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July 2020

JACOB... GRACE. ENCOURAGEMENT. PARTNERSHIP... JULY 19, 2020 in FITZROY

Stocki in Ho's TV

Tomorrow's Fitzroy On-line Sunday Service (going live at 11am) was a mental battle. For most of these Coronavirus months I have done well in front of the camera. Last week I felt a little tired and the sermon took a few takes. This week I felt sharper BUT there were an awful lot of distractions outside of myself and within. After almost 10 re-takes Alison in our production house told me to go off and get a coffee and sandwich and come back. It still took a few more takes! I hope the first quarter doesn't sound tired. it is difficult repeating something that many times. I am so glad I am not an actor!

I believe the perseverance was worth it. Gazing across this week's Lectionary Readings I was attracted to the Genesis 28 one. Jacob. I had my imagination captivated by Jacob as a small boy and then Bruce Springsteen preached about him in a gig in 2005. This Lectionary pericope about how God met him at Bethel seems to resonate with the disorientating times we live in. Presence. Grace. Encouragement. Partnership. All themes coming out of this sermon that took so many takes. We even end up on the beach in Ballycastle.

Worship is led by the Blacks, Gareth, Karen and Eleanor with Jonah on production. Also we have a band hymn, recorded in Church! Kyle Auterson reads for us.

 

all recent On-line Sunday Services and Light From Rock Stars series available on FITZROY TV


THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... THE ANTRIM COAST

THE ROCK BC

Shamrocks carpeting the forest floor

The Trinity holding us underneath

Foxgloves stand like Church bells

Ringing out the beauty God bequeathed

Fuschia scarlet, along the hedgerows

Line my trail in redemption's blood

The Atlantic wide and deep and far

Like Christ's love and not the flood

There’s a rock in all my panoramas

Whatever the tides shift, it stays

Above the white fear of winter waves

And in the sabbath calm of summer days.


BRONAGH LAWSON - BELFAST: CITY OF LIGHT

Bronagh City Of Lights

Bronagh Lawson’s book Belfast; City Of Lights captivated me. Bronagh is first and foremost an artist. I love the way artists think. They see around the corner, over the top, underneath. They have fanciful thoughts that leave you wondering. 

In the book Bronagh writes, “The artist has a unique role to disrupt thinking and make space for something other”. She shares how getting out of her work on development programmes across Belfast frontlines and into an artist’s studio on her own gave her a new opportunity to figure out “a fresh way of depicting the peculiarity that is Northern Ireland”. 

That is what she has done. This is not the work of a writer as much as an artist. It needs to be read as that. It is an intrigue. It is mysterious. It is at times whimsical. Yet it is plugged into the issues of the Belfast day. 

The very idea of visiting every church in Belfast. Add to that that she struggled even hearing the word “God” when she started out. Why would she put herself through it? Then to discover that for Bronagh these churches became healing places. Places of love, forgiveness and light. You can understand my intrigue!

As well as the objective task of visiting churches Bronagh catalogues her own subjective journey from her work in trauma and reconciliation to a spiritual healing and liberation. That liberation is far from orthodox. Few sermons are quoted and Jesus doesn’t get too many mentions. 

It is the feeling that Bronagh experiences from the energy of Christian community, their worship and the years of spiritual discipline in the lives of those in the pew beside or in front or behind her. It is very much the Gospel According To Bronagh Lawson. I can hear so many of my peers critiquing, questioning and putting Bronagh right… but I don’t think that is the point of the book, not the posture Bronagh brings to it and certainly not the way to get the most from it.

The way Bronagh’s revelation happens in her church visits fascinated me. Occasionally, I was in the very same room at the same time that she describes and her feelings were almost the polar opposite of mine. Though that leads me to suggest that Bronagh is more than a little ecclesiologically and theologically innocent and naive it also has me searching my own soul to be convicted at my own tainting with preconceptions and prejudices. Though she is unaware of the layers of church history and creed I am too hung up on them to benefit as I should?

