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January 2021

100,000 DEATHS... BE THE LIGHT... OR BE THE DARK...

100 000 deaths

(this is my Belfast Telegraph column on January 22, 2021...)

 

“There is always light

If only we are brave enough to see it

If only we are brave enough to be it.”

 

The words of that “young skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother who had a dream about being President and ended up reading a poem for the one”. Amanda Gorman. What energy. What poise. After her big moment, she spoke to James Cordon about how words are how she does her magic. 

Ms Gorman’s poem at the inauguration of the 46th President of America had me in tears at one moment, cheering like I was at a soccer game at another and feeling the call of God by the end.

The Coronavirus days are not going away. They seem to be getting worse. Watching the news at 6 can be harrowing. There is a lot of isolation and fear. We are locked down now until at least March 5th, almost a year since went into the first lockdown. 

It is dark. Way more people have died in the UK than in the Second World War. Think of the sacrifices people made to win that war. We need to show similar resilience and commitment. Your country needs you.

Yet, many are flouting the restrictions and playing loose with the lives of their families, neighbours community - even themselves. I have come more and more convinced that those who are ignoring this war on the virus should be made as socially reprehensible as drink drivers.

We have a choice. To be the light. Or the dark. 

I had a hand in writing the theme song for this year’s 4 Corners Festival that begins on January 31st. The song and the Festival is all about breathing hope. I feel a little insecure quoting it in the same article that I write about Amanda Gorman but the chorus goes:

 

Will we be the dark

Will we be the death

Will we be the kiss

Will we be the breath

 

Though we don’t use the word light in the lyric you can see the stark challenge. We are hoping that the 4 Corners Festival is a light and breath of hope across our city in the first week of February. On a daily basis we as a society have a choice to be the the dark or to be the light in our neighbourhoods, cities and town lands.

 

The light is actually most powerful when it shines in the deepest darkness. Oh how we have seen that light shining in the exhausting compassion of our NHS, as well as the staff in schools, those who have served at Foodbanks and so many others who have made the shadows more bearable in this strange year. 

 

What I loved about the last few lines of Amanda’s Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb was how she took two lines from Jesus and blended them. Jesus declares “I am lhe light of the world” — “If we are brave enough to see it”. He also looks at his followers and tells them “you are the light of the world” - “if we are brave enough to be it”.

 

That is where in Amanda Gorman’s poem I heard the call of God. She held the charisma and unction of the preacher and I heard those words as an encouragement in the darkness of what we are struggling through:

 

“There is always light

If only we are brave enough to see it

If only we are brave enough to be it.”

 

God, give me the courage…

 

Find out more and book events - https://4cornersfestival.com


PLAYING THE SPORT YOU COULDN'T - PEACE PLAYERS at 4 CORNERS FESTIVAL 2021

Peace Players

It wasn’t long after we bought our house in Ballycastle (the house we live in in Belfast belongs to Fitzroy) that I got angry and frustrated with my Protestant upbringing.

Ballycastle is a hurling town. If you are a young person, you carry a hurley. Everybody seems to play hurling or camogie. 

On the grass at the sea front or on the beach, they are using these sticks to knock a sliotar between each other. The way they hit it and even more beautifully control it in the air with the hurley the more I regretted that I didn’t get an opportunity to play hurling when I was young.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Hurling is a game for the brave. Catching a well hit sliotar in the air with two or three players around you. Courage. 

As a soccer player I was very fast, had decent close control, a good eye for a pass and a goal but I wasn’t brave enough to take it to a higher level. At hurling I would have been way to much of a coward to make it. I would however have loved a bit of skilful playing around down the seafront.

It is one of the many downsides of our tragic divisions. If you are a Protestant and go this school you play Rugby or soccer. Go to a Catholic school and it is GAA football or hurling. 

