In his book Grace Awakening, Charles Swindoll has another way of looking at the legalists who as religious leaders grind us down with guilt and long lists of dos and don’ts.

“Their God is too small, their world is too rigid, and therefore their faces shout “NO”!”

No faces. We know who they are. They discourage us. They burden us. They make us feel guilty. 

The Pharisees had NO faces.

Jesus, on the other hand, had a YES face. 

I had never seen it, in all the times I have preached it. John’s Prologue to his account of Jesus life -  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

I have always used this as a theological text to incarnation. Yet Swindoll opened it afresh to be. “Grace and truth” is also the posture that Jesus carries into his ministry.

Always a YES face. At that wedding in Cana. Welcoming Nicodemus at night. Inviting a Samaritan woman in the heat of day into conversation. Jesus was drawing people to him with his YES face.

I know the story of the Parable Son was fiction but surely we can read into it that the Father had such a YES face that the Prodigal felt that he could go home. When he stepped onto the lane back to the farm that YES face was running down the road to throw his arms around him.  

Be assured that by his grace through faith that it is a YES face that looks at you today…




Killer On The Loose

“There are killers on the loose today. The problem is that you can’t tell by looking. 

They don’t wear little buttons that give away their identity, nor do they carry signs warning everybody to stay away. 

On the contrary, a lot of them carry Bibles and appear to be clean-living, nice-looking, law-abiding citizens. 

Most of them spend a lot of time in churches, some in places of religious leadership. 

Many are so respected in the community, their neighbours would never guess they are living next door to killers. 

They kill freedom, spontaneity, and creativity; they kill joy as well as productivity. 

They kill with their words and their pens and their looks. 

They kill with their attitudes far more often than with their behaviour.”


The opening words of Charles Swindoll’s classic book, Grace Awakening. I read these words in 1990 and it literally changed my life. North Antrim where I am from is fertile for Grace Killers.

Preachers were focused on the fact that the human soul is saved by grace not be works as Paul set out in Ephesians 2 verses 8 and 9 - “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

It was after the saving by grace that the error or heresy crept in. For too many of us we were taught that it was by God’s gift that we were saved BUT then it seemed that we were thrown a weighty burden of things that humans had to do to keep that salvation. 

Paul’s next sentence in Ephesians 2 suggests that the work to gain salvation is God’s and the work after we are saved - For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Here we see that post salvation it is still God working. Still grace.

Sadly that was not how it was in reality. You couldn’t go to pubs or the cinema. A glass of wine was drinking the devil’s vomit! It was best that you didn't talk to Catholics. If you didn’t reading the Bible in the morning the day could be dangerous. It was all about ticking what we should and should not do.

It was very legalistic like the Pharisees. They were the Killers of Jesus day, oppressing the people with laws upon the laws. Jesus was setting people free, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”, being a key to his new dispensation.

The Killers give us a wrong view of God. He becomes an Oger to be afraid of rather than a father of love waiting to embrace us as in the story of the Prodigal Son. 

The Killers give us a wrong view of God’s love. They make it conditional. We are at the mercy of a meritocracy. 

The Killers finally give us a wrong view of ourselves. Our relationship with God is always precarious. Dependant on us. That heresy is back. It is as though God sits with a rubber to erase us from the Lamb’s Book Of Life if we step out of line.



Listen To the Entire Sermon Here


Washing Feet

READ: Matthew 20:20-28

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 is called coming to power. The power comes with some might. Most of our 6 o’clock news bulletins are about 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 that is not the way he rolls. 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. 

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 are 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. 


Spike Milligan

It happens more than you think. You are in the Welcome Area after the service, enjoying a cup of coffee, 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… 

One morning, George Spoule approached me. He said that my sermon reminded him of a Spike Milligan story. Apparently, 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.”



We reduce the Bibles’ scope and potency when we think it has to be open in front of us to make its mark. Paul told the Colossians to let the word of God “dwell on us richly”. In us not on the page. It needs to come off the page to do its work. Its power is when it becomes a part of us.

I remember someone telling me how bad they felt that they had left their Bible on the washing machine in the utility room coming in from Church on Sunday. They had gone a few days without “it”, they panicked.

