Mum's Skip

It was like a liturgical act, embedded with a hard spiritual truth. 

We were clearing my parents house. It was a beautiful house full of beautiful things but with mum having passed away and dad living in a Residential home with dementia the things were no longer needed. A few things found their way to family members, most of the furniture to Habitat For Humanity Restore and the rest ended up in the skip. It was all top end, expensive and tasteful.

Impermanent things. As we cleared I became aware that I was acting out a song and a Biblical truth.


“All these impermanent things
Well they're trying to convince me
Baptize my soul and rinse me
Purge my mind of honesty and fire
All these impermanent things
Well they all add up to zero
They make-believe that they're my hero
Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires

Why keep hanging on
To things that never stay
Things that just keep stringin' us along
From day to day”

-          From Impermanent Things by Peter Himmelman


Wikipedia will tell you that Peter Himmelman is an orthodox Jew who prays 3 times a day and is the son-in-law of Bob Dylan. The Jewish part explains Himmelman’s deep spiritual insight. When I did my weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster I played Himmelman very often. Impermanent Things was the most played.

As a preacher it is one of my very favourite songs. I have used Himmelman's words in a sermon on Matthew chapter 6 v 19-34. If you didn’t know about Himmelman’s deep Jewish faith you would be sure that he had used this passage as his inspiration. 

Of course the Gospel account of Matthew Gospel is the Gospel most intent is revealing Jesus as a continuation of Jewish tradition so perhaps it is not so surprising that he and Himmelman would be on similar themes.

Jesus is saying in the second half of this most famous Sermon that where are treasure is our hearts will be also. He is suggesting that we invest our lives on eternal things that last rather than the impermanent things that Himmelman so poetically describes in this song.

Jesus goes on to talk about how we shouldn’t be worrying about impermanent things and Himmelman puts it beautifully here how these impermanent things play tricks with our heads and hearts and throw us of the better more lasting course. Jesus is on the same idea.

So why do we get obsessed with impermanent things? We are back to me piling my parents' things onto a skip outside their house. So many things. A few months before they were vital things in my parents lives but now they were useless; rubbish even! It made me ponder Himmelman's song and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. A cold liturgical lesson in the emptiness of things.

On a more recent Himmelman record There Is No Calamity, the first song 245th Peace Song begins:


"The holes in people’s lives need to be filled
I get that. I understand that.
But you’ve got to be careful what you fill them with
Do you get that? Understand that?"



One summer in Cape Town (wintertime there!) around 2004 I was led into a wrestling with two Scriptures. A debate arose in my soul over the poverty that Amos raged against and the poverty that Jesus called blessed.

I had seen both in visceral reality. The blessing of mutual interdependence of neighbours on a township, alongside a cemetery with the weekly graves for baby after baby being dug. The debate raged inside of me and still goes on.

During Coronavirus I have another similar conversation going on. 

There was a time in the first lockdown where I feared that the government would side with businesses staying open against numbers dying of the virus. The phrase was Wealth against Health.

It was a lazy phrase. It was like the shallowness of a tabloid headline. As I worried about Business being the weight to decide our national response to a pandemic I was prayerfully concerned for local businesses, making decisions to help them stay afloat in that crisis.

It had raised something that has irked for most of my life. From Fair Trade, to stocks and shares in the arms trade, to the horrendous prices of antiviral drugs during the AIDS catastrophe it always seemed to me that profit had become the god of the age. People were less important than the price of shares.

So, like my dilemma with the poverty of Amos and the Sermon and the Mount so I am now unpacking the difference between Jeremiah asking us to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) and Jesus telling us not to store up treasure on earth (Matthew 6:19) or Paul warning Timothy that money was the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim 6:10).

I hear Jeremiah and pray for the prosperity of Belfast but I remember that it is the city, not some parts of the city being prosperous while other parts know nothing about it. 

