Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Friday, February 27, 2009

A New Force in the Land

So the Conservatives and Ulster Unionist Party have finally confirmed what has been mooted since late last year, that is that they will fight elections in Northern Ireland on a joint ticket and under a new name. It has fallen short of all out merger, in a bid to prevent those not of a right wing tendency from breaking away, but for me it still raises the question of who left-leaning supporters of the union should vote for.

Apparently a lot of the discussions in the run-up to the announcement involved the use of the word "Ulster" in the name that this new "civil partnership" (since it isn't a marriage) will operate under. And yet after all their discussions the best they could come up with is the 'Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force'. Could I respectfully suggest that they might have spent less time debating the first word in this title and a bit of thought on the last.

"Force" conjures up either images of Jedi Knights (and although Sir Reg looks increasingly like Yoda I don't think that is a helpful association) or an organisation that is geared up for conflict. Whilst Cameron and Empey may be wanting to galvanize their troops for electoral battle, I'm not sure that we need another force in the land, be it a Ulster Volunteer Force, a Third Force or a New Force...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Is Forgiveness Cheesy?

I doubt that many readers of this blog would have celebrated last Sunday as "Cheese Sunday" or "Cheese-fare Sunday." For all you West Wing viewers, it has nothing to do with the "Big Block of Cheese Day." For all those who don't know what I am talking about ignore that last sentence. But were you members of the Orthodox Tradition then, last week being the Sunday before Lent, Cheese Sunday is what you would have celebrated, since it was the last Sunday you could have enjoyed cheese before Easter... I think that would stretch me as much as giving up technology.

During the liturgy they traditionally read the instructions in Matthew’s Gospel concerning fasting, in Matthew 6: 16-8. But they also read the two verses immediately before that, the verses after Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer which say:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Matthew 6:14-15 (ANIV)

Because these verses precede the verses on fasting they take seriously the issue of forgiveness as part of their preparation for their own forty day fast, and so the last Sunday before Lent is not only known as “Cheese Sunday” but also "Forgiveness Sunday."

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the publication of the Report by the Consultative Group on Dealing with the Past here in Northern Ireland, the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland published a book of two essays entitled "Divided Past: Shared Future." I contributed the first of those, looking at the role that forgiveness has to play in dealing with the past.

In the weeks since then I have had a number of very flattering comments (including one by an anonymous American student who came up to me in St. George's Market... thus deeply embarassing my son Owain who was with me)... but also a few comments writing off the whole concept of forgiveness as "whitewashing evil" or little more than selling "motherhood and apple pie" or another means of putting the cost of reconciliation on the shoulders of victims. I would humbly suggest that a second reading (or actually a first) would put paid to those accusations.

Forgiveness is not easy. Even with the little that I have had to forgive others in my life, it has never been easy. To forgive some of the atrocities of the past 40 years in this province must be nigh on impossible.

Two years ago Roberto Malasi was convicted of the second of two horrifc murders in the course of a fortnight in September 2005: one the shooting of Zainab Kalokoh whilst cradling a baby at a christening; the second the stabbing of Ruth Okechukwu, a student nurse, supoosedly for disrespecting him in a phone call to a friend. In a radio interview after the conviction, her father, Ben, a pastor, paid tribute to his daughter, but then said:
"As a man of God, I feel sorry for him and I forgive him because he has no sense of belonging."
Ben Okechukwu

But his wife Pauline said she cannot forgive her daughter's killer, saying
"He has not only taken Ruth's life, he has taken my life as well."
Pauline Okechukwu

Do ministers find it easier to forgive than mere mortals? Of course not. The year before the Okechukwu interview, another minister, this time a Bristol vicar called Julie Nicholson announced that she intended to step down from her role as a local parish minister because she found it impossible to forgive those who were responsible for her daughter Jennifer’s death in the London bombings of July 7th 2005.
Forgiveness is not something glib and easy, and it is no easier for a minister than anyone else. How would I respond if something so horrendous happened to either of my boys? Would I respond like Ben or like Pauline Okechukwu… Would my inability to forgive restrict my ability to minister to others as with Julie Nicholson… Or, like Gordon Wilson in the wake of Enniskillen, would I find a whole new sphere of ministry open up to me because I was able to publicly forgive those who harmed those nearest to me…
Yet Gordon Wilson was not without his critics… How dare he forgive his daughter Marie’s death! Only God can forgive sins, and then only when a sinner has repented… And those terrorists were unrepentant sinners… I am told that his wife Joan had difficulties with his very public pronouncement of forgiveness.
Nothing raises the hackles of people more than the issue of forgiveness… And that is because we ALL have difficulties with it… Because we ALL both need forgiveness and need to forgive…
The real work of forgiveness is not in the public eye, or in a statement made to a reporter who has stuck a microphone in front of you when you are feeling at your most raw. It is in the day to day interaction of ordinary people… hurting one another and being hurt; and choosing what to do with that hurt… It is not something to deal with one Sunday in the year… It is a day and daily thing… That is why in the Lord’s prayer it comes after asking God to give us daily bread… we ask him to forgive as we forgive…

But whilst it is something that we need to do on a daily basis, I believe that, given our particular history, we could very usefully adopt the concept of Forgiveness Sunday, into the Irish liturgical year. Maybe that might be a unique contribution that we as churches could make to dealing with the past.