Bronagh raises many issues inside and outside the walls of churches. Issues that have rippled out into my surmising. Many might find their way onto this blog. That we need to update our sectarianism is maybe the first I will write! Bronagh's approach certainly blurs the traditional lines between Catholic and Protestant. 

In the end the book is a wonderful advertisement for church. Bronagh basically challenges all her anti-church peers with the suggestion that Belfast is a city full of light in churches that could be used as a resource to counteract all the darkness we have experienced and still live through. Her own testimony is that you don’t even have to get “converted” to benefit! Just go, sit and revel in the light that emanates from people of faith. 

It is also a challenge… and should be an inspiration… for those of us within the church. It is fascinating to see how a visitor sees us and indeed what they might be looking for… and see… and feel. There are tips here we could pick up on. 

If we come to the book with the same open mindedness that Bronagh comes to our churches then there is much here to ponder and surmise. When Bronagh told one minister, as she she shook her hand at the door, what she was doing the minister thanked her. So do I. This will be resource for me. I will caress and collide with Bronagh’s findings in as helpful a way as I can and maybe look at the visitor a little differently at a Sunday service!


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE SESSIONS BAND - LIVE at the POINT THEATRE, DUBLIN - 5.5.2006

Seeger Sessions

We’ve got more used to Church in rock arena. U2 have been bringing hymn-like anthems into rock n roll concerts for over twenty five years, though much more noticeably since the Elevation Tour five years ago. Tonight, though, Bruce Springsteen took "Christian" music in the rock arena up a whole other notch.

This is a very specific project that Springsteen is on. Having drawn a band together to do a song on a Pete Seeger tribute album, he then brought them back for an album. Now he has them on the road and the “happy accident” that he called it tonight is a lucky chance beyond coincidence; it could have been conjured up in heaven.

A four piece eccentric horn section, two far out fiddlers, a banjo player who thinks he’s Jimi Hendrix, a piano/accordian player who adds all kinds of honky-tonk and Cajun tinkles and great vocalists arranged by Patti. An experience unique and wonderful.

The only glitch and it was a big one in itself though luckily never taints outside its own little disaster bubble. To fill out the set to the length that Springsteen fans have become use to, Bruce adds a few of his own songs. Oh dear. I mean, oh dear, dear, dear!

Apart from City Of Ruins, a song that fits snuggly into the spiritual hopefulness amidst American tragedy and How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times As These written by Blind Alfred Reed then covered by Ry Cooder before Bruce wrote three new verses for a Katrina Hurricane Fund Raiser that fits for similar reasons his other choices were awful and then done even more badly.

You Can Look But You Better Not Touch was no great melody anyway and loses anything it had entirely, Open All Night is awful and Adam Raised a Cain even worse. There must have been other things that would have fitted this musical context but Bruce didn’t pick them.

The good ones however are better than good and finds Springsteen pointing those songs towards New Orleans. Having recently played there and seen the devastation for himself Springsteen mentions twice that no one ever thought how the displacement of people during the thirties dustbowl could happen in again in America; but it has. That people should be driven from their homes and just left where it stops is an indictment on a nation. A brief mention of the immigrant issue tells you that his hoe down, knees up is not without serious clout.

But it was the spiritual that set the night apart. The Seeger Sessions brought four old negro spirituals via the civil rights movement into the Springsteen canon. This is Springsteen at his most explicitly Biblical. The programme notes, researched by Bruce biographer and all round serious rock journalist Dave Marsh, reads like Bible notes with verses from Genesis, Exodus, The Gospel According To John, Acts and 1 Corinthians all expounded.

Before Jacob's Ladder Bruce even does his own Biblical commentary saying that because he was playing a song about Jacob he thought he better investigate him. He found him to be a “F*** up… who somehow found his way into the grace of God.” It couldn’t be more accurate. Bruce is preaching it!

