Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lord Help the Poor and the Needy...

I'm not preaching or leading worship this Sunday, but one of the areas of worship-leading I have greatest difficulty with is preparing appropriate prayers of intercession and petition (or as we call them in our local church "Prayers for Others and Ourselves")... part of that is my developing undertanding of how prayer "works" and what happens when people do (or don't pray). A misreading of the lectionary reading from a couple of Sunday's ago (Luke 18: 1-8), the story of the unjust judge and the persistent widow, might suggest that we have to pester God with our prayers. However, one of the more helpful statements that I have come across in recent years is this quotation in the late lamented Dennis Lennon's book "Fuelling the Fire" which we studied in our book group last year:

"We must not conceive of prayer as an overcoming of God's reluctance, but as a laying hold of his highest willingness."

Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench (9 September, 1807 – 28 March, 1886)

This chimes well with the doxology to Paul's prayer for the Ephesian Church:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (ANIV)

But I do wonder what would happen if, when leading worship some Sunday I were to simply introduce the prayers of intercession, and then play this track from Tom Jones' latest album? (I did warn you that you'd hear more about this album in coming weeks)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Time for Change...

Platform for Change is a diverse group of people from across different sectors, political perspectives and communities across Northern Ireland who have come together for one reason... Wanting systemic change in the political and civic culture of this province... Over the past few years they have hosted a number of events looking at the education debacle, environmental policy, the economy and, core to everything here, community relations. Sadly, because of other commitments I haven't made it to a single event yet, but have followed and contributed to discussions via the virtual world...
With regard to community relations there has been a growing sense of foreboding that there is not much political will to get beyond the much touted "benign apartheid" that we currently experience (no matter what statements are made to the choir about Catholic schools by the First Minister). Many within the group have particularly expressed grave concerns regarding the current DUP/Sinn Fein-drafted consultation document on "Cohesion, Sharing and Integration" (CSI Belfast... "We will be fooled again"), with many believing that the proposed strategy not deliver a shared future... To that end the following open letter was drafted for interested parties to add their names to. It has recieved a significant amount of coverage today both in print and on TV and Radio... The question is, will the First and Deputy First Minister's pay any attention?

If you are interested in signing up to the letter you can do so here, while you can support the work of Platform for Change financially here.

We, citizens of Northern Ireland from diverse backgrounds, believe that the only viable future for this region is as an integrated society in which individuals are free to define their unique identities in their interactions with others, in a culture of tolerance which can enrich the lives of all.

In this context, we express our deep dissatisfaction with the poverty of vision in the consultation document Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, which holds out only a future of sustained segregation, defying the clear public aspiration that we live, work and are educated in common.

The document dispiritingly assumes that Northern Ireland's conventional politically-driven identities will survive indefinitely - and, indeed, should command respect - without regard to the much more fluid multi-ethnic and multi-faith world we now inhabit.

In particular, we express concern that the consultation document threatens the abolition of the Community Relations Council, whose arm's-length status from political control allows it to address all aspects of the challenge of intolerance - funding, research and development - in an holistic manner, in dialogue with practitioners.

We call for the rewriting of this document, in collaboration with independent experts, with clear aims and objectives and concrete programmes and projects to realise them.

We are conscious that no issue can currently be discussed outside of the economic crisis and the prospect of unprecedented public expenditure cuts.

This makes it imperative that Northern Ireland become a culturally dynamic and open society, with effective and efficient public services accessible to all.

Signed by:

Declan Allison, Nigel Arnold, Cllr Tim Attwood, Prof Arthur Aughey, Fergal Barr, Rebecca Bell, Michael Boyd, Paula Bradshaw, Dr Fran Brearton, Orna Brennan, Prof John Brewer, David Brown, Dr Dominic Bryan, Richard Buchanan, Eileen Cairnduff, Tom Cairns, Rev David Campton, Martin Carter, Eileen Chan-Hu, Sue Christie, Paul Collins, Laura Coulter, Keith Crossan, Kerena Crowe, Dave Cullen, Jude Cumiskey, Seamus Davis, Eamonn Deane, Prof Brice Dickson, Sam Donaldson, Damian Donnelly, Jonathon Donnelly, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Karin Eyben, Seamus Farrell, Stephen Farry MLA, Niall Fitzduff, Prof Frank Gaffikin, Prof Tony Gallagher, Neil Galway, Dr Gladys Ganiel, David Gardiner, Chris Gibson, Roz Goldie, Rev Harold Good, Darragh Graham, Edwin Graham, Mahvash Graham, Eva Grossman, Brandon Hamber, Harry Hamilton, Katie Hanlon, Derek Hanway, Dr Jeremy Harbison, Gemma Harkin, Gareth Harper, Afnan Hashemi-Zadeh, Paul Haslam, Dr Katy Hayward, Maureen Hetherington, James Holmlund, Prof Joanne Hughes, Richard Irvine, Dr Neil Jarman, John Kelly, Prof Liam Kennedy, Tony Kennedy, David Kerr, Lauren Kerr, Libby Keys, Alastair Kilgore, Heather Kilgore, Irene Kingston, John Kyle, Colm Larkin, Trevor Lindsay, Leon Litvack, Liam Logan, Prof Edna Longley, John Lowry, Anna McAlister, Damian McAteer, Alan McBride, Eamonn McCallion, Claire McCann, Catherine McCartney, Brian McClinton, Andrew McCracken, Alan McCully, Tony McCusker, Conall McDevitt MLA, Philip McDonagh, Paul McErlean, Gary McFarlane, Karen McFarlane, Robert McGarry, Dympna McGlade, Julian McGrath, Mary McKee, Nuala McKeever, Bebhinn McKinley, Dr Helen McLaughlin, Margaret Lee, Karen McMinn, Tony McMullan, Peter McNeice, Dr Sara Dybris McQuaid, Sinead McShane, Ellen McVea, Barry Magee, Alan Mains, Bill Manwaring, James Marshall, Dr John Milliken, Sheila Mitchell, Ann Moffett, Ciara Moorehead, Neill Morton, Robin Morton, Ray Mullan, Dr Joanne Murphy, Yvonne Naylor, Kevin Neary, Cllr Deirdre Nelson, Dr Paul Nolan, Anne Odling-Smee, David Oldfield, John Peacock, Ian Parsley, Kate Pettis, Claire Pierson, Micheal Poyner, Alexander Redpath, Les Reid, Norman Richardson, Trevor Ringland, Yvonne Robinson, Andrew Scott, Brian Scott, Noel Sheehy, Gerry Skelton, James Smyth, Paul Smyth, Sam Somerville, Denis Stewart, Robin Stuart, Dan Sweeney, Sara Templer, Gerry Tubritt, Deirdre Vincent, Brian Walker, Maeve Walsh, Sinead Walsh, Michael Wardlow, Cllr Billy Webb, Tony Weekes, Philip Whyte, Lisa White, Prof Rick Wilford, Dr Robin Wilson, John Woods, Denise Wright

