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March 2020

February 2020



photo: Philip McCrea


LISTEN to Bruce Cockburn's Hills Of Morning 

There are phrase that the preacher uses that stick, that are repeated, that can become imbedded in lives and communities. Just a few words that can carry a sermon or a theological idea or a mission statement into people’s minds before hopefully seeping into their hearts and souls and then out into their lives and actions. “Particles of light across the city” has become one of many such phrases in Fitzroy.

I stole it as I often do from a song. My very favourite Bruce Cockburn record is Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaw. It is a spiritually potent album, vivid in literary images, influenced by the Charles Williams books that Cockburn was reading at the time. For years I had the chorus of one of that album’s songs, Hills Of Morning, on a photograph of the Giants Causeway up on my study wall.

“Let me be a little of your breath
Moving over the face of the deep
I want to be a particle of your light
Flowing over the hills of morning”

These words conjure the mystery of how us humans somehow get the privilege of merging with God in God’s tangible presence in the world. It is a prayer to be involved in God’s breath, in God’s light, in God’s mission to make the world better than the world is. 

Of course we know Jesus is the light of the world but Matthew 5 turns the direction back to us:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Back in September 2010 I titled a sermon on Matthew 5 “Particles Of Light…” and it has stuck. As well as attempting to be missional where we are located, on University Street in Belfast, we are aware that as a community we are vocationally scattered across the entire city and indeed beyond. Our members work in very influential places, effecting social change and caring for many people who are not finding themselves cared for elsewhere.

A friend of mine who now works for a Christian development organisation told me once that when he was a probation officer no one asked him how he was bringing the Kingdom but that now that he is working for a “Christian” organisation lots of people ask him. 

I don’t believe you have to be working for a Christian organisation to bring the Kingdom. We can, and indeed must, be “particles of light” scattered across the city, bringing the thinking, voice, touch, attitude and ultimately love of God wherever we are and whoever we are with. Those particles of light are somehow partners with God making up the bigger light. I guess that is why Jesus called himself the Light of the world and then at another time told the disciples that they were the Light of the world. 

Cockburn’s lyric is powerful prayer seeking God that we might be part of the force that transforms the world.

“Let me be a little of your breath
Moving over the face of the deep
I want to be a particle of your light
Flowing over the hills of morning”


Greig How?

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we will be starting Lenten studies in prayer. The congregation will get a little booklet laying out the studies. In that I have written: -


The last few months have seen an intensity in prayer around Fitzroy like no other time in my decade as minister. 

It made me think that Lent might be a time for us to focus a little more on how to pray.

I was then drawn to Pete Greig’s new book How To Pray. My friend Alain Emerson helped Pete by putting together a Tool Shed of 30 Prayer Tools, included in the book. There is also a website where you can hear Pete talking about prayer -

So, during Lent I will be preaching with the help of the book and website resources. Some of our evenings will also focus on Prayer and Roz Stirling will be doing some of those. We are also delighted to have Alain Emerson as a guest speaker on March 15th when our young people will lead us in worship at our Regular Passion worship event. The youth will also set up a prayer room for us all to use.

I come vulnerably as someone who has never really felt like a good pray-er! Let us ask Jesus, as the disciples did, to teach us to pray. 

I invite you to journey with us.


In the morning I will be looking at making a space to pray, finding a place to pray and maybe even how God's common grace causes every single person to pray... Sam Smith agrees... and David Grohl does it too... 


In the evening (7pm) Roz Stirling will continue the series, helping us to discern the divine whisper.



PLAY: Peter Himmelman - Impermanent Things


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

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

-          From Impermanent Things by Peter Himmelman


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

As a preacher it is one of my very favourite songs. I have used Himmelman's words in a sermon on Matthew chapter 6 v 19-34:


19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendorwas dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.


If you didn’t know about Himmelman’s deep Jewish faith you would be sure that he had used this passage as his inspiration. Of course Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel most intent is revealing Jesus as a continuation of Jewish tradition so perhaps it is not so surprising that he and Himmelman would be on similar themes.

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

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

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

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


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


PLAY: Peter Himmelman - 245th Peace Song



PLAY - U2’s song 40

I waited patiently for the Lord

He inclined and heard my cry

He brought me up out of the pit

Out of the mire and clay


I will sing, sing a new song

I will sing, sing a new song


U2’s co-write with King David is a beautifully mediative piece, that fluid bass guitar, the building of the communal sing on “How Long, to sing this song”

The “How Long” is of course not in Psalm 40 but it is a recurring theme in the Psalms - 6, 35, 74, 79, 89 & 94. 

