Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Is an Intelligent Church a Questioning Church?

Some readers of this blog and others who know me, probably know by now that I am not a fan of one-size-fits-all programmes, whether they be about church growth, personal development, community engagement or anything else. One of the reasons for that is that I am increasingly convinced that such programmes over-value the product over the process. In their original context they probably worked because the process was one which took the context into consideration, but care must be taken when employing such a programme that they are appropriately tailored for a new setting... Better still, learn from the principles of the programme but develop something much more organic in situ. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, and perhaps (as I have done) can use off the peg programmes for specific short-term goals, but don't forget that the long term journey is a vital part of discipleship...

Which brings me to the book that our church book-group has been looking at since before Christmas... Intelligent Church, by Steve Chalke with Anthony Watkis. We picked this because it was endorsed by Brian McLaren, the author of our previous book, "Finding our Way Again" (more of which anon), which was greatly appreciated by the group, but also because the sub-title "A Journey Towards Christ-Centred Community", and the various blurbs about the book, seemed to touch on a number of issues that kept coming up, both in the book and in wider discussions in church.

Most in the group were only familiar with Steve Chalke from his occasional TV appearances ("Is he that orange TV minister?") and the controversy over the "cosmic child abuse" comment in "The Lost Message of Jesus" a few years ago. I however, have read most of the stuff he has written down the years, particularly on the church/community interface, and have been at numerous conferences where he has been the speaker. An abiding frustration that I have is that he often writes and speaks as if all his thinking is brand new - you would at times think that he had not re-invented, but ACTUALLY INVENTED the aforementioned wheel... be it in the controversy over the atonement and its implications for engagement with the wider world, or practical approaches to faith-based community development. Whether it be ignorance of previous thought and practice that comes from a lack of research or an attempt to make his own material seem more unique, I am not sure, and am not sure which I would prefer to be the case.

Don't get me wrong, I think that he and the organisations that he has worked with over the years (including Oasis and Faithworks) have done great work and do offer models of good practice that others could do with emulating (e.g. I think the Faithworks Charter included at the back of this and many of his recent books, is a superb, concise set of principles that churches and other faith-based organisations could do with adopting before seeking to engage effectively and healthily with the wider world). But sometimes... just sometimes... the product is valued over the process... and the product is misold in the first place...

To an extent that could be said of this book... The very title annoyed me... What is an "Intelligent Church"? If anything the church is called on to run counter to what the wider world would describe as intelligent or wise? Targeting the poor, the marginalised and the struggling is not necessarily the intelligent way to run a church... It can be messy, exhausting, and financially demanding among other things... But actually, the chapter headings confounded the title of the book, and all in all it offers a good digest of some of the characteristics of a church which the world may not see as intelligent, but which is an expression of the heart of God... A relational, inclusive, messy, honest, vulnerable, generous, vulnerable, diverse, political (small p) and transformative church.

Again, however, the publishers' blurb over-eggs the contents, claiming that 'Each thought-provoking chapter concludes with a "Yes but How?" section, which gives practical suggestions for moving your church along this path." Yes there was a "Yes but How?" section, but this consisted of a list of questions and the repeated suggestion that we have a church day/weekend away... So anyone expecting an A-Z gazetteer showing how to navigate this "journey towards Christ-Centred Community" will be deeply disappointed. But for me, that's a good thing... because, for me, it is the sub-title, the journey that is more helpful and is a better reflection of the content of the book. And the "Yes but How?" section is a vital part of its effectiveness, so long as you don't actually expect it to tell you how...

Christ told storys to prompt (not necessarily answer) questions... And as Brian McLaren points out, Chalke tells a good story himself... If his stories and the questions at the close of each chapter produce questioning churches, then perhaps they may be further along that journey to being Christ-Centred Communities.