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Care Of...

I regularly, including today, get letters and emails addressed to me c/o various people and places, and others addressed to others c/o myself. The most recent instance brought to mind an excerpt from the "No.1 Ladies Detective Agency" book I am reading... "The Miracle at Speedy Motors". The context is that Mma Makutsi, Mma Ramotse's assistant is objecting to the address of their detective agency being "c/o Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors", and what follows is Mma Ramotswe's thoughts on the issue. (If you don't know what I am talking about, do yourself a huge favour and go read Alexander McCall Smith's deceptively easy-reading series... it may well be a fantasy but a helpful one...)

"Mma Ramotswe saw nothing undignified in being in the care of anybody. In fact, she thought it was rather reassuring to be in another’s care and, more than that, it was a very convenient way of describing how to find somebody, a way which we used in our everyday lives when talking about those we knew. There were people who were always to be found in the company of one particular friend, and to say, ‘Oh, you’ll always find him walking around with that other man, you know, the one who lives next to the store,’ was surely the same as saying that one was care of the other. Yes, we were all care of one another in the final analysis, at least in Botswana, where people looked for and valued those invisible links that connected people, that made for belonging. We were all cousins, even if remote ones, of somebody; we were all friends of friends, joined together by bonds that you might never see, but that were there, sometimes every bit as strong as hoops of steel.
But, Mma Ramotswe thought that morning as she drank her first cup of red bush tea during her walk about her garden, perhaps this did not apply to everybody; perhaps there were some who were lonely in the middle of all this profusion of friends and relatives, who had lost their people."

I don't know whether this truly reflects how things are in Botswana where these books are set... I do know and see evidence every day of how the natural networks of care and support are breaking down where I live and work. Personally I have huge cause to be grateful for a network of care and compassion that stretches across the globe, and would want that for everyone.
Paul tells the church in Galatia:

Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2 (RSV)

Or in the words of Brother Jones "What Good am I?" (ps you're likely to hear a lot more about this album from me over the next wee while...)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


In some ways this follows on from yesterday's post. As I said yesterday, the Psalms reflect the real feelings of God's people, even when those feelings include the desire to dash enemy children against rocks (Psalm 137: 8-9)... Always wondered how you actually sing a song like that within the context of worship? The fact that such thoughts are included within the hymnbook of the Old Testament does not make them laudable, but it recognises their reality.
Among the laments are what we regard as Psalms 42 & 43, although they are probably a single song, divided into two by someone who went on to be a programme editor for Channel 5. What follows is my paraphrase of these 2 Psalms:

As a wanderer in the desert gasps for water,
so my soul is gasping for you, O God,
My heart thirsts for God, the real God
for the living God of action, instead of the dead God of empty words,
a life-giving oasis, rather than the mirage that is always just out of reach.
I long to leave this earth and live with God.
My only drink is my tears,
I eat myself up from the inside out,
Three meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
While I hear myself saying,
"What sort of a man of God are you?"
Here I am pouring out my heart and soul to you:
The shadow behind the masked-man who leads your people,
Standing smiling at the front of your house, O God,
Singing songs of joy and leading the people in prayers of thanksgiving.

Why are you down in the depths, my soul?
Why so unsettled and unsure?
Focus on God, and praise him;
Praise him until you mean it…
my Saviour and Sustainer.

My soul is weighed down within me;
therefore I will go over and over all that you have done…
Remember your deeds from the dawn of time...
Reflect on your works from one end of the world to the other.
But I heard the turbulent depths within me echoing the roaring depths at the foot of Niagara;
I felt myself being knocked over and broken by breakers, washed away by waves like those in the Atlantic Ocean.
I found myself buried up to the neck, and more by the encroaching dunes of the desert wastes.
I know the LORD loves me night and day
We sing of his everlasting love all the time.
But I pray to the God of my life,
I say to God, my Rock
"Why do I feel like you have forgotten me?
Why do I feel like I am mourning,
Deserted by friends, surrounded by enemies?"
My health is failing as my mind turns rebel and joins the other side saying,
"Where is this God you’re always talking about?"

Why are you down in the depths, my soul?
Why so unsettled and unsure?
Focus on God, and praise him;
Praise him until you mean it…
my Saviour and Sustainer.

Prove me right, O God,
Make your presence felt in the midst of this godless nation;
Prove yourself to the secular scoffers, and to me.
You are supposed to be God, my stronghold,
So why do I feel that I’m standing on the wrong side of the moat and the drawbridge has been pulled up?
Again, why do I feel like I am mourning,
Deserted by friends, surrounded by enemies?
Send your love light as a torch and your truth as a compass,
So I can hike back up, through the low-lying clouds, to the heights of holiness,
to the place where you dwell.
I want to go to the throne of God,
My God,
the wellspring of joy and source of delight.
Then I will recover my voice
My whole being will become an instrument of praise,
O God, my God.

