Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Crowns, Collarettes and Dark Suits

Being in a confessing mood after my previous blog here's another one... I didn't go to church last Sunday night... Indeed I haven't been to church any Sunday night since I got here... And it's amazing... the world didn't end and the church actually thrives.

But anyway, worse (in the eyes of many a NI Evangelical) than not going to church, I, and all my family, went to the theatre. It WAS a benefit performance for the United Methodist Community House, and we were invited there by one of the staff.

The production was called "Crowns" and it was an ensemble musical celebration of the faith and life of women from the African-American tradition, and particularly their love of hats and other headgear... the "crowns" of the title.

Now, without getting overly critical and putting my writer/director/actor hat on, it could have been a little less didactic and had more narrative drive and dramatic energy about it... Then perhaps I wouldn't have kept falling asleep in the first half... Actually it was very warm, and many people were dosing off (Ciaran slept from beginning to end!).

However, there was a lot that was very interesting about it, and it set me wondering what items of clothing within our culture (ie. NI Protestantism) could act as a touchstone for the changing nature of faith and society. Perhaps the Orange Collarette... although that would be two restricted a field of reference... Or perhaps the dark suit... Perhaps nothing else sums up old-style, dour, patriarchal NI Protestantism better... and contrasts more radically with the multi-coloured crowns of the African-American Hat Queens.

Worn for Saturday nights, Sundays, weddings, funerals and the Twelfth by men who got dressed up in a shirt and tie when they came home from wearing a boilersuit in the yard or the ropeworks or the mill. Often, in between wearings, the suit would reside not in a wardrobe, but the pawn shop... Redeemed for the weekends and special occasions.

These days people dress down at nights after being in a suit and tie all day... and dress down for church, if they go at all. We know little about having to redeem suits from pawnbrokers, and little about redemption of any kind...

Nor about putting on Christ as a fresh set of clothes... Not as Sunday best covering over what we wear the rest of the time (though that was what my Uncle Andy Davy did... more of that another time)... But expressing a new reality... A new beginning...


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Covenant Accountability

Every week that I have been here in Grand Rapids at 4 o'clock on a Tuesday I have attended an AA group for Methodist pastors.
Actually that is not true, and is actually disrespectful to both AA groups and this particular group of fellow pastors, but it is the only analogy I can use for those who have never participated in such a group.

An initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship and inspired by the original classes and bands of Wesleyan Methodism, Covenant Accountability Groups for disciples exist in various forms across the US. Each has a formal agreed covenant which they repeat at the beginning of each meeting. I tried to memorise the covenant of this group, but failed miserably, (except for where it says that they have the form and seek the power of religion, a reversal of Wesley's classic fear), but here are a few other examples. In the meeting each member formally checks in and shares their joys and concerns, ranging across their spiritual, mental and physical health. It lasts strictly for 1 hour, and ends with a brief but meaningful time of prayer.

Not everyone has been there every week, but then it is summer. But it has been a good discipline for me... even one Tuesday when I was left there on my own considering my own wellbeing.
So I am hereby flagging up that I am looking for recruits to engage in a similar disipline back home.

"I am David and I'm a Methodist Minister..."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Grand Visions

One of the things that became very early on in our time here was that Grand Rapids was anything but grand, in the sense of big... It has a population of around 150,000 (about half the size of Belfast proper), and does not have many of the huge skyscrapers of most other big American cities. As someone said a few days ago, it is just big enough to retain a small town feel.

However, two areas it punches above its weight are its medical facilities and its civic spaces.

Medically, the city has what is known locally as "miracle mile;" a stretch of hospitals and clinics on the north side of downtown which is second to none in terms of facilities and expertise. Thankfully we haven't had to draw on it yet for ourselves, except for getting Owain's fracture checked and his cast removed, which was done seamlessly and speedily in a spotless clinic, but I have had a guided tour of the main hospital and have been in an out visiting a few church members. As a hospital chaplain myself I was madly jealous. But our hospitals are theoretically free at the point of need and these are not.

In terms of civic spaces, in recent days I have enjoyed the John Ball Park Zoo and the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park with my family and two members of Faith Church (Ruth Cannon and Mary Miller respectively), while Sally and has also previously visited the Public Museum with Owain and the Children's Museum with Ciaran, while I have been working... Honest!

All of these public facilites, as well as the medical ones, have been made possible through the vision and finance of local millionaires: the Meijers who are local supermarket millionaires, the De Vos family who are behind the Amway scam, sorry, business and the Bissell company, famous for their carpet sweepers, among many others...

Their vision, drive and cash have enabled Grand Rapids to assemble a range of wonderful facilities which would be the envy of any city in the world. Indeed the New York Times was green with envy when Fred Meijer funded the casting of two huge bronze horses created by sculptor Nina Akamu, based on Leonardo Da Vinci's original scale drawings for one he tried and failed to cast. One stands in the San Ciro Race Track near Milan, while the other stands in the beautiful setting of Grand Rapids' Meijer Sculpture Park: 140 acres of plants and top quality artwork. The Times sneered at such a huge (and vulgar) Da Vinci copy going to such a small, inconsequential city as Grand Rapids. But I think it is marvellous.

Belfast used to be the beneficiary of tremendous acts of philanthropy in the 1900's, but there is an extent to which the entrepreneurial spirit which has remained alive in the US for so long, and the philanthropy which often accompanies it, died out or was snuffed out long ago.

We've had a number of interesting items of public art installed along the Waterfront in recent years, including the big blue fish and what one friend calls the "Hoor with the Hoop", and a few inspiring public buildings including the Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey... But nothing with the grand visions of Grand Rapids...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Hot-Dogs and Circuses

Sally is now happy. Her one requirement on coming over here on exchange was that she get to see a professional ball game (or baseball game for those of us not up on the technical terms of American sport), and on Saturday night that requirement was fulfilled when Sue Cuson took us to the Fifth Third Ball Park to watch the West Michigan Whitecaps, a Class A farm team for the Detroit Tigers.

Last night was not a good night, either for the Whitecaps (whose name does not refer to their headgear, which is blue, but to the whitecaps on the waves of Lake Michigan), or for their big brothers the Tigers as the latter got whipped by local rivals the Chicago Whitesox, while we watched the home team grind out a 2.1 defeat, against Cedar Rapids Kernels. In all honesty, even speaking as a complete novice to the game... the batsmen were rubbish... Well, either that or the pitchers were superb, and I have my suspicions which way round it might be. Either way, the bases only got loaded once (see how proficient I am with the "baseball-speak") in the whole game and 2 out of three runs were largely down to fumbles on the part of fielders

But even if it was a rubbish game, it was a great family night out... Even the food was better quality than normal... Instead of a hotdog of dubious provenance I had a "swimming pig" - a boneless pork chop with onions peppers and barbeque sauce in a bap...

