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April 2022

DAD'S DEATH AND MY PRIVILEGED MOMENT

Dad 88

For some five years I have wondered about my father’s death. My mum passed away in 2016, the toll of her devotional love and care for dad. Since then dad has been in a Residential home. Dementia had already taken him from us. Yet, how would he die?

On Tuesday morning just a matter of hours after I had the privilege of meeting Pope Francis in Rome I got woken in the night. Dad was being rushed to hospital.

On Wednesday night we made an early exit from Rome and I arrived in the Causeway Hospital at 5am. I have been here beside dad ever since. Being a pastor I know how the elderly can linger in those last days of death and I quickly sensed that dad had at least to the weekend.

Having slept on buses, planes and hospital chairs for the majority of the nights of this week, I wondered about heading to Ballycastle last night for a good night’s sleep.

Before I went my good friend David Quinney Mee sent me one of what I call his deep wisdom texts: 

"Waiting. Where waiting is no longer waiting "for"... Deeper than waiting. Letting go of "for". Being. Being there. Being in the place. In the moment. And nowhere else. Love. Open and beyond request.... Present…"

Wow. That spoke to me deeply. David and Rachel had sat at their beautiful daughter Lucia beside for weeks and months over many years and David’s wisdom from that experience also inspired me to stay by my dad’s side. It is where I should be.

This morning, after the nurses attended him at 6, I sensed that my dad’s breathing was very slow. I played a video of a Luka Bloom song The Man Is Alive and then came round the bed and pulled a chair closer to dad and began reading… repeating these lines:

 

Psalm 91 - He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;

 

Psalm 23 - He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;

 

John 14 - And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

 

I then turned to my favourite goodbye to this world - Psalm 73. I started reading from verse 23 - Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.

 

As I read “and afterwards you will take me into glory” God did. My dad left this life to those words from his son at his bedside. 

If I had written a way for me to watch my dad pass away then it would not have been more perfect than that.

I sat with him and then played a new song by my friend Doug Gay about the shepherd lifting the lamb to set him free and carry him home. It was a holy space.

Can I yet again thank all of you for messages, emojis, texts, emails, visits and your thoughtful gift Helen Logan. We have felt surrounded by love and prayer and good wishes from those who aren’t prayers. It has been an overwhelming week. We are tired, grieving but deeply content. 


SURMISING MICHELANGELO'S PIETA AT MY DAD's DEATHBED

Michelangelo-Pieta-848x530

The Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. What a moving piece of art!

My friend, Rab, had spoken to me about it a few years ago. Rab would describe himself as “relatively agnostic but interested in many aspects across religions” so when he shared with me how taken he was with the Pieta I took note and cannot thank him enough.

His wife was investigating the Basilica and Rab kind of drifted over and caught sight of the Pieta. It is the work of Michelangelo. A beautiful 15th century sculpture in marble, the Pieta depicts Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, in her arms. It moved Rab to tears. 

My experience was similar. We had met Pope Francis. I needed time to surmise that and all the things that he said. We went through the Vatican Museum and much as it was impressive I was still pondering the events in Pope Francis’ private library. 

Janice went off to marvel at the art and beauty of St. Peter’s. I was at a loose end and remembered - Rab’s Pieta. I found my good friend Fr Martin Magill and asked about it. He took me over to it and it was that same wow factor as Rab experienced. 

We encouraged Janice over to join us and all three of us stood and wept. 

The theologically squeamish might shout, “It is not in the Bible.” No, it is not. That does not mean that between the cross where Mary stood watching her son die and the tomb he was laid in that she didn’t cradle his body.

However, fact is not the point. This is not theological. This is artistic. Whatever the facts, Mary did watch her soon die. She went through her valley of the shadow. She experienced that trauma. Michelangelo expresses that experience of Mary’s; beautifully, poignantly, painfully.

