Am I a good ancestor?

I read Tim Winton’s gripping novel The Shepherd’s Hut on a recent short holiday. As I like to do, I found an interview with Winton to help me into his story. It was at the Edinburgh Festival. During the interview, discussing planet earth, that can almost in novel’s like The Shepherd’s Hut become an extra character in his work, Winton used that line - Am I a good ancestor?

It is one of those lines that just drops so deep and lingers. It has such weight of wisdom that It might ripple out for the rest of my life. 

‘Am I a good ancestor?’ is a question so rarely asked that when I posted it on social media my friend Gary asked if it shouldn’t read ‘Am I a good descendent?’ I understood. I have never considered this question. Yet, it might be one of the most important I ever ask.

We spend a lot of time thinking of our ancestors. Personally or even as nations. In Northern Ireland where I live we spend so much time talking and arguing and, God forgive us, killing over the past. 

Most of our political decisions are affected by a love, near worship, of past events. There are many who would look to other culture’s and their ancestry worship as un-Christian, even uncivilised and yet… we have a form of it that paralyses our movement into the future. It is one of the few things that unites us all! 

Is it a blind spot in the human psyche or a more deliberately evil force in the universe that prevents us from considering our descendants? I mean I love my own children and friends love their grand children in ways that we never loved even our own grandparents yet we do not live our lives in ways that leave a better world for them. 

It almost seems that the question on the forefront of all our hearts and souls and minds should be ‘Am I a good ancestor?’ What we do cannot impact our ancestors at all. They are gone. All our daily decisions will impact our descendants and yet we are not considering it.

Is that because of the cost to ourselves? Is it a symptom of am inherent selfishness? If we concentrate on the past we don’t need to pay any price in the present. If we look forward and consider our legacy as ancestors we might have to rein it on.

That is indeed the case when we talk about the environment which was what provoked Winton’s line. If we want our children’s children to have a planet or not have to deal with apocalyptic conditions we are leaving behind then carbon emissions need drastically cut. That, however, would effect the size of our car, the number of holiday flights and even the amount of beef we eat or plastic we use in packaging.

Are we prepared to sacrifice our own comfort and luxury for our loved ones coming after us? I watch parents do so many things that they think will be for their children’s best. Leaving them a planet surely sits as the major priority. 

Our own ancestors will certainly not judge us for what we have done after them. They are manure for daisies. Our descendants though? The quality of their lives will be decided on whether I am a good ancestor or not.


James McClean

The social media abuse of footballer James McClean is in the headlines and provoking my surmising. There are a number of surmises below the headline but the first is a simple one. Abusing and threatening people’s lives and families on social media platforms is wrong. It has to stop. No reasoning or debate. It is wrong. 

New forms of communication have been shuddering the foundations of societies since the first picture was carved onto the wall of a cave, or a word could be written down, or the printing press was invented, or the radio, the telephone, television and the world wide web. At every stage there has been immediate suspicion, a time of coming to terms with and finally social behaviour patterns to deal with it all.

To the repetitive discussion about whether social media platforms should become more accountable my anger is an absolute yes. I believe though that that will take time to get right as the world re-knits after the shuddering. 

I want to argue that there is something more at the core of society that needs to get up to speed. James McClean is not getting eyeballed in the street. His wife and children are not being confronted in school or the school gates. Why? It is not because the police are omnipresent. Even when our behaviour is not policed we behave in civil ways. There are even behaviours we call anti-social.

As the shuddering slows around this impact of social media we need all of us across society to step up and stamp civil behaviour in these new spaces. We need Church leaders, school leaders, community leaders and political leaders to step up on what has long been a serious issue. We need new behavioural patterns honed and modelled and delivered down.

That is why I am so impressed and delighted to see politicians like Arlene Foster, Steve Aiken and Gregory Campbell stepping in. Fair play to them. I am sure they are poppy fans. I am sure they would rather James McClean wore one BUT they stepped across the sectarian lines and showed strong leadership. Even The British Royal Legion spoke out. More of it and not just on issues of social media abuse. 

Of course the churches need to step up too. Oh we know that we need to stand up or rather bow the knee in repentance for social behavioural misdemeanours down the centuries but wider society needs to come to terms with the fact that Judeo-Christianity has shaped our behavioural patterns for hundreds of years. We need to show leadership in this as every other issue and make prophetic contributions. The church needs to be on this. I fear that we are not aware of the urgency. 

