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December 2020

CHRISTMAS - THE AWE AND WONDER

Awe of Christmas

I believe we have the opposite to Christmas from what Van Morrison did for Belfast streets. Morrison has taken very ordinary places and given them awe and wonder; holiness almost. On the other hand with Christmas, we have so over familiarised ourselves with it that we have taken something full of holiness, awe and wonder and made it very ordinary. Here is a Reflection to help us rekindle the awe...

Lord forgive us when we are matter of fact about Your unbelievable birth
Help us to see it as it is
The one who is above us
Becoming lower than all of us
So that none of us would be in awe of approaching a baby in straw
Help us to see that this baby is Your gift to us
The extent of Your love for us
Help us to believe that we are loved...

Lord forgive us when we explain and memorise Your indescribable birth
Help us to see it as it is
The word becoming flesh to live for awhile among us
Your actions being louder than the words of prophets or patriarchs or psalmists
You becoming one of us in order to reach us with Your love
Help us to see this baby as an example for us
That we too would act louder than we speak
And reach out to others with Your love...

Lord forgive us when we reduce Your spectacular birth to the ordinary
Help us to see it as it is
The birth of a whole new world
A birth whose circumstances would be lived out and taught in the rest of Your ministry
A little inkling of Your upside down and radical kingdom
Help us to see this new world order
That we might seek treasure in heaven rather than on earth
That we might long to be poor, meek and peacemakers
So that Your will would be done on earth as it is in heaven...

Max Lucado in his book God Came Near writes this of Christ’s birth...

“The Omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the Universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent on the nourishment of a young girl. God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The Creator of life being created. God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys and a spleen. He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother. God came near.”

I wrote this for a Queens University Carol Service some years ago...

Almighty God
We approach you and worship you as
The Omnipresent
Omniscient
Omnipotent God
And yet as we draw near you this Christmas season
We cannot help but be provoked by something
Out of kilter, amiss and askew
Instead of a throne in heaven
We are aware of a manger of straw
Instead of robed religious dignitaries
We are aware of cattle, sheep and shepherds
Straight from the fields
Instead of theology graduates in gowns
We are aware of mystical eastern star gazers.
And even more bizarre and disturbing
We are aware of the people of God
Who should know better
Who know enough to search the Holy Scriptures
To find the truth of such events
Using their knowledge
Not to approach you in worship
But to flood the streets of David’s city
With the blood of innocent children and babies
And sending the long awaited and yearned for Messiah
Fleeing his life to Egypt as a refugee
God as we approach you this Christmas
We approach a God who emptied himself
Who gave up his safety and comfort
Who made himself nothing
And left himself vulnerable
God as we approach such wonder
Such a mystery
Such an upside down view of the world
Force us to ask ourselves
Why
Give us a snippet of history’s greatest refrain
The greatest news to be sung to humanity
That God loved us and demonstrated his love for us in this
That while we were still sinners
He was born and lived and died for us
So God as we approach you tonight
We are acutely aware of a God who gave up everything
For us
And if we listen closely we can hear you whisper to us
From the straw of the manger
From the refugee road to Egypt
From the seashore of no reputation
From the mountain of the sermon
From the journey to Calvary
From a cross of wood
Follow me... follow me... follow me...
As the Father sent me so I am sending you
You are the light of the world
The salt of the earth
God as we approach you this Christmas
Give us the courage, the bravery
To follow you…
To give our lives
To be servants of others…

To carry each other...
God we thank you for the wonder of the poetry and art and transforming power of Christmas
That inspired these readings and carols and thoughts...
Make these words flesh in us...
In this baby name
AMEN!


WHAT A 5 DAY CHRISTMAS BUBBLE LOOKS LIKE TO A CHOCAHOLIC!

Chocaholic

(my Coronavirus Column in the Belfast Telegraph on December 20, 2020)

 

So, the big tight lockdown is on its way. I guess we figured that it was coming if not quite that soon. Looking at the statistics and the pressure on the hospitals it does seem the only thing to do. Fair play. Strong leadership. We knock our Executive a lot. Credit where it is due.

Who would be a politician at the best of times… never mind at the worst of times! So, I have been giving politicians a bit of slack and a lot of prayer. Even the ones I don’t like!

Now about the week leading up to Christmas and the 5 day bubble! That is a whole other thing entirely.

I am a chocolaholic. I mean, the real deal. I could eat an entire packet of dark chocolate digestives with one cup of coffee. Indeed, I have! I have tried to go cold turkey and as I have passed a petrol station I have been fighting with the steering wheel to go in and get a bar of chocolate… no… keep it on the road! 

