Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"I can hear a trolley coming..."

During the conversation on Theology and Practice of Reconciliation last week the lead participant from the activist side was Dr. Duncan Morrow, the Chief Executive of the Community Relations Council, while his correspondent from the theological perspective was Professor Drew Gibson, a specialist in practical theology from Union Theological College in Belfast.

Drew argued vociferously for a Christian ethos based upon a theology of the last times, or eschatology to use the technical term... Just as he was standing up to make his response to Duncan's initial paper, someone who was clearly as desperate for caffeine as I was said
"I can hear a trolley coming..."

What we hear, or want to hear coming, can sometimes drown out what people are saying now... Causing us to miss the opportunities of grace that God has for us here.

Yes, there is an extent to which our theology should be future-focused, but it should never make us so heavenly minded that... well, you know the rest...

In my current church we used to run weekly Alpha Course dinners on a Friday night, and one man, Tommy Murphy, was chief waiter... We knew the dinner was coming when we heard Murph's trolley clicking and clanking its way up the brick-floored corridor...

Four years ago this month Murph died suddenly and unexpectedly. He lived his life to the full and for others; particularly for his family and his church. He knew where he was going in the future, but he lived his life in the here and now. And he died as he lived.

The corridor is no longer brick-floored and we currently don't run Alpha dinners...
But I still hear his trolley coming...
It echoes from my past and speaks of a future I anticipate sharing with him.
But it inspires me to get on with living out my faith in the present.
"It's Friday, but the trolley's coming..."
For a fuller description of the conversation that inspired this series of reflections and another perspective on it, read Glenn Jordan's blog.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Playing Your Part

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his holy house,
Praise him under open skies;
Praise him for what he has done,
Praise him for who he is;
Praise him with a blast on the trumpet,
Praise him with the strumming of strings;
Praise him with song and dance,
Praise him with piano and voice;
Praise him with cymbals and a big bass drum,
Praise him with fiddle and with tambourine.
Let every living, breathing creature play their part!
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

A responsive Psalm roughly based on Psalm 150 in Eugene Peterson's The Message, reflecting the musical make-up of our local congregation.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hear the Spirit Crow

I said I would post more on what Duncan Morrow had to say at our recent meeting... And let me assure you that there will be much more. He generally says more insightful things in a talk scribbled on the back of 3 crumpled pieces of paper than I do in reams of closely reasoned and carefully prepared material.

But anyway, our discussion was generally about the theology and practice of reconciliation (although after he left it majored on the theology and practice issue, without really focussing on reconciliation... dodging the issue again perhaps!)

Duncan's thesis was largely that the western world in general, Northern Ireland in particular and the church par excellance were governed by 3 broad principles in dealing with current problems:

  1. Distraction
  2. Containment
  3. Denial

I may come back to comment on the first 2 at some point, but what was most memorable for me was his assertion that while the church finds its origins in the confession of Simon Peter, its experience is reflected much more in his denial.

Then he suggested (and I don't know whether this is original or not, but it certainly made me sit up and listen) that the Holy Spirit comes not so often as a dove as a cockerell.

Can you hear it?

For a fuller description of the conversation that inspired this series of reflections and another perspective on it, read Glenn Jordan's blog.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Living in the Midst of a Graveyard

Recently I was at an event where the Rev Leslie Griffiths (or Lord Griffiths of Burry Port if I were to be official about it, and name-drop with an enormous "clang") told those present that he lived and worked surrounded by a significant graveyard around Wesley's Chapel in London. This, he affirmed, served to remind him not only of the past, but of the future... the future for all of us.

His comment reminded me of the fact that in my first station, a rural one, I was the only minister in the local clergy fraternal who didn't have a graveyard around my church buildings, a fact for which I was perennially thankful, not because of any squeamishness but because my colleagues lives seemed to be dominated by the petty politics involved in administrating grave plots.