A PRAYER FOR AMERICA (on Inauguration Day)



Today I pray for you

Grace and imagination


Take a moment… or more

To take a deep breath


To calm

The body

The heart

The soul

Breathe in 

To slow down the political adrenaline

That has been raging

Through veins of hyped up opinions

Breathe in

To stand still and look around

To gain perspective

Of self

Of neighbour 

Of nation

Breathe in

Breathe in the grace of God


That forgives

That resets relationships

That draws in fraternity

That restores peace.



Today I pray for you

Grace and imagination


Take a moment… or more

To take a deep breath


Across streets and alleyways

Mountains and deserts

Coastlines and prairies

Breathe out

A vision for this gift of democracy

Inspiration to shape the good of all

Compassion for the least of these

Breathe out

A role model of healing for the world

A care for the stewardship of planet earth

A future of well being for the cosmos

Breathe out

Breathe out the imagination of God


That orders justice

That shapes community

That creates shalom



Today I pray for you 

(and for us all)

Grace and imagination

Breathe in

Breathe out



My biggest problem with Donald Trump…

One of the few gifts I feel that I have is that I read people well. Donald Trump frightened me from very early on. I sensed a narcissist, a man who likes his own voice, a man who yearned for power. I didn’t sense a man with much empathy or compassion. 

Of course as well as those haunches I was concerned to see a man becoming a leader of a world power who was racist and misogynist. He had a love for putting others down. His belittling of others swaggered. He was also careless with the truth and almost poetic in his hyperbole. I was fearful of that as a role model. What would a society look like after a few years of that kind of behaviour in vogue and, even more frighteningly, respected.

Please notice that none of the above has anything to do with politics or policies or whether Trump is Republican or Democrat. It is about a human being who looked in all intents and purposes to be a dictator with little concern for anyone but himself. Just one week into his Presidency I had seen enough to be concerned that it would be hard to get him out of office, that he might encourage violence to keep himself in office.

I find most of what Donald Trump says and does and the patronising way that he says and does it to be reprehensible. 

Tonight, though, that is not my problem with Donald Trump.

As a follower of Jesus my biggest problem with Donald Trump is that I am called to love him. The theology that drives my life is that Donald Trump is made in the image of God which makes him precious and fascinating. I also believe that Jesus was prepared to lay down his life for Donald Trump - “For God so loved the world…” 

As my fried Ken often says, “Darn it Steve, being a follower of Jesus can be a real pain in the proverbial” (my paraphrase). It is not likely that I will ever have to love Donald Trump in a personal way. Donald is not likely to move to Belfast and join Fitzroy. More likely a colleague from the Church of Scotland maybe.

Yet, tonight as I am aware that it is his last night in the White House I find myself praying for him. A post White House Trump will be fascinating, and perhaps equally exasperating, for all of us. It might even most fascinating for the man himself. I believe that he has many needs in his head, heart and soul and I am praying that God meets his needs. I am praying that he finds wholeness, peace and redemption. I think that if it comes it will arrive with a great deal of repentance and change but I pray that he is blessed, not in selfish outward ways but in his soul.

I do not find that an easy prayer. Yet I am aware that I am flawed human with many needs. I am aware of the wonder that God’s grace is in my life. I am aware that God calls me to love everybody… even Donald Trump. 


Lone ranger and Tonto

Christmas presents that I didn’t get. That I really wanted. That I still carry angst for.

Though we didn’t get around to it on the actual show, Sunday Sequence asked me to think about this question. 

It took me back. I dug deep. 

I was 9 or 10. It might have been 1971. Everything changed in 1972 but I will come to that! In ’71 I was an Action Man boy. More of that later too. My next door neighbour Donald Reid had a variant on the Action Man idea - The Lone Ranger and Tonto. 

Children in the late 60s and early 70s were all about cowboys and Indians. TV shows like The Virginian, The High Chaparral and my very favourite Alias Smith and Jones. Before those there was the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Donald had the action figures… and there were horses. Horses with saddle bags and the whole deal. 

I coveted my neighbour’s horse. The Lone Ranger and Tonto had amazing horses. Big commandment broken! I remember, and I had absolutely no belief in God at the time, praying that my Uncle would appear with Tonto and the horse! Nothing! Never arrived.

While we were actually on air on Sunday Sequence, Tony Mcauley raised more childhood Christmas trauma. He mentioned one of his favourite gifts being Thunderbirds 2. Like a arrow across time his words pierced my heart. I immediately remember that Thunderbirds 2 opened and Thunderbirds 4 came out of the main craft. Oh how much I wanted that too!

