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COURAGE TO LAMENT SERVICE - JUNE 21, 2022

Courage

COURAGE TO LAMENT

A service to reflect on the pain of the Troubles and hope for the future.

St. Anne's Cathedral

June 21, 2022 - 11.30-12.30

 

A number of years ago Healing Through Remembering created the idea of a Day Of Private Reflection on June 21st, the longest day, every year to honour the people who were killed in the conflict in and about Northern Ireland or affected by it in any way.

This year all are welcome to join us for "Courage to Lament", an ecumenical service at St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast. Using the biblical practice of lament, this service will offer a space to reflect on the conflict in and about Northern Ireland and the future that is before us. It will seek to create a space to acknowledge our deep pain and hurt, to reflect on what we might have done or might still do, and to commit ourselves to ensure such suffering and loss never happens again.



JUSTIN HAYWARD RECEIVES AN OBE

Hayward

I was delighted to read about Justin Hayward’s OBE in the Queen’s Jubilee Honours’ list. Not before time!

I have been a fan for almost 45 years. Having fallen in love so many times in my teens to Nights In White Satin I explored the Moody Blues music. It so happened that two of the band Justin Hayward and John Lodge had a huge hit with Blue Guitar and so as a 16 year old I asked for their Blue Jays record and Hayward’s solo album Songwriter. 

Not long after I declared in an English essay that if I could be anyone else in the world it would be Justin Hayward, a big deal considering I was an obsessive Beatles’ fan, City were challenging for League titles and I kind of looked in the mirror hoping to see Fonz from Happy Days. 

I chose Hayward because he was a rock star but less recognisable than George Harrison and could probably still live a reasonably normal life, yet with all the artistic success and not a little wealth. I have no idea what mark Mrs Sloan gave me but I enjoyed the essay. It was probably one of my first efforts at writing about music.

I became a huge fan of the 7 Moody Blues albums with the classic line up. On almost all this records, my favourite songs were Hayward compositions. He has a way with a melody. So accessible. Like Paul McCartney that gift of the catchy can lead to criticisms of sentimentality but neither genius should be dismissed.

I loved the way Justin and the Moodies could talk big world issues… take Questions for example - 

 

Why do we never get an answer

When we're knocking at the door

With a thousand million questions

About hate and death and war?

When we stop and look around us

There is nothing that we need

In a world of persecution

That is burning in its greed

 

But also touch the introspective. On Moving Mountains I hear the heartbeat of faith and love -

 

The wind on the water seems

To whisper soft in my ear

The call of the ocean

Across the waves I can hear

Don't be afraid of the world

Let me take you by the hand

We can move mountains.

 

In recent months I have rediscovered Justin Hayward once again, reading Marc Cushman’s book Long Distance Voyager Volume 2 discovering the later Moodies’ records and giving more time to Hayward’s solo work. I have also come to appreciate what a great guitarist he is.

The Moody Blues are not the critics favourites. They took longer than most to be inducted into The Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame. You won’t see Mojo or Uncut doing their special magazine of the band. It has taken until now for the Queen’s Honour’s List to come calling. The Beatles got theirs in 1965.

That however was probably why I was writing about how I’d rather be a Moody than a Beatle in that essay in 1978.

So well done Justin. Well deserved.


A PERSONAL SURMISE ON THE KILLINGS IN UVALDE, TEXAS

Robb Elementary

In June 1998 I was in Nashville for the wedding of friends David Dark and Sarah Masen. As I was there over the weekend I was asked to preach at Downtown Presbyterian.

 

What would you like me to preach on?

What about telling us what it is like to live through the Northern Ireland Troubles? 

 

As I was pondering what to say I read an article in a local Nashville paper that The Presbytery of Nashville was encouraging their ministers and elders to hand in their guns. 

I had never heard anything so disturbing. I began to imagine a scenario, any scenario, where Presbyterian elders and ministers in Ireland had guns. It was frightening. I was able to get up on the Sunday morning and suggest that even though guns had destroyed our wee country for 25 bloody years that we at last were taking the guns out of our society. America was a much more dangerous society than ours, I suggested.

These last days I am heartbroken again at the news of another gun massacre of children at school, this time in Uvalde, Texas. In my job I have sat with parents who have lost children. It is not the natural way of things. It is viscerally heartbreaking. Parents are never the same again. Nineteen dead children. Two dead teachers. A dead eighteen year old killer. Seventeen injured. It beggars belief. It needs our prayers. And, sadly, it is not an isolated incident.