Let us pray through Psalm 13


How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?



Take a little bit of time to be honest with God. Are there are places personally, family, community or nationally where you are angry with God? Is there a prayer you have been praying and wonder How Long? 


Use silence or play U2’s 40… The Frames have a version too



Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.



Take a little time to look for answers to your prayers that you might have missed… opportunities in dark places to be a source of light…



But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.



Remember in the silence that God loves you and that salvation in Jesus is sure, no matter what is going on in your circumstances. Sometimes it is easier to believe in God that to trust in God. Seek God’s help to trust on what is sure in the midst of uncertainty. 


Back to the U2 lyrics of Psalm 40


He set my feet upon a rock

And made my footsteps firm

Many will see

Many will see and fear

I will sing, sing a new song

I will sing…


Now play Neil Young’s Walk With Me and use it as a prayer to journey into Lent. A grungy walk in times of uncertainty...


I feel your love

I feel your strong love

I feel the patience among conditional love

I feel a strength

I feel your faith in me

I'll never let you down no matter what you do

If you just walk with me and let me walk with you

I'm on this journey I don't wanna walk alone


Walk with me

Walk with me

Walk with me

Walk with me


Walk with me

Shine me a light

Walk with me

Walk with me


Ash Wed

I was to be a guest speaker for a few days at an Episcopalian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The Cathedral of Advent is one of the most evangelical Episcopalian churches in America. I was picked up from the airport and driven straight to an Ash Wednesday service. Sitting near the front I soon realised that they were all getting ash on their head.

This was not the practice of Protestants in Ballymena where I grew up. I will be honest. I felt awkward. In Northern Ireland we are conditioned to what is Catholic and what is Protestant. The differences are dug deep. 

There was nothing I could do though and I went forward and in a prayer blessing I received my ash. I will be honest again. I was glad that I was in Alabama as I left looking like a Catholic!!!!

In the years since then I have reassessed all those religious taboos in my homeland. There is often no Biblical weight to many of the taboos. I would be much easier now with that ash on my head, though I would be aware that I will be immediately stereotyped when people see it. 

This year there is an Ash Wednesday service in St Marys Church in Chapel Lane, Belfast city centre. My predecessor in Fitzroy, Rev Dr Ken Newell, will preach. 

Come along and experience the richness of such a service. There is no obligation to receive the ash but as a sign at the beginning of Lent of our journey towards Jesus’ death and resurrection, let me invite you to consider it. In other parts of the world many reformed Christians are happy wearing the mark of Christ’s death.


WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 26, 2020 @ 5.30pm



Skynyrd Pronounced

I am in the middle of that Facebook exercise where you put up, over two days, 10 album covers without explanations or reviews. The last part of that sentence is difficult for a theo-musicologist blogger like myself!

I might have to respond to some people’s responses - get out close to ease my frustrations!

First though, this is an explanation of how I chose the albums.

The key line for me “ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music”. 

For me that was not my favourite the records. Indeed for me that wasn’t even about anything I had discovered in the year or five years or even the last 40 years! 

The ten albums that you are seeing on my Facebook page are the records of my teens that somehow shaped the tastes that makes me listen to the records I listen to now. 

Why do I like good lyrics?

Why do I lean towards the songs?

Why am I dismayed when guitars no longer feature at the Grammys!

Why my love for a little honky tonk piano?

Why am I looking forward to Deacon Blue’s new record on Friday?

Why do I love Over The Rhine, Jason Isbell, Snow Patrol, Anthony Toner and U2?

So my top 10 are all albums that I was introduced to between 15 and 19. The last one I over reached. It was chosen two weeks into my University life. 

For me the next few years at Queens were highly influential too. I discovered Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison among many other but just too late to be in this top 10. 

My friend Rab was a big influence in my listening as we shared favourite records every Friday night. His sister’s boyfriend at the time also helped by leaving records at Rab’s house. 

I have enjoyed the journey through my teens, stretching the sinews of my brain to remember records that I might not have listened to in quite a while but that influenced me.

The ten I have chosen, are all still on my playlists though some much more regular than others. You can decide what those are for yourselves! 



(This was my Pause For Thought script for the Vanessa Show on BBC Radio 2 on February 25, 2020... The theme was At The Crossroads...)


