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March 2023


Lineker 2

(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #11)


In Uganda one summer a mother said to my wife that she would happily give her her child. We wondered how a mother could do that. Then we realised that our luxury of wondering was because we live in a comfortable part of a safe city in an economically wealthy part of the world. 

That is the luxury that the parents at the vortex of the refugee crisis, who are risking everything in boats across seas, don’t have. They are not spongers. They are not trying to steal our jobs or health care. They are simply desperate to give their children a better life.

Whatever the detail of Gary Lineker’s BBC contract on what he can and cannot say is, compared to so many other BBC contracts that seem to allow anchors to rant government support at will, the Jesus follower has to be right behind Lineker's argument. A government that wishes to close off the asylum rights of people who arrive in boats is a horrible way to treat fellow humans fleeing terror and danger. 

For the follower of Jesus welcoming the refugee is a no brainer. It is simply what we do. Jesus said that those who would get into heaven were those who fed him, gave him a drink, gave him a room and clothes. When do we do this to him? When we do it to the least of these. So, the call is there to respond to the stranger, the homeless, the fleeing asylum seekers. 

The Old Testament was also commanding a welcoming of the refugee. It is mentioned in Deuteronomy but expanded on in Leviticus. Leviticus chapter 19 verse 34 says, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” The people of God knew what it was to live in another country and were to treat people well, remembering that they were not treated well. 

If the Old Testament people of God were concerned with the refugee then the New Testament starts with another such story. Jesus himself was a refugee. That Christmas story tells us that when the death squads hit the streets around Bethlehem Joseph and Mary were those parents heading somewhere else for safety. 

It is interesting to then take a wee side-look at why the death squads were sent. Herod was frightened that this baby would take away his place, his power, his comfort. 

Are we in danger of becoming the Herod of the refugee story? When our own comfort eradicates our compassion for those in need we have lost something at the core of our humanity. There is no doubt that welcoming batch after batch of refugees into our country might threaten our wealth and comfort. It might be hard to sustain. 

Well actually it will be hard to sustain at the same standard of living that we are used to. However, for the Jesus follower our wealth at the cost of other people’s misery is something the prophets condemned.

This is where I feel the refugee crisis becomes a Lenten issue. Lent is about sacrifice. It is about aligning with God’s ways. It is about reversing a world where wealth and comfort and power is the goal to a world of compassion, grace and servanthood. In Lent, we are preparing to stand before the Jesus of Good Friday and respond to his whisper to follow him.

Follow him to what? A safe, wealthy, comfortable world of hymn singing and fish in the lapel of our Saville Row suits. No, follow him to “take up our cross daily and follow me.” If that following is anything it is on the side of the refugee. 

A TRIBUTE TO WINNIE ROWEN (20.4.34 - 10.3.23)


I was so sorry to hear of the death of Winnie Rowen. It was just over a year ago that I wrote this now edited tribute to her husband Robert at the time of his death.  

Janice and I first met Winnie at a couple of Scripture Union Family Camps that I spoke at at Ovoca Manor in County Wicklow. She was so lovely. So gentle. So loved by all of her children and grandchildren and... Janice and I quickly fell in love with her gentle presence and smile.

Of course I was always in awe of her for other reasons. Winnie lived what seems like a pretty anonymous life in the Dublin suburbs but because she took the Scriptures seriously and loved her neighbour she in many ways blessed the entire world.

Winnie along with Robert had 10 children! As if 10 were not enough, when the wee boy across Cedarwood Road lost his mother, the Rowens took him in.

The wee boy across the road in number 10 was Paul Hewson, later known as Bono. He became best friend with Derek Rowen, better known as Guggi who became the main focus of two U2 songs - One and Cedarwood Road. 

Other Rowens became part of the story of the wee boy’s rock band. U2’s first album Boy and indeed their third album War had Peter Rowen's face on the covers. Peter went on to be a photographer himself and the band have used some of his photos.

Guggi wasn't the only brother with two U2 songs written about him. Both Bad and Raised By Wolves were written about Andy Rowen,who got caught up in UVF bombs in Dublin while out delivering with his dad, Robert. Read Andy's amazing story here

Anyway, it was Winnie and Robert who introduced Bono to Christian meetings. The Rowens were from the conservative Brethren and Robert was a stern, at times over stern disciplinarian. Winnie was his quiet, soft hearted yet stoic partner.

