Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Friday, May 28, 2010

Meditating on the Trinity

Our local church of Dundonald Methodist has recently started a Friday night class for those interested in sequence dancing… and it is proving a great success across the generations and with people who haven’t been involved with any previous church programmes. Perhaps it’s the high profile of TV shows like “Strictly come Dancing” and “So You Think You Can Dance” that have captured people’s imagination… In fact we have called our programme “So you think You Can’t Dance” as it is aimed at people who know they are never likely to be Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.
Not everyone has been in favour as the Methodist church, along with some others, traditionally saw dancing as an excuse for inappropriate intimacy between the sexes, and for a long while it was actually banned on church premises. But that is no longer the case, and while I haven’t actively participated myself, I can assure anyone who is worried about it that there is nothing lascivious or lewd about what is taking place in our church halls on a Friday evening… Come along and check it out if you're worried…
But in this week running up to Trinity Sunday it reminded me again of that ancient Antiochene concept of perichoresis, where each person of the Trinity intimately permeates each other, as if the Trinity is engaged in an eternal dance with each other. Not an intense, exclusive tango that you have to "break in2 to, but a joy-filled country dance where the three "partners" dosey-doe around each other, and in which we are all invited to participate...

And with that picture in mind, let me leave you with a short meditation I wrote for Trinity Sunday last year

Symbol of threeness in perfect unity
The enduring earth, surrounding sea and boundless sky
The ever changing continuum of past, present and future
The family of Father, Mother and beloved child.

Name of the threeness; perfect trinity:
The Father of all who gives life: to strengthen you in your weakness
The Son our Saviour who gave his life: to surround you with his love
The Spirit, the breath of life: to overshadow you with perfect peace.

I bind unto myself this day
The strong name of the Trinity
By invocation of the same
Three in one and one in three
© David Campton 2009

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Picturing the Trinity

Not every preacher follows the church year slavishly in their sermons… but those who do and are preparing for this coming Sunday may well be considering picking an easier subject, or as Colin Morris used to suggest, feel themselves developing psychosomatic sore throats… It’s known as Trinity Sunday and has stretched more than a few preachers’ abilities to reflect theological truth to breaking point… As someone once said, “Trying to explain the Trinity is like trying to describe the sound of three hands clapping." Three persons in one? It’s the single doctrine that unifies Jews and Muslims in opposition to the Christian understanding of God… and even some strands of Christianity don’t buy it fully…
Yet no matter what some revisionist theologians and populist writers of recent years may say, the Trinity was not dreamed up by a church council a few centuries after Christ, it is woven in and out of the whole of the New Testament, including the words of Jesus in the Gospels, and it does find echoes in the Old Testament…
But there is no definitive statement or illustration of this teaching in Scripture… leaving preachers clutching for illustrations in the world around us, like the tale of Patrick and the shamrock… which has been criticised not only because it is as fictional as the story about him chasing the snakes out of Ireland, but also because it doesn’t reflect the diversity found in what the Bible teaches about the Father, Son and Spirit…
More recently those of a scientific bent have tended to use the picture of ice, water and steam… Three manifestations of the same substance… And there are definite pluses to this image… After all Jesus talked about offering “living water” to one thirsty woman… And there is something to be said for the parallel between steam and the all-pervasive Holy Spirit… But the idea of God the Father as cold, solid and unbending is one that I personally find unhelpful… And far too close to some people’s misunderstandings of a frigid, unforgiving God…
Still using the image of water, but slightly more helpful, in my opinion, is one offered by the theologian David Cunningham of God, Father, Son and Spirit as source, spring and stream. A deep and eternal source of grace bubbling up to the surface of the earth through an unfailing wellspring, which overflows in cool, clear water full of oxygen and nutrients, tumbling over and transforming rocky, barren places and bringing life across the landscape, until it finds maturity in a broad, deep, slow moving river... Of course this too has its limitations... What is the ocean in relation to the source, spring and stream?

But for me, there is something to be said for a doctrine of God that cannot be easily summed up in a simple illustration or adequately understood by even the finest of minds. Because a God like that, wouldn’t really be God at all… We aren’t called on to fully understand God… Simply to trust… in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

This is a combined and condensed version of 2 Just a Minute's produced for Downtown Radio this week...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ulster Museum or Ulster-Scots Museum of Conservative Fundamentalist Christianity?