I am aware of the need of viable businesses that do not only give the citizens of a city their living in terms of paying their bills, the goods a city needs and also, let us not forget, the sense of vocational well being. That job satisfaction seems to me to be part of the deal of the prophets prosperity.

I am also acutely fearful as a pastor of the dangerous temptation of wealth. I have literally been taken aback during the preaching of sermons at the clarity of Jesus warnings against any kind of love for money. Wealth has always seemed to be the most seductive of things.

My church community live and work in places rife with temptation. Much more rife I would suggest than sexuality. Making pontifications on the people’s credible faith based on sexuality while ignoring this glaring spiritual dilemma is a little Biblically amiss.

So here I wrestle between Jeremiah’s ambition for prosperity of the city and Jesus declaration that we cannot serve God and money. It is discussion that is very tight with tension. It needs a clarity of Biblical thinking. It needs the discipline of the Holy Spirit. It needs a higher priority than I suggest we have given to it.

How can the four corners of city become prosperous without us losing our souls to wealth. I look forward to pursuing this when I can support a local cafe’s business and have a chat around the table with some business heads seeking a holy approach to profit. 


Breathing grace

“Grace is the oxygen of another world and we like breathing our own.” A friend quoted this phrase of mine on Twitter and it was one of those lines that you hear and say, "Wow. I like that. Did I really say it". Songwriters speak of being conduits of God or something beyond them. Lines like that are as close as I get!

I at least thought it was good enough to reblog. 

Jesus truth was grace. God was interrupting the way the world was with the way the world could be, God’s way. It was a scandalous truth that ultimately got Jesus crucified. The world couldn’t handle anything so subversively ridiculous.

Jesus illustrated it well in his parable of the Prodigal Son. As the religious leaders of his day listened in, Jesus painted a vivid picture of a rascal who took his father’s inheritance and squandered it on sex and drugs and rock n roll, to give it a modern twist. Finding himself destitute he heads for home.

As the story moves towards climax you can almost hear the Holywood soundtrack building the tension. Jesus says that the father sees the rogue from afar and the religious leaders are getting all excited about what judgement is going to come down... and... the father wraps his arms around him, puts a ring on his finger and throws a party. Jesus mentions the loyal, good living, brother as a comparison to the wild hedonist which makes even more acute the sense of the injustice.

Grace. It seems madness but it is our only hope. It is God’s way of love; loved as we are without merit. Did I say ridiculous?

The follower of Jesus is more than aware of the amazing grace that embraces the wretch and brings the wholeness of salvation. As Paul put it so well in Ephesians, “It is by grace you are saved through faith...”

In Philippians he spoke of this in his own life, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”

For Paul this was a whole different oxygen. From attempting by his own efforts at holiness to relying on God’s interruption of grace what Jesus achieved for him in his life, death and resurrection.

Down though the history of Christianity it has been a struggle for those who, like Paul, get this theological eureka moment. Falling into the arms of God’s grace like Jacob, Moses, David, Zaccheus and Paul before us we then go back to preferring the oxygen that we grew up on.

We start to set little legalist systems and then pummel ourselves under the guilt of failing to live up to them. No matter how much we believe in the doctrine of grace we look in the mirror in the morning and would rather be better looking, thinner, more successful and more holy.

We never allow ourselves to be loved as we are, as grace informs us we are. Then as we go back to breathing that old oxygen we cut off the supply of the new oxygen that not only loves us as we are but has the transformative power to love us into who God can make us be.


I See You

To be seen. I have been amazed recently at how many times a simple text, social media message or phone call has been received with a "thank you for seeing me". Coronavirus times have isolated us. We have felt a little alienated from our communities. To be seen has become something special. 

Hagar was the focus of a sermon Rev Lesley- Ann Wilson preached in Fitzroy on International Women’s Day just a week before our world went into lockdown. Having just returned from a trip to the Wilderness in the Holy Land, Lesley had some rich content for the sermon.

I was very drawn to the story. It resonated with me as the Biblical outworking of a Martyn Joseph song and a great truth that all of us can take into our lives.

