Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Monday, November 29, 2010

Watch and Wait for God's Promised Peace

I've said a couple of times that I've been away for a few days and on Sunday I really enjoyed being with a friend at her church in East London, with no responsibility for leading worship... It was a good time of worship, teaching and ministry, but I did find it strange that there was no reference to the beginning of Advent...
As the years have gone by I've come to really appreciate the rhythm of the church year, and, while the rest of the world is rushing headlong towards the economic car-crash that Christmas has become, the liturgical calendar encourages us to put the breaks on... to slow down, if not stop altogether...
Well, while I was taking a break this weekend, I was, by the magic of pre-recorded radios, also conducting a studio "service" for the first Sunday in Advent...
If you want to stop for a while and reflect on what Advent is all about, you might want to check out the broadcast on BBC's "Listen Again" feature.

I don't want to hurry you, but it's only available there until next Sunday...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

We Light This Candle

A short liturgy for the first Sunday in Advent.

We light this first candle...
to give thanks for Gods written word
Promising the coming of the Prince of Peace
A light bringing hope in the midst of the darkness of despair
Heralding a new Kingdom of justice and joy
Of righteousness and redemption
Of salvation and security.
We light this candle...
May its light overcome the darkness.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Call to Worship

As I said yesterday, I am not here, if by here I mean at my desk in Belfast doing my usual last minute preparations for worship in Dundonald tomorrow. Instead I'm in London and going to sit anonymously in a pew with my wife tomorrow. But by the miracle that is scheduled posts, I thought I would share this gem by Kim Fabricius over on Connexions. He posted it a while back and I've been trying to think of an appropriate time to link to it or post it... This is as good a time as any

Why are we here?

We are not here to “do a bunk” from the world.
We are not here to “get in touch with our ‘inner selves’”.
We are not here to “recharge our batteries”.
And God help us if we are here to “make a deal” with God:
“Lord, if you do this for me, then I’ll do that for you.”

Why are we here?

We are here because the world is not right,
because we are not right,
and because we are angry about injustice,
sad about suffering,
and ashamed of ourselves.

Why are we here?

We are here because God so loves the world
that he is making it right,
turning it into a new creation;
and because God so loves us
that he is making us right.
turning us into a new people,
making us like Jesus:
faithful, truthful, peaceful, hopeful.
Paul writes: “For those who are in Christ, the whole universe is new”
(II Corinthians 5:17).

We are here because God, in his grace, has called us here.
What else could we do but come?
With gratitude and joy, in the Holy Spirit, let us worship God!


Friday, November 26, 2010

London Calling

A few days ago Crookedshore posted a typically perceptive post on the situation being faced by yet another generation of young Irish people, heading to London, New York, Chicago, Boston and other big centres of ex-pat Irish in search of work. There are those who suggest that this time it may well be disproportionatly those with higher qualifications who leave the sinking ship of the Irish economy, an experience which the majority community in the occupied 6 counties have had for years with young Protestants tending to go to universities across in GB, rather than staying in Ireland, and never coming back. I did read (and post on facebook) an interesting article by Matthew Lynn suggesting that this likely outcome is one of the reasons why it may be better for Ireland to go bust rather than accept the EU/IMF bail-out. I'm not economically competent enough to comment on that in detail, but he raises some interesting issues...

But meanwhile, back at the Crookedshore, he cites one of my favourite artists and posts one of his best tracks "Nothing but the Same old Story"... But he also mentions the Clash and their seminal album "London Calling," which picked up, as no other album this side of the Atlantic did, the political temperature of the time, and the seething cauldron that was London.

As a lover of Springsteen, however I half expected Crookedshore to post the video below which involves his hero, and others, including London boy Declan McManus (aka Elvis Costello), himself descended from ex-pats. It was done as a tribute to Joe Strummer at the 2003 Grammys, following Joe's death in the December of the previous year. It's not as good as the original, its worth a look... (As is this version by Strummer and the Pogues from a St. Patrick's Day gig back in 1988)...

Enjoy... Meanwhile, I'm off to London for a few days with Sal...

In my case it's the "Book of the Dead" calling...


Thursday, November 25, 2010


If you woke up this morning with more health than illness,
you are more blessed than the million who won’t survive the week.
If you have never experienced
the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment,
the agony of torture or the pangs of starvation,
you are ahead of 20 million people around the world.
If you attend a church meeting
without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death,
you are more blessed than almost three billion people in the world.
If you have food in your refrigerator,
clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep,
you are richer than 75% of this world.
If you have money in the bank,
in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace,
youare among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
If your parents are still married and alive,
you are very rare.
If you hold up your head with a smile on your face and are truly thankful,
you are blessed because the majority can,
but most do not.
If you can hold someone’s hand, hug them
or even touch them on the shoulder,
you are blessed because you can offer God’s healing touch.
If you can read this message,
you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world
that cannot read anything at all.
You are so blessed in ways
you may never even know.