I awoke this morning to the news on Radio Ulster that our esteemed Minister at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland has written to the National Museums of Northern Ireland to ask for them (and presumably he means their recently renovated flagship, The Ulster Museum which he is pictured here re-opening) to give more prominence to Ulster-Scots, the Orange Order and alternative theories on the origin of the universe. I already had a sore head, and this did not improve it any. The claim is that this is in pursuit of the Northern Ireland Executive's Shared Future agenda, and given that I have worked with Mr. McCausland in the past on good relations issues I have no doubt of his sincere desire for such an end. However, given that he previously also has been an outspoken advocate of Ulster-Scots and a prominent member of the Orange Order, and that at least one member of his political party has been vocal in his demands for Creationism to be given a prominent place in the renovated Ulster Museum, this letter does not ring of impartial advocacy on behalf of a Shared Future agenda, but rather unwarranted political interference from a particular personal bias in an important, impartial cultural, historical and scientific resource. It is especially unhelpful while the Museum is in the running for the Art Fund Prize (vote here) and is under criticism for censorship and political bias during the troubles.

Personally I think that the historical section, and especially the section on the troubles, is a little weak... wishy, washy even... Following the traditional line of middle class Ulster i.e. "whatever you say, say nothing..." Perhaps more does need to be said about the Ulster-Scots Hamilton-Montgomery Plantation, and the role of the Orange Order in Irish affairs, but if there is, let it be a warts and all analysis... and the same should be said of the republican movement, with its toxic eulogising of the blood of the martyrs...

As for the "alternative theories on the origin of the universe", I note that Mr. McCausland does not specifically mention "Creationism". Is he therefore advocating that the Ulster Museum gives display space over to all the creation myths/theories advocated down through the years, including those of some minority communities in our province, such as the Chinese creation myth of Pangu, the origin of creation, hatching from a black egg with the aid of a hammer, or the Hindu myth of Brahma, the creator, being born in a lotus blossom that grew in Vishnu's navel, or is he just advocating literal "Biblical" Creationism, on the basis that a large number of people (largely from the more conservative protestant traditions that have tended to vote DUP) believe it in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. I'm already out of the closet on this one, and have made clear how I think that the Ulster Museum should deal with the request for representation of "alternative theories of the origin of the universe". I'm a Christian but far from being a literal creationist, indeed I'm not far off the position advocated by James McGrath in his article "Why Anti-Evolutionism is Evil" which both Scotteriology and WhyNotSmile pointed me (and whoever else reads their stuff) to a couple of weeks ago. At this point I feel I need to publicly apologise to WhyNot Smile for cluttering up her facebook wall with an increasingly vituperative dialogue with an advocate of creationism.

My problem is not with those who believe in a six day or young earth creationism... people are entitled to their opinions and beliefs... my problem is with those who are militant advocates of the same such as Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, who misrepresent both science and the Bible... and often do so with children, creating an unnecessary dichotomy between a Christian and a scientific worldview. As I have said previously, such an approach plays straight into the hands of the so-called "New Atheists" who hold up such propagandist, scientifically illiterate approaches as being a direct result of belief in God. This is no more the truth than the belief that the propagandist, theologically illiterate arrogance of these new atheists is a direct and inevitable result of a belief in evolution. Over at Jesus Creed, they've been looking at this dichotomy in detail and particularly how it is then feeding into the attitude of the wider academic world in relation to religion, especially in the light of Elaine Howard's new book "Science v Religion: What Scientists Really Think". They have also pointed to an op-ed by Karl Giberson (a Christian evolutionist) in USA Today, suggesting that New Atheists need to learn how to "play in the sandbox." What he says is true not only of the USA, but of Northern Ireland... not only of the New Atheists, but the militant creationists.

There needs to be a respectful dialogue between people of divergent opinions, but that does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or deserving of representation in the public square. Nor does it, necessarily mean that truth is determined democratically, or should be shaped by those in political power. Be it our political or biological history we should look at the facts first and see how the theories then help us to interpret them. This is a process that most of the population have neither the skills or knowledge to do, therefore it is up to those in key positions in the worlds of museums, the media, schools, churches to responsibly communicate the clearest picture of current thinking... not the polarised opinions of pressure groups, be they scientific, religious or political.

A shared future does not necessarily require a shared understanding of our past, but it does require a shared commitment to each other. If our Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister is to act as an advocate for diversity of opinions within the museums, it would carry greater weight if he was advocating opinions that were not so clearly those of himself and his close allies.
ps. Professor Billy McWilliams over on 1690 An' All Thon is seemingly much more supportive of Mr. McCausland's position... And much funnier of course...


Monday, May 24, 2010

Heart Warming...

To most of Christendom today is Whit Monday (or the Monday of the Holy Spirit in the Eastern Orthodox tradition) it being the day after Pentecost... But for diehard Methodists yesterday was Aldersgate Sunday, given that today was the anniversary of that fateful day in 1735 which is described by some as the conversion of our founder John Wesley.
For those who haven’t encountered it before, let me cite a portion of Wesley's own account of this event:
"In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
Now there’s many a person who has gone unwillingly to a church meeting… But I doubt that many would find a reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans to be heart warming. But God works in mysterious ways and out of John Wesley’s heart warming experience flowed a channel of God’s grace which ultimately has touched millions of people through the Methodist/Wesleyan movement.

