Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Sunday, August 31, 2008


This has been a week for me embarrassing myself over words. For about a month now my wife has been regularly hammering me at a wordgame called WordTwist over on Facebook, then this week I was challenged by 3 other people to a game... The result was that I finished in a humiliating 4th place... Nothing wrong with coming fourth given the competition... the humiliating thing was my score which would have embarrassed a dyslexic goldfish...

But anyone who has persevered in reading this blog will know that my spelling can, at times be erratic, especially when I have been blogging late at night... Perhaps any American friends haven't noticed, since your spellings of most words are wrong anyway!!!

Last night, however, I committed the biggest blooper yet... I've had a very full week and didn't get round to editting my sermon until 8.30 pm. I finished that by about 11 pm, then set about putting together the powerpoint slides to accompany it.

By 12.45 am I was done in more ways than one.

The theme of the service was Job's question in chapter 28.

"Where can wisdom be found?"

And in the sermon I looked at God's wisdom evident in his written, creative and incarnate word... Mentioning along the way the fact that I am fascinated by words...

Not fascinated enough however, to check the title page of the powerpoint presentation, which, instead of asking "Where" instead asked "Were can wisdom be found?"

Clearly not in Dundonald Methodist's pulpit!

Now, either most of the congregation didn't notice, are immune to my bloopers or are too gracious to point out my stupidity, because only 2 people pointed out my mistake to me... One doing it very quietly... the other asking whether it was a "deliberate mistake?" They apparently had shared this possibility with their neighbour, expecting me, at any moment to point out this mistake and use it as an example of the limitations of human wisdom. But alas no!

But it does demonstrate that. It demonstrates the fact that only God is perfect, something which Muslim artists emphasize by working a deliberate mistake into every piece they create, but which I manage quite naturally!

So if you want to know WHERE to find wisdom, don't look in my direction!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What is a smile worth?

Just back at work one week and I am already checking my diary for when I can next carve out a few days off. I suppose because I was away for so long I was so self-consious about being percieved to be having a 7 week "holiday" that in actual fact I only really took 10 days actual holiday. But also the time since my return has been a fairly hectic whirl with some difficult situations pastorally and administratively arising. Indeed I joked with one group of corresdondents that I was seriously thinking of applying for the up-coming vacancy in Faith UMC, Grand Rapids. But I am only joking... Honest!

Last night I was involved in a particularly painful meeting, with a lot of deep hurt being expressed, and I, in this case, was the representative of the institution which was percieved to have contibuted greatly to this hurt. I tried to address some of the issues that stand in the way of healing, but I probably also opened up other wounds... old ones and perhaps new ones... I also tried to express my sense that others, who were coming at the issue in hand from a polar opposite perspective, were also hurting deeply, which some were perhaps not ready to hear. So when the meeting was over, and people were leaving I extended my hand to each of them in turn at the door to say goodnight... Some took it... Some didn't... With some of the latter I have no doubt that it is because, for one reason or another, they didn't actually see it... For the others... well, I'm truly sorry they are hurting so much that even a handshake with myself would be too painful. And I really mean that.
This morning then, I was not feeling full of the joys of spring myself, both because of last night's meeting, and other difficult situations. Despite that I dragged myself around the hospital for my chaplaincy round, stirring myself to be as cheery and upbeat as possible, and as appropriate, for each of the patients, and as ever, most of them seemed genuinely grateful for the short time we were able to spend together. And as I was walking around the corridors, I chatted and joked with staff, of all types, were there was an opportunity... Or if not, I simply gave them a smile... There are times when I'm so self-absorbed that I don't do this (and if I have ever passed you without a smile, please forgive me), but it was always taught to me that a smile costs nothing, but is worth a lot to those who recieve it... And generally people will respond in kind.
However, that certainly wasn't the case with one member of staff (a consultant it must be said). He clearly saw me smiling at him but his response to my smile was certainly not "in kind..." He jerked his head away from me so quickly as he walked past he's probably suffering from whiplash now!

Initially, as with the refused handshakes last night, I was indignant... But, as with them, I wondered what this man saw in me with my collar on, smiling (or perhaps percieving it as a sneer, as someone did at one point last night)? How often we don't realise that people are responding not simply to us as individuals, or to a simple smile or offered hand... But to a whole panoply of people and organisations that we represent to them... We can be for others the very human incarnation of their hurt... Even though we don't realise it.