I don't often drop in adverts for upcoming events in this blog, but given the subject I will make an exception. On Wednesday 4th March from noon- 1.00pm the Irish School of Ecumenics (683 Antrim Road, Belfast, BT15 4EG) are running a seminar by Dr. David Toombs entitled "The Christian Offer of Forgiveness." I am informed that all are welcome, but places are limited, so if you plan to go please reply as early as possible to Caroline Clarke at the ISE (Belfast). Tel (028) 9077 0087 or email

But in the meantime here are a few diverse quotes on the subject of forgiveness. I trust you won't find them too cheesy:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we
confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:8-9

To err is human; to forgive, infrequent.
Franklin P. Adams

Forgiveness is almost a selfish act because of its immense benefits to the one who forgives.
Lawana Blackwell

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
Mohandas K. Gandhi

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
Oscar Wilde

Forgiveness is the key which unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.
Corrie Ten Boom

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Paul of Tarsus. Ephesians 4:32

"Father, forgive them...."
Jesus. Luke 23:34

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not so Lo-Tec Lent

Way back in October last year I dangled a tantalising lure in the virtual pond, asking if anyone was interested in trying a "Lo-Tec Lent."

Didn't have many takers... Tho' I have noted that some others are giving up blogging...

However, Lent has sort of sneaked up on me, and so, feebly, I am not taking up the challenge myself this year...

Going to try giving up being a miserable curmudgeon instead... Anyone want to take bets on how long that will last?

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Road from Slavery to Freedom

Another piece I wrote back in 2004 but adapted for use in a retreat last week.

From slavery to freedom:
A long road through the desert.
No short-cuts but
Made longer by a lack of trust
And a longing for the past;
Pots of meat at the end of a day...
Ah! The good old days…
It may have been slavery,
but at least you got your supper.

But despite their disobedience
and their grumbling
You travelled with us.
We thought we carried you in a box
But you carried us in the palm of your hand
You provided for us
You protected us
You fought for us
Stood behind us to guard our backs
Went ahead of us to blaze the trail
You pitched your tent in our midst.

A tent
Not a temple
But a tent
A temporary stopping place
On the long road
From slavery to freedom.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Let's Dance

I don't dance - so don't ask me. My poor wife has only ever had a handful of dances out of me in the course of our 22 year relationship, and the current crop of "celebrity" (oh how I hate that term) dance shows is not going to change that...

The latest is "Lets Dance" where celebritys with nothing better to do are booked to humiliate themselves in front of the nation performing iconic dances from screen history. It's all in aid of Comic Relief, so I suppose that tells us how seriously we're supposed to take it, but I bet it will only be a week or two before there is yet another "BBC phone vote scandal!"

Anyway, through a combination of accident and design I managed to "miss" last night's offering, and I shall endeavour to do the same throughout its run... But the reason it has stuck in my consciousness and made it into this blog at all is the fact that I've been reading the late Dennis Lennon's book on prayer entitled "Fuelling the Fire" as part of our church "book group" list for this year. In it he draws on the ancient (Antiochene) idea of perichoresis, or each person of the Trinity intimately permeating each other. Many Christian writers have been exploring this idea in recent years: from heavyweights like Moltmann and Wolff, through to William P. Young in the ubiquitous "Shack". But for me the most helpful dimension of Lennon's use of this imagery is in describing it as being as if the Trinity is engaged in an eternal dance with each other. As I have suggested elsewhere, this dance is not an intense, exclusive tango, but a joy-filled country dance where the three "partners" dosey-doe around each other.

And, suggests Lennon, prayer, through Jesus Christ, is the means by which we too can join in that dance...

Are you dancing?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Travelling On

I thought my travelling days were done… I’d had enough upheaval in my life… moving with my family from the centre of civilization to what I saw then as the sticks… Syria… Haran… But still it was a city… and I was a city boy… who grew into a city man… and was settling down to spend the rest of my days there… Surrounded by familiar faces… familiar places… familiar gods… Gods cast in gold and silver or carved from stone and wood, all around the city in shrines and temples… and miniature ones in our own house watching over us day and night with their cold eyes.
And under their gaze I had prospered. I had everything I could possibly need in this world… Or nearly everything… My wife Sarai and I had no sons… not even a daughter, to pass on my wealth to, but we were happy…
Then everything changed… When God spoke… Not one of our tame household gods… Idols without voices… Gods that we had made… But this was the voice of the God who had made us…
At first everyone thought I was mad… At first I thought I was mad… It was bad enough to think I was hearing the voice of God… but the things this God was saying were worse… That he would make my family into a great nation… Me, an old man with no sons to carry on my family name! That I should leave my father’s house and go who knows where! Crazy!
Crazy… but I obeyed… I left the familiar behind and went where God led… I abandoned the city to live in a tent… I gave up the known for the unknowable. Some of my family came with me… Others waved me goodbye with a shake of the head, before turning to their gods to offer prayers for my safe return. But God went with me and I never did return…
It hasn’t been an easy journey. I didn’t always go the right way; I didn’t always obey. I made mistakes. I have paid for those mistakes… and others continue to pay for those mistakes… but it was no mistake to have trusted in the word of God…
From that day, everything has changed… my name… my wife’s name… my hopes and dreams… The only thing that hasn’t changed is the trustworthiness of God… All he promised has come true… And he has promised there is more to come… If only I will travel on with him…

