THOUGHT FOR THE DAY - BBC RADIO ULSTER

WHEN I WAS PUSHED OFF SANTA'S NAUGHTY LIST... AND WHY I PREFER JESUS!

Santa List

(my Thought For The Day on December 18, 2020...)

 

It was the Sunday before Christmas. I was about 7 years old. It was the afternoon. We had been up to Ballymena Cemetery to visit my Granda Kernohan’s grave.

I must have been a naughty boy… nothing new there… but Granny was angry. When we returned to her house she wrote a note to Santa to tell him what a bad little boy Steve had been. I watched it go up the chimney and she told me that she saw Santa with it, sailing over the Town Hall. My Christmas was done. I am pretty sure it didn’t calm me down.

I’ve always had an issue with Santa, checking whether we have been naughty and nice, ever since.

It is the way of the world. The good and well behaved. The passers of society’s tests. They are in. The naughty are off everybody’s lists.

If we take ourselves out of the Santa Christmas for a moment and get our heads into the Jesus Christmas instead, there is a whole other kind of attitude going on.

When Jesus was born, he threw the Santa naughty or nice test out of the reindeer flying sky and gave us another way to see each other.

In this nativity scene we see the most unlikely getting on Jesus’s list. I mean Mary and Jospeh to start with. Jesus was God coming to earth. He is known in hymns as King Of Kings and Lord Of Lords. He could set a few tests. Instead he arrives in humility, born of an ordinary teenage girl and is laid down in animal straw.

And around him shepherds and eastern stargazers. These weren’t the religiously qualified or the Israel’s high society. Indeed the PhD’s and royalty tried to kill him. It was the dirty shepherds and foreign mystics who got invited in. 

They aren’t invited by some behavioural code or societal qualification. No… Santa is very much about how good you are… My 7 year old self suffered from that… Jesus is all about grace… unmerited favour… loved as you are… as my 17 year old self discovered and my 59 year old self will still treasure on Christmas Day. I prefer Jesus to Santa every single day!


BE SOMEONE'S ELIZABETH

Random-acts-of-kindness-call-300x300

(my Thought For the Day on BBC Radio Ulster - December 11, 2020...)

 

What a week in the news - December 2020. As I watch and listen I am pretty convinced that my grandchildren will have this on their A Level History syllabus. For us it was 19th century Irish history. For others 20th century American history BUT for our Grandchildren one month might be enough for the entire course.

A world pandemic with lockdowns, Christmas bubbles and miracle vaccines,  a race towards the cliff edge on a Brexit deal and an American President who won’t give way to the next American President. Goodness me but what the Christmas no 1 is seems of little consequence!

These are surreal and disconcerting times.

But for the preacher it is Advent. I cannot help think that Mary was caught up in surreal and disconcerting times too. And actually times that would be on Theological College syllabuses for millennia.

Yes, if we are reeling then so was Mary. After a visit from an angel, understandably so. She is pregnant but not married. She has to live with the implications of all that the neighbours and elders in the synagogue might think and say.

In disconcerting and surreal times it is good to have someone to breathe in and breathe out with.

Mary takes off and visits her cousin Elizabeth. Someone who sees her. Someone who will take her in and allow her to find space to come to terms with the big ask of God. Someone to listen to her. Someone who will be there for her without judgement. Someone who understands.

If ever there was a Christmas full of people who need an Elizabeth then it is this one. Thought For The Days are often dismissed as just nice messages about being nice. Well this particular year being nice could change someone’s world. Just a nice act like sending a text or message or phone call or card. 2020 has been disconcerting and surreal for us all. Everyone needs an Elizabeth and we all need to be an Elizabeth to someone. 


WHY I PREFER FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK TO SOME CAROL SERVICES

McColl and Magowan

(This was my Thought For The Day on Good Morning Ulster (BBC Radio Ulster) on December 4th 2020...)

As a minister can I confess that sometimes I prefer Shane Magowan’s Fairytale Of New York than many Carol Services.

Oh I have friends rolling their eyes right now. They hate the Magowan classic… but let me explain.

Some Carol Services for me are a little clinical and perfect. I have sat through quite a few and wondered if any of the truth being read is evident in the sentimental fuzzy wuzzy atmosphere around me.

Over the centuries the church has done a lot to domesticate Christmas and the Jesus at the centre of it. 