NB. A member of the book group was indignant at the "orange TV minister" comment, as that was NOT actually said by a member of the group, but was a description I heard a couple of years ago... Wouldn't want to convey the wrong impression... Don't think I've misattributed anything else!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Stomp! Reaches the Parts Other Shows Haven't Bin

I grew up in Belfast in the sixties and seventies... so I was familiar with all sorts of drumbeats by the time I moved to Edinburgh in the mid eighties... I had even had experience of dustbins and bin lids being used as percussion instruments in the West Belfast Hunger Strike protests...
But at the first Fringe Sunday I attended I was blown away by a group of guys from Brighton known as "PookieSnackenBurger", who were a dance/druming act using dustbins. Later I had the privilege of teching for them at the Lyceum as part of the Pick of the Fringe event for Amnesty International... Soon after they were behind one of the best-remembered Heineken ads... But they themselves never became a household name...

Fast-forward fifteen years and a show which had been the BIG thing in London, was now touring the world. My wife and I tried to get tickets when we were in Paris for our 10th Anniversary, but no dice... 5 years further on we tried when on our anniversry trip to London... but again with no joy... but today 25 years after first seeing Pookiesnackenburger, we saw their slick offspring "Stomp..." in the company of our two children.
There's a big difference between a 90minute main-house show and a 5 minute fringe act, but there was no dilution of the fun in this transition, and no sign of it being stale after 20 plus years on the road. We all smiled from start to finish... From the antics of some of the most useless stage-sweepers in history (but where did they find such robust brushes? Try that with anything from your local hardward store and it wouldn't last 30 seconds) through to where they began all those years ago, with their high-octane dustbin dance... They threw everything into it, including the kitchen sink.
I now fear for what the kids will now do with our pots/pans/bins/newspapers in the coming weeks... But at least they will at least thump each other rythmically...
If you get the chance to see it, do... It is one of the most energetic, imaginative and amusing shows I have seen in a long time, and I hope it isn't a quarter of a century before I see it again.
I wonder, however, how things might have turned out, all those years ago, if wheelie bins had already replaced dustbins in Brighton?

Friday, January 22, 2010

In Emergency: Blog

Rarely in the time that I've been blogging, and even before that when I was merely a spectator in this weird and wonderful virtual world, has one subject so dominated the blogsphere for so long a time... Haiti... I posted my own semi-coherent rant last week prompted by Pat Robertson's nonsense... But one week on from the disaster the flow of words continues... So I thought I'd just point you in the direction of some of the more interesting ones I have come across... You might have already seen them, but maybe not...

Going back to Pat Robertson's pronouncements on Haiti's pact with the Devil, well that has been both refuted and nuanced in great detail (according to Franklin Graham he "miss-spoke"), but for my money the best response came from the pages of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, which posted a "Letter from Satan". A more cerebral response was the BBC's "Why does God allow natural disasters?" where they unleashed tame philosopher David Bain (that's Bain, NOT Blaine... tho perhaps a response from the weird one might have been interesting), on the question... But the answer was a little bit like a first year philosophy of religion essay on the "Problem of Pain." The response of Clayboy was the wonderfully titled 'Hey philosopher, repeat after me, "Shit happens!"' from which I originally gleaned both the Letter from Satan, referred to above and a piece from the Dawkins Foundation that annoyed me almost (but not quite) as much as Robertson's rubbish.

It wasn't the fact of the "Non-Believers Giving Aid" campaign, as I don't care where the money comes from to help the people of Haiti, so long as it comes, but the rationale for such a site, namely "When donating via Non-Believers Giving Aid, you are helping to counter the scandalous myth that only the religious care about their fellow-humans" and "giving the lie to the canard that you need God to be good." This is a total parody of the perspective of most faith-based aid agencies. I've been critical in the past of some organisations who have used natural disaster or the aftermath of war as an opportunity to explicitly evangelise whilst handing out aid. I suppose my knowledge of the history of Ireland, where people were encouraged to "convert" in order to get a bowl of soup during the potato famine, makes me more than a little suspicious of such an approach. But whilst I would argue that you have to be careful if you are carrying a loaf of bread in one hand and a Biblical tract in the other, I am equally suspicious of those who carry a loaf of bread and a humanist treatise... Just give... don't try to score points in your giving... just give... be it to Oxfam, Save the Children or the Red Cross (non-religious), or to Christian Aid, Tearfund or many of the denominational schemes...

