Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mutual Moderators

As a Methodist, I have kept my virtual mouth shut about the Presbyterian Mutual Society debacle, and will continue to do so. Others of a Presbyterian bent (a particularly debilitating problem experienced by Cheryl, Alan and Crookedshore among many others) have commented on it from the inside, and I will leave them to it, praying that the innocent will not suffer unduly, but despairing that the real culprits have gotten off scot free after whipping away their cash and leaving their mutual mates in a very deep hole...

But I do ask these two linked questions... and they are real questions that I would appreciate real answers to if anyone has them?

  1. When was the last time 23, or more, former moderators put their name to any statement or request?
  2. Did they ever do so in a cause that did not solely benefit their own members or institution?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Mourning the Past

OK... After getting the events of the last few days in Sligo off my chest yesterday, let me return to last week's overnight consultation with other folks involved in loyalist areas... Actually, if truth be told, I probably felt more mentally and spiritually stimulated in that 24 hours than in the 4 days I spent at Re:Call, but that is the way it goes sometimes...

But one of the questions raised a couple of times last week is what happens when we lose "sacreds"? Those solid, facts of life... Things that we implicitly and explicitly build our lives upon. In many ways the world economy is experiencing such a loss at the moment and the classic symptoms or stages of loss as identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross are there to be seen:
DENIAL: As exhibited by bankers and governments right up until and beyond the Lehmans Brothers Bank collapse.
ANGER: see France!
BARGAINING: see the big 3 auto-manufacturers in the US or our own little PMS crisis.
DEPRESSION: see the look on most newsreaders faces.
ACCEPTANCE: we're not there yet!

But within Loyalist/Unionist communities over the past 40 years there has been an enormous sense of loss. Not only the loss of individuals (which £12000 cannot begin to acknowledge never mind compensate) but old certainties: Stormont - a protestant parliament for a protestant people, first taken away by Westminister, but then eventually restored with (alleged) IRA men having a role in government. Britishness - the trappings of Britishness (flags, crests etc) being removed from civic spaces, and a clear sense that the rest of Britain wants nothing to do with us. Our RUC - the removal of the "royal" being another stripping away of Britishness, and the rebranding of them as PSNI seeming to be a turning away from the tradition which saw the RUC as brave defenders of the crown and the Protestant people in the face of IRA aggression. This is not how the RUC would perhaps describe themselves, but it is, at times how they were portrayed and percieved. Old Moral Certainties - Crown forces, good, republicans bad. The drip-drip, drip of enquiries and journalistic scoops, has exploded the myth that evil acts were all one-sided, and that the forces of the Crown, in general, had their hands clean. Jobs - an education and social system that was aimed at producing boys for heavy industry, and where your dad, could "get you in to..." produced easy employment pickings for almost unqualified protestant boys, especially in the Shipyard or in the Aircraft factory.

Now, so much of that had to change to help bring about some kind of a shared future... But in loyalist areas that shared future is a frightening future... Because so many of the old certainties, the old sacreds have gone. And again we see many of the characteristics of loss as identified by Kubler-Ross:
DENIAL: See the rearguard action in defence of the 11+ by Unionist politicians, even though selection at 11 and the general attitude to education in loyalist areas results in a disproportionate disavantage to working(?)-class loyalist kids. (But more of that anon).
ANGER: see the demeanour of any Unionist politician, the violence following the postponed and re-routed Whiterock parade a few years ago and the venom that pours out of many loyalist areas when a microphone is put in front of them concerning anything affecting them...
BARGAINING: see the various economic package deals that have been cooked up for loyalist areas over years, including Renewing Communities and the late unlamented UDA/UPRG Conflict Transformation Initiative.
DEPRESSION: see the prescriptions doled out by Doctors in loyalist areas.
ACCEPTANCE: we're certainly not there yet!

In seeking to address the legacy of the last 40 and more years, as last week's Eames-Bradley report seeks to do... We cannot simply address the issue of individual loss... But the loss experienced, or at least perceived by entire communities.

Recently those working in the field of bereavement have tended to shy away from the work of Kubler-Ross, because it can tend to suggest a "stage"-based bereavement process (which is not what Kubler-Ross suggested). Instead, many people are looking at work like that of Robert Neimeyer, who suggest that instead of seeing bereavement as a process it should be seen as a story, and a "healthy" bereavement involves the integration of loss into a person's story without obsessing on it. This is helped by the integration of stories about the one who has been lost.

This, perhaps might be played out in helping loyalist/unionist communities address their losses. perhaps it already is, with gable ends "celebrating" the old certainties in the form of stories such as the Titanic and the Somme (although the problem is that both of those were glorious failures - metaphors for Northern Ireland?) Again, I may well return to this issue of these classic myths.

But we need to give some of the old certainties a decent burial... Perhaps the high rised buildings being erected in the Titanic Quarter are at one and the same time gravestones for an old way of life, and milestones on the road to a shared future.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Images of Evangelical Community Engagement

As someone from an evangelical perspective who has been involved in social engagement for years now... actually, probably the whole of my adult life, I am amazed that Christians and churches still need to be sold on the whole idea. I am also aghast at the fact that so many of my evangelical colleagues are only prepared to dabble in such activities if there is a clear pay-off in "souls saved." My own experience tells me that people in the wider world are not daft. If they think that we are trying to help them with their material needs only to have them come to church, or ultimately come to Christ, they will either run a mile, or shamelessly use us in the same way we have shamelessly used what they see as their most important needs as a means to hook them.

Rather, I argue, that whilst we should be open about why we engage in such activities (that we believe that God wants us to help people because he loves them) we must engage in the work with no hidden agenda, but simply because it is worthwhile in its own right.

Historically the "hidden agenda" approach has produced the so-called "rice Christians" of eastern mission work, or the "soup Protestants" of Irish famine relief... Both of which bring shame on the idea of a God of grace... I have previously referred to such initiatives as "Trojan horse" evangelism... Smuggle evangelism into an unsuspecting community in the form of a social programme.