The Rowens reminded me of Andrew in the New Testament Gospels. It was Andrew who introduced his brother Peter to Jesus. Peter became the one with the widest influence but Andrew was the “gateway to the sun” as Bono sings of Robert's cherry blossom tree in the song Cedarwood Road!

I am always inspired by the very ordinary but tangible everyday way that Winnie and Robert loved their neighbour has changed millions of lives around the world. Quite an example to us all! 

In the sleeve notes to Songs Of Innocence, an album about U2’s childhoods. Bono mentions the Rowens from number 5. He calls them an “Old Testament tribe.” He is so right. I have had the privilege of getting to know some of this family. I think I once made a plea to be adopted as a 60 year old brother! They are Old Testament in size and their deep roots of faith and the drama of their lives. 

As well as Guggi’s friendship for life, Bono got so much more from Winnie and Robert. In the liner notes of Songs Of Innocence Bono writes about those Christian meetings with the tribe! 

He writes, “In their company I saw some great preachers who opened up these scary black bibles and made the word of God dance for them, and us.” In Cedarwood Road he sings, “Cymbals clashing, Bibles smashing/Paints the world you need to see.”

Brushing Lou Reed and the Rowen family together, Bono concludes, “Lou Reed, God rest his soul, said you need a busload of faith to get by. That bus was full of Rowens and I was on it.”

A few years after the Scripture Union camps I did one of my Gospel According To...U2 nights in Crinken Parish in Bray. A clatter of the Tribe, including Winnie and Robert showed up. Jonny Rowen actually sang for me that evening. I was nervous as I shared about the songs Cedarwood Road and Raised By Wolves. If anyone could shout, “Rubbish, he’s making it up” it was Winnie and Robert.

Afterwards I sat for a time with Winnie before moving on to Robert. We had a good yarn and then he says, “You know I took Bono to Bible Clubs!” Yes I do Robert. You’re the reason so much theology got out across rock music. Even after I’d preached his successful ‘Love thy neighbour’ he was still too humble to let it sink in.

People often ask me what I spoke about the short few minutes that I had with Bono after one of the Belfast gigs on the Songs Of Innocence Tour. The answer is the Rowen family, specifically Robert, Winnie and Andy.

So, once again I send my love to all those wonderful Rowens as you mourn the loss of the matriarch of your family. Janice and I grieve Winnie's loss with you. May Jesus be proved right when he called the Holy Spirit a Comforter. 

Winnie, thank you for how kind you were to us and for how kind you were to that boy from across the road. The Lord used you to be the catalyst of so many engaging with Jesus.


Granny  Mavis  Me  Sharon and Paul

(At then back of 95 Moat Road, Granny Kernohan's house, when I was around 8... cousin's Sharon and Paul then me with Granny Kernohan with Aunt Mavis)


At our Church weekend we were thinking about Church. Erin Thompson and I were asked to talk about our childhood memories of Church. I dug deep. 


There were two senses of place in my childhood - Maine Park Galgorm, the housing estate I lived on until I was 7 and Harryville Church. Both ends of Ballymena. A Galgorm Stockman, a Harryville Kernohan. I was set and safe!

So, Church for me as a child was very very important but I never went to Church.

Let me explain. When I say we never went to church, we never went to a Sunday morning service. My dad went in the evening when he was on the count. Adding up the money. 

BUT I never remember the three of us at a Sunday morning service. Later I would go, once a year, to collect my annual Sunday School prize.

For me Harryville Church was about Sunday school which happened before Church, Boys Brigade on cold winter Friday nights and eventually Youth Club on teenage Saturday nights. I at least started going because, my mum told me later, she wanted to keep her baptismal vows.

All of this took place in the Sloan Hall tucked in beside the Church on Francis Street. The Church was on Casement Street, after a Ballymena Academy knight of the realm who was executed for being an IRA gun runner! See his memorial at Murlough Bay. I always found Francis Street by checking for the mark my mum left with our Ford Cortina on the telegraph post at the Larne Road end.  

Sunday school wasn’t so much fun. I remember sitting around in circles. I did learn about fundraising, saving thru-penny bits for our New Hall but most of the rest of my memory is football chatter with Roy Harris whose family went to Australia and came back a year later for £10, Brian Crockard who later played for Ballymena United before tragically dying in a holiday accident at 22 and Philip McCrea who like me became a minister and helps us with the 4 Corners Festival.

BB was more fun. I hated the marching… but football. I got to play with future Irish international Steven Penney and win cups. I also got to be runner up in NI BB Quiz and was lead singer when we were joint winners of the NI BB Choir competition… that latter took place in First Antrim where 15 years later they would become very familiar buildings in my five years as asst minister there! 