And if I am suspicious of those who carry religious or humanist tracts into the midst of a disaster such as Haiti, I am equally suspicious who bring a camera crew with them. My son asked the other day why the news reporters didn't help the people instead of just filming their agony, to which I said that by publicising their plight they were helping indirectly. But I'm not entirely sure that is true when the coverage gets to saturation point... which I think was reached about 3 days ago. And I'm especially unsure when the film crew is there to cover the ill-thought-through good works of a bunch of high-profile pastors. That said, perhaps the material that Mark Driscoll and his mates film and send back will reach an audience that mainstream news and current affairs footage will never reach, and if these pop-pastors can use their profiles to draw down further aid for Haiti, and skilled volunteers willing to give of their time and expertise in the long rebuilding process when the reset of the world's media has moved on, then good on them. I just hope that their amateurish approach does not make them an encumbrance to those currently trying to meet the dreadful needs in that land.
Which brings me to Leading from the Heart... The author Laurie Haller is the District Superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, where I served briefly on exchange in 2008, and that district has a covenant partnership with the church in Haiti, indeed when this post was written a mission team from Grand Rapids which was in Haiti at the time of the quake was awaiting evacuation. However, their experience has not daunted the District from planning future trips.
In the face of some of those who dub such trips "mission tourism" (a feeling which has always disuaded me from signing up for one with our own church) Laurie makes a cogent defence of the approach, not primarily from the perspective of what they do for the host community, but what participants recieve and achieve through them. Is that sufficient reason in the immediate aftermath of such a disaster? Probably not, and I would argue that those going to Haiti in the first phase after this disaster, should only be those with specific and appropriate skills... But further on, I fully agree with Laurie. The people of Haiti will need every helping hand they can get in the rebuilding process, but on top of the benefit to the people of Haiti is the benefit to the people who go and the communities who send. I have seen such trips completely change friends of mine... Coming back from the place of need motivated to motivate others... but also more awake to the fact that there is need all around us, even in the affluent west.
What does it take to wake us up to the needs of others here and abroad? C.S. Lewis once famously referred to pain and suffering as "God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world" and whilst I don't fully agree, I know what he was saying. So perhaps Pat Robertson is more correct than he, or any of us would believe in saying that this earthquake was "a blessing in disguise". While groups such as the United Methodist Church have worked faithfully with the people of Haiti for years, the rest of the world has generally turned a blind eye to the crippling poverty there. Haiti was already a disaster zone before the earthquake hit! It briefly burst into the blogsphere for a while when people there were making mud pies to actually eat, but all too often it was a side bar to the "real story" ie the hike in fuel prices. Did it really take a devastating earthquake to stir this deaf world to action?
In the end, the ultimate response to an emergency such as this is not an outpouring of words or images, it is not even the giving of money (whether to Non-religious aid agencies or not), which is, in the end, generally fairly painless (although a special commendation has to go to the couple from Deluth who donated the cost of their wedding reception, intending now to feed their guests peanut butter and jam sandwiches)... Eventually the cheap words in a virtual world must become real, long-lasting actions...

Word become flesh...

ps. I had no sooner posted this that Kim's post on Connexions appeared in my sidebar, demonstrating the limitations of the Wesley's theodicy in the wake of the infamous Lisbon earthquake 0f 1755. It was this same earthquake which caused Voltaire to satirise Liebniz (the originator of the term "theodicy") in his novella Candide, for his proposition that this might well be the best of all possible worlds.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Who Would Jesus Shoot?

I thought I had seen it all but a headline on my RSS newsreader on my phone at lunch made me think I had misread it... But when I got home and checked the news online, no, the headline was correct... "Gunsights' biblical references concern US and UK forces."

