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September 2020



A Tweet from my friend Brendan Mulgrew, early in the week, set off a Sunday sermon thread in my imagination:

“That is a day full of bad news. Where is the light?”

That went rather well with the last sentence of the Lectionary Reading from Exodus 7: 1-7:

“Is the Lord among us or not?”

Those two phrases had me immediately hearing in my head a song by the late Rich Mullins. I was actually thrilled to find a potent reason to use Rich’s song Hard To Get in a Fitzroy sermon.

Hard To Get is I believe Rich at his most spiritually honest, vulnerable and insightful. It is also one of his cleverest lyrics and best honed songs. Not part of this blog but a blog in itself is the incredible line - “And I know it would not hurt any less/

Even if it could be explained”. Let that depth charge seep!

Sadly, we only have a poor quality version of Rich singing it, into him boom box. The late Rick Elias does a great version on the main CD of the Jesus Album. For our Fitzroy sermon I used a version by Belfast singer songwriter Andrew Patterson.

Hard To Get is a questioning of God. In fact it pushes the lines towards blasphemy as it turns almost into an interrogation. Accusing God of playing Hard To Get isn’t part of the regular diet at modern worship services! 

Rich asks Jesus who is now in heaven, radiance and eternity whether he ever thinks of us who are left on earth and in time. Has he forgotten about us because as Rich prays in the dark night of his soul Jesus seems to indeed be playing Hard To Get:


“You who live in radiance

Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin

We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was

Still we do love now and then

Did You ever know loneliness

Did You ever know need

Do You remember just how long a night can get?

When You were barely holding on

And Your friends fall asleep

And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat

Will those who mourn be left uncomforted

While You're up there just playing hard to get?”


There is acknowledgement of the incarnation and Jesus living among us but have you forgotten us now.

I used the song as the central thread of a sermon preached in Covid-19 Times on a text about the Israelites wondering if God is still among them as they thirst in the wilderness.

Many of us might feel like those Israelites and wonder if God is with them or playing hard to get. Many of us might feel like every day is full of bad news and wonder where the light is.

Rich leads us on and then ambushes us with his final insight. A spiritual twist in the tale. He acknowledges Jesus love for him and how that love was demonstrated in the incarnation. He concludes with that twist. It is not so much Jesus playing hard to get as it is us finding it hard to get the ways of God. Powerful!


“And I know you bore our sorrows

And I know you feel our pain

And I know it would not hurt any less

Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out

At the One who loves me most

And after I figured this somehow

All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity

Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time

We can't see what's ahead

And we can not get free of what we've left behind

I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears

All the words of shame and doubt blame and regret

I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here

Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led

And so You've been here all along I guess

It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get"



I have blogged many times about my, if I was pushed, very favourite movie Shawshank Redemption. Preaching on Exodus during Coronavirus times I drew upon it again.

If you haven’t watch the movie - do! Andy is in prison after being falsely accused of killing his wife. His buddy is Red, a veteran of prison life. 

Brooks, one of their fellow prisoners gets parole. He cannot deal with the freedom. The speed of change in the world outside leaves him in a kind of culture shock. He cannot deal with freedom and takes his own life.

So with the Israelites in the wilderness. Security in captivity. Fear of the unknown in freedom. As they journey in towards the Promised Land they are in culture shock and spend their time grumbling and complaining to Moses and God.

There is a scene in the prison yard where Andy and Red are discussing Brooks’s sad death and Red says, 'At first you hate these walls, then you accept them and eventually you become dependent on them”.

So many of us critique the world we live in, fight for justice and demand change but when we are hurled into the unknown of lockdowns and social restriction we seem to miss the walls.

Later in the film Red gets released too. He ends up where Brooks stayed and sees Brooks’ name carved into the roof beam that he hung the rope upon. Will Red follow?

He doesn’t. Why? The difference with Red is that he has hope. It is something outside of himself and his circumstances that allows him to believe in something else. 

Andy had escaped before Red was released. Red had been suspicious of hope but after one slot in solitary confinement Andy said, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”. Andy had a dream of an alternative. Andy had a vision. Hope.

Andy has told Red that if they ever get out he would leave him a message under a tree in the countryside. Red goes and finds a tine with money and a ticket to Mexico. 

The movie ends utterly beautifully, with Red travelling on a bus down the Mexican coastline. We see the panoramic view of the ocean. Deepest blue colour to contrast the grey drab world of Shawshank prison. Andy is across a beach working on a boat. It’s a little glimpse of the heaven we hope for.