I wish! I wish I could leave the Bible down somewhere and walk around without it cutting like a two edged sword into everything I think, do and say for a few days. 

No, the truth is that when I am in conversations with friends, with politicians, with artists, with church leaders, the Bible is turning over its pages in my mind, landing at words that our ripe for the conversation that I am in. It is ever alive in my mind and never dead on the top of a washing machine.

When I make decisions in my day about my time and priorities and actions the Bible is there challenging me as well as inspiring me and guiding me through my day. 

Another line that disturbed me about our relationship with the Bible was a preacher who talked about watching a few hours TV every night and only giving five minutes to read the Bible. Again, I am so confused. When the Word dwells in us richly then every film I watch, every novel I read, every song I listen to becomes a resource for Bible study.

As I watch, read and listen I find many issues being raised that caress and collide with the Bible’s great arc of salvation history and  my understanding of how the Bible wants us to live. 

So in recent days I have been so taken by Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella Small Things Like These and inspired by the dreamy movie Mrs Harris Goes To Paris that they found their way into a recent sermon on Discipleship. 

Oh the Bibles the most powerful of all books but it is so much more powerful when it escapes from the pages and sets up home in the core of all we are. Of course for it to "dwell in us richly" we need to read it, download it into our souls.



The Road To Emmaus by Daniel Bonnell


That post resurrection walk to Emmaus. Late on that Sunday evening, these two followers of Jesus head for home. They feel that all is lost. Jesus, who they thought was about to overthrow the Empire was crucified. Some say that he has risen again but it is all too much in their traumatic heads. As Dylan would later says, "Something's happening but you don't know what it is..." 

A stranger steps in alongside them. They are flabbergasted when he doesn't seem to know what is going on. Soon however, he shows them that it is they who don't know what is going on.

There are a few questions rising here:

The first one is what are our expectations of Jesus. If we get this wrong then all might be lost. We are asking that question that Jesus asked the disciples - Who do you say that I am? As AW Tozer suggested whatever we make of that question is the most important thing about us.

In today's news we read that bodies have been found in Kenya of those who whose pastor told them to fast to see Jesus. In America we ask if God is Republican or Democrat? In Ireland is God Protestant or Catholic? Expectations!

The second question is where does Jesus appear to us? On this road to Emmaus it is not in the miles of cerebral words. Jesus expounds salvation history. I reckon that is the most clear preach ever given. Yet, they still didn't see. Their eyes were opened after they had invited the stranger to stay and shown hospitality. The Gospel and the Kingdom is not words but the Word made flesh. 

For me my clearest look at Jesus has been in moments where I reached towards the marginal. In the reach out, God reached to me. I met the risen Jesus in that connecting part. 

The third question is about honesty. What is our Jerusalem? Look deep inside and recognise your trauma. What has you downcast? What has you disappointed? Is that to do with expectations? Where could you find a revelation with God?

My sermon on the Emmaus Road Lectionary had me asking questions, rather than handing out solutions. Spiritually deep stuff.




I yearn for my soul’s horizon to be as wide and free and mysterious and potent as the panoramic vastness of the Nevada desert. When I drove through the majestic beauty of that endless horizon I felt all the confines of human construction had given away to endless possibilities. 

It was a place where God was free to be God unfettered. There was no way to catch something this big in the clasp of my clenching fist and no way to capture the infiniteness of God in the pathetic capacity of my finite little human mind. 

Instead of standing looking into it all neatly contained I want to run into it never able to reach it’s distance height or depth or width but as I run as fast and free as my mortal body allows I will be experiencing a brush, a glance, a caress, a touch, a taste of the wondrous grace and love and power of the enormity of God.

Jesus once said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Jesus spoke these words in a conversation with a Pharisee called Nicodemus and was attempting to explain that insight into the Kingdom of God was a form of being born again. 

Reconnecting with God was a whole new way of thinking and living and seeing and once a human being became apart of that process we would be unpredictable, full of surprises and no doubt dealing out many shockwaves across our society.