Read the story for yourself if you don't believe me, but essentially what is happening is that "Trijicon" is a company which supplies gunsights to the US and British military, and because the company was founded by a "devout Christian" and claims that it runs to "Biblical standards", they have been inscribing Biblical texts, including "2COR4:6" and "JN8:12" (both of which refer to God/Jesus as light - very appropriate on a gunsight which lauds its "self-luminous Brilliant Aiming Solutions™") in raised lettering at the end of the stock number.

Of course this is raising all sorts of issues in the US as regards the separation of church and state, and the thought that these gunsights are helping allied "Christian" soldiers to shoot Islamic enemies in Afghanistan is causing all kinds of panic among the political classes...

But what kind of a world do we live in where a Christian sees this as appropriate? The crusades finished around 650 years ago, and they didn't do much good for the promotion of the gospel in the Muslim world... And what about the verses in the Bible about spears being beaten into pruning hooks etc? Or perhaps because they don't actually mention M16 assault rifles or reflex gunsights in the Bible they think that such verses don't apply to them?

But, in the (paraphrased) words of Jesus, those who live by the Trijicon ACOG® - Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight, shall die by the Trijicon ACOG®.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

God of the Car-Crash, Cancer and Earthquake?

When I was at theological college, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we lily-livered Arminians shared many of our classes and spent most of our week with our Calvinist friends in the local Presbyterian Theological College, a relationship which has only recently been terminated to, I believe, the detriment of both denominations. While I was there many of my Presbyterian colleagues would have regarded Calvin himself as "unsound" they were so roundly reformed... This resulted in some (generally) good humoured banter, and with the exception of the annual football matches, relationships were fairly good. In Old and New Testament classes you could see that many of the Presbyterian students were more conservative, if not fundamentalist than we Methodists (but we had a few people in that grouping ourselves). In systematic theology I heard enough about Calvin and Barth to do me a lifetime... apparently Arminians never write theology! But it was in practical theology that you really began to notice the difference, with an extremely conservative approach to scripture and a firm sense of the sovereignty of God producing a degree of hardness in expressed opinions that I was uncomfortable with. But I told myself that when they found themselves out in the big bad world, things might not seem quite so black and white...

Then news broke of a road accident affecting one of the Presbyterian students, and that morning I joined them for morning worship, instead of rushing to get coffee and scones in the refectory as was my usual practice. But the student leading the service said in a prayer "We do not know why you caused this accident God, but you did and we pray that you will help those involved to learn the lessons that you want them to learn."

I came as close to walking out of that service as I have ever done. I didn't want to worship a car-crash causing God... A God who maims a beautiful young woman as a visual aid. But I stayed out of conformity and a sense of solidarity with my fellow student in his confusion and hurt. I realise now that I have never actually talked to the student directly involved as to how he felt about this prayer... he himself would have had a much more conservative outlook than I did at the time, so perhaps he was more comfortable with it, however, that experience has stayed vividly with me down through the years, and even now I wince where people talk too glibly about the purpose of God behind tragedies, be they personal, national or international. Don't get me wrong, I believe in a God who can work his purposes through the worst of situations... the cross, if nothing else, teaches that... But does God cause the cancer/train wreck/hurricane? As the first cause then perhaps the buck does stop with him, and this may be what Wesley was saying when he wrote:

"what is nature itself, but the art of God, or God’s method of acting in the material world? True philosophy therefore ascribes all to God…"

as quoted earlier in the week by Angela Shier-Jones in her conversation with God on the subject of the Haiti earthquake.

But does God specifically cause it, or permit it? To those outside (and many inside) the Christian faith, this may seem to be a very fine technical line... but for me it is a line which I'm not sure I want to see God crossing. These are largely undigested and unprocessed thoughts that others have dealt with at much greater length and depth. If you are looking for a place to start, Patrick Mitchel has recently offered some interesting reflections on this based on Chris Wright's book, "The God I Don't Understand".