A monologue I originally wrote for an event at the Irish Methodist Conference in 2004. Used it today for a retreat I was leading on the theme of "Journey".

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Canaries in the Coal Mine

At the recent consultation on working in loyalist areas, someone made the analogy (don't know whether it is original... it was to me) that young men are are like canaries in the coal mine when it comes to social and economic change...

Whether they be the hoodies dreaded by the Daily Mail, or the young loyalists of Northern Ireland's estates, there is a certain truth in that. Whatever malign phenomenon pervades society manifests itself first with young, undereducated men... even things that seem good on the whole, can have unexpected toxic consequences in the underbelly of society. And so the societal changes that came from the end of the industrial age, sexual liberation and equal rights for women, and the end of armed struggle, have all wreaked havoc among young "working class" men.
However, even when things are going well, the canary may be singing cheerily, but it's still in a cage in the dark and may never know anything different...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Looking for Love

I suppose I was looking for love, but I got more than I bargained for. Everyone talks about love... But there’s precious little of it about. When I was a kid, my Mum and my Dad both called me “Love...” “Love, would you give me a hand to set the table...” “Would you run down to the market for me, Love...” “Look love, would you clear off and give my head peace...”
It’s an easy word to say... its not so easy to find. And let me tell you I’ve looked. I’m not blaming anyone else... I made my bed, and I lay in it... The only trouble was I lay in it with someone else’s husband. He told me he loved me... he promised he would divorce his wife, but of course that never happened, and when the God squad broke down the door, and dragged me out of bed, he just sat there... Said nothing. And why they just picked on me I don’t know... There were two of us in that bed... The law says we’re both guilty... But its one law for men, and another for women in the eyes of the Pharisees.
They dragged me out into the street, half-naked... I thought I was a goner. They’re not allowed to stone people... The Romans put paid to that... They’ve got more sophisticated ways of putting people to death... Like crucifixion. But they would never crucify you for adultery... Too many of the Romans themselves would end up on crosses if that were the case. But even though it’s not allowed, I still thought I was done for... They took me to a Rabbi, who was teaching in the town... they threw me on the ground in front of him and asked him to pass judgement on me.
He was a strange man... Not like any other Rabbi I’d ever seen. He didn’t quote scripture, or other teachers... He crouched down on the ground in front of me and doodled in the dust with his finger... Then he looked up at the crowd and said: “If any of you is innocent... He can throw the first stone.” Innocent... that lot! I knew, from personal experience that quite a few of them were far from innocent... And they knew it too. They were horrified. They looked at me... Looked at the Rabbi again, and turned away, one by one... Even the leaders... The real holy rollers.
While all this was happening, this Rabbi just went back to his pavement art. He only looked at me for the first when everyone had gone... But what a look. In his eyes I found all the love I had ever looked for.
“Where have your accusers gone?” he asked. “I don’t know.” I said.
“Well, I don’t accuse you of anything. Go on home. But mend your ways.”
And I did. I picked myself up off the ground and out of the gutter... It hasn’t been easy. It won’t be easy. I still have one big physical reminder of that day. (Runs her hand over her belly). But that day I found love. And now, I’m ready to share that love... Not only with my unborn child but with anyone who would accept it. Without having to share my bed with other women’s husbands...
Other people find it hard to accept that I’ve changed. Some of the men who dragged me into the street that day, have shouted insults at me when they see me, and have said that the Rabbi was going to get his come-uppance. I didn’t know what they were talking about, until I saw him again this morning... It was the first time I had seen him since then, and strangely it was on the same street were I’d met him before. This time however, he was half naked... And carrying a cross.
I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a sick joke. But I followed the crowds out to the execution ground, and I watched them nail him to the cross. I stood and watched him die. I watched the light fade from his eyes... And yet they still seemed to be filled with love and sadness right to the end.
But why crucify him? Was it the Pharisees getting their revenge? If it was it seems strange that the Romans wouldn’t allow them to stone a woman for making love... But that they crucified a man for showing love...

Written for an event at the Waterfront Hall on Valentine's Day 2001. The original performer, my good friend Diane Holt was pregnant at the time, but the producer had thought that I was going to perform it. I may have inflated ideas of my own acting ability, but they would not go so far as to dare to play a pregnant woman.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Happy Birthday Chuck!