I long to live such a life. I am often intrigued by the trees on the headlands of the north coast of Ireland. I imagine that every exposed place on the planet has them but they particularly provoke me here, particularly in the winter, where they appear like pencil sketches as if God peered down and then bent over to draw them in the cloak of darkness or while we were distracted by another stunning sunset over Murlough Bay. 

They are so skillfully shaped like dancers, so brilliantly and beautifully bent by the long slow consistent blowing across by the off sea breezes. Every time I am captured by them I keep asking if my life is as much of intrigue to those who live around me. Am I being shaped equally artistically by the Holy Spirit? Is it what I want to be?

We are not called to be like the wind or shaped by the wind for our own selfish yearnings. It is all for another equally exciting and adventurous possibility. 

God is at work in the world. 

God has a loving intentional mission towards the world that he created. 

There is a longing in the heart of God to bring all things back to their original intention. 

God sees the emptiness, loneliness, inner pain in human beings and the open wounds and scars of the injustice, poverty and war that has become the signature tune of our television news casts. 

God sees, God weeps and he wants to bring into the midst of it another Kingdom which one day will reach its full potential when the reign of God is restored upon creation. 

In the meantime God is at work and has given the invitation that we as humans might get involved with him. I can think of no greater adrenaline rush than to be about the business of turning the world I live in upside down.  

At the heart of Christian belief and worship is a symbolic act of remembering the death of Jesus. In this sacrament we take bread and wine to remind us of the body and blood of Jesus in which we believe we are ultimately redeemed and made new. 

I often imagine the cup being overturning in order that the power of the intoxicating, germ killing, life giving and world saving wine blood could get to drip through floorboards, grouted walls, slabbed pavements to seep into the heart and soul of the city and make all things new in the revolutionary upside down kingdom Jesus came to teach us about and make a living reality.

This is the adventure that drew me to Jesus and keeps me hanging in when I see too many proofs of Walter Brueggeman’s take that, "the Gospel is a truth widely held but greatly reduced, it is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized and rendered inane". 

As my mate Doug Gay puts it on his When My Ship Comes In from his new record All The Other People: 


Something wild enough to want

Something strong enough to trust

Something deep enough to love

Something free enough to follow after 


Gimme a large dose of that!


Do not conform

(this is a little Lenten series for those who are interested... #12)

This poetic Reflection is based around a Bruce Cockburn’s song called Pacing The Cage:


“I never knew what you all wanted

So I gave you everything

All that I could pillage

All the spells that I could sing

It's as if the thing were written

In the constitution of the age

Sooner or later you'll wind up

Pacing the cage...”


To Cockburn I add Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of Romans 12 v 2 in The Message:


Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you."


To be stumbling after Jesus into an upside down alternative Kingdom is to be constantly reflecting and critiquing the constitution of the age and standing against conformity to it. Here’s to less pacing... and less cages!


Oh how busy the days are

Rushing from one event to another

Our diaries full of appointments

Coffee breaks full of people

Our evening full of distractions

Running, taking short cuts

And missing the whole road

The distractions never stop

No one ever stops

The constitution of the age reads;

“No time to find time

As time just flies on and on.”


How loud and bright the days are

The radio wakens us with ideas and suggestions

Its ideas of fun and happiness

In the recipe of words and melodies

And rhythm and rhyme

The television fills all the loose moments

With philosophies of love and meaning

Acted out in half hour condensed packets of life

The constitution of the age screams

In the message of the medium

At the private altars of our rooms

Where the false prophets speak

And we are unaware how much we are listening.


Money is the reason for the every breath we take

So that we can have what they say we need

For our lives to be fully human

We study to get a job

That will give will give us the money

To buy what will make us more human

More human than we are without the money to buy

We buy our dignity

We buy our identity

We buy our love and meaning

The constitution of the age says

“I shop so I am”

And I am more of am than they are

Because I can buy more.


I need to know an alternative

I need to stand in the face of the constitution

I need to rebel against the age

I need to dare to be different

Not conformed to the constitution of the age

Bringing me down to its level of immaturity and madness

But transformed by the renewing of our my mind

By God who leads me into life and life in all its fullness.


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. 


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.