For Janice and I we were drawn to dear friends who lost their son to a very unexpected suicide just weeks ago. It is not the order of things for a parent to cradle their child’s body. Our friends experienced it. They said that they could have held him forever. Michelangelo captured their heartache.

Fr Martin recognised who we would be particularly thinking of. He added his own experience of far too many young suicides in west Belfast. 

All of our tears were deeply felt. Fr Martin suggested a prayer and I prayed for my friends and then all the other parents who experience what Mary went through. The love and sorrow that mingles. Again, there is something of the Gospel story that understands our humanity and our brokenness. 

As I type this, I sit by my father’s hospital bed as he drifts, thankfully comfortably, out of this life. However, tough and all as my grief is, that is how it should be. A son beside his parent. The Pieta is for all those who have to feel the sharp wounds of the wrong way round. As I sit praying with my father I remember them again too.


THANKING YOU ALL FOR YOUR LOVE AND PRAYERS

Stocki and Dad

I wanted to thank you all for the support we have felt from you all on social media as we sit by my dad's hospital bed. 

I felt that it was too wonderful to just throw away in a short message, so I am sending out this blog.

My dad, Sam, has had dementia for close to ten years. Around six years ago he stopped recognising me. Five years ago my mum had a stroke and left us over a tragic weekend, probably caused by her loving care for Sam.

Dad has been in a home ever since and I have grieved every time I visited. Dementia is like a glass coffin. You have lost your loved one but have to continue to look in at them. It is harrowing.

Covid hasn't helped and we have had long stretches not seeing dad these last two years. It was good to see him last week and though I could see how frail he was, and Janice and I said our goodbyes just in case, I didn't expect us to be here so soon.

As I sit, watching and waiting, praying for a comfortable moving on I am drawn to an image that my friend Rev Doug Gay used at a funeral we shared recently.

It is the image of Jesus as the shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulder. It was used a lot in the early church, found in catacombs, as an image of Jesus carrying us from one life to the next. Earlier this week in Rome I saw it in the catacombs. I hold it for my dad today, praying Psalm 23 over him.

I cannot express how precious all of your social media likes and messages have been. Every thought and prayer has moved us deeply. As did Eddie, Helen and Andrew's visits to pray today. It is wonderful to know that we are not alone. 

So, keep using this social media for all the positive things that it can do. Pressing LIKE can lift a heart!

Love, Steve, Janice, Caitlin and Jasmine

 

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.

 

Time.

 


SURMISING THE DAY I MET POPE FRANCIS

Stocki and Pope

It is not every day that you get to meet the Pope. Even less chance if you are a Presbyterian minister. Yet, today, that is exactly what my wife Janice and I did. It was very moving and inspirational. 

We woke up to Rome on a Bank Holiday. It was buzzing and crowded. Arriving in St Peter's Square, it was already filling up. All day long people were queuing up to just get into St. Peter's Basilica. Quite a bombardment of stimuli. 

Soon though we were out of the maddening crowd and ascending the stairs in the Apostolic Palace  to empty rooms and finally reaching Pope Francis' private library.

My dear friend Fr Martin Magill and I were there in recognition of our work with the 4 Corners Festival. Austen Ivereigh as the Pope's biographer and co-writer had pulled some strings! Thank you brother.

Austen also made it possible for the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queen's University Belfast, celebrating their 50th year, to have a personal meeting too. So we reached that library with that group and there was Pope Francis to welcome us.

It was moving to receive his welcome. As he reached to shake my hand I leaned in and told him that I was a Presbyterian and he took my other arm and kindly welcomed me even more. 

Pope Francis has a warmth about him. He has a humility that is perhaps not expected of Popes or world leaders. Very quickly I sensed that all that I had thought about him was true. He has an open and gracious heart. He is keen to make you at ease, to feel special. He has a Christlikeness.

He is also funny. He had given us his written script but quickly told us we could read that later so instead what did we want to ask. That is a brave decision for a man of 86. He hands over control to whatever questions are thrown. He has to be sharp and think quickly to answer.