Why are you down in the depths, my soul?
Why so unsettled and unsure?
Focus on God, and praise him;
Praise him until you mean it…
my Saviour and Sustainer.

Psalms 42 & 43
ps. Before anyone else gets really worried and starts sending me anxious emails, this paraphrase does not reflect my current state of mind, but it is informed by it and previous experiences, both of myself and others.

Monday, October 25, 2010

O for that Closer Walk...

Currently the methodist Church in Britain is gearing up to release a new "worship resource" or as it would previously have been called, a hymnbook. Entitled "Singing the Faith" it is the first official Methodist Hymnal in Britain since 1933, as the 1983 publication "Hymns and Psalms" was an ecumenical (and largely unloved) affair. Whilst many Methodists bemoaned the loss of many Wesley hymns from first the 1983 and the most recent list, I must confess that the hymn omitted from "Hymns and Psalms" that I missed most is not one by Chuck or JW, but the one below by William Cowper... And, unless my eyesight is failing me it has also been omitted from the most recent collection...

It was a particular favourite of my mum's, and I suppose it is in my mind because the anniversary of her funeral was last weekend, and it was one of the hymns we sang at it.

But I've often wondered why it was omitted, first from the 1983 and (less surprisingly given the previous omission) from the current compilation. It can't be his Calvinism, given the fact that 6 other hymns made it into the 1983 book, some of which are definitely inferior in the poetic stakes, and his co-author and fellow Olney Hymn collaborator and Calvinist John Newton has a fair number included. I sometimes wonder, however, whether there is a certain embarasment given that it speaks of his sense of being further from God than he was earlier in the journey of faith, which echoes with his recurrent crushing depression, which, towards the end of his life became wedded to a sense of being eternally damned, in the absence of the assurance of salvation that the eternally elect should have.

Yet I think this hymn, like many of the laments in Psalms speaks out of the depth of human experience, and has a good deal more reality to it than many of the trite and triumphant praise songs that have been a feature of so much worship of recent years.

So, if anyone is thinking of compiling a hymn book for real life, can I suggest that this one should have pride of place?

O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb.

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is that soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove! return,
Sweet messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn,
And drove Thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate'er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.

So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

ps. don't you just love his headgear in the picture above!?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

It's Later than You Think...

As I write this it is my youngest son's 10th birthday... How did that happen? Where did those years, and a whole lot more beside, disappear? A few occurances and conversations recently have made me a wee bit more aware of the passing of the years and my own mortality than before... I suppose it's something to do with my own age...

Speaking of which, last night I was actually out enjoying my birthday present from my wife... OK my birthday was in July, but she bought me tickets for a concert (today she's bought me tickets for another concert in May as my Christmas present... There's a pattern developing here). It was a concert by Jools Holland and his fabulous Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, with Alison Moyet as guest artist. The whole night was great but it definitely stepped up a gear when she came on stage. I haven't seen her live since 1986 and was surprised to see that he's lost a heap of weight, but she's lost none of her vocal power. As I said over on facebook she has a voice like liquid chocolate with a large shot of cognac in it. As she sang her 1982 song "Only You" in one way the years just dropped away, but in others the intervening years added a depth and poignancy to the words that was spine-tingling, and of course gave added maturity to that already wonderful voice. It was a shame she only did 4 songs, but when she went off Ruby Turner came on so it wasn't a bad trade off.

But I again pondered on the passing of the years with one of the sign-off songs the R&B orchestra played towards the end of the set. Its a regular feature and was written by Carl Sigman and Herb Magidson back in 1949. It's entitled "Enjoy Youself (It's Later than You Think)" and was recently taken up by Simon Mayo for the end of his drive time show on BBC Radio 2.
The chorus goes:

Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think;
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink.
The years go by as quickly as a wink -
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.

It contrasts the focus on money, with the joys of clubs, foreign travel and beautiful women, suggesting that there's not much point in spending time making money if you don't allow yourself to enjoy what it can buy. And in the absence of any thought of eternity, that's a fair contrast... The prophet Isaiah suggests that it was the mindset of many in the face of impending disaster
But see, there is joy and revelry,
slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep,
eating of meat and drinking of wine!
"Let us eat and drink," you say,
"for tomorrow we die!"
Isaiah 22:13 (ANIV)

And later Paul writes to the church in Corinth (a place where many went to "enjoy themselves") suggesting that the same philosophy should guide us if there is no resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:32).
But in the light of resurrection and eternity, neither money nor the things it can buy... nor indeed fleeting romances, should be our priority... "Enjoying" ourselves in such terms may produced limited dividends, but have few long term benefits. Rather we should be investing our time, our efforts, our lives and our love into those who will live on, and that which will live on... And that becomes more and more important with the passing of the years...

The years go by as quickly as a wink -'s later than you think.

So I'm away to spend time with my son...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Mirror

Have been looking at what the Bible says about Creation and Evolution with my Bible study group this week and my mind went back to this performance poem written by me. I originally posted it on the 1st February back in 2008 in response to some stuff written by Glenn Jordan over on Crookedshore, but it was first written to be performed (brilliantly) by Sharon Morwood, (now Thompson), at the Waterfront Hall as part of "Genesis", a 10th Anniversary event by New Irish Arts, inspired by the first chapter of the Bible.
New Irish Arts continues to try and prompt and support Christians with a creative bent, and have now instituted a "Christian Creatives" event at the Oasis Cafe in East Belfast on the last Tuesday evening of each month. Haven't made it along myself yet but I hope to soon.

If the image of the creator is imprinted on us, male and female, then we are all, in one way or another created to create...

Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror of a morning
and wondered
"What does anyone see in me?"

God looked at himself in a mirror one morning,
a mirror which he had made;
a mirror fashioned out of clay,
transformed into flesh and bone...
And in the mirror of man’s eye
God saw himself.
But it was not good.

He was alone.
And God was never alone.
He was always “us.”
So God made another
to make the picture complete.