Listening to the polarisation about guns and gun control in America has bruised my heart even more. It is so difficult for us outside of America to comprehend the attitude towards guns and so I have found myself resisting throwing the trite Tweet into a debate that I simply cannot comprehend.

I have found myself being very grateful that in our own broken land with all of its unique disfunction and mostly outdated ideologies that at least I live in a place where eighteen year olds cannot easily purchase and carry guns; a society that feels the safety of tight gun control.

I am grateful that when an attack took place in my wife’s old school, Sullivan Upper, in 1994 that our gun laws prevented the attacker having such deadly weapons. He had to resort to a flame thrower and though tragically a few students were seriously burned, none were killed. One can only imagine what might have been. Gratitude!

Sadly, as I have surmised the American gun debate this week, I have to set lament alongside my gratitude. As America responds this week I have come to pray that God can give me resilience for the inevitable heartaches to come. Open hearts are prone to breaking. I cannot switch my emotions off or grow cold to news of innocent children being gunned down. I ask God to help me as we tragically respond to more places that will be added to Uvalde, Columbine, Sandyhook, Virginia Tech… 

God have mercy.


MY TRIBUTE TO MELANIE CLARK PULLEN

Melanie CP

Janice and I are so heartbroken at the passing of our friend Melanie Clark Pullen.

Melanie taught me a couple of BIG things.

The first was in a restaurant in London when she was literally a megastar. Millions of people watch Eastenders! Who knew. We did when Melanie, who had been on Eastenders for maybe a year, met up with us for. meal in Wimbledon. To watch an entire restaurant watch our table was eye opening. This was a level of fame I had never moved in the midst of. 

People staring, then approaching the table with various mad notes. If I remember correctly, one was to tell her producer of an idea some randomer at the neighbouring table had for a film. 

Melanie was learning the ropes of celebrity and it was tricky. We took her to Greenbelt and spent a lot of time in the Guest Area where people usually know how to deal with fame. Again I was amazed at the response. 

Melanie of course did it all with a great sense of humour. She told us about being in a wine shop and the manager following her round the store before looking her up and down and saying, “Are you…” Just as Melanie was about to say “Mary Flaherty, yes I am” the woman continued “over 18. Could I see ID!!!” 

Melanie only did 18 months on Eastenders and there were no doubt repercussions at reaching such fame so soon. Though she acted in many other things, check out The Railway Children, she returned home to Ireland and lived a quieter life with her husband and children writing and creating as Strut And Bellow.

How fame can impact a life is not the best lesson I learned from Melanie’s life though. 

I was an introverted 30 year old who had just moved to Dublin in 1991 to work as Youth Development Officer with the Presbyterian Church. About six months later I was invited to speak at a Scripture Union weekend at Ocova Manor in Avoca. A special place for me ever since!

Anyway, I was taking a bus with all the school kids who were going to the weekend. I got on in central Dublin and found a seat. No one paid much attention. 

We then made a stop at Glen Of The Downs just south of Dublin and a clatter of other young people got on. One of them immediately saw the shy old man up the back and came over and introduced herself. “Hi, I am Melanie. You must be Steve.” That smile!

The ice was broken and Melanie led me into the middle of a gang of late teens that it was an utter delight to be with for a few exciting days. I will never forget that kindness. Or courage. I have just loved Melanie ever since.

I haven’t seen her in a while. Janice and I have followed her illness and were so sad to see that she had lost her brave fight. We will remember many great times. Arklights in that same Ocova Manor where her acting skills were honed. Shared excitement at her Hello feature on Christian Aid's work in Tanzania.

Later she came to Fitzroy now and again and one night showed her Award winning short film Marion agus an Banphrionsa and her husband Simon Maxwell sang a song or two. We had a fantastic afternoon back in 2013 with two sets of kids in Bray. Trampolines were order of the day.

In these recent years she taught us how to battle cancer with resilience, honesty and dignity, ever reaching to help others.

It was always good to see Melanie. That beaming smile was radiant and positive. It was the same smile as that first one on a bus driving through Wicklow. I was the speaker at a weekend and the young girl over a decade younger ministered to me!

That's the Melanie Clark Pullen that I will best remember.


ON WILL SMITH's PUNCH... AND APOLOGY

Smith and Rock

Will Smith punching Chris Rock at the Oscars after a joke that Rock made about Smith’s wife has been the talk of the Gossip Columns. This week he has apologised. 

Smith's apology is clear - “I would like to publicly apologise to you, Chris. 

There is a certain amount of repentance - I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be.

He understands the ripple effects - “I would also like to apologise to the Academy, the producers of the show, all the attendees and everyone watching around the world. 