An anonymous reflection which has been doing the rounds of the internet for years, but no less worthwhile because of that...
Happy Thanksgiving, not only to my friends in the USA, but to all of you who read these ramblings.

"Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever."
Psalm 107:1

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Black Seam

The news is full of the Pike River Mining Disaster, made so much more tragic in the light of the recent Chilean mine "miracle".
God forgive us glib comments about miracles and prayer and the sovereign grace of God.
God forgive us that we take the dangers that miners (and oil platform engineers, and deep sea fishermen) face, for granted.
The loss of these 29 lives is a tragedy...
But it has also raised for others the many livelihoods lost in coal mining areas in the last major recession in the 1980s... The work down the pits may have been hard and dangerous but it was all that the people of those areas ever knew... And nothing adequate has ever replaced it in most cases... Call centres and car washes... The same is true of all the old industries including the shipyard in Belfast...
In memory of those who have died, and in honour of all those who have worked in coal mines the world and the industries fuelled by it, here is Sting's "We work the black seam together..."

As New Zealand premier John Key said this morning: "We are our brother's keepers..."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Characteristics of the Current Kingdom

A poem/reflection written in the light of the Rob Bell book I reviewed yesterday and Robert Plant's version of the old gospel blues song "Satan, Your Kingdom must Come Down". "Not exactly Sunday School stuff" as He says, but we've got to work out what Kingdom we are subjects of...

A kingdom of accusation and blame
Of guilt and of shame…

An empire of acquisition and consumption
Of fraud and corruption…

A principality of pride and presumption
Of hubris and humiliation…

Shadows and shifting sands
Darkness and dryness
Deception and disappointment
Disease, death and decay

A kingdom constructed from the corpses of the powerless
An empire erected on the gravestones of the poor
A principality without principles
Without compassion
Without grace

A kingdom defined by who’s in and who’s out
An empire defended by force of arms
A principality of oppression
What we want we’ll take
What we have we’ll hold

That kingdom will crumble
That empire will be erased
That principality will cease
With the coming of the Prince of Peace


Monday, November 22, 2010

Jesus Wants to Save Christians

I don't usually post book reviews in the main body of this blog, as I generally post them on Virtual Bookshelf which in turn posts them on facebook and in the sidebar here. But this is a long one (not much shorter than the book itself!), so I thought it best to put it here in a slightly amended form.
In our church we have what we call a "Good Book Group" which meets on an irregular basis on a Sunday night after the evening service in various people's homes, to discuss books that we have read (or more often than not partially read). So far we have looked at:
"Simply Christian" by Tom Wright - a good start...
"Jesus: Safe, Tender Extreme" by Adrian Plass - universally regarded by the group as the waste of too many good trees.
"The Shack" By William Young - the group was interested by some of the issues thrown up but generally appalled by it as a work of literature.
"Living the Resurrection" by Eugene Peterson - not a good introduction to Peterson for most of the group...
"Fuelling the Fire" by Dennis Lennon - a genuinely helpful book on prayer.
"Life with God" by Richard Foster: the first book to really get the group excited...
"Intelligent Church" by Steve Chalke - a good introduction to the church as an incarnational community...
"Finding our Way Again" by Brian McLaren - well received...
"Jesus: The Final Days" by Miller et al - a bit dry...
"The Irresistible Revolution" by Shane Claiborne - divided opinion between those who accepted his theo/political analysis and those who didn't... but left many feeling a little impotent and guilty.
"Total Church" by Tim Chester and Steve Timms - felt a little artificial after Claiborne's book... Covering the same ground but from a theologically more conservative perspective.

Then for this month we chose Rob Bell's "Jesus Wants to Save Christians". As someone in the group pointed out last night, somewhere along the line this idea didn't really compute with whoever was doing the announcements in the church bulletin, as the title became transmogrified to "Jesus Wants to Save Sinners" a much more predictable title.