Where I found these spirituals set apart from the worship music being played in most of our churches is the authenticity of the experience and the hymns. These are songs of belief at the sharp end of need. It is something of what Jesus meant when he said the poor were blessed.

The people who find a passionate belief in hope are the people who have nothing else to believe in. The problem with white western middle class church worship is that we have so much other than God to believe in and our hope is caught up in all the fashion labels, gadgets and hedonistic leisure of our spoiled geographical fate. Wealth blunts need and therefore dependence upon God The soul gets pampered in cotton wool and loses its fire.

The worship that is being written for the Church will always struggle to express faith or hope or commitment or salvation when the need for all of those things is not acute. Faith is no longer a daily survival prayer but a label of identity almost as shallow as those of high street fashion. Springsteen is tapping into something much deeper and richer. Here are the songs of desperation but in negro spirituals those kind of songs are always uplifting and celebratory, the escape is so firmly believed in that they are celebrating it before it comes which ignites their strength for the fight in between.

The other thing that adds to these songs is the spirit and soul with which this group of musicians plays it. Springsteen speaks of difference between making music and playing music and these guys are creating something organic that adds the secret dimension of spirit and soul.

"Spirit" and "soul" words are Church words and yet here is Bruce Springsteen in a rock venue showing the Church the way. The Church plays music. Bring the music books and rehearse well; get it meticulously right. There can be a danger that a Church full of musicians of high ability and no shortage of qualifications miss out on the soul and spirit of music making with danger and risk. Tonight we had a band on the edge of fun and joy and cause. It threw another hue across the Springsteen story. It might even prove one of his happiest and most spiritual accidents.


PAUL WELLER'S SERMON ON THE MOUNT MOMENT ON HIS NEW ALBUM ON SUNSET

More

Paul Weller’s new album On Sunset might not be as sonic shifting as some recent albums. Don’t however be as lazy as some reviewers and think for a minute it is not experimental. It is Weller doing his best Curtis Mayfield, an influence surely hinted in his work since at The Gift in 1982, and there are sprinklings of Beatles’ stardust all across it. 

Actually it is more than a little bit Michael Kiwanuka. The careful and clever use of instruments. Hannah Peel’s strings so evident in True Meanings, horns, old mate Mick Talbot’s hammond organ and even Slade’s Jim Lea’s violin. The grooves, the psychedelia, near music hall. All full of soul - Baptiste gets almost spiritual about it! 

Best of all for me is the song More. Weller might not be fully aware of how Jesus-like this song’s sermon is. I preached in Fitzroy recently about Jesus idea that where your treasure is your heart will be also. It is in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and he is talking about treasure in general, how God and money is a constant battle and how we shouldn’t be obsessed with treasure on earth.

Jesus could have put it another way. The Paul Weller way:

 

The more we get, the more we lose

When all is more, it's more we choose

There's always something else in store

That keeps me running down that road, keeps me running

To an unknown place I think is more

 

The addiction for more seems a modern ailment. Jesus obviously felt that it was a problem in his day too though he might have been talking about the religious leaders of his day who had done financial deals with Herod and the Roman occupiers. 

I actually think that this teaching of Jesus makes this past of the Bible even more relevant than it was when it was written. Jesus followers didn’t have much treasure to store! 

Paul Weller puts it beautifully though and I was sorry I forgot to quote it in that ‘treasure’ sermon. Lyrically brilliant. Spiritually, right on it!


35th ANNIVERSARY OF LIVE AID - HOW IT CHANGED MY LIFE

Live Aid

In the summer term of 1986 I was reading two books. One was John Stott’s Issues Facing Christians Today and the other was Bob Geldof’s autobiography Is That Is? The next thirty four years of my following Jesus and ministry took a huge leap off Stott and Geldof coming together.

Like most Northern Irish evangelicals of that era I was well ensconced in a vertical relationship with God. It was very one dimensional. I was a sinner and Jesus had arrived to save me. It was all about me and God. Thankfully it was all sorted and I could “read my Bible and pray every day if I wanted to grow” as the chorus put it.