But as of last week at the LINC consultation on work in loyalist communities, I have found an even more evocative phrase, thanks to Phillip Orr and his work on outreach in such communities, where he describes those who look on social engagement as "evangelistic foreplay..." All very nice, but not the main event...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Healing Spaces

Today the Consultative Group on the Past, otherwise known as the "Eames-Bradley" group, make their formal puplic presentation of their proposals, although huge chunks of their report has been systematically leaked, including the controversial proposal to give £12,000 as a recognition payment (not compensation) re each person who died as a result of the Troubles. The leaking of this proposal in particular has prompted much conspiracy theorising regarding the rationale: was it the NIO letting the cat out of the bag early, so that the obvious suspects would get on their high horses and kill this proposal stone dead, so that they wouldn't have to stump up for it, or was it the group itself, hoping that this controversial item would give them cover to get the more important items through without controversy.

What and whichever, I'm not going to engage in such a game (although it is good fun, and no-one will ever be proved wrong)... Nor am I going to comment on the proposals until I have seen all the details in black and white... All 100+ pages of them from what I hear.

I got an invitation to be there for the launch (though not as part of the Methodist delegation), but decided that I wouldn't, largely as I am supposed to be at the Re:Call retreat for Methodist Ministers in Sligo. For a while I was thinking about phoning the person who invited me and saying I would be there after all, as I really would like to be there to hear first hand what is said... But I was also worried about my motivations for being there: including egocentric pride about being there at what could well be a significant moment in the healing of hurts in this land, or not as the case may be.

But we've got to stop treating events like this, and the "peace process" as a whole as spectator sports. That particularly applies to the church, which has, in the past functioned, as it should to a certain extent, acted as a place of sanctuary for those affected by the troubles... But also where many of us could avoid the real issues of the troubles. If we are to experience any sort of healing of the past, and hope for the future, we as churches need to get involved, we need to live up to our calling as ministers of reconciliation, agents of Christ's healing. Indeed, as Nicholas Frayling, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, but who was studied the Northern Ireland situation extensively, suggests, the church should provide "healing spaces" where people of opposing perspectives may encounter one another and find a new, shared understanding of the past, and even more importantly, a shared future.

Next Tuesday at the Farset Centre in West Belfast, the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland is releasing a short booklet, which I have contributed to, entitled "Divided Past: Shared Future: Essays on Churches addressing the Legacy of the Troubles." One of the members of the "Eames-Bradley" group... Rev. Lesley Carroll will be offering her perspectives on it in the light of her recent experiences. But before I hear what she or the group of which she is a part have to say, I know that the "legacy of the Troubles" will not be addressed by the 100+ pages of their report or the 55 pages of the CCCI booklet, but only when we start to turn words into action.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Time to Stop Moping

As I wrote in my post on Burns night, last week I was away with a group of ministers and Christian community workers on a residential consultation concerning the nature of working in loyalist communities, such as our own in Ballybeen. The quality of the inputs was tremendous. Hats off to Derek Poole and the folks at the LINC Resource Centre for pulling it together, and to the various contributers. There was enough material to keep me blogging for months...

But one of the themes that we kept coming back to was the tendency within loyalist communities, and the pressure in community work in general, to focus on the negatives.

A while back there was collective rejoicing in our own community programme, Dundonald Family and Community Initiative... Why? Because one of the electoral wards that we serve had just broken through on the Noble Indices into the list of the 10% most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. Why the rejoicing? Because such a statistic potentially unlocked charitable and government funding, and that has borne fruit in the whole estate being granted "Area at Risk" Status, by the Department of Social Development, an investment programme aimed at addressing areas that potentially may be facing significant social and economic downturns.

But there is a degree to which this is one manifestation of what one participant at the consultation referred to as "the race to the bottom" that many community organisations in Northern Ireland are engaged in.

Another manifestation of this is the what David Stevens of Corrymeela refers to as the sport of "competitive victimhood." Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist communities have, over recent years, looked longingly at Catholic/Nationalist/Republican communities, seeing their ability to work together and garner both sympathy and finance, believing one of the key factors being their identity as "victims." This has led to the competition for what Phil Orr calls the label of MOPE... Most Oppressed People Ever; seeing ourselves as pariahs or perpetual scapegoats. Poor us. There are very genuine endemic problems in our communities, including lack of confidence, leadership, aspiration, entrepreneurial spirit and other factors (more of that later), but we should not wear these things like badges for the sake of a few (thousand) pounds of economic investment.

Such a race for last place is ultimately and definitively self-defeating. And those of us working in such environments, need to challenge funders and statutory authorities who, in their desire to help the most needy against a background of diminishing resources, seem to punish communities who have been successful in addressing local social issues... We need to stop focussing on the negatives and highlight the very real positives in such communities... Mapping assets rather than simply analysing needs. Focussing on hopes for the future rather than either high points or hurts of the past.