It is as if Mary experiences no birth pains and Joseph has an extra mural in midwifery. The animals, not actually in the Bible readings, seem a little perfumed and blow dried. We even have a carol that talks about the baby “no crying he makes”. What. For goodness sake give me some reality!

Shane Magowan doesn’t give us any Jesus but he does give us a whole dose of reality. His song has us in a drunk tank on Christmas Eve. There’s shouting and swearing and a very broken world.

If we look around us there is a lot of reality in Christmas 2020. Many people are not going to get spending it with their families. More people are at food banks than ever before. High Streets are not only quiet but some big names have just gone to the wall. The implications of job losses are massive.

Of course I am not saying that we don’t need carol Services. We have a few crackers lined up on line in Fitzroy. BUT I am saying that unless we set the good news and peace that the angels sang about into the reality going on around us then we have something less than an authentic Christmas.

I believe that this Jesus wants to enter all of our realities, to bring hope and love and justice and salvation not just to individuals but to high streets, communities and nations.


CHILDISH OR MATURITY IN KEEPING COVID 19 RULES?

Rule of 6

(My Thought For The Day on Good Morning Ulster on September 18, 2020)

 

Back in the day… when one of my daughters was in P1. I caught her swinging on her chair at dinner so I said, "Caitlin, what would Mrs Kane say about you swinging on that chair?"

Quick as a flash, Caitlin says, “But Daddy… Mrs Kane isn’t here”

Her childish understanding of law was that if the person who laid the law down wasn’t there, you could do what you like. Her immaturity wasn’t able to understand that Mrs Kane had come up with the rule NOT to spoil her swinging fun but for her health and safety.

I think the same about double yellow lines. Some City planner didn’t rub his or her hands together and say I’ll spoil their fun by putting a few double yellows at the corner of Royal Avenue.

Laws of the road are no more to spoil our fun than Mrs Kane. Laws of the road are there so that Belfast as an entire city doesn’t come to a stand still because someone immaturely thinks the traffic wardens have gone home. Double Yellow lines are there to prevent chaos on our roads for benefit of all.

God didn’t make up laws to spoil our fun. They are there so that life doesn’t become chaotic and dangerous. The Bible also says that laws were there like a teacher of children. There until we mature and understand the chaos and health issues and avoid them out of love rather than law. 

That is why Jesus said all of the law could be fulfilled by doing doing two things - loving God and loving neighbour.

We need to see why rules are made and begin to live in the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it.

I am trying to look at these Covid 19 restrictions in that mature way. They are not to spoil my fun. 300 more people have died in 6 months by this virus than were killed in the worst year of the Troubles. 

Remember searches going into shops, being alert to where you went in the evenings and responding bomb alerts. 

So, I am going to see these strange Covid 19 rules as preventions of chaos and deaths. I am going to try and be more mature than my daughter in P1… remembering that the law of loving neighbour will keep them all… 


PUTTING OTHERS ABOVE YOURSELF, IN DEATH

Lucia and M. Phelps

photo: our dear friend Lucia Quinney Mee with her hero, most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps

(This is my Thought for the Day on Good Morning Ulster on September 11, 2020...)

 

These days… It seems that every day… is some kinda day… Today is National Make Your Bed Day… once a year seems fair enough to me… Tomorrow is National Chocolate Milkshake Day…Wednesday was apparently Buy A Priest A Beer Day. Most of my close priest friends are tee total but hey…

Then there are special weeks like Fair Trade Fortnight or Good Relations Week which I think is actually next week. All good ways to remember important things. 

This week is Organ Donation Week and that is very important in our family. In May we lost our dear friend, and organ recipient, Lucia Quinney Mee just short of her 21st birthday. 

Over the summer we have poured over photographs and old videos and shared stories of amazing memories of summer days and New Year’s Eves in Ballycastle, of pop concerts, funny hair days, Lucia’s swimming achievements at the British and World Transplant Games and setting up the organisation Live Loudly Donate Proudly to get loved ones to talk about their wishes for their organs after they die.

Lucia’s own liver failed her when she was only 8 years of age and she, in the end, received four livers.

As we have attempted in these past few months, not very well, to take the edge of our grief I became even more thankful to the donor families who gave us those extra 12 extra years of memories and allowed Lucia to live a very full young life.

Jesus said Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.

The apostle Paul followed up on this by telling Jesus followers to see other people above themselves.

It is unlikely that I will ever have to give up my life for others, like Jesus did for the world, BUT what I am determined to do is make sure that in my death I put others above myself. 