My wife is keen to know if Chris Rock has apologised. It seems that he did but now no one is quite sure if it was actually him.

There will be debate about who was in the wrong and whether apologies are needed or indeed whether Smith’s apology is too much too late and whether it was forced by what the Academy might sanction him. I would surmise that both Smith and Rock did need to say sorry.

Whatever the discussion it raised a couple of issues for me in a Sunday morning sermon based on Jesus words about confession and forgiveness in his teaching about prayer - “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.

These are the difficult words in The Lord’s Prayer. They take courage. Some will say that to ask people to forgive is like adding guilt to their pain. I suggest that it is offering them a bottle of tablets that will remove their pain. Jesus seems certain that forgiveness heals. No matter how hard the bitter pill is to swallow it takes away our trauma. 

Back to Will Smith. My first thought is about how we deal with public confession. I remember a few years ago a local Belfast politician apologised and was quickly admonished by his party. Politicians are not quick to apologise. Is that a result of the forgiveness they would or wouldn’t receive? 

The apostle John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God responds to our ‘sorry’ with forgiveness. Does our societal forgiveness? Or will Will Smith face the same backlash whether he had said sorry or not? 

If public confessions are not forgiven then it will dissuade apologies. Our communal lack of forgiveness might make us all complicit in the lack of public apologies!

In this sermon on forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer I also came to realise how crucial confession and forgiveness is to living the life in all its fulness that Jesus offered.

At the heart of God’s story of salvation history was a breakdown in relationships. There in the beginning there are broken relationships - with God, with fellow humans, with creation. The Jesus event was God coming to earth in human form to put those relationships right. To forgive. To restore. 

This is why in his letter James writes about confession, forgiveness and healing - “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed (James 5:16). Healing at its most profound and vital is in the ridding our souls of guilt and the cause of broken relationships. Healing is in the reconciliation. 

It is one thing to discuss this in the light of Will Smith punching Chris Rock. It is another to speak of it in the light or indeed darkness of the war in Ukraine. National post conflict reconciliation is crucial but takes longer. It always should be the goal. Our personal conflicts might be quicker if we live the way of Jesus. Whatever, I think Desmond Tutu gets it right when he says, “Without forgiveness there is no future”.


MY TRIBUTE TO MIKE RIDDELL - 1953-2022

Riddell

I was saddened to hear of the death of Mike Riddell. Mike had a massive influence on my life, particularly in the late 90s, early 2000s.

It all started with his mystical little book Godzone; A Guide To The Travels Of My Soul. In his poetic prose Mike opened wide the horizons of my soul and endorsed the adventure for God that I needed articulated.

He then helped my mind open from the rigidity of my theological thinking in his book Threshold of the Future - Reforming the Church in the Post-Christian West before arriving at Greenbelt to become our friend. 

Mike actually came to my first ever seminar at Greenbelt. Speakers don’t do that. I’ll be honest, it freaked me out but needn’t have as his encouragement was life giving. Mike wanted to be your mate more than he wanted to be a preacher pop star. In fact he might not have known what the latter idea was.

Having opened my soul and mind Mike reached for my heart in his literary work. Insatiable Moon was so profound. I wanted to hide it, it was so scandalous, and then realised that that feeling was the point. 

His play Jerusalem Jerusalem I saw twice. At Greenbelt and then wonderfully in Belfast. This opening up of the life of radical New Zealand poet James K Baxter had me reassessing the revolutionary nature of Jesus' life, tearing down the ivory towers of Church and the real big dangerous real world.

My favourite Mike Riddell moment though happened on a journey home from Greenbelt. I had a full car of punters, sleeping off four days of music, seminars and Tiny Tea Tent conversations. To keep me awake I was listening to recordings of the seminars I had missed.

Mike told a tale that had me reaching all around the front of my car for a piece of paper and a pen to write down the quote at the end of it. I could almost take you to the spot in the road on the far side of Dumfries

Mike spoke of a woman he knew who had a lovely faith but a real drug addiction. She would one day be praying wonderfully at the Prayer meeting and then literally lost in the gutter the next. Then he said “Some might think it is a blasphemy but I believe that God loved her as much in the gutter as at the prayer meeting.” 

This is Riddellesque. Taking what we tidied up as taboos and reclaiming the Gospel within them. Opening Jesus up to his most shocking. The shocking that would have the religious crucify him in any generation. 

For me this line was grace personified. I stole it for a poem. Sam Hill and Phil Baggaley made it a song, Soaked In A Dearer Wine that featured on our record Grace Notes.