Hagar was like an invisible woman. A slave to begin with she is then given by Sarah to Abram to give them a child. Sarah then became jealous of her and mistreated her. She heads out into the dessert to escape.

Then this invisible woman becomes the first person in Scripture to be visited by an angel. After God blessed Hagar the text tells us:


She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to : “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered. (Genesis 16:13-14)


I love this. God sees Hagar. She knows it and calls God, “the God who sees me”and the well “The well of the one who sees me”.

In a life that seemed invisible, where nobody cared and everyone seemed to be abusing her she is seen by God. Wow!

I was immediately drawn to on elf my favourite Martyn Joseph songs, I See You.

From his first Sony album Being There released in 1992 Martyn himself described the song at the time:


“A simple statement of my personal belief, that no one will, or does, get any eternally with anything.”


That fascinates me. Martyn’s focus in writing seems to have been those who carried out evil acts. God sees them. They won’t get away with it.

I have always heard the song as being about the victims. God sees the victims. He sees the the impact of evil.

To know that God sees us will change our sense of self worth and hope. Whatever we are struggling through. Whatever is going against us. God sees us as he did Hagar. Wow. I’ll take that encouragement:


“I see the playgrounds with drugs

Children’s cloths in the mud



What about salvation

I see you, nothing escapes my attention”


God sees you. It is good to be seen. It is good to see others too.



Desiring The Kingdom

My good friend and former colleague at Queen’s Chaplaincy, Father Gary Toman, often speaks about having a grá for something. It is the Irish word for love but it takes on a guttural description for that passion for something that drives you and your life.

It is that grá that James K A Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin University, is talking about in his incredibly insightful book Desiring The Kingdom. Smith followed that one up with the more direct You Are What You Love. The general premise is that we are not what we think but by what we love. What we have a grá for will be what shapes our lives.

So, I asked, is Jamie right?  Do slogans like "God and Ulster" and "God and Ireland" suggest that our love for country or flags could get in the way of our beliefs about God. A really articulate theology could go by the wayside when a deep grá for political allegiance and flags are what drives our actions.  

So, my next question, was how Smith’s theories connect with the Scriptures. It happened that as I was reading Desiring The Kingdombook I was reaching, in my preaching series, Mark 12 where Jesus declares the greatest commandments and speaks of love for God as the Jews would have been familiar with in the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 and then adds from Leviticus 19, an amazing chapter that spells out the love for neighbour.

It is these two commandments that would define Jesus followers and he actually never mentions cognitive understanding of God but always emphasises love. Jesus is encouraging the grá that will transform his followers. In John 14 he tells the disciples that if they love him they will obey his commandments. The grá is what drives the Jesus community.

Smith is not using Irish words or applying his theories to Ireland. His argument centres on 21st century America. He uses the Shopping Mall, the religious nature of which he paints provocatively over a few poetically crafted pages, and the sport’s stadium. He argues very compellingly how even the Christian who thinks he/she has his/her brain switched on and is what he/she think cognitively can be subtly caught in allegiances that would quite simply have been described as idols in the Old Testament.

The powerful gut stirring symbolism of the American national anthem at sporting events leading to a belief that God is American receives Smith's strongest ire! That we could be doctrinally well thought through but miss the hold that consumerism has on our well being is also well pointed out.

Once we are shaped, Smith goes on, we then aim our loves at what we believe to be human flourishing. This end result will again not be so much decided on by cognitive doctrinal statements but the social imaginary of what we are steeped in at mall, sports stadium and wherever else we inhabit.

Christian thinking over the past decades has targeted the mind with great books and lectures and conferences. Smith is not saying that we replace these, or the book itself would be dropped from the publisher’s catalogue, but he is saying we have missed the more potent spiritual formatives; the stories, movies, songs and worship that are pedagogies of the kardia.

Smith is suggesting that the liturgy of worship takes on an enormously important role in challenging the social imaginary of the mall and sports stadium in order that we recognise the Kingdom of God as what human flourishing is really about and our hearts get aimed at the right loves to bring that kingdom around.