Yesterday was Charles Darwin's 200th birthday! So I half expected to be buried under assorted Darwinania and various mailings from the fundamentalist wing of evolutionary biology...
But no, instead they stood back and left the floor open for "the other side." And true to form, the first piece of news to come across my RSS reader yesterday referring to Darwin was from the same brains-trust that gave us a NI Enviroment minister who doesn't believe in Man Made Climate Change... with a news story from the Guardian referring to DUP MLA Mervyn Storey who is threatening to mount a legal challenge to the Ulster Museum under equality legislation if they go ahead with a Darwin Exhibition...

I despair...
But... what if their bluff was called and, under equality legislation, they were given exhibition space proportional to the properly peer-reviewed scientific research in support of either evolution or Young Earth Creationism, or even Old Earth Intelligent Design?

I'm sure they can find a suitably small cabinet for the latter.

I'll make my position clear... I'm a Methodist minister, with an unflinching belief in the truth of scripture. But I am not an absolute literalist... That way madness lies as you only get to the end of chapter 2 of Genesis and, reading it absolutely literally, you have got 2 contrary accounts of creation. I also studied biology however, and my honours specialism was in evolutionary and behavioural zoology... and everything I studied I found to be compatible both with my faith and with Darwin's theory of evolution.

Darwin's theory is and can only ever be that... a theory... but, in its amended form (because he didn't get everything right... he misunderstood the mechanism for inheriting traits, having ignored the work on genetics by his contemporary, Gregor Mendel... a monk) it is the best one we have to explain the evidence... Unless of course you play the trump card of almost instantaneous creation circa 6000 years ago... If God is omnipotent and had wanted to create the universe over a period of 6 earth rotations 6000 years ago, he clearly could have. But I don't believe in a God who plays tricks with humanity by placing fossils in rocks that can only be millions of years old, and giving us cosmological data that can only support an age of the universe which is measured in billions...

So I'll go with the properly peer reviewed evidence for the moment...

But then, be it with regard to climate change or the origins of life on earth, DUP MLAs don't seem to be terribly keen on going by scientific evidence...

Never mind...

But let me, belatedly offer a happy birthday to Chuck Darwin from at least one Northern Irish Christian... (I know I'm not alone... its just that my fundamentalist brothers and sisters seem to be a wee bit louder!)

ps. Just removed the "This Day in History" gadget from the sidebar, because yesterday, instead of Charles Darwin's birth 200 years ago, it had the aquittal of Bill Clinton...


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Neither Saint nor Sinner

Just finished Ross O'Carroll-Kelly's book, "South Dublin: How to get by on, like, €10,000 a day" a very funny, guide to the the land of conspicuous consumption on the far side of the Liffey. It is not for those of delicate sensibilities... But then again that is true of so much of what passes for popular culture today, be it in South Dublin, South Belfast, South London, or to be fair, at any of the compass points in any of the major cities in these islands.

We may tut at the immorality on our TV screens, radios, newspapers and magazines... But it isn't so much immorality as amorality... As Lily Allen puts it in her recent song: "The Fear"

"I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore..."

There's no concept of wrong... Just what you are prepared to pay for...

It remains to be seen whether this phenomenon will survive the credit-crunch, but until it does, Allen's song, could well be a hymn to the god of the age... the one we see in the mirror...

Not being an afficionado, I'm not sure whether she's being ironic in it - I dearly hope so when it comes to her references to blood diamonds... but then I hear more reports of her behaviour and I'm not so sure anymore... But given the fact that her father was Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham in the BBC's recent appaling "Robin Hood" and long time drug-addict/dealer and all round hellraiser) what should one expect from her...

But anyway, here are the lyrics:

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and f***loads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them
I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless.
‘Cuz everyone knows that’s how you get famous
I’ll look at the sun and I’ll look in the mirror
I’m on the right track yeah I’m on to a winner

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When we think it will all become clear
‘Cuz I’m being taken over by fear

Life’s about film stars and less about mothers
It’s all about fast cars and passing each other
But it doesn’t matter cause I’m packing plastic
and that’s what makes my life so f***ing fantastic
And I am a weapon of massive consumption
and its not my fault it’s how I’m program to function
I’ll look at the sun and I’ll look in the mirror
I’m on the right track yeah I’m on to a winner

Forget about guns and forget ammunition
Cause I’m killing them all on my own little mission
Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner
Now everything is cool as long as I’m getting thinner

There's enough material in there to keep me going on a sermon or Bible Study series for weeks... My congregation may find the lyrics a little bit "rich" however!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sammy Wilson Addresses Climate Change Rally