But the key thing is that we cannot take these slights and hurts (real or imagined) on ourselves. Christ, the Suffering Servant has already taken them on himself (Isaiah 53), together with the hurts of all those we encounter, and through his sacrifice and his Spirit at work in and through us, we can be, not only the incarnation of their hurt... but perhaps our simple smiles and offered hands might be the beginning of healing for them...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Towards 2012

Well today the Beijing Olympics came to an end… And while the closing ceremony was not quite so over the top as the opening ceremony, it was still astounding, especially in terms of the lack of expense spared and the sheer numbers involved moving with split-second sychronicity. The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius." "Swifter, Higher, Stronger." And that has been fulfilled in these games… This has been an Olympics of superlatives. The performances of Usain Bolt on land and Michael Phelps in water… And the British athletes exceeding all expectations with their best performance in a century, the best performance by any cycling or sailing teams ever, and a medal haul which, in proportion to the size of population is 12 times as successful as China’s and over twice as successful as the Americans.
The only problem is… How can Britain top that when the show comes to London? We cannot hope to match the scale of the opening ceremony. We will be very fortunate to match the medal haul and the venues cannot possibly be as spectacular, if they actually get built on time.
We don’t have the money and will have even less if the economy keeps heading the way it is… We don’t have the people… China has nearly a quarter of the world’s population to draw on… But thankfully we also do not have a totalitarian government who are prepared to sacrifice human rights, the environment, and, it seems in some cases, fair play in pursuit of the perfect result.
Some of the happenings on the periphery of the games and in the run up have not brought much honour on China or the International Olympic committee… the forcible evictions of people whose homes were bulldozed to make way for the Olympic campus… the threatened exile to labour camps of those Chinese nationals who applied through official channels to be allowed to protest… And the withdrawal of visas to foreigners who, it was feared, may have been politically destabilising. But I pray that the window on the world that the Olympics has opened up may grant a glimpse, to both the Chinese Government and people of what the future might hold if only they were to try a different path.
But I also hope that we in Britain might not be so haunted by the spectacle of Beijing and daunted by the challenges ahead that we forget to celebrate the very real triumphs of the present. I think the right tone was set with the British input to the closing ceremony: they kept Boris the Bumbler's input to a minimum, while the rest was a tongue in cheek picture of a Britain characterised by queuing for buses in the rain… lollipop ladies and zebra crossings… Dear knows what the people of China made of all that… Then to have the searing riff of “A Whole Lotta Love” crashing out across the crowd, played by Jimmy Page and sung by Leona Lewis, was a good picture of modern multicultural Britain… young and not so young, creating something that may not be quite so regimented as China… But every bit as iconic, and loud! Not living in some stereotype of the past, or trying to be outrageously avant-garde in reaching for the future, but enjoying the moment.
And may that be true for you this day… May you build on the successes and rise above the failures of the past. May God grant you a glimpse of the future he has for you if only you will go his way… But may you not be so focused on the past or the future that you forget, to live to his glory in the here and now…

An abbreviated, earlier edition of this was broadcast as the review of the week on Downtown Radio's "Dawn Reflections on Sunday 24th August 2008.
Prompted by Cheryl Wonders I took a look at some alternative medals tables calculated on the basis of population, GDP and number of athletes per medal and GB doesn't do quite so well in any of them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Crass Christianity

My sister in law Linda usually comes up with some bizarre and crass religiously themed Christmas gift for me each year... "Jesus Action Figure"... "Baptism Shampoo"... "Fire-breathing clockwork Nun" to name but three, but whilst we were in Niagara Sally pointed out to me a Christmas item to top them all... A nativity set with all the characters replaced by bears... In Sudan last year a British schoolteacher was almost executed for allowing her pupils to call a teddy bear Mohammed... Yet here is the incarnation of the Son of God portrayed by ceramic bears! Then I went online to find a picture for this rant only to discover that this is not an anomally. There are hundreds of variations on an ursine nativity theme.

But then, as I was checking Libby Purves' Faith Central page this morning I discovered this exercise in even worse taste...

Pin anyone!?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

US Plus and Minus

So, hopefully... if all flights have gone according to plan and my family have not killed me because of the fact that I turn into a horrible monster through my travel schedule induced anxiety... I am back in NI after 7 weeks in MI.