And that morning he saw himself in the mirror of mankind
Male and female
Loved and loving
Created to create

Friday, October 22, 2010

Good Company

Earlier in the week I said that I wasn't feeling at my brightest and best. You'll be glad (I hope) to hear that I'm feeling a bit brighter (though I do have to learn from this and behave myself), and a big part in me feeling better is the support and encouragement of family and friends, some knowingly others not. I got an invite to coffee from one colleague just when I was at my absolute nadir, without him having any idea how low I was; I got a word of encouragement from two members of the congregation relaying the positive feedback of others (something that doesn't happen too often) and a friend sent me this reflection shared by their Pastor Vincent Buchanan, at the Good Shepherd Mission last Sunday... Its an adaptation of a piece that has been doing the rounds since long before the internet was invented (don't know whether Vince adapted it himself or not), but it was helpful to me at this time and hopefully it will be helpful to someone else... It stands as a useful counterbalance to the an inappropriate reading of Hebrews 11's rollcall of the faithful, and the tendency we have to paint a picture of "victorious Christian living" that is both unbiblical and unhelpful. I was going to tweak it to put more of my "style" on it, but I've neither the time nor the energy for that at the moment, so, instead here it is exactly as it was sent to me...

'If you ever feel unworthy or inadequate then you are in good company:

Abraham lied
So did Jacob - frequently
Noah got drunk
Hosea's wife was a prostitute
Gideon doubted
So did Thomas
So did John the Baptist
Moses was a murderer
So was Paul
So was David
Who was also an adulterer
Jeremiah was a depressive
Elijah was burnt out
Jonah ran away from God
As did all the disciples, from Jesus
when he was arrested
Peter denied Jesus because he was afraid of death
Lazarus was dead
Samson had a short fuse
So did Moses
So did Peter (we could go on ...)

So, if you are aware of your own inadequacies you are in good company!'


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Take My Mother in Law... No Seriously, Take Her...

According to a recently published 12-page cultural awareness guide the London Borough of Barnet has effectively banned that staple of old-style comedians, the mother in law joke… Of course I would never dream of making jokes about my mother in law… our relationship is no laughing matter…
This is a form of humour that has literally existed since Roman times… mind you they thought throwing Christians to lions was entertaining.
But the guide says “British mother-in-law jokes, as well as offensively sexist in their own right, can also be seen as offensive on the grounds that they disrespect elders or parents.” Old style comedians like Les Dawson would have been left with little to say without the mother-in-law joke, and whilst I’m not into jokes that stereotype or pillory people unfairly, I must say that I’m with the more surreal comedian John Sessions, who I doubt has ever told such a joke, when he suggests that Barnet has had a bit of a sense of humour bypass in publishing this guide.
But whilst this is merely foolishness, what is slightly more worrying is legislation currently being proposed by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, for adoption by the United Nations. It is the Defamation of Religions Resolution, which has been proposed in various forms over the past 11 years, but which if passed in its current form this year would allow governments the power to determine which religious views can and can’t be expressed in their country, and gives the state the right to punish those who express ‘unacceptable’ religious views as they see fit. In effect, it would make religious persecution legal, despite the freedom to practice religion being defined as a universal right under the United Nations Charter. Whilst it is an Islamic Group, supported by around 57 Muslim majority countries which is advocating this resolution, I would be opposed to it no matter who advocated it. At the time of the reformation the supposedly Christian rulers of Europe effectively carved up this continent according to a similar principal of one ruler one faith, prompting centuries of religious wars and persecution between Catholics and Protestants, which has ultimately produced the wonderfully united and tolerant society we live in…
I trust and pray that this resolution will not pass… Because whilst jibes about mother in law's may at times be in bad taste… the sort of world that this resolution would produce is no joke...

(An adaptation of this morning's Thought for the Day on Radio Ulster)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Grace and Truth

Emotionally I'm feeling a bit fragile this week... Probably just exhaustion after a busy few decades... but if anyone were to say anything negative to me at the moment I'd probably burst into tears and run away and hide... That's not my usual state of mind... normally I appreciate robust debate and intelligent critique... always have done, whether in the theatre, in science or in ministry... but at the moment, I'm not too sure I could take it. Which is why I'm encouraged, and inspired, by an unexpected act of grace and humility that I became aware of late on Sunday night...

A few weeks ago our book group finished its latest project, "Total Church" by Tim Chester and Steve Timms, and, as is my practice, I subsequently posted a "review" on the "LivingSocial" site and in the side-bar of this blog... To say that it wasn't complimentary is an understatement, as there were parts of the book and its general tone than left me as angry as I have ever been with a book or its authors... This was, in part, because I agree with them on so much, but found the percieved lack of recognition that there have been people effectively tramping this ground before enormously arrogant... and, as is often the case, whilst they argued powerfully for a small/cell group-based church, there were no suggestions as to how you can get there from one based on the larger congregational model... nor indeed who would pick up the important social capital component provided by church-run youth and adults organisations, if every church changed it's paradigm. There were other quibbles, but let's leave that for another day...

Then on Sunday I was forced into checking internet traffic on my fb account and blog because someone had hacked my son's fb account, and I discovered that blogger now has it's own integral stats monitor (hence I've ditched the free commercial one which some of you noticed was previously hidden under my sign-off). Whilst doing this I noticed that a lot of hits recently had been coming from Tim Chester's site... only to track it back an discover that he had published my snarky little review in full, and without trying to refute or challenge any of my criticisms. Now Tim Chester is a much bigger fish than I am, and many more people will pay attention to his book and blog than to my self-absorbed ramblings... But he didn't have to acknowledge my critique, or point people in the direction of my site... yet he did...

And as I said in a comment I appended on his blog, if reviews such as mine being welcome on his site is representative of people with divergent opinions being welcome in their "Crowded House" network, then that is the secret of their success...