Yesterday I was back in the same room as the discussion with Leslie Griffith, but this time the speaker was Duncan Morrow (many more postings will probably stem from what he said, here and elsewhere...). During his presentation he made a comment that resonated with Leslie Griffith's one, when he reminded us of a phrase that John Paul Lederach uses in his book "The Moral Imagination" when in chapter 12 he speaks of "The Past that Lies Before Us." In it he writes of the experience of a group of Mohawk Americans negotiating with the government over past wrongs. For the government the past is at best an inconvenience if not totally irrelevant and they simply want to find a pragmatic way of moving on towards the future. But for the Mohawks the past is a living thing that lies in front of them. This he compares to African philosopher, John Mbiti's description of African people pointing forwards when refering to the past and back over their shoulder when referring to the future... This he says is based on an understanding of time flowing from the present to past... like a river taking us all to the same place as those who have gone before us...

"Time like an ever flowing stream, bears all its sons away..."
as the hymn says... But whether they
"fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day"
is down to us... As is whether the forgetting or remembering of the past helps us in the present and the future...

One respondent then said that he was uneasy with us being too focussed on the past because our faith is eschatological, which he saw as being future-focussed... But that misses the fact that the eschaton, or last-days, as defined by Jesus included his present, which is firmly in our past. And even if we are to be future-focussed, that future is only assured because of what has happened in the past. Thus we are told "Do this in remembrance..." (Luke 22: 19, I Corinthians 11: 24-5)

Indeed our future resolves into eternity... that existence outside of time, where our future hope began when Christ was chosen from before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1: 4; I Peter 1: 20)... Although how can something be "before" time? Ouch my brain is starting to hurt...

Anyway, what does this say to us? In political situations where we as a province are trying to decide what to do about our collective past; in pastoral situations where people are trying to come to terms with the consequences of their personal past; in church situations where we are still living in the past (and that is not a trite point).

Honestly, I don't know, but perhaps we start by acknowledging that we are living in the midst of a graveyard, with all the politicking that may involve.

For a fuller description of the conversation that inspired this series of reflections and another perspective on it, read Glenn Jordan's blog.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Message about The Message?

My song is love
Love to the loveless shown
And it goes on
You don't have to be alone

Your heavy heart
Is made of stone
And it's so hard to see you
You don't have to be on your own
You don't have to be on your own

And I'm not gonna take it back
Oh I'm not gonna say I don't mean that
You're the target that I'm aiming at
Got to get that message home

My song is love
My song is love unknown
But I'm on fire for you,
You don't have to be alone
You don't have to be on your own

And I'm not gonna take it back
Oh I'm not gonna say I don't mean that
You're the target that im aiming at
And I'm nothing on my own
Got to get that message home

And I'm not gonna stand and wait
Not gonna believe it until its much too late
On a platform I'm gonna stand and say
That I'm nothing on my own

And I love you, please come home
My song is love, is love unknown
And I've got to get that message home.

"A Message" by Chris Martin on Coldplay's album X&Y. He has clearly stolen /" been inspired" by bits of Samuel Crossman's amazing hymn "My Song is Love Unknown" but it doesn't make it a bad song for all that! And it makes it all the more appropriate to purloin it for some presentation of the gospel.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


This week the the British government has tentatively moved towards abolishing blasphemy laws within England and Wales. Now speaking as a Methodist in Northern Ireland, there is a huge part of me that doesn't give a monkey's, since those laws haven't applied here for nearly 150 years and only covered the Anglican tradition anyway... But it isn't the fact of the abolition that makes me write, it is the rationale behind it.

It started as an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill by Lib Dem MP Dr. Evan Harris, who called the law "ancient, discriminatory and illiberal". Originally the government had instructed Labout MPs to vote against it but they feared yet another back-bench revolt. Then their rescuers came in the unlikely form of leading church figures, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, a noted evangelical, who wrote to the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, arguing the legislation was discriminatory as it only covers attacks on Christianity and Church of England beliefs, and that it served "no useful purpose" whilst offering some reactionary Christian activists a means to intimidate broadcasters, publishers and performers. Clearly they had in mind the recent misconceived attempt by ultra-conservative evangelical group "Christian Voice" to prosecute the director general of the BBC for blasphemy over the screening of the musical Jerry Springer - The Opera. If ever there was a mis-named group it is that...