Now I was never satisfied settling for the vertical alone. I had come to faith in Jesus because I genuinely believed that he answered the questions that John Lennon had raised in my life. Now Lennon and The Beatles were asking horizontal questions about peace when I was living in a country that was anything but at peace. I was interested in how “love your neighbour” and indeed “love your enemies” applied to the streets around me. I preached on that too and got into a little bother. Bother that confused me. 

Anyway, Bob Geldof extended my horizontal vision with the Live Aid concerts of July 13, 1985. Of course it began with the Band Aid single the Christmas before. Doing something for starving children in Africa sounded to me like a Jesus thing. Yet, as Geldof was mobilising I didn’t see the same compassion or rage in the Churches around me. It seemed we just let it happen. Maybe we prayed!

I read in the Gospels about how you would know followers of Jesus by how they cared for the least of these (Matthew 25) and this Dublin punk’s first single raged, “Don't give me love thy neighbour/Don’t give me charity/Don’t give me peace and love or the good lord above/You only get in my way with your stupid ideas”. 

I wondered if God was embarrassing the Church by choosing the most unlikely to do the work we should be doing. Geldof actually said as much in that memoir a year or two later, “God looked down and looked for the least likely…”

Anyway, Live Aid lit my passion and compassion and vision. I loved the entire day. I started by listening on the radio, with my buddy Richard Ross, as Status Quo set it all off at mid day. We were in a school playground in Portrush, preparing for the start of the CSSM beach mission the next day. I then headed home and watched on TV until 4am when I went to bed before getting up to preach in Ballykeel Presbyterian at 10am! I used Live Aid to influence my prayers!

Oh I loved U2. Dire Straits and Sting were wonderful. Elton John was all celebratory - Saturday night’s alright for saving the world. Bowie was at his Rebel Rebel best. I even enjoyed Queen a band I lost love for shortly after I really loved Bohemian Rhapsody. There was that video to The Cars' Drive and the cry of that little child. I’ll always be frustrated about Paul McCartney’s faulty microphone and Dylan’s set in Philadelphia was shambolic but closing Wembley with Do They Know It’s Christmas was emotional even on a hot July night! Emotional and inspirational!

Certainly that day set my feet on a journey that of course eventually landed in Africa. It is not lost on me that today on the 35th anniversary I should actually be in Africa but for Coronavirus. My faith went horizontal without losing any of the vertical. 

I did of course discover Christian Aid and Tear Fund were doing such work. However, in general I believe that these organisations also got an impetus from Geldof’s work. I hear them now suggest that big events are not as useful long term, the return perhaps not worth the investment. Well when I think of the hundreds of people that I have now taken to Africa many of whom now work full-time or part time for such projects and most of whom live with a good eye on the horizontal then I plead not to lose the big events. They fire imaginations like mine and the impact cannot be easily  quantified.

So that summer term of ‘86? Well, I had not so much studying to do. Others were revising. I was done. I read Geldof’s book and it reignited my passion. Stott’s book theologised it. I had the Bible open at Amos! John Stott, one of Christianity’s top thinkers of the 20th century actually stated in the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 that the greatest evangelical heresy of that century was the lack of social justice. My response to Live Aid wasn’t wrong. I was right to go horizontal. 

Thankfully evangelicalism has spent the last forty years finding a better Biblical balance of the horizontal and the vertical. For me, most of my vocation of my “deepest gladness, meeting the world’s deepest need (Fredrick Buechner)” springs from July 13th 1985. Today I am looking back fondly, giving thanks to God for where the journey took me and to Bob Geldof for his response to pictures of famine on his TV news… maybe God really did look down and seek you out Bob! 


OFFERING THE SOIL OF OUR SOULS TO GOD - FITZROY PRAYER 12.7.2020

Treasure-in-your-Heart

This is my prayer in Fitzroy on July 12th 2020. I had just preached on Jesus story of the sower and the seed and attempted to sow "where you treasure is your heart will be also" into the soil of our souls (watch the service HERE).