So what will I miss about the US... Apart from the wonderful people we met that is (although if all of them take us up on our offer to visit 9 Rosepark will be very full! But don't let that stop anyone...)?

Well, first let me say a few things I will not miss... In no particular order...
  • US DSL internet... It is dreadful... So slow.
  • US cars... Big, bulky, all noise and no poke, with steering so vague as to be notional
  • MI roads... People say it is down to the weather... freezing in the winter and roasting in the summer... but putting some tax dollars into maintaining infrastructure might be a good idea (even if it won't get you re-elected)
  • US TV. We already get the best of American programmes in the UK, and after 7 weeks of American TV I will never complain about the adverts on our commercial channels again.
  • The sugar in most foods here... even baked beans would put you into a diabetic coma.
  • The humidity...
  • The bugs... The mosquitoes and the "no-see-ums" that devour you at dawn and dusk.

But these things are more than made up for by:

  • The quality of service in restaurants (and Canada take note... you are rubbish in comparison with the US)
  • The buying power of the Pound (but now the British economy is tanking so that no longer counts)
  • The sugar free ice-cream available here...
  • The warmth...
and finally
  • The showers... Why is it that even the worst hovel I have ever stayed in over here always has a great shower... Such a great way to start the day...
So, keep your cars and your bugs but please send us your plumbers!

And thanks to everyone who made the last 7 weeks such a fabulous experience for me and all my family...

Niagara Falls Short

A quick re-edit of a post I put up last week, whilst on my hols... I have just noticed that in the midst of my near fatal illness, I actually posted an earlier draft of the piece. Here is what it should have said...
Just a quickie, as I'm dying (or as Sally might suggest, I have a mild summer cold).
Despite my imminent demise I (with the help of Maggie the satnav) managed to get the family to our hotel near Niagara after an 8 hour trip (including breaks). This morning we then headed in to see the Falls themselves.
And was amazed, nay horrified, at the astonishingly huge gulf between the beautiful, awe-inspiring power and majesty of Niagara Falls (both American and Canadian/Horseshoe varieties, though particularly the latter) and the tacky, commercial, dollar-gobbling gungy-ness (if that is a word) of the town that overlooks it and shares its name.
After a jaw-dropping trip on the Maid of the Mist we got out of town as fast as we could to the much more genteel Niagara on the Lake.
But if there is ever a perfect illustration of how far humanity falls short of the glory of God the creator, Niagara Falls is it... And the sad thing is, where was Christianity represented in this cavernous divide between creation and consumerism...
In the midst of all the money-grabbing eateries and sidehows, was Bronto's Adventure Playground, featuring VeggieTales! Those purveyors of piety to the pint sized, have not only got an ever-expanding DVD range (with appropriate tie-ins) they are there on Clifton Hill, flying the flag for capitalist Christianity...
It almost made me want to throw mysef over the falls with or without a barrel.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Looking Forwards or Backwards

Yesterday I was writing about the prominence of overtly Christian material on the supposedly secular airwaves in West Michigan... I don't know whether that is typical or not for the rest of the US but it is certainly atypical for the UK... even in the church-going area of Northern Ireland.
One of the pieces that has been played repeatedly while I've been here is MercyMe's "I Can only Imagine," which is musically OK (typical Christian-AOR), but theologically worrying because of the emphasis that it, and many similar songs have on the hereafter without seeing the implications for the here and now. But here it is anyway...

The thing is, it is so anodyne, I had heard it forty times before I realised it was Christian... And that time I only listened to it because it was played at the second funeral I officiated at here. And it is (and was) very appropriate in that context.
However, its words, and other events at that funeral, made me rethink what we are doing when we look ahead with a future hope, or back over a loved one's life.
As I reflected on my earlier post about American funerals, the whole business of saying goodbye to a loved one here is so much more high-tec... From the heavy metal caskets to the grave aprons and crank operated lift required to lower such behemoths into the ground, but also the use of desk top publishing to produce glossy potted biographies of the deceased for mourners to take away, and in the case of the second funeral I conducted, a permanent website dedicated to their memory.
I am sure that all these things are a comfort to those who have lost a loved one. And as with most things, what has begun in America will probably drift across the Atlantic in time, but I am slightly ambivalent about this.
Because just as looking forward to a "heavenly hope" can make us no earthly use, looking back on a person's memory in the form of a printed biography or a virtual lifestory, can cause us to forget that the best way to remember someone is to share what we learn from them in word and deed.
We look back with thanks and look forward with hope. But we live here and now in the grace of God...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Swimming against the Mainstream