The inter and intra-innings entertainment was up to the usual high standard, including the worst magician I have ever seen and a race between inflatable eyeballs! If we had gone tonight it was British Humor night... God alone knows what that means, but Benny Hill featured on the poster, so that alone was reason to stay away. Yesterday was "Bring Your Dog to the Game Day" which again would not have been a big attraction for me. But the big feature for our evening was a superb closing firework display, although the game was over so quickly that we had to wait for 30 minutes (watching that awful magician) before it was dark enough for the fireworks. It was worth the wait however.

So Sally had a good time. But now she wants to go back, and is even talking about when can we go see a major league game. But then I had to explain that the big boys don't have inflatable eyeball races between innings.

There was one thing however that struck me as slightly strange... Even unnerving... I suppose I have noticed it on previous visits, but never put the pieces together... and that is the close affinity between churches, the military and baseball. As we arrived the local recruiting regiment for the US Airforce were swearing in their latest recuits... When we last went as a family 5 years ago (to the Pawtucket Redsox) there was a person by person tribute to the war-dead in Iraq... I suppose that list is too long to honour in full now... Then as the game was going on the stadium announcer was reciting a list of the groups present that night... and most of them were church groups, from all denominational affinities. The ballpark must be the most ecumenically inclusive space in Grand Rapids, because there were groups sitting together watching the game who would never have sat together in any other circumstances.

And I got to wondering when was the last time that there was such a coming together of the state military machine, religion and sport, and I guess that we either need to go back to medieval tournaments... Although I am informed that they were much more elitist audiences than Hollywood films would have us believe... or probably the Roman games...

Another sign that we are once again in the age of empire...

But at least they don't throw Christians to the lions as inter-innings entertainment... Yet...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wedding Bliss

Haven't been on for a few days... Partly because of a touch of RSI through using unfamiliar keyboards and mice for sustained periods of time, and partly because I was busy with a wedding - a full 2 day affair here with rehearsal, rehearsal dinner, the service and the reception, all marshalled by a mistress of ceremonies who kept us all in line... and as everyone knows, I respond so graciously to being told what to do... But everything seemed to go well in the eyes of the bride and groom, Liz Strong and Scott Merriman... Who have now jetted off to Disney World for their honeymoon... Appropriate given the film theme for their wedding reception.
Once again, it was a real privilege to be so deeply involved in the life of members of the congregation here... I wouldn't be so sure that people back in Ireland would be so happy to have an unfamiliar minister conduct their wedding, even if it were legally possible... which it isn't. But then I discovered that practically anyone can be licensed to perform a wedding here... All you have to do is purchase your ordination over the internet. Why did I bother with 3 years at Edgehill if all I needed was to join any one of a multitude of internet churches and hand over less than $100? No, seriously, why did I bother with 3 years at Edgehill!?!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In this (and Every) City

Came across this video and song through Facebook. Being an old fogey who doesn't do Mannafest or Summer Mudness any more, I had never heard of Blue Tree, who I am reliably informed are a Norn Irish band. I think it struck chords with me tho' not because of pretty pictures of my home town, but because I am totally convinced that the church needs to come up to speed with God's vision and heart for the city. Not just Belfast, but Grand Rapids and every other city under heaven, for which the New Jerusalem of Revelation is the grand Metropolitan plan.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hearts in Step

To return, briefly, to my experience in the Bishops' Parlor on Saturday morning, it really did disquiet me a little, and meant that I probably didn't tune in to what was happening in the service as quickly as I might.
But I was shaken out of my self-centredness by a group of dancers from the Hearts in Step Dance Academy, performing a liturgical dance entitled "I Belong to You."
Now, those who know me as the curmudgeon that I am, will know that I don't have a lot of time for wafty, wavey liturgical dance. And I don't think that "blessed ballet" would go down that well in Ballybeen.
However, this particular dance ensemble were a group of physically and mentally handicapped young people... They assembled in their starting positions at the beginning of the piece, then the recorded music started with a jolt... The participant looked at each other... it was clear that something had gone wrong (I found out later that someone had started the music in the wrong place, cutting out half of the dance!)... But the girls simply moved to the required position for the music and got on with it... Seamlessly.
So, whilst the Bishops added another to their club, what was truly inspiring to me was a musical mistake, where these beautiful young women, whom some would callously look on as "mistakes," demonstrated that even when things are not as they might ideally be, if we give ourselves over to God and just keep going, he can use us to create something that draws others closer to him.

ps. For those following Owain's ups and downs... He got his cast off today! And thanks to a kind member of the congregation and a wonderful orthopaedic specialist here in town, the check x-ray and examination didn't cost us a bean!

A Lake?

Over the weekend we spent a substantial period of time on or around the water. I've already blogged on the beach volleyball at Muskegon. We then spent Sunday afternoon having a picnic at Sue and Dale Sullivan's house on a dammed river up at Newaygo, where both Owain and Ciaran had a go at driving/piloting (not sure what the correct term is) a speedboat belonging to David McKellar, another member of the congregation. For those alarmed at such an idea, fear not, Owain managed to end the day without any additional broken limbs or accidents of any kind, indeed was really very good at it... It was has father who nearly broke his knee and cracked a rib trying to get himself and Ciaran on to an inflatable. Never did manage it for any length of time, but everyone had a good laugh watching me try, so it wasn't entirely wasted.
On late Monday afternoon another church family, Chris, Connie and Patrick Avison, took us to the beach at Grand Haven, and we had another lovely evening, playing in the water, lazing on the beach, having a barbeque (its amazing... unlike in Northern Ireland, when you bring out a barbeque grill it doesn't automatically rain!!!) and dandering along the pier. Yet another example of the gracious welcome that we have received from the people of Faith UMC.
But let me share with you our first reaction on seeing Lake Michigan on Saturday. As we rounded the bend on Beach Street, Muskegon, as one Sally and I said:


For once in our lives we were rendered speechless. In front of us was a huge tract of water, with an horizon unbroken by any other land mass. To get a vista like that in Ireland we would need to drive across the island to Donegal and look across the Atlantic Ocean.
Lake Michigan is HUGE. You could drop Ireland into the middle of it and it wouldn't touch the sides!!! Yet it is a lake. It is so hard for this little-islander to get his head round.
Then when you go for a swim in it, it isn't salty... It doesn't buoy you up the way that sea-water does, but it doesn't dessicate you either. It's just weird!