Smith has articulated what I have been thinking for years that this generation in particular are more subjective than objective. Modernity had us lost in a phase where that might not have been so but the “word becoming flesh” was God’s best revelation of truth and that was aimed at the subjective gut not the intellectual mind.

Desiring The Kingdom and You Are What You Love that followed it have all kinds of things to say into the last days of Trump and the first days of Biden. If the States are to unite again. If a nation divided seemingly so venomously is to find a path towards healing then James K A Smith throws up perhaps the key question. Who are we? What we believe? Or what we love?

Smith's thesis has to be heard in Ireland too and in post Brexit Britain. Jamie's profound thought and his meticulous unpacking of it has opened up all kinds of leads for me in how to pastor a Church, lead worship, form the Christian core of the young, develop the spiritual maturity of the older, how to evangelise and teach. Before all that I am reassessing the habits of my own life to reconsider what feeds my social imaginary and where the idols of our time might be subtly having their way.

You Are What You Love


Stocki McCrea shot

photo: Philip McCrea


I was preaching on Jesus Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). Much as I thinking that the greek word makarios is best translated blessed, blessed has lost a little bit of its pointed meaning. I am very unhappy with translations of the Beatitudes that translate it as happy. As I was preaching and seeking to unpack the text I started seeking my own translation and came up with "contented of deep soul". After I preached I jotted down my own Beatitudes based on many Biblical idea that I have preached on this past year. 


Contented of deep soul are those who know their place in God’s order of things

Contented of deep soul are those who look in the mirror and know that they are loved just as they are

Contented of deep soul are those who do not compare themselves with anybody else

Contented of deep soul are those who do not need to reach for the advertisers temptations to find satisfaction in the buying of things

Contented of deep soul are those who go to sleep knowing that they are forgiven for all their quirks, foibles and bad decisions

Contented of deep soul are those who forgive those who have hurt them because then they can no longer be hurt by the hurt

Contented of deep soul are who have discovered the gifts God has given them and have gifted them to the world

Contented of deep soul are those who love their neighbour with the the same grace that God loves them

Contented of deep soul who love their enemies and know the holiness of peacemaking

Contented of deep soul are those who are content with their place in God’s order of things


Me on First Thoughts

(My contribution to Fr Martin McGill's new First Thoughts project... on July 25th 2020...there is a link below to watch it...)


All world leaders come to power. It might be by a majority vote, or it might be hereditary or it might be by military force but it called coming to power. The power comes with some might. Most of our 6 o’clock news is about such power struggles. It is how the world rolls.

It is these ways of power that were in James and John’s mother thinking of when she approached Jesus to get her boys promotion. Could they sit with Jesus when he came to power. The other disciples were not pleased at their attempt to get one over on them.

Then Jesus explains, yet again, that his ways are not at all like the ways of the world that we are used to. This mother and the disciples are thinking about the power of Rome, ruling over them in brutal force or even the religious leaders oppressing the ordinary jewish people.

Jesus talks revolution. But it has a very different power source. Jesus Kingdom was going to be nothing like the world they were used to. His Empire was going to be upside down, the exact opposite of the nromal. 

Jesus is God and not just a King but the King of Kings. Not just a lord but the lord of Lords. However he who has every right to rule in power and might does it differently. To rule in Jesus kingdom is to serve others. Power is Servanthood. By humility. By grace, mercy and love.

In Jesus Kingdom the last our first and the first are last. In Jesus Kingdom we do unto others as we would have them do to us.

I have a mantra in Fitzroy that we are the people of the manger, the donkey and the cross. But as I prepared these First Thoughts I have added another -  foot washing.

Here is this new way to live. God was not born in a palace of riches. But in a stable. When Jesus came into Jerusalem to conquer the world, he didn’t come on a stallion but on a humble donkey. When Jesus wanted to show his disciples about how to use power he got on his knees and washed their feet. When Jesus took on the evil powers of the universe he did it dying on a cross of wood. 

