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October 2019



Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we will be celebrating Harvest by asking about how we are doing about the environment. Continuing our very popular BEING WITH series we welcome Jonny Hanson to preaching on BEING WITH CREATION. Jonny is a sharp mind and radical practitioner. He is Managing Director of Jubilee Farm. Jubilee see themselves as a Christian Creation Care organisation. I believe in these days of Extinction Rebellion and Greta that Jubilee have a prophetic voice for the Church. Our worship is on the classical week rotation with the brilliant viola of Ulster Orchestra's Richard Guthrie and the free flowingpaino of David Livingstone. I believe there might be an original worship song too!

In the evening (7pm) we continue our excellent Evening Programme for 2019-20 with Chris Fry. Chris is a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and will speak on The Problem of Peace. Chris will be looking at conflict and aggression and reality in the life of groups that seek to offer healing and hope. Expect imaginative theology, insight and practical suggestions for implementation. 



Prisons? How do we see prisons? You might find that, like me, you haven’t thought an awful lot about it. However, if you stop and surmise for a moment like me you might realise how much your view of prisons has been honed by what you have seen through The Troubles and the documentaries since. Prisons are about keeping people inside. For decades they were very dangerous people; heighten the security.

Perhaps, as well as making sure they do not get out, we are all about the punishment. I mean these are criminals. Justice is demanded. Give them bread and water and all this talk about televisions and pool tables… perhaps we do not think that prisons should look like that.

As a follower of Jesus prisons are an irritant. I cannot dismiss them as places to keep people in or be all about punishment. Jesus had a special place for the prisoner. 

That first time that he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and open the scroll of Isaiah, right there in the text were the words - “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.”

At the end of his life, when he is talking to his disciples about how you can tell who is getting in to the Kingdom and who is not, Jesus tells them that they can do good to him when they do good to the marginalised - “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” 

It is important that we see that at the heart of Jesus ministry, and at the centre of what the Bible reveals to us about the character of God, is redemption. It is not judgement but the transforming power of grace that Jesus came to do and teach us. 

That should change how we see prisons and indeed prisoners. The rehabilitation and indeed redemption of prisoners should be high on our agenda. The reduction of re-offending should be a priority when we pray for a peaceful and prosperous city, as Jeremiah asked us to.

Surely, we should be calling for the building of prisons of grace and praying for the Spirit’s transformative power and that by God’s unmerited love criminals become repentant reborn humans, eventually leaving prison to make positive contributions to society that forgives and sets them free, without stigma. 

On this year’s Prisons Week I am asking how I see prisons and what I am doing about the prisoners that Jesus identified himself with? 


170px-Extinction_Rebellion _green_placard_(cropped)

The Extinction Rebellion is all over the news this week. Greta has become a young prophet trying to catch our attention on Climate Change.

On Sunday morning in Fitzroy we are excited to have Dr. Jonny Hanson speaking at our Harvest Service on BEING WITH CREATION. Jonny is Managing Director of Jubilee a Christian creation care organisation and well respected in the academic and practical world of environmental issues.

As I was planning ahead for the service I remembered this poem. I wrote it over 20 years ago and sadly it is more relevant now, than then.


All of our songs are sung

And none of us have been listening

The future sound is a tuneless world

Where all the melody has gone missing

You'd think that we'd hear something

To wake us from our comatose state

We all say we love our children

But treat them with a spiteful hate

We are so about the present

That we won't do tomorrow well

And our glass is nearly empty

On the bar of the last chance hotel.


All our prayers are prayed

Every answer has been spurned

We've sat 'neath the pulpits of science

But nothing is what we've learned

You'd think that we'd see something

To give a kick to our selfish asses

We're so blinded by our comforts

That it's pointless wearing glasses

We've peered through the gates of heaven

Then dragged ourselves back to hell

And our glass is nearly empty

On the bar of the last chance hotel.






U2 UE Flag

The Blackout as the opening song on U2’s SOE Tour was not accidental. This was an album and tour birthed in a world falling apart. The Songs of Experience album was delayed by a near death experience of Bono’s and the election of Donald Trump in America along with the Brexit vote in the UK.

Surely The Blackout was one of the songs written and most affected by those events. It is a menacing doom laden sound. Heavy in every kid of way. It was a perfect song to prologue an evening in a local government-less Belfast that would interrogate Trump and Syria and throw European Union flags all over the backdrop.

Two years after The Black Out’s release and a year after that gig in Belfast, a live version from Belfast has just been released to subscribers. As I listen afresh I find it expressing perfectly the suspect fragility of twenty first century democracy:


Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back, Jack

We had it all, and what we had is not coming back, Zach

A big mouth says the people, they don't wanna be free for free

The blackout, is this an extinction event we see


There might be an over drama in words like extinction. It’s a little western decadent to feel the world is ending when a vote doesn’t our way or we get a bad leader or when economics deals seem shaken. A viewing of some recent videos of Syria at U2 concerts would suggest that other human beings are in real end-of-the-world scenarios and we have a nerve to be alarmed at our situation - decadent apocalypse!

