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February 2022

HOPE IS...

Stockies Hope

In Bethel Royal School in the Nakasongola District of Uganda I heard the phrase HOPELESS IS A BIG ILLNESS. Today's Television news... War in Ukraine... floods in Australia... and Covid still all around...  could lead us into such sickness. So I thought I would send out a little bit of hope...

 

Hope is a known starling falling

Hope is the shade of an apricot tree

Hope is a dove with a leaf in its mouth

Hope is a star in the sky named for me

 

Hope is a greeting in the silence

Hope is a hand held tight in grief

Hope is a song sung in darkness

Hope is a fragile and robust belief

 

Hope is the promise you remember

Hope is the substance of a mystery

Hope is a veil that’s torn asunder

Hope is a stone that’s rolled away.

 

Hope is a decision for love and joy

And that we're going to get out of this minute

Hope is belief in tomorrow ahead

And that today we’re going to live in it.

 


HOW DO YOU PRAY IN WAR? - TOMORROW IN FITZROY 27.2.22

Ukraine-Christians-Pray-Image

We have all been shocked by the events in Ukraine this past few days. War is back in Europe and we thought that such ideas were left back in the history of the first half of the 20th century.

How do we respond?

As prayers flooded social media bombs were raining down on innocent victims. Did that mean God wasn't answering or that there is no point praying? Why do we pray?

Tomorrow morning we will ask honest questions about living in a world where there will are and rumours of wars. I will confess to how a lack of faith stopped me praying for an historic world event. 

And we will pray for Ukraine... again... in our sense of hopelessness it is what we can do. 

It will al start a new series for Lent in Fitzroy that will help us to understand prayer, using Pete Greig's book How To Pray. We started this series for Lent in 2020 but got distracted by Covid. Let's get back to it!

Gathering in Fitzroy at 11am with live Streaming... A recording of the service will appear on Fitzroy TV on Monday. 


WAR IS OVER (DID WE WIN)

 

 

I wrote the lyric for this about World War 1. I was putting myself in the soldier's boots of the teenagers in Fitzroy who went off to war. From their unmarked graves they ask us what their sacrifice was worth? What kind of world did they give their lives for?

As Russia invaded Ukraine I had this sinking feeling that there would be more teenagers made to go through the hell of war. 

Surely we do not want this as the legacy won by our great grandparents and great uncles and aunts. The late twentieth century gave us some hope that another world war was beyond us. As we watch the horror of the Ukrainian invasion may our leaders hear the haunting voices of our beloved ghosts of the first two World Wars.

 

Thank you Jonny Fitch for an amazing co-write and performance...

 


JANIS IAN - THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE LINE

Janis Ian Light

What is going on with the musical greats? Or is it just proof that they are great. In the last few years Bob Dylan, David Crosby and Jackson Browne have released their strongest records in years and don’t forget the strength of Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash before their passing.

Now it is Janis Ian. She is actually only 70 years old but is suggesting that this, her first record of original songs in fifteen years, might be her last.

If it is, what a way to go out. The Light At The End Of The Line is the work of a crafted songwriter at the very height of her powers. 

The acoustic strum of the opening I’m Still Standing lays out her 70 years:

 

See these lines on my face?

They're a map of where I've been

And the deeper they are traced

The deeper life has settled in

How do we survive living out our lives?

 

Those lines on Janis Ian’s face are a mark of life and song craft maturity. There is resignation of mortality on the title track:

 

In due time, there will be

Someone else who will see

All the good in your heart

Even though we're apart

Oh, how I've loved your heart

 

Coming out of Lockdown and heading towards the end of life there is a lot of hope within. Dancing With The Dark, no relation of Bruce Springsteen is almost a prayer:

 

This long night cannot last forever

This long night, sorrow shields the stars

Give me light

Illuminate the darkness in my heart

Dancing with the dark

I'm dancing with the dark

 

The closing Better Times Will Come takes the them on:

 

Though we live each day as our last

We know someday soon it will pass

We will dance, we will sing

In that never-ending spring

Oh, better times will come

 

Elsewhere I particularly love Nina, Ian’s beautiful tribute to Nina Simone. It is closely related to Don McLean’s Vincent:

 

Any kind of fool could see

You were always meant to be

Miracles in moonlight, worshipped from afar

Burning like a falling star

 

And how were you to know this world

Was so damned hard on beauty

Frightened by your lightning song

Nina, can't you see?