The recent cold snap has lead to all sorts of jokes about the so called "greenhouse effect". If only climate were as easy to understand as saying more carbon in the atmosphere, leads to higher average temperature, leads to less snow. No... an unstable climate with an atmosphere saturated with carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" will actually lead to less predictable weather patterns... it may make for less ice at the poles during summer, but it could lead to a disruption of the jet stream and gulf stream, making us in Northern Ireland as snowbound as Newfoundland in winter.
In the light of that the announcement on Monday that, in contravention of his party's and department's stated commitments, Northern Ireland environment minister Sammy is seeking to enforce a NI-wide ban on Westminster-funded ads and programmes that are aimed at reducing carbon emissions, is not very funny.
His actions are apparently based on his personal belief that Man-Made Climate Change is unproven, and that the Green movement has turned this issue into a pseudo-religion, where he is happy to pay the part of heretic.
Whatever my personal feelings about Mr Wilson or his party's stance on many issues, AND my personal conviction that the scientific evidence for Man-made Climate Change is almost irrefutable, I do understand some of his comments about the green movement, which is SO convinced as to the critical nature of this issue that they are, at times, almost irrational in their stridency. I also have my doubts about some government commitments: Are all the so-called "green taxes" going to resource green initiatives, or simply act as a source of alternative, acceptable funding in these cash-strapped times? Are their initiatives re light-bulbs properly thought through re full-life cost of disposing of low energy bulbs with high levels of toxic materials in them, and have they thought through the implications of lower light levels for those who are sight impaired? The complexities of reducing emissions and lowering energy use are almost as labyrinthine as the actual effects of climate change...
However, there are 2 things that need to be said here:
1) Whether or not it causes climate change (and I am convicned it does), pumping large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere is not a good thing and should be reduced anyway where possible.
2) This goes hand in hand with the reduction of energy consumption. This is good from an environmental perspective (keeping carbon locked in to fossil fuels for longer and conserving resources) but also an economic one, both on a personal and community level. Saving energy ultimately saves money. Sammy Wilson has demonstated that he is no scientist. But he is, reputedly an economist.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Slight Frost...

Its been a wee bit cold here over the past week or two, with some snow and a fair bit of ice... In fact its almost as cold as "when I was a boy"... Although thankfully now we have central heating and double glazing.
However, the sprinkling of snow that we had last week caused everything to grind to a halt, with a 20 minute journey taking me 90 minutes on Thursday, and schools closing left, right and centre. But what I want to know is WHAT ARE WE MOANING ABOUT!?
Friends from the US sent us these pictures of the shorefront of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin...

Hardly surprising given that this is above the snow-line in the US. But another friend sent this one from sunny Florida.

We are significantly more northerly than either of these two places...
So lets stop moaning, give thanks for the Gulf Stream (for as long as we still have it) and get on with things!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Plucking Brands from the Burning

The speaker at our service in Dundonald Methodist yesterday, reminded us that today the 9th February, 2009 is the 300th anniversary of the fire that ravaged Epworth Rectory in Lincolnshire, and very nearly deprived the world of John Wesley, the founder of what became known as Methodism, then a mere 5 years old.
His mother Suzanna famously described him as "a brand plucked from the burning" and had a strong sense that God had a particular purpose for his life.
My Arminian theology causes me to ask whether John Wesley's subsequent life in ministry, was a fulfiment of God's purposes, or a product of Suzanna's sense of God's purpose, or a complex combination of both.
Certainly the role of Suzanna in the lives of her two most famous children cannot be gainsaid, and, in the light of this week-end's 11plus results, and what I wrote yesterday, it emphasizes the role that key adults can have in the subsequent development of children.
The key is not individual events such as rectory fires or exam results, but the ongoing, prayerful affirmation and guidance of these young lives which are overflowing with potential.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Last 11 Plus

I’ve got a dictionary with an inscription on the inside cover… It says: “Congratulations David on passing the last ever 11 plus”
It was given to me by one of my brothers, I won’t tell you how long ago… But it wasn’t yesterday…
What did happen yesterday was that children all over Northern Ireland got their results from, what Catriona Ruane says will be the last ever 11 plus… Except it won’t be…
Because of political gamesmanship in which the lives of children are pawns, next year there will be a whole swathe of different 11 pluses being offered by different schools as entrance exams… And a completely chaotic system of transfer from primary to secondary schools. Unless a deal can be done quickly.
I did well out of the 11 plus… Because I passed it I was able to get an education that was second to none, opening all sorts of options to me, that were not open to the majority of my primary school pals. The sad thing is that the options that were open to them, which were mainly the Shipyard and the Aircraft factory, are severely curtailed these days… As someone pointed out at the consultation I was on with the LINC Resource Centre a couple of weeks ago, that was in the day when the rows and rows of terraced streets of inner East Belfast were like halls of residence for the University of Life that was the Harland and Wolff Shipyard... But that particular university is all but closed now, and while the Housing Executive may have recognised that, in building many fewer houses than had once stood shoulder to shoulder along streets long gone, the education system, and the social ethos around it has not really taken that into account.