But, preacher as I am, as I was looking at this seemingly limitless lake, I knew that somewhere on it there was another shore. That this, compared with the vastness of Lake Superior or the Pacific ocean was small. But that even they, in comparison with the incomprehensible dimensions of God's love, are mere boating ponds. And that if we surrender ourselves to that love, it will always buoy us up.

As Paul Prays for the Ephesian Church so I say:

I kneel before the Father, from whom every family [a] in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3: 14-19


Monday, July 21, 2008

On Bishops and Beach Volleyball

Saturday involved two events that don’t happen too much back home.
First thing in the morning I took part in the consecration of a Methodist Bishop, in the concluding act of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference 2008, which was unusual for me given that we don’t have Methodist Bishops back home.
Then I spent the afternoon in Muskegon on the shores of Lake Michigan watching the finals of a beach volleyball tournament… and before anyone thinks that I was just leering at scantily clad fit young women, let me assure you that I watched the men’s and the women’s competition. But much though I would love to wax lyrical about the deeper significance of beach volleyball, I’m actually going to reflect on how I spent the earlier part of the day.
My role in the service was simply to carry the Christ-candle in the opening procession… an act which would probably get me kicked out of many evangelical circles back home, which aren’t into candles and processionals and the like. I’m not much for them myself, but it was an honour to be asked, and an honour which I accepted on behalf of my host congregation and the Methodist Church in Ireland.
As I said this was the closing service of the Quadrennial Jurisdictional Conference. Now before any of my colleagues have a double heart attack, not only at me carrying a Christ-candle in a liturgical procession, but (even bigger shock) going to a church conference voluntarily, when it takes wild horses to drag me to our own annual conference, let me assure you that I took one look at the agenda and decided it wasn’t for me. From what I could see, the whole 4 days of the event were largely devoted to the election and appointment of Bishops to their respective charges. This year only one Bishop had retired, so only one was up for election, and the local District Superintendent, Laurie Haller was one of the 12 standing, so local church people were following the process assiduously, through ballot after ballot. Like the wider Presidential election, speaking as an ignorant outsider, the whole process seemed to be a lot more complicated and drawn out than it needs to be… Why have umpteen ballots over a three day period when one single transferable vote would sort it out in 30 minutes? Surely that would save a lot of conference expenses?
Also, like the wider Presidential election there seems to have been a lot of politicking going on in the background, of which I am blessedly ignorant. And again, like the Presidential election, on this occasion a white female was trumped by a black male. The “winner” was not the home town girl, Laurie, but Rev. Dr. Julius Calvin (you can’t have a Methodist bishop called “Calvin”!!!!) Trimble.
And so it was at Dr. Trimble’s consecration I carried the Christ Candle. And it was a beautiful service. But I must say that my experience immediately before the service renewed my antipathy towards episcopacy in our home connexion.

Ushered into the parlor where the bishops were having breakfast by one of the pastors organizing the event, I was roundly ignored by the great and the good gathered there. Only two out of the assembled group said hello (after I had been sitting on my own at one end of the room for some time), and none made any attempt to introduce me to others. I could have made an effort to introduce myself, but I didn’t and these duly elected pastors of pastors didn’t act in a terribly pastoral fashion. Whether it be because the UMC is so big that the Bishops barely know each other and so didn’t recognize that I was not one of their number… Though the fact that I was dressed differently and sitting alone might have been a clue… Or perhaps their elevation to high office means that they are now used to having others introduced to them, rather than keeping their eyes open for “strangers.”
What and whichever, for the first time since I got here, I felt less than welcome. And on reflection, I gave thanks for the smallness of our connexion back home, the lack of a distinct and abiding hierarchy and the comparative lack of politicking.
Then I went to the beach and watched volleyball!

Friday, July 18, 2008

When the Saints Go Marching In...

I was checking out different websites for this old New Orleans jazz standard for a service I am doing this Sunday, when I came across this amazing variation on the theme with Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye. I posted it on my Facebook page... yes I have entered the weird and wonderful(?) world of Facebook... But I thought it was worth posting here as well for more general access...

I want to be in THAT number!!!!


Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Dr. Doolittle Service

Well, I've put off blogging about it long enough... but it is now time to comment on last Sunday's service here in Faith UMC, which was outdoors and included an act of Blessing for Animals... It supposedly came about as a suggestion by the Worship Team here, to which Geoff Hayes, the incumbent minister said, "That's a really good idea... But I'll be in Northern Ireland!"
I suspect it may have been his revenge on me for leaving him to feed our cat, even though he is allergic!

But lots of people on both sides of the Atlantic have laughed their legs off at the whole thing, especially since I am borderline phobic about dogs. Different people helpfully suggested different incidental music, including, Bob Dylan's "Man Gave Names to All the Animals", Dr. Doolittle's "If I Could Talk to the Animals", or the theme tune from the Vicar of Dibley, in tribute to an episode of that dreadful sitcom when the said vicar hosted a similar service.

I won't say I was looking forward to it with great anticipation... Indeed I did check the weather channel the night before to see if the forecast high winds were goinng to develop into a localised tornado; but no joy.

However, the event, came and went, and was a genuine success. There were 12 dogs and 1 cat. No fur flew. There were no pungent little reminders of their presence. And the owners (if not the animals themselves) expressed a sense of blessing and affirmation.

But to reassure those who think that I have completely lost the plot (and to serve as a resource for anyone mad enough to do something similar)... What follows is an outline of the beginning of the service (I went on in the second half of the service to continue my series on the nature of the Church and It's Calling to be Catholic... Good subject for the day after the Twelfth!!!... ie. Having a Universal remit, including the stewardship of all of God's creation...)

After everything was over I went home and lay down in a darkened room for an hour!