I am far from saying that such communities should seek to pull themselves up by their bootstraps... But we do need to stop moping...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lending a Hand

The BBC Breakfast programme early last week included a feature on a child who, at the age of 14 months lost her hands due to meningococcal septicaemia, and has been fitted with cybernetic hands. Twenty years ago this was sci-fi stuff, and as far as the NHS is concerned it may as well be, because it is not offered free on demand at the point of need, and probably cannot be because of the sheer cost £24,000 per pair of hands. And as she is still growing, this requires at least one pair per year. Indeed, it seemed to me that the pair she has at present clearly has some growing room in them... Any parent does that in buying clothes for their kids... The Cub jumper that we bought for Ciaran a few weeks ago drowns him because it was bought with 3 years wear in view. But you can't do that with shoes, much less arms.
Buying my kids' school shoes every August sends me into a spiral of despair. Especially when they are seriously scuffed within 3 days of the start of term. Her mother has organised all sorts of fundraisers, including a creative appeal to celebrities to "Lend a Hand:" auctioning casts of their hands to raise money. Unfortunately, I was watching the programme on the run and didn't catch the name of the child, and despite extensive googling I have not been able to find her name or the specific name of the appeal. If anyone out there can enlighten me and other readers I would be endebted...
However, it has also inspired me to organise a telethon next August for my children's shoes... Anyone willing to man the phones?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Birl for Burns

Posts have been a bit sparse this week due to being away for two days on a residential with some other folks from a churches and Christian community organisations who are working within a Loyalist context. I have spent the rest of the week catching up, and preparing for the fact that, my significant other has been away in Scotland over the weekend and I am away for 4 days this week on a compulsory "retreat" to Sligo with Methodist colleagues (bringing echoes of the phrase "to hell or Connaught!"). So I haven't had a lot of time to breathe never mind blog.

But today is Burn's Night, and a very special one. Because, as well as being the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his "Origin of the Species", this is also the 250th anniversary of the birth of the ploughman poet... Quite a year...

Now, like a number of those at the residential this past week, I don't have a lot of time for the "Ulster Scots" industry, in all its many factions, that has developed here in a half baked attempt to trump the republican-Gaelic industry... It is ill-concieved and makes claims for itself that far exceed fact. This means that genuine Ulster-Scottish links get written off as bogus.

But as my significant other has pointed out over at the Ministry of Traybakes, there has always been a real connection between Robert Burns and Ulster. Slugger O'Toole has flagged up a few local events in celebration of this link, and I would like to point those of you who haven't already come across it, to this little gem from last year, of Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney reading his own tribute to the work of Burns and the community that, until recently at least, continued to speak his tongue.
But of course, those who have followed this blog over the last month or so will expect nothing more than the best possible tribute to Burns... by the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre Company:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is Change Gonna Come?

Has there ever been an inauguration like it? Stupid question - answer no! Forgetting all the shattering of the "color-bar" stuff (as if you could) and the palpable sense of hope and expectation invested in him and the event itself, the sheer multi-platform coverage of the whole thing was mind-blowing... My poor little RSS feed couldn't keep up with everyone blogging about it (some more constructively than others)... Even the West Wing (the real one, not the comforting televisual one) has entered the blogosphere immendiately after the inauguration.
Also my email inbox was suddenly filled with emails from American friends who seemingly felt that they could emerge out of hiding and re-engage with the world now that their nation had regained a sense of pride in itself and vision for where it should be going. "I found myself singing the words of the National Anthem no longer embarrassed to be known as an American" wrote one... While more than one echoed MLK Jnr in saying “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, We’re Free At Last!”
Of course not all have been rejoicing... Some because of unreconstructed prejudice... Others because they are not convinced by his more left leaning politics (this of course is "left-leaning" in relative terms - American left, which is still to the right of just about everyone else bar dear old Maggie Thatcher... and to the left of his predecessor The Shrub, who, whether by personal conviction or because of the Cheney-gang that stood behind him, was just about as right as you could go in US domestic policy and in international policy too, with the notable, but not well-enough noted, exception of the development work his administration supported in Africa)... or perhaps, many are fearful that for all his fine wordsmanship, it may just be words and no real substance... just think of our own dear departed Tony Blair...
And it was for that last reason, I was glad that, while it was a great speech it was not the exercise in rhetorical gymnastics that some had predicted. (The full text is posted here, among countless other places, but I note this one because the writer of this blog has left us in no doubt as to how he feels about the changeover) He dodged the lazy evocation of Lincoln/FDR/Kennedy/King and avoided glib or empty rhetoric, but sought to address the real concerns of Americans and others listening around the world. But it was good to hear him affirm hope over fear… and note that he would not be sacrificing freedom for the sake of security… I would have preferred to hear him talking of America working in partnership with other nations rather than assuming a right to lead... Leaders, be they in world affairs, sports teams, or in any other form of human endeavour, are not simply the biggest, strongest or loudest... If others are to follow without coercion the role of leader is a position that must be earned... You would think that Obama himself would have realised that after what he has come through to arrive on the steps of the Capital Building. So if America is to lead the human race in the years to come, there is a bit of catching up to do still... But it is good to have them back in the running...
It wasn't just the speech that elicited comment (though I haven't heard anyone say yet that the poem was pants! It was as bad as something I would write!) The fluffing of the oath by both the President and Chief Justice John Roberts has elicited much comment, especially given that Senator Obama apparently voted against Judge Roberts' appointment. A commentator on BBC (whose commentary it must be said was almost as bad as the poem - facts wrong, intrusive, inane at times... I thought I was watching UTV)... but anyway, they noted the resonance in having Aretha Franklin, the descendent of African-American slaves, standing on the steps of the Capital built by such slaves, and singing “My Country 'Tis of Thee” with its exclamation "let freedom ring!" before the installation of an African American president... That truly was a symbol of the hope expressed by MLK Junior when he quoted the negro spiritual cited by my friends in their emails "Free at last!" He spoke those words in front of the Lincoln Memorial nearly 46 years ago... In other words it has almost taken the lifetime of Barrack Obama for that message to travel the length of the Mall. How long will it take to cross America with all its political and social divides, or encircle our hurting and hating world.
Mind you, let's also remember that “My Country 'Tis of Thee”, written to the tune of the British national anthem "God Save the King", was probably written as an exercise in calculated insult to America’s old colonial master, the King of England, lauding the freedom that the nation had so recently won from Britain, and affirming that God alone was King in the US… Given that Obama today quoted Thomas Paine’s “American Crisis” (Paine having been tried for treason in the English courts over his rebellious pamphleteering) where he described the Delaware expedition by George Washington, in speaking of " the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...” It reminds us again of America’s special relationship with Britain… ie we are America’s oldest enemy!!!!
So if such old enemies can become firm allies (though I hope that the UK will never again be the lap-dogs to the US that we were under the leadership of Bush and Blair) then perhaps Obama will be able to unite erstwhile enemies, both his own enemies at home and the many enemies of the USA overseas...