Two stories. Two outcomes. Brooks was hopeless. Caught in the culture shock of freedom and unable to cope.

Red had hope. Something transcendent. It helped him cope. Saw him through.

The Israelites shifted from being Brooks to being Red. Sometimes hopeless in their surroundings, other times believing God was with them. 

We in Coronavirus Times need to remember that Emmanuel - God with us - is not just a phrase for Christmas but for all the year round. In moments when we the Covid 19 culture shock hits we need to remember there is transcendence with us, hope is the best of things and better days are up ahead. 



Fixed Vision

(this is my Belfast Telegraph Coronavirus Column that I retake weekly with my friend Fr Martin Magill... published on September 26, 2020) 

We all seem to be Whingers. We have lived such a free and comfortable life that six months of restrictions due to a killer pandemic has us grumbling about everything that a government under pressure attempts to do to save lives and our livelihood.

There is nothing new in whinging. If we go back to the Old Testament story of exodus we find the Children of Israel in the wilderness whinging. God has freed them from slavery and an oppressive Pharaoh. He has miraculously rescued them through the Red Sea but soon they are grumbling to Moses about food and water.

The grumbling could be seen in another way. A lack of faith. They have watched God doing amazing things for their liberation but so quickly they have stopped trusting God and start grumbling.

There are obvious lessons for us in a Coronavirus world millenniums later. Indeed, this might the time when we learn more about God and ourselves and the Bible than we could learn in those more comfortable pre virus days.

There are very few places in the Bible where anyone is comfortable. There are people on the run or in slavery or in the wilderness or in exile or under an oppressive Roman Empire. It is in these difficult places that the people encounter God.

In the Bible it is not so much about where you are as who you are. Finding an identity and trust in God allows tough times like Covid-19 times to become an exciting adventure inside your soul to find faith, resilience, hope and vision.

Last week a friend put a message on Facebook that read “Some things break your heart but fix your vision”. That could be a theme through much of the Scriptures!

When we stop grumbling and start trusting, focus on who we are through God’s grace, Christ’s life and death and resurrection and ascension and not where we are then we might find a vision for a better day.

When we hear the whinging of the Children of Israel in the wilderness it seems that they might have settled for a merely a slightly improved slavery in Egypt rather than the milk and honey of the Promised Land.

What of us? As we have travelled through these months I have heard so many people say that we do not want to go back to the old normal. I have heard people talk about what they learned about their previous heavy work schedule, about enjoying more time with their children. Many have been pleased that the environment has had a bit of a breather. Lots of us have felt our faith growing because we have had to stop leaning on a service or mass but up our time in private devotion. Let us hold on to these lessons and move on to better days.

The comparison with the Children of Israel is interesting. They were coming out of restrictions towards liberation. We, on the other hand, are sacrificing our liberation for a period of restriction. Either way, our the honed over time understanding of God is challenged. We encounter God in a different place and in different ways. God gets reshaped in the changed circumstances.

It is time to quit the whinging. It is time to encounter God in new places. It is time to concentrate on who we are. It is time to use this virus that is breaking our hearts to fix our vision. It is time to commit to the Promised Land.



In our Fitzroy Sunday service tomorrow (going live on FITZROY TV at 11am) we will be staying on the wilderness road that we found ourselves on last week. A couple of social media messages this past week focused my preparation. 

After I posted the photo at the top of this blog last Sunday morning my friend Clive Price posted:

For years I thought 'wilderness' meant a really bad place. 'Oh he's having a wilderness experience' used to be a common expression - and not a nice one. Then I read about the wilderness motif in the Bible and its true meaning. It is a place of encounter.

Then, with all the news about Covid-19 on Tuesday my friend Brendan Mulgrew Tweeted:

That is a day full of bad news. Where is the light?”

So, we will ponder such things as we continue to journey with the Israelite through the wilderness and the culture shock they are facing after 4 centuries as slaves in Egypt. This culture shock becomes a place of encounter with God.

With the help of Rich Mullins song Hard To Get performed by Belfast songwriter Andrew Patterson and the movie Shawshank Redemption we will exegete Exodus 17, apply it to the news of the week around us and ask "where is the light?" 



There are a few things that make a record great for me. It’s good if it is eclectic, cohesive and thematic. It is good if it is beautiful, familiar in many ways but full of surprises.

