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July 2020

SUMMER SABBATH SORBET

Fair Head

Escaping to the shoreline

For a summer sabbath

A sorbet in the sunshine

Or soul soaking rain

Switching off occupation

Fighting the daily habits

Emptying worn out thoughts

For reimagining again

 

Don’t skim stones, Steve

By jotting down notes

Or reading work books

Underlining quotes

Don’t skim stones, Steve

They will all be fine

Read the novel easy

There’s no scheduled deadline.

 

Escaping to the shoreline

For a summer sabbath

A sorbet in the sunshine

Or soul soaking rain.


PEOPLE OF THE MANGER, THE DONKEY, FOOT WASHING AND THE CROSS

Me on First Thoughts

(My contribution to Fr Martin McGill's new First Thoughts project... on July 25th 2020...there is a link below to watch it...)

 

All world leaders come to power. It might be by a majority vote, or it might be hereditary or it might be by military force but it called coming to power. The power comes with some might. Most of our 6 o’clock news is about such power struggles. It is how the world rolls.

It is these ways of power that were in James and John’s mother thinking of when she approached Jesus to get her boys promotion. Could they sit with Jesus when he came to power. The other disciples were not pleased at their attempt to get one over on them.

Then Jesus explains, yet again, that his ways are not at all like the ways of the world that we are used to. This mother and the disciples are thinking about the power of Rome, ruling over them in brutal force or even the religious leaders oppressing the ordinary jewish people.

Jesus talks revolution. But it has a very different power source. Jesus Kingdom was going to be nothing like the world they were used to. His Empire was going to be upside down, the exact opposite of the nromal. 

Jesus is God and not just a King but the King of Kings. Not just a lord but the lord of Lords. However he who has every right to rule in power and might does it differently. To rule in Jesus kingdom is to serve others. Power is Servanthood. By humility. By grace, mercy and love.

In Jesus Kingdom the last our first and the first are last. In Jesus Kingdom we do unto others as we would have them do to us.

I have a mantra in Fitzroy that we are the people of the manger, the donkey and the cross. But as I prepared these First Thoughts I have added another -  foot washing.

Here is this new way to live. God was not born in a palace of riches. But in a stable. When Jesus came into Jerusalem to conquer the world, he didn’t come on a stallion but on a humble donkey. When Jesus wanted to show his disciples about how to use power he got on his knees and washed their feet. When Jesus took on the evil powers of the universe he did it dying on a cross of wood. 

This is a strange way. This seems a crazy way to rule a Kingdom. Yet, if we wanted to turn the world around and find peace and equality and justice. This is how it works. This upside down empire is our great hope. 

It is so radical that it takes us decades to come to terms with it. Perhaps even longer to start living it.  

James and john’s mother should have been asking, Jesus how can my sons serve the marginalised of the world alongside you. 

Us too. As I attempt to follow Jesus into this weekend I need to remember that I am following a person of the manger, the donkey, the foot washing and the cross. 

 

watch this First Thought HERE


THROWING MUSTARD SEEDS & PEARLS in BALLYCASTLE FOREST - Tomorrow on Fitzroy TV

Stocki Holiday

My last sermon until late August. I have to say that I need the break. My body is weary and falling apart a little. To lie on a sofa with a few good novels will do me good...

BUT not before tomorrow's last one of the session. Paul and Talitha Bowman are leading us in music and Talitha is covering a Lauren Daigle song O'Lord. Talitha is about to celebrate her 15th birthday. Quite a talent. Her song leads into the sermon that also features Martyn Joseph's song Yet Still This Will Not Be, an incredible lyric by Stewart Henderson. U2's song Grace gets a line in there too.

After taking us across the shifting sands of Ballycastle beach last Sunday, this week I am a couple of miles in land in Ballycastle Forest. We will be tossing mustard seeds and pearls into the forest floor and see them trampled by the deer, covered in pine needles and somehow in their insignificance become the most vital things. Jesus said the Kingdom was like this.  

Be great to have you for my last preach until late August. Watch this space for a list of those who will more than wonderfully fill in while I am reading novels!