I remember a crossroads in Donegal. I was working there and I had to visit a Church but there were 4 roads heading off in all directions and no signposts. It was the days before Sat Navs and even with a map I had to waste time down two wrong roads for a few miles before finding the right road on the third attempt.

It is a little more serious when the cross roads are life changers and there are lots of them - deciding to get married, to have children, to change jobs… 

I found myself at such a crossroads about 10 years ago. Should I remain as a university Chaplain which I enjoyed or go down a new road of parish ministry at Fitzroy. I turned to a song by The Killers for help. 

In the song Human, Brandon Flowers who practices the Mormon faith sings:


“And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes
Clear your heart
Cut the cord...”


Good advice at any cross roads. I had to close my eyes and seek God in Prayer. I needed to find time to talk it over with God and to listen. I would need to be sure that Fitzroy was right for me and that this was my next step in my desire to follow Jesus.

Next up I had to clear my heart in readiness for a spiritual change. I needed to take all the selfish ideas of my own out of the decision. Ultimately being a minister is not about me but about the congregation. Clearing my heart of my own ambition allowed me to ask if I was the right minister for the Fitzroy church family? 

In the end, after prayerfully weighing everything up and believing that this was indeed what God wanted me to do... I had to cut the cord – the last bit of advice from The Killers' song! Dare to head down a road from the cross roads. 

They say blues guitarist Robert Johnston sold his soul to the devil at the cross roads. I hope I used The Killers to help me with a more Godly outcome…


Me and dad

Today is my father's 86th birthday. His memory is long gone. I find it very hard. When I drive up to visit I ponder deep thoughts to help me deal with it. I often surmise on the uncatchable mystery yet reality of time. I wrote this.


Time is an invisible memory bank

Time leaves photographs counterfeit

Time turns and burns and churns

A tornado with nothing in control of it.


Time is a dance we do to its tune

Time is an artificial measuring space

Time it tumbles, rumbles and crumbles

A cage we make for us to pace.


Time is a capsule that is full of time

Time always seems to leak too fast

Time it breaks and cracks and takes

A hope of forever that never lasts.


Time has worn you out

Time has eroded your brain

Time has brought you down this cul-de-sac

With no turning circle back again.


Time if we could take it back

What time would we go back to

And if time took us back to there

What would I say to you

Would we use the word love

And would that word be enough.




Me and CAMS

Caitlin's 22nd birthday. This poem was written on hospital paper towels in the early hours of the morning, as we sat in the maternity ward waiting for her to appear. It later had a chorus added about Jasmine's birth and became the opening song on the Stevenson and Samuel (my collaboration with Sam Hill Jr) album Grace Notes. This is the original, as on the paper towels. Happy birthday Caitlin!


There's a bird on the roof below me

That knows nothing about buying things

About looking good or successful living

Or the ads a failed pop star sings

There's a tree moving in the breeze

Waiting for its buds to bloom

There's life confined to what life's about

Contracting in a mother's womb.


Two magpies are feeding their families

That's supposed to prophecy joy

But there isn't three and there isn't four

I don't know if you're a girl or a boy

But they're are oblivious to the sound of the Lisburn Road

They live far from the clutter and fuss

These noises we've made to distance our souls

From these things that are happening to us.


There's me and you and someone else

And love knitting the ties that bind

There's awe and wonder and fascination

And the blessings of this life of mine

I'm standing in this holy place

To gaze upon the world's most beautiful face

Leaning on the promises of Jesus grace

Licking my lips with just a sprinkle of its taste. 


WW Jed C2

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy and I will do what I have been threatening for many years. I am going to preach on the television series West Wing's two part episode Two Cathedrals. It is a remarkable piece of television drama where the President, Jed Bartlett, closes a Cathedral to have a rage at God about all kinds of injustices that he feels God has been sending towards him. On the other end of this encounter with God a storm creeps up the East Coast of America and Bartlett's senses something extra-ordinary in such an event at such a time and he finally hears God speak.

As we learn How To Pray during Lent with the help of Pete Greig's book of that name, I thought it would be a good opportunity to self indulge with this favourite spiritual television moment. It will be rooted in Psalm 13 in which we hear David having a Jed Bartlett episode. 

Seemingly unconnected, apparently by chance... the same How Long refrain from Psalm 13 will be included in our worship as we do Psalm 40 as co-written between Bono and King David!

In the evening (7pm) our How to Read the Bible series goes on. This week Michael Fitch will take a look at the context of the book of Daniel.