Michael Kiwanuka ticks every box on his Mercury Music Prize winning album Kiwanuka. His third record is the culmination of the development in his imagination and musical implementation from his debut record Home Again through his second record Love and Hate. Home Again as an acoustic record in the traditional songwriter style, Love and Hate brought in electric guitars and riffs and grooves.

The third record simply called Kiwanuka has all of those albums and more. It is tender at times, riffed up at other times with all kinds of intricate little joins in-between. There are all the great influences - Curtis Mayfield, Pop Staples, Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway and lashings of the psychedelic guitar sounds of Jimi Hendrix. Kiwanuka throws tablespoonfuls of all of these into the most original of rocked up concoctions.

For me, I am particularly chuffed that Kiwanuka won the Mercury Music Prize as I claim him as Ugandan. Soul Surmise readers know how dear that country is to my heart. Kiwanuka’s parents were Ugandan and left to escape the oppressive regime of Idi Amin. I happened to be in Uganda when Love and Hate came out and the location of first listens added resonance.

There is a personal introspection to Kiwanuka’s work. He has admitted to self doubt and naming the album after his surname is a statement of pride in who he is and has become. There is a spiritual light to his music too and he is a not without social critique and political comment. 

Kiwanuka is everything I look for in a great record.


Galgorm GC

From as early as I remember every time we drove over the Sourhill Road in Ballymena my father would point down to one side of the road and say that the piece of land would make a great golf course.

Fifty years later and I am watching on Sky Sports as the Irish Open is being played in those fields my father pointed out -  now Galgorm Castle Golf Club.

As far as I am concerned the Stockmans are from Galgorm. When my dad was very young he moved from a house across the road from what he prophesied as a golf course, to a thatched cottage in the middle of Galgorm village. The cottage was renovated around 1710 probably for the staff of the nearby Castle where the golf course now is.

Glagorm was tiny then though houses and an industrial estate have since caused the village to be too narrow for all the traffic. My first home was in a housing estate just behind the cottage in Maine Park. I lived there until I was 7 and after that spent all school holidays in my Grandparents cottage in the village. The cottage is no longer ours but my uncle still lives in the house he built beside it. Another aunt and uncle live in Maine Park. 

The Castle grounds loomed large in my childhood. My aunt Jean worked in the big Castle and we used to stop at the gates regularly because they had a vending machine that dispensed eggs. Looking back, that was pretty ahead of its time for rural Northern Ireland in the early 60s.

My dad would have stories about the Castle and he certainly played in the trees that Padraig Harrington hit a few shots into today as well as the river. I was too young and have only one vague memory of me and my mates only climbing the fence.

I never imagined that a world class sporting event would come to our wee village. To hear the commentators wax lyrical about the River Maine and how beautiful a place it is. We never knew! We failed to appreciate it. Today it is on televisions across the world. 

My mum played a lot of golf at Galgorm Castle. We always said that she should take me for a round. We never managed it. She presented a Cup for a women’s match between Ballymena Golf Club where I grew up a member and Galgorm Castle. Oh how she would have loved this. My dad too, if he still had the mental capacity to grasp it.

My cousins are members at Galgorm. They too should be proud tonight. Not only did the course look amazing but no one tore it apart. Maybe of the weather improves over the weekend someone will but it looked a tough track today. 

Galgorm. That’s where I’m from. There aren’t many of us. I am proud.


Covid Students

As a University Chaplain for 15 years (1994-2009) the second half of September still brings a tenderness to my heart. My role as Presbyterian Chaplain at Queen’s University, Belfast included the privilege of living in community with 88 students. I would never go back to it but they were glory days!

The first weekend, week and then month of term was always a pastorally intensive time. Eighteen year olds leaving home and the familiarity of family, friends, their school and hometown for what is very much the unknown was a huge challenge, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

As a Chaplaincy team we spent a lot of time, imagination and energy to make that rite of passage transition as easy, in minds, hearts and souls, as possible. As I look back from this last weekend’s perspective of leaving my own daughter to University we did a pretty good job.

Can I point out that almost all of my students were going home at the weekend. Yet, still this particular change in the life of late teens is so seismic that it comes with deep seated anxiety. Will we make friends? Will we like the subject? Add to that the break from home life and I would feel that those not struggling with starting as a fresher are the exceptions. We put many processes in place to help students through those first days. A month in and most of them were settled and soaring.

I have looked at this experience from the other side this past week, watching as my own daughter has managed courageously but emotionally her moving away to start International Development at the University of Reading. 