His answers were wise and full of great Biblical content. Fr Martin and I were keen that the students got to ask the questions. They asked good ones about sharing Jesus and living out their faith.

Pope Francis started by easing their intensity and told them to live like students. He shared his own experience. How he had done just enough work to get through. How important humour and friendship was to those student years.

He told us to get ourselves a little book of the Gospels. Have it on our pockets. Read it when the opportunities came. Then most of all, he told us, wear it. If we want to share it with our friends we shouldn't go around preaching at them. He said that the soul is moved by witness. Live the Gospel out in our lives.

Perhaps it was having a couple of Presbyterians in the room but he then shared about being out walking with his grandfather at around the age of 5 and bumping into two women from the Salvation Army. He said it was his first ecumenical moment. He encouraged the students to see their Protestant friends as brothers and sisters in Christ.

He talked about how we should send all the theologians out onto an island where they could debate the theological differences while the rest of us stayed in the real world and got on with it. That 'it' was very clearly the living out of the Gospel, working together in Kingdom building, justice and peace.

Near the end, I thanked the Pope for his message to our 4 Corners Festival and how amazing it was to have his message open this years festival and then having Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to close it. I then asked about how he felt we were working together now. This gave him the opportunity to speak fondly about his brother Justin Welby and their working together for peace in South Sudan.

South Sudan means a lot to Janice, myself and Fitzroy as we funded a school in Arua, Uganda just about 40 miles from the South Sudan border. Pope Francis told us that they were keen to meet the South Sudan leaders in July but refused to respond to their invite until Justin Welby was invited on an equal footing to himself. That humility again. That working together.

I am sure many will not agree with me visiting a Pope in the Vatican. I will graciously understand and beg to differ. For me it was an honour that Pope Francis recognised the work that the 4 Corners Festival does. As the leader of the Catholic Church it was an honour to be invited into his presence.

Yet, I did not feel that I had met with some head of Church as much as an elder in the faith, someone ahead of me in the journey who could impart wisdom and inspiration. A little like what Presbyterian ministers Ken Newell and Trevor Morrow have been doing for some years.

I know that I will unpack that hour in the Apostolic Palace for some time, pulling out everything said. The most vital thing I take away is his challenge to wear Jesus, be an authentic witness to Christ. To be as humble and human and redeemed as he obviously is. 

As we left he asked that I would pray for him. I heard from a Belgian priest outside that Francis has arthritis in his knees and is in some pain. I told him I would pray for him, especially his knees. He thanked me and I was gone... gone to continue to follow the same Jesus my brother Francis follows.

 


SURMISING MEETING POPE FRANCIS NEXT WEEK

Francis 8

On Monday morning (April 25th) I am hoping to be ushered in to a private audience with Pope Francis in the Apostolic Palace in Rome. That is an unbelievable sentence for a Ballymena Presbyterian.

I will be honest and say that I hold the possibility lightly. A number of years ago Janice and I had an invitation to meet Bono when U2 played their Songs Of Innocence Tour in Belfast. We were shown in to the Cedarwood Lounge with many other guests but we were told that someone would come for us and lead us up to the inner sanctum. 

We were also told that something might happen that meant Bono would be too busy. Lisa Marie Presley had turned up at a gig in America and caused Bono to have to cancel his meet and greet. We understood but thankfully Lisa Marie didn’t appear and we had a very pleasant 10 minutes with Bono.

I am not imagining Lisa Marie will appear in the Vatican on Monday either but I am also thinking that if Bono thinks he is important or busy then he pales into insignificance. Anything could happen.

If all goes well though, two Belfast clergy men will have some time to sit and converse with Pope Francis. What an honour that will be. Such an audience is not common or garden.

How? It is a good question. Over a year ago I was asked by Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to write a review of Pope Francis’ book Let Us Dream. Presbyterian minister reviews Pope was an interesting angle. 