CALL TO WORSHIP (Responsively)
Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord in the heights above.
Praise the Lord, all his angels;
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise the Lord, sun and moon,
Praise the Lord, all you shining stars.
Praise the Lord, you shoaling fish
Praise the Lord, you great sea creatures
Praise the Lord, you fruit trees and flowers of the field,
Praise the Lord, wild animals and cattle,
Praise the Lord, small creatures and flying birds,
Praise the Lord, you rulers of all nations.
Praise the name of the Lord, may his name alone be exalted;
Praise the Lord.
From Psalm 148 © David A. Campton 2008

OPENING HYMN All creatures of our God and King (UMH 62)

The words of our opening hymn are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi… And the order of service we use today broadly follows that which is used by those within the Franciscan tradition on the Sunday closest to St Francis’ Day in early October.
However, we look back not to St Francis of Assisi but to the very beginning of the Bible, and the Book of Genesis for a rationale for this service. We are told that in the beginning, following their creation, man gave names to all the animals, and they together with all creation were committed to humanity’s stewardship, sharing in the fortunes of human existence and behaviour. Throughout scripture God has used animals to point to his grace and his promise of redemption and restoration for all creation. Animals were saved from the flood, and were, afterwards included in the covenant with Noah. The paschal lamb recalls the Passover sacrifice and the rescue from slavery in Egypt. A giant fish saved Jonah. Animals were included in the repentance of Nineveh in response to Jonah’s message. Ravens brought bread to Elijah to sustain him, and Jesus pointed to the bird of the air for signs of God’s saving and sustaining grace.
We therefore invoke God’s blessing on these animals, praising their Creator and ours as we do so, and recognizing the responsibility we have before God as stewards over all creation. Let us pray:

O Lord our God how wonderful are the works of your hands.
You create animals and give us the ability to train some of them to help us in our work.
You give us food from animals to replenish our energies.
You give us domestic pets for companionship.
You care for us even as you care for the birds of the air.
Forgive us that we do not look after the creation you have placed in our care.
And thank you that from before the creation of the world, you were ready to offer your Son as a Passover Lamb for our salvation
And the redemption of the whole of creation.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

The animals are brought forward by their guardians and, having been given a card stating the name of the animal/s and their guardian/s the minister shall pray over the animal/s:

Bless O Lord this ____________ (insert species of animal) ______________ (insert name of animal) and may ______________ (insert name of guardian) and ______________ (insert name of animal) continue to enjoy their lives together.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An American Funeral

Today, on the hottest day of the summer so far (31 degrees C) I donned my clerical robes to do a funeral here. I wouldn't normally be so insensitive as to blog about a funeral... But I got the permission of the immediate family in this case. The deceased was a lady called Edna Seamons, born Edna Earl Wilhite in Meridian Missisippi in 1925. She had been seriously ill for over 10 years and hadn't been out much, so that, combined with a break up in the family meant that it was a relatively small funeral. But it was a real celebration of her life and it was genuinely a privelege to take part in it. Thankfully I didn't have to do the main address as the family asked the chaplain of the local hospice, Steve Shick, to do that, as he had built up a good rapport with Edna over a prolonged period.

It is strange how these things work out, but here I am in Michigan doing a funeral today, and my exchange partner in Dundonald will be doing one tomorrow. And I am sure he will notice many similarities and differences.

Here we sang hymns that are funeral favourites on the other side of the Atlantic (How great thou art, Trust and Obey and Amazing Grace), the range of readings were familiar, and they even put on refreshments for the mourners just like they do in my home church... although here it was turkey, ham and cheese subs, with potato salad, dill pickles and numerous forms of sticky cake, rather than the sandwiches with the crusts cut off and tray bakes that is the usual menu of our wonderful team back home.

The big difference however was in the presentation of the deceased before the service, because when I went into the vestibule/hallway (or narthex as they refer to it here), there was Edna in all her glory, propped up on quilted pillows in her ornate, 18 gauge steel casket. If funerals at home involved such coffins, there is no way that anyone would get them up the steps at the front of Dundonald Methodist.

The family were a wee bit anxious that I might find their particular circumstances unusual. They had certainly been through some tough times, and had joked in the service about getting everyone to sign off on the rights to Edna's life so that they could turn it into a daytime TV movie. And actually, there could even be a sequel, because they discovered after the service that Edna's closest sister had had a daughter whom she had to give up for adoption, and had never told the rest of the family about. But the daughter came to pay her respects along with her adoptive Mum. So Edna's family began the day having lost a mother and grandmother and ended it having gained a cousin.

But as I tried to say to them, their particular family circumstances are unique but not unusual. Every family has its problems. Its hurts. Its joys. Its black sheep. Its skeletons in closets. And those who have come out of the closet. Doesn't matter whether they are American or Northern Irish. A bereaved family is a bereaved family. And it is my privilege as a pastor to be invited to come alongside such families (with all their quirks) and hopefully help them a little way along their journey.

In this case the journey for Edna's family continues down to Meridian Missisippi for he interment on Saturday. May God bless them on that roadtrip and wherever they go from there...


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

First Impressions of the “Marching Season”

David Campton has invited me to reflect on some of the similarities and contrasts between our American July 4 Independence Day observance and the Northern Irish July 11/12 Orange holidays. This has been a difficult task, because while I have some understanding of the American holiday, there are historical complexities and cultural subtleties that lurk beneath the surface of the Northern Irish observances. It’s tempting to sound like an “instant expert” and draw conclusions and make judgements that are both na├»ve and inappropriate. Having said that, here are some of my impressions.
Our first taste of the “marching season” observances came on July 1, referred to as “the mini-Twelfth.” This is the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, during the First World War, where the Ulster Regiment suffered significant casualties. The one-hour parade of flute-and-drum bands, accordion bands, a few floats, and hundreds of marching Orange Lodge members, was a prelude to the parade we watched in Belfast’s City Centre on July 12.
On Friday night, July 11, we watched the lighting of a huge bonfire built on an empty lot in the Ballybeen Estate, just down the hill from our church. The 50-foot pile of wooden pallets, discarded sofas and mattresses, and anything else that would burn, topped by the green-orange-and-white flag of the Irish Republic (which was burned as a defiant political statement), was doused with gasoline before being set alight at midnight. The bonfires have their origin in the signal-fires used at the time of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, much like our Fourth of July fireworks displays are reminiscent of “the rockets’ red glare” over Fort McHenry mentioned in our national anthem. While many of the older people present seemed to understand the historical significance of the spectacle, the dozens of bonfires lit around Northern Ireland seem to have become an excuse for drinking, partying, and sectarian chest-beating.
The parades held around Northern Ireland the next day, July 12 (in memory of Protestant William of Orange’s victory over Catholic James II in 1690), are a constant reminder of the sectarian divisions and political tensions that characterize life in Northern Ireland. While the event sometimes leads to violent clashes, this year’s parades went off largely without incident. There was a festive spirit in the air as impressive hand-painted banners led dozens of bands from Northern Ireland and Scotland, along with their supporting ranks of Orangemen, through the streets of Belfast. I commented to David Porter, of the Center for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland and our interpretive “host” for the July 12 parade, that the emotional and patriotic fervor of the bonfire/parade experience felt like a combination of our Independence Day/Memorial Day/Veteran’s Day pumped up on steroids. He laughed and responded, “Yes, that sums it up pretty well.”
One of the contrasts I see between our American Fourth of July and the Northern Irish Twelfth of July is that we Americans are far enough removed from the events of 1776 that we’ve been able to create a mythological version of our War of Independence. And in spite of the Civil War that divided us in the 1860s, all Americans are able to look back beyond that division to claim and celebrate the same July 4 myth. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has continued to suffer the pain of sectarian division and violence through most of the 20th century, and many of the wounds are still fresh. The Twelfth of July is a reminder that Northern Ireland is still divided – religiously, politically and culturally. Those divisions, rooted so deeply in history, make it difficult for the various segments of Northern Irish society to trust one another and agree on a common vision for the future. I sense that the hope for Northern Ireland’s future lies in the growing number of cross-community relationships (through which former enemies begin to experience and acknowledge their common humanity) and the growing conviction on all sides that violence is not the way to build a healthy and vibrant society.