This is a strange way. This seems a crazy way to rule a Kingdom. Yet, if we wanted to turn the world around and find peace and equality and justice. This is how it works. This upside down empire is our great hope. 

It is so radical that it takes us decades to come to terms with it. Perhaps even longer to start living it.  

James and john’s mother should have been asking, Jesus how can my sons serve the marginalised of the world alongside you. 

Us too. As I attempt to follow Jesus into this weekend I need to remember that I am following a person of the manger, the donkey, the foot washing and the cross. 


watch this First Thought HERE


John O'Donohue

“One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own. 

There are times of great uncertainty in every life. Left alone at such a time, you feel dishevelment and confusion like gravity. 

When a friend comes with words of encouragement, a light and lightness visit you and you begin to find the stairs and the door out of the dark. 

The sense of encouragement you feel from the friend is not simply her words or gestures; it is rather her whole presence enfolding you and helping you find the concealed door. The encouraging presence manages to understand you and put herself in your shoes. 

There is no judgment but words of relief and release.”


I love this quotation from the late Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue’s Eternal Echoes. It is so inspirational in its idea and so simple in the pragmatic outworking.

I found it on Facebook, posted by my friend Rosie McKnight, less than an hour before I was to record a Sunday sermon. Most weeks there seems something on social media that clicks with the thread of the sermon. Here it was.

I was preaching on Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel. Jacob is a man on the run for his life, vulnerable, disorientated, alone and wondering what is next. I, of course, found some resonance with our Coronavirus Times.

I mentioned in my sermon how Bruce Springsteen during a concert in The Point, Dublin introduced the song Jacob’s Ladder that he covered on the Seeger Sessions album by telling the crowd that “Jacob was a messed up son-of-a-gun who fell into the grace of God”. That pretty much describes all of us. The Gospel in a nutshell. I was excited to hear Bruce exegete on Genesis 28!

So, back to the John O’Donohue encouragement quote. If you are familiar with Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending then John could almost have it in mind when he says, “When a friend comes with words of encouragement, a light and lightness visit you and you begin to find the stairs and the door out of the dark”. 

Encouragement is not preached on a lot. It seems to be down the pecking order to grace, love, mercy… O’Donohue sees it as an outworking of all of those things.

There is nothing more encouraging than being seen… recognised… loved… God encourages us that we are not useless, not alone, not forgotten, not unlovable, not purposeless. He encourages to find our way to a new beginning in his love. 

God reminds us that he created us, he came to earth to live among us and find us, he went to the cross to deal with all our brokenness and injustice and was raised to life to conquer all our weaknesses. He poured out his Spirit into us so that we humans could be the dwelling place of God. He ascended to rule over all things. 

That is all pretty encouraging! I believe that Jacob experienced that encouragement. 

I also believe that we are called to be conduits of that encouragement. Many of us down these Coronavirus Times have known that “door out of the dark when we received a text or a social media message, a phone call or even a letter. I know our lives have been energised so much by such encouragement. 

Let us live out God’s love and grace and mercy by being encouragers. You don’t need to be an appointed church leader, leading theologian or musically gifted. It is as easy as “I was thinking about you” and it makes a huge impact on the soul.


Watch the entire sermon and service from Sunday July 19, 2020 HERE


Primark crowds

As the nation comes out of lockdown, after 3 months when our freedoms and desires have been greatly curtailed, I have been wondering if this brand new experience of opening up after such personal limitations is a spiritual thermometer.

I have been thinking about opening up while turning over in my mind, heart and soul that verse in Matthew 6 where Jesus says For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.

It is during Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount and he is in a little section about treasures in general. 

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…”

He finishes the section by talking specifically about money:

“You cannot serve both God and money.”

This verse about where your treasure is is right bang in the middle.

I have been surmising whether I could paraphrase Jesus’ line to “what you want most after lockdown is where your heart is.”