Whatever of my organs can be donated I want surgeons to use. If I could give someone those extra years and memories that donors gave Lucia and her family. Wow. That would be something.


HAPPY 75th BIRTHDAY VAN MORRISON - I Want To Thank You

Van 75th

(I had the privilege of wishing Van Morrison Happy 75th Birthday when I did a Special Thought For The Day to mark the occasion on Good Morning Ulster...)

 

A joy to be on the radio to publicly say Happy 75th Birthday Van Morrison brought up in Hyndford Street, East Belfast. From Astral Weeks to last year’s Three Chords and The Truth you have created as qualitative a body of work as any of your peers. Van, you are up there with Bob Dylan and without you there would be no Bruce Springsteen. 

I want to thank you personally for a few things. 

Firstly, making our wee ordinary places sound extraordinary… Ballystockart, Ardglass, Cyprus Avenue, Castlereagh Road, Hyndford Street, Davey’s Chipper and the man who played the saw outside City Hall. You make me proud of where I’m from.

Secondly, I want to thank you for being a spiritual companion. We all need songs for the journey and songs like Full Force Gale, When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God, In the Garden and the recent Transformation have refreshed me and pushed me on in my journey following Jesus.

Stuart Bailie writes in his upcoming book 75 Van Songs about Van’s song Sense Of Wonder that it makes the case “for being a receptive soul, about the prerogative to burn bright”. 

That is Van Morrison. A man born in east Belfast with exceptional gift from God who used it to give the world a sense of wonder, to call us to being receptive souls to the transcendent and burn brighter than the ordinary around us.

American writer and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner defines our individual vocations… the reason God made us… as the place where our deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need.

I have watched in the crowd as on a stage Van Morrison lived those moments of his deepest gladness. There’s actually nothing like it. He has battled the fame and music industry that his vocation hurled him into in the mid 60s when he just wanted to play saxophone on the weekend in a Down joint...

BUT he has used that deep gladness to call the world to look higher and seek to the find the eternal now. As he put it in his spoken word song Hyndford Street to Dream in God. Thank you sir, for sharing your vocation with us all. Happy 75th birthday!


WHEN GOD DISAPPEARS - Thought For The Day BBC GMU 28.8.2020

Mist Hides Fair Head

I spent much of August on what we have I think disingenuously named staycations… it is as if our own beautiful coastline’s, glens and mountain scenery are some how inferior to somewhere that has passed some higher test to be deemed a Vacation.

We holiday most years in Ballycastle and love it. We walk the dog almost every night along the signature north coast beach with Rathlin just out to sea, the sun setting over Kinbane head at one side, still shining rays of light across Fair Head on the other side, with Mull Of Kintyre and all Paul McCartney thought of that in the distance.

If you ask me this kind of staycation leaves Vacations way behind.

Anyway, every single night the light, the colour of the skies are different. We can clog up our smart phones with attempts to capture it. I wonder how God can throw different tie dye shades across the same canvas at the same time of day.

One night, and truthfully just one, we couldn’t see Fair Head… or much else. A mist was down. It was erie. It was bereft. It was dank and dull. The wonder was gone. 

I could easily have let my cynicism get the best of me and start talking about the trouble with staycations… but I didn’t. As I walked towards the nothingness, the emptiness I remembered back to the night before. Actually Janice had taken a most beautiful picture of the Fair Head in all its strutting glory just a few hours earlier. I remembered.

Do this in remembrance of me is perhaps the most used phrase in all our Christian traditions. Jesus was with his disciples. He was really there. God flesh on. Soon, he wouldn’t be. So, he created a symbolic act that would remind them of when he was there… when they might find themselves losing their vision or getting caught in a gloomy, foggy days in life.

There is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty around us in these days. There might be lots of moments when we could lose faith, or be angry with God or not be able to see in all that we are struggling through.

When in my own life God seems veiled.. I am now going to think of that night when the fog blocked out Fair Head… I am not going not stop believing that God is there… but remember back to when I could see God in all of his glory.


LEARNING FROM TREVOR STEVENSON'S MEMOIR - A NEW YEAR SURMISE

Trev Karamoja

(my Thought For The Day on BBC Radio Ulster this New Year's Day morning 2020...)

 

Happy New Year. New Year’s Day. Always a good time to look back and then look forward. What can we learn from the last year. How can we get ready for the year ahead. Maybe there are exciting things ahead… or scary things. 