The last time I had such a peak in newbies looking at this site (barring the anomally when I mentioned Michael Jackson shortly after his death), was a blog I posted about 18 months ago about an event I attended which was very, very badly led... I was also in a very, very bad place mentally at the time and I let those leading the event have it with both barrels... I did so without naming them, but everyone who was at the event, or knew of it, knew who I was referring to, and it became a big draw... Until someone rightly pulled me up on whether I had taken my concerns directly to the individuals concerned before so gracelessly lambasting them. I hadn't. And duly chastened I apologised on the blog, before taking the article down completely, and writing to the people concerned via snail mail.

I still believe that what I said was truthful... but there was no grace in it at all. And, for the most part I've tried to remember that when posting anything since then... Check for grace before clicking "publish post."

I still believe what I said in the review of "Total Church" was truthful, and in this case I don't think I was totally graceless in how I said it (although a few weeks on I may have mellowed my tone slightly... but only slightly) indeed I did also include those areas where I think they are saying something very important. But I am really encouraged by the grace with which my slings and arrows have been recieved by Tim Chester...

"Grace and truth": the distinguishing marks of the incarnate Word...


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Woman of no Distinction

Don't often post other people's stuff here... But I found this so powerful that I thought I should. It's a performance poem based on John 4: 4-30, and I have attached the original YouTube video below. A word for women, and men, everywhere... "to be known is to be loved, and to be loved is to be known."

I am a woman of no distinction
of little importance.
I am a women of no reputation
save that which is bad.

You whisper as I pass by and cast judgmental glances,
Though you don’t really take the time to look at me,
Or even get to know me.

For to be known is to be loved,
And to be loved is to be known.
Otherwise what’s the point in doing
either one of them in the first place?


I want someone to look at my face
And not just see two eyes, a nose,
a mouth and two ears;
But to see all that I am, and could be
all my hopes, loves and fears.

But that’s too much to hope for,
to wish for,
or pray for
So I don’t, not anymore.

Now I keep to myself
And by that I mean the pain
that keeps me in my own private jail
The pain that’s brought me here
at midday to this well.

To ask for a drink is no big request
but to ask it of me?
A woman unclean, ashamed,
Used and abused
An outcast, a failure
a disappointment, a sinner.

No drink passing from these hands
to your lips could ever be refreshing
Only condemning, as I’m sure you condemn me now
But you don't.

You’re a man of no distinction;
Though of the utmost importance.
A man with little reputation, at least so far.

You whisper and tell me to my face
what all those glances have been about, and
You take the time to really look at me.
But don’t need to get to know me.

For to be known is to be loved and
To be loved is to be known.

And you know me.
You actually know me;
all of me and everything about me.
Every thought inside and hair on top of my head;
Every hurt stored up, every hope, every dread.

My past and my future, all I am and could be.
You tell me everything,
you tell me about me!

And that which is spoken by another
would bring hate and condemnation.
Coming from you brings love, grace,
mercy, hope and salvation.

I’ve heard of one to come
who could save a wretch like me
And here in my presence, you say
I AM He.

To be known is to be loved;
And to be loved is to be known.

And I just met you.
But I love you.
I don’t know you,
but I want to get to.

Let me run back to town
this is way to much for just me.
There are others: brothers,
sisters, lovers, haters.

The good and the bad, sinners and saints
who should hear what you’ve told me;
who should see what you’ve shown me;
who should taste what you gave me;
who should feel how you forgave me.

For to be known is to be loved;
And to be loved is to be known.
And they all need this, too.
We all do
Need it for our own.

by Chris Kinsley & Drew Francis 2007

Thanks to Colleen Beers over on FB for drawing my attention to this...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bad News, Good News - A Tale of Two Lone Star States

For me, this week has been dominated by 2 news stories emanating from 2 states with similar, but not identical flags…
Being a Liverpool fan, much of my week was marked by the ups and downs of the attempts to oust former owners Hicks and Gillett and sell the club to the Boston Redsox owner John Henry and his NESV consortium... I know that exchanging one American owner for another may seem like a frying-pan/fire situation, but I'm also a Redsox fan and I like what they did there, and anyway, nothing could be worse than the gruesome twosome. However, to wake up on Thursday morning hearing that Tom Hicks had taken out an injunction in a Texas court against the sale of the club, raised in me an unbelievable antipathy to the so-called Lone Star State… Thankfully by the end of the next day the injunction had been lifted and the deal with NESV was done, but it was not a good way to start the day…
It stood in huge contrast to how the previous day began, with much celebratory waving of a similar, though not identical flag to that of Texas, as the Chilean mine rescue came to its emotional climax. By the time I awoke 4 had already been brought to the surface, and I watched through watering eyes as the fifth and youngest of the miners stepped out of the so called Phoenix rescue capsule... I tuned in periodically throughout the day to see many of the others come to the surface too... all of them wearing T-shirts bearing the name of Jesus…
Rarely has one story captivated the media for so long… particularly given that it was a good news story… However, the only problem I’ve had with the whole thing is the sense of some hi-jacking the story for their own ends… Lot’s of people have supported the effort, but I believe firmly in the Biblical principle of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing… so I’ve found some of what is almost “product placement” in the rescue a little distasteful, be it Schramm and their drilling machine, or Oakley who ‘donated’ the wrap-around sunglasses which the miners had to wear emerging into daylight…
But actually in the light of this good news story, I was also slightly disappointed in some of those who claim to be purveyors of the good news of Jesus Christ. During the week the Guardian reported tensions between different Christian traditions, particularly between some evangelicals, the Seventh Day Adventists and Roman Catholics, over who had played the most significant pastoral role and whose prayers were most effective. OK so the Guardian isn’t always sympathetic in matters of faith, but I had previously noticed this jockeying for position myself… Personally I was simply delighted that people of all denominations were united in their prayers for the rescue of the miners… Indeed that people of all faiths and none each played their part in being an answer to those prayers… It was wonderful to see many of those coming to the surface collapsing to their knees in a prayer of thanksgiving to God… he deserves all the glory, but he worked through the determination and expertise of a huge range of people all across this world to bring this good news story to its completion… My friend David Porter has focused on the question of prayer and this rescue in more detail on his blog...
Another friend, Glenn Jordan, has turned his spotlight on another dimension of this story, which I would also make my final plea... PLEASE TAKE THIS STORY IN ITS OWN RIGHT!!!