That bit in the Lord’s prayer about leading us not into temptation… need I say more! Well, with all the political advice for Christmas my lead us not into temptation is sparking into flames.

Before the lockdown, it seems that we are free to binge. I find this very dangerous indeed. It seems like someone is saying that they are going to fill my chocoholic house with chocolate. All my favourite bars and biscuits. I can enjoy them all for five days days. There will be enough!

Then the giver seems to get a little uncertain. Actually they are pretty certain that all of this chocolate will be dangerous for my health. Diabetes. Obesity. Heart disease. 

However, they don’t want to disappoint me by taking it away. They did promise after all. So they are leaving it up to me! It might kill me… so be a big boy…

Lead us not into temptation!!!

So as we travel this “freedom” week before lockdown, I have been thinking about the fruit of the spirit. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes about this work of the Holy Spirit - “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Now that is what I need for the week ahead. Given these dangerous freedoms… love… patience… and particularly self control… stop being some ethereal spiritual mystical fluffiness and become the very robust, deep down characteristics that we all need if we are going to make it through this - please God - one and only Coronavirus Christmas. 

Boy do I need that self control in the week ahead. The temptation to make up for 9 months of restrictions knowing there is a six week lockdown ahead might be overwhelming. However, if we yield then it will be hospitals that are overwhelmed.

So, for Christmas 2020 give me big basket full of the fruit of the Spirit. Fill my room with that rather than chocolate or anarchic self indulgence. Indeed may we all gift the fruit of the Spirit to one another.


CHRISTMAS WEEK IN FITZROY 2020

African Nativity

Well with 4 shopping days until Valentine's Day (!!!!) we are excited about the next week in Fitzroy. We are not gathering in solidarity with our population who need protested from the spread of Covid-19 But Christmas is far from cancelled. The real reason for the season will be well presented...

Tomorrow (20th - going live on FITZROY TV at 11am) we will have some very delicious Christmas songs and we will be looking at the discipleship of Mary, applying a David Thompson song to the Luke 1 Lectionary text. If you want to get into the real feeling of the real Christmas at the beginning of Christmas week... look no further!

On Christmas Day (going live at 11am) we up the musical anti yet again. Some amazing musical wonderment from all Fitzroy ages... Christmas Day will feel like Christmas Day and we will keep it short sharp and spiritually helpful for the year that is in it.

On December 27th (going live at 11am) we will stay in the feeling of the Christmas event. We will not be putting away the decorations but like CSI theological investigators will scan the Christmas scenes to find evidence of lessons right across Jesus life and teaching right there in these early chapters of Matthew and Luke. We will keep the music sharp too.

We hope that you have been enjoying our Song A Day In Advent too... some great songs this coming week... watch them on SOUL FM

Please join us where and when you can... Emmanuel Christmas!

 


WHEN I WAS PUSHED OFF SANTA'S NAUGHTY LIST... AND WHY I PREFER JESUS!

Santa List

(my Thought For The Day on December 18, 2020...)

 

It was the Sunday before Christmas. I was about 7 years old. It was the afternoon. We had been up to Ballymena Cemetery to visit my Granda Kernohan’s grave.

I must have been a naughty boy… nothing new there… but Granny was angry. When we returned to her house she wrote a note to Santa to tell him what a bad little boy Steve had been. I watched it go up the chimney and she told me that she saw Santa with it, sailing over the Town Hall. My Christmas was done. I am pretty sure it didn’t calm me down.

I’ve always had an issue with Santa, checking whether we have been naughty and nice, ever since.

It is the way of the world. The good and well behaved. The passers of society’s tests. They are in. The naughty are off everybody’s lists.

If we take ourselves out of the Santa Christmas for a moment and get our heads into the Jesus Christmas instead, there is a whole other kind of attitude going on.

When Jesus was born, he threw the Santa naughty or nice test out of the reindeer flying sky and gave us another way to see each other.

In this nativity scene we see the most unlikely getting on Jesus’s list. I mean Mary and Jospeh to start with. Jesus was God coming to earth. He is known in hymns as King Of Kings and Lord Of Lords. He could set a few tests. Instead he arrives in humility, born of an ordinary teenage girl and is laid down in animal straw.

And around him shepherds and eastern stargazers. These weren’t the religiously qualified or the Israel’s high society. Indeed the PhD’s and royalty tried to kill him. It was the dirty shepherds and foreign mystics who got invited in. 

They aren’t invited by some behavioural code or societal qualification. No… Santa is very much about how good you are… My 7 year old self suffered from that… Jesus is all about grace… unmerited favour… loved as you are… as my 17 year old self discovered and my 59 year old self will still treasure on Christmas Day. I prefer Jesus to Santa every single day!