However, at least that person praying in the Presbyterian College Chapel admitted that he didn't know why his sovereign God had caused the personal tragedy we were all reflecting on. If only preachers such as Pat Robertson would display such humility in the face of tragedy. I'm sure you're aware of his and other fellow-travellers revealling God's purposes behind natural and not so natural disasters, including 9/11, the Boxing day Tsunami and Hurrican Katrina, but his comments regarding the earthquake in Haiti have plumbed yet new depths, attributing it to a 19th century pact that the oppressed inhabitants of Haiti made with the devil in exchange for their liberty from France. I am endebtted to Scott Bailey flagging this blasphemy up. Like him I suspect that it is actually Robertson and his ilk who are in league with the devil, but he is much more vociferous in his condemnation than I ever could be (yes... he's that angry... Ruth Gledhill has posted a much more gracious response... much more gracious than he deserves, that is) but we come to the same conclusion. That in the face of such immense, raw human agony the last thing that those suffering need is anyone spouting pious rubbish about the purpose of their pain: what we should do is say nothing and do all that we can to help.

Here in the UK the Disasters Emergency Committee, representing the major world development NGOs, has swung into action. For Methodists here in Ireland donations to our emergency appeal can be made via cheques payable to ‘Methodist Missionary Society (Ireland)’ and sending to Mrs Audrey Dickson (Treasurer), 15a Mullaghboy Road, Islandmagee, Co. Antrim, BT40 3TT with an accompanying note specifying that the sum is for the Haiti Appeal, or online at the Just Giving webpage, through our partner the Methodist Church in Britain. For my American Methodist friends, go to UMCOR, and 100% of your giving will reach local Haitian partners.

ps. Other interesting/helpful comments from an Irish perspective have been made by Patrick Mitchel, Patrick Comerford and Gladys Ganiel.

PPs. Don't misunderstand me... I am not saying that Pat Robertson is a Calvinist, as I am assured by those who know these things that he is not, although some neo-calvinists such as John Piper have been almost as hubristic and equally as insensitive in the light of previous tragedies.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Commission and Commands

I never cease to be amazed by the fact that even after years and years of studying the Bible that I can come back to a very familiar passage and find something that is blindingly obvious, yet I have missed it for years... Perhaps its just that I am stupid, but if I am I believe that I'm not alone...

I had one of those moments earlier in the week looking at Matthew 25, but I have had another this morning with the latter part of Matthew 28... the so-called "Great Commission", beloved of any minister wanting to stir up his congregation to evangelism... It's not something brand new, as I've been turning these ideas around and round for years, but the pieces of the jigsaw just seemed to fit together this morning in an "Aha!" moment... It may be obvious to to you, but pity one of our heavenly Father's slower children...

I was looking at it, partly as a more in depth look at Matthew in the light of my reflection earlier in the week, partly in preparation for an event at church tonight looking at the future direction of the local congregation, and partly in the light of current reading of books by Brian McClaren and Steve Chalke.
In discussions of the "Great Commission" in the context of the (false) dichotomy between evangelism and social engagement, I have often heard others say, or indeed I myself have said, "Don't forget the great commands..." referring to the commandments to love God and love our neighbour, which was central to Jesus' understanding of the Old Testament, according to all 3 synoptic evangelists (see also Luke and Mark). This emphasis was not completely unique to Jesus, indeed was in tune with other contemporary Rabbis. In the Talmud it says:

Once there was a gentile who came before (Rabbi) Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before (Rabbi) Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” (Shabbat 31a)

In discussions of the Great Commission and Great Commands, however, I have previously missed the fact that whilst Jesus commissions his followers to make disciples of all nations (disciples, mind you, not converts), he goes on to explain how you go about making disciples... ie. "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:20 ANIV)

"Everything I have commanded you..." Not only is there no real dichotomy between evangelism and social engagement, there is no tension between Great Commission and Great Commands, because the latter is implicit in the former... We can't obey the Great Commission without teaching, by word and deed, the commands to love God and love our neighbour...

Everything else, in the words of Hillel, is commentary... so go, and not only learn it, but live it...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Who are the Least of These?

Now those who know me, either in the real or the virtual world, will probably have guessed by now that I am a constant advocate for Christian social engagement and social justice, and one of the Biblical passages that I often refer people to is Matthew 25: 31-46; what some people refer to as the parable of the "Sheep and the Goats", but is actually a reference to some future time of judgement when Christ will divide the nations as if dividing "sheep and goats."