So... the government are now scurrying off to "consult" with the Church of England about erasing this medieval legislation.

The Lord God Almighty does not need the protection of these or any other laws. Don Horrocks, of the Evangelical Alliance, agreed that there was "no real argument" for retaining such laws, saying: "Everybody knows it's not really going to be used again." He however, was anxious that changing the legislation could "send out a signal" that "gratuitous abuse and offence" is acceptable.

I think that well be the case... Some of those arguing for abolition and for a secular state talk about "mutual respect", but sadly that respect is not always played out as people exercise that other great core belief of secularism: "free speech."

And within the Christian church, we have not always led by example in that. People from all denominational and theological wings of the church (not just groups like Christian Voice, but liberal activists too) have behaved in ways that are massively disrespectful of the beliefs and behaviour of others, both within and outside the church. We now may well reap what we have sown... and need to start sowing a different seed.

But my great fear is that the repeal if this legislation may well be interpretted as reinforcing the secularist idea that religion, if it is to be practiced at all, is only to be practiced in the private sphere... Nicholas Hytner, ther director of "Jerry Springer - The Opera" apparently said this week: "I don't believe that the law should address what people believe. The blasphemy laws protect belief; they don't protect people."

A great sound-bite, but it suggests that belief is something that does not then work itself out in behaviour. Again, to a large extend, we have only ourselves to blame in this... Particularly within certain elements of the evangelical wing of the church we have privatised our faith... Pietistically reducing the rule of the Lord God Almighty to our own internal world, instead of living out our faith and allowing it to shape our engagement with the wider world.

Trying to protect the Lord God Almighty with balsphemy laws is pointless... but restricting his rule to your own private world... That is blasphemy.

(ps. as an amusing aside, while the Commons were merrily debating abolishing blasphemy legislation, a motion was lodged caling for the Disestablishment of the Church of England... the number allocated to the motion being 666... the number of the Beast!)

Friday, January 4, 2008

Snowflake Moment

Last night the snow came. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. The weather forecast 2 hours previously hadn't predicted it. I left the house and everything was normal but within 2 minutes and a mile from home 2 inches of snow was on the ground and it was blowing in horizontally. Later it took us an hour to make the journey home from Holywood, a trip that would normally take 10 minutes at most. On the way we encountered many cars slipping and sliding on the ungritted roads... particularly 4x4s, confirming my worse suspicions that many people who buy such vehicles for town driving don't really know how to drive them!
Even at 11pm there were lots of people out having snowball fights, making snowmen and even a few parents dragging young children along on sleds. This produced an unaccustomed keeness in my wife to plan to go out sledging with the boys at Stormont this morning. Given that, at that moment I was concentrating hard on keeping the car on the road and aching because the cold had got into my joints, pinpointing all my old sports injuries, I wasn't quite so enthusiastic.
But anyway... After getting home and having something hot to drink, at 1 am I spent a few moments standing on the doorstep, in the eerie light of streetlights reflected on a pristine blanket of snow. Everyone else was asleep indoors.
And as I stood there I thought of the fact that climatologists tell us that such sights may well be rare in the future due to climate change... And conversely that geologists tell us that we are actually in a temporary warm blip in the midst of an ice age... But given that meteorologists couldn't even predict the weather 2 hours ahead, I'm not too certain as to either of those predictions.
But whatever may happen in the next 50 years, the next 50,000 years or the next 50 minutes, for those few moments I simply stood and gave thanks to God who holds all of history and creation in the palm of his hand... And though like a snow flake on the palm of a child, that moment may melt away almost instantly from the perspective of a human lifetime, never mind geological time... From the perspective of eternity it is no shorter nor less important than the whole of human history.
So whether it be in sunlight or under a starlit snowly night... Let us learn to stop and give thanks for that moment...