I also remember during a Squad Inspection night… holding on as long as I could and then peeing all over the wooden floor, watching it darken the wood below my shiny white plimsolls, now slightly yellow. Everyone then had to walk round my puddle when we were marching. I could see the titters and though no one has ever said, I imagine they knew it was the future minister of Fitzroy!

Youth Club was for teens. For me it was about girls and music and eventually God, with snooker and badminton and a little footie thrown in. I remember putting my hand through a window one night when a Johan Cruyff turn went wrong. Your arm through a window. Time stops and you think “should there be blood”, “Will I die” “Is my arm cut off”. Then you bring it back through very slowly hoping none of those things come true.

Back to music and girls. I remember my mate Rab breaking up with the 13 year old love of both of our lives, Janet. Janet played some soppy love song, maybe Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, on the record player pointed at Rab. Quick as a flash Rab put on Smokie’s Don’t Play Your Rock N Roll to Me which might have been the first time I watched songs being linked - a trait I’d take into my radio show 25 years later. 

I had 4 good atheistic years at Youth Club before God caught up with me. In a bus of youth clubbers on the way back from visiting a GB weekend in Portrush a few weeks after I had another God bothering moment at the GB display I finally realised that God didn’t only exist but wanted to do something in my life! I started going to Church the very next week.

In the end, though I never went to Church until I was 17, Harryville Church was a major shaper in my young life.


Shift Your Focus

(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #9)




From your own efforts to gather more

To the birds who have enough

From your own attempts to look good

To the roses in their springtime magnificence



From the feeble efforts to change who we are

To opening up to what God’s grace longs to make us

From waiting until we are good enough for God

To having his strength made perfect in our weakness



From the selfishness of being stuck in a moment

To the usefulness of living for the eternal

From the slavery of the things that we see

To the freedom of living in the Spirit unseen



From the love we are craving to get

To the mercy we are zealous to give

From a holiness that feeds our self righteousness

To a Godliness that feeds the world



MATTHEW 6: 30-34

 “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

 “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.


Iain and Andy

It was a very powerful moment in a very special evening. 

By wonderful happenstance a few friends found themselves in the same geographical space for the first time in decades. A gig broke out. Just a gathering of people who might appreciate the songs of Andy Thornton and Iain Archer. A beautifully eclectic mix of people gathered. 

It was a unique evening that had the template of a concert but not the blue print. There was chat and laughter and relaxed informal playing on each other’s songs. Doug Gay joined them for a stunning song of his own.

Andy took us to Lahore and back, musing on his own vocational life, social justice concerns and big questions about God. Iain led us into songwriter sessions with Jake Bugg and James Bay, playing us his own versions of Lightning Bolt and Hold Back The River. 

Iain and Andy shared about their own friendship particularly life in Glasgow around 1992. This nostalgia trickled out across some of the small crowd. It hit me deep in my memory, then heart and soul as I stood behind the Fitzroy coffee bar.

I was looking out over the head of Helen Killock. Helen introduced me to the music of Andy Thornton in 1989. I was a Deacon Blue super fan and Helen suggested that Ricky Ross’s mate Andy Thornton was worth hearing. I went to Greenbelt in 1989 to see Bruce Cockburn, Peter Case and Andy’s band Big Sur. Sunday morning and we sat at the same table as Andy for breakfast…

About a year later Helen suggested that we should try and bring Andy over for Youth Night an annual rally at the Presbyterian General Assembly. There was laughter in the Fitzroy Welcome Area as it was recalled how Helen and I were unceremoniously sacked from the planning group after Andy said ‘crap’ during the evening! Honest!

In the midst in the midst of the laughter that followed I suddenly became aware that that was the moment when my Presbyterian belonging took a turn. Oh it played out over another 5 years of more major slaps in the soul but that was the first hurt in a long line of painful rejections. My story from golden boy to black sheep started right there.

I was still enjoying the gig. Yet, my head is now swirling with events from almost exactly half of my life ago. We are now in songs and chatter dealing with the fulcrum moment of my life. That is not only about my popularity in my denomination going down the plug. This was the place were two roads diverged and I took the one less traveled and found the life in all its fulness that Jesus gifted me and my life’s vocation.

At that same Youth Night event where Andy was using the word ‘crap’ we both met Iain Archer, again through Helen Killock. Right there the events that led to this night three decades later were set on a roll with my life transformed in the rolling out. 