MY FOREWORD FOR FROM KILLING FIELDS TO FIELDS OF LIFE

Me and Trevor

(This is my foreword from Trevor Stevenson's memoir that I have co-written with him. This gives you a flavour of why I was excited to be involved in the project.)

 

It was a hot day, under a blue African sky. I was attempting to find shade beneath the canvas of a gazebo, a bottle of water in my hand. All Ugandan protocol was being observed.

It was my turn to speak. I looked across the grounds of Onialeku Primary School on the edge of the town of Arua, on the edge of north west Uganda. Out beyond the mango tree was a brand new shiny building that would soon house the school that had started in the church to the other side of me and makeshift building behind me. I was speaking at the opening ceremony.

It was soul tingling. Oh, it was just a building but it was so much more than a building. It was the possibility of changed lives. It had the potential to transform a community. It was the building of hope, tangibly before my eyes.

Fitzroy Church, where I am minister, had taken a decision to tithe the funding for our Church Halls project. Of course, tithing the cost of a building means raising ten percent extra as the builders are never best pleased when you take ten percent off their bill and send it to Africa. A process was carried out that linked us with Onialeku Primary School. With that tithe, we funded a new primary school building in two blocks.

Fitzroy had sent a team of young people, led by my wife Janice and I, to meet the children, staff and parents of Onialeku Primary School and to be at the school opening ceremony. We had fallen in love. Within a short space of time Fitzroy members would be sponsoring over 60 of the children sitting in front of me now. We would be travelling back with teams for years to come, sharing mutual poverty and wealth, finding God’s presence in the mingling. 

I was elated to be here. I had Bishop Isaac beside me. One Sunday in church, as he watched all the children running around his feet, he had asked God what he could do for them. “Education”, he sensed God reply. So they started a makeshift school. It grew and when a fit for purpose building was needed, he connected with Fields of Life in Kampala. The Northern Ireland and Kampala offices of Fields of Life had bonded the two communities of Fitzroy and Onialeku.

To eventually be in Arua was incredibly emotional. I cried as we entered the town, I cried when I got off the bus in the school, I cried when I walked through the doors of the new building. I cried as I made my speech at the opening.

In the speech I unpacked the Biblical basis for what Fields of Life does. They have three aims in their branding. Changing people. I spoke of the cross and how Jesus redeems us. Transforming communities. I spoke of the incarnation and how the Word of God, in Jesus, becomes flesh and moves into our neighbourhoods. I spoke of the hope of resurrection. It seemed that personal change, community transformation and hope were all around me.

I had moved on to my “thanks yous” when I said it. I am not sure if it was in my notes or not but I said something like, “Today I would like to thank Trevor Stevenson. Trevor came over to Uganda in the 90s and somehow God led him to begin Fields of Life and build over 100 schools like this one. I would love to get to know that story better.”

Looking back, it was as if God was listening in and turned to some of his angels and said, “Let’s make that happen. Our story with Trevor needs told. If Stockman really wants to know that story, let’s get him to help write it.”

So, for the last two years I have read, listened, edited and done some of the writing of Trevor’s story. What a privilege it has been. What a blessing. On sabbatical in 2018 I travelled around Uganda with Trevor visiting some of the important sites in this book. I then got to spend some weeks in Kampala and Arua, editing and writing.

I learned about Uganda, the geography, people and customs. I learned about Fields of Life, its development and impact not only in East African but in churches, like mine, whose mission was transformed by missional partnerships.  

Most of all I learned what it is to follow Jesus one step at a time. I came to respect Trevor’s openness to the leading of God and his courage to take the next step. Just the next step. Trevor had no grand plan or vision in 1993. Schools were not even on his radar. This memoir is a remarkable story of God’s leading and a disciple listening and being courageous enough to follow. 

Spending so much time in Trevor’s life was like bring on a discipleship retreat, every page inspiring me to believe what God could to do with a seemingly most ordinary person if he or she or I would take just the next step. 

I am definitely glad I asked to hear the story!

