Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We are all made in the image of the God we choose to serve."

Blaise Pascal



Wednesday, June 8, 2016

No Darkness to this Dream...

It's been a while since I posted any sort of theatre review on this blog. That's for a couple of reasons. First: lack of time - that's part of the reason my general blogging output has decreased over the past couple of years, and as I have prioritised my leisure time I have decided that sitting in a corner typing on a keyboard late at night is probably not good for my mental health!
Second: a bit of perspective - my blogging has always been primarily for an audience of one (which has been pretty close to my readership level at times) and I'm no longer fooling myself that anyone is really interested in my rantings about plays, that are frequently over or moved on before I have had time to "review" them... where I have enjoyed something I have generally said so on social media... Where I haven't I have (more recently) kept shtum. 
But last week I had the pleasure of going with our church theatre group (a group dedicated to watching rather than performing theatre) to see the RSC's Production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Belfast Grand Opera House - this was their so-called "Play for the Nation", staged to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, involving amateur companies all over the country to play the "Rude Mechanicals" and stage the "play within the play." Locally the amateurs were all drawn from the Belvoir Players and Bottom was played by a friend, Trevor Gill. 
I always find it dodgy reviewing, or even noting I am present at a production involving a friend, given that I have little or no capacity to hide any critical feelings... But any such fears were unfounded with this production. I hadn't initially planned to review it, for the reasons above... There are plenty of other, largely favourable reviews for you to find if you want... But this isn't a review... more a reflection... because the run was over very quickly and this was the end of the tour... (although if anyone happens to be reading this and can get a ticket for the production when it returns home to Stratford, I can heartily endorse it.) 
However, in response to another facebook friend's reflections on Huffington Post, Trevor Gill was bold enough to invite me to comment in further depth... So this is it. 
I said at the time that it was a thoroughly uplifting experience... Its joy was positively therapeutic. I had had a heavy few days, being involved with a couple of difficult pastoral situations and wading my way through some weighty church matters, including a substantial piece of writing, so it was a blessed relief to come into a theatre and simply enjoy a story I was familiar with, being well told, with Shakespeare richness of language and poetry being well delivered (on the whole - although Laura Riseborough playing Helena could have done with slowing down and speaking up instead of gabbling her lines at times). That combined with the colour and vibrancy of the staging, the musical scoring, the strong sense of comedy and the local resonance brought by the mechanicals, added up to a production that put a broad smile on my face and even elicited more than a few laughs (although not as many or as loud as some of the audience - including my wife, who nearly died at one point - but there is no accounting for her sense of humour... she laughs at Harry Hill). Indeed the production itself could be said to have had a broad smile on its face from begining to end - despite a set, production photos and costuming of the Athenians that spoke of coming out of the aftermath of war... They didn't make much of those overtones, and largely glossed over most of the complexity and darker threads within the play... Theseus' "martial wooing/conquest" of Hippolyta was barely hinted at, Oberon's dubious motivation for his actions (wanting possession of Titania's orphan boy) is simply accepted, as is the drug-induced resolution of the Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, Lysander love quadrangle, never mind the bestiality implied in the Titania/Bottom affair... Indeed the lacivious sexuality implied in the woodland scenes was largely absent resulting in a remarkably chaste love story (by contrast a school production I was involved in many years ago was summed up by one elderly matron saying "It was very good, but there was too much sex!"). But the joy of Shakespeare is that each and every play can be staged in so many ways: each director takes their choice of direction through the complex wood of the scripts. I'm told Russell T. Davies' BBC production (unsurprisingly) makes more of some of the darker elements in "The Dream" (and introduces a few more from what I hear), but I didn't watch it as I didn't want to compare and contrast... I wanted to enjoy the RSC production in its own right. 
And enjoy it I did. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Lucy Ellinson as Puck, who had a touch of the EmCee from Cabaret about her, a mischievious spirit, introducing and concluding the whole endeavour and weaving in a slightly sinister strand to the whole. But the highlight was, for me, the locals... not only the Belvoir mechanicals (with Trevor Gill playing a remakably sympathetic/warm Bottom (no pun intendended), Chris Curry a wonderfully efffete Flute/Thisbe and Jeeie McGreevy giving the few lines of Starveling her all, so she did) but also the boys of St. Malachy's College playing the fairy train... Because for me this was a reminder of how I fell in love with Shakespeare. Not reading it as a dry text line by line in a classroom, but performing it under the guidance of teachers/directors who understood and loved the richness of the text and wanted to convey that not only to an audience but a new generation. What a privilege it must have been for those boys (and the folks in the Belvoir players) to be part of this production with the RSC, and to feel the text truly come alive in front of an appreciative audience. I hope that the memory will live with them as long as my humbler memories of schoolboy Shakespeare have lived with me... But it also makes me sad that so few young people get this opportunity to enjoy Shakespeare "from the inside." The school I attended can no longer stage full productions because of the syllabus demands on teachers and students, although they have at least got involved in the "Schools' Shakespeare Festival" where they join others in staging 30 minute versions of various plays. At another reputable grammar school I was shocked to discover, when I asked, that they had not done anything to mark the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare's death... that is simply appalling. This  production in particular, would have been ideal to take Shakespeare virgins to, indeed a friend who had never been to a Shakespeare play before apparently laughed the whole way through. 
I doubt that he would find as much to laugh about in most productions of Shakespeare, but I hope he will not be afraid to give another one a go... and perhaps one with a few darker threads... 

