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November 2022

REACHING OUT... DOES GOD REACH BACK?

Cindy

(this is my Pause For Thought script on November 14th 2022 on BBC Radio 2 with Nikki Chapman... The theme was Reaching Out)

 

I had been in South Africa leading teams of University students for six weeks. I was weary mentally and physically and we were less than 48 hours from heading home and most wonderfully a holiday.

In this penultimate day we were reaching out to women dying of AIDS on the Guguletu Township on the Cape Flats on the edge Cape Town.

We found ourselves in a bleak room, Cindy’s bedroom. Cindy was a beautiful young woman dying like so very many others around her of this awful disease. We shared a gift package with her and as we were about to leave the young pastor we were with Jevon suggested that he prayed for Cindy. As I often do in such situations I reached out and touched Cindy’s shoulder as Jevon prayed. 

Jesus suggested that the most important things his followers could do was to reach out to the homeless, the naked, the hungry, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. When we reached out and helped these marginalised people Jesus said we would be doing it to him.

I often saw those last words as just poetic flourish that Jesus used at the end of his story.

BUT when I reached out to Cindy it changed my thinking. When I opened my eyes after Jevon said Amen I had the strangest feeling. I felt refreshed. It was like the weariness was gone. I came out of the house and my assistant Lynn asked how I had found it. I don’t know, I muttered, but I don’t want to go home. Let’s stay for another month. 

Could it have been that when I reached out to Cindy and did this for her I actually was doing it for Jesus.

After I got home someone told me that they had been reading the psychologist Larry Crabb who said we didn’t fix ourselves when we concentrated on making ourselves better. In the light of my moments with Cindy it made perfect sense. In attempting, even in vain, to help someone else I had found God reaching out to help me.


HERE WE ARE... INTERSECTION... WE REMEMBER

Rememerance Day

Today as we remembered those lost in war... and Jesus death in the sacrament of communion... I preached on the intersection of what we carry from the past and how live from here. I used a James K A Smith quotation from his book How To Inhabit Time:

"Contingency means that of every history wench say "It didn't have to be this way" and " This is the way it is." The question at the intersection is, Now what? How to live forward."

I then wrote this prayer/poem to lead us into communion.

 

Here we are

We carry the past to here

It didn’t have to be this way

But

This is the way it is

Let us look around

 

We remember

The effects of a broken world

Wars

Hate

Violence

Loss

Grief

Trauma

 

We remember

Our faith

God as one of us

Loving us

Demonstrating his love in this

While we were still sinners

He died for us

 

We remember 

Redemption

Forgiveness

New birth

The lamb of God

Taking the sins of the world

 

We remember

A call to follow

To pray

God’s Kingdom come

On earth is in heaven

 

We remember

We are here

We come with what we are

We come with what we’ve done

We are a beginning

 

At this intersection

God use this bread and wine

To give us faith in the brokenness

To give us love in the presence of hate

To give us peace in the every absence of it

To give us hope when it is against ALL the odds

To give us resilience in the long hard slog

To give us joy in spite of it all

To give us a vision 

Of how live forward

To where lions lie with lambs

And wolves eat with lambs 

And swords are made into ploughshares

And people study war no war

 

Here we are

At the intersection of history

We remember


SURMISING PREACHER'S REPEATING THEIR STORIES

Steve IF

I would love to be able get up on a Sunday, perhaps after a week of feeling inspirationally dry week and say to the congregation, “Any favourites?” I have long envied the singer of songs. Not only can they ask for favourites but they have to repeat themselves. People want their favourites, every night. Springsteen has to play Born To Run every night, Elton John Rocket Man, Coldplay’s Yellow

As a preacher I have the feeling that if I repeat a story that I’ll be judged for it. Oh I’ve heard that one before. What was the point in hearing it again!

Now, I am not sure that I have ever preached the same sermon twice. Even back in the day when I was filling in as preacher for ministers who had three churches to look after, I am not sure anyone could have said that the second sermon bore any resemblance to the first even if it was from the same passage. By the third I would have been bored and was definitely onto something else even if I riffed off the first two.

Yet, still I have themes that I return to… and stories. When I was Chaplain, living in a residence community in Derryvolgie Hall, the students joked about a bingo card that they ticked off - 

Rich Mullins’ “Don’t be good, be God’s”

Douglas Coupland’s “If you are not opening every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world… you’re eating your day”

Bono’s “Grace, name for a girl and a thought that can change the world”

The truth is that when I hear those that I minister to quoting my quotes I feel I have embedded something, got some truth across. You rarely pick things up on one listen.

Tomorrow I might end my sermon with a story I have used before in Fitzroy, maybe more than once in my thirteen years there. I will use it in a different sermon and therefore give it a different angle than I have given it before. 