 

ORDER ON LINE FROM FIELDS OF LIFE

If you know me then I have some at home... £10


STOCKI'S CHRISTMAS PLAYLIST 2020

Christmas Playlist 2020

(my Christmas Playlist 2020)

 

MIDNIGHT MASS - TOM CHAPLIN

(Twelve Tales Of Christmas)

 

CHRISTMAS SONG - PHOEBE BRIDGERS

(from If We Make It Through December ep)

 

IF WE MAKE IT THROUGH DECEMBER - OVER THE RHINE

(from Blood Oranges in the Snow)

 

SOMEWHERE IN DECEMBER - ANDREW PATTERSON

(from the single)

 

IN THE BLEAK MID WINTER - MARK LANEGAN

(from Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020)

 

WINTER SONG - SAM FENDER

(from the single)

 

CHRISTMAS MUST BE TONIGHT - BLUE RODEO

(from A Merrie Christmas To You)

 

O COME, O COME EMMANUEL - DUSTIN KENSRUE

(from This Good Night Is Still Everywhere)

 

SILENT NIGHT - NEEDTOBREATHE

(from the single)

 

WHAT CHILD IS THIS - JANE SIBERRY

(from Child)

 

MARY’S SONG - ANDY THORNTON

(from Bandcamp)

 

STARSTRUCK - DEACON BLUE

(from You’ll Know It’s Christmas single)

 

MARY’S BOY CHILD/OH MY LORD (Boney M)

(Dermot O’Leary Presents The Saturday Sessions 2016)

 

THE GOSPEL OF MARY - JOSH RITTER & THE MILK CARTON KIDS

(from the single)

 

HURON CAROL - SARAH MCLACHLAN

(from Wonderland)

 

REBEL JESUS - JACKSON BROWNE

(from The McGarrigle Christmas Hour)

 

HOLD ME CHRISTMAS - YVONNE LYON

(from Songs For Christmas)

 

SHEPHERD’S SONG - ANDY THORNTON

(from Bandcamp)

 

MARY’S LULLABY - JANE SIBERRY

(from Child)

 

THE FIRST NOEL - BRIGHT EYES

(from A Christmas Album)

 

O HOLY NIGHT - ANDREA CORR

(from Christmas Songs EP)

 

UPON A WINTER’S NIGHT - CARA DILLON

(from Upon a Winter’s Night)

 

STAR OF WONDER - TORI AMOS

(from Midwinter Graces)

 

O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM - DAVID C CLEMENTS w ARCO & MICHAEL KEENEY

(from Christmas)

 

LITTLE TOWN - OVER THE RHINE

(from Snow Angels)

 

SONG OF THE MAGI - ANAIS MITCHELL

(from The Brightness)

 

WISE MEN - ANDY THORNTON

(from Bandcamp)

 

COVENTRY CAROLS - MARK LANEGAN

(from Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020)

 

PEACE ON EARTH - YVONNE LYON

(from Songs Of Christmas)

 

GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN - DUSTIN KENSRUE

(from The Good Night Is Still Everywhere)

 

JOY TO THE WORLD - BRUCE COCKBURN

(from Christmas)

 

O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL - BRIAN HOUSTON

(from Joy To The World)

 

YOU’LL KNOW IT’S CHRISTMAS - DEACON BLUE

(from the single)


THE ANGELS SING A PRIORITY OF GOD'S

Peace on a Bobble

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

(Matt 2:13-14)

 

It is a few years since I first heard my favourite band Over The Rhine sing Another Christmas... 

 

“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”

 

Immediately I heard it. Something went off deep within me.

“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.

Peace is one of the Bible’s big themes. Shalom. The well being of the world. It is a holistic word like the Greek word for salvation which means wholeness. As Jeremiah put it to those in exile, “Also, seek the the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it propers, you too will prosper.”

The Zondervan NIV Commentary Bible defines this word peace, as the angels sing it, in three ways; personal peace, material peace and political peace. It could be marvellously paraphrased as changing lives, transforming communities and building hope. 

Whatever way we describe it, it should be the priority of the followers of the baby. Interrupting the war with the grace of peace; reconcile... build schools… dig water wells… share the Good News of the Gospel.


THE HOLY OF HOLIES - SHEPHERDS AND MYSTICAL STAR GAZERS

Holy of Holies

The Holy Of Holies

Where God lives

No one dares go

Only the High Priest

And only once a year

Carrying the blood of bull and goat

And aroma of sacred incense.

To find yourself in the presence of God

When you fear even using his name

The Holy Of Holies

No one dares go.

 

Until this morning

When

Look

Dirty shepherds

Straight from the fields

With lambs on their shoulders

Not even sacrificed

And stargazing magicians

From foreign places

Without Scripture

Or Abraham’s ancestral line

Gentiles!

 

Yes, this morning

Nobodies

And strangers

Enter the holy of holies

And meet God

In the flesh

As a baby.

 

It is as if the curtain in the temple 

Was torn asunder

By grace

Not works

By love

Not law

By a baby born.

 

For some time I have believed that all that that Jesus would live out and teach in his life are crammed into the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. That you should store up treasure in heaven, no earth. That the first will be last and the last first. That you should love your enemy. That the meek will inherit the earth. It is all here.