My best mate when I was 11 and 12 was Frank Kelly. What a footballer. He had the courage. He also went to the Catholic school and played GAA football so I rememberer him trying to teach me how to dribble with the ball in your hand for a few seconds, kick, ball in hand, kick… at speed!

Then Frank moved to Dublin and I was cut off again.

How I would have loved Peace Players. No hurling but the opportunity for 11 to 14 year olds to play the sports they don’t get the chance to play. Love it. More of it. 

So 4 Corners Festival, working with Peace Players for the third year, will give your children the opportunity. If they are aged 11-14 years they are invited to connect with others across Belfast for games, sports and activities, all in the comfort of their own home. 

Being at home will not take away any of the friendly competition and fun. In all of the energy there will be time to take a breath from all that is challenging our younger teens and a contribution to bringing Belfast together. 

 

register at https://4cornersfestival.com


ROUGH - 4 CORNERS FESTIVAL FILM 2021

Rough

We are thrilled to have as our 4 Corners Festival film this year, the award winning short film by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn.

Rough has a warning in its title. This is not Disney. It is black comedy and might not be ideal for the younger members of the family.

Yet, it is highlighting an issue that our city needs to take more seriously than perhaps it is. Punishment beatings. Week after week we hear news pieces about someone else receiving a brutal beating at the hands of post conflict paramilitaries.

I almost saw first hand  such vigilante justice in a township in Africa. That it happens on our streets is something that we should be ashamed of. 

After the film that stars Michael Smiley who I last watched on Would I Lie To You there will be a Zoom panel discussion that includes the film’s writers Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn, as well as the film's producer Louise Gallagher.

 

Book your place on the website - https://4cornersfestival.com


4 CORNERS FESTIVAL WANDER WANDER - GET YOUR BOOTS ON IN LOCKDOWN

 

Botanic Park

Over the last number of years The Wonderful Wander has become one of the most loved 4 Corners Festival events.

Jim Deeds and David Campton have plotted routes that have had us walking across swathes of our city, connecting areas perhaps really connected and filling the fascinating place a long the way with insights through poetry and story and art and song. 

Not so much prayer walks as spiritual awaking us to what goes on in our city that so often we can rush past or take another out around.

This year is obviously different but we are not going to let the fact that we can walk together get in the way of a good walk. We will miss the conversation and sense of 4 Corners community along the way but Jim and David have put together a wonderful wander celebrating Belfast City Council Parks.

The boys will “walk the walk” along an interesting, circuitous route from Ormeau and Botanic parks to City Hall, recording their thoughts and the sounds for a podcast that will be available on-line. 

We then invite you, when you feel free to do so, to grab your headphones or ear buds, lace up your walking boots and follow in David’s and Jim’s footsteps, listening to the podcast.

Register and receive the podcast - https://4cornersfestival.com


WALKING WITH JESUS THROUGH BELFAST

Walking in wards

(prayers I used in Fitzroy on January 24, 2021, inspired by Richard Carter's The City Is My Monastery and the lectionary text "follow me...")

 

Lord I want to walk with you through my city

I want to walk along the pavements

Down University Street onto the Ormeau Road

Weaving through people of different faiths and political persuasions 

People of many nations, colours, cultures

To smell fish and chips, see carpet stores

And kids spilling out of An Droichead

Running across the road to Mornington

Past cafes and bars and law courts and banks to Victoria Square

 

Lord I want to walk with you

As you stop to give dignity to the man sleeping in the doorway

Pray healing on the woman in the woman’s refuge

As you share your own story with the refugee running from dangers at home

 

Lord I want to walk with you

As you pray for the business woman struggling to keep going through lockdown

As you feel deep sadness for the rich man off to work for what isn’t gaining him his soul

 

Lord I want to walk with you 

As you make a special visit to our hospitals

As you put your hand on the shoulders of doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers and cleaning staff alike

To breathe resilience, stamina and compassion into their weariness

As you sit by the bedside of those who are ill or dying

Being with them when their loved ones cannot

As you pray for those whose treatment is on hold in order to deal with the crisis with this pandemic

 

Lord I want to walk with you in my city 

As I do 

Caress my soul

With your compassion and love

Be the rock and refuge of the Psalms at my side

Lord I want to walk with you in my city

And as I do 

Collide with my soul

Turning around my attitudes, values, ambitions, decisions and daily intentions

 

Lord I want to walk with you in my city

To find myself redeemed and transformed

That I might do what Jesus would do

In my city.