Yet, there is no denying that we in Northern Ireland are in unknown territory. Democracy has got questions to answer. The future is precarious, for some people in my community that is a worse prospect than it is for me. 

As always with U2 there is more than gloom in the song. The chorus might be a good statement of intent for how we might respond to whatever happens with Brexit.


When the lights go out and you throw yourself about

In the darkness where we learn to see

When the lights go out, don't you ever doubt

The light that we can really be


Songs Of Experience have to live with the harsh realities that maturity brings. Yet, U2 are pointing to a strength of experience where we don’t succumb to the darkness in The Blackout but learn in the vortex. When the lights of our democratic leadership go out, we need to find other lights, within ourselves to deal with The Blackout.

I have no idea how much the Bible inspired Bono in these lyrics. It certainly influences most of what he does. The Bible calls God’s people to find “the light that we can really be”. The Bible is written by and for people in worse scenarios than Brexit. Slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon, a new faith community under oppression from the Roman Empire. 

The people of God have always learned how to respond and have been called to shine a light. Across the hundreds of years of Biblical history one lesson is that Empires rise and fall and that all political alliances are fragile and time limited. What we do when the lights go out, as we are guaranteed they will in a broken world, is the test of belief. 

Love and faith when the lights go out is the call of following Jesus.


Praying Mantis

(my Pause For Thought on the Vanessa Show on BBC Radio 2... the theme was The Wonders Of Nature...)

I have stopped killing spiders. Even if they are one step away. Why? Well, I was given a new perspective on all insects. I have a friend called Neville who loves creepy crawlies. And knows all about them. If you are with him and see a spider he will pick it up and no matter how small will tell you the kind of spider and the gender.

So, this summer in Africa he was in his element. He gave a couple of hours palliative care to a dying Citrus Swallowtail Butterfly and spent a lunch in Murchison Falls Safari Park with a Praying Mantis on his head! It was like having the Richard Attenborough of creepy crawlies on tour with you. I learned a lot! 

What Neville’s relationship with bugs does is that it changes mine. I lost my irrational fear and became utterly fascinated. Insects became a wonder of nature and I began to understand their place in the cosmos that, as a believer, I believe God designed. 

I thought of all of this while I watched in horror as English footballers were exposed to shocking racist abuse in Bulgaria. A commentator suggested that the Bulgarian fans needed educating. I then thought of Neville’s work with me.

Hatred is compromised by friendship. It is difficult to racially assault people you know. My prejudices in the sectarian atmosphere of Northern Ireland disappeared when I got closer to those on the other side of that divide. It took away my irrational fears and ignorance.

If insects are fascinating, then humans are even more so. As a Christian I believe that God made all the wonders of nature but he left a special imprint on human beings. We are made in his image the Bible suggests. 

If I take that idea into my day then I see all of my fellow human beings with a whole new perspective. In spite of prejudices that I work to eradicate I will not step on other people’s differences but will marvel at them, cherish them and pray that they will find the fulness of their humanity in the image of God.

THE GREAT PRIDE INSIDE OF ME (For Jasmine Grace on Her Birthday)

Stocki Jazz and Beatles shirts

I saw you through the window

Your face lit up my heart

What Ernest did for the atom

You came and split me apart

Opened me up to miracles

To love what never before existed

A place at the core of my very soul

Glorious joy on every visit.


I saw you through your birth

Weeping at the glimpse of your face

God’s goodness gifted in tiny girl

It was so right to name you Grace

I remember you a tiny bundle

Snuggled in my upper arms

No way to tell me what you needed

But convincing me with all your charms.


I believe that you can change the world

I know you know you should

You have all potent anger needed

It is righteous and it is good.


I saw you on a playground

With children all around your feet

I saw the smile inside your soul

Where your gladness and Africa meet

I knew that I could let you go

When I saw who you were going to be

Whether I tell you enough or not

You are the great pride inside of me.


I believe that you can change the world

I know you know you should

You have all right anger needed

It is righteous and it is good.



I am aware inside and outside of Fitzroy of a lot of people who are struggling with loved ones in ill health. I send this out not as an easy fix but as a blues poem of catharsis...


When a loved one’s tossed in turbulence

You watch them smashed whichever way

And God never seems to bring the calm

No matter how hard you pray

May unseen threads of mercy

Weave in, the unravelling doubt

May God grab you by the finger

Before life’s hurting drags you out


Knowledge loves the questions

Cos it has a seamless answer

But mystery shimmies all around

She’s an awkward little dancer

And when she dances out of sight

Leaving the soul that lonely ache

May God send a holy comforter

Before you crack up in the heart break


Lord, we flew on wings like eagles

Then landed with reality’s thud

We ran but soon were walking

Now crawl through this tear soaked mud

We mature in a world that’s broken

Confessing what our part is

We sing these songs to temper grief

And hope in their catharsis.


Orphan Brigade live

photo: Gerry McNally


Watching The Orphan Brigade live was the strangest experience for me. When they played the title track of their new record, To The Edge Of The World, I was immediately looking out from Kinbane Castle towards Fairhead. I could feel the breeze, and see the wind blowing off the surface of the Seas of Moyle. 