Shalom

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Democracy?

Whilst preparing for a service tomorrow I stumbled on this dialogue I posted at this time 2 years ago... it is again pertinent (with a slide amendment) in this Ascensiontide, in the wake of elections this past week and thinking about issues of sovereignty that will be thrown up by the European referendum next month. I'm not entirely convinced by the fetishism of democracy, especially given it's tendency to be subverted by tribal interested or the undue influence of those with vast amounts of money, although I would probably somewhat cynically agree with the idea that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” (whether or not Churchill ever said it). But it is probably as dangerous to identify one form of government with the Kingdom of God as it is to identify one nation with it. As I said before thanks (or should that be apologies) should go to John Bell and Graeme Maule of the Iona Community for the format if not the content of what follows... The cynicism of Peter is entirely of my own making, however, and doesn't reflect my feelings about all politicians... 
Peter:          Eh... Jesus...?
Jesus:         Yes, Peter?
Peter:          Have you ever heard of democracy?
Jesus:         Where’d you hear about that Peter?
Peter:          Oh, I heard some Greeks talking about it... They said it was some sort of government. But it's all Greek to me...
Jesus:         Well Peter... Democracy is government by the people...
Peter:          Sure we’re always governed by people... People with crowns called kings or emperors...
Jesus:         Yes, but in a democracy the people choose who will govern them by voting.
Peter:          People vote to decide who will become King?
Jesus:         Not quite... Although some of those elected behave like they’re kings or queens...
Peter:          How are people like me supposed to decide who will run the country? I know nothing about politics...
Jesus:         Well, the people who want to be elected produce manifestos to tell the voters what they will do for them if they are elected...
Peter:          Ah... and the voters elect the one who will do most for them...
Jesus:         Well, actually they usually vote for the one who will give them the biggest tax cut...
Peter:          I can understand that, I hate taxes... Actually, that reminds me Jesus... Our tax bill is due again, so Judas says if you could do another trick with those coins in that fish’s mouth the same way as you did last year that would be good...
Jesus:         I’m afraid that was a one off, Peter.
Peter:          Oh well, it was worth a try. So what do you think of this democracy stuff?
Jesus:         Its OK so long as the system is fair and the politicians honest...
Peter:          That would be a first. So is the Kingdom of Heaven going to be a democracy?
Jesus:         No...
Peter:          Why not?
Jesus:         Well, tell me... is the majority always right?
Peter:          Depends on how big a majority.
Jesus:         What do you mean?
Peter:          Well, I’m not going to stand up and tell a mob of people that what they do or say or think is wrong...
Jesus:         You’ll be surprised what you might end up doing for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Peter:          But when are we going to see this Kingdom of Heaven you’ve been talking about? You’ve been speaking about it ever since I’ve known you... And where is its capital city going to be? Where is it going to be founded?
Jesus:         I don’t know when Peter... But I do know where...
Peter:          Where? Here in Galilee?
Jesus:         No.
Peter:          Jerusalem?
Jesus:         No.
Peter:          Rome?
Jesus:         No. Nor will it be in Washington DC, Moscow, London, Brussels or even Belfast...
Peter:          Where?
Jesus:         Never mind... The point is that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a country as we know it with borders, governments, elections, taxes and a national football team...
Peter:          What?
Jesus:         Again, never mind. The Kingdom of God is a group of people who have decided to serve God as their Lord and King...
Peter:          So the people do decide who is going to be King...
Jesus:         No, the people decide whether God will be their King... Whether they will be part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Peter:          Oh... But you still haven’t told me where it will be founded, where its capital city will be...
Jesus:         Here...
Peter:          But you already said that it wouldn’t be in Galilee...
Jesus:         No, not here in Galilee... But here, in the human heart. The Kingdom of Heaven is within you...
Peter:          Oh...  Well, I suppose I should have known that the Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t going to be a democracy, because you’d be a dreadful politician.
Jesus:         Why’s that Peter?
Peter:          You’re too honest... You keep your promises...
Shalom