See it on Fitzroy TV from 11am on Sunday July 26th 2020 - HERE

 


A ROCK IN THE SHIFTING SANDS OF OPENING UP FROM LOCKDOWN

STEADY BALLYCASTLE ROCK

I was encouraging my Fitzroy community in last week’s sermon to look out for God speaking to them in their every day surroundings. 

In some ways it was a hark back to my Light From Van Morrison VLOG a few weeks ago. In that I was suggesting that Morrison’s genius was finding a sense of wonder in ordinary things, many times on the streets of Belfast including Fitzroy. 

Morrison I suggest was following William Blake who wrote:

 

To see a world in a grain of Sand 

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour

 

I then shared how God had spoken to me on my day off the previous Monday. 

Janice and I love Ballycastle beach. For twenty two years now it has fascinated us. Every day the beach is different. The notorious Moyle tides can heave rocks from one side of the mile of sand to another over night. There are always new patterns. Sometimes lots of rocks, big ones high up the beach or smaller ones in various patterns. Other times there is more sand. The Margy River changes its shape through the beach regularly.

It is a perfect illustration of the shifting sands we have been living through in these Coronavirus Times. The uncertainty of lockdown seems steady compared to the opening up days we are now walking across -  social distancing, who needs to quarantine and whether to wear masks or not. 

Shifting sands across Ballycastle beach is generally a beautiful intrigue. A sense of wonder indeed, though those Moyle currents can be dangerous too.

It is walking across these shifting sands that Janice and I come across our favourite feature. It is about two thirds of the way across from the Margy River. When we take photos of the fabulous sunsets most summer evenings it is this that we always try to find a place for.

It is a rock, usually just a few feet out into the waves, mostly gentle but in the winter a lot more crashing. There it always is. No matter how the Moyle shifts the sands - steady! 

Last week I was feeling a little frayed. My body needs a holiday. I was sneezing, coughing, feeling weary in mind as well as body. Then we reached the rock. Immediately my mind flicked the pages of the Scriptures. The Psalmist sings of God as a rock a few times and though rock is not mentioned Psalm 46 suggests a rock as everything shifts around about: 

 

“God is our refuge and strength,

A very present help in trouble.

 

Therefore we will not fear,

Even though the earth be removed,

And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

 

Though its waters roar and be troubled,

Though the mountains shake with its swelling.”

 

All was better with the world again.

I was preaching on Jacob who met God in a dream at Bethel. Bethel became a place for Jacob. A place to return to because he would always meet God there. 

Every summer, I finish my holiday on that beach, at that rock. On the shore of a new church year this is where I see God, not in a flower but in those grains of sand, a wondrous sunset and… that rock. 

 

you can watch the entire sermon HERE

you can watch Light From Van Morrison HERE


HOSEA'S STORY... GOD'S STORY (HOW CAN I GIVE?)

God's heart

(the story of Hosea... the story of God...)

 

It wasn’t vows you’ve broken

But my soft and tender heart

Oh the ache of the shredded rip

Of my insides being torn apart

Far into the dark black night

That is where my love went

I drowned here in a flood of tears

That my heart spent

 

How can I give you up

How can I let you go

When Grace is who I am

And forgiving all I know

 

I’m not a tablet of stone

I breathe and feel deep down

Like nails hammered into flesh

The vile thud of adultery’s sound

Maybe no one hears the cry

When emotions are left paralysed

Sticks and stones don’t hurt me

Like a lovers lies

 

How can I give you up

How can I let you go

When Grace is who I am

And forgiving all I know

 

I’ll romance you back to life

You’ll know me once again

Whatever it takes to take you

To the story of love’s end.


WHAT I AM READING THIS SUMMER AND WHY?

Summer Books 20

Here are the books I have stashed for holiday reading... I hope to read as many of thee as I can get through... 

 

COLUM MCCANN - APEIROGON

I think it was Bono who said that the Irish don’t go to the moon but we are great writers. Colum McCann is another great Irish writer. I would suggest one of the best novelists alive today.

Hs new book will be my project of the summer reading. I mean by that, that it will be the biggest challenge and deepest read. 

McCann has taken the stories of two men, one Palestinian and one Israeli and told their stories. Actually he has told the stories of their murdered daughters through them. There are true stories but McCann has embellished the stories with some fiction in order to tell share the feelings of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict rather than just the facts and politics. 