I was writing yesterday about saying goodbye to West Michigan Star 105.7, and more particularly Tommy and Brook in the morning. I'm reliably informed that they came from a Gospel Music Station 91.3 WCSG where they piloted their TOY programme under the less catchy title of "Drive Thru Difference."
Star 105.7 is a secular station, but one of the things that I can't get over is the general prominence of explicitly Christian music on this and other commercial channels and the pop charts in general. It all seems to be part of a strange pseudo-christian cultural musical mainstream, which perhaps reflects the relationship of religion and society in general here.
You have Marvin Sapp, who is both a chart topping singing sensation and pastor of the Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, then you have groups like MercyMe and their oft repeated "I can only Imagine", which I first came across at a funeral... More on that tomorrow...
And then there was the repeated interview with Bebo Norman about his song "Britney" which apologises to Britney Spears for what celebrity culture has done to her... The Christian content of this last song is more muted than most on offer, and he has been criticised for this from some quarters for watering down the gospel, and from other quarters for simply using Britney's name to get noticed...
In my opinion, as a pop song it is OK... as a piece of theological reflection it is as profound as most of my posts this summer.
But it is refreshing... swimming against the stream of the "build 'em up - knock 'em down nature of modern celebrity culture... and against the stream of sickly sweet, self-absorbed Christian music... It's worth a listen...

Take your Faith to the Ball Game

Just a brief note as an addenda to my earlier blog on the peculiar conjunction of faith and baseball in this weird and wonderful country. On the Tommy and Brook show last Monday they announced that anyone bringing the bulletin from their church service to the ballgame at the West Michigan Whitecaps ground, would get reduced price entry...

I can just see that happening at Windsor Park or the Oval!

I love this country!!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

TOY Story

This morning we said goodbye to West Michigan... Hopefully not forever, but certainly for the forseeable future... Most of our formal goodbyes were said 2 weeks ago when we said farewell to the congregation at Faith UMC. Two of them, Ron and Shirley Marckini kindly drove us to the airport in Detroit...

But we also said goodbye to Tommy and Brook who were constant companions each weekday morning for 7 weeks (bar the 3 days in Niagara)... Because they are the breakfast show presenters on West Michigan Star 105.7.

Their programme is a fairly typical regional commercial breakfast show, with a playlist of current hits and "classics" from the 70s and 80s. But one of the features that sets this programme and the station as a whole is their TOY Program. TOY standing for Thinking Outside Yourself.

The idea is for listeners to do something completely altruistic, and anonymous... e.g. paying the toll for the person behind you at a freeway tollbooth, or buying a soft drink for someone behind you at the drivethrough.

I could get all cynical about it all... But I won't... In fact I would love to see other radio stations on both sides of the Atlantic taking it up...

So goodbye Tommy and Brook... Keep TOYing with people...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sunday in the Shed