Not sure what I expected in terms of content when I started this, given the title, but was fairly confident as to what the style would be, having read some of Bell's other stuff and watched a number of his NOOMA pieces... And I certainly wasn't off beam on the latter. In my mind it was a little bit of style over substance, but it was generally well received by our book group, probably because he was doing something that many other Christian writers don't do, which is integrating what he had to say within a cogent picture of the whole Biblical story. Having read other theologians such as Breuggeman myself, it all seemed a little bit watered down (but what do you expect in 180 double spaced pages). Also, some of his exegesis was just plain wrong (eg. his explanation of the context and implications of the encounter between Amos and Amaziah).
But most of the comments on various internet forums and online reviews make no mention of such things, but rather, many there criticise Bell for getting too political, but my only response to them would be wise up and read the Biblical narrative, particularly through the lens of the Prince of Peace who came to bring in an alternative Kingdom, to preach good news to the poor (and don't even think of doing the Houdini-act of spiritualising that!) and died the death of a political subversive.
The sub-text of many of these criticisms is "don't dare criticise America and the so-called American dream" but such a response is exactly what Bell himself preempts in saying that such an approach is actually a defense of an empire that is predicated on keeping people impoverished so that a limited number can enjoy unparalleled comfort. A prophet has to critique his own culture (attend to the plank in his own people's eye) first. Had he been writing in Ireland I trust that his critique would have been on an empire founded on economic idolatry, in Northern Ireland, it would have been based on two competing empires founded on idolatrous nationalisms... as well as the all pervading western myth of consumerist capitalism being a permanent rising tide that can float everyone's boat. Bell was not political with a capital P... he was not endorsing any one particular political party in the US... Many have surmised that he would lean towards the Democrats, although frankly, both parties in the US (and indeed most of those in the UK and Ireland) are so wedded to the model of global capitalism that I wouldn't look to any mainstream party for an alternative to the current "empire".
Indeed one final criticism of this book is that it doesn't really offer any answers. I am left, as so often is the case, with the question "Yes, but how?" How do we, as churches and individual Christians live out those alternative kingdom values in a way that really makes a difference? Answers on a postcard please...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mid Life Crisis Meme

OK... This is another recyled meme from a friend over on Facebook, but this one chimes with me because at a certain time of life a not so young man's fancy turns to thoughts of what they would like to do on this planet before they shuffle off this mortal coil. So this is effectively a "bucket list"
What do I want to do before kicking that proverbial bucket?
Most of mine are to do with travelling... something I didn't do enough of when younger and with fewer responsibilities to/for others.
1) Visits to Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan (Petra) Rome and mainland Greece - largely shaped by my love of ancient history, and particularly Biblical and ancient church history.
2) Visits to India and Sub-saharan Africa: two areas of the world/cultures that I know far too little about.
3) Visits to Grand Canyon and Great Barrier Reef: to appreciate these 2 natural wonders of the world close up.
4) Direct a Shakespeare play again: probably Titus Andronicus with buckets of blood (literally)
5) Completing a doctorate: talked about it and set things up a number of times over the past 15-20 years, just never got it off the ground... (probably won't now...) but talking about getting something off the ground...
6) Doing a parachute jump... probably do one as a fundraiser... I know plenty of people who would pay good money to see me pushed out of a plane, preferably without a parachute however...
7) Seeing my sons as happy and secure adults... In this worrisome world that is, wothout doubt, the most important on this list...

What's on your bucket list? Don't spend too long on it, trying to be too profound or pious... Just rattle them off... Again if you are a blogger, post them on your own site and drop me a note to let me know... Or post them below...


Friday, November 19, 2010

Joy, Joy, My Heart is Full of Joy

In order to counterbalance last week's repost of Ben Myer's 12 Theses on Sadness, and to allay the fears of those who think I'm about to take a long walk off a short pier, here is his recent post on "Joy." Maybe it's just where I am, but I don't find his thinking quite so compelling as in last week's post, however I do firmly believe in something said by Gerald Coates (always one to say something interesting, even if it is completely bonkers far too often)

"If the joy of the Lord is our strength, it's little wonder that the church in Britain has been so weak and ineffective."

Gerald Coates (1984)