Grieving the loss of daughters is a part of the book too and as I have friends who recently lost their precious daughter I am interested in that aspect.

I don’t read work books on holiday but this perhaps will be a little work as I think it will fire my imagination about our own conflict here in Northern Ireland and how I attempt to contribute to the reconciliation we need.

 

TAYLOR JENKINS REID - DAISY JONES & THE SIX

I have wanted to read this one for a while. I don’t expect this one to be the project that Apeirogon will be. I am imagining an enjoyable romp through 70s rock music. More like a light fun summer read. I think.

 

GLENN PATTERSON - WHERE ARE WE NOW

Glenn Patterson knows Belfast so well and also what it is like to be my age. I have enjoyed all his novels which have given insight to various historical scenarios in belfast but this one is contemporary which excited me.

 

DAVID & CAROLINE STAFFORD - THE LIFE & MUSIC OF RANDY NEWMAN

I have already started this one. I have blogged before about how I use rock biographies as a way to escape from work. A friend taught me how to do this. Read the book with the records by your side. This one is perfect for that. Detailed accounts of every song and album.

 

DAVID PARK - A RUN IN THE PARK

I have read most of David Park’s work. I think he might be Northern Ireland best novelist just now. This is a shorter read but I am sure it will be a fascinating mingling of characters. 

 

WENDY ERSKINE - SWEET HOME

I have heard rave reviews of these short stories set in Belfast. I think Jan Carson has been championing Wendy for a while. My love Northern Irish novelists tells with three in this selection by them and one from Colum McCann from Dublin. 

 

KENNETH WOMACK - SOLID STATE

I have read most books about The Beatles and this one is about my very favourite album, Abbey Road. A must read between a couple of novels.


HOW A LARRY NORMAN RECORD WAS THE LAST TOOTH ON THE KEY TO MY SALVATION

In Another Land

(It would have been Larry Norman's birthday this past weekend. It made me think back to when his In Another Land album changed my life...)

 

Larry Norman changed my life. His album In Another Land was the final key that unlocked my belief in God and my realisation that following Jesus was for me. 

Oh, I had been reading books. Books that gave me a reasoned argument to the authenticity of the Bible, historical evidence for Jesus and even for the resurrection of Jesus body. 

I was in a place where two things needed to come together. That God existed and that if God did exist I was up for God’s vision of how the world should be.

Now, some will say that it really should have nothing to do with me choosing what God’s vision was. It is about me falling in line with God’s vision whether I like it or not. He is God after all.

That might indeed be true but that truth was not the key to unlock anything. Our ways of evangelism often lack the crucial secret to unlocking doors to people’s souls. We have theology. We have formulas. We have liturgies of conversion. We have technical solutions but…

Human lives are more complex and more nuanced. Jesus understood this. There are no evangelistic formulas in the Gospels. There are no four point plans of salvation. What Jesus says to Nicodemus is very different than what he said to the Rich Young Ruler. What Jesus says to the Samaritan woman is not the same as what he said to Zacchaeus (if indeed he needed to say anything to Zacchaeus!). 

Jesus way with people was very artistic. Larry Norman had a line “to love is such an art”. Jesus was creative and imaginative with his interactions. He read every human story differently. He assessed everything about them. Then he picked the lock. He doesn’t go in with a manual and go through the tick boxes.

Most of us find faith in different ways. We have different back grounds. We have different needs. We have different baggage. We have different starting places. Therefore we need different keys to unlock the doors. 

For me as a seventeen year old I was at a point in my life where I was looking for answers to life’s biggest questions. I had been churning up the questions of rock music for a few years. Love and peace and truth were high on my teenage agenda. John Lennon had been singing:

 

I'm sick and tired of hearing things

From uptight-short sighted-

Narrow minded hypocrites

All i want is the truth

Just give me some truth

 

That was what I was searching for. I was quite drawn to Jesus but I had a huge issue with the transcendent reality of God’s existence. When I look back now at my asking God if he existed or not I am aware that God’s answer was to turn up in my own life’s circumstances rather than handing me a tome on apologetics.