Andy then sang Rage In The Darkness. He’d written it just before that Dublin night in 1991. It’s a prophetic song against all the oppression of religion. It spoke to me back in 1991 and behind that coffee bar in Fitzroy I realised that I had been living out that song ever since. It was a soul map to the road I have ever since been travelling. 

Rage In The Darkness is a song that looks inside the narrowness that some flaw in our human imagination can make out of the goodness of God’s freeing love. It suggest that we are led into slavery with a promise of being set free. Religion chains the best intentions of faith into systems and controls. Humans in our messed up religious systems get God so badly wrong that God almost stops believing in himself. 

It closes with the truth that “love conquers evil”. Whether 1 John 4:16 “God is love” or John 3:16-17 that “God so loved the world…” or Romans 5:8 “God demonstrates his love for us in this…” it is this love that we twist and unfathomably lose sight of. 

As Andy sang it in Fitzroy, it brought deep catharsis for the hurt of years of rejection, it refilled me with resilience and gave me back  the edge for how Jesus has called me to live and work. 

Oh there was much more happening at this happenstance but for me this’ll be the depth charge rippling out. It was quite a night.



(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #8)


It happens more than you think. You are in the Welcome Area after the service and someone comes up and tells you a story that you just wished you had known before the service began. Of course, the sermon, most likely, made your friend think of the story and they didn’t know your sermon before the service and so couldn’t have told you… but… 

Here is one such story. "Your sermon reminded me of a Spike Milligan story", George Sproule told me. Spike was in one of his depressions and headed off to the middle Ireland for some peace. He got off a train, randomly, in the middle of nowhere and as luck would have it the first man he saw recognised him. On asking what he wanted the man said, “Mr Milligan, follow me and I’ll be right behind you!” 


My sermon was on the recommissioning of Peter. The purity of Peter’s vocational call, way back when he was on the boats in Galilee had been badly tarnished with his denials of Jesus before the crucifixion.

The risen Jesus comes back to the beach in Galilee to restore Peter to that original vocation. Like a football team who find themselves three down in denials, Jesus more or less gives Peter three goals back by asking him three times if he loves him. Jesus equalises Peter’s three own goals. All is put right.

It is then time for Jesus to invite Peter again to this mad roller coaster ride of upside down Kingdom bringing. In John 21 Jesus asks Peter to follow him, In the chapter before Jesus had put it a slightly different way. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 

It is Spike Milligan’s “Follow me and I’ll be right behind you!”

That is following Jesus. From one perspective, it is an invitation and our initiative. From another angle it is Jesus pushing us on. 

Maybe you are where Peter was on that Galiliean beach. Maybe you are a little down spiritually. Maybe your original vocation call has got distracted or tainted. Maybe if you look up the metaphorical beach you’ll see Jesus barbecuing you some fish, ready to recommission. 

Lean in and hear the words:

“Follow me!”

“As the Father sent me, I am sending you.”

“Follow me and I’ll be right behind you.”



(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #7)


It was a moment that I will never forget. We were in Cape Town. I was finishing a mission trip with students. They were about to go home and I asked what they were not looking forward to. One student simply said, "The relentlessness".  

It is ever etched in my mind. That word - Relentlessness. It is a powerfully prophetic word to our culture.

Years later I preached on Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4) and I was drawn back to that word. In Fitzroy we had have been, as a congregation, studying Rowan Williams' book Being Disciples. In the book, under the theme Love and Want, he writes, "We privilege the consumer mentality (I'll have that one) and so we fail to ask the deep questions about the direction of the desire at the root of our being."

Jesus goes right to the root of the Samaritan woman's being and fills that God shaped hole. 

For me Lent has always been a season to clash the relentlessness of a world, awakes demanding from us and a God always inviting us into fulfilment.


19-21 “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

22-23 “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a musty cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have! (Matthew 6:19-23 The Message)


Sadly, so often the relentlessness wins.  



Advertorials of diets and fashions


Cinematic porn of loveless passions


Greed’s multitude of instant gratification


The consistent pounding of temptation

The relentlessness

The relentlessness

The relentlessness.


I see a fracture and drift

From our wealth and my soul

Filling my deluded empty dreams

But not the God shaped hole.



The constant battle of winning and loosing 


The myth of the privilege of choosing


The seduction of all this momentary stuff


The addiction of never ever enough

The relentlessness

The relentlessness

The relentlessness.


I see a fracture and drift

From our wealth and my soul

Filling my deluded empty dreams

But not the God shaped hole.