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November 2019



I used to think that Christmas was theologically dull. On my first Christmas Sunday, as an assistant minister in First Antrim, I actually worked out how many more times I would have to repeat that same sermon until I retired!

Over time I have completely changed my mind. The nativity is not just a lovely scene for children to colour in. It is crammed with theological truth and Gospel insights.

Over the years I have spoken and blogged about these BUT this year I am aiming to bring all my thoughts together. In my Advent sermons, in my blog and on BBC Radon's Ulster in my Thought For The Day contributions I am going to unpack this amazing moment when God becomes human and moves in among us.

I am hoping, time permitting to blog every day, hopefully on the theme of the Sunday before's sermon.

Here is what will be going on in Fitzroy:


In our first Advent service of 2019 I will be making it very clear that whatever Steve Turner said in a poem about Christmas being for the children it most certainly isn't. In our Matthew reading, a baby is escaping from military death squads as a refugee. Nothing warm and fuzzy there. We will then set the scene for the rest of advent by suggesting that everything that Jesus would say and do can be found in these birth stories. 


This is a short, snappy, interactive Carol Service for all of the family. It will feature Botanic Primary School, hot dogs and burgers, face painting, a balloon making artist and a bouncy disco!! During the service itself, we will be introducing you in humorous and interactive ways to the cast of the Christmas nativity.


I will be stealing a phrase from a friend who in his artist entrepreneurism always advises that only Jesus can be deep and wide, as the old children's chorus taught. We will be looking at those who spoke about who this baby was going to be before he was born and in the birth narratives to discover the apocalyptic reach of this baby in the straw. Perhaps wider than deeper...


Ten days out and advent gets personal. Protestants haven't been sure what to do with Mary. I suggest we get into her story, hear the theological voices from The Old Testament, hear what God tells her and how she responds. This is personal. It is costly. It is what we are made for.


Fitzroy's Sunday before Christmas will be a family service, for all ages. There will be lots of short sharp contributions and I will tie it up with some fun and the most important question that we all have every Christmas...


Our Sunday evening Passion events at Fitzroy have become popular and a helpful resource for modern worship. Led by our very talented young people but not for young people, expect this one to have be a little different and a wonderfully joyous way to get ready for Christmas morning!


In our earlier (note time) Christmas Day service we will give thanks for the birth of Jesus and Paul Lutton will attempt to use the Frozen movies to share even more truth about the Advent season.





Kenny's Art

Kumbukumbu nzuri is a new exhibition by Kenny Woodrow that we are thrilled to have in our Grace and Imagination Gallery in Fitzroy. Kumbukumbu nzuri is a collection of Kenny's East African paintings from Kenya and Tanzania. An English translation of the Swahili is ‘Beautiful/Good memories’. 

This is a stunningly vibrant and beautiful collection of work that draws you into East African life. These painting will captivate the eye as you walk past them and the second look that they will demand from you will have your brain engaged and your heart touched.

Take a journey into dress, customs and everyday working life of east Africa. I asked Kenny a few questions about himself, his art and Kumbukumbu nzuri


When did you first discover a love or gift for art?

My earliest memory of someone commenting on my artwork was in Primary school after I had completed a foiled paper mosaic picture of a colourful parrot. The picture brightened up the magnolia painted wall in the wee country primary school near Ballymena!


How did that develop?

Art was a subject I enjoyed in secondary school. I received encouragement in my efforts and I also had a Chinese friend who was a really talented fine art artist who showed me what could be achieved with a bit of effort. I was able to take his ‘constructive criticism’ of my work at a time when most said – Oh, that’s nice! In secondary school and later in grammar school I had the opportunity to use different materials but always preferred fine art (drawing, painting), rather than working in graphics, ceramics or sculpture. I studied education with Art as my main subject in Stranmillis and after graduating taught Art in a special school in SEELB. Secondary school, grammar school and Teacher training college were all part of my development, and I was ready for new creative challenges during these stages.


What about your own style. How did you find that?

I don’t think I’ve found one or settled on a style yet. Surely there has to be more to discover!!

I really enjoyed my time studying History of Art, looking at lots of different artists work, trying to figure out how they technically achieved the effect they did. Back in Northern Ireland I enjoy Arts TV programmes that describe the society artists were living in at the time, and the way their artistic style developed over their lifetime.

I also now have had exposure to African artists work. East Africa has a great art style called TINGA, TINGA, which portrays stylised safari animals and Africa landscapes. It’s great to see how resourceful artists are with the lack of artists materials available to them. Most people will see my work as realism.