"Some may think it's blasphemy

But I believe it's true

God lies there beside you in the gutter

And grace like a mother holds you"

(Listen to the song here)

 

It is a long time since we have shared a beverage but every time New Zealand was mentioned you were in my thoughts my friend. Thank you so much Mike Riddell.


TIME HAS WORN YOU OUT (For my Dad's Birthday)

Me and dad

It's my father's birthday today, February 24th, a day after my daughter's... I haven't got to visit him for a while as the Home is closed for Covid reasons... Happy birthday dad!

 

The high jump. The Fosbury Flop. Golf. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Football. Making me kick the ball with my left foot only for hours on end. Many world class players wish they had a dad like me who taught them that. Newcastle United, even though I chose Manchester City. 

These were the things my father taught me. The things we talked about. Even in the early days of dementia these were the words that I used to find traction as a father figure who spent his life as an accountant could no longer add up the figures.

Time has worn my Father out. It has eroded his memories. The words that resonated. Time has brought him down a cul-de-sac with no turning circle back again. 

 

Time is an invisible memory bank

Time leaves photographs counterfeit

Time turns and burns and churns

A tornado with nothing in control of it.

 

Time is a dance we do to its tune

Time is an artificial measuring space

Time it tumbles, rumbles and crumbles

A cage we make for us to pace.

 

Time is a capsule that is full of time

Time always seems to leak too fast

Time it breaks and cracks and takes

A hope of forever that never lasts.

 

Time has worn you out

Time has eroded your brain

Time has brought you down this cul-de-sac

With no turning circle back again.

 

Time if we could take it back

What time would we go back to

And if time took us back to there

What would I say to you

Would we use the word love

And would that word be enough.


MY FEAR OF TREATING SCRIPTURES WRONG

Stocki in Dark

I am frightened every time I teach from the Bible. These are God’s inspired Scriptures. People are listening. How I handle a passage of Scripture will be an example for those listening as to how they work with the Bible.

I grew up listening to all kinds of preachers. Some were careful with the text. They took time to understand the genre of the text. 

Was it law? Prophets? Psalms? History? Gospel? Letter?

They were also careful to put the verses preached on in the context of the passage, the book and the entire Biblical narrative.

The very best ones also contextualised the text into our own day. They treated the Bible with great care and also knew the general zeitgeist that they were preaching into and the particular events of the week that they were speaking into.

Those are the preachers I attempt to follow.

I had heard very bad exposition. Lonely verses out of context leading people astray with what they declared was Biblical.

I had also heard dubious and confusing preaching. That is where the preacher might have said good things that I could say Amen to but when I looked closely I couldn’t find it in the text they were preaching on!

Care. I am always over anxious to take care. I need to do that text justice. I need to show how we read the Bible correctly.

I have learned how to do that better in my 12 years in Fitzroy. I need to be disciplined to avoid adding what I want the text to say. Text, context and application need to line up.

Tomorrow I am on Luke 5 where Jesus asks the fishermen to throw their nets further out. How do I preach that? Can I suggests we need to go deeper? I am wrestling. I am taking care. I want to get it right. More than that I don’t want to get it wrong.


BORIS & PARENTS - IT'S MORE WHAT WE DO THAN WHAT WE SAY

Skynews-boris-johnson-eye-roll_5633352

Caitlin had just started talking. It was a Saturday morning and Janice and I were trying to steal an extra half hours kip. I was asleep when I heard Caitlin saying, “I see myself, I see myself…” She was looking right in my eye. Out of the mouths of babes I thought. Then I remembered that I had put my glasses on before I fell back to sleep. She was seeing her reflection!

Being a thinker of things, that moment has lived with me through Caitlin’s life. She’s 24 this year and sadly when she looks at me she sees too much of herself. 

I have realised that the parts she, and her sister Jasmine, see, as well as the very clear eccentricities passed down through the generations, are not things that I talked to them about but actually what they really see me and their mother, Janice, do.

Oh I wanted them to play football or hockey or golf. I tried to get them interested but no interest.

We took them to Africa from a very young age. Year after year. Didn’t talk to them much about it. Jasmine is now doing International Development at University and Caitlin did her Early Years degree Dissertation on Early Education development in East Africa.

They didn’t pick up what we said. They were influenced by what they saw. 

I have been thinking about all of this as I’ve watched today’s news. 

Boris Johnston’s party attendance in May 2020 when the rest of us couldn’t see our loved ones is a shocker. We had a dear friend who died a few days after the party. The funeral was limited. I was in hospital 10 days after the party and had no visitors. I watched as patients who had been in for some time struggled at not seeing partners and children.

It makes us angry. The one rule for us and another for those in power reeks of injustice and the kind of leadership we expect in developing countries, not the UK.