All the best big lad!
Let freedom ring!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

From Blue Monday to Red, White and Blue Tuesday

Yesterday was a travel agent's dream, indeed it could well have been dreamed up by travel agents in the first place in order to encourage people to book a holiday in the sun), because, we are told that it was statistically proven to be the most depressing day of the year, although we should always remember Mark Twain's dictum casting doubt on the veracity of statistics. "Blue Monday" it was dubbed by copywriters who had clearly lived through the most depressing decade in living memory (ie the 80s) with New Order as the backing track... It prompted a lot of lazy vox-pops on TV and radio news programmes. One particularly inane piece on UTV had a "Life Coach" suggesting that in order to escape the gloom and doom of yesterday (which the accompanying roving mike piece in the centre of Belfast did not support as everyone said they felt fine) we should think about all the good thinigs in our lives... Is there not a little children's chorus about "counting your blessings"? And people pay life coaches for that sort of stuff!? That would make me despair...

But actually, yesterday was a far from blue day for me (despite Liverpool drawing with Everton)...

After moaning in a pronounced fashion last week about the various things that had gone wrong this month, particularly in relation to cars, my faith in human nature was restored this week, when a young mechanic who had heard about my difficulties, volunteered to sort me out, costing me half of what my normal garage would charge.

Then this afternoon, after a tense few days waiting for word on an emergency grant to cover the salary of one of our community project workers, a quick phonecall to the appropriate person, resulted in them cutting through the red tape and sending the cheque straight to us...

I hadn't realised how tense both of these issues were making me until they were sorted... It was as if, despite the dark clouds and driving rain outside, the sun had come out and the only thing blue about the day was the sky...

Which moves me on to today... I feel that a large proportion of the watching world are waiting for the storm-clouds to roll back and the sun to start shining as Barack Obama is formally installed... as we move from blue Monday to Red, White and Blue Tuesday?

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Northern Irish O'Bama

I'm writing this before the inauguration speech on Tuesday, which is being anticipated like no other political event in my lifetime... I hope it is not a letdown, and more than that, I hope that it is not mere rhetoric and that what comes of it is not a letdown... although I suppose against the backdrop of the current economic and international mess that the Shrub and his neo-con and big business mates have left, things can only get better... Although didn't someone come into power to that refrain about a decade or so ago!?

I'm sure there will be plenty of comment AFTER Tuesday, but what I'm reflecting on here is not so much the words and (hopefully) the actions that flow from them, but rather the man and the movement for change that he represents... Barack Obama has managed to position himself as the embodiment of a desire for change... Part of this is due to the skils of his team in using new media to court financial support and get out the vote amongst a demographic who until this election were increasingly apathetic... turning their backs on established politics. If they were involved in politics previously it was on special interest or local topics, but the vast majority had simply walked away from the democratic (small d) machine to get on with their lives.

Two weeks ago I was involved in a discussion with a small group of people who were bemoaning the growth of this self-disenfranchised group here in Northern Ireland... A middle class suburban/semi-rural group who haven't voted in ages and have progressively disengaged from wider civic society, particularly as many of them are also retiring from jobs in the public sector... But also a working class group who are increasingly frustrated at the lack of product for them and their communities by any of the established political parties... This seems to be more pronounced on the Protestant/Unionist side, but that perception could be down to ignorance on the part of that group, who on this occasion were all Protestants.

A few years ago everyone on Northern Ireland was looking for local versions of Mandela and De Klerk to lead us to a new reconciled future... Despite some attempts to portray themselves as such by Hume/Adams and Trimble/Papa Doc at various times, none has really fitted the bill... Nor should they... Mandela and De Klerk were functions of their place and time... Sometimes responding out of an almost transcendent vision, sometimes responding pragmatically... Our leaders were, equally products of our local situation... My only annoyance was the emphasis on pragmatism and the lack of a clearly articulated shared vision.

It is clear now that the political paradigms that have served us in the past here (perhaps ill-served us, but have certainly dominated relationships) are ill-fitted to lead us into the future. The rhetoric of nationalism of whatever hue, is might sell in some quarters but it will not be the rallying point for those who have progressively given up on democracy. We need a new paradigm... Perhaps the Ulster Unionists are being more realistic in teaming up with Cameron et al, even if it leaves left leaning Unionists with no-where to go but the PUPs, which will never be acceptible to some... The immediate future of political dialogue in this province of ours is not going to be primarily constitutional, but economic... It will largely be left-right, rather than green-orange... I also believe that, as with Barack Obama and Jim Wallis in the US, faith needs to have a role, but a radically different role in public and political life here. But no-one is really breaking cover from the current political and religious establishment to say that... Are they too comfortable within the over-resourced political system that we have, with more MLAs than there are in the Senate of the USA? Or are they too fearful of what will happen if they dare to say that the Emperor really has no clothes?

Just as I believe that we didn't need a Northern Irish Mandela and De Klerk ten years ago, I don't believe we need a Northern Irish Obama now. But we DO need a clearly articulated vision for a new Northern Ireland and someone to articulate it... And people prepared to give that someone the political cover to do so...

Any nominations? Any takers?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Memories are Made of This

Just got about as wet as I have ever been with my clothes on yesterday, standing watching Ulster play Harlequins at rugby in the pouring rain and a howling gale. It was so bad that the temporary stand at one end of Ravenhill was evacuated because organisers feared that it might just blow away. But despite the weather (and perhaps because of it) it was one of the best afternoons I have had recently, in what has been a pretty annoying week/month... And although Ulster won (21-10 I think) it had little to do with the score.