My work as an illustrator with Wycliffe meant that I had to ensure that the pictures were very realistic is style. No figures were to be placed behind boulders and figures had to show all the limbs, otherwise the people they were intended for could be confused.

Illustrations in these early reading Literacy booklets were to be kept simple as adult readers were beginning to learn how to read a picture as well as learn how to read text. Outside of the restraints of my work assignment, I regularly came across people, situations, places that I visually thought would make great images to represent artistically. A camera is a great tool for helping capture these moments.  The only problem is, you never have  the camera about when the event is happening!


This exhibition is set in East Africa. How did you end up there?

This is a conversation that should take place over a coffee! The short answer is that I, along with Andrea, were supported as we began a ‘short term’ assignment with Wycliffe Bible Translators. I should say our 2 year assignment has extended to beyond 20 years of service now! We both left our teaching jobs in Northern Ireland and with continued prayer and financial support, served as support personnel for Wycliffe missionaries working with people groups in Kenya, Uganda and eventually in Tanzania.

As a couple we had been exploring options of Christian service with quite a few missionary organisations but it wasn’t until a Wycliffe missionary explained the need for ‘anyone good at drawing’ to help translation projects with producing literacy materials, that we believed this was a ministry we were gifted to serve with. Following a number of preparation years with Wycliffe, we began our overseas assignment with Wycliffe in Kenya and were seconded to assist Bible Translation and Literacy (BTL) projects.

These early years of service overseas still have a huge impact on our appreciation of what God is doing among many diverse ethnic groups in East Africa. Over the years we have come across men, women and children of faith, who despite many challenging personal circumstances are passionate about seeing God extend his kingdom during their season of ministry.


What caught your attention to do these particular pieces?

The pieces are from 2 different periods of our family living in East Africa. The Kenya paintings are images, which I suppose, have a real personal interest for me. When you come across people groups such as Rendille, Samburu, Borana, Turkana, Daasanach for the first time, you are immediately struck by their appearance which is so different from anything you’d see in Ahoghill!!

In my oil paintings of women, I wanted to show what they wear and how they adorn themselves while living in a remote location. No Boots Chemist to call into, or Claire’s for accessories! You really need to have an understanding of their culture to make any sense of why they appear as they do, and the roles that they play within their group.

The paintings that I have of women record anthropological details, as well as maybe being interesting to look at. One of my maasai woman paintings show how a mother uses a wrap to carry her baby. Another painting is of a group of Rendille women. Although the painting shows what they wear and the adornments they have around their neck and arms, one woman in the composition does not have her head shaven as she is showing to her community that she is pregnant.

The maasai men usually dress in a particular way with a brightly coloured blanket. Their standing posture reminds me of historical sculptured figures I had studied previously during History of Art revising, but I also wanted to show what else they usually have with them including their dagger, urungu, and stick. Again, the stick has a particular meaning among the men’s peer group and community.

The Tanzania and Zanzibar paintings are large oil paint versions of previous artwork I completed when living in Dar es Salaam.   


Did you do this art on the field? If not, what did you work off? memory? Photos?

Life in another culture for an extended period of time may not always go as you hope for or had planned! I did have opportunities to train local artists and get involved with Literacy projects, but a large proportion of my time has been ensuring scripture books and literacy books are ready to be sent to print. As a change from working with typeset documents and strange looking fonts that won’t print correctly, etc, I do look for ways to keep the creative juices flowing. I recently was bought a really good digital camera that has allowed me to capture scenes and moments that I wish I’d captured previously.

After living for more than 3 years in a country, you become more selective about what pictures you want to take, and what meaning the activity you captured is trying to show.

The second assignment for our family in East Africa was a request to work in Tanzania and as I thought of the variety of images I had taken of men, women and children I wanted a new way to try and paint them. I tend to let pictures percolate in my imagination for a while before I attempt them.

Trying to paint with oil paints in Tanzania wasn’t a great success and became a source of frustration. Working from photographs I had taken during my travels and holiday my first attempts were created on paper using oil pastel. 12 images were produced with the intention of returning to the images at some point when we would be living in a cooler climate where I could use oil paint.

I had to wait 2-3 years, when we returned to NI, before I could continue with my ambition to have the Tanzania images, painted on large canvases using oil paint. I bought a second hand wooden garden shed - via a well-known discount website - and built a studio in our back yard. It’s been great to have the room, the accessibility to art materials, and the time to enjoy painting and drawing again.