For some of the congregation it will be the first time they have heard it. Others will have no memory of me using it. I hope that those who have heard it before will allow my story’s point to lower deeper into their souls.

For some I know you don’t mind and might be happy to hear it again. For others I feel that I need to explain myself. This blog is me giving myself licence to do so. What’s the point of a good story if you don’t use it often. Just like having a good song… any favourites?


RICKY ROSS - THE SOUL SURMISE PODCAST

Ricky Podcast

In this episode of the Soul Surmise Podcast I have the privilege of a yarn with Ricky Ross, broadcaster, author and of course lead singer of Deacon Blue. 

I take the opportunity to ask Ricky about his new memoir Walking Back Home and the how he writes about Deacon Blue, family and faith. We move on to his new solo album Short Stories Vol 2 and finish up getting excited about his Irish dates later in the month, in Cork, Dublin and Belfast. In Belfast he will be playing Fitzroy, singing from the same space where I preach on a Sunday!

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BOB DYLAN LIVE IN DUBLIN - November 7, 2022

Rowdy

Bob Dylan live. There's a risk but I went back. It had been thirty years since a Hammersmith Odeon gig in London winter snow and slush put me off Dylan live for life. I even walked past his set at the Phoenix Festival in 1995 because I knew that Aimee Mann would be better So, I went back looking for redemption from February 1992.

It was certainly different. In this Never Ending Tour that started back in the 80s Dylan was all about playing different songs every night, throwing in all kinds of surprises. Not now. This recent Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour is a different thing altogether. Every set list has been the same, like a piece of theatre, rehearsed carefully. Now using the “carefully” word in a Bob Dylan review… come on.

The other thing that is very different is that Dylan is promoting his latest record. His Bobness has been renowned for not playing anything from new records, the very reason that every other act goes out on tour. Not this time. This time we get the very vast majority of his latest Rough & Rowdy Ways record.

Around this there are none of the Greatest Hits. No Blowing In The Wind or Like A Rolling Stone or Mr Tambourine Man or Forever Young. Nope, we get Watching The River Flow and When I Paint My Masterpiece which ironically were first released as extra tracks on his More Greatest Hits from 1971, a couple from Nashville Skyline, Most Likely, You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine and You Gotta Serve Somebody. Every one reinvented. Why these are Bob’s choices, only Bob can guess.

The main thing are the new songs. The entire evening has a lean, clean, measured blues strut. Or perhaps we’ll call it shuffle. This band  are tight. The playing is mesmeric. Dylan is centre stage behind a piano which he edges out from behind every few songs for an ovation and then back again. Bob’s voice is strong but without out any kind of singing range. He comes across as Leonard Cohen being crossed with ah… Bob Dylan. The vocal is a scat shuffle along to the band. Never has Dylan’s voice and the band been so in sync.

It works. It works incredibly well. This is the clearest Dylan vocal I have ever heard live and it is riveting. I am amazed at how well I had gotten to know the new songs and most of them work a treat. I love I Contain Multitudes is quite the lyric and I love and loved Black Rider, Goodbye Jimmy Reed and Crossing The Rubicon. Mother Of Muses on the other hand didn’t write work and Key West was a little too ponderous and long for me.

The Theomusicologist in me was particularly drawn to Slow Train Coming’s Gospel preach You Gotta Serve Somebody rewritten being followed by into I’ve Made up My Mind To Give Myself To You. The thought when I reviewed the record that the latter was directed at God seemed to find some proof.

Best of all, perfectly placed, spiritually brimming with poignancy and quite emotional was the closing Every Grain Of Sand. This for me is Dylan’s best ever, lyrics from which are quite at the beginning of Bono’s new memoir Surrender.

I call it a hymn and a hymn it was tonight. He pulls out the harmonica, taking us back to his beginnings BUT this is where he goes back to. This is where he end it. As it finished you felt that if that is the last time I ever see Bob Dylan, the last song he sings for me live that it was the perfect closer. He must know that himself and he must also know that whatever ragged performances he has given like Hammersmith 1992 that this brought utter redemption.


MY SPEECH AT LAUNCH OF GOOD RELATIONS AWARDS 2023

 

Martin and Me Prize Winners

This morning saw the launch of the Northern Ireland Good Relations Awards 2023. They were held at The Hill of O'Neill & Ranfurly House in Dungannon. Fr Martin Magill and I were honoured to receive the Civic Leadership Award in 2016 and were asked to say a few words about what the award meant to us.

 

I better be careful to get this right. My notes are on the page across from Sunday’s sermon. Well actually, while I have you... I ended my sermon on Sunday with words from a new book by James K A Smith, a Professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He writes:

“Our past is not what we have left behind; it’s what we carry. It’s like we have been handed a massive ring of  jangling keys. Some of them unlock possible futures. Some of them have enchained our neighbours. We are thrown into the situation of trying to discern which is which."