With my first Sunday "off" since arriving in Grand Rapids, it was our first chance as a family to worship in the Shed, which, for those in the know, is the Sunday meeting place of Mars Hill Bible Church... the Rob Bell one... You know... NOOMA... Velvet Elvis... Sex God etc., not the Mark Driscoll one in Seattle... Don't, whatever you do, ever get them mixed up...
Rob hasn't been there all summer so I didn't get the chance to meet up... I had planned to mosey across a few weeks ago when Walter Brueggeman was speaking, but something else came up and I couldn't... So that is why I was particularly keen to take this final chance to experience Sunday in the Shed.
And a Shed it is. A big warehouse space with 2000-odd seats arranged around a central raised platform. There is nothing... Absolutely NOTHING, that marks this out as particularly sacred space... And the build up to worship doesn't help that... There was a distinct lack of welcome (indeed the only guy on the outer door had a very large badge marked "Security") and the first words from the platform in the centre of the hall were more like the introduction of an act at a night club than any sort of call to worship.
But saying that when the worship did begin it was very sensitively and creatively constructed around Psalm 24 with a mixture of old hymns and newer songs. Didn't quite get who the 2 young guys leading worship were, or indeed where they were from as apparently they too were visiting, but they led well, using the Psalm and songs in such a way that any separate prayers were superfluous. The only crass moment was in the introduction to the final song we were invited to "put your hands together..." Only for the song to include an invitation from God to "be quiet and rest."
Ah well... Couldn't possibly do that...
Then came the "sermon" which was a double header by father and son team of Ed and Kent Dobson, as part of a series on "1st Century Eyes; 21st Century Questions." This week they were looking at the Lord's Prayer in Luke's Gospel (Luke 11: 1-4). At the close of it my son Owain asked, "Well, are we going to hear that when we get home?" And there is no doubt that there will be plenty that I will recycle as it was really challenging on the whole...
However, it was a throwaway remark by Kent, when using the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) to illustrate the nature of Our Father in Heaven that disquietened me... When referring to the wild living that the younger son indulged in Kent said "We call that going to casinos now!"
It truly was only an off the cuff comment I think, the sort that I am all too often guilty of... But in making that comment, I fear that Kent was putting himself in exactly the same position as the elder brother... Because it was the older brother and not the narrative up until that point which had been specific about the nature of the wild living. Might our conspicuous consumption not be equally described as "wild living?"
How quick we are to point the finger at the lifestyles of others and see them as prodigal... While we are the faithful, stay at home sons, letting our imaginations run riot as to what "the lost" are getting up to...
And I think that was my main problem with the Shed experience... It seemed to be for those who were already safely inside the household of the Father... Those for whom no welcome nor explanation was necessary... There were no prayers that reflected any concern for the world outside the walls of the Shed... And whilst it was a corporate experience, and not the individualistic claptrap that is pedalled in many mega-churches, it was definitely all focussed on those who were there. I know that is not true of Mars Hill as a whole, but it was my experience of this particular Sunday.
But the great thing about "Our Father who art in Heaven" is that he loves both sons with a love that causes him to go out to them... Both the mercenary prodigal and the self-righteous elder brother... Those outside and in...
So... do I wish Dundonald Methodist was more like Mars Hill in Grand Rapids... No. (Although a few more active members would always be good). I simply pray that both bits of Christ's great big body the church will more authentically reflect his word and character in the places where he has placed them.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Terrible Beauty

In the early 1800's much of Michigan was forested. Whilst there are still huge swathes of trees up and down the upper and lower penninsulas, much of the primaeval forest has gone. It fuelled the industrialisation of Michigan, was transformed into furniture for an expanding nation in the factories of Grand Rapids, and was used to build Chicago (and rebuild it after the great fire).

It also allowed the expansion of an already established natural phenonenon, producing a landscape feature of amzing beauty, but which also points towards both the power of nature and the limits of human ingenuity.

I am referring to the sand dunes on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. These have been developing as the great glaciers receded after the last ice-age and the Great Lakes emerged, but they have significantly encroached on the land in the wake of the 19th century deforestation. The State Govenment is now trying to protect the dunes from owners of Off Road Vehicles, with only the Dunes at Silver Lake being open to ORVs and organised dune-rides... But so far, nothing has been done to protect the communities adjacent to the dunes from their encroachment.

Silver Lake itself is only two thirds the size it was 100years ago, but the surrounding community is trying to make a virtue out of a slow-burn crisis, seeing the dunes as a tourist attraction... But in many ways the whole area is in a delicate balance... Like the fingers of fulgurite, petrified lightning which are found in the dunes... delicate tubes of glass formed when lightning strikes the sand... shattering with the slightest movement on the dunes above.

We made the most of the local tourist industry on Friday, taking a Mac Woods Dune Ride. The original Mac Woods started taking tours across the dunes in the 1930s, but the company, the dune hoppers and the dunes themselves are a lot bigger since then.

It was a wonderful trip with a very informative guide, Jim... taking us from the Sahara-like wilderness of the dunes themselves, to the shores of Lake Michigan, which, because of a wind blowing in from the north west, felt like the glacier that formed it hadn't retreated too far...

But it was eerie driving past the stumps and sand-blasted trunks of white pine trees, knowing that what was now desert-like was once forest... And seeing the tops of poplar trees poking through the sand, looking like shrubs, when in fact they were actually 40-50 ft. tall.

It was beautiful, but also frightening, to see on a small scale, what is happening across the world as forests... the lungs of the earth, are given over to desertification.

For a strange reason I was reminded of Spike Milligan's poem "The Chair:"

They cut down a 100ft tree to make a chair,

And I bought one.

When I stand up I am 5' 11".

When I sit down in this chair I'm 5' 4".