I always saw the Tanzania based oil paintings as a series that needed to be seen together, rather than paintings that were to be shown when they were individually completed. I’ve recently returned to realistic pencil drawing again as a skill which needs to be practised regularly and is something which I hope will develop my future work. Digital technology for artwork can create incredible images, but for me, there’s something more engaging/valuable in a work of art that someone has taken time and interest in producing and is able to share with others.


What do you hope people might gain from the exhibition?

My immediate reply to this is to scream… ‘THERE’S A BIGGER WORLD OUT THERE, NORTHERN IRELAND!!’

It’s been interesting and perhaps disappointing to discover there’s not much interest in Africa based artwork in Northern Ireland as I’ve talked with various gallery owners. I hope that friends who have regularly asked me how the artwork was going, will be able to see the paintings as a collection rather than as individual pieces. As well as having anthropological interest in the figures appearing in the paintings I hope that most of the work will be considered a colourful celebration of life lived out in East Africa.


KUMBUKUMBU NZURI will show in the Grace and Imagination Gallery, Fitzroy from November 30 - January 22 (open at Fitzroy events and when staff are in the building - use Rugby Road door)





wrote this after the last attack on a London bridge... sadly it needs prayed again tonight...


I caught her face at Westminster Bridge

My heart lit up, my soul shone

I reached for her hand, our laugh burst

We built the rest of our blessed lives on

London, you’re where I fell in love

Now you’ve fallen and lie bleeding

In the devil’s miracle of our fallenness

May you find what we all our needing.


Today, I remember London

And I offer up a prayer

For grace's interruption

God’s comforting repair

Let’s stop all this hatred

For this hate I’ve had enough

London, be still and know 

The indiscriminate power of love.

GOOD NEWS... IN A WORLD OF BAD - 5 Short Thoughts On Isaiah #5

Stocki U2 Pop

(#5 in my short series on Isaiah for PCI's Tides Daily Readings... thank you guys for the privilege)


READ: ISAIAH 40: 6-11

A voice says, “Cry out.”

    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,

    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.

    Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

    but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,

    go up on a high mountain.

You who bring good news to Jerusalem,[c]

    lift up your voice with a shout,

lift it up, do not be afraid;

    say to the towns of Judah,

    “Here is your God!”


See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,

    and he rules with a mighty arm.

See, his reward is with him,

    and his recompense accompanies him.


He tends his flock like a shepherd:

    He gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

    he gently leads those that have young.


REFLECT: For me the entire book of Isaiah is built around that personal experience of God that Isaiah had in the Temple (chapter 6: 1-8). Isaiah knew his condemnation as a man of an unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips. Then God moved graciously to atone for his guilt and take away his sin.

This was the good news that Isaiah personally experienced that we read about here in Isaiah 40. The rest of the chapter waxes lyrical about a creator, sustaining God, beyond compare.

In these early verses we hear of a humanity that is like the grass, quickly withered and gone. The good news, best news in the entire world, is that that God invites us to walk in his light, comes to dwell among us, gives us hope of a better world and comforts our traumas.

A world of bad news needs such good news, today!

RESPOND: Listen to Pierce Pettis’s song You Did That For Me and spend a little time coming to terms with the utterly spectacular news of the Gospel deep in your soul. Then give thanks.


Stockman bearded

(#4 in my short series on Isaiah for PCI's Tides Daily Readings...)


READ: ISAIAH 40: 1-5

Comfort, comfort my people,

    says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

    and proclaim to her

that her hard service has been completed,

    that her sin has been paid for,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

    double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare

    the way for the Lord[a];

make straight in the desert

    a highway for our God.[b]

Every valley shall be raised up,

    every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

    the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

    and all people will see it together.

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”


REFLECT: “Comfort”. That is a word I use so many times in ministry. As we read this I am aware of those who need comfort. Some are grieving, concerned about their health or the health of loved ones and a plethora of other worries. Then there is the state of our world.

Isaiah 40 is a gear shift in this longest prophetic book. These next chapters are full of the Bible’s best literature filled with hope and redemption and revelation from a compassionate God. 

Isaiah 40 is written to a people, ripped from their homes and cast into exile. Suddenly, there is a “be still and know that I am God” moment. God tells the prophet that “Comfort, comfort” are to be tenderly spoken in the trauma of exile.

When we are still to know this God, we find a grace centred, compassionate one, “slow to anger, rich in love”.