No - it was good because it was something that I shared with my son... my eldest son Owain... Indeed, he had arranged it... I had tried to ge tickets earlier in the month but it was sold out, then a few days ago he heard that one of his rugby team-mates had a couple of tickets he couldn't use, and asked if I wanted to buy them... So thanks to him we spent two hours getting wet and freezing cold on a rugby terrace...

But it reminded me how few things we do together these days... Years ago, when he was only small he asked me what games I played with my Dad, to which I said "None." I only remember going to the swimming pool once with my Dad, skipping with him and other members of the family on a family picnic in Castlewellan and interminable bad-tempered games of cards on wet caravan holidays... Putting me off Northern Ireland caravan holidays for life... My Dad was from that generation who believed that the man's job was to provide for his family... Not waste time playing... He was also significantly older when I arrived, so he probably didn't have the same energy to spend on me as he had with my two older brothers, although I suspect that their memories may be similar.

During the summer that was past we did some amazing things with the boys on our trip to the US, like visit Niagara Falls, go for a Dune ride and drive a speed boat on a local lake. At the time I remember thinking that "Memories are made of this!" and that the boys would treasure this forever... But yesterday I realised that the sun doesn't have to be shining to lay down lasting memories... It just takes time...

I am already aware that Owain & I do less together than we used to. But then he is a teenager with different priorities in life. Like sleeping. Also I physically do less with my younger son Ciaran than I used to with Owain. That is partly down to me being older and more tired... But it is also down to the fact that I am also significantly busier than I used to be... Some of that is inevitable, but some I have brought on myself, and I am becoming less convinced that it is worthwhile... And that it is my family that are paying the price...

The old Harry Chapin song, "Cats in the Cradle" echoes in my head... I don't want to be just like my Dad in my children's memories...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Competition for Worst Month of My Life Award

You just have them sometimes. Weeks, months or even years that you would like to not only eradicate from your memory, but also ceremoniously delete from all the world's diaries and calendars just to make sure that you would never, ever be reminded of them.

September 2002 was one of those for me. I should have seen what was coming when I came out of church on the first of September turned the key in the ignition of my car and nothing happened… It took a new starter motor at £140 to sort things out.
Then during the next week I was working in my study and heard howling from downstairs only to go down and find that my eldest son Owain had fallen off his bike and had split his chin open. I took him to hospital only to find that he had also broken his left arm.
The next Monday I woke up feeling not quite right… My skin was tingling all over… and my joints were aching. I went to the Doctor’s to be told that I might have shingles, but that he couldn’t tell until any rash came out… But that whatever it was I needed to get straight to bed… I did so… But the next morning I got a phone call from Sally to tell me that the car had broken down again while she was taking Owain to school, leaving them stranded in the middle of a busy junction. I phoned the garage that had fixed the car before and they came and towed it away…
This time it was a broken accelerator cable… Another £60 for the part, plus towing charges and time, if you please… Meanwhile, that afternoon, we got a phone call from Owain’s school. He had tripped over someone else’s feet in the playground (later we found out that this was while he was playing football with his arm in a cast!) and had hurt his other hand… Another trip to the hospital to find that he had broken a finger.
But we were all well enough and the car was fixed in time for us to go to Scotland on the Thursday for my wife’s brother’s wedding… But we arrived in Scotland to find that Owain had forgotten to bring his shoes with him and we had to buy him a new pair for the wedding. Then he tripped over a wall (trying to jump over it with a broken arm and finger) and managed to split his lip open.
Then we discovered on the Friday morning that our other son Ciaran had been sick in his cot. Only something that disagreed with him we thought… Until, during the journey from Sally’s mum’s in Prestwick up to Arisaig in the highlands where the wedding was, first Owain, then I and then Sally all started to get sick… We spent the whole of Friday night in our hotel room, throwing up and running to the toilet… We woke on the day of the wedding feeling slightly better only to find out that we had infected Sally’s sister, and her aunt and two cousins… later the bride’s sister and brother in law and the best man all succumbed. The wedding photos are the most miserable you have ever seen in your lives.

I was never so glad to see a month end as that September.

But this month is shaping up nicely... Happy New Year!

So far we have experienced running out of heating oil on the coldest night of the year... Then a number of car-related annoyances. Some nice person side-swiped the front of my car in the hospital car park, scraping and denting the front passenger side panel and bumper. Then Sally's one car needed a new clutch... before my wonderful wife went off to a residential with both sets of keys for that car, only for me to turn the ignition key on my own car last night (in a rush to get my second son, Ciaran, to Beavers for his "swimming up" ceremony into Cubs which he had been looking forward to for weeks) and find no response... A nice RAC man came (after I discovered that last year we had downgraded our cover from comprehensive to roadside assistance, and unless I was prepared to push my car a quarter of a mile to be outside the "at home" limit, I would have to stump up cash to upgrade it) and managed to get it started with a hammer! (I kid you not... after using all kinds of electronic gizmos to diagnose the problem, he hit the starter motor with a ball-pein hammer and it spluttered into life) But I'll have to get a new starter motor... Which is exactly where September 2002 began...

But let's be thankful here. So far there haven't been any broken limbs (although that is always a possibility with my eldest son, and given that he is playing Inst at rugby tomorrow, that likelihood increases manyfold). We have also (so far) escaped the many flus and gastric bugs doing the rounds... And given that I spend a fair percentage of my week surrounded by such people in hospital that is no mean feat...

We have also, in both September 2002 and this month, and whenever we have experienced difficulties of one kind or another, been surrounded by genuinely helpful people who have been willing to go the extra mile (sometimes literally) for us. Although it has to be said that one of the "good Samaritans" in 2002, indirectly caused some of our anguish... Seeing my wife Sally broken down with the snapped accelerator cable, a girl who knew her stopped and kindly took Owain to school, before coming back to take Ciaran off her hands as well, taking him to mother and toddlers with her while Sally waited for the tow truck. However, it was apparently at Mothers and Toddlers that Ciaran contracted the gastro-enteritis that subsequently devastated Sally's brother's wedding, from a child who had been throwing up for 2 days, but whose mother brought him along anyway!!!