You were always beautiful to me

 

And the laid back piano jazz joy of Summer In New York:

 

Jazz in Central Park

Chocolate kisses stolen in the dark

Rooftop romance. Sugar by the shore

Summer in New York

 

The Light At The End Of The Line is a sublime collection of songs by one who has given us some of the classics of the era. It will sit very snuggly with her best work.


TIME HAS WORN YOU OUT (For my Dad's Birthday)

Me and dad

It's my father's birthday today, February 24th, a day after my daughter's... I haven't got to visit him for a while as the Home is closed for Covid reasons... Happy birthday dad!

 

The high jump. The Fosbury Flop. Golf. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Football. Making me kick the ball with my left foot only for hours on end. Many world class players wish they had a dad like me who taught them that. Newcastle United, even though I chose Manchester City. 

These were the things my father taught me. The things we talked about. Even in the early days of dementia these were the words that I used to find traction as a father figure who spent his life as an accountant could no longer add up the figures.

Time has worn my Father out. It has eroded his memories. The words that resonated. Time has brought him down a cul-de-sac with no turning circle back again. 

 

Time is an invisible memory bank

Time leaves photographs counterfeit

Time turns and burns and churns

A tornado with nothing in control of it.

 

Time is a dance we do to its tune

Time is an artificial measuring space

Time it tumbles, rumbles and crumbles

A cage we make for us to pace.

 

Time is a capsule that is full of time

Time always seems to leak too fast

Time it breaks and cracks and takes

A hope of forever that never lasts.

 

Time has worn you out

Time has eroded your brain

Time has brought you down this cul-de-sac

With no turning circle back again.

 

Time if we could take it back

What time would we go back to

And if time took us back to there

What would I say to you

Would we use the word love

And would that word be enough.


CAN I WORK THE GOSPEL INTO MY HAIR CUT ON NATIONAL RADIO

Stockman bearded

(My Pause For Thought on BBC Radio 2 with Vanessa on February 23rd (Happy Birthday Caitlin!) 2022. The theme was 'Back to Basics'!)

 

I grew up in the 60s and George Best was the best footballer in the world and he was from our wee place - Belfast. Even as a Man city fan, I was captivated by his skill but also by his long hair. 

So, I have had long hair ever since. I’ve only ever had 4 big cuts. Once for my dearest but fussy cousin’s wedding, once because I took a rush of blood to the head in the late 80s, once in order to raise £3500 to build a house on the townships of South Africa AND two weeks ago!

Even two weeks ago’s cut has a story! Last November I was getting a trim and the hairdresser botched it. So badly. For a couple months I put up with it BUT I eventually realised that something needed done. It was all straggly, fragile and out of control. I also realised that nothing could be done to fix it. 

It needed to go back to basics. So two Saturdays ago in our kitchen my mate Tim got his razor out! My wife Janice started hacking it off to get it down to a shave-able length. I had resigned myself to a number 6! BUT… suddenly it looked good. Janice had done a great job. The razor wasn’t needed. So, it ended up not exactly shaved BUT shorter, neater and healthier.

Our lives can get straggly, fragile and out of control. Sometimes we need to rein it in. Take it back to basics. 

In a famous story in the Christian gospels when Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again he was saying, you need it fixed fella. You need to go back to basics and start all over. 

I know it. There are times when my life is in such a mess that a wee tweak here or there is not enough. I need to confess to Jesus that all is lost and let him take me right back to basics and give me a brand new beginning. 