RESPOND: Bask for a few moments in the presence of a compassionate comforting God. Allow the spirit to caress your soul with grace, healing, soothing and bringing hope and solace to all of your anxieties and worries. 


Stephen Williams




FITZROY (77 University Street, Belfast BT7 - use Rugby Road door) 

David Livingstone


David Livingstone has been working in the Geography department at Queen's University Belfast and this year was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Honour's List for services to scholarship in Geography, History of Science and Intellectual History.

Stephen Williams has been Professor Of Systematic Theology at Queen's University but he never limited himself intellectually and in 2018 held a Research Fellowship at the Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, USA where he was researching the connection between a Christian understanding of creation and philosophies undergirding developments in artificial intelligence.

We are thrilled to have these two sharp Christian minds sharing with us what they feel are the Glocbal Challenges facing the Church in 2020.

We will begin with an informal evening of conversation when I will interview David and Stephen about their faith, vocations and what we can expect from the series.












Stocki in the dark

(#3 in my short series on Isaiah for PCI's Tides Daily Readings...)


READ: ISAIAH 11: 4-9

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,

    or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,

    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt

    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

    the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;

    and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,

    their young will lie down together,

    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the cobra’s den,

    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy

    on all my holy mountain,

for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea.


REFLECT: John Lennon imagined there was no heaven. It was easy. Isaiah imagines there is a heaven. That brings us all a challenge.

Back in the noughties our Queen’s Chaplaincy teams to South Africa always toured Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. We heard about prisoners learning to read and write and do mathes. Why? “We were getting ready for freedom before freedom came!”

I heard those words when when I read Isaiah 11. In the midst of God’s judgement being proclaimed, there are  signs of different days. Days of a whole new order. Predators dwell in harmony with their prey and children play with snakes!

These are the days of Revelation, when God will dwell with his reconciled peoples of all nations in the new Jerusalem.

Discipleship is getting ready for these days before they fully arrive. To be people of peace. People of reconciliation. People of a world order back in harmony as it was in the early days of Eden. 


RESPOND “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Where can we get ready for heaven before heaven comes?

BEING WITH THE ISOLATED; GOD'S MODEL - 5 Short Thoughts On Isaiah #2

Stocki cariature

(my contribution. to PCI's Tides #2)

READ: ISAIAH 7:13-17

13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you[c] a sign: The virgin[d] will conceive and give birth to a son, and[e] will call him Immanuel.[f] 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”


REFLECT: This passage is the home of the first of only three mentions of my favourite word, maybe in the world - “Immanuel”. 

What a word! “God with us.” Isaiah looks ahead to when a baby is born of a virgin. This child will be "the Word of God made flesh… among us”.

God with us. It is a fabulous theological concept but even more wonderful when we believe it as pragmatic reality.

God was for us but after sending 39 books, God showed us that BEING WITH was even better.

While on earth, God worked with people and was even for people BUT the majority of his time was just BEING WITH. 90% of God’s years on earth we know nothing about. BEING WITH was enough.

God’s model and call for mission is BEING WITH people,  carrying to them his hope, compassion and grace.


RESPOND: We live in a world of lonely and isolated people. We are called to follow Jesus to make his word flesh. Spend some time listening to God to see who he wants you to be with today.


Everyday Life

Precariously traversing the contemporary crises across the world and bringing God and spirituality into the the mix. Welcome to my world…  and apparently the world of Coldplay too!

The fact that I have every Coldplay album ever released but have never reviewed any of them on Soul Surmise tells you that I like Coldplay but don’t love them! Well, that might be about to change! 

At midnight on Thursday I spend half an hour listening to snippets of the new album releases. Everyday Life sounded intriguing me but didn’t grab me immediately. My friend Chris Hunter texted Friday morning. He had played it through on his way to work and thought I’d need a listen too.

Thank you Chris. I did. He pointed me to BrokEn and When I Need a A Friend. Within minutes I had sent the former to Gary Burnett our Fitzroy blues guy and he had claimed it for the next time he is leading a Sunday service. We both thought When I Need a Friend was more for organ and Chris Blake!

That we had been thinking of Coldplay in worship liturgies suggests something different is happening on this record. It is.

Everyday Life is Coldplay’s White Album. No, not in most most amazing record ever made kind of comparison. Not even in its double album category. This album actually masquerades as a double record. It is all on one CD and is shorter than some previous Coldplay records. It is just that it is divided into Sunrise and Sunset as in all in the span of one day. Very Moody Blues!