The nation has been chomping at the bit for weeks. People have been deprived of many things and it is fascinating to see where the rush back to everything is concentrated.

The seeming desperation to shop. Writer Mike Starkey once wrote a book called Born To Shop that took Descartes’ understanding of being human “I think therefore I am” and changed it to “I shop therefore I am”. Are the queues after lockdown confirming Starkey’s fears?

Or a meal at a restaurant or a manicure or haircut or sun holiday or or a night at the pub? Maybe I should be thrilled with the pressure on churches to reopen as a sign of spiritual fervour.

It is only me surmising but it might be a helpful thermometer to ask what we missed most? What we are eager to return to in “normal” life. Is that a gauge as to where our heart is?

As I critique my own soul, I fear that for me it is the opposite of the yearning for what I want as lockdown opens up. I don’t want it to open up. As an introvert I am loving the time to myself and family. 

The thermometer of my hesitancy is telling me that I need to begin to be less selfish with my time and be ready to give my time for other people. Following Jesus is all about giving up self for others. 

As a natural introvert whose energy is quickly used up in social situations I have had three great months. Lockdown relief I hear it called. My yearnings and desires were not curtailed but indulged. The government were kind enough to ground my 22 and 19 year old daughters to the house. The government kindly gave me a near sabbatical where I could read and write and listen and prepare. All my time was for me. 

I am now wrestling with God as I deal with my treasure being self absorption and how I can shift that to a selfless giving to neighbour and church community. The thermometer of “what you want most after lockdown is where your heart is” is challenging me greatly!

THE WOW OF ASCENSION DAY - Belfast Telegraph Column 23.5.2020

Stocki GL Night

(This was my Belfast Telegraph column published on May 23, 2020. It is based on a blog already published. I want to thank Malcolm Guite for the permission to use his poem. This is the poem I was referring to in my Ascension sermon in Fitzroy on May 24, 2020)


This past Thursday was Ascension Day. My friend Dani tells me that in Germany they have a school holiday. Growing up Presbyterian I hardly ever heard of it. 

Yet, Jesus’ Ascension is of vital theological importance. For me it sits alongside his birth, his death and his resurrection in its significance. In Luke chapter 9 when Jesus sets his eyes on the culmination of his ministry Luke doesn’t suggest that that is not his cross or resurrection but - “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem”.

When Paul was writing to the Church in Ephesus he explained the implications of the Ascension.  “That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” 

When I preach on the ascension I often use a poem written by Anglican priest, poet and songwriter Malcolm Guite. His Ascension Day Sonnet is stunning in both theological insight and literary flair.

Malcolm begins with the experience of the disciples as Luke records them in Luke 24 and Acts 1:

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place

Malcolm then opens up the eternal meaning of that event:

As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.

Here is the Cosmic zig zag. In the nativity God becomes human. In the ascension, God as a human, flesh on, returns to heaven.

We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,

Jesus spoke to the disciples about the oneness between them as he and his Father were one. Mysteriously he brings us with him and rules over the cosmos for the Church.

I so love the thought that Jesus took us “into the heart of things.” The idea of humans on the pulse of the government of the universe. Wow. What Jesus sings is where we find solace in these challenging days we are living through.  

Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,

This is very good news when you are struggling through a pandemic and find yourself in lock down and isolation. This cosmic rule of Christ is how we find resilience, hope and imagination... the power to live the faith and redeem the world.

The ascension means that Jesus is now ruler of the Cosmos. This a wonderful belief to hold in our current disorientation. In the seeming uncertainty of where the delicate steps out of lock down, we have a God who came to us, redeemed us and now stands strong for us at the very heart of all things. It is worth believing. It is worth celebrating. To finish Malcolm’s Sonnet:

Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.


Ascension Day Sonnet is available in Malcolm Guite’s book Sounding the Seasons and is published by Canterbury Press.



LUKE 9: 51-56

ACTS 1:3-8

EPHESIANS 1: 18-23


1 PETER 3: 13-22