Reflections by Rev. Dr. Geoff Hayes, Pastor of Faith United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, MI, on exchange with David Campton in Dundonald Methodist Church.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Big Question

Whilst my "brethern" were walking the highways and byways of the traditional routes of Northern Ireland on Saturday, I was sitting on my backside looking after the boys at the "parsonage" of Faith UMC in Grand Rapids, because Saturday was a "ladies day" over here. Sally was speaking about her work with Dundonald Family and Community Initiative at a United Methodist Women's event in the morning, and then attended a "Life Party" in the afternoon. For the uninitiated a "Life Party" is another term here for a baby shower.

Anyway, I asked Sally if she wanted to post any reflections here as in a "guest slot" but she declined, saying that there wasn't anything extraordinary to report... Except, that is, for the big question she was asked after her presentation in the morning...

After speaking about the difficulties and the delights of working in a community development programme in Ballybeen she opened the floor to questions... A few came, including one concerning the perennial trans-Atlantic mistranslation of the word "craic" as "crack". There were a number of other questions over lunch... Then, at the very end two ladies sidled up to her and said "We've got a question for you..."
"What's that?" said Sal...

"Have you ever seen Daniel O'Donnell live in concert?"

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Two from Faith Central

Just a quickie to point up two interesting pieces on Libby Purves' column Faith Central. The first points to a movement urging prayer at the petrol pumps here in America... Which is typical... Don't bother your ass doing anything yourself to conserve the resources of the earth that God put into your stewardship... Just pray that God will bail you out. Not just typical of America and its attitude to fuel, but to western Christianity and its attitude to God.

Anyway... by comparison to the US, back in the UK we don't need a short prayer meeting but a 24/7 prayer vigil... and it will probably only be a short time before someone suggests one.

Then she picks up on a 1969 interview with John Lennon which the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4 broadcast this week (Radio 4 keeping up its reputation for being topical and up to date) in which he explains his "We're bigger than Jesus" comment about the Beatles, which was widely castigated at the time (and responded to by Larry Norman with his line after Jesus Christ Superstar came out "Dear John, Who's more popular now"). As any vaguely thinking Christian at the time might have worked out he was only telling the truth that, at least in popular consciousness, the Beatles WERE bigger than Jesus. He wasn't saying that was necessarily a good thing. But the interesting thing in this interview is apparently his insistence that, while he was highly antipathetic towards the hypocrisy and rigidity of the church at the time, he was deeply appreciative of Christ and his teachings, going on to claim that "I'm one of Christ's biggest fans."
But that's part of the problem, is that Jesus doesn't want fans... because fans can be terribly fickle... There were plenty of fans on palm Sunday... What he wants are followers... And it is Christ's followers who really make up the church... Not the po-faced people who kicked John Lennon out of Church for laughing and not the idiots who stand around on petrol station forecourts praying for lower petrol prices.

Made the Back Page

Acheived a lifetime ambition yesterday in making the back page of a Saturday newspaper... OK it was the religious section and not the sports section of the Grand Rapids Press... But a man can dream. Mind you, it should have been the fiction section as it begins by telling readers that I "fled" Northern Ireland in 1985...

For those who want a laugh the link to the internet version is printed above, although I'm not sure how long it will stay live... so I have also included the text below. Neither includes the best part of the paper version: a photograph of me in the sanctuary of Faith Church which is one of those rare ones that don't make me want to run out and buy up every copy of the paper and destroy them all! It's the text that makes me want to do that. A classic case of a reporter hearing what he wants to hear through a filter of years of dramatised/romanticised accounts of our conflict. The quotes from me are generally verbatim, but the surrounding bits are not so much verbiage as garbage.
The one plus was that it actually encouraged some people to come along to Faith UMC to hear me today... Someone even said to Sally in the Supermarket last night that they were going to come along when they found out she was my wife. International fame at last.
I just hope that I didn't put them off with today's service... which not only involved me waffling on for an inordinate length of time as usual, but also incorporated the much anticipated blessing of the animals... But more of that anon...