 

Amen

 

why not take a walk through Belfast at this year's 4 Corners Festival... The Wonderful Wander is not cancelled... we are locked down but rocked up! Book for The Wonderful Wander and other events, including one with Richard Carter at: https://4cornersfestival.com


ANGEL HEADED HIPSTER; THE SONGS OF MARC BOLAN & T. REX

Angel headed Hipster

This is great and well over due. A tribute album to the work of Marc Bolan & T. Rex that is not only a wonderful, celebration of his work but surely will have the work reassessed for its wonderful originality. 

Even I reassessed that. I shouldn’t have had to. I was a Bolan fan from the age of 11. Telegram Sam and Metal Guru were in the ether as pop music obsession began its seep into my life. Then when it had taken hold of me Children Of The Revolution, Solid Gold Easy Action and 20th Century Boy grabbed my fandom by the throat.

I loved Marc Bolan. I love the Glam Rock boogie of the hits. I Love To Boogie seemed a perfect soundtrack. I also loved the earlier folky acoustic stuff too. I loved the double package of My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows and Prophets, Seers & Sages: The Angels of The Ages. Apparently that is the longest titled record ever to be number 1.

I was heartbroken when he died so young, though as a 15 year old I had no idea how young 30 was on that September morning in 1977 when I met my mate Rab to walk to school and he told me. It was the month after Elvis. What was going on?

Over the years I never lost my love. Any footage on TV and I was loving it. Yet, my obsession got hidden, crowded out by The Beatles, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and so many more. Their lyrics were not so weird! I am not sure that I could get A Gospel According to… T. Rex. 

Listening to Angel Headed Hipster took me back to those glory Bolan days. This is such an endearingly put together collection by the late Hal Willner who sadly died of Covid 19 in April. 

Willner was able to draw a star studded cast and so U2 with Elton John on piano, Nick Cave, Joan Jett, Peaches, Kesha, Lucinda Williams and both of John Lennon’s sons to name a few. 

A stellar batch of artists, no matter how good, will not go far. Angel Headed Hipster’s strength is ultimately Bolan’s songs. They elevate his gift for melody and song craft. Nick Cave makes Cosmic Dancer a revelation, Lucinda Williams takes Life Is a Gas into swampy blues, Peaches gives contemporary energies to Solid Gold Easy Action. 

These are the songs of my youth. The songs indelibly marked. What Angel Headed Hipster has done is to make them the songs of my late fifties. It goes further. It has me falling in love with songs I had missed first time round. It has had me realise that I loved Marc Bolan when I loved the 7” single. There are album tracks to find. I found some here!

A wonderful tribute.


WHEN I ABSENTED MYSELF FROM THE POWER OF PRAYER

Buthelezi

(My script for Pause For Thought on Vanessa on BBC Radio 2 on January 22nd 2021. The theme was The Power of Prayer)

 

I remember once I absented myself from the power of prayer. I was doing prayers in the church I belonged to. As I walked up to the lectern I was debating if I could pray the prayer. I had my notes with me. It was written on my notes. But I wasn’t sure I could say it. Did I believe it enough to pray it. Should I? Do it Steve. Hope. Faith. Believe. 

I didn’t say it! It was April 17th 1994. 9 days before South Africa’s first post apartheid elections. BUT there were not going to be elections because Chief Buthelezi’s of the Inkatha Freedom Party was refusing to stand and if he didn’t it was all heading to the ditch.