I understand the calls for Boris’s resignation from other politicians across opposition parties and within his own. In any other era I think he would have gone by now. 

Which for me is the worst part of it. Why has he not already gone. Have we changed our values. What we can get away with. As children watch their parents and almost unconsciously pick up their values, priorities and bad habits so a population is influenced by what they see their leaders do. It is frightening as a parent. Even more so as we watch our leaders.

God was more about seeing an example than just hearing words. After 39 Old Testament books he felt that the best way to understand God and how he wanted us to live was was to see it. “The Word became flesh”. Oh, don’t ignore what Jesus said at all but his idea was more about us becoming like the Jesus we see rather than just obeying words. He came to show us how to live. To follow. 


WHEN THE CHAPLAIN MET THE BISHOP AND TALKED POP - A Tribute To BRIAN HANNON

Brain Hannon

 

I was so sorry to hear about the death on January 10th of Brian Hannon, former anglican Bishop of Clogher.

I imagine that growing up, especially in his late teens, Neil Hannon must have got pretty annoyed at being called the minister’s son. I wonder, 10 years later, whether Rev Brian Hannon ever got used to be known as Neil Hannon’s father. 

I’m a minister like Brian Hannon but I am known more for being a rock fan so it will be a surprise that I actually met Bishop Hannon first and have spent a longer time with him.

I did eventually meet Neil. It was that amazing gig to reopen the Ulster Hall in 2009. Called, Remember The First Time, Northern Ireland finest did one of their own songs and a cover of the first band they actually went to see in the Ulster Hall.  

I was standing in the crowd beside my friends Peter Wilson and Paul Wilkinson when I realised that their other friend was Neil Hannon! It was a perfect position to be in when The Lowly Knights introduced their cover, Divine Comedy’s Something For `The Weekend. “Great writer”, says I for effect. Neil almost fist pumped in contrived comedic glee. 

It was Brian Hannon that I got to spend most time with. I was given the honour of being invited to speak at Monaghan Collegiate Prize Day. I had no idea that the Chairman of the Board of Governors was Brian Hannon, Bishop of Clogher. On the journey from the school to lunch in a nearby hotel I was driven by the Bishop.

Those who know me will know that for this particular clergyman to be thrown to such a situation was much more challenging than it would have been if Mr Divine Comedy himself had been my chauffeur.

I am reckoning it must have been late 1998 because as I got into the car the first two things I spied were cassettes of Fin de Siècle and A Short Album About Love. 

I immediately confessed to the Bishop that we had something in common. I was a fan of his son. He then shared with me various things about the music industry, the press, Neil and himself. 

He spoke about the press and the record company and a Bishop whose son was writing singles called Generation Sex! It was ripe for difficulties at many levels! He knew he needed to be onto the lyrics before a tabloid journalist would phone up looking a headline. The Record Company were always trying to appease the lyrics but Bishop Hannon got their weighty thoughtfulness. 

He shared with me how he had a recent concert gone back stage and met Tori Amos and her band. Later he had told Neil how wonderful and normal they were, to which Neil shrugged and responded, “What did you expect Dad?” His son’s vocation was opening the Bishop up and he was so prepared to admit his mistakes, prejudices and need for learning.

He also shared a TV moment that had moved both of us just a short time before. Neil was performing live own BBC Northern Ireland’s Across The Line. To do something special he sang the old hymn Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind. I couldn’t believe it at the time. It was beautiful and poignant. The Bishop and his wife Maeve were very moved. Neil would later write an Oratorio with organ, strings and a choir entitled To Our Fathers In Distress and inspired by his father’s battle with Alzheimers.

Speaking of Neil’s faith the Bishop said that he would tell him he was agnostic but after most of their chats the Bishop added with that mischievous humility, that I was so charmed by. that he was probably no more agnostic than the Bishop was at times himself! 

I found Bishop Brian Hannon to be a warm and gracious man, humble and open. Open, not only to me or to his son’s career but to himself. He was a Bishop in his early 60s whereas I was a young University Chaplain in my late 30s. His honesty near confession of what he was learning left an indelible mark on me. I regret not asking to come and spend more time with him.

I treasure that lunch so much. As I looked back this morning I wondered if I had missed something else. Bishop Hannon’s reading of others. When he introduced me to his wife at the lunch table, he introduced me as “Steve, a fan of our son Neil.” He had picked up the fulness of Stockman in a short car journey - not so much Rev as Divine Comedy fan!

Today, my prayers and good wishes go to Maeve, Neil and Bishop Hannon’s other sons Desmond and Brendan.