GETTING ASHED FOR LENT - AN INVITATION

Janice and I with ASH

ECUMENICAL ASH WEDNESDAY SERVICE

FITZROY PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, 77 UNIVERSITY STREET, BELFAST

MARCH 2, 2022 @ 8pm

Preacher: FR MARTIN MAGILL

 

Without question the most spiritually satisfying experience of Lent that Janice and I ever had was in 2020 when we were ashed at what was believed to have been Belfast’s first Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service in St. Mary’s in Chapel Lane. 

It was the second time I had been ashed. The first time it was a bit of a surprise - shock to be honest. 

I was to be a guest speaker for a few days at an Episcopalian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The Cathedral of Advent is one of the most evangelical Episcopalian churches in America. 

I was picked up from the airport and driven straight to an Ash Wednesday service. Sitting near the front I soon realised that they were all getting ash on their head.

This was not the practice of Protestants in Ballymena where I grew up. I will be honest. I felt awkward. In Northern Ireland we are conditioned to what is Catholic and what is Protestant. The differences are dug deep. 

There was nothing I could do though and I reckoned if I was going to preach in this Church the next day that I better go forward. So, in a prayer blessing I received my ash. I will be honest again. I was glad that I was in Alabama as I left, looking like a Catholic!!!! 

Of course, the truth is, that like my evangelical brothers in Alabama, it is not only Catholics around the world who get ashed! In other parts of the world many Reformed Christians are happy wearing the mark of Christ’s death.

Our 2020 experience could not have been more different. Of course we had spent more time in Catholic circles and discovered that the caricatures of what Catholics believe was more myth than reality. Oh do not get me wrong there are differences in some theology and practice. However, we had also been enriched by sharing our love of Jesus with Catholic brothers and sisters, learning particularly in contemplation and prayer. 

To be ashed in St Mary’s was still a little awkward, particularly on the way home where you realised that people’s prejudices were stereotyping us. 

In the end that decision to come forward and commit to deeper disciplines during Lent came back to us as we walked through it, particularly in that most of that Lent was spent in strict Lockdown. 

Having that ash put on our heads, a reminder of our human frailties, also reminded us of our passion for Jesus and his ways. When I stumbled through Lent 2020 I was brought back to the tangible decision, a picture of our public profession.

We in Fitzroy are delighted to be hosting the next Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service on March 2nd, 2022. The preacher will be Fr Martin Magill who is almost part of the team at Fitzroy and there will be an opportunity to receive the ash.

Why not come along and experience the richness of such a service. There is no obligation to receive the ash but as a sign at the beginning of Lent of our journey towards Jesus’ death and resurrection, let me invite you to consider it. 

to book: email - roberta@fitzroy.org.uk


MARY GAUTHIER - SAVED BY A SONG

Saved by A Song

Mary Gauthier has led quite a life. This book is quite the read as a result.

It begins with a police patrol car stopping Mary for drink driving and throwing her in prison. Later in the book she is in an addiction unit trying to work out how she can only maintain relationships for two years. In another place we catch on to why she ends up in such places when she visits the place in New Orleans where she was taken from her mother at birth and adopted.

Mary Gauthier has led quite a life.

Yet, this is not a book about her life as much as it is about her songs. Mary was 28 when she stopped drinking and she still hadn’t written a song yet.

In the Prologue, Gauthier quotes Bruce Springsteen, “Music is a repair shop. I’m basically a repair man.” What Saved By A Song is all about is how songs became the healing energy at the centre of her broken life.

What is unique about the book is that we get to hear about the craft of writing these songs and we also get to see a redeemed life in their writing.

Gauthier takes thirteen songs, eleven of which are hers plus John Lennon’s Mother and John Prine’s Sam Stone and as well as unpacking the art of the writing shares a harrowing but saved life.

God is all over it but not in the traditional sense. I am finding more and more of that. God is alive and well outside of the worn out structures of the traditional form of church. I saw it also in Brandi Carlile’s Broken Horses.