Lets give thanks to God for what has happened… but lets not use it as a glib illustration of the gospel, the good news that can be ours through Christ, with easy talk of release from the pit etc. I was surprised to find that the Independent on Sunday was the only paper this morning to refer to the rescue on their front page, and that they did so under the headline "Resurrection! - This weekend at least the world seems a better place." If national papers choose to use Biblical language (especially and surprisingly the Independent) all well and good, but for Christian apologists to use this story too simplistically (and too swiftly - the first Christian comments were on my facebook page within minutes of the first rescue) smacks of spiritual product placement and to a large extent devalues both the amazing events of this week and the gospel itself…

I have no doubt that, with time, this story will appear in anthologies of sermon illustrations, and with time that may be legitimate, but as Glenn wrote on his blog

“These real people are not worms for your sermon hooks.”
This good news story is cause for celebration in its own right…

As for God’s good news… well, the only sermon illustration we ever need was the life, death and resurrection of his son.

(This is an adaptation of this morning's "Review of the Week" for Downtown Radio's "Dawn Reflections")

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Exodus Revisited

A couple of weeks ago various news providers picked up on a supposed scientific model for the parting of the Red Sea in the Biblical Book of Exodus. According to a team from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, the waters could have been divided by an east wind of 63 mph blowing for 12 hours… not on the Red Sea proper, but the shallow, but still treacherous Sea of Reeds some miles to the north… Apparently such winds could have created a land bridge about two miles long and three miles wide for four hours. They don’t, however, explain how the Israelites could possibly have crossed this land bridge in the teeth of such a gale.
Given meteorologists inability to predict the weather tomorrow with any accuracy I’m not pinning my belief structure on the scientific truth of this fanciful computer model. Actually, I’m not interested trying to find modern scientific models to explain these and other events described in scripture, but to see what light such stories shine on the modern world… For example, in the Bible we get two radically different pictures of Egypt… at the end of Genesis Egypt is a land of refuge, taking the Israelites in during a time of famine… But turn the page over to Exodus and we find that years have gone by, the Israelites have prospered and are perceived as a threat to the Egyptians… resulting in their persecution and enslavement. When the Israelites finally escaped from Egypt, be it by miraculous or other means, the laws they were given through Moses to govern life in their new land included stipulations protecting aliens and refugees, referring repeatedly to their experience in Egypt… Sadly they subsequently ignored such rules, and this was later cited by the prophets as a reason for God’s judgment on them…
It was interesting that around the same time that news bulletin were relating this supposed scientific model for the Red Sea story, there were also stories, later denied, that the crackdown on Roma migrants in France, might also happen in Germany… And other stories about splits in the Con-Dem coalition government over their strict cap on economic migrants. According to some of our newspapers we’re being swamped by asylum seekers and refugees, and at our synod a few weeks ago I was surprised to hear that here in Northern Ireland we did have a radical up-turn in applications for asylum last year… up from less than 100 to about 200 in total… That should put a strain on public services!
In the light of this, I’m left asking questions, not about the historical and scientific accuracy of miracle stories like the dividing of the Red Sea in Exodus, but whether it would take a miracle to make us a less selfish society? Whether we are we more like the generous and welcoming Egypt of Genesis, or the fearful and oppressive Egypt of Exodus?

(this is a revision of the Thought for the Day on Radio Ulster last Thursday)

Friday, October 15, 2010


Do you know where you are going?
A fortnight ago I was in London for a conference… I had everything worked out in terms of how long it would take me to get from the hotel to Westminster Central Hall where the conference was due to take place… So I set out in good time only to arrive at the door of the conference venue and find that no-one was there except for a security guard…
“No conference on here today mate! Sorry!” he said.
I tried to call a colleague who was going to the same event, but while I was trying and failing to get through to him a message came through from him asking was I already inside?
Eventually, after a few failed attempts I got him and discovered that I had been mistaken... it wasn't Westminster Central Hall it was at, it was in Westminster Chapel…
"I know where that is…" I said, "I’ll be there in about 5 minutes…" and strode off boldly in the right direction, so I thought…
I then arrived at my second destination only to find that what I thought was Westinster Chapel, wasn't...
The irony was that I had actually taken a satnav with me to London but was so confident of where I was going that morning that I left it in the hotel. If I had asked for directions back at the first venue, the security guard could probably have told me where to go... But now standing outside the second wrong destination there was absolutely no-one I could ask… So I looked it up on the internet using my phone… Thank goodness for modern technology… But it isn’t as good as my satnav, and, because I read it incorrectly I started out by heading off in completely the opposite direction that I should have. After walking for 5 minutes in the wrong direction I realized my mistake, and turned around… at last arriving at the conference about half an hour late...
Do you know where you are going? Do you know how to get there? Really?
Jesus says “ I am the way the truth and the life…” He doesn’t just tell us where to go… he shows us the way to get there… and will walk with us every step of the way if we let him…
(An adaptation of this morning's "Just a Moment" on Downtown Radio.)


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Not Omnipresent... But He's Pretty Fast...