Anyway, here is the text of the newspaper article:

Irish pastor guest at local church
Saturday, July 12, 2008
By Aaron OggThe Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS -- The Rev. David Campton fled Northern Ireland in 1985 never intending to return. He had seen enough violence and bigotry between the Irish Republican Army and those "loyal to the crown."
For seven years, he kept an eye on his native Belfast from Edinburgh, Scotland. Belfast's seams kept bursting with sectarian hate. Soon, he couldn't watch from afar any longer.
"I genuinely felt God saying, 'What are you going to do about it?' " Campton said.
Campton, 43, is pastor of Dundonald Methodist Church, located in a housing scheme called Ballybeen near the outskirts of Belfast.
As part of a pulpit exchange, he is working as guest pastor at Faith United Methodist Church, 2600 Seventh St. NW. He's given two sermons and plans to stay until Aug. 3. Faith's regular pastor, Geoff Hayes, is retiring next July after 11 years with the church.
"The neat experience for us, as a congregation, is Geoff is going to be retiring so it's our way of practicing our hospitality," said Pat Sutherland, coordinator of lay ministries. "This is very important in the life of our church."
Sutherland said Faith UMC is making increased effort to reach out to the community, something Campton knows a good deal about.
Before leading Dundonald, he worked near the Belfast "peace line," a 2.5-mile wall stretching from the inner-city west. The barrier separates the nationalists, who are largely Catholic, from the loyalists, mostly Protestant. His former church's front door was on the Catholic side, and the back door was on the Protestant side.
Although British and Irish officials signed the Good Friday Agreement 10 years ago, the area still teems with tension, Campton said.
"Sometimes we can focus on peace building without realizing conflict comes out of social circumstance and history," he said.
Addressing conflict alone only means "deferring another explosion," he said.
"It's like an untapped volcano," he said. "Unless that reservoir of magma is being tapped or diverted in some other way, the top blows off."
Campton's wife, Sally Campton, heads the Dundonald Family and Community Initiative.
The vision is for the organization to be an umbrella under which all area Christian denominations can operate and respond to local needs. Ballybeen, composed of working-class families, has fallen on hard times.
There is a pattern of exodus among Northern Ireland churches, Campton said. Many are moving to the suburbs to escape lingering turmoil and economic plight.
Returning to the city -- "back to the grassroots community" -- can spark change, he said.
Campton said he's observed an "ethos of volunteerism" in the United States that isn't as marked in Northern Ireland. Since it's a welfare state, many citizens leave the task of helping the needy to the government, he said.
"To get something out of your community, you have to put something back in," Campton said.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Contrasts in Community

Last night found me and my family eating sloppy burritos with friends before taking a dip in their pool and then sitting and chatting on their deck in nothing more than a tee shirt and swim shorts. Slightly different from my normal 11th night of recent years which has involved walking around the local bonfires and chatting to people in various states of intoxication.

But that was not the only dramatic contrast with home yesterday.

During the day Sally and I also went on a tour of 3 social engagement programmes/programs of Methodist origin... Community House, a family support centre in south west Grand Rapids, and both NECOM and SECOM (the North End and South End Community Outreach Ministries respectively). The former programme could have been any one of a hundred similar ones back home (although much better thought through and professional than most... but then they have been around for over a hundred years, giving them time to get their act together.) However, the two Community Outreach Ministries brough back to mind a number of the programmes I had visited in Pittsburgh with the CCWA delegation in March... with their emphasis on providing basic necessities to people through food pantries and supper clubs. That the worlds only super-power has to rely on the work of non-profit agencies to help its poorest citizens, always strikes me as appalling, and something which thankfully we do not need at home to any great extent... yet (although with cutbacks in welfare provision and increasing numbers of immigrants who fall outside the welfare safety net, who knows how long it will be before we need extensive food aid programmes). However, the level of volunteering and charitable donation from individuals and organisations which allows non-profits to address this need, is equally unknown back home... and if anything, people are becoming increasingly unwilling to volunteer, partly due to the red-tape involved in so much voluntary activity.

Many suggest that both sides of this contrast... the need within the US to help the poorest people through voluntary aid and the ability to do so because of the high level of volunteerism here... are both features of the welfare state that we have in Britain, making people think that all we have to do is pay taxes and the state will look after everyone. This is only partly true... increasing legislation and the cancerous growth of individualism (and its spiritualised variant: personal piety), also add to the mix.

I dread to think that we would ever come to a stage in Britain that we need to rely on churches and charities to provide food to the poor in our own land... but we need to think of ways that we can inspire and enduce people to see that we are all community and that we all need to put in more than simply our taxes. Not simply saying to people that you have got to put something in if you want to get something out... But you have got to put something in full stop...

ps as another illustration of contrasts Geoff Hayes who is serving in Dundonald while I am in Faith UMC here in Grand Rapids, will be posting his reflections on the Twelfth here sometime in the next couple of days.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Happy Birthday Old Man

Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday dear David. Happy birthday to me.
Yes. I am now officially one year older. 21 plus taxes... But it doesn't look any better whatever exchange rate you use.
It was a slightly weird birthday this year. First I woke up feeling less than A1 after a somewhat nauseous night... I think I had a dodgy sandwich from a deli yesterday... Won't be going back there again.
But then I spent most of the rest of the day in the company of significantly older people. First, I and the rest of my family shared a wonderful potluck lunch with the members of the "Young at Heart" Group at Faith UMC. They even made sure there were sugar free desserts for me to enjoy.

Then this evening we all went across town to Clark Retirement Community, where we had supper with Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea Horton, before speaking at their midweek chapel service. It is a huge complex for around 400 residents, ranging from those who live independently in townhouses (as Bob and Bea do), through to those who need significantly greater care.

Of course my eldest son thought it hilarious that I was spending my birthday at a retirement home, and there were a number of comments about checking it out for us for the future. We did warn both of our mischievous offspring that they were to keep the funny comments to a minimum once there, and to be fair, they were on their best behaviour the whole time.

But you know, despite voicing concerns to Sally before going regarding the "ghettoisation" of older people in such complexes, after visiting I am completely won over. The range of facilities and activities offered is amazing: a fully functional gym, pool and jacuzzi; branches of the local library, bank and post office on site; painting, stain-glass and carpentry classes; piano recitals; trips to the theatre; a shop, pharmacy, ice-cream parlour and hairdressers on site, and a menu in the dining room which was far removed from that I have come to expect in residential homes in NI. So if Owain wants to bung me and Sally in there its fine by me... Except I would balk at the likely cost (although there is a charitable foundation that is there to support any resident who suddenly finds themself unable to pay the fees).

I usually go from services at residential and nursing homes deeply depressed at what potentially lies ahead for me... Tonight, having had a birthday that means I am closer in age to those who opt for such places than to the age of my eldest son, I left Clark feeling that I had a glimpse of what the future might hold if others would be as creative in developing similar provision back home.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Woman in the Box

Occasionally I have heard it said that having a relationship with another person outside of a marriage has actually enhanced the marriage. I have never believed that.