Having read the book I was challenged and inspired. Pope Francis was writing during Covid-19 and seemed to have his finger on the pulse of a world in a particular “stoppage” that would offer a chance to reflect on where we are and then envision a new way forward. It was full of the personal and prophetic. 

Having jokingly mentioned the book and maybe getting the Pope at a 4 Corners Festival planning meeting someone mentioned that Austen Ivereigh had helped Pope Francis with the book and before you know it we had Austen agreeing to speak at the Festival. Austen seemed to really resonate with the Festival and got the Pope to send us a short video message which we were quite thrilled about. It meant we had the Pope opening our Festival and The Archbishop of Canterbury closing it! 

While he was with us at the Festival Austen suggested a meeting with Pope Francis. Again we smiled but could not see that happening. Then the invitation came! 

What does it mean for a Presbyterian minister to meet the Pope? I am not quite sure. For me it is like an invite from any world leader. An honour. I do not see that as just an honour for me or for Fr Martin but for the 4 Corners Festival board and committee. I see it as a recognition of what the Festival has achieved in bringing Belfast together, just as we did when we were awarded the CRC Civic Leadership Award in 2016. It is also an honour for Belfast and for all of our peacemakers.

I have no doubts that many in my denomination and other Protestants will call me a heretic! From what I have read and heard about Pope Francis I see him as a fellow follower of Jesus. I am particularly drawn to his humility and efforts to live outside the ostentatious ways of the Vatican. I have heard he even goes out in plain clothes to meet the homeless. 

I am also very much impressed by his seeking of justice, working for peace and reconciliation and his very strong support for protecting the environment. These are all Biblical mandates that I can shake his hand over, even if he is the head of a different denomination. 

What to say to him? That is an entirely different question. We are there as a result of our small efforts at peacemaking and so I imagine that is where we might begin. 

He spoke in Let Us Dream about how us needing to rid our selves of ideologies and we have two distinct ideologies in Northern Ireland. Both set over a century ago with very different circumstances than we now have yet there is no pragmatism or change in ideologies. Has he clues to how we bring peace into such a situation?

I would also like to talk about the humility of Christ. My recent mantra that we follow the God of the manger the donkey, the towel and the cross seems familiar to his own discipleship. How has he done that? How can we as churches do it better? 

It of course brings us to Jesus. As the Archbishop of Canterbury says if we concentrate on what we believe we will find things that divide us, if we concentrate on who we believe then we will find ourselves together in Jesus. Pope Francis seems a man who loves and passionately follows the same Jesus as I do and I’d like to talk about him.

There might be other things. Who knows. I’ll be sure to Surmise it all next week… if of course it ever happens at all. 


LIAM MCCLOSKEY: THE HUNGER STRIKER WHO INSPIRED ME TO PEACE

McCloskey

I was sorry to hear of the death this week of Liam McCloskey. McCloskey will probably be known in Irish history as one of the 1981 hunger strikers. For me he was an inspiration in forgiveness, understanding and reconciliation.

For the past decade I have found myself digging deep into my life as Fr Martin Magill and I have been quizzed about our reconciliation work together. We often say that at most of the events we end up learning something about each other… and about ourselves.

It therefore amazes me that I had missed a night at Queen’s University around 1983 or 84. I think it was probably and Outreach event. It was a seismic moment in the direction of my Jesus following for sure.

Basically two former paramilitaries Packy Hamilton formerly UVF and Liam McCloskey formerly INLA shared their stories of finding Jesus in prison. McCloskey’s story was particularly intriguing as he had been one of the Hunger Strikers, his mother bringing him off it after 55 days. These were powerful testimonies for sure.

Two things impacted me greatly. 

The first was something that shook me about Liam’s story. He told us that while he was on hunger strike he had read through the Bible. This amazed me at the time. A Catholic, Republican terrorist reading Scripture on hunger strike. I wondered about how we had considered the hunger striker? Did we think they were seeking God? Had we prayed for them?