This is where the song was written and so I went there in August to listen. The sounds and visions are now indelibly blended, even if I am listening in the windowless room of Belfast’s Black Box.

The between songs chatter tonight was a fascinating drive up the Antrim Coast. Ben Glover talked about scaring the life out of band mates Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt in a dark midnight writing session in Glenarm Forest - “it was the trees!”. Hubbard spoke of being out in Glenarm Bay in a boat. A thorn tree half way up the mountain was far enough to draw on St. Patrick On Slemish Mountain. As Glover introduces Mad Man’s Window, I was imagining looking through the rock formation. I could see the sea, still in this windowless room! 

Indeed, I couldn’t help but think that if these guys were Bruce Springsteen, there would be films projected behind them of all of the East Antrim locations featured in tonight’s show. Oh for the bigger recording budgets of the good old days!

I couldn’t also help but think that if this was the early 70s these guys would be a super group. Something like Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. If songwriting was held in the same esteem as back then, then Glover, Hubbard and Britt would be stars for sure. Another advantage of this gig was picking up the solo CDs. All three of The Orphan Brigade’s solo records are carefully honed collections of the highest quality of song-smithery.

Together on stage it is the harmonies that light up the room. This is Crosby, Still and Nash stuff. Voices perfectly blending and bringing lament, wonder and mystery to songs of myth and history. Lots of people die in an Orphan Brigade record but it doesn’t make it miserable. 

Far from it. There is a vibrancy to this collaboration. Tonight we benefit from having Colm McClean and Conor McCreanor in behind the Orphans. McClean’s slide guitar deserves special mention.

Occasionally Hubbard moves to the drums and sprinkles some percussive magic into a few songs particularly Marching On Christmas Day off their debut Soundtrack To A Ghost Story. 

Centre to the whole musical thing is Joshua Britt’s mandolin. I never thought I’d want to be a mandolin hero. Like this trio’s Stephen Stills, Britt plays with a flourish, adding drive, sparkle and a little intensity to the muse.

The live setting suits The Orphan Brigade. Whether in a haunted house in Kentucky or caves in Italy or, as in most of tonight’s set, in East Antrim, these create in organic ways. So for me To The Edge Of The World sounded even more alive, live. The voices more powerful. Everything more imperfectly perfect.

Oh yeh, I would have taken some additional Uilleann pipes from Barry Kerr and the song Black Nun but hey! Most poignant and beautiful of all tonight was To The Edge Of The World’s near benediction Mind The Road; Glover's first dabbling at singing about the Irish Troubles:


“Slow river cuts through the land

The dead are talking to the dark

Tribal, twisted, stained

The lingering shadow of a gunman


Mind the road you go

Mind the road you came”


Amsterdam - Park

Amsterdam is my kind of novel. It begins at George Best's funeral and before long one of the main characters is trying to get his son to join him at a Bob Dylan concert in Amsterdam. These are my kind of events. Park is a Northern Irish writer and his Baptist upbringing brings a spiritual dimension to his observations of people and relationships.

In Amsterdam Park follows the paths of three people with differing relational fractures; one has made a sexual slip, messed up his marriage and needs some parental time with a withdrawn teenage son; another is a one parent mother whose involvement in her daughter's stag weekend leads to a major rift; one feels her marriage is in such a state that she comes up with a bizarre scenario for her husband during their weekend break.

The time that all three of these characters spend in Amsterdam becomes like a spiritual wrestling where they all find themselves whether they are trying to her not. There is a lovely scene where two of them meet and go into an old church. There is a holy beauty in this place that in some ways is where Parks is dreaming for all his "flock." Don't get me wrong, there is no Christian theology or preaching in the book at all but Park sees something in the world that needs a transcendence.

Park is a wonderful writer. His development of characters is deep and always intriguing and insightful, almost in a pastoral way. There are moments when you feel that he writes like a painter, sitting in the middle of places and instead of sketching or using oils, writing what he sees in meticulous details.

Amsterdam comes alive with this detail and his record of George Best's funeral and his review of a Bob Dylan gig are great. He is without doubt another addition to the long line of great writers from our wee country. As Bono said, a "We don't design bridges or send people to the moon, we write." David Park is more proof of that and Amsterdam is yet another example.


Stockman head

I have been encouraged in this last few weeks to find out that people are listening to my Sermon podcasts. My current preaching series on BEING WITH seems to have resonated. I started the series back on September 8th. The BEING WITH series is as follows:






Apologies that BEING WITH THE CITY was not recorded. 

You can listen to these as iTunes Podcasts. You can subscribe and have the weekly Podcasts downloaded automatically. Go to the Podcast section of the iTunes Store and the search In the iTunes store, go to the Podcast section and then search for 'Fitzroy Presbyterian Church'.

Alternatively, you can listen on the Fitzroy website - LISTEN HERE






If you missed the sermons(s) or media and want to listen to them again click on the file you want below (or you can subscribe for free to our sermon podcast in iTunes and have the sermons downloaded automatically.  In the iTunes store, go to the Podcast section and then search for 'Fitzroy Presbyterian Church')