We have a society that has not valued education as highly as it should (particularly for Protestants who in the good old bigoted past were more likely to get jobs in heavy industry because of who you know being more important thatn what you know). As a result we have an education system that was aimed at giving a few kids a really good academic grounding… which not everyone is capable of… But sadly it also fails far too many other young people, with more kids leaving education with no qualifications than in any other area in the UK.
We are not all the same, and the same type of education will not suit everyone… We also cannot wrap children up in cotton wool and protect them from the nasty, cut throat, competitive nature of the world forever… But a system where so many children feel like failures at the age of 11 is not good.
The God who made us, knows all the potential that he built into each of us… He knows when we fail him… Which is far too frequently… But he still loves us all, and wants us to become all that we were created to be.

It is my belief that we best do that through following Christ and knowing the strength and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And it’s my prayer that all the children who got their results yesterday may know God’s spirit guiding them in the days to come, whatever their results might be…
But also that the same Spirit may guide our political representatives to abandon reactionary electoral politics and inflexible party dogma to find a better system that serves all our children…

This was originally broadcast, in an abbreviated form, on Downtown Radio, as a Dawn Reflections Review of the Week, of Sunday 8th February, 2009

Friday, February 6, 2009

Truth, Grace and a Cat-O-Nine-Tails

Just before Christmas I was very taken by the description of the incarnate Word coming full of "grace and truth" (John 1: 14), and used that stick to liberally beat anyone who happened to transgress my view of how to graciously stand up for truth in the face of someone that you fundamentally disagree with.

But recently I have found myself falling into that deep dark hole... Won't bother with any kind of justifications, medically, psychologically, socially or spiritually, I have simply been horribly graceless... Both in the virtual and physical forms of reality.

Pot-kettle... Kettle-pot...

But here's a question that came to me while I was reading a rather famous episode in the life of the Word made flesh (John 2: 13-16). When is it OK to adopt the use of a "rope of cords" to beat all round you and still be regarded as full of grace and truth?

He didn't do it to the misogynist hypocrites who accused the woman (but not her paramour) of adultery (John 8: 1-11); nor those who passed judgment on another woman (why was it always women?) who anointed his feet (John 12: 1-8), nor in any other situation where it might have been legitimate, so far as we are aware. Just that episode in the temple when "zeal for his fathers house consumed him". But also, why did the stall-holders bear the brunt of his actions, when actually it was the whole system that was rotten, and (from what I have read of the temple at the time) it was the ruling families who profitted most from the wheeling and dealing inside the temple?
I'm happy to accept that "Jesus knows best" but this incident reminds me that the old "grace and truth" balance, isn't always straightforward... But I also recognise that we can use "zeal" for some righteous end, as a disguise to dress up some appalling behaviour...

Jesus wasn't "meek and mild" - even though Charles Wesley claimed he was - Indeed he was far from it...

But that doesn't grant us a license (even me) to be graceless and gratuitous in our words or actions...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Re Re:Call Revisited

Just a quick post to partially redress the balance regarding the retreat last week. I stand by all that I said about one strand of the event... It was appalling. But that happens sometimes... You book speakers with an international reputation, brief them appropriately, and they then don't come up with the goods... And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, except take them off your list of recommendations for anyone else. As for the rest of the event, it was extremely well organised and worthwhile, although personally I think it is something that we should do every 3 years, rather than bi-annually as it has been recently... The speakers and seminars are an important element, but probably more important is just the time spent sharing with colleagues, especially now that our annual conference in June is shorter, more condensed and business-like.

But to refer to the other main speaker at the event, Bishop Graham Cray of Maidstone, as I said in a comment after my previous post, he was good but didn't get me fired up. His material was a good balance of broad research and practical experience, with a theological depth that the Bible Studies sadly lacked.

Not sure then whether it was an issue of presentation, or the fact that I was exhausted by the time I got to Sligo that meant I wasn't terribly taken by him (I actually fell asleep in one session... right in front of the poor man... but then I've got form on that front, regularly falling asleep in lectures at college and even at one poor guy's trial sermon when there were only about a dozen people in the church!).

However, like another colleague, I was taken by his second session, where he looked at the indisoluble connection between discipleship and mission... This spoke directly into our local situation where we too often fragment the work of the kingdom, into social outreach, evangelism and discipleship and so on, almost seeing them as steps, hopefully bringing people closer to God, his purposes for their lives and to the centre of the machine that is called the church...

For a number of years we were good at the outreach and evangelism side of things but appaling at the discipleship and pastoral care of people once they were "in"... More recently we've been more focused on the latter two, and whilst the community engagement is still strong, we haven't had an active evangelism programme operating in over a year... and in talking to one of our leaders he questioned whether we were ready to bring people in yet... I know what he means, but he is falling into the pair of traps that we are guilty of, and that I fall into with alarming regularity:
1) that evangelism is about bringing people in to the church, rather than allowing them to encounter Christ and his good news.
2) that authentic Christian community engagement, evangelism and discipleship can ever be teased apart into separate programmes.

In addressing this, Graham Cray was ticking all the boxes that I had begun to sort out in my own head on this matter, and I was actually feeling quite smug...