 

GOD

We live in vulnerable times

Fragile times

We have been broken by the Coronavirus Pandemic

We have grieved

We have been anxious about family

We have worried about our jobs

We have been found confinement harrowing

We have been under pressure mentally

Lord, the opening back up is testing us too

We are anxious about second spikes

We are wary of mixing in public

And we are almost angry at those who are not wary

We are fearful that a return of the virus will have more devastating economic effect than the first

We are concerned at the speed of the opening.

 

Lord we are in vulnerable times

We are thankful Lord that the vulnerability

Has made us more open to you

We have prayed more Lord

We have sought to trust more

We have read your Bible more in keeping with its context

Lord you have made us ponder our world

You have forced us to rethink our lives

You have given us an unexpected space

To reflect on how we are living

You have scattered the word of your wisdom across our souls to teach us, rebuke us, correct us and training us in righteousness.

 

Lord we offer the soil of our souls

May it not be hard

May it not be shallow

May it not choke the light with worry and wealth

May we work its fertility.

 

Lord we offer ourselves

By your spirit search us in these opening up days

That we might ask with total honesty

In what we rush and clammer for immediately

Where our treasure is

Because there you tell us 

Is our heart.

 

So Lord, we ask that you would collide and caress

Your word and these pandemic days

That the seed of your word

Would overcome the thorns of our world

To germinate

And grow

And harvest

In our lives 

And therefore in the lives of those around us

In Jesus name we pray

Amen


THANK YOU JACK CHARLTON FOR THE GLORIOUS JUNE of 1990

Jack 1990

I think I was reading the Presbyterian Herald when I noticed my good friends David 'Monty' Montgomery and David Baldock asking for a back up driver for their sponsored Cycle Ride for the Lucan Youth Centre, a Presbyterian  Reconciliation Centre in Dublin. The cycle was from John O' Groats to Land's End. I was the assistant minister in First Antrim at the time with no holiday plans for that summer. I gave Monty a call and so began the trip of a lifetime.

Monty and David were hoping to take around 17 days to complete the trip and had scheduled the trip to have days off for the Republic of Ireland's World Cup games! Jack Charlton had transformed the Republic's football fortunes. When I was a boy they were bottom of every World Cup qualifying group. There were political, probably sectarian reasons. Young Irish boys were discouraged from playing soccer which was seen as English and encouraged to stick with Gaelic football and hurling.

Jack loosened that grip with success and probably completed the transformation with a 1-0 win over England in the 1988 European Championships! Jack went one further and charmed almost the entire island into supporting the Republic. Almost, because of course there are many in Northern Ireland who hate the republic with a passion but it should n't be lost in this blog that Monty and I are northern Irish Protestants. I noticed many northern Protestants like us posting fond Jack Charlton posts today. 

Back to our Cycle Ride. The David's had some work to do peddling that bike and were joined through Scotland with the good company of Kristie Franck. My job was to go on ahead find a suitable spot for lunch and catch buy the papers to keep up with World Cup news. 

On our way north to John O'Groats we stopped in to watch the game against England. This was a strong English team who in the end should have made the final but lost on penalties to West Germany. Linekar scored early but the Republic hung in. Literally at the moment Monty suggested that Sheedy should be substituted Sheedy swung his leg and 1-1! Great opening result.

The next game was during a stop over in Stirling where Monty went to University. The problem was finding somewhere to watch it. We found a TV in someone's house just in time and watched a boring scoreless draw. The third game was worst of all. Coming over from Dublin we hadn't allowed for the fact that we had to watch England against Egypt. We were by then in St. Thomas's in Lancaster. So that was a long game, watching updates on the screen. Monty just questioned Nial Quinn's inclusion when... according to script it came up that he had equalised Gullitt's opener for Holland. Three draws and we were in the last 16!