My dad was a careful man. I wanted the game Mousetrap because of the all the fiddly bits. Dad would use his accountant’s rational to think that I would lose those bits within hours and discard the game. So he would negotiate with Santa to get me golf clubs instead. I used those golf clubs for years. The Peter Allis putter is still in the garage! If only I had seen my father’s wisdom then!

The good presents? Well, a pedal go-kart was amazing. It had with it a Stirling Moss Formula 1 driver’s suit with it. Amazing that we lost both Allis and Moss this year. 

One of my favourite Christmas Days was the day I got an Action Man and diver suit with dinghy. Lots of fiddly bits like knives and goggles... I loved that but there was drama. In putting my guy in the bath to do some diving I then foolishly dried him out by the electric fire! Not so clever. That poor action man had a rather disfigured back for ever after.  

The best present of all Christmases was when I was 11. In 1972 I got my record player. This was the first record player in our home. I envy those who talk about the records they grew up listening to. I had to make up my own influences and my cousin Sharon started me off on Donny Osmond and David Cassidy. I discovered T. Rex, Sweet, Slade and Wizzard before my eureka moment - The Beatles in 1976.

The record player or equivalents have been my soundtrack companions ever since. Records led me into thinking about the big questions of life and those questions led me to faith in Jesus. Even after Jesus started giving me answers I have used records for my spiritual companions ever since.

All of that has come back around this year as I am getting a number of vinyl records as presents! I hope so anyway...

FRIDAY THE 13th...

Stocki Fri 13th

Photo: Gordon Ashbridge: my installation in Fitzroy, Friday the 13th of November 2009


Today is Friday the 13th. Some are superstitious. When I started visiting in the Ballycraigy estate in Antrim during my assistantship in First Antrim I kept missing houses and then realised that the entire estate had no number 13s! 

The following poem was originally written on a Mission Team where we felt that God had blown away any superstitions! 

I then preached for Fitzroy on Sunday 13th of September 2009 and was installed on Friday 13th of November. I updated the poem. It was a Friday the 13th blessing...


Friday the 13th

Superstition lies dying

Overthrown and vanquished

Hear it, feebly crying

The unbelievable made believable

What can never be has been

Our spirits dance in wonder

At the phenomena we've seen

Exploring galaxies of grammar

In a quest to pierce through

To define the indefinable

The transcendence of you

In a shiveree of silence

On this earth's thinnest place

Friday the 13th's blessing

An interuption of grace.


Halloween 2

So many of our immediate neighbours have young children. in about 13 years the teenage parties will be loud! This year they have gotten to that age where Halloween has become important. Our walk with Jed late at night has become like walk through haunted houses. The webs (spiders not worldwide) covering hedges, a massive spider on a gate, the pictures in windows and… yes… moving pictures projected on the house.

As I walk I ponder. Is this not all that I have been trying to say in my annual Halloween blog these past few years? As I look in at these houses I feel that their decorations of witches and ghouls will scare all evil things away! 

As a diligent young Christian I stayed away from all things Halloween but the arrival of two daughters made me have to think again. They enjoyed the dressing up. How was I going to deal with it?

It wasn’t long before I took a more measured approach. 

My children were always imagining and dressing up, they were often reading stories of fairies and ghosts and witches including CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. Then there were all those games like Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosies  and rhymes like Rock-a-Bye-Baby based on some pretty dark themes. 

When I caught my then three year old daughter rhyming about catching an old man by the left leg and throwing him down the stairs, and showed some alarm, she said incredulously “it is only a rhyme daddy!”

Yet I still surmised. In my surmising I did some research and discovered that the reason for costumes may not have been about aligning yourself with demons and the dark side but actually about Christians protecting themselves from the dark side. The costumes may have been disguises to navigate a way through times of heightened evil presence. 

Perhaps once again Christianity has twisted the meaning of things with our lack of research, imagination and understanding. Sensationalist negativity has often been one of our weaknesses.

It all took me back to Bono, CS Lewis and Martin Luther... as it does! When Bono dressed up as the devil, on the Zoo TV period of U2, Christians circled the wagons for another cheap pop at his faith.

In my book Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 I pointed out that when asked, by a fan dancing with him on stage in his McPhisto outfit, if he was still a believer he answered her by asking if she’d ever read the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis... and the penny dropped. 