Gauthier sees songs, like so many musicians, as gifts that arrive from beyond - “my work is to be a receiver.” My favourite lines in the book are when she is so happy with a song that she says, “Jesus Christ himself could have come down from above to tell me the chorus needed editing, and I would have had to tell him, “I love you Lord, but I’m not touching it.” 

Maybe Mary Gauthier’s greatest artistic and healing achievement is when she worked with army veterans and their families using songwriting as catharsis. They shared their stories of Iraq and Mary sang them back. It became an astonishing record called Rifles and Rosary Beads. Two get dealt with here, that title track and the very very moving Still On The Ride. 

Saved By A Song is up there with my very favourite music memoirs. It shares what I believe about the art form and is full of Theo-musicology! 

If you are a songwriting fan then you’ll get a lot from Saved My A Song. Gauthier quotes little nuggets from other writers as she shares the secrets of her craft.

If you are fan of Mary Gauthier and particular songs I Drink, Mercy Now, Our Lady Of The Shooting Stars, Goodbye and Oh Soul then you’ll love the inside story even more.

 

 


WHY STOCKMAN REPEATS HIMSELF - TOMORROW IN FITZROY 20.2.22

Stocki smiling in pulpit

I always feel jealous of the singer. He or she get to do all their hits... again and again... and again.

We preachers cannot get away with that. Stockman repeats himself they would say if I did it. I can't shout tomorrow morning - "have you any favourites". I am always under the pressure of something new and original. Week in week out.

Having said that, as I often suggest, who am I to have an ego so big as to think that anyone remembers what I preached even a week ago?

Anyway, as I decided to preach an old favourite tomorrow, let me explain why I see it as an artistic act.

There is nothing more encouraging for me than when someone in the congregation uses a well repeated Stockman line during a prayer, or talk or worship session. When a line of mine becomes common currency my hope is that something has seeped through. 

I am always saying that no one sings the sermon on the way home. That is why the hymns are so theologically important. 

Repetitive lines can maybe have the same impact.

I hear Fitzers saying about "tumbling and stumbling after Jesus" or being "particles of light across the city" or "living 10:10 lives". Something has sneaked inside. I pray that they might dig deep.

Speaking of deep that is the word, as February would have it. I never set out to repeat week in week out the DEEP word but that is what has been consuming us. That to be authentic followers of Jesus always means digging deep. Nice or good livin' wasn't what Jesus was after. It was something far deeper, more courageous and revolutionary.

So, tomorrow morning I will bring out an old Rich Mullins' phrase. He used to sign his autographs 'Be God's... Rich Mullins'. That wasn't some new agey heresy that we could be divine. The apostrophe gives it away. Be God's property, ambassador, witness, servant, child. 

When asked why  he signed 'Be God's' Rich always said because he always thought that being good was easy. Anyone can make a good job at being good. Being God's? Well that changes the world.

My students when I was in Chaplaincy would have 'Be God's' as phrase as on what they called a bingo card; the lines that Stockman might say every week. They maybe thought may receptiveness was lazy. Instead it was a calculated creative way for phrases to stay with them long after they had left Chaplaincy.

When they repeat one back to me I am not embarrassed but thrilled. It worked!

So tomorrow morning it will be 'Be God's' again as Luke 6: 27-36 calls us to go deeper than nice!

 

Fitzroy meets at 11am and will stream live on Fitzroy TV. A recording is available from Monday morning.

 


JAN CARSON - THE RAPTURES

The Raptures

Jan Carson lived in our QUB Chaplaincy community at Derryvolgie Hall. Jan often talked about being a novelist. I spent a lot of time around an array of artists and know how difficult it is to make it.

Jan certainly had the desire. For sure she has worked hard at it. The Raptures is her third novel among a clatter of other books and the first thing I surmise is that she must surely have become one of our very best literary writers. 

Her writing has this ability to lilt along, all conversational. The writing seems to have been easy but is thoroughly crafted. She has this way of putting words on a page that you can actually hear them. That lilt in Ballylack, where The Raptures is set, has a very definite rural country Antrim accent!