No, Everyday Life is like the White Album in its lack of band cohesion and its scattering of genres all across it. Across these sixteen tracks (I am not even calling WOTW/POTP a song) we have gospel, blues, doo wop, brass, classical, folk and more spoken word than Revolution 9 ever dared get away with! There is some Coldplay in there too, Champion Of The World, their tribute to Frightened Rabbit’s late singer Scott Hutchinson, the one that will most easily fit the last live set list!

All of this makes for the most interesting Coldplay album, to my ears. There is tender piano and fragile guitar. There is Kemi Futi Afrobeat jazz and Gospel choirs. There are songs about racist violence, gun control or lack of it, Syrian refugees, parenting, of course love… and a whole lot of God.

Personally Orphans, Arabesque and Guns are the songs that deepen the Coldplay catalogue and grab my attention. However, Cry Cry Cry, Church, Daddy and Eko are equally interesting.

A few people have said to me, “I’ve been listening to the new Coldplay album and thinking that you must be all over that.” I hope that is a compliment to say that I quickly come to mind when music goes deeper but obviously with this one it is about the spiritual references.

They are slightly more than references. Everyday Life’s first lyric is in a song called Church and though that could be described as a love song with an interesting title it is not long until we have pure Gospel Blues on BrokEn:


And I know (Ooh-ooh)

That in the darkness I'm alright (I'm alright)

See there's no sun rising (Ooh-ooh)

But inside I'm free (Ooh-ooh)

'Cause the Lord will shine a light for me 


…and then the Church-like When I Need A Friend:


Holy, Holy

Dark defend

Shield me, show me

When I need a friend


Slowly, slowly

Violence, end

Love reign o'er me

When I need a friend


The entire album plays out at the end of the title track:


At first light, throw my arms out, open wide

Hallelujah, hallelujah


This all points to a Fitzroy Gospel According To for sure but hold your evangelical horses though if you are itching to declare Chris Martin as you latest Christian superstar. Martin grew up in a Christian home and has constantly returned to that well for lyrical inspiration. He has distanced himself from that evangelical branch of Christianity and now calls himself an all-theist. 

That is more what might be happening here. There are spiritual quotes all over this record but none from Bible or Koran. The message of the piece is a simple answer to the final questions mused on that title track; questions I am asking in sermons every Sunday: 


What in the world are we going to do?

Look at what everybody's going through

What kind of world do you want it to be?

Am I the future or the history?


This Coldplay record is calling for am answer that sees humanity as one big family. Arabesque reminds us that we all have the same blood. A John and Alice Coltrane quotation “May there be peace and love and perfection throughout all creation, through God” on the song Children of Adam remind us we all have the same origins.

Many will see Everyday Life’s Gospel as simplistic and sentimental but the solution to all nations getting on is not rocket science. Perhaps in the positivity of solution Coldplay are ignoring the need to deal with the selfish problem at the core of our humanity and racism but an album like Everyday Life can only be a good message to reverberate around our polarised world just now. 

Here’s a wee tip. Go to Youtube and watch the launch of the album, performed in its entirety live from Jordan. It is quite the experience and has me declaring that Everyday Life is the most “I want to go back and hear that again” Coldplay album that this soul has yet heard!

LONG BOOK TO HELP US BE STILL - 5 Short Thoughts on Isaiah #1

Stocki 19

(I was kindly asked by PCI to contribute to their daily Bible readings is short!)


READ: ISAIAH 2: 3-5 

Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

    to the temple of the God of Jacob.

He will teach us his ways,

    so that we may walk in his paths.”

The law will go out from Zion,

    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He will judge between the nations

    and will settle disputes for many peoples.

They will beat their swords into plowshares

    and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not take up sword against nation,

    nor will they train for war anymore.

Come, descendants of Jacob,

    let us walk in the light of the Lord.


REFLECT: The book of Isaiah is like a long book to help us “be still and know that I am God.” God asks the Psalmist to be still at a time when everything around him is in chaos. The earth is giving way, mountains are falling into the sea. Being still reminds us who God is, and subsequently who we are and where we find ourselves in his creation, under his Lordship.

Isaiah does the same for God’s people. The times are uncertain. Isaiah is written pre exile and some post exile. The ground is shaky. Isaiah brings sense to these moments of history by declaring who God is and his good news to his people. 

God is always inviting us in a fallen broken world to turn and live differently. Follow me. Love your neighbour. Be still. Walk in the light of God. 


Prayerfully ponder your diary for the week ahead and consider where God might give you an invitation to walk his light into dark places and be pray for readiness to the unscheduled surprises.