As I stated yesterday I do a monthly slot on Downtown Radio's "Just a Moment" every morning for a week and about four days a year when I am on Radio Ulster's "Thought for the Day". Today was one of those days when there was a conjunction of the two and so at 6.55am a fair chunk of the listnership in Northern Ireland couldn't escape my dulcet tones, as I was apparently in two places at the same time talking about two different subjects. Actually if truth be told I was in 3 places at the same time as I was lying at home fast asleep, since both talks had been pre-recorded.
However, this time last week I had a bit of a diary disaster resulting in the difficult task of trying to be physically in two places at the same time.
I have a weekly event every Thursday morning, but a few weeks ago I got a message asking me to speak at a local Primary School Assembly last Thursday morning. I said yes, but totally forgot to put it in my diary or rearrange my other appointment. Ooops.
I only discovered my error the night before when my colleague John asked whether I was going into the school… But by that stage it was too late to rearrange either appointment.
In his recent follow-up to the "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" series, Eoin Colfer portrays the Norse god Thor as some sort of immortal, alien, celebrity superbeing for hire… When his agent Zaphod Beeblebrox is asked whether Thor is omnipresent he says “No… but he’s pretty fast.”
There are times when I think I'm some sort of immortal, (minor-)celebrity super-being for hire. But at times it doesn’t matter how fast I move, I can't be in two places at the same time... and last week I had to make do with being late for one appointment. I’m not omnipresent and I'm not omnipotent… Only God is… And its about time that I stopped trying to move so fast that I give the impression that I’m God…
A few weeks ago a friend gave me a talking to on the same subject... But she didn't just lecture me, she told me about an experience she had once when on holiday in Kenya… One day a guide took her and her husband out into the Masai Mara game reserve. They drove out into the middle of the wilderness, and then the driver switched off the engine. “What now?” asked my friend. “We wait” was the reply… and wait they did… Now my friend is not the most patient of people herself. She's always on the go, but she said
“we sat totally still for 3 hours and for the first half hour - I was cross and bored and hot - and then I watched Africa happen in front of my eyes like I wasn’t there… I’ll never forget it.”
All of the animals that had been hiding just out of sight at the sound of the approaching truck emerged and went about their business… While my friend watched in wonder…
Now I doubt that I'll ever have a similar experience in the heart of Africa... but it can happen in our own hearts if we let it... As we stop amidst the hurly burly of everyday life.
In Psalm 46, towards the end of a Psalm that speaks of natural disaster and international conflict, God says through the Psalmist...
"Be still and know that I am God..."
I often sign off these thoughts with the Hebrew word "Selah". Most commentators think it is a musical term in the Psalms meaning "Pause." Maybe its time I listened to myself, my friend... and of course God himself...

(This is an adaptation of two talks for Downtown's Just a Moment, for yesterday and today.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I'm a Celebrity... of a sort...

Occassionally I go into Primary schools to do assemblies and my general principle has always been wind the kids up, walk away and leave the teachers to scrape them off the ceiling... Well, not quite, but almost... I try to make what I have to say as memorable as possible, so I try to do something a wee bit different each time...

What is interesting is the response I get for a few weeks afterwards... some of the children who are in the youth and children's organisations associated with our church will greet me with a cheery/accusatory "Hey Mister! Weren't you at my school!?" Others who see me on the street quite often do the classic double-take, or 180 degree head-turn... which could potentially cause an accident...

I rarely get the same response from adults... the closest would be when, as at present, I appear on Radio Ulster's "Thought for the Day" (I'm on again tomorrow for those who are interested). This happens about 4 mornings in the year... but I get more comments from those 4 than from the 12 weeks each year that I do for the commercial radio station, Downtown. I don't know whether this says more about the listenership of the resepective stations or whether the folks on Downtown have just got bored of me.

These two experiences are just about as close as I'll ever get to celebrity status... They're flattering in their own small way... But it does make me wonder what it would be like to live in that kind of a celebrity bubble all the time? I'm not sure that I would like it, and it certainly would never be a driving force in any ambition of mine. Even when I was, briefly, considering a career in theatre, whilst I enjoyed the applause at the end of a well-performed play (especially that rarest of things... a standing ovation) and a decent review in a paper, it was never that which inspired me. It was the process of crafting a performance that was the important thing to me... Building a character or shaping a play... forging relationships with other actors each playing their parts... feeding off the creativity of others... I have heard others speak in similar terms about music...

Yet today, with X-Factor, the late-lamented "Big Brother" and "Britain's Got Talent" etc, the emphasis is not on the process but the product... and the product is not a work of art... but artifice...


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Daddy likes me doing it

Last week I was chatting to someone about her young grand-daughter who has just started school, and she spoke with real pride about the child’s fearlessness… she had always enjoyed throwing herself headlong into the water at swimming… but more recently, on her first day at a gymnastics class she had scampered like a monkey up the climbing frame before launching herself into mid-air and landing flat on the big crash mat with a smile a mile wide…
Her mother’s mind was overcome with terror, watching her baby risking life and limb, but when Granny asked her grand-daughter why she enjoyed doing it so much the young girl said “Because Daddy likes me doing it!”
Apparently her Dad had always taken her swimming and being a strong swimmer himself, he had encouraged her to launch out into the deep, knowing that whatever happened he could keep her safe… His pride at her achievements was transparent, and so when she started gymnastics, her confidence in the water transferred to confidence on the apparatus… She knew that her bravery in the water pleased her dad… so she assumed that her bravery on the wall-bars would do the same… Its not that she was doing it to earn her dad's love or appreciation... he wasn't even there at the time, but the sense of safety and love that her father had showed her in the swimming pool had shaped her for other areas of life.
What a difference it makes when we know that we are loved and secure...
What a privilege it is to love and be loved...
In the same setting where I chatted with this lady about her grand-daughter (and by the way she gave me her permission to use the story) I speak far too often with people who have never known love and security... or for one reason or another have had it stripped away...
So much of what they do is then shaped by that lack of love... either seeking it wherever they can or collapsing in on themselves in bitterness or self-blame.
Whilst in each case like that which I come across I would love to wave a magic wand to enable them to feel the love and security that can come from healthy human interactions, what I can do is assure them that no-matter how often human love may let us down, our heavenly Father never will.
As the Psalmist reminds us repeatedly "His love endures forever."
We don't need to earn it. It isn't dependent on what we do, because God is love.
And in that love we can feel eternally secure...

(An adaptation of this morning's Just a Moment on Downtown Radio)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Words, Words, Words...