On top of this seeming writers ease she can throw original metaphors, catch you out with laugh out loud funnies in places that you don’t expect and create very authentic ordinary people in very ordinary places that feel very very familiar. 

Now, Jan does fancy herself as a magic realist. She blames it on a year long preaching series on Revelation in her Church when she was about 8! In The Raptures that cooky part come out in children visiting our main protagonist Hannah Adger after they have died. They appear in her bath, her bedroom, when she is on the toilet! 

The children dying is the central story of the book, which is neither light or humorous but somehow without eradicating the sadness and sorrow never becomes too heavy. Carson has empathy.

The deaths start as a mystery as one by one the children in the same Primary School class pass away. The book is almost a mystery that turns thriller. Yet, it all happens in this rural village, the interactions of which are more the point of the book than the whodunnit and what’ll happen next.

Jan Carson has some issues with growing up in a Protestant village and particularly in a conservative evangelical home. The role of women in home, church and society gets a constant poking.

With the village I think she does a good job of showing the positives and the negatives. A community where everyone knows everyone can stand together when tragedies like this one happen. On the other side a community that knows each other too well can be fractious and judgementally gossipy. As for Maganda a Philippino wife…

It’s Maganda’s son Ben or Bayani, as is his real name, who nails the issue of Ballylack and any other small parochial place or narrow Church group. “You’re afraid of anything that’s different. You’re afraid of things changing. You’re afraid of everything staying the same. You’re afraid of upsetting people around you by drawing attention to yourself. You’re afraid of being honest about what you’re really like. Basically, you’re afraid of yourselves.” I wonder how long Jan Carson has had that paragraph welling up inside of her.

Fear is very much a root of the problem in the evangelical Christian psyche. Even with the best intentions of withdrawal from life and those people and things that might be spiritually dangerous can lead to arrogance, hypocrisy, exclusivity and a lack of love while over indulging in damning everything outside yourselves. Hannah’s dad’s feuds with her loving Granda Pete is the best illustration here. 

I utterly resonated with the scene when Pastor Bill was in the hospital ward with Hannah and wants to use a pastoral prayer as a conduit to preach to everyone else in the ward. This is not what a pastoral prayer is for. It is an abuse of ministry. So I love the line - "Sinead McConville Nil by Mouth gives him the finger and then adding insult to injury, swiftly crosses herself”. LOL!

Yet, Jan knows there is some good in there. I find Hannah’s honest wrestling with faith and God and prayer a good thing. I am obviously not against church leaders praying for Hannah. There are moments though where I think the prayer ministry can become a circus rather than a compassionate focus on the one being prayed for. 

Which is when Hannah’s mother, like all women in Ballylack submissive to their husbands until now, stands up to her husband and throws the great Belfast healer out of the house to simply be with her daughter in what might be her time of dying. Indeed, does God heal when a sense of justice and love has won and the circus of religion has had their tables turned over? 

It is a fascinating twist to the seemingly constant suspicion of belief and prayer that a miracle does happen. At the end of the book, having exposed many of the short falls of narrow faith communities, the cynical secular are also exposed. When the crisis management officer assigned to the village during the tragedy is summing up he has a major issue - the ‘miracle’ word. 

“He keeps the details loose and thin. He’s been told to stick to medical terms - full recovery, cured, prognosis - avoid all mention of holy shenanigans.” 

A mystery one might call it and that is what Jan named at the 4 Corners Festival as one of her biggest frustrations with the modern church.

There is so much more in this book. There are Carson loves throughout - a wee bit of Casualty here, a smidgen of Poirot there, the influence of Flannery O’Connor and Anna Burns everywhere and a beautiful Bob Dylan throwaway - “5 believers” - obviously!

I haven’t even got to the dead kids who remain in another Ballylack repeating the divisions and fractions of their parents! 

Which might lead us to some nihilist hopelessness but do not let it because the book’s first and last lines are paraphrases of a Lyra McKee quote - “It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better.”