So, as a former Chaplain and a current father, I am reading the news with interest. 600 students in Glasgow University Halls Of Residence in isolation. Oh goodness me! We are also hearing that the government hasn’t ruled out keeping students in lockdown over Christmas! 

One of the methods to overcome the early homesickness is to have a trip home or a visit from friends or family or booking that flight or train home at Christmas. To tell freshers to self isolate and then add the threat of not being home at Christmas. This is horrifying. It is an unimaginable challenge. I am so fearful about the mental health reverberations. 

Back in April I sensed a battle coming down the Coronavirus road - health verses wealth. Boris Johnston and his government have had a tightrope walk between those things. Much as I sympathise with the idea that we need to keep our economy going. The nation needs a livelihood when we finally find ourselves at the other end of this. The balances have to weigh towards health. That health has not just to be to keep Covid-19 at bay but mental health as well.

The father in me was wary of Jasmine starting University in the middle of all of this but I so wanted her to go and enjoy it. The University Chaplain in me was even more wary. 

I sensed that the year ahead was fraught with bumps in the road, local restrictions and maybe lock downs. I was amazed that Universities didn’t do on-line teaching until at least Christmas. It seemed reasonably easy for me. 

The reasoning has to be mainly financial. Higher education has got no funding from government during the pandemic. Halls lying empty and without the income has implications. Universities don’t want to take the financial hit anymore than pubs and restaurants.

Yet, as students go into isolation across Scotland I have to wonder if the rent and income worth the potential mental trauma. Actually for those already in isolation this is not potential. It is actual. It is today. My heart goes out to them and my prayers. 


Van Covid

What a shame it would be if a man’s artistic legacy was lost in such a bizarre moment of misjudgement.

I was doing my Thought For The Day, live from a Reading hotel room if truth to be told, when the BBC’s Chris Buckler asked me to comment on Van Morrison’s new protest songs. I wondered what Van was protesting as he isn’t known for his political comment. When Chris said Covid 19 my heart sank.

You will probably have heard some of the the lines by now:


“No more lockdown 

No more government overreach

No more fascist bullies

Disturbing our peace.


No more taking of our freedom

And our God given rights 

Pretending it's for our safety

When it's really to enslave.


Oh Van, Van, Van. 

I wasn’t so much angry that such a song might put lives at risk and give fuel to the conspiracy theory nutters who can so easily pass on the virus and be a bad example to the easily convinced. I am actually not sure that there are too many who will pay the much attention to Van’s protest.

As has happened, I knew that the vast majority would dismiss Van’s pontification for what it is, more than a little stupid. Never mind the questioning of the science around the Covid 19 virus, the very idea that this particular government of all governments would enslave us in lock down and the restrictions of social movement takes fantasy to levels that that other east Belfast writer CS Lewis’s never imagined. 

Boris Johnston and his cronies, in my opinion, are all about a reckless capitalism that will make them and their buddies richer no matter the consequences to the poor. What has happened in this pandemic has been an antithesis of their wishes and dreams. That Van has somehow missed that is a suggestion of someone cut off from the political realities around him.

That Van would suggest to 800 families in Northern Ireland who have lost loved ones that those deaths were imaginary or diss the the extraordinary heroics of the health service shows a lack of human empathy. 

Even that is not the saddest part for me. I have for some years been a Van the Man apologist. That he is moody and grumpy I have argued has been a lazy description of a man whose introverted personality clashed with a vocation that is lived out in an extroverted world. Give the man a break and some sympathy for what he has shared with us in spite of the psychological challenge it has been for him.

This week though I fear that Van’s legacy is in danger of being over shadowed by these mad songs. Van’s legacy is extraordinary. Astral Weeks, Moondance, Veedon Fleece right through to recent records is I would argue perhaps the most consistently brilliant catalogue of any of his peers. That is what I would long that Van Morrison is remembered for, not some crazy songs about bizarre theories. Van Morrison deserves respect not to be laughed at.

Then, my mind goes a little wild. Just a few weeks ago the world was celebrating Van’s 75th birthday. Hot Press brought out an amazing magazine to celebrate and they were putting nightly cover versions of his songs, by Irish artists, on Youtube. 

Did Van react to the adoration by attempting to deconstruct his own legend. Nothing surprises!

As I have said I do not fear that impact on the public’s response to Covid 19. I do though think that in the tricky terrain we are travelling through that we need every shoulder to the wheel. Coronavirus times are tough. We are all sacrificing freedoms to collectively beat this virus. Rather than begrudgers we need encouragers. We need artists who will write songs to give us the strength and resilience and hope to make our way through to better days.