Monday, April 25, 2016

Litany for Peace

This week is the actual centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, and as part of our response to that and the other centenaries being marked in Ireland from 2012-22, tonight Rev. Dr. Johnston McMaster gave a lecture helping us to make "God-Sense" of it all, in the different world that is Ireland 100 years on. In it he asked a number of questions including "Does violence ever bring peace?" challenging the place of the myth of redemptive violence in Christian thinking. As a partial response to that I thought I would post this Litany for Peace fromr yesterday morning's broadcast Service on Radio Ulster when we were reflecting on Jesus' challenging promise: "Blessed are the Peacemakers..." 

Prince of Peace
deliver us
From those who use violence to impose their will on others.
From those who stir others up to use violence to achieve their ends.
From those who turn a blind eye to violence and injustice because it doesn’t affect them directly.
From the mindset that might is right and the end justifies the means.
Prince of Peace
deliver us
From simplistic divisions into us and them, wherever the dividing lines are drawn.
From those who use division and fear as a means of garnering support for their position.
From endless and unproductive cycles of resentment and recrimination.
From the tendency to use words to wound and the desire to win at all costs.
Prince of Peace
deliver us
From the confusion of peace with order and justice with legalism.
From the folly of thinking we have all the answers and have nothing to learn from anyone
From the use of your word as a justification for our prejudices
From divisions in your body that bring shame on your name and make a mockery of your command to love one another
Prince of Peace
deliver us
From the pain of the past, confusion in the present and fear of the future.
Prince of Peace
deliver us
From the limitations of our own knowledge, the selfishness of our desires and the tendency to blame others for our failings
Prince of Peace
deliver us
By your words of forgiveness uttered on the cross
Prince of Peace
deliver us
By your victory over death in your resurrection from the grave
Prince of Peace
deliver us
By your Spirit breathed upon us
Prince of Peace
deliver us
We pray this for ourselves, our province, our nation, our world,
looking forward to that time when your Kingdom of perfect Peace comes in all its fullness
On earth as it is in heaven
AMEN

Shalom

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The World's Beatitudes

Over recent months in Belfast South Methodist we have been thinking about the implications of Jesus’ Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5, and in this morning's broadcast Service on Radio Ulster we were reflecting on "Blessed are the Peacemakers..." and as part of it we contrasted the words of Jesus with common attitudes in the world at large:



VOICE 1:          Jesus says:
VOICE 2:          "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
VOICE 1:          The world says:
VOICE 3:          "Blessed are the materially wealthy, because theirs is the kingdom of the here and now."
VOICE 1:          Jesus says:
VOICE 2:          "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
VOICE 1:          The world says:
VOICE 3:          "Blessed are those who are too busy living to think about death, because life is for living."
VOICE 1:          Jesus says:
VOICE 2:          "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."
VOICE 1:          The world says:
VOICE 3:          "Blessed are the self-assertive, because they will get what they want."
VOICE 1:          Jesus says:
VOICE 2:          "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
VOICE 1:          The world says:
VOICE 3:          "Blessed are those who are satisfied with the world as it is, because they don’t have to do anything to improve it."
VOICE 1:          Jesus says:
VOICE 2:          "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
VOICE 1:          The world says:
VOICE 3:          "Blessed are the merciless, because they will never allow themselves to be at anyone else’s mercy." 
VOICE 1:          Jesus says:
VOICE 2:          "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
VOICE 1:          The world says:
VOICE 3:          "Blessed are those who keep their hands clean, because others will do all the dirty work."
VOICE 1:          Jesus says:
VOICE 2:          "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."
VOICE 1:          The world says:
VOICE 3:          "Blessed are the warriors, because no-one will ever treat them like children."
VOICE 1:          Jesus says:
VOICE 2:          "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
VOICE 1:          The world says:
VOICE 3:          "Blessed are those who get their retaliation in first, because good guys finish last in this world."
VOICE 1:          And all the people said:
ALL:                  AMEN

Shalom

Monday, March 28, 2016

Before the Cock Crows

The second of our two Easter Eye-Witnesses, bringing to a close a series of 7 monologues delivered by various friends as part of our Holy Week Services at the Agape Centre.