That was a real humaniser for me. I started seeing hunger strikers as human. Republicans as human. Catholics as human… and that God was working away among humans that perhaps we had dismissed.

The second lasting image of the evening was the two men clearly reconciled. Both men admitted that just a few years earlier they would have killed each other BUT here they were now friends, brothers in Jesus. It was a strong symbol of reconciliation that lingered.

I remember the whole evening firing me up for peace and reconciliation. It broke down barriers. It built a foundation. 

I met Packy Hamilton a couple of times after that but I never saw Liam McCloskey again. I often wondered where he had ended up. On his death this week I watched an interview that he did with my friend Jonny Clark. I again found it inspirational.

Liam spoke of that reading through the Bible in the Maze prison and how he was struck by, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. He also mentioned a line in St Francis of Assisi’s prayer, not so much “to be understood as to understand”. Forgiveness and understanding the British became very important for Liam. 

That is Liam McCloskey’s legacy for me. People can change. Jesus can be the centre of that change. We should rehumanise those we might have dehumanised and in forgiveness and understanding there can be a reconciled future for us all on this island.  


EASTER ACCORDING TO U2 - Pt 2 BLOOD WAS SPILLED

Cross5

“I want to go, to the foot of Mount Zion
To the foot of He who made me see
To the side of a hill blood was spilt
We were filled with a love
And we're going to be there again

Jerusalem
Jerusalem

Shout, shout, with a shout”

U2’s first lyric on the events of Good Friday are found here in With a Shout (Jerusalem) from their second record October. Six years later, on Joshua Tree, they are more grown up artistically and theologically. In I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, which came about when their producer Daniel Lanois encouraged Bono to write a Gospel Song they nailed the theology of Christ’s Passion as succinctly as any hymn writer ever has : -

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it

In a 2005 book Bono In Conversation with Michka Assayas we get a clarity of Bono’s beliefs when it comes to Jesus and the cross.  Assayas is not a fellow believer and constantly pushes Bono on faith matters. So he suggests to Bono that Christ might indeed be among the world’s great thinkers, but son of God might be a bit farfetched. Bono responds with a CS Lewis-like apologetic: “But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off the hook. Christ says: No I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me a teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: “I’m the Messiah.” I’m saying: “I am God incarnate.”… So what you’re left with is: either Christ was who he said he was – the Messiah – or a complete nutcase. I mean we’re talking nut case on the level of Charles Manson.”

From this identification of Christ, Bono then looks at the essence of, and critical need for, grace instead of karma much as he sang in the song Grace from U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind record released in 2000. Bono’s focus for all of this is on what Christ achieved on the cross. Bono says he loves the idea that God would warn us that the selfish outworking of our sinful nature has consequences but then goes on to open up salvation; “The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point it should keep us humbled…It’s not our own good works that gets us through the gates of Heaven.”

Perfect thoughts for Good Friday as we walk with Christ to the side of a hill outside Jerusalem where his blood was spilled to break the bonds and loose our chains.


A TOWEL

Washing-feet-wiki-e1566331688599

 

On the eve of the greatest battle

The Colonel, the General, the Field Marshall

All in one

Not only of this motley crew before him

But of all of history

All of eternity

All of the Universe

Created and sustained.

 

Gathered in he gets down to tactics

And reaches for the weapon of choice

A towel

 

A towel

Flimsy 

Soft

 

A towel

He lifts it 

With intensity

Shapes it in his hand

Takes aim

Falls to his knees 

Pours water 

Triggering compassion

And washes his comrades feet

 

Taking the towel

He wipes them clean

Of the dust and grime

Of roads travelled

The world weariness

The inner pain

The personal guilt

The societal complicity 

 

So with a towel

Kneeling

Washing

Serving

He models revolution.