So I think we have a way to go to compare with September 2002... We breathed a sigh of relief on the 1st of October that year... Only to quickly to learn that trouble is not confined to calendar months, because exactly one week later my Father died...

But just as trouble is not portioned out according to months of the year, neither is the grace of God... And whatever difficulties we face... even when we bring them on ourselves... God's grace is more than sufficient for us... It is extended to us in the care of others, and in other inward assurances of God's guarding, guiding, supporting and sustaining presence...

That is why the prophet Habbakkuk in the face of national and natural disaster that far outstrips my personal problems, says:
Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
Habakkuk 3:2-18 (ANIV)

Is that a word for the world today in the midst of the doom, misery, no hope and despair of the economic downturn? Or would Habakkuk be as roundly castigated as Baroness Vadera was in speaking of "green shoots of recovery"?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Words... Words... Words...

Pointless little piece of techno-gimickry... Virtual Methodist as encapsulated in Thankyou Random Moos for forcing me to waste 10 minutes of my life!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Corrie Cross Controversy

Just as in the time of Paul writing to the Corinthians, the cross is seen as a stumbling block... (See I Corinthians 1 verse 18)
Hot on the heels of the story about the church that decided to take down a sculpture of Jesus on the cross outside the building, comes a story today about a wedding scene in the ITV soap Coronation Street where the cross inside the sanctuary where it was being filmed was hidden for fear that it might offend some viewers. They had originally asked for it to be taken down completely but found it was bolted to the communion table, so, instead they obscured it by an elaborate candelabra and flowers . I might stop watching in protest, if it weren't for the fact that I stopped watching around 25 years ago.

A spokesperson for Corrie says "we chose the church because the characters of Molly and Tyrone wanted a traditional religious church wedding service in a quintessentially English church" - without a quintessentially Christian symbol of course! Needless to say this has sparked a lot of anti-immigrant comments, because, of course it is all the Muslim and Hindu immigrants who are flooding the media with complaints about Christian symbols in churches on TV. I can't wait to see what the headline writers in those bastions of Christianity, the British tabloids, make of this...

But actually it's rarely people of other faiths that have the problem, nor those who have a coherent opposition to organised religion... But rather those wishy-washy "I'm not religious, but I am spiritual and why can't we all just get on together because we're all the same really, and that cross isn't really important to you is it, but it is likely to cause offence to 0.00001% of our viewers for the nano-second that it is in shot" brigade...

In many ways the experience of this Coronation Street wedding is similar to many experiences that I have had "negotiating" with photographers, videographers and florists in the run up to weddings (and lets not even go near my experience of the "mistress of ceremonies" that I had at the wedding I officiated at in Grand Rapids in the summer... I still haven't gotten over the trauma of that!). More than one has asked me to move lecterns, Bibles, baptismal fonts, and even the communion table on one occasion. All have been graciously but firmly resisted. None have (yet) asked me to remove a cross, but it is only a matter of time.

Had I been the Rector of St. Mary's in Nether Alderney, Cheshire where the episode in question was being filmed, I think I might just have done a "Jesus in the temple" on them, but given the minutiae of the filming contracts you have to sign in advance of these things (we had a film crew on site earlier in the year ourselves) he probably didn't have a leg to stand on...

The Rector's response is that he is going to use the entire £4,600 fee on a hand crafted silver processional cross... And there is a certain poetic justice in that, although I wince at such a sum being used for something that doesn't take the Kingdom of God any further than the front door of the church, but rather will be carried round in circles within the church walls. A symbol of the fact that while we honour the cross inside the walls, the rest of the world hasn't a clue what it is really all about.

Time that we started to articulate clearly what it is about... not simply an optional piece of church furnishing (with or without attached Son of God), or a piece of jewellery worn to prompt religious discimination litigation (with or without attached precious or semi precious stones), but a symbol of the place where time and eternity, justice and mercy met... And God opened his arms to us, as a groom opens his arms to his bride...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What's the Point in a 25 Year Guarantee?

I've reached the stage in life where there is definitely more in the rearview mirror than there is on the road ahead! Frankly that doesn't worry me as it is quality, not quantity that counts... And scripture teaches me that there is a whole stretch of road that I can't yet see...

But today as Sally and I were having a quick bite to eat in IKEA (another sign of my age!) the voice on the PA announced that all IKEA mattresses come with a 25 year guarantee, to which I said (in a statement aimed at winding up my wife) "Not much point in that for me! I'll be dead before I get full value out of it..."

Then I came home to find that Will Crawley had posted a link to a life expectancy calculator developed by Boston School of Medicine, and according to it I can legitimately expect to get full value out of a mattress with a 34 year guarantee! But then, it predicts that William Crawley will have a life expectancy of 89, so either he lied significantly more on the questionaire than I did, or it is seriously screwy!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The 10 Amendments

A dialogue written for a new series on the Ten Commandments, with apologies to Riding Lights and countless other groups and writers who have written similar pieces:

Voice 1: I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other Gods before me.
Voice 2: For a good hour or so every Sunday...
Voice 1: You shall not make for yourself an idol...
Voice 2: Various exemptions include, money, material goods and your favourite football team...
Voice 1: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain...
Voice 2: Except when you fall over and smash something really valuable...
Voice 1: Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy...
Voice 2: To keep it wholly free from anything you don’t really want to do…
Voice 1: Honour your father and your mother...
Voice 2: Until they become impossibly senile.
Voice 1: Do not kill...
Voice 2: Your friends... Unless you've got a really good reason, a reasonable alibi and a decent lawyer.
Voice 1: Do not commit adultery...
Voice 2: Unless it really is true love this time.
Voice 1: Do not steal
Voice 2: It's so demeaning, and anyway, sharp businessmen never call it that nowadays...
Voice 1: Do not lie
Voice 2: If being economical with the truth can achieve the same results.
Voice 1: Do not covet...
Voice 2: But that only applies to your neighbour's ass... Nothing to do with wanting to get your hands on his Beemer... Nothing to do with keeping up with the Joneses and everyone else in the street...
Voice 1 You must love the Lord your God and keep his commandments...
Voice 2 Well, 4 out of 10 would be good...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Can I have My Kidney Back?