I copped out. I didn’t want to pray what wouldn’t happen. My faith was too weak. I can’t remember what I did pray BUT I left Buthelezi off my notes.

A couple of days later, I walk into my office and my colleague David greets me with a “So Buthelezi’s in.” WHAAAAT?!?! I froze, not only in disbelief but in horror of my lack of faith.

A couple of years later I discovered that on the day I didn’t pray Buthelezi was at a prayer rally in Durban. It was at this prayer rally that he decided to stand for election. 

Darn it. This was a major moment in history and when I decided not to pray for it I bailed out of the power of prayer that shaped it. 

After 50 years of praying, Prayer is for the most part still a bit of a mystery to me BUT it seems to me that it puts us in some kind of partnership with God. 

It is firstly a conversation with God, potent in itself. BUT then, I believe, there is this other power to it, a power that seems to be able to look on the inevitable and somehow interrupt it with transformation. After the Buthelezi moment I am keen to go for broke! Not being involved in the power of prayer taught me a lesson about the power of prayer.


BELFAST BECOMES A CATHEDRAL...

Carter

Rain rings trash can bells

And what do you know?

My alley becomes a cathedral

 

I’ve long loved this Bruce Cockburn lyric. The entire song actually. It is from his very first record in 1970. Cockburn asks almost as a prayer:

 

Oh, Jesus, don't let Toronto

Take my song away

 

It is as if the city is the bad guy. To hold on to faith and love and everything spiritual we need to get out of the city. 

Declare me guilty. I love those walks on Ballycastle beach that I mention so often in these blogs. There, with the sound of the waves and the wonder of God’s creation all around me, uncluttered I sense God.

Or I remember almost 30 years now, driving through the red stone deserts of Nevada and Arizona and understanding why the apostle Paul took three years in the desert to prepare for his ministry. There was something sacred about it all. Something that you don’t feel as you look down a back alley with black bins over flowing with rubbish.

Bruce Cockburn asks that the trash and traffic wouldn’t take away his song.

Yet, my Canadian songwriting companion has spent the rest of his career finding that the alley can become a cathedral. He finds God’s light so lyrically in some of the world’s darkest places. 

I was drawn back to Cockburn’s work reading Richard Carter’s book The City Is My Monastery. 

Rev Carter was a member of an Anglican religious order in the Solomon Islands who found himself in parish ministry at St Martin-in-the-Fields, smack bang in the middle of London.

I can hear him singing Bruce Cockburn…

Richard’s book is not some memoir of how he came to terms with that shift in vocational call and geographical space. It is a work book (Rowan Williams’ words for it) for how to make the city your monastery. Or as Cockburn put it how to find a cathedral in an alleyway.

Under the headings With Silence, With Service, With Scripture, With Sacrament, With Sharing, With Sabbath, Staying With and When The Me Becomes Us, Richard leads us into how to be a pilgrim, disciple, in the clang and clamour of a city in the 21st century. 

He does so with real spiritual insight and also with lots of beautiful poetry scattered through it. 

 

Our monastery is here and now

Where you are today

The person you are speaking with

The room you are sitting in

The street where you are walking

The action you are doing now

This is your monastery

This is your prayer

Eternity is now

The city is our monastery.

 

This is all a good thing when we stop to consider that the Bible is different to Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. We do not, as Joni suggests, have to get ourselves back to the garden. The culmination of Scriptures is not that garden back there BUT a garden city. The new world longed for is a a new Jerusalem coming out of heaven with a river running through it.  

We are delighted that Richard Carter is speaking at this year’s 4 Corners Festival. Imagine our lockdown house is our monastery… our cathedral. 

 

Discovering Our Ability To Be Resilient

To complete our focus on resilience today, the award-winning broadcaster and journalist Seamus McKee chairs a panel discussion that includes Rev. Richard Carter, Associate Vicar for Mission at St Martin in the Fields, London; Rev Kiran Young Wimberly, an American-born Presbyterian minister and folk singer based in the Corrymeela Community, on the north Antrim coast; and Br Thierry Marteaux, OSB, of the Holy Cross Abbey, Rostrevor, Co. Down.