However, I truly believe that my marriage to Sally has been enhanced during this trip by my developing love for a dusky voiced American lady, called Maggie, or Magellan Maestro to give her her full name. She happens to be imprisoned in a small electronic box and tells me where to go when I am trying to navigate my way around this strange place where people drive on the wrong side of the road (Although I definitely have the easier part of the deal in this exchange... I only have to cope with driving on the wrong side of the road... Geoff has to drive on the other side of the road, use a manual car instead of an automatic, and must cope with the shock of our petrol prices!). She is the electronic voice of the Satnav (or GPS as they call it here)which a couple called Laurie and Ed Bawden have leant us for the duration of our stay. I have fallen so much in love with this piece of gadgetry that I may invest in one when I return to GB... It may ultimately prevent irretrievable marital breakdown between myself and Sally, who has many, many gifts and graces but map-reading an a sense of direction are not among them. And given that patience with others under pressure is not one of my virtues, it is perhaps best that I am ordered around in the car by an electronic woman... She keeps calmly recalculating the route when I blithely cruise by the exit she instructed me to take, although last night I nearly pulled her cable out and threw her out the window because she was insisting that I should turn right into a road that was closed off for construction... But far better that I should consider doing that to a machine than to my wife... Better still that I calm down and don't consider doing it at all.

But more and more we find ourselves dependent upon technology... I have had internet glitches both at the parsonage where we are staying and at the church office over recent days, and I have wasted an inordinate amount of time trying to sort out the respective problems... with the help of a nice AT&T man and the local internet whizz Eric Thomasma respectively... Not only do I wonder at times whether these electronic gizmos really make things simpler or a lot more complicated... But I (and most other people I know) continue to be seduced by them... We just need to make sure who is boss...

On a similar theme... Faith UMC here in Grand Rapids has stepped boldly into the world of virtual reality with their own website at Check it out.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Natural West Michigan

One of our first memorable experiences on arriving in Grand Rapids was discovering a dead skunk lying outside the church. He has long since been removed but his memory still pungently remains.

Thankfully most of our subsequent experiences of West Michigan wildlife has been less aromatic. We've seen some amazing birds around the area including bright red cardinals, we've had rabbits and squirrels in the back yard and others have told us that there are also deer roaming around the district, but we have yet to see any up close. I am, however, being slowly eaten alive by the insect life here...

This morning Bill and Beth Murray attempted to take us on a visit to the local Blanford Nature Centre to see some more exotica, only to have yet another thunderstorm cut short the expedition. Although by that stage we had already seen a number of different hawks, some turkey vultures, a couple of varieties of owl, some turtles and a bobcat that was seriously freaked out at the impending storm.

We will definitely go back in the next free time we have (which is diminishing by the day). But it reminded me again of the wonderful variety of creatures that God has blessed this earth with, and our responsibility to care for them. Most of the animals and birds at Blanford were found injured and are currently being rehabilitated.

Next Sunday the Worship Planning Team at Faith UMC have arranged a "blessing of the animals" service, that I am supposed to officiate at... Yes, you read correctly... so get your sniggering over quickly (especially those of you who know how much I love dogs!). But whilst it may not be normal where I currently minister, why should it be so strange? God has given us animals, both bobcats and pussy cats, turkey vultures and their more edible namesakes, as a blessing... So why should we not pray for their blessing in return?

But I do hope that no-one brings a bobcat next Sunday.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Like Precious Oil

Today, the theme of our service at Faith United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, was our call to be United, as in the affirmation that we believe in ONE, holy, catholic and apostolic church... rather than anything to do with that football team from Manchester who must not be named.

We shared in communion, that sign of our unity in Christ, which sadly so often is a sign of our disunity as believers, unable to commune around a shared table. But we also shared in the words of based on Psalm 133.

How wonderful, how beautiful when brothers and sisters live together in unity.
It is a sign of God’s anointing.
It is like precious oil poured upon the head of God’s appointed priest;
Running down Aaron’s beard and down the collar of his priestly robes.
It is like fresh morning dew, from the cool heights of Mount Hermon
falling on God’s holy mountain
Because the Lord God has commanded his blessing:
Everlasting and abundant life.

From Psalm 133 © David A. Campton 2008

More Thunderbolts and Lightning

Coming as I do from a place where bangs and flashes were all too recently a sign, not of celebration, but of conflict and destruction, I love a good firework display. And our 4th July came to an end with a particulalry good one put on by the City Council of Grandville. We decided not to brave the main event in Grand Rapids City Centre (funded in part by Floyd Mayweather as part of his retirement event... or should that be, funded by Ricky Hatton who was beaten by Mayweather last year!) but to go back to the scene of the morning's parade.
I dread to think how much money literally went up in smoke last night, not just in the official events, but also in the impromptu backyard shows going on all around us... Sometimes a little too close for comfort... But last night was not a night for thinking about the cost of it all... It was a night for sitting back in a lawnchair in the middle of a highschool baseball field and enjoying the view.
Mind you, when I thought back on earlier in the week and the natural fireworks we witnessed on Wednesday night which went on for over 8 hours... This display, though impressive, was as nothing...
Even the noise of the rockets going off couldn't compare to the noise of the thunder a few nights before...
But perhaps more impressive still, though much quieter and lasting much more briefly, were the lightning bugs that were rising up from the grass all around us, momentarily flaring into a pinprick of light, that you would catch a glimpse of with you peripheral vision, before it petered out.
God doesn't always have to shout to gain our attention... But we need to be looking in the right direction... and that isn't necessarily up into the heavens.
In a day that began with A10 Thuderbolts and ended with humble lighning bugs, I have no doubt where God was to be found...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Fourth of July Weekend

I suppose our 4th July holiday began, not with the A10 Thunderbolts that I mentioned last post, but with the uniquely American phenomenon of a kids Baseball game at Grandville, a small suburb of Grand Rapids, on Thursday night, accompanied by a devoted mom of one of the players, Jeanette Kaufman, who became our "4th July Guide".

We then arranged to meet up the next morning for the parade.

Now as someone used to July parades in Belfast of an orange hue, this was an entirely different experience. Starting with the A10 Thunderbolts, and finishing with the fact that when the parade had passed and the crowds went to disperse there was no sea of litter... and especially no cans and bottles of beer left lying in the gutter.

Indeed the almost total absence of alcohol around those watching the parade, marked it out as the truly family occasion that it was... that and the constant showers of "candy" that the participants in the parade shared with the watching children... My own youngest son, picked up 129 sweets.

Now in my own childhood the Twelfth Parades were always events that I looked forward to, but they were never, even in those rose-tinted days, particularly family friendly... The closest we got to that were the personal bottles of Maine lemonade that we got at the field. But in recent years I have been reluctant to take my kids anywhere near the parades, and certainly not to the drink fueled events that are the Bonfires of recent years.