Another Christian author Os Guinness once wrote, Christians would die rather think. In fact most do." So, for that huge audience of thoughtless Christians, Bono slipped that CS Lewis book into the video for the Batman soundtrack U2 song Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me as if to reveal his cunning strategy. 

In CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Lewis gets inside the persona of a Senior and Junior devil to expose the devils schemes as he attacks the Church. In his Preface Lewis used the phrase, “mock the devil and he will flee from you,” paraphrasing the New Testament letter of James, “resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

As well as the verse in James, Lewis seems to have been recounting what Reformer Martin Luther once wrote, "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn."

Fascinating stuff. Enough to surmise that these haunted houses I walk by every evening are not celebrations of evil but quite the reverse. Mock the devil and he will flee from you. With wonderful imagination... all is very safe on our street! 



Covid Students

As a University Chaplain for 15 years (1994-2009) the second half of September still brings a tenderness to my heart. My role as Presbyterian Chaplain at Queen’s University, Belfast included the privilege of living in community with 88 students. I would never go back to it but they were glory days!

The first weekend, week and then month of term was always a pastorally intensive time. Eighteen year olds leaving home and the familiarity of family, friends, their school and hometown for what is very much the unknown was a huge challenge, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

As a Chaplaincy team we spent a lot of time, imagination and energy to make that rite of passage transition as easy, in minds, hearts and souls, as possible. As I look back from this last weekend’s perspective of leaving my own daughter to University we did a pretty good job.

Can I point out that almost all of my students were going home at the weekend. Yet, still this particular change in the life of late teens is so seismic that it comes with deep seated anxiety. Will we make friends? Will we like the subject? Add to that the break from home life and I would feel that those not struggling with starting as a fresher are the exceptions. We put many processes in place to help students through those first days. A month in and most of them were settled and soaring.

I have looked at this experience from the other side this past week, watching as my own daughter has managed courageously but emotionally her moving away to start International Development at the University of Reading. 

So, as a former Chaplain and a current father, I am reading the news with interest. 600 students in Glasgow University Halls Of Residence in isolation. Oh goodness me! We are also hearing that the government hasn’t ruled out keeping students in lockdown over Christmas! 

One of the methods to overcome the early homesickness is to have a trip home or a visit from friends or family or booking that flight or train home at Christmas. To tell freshers to self isolate and then add the threat of not being home at Christmas. This is horrifying. It is an unimaginable challenge. I am so fearful about the mental health reverberations. 

Back in April I sensed a battle coming down the Coronavirus road - health verses wealth. Boris Johnston and his government have had a tightrope walk between those things. Much as I sympathise with the idea that we need to keep our economy going. The nation needs a livelihood when we finally find ourselves at the other end of this. The balances have to weigh towards health. That health has not just to be to keep Covid-19 at bay but mental health as well.

The father in me was wary of Jasmine starting University in the middle of all of this but I so wanted her to go and enjoy it. The University Chaplain in me was even more wary. 

I sensed that the year ahead was fraught with bumps in the road, local restrictions and maybe lock downs. I was amazed that Universities didn’t do on-line teaching until at least Christmas. It seemed reasonably easy for me. 

The reasoning has to be mainly financial. Higher education has got no funding from government during the pandemic. Halls lying empty and without the income has implications. Universities don’t want to take the financial hit anymore than pubs and restaurants.

Yet, as students go into isolation across Scotland I have to wonder if the rent and income worth the potential mental trauma. Actually for those already in isolation this is not potential. It is actual. It is today. My heart goes out to them and my prayers. 


Van Covid

What a shame it would be if a man’s artistic legacy was lost in such a bizarre moment of misjudgement.

I was doing my Thought For The Day, live from a Reading hotel room if truth to be told, when the BBC’s Chris Buckler asked me to comment on Van Morrison’s new protest songs. I wondered what Van was protesting as he isn’t known for his political comment. When Chris said Covid 19 my heart sank.

You will probably have heard some of the the lines by now:


“No more lockdown 

No more government overreach

No more fascist bullies

Disturbing our peace.


No more taking of our freedom

And our God given rights 

Pretending it's for our safety

When it's really to enslave.


Oh Van, Van, Van. 

I wasn’t so much angry that such a song might put lives at risk and give fuel to the conspiracy theory nutters who can so easily pass on the virus and be a bad example to the easily convinced. I am actually not sure that there are too many who will pay the much attention to Van’s protest.