1. As icons are painted on gold, so the lives of saints are written on a background of light.
2. Evelyn Underhill knew a saintly man, Father Wainwright. ‘He was an indifferent – and in later years an inarticulate – preacher; people came to his sermons, not so much to listen as to look at his face.’
3. Why are the faces of holy people so important, not only in iconography but also in Christian experience and memory? Joy is the physical surfacing of the light of God. As the moon reflects the sun, so joy shines in the holy face.
4. Each thing shines with its own particularity, the irreducible strangeness of its difference. Chesterton speaks of ‘the startling wetness of water’, ‘the fieriness of fire’, ‘the unutterable muddiness of mud’. Joy is the vision of each thing’s shining, an awareness of the unbearably bright difference of every other thing.
5. A painting summons us to relish its lines and colours; a tree invites us to marvel at its roots and leafy shadows; the body of a lover beckons us to draw delight from its hidden wells; young children demand that we face them while they play, so that the miracle of their difference will not be without witnesses. Left to ourselves we shrink inwards, anaesthetised by a drowsy solipsism. Joy is waking to reality; joy is salvation from the self. It is our startled response to the call of another.
6. Joy is itinerant and can be visited in many places, but its regular venue is friendship. Friendship is the love of difference. The face of the friend is the mirror in which the joy of one's own difference shines.
7. The subjective precondition for joy is not earnestness or sentimentality (much less a posture of generic ‘openness’), but attention. Attention is the discipline of active passivity, an intense concentration on what is there. It is what Simone Weil calls ‘waiting’: ‘We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them [attendus].’ This is why Paul speaks of joy not as aesthetics but as ethics. Writing to the Philippians in the chains of Christ, he subjects them to a moral imperative: ‘Rejoice!’
8. Raw materials for a Christian ethics of joy: the distance of prayer; the patience of reading; the veneration of the meal; the delight of friendship; the tenderness of eros; the love of childhood; the obedience of learning; the speed of imagining; the superfluity of art; and the omneity of language.
9. Joy is most intimately related not to happiness but to sorrow, not to fullness but to the void of non-being. Joy is ontological vulnerability, a leap across the abyss of difference. Sorrow is a small hole in the flute through which joy breathes its tune.
10. Happiness is analogous to joy as Facebook is analogous to friendship, or as a brothel is analogous to marriage. Happiness is the gratification of desire. Joy does not fulfil desire but exceeds it so majestically as to obliterate it. Joy is ascesis, the criticism of desire. The criticism of desire is also desire’s purgation and renovation. Joy is the baptism of desire, its drowning and rising again. The fullness of joy is an ache of absence. ‘Our best havings are wantings’ (C. S. Lewis).
11. Because joy breaks desire and denies all gratification, it finds itself in a strange alliance with the tragic.
12. Joy resists articulation and control. It is always vanishing, always beckoning, inconsolable union of memory and hope. It cannot be grasped since its nature is to undo all grasping. What would it mean to possess joy fully, to hold it fast so that it did not vanish away? That would be resurrection: the shining of eternity in a body of death.

I'm not sure that his distancing of happiness from joy can be justified from scripture except where it is the pseudo-happiness that many Americans (and citizens of the western world in imitation of them) pursue as a constitutional right, rather than the blessed happiness of Jesus' beatitudes (I may also be bristling a little at his glib swipe the easy target of Facebook). However, this piece is worth reading if for nothing than his simple statement that "Sorrow is a small hole in the flute through which joy breathes its tune".

Such an insight offers a perspective of profound beauty and truth.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Memes are clearly a bit like buses, you don't see one for ages then 2 come along at once (and what a coincidence to be writing about memes the day after refering to the book that, I believe, coined the term ,Uncle Dick's "Selfish Gene"). Anyway, over on FB I recently forwarded a 15 influential authors meme that has provided people across the globe with discussion topics (and has set me on the hunt of a few new authors), and tonight I came across this "First 15" meme on Connexions.
The rules are:

1) Turn on your MP3 player or music player on your computer.
2) Go to SHUFFLE songs mode.
3) Write down the first 15 songs that come up–song title and artist–NO editing/cheating, please (no-matter how bizarre or embarrassing the results are).
After listing then tag another fifteen people including me (so I can laugh at your results, although I know in advance that 12 out of 15 on Glenn Jordan's list will be Bruce Springsteen songs, while all of Stocki's list will be U2 tracks or pieces by artists I've never heard of). Bloggers, consider yourself tagged, if you're not then join in via facebook or on the comments section...
But anyway, here's what turned up on my list...
1) Little Wing by Derek and the Dominos "Live at the Filmore"
2) Diana by Paul Anka "100 Hits from the 50's" (How did that get there?)
3) Lay Down Sally by Eric Clapton "Slowhand"
4) Stone Free by the Jimi Hendrix Experience "Are you Experienced?"
5) Teardrops from my Eyes by George Benson with Jools Holland's Big Band "Small World, Big Band"
6) The Grouch by Green Day "Nimrod"
7) Showtime by Nellie Furtado "Loose"
8) Old Love by Eric Clapton "Unplugged"
9) Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkle "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
10) Ain't No Sunshine Now She's Gone by Bill Withers "Notting Hill Soundtrack" (Oh the shame... its Sally's CD honestly... but it is a good track!)
11) Nothing Really Happens by Larry Norman "Upon this Rock"
12) Running to Standstill by U2 "The Joshua Tree"
13) Perfect by Alanis Morisette "Jagged Little Pill"
14) As the Days Go By by Daryl Braithwaite "Peter's Friends Soundtrack" (Let's get this straight... Sally buys all these soundtrack albums, and I don't like this track)
15) She's So High by Blur "The Best of Blur"