I enjoy word games… for years my wife, Sally, and I have played "Scrabble" on holiday or late at night, then last year two American friends introduced us to another word game called "Quiddler" that is played using cards… they were with us again at the weekend and introduced us to another one called "Bananagrams" which is like scrabble on speed without a board or points. We also play wordgames online against the clock with friends. Im generally fairly good at word games where I have time to consider how to use my letters and words strategically, but in ones where the clock is ticking, I'm utterly useless… My wife wins the majority of them, as I just can't get the letters down quick enough… I’d love to say she wins the online ones because I can’t type as fast as she can, but whilst that may be true it is not the reason she beats me nearly every time…
But whilst I enjoy word games, words are not just playthings… I enjoy words and wordplay; I love to read, not just for my job, but for pleasure… I love poems and plays, reading and hearing words used well. I enjoy writing… Whether anyone enjoys reading or hearing what I write is a moot point, but I still enjoy it, and I recognize what a privilege it is to be able to read and write… Two generations back, half of my relatives on my father’s side couldn’t even write their own name…
But words are so powerful. They tap into a wellspring of meaning and emotion that is not easily stemmed. There is a story I was told long ago of some nameless tribe (I think it was in Africa) who believed that words are so powerful that they have no name for the knoves that they carry for fear that speaking the word will blunt the edge of their weapon. I think it was the same tribe who reputedly didn't give you their own names until they were certain they could trust you, for similar reasons. I don't know whether either of those stories are true, but they certainly express a truth. That a well written or spoken word can make the difference between healing and harming, hope and despair, life and death, but a careless word can wound deeper than any weapon, and is almost impossible to call back.
The Jewish people have historically been great wordsmiths... perhaps denied by God's commands the ability to create physical representations of how they feel in art for fear of idolatry, they channelled their creative energies into words... songs and poems, stories and psalms. To prevent any fine nuances of meaning getting lost in translation, for much of history a significant number of Jews have refused to let their sacred writings be translated from Hebrew into any other language...
They were also forbidden to abuse or misuse the name of God who created all things by his word of command... So in order to avoid that they never pronounced the sacred name of God, substituting the Hebrew for Lord every time they read God's name in scripture...
Over the past few weeks, as we've been preparing for the 400th Anniversary of the publication of the so-called Authorised or King James Bible, in our Bible Study we've been remembering that one of the greatest privileges we enjoy is the fact that we can read our scriptures our own language. But we've also remembered that the Bible as we have it may include the written word of God, but in Jesus we find the incarnate or living Word of God... no longer an unpronouncable name... But a flesh and blood manifestation of God's creative and redemptive word.
We may love or loathe word games… But if we seek to be followers of God's Word, we need to start putting words into action...

This is an adaptation of my Just a Moment for this morning on Downtown Radio.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Questions, Questions, Questions

I don’t know what I’d do without internet search engines these days… When I'm in a hurry I generally use the ubiquitous Google, but if not I use Easyclick, which pushes a fraction of a penny towards our community project DFCI every time I use it. It's a long time since I've used Ask Jeeves, although it was the one I used most at first. A couple of weeks ago I came across an article about the 10 most unanswerable questions on Ask Jeeves… Perhaps my favourite was number three, which is “Do blondes have more fun?” Now, I ask you, who puts that sort of a question into a search engine and expects any kind of an answer… Or at least any kind of any answer which doesn’t lead you to decidedly dubious websites (and no, I haven't tried it).
But many of the questions are much more profound. Number 8 asks “What is the secret to happiness?” while 7 is “What is love?” I’d suggest that both of them are tied up with the top two questions, number 2 being “Is there a god?” and, number 1 “What is the meaning of life?”
I think it’s interesting that “what is the meaning of life” is higher up the list than “Is there a God” and perhaps, in a world where Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and others affirm that there is no God, or at least no necessity for one, the issue of meaning becomes even more pertinent… The atheist bus campaign last year, backed heavily by Prof. Dawkins suggested that there probably wasn’t a God so we should just get on with life and enjoy ourselves… But maybe just enjoying ourselves isn’t enough of a meaning to life for some… Adverts for the current Alpha Course are also to be found emblazoned across the side of buses nationwide… and one of the posters invites us to fill in the blank in the statement "The Meaning of life is _______"
Maybe the meaning of your life is blank… but I doubt you’ll find the answer on a search engine, or the side of a bus… I’m a Methodist minister, so you’ll not be surprised to hear that I think we find our meaning in relation to the God who gave us life in the first place…
For me, that’s where all answers are ultimately to be found… We may not discover them instantly... and they probably won’t be pat answers… But I believe that God gives us minds to ask questions…
When asked what the most important command in the Jewish Law was Jesus said

"you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind, and with all your strength."

Mark 12:30

Here's a question for you... Did Jesus not know his scriptures? The original command in the Hebrew scriptures was:

"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your
soul and with all your strength."

Deuteronomy 6:5

But for some reason, Jesus, in Mark's account, is recorded as adding the command to love God with our minds... And often we're not encouraged to do that as Christians... we're expected to accept things unquestioningly... as if faith and questions don't go together...
But I think that God gave us minds with which to ask questions... even questions that search engines, scientists and religious specialists like me find difficult…
So keep asking…

(An adaptation of yesterday's Thought for the Day on Radio Ulster)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Death...

Today is national poetry day, and I've been struck by how many people have cited Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle" as one of their favourite poems. It is an amazing, emotionally charged poem, calling for defiance in the face of death. But it is one that speaks, ultimately of a sense of hopelessness.
I think that poetry, or that poetry put to music in the form of lyrics, enables us to address profound human, spiritual issues in a way that prose cannot. Perhaps it is the careful crafting of thought and emotion required for good poetry, I don't know why... But my own favourite poem on the subject of our mortality is a sonnet by John Donne. It is just as defiant in the face of death, but is suffused with the Christian hope of resurrection. So here's my posting in honour of National Poetry Day, and I post it partly in honour of my colleague Rev Wilfred Agnew, who, last night went to his reward after many years serving his Master in this sphere:

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

John Donne (1573-1631)