One of the very last notches or ridges on the key to my soul was that LP by Larry Norman. Now, I think my mate Philip knew what he was doing. He knew I loved rock music. He perhaps sensed that this was better than handing me another tract. 

The cover shocked me. There was this guy with long blond hair, looking as cool as George Harrison. I didn’t know many Christians that looked like this. Could Jesus be rock n roll? 

When my stylus hit vinyl and The Rock That Doesn’t Roll kicked in I was surprised again. Not only did this rock but it was really good. 

It was then as if Larry started a conversation with me. It was pretty evangelistic stuff. It is even confrontational. Yet the poetry seeped through.

 

I've searched all around the world to find a grain of truth

I've opened the mouth of love and found a wisdom tooth

(I’ve Searched All Around The World)

 

Yellow fingers from your cigarettes

Your hands are shakin' while your body sweats

Why don't you look into Jesus?

He got the answer

(Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus)

 

Two roads diverged in the middle of my life

I heard a wise man say

And I took the one less traveled by

And that's made the difference, every night and every day

(One Way)

 

I loved it. It spoke my language, almost in my accent. I remember writing “He got the answer” across the desk in school (In pencil). God had convinced me he existed. Now he convinced me that Jesus wasn’t just for “uptight-short sighted/Narrow minded hypocrites”. 

There seemed to be that vision to. Larry’s songs seemed to be speak not just to me but my generation. There was something that this Jesus was about that might just fulfil The Beatles’ hopes of love and peace and truth. Larry sings on another album “The Beatles said All You need Is Love and then they broke up”. I decided that Jesus was more robust than John, Paul, George and Ringo.


ENCOURAGEMENT - JOHN O'DONOHUE, JACOB, SPRINGSTEEN & GOD

John O'Donohue

“One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own. 

There are times of great uncertainty in every life. Left alone at such a time, you feel dishevelment and confusion like gravity. 

When a friend comes with words of encouragement, a light and lightness visit you and you begin to find the stairs and the door out of the dark. 

The sense of encouragement you feel from the friend is not simply her words or gestures; it is rather her whole presence enfolding you and helping you find the concealed door. The encouraging presence manages to understand you and put herself in your shoes. 

There is no judgment but words of relief and release.”

 

I love this quotation from the late Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue’s Eternal Echoes. It is so inspirational in its idea and so simple in the pragmatic outworking.

I found it on Facebook, posted by my friend Rosie McKnight, less than an hour before I was to record a Sunday sermon. Most weeks there seems something on social media that clicks with the thread of the sermon. Here it was.

I was preaching on Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel. Jacob is a man on the run for his life, vulnerable, disorientated, alone and wondering what is next. I, of course, found some resonance with our Coronavirus Times.

I mentioned in my sermon how Bruce Springsteen during a concert in The Point, Dublin introduced the song Jacob’s Ladder that he covered on the Seeger Sessions album by telling the crowd that “Jacob was a messed up son-of-a-gun who fell into the grace of God”. That pretty much describes all of us. The Gospel in a nutshell. I was excited to hear Bruce exegete on Genesis 28!

So, back to the John O’Donohue encouragement quote. If you are familiar with Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending then John could almost have it in mind when he says, “When a friend comes with words of encouragement, a light and lightness visit you and you begin to find the stairs and the door out of the dark”. 

Encouragement is not preached on a lot. It seems to be down the pecking order to grace, love, mercy… O’Donohue sees it as an outworking of all of those things.

There is nothing more encouraging than being seen… recognised… loved… God encourages us that we are not useless, not alone, not forgotten, not unlovable, not purposeless. He encourages to find our way to a new beginning in his love. 

God reminds us that he created us, he came to earth to live among us and find us, he went to the cross to deal with all our brokenness and injustice and was raised to life to conquer all our weaknesses. He poured out his Spirit into us so that we humans could be the dwelling place of God. He ascended to rule over all things. 

That is all pretty encouraging! I believe that Jacob experienced that encouragement. 

I also believe that we are called to be conduits of that encouragement. Many of us down these Coronavirus Times have known that “door out of the dark when we received a text or a social media message, a phone call or even a letter. I know our lives have been energised so much by such encouragement. 