I have brought my Award with me today. Firstly it means a lot to me and secondly my daughter won an Award at Stranmillis College and so mine that used to sit on the mantel piece is now on the hearth! I wanted to lift it up again.

The Award meant a lot to me for various reasons. As someone said at the time I wasn’t getting it from my denomination who actually paid no attention to me winning it. It meant a lot that it came from civic society.

It meant a lot that I won it jointly with Fr Martin. This was an Award given for friendship. A very remarkable friendship for sure. I look back at Kairos moments in my life. Life changers. My conversion experience as teenager, my call to ministry, meeting my wife for the first time. Another such moment was meeting Martin. We both left our first cup of coffee wondering what just happened. It was like a vocational call to friendship that we knew was going to go somewhere and little did we know where.

It also meant a lot for me to share it with Fitzroy a congregation who encourages me in all this peacemaking. And the 4 Corners Festival committee and board. This was for them and the work that they do for the Festival.

My family. The photo of this trophy with my Janice and Caitlin and Jasmine is a treasure. They sacrificed for me to do what I do.

And my mum. She passed away just a few months after we received the award and I hope it told her that I wasn’t wasting my life. 

The day we received the award Peter Osborne asked me what it meant to me. I told him that I hoped that it would see me through the down moments, the difficult times. That when I felt like giving up I would look at the award and it would lift me and keep me going. I think it has.

A few months ago Martin and I went into spend some time with  Pope Francis. A couple of days later another denomination wrote to a news paper trying to get me sacked. That is when I look at the Award even if it is now on the hearth.

Also, whether Martin and I should meet the Pope, you gotta think, “It’s like we have been handed a massive ring of  jangling keys. Some of them unlock possible futures. Some of them have enchained our neighbours.”

So thank you so much for this Award. As the ancient text says, “let us consider how to spur one another on towards love and good deeds” (Hebrew 10:24). Thank you for spurring me on!

 

The James K A Smith’s book that I quote is How To Inhabit Time; Understanding The Past, Facing The Future, Living Faithfully Now.


THE SOUL SURMISE PODCAST with TONY MACAULEY

Tony And `me Podcast

 

Northern Ireland author Tony Macauley didn't write his first book until he was in his 40s. He has now 4 memoirs and a novel in the bag and two of those memoirs Paperboy and Breadboy have been turned into musicals.

As Tony re-publishes his fourth memoir The Little House On The Peace Line I took the excuse to chat to him about his writing life and why he felt that new was the right time to re-publish...

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Read my reviews:

THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PEACE LINE

ALL GROWED UP


BOB MORTIMER - THE SATSUMA COMPLEX

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I love Bob Mortimer. That love is weighed entirely upon his appearances on Would I Lie To You. I have seen nothing else he has ever done. No, my love is all based on those crazy stories he tells in his own inimitable way. His innocent laugh in stories that show the worldly wisdom of an adventurous childhood and youth.

I felt bad at my limited exposure to Bob’s work until I read in his brilliant autobiography And Away... that he felt that he only learned to act during Would I Love To You. Now he is saying that it was in the story telling part of Would I Lie To You that he learned to spin a yarn… hence The Satsuma Complex. 

Now I’ll be honest, I was still a little suspicious. Richard Osman is one thing. Rev Richard Coles another… but Bob Mortimer? Writing thrillers? 

Well, it appears that Bob Mortimer can write thrillers. Having read Bob’s autobiography it didn’t take me long to recognise the main character in the Satsuma Complex is the dull 20 something Bob Mortimer, that gap between the adventurous youth and meeting Vic Reeves who brought comedic colour to his greyness! 

The ordinariness of Gary is very ordinary. Then out having a drink with Brendan Jones, an acquaintance more than a friend, he becomes the last person to see Brendan alive and becomes infatuated by a woman. Suddenly ordinary Gary is thrown into crime, murder and intrigue… and, as a crucial side story, romance.

The Satsuma Complex is laugh out loud funny as Mortimer weaves that tall tales style he uses in Would I Lie To You, dropping names and descriptive words only Bob can conjure. We even have a squirrel who appears regularly to chat Gary through some of the things he needs to think around. 

Mortimer doing the tall tale well and making it very funny is no surprise. What is more impressive is how he weaves the plot, mysteriously building, ever intriguing and, by the end, page turning gripping. 

Bob Mortimer. What a guy. The older he gets the more genius he discovers within himself. Excellent debut novel just at the age everyone else is thinking of retiring! 


IF JESUS CAME TODAY... HE'D BE ON A CROSS

Radical Jesus

In 1966 John Lennon made a throwaway, non theological comment to journalist Maureen Cleave that his band The Beatles were "more popular than Jesus". Beatles albums became the fuel for mass bonfires across America's Bible Belt. Why I am not so sure, Christians who believe so much in truth and honesty could hardly quibble with someone accurately describing a truth that was too easily defendable.