Perhaps there is one positive. Another achievement in Van Morrison’s long career. Anyone who can get Stormont’s Health Minister Robin Swann featuring in Rolling Stone magazine… My goodness, who was betting on that in the wild predictions of what would happen in 2020! 



(This was my Pause for Thought on Vanessa on BBC Radio Ulster on September 22, 2020. The theme was Lessons Learned)


It was 35 years ago and I was on the Stranraer to Larne ferry.  We found seats and were quickly joined at our table by a man who looked like a tramp. He was dishevelled from head to toe, a little dirty and the loudness of his voice hinted that he had been drinking.

He started swearing loudly about British rail and soon everyone sat around us was focused on our table. I eventually leaned in and asked if he would mind stopping the swearing.

“What would you know about swearing?” he asked. “I am a great Irish poet and I know the power of words. What would you know? Where did you go to University?” 

When I proudly said Queens University in Belfast he shouted something derogatory about it being a sausage factory. 

Then… he walked off throwing some books on the table. People started gathering round to see what the books were and indeed the books were his - Padraic Faicc was a great Irish poet.

The Bible talks about entertaining strangers well… because some have entertained angels without knowing it. It is a small lesson in a Bible full of the preciousness of every single human being. Everyone, even the dishevelled tramp whose language is a bit strong. 

After a few minutes Padraic came back to the table and eventually shared with us about his brokenness. Born in Belfast he grew up in the poverty of Hells Kitchen in New York city. He returned to Belfast in 1969, his wife left him and his best friend was a victim of the troubles. It played havoc with his nerves.

As we left the boat I had one of the great privileges of my life as a great Irish poet asked me to pray for him and all those issues of brokenness that you can read about in his poetry. 

That boat trip was maybe as good a seminar as I ever attended. Don’t judge a book by the cover or the poet by his clothes.


Peace Day

The stories of Jesus birth and the theology within is not just for Christmas. It is for all year round!

The peace that the angels sang about that first Christmas is not some Christina side show but at the core of Jesus incarnation and the purposes of God.

My favourite band Over The Rhine have been exemplary at the first. They make records like Blood Oranges In The Snow. It is not just another great Christmas album. It is another great album - period (as their fellow Americans would say!).

I love that record and it was indeed a song on it that opened up the importance of peace in God's redemption plan in ways I had not got the full impact of before. A few of the lines jumped out from the rest of the brilliance and torpedoed its way into my soul surmising. 

As they sang…

“I hope that we can still believe

The Christ child holds a gift for us

Are we able to receive

Peace on earth this Christmas”

… something clicked. It is not a new line. I have been living with this line most of my life. I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t hear it at Christmas time. I heard it for years before I even believed that what it was talking about was any kind of reality. For the last thirty years I have worked the phrase annually. One of my other favourite bands U2 even had a song called this and I have written about that song.

However, in this song that near over familiar line, “Peace on earth this Christmas”, struck a chord as loud as any Jimmy Page strum and as spiritually powerful as an Old Testament prophet or actually a New Testament angel on the night God came to earth! 

“Peace, Steve, Peace” is what my soul kept repeating. It is not about justice or vengeance, it is not about proving who was right or wrong. It is not about us and them and us winning. The point of this mission that God had in coming to earth was peace. That peace was not just for my soul. It was about peace on earth. Anyone following this Jesus whose birth is heralded in this angel’s song should be all about peace. 

This of course is not an out of the blue declaration of a God reaching for some Plan B or C. The Old Testament was all about this peace; shalom is how the Jewish people said it. Shalom was God’s intention in the law given, for the King’s to achieve and for the prophets to critique the lack of. A favourite verse on the subject that I have blogged often is Jeremiah 29:7 “And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” (NKJV)

Those who claim to follow the baby born when the angels sang need to find that priority of peace. That God’s people would seek shalom wherever they were was a way of being God’s holy nation, a people set apart, different, in all the right ways, from the other nations. We need to not blend in to the world’s intuitive response to seek to be proven right, in control and avenging all who would come against us. We need to be about that ministry of reconciliation that God told us we would be about just as we are connected to God himself through that same ministry of his peace making.

On this International Peace Day, I commit afresh to the Gospel priority and commit to it with renewed courage, hope and all the grace that is intrinsic to the baby born and sadly often lacking on our streets, political buildings and even our churches - all the year round!