Why did they cut down a 100ft tree

to make me look shorter!

Soft Medals

And another thing...

While on the subject of the American coverage of the Olympics, if I hear one more moan here about this being the last time that Softball or Baseball will feature I will scream. This probably hasn't been a major feature of British coverage, but it was mentioned every 5 minutes here last night (OK maybe slight exageration there...)

For the attention of all Americans: NO-ONE except yourselves, Canada, Japan and Cuba play these sports to any great extent... Well, we do, but only in primary school and we call it "rounders." That is why your laughably titled "World Series" never feature any teams that are not North American.

If the Olympics is to reflect sports played across the world, then these two essentially American pastimes are less deserving of a place than cricket is... And God forbid that it should ever be reinstated... Tho' perhaps they will try to introduce 20-20 cricket (or cricket for those who have more important things to do with their lives than wait around for five days rainy days) into the London Games.

Or perhaps Ireland should campaign to have Hurling and Gaelic football included... Then they would be guaranteed a medal for it in much the same way that the US is guaranteed soft medals for baseball and softball at the moment.

Rant over... Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Olympian Opening

After another day of serious fun (which I will post about anon) we all collapsed in front of the Olympic opening ceremony last night, getting an American-eyed view of the whole thing. We couldn't find any channel showing it live yesterday morning... and last night everything proceeded on the fiction that the whole event was live on American primetime...

And that just about summed up the whole experience... that everything revolved around America... Particularly when it came to the parade of nations, which as ever, was even more interminable than Eurovision voting. And because we were pretending that the whole thing was live, NBC didn't even take the opportunity to edit it. And when we had to go away from the developing excitement for the inevitable ad break (Don't get me started on US TV advertising) they had a recap of who we had missed... As if we cared...

Apart from a few trivia tit-bits (which were generally of the "aren't these foreigners strange!?" type) most of the comments about other nations related to whether they had any American citizens or students competing for them, or whether they were a major threat to American medal hopes. It was also embarassing to have the camera repeatedly turn to Dubya, who looked bored out of his tiny mind, making no attempt to look interested in the interminable parade of insignificant states like Vanuatu, Bhutan and France... Only getting into his jacket and smiling when the USA team entered the arena.

Was the UK coverage similarly biased or have we got over the fact that the world is no longer pink, and realised that we belong to a nation of Olympic no-hopers? I would be interested to know.

I would also be interested to know how the London 2012 planning committee felt after seeing the spectacle of the Chinese opening ceremony. How do you possibly top a quarter mile long LCD screen unfurling on the ground, a sky-runner lapping the arena and 15,000 perfectly synchronised performers? Millenium Dome Disaster it was not! Personally I would give up on trying to top it and just have Queen Liz (or whoever is on the postage stamps at the time) cut a ribbon or something...

"God bless these Olympic Games and all who compete in them..."

(ps. If anyone could also explain to me why "Scotland the Brave" was played at least 3 times during the parade of nations I would be interested... The last time a parade of nations entered Beijing, or Peking as it was then, to the skirl of the bagpipes was probably the relief of the International Delegation at the end of the Boxer rebellion... heralding the end of independent imperial China... Was this an exercise in Chinese irony? If it was it was lost on the American commentators... As was the location of most nations smaller than India!)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Adventure Continues

Keeping my word in not posting regularly... I missed a whole day!
During that day I was participating in an annual Campton tradition: going somewhere and giving people a lot of money to shake me about and flip me head over heels in the name of entertainment. Two years ago it was Disneyland Paris. Last year it was Port Aventura, on the Costa Dorada in Spain... This year it was Michigan's Adventure... And a jolly nice adventure was had by all.

Every theme park has its own characteristics: Disney in Florida is cloyingly saccharine, whilst Disneyland Paris is delivered with a certain Gallic shrug and "Boff!" Port Aventura is as well themed as any American park... And a good deal more so than Michigan's Adventure, which has a tenuous tie in with Charlie Brown, Snoopy and all the Peanuts gang, although you would never notice that inside (apart from in the gift shop). But that didn't stop it from being a thoroughly good day out.