Yesterday I picked up the story of Dr. Richard Batista's strange petition in his divorce case with his wife Dawnell: the notional value of the kidney he donated to her in 2001, before she allegedly had an affair and broke his heart. The cost of a broken heart and missing kidney: $1.5 million.

However, the conclusion to the story in the New York Local Daily News, says that if he had to donate the kidney all over again he would, recalling a visit to her room on the day after surgery:

"There was no greater feeling on this planet," he said. "As God is my witness, I felt as if I could put my arm around Jesus Christ. I was walking on a cloud."

Well, God is his witness and probably he is the only one who knows the truth about the whole story, but the reference to Jesus Christ, reminds me that because of his love he gave up his ethereal existence wandering around on clouds(?) and came to earth, to give up, not just a kidney, but his whole life for his bride, the church.

Let us thank God that despite our unfaithfulness Christ doesn't want to take back what he has given to us... But that is the nature of real love... It isn't lavished on those who deserve it... It is unconditional.

In the meantime, beware of who you give your heart, or your kidney to...

Friday, January 9, 2009

ps from Mr. Buonarroti

After posting the previous rant in the middle of the night, I came across this quote whilst catching up on some of my filing... its from a certain Michelangelo Buonarroti, who probably knows more about religious art than I do. He apparently got a bit indignant with his fellow artists who were forever depicting Christ dead on the cross. he said:

"Paint him instead as Lord of life. Paint him with his kingly feet planted on the stone which held him in the tomb!"

OK... Michelangelo didn't necessarily follow his own advice (which of us does), but it is a useful corrective!

Don't Frighten the Children...

I come from a church tradition that doesn't often have crucifixes with figures of Jesus on them, preferring an empty cross (whether that be because of an emphasis on the completeness of the atonement, a wariness of breaking the second commandment, or a simple tendency to be different from the Catholics... actually, even a cross is at times regarded as a wee bit "papist"... I am told that when our current church building was erected only 40 years ago there was a resistance by some to having any cross inside the sanctuary or outside the building). With that in mind I am wary of criticising Rev. Ewen Souter, the Vicar of St. John's Church, Broadridge Heath in West Sussex, who recently had the figure of Christ removed from the cross outside his church to avoid putting off people coming inside or frightening children, a story which has been picked up on elsewhere (including here, and in limerick form here), and which, doubtless, will be keeping right wing copywriters in business for days...

I have said elsewhere that I have problems with unduly focusing on the physical agony of the crucifixion... The scriptures don't, but then they were written at a time when such brutality was a fact of life, indeed physical cruelty was a form of entertainment, be it in the circus or on the execution ground... We are a little more refined... we prefer our gore in celluloid form... Where even if it is excessive, be that in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Passion of the Christ, we know that the actors involved all survived to die another day...

But I do have two problems with this:

1) If the crucifixion of Christ is central to our faith, once we have placed a representation of him on that cross in the public eye, we need to be very careful about what we are percieved to be saying in removing him. The symbolism is telling... Simply to say that it is being done to take into account the sensitivities of people (including children) speaks of a Christianity that wants to run away from the core of the gospel and the messiness of human life and death that Jesus actually came to identify with. A nice Christianity... Apparently the crucifix in question has been taken down in order to be replaced in the near future by a steel cross with rays of light eminating from it's centre reminding us that Jesus died a horrific death on the cross, but is now raised from the dead. This is entirely valid... but why not make the actual replacement a true "good news" story... Do it at Easter, when the very act relates the good news, rather than serving as an example of the church going all wishy-washy and pc...

2) The thought that such a figure alone was keeping people from flocking through the doors of the church is entirely deluded. Instead of tidying up the shopwindow and expecting people to come inside, they would be better placed going outside the doors and doing what Christ on his cross was doing. Seeking to redeem the world through incarnation and identifying with us in our sin, suffering and death. Not trying to avoid the gory side of the gospel, but showing how the gospel relates to the messy world we live in. Jesus is not to be found nailed to a cross, but both among the poor and marginalised, and in his people the church... The sacrifice we need to show the world is not in a piece of sculpture of dubious merit, but in acting as Christ's body, serving him in the world at large.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

My Tiny Jesus

In a blog on "BitemyBible", a site which monitors Biblical references in modern media, there was reference today to the "My Tiny Jesus" site, where "absolutely anyone can put their words into the mouth of the Saviour."

The thing is, we've been doing that for years... Now we've just found a technological way of doing it! It brought to mind the book by Martin Wroe et al "101 Things Jesus Never Said" which included such statements as "Blessed are the tee-totallers," "If there is one thing I can't stand it's adultery" and "Time's a great healer". Its a shame its not still in print... we could add another 101 or more!

The figure of Jesus they use on the site seems to be another version of the Jesus Action Figure portrayed here, which I have, still in mint condition in its plastic packaging sitting on my study shelf... An appropriate place to keep him. Where he can't get damaged. Along with multiple copies of the Bible... They're safer on the shelf too... Safer for them and for me...
Half a century ago J.B. Philips famously wrote the book, also sadly out of print, entitled "Your God is too Small..." I don't think that he's got any bigger over the years. Certainly my Jesus is tiny... Certainly in comparison to the cosmic Christ described in Colossians 1.
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."
Colossians 1:15-20 (ANIV)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Faith in Evolution

As well as being the 500th Anniversary of the birth of John Calvin this year it is also the 200th Anniversary of Charles Darwin, and the 150th Anniversary of his publication of his "On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection" (a snappy title if ever there was one!).