For that game we had to find time on a bike day. Monty and Dave hadn't reckoned on needing another day off. I drove ahead. I was struggling. It was an afternoon game. Finally a pub in Cullompton. Where? I'll never forget it. Monty again was crucial to the drama. When Jack Charlton brought on David O'Leary in extra time Monty quipped "he's hardly on for the penalty shoot-out!" O'Leary of course scored the winning penalty that had us creaming and dancing all around a pub that had only us in it. I wonder if on hearing of Jack Charlton's death if that barman said to his children, "You know he managed the Republic Of Ireland and one day in 1990 this very wee Irishman man and this very tall Irishman man..."

It all ended in the Quarter Finals against the hosts Italy but what a bike ride that was. The Republic did it again in 1994 by which time I was living in Dublin and they beat Italy to again reach the last 16. It wasn't just as good as the bike ride but those were glory days.

Jack Charlton made it all happen. He had the whole of Ireland taking days off work and dancing in the streets. He took a bulldozer to the old nonsense that soccer was an English game. He raised expectations, He lifted a country's sense of itself. It is too much to say that along with a rock band called U2 he put a wee country on the world map... but just maybe he contributed to the Celtic Tiger about to descend.

Whatever, when Janice told me the sad news of Jack's death this morning, I was back in Cullompton, revelling in it. Thank you Jack for the utter joy.  


JULY 12 ON FITZROY TV - A SPIRITUAL CORONAVIRUS CHECK UP plus LIGHT IN U2

Light U2

I am excited about tomorrow on Fitzroy TV.

Going live in the morning at 11am, I will be asking how fertile our souls are to learn the lessons that God might have been teaching us in lockdown and as we open again. Having had the opportunity to reassess how we have been living are we hard souled to God's word, are we shallow without the character for the slow burn of faith, are we allowing wealth and worry to choke God's flourishing or are we making sure the soil of our souls is fertile and ready for the seed Jesus wants to sow. See it is a spiritual health check! Delighted that Ali McKeown and Adam Milligan will lead us in worship.

Going live in the evening at 7pm is the 3rd in our Light From Rock Music I am looking at U2. Of course these are the guys that I have spent most time surmising so in order to cut it down I have looked at the band in 3 stages, stages I discovered through Philip Yancey are different stages of spiritual development - soaring on eagles wings, running and finally walking. We will have performances of U2 songs by Jonny Fitch, Caroline Orr & Peter Greer and Shannon and Danny Moore. If I say so myself, this one excited me!

these and previous service and Light From Rock Stars available on FITZROY TV


THE KILLERS - MY SOUL'S OWN WARNING - Soul Surmise Song

Killers Soul's Warning

I love it when songs kick some spiritual surmising into my day. I love to share them. Here's a new one by The Killers...

 

"If you could see through the banner of the sun

Into eternity's eyes

Like a vision reaching down to you

Would you turn away?

What if it knew you by your name?

What kind of words would cut

Through the clutter of the whirlwind of these days?"

 

The Killers have been teasing us for a while, streaming singles off a new record, Imploding The Mirage, that still doesn’t seem to have a release date.

A song called My Soul’s Own Warning was bound to catch my attention. They lyricist and frontman Brandon Flowers has never been short of some spiritual surmising. and then this verse had me really meditating on spiritual things. This one has us looking into eternity, finding a vision from what can only be understood as heaven. 

The thrill for any human being of being known by name. To be seen, recognised, taken seriously is something that is becoming more and more realised as being vital for a human being’s mental, emotional and spiritual health. That lyric had me off to Isaiah 43 where God tells us that we are “precious and in honoured in my sight” and “I have summoned you by name.” Flowers’ lyrics ask if we would turn such attention down.

He then goes on to ask if such a vision and such knowledge might cut through “the clutter of the whirlwind of these days”. Maybe Coronavirus has exposed the clutter but it certainly tossed up the whirlwind.

My Own Soul’s Warning is the stuff of spiritual surmising. Now what about the rest of the record?