HOLY WEEK MONDAY - JESUS CLEARS THE TEMPLE

Turning Tables

 

READ: Matthew 21: 12-17

 

“Rise up shepherd, rise up

Your flock has roamed far from the hills

The stars have faded, the sky is still

The angels are shouting "Glory Hallelujah"


We've been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground

We've been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground


Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land

Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand

Find your flock, get them to higher ground

Flood waters rising and the kingdom's on fire”

-     From Rocky Ground by Bruce Springtseen

 

I loved Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. It was a prophet’s blast at the consequences that unaccountable capitalism had brought on the ordinary person.

Song after song deals with the fall out of the Bankers and those who worshipped the bottom line of profit, gambling in greed for more and more, brought many people to their knees while the perpetrators continued to milk big fat bonuses.

The rich getting richer sticks in the throat whatever century or generation. I wasn't surprised that Springsteen, who has become more and more spiritual in his writing, saw a parallel with Jesus in the Temple, overturning the moneychangers who were cheating the common people for their own greed and profit. 

I draw our attention to this song on Easter Week as it was one of the things that Matthew records Jesus doing after he had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

That revolutionary symbolism of the humility that Jesus was declaring as his way to reign is suddenly juxtaposed by Jesus most angry and, dare we say, violent act.

Righteous anger is how we have come to see it. Whatever the humility of the donkey image means it does not mean “meek and mild” when faced with injustice and the oppression of the common person by the wealthy money grabbers. 

How we respond to this contemporary issue is an Easter week issue but as I have meditated on this scene in the Temple this week I have looked into my own soul and asked, “what are the tables of idolatry in my own life?”

Jesus grace caresses and collides with my life. The Jesus who loves me as I am is at the very centre of the events ahead this week. Yet, Jesus collides with my own selfishness too.

Where would Jesus want to turn things over in my Temple of his presence? Where am I living for me at the cost of others? Where would his righteous anger burn? What rocky ground do I need to get dragged away from? Going back to Springsteen's song, what higher ground do I need the shepherd to lead me to?


MIKE CAMPBELL & THE DIRTY KNOBS - EXTERNAL COMBUSTION

Mike Campbell

Forgive me Mike Campbell. You have ridden faithfully side saddle to one of my main men Tom Petty for nearly fifty years and I have loved you that entire pilgrimage. BUT when you started a band called The Dirty Knobs I thought the name suggested a funny side project.

So, Mike, I confess I was wrong. It has taken about three weeks of dipping in and out but I have to conclude that this is an album to be taken seriously.

Not that it is not full of fun. This band loves to play and you can hear the fun they are having. Check out Rat City. However, that does not suggest it is not weighty in quality. Over all it is a guitar toting record, harder than those Petty days, full of stunning solos. On Rat City I was even hearing  Rossington and Collins duelling in Lynyrd Skynyrd days..

Campbell can be subtle and tender too. He did write Boys Of Summer for Don Henley and has just toured with Fleetwood Mac. In This Lifetime perhaps hints at why Petty was the voice of The Heartbreakers but it’s still a beautiful ballad.

The other ballad State Of Mind has the wonderful voice of Margo Price on a beautiful song of love, grace, loss and disorientation. 

Elsewhere there is rockabilly on Lightning Boogie, where old band mate BA rolls those keys. Legendary Mott The Hoople front man Ian Hunter becomes an honorary Dirty Knobs                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           on one of the many driving rockers.

Campbell has a lyrical touch too. I love his preach at the materialist Hersey of the age:

 

Blinded by love

In the back of a Southbound Greyhound bus

And blinded by greed

You better find out what you really need 

 

And I hear him loud and clear when he warns about how we are treating the planet and its effects on our children:

 

People are hurting

People of all ages

Mother Nature's angry and cold war wages

Gotta raise your fist, gotta raise your voices

It's time to make some hard choices.

 

With the hope of warmer weather and who knows maybe a summer, External Combustion will be a great wee driving album. It’s not Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers but It rocks.