There was no questioning the fact of the statement what I want to ask is how could it have become a fact. How could four guys from Liverpool with long hair and guitars, singing "She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah" be more relevant than Jesus Christ the Son of God who came to bring us life in all it's fullness. As I read the Gospels I am more and more convinced that Jesus is as relevant if not more so today than he was in 30 AD.

Jesus once asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" I have a deep conviction that we who claim to represent Him at the beginning of the Third Millennium need to urgently ask that question again because I believe that we are a long way off revealing the real Jesus to our world. Tozer once said that "what we think about God is the most important thing about us" and I believe it to be vital that we reassess what we think about Christ.

I believe that if Jesus came back into our evangelical Churches He would end up in the same place on Good Friday. He would not be your middle class boy, nicely dressed and spending all his time at Prayer meetings. He'd tell us some crazy things in Northern Ireland like "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you." And he'd probably say it on the Sunday before the Twelfth, even with Orangemen or Residents Groups in the congregation!

He'd probably look at the dreams we have for our children. The best education so that they get a well paid career with promotion prospects, a beautiful and wealthy spouse, a house in South Belfast with two good cars. Then he'd probably tell us that the lilies of the field are better dressed than all your Credit cards can buy in Hollister and say something like, "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

He would perhaps ask perceptive and probing questions about what we live for. Does our first world decadence seek solace, sustenance and soothing in our leisure time and our vocations? Do we serve God, the Church and others when we’ve fitted in our weekend activities for ourselves first? After all, we are busy, stretched at work, under pressure. It is a stressful world in the 2000s. Would he ask us to seek first God’s kingdom and see everything else added to us. And would we?

He'd probably sit in on our Prayer Meetings and be glad that we realise that where two or three are gathered he is in the midst. He might make the meeting a little less cozy by telling us that if we don't feed him when he is hungry, give him a drink when he is thirsty, visit him when sick or in prison, invite him in when he is a stranger clothe him when he is naked then we will cursed into eternal fire. When we ask when he is like that he'll conclude, "I tell you the truth what you did not do for one of the least of these you did not do for me." Yes he may ask us when we last met him in the face of the hungry tramp or imprisoned terrorist.

Yes, Jesus would say exactly the same things today as He said back then. His message would not have changed.

His company may be much the same too. He might not have too much time to go to too many Church meetings and may indeed attract a dodgy bunch of friends rather than those we vote in as elders. You could see him walking through the inner city and seeing a rather short drug dealer perched up a tree to get a view. He'd walk through all the religious people who had the roast already on the timer and ask this social outcast to make him his lunch. Would his Zacchaeus, up a tree in Belfast, be a paramilitary from the other side? He'd probably attract all kinds of down and outs and good for nothings and he'd have little time for the religious.

Yes, Jesus would hang out with exactly the same people today as he did back then.

Prostitutes. Yes, he'd bump into a few of those. Befriend them actually. They'd maybe be the very first to get in on some important theological truth.

I lived for a very short time in the centre of Belfast in a block of flats outside which the prostitutes hung out. For a good wee Ballymena boy it was a little unnerving if a little repulsive too. Walking out past them every night I eventually longed to be able just to say hello. Give a little dignity into their day. I couldn't. Good Christian discipleship. I thought.

Then I thought again. Bad Christian discipleship. I realised that in all the discipleship classes I'd ever goneto, no one had ever told me how to speak to prostitutes. How to read my Bible twice a day, how I had to go to two services on a Sunday, the midweek and summer beach missions but no one told me how to speak to prostitutes. No one had taught me how to follow Jesus.

Another very influential songwriter Jackson Browne recently described his song "Rebel Jesus" as being written about "his allegiance to Christ but not Christianity". As a follower of Jesus Christ in 2013 and someone committed to His Church I find myself labelled as part of Christianity. My life is therefore committed to getting back to First Century Palestine to meet Jesus and to follow Him and not the Jesus that is filtered through 2000 years of circumstance, ideas, culture and traditions.

I do not want to be a reflection of a diluted Jesus, whether that comes from early Church Fathers and Creeds, monks and Popes, Reformers, Anna Baptists, Social Revolutionaries, travelling evangelists or revivals, liberal theologians or charismatic house Churches . There may be many good things to be learned from all of these but it is Jesus not these traditions that I am called to follow.

I may be wrong but I believe that to follow Jesus, undiluted, would turn my world upside down just in the same way as it did in The Acts of The Apostles. That is my daily devotion and struggle. My allegiance like, Jackson Browne's, is to Christ and not Christianity. He says to me still, "as the Father has sent me I am sending you" - now "who do you say that I am?"