I am excited about 2020 because a friend is publishing his memoir that I have been helping him with. Trevor Stevenson went to Uganda to give a few weeks advice on a farm project in 1993. He had no idea what he was getting into. He took just one step of faith. Then he sensed that he should raise money for that farm. Another step of faith. Then he felt he should go with that money and set up that farm. Then while on the farm the local councillors came and asked if he would build them a school. He built a school. Yet one more step of faith.

Today Northern Ireland’s Fields Of Life NGO has built 120 schools across east Africa and drilled fresh water for almost 1 million people. 

What I learned from Trevor’s life is that the best thing to do from where we are is to take the next step. There’s a doctor called Luke who records the beginning of the Church in the Acts Of The Apostles in the New Testament. There’s no five or ten year plan just followers of Jesus taking small steps of faith.

Sometimes that step is like Trevor’s… full of enthusiasm and adventure. Other times the step might be in a dark place where you are frightened to move because your fragile hurting heart might break. 

Wherever you are this New Year’s morning I encourage you to take just the next step of faith. Make it the next right move you can make. Just one step. It can make all of the difference.   


CHRISTMAS GIFTS - WILL WE RIP THEM OPEN?

Subbuteo Rugby

A very happy Christmas to you all. I love Christmas morning. Let me ask you, what was the earliest you got up to see what Santa left? For me it was just 30 minutes after midnight. I lay waiting until my parents went to bed. I reckoned that Santa must have been. I sneaked out and there was my Subbuteo Rugby. I didn’t have the players lined out for a game before my parents were down the corridor telling me to get back to bed. 

Darn… but my 4am wake ups worked so much better. My parents were deeper in their sleep and I used to watch out the window as the McKeown’s light then the Wilson’s lights would go on around the same time.

I always watch carefully on Christmas Day to catch people’s reactions to being given a present. I always wonder what would happen if someone refused the gift they are handed? “No thank you” they say. “I’d prefer not to take that from you.” How would that go?

Then what if someone took the gift and just set it down somewhere. The giver asks if they want to know what it is. “Oh no”, they reply, “It was the thought that counted. I don’t want to get over excited or fanatical. I’ll just look at it occasionally and think of you!”

Give a gift to me today and I’ll have it out of your and, no matter how expensive or carefully wrapped the paper, I’ll have it ripped off off to see what is in there. I love Christmas. I love the gifts. I am up with my children, no matter how early to see what is in that stocking.

And what of the baby. That other gift of Christmas. We all know the words and can dismiss them with over familiarity. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” What a gift. There, in the nativity decoration. There, in the manger. God’s gift to us all. How will we respond on this Christmas morning? Like I did with that Subbuteo Rugby?


WAR AS FATHER OF EVERYTHING... & THE BABY OF PEACE

War-is-the-father-and-king-of-all-quote-1

(this was my Thought For The Day on BBC Radio Ulster for December 18th 2019...)

 

During a lecture in Fitzroy on Sunday evening on Artificial Intelligence Professor Stephen Williams quoted Heraclitus a philosopher from the fifth century BC. This Greek dude said, “War is the father and king of all things.” It very quickly made sense of all of history for me… but then I saw something else.

Behind Stephen as he said these words was our Fitzroy Nativity scene. Oh the Bible doesn’t mention a stable and it is very unlikely that shepherds and wise men were there all together that first Christmas morning or that a camel could get through the door of whatever room the baby was laid in the manger.

BUT the baby. The baby that shook the establishment. The baby that changed the date lines of history. The baby who many of us see as a revolutionary world changer. He is known as the Prince of Peace. Angels on the night he was born sang about Peace on Earth.

It struck me that Christmas is when War as Father and King of all is challenged by a baby of peace. This is the upside down nature of the baby Jesus’s life. He is about a radical shift in direction for everything. Instead of War being Father or mother and King or Queen of all. Peace.

Which would we all prefer. It is a crucial question. It impacts all of our attitudes, personally and across our society. It might be a good question for us all to ask our politicians as they start talks at Stormont. Do we want war or peace to be father or mother of all we do? 

And let us not point the finger just at the politicians. What about us all? Who do we want to Lord it over our attitudes and actions. Do we want War to be king of everything we do… or this baby… reaching out a hand of peace to shepherds… to eastern mystics… to you… and to me.