Until, in an almost throw-away comment he warned against getting so involved with those "out there" that we forget the needs, and the role that those inside the tent continue to have in God's mission... And that hit me in the face like a wet haddock... Especially when he described those who do that as "despising God's people."

Because I have done that... I have written off people, and indeed in one case an entire congregation, as having nothing left to contribute to God's mission in a particualr place... And my implicit, or explicit deal with them has been that I will continue to be their pastor or chaplain to the day they as an individual or congregation dies, BUT that I will look elsewhere for the ongoing mission of God in the world.

I suddenly realised that I had been effectively saying that those people were of no use to God... Be it because of their age, theological outlook, or mental or physical infirmity... How dare I double-guess God... Its his mission not mine...

So... he may not have fired me up... but he certainly made me realise that I haven't got it all sorted out... Yet despite my shortcomings, I believe God still uses me... So, if he uses me, why can he not use those whom I have written off...

I, genuinely look forward now to being proved wrong by God... Again...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Phew! Glad that's Over!

Just finished an event that I was dreading this morning. I was speaking at the launch of a booklet produced by the Centre for Contemporary Christianity, entitled "Divided Past: Shared Future" which consists of two essays - one by Rev. Professor Nigel Biggar of Christ Church in Oxford, which he originally delivered as the keynote address at the CCCI conference in November 2007 entitled "Divided Past: Shared Future", and the other by me, entitled " Divine and Human: Nurturing a Spirituality and Culture of Forgiveness."

Why was I nervous when I regularly stand up and talk in front of much larger groups of people? Well, for a number of reasons. First because I originally wrote the paper 3 years ago as a part of my sabbatical studies, which I spent as an intern with CCCI. That 3 year gap meant that I am not as conversant with the finely reasoned (?) logic of the essay as I was at the time, but also because the discussion of forgiveness is quite contentious in the context of our local history, especially in the wake of last week's launch of the Eames-Bradley "Consultative Group on Dealing with the Past." Indeed one of the consultative group, Presbyterian colleague, Lesley Carroll, was responding to the document and my initial introduction. Finally, simply because, although I have written other things in the public domain be they articles in magazines and journals, pieces of academic research, other publications as the convener of different committees, plays and shows, and indeed this blog (which I am always amazed and gratified that anyone actually reads), it is the first time my name is actually on the front of a book (and on Amazon amazingly) and even though it is only an essay, for some bizarre reason it messed with my head. I suppose its because I belong to that era when having a book published really meant something.

But I shouldn't have worried. Everything went well and I had a small group of friendly faces - mainly Methodists, ISE Peace and Reconciliation Students and Community Activists to speak to... And Lesley was very kind in her comments on the publication.

So afterwards I breathed a sigh of relief and said "Phew! Glad that's over!"

But actually there is a huge danger that this society in general and the church in particular of doing that in relation to the conflict that we have been through in the past. Trying to forget about it... But such anmesia is only ever temporary, and unless we engage on a process to address some of the underlying problems, we are condemning our children or grandchildren to future outbreaks of violence. The patchwork quilt of partial remembrance tends to fuel the fires of recrimination, which in turn can lead to revenge. The key factor in moving from remembering to real reconciliation is forgiveness: not a case of "forgive and forget" but remember in order that we might forgive.

If you would like a copy of the booklet, please contact the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland.

ps. I don't get a cut - I got a coffee and a scone out of them, like everyone else attending the launch!

Monday, February 2, 2009

How not to Engage

OK... I have breathed repeatedly into a brown paper bag before this one... but my head is still on the verge of exploding...

As a number of faithful readers may have guessed by now, there are any number of things that will send me into a spiral of barely contained rage... Including organisations who sell programmes and packages to churches as the answer to all their possible needs in a particular area... A tendency that owes more to the franchising movement of the commercial world, than to scripture... It produces fads and fashions in ministry and mission... Alpha... Christianity Explored... Cafe Church... Fresh Expressions... Seeker Sensitive Services... Purpose Driven Whatevers...

Most of these are great in their own right... And sensitively used can contribute to local mission... But they need to be carefully contextualised... Alpha, developed for the beautiful people of the dinner-party set around Knightsbridge and Chelsea, needs to be appropriately tailored for working class Ballybeen in Belfast...

The sheer money involved in purchasing these packages, however, and the relentless marketing of follow-up resources and new products that results froom you being unwise enough to allow your name to go on a database somewhere would drive you insane.