And in those scenes that many of us set up in cribs at the front of our church buildings lies the greatest of all Gospel truth. Through this baby any ordinary man or woman can now enter into the presence of God and have a relationship with God.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

The shepherds and wise men standing around the manger is a prophetic picture of what would happen later in this baby’s life. On a Good Friday thirty three years later the baby breathing his first breaths today then breathes his last breath… “at that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51).

This changes everything. It changes everything in our own lives. It gives the spiritual resources to transform communities and to build hope that has a form foundation on the events of time and space by the interruption of God transcendent grace. 


A COVID CHRISTMAS AND THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT

Covid Christmas

Seeing the roads just as busy as ever in December 2020 is almost a frightening thing. I know that this has been a long hard year. I know that we are all weary in general and restrictions and lockdowns have only added to that. BUT… this is not a time for relaxing our focus. Vaccines are being rolled out and although it will take a few months rather than weeks, we are looking at a light brightening up ahead in springtime. 

So, let us travel on the journey towards that light by living in ways that will allow as many of us possible to reach that light and not be lost along the road. Let us travel in ways that prevent our hospitals from being over run in such a way that the NHS is not stretched beyond its capacity and that others don’t miss vital care,  treatment and operations as a result.

We know that the less we are in the company of others the better the chance of stemming the impact of the virus. It will take effort and discipline, selflessness and a commitment to the common good.

In my own efforts I am looking for some help. In his letter to the Galatians the apostle Paul talks about the world of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly he starts with the opposite. All the opposites are self centred and lacking in control -  “…hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like”

The good stuff… the work of the Holy Spirit is all about love and discipline and patience. - love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

When Paul calls the first of these lists the ways of the flesh and the second the fruit of the Spirit, he is not meaning that the latter is just ethereal stuff that floats around some mystical nirvana. The Christmas story earths all of Christian theology and practice. If the fruit of the Spirit does not come though in our everyday behaviour then it is all just a lot of hot air uselessness.

The fruit of the Spirit comes into its own in times like these. As we try to delicately tip toe our way through this killer pandemic these are the things we need to start working. If these things get to work in us then there will be more of us still alive and healthy to enjoy the post pandemic days ahead.

These are all inner characteristics that pour out into strong robust resolve and action. Loving your neighbour. Finding peace deep inside. Forbearance and patience with restrictions and each other. Doing radical acts of kindness. Perhaps most important of all in Covid-19 days, self control and discipline.

With the word vaccine cheering us up and the excitement of the relaxing of up restrictions around Christmas Day it would be easy for our self control to weaken. 

Let’s not allow it. For one unique Christmas let us avoid big crowds; shop less or in more creative ways; and keep our gatherings down to a minimum. Jesus said, “by their fruit you will recognise them”. Let us pray that we will recognise the fruit of the Spirit in the low numbers of people in hospital and daily death stats come February.


WHY HEROD DISTURBS A MINISTER...

Herod_the_Great

"When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." (Matthew 2:16)

 

Does the Herod episode disturb you? It disturbs me. Why was Herod disturbed with the news of the Messiah’s birth? This is the long awaited one, fulfilment of all those prophecies. 

These stargazers have arrived from the east to herald it in. Instead of celebration, Herod is spooked and Matthew says, “all of Jerusalem with him.” 

Herod gathered all the religious leaders and they opened the Scripture to find the meaning of all these nativity stories. They looked into Micah’s prophecy and there it was, 

 

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me

    one who will be ruler over Israel,” (Matthew 2:6)

 

When the Magi don’t return, as Herod had asked them to, the dam of his anger bursts. Like some Game Of Thrones scene you can see him check the scroll again, then swipe the table clean, cups and bowls smashing and splintering and the sacred papyrus rip, like the veil in the temple later would. 

Herod summoned his troops who thunder out of Jerusalem to go and kill all the babies under two in the Bethlehem area. 

It is a challenge for those of us who have the truth, who look it up, lick our fingers and turn the pages of the Holy Word. 

Herod’s problem was not that he didn’t have the truth. Herod had too much truth. He knew that this baby was going to change everything. It was going to demand changes personally, materially and politically and he wasn’t up for the truth to have its way.

And what of us? Are there places in our lives where we have the truth but refuse to welcome it into our lives. No, we don’t kill Jesus but do we kill his revolution? John Stott said that the greatest evangelical heresy of the Twentieth Century was our lack of social justice. 

I remember it being labelled a “social gospel” like it was the heresy. Was that a misunderstanding of the Scriptures or just that the cost of getting involved in God’s Kingdom coming and his will being done on earth would impinge too much on our comfortable lives?