered, “Look Steve… do you get it. This is what the human life is all about”

So I started to ponder. The Christian Bible begins and ends with visions of oneness… between human and human… human and creation… human and God. 

The entire Christian story is based around broken relationships being somehow restored by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The still small voice was pointing out that I was getting an inkling of it as I held my wife’s hand and smiled at our dog’s love, and as I inwardly gave thanks for the wonder of creation. 

I then heard the voice of Van Morrison speaking about another part of Northern Ireland, “Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time”.