It is in the light of this that my current bete-noir raises its smiling face... Care for the Family's current roadshow with Rob Parsons, entitled "engage" (note the trendy lack of capitalisation!), soon to arrive in Belfast (I'm not telling you when or where... I refuse to give them easy free advertising). I like Rob Parson's books... I appreciate the emphasis and programmes that Care for the Family have developed over the years... But I REALLY don't appreciate a national organisation wheeling in a bunch of people from mainland UK to tell us provincials how to engage with local communities... Engage!? How about engaging with those who have been doing this sort of thing over here for years? One email I received has promised input from local churches in the programme, but so far I have seen no publicity telling me who they are...
As well as emails, I've had leaflets through the door, others foisted on me at last week's Re:Call, and an advert cunningly disguised as an article in that wonderfully discerning organ, the Methodist Newsletter. Apparently the conference only costs £99 per head for the day. OK if you get over 10 to go and book soon you can get it down to £44 each... But sorry, that is a scandalous price... Particularly for those smaller churches in working class areas, who need most help in seeing how best to engage with their communities. I see that two of the experts flying in are going to tell us how we can partner with government in our work... Experts in the Byzantine workings of the Northern Irish Executive and the very good working relationships and unique partnership programmes that are already working here are they? Do they know anything about the implications of the new Charities Commission and the effects of the Review of Public Admininistration here... I doubt it...

This is one of the worst cases of patronising, glossy salesmanship under the guise of ministry that I have ever come across... (And I have come across many in my time). I have no doubt that we have things to learn from Care for the Family and other outside agencies. I have no doubt as their publicity material claims, that people will come away encouraged and inspired... But my fear is that they will also come away somewhat poorer having bought a mountain of books and bought into one programme or other... Or will go away enthused but confused as to exactly where to go next.

What ultimately prompted this rant was the fact that over the weekend I was asked by someone in another church who was thinking about how to get involved in their local community, whether I would recommend this event... I said that I respected the work of Care for the Family, both nationally and locally, but that I for one would not be forking out between £44 and £99 to go. And so instead of recommending the conference I said "Why not get in contact with the Churches Community Work Alliance here in Northern Ireland. It's not the best publicised organisation in the world... A fact that drives me and others who know about it insane... But the depth and range of the collective knowledge of community engagement within that organisation is unparalleled..." I also admitted that I may well be biased, as I currently (though not for much longer, thankfully) chair it... But I certainly don't make any money out of it... And they won't make much money out of anyone who contacts them, as any initial consultation is free, and membership of the Forum is also free, providing you with ongoing information about developments in the sector.

It may not have glossy publicity or come with a cheesy smile... But its real...
ps. Want to apologise to "early birds" who picked up this post in an uneditted form... I wrote it last night and thought I had saved it for distribution tonight after a chance to re-work it... But I got my dates wrong... Something to do with finishing it after the Superbowl probably...
I should also say that I have had the chance to talk to the person whose email stated that there would be local input, and he tells me that this issue was raised a number of months ago by local representatives and partners, in the face of what they saw as a "colonial" attitude by headquarters. I hope HQ takes note and that the conference will be suitably contextualised. I still won't be forking out to go to it though...

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Foolishness of God, the Wisdom of the BBC, and the Genius of the Vatican

Who is allowed to say what on the Beeb these days?

On Friday night I turned on BBC1 QI which stands for "Quite Interesting"), with Stephen Fry et al, a programme which I really enjoy, being a trivia nerd, although some of the guests sadly often go for cheap and not quite so interesting laughs.

On this episode they asked a question concerning the number of commandments in Exodus 20 (answer according to Fry is 14... been back to Exodus 20 and don't quite get what he means), and during that part of the show Stephen Fry told the sort of non-PC joke that would have been common in the days of Bernard Manning. Apparently God went ot the French and offered them the commandments, but they weren't interested because of the command no to commit adultery... He went to the Germans, and they weren't happy about being told not to kill... He went to the Italians and they weren't happy about being told not to steal... He finally went to the Jews, only to be asked "How much do they cost?" When he said "Nothing" they told him "We'll take 10!"

I'm not sure who would be most insulted by this smorgasbord of stereotyping. But it was particularly odd that they allowed this on the evening when Jonathan Ross is back on BBC1 with his "offend no-one muzzle" firmly in place, and on a night when a colleague was recording a service for broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this morning, and had been asked, a few hours before recording, to change his reading from I Corinthians 1: 20-24 to something potentially less offensive to Jews!
What factors lie behind this? Clearly it is all affected by the recent Gaza confrontation... Another manifestation of the controversy still circling the Beeb, concerning their refusal to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Commitee appeal... all because their audience is clearly too stupid to distinguish between news stories, which of course are always even handed (except when newsreaders make snide remarks to Israeli spokesmen, which happened more than once) and charitable appeals, which are for the innocent victims of the conflict, with no judgement inherent on the rights or wrongs of the situation.
But it is also against the background of this week's insane decision (in the week of the Holocaust Memorial Day) of the Pope to remove the excommunication of Holocaust-denying ultra-conservative Richard Williamson. Given Pope Benny's membership of the Hitler Youth in his younger days, this is perhaps not the most politic decision he has ever made... He certainly could never be considered as politically correct.

But please excuse me as I quote the dangerous passage from I Corinthians in full, as it seems to speak to world gone mad:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

1 Corinthians 1:20-25 (ANIV)

Or am I allowed to say that any more?