But the family friendly nature was not the only difference. There was also a complete contrast in the very nature of the parade. One spoke of celebration, the other of beligerance. Now I am no great fan of flag waving patriotism in any culture, as it can only too quickly become idolatry, but there is something totally honest and open about the patriotic celebration that we shared in at the Grandville Parade. Everyone who was anyone, or who wanted to be anyone, was participating. Canvassing for election as Congressman, Sheriff, County Commissioner, Judge or dog catcher (not sure about the last one, but I wouldn't be surprised). Selling everything from fitness centres, to pizza shops, to posture-paedic mattresses. Churches were there, promoting their Vacation Bible Schools and other things. A celebration not of the past (there wasn't a single reference to the revolutionary origins of Independence Day... although I accept this is the mid-west and not the North Eastern seedbed of the revolution) but of the present and future; of the blessed trinity of Amrican identity: democracy (or at least the bizarre American form of it), capitalism and Christianity (see note on democracy). But whatever my reservations about it, it was unreservedly positive, upbeat and inclusive...

Set against that what Northern Ireland's Twelfth "Celebrations" have become. They are almost by definition negative and exclusive, predominantly focussed on what they are against, rather than what they are for. They are almost entirely backward looking... and I don't mean to 1690... but to a mythical golden (or should that be "Orange") age when we lived in a Protestant Province, governed by a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People. Now the future looks less certain for that Protestant people, particularly because their protestantism has no real roots in the Protestant Church (whether they have abandoned the church or the church has abandoned them is a question for another day.) So what is there to celebrate? Well, how about some of the things that Orangism claims to stand for ie. political and religious freedom? Is that not what our current political administration is supposed to guarantee in a way that the old regime did not?

Anyway, if the Twelfth is to survive as an integral part of the new Northern Ireland it will have to reinvent itself, not aping the events like the 4th of July, but with a character of its own, affirming what is good about the culture passed down to us.

I am reliably informed (by my niece) that this year a huge party was organised in Inverary by some Ulster-Scots group, and while I am a bit ambivalent of milking the Ulster-Scots cultural bit too much, such ventures are a welcome step forward.

After the parade here, we too headed off to a huge party in the park... Including the ubiquitous inflatables and face-painters, but also with the peculiar local delights of corn dogs and horseshoe tossing.

God bless America. But God bless Northern Ireland too... And may we come to celebrate the ways in which he has blessed us and continues to bless us.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Thunderbolts and Lightning

To quote the immortal Freddie Mercury
"Thunderbolts and Lightning, very, very frightening, me..."

Well, if not me, my wife and second son, who spent at least 3 hours in the basement of the parsonage during what we have been told was the biggest electrical storm here in Grand Rapids for decades. It raged from 3pm until after 11pm, and resulted in many downed trees, flooded roads and disruption of telephone and electrical connections. Our internet connection at the parsonage has been down since Thursday morning, probably due to the storm, so that is why there have been no posts over the past few days...

But it is amazing that here we are in the most powerful nation this world has ever seen, with all kinds of technology at our disposal (including doppler radar pictures to tell exactly where the storm was headed) and we are reduced to the role of helpless spectators by a mid-summer storm. In the ancient world the thunder, lightning and hail we witnessed on Wednesday were taken a signs of God's power and wrath (See Psalm 18). Now they are only seen as meteorological anomalies... and perhaps as pointers to the fact that we are seriously messing up the Earth's climate.

But in the face of these and other less physical storms, the affirmation of the Psalmist is still worth baring in mind:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
My God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.
Psalm 18: 2 (NIV)
Mind you there are those who still prefer to put their trust in human power... As embodied by another type of Thunderbolt I saw today... the pair of A10 Thunderbolt Tankbusting Aircraft that kicked off the 4th July celebrations in Granville today...
But more reflections on that tomorrow, after the fireworks tonight...

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!
Fremde, etranger, stranger.
Gluklich zu sehen, je suis enchante,
Happy to see you, bleibe, reste, stay.
Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome
Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret
Meine Damen und Herren,
Mesdames et Messieurs,
Ladies and Gentlemen!
Guden Abend, bon soir,
We geht's? Comment ca va?
Do you feel good? I bet you do!
Ich bin euer Confrecier; je suis votre compere...
I am your host!
Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome
Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret

Leave your troubles outside!
So - life is disappointing? Forget it!
We have no troubles here!
Here life is beautiful...
The girls are beautiful...
Even the orchestra is beautiful!

With those words the Emcee famously invites the audience into the moral twilight world of Cabaret, where the people of 1930's Berlin could escape the horrors of the rising tide of Nazism.
I have been blogging about welcome this week in the light of the warm welcome that I and my family have received here at Faith United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, MI (it is not every church you drive past on the evening of your arrival and find your name in lights outside), and in the wake of my sermon last Sunday on the subject of "Welcome.!" However, the welcome that we offer to people, or rather that Jesus offers through us, should not be on the same basis as that offered by the Emcee. We are not inviting people into a problem free environment (who was it who first offered the advice that if you ever find a perfect church, don't join it because you'd only spoil it!?); nor should we be suggesting that they leave their troubles outside.

Far from it... Jesus actually says
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Matthew 11:28 (ANIV)

We are invited to bring our burdens to Jesus and we should be encouraging others to do so too, messy though that may be. At the gym I go to the restaurant area has a set of specially constructed shelves so that people won't bring their smelly, obstructive sportsbags into the restaurant. And often we do not respond well when people bring their bag of troubles into church. And people quickly pick up on that, and go where they feel more welcome.
The word welcome comes actually comes from the idea that someone's coming is in accordance with your will… And it is God's will in Christ that all should come to him through us… In Isaiah he says:
"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost."
Isaiah 55:1 (ANIV)

Places like the KitKat Club of Cabaret, and the clubs and bars of the world, like the legendary “Cheers” “Where they always know your name, and they’re always glad you came…” are often much better than the church at welcoming the broken and hurting and the confused of this world… They don’t offer any answers, but they create an environment were people feel welcome… For a price… But as God makes clear in Isaiah, what God offers through us is free…
So why can't we put the KitKat Club out of business? Offering not an escape from our troubles, but a way to really deal with them...
The question is whether the girls are as beautiful, never mind the orchestra!?