It was half a world away from here and half a lifetime ago, but I remember it as if it was yesterday. The day that changed my life forever, even though I didn’t realise it at the time… the day that changed the world, even though the world hasn’t yet woken up to the fact…
I had barely woken up… The cock had just crowed, bringing the memories of two mornings before flooding back… The shame at being proved a coward… Realising how hollow all my brave words at the dinner table had been… That he knew… he knew everything…
He had been warning us for ages that it would happen, but none of us believed him.
“If anyone would follow me he must take up his cross and follow me...” I didn’t think he meant it literally…
“I’ll follow in your footsteps wherever you go… even to death itself!” I said… And all the others said the same. But he warned me I would deny even knowing him before the cock crowed the next day…
Who did I think I was fooling? I’m always the same... Full of bold words... But when it came down to it, I was always scared... Scared stiff... Like that time on the sea when he walked on the water... I wanted to follow him... But when I was out on the water I was scared witless... I had to call to Jesus to save me...
And that night I was just as scared... more... I made great play of trying to save Jesus from the soldiers when they came for him in the garden… Waving my sword around like I knew what to do with it… But I was terrified, and when Jesus told me to put it away, after I had lopped some poor guy’s ear off, all pretence at courage evaporated…
I did follow Jesus down to the High Priest’s palace… I tried to blend in to the crowd in the courtyard, but there were too many people there who had seen me with him in the previous week… They kept on asking if I was one of his followers… I was terrified that they would call the temple guards… Finally I lost my temper, I swore at them and said I had nothing to do with Jesus…
And that’s when the cock crowed… Just as Jesus was being led out of the palace to be taken for questioning elsewhere… He looked at me… Not judging me… But with that deep sense of compassion that he always had for the hurting, the lost, the losers of society… There he was, beaten, bloodied and bound, looking at me with pity… Somehow he knew what had just happened…
And that was it… I ran out of the courtyard found a deep dark corner, and wept... My heart had broken into a million pieces… I stayed there most of the day, terrified that the soldiers would find me and drag me off to wherever they had taken Jesus…
It was only when I made my way back to the upper room later that night that I found out what had happened… John told me… he was the only one who had followed Jesus to the end…
I couldn’t believe it… This was how it was all to end!? This was what I had given up the fishing for!? We stayed in the room right the way through the Sabbath… We were all there… family and followers… all except Judas… No-one had seen him since the garden… and a good job too…
It may have been the Sabbath, the Passover Sabbath, but there was no celebration… no prayers… we all felt as if God had abandoned us… Night fell again and I slept fitfully at first… But eventually exhaustion got the better of me and I was in such a deep sleep that I didn’t even realise that some of the women had gone out to the tomb where they had laid Jesus’ body…
But then the cock crowed again and it all came flooding back… A waking nightmare… made worse by Mary of Magdala coming rushing in, screaming and shouting about Jesus’ body being missing… John and I took off like Greek athletes... Well, John did, I trailed along in his wake, but when we got to the tomb I pushed him out of the way... and found that Mary was right... there was no body... But it didn’t look like someone had stolen the body... It looked more like Jesus had got up after a good night’s sleep, taken off his shroud and folded it up neatly like a nightgown... He always was neat... Liked things done properly...
I didn’t understand… I didn’t understand any of it… His death… the missing body… I wasn’t certain about what I had seen, but somehow a cloud had lifted... It was like beginnings of the dawn… I had vague memories of Jesus talking about rising on the third day... And then later, when Mary rushed in again, this time jabbering about having seen Jesus, while others said she was mad, that she was possessed again... Did I tell you about her and the seven demons Jesus cast out of her... No? That was quite a story, but it’ll have to wait for another time... But anyway, the others thought she had lost the plot... but I wasn’t so sure...
That night, was when we first saw him again… the first of many times… many experiences that changed me from that man denied his master into the man you see before you here today, here in Rome… At the centre of the empire that crucified my master… and is to crucify me before another cock-crows… Today I literally take up my cross and make good my boast to follow in his footsteps even to death itself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still scared, but the events of those three days half a world away and half a life time ago have convinced me that death is not the end of the journey with Jesus…

Prayer
Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may be strengthened to walk with him in his risen life
to the glory of his name. AMEN

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Have You Seen Him?

The first of our two Easter Eye-Witnesses... Delivered in the beautiful surroundings of walled garden of Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park this morning as part of our communion service... bathed in early monring sunlight and accompanied by birdsong.