However, after reading the exegesis offered by "Chaplain Mike" over on iMonk today, I'm not so sure that I will use this passage to the same ends again. He argues that "the least of these brothers of mine" is actually a reference to the church and that this is a parable concerning the judgment of the nations in relation to how they responded to the message and needs of the church. Given the likely context of Matthew's Gospel, which, many suggest was written to a Jewish Christian grouping within the Antiochene church, there is perhaps something to be said for this... particularly when it is seen in the light of the disciples previously being sent out to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 10: 6), with a threat of judgment on those who would not recieve them (Matthew 10: 14-42), and subsequently to all the nations (Matthew 28: 19). The understanding therefore is that the people of ALL nations will subject to the same criteria of judgment.

What do you think of his take on this passage and what are the implications if he is right? I still believe that there is ample warrant in scripture to support the whole business of Christian social witness, but perhaps this is not such an unequivocal scriptural weapon to have in our armoury.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Normalisation Continues...

Didn't see the Spotlight expose on the Robinsons last night, or rather didn't hear it as it was on screen but muted in the background of the pub I was in for a weekly quiz in Mrs. Robinson's constituency... Certainly not much support for her there... Indeed most of the team names (including our own I must confess) showed a certain delight in her discomfiture...
I intend to watch the programme when it is repeated at 2.30pm this afternoon on the news channel... But am frustrated again that this story is shoving into second place in local news the injury and attempted murder of a Catholic police officer by a car-bomb probably planted by dissident Republicans.
My reading of the material this morning has not shifted my opinion from yesterday that the media, in this case BBCNI, knowing its audience, has used the sex scandal as a hook to hang this whole thing on. There are important issues in play here regarding the use and abuse of power and influence, but the thought of a 59 year old woman having an affair with a 19 year old boy is so much more saleable.

A lot of pressure has come on the First Minister as to why he didn't dob in his wife, under the ministerial code of conduct regulations, when he found out about the financial improprieties, but actually, my big question is why it was possible for an elected representative to secure funding from developers for a third party's business venture, and then to actively lobby for at least one project proposed by one of those developers. My suspicion is that there is probably a lot more of this sort of thing going on and the only reason that Mrs. Robinson got her fingers burned was because of the salacious nature of the affair and who her husband is.

Welcome to the banana republic of Northern Ireland...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Normalisation of Northern Irish Politics

Let me make this clear from the outset... I'm not a fan of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson; he represents the constituency that I currently live as both an MP and an MLA, while she currently represents the area that I work in at a council, assembly and parliamentary level, and I have encountered them numerous times in numerous settings since I was at school. It's not primarily the brand of politics that they represent, but the manner in which they have tended to conduct themselves in the past, including, particularly on her part, a very vocal profession of faith whilst showing little public grace. She has, I will admit done some impressive work for local constiuents, but even in that I would, at time have been critical of how she has gone about that.

In the past week, however, I have had to rethink my attitude to them and to politicians in general. First came Mrs. Robinson's announcement that she was standing down from political life because she was struggling with mental illness, or to be specific, depression. Given the huge tabboo on the discussion of mental illness in public, particularly in the more conservative environment of Northern Ireland, this was a huge admission, and, I believed, both highly commendable and courageous.

Subsequently those thoughts flew out of the window as I joined the rest of the chitterati in grumbling about Mr. Robinson's lack of statesmanship in the wake of Cardinal Cahal Daly's death. But I didn't know what was going on behind the closed doors of the Robinson household.

Then came yesterday evening's bombshell... I missed the early evening news and so was only alerted to what was going on by the buzz on facebook... some sympathetic but most of it almost gleeful. Watching the footage of Peter Robinson delivering his prepared statement and answering subsequent questions however, I found little to laugh about. I was deeply moved and saddened. And that seems to have been the broad attitude in the statements by most public figures, although the reported response by gay campaigner Peter Tatchell (and note I say "reported" response) seems to be almost as ungracious towards Mrs Robinson as she was towards homosexuals 2 years ago.