However, one of the things that we Methodists don’t often admit to is that within a year of this experience, Wesley wrote in the margin of his own journal that he feared he was not a Christian. The assurance of salvation he had in Aldersgate Street had, at least for a time, deserted him.
But the proof of faith is not in momentary heart-warmed, hilltop experiences, but in the deep, dark valleys of doubt in between… That is when we really need to trust in Christ…

So whether yesterday was Aldersgate Sunday or Pentecost, the question is whether the flame of the spirit is still burning and our hearts are still warm today?


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Far from Miserable Performance

Its been quiet here in the world of Virtual Methodist for a wee bit... Largely because the real world has been more than a little hectic... But did get time to go to see the Lyric Theatre Company's latest production in their squat at the Elmwood Hall.

I'm not a expert on Moliere by a long chalk but I enjoyed the bawdy production of The HypochondriacT (sic) last year, with the same team of translator/adaptor David Johnston, director Dan Gordon and lead Andy Gray, and so I thought I would go back for second helpings this year, with their take on the Miser. Sadly, according to David Johnston, it hasn't been getting great audiences, and he thinks that the fact it's a Moliere has been putting Belfast audiences off coming. But it shouldn't, because its a good night out, even for those, like me who don't know their Molieres from their Molly Malones.

As with last year's production Johnston has kept to the broad structure of the original play, but has transposed it from 17th century France to a mythical 17th century Ulster, complete with suitably contemporary digs at bankers, Ulster-Scots and nefarious land-deals. Some of the stage-craft had a rough-hewn and almost unfinished quality to it (especially a couple of the songs)... not sure whether that is accident or design... The constant breaking down of the fourth wall between audience and stage was certainly intended and added to to enjoyment (to the embarrasment of some audience members... although some of them may have been plants). Andy Gray as the miserly Harpagon had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, but Michael Condron as Jack/Quimph/Carlyle wasn't far behind him on that score.

It's only on at the Elmwood Hall until next Saturday, but you can catch on tour at various venues until July 9th... so do yourself (and the Lyric) a favour and go see it...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Monday Link Up

Had a few favourable responses to my "linkdump" last Monday, so I thought I would do it on a more regular basis, when I've accumulated a critical mass of worthwhile material that demands a little more time and thought than your typical fb post, but which I otherwise wouldn't comment on here at VM. Its probably slightly stunted due to me managing to ditch my blogroll last week... But there's enough here to keep you thinking for a while...
This piece from the BBC is a worthy place to start this time out, as it takes me (and perhaps you) out of my normal sphere of interest into the complex world of Muslim-Christian conflict in Africa, in this case, Nigeria. Think of our own little local difficulties, with the added issue of tribalism, and multiply by a factor of 100 to get a sense of the problem. On the one hand there seems to be the old problem of a leadership deficit, with community leaders negotiating one day and then bowing to mob rule the next... whilst the concept of "forgiveness" seems to be prominent in how the communities are seeking to deal with the repercussions of the conflict (tho' note that it is the Muslim family who are expressly forgiving the young Christian boy in this story). Forgiveness is key to resolving any conflict, be it in Nigeria or Northern Ireland, be it on a national, community or personal level, but only if that forgiveness opens a door to real reconciliation and a change in attitudes and relationships.

Another story from the developing world is this one about Comfort Kumeah a Ghanaian, fairtrade cocoa farmer. I read it somewhere else recently (can't remember where) but it is worth a second look even if you have. Thanks to Patrick Mitchel for flagging it up.

But of course this week's general election is still in our thoughts, and earlier last week over at Connexions, Kim Fabricius pointed us to some of the relevant points in the lectionary for yesterday. What did you or your pastor preach on? And did they tell Kim's joke? Or, did they use Dave Perry's photograph over on VisualTheology as a steeping stone to his reflection on all the talk about cuts, and the perennial tension between (God's) kingdom and empire... whosever empire that might be. All that, however, was before big Gordon was caught speaking his mind about pensioner Gillian Duffy while speeding off in a car... Will that be the death knell of his campaign? The most entertaining coverage of it came with Jon Stewart's round up for American viewers, but at the time of writing there seems to be a bit of a backlash against the media furore, as many people are aware that they have done something similar at one time or other, just not into a Sky News radio mic. Anyway, all of that is a preamble to Maggi Dawn's sideways look at this unhappy incident.

In the final run in to the election, Malcolm Duncan, former director of Faithworks UK, offers us what he thinks are key principles to consider, although I must confess to preferring WhyNotSmile's typically sidelong view of the whole thing...

Well, that's enough to be going on with. Be seeing you...