The water rides got me as wet as I have ever been with my clothes on... And the wooden coasters are the longest and fastest I have ever been on. Indeed Shivering Timbers is in the world's top ten on both counts... Which pleased my daredevil 7 year old son no end when he got to go on it through stretching every sinue of his body to make the 48inch limit. While he was wooping and hollering his way along the backstraight , I was wondering whether Deb DeVaux, the physiotherapist at Faith UMC, wouldn't mind addressing the damage it was doing to my aging spine... Then thought I was having a heart attack... Just imagine the ignominy of dying on a rollercoaster beside your 7 year old son.

Anyway I survived that and most of the other death-defying coasters in the park... and some great flumes in the attached waterpark...

All in all a serious day of fun.

But today it occured to me that our day at the amusement park is a perfect metaphor for life in the western world today... We pay out heaps of money to be entertained... to escape the world outside... Turning fear into fun, by delivering it in closely controlled doses... Around every corner there must be new attractions to distract us from the hum-drum nature of life... Because God forbid that we should ever be bored... Or be forced to find something interesting or useful to do!
I'm not being a grouch... Let's face it, I think I enjoy the amusement parks more than the kids do! But once a year is enough...
The problem is, I think the western world is amusing itself to death...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

International Lampoon's Vacation

OK... I lied... But the last 24 hours has been so weird that I couldn't resist putting them down on virtual paper.
After clearing up 5 weeks of our debris from the parsonage, we packed our bags and headed north, in the midst of a thunderstorm, to Geoff and Pam Hayes house on Towline Lake.
Now they had left detailed instructions on how to get there, but totally reliant as we now are on Maggie, our GPS, we followed her instructions... However, this house is so far of the beaten track that Maggie was directing us up non-existant roads, and telling us that we were careering across fields when we were travelling along what passed for roads in the area. The further that we got from the main road, the more I expected to hear duelling banjoes. Seriously... this was "Deliverance" country!
We got to the house eventually (though poor Maggie nearly had a nervous breakdown in the process), but then we had to venture out again in search of food... That took us to nearby Lakeview, which didn't so much bring to mind "Deliverance" as the much more benign "Doc Hollywood." We ate in the wonderfully "Oirish" eating establishment of McKinney's Family Grill...
But by the time we got out of McKinneys, night had fallen with a clunk and if it was difficult to find the lakehouse earlier, it was nigh on impossible now... May even more disconcerting by the thousands of frogs happily bouncing across the road, right under my wheels, and the biggest bat I have ever seen flying along directly in front of us.
After all that excitement we were all looking forward to a good night's sleep... But only Owain (who could sleep through a nuclear holocaust)... For Sally and I the heat and humidity in the absence of aircon was almost unbearable, and poor Ciaran, who had wanted to be a big brave boy and sleep in the basement room on his own, became terrified by the thought of all the beasties down there (of which there were quite a few) crawling over him during the night. So we decided to pack up today and come back to Grand Rapids, aircon and convenient grocery stores and restaurants. We're getting too soft.
But before we left the lakehouse we decided we would at least spend the day at the lake itself, and so we headed round to the local United Methodist Campsite where we were able to hire a peddaloe. We were going to hire a canoe, but decided that given my gippy shoulder and the ability to dive off the back of the peddaloe into the water, that it was the best option.
However, 10 minutes into our boat trip, we realised that we weren't in either of the two aforementioned movies, but rather a Northern Irish version of Nation Lampoon's Family Vacation, because right in the middle of the lake the chain came off the peddaloe. After about 10 minutes trying to fix it I gave up and Owain swam to shore to get help. 10 minutes later a camp assistant swam out with 2 paddles, and we paddled ashore where it was fixed in a matter of minutes allowing us to spend another few hours on the water.

So, here we are back in Grand Rapids, but tomorrow we are heading north west to Muskegon to go to Michigan's Adventure. Let's hope there are no more disasters!

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Holiday Begins...

Just a quick place holder to say that I may not be posting so regularly over the next few weeks as I am now on holiday and Sally will break my fingers if she sees me at the computer too much.