Of course, after my initial sympathy, the more cynical part of my brain kicked in asking "why now" and whether the admission of depression now seemed so courageous, or was it a softener for this and more to come? And was Mr. Robinson actually putting a bit of political distance between himself and his wife in advance of further revelations, whilst painting himself as the wounded party standing by his woman. We will see...

But then I caught myself on, and remembered that yesterday was potentially the most momentous day in Northern Irish politics since the Provisional IRA decommissioning with the bulk of the UDA, the largest paramilitary grouping in Northern Ireland, finally, verifiably decommissioning their weapons.

Yet all of that came a very poor second on the news agenda, facebook comment and coffee break chatter to the Robinson scandal (Indeed on the NI politics page on the BBC as of today 7/1/2010 at 4.30pm they haven't even bothered updating the feature on the decommissioning of UDA weapons to take account of the fact that it has actually happened, but the page is littered with material on the Robinsons). I awoke this morning to locally lad and libdem Lembit Opik (no stranger to a bit of scandal himself) on Radio Ulster (from around 1 hr 9 mins 12 secs) questioning whether the media had got their priorities right, only to then be quizzed by interviewer Maxine Mawhinney as to whether he knew the Robinsons personally and had he seen signs of this scandal emerging. Given that was the standard of coverage on Good Morning Ulster, the supposedly serious morning news magazine, I didn't hang around to find out what the contributers to the Nolan show had to say on the matter.

But then again, is this not a sign of the normalisation of politics here in Northern Ireland. It only seems to be scandal that raises the political temperature in most of the rest of the UK (if not the western world). There is nothing that the British media, and the reading/watching public love more than a big juicy sex-scandal, and if there is financial jiggery-pokery involved, even better. And the erstwhile broadsheets are no better than the long-time tabloids. As the size of the papers has standardised so has the focus of the "news" within them. And such stories are meat and drink to 24 hour rolling news channels and internet news providers, because speculation and informed or uninformed comment (they're generally not choosy) can fill an infinite amount of time/space. Real political breakthroughs, such as the UDA decommissioning, just don't do it any more...

The one uniquely Northern Irish element to this "affair" was the prominent position of religious language, particularly the word forgiveness, and allusions by Mr. Robinson to prayer when he said he "asked for strength to bear this" every morning. There has subsequently been a degree of discussion on the subjects of grace and forgiveness in the public media. I must say however, that the most interesting expression of grace, in my eyes, came from the man who shares Stormont Castle with Mr. Robinson and yet has been publically at odds with him recently, Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, who said:

"Nobody watching the interview by Peter could fail to be moved by the obvious hurt and pain being experienced by the Robinson family.
"Despite Peter's public role he is entitled to privacy as he and his family seek to deal with this matter. I wish them well as they seek to rebuild relationships away from the public glare."

Some chance...

Friday, January 1, 2010

Welcome to 2010

I wrote this for broadcast on Downtown this morning, but anyone who heard it either didn’t get much sleep last night, or else they were only just going to bed at the time… But increasingly I come across people who take no part in New Year's Eve festivities, but simply go to bed as normal on the 31st of December, and wake up at the normal time in a brand New Year…
And there is a fundamental question at the back of that: what’s the big thing about a change of year?
So often I hear people say, with a heartfelt sign, that they’re glad to see the back of the previous year because of the tale of woe that they experienced during it… yet the truth is that disaster and woe cannot be corralled by calendar months or years... but neither are God’s blessings to us…
Throughout the Christmas season, in songs and readings we repeatedly hear Jesus being described as “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.” But that doesn’t just apply to this time of year... To high days and holidays… it also applies to low days and dark days… God is not just with us in the times when we are surrounded with tinsel and twinkling lights, but also when we find ourselves in the straw and stench of a stable, far from home and with no place to call our own…

Wherever you may find yourself throughout this year and beyond may you know that Jesus is Emmanuel… God with you…