Let us live out God’s love and grace and mercy by being encouragers. You don’t need to be an appointed church leader, leading theologian or musically gifted. It is as easy as “I was thinking about you” and it makes a huge impact on the soul.

 

Watch the entire sermon and service from Sunday July 19, 2020 HERE


THE JACOB AT BETHEL PRAYER - My Prayers in Fitzroy Service 19.7.2020

Cross in Fitz

(This is the prayer that I used in the Fitzroy Service on July 19, 2020... It comes out of a sermon on Jacob and God meeting him in that dream at Bethel... you can watch the short service HERE)

 

God, we thank you for your grace

For your reaching down from heaven

To touch our ordinary lives

In unexpected places

When we might feel anxious

Vulnerable

Disorientated

Wondering what is next

God we thank you for your presence

As Paul prayed for the Ephesians

May the eyes of ours hearts be enlightened 

In order that we may know the hope to which he has called us

The riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 

And his incomparably great power for us who believe. 

May we know the power that is the same as the mighty strength 

He exerted when he raised Christ from the dead 

And seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms

God open the eyes of our hearts

To see you beside us

Wherever we are

Your grace seeing us

Loving us

Your encouragement energising us

To commitment 

To a partnership

That will see your promises of a new Kingdom come

And your will being done on earth as it is in heaven

God we take hold of your promise

To stick with us until you’ve done everything you promised

May we sense that presence, grace and promise 

We offer ourselves to it

In Jesus name

AMEN


WE ALL NEED A STAY-CATION, SABBATH, SOUL SPACE AND SPIRIT SEARCH - TAKE IT!

Sabbath

(this was my Coronavirus Column in the Belfast Telegraph on July 18, 2020...)

 

2020 is the year of the Stay-cation. I remember the days when a holiday in Portrush was not reduced to something less! Yet, this Coronavirus year has filled social media with photographs of Belfast at play around the coastline of Ireland!

Whatever, the debate between vacation and staycation, the important thing is that as many of us as can get away. We all need a holiday. These past months have been tiring. The new opening up from lockdown is energy sapping too. I am hearing from colleagues that the opening of churches has been so good but the health and safety adds to the weariness.

God is all about time out. Right there at the beginning of human history God laid down the idea, commandment if you will, of sabbatical. 

Too often we have made Sabbath a set of legalistic requirements for what we do on a Sunday rather than that vital rest for the human body and heart and soul that God as our Creator knew was going to be needed. We ignore God’s idea of sabbath at the peril of our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health.

So can I pastorally suggest that we all take sabbath time. When I do, I have to be careful. I always feel that sabbath is like God being my shepherd, leading me beside quiet waters as it says in Psalm 23. I have a tendency though to stir up the waters. 

I noticed it particularly a number of years when I took my first smart phone on a holiday to Spain. I used to put my phone in the drawer and check it for emergencies every day but the smartphone had my camera and kindle and google maps. In my pocket it soon tempted me to check social media, post a photograph. An email came in about church. I didn’t open any but it made me wonder… The waters were suddenly churned up. 

I don’t read theology on holidays. I try not to jot notes about sermons in my notebook. Genesis 2 tells us why sabbath is holy. It is completely different. It is a laying down of what God did in those first six days: 

2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

Sabbath is a sorbet. I think I have only ever had a sorbet with a meal once. I might live in BT9 but I am from Maine Park, Galgorm for goodness sake! Sorbet, they say, is to refresh your taste palate. To get the full flavour of what is next. 

Sabbath is like that. We need to rid our minds to allow imagination a new impetus. The traffic might be back to its normal busyness but the next months will not be any less energy sapping than the last six. We will need to be fresh to deal with the challenges. 

I also find that Sabbath is a soul space where God gets a chance to slip in when I least expect. I read less of the Bible on sabbath. That might seem a contradiction but not for me. The surprise always is that when I allow God to lead me beside quiet waters I usually find God speaking to me and verses that I haven’t read off the pages quietly rise to the surface. The Bible is not just at work when we are reading it. It should dwell in us all the time 

So, I encourage you to stay-cation, to sabbath, to sorbet, to soul space, to the searching the Spirit. If we are going to get through the next phase of this pandemic, that stay-cation is crucial. Don’t compromise it!