As has happened, I knew that the vast majority would dismiss Van’s pontification for what it is, more than a little stupid. Never mind the questioning of the science around the Covid 19 virus, the very idea that this particular government of all governments would enslave us in lock down and the restrictions of social movement takes fantasy to levels that that other east Belfast writer CS Lewis’s never imagined. 

Boris Johnston and his cronies, in my opinion, are all about a reckless capitalism that will make them and their buddies richer no matter the consequences to the poor. What has happened in this pandemic has been an antithesis of their wishes and dreams. That Van has somehow missed that is a suggestion of someone cut off from the political realities around him.

That Van would suggest to 800 families in Northern Ireland who have lost loved ones that those deaths were imaginary or diss the the extraordinary heroics of the health service shows a lack of human empathy. 

Even that is not the saddest part for me. I have for some years been a Van the Man apologist. That he is moody and grumpy I have argued has been a lazy description of a man whose introverted personality clashed with a vocation that is lived out in an extroverted world. Give the man a break and some sympathy for what he has shared with us in spite of the psychological challenge it has been for him.

This week though I fear that Van’s legacy is in danger of being over shadowed by these mad songs. Van’s legacy is extraordinary. Astral Weeks, Moondance, Veedon Fleece right through to recent records is I would argue perhaps the most consistently brilliant catalogue of any of his peers. That is what I would long that Van Morrison is remembered for, not some crazy songs about bizarre theories. Van Morrison deserves respect not to be laughed at.

Then, my mind goes a little wild. Just a few weeks ago the world was celebrating Van’s 75th birthday. Hot Press brought out an amazing magazine to celebrate and they were putting nightly cover versions of his songs, by Irish artists, on Youtube. 

Did Van react to the adoration by attempting to deconstruct his own legend. Nothing surprises!

As I have said I do not fear that impact on the public’s response to Covid 19. I do though think that in the tricky terrain we are travelling through that we need every shoulder to the wheel. Coronavirus times are tough. We are all sacrificing freedoms to collectively beat this virus. Rather than begrudgers we need encouragers. We need artists who will write songs to give us the strength and resilience and hope to make our way through to better days.

Perhaps there is one positive. Another achievement in Van Morrison’s long career. Anyone who can get Stormont’s Health Minister Robin Swann featuring in Rolling Stone magazine… My goodness, who was betting on that in the wild predictions of what would happen in 2020! 



So, we have had an exciting Road Trip to leave Jasmine off to University. The Stockies have always had music on such trips. It used to be the old CD for holidays. This time it was an 8 hour playlist made up of favourites by all 4 of us and Daddy adding all the old favourites like The Sawdoctors - “get the wasp off my sandwich”! 

This mix was a whole lot more poignant and deeply emotional. 

Jasmine herself chose a Maisie Peters (she’s always teaching her dad about new artists) song called The Place We Were Made and as I listened in the tedium of an English motorway I heard loud and clear what was in her ‘leaving home’ mind:


I know every streetlight

And maybe the colours will fade

This is the place we were made

By the late nights and the fires on the beach

Made by the small town secrets we'd keep

All that I know is

No matter how far away

This is the place we were made



Caitlin was intentional in her choices too. She carefully picked Belfast boy Ryan McMullan’s Letting Go For A Little While. His leaving song is from the child, not the parents, point of view as no doubt he goes off on tour: 


I know you love me, but now it's time to let me go

And I know you're sad but please don't cry

After all it's not goodbye

We're just letting go for a little while


Since the release of Deacon Blue’s great new record City Of Love Janice has been loving the song Intervals, surely about such moments in the Ross/McIntosh family life, and singing loudly the lines: 


When you grow up to be a star

Don't leave home for anything less than you are


For me another of this year’s top records has been tugging my heart strings, preparing for this seismic moment in our family life in general and Jasmine’s in particular. Jason Isbell is at the very early stages of watching his child grow. Letting You Go begins with him strapping his daughter into her baby car seat. At the end of this road trip I will be unclipping Jasmine’s for a last time, in some symbolic sense. Tears were creeping when this one came up on shuffle:


Being your daddy comes natural

The roses just know how to grow

It's easy to see that you'll get where you're going

But the hard part is letting you go

The hard part is letting you go


I am a very proud father this weekend. I am so inspired by how my daughters have turned out. Nothing like the plan I had for them, they are living a far better vocational plan of their own and prayerfully God's. As Jazzi starts International Development at Reading University I am excited for her and believe she is going to make her contribution. What an adventure! What a girl! BUT still… “the hard part is letting you go”… love you baby girl!