I saw him… with my own eyes… although I didn’t recognize him at first… it must have been the tears… I thought he must have been the gardener, and I gave him a hard time about where they had put the body… I can’t imagine what he thought… I gabbled on until he said “Miriam”… My name… though you know me as Mary…
Whatever way he said my name cut through my distress and confusion and I saw him as clearly as I see you now… my dear teacher… “Rabboni” I said as I rushed to embrace him… But he wouldn’t let me… Something about not holding him back from returning to his father… So I didn’t… But he asked me to go and tell his friends and family that he had risen and was returning to his Father God…
So I did… to a mixed reception… but they saw that I was right in the end when they saw him themselves…
Although I was angry at the time that they wouldn’t all believe me, I realized later that it was predictable… Of course they wouldn’t believe a grief-stricken woman… Even when we’re in our right minds a woman’s testimony is only worth a fraction of a man’s in court… And that morning I will admit I wasn’t in my right mind…
But again, as I thought on it later, how typical of God to allow me, a woman, to be the first person to see the Master risen from the dead… and in a garden too… So many women-hating religious teachers justify their position by pointing the finger of blame at a woman in a garden for bringing sin into the world… when Eve gave in to the serpent’s temptation…
Was this Father God being funny? Or was he bringing things strangely full circle?
I don’t know… I’ll leave the religious teachers to work that one out… But me? I just know that I have seen the risen Lord… Have you seen him?

Prayer
Lord God
Creator of life and light
As we gather in this garden in the light of the morning sun
We give thanks for another garden where on Easter morning long ago
Your Son rose from the dead
Heralding a new beginning for all creation.
May we celebrate with joy his glorious resurrection
And be set free from the power of sin and the fear of death
Through faith in him who is alive and reigns with you
In the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God 
Now and forever more. AMEN

Shalom

Friday, March 25, 2016

I was There…

The fifth of our Holy Week eye witnesses at the Agape Centre, an appropriate one given that this day in the Christian calendar is usually the Feast of the Annunciation, 9 months before Christmas, but because it falls on Good Friday, that feast is deferred until the 4th April. 



25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to her,‘Woman,[b] here is your son,’ 27 and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said,‘I am thirsty.’ 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19: 25-30  (NIV-UK)

I was there… with the other women… I had been there at the beginning… I was going to stay right to the end… I had given birth to the eternal son of God… So it was no stranger to watch that same eternal son of God die…
But while I thought nothing could be as painful as the birth of my firstborn, absolutely nothing could compare with the pain of watching him die… No child should die before their mother… It seems to be against the natural order of things… But even more so when the natural order has been overturned in the first place… Why was he born if it was only to die? Would I have said “Yes” in the beginning, if I had known how it would end? I don’t know… Did I have a choice? Did God have a choice? I didn’t understand why it had to be that way… If he had listened to me it mightn’t have ended like that… But he didn’t… and it did…
When I think back, I cannot believe that when I learned I was pregnant I sang that all generations would call me blessed… Of course I had been blessed, but standing by that cross I felt the curse of God fall on me as scripture tells me it fell on him and all those who die on a tree…
I cried with him, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Old Simeon in the Temple could see things much clearer than I could in my childish naivety when he told me at the time of my son’s circumcision that a sword would pierce my soul… Maybe not a sword, but a spear… My son didn’t feel it… He was beyond feeling by then… But I felt every inch of that spear as the soldier probed his side and my soul… And as the water and the blood poured from his side… Finally the dam burst and I cried for the first time that day… But I made up for lost time… I cried as if I would never stop…
John, my cousin’s son, steered me away… He had had his arm around me the whole time… My son had seen that and he asked us to look after each other as mother and son… Typical of him to think about others while breathing his last… I know that John will do his best for me… and I will try to do my best for him. But it’s not the same… It will never, ever be the same… As he said, “It is finished…”

Prayer
Father God
On this day when the Mother of your Son Jesus,
watched her own flesh and blood 
tormented on a mockery of a tree
for the whole world to see,
Our heart goes out to countless other Mothers
whose hearts are breaking 
because of their children...
Lives cut short by acts of violence, 
by the actions of unjust governments, 
by wrong choices that those children have made for themselves 
no matter how much their mothers and fathers and others urged them not to… 
those whose lives have been cut short by disaster, or disease or tragic accident… 
But we thank you that because of the life and death of Mary's son
No son or daughter's death need be the end...
You have not forsaken us...
Christ’s work is not yet finished in us...
The Holy Spirit is there to breath into us anew
Love into loneliness
Hope into despair
Life into Death.
Amen