A Methodist studying Calvin's Institutes may be a strange phenomenon, but some would believe that an evangelical studying Behavioural and Evolutionary Genetics, which was the the subject of my honours dissertation in my primary degree, is even more bizarre. I am increasingly dismayed by the tendency within evangelicalism (particularly in America and Northern Ireland) to hold to literal belief in the Genesis creation stories (even though the accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 are "literally" contradictory) and "scientific" creationism, as a touchstone of "soundness". Add to that the tendency of evolutionists such as Dawkins (whose "selfish gene" theory was core to my undergraduate studies) to see faith as the enemy of science, and I sometimes feel that I am standing in a metaphysical no-man's land, often feeling myself to have more in common with faith's harshest critics than with fellow evangelicals.

With that in mind it was a real joy to come across a programme in BBC 4s "Beyond Belief" series, wherein 3 thinkers from the main monotheistic faiths (including Belfast born and avowed evangelical Alister McGrath) reiterated the fact that historically literal creationism has not been a major feature of any of their respective faiths. It is a modern phenomenon, which has become exacerbated by a reaction to secularism in general and secular science in particular. But, again, the fact that this was an exercise in inter-faith dialogue would lead to a lot of despairing head-shaking among some of my more conservative colleagues.

If you would like to listen to the programme, however, it is available on BBC's "this programme will self-destruct in 7 days" iPlayer, but thankfully is also available in the Beyond Belief archive.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Celebration of Calvin (and Hobbes)

2009 is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Jean Cauvin, indeed, I share a birthday with him. He is of course better known in the English-speaking world as John Calvin.

There are various events planned in both the physical and virtual world to celebrate this momentous event, which has helped to shape the theological landscape of the western world, and to a large extent the political and social landscape too, for good and ill.

Ben Myers suggests "So why don’t you join in the fun, and read Calvin’s Institutes this year!" He is referring to the generous offer by Princeton Theological Seminary of experiencing daily tidbits from his Institutes of Religion throughout the incoming year, but having studied this document in a Northern Irish Presbyterian theological college, this particular Methodist is probably not going to join in the fun...

My studies did suggest to me, however, that the Calvin of conservative Northern Irish Calvinism, is a gross misrepresentation. His emphasis on the sovereign grace of God does not come across as the act of a capricious deity appointing an elect who are thereafter elevated over other damned and damnable sinners, but the truly amazing and undeserved act of a loving God.

I still have problems with his limited view of the atonement and the fact that his writings about a gracious God, still allowed him to act in a less than gracious way to heretics such as Michael Servetus (ie burning them! Although to be fair to Calvin, first Servetus wasn't too gracious to him in the first place, and second Calvin petitioned for Servetus to be decapitated rather than burned at the stake).

I am also, it should be said, not a huge fan of systematic theology at all. I have always felt that systematic theology is to faith and theology in general, what butterfly collecting and classification is to natural history. The reduction of something beautiful and living to something ordered yet dead. The word Theology literally means "God Words" and systematic theologians try to capture God in words on a printed page (or now, online). They are wonderful exercises in consistent logic. However, when God wanted to tell us what he was like, the words he used were not in a book of closely reasoned logic, but of stories, and ultimately in the Word made flesh. My fear is that ultimately systematic theologians turn the Word made flesh, back into words again. Bind them up closely in a book, because that is more controllable. As such I sometimes feel that systematic theology, of whatever hue or bias often has more to do with human logic than the eternal Logos. Instead of one living word, they offer thousands of multi-syllabic written ones

My suspicions about systematic theologians is probably best summed up by that other Calvin... as drawn by Bill Watterstone... in his attitude to writing in general, as portrayed in the cartoon above (See also here).

Actually, I was surfing the net for info on the Anniversary of John Calvin when I was delighted to encounter this "Theology of Calvin and Hobbes." (See also) To a large extent it falls into exactly the same excessively wordy problems of all systematic theologies, but there are a few more laughs to be had in this than in most of the other "theologies" I have studied.

So I think I might dip in there from time to time over the coming year, rather than the "Institutes" as there is probably more fun to be had careering down a snowy slope on a taboggan with Calvin and Hobbes than there is following the Princeton series... ,
And whether Jean Cauvin would approve I neither know nor care.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pray It If You dare

Why am I a Methodist? Partly a historical accident involving a bus-strike... partly an emphasis on evangelism AND social action... partly the hymns of Chuck Wesley... But a huge part is the service that I will lead tomorrow with fear and trembling... The Covenant Service.

The first Methodist Covenant Service was based on an idea by Richard Alleine, and was apparently held under the leadership of John Wesley on Monday 11th August 1755, at the French church at Spittalfields in London, with 1800 people present (although JW is widely believed to exagerate his estimates of people attending his events). Wesley published "Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God" in 1780 and from that time the people called Methodists have celebrated this service... Usually on the first Sunday in January, but rarely with the large numbers associated with that first service. Indeed, in many churches it is the worst attended service of the year. First because it is the last week-end of the winter holidays, second because congregations vote with their feet in the face of the promises they are invited to make.

Thankfully we do not undertake the fulfillment of these promises in our own strength, but are entirely dependent on the grace of God in the Holy Spirit.

Traditionally the minister leading the service invites the congregation to renew their covenant with God in these or similar words:

Beloved in Christ,
let us again claim for ourselves this covenant which God has made with his people,
and take upon us the yoke of Christ.
This means that we are content that he appoint us our place and work,
And that he himself be our reward.

Christ has many services to be done:
Some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach;
some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own.
let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.

The congregation then responds in these (or similar) words. Pray them if you dare:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.