But just to say that we have had a fabulous time with Faith UMC. I only hope that Geoff and Pam Hayes have enjoyed themselves half as much with our folks back home in Dundonald. I will post a few more reflections in due course but for now we're now off to find what other sights Michigan and environs has to offer. First stop Michigan's Adventure... Once the thunderstorms stop... Typical... First day of my holiday proper and the unceasing sunshine of the past three weeks turns into a downpour.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Today we have travelled 170 miles (a mere jaunt in the eyes of the locals) to the Isabella Reservation outside of Mount Pleasant, MI, to see the Annual Pow-Wow of the Saginaw Chippewa Nation.
My knowledge of Native American culture was largely based on John Wayne movies, and have previously only come close to real native Americans when the Canadian Native American Orangmen used to turn up for the Twelfth Parade in Belfast occasionally. I always found it odd that we essentially exported both Orangism and genocide to the Native Americans when our Scots Irish forebearers became the standard bearers of westward expansion! But there they would be in full regalia... Buckskin suit, feather head-dress and collarette.
Today however, couldn't have been further from the Twelfth if you had tried... with the exception of the unending beating of drums, with dance after dance in the searing heat and elaborate costume, putting to shame even the most exhibitionist drum major in a flute band at home.
Yet there were obvious tensions throughout the day... The event clearly depended on tourists to make it viable, yet there were severe restrictions on photography, and even when the announcer said that we could take photographs some individuals objected.
Also the parade was headed by veterans from the US military, who were honoured in the ceremonies, but the opening speaker made it clear that while they honoured the veterans and prayed for those still serving, they did not support the currrent war... And all around the campground were contrasting symbols... some lauding the US military, others seeing it as an instrument of oppression.
Then, in talking to others there are other tensions, including the huge reliance of tribal reservations all across the US on Casino Complexes as a way to generate revenue. The Saginaw Chippewa have theirs right beside the camp-ground at Isabella Reservation, the Soaring Eagle Casino, with carpets all the way from Navan I am assured. While this brings in huge amounts of revenue, there are many within the tribe who feel that the whole casino phenomenon is at odds with their traditional lifestyle and teachings.
Then there are Native Americans who are Christians, indeed there is a United Methodist Church on the reservation, just beside the site of the pow wow. But again there are tensions there as to how much of traditional practice and beliefs, including their drumming and their understanding of the Great Spirit pervading all of Creation, can be absorbed within Christian practice.
I suppose St Paddy and those who followed him had similar debates with the local Irish converts 1600 years ago... and we still haven't got the balance right yet.
How much should we as Christians absorb into church life and sanctify (eg. Eostre, Midwinter Festivities) and how much should we shun (eg. Human sacrifice... though I'm not to sure we made the right decision on that one... It would certainly pull in the crowds).
Today the battle for Northern Irish Protestantism is not fought over the above (although we still haven't got Halloween really sorted out), but epitomised by similar issues to those faced by Native Americans in dealing with their Casinos and drums... though with us it is how we relate to Lottery Funding and wider Orange culture.
Maybe we should invite those Native American Orangemen back to Belfast to show us how to sort it all out! Turn the Twelfth into a Pow-Wow in Barnett's Demesne, and teach the church how to relate to a hurting and radically changing community.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Guided Tours

It is getting close to the end of our official time with Faith UMC here in Grand Rapids Michigan, and because of that, hardly a day has gone by this week without some kind member of the congregation taking us out to yet another part of the city that we haven't yet seen... Yesterday Kathy and Herb Ranta took us to the wonderful Mayer May House on Heritage Hill, a 100 year old home, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and refurbished by the local furniture company, Steelcase, 20 years ago. It was beautiful... some of it very reminiscent of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's work. The whole tour was free, and we were taken round by a guide who clearly loved her subject. But we are very grateful to Herb and Kathy as we would never have seen it if left to our own devices...
That was also the case with a tour today through Michigan Natural Storage, a cold strage facility in SW Grand Rapids, based in an old gypsum mine. They don't normally give tours any more because of insurance issues, but Phyllis and Wayne Buttermore are related to the owners and were able to get us in. So we have now seen Michigan from a totally unique angle ie. underneath.
Then later this afternoon we went to the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in the centre of town, with Laurie and Ed Bawden. Now given that Ford served for such a short period of time and that his presidency was overshadowed by the demise of his predecessor Nixon, I really didn't know much about him. Most of what I did know was the caricature of the safe but dim ex-football player who had taken one hit to the head too many. But whilst a Presidential Museum is not going to trash the person it is named after, I came away with more of an admiration for him and a greater appreciation of the no-win situation he was in. He was certainly not the intellectual dummy some made him out to be, qualifying in the top third of his Yale Law class. But he was, by his own admission a work horse, not a show pony... And one who knew his limits... Three times in the course of the tour, and in the inscription opposite his grave I read his favourite text from Proverbs:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6

We may not always have locals to guide us... but God is always there.