BOOK NOW - https://4cornersfestival.com


IF ONLY WE ARE BRAVE ENOUGH TO... - AMANDA GORMAN'S POEM

Amanda-Gorman-at-Joe-Biden-inauguration

I am writing two articles for different papers today and I was struggling. Then the amazing Amanda Gorman reached in to all our lives and I have a torrent of possibilities. Someone suggested I do a sermon series. I am conjuring The Gospel According To... Amanda Gorman!

Wasn’t she amazing? The performance itself was so poised and powerful and then the words. Words of hope and healing. Words of the common good and the possibilities therein. “… isn’t broken/Just unfinished”. Nice!

America has had a few tough weeks, many would say years. I remember a conversation in Ohio a year or two before Donald Trump where some were fearing violence, the divisions of red and blue and black and white were so tense.

I think it would be wrong if Amanda Gorman’s poem was so attached to Joe Biden that the 70 million who voted for Donald Trump missed it. Light from any quarter the Reformers advised us. There was lots of light in Amanda Gorman’s poem and for ALL of America to miss that, every nook and corner (and indeed the rest of us) would be very sad.

Tears rolled down my cheeks when she found herself in her own poem. 

 

We the successors of a country and a time

Where a skinny Black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

can dream of becoming president

only to find herself reciting for one

 

Perfect. Beautiful. Actual.

I left watching the inauguration just about the end of her poem to speak at a Public Meeting in support of the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association. I found myself unrehearsed quoting her almost immediately. Surely that made me one of the first people to quote the poem in a speech. I’ll claim it anyway! Apparently in doing so I quoted from Hamilton. I had no idea but it made me cool with my daughters!

Amanda had used one of my go to verses from the prophets. To hear her quote Micah 4:4 was like my team scoring a goal in a Cup Final. 

 

Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.

 

It is now twenty years since I started taking teams to Africa and Micah 4:4 has become very precious in my theologising of the work we have done in Cape Town and Arua. That I had to quote it in South Belfast brought some reality to the state of our world but it seemed appropriate. Here is God’s will for every human being. Shelter. Security. Vocation. Shalom. I believe it is what Jesus calls me to bring to the world. 

Which leads me to the words that I am using in the articles I am writing. Her ending. Oh the ending. 

 

“There is always light

If only we are brave enough to see it

If only we are brave enough to be it.”

 

Jesus said he was the Light of the World. We need to see it. It takes courage. Even more courage to respond when Jesus looks at us and says “You are the light of the world.”

 

If only…

Brave enough…

To see it…

To be it.

 

Wow! I’m in and I’m not even American!


A PRAYER FOR AMERICA (on Inauguration Day)

America

America

Today I pray for you

Grace and imagination

 

Take a moment… or more

To take a deep breath

In

To calm

The body

The heart

The soul

Breathe in 

To slow down the political adrenaline

That has been raging

Through veins of hyped up opinions

Breathe in

To stand still and look around

To gain perspective

Of self

Of neighbour 

Of nation

Breathe in

Breathe in the grace of God

Grace 

That forgives

That resets relationships

That draws in fraternity

That restores peace.

 

America

Today I pray for you

Grace and imagination

 

Take a moment… or more

To take a deep breath

Out

Across streets and alleyways

Mountains and deserts

Coastlines and prairies

Breathe out

A vision for this gift of democracy

Inspiration to shape the good of all

Compassion for the least of these

Breathe out

A role model of healing for the world

A care for the stewardship of planet earth

A future of well being for the cosmos

Breathe out

Breathe out the imagination of God

Imagination

That orders justice

That shapes community

That creates shalom

 

America

Today I pray for you 

(and for us all)

Grace and imagination

Breathe in

Breathe out