Now, let the mutual abuse commence... ( I wonder what would be the first 15 on Richard Dawkins' list?)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pious Plagiarism

I have often said that I have never had an original idea in my life, but I'm content with that given that one of the wise teachers of the Bible tells us that there is "nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1: 9), and I know that I'm not bad at synthesising other people's ideas, recombining them into something that LOOKS vaguely original and creative (and as a friend pointed out to me today, one of my favourite screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin, is a creative magpie, stealing material wholesale from various sources which he then weaves into something wonderful). This has been true of my academic, theological and theatrical work over the years, and I'm generally very careful to attribute sources, particularly if I am lifting material verbatim. When I was in theological college I was frequently told off because my footnotes and references often outweighed the main text of dissertations and assignments, but this was probably caused by an awkward experience in my first degree at Edinburgh, where I was studying biological sciences.
My main subject was zoology, with a minor in psychology, and in one of my zoology assignments I was set the subject of writing on the selective pressures for altruistic behaviour. We'd been covering some of the same ground in a psychology module so I read widely and submitted a paper that I felt relatively proud of. I had even gone beyond some of the material I had read to offer a model based on "game theory", that I believed underpinned or explained a particular form of altruisic behaviour, known as reciprocal altruism, which could still be reconciled with the theories popularised by Richard Dawkins in his then seminal "Selfish Gene". I summed it up in some clever line (so I thought) about "If I scratch your back is there a good statistical probability that at some point in the future you will scratch mine." You're impressed aren't you! Well I was...
Or at least I was until I was summoned into my supervisors office and told that I would have to meet with the head of department and a small panel of other academics the next day to explain some significant plagiarism in my assignment. She didn't point out what they believed had been plagiarised but pointed out that it was significantly serious to warrant a written warning at least. I was absolutely devastated.
The very next day the psychology class was made up of a rescreening of a BBC Horizon documentary featuring the blessed Dawkins, entitled "Nice Guys Finish First" (it would later form a new chapter in the revised edition of "The Selfish Gene"). In that documentary he moved on from chapter 10 of the original version of the Selfish Gene which focuses on altruistic behaviour, under the title of "You Scratch my back, I'll ride on yours" and used almost, word for word, the same analogy re the statistical probability of backs being scratched, that I had used. I hasten to add that as a poor student in the mid 80's I didn't possess a TV and only ever saw TV at lunchtimes in the students' union, where it was permanently showing "Neighbours"... hence I had NEVER seen this documentary before. Some strange parallel evolution of analogy had occurred (OK not so strange, Dawkins had simply read the same papers as I had 2 years before me!) But I could not get out of that class quick enough... I got on my bike and cycled the 3 miles from the main campus to the Zoology Department at King's Buildings faster than I had ever previously managed, and camped outside my supervisor's office until I was able to explain what I thought had happened. Thankfully she bought my story and I was off the hook.
But from there on in I cited everything, even the slightest allusion to or origin of any idea.
However, some people seemingly don't have such scruples. In a piece in The Biblical World this morning I read of theogical seminary students who are paying someone to do essays and participate in online seminars for them.
Mind you, it is good practice for some... In former years I frequently heard William Barclay preach... or rather preached, as preachers lifted portions of William Barclay's Daily Bible commentary, lock, stock and barrel, without ever attributing it, and recently a colleague identified the online source of a student's entire sermon while on placement with them... and having told them this fact, he then did EXACTLY the same the next time he preached... (when scanning the internet for a suitable graphic for this piece I discovered that William Crawley had touched on this subject last year).
I use a wide range of material when preparing my sermons and Bible Studies, but I assiduously attribute sources and radically rework even the most comprehensive treatment of subjects, because not only do I believe Phillips Brooks famous dictum that preaching is "truth through personality" but also that everything must be understood contextually... both exegesis and application must take context into account.
But with both those seminary students and preachers who take short-cuts in this process, just who do they think they are fooling?
(Update 18th November. Today William Crawley picked up the story and links back to the original piece here.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Song in Time of Trouble

For various reasons I've been spending a lot of time, personally and professionally trawling throught the Psalms recently. Yesterday morning a friend pointed me in the direction of Psalm 27. Given my personal circumstances at present and Advent fast approaching the closing verses are particularly appropriate. Here's my take on it...

The LORD is my light and my salvation:
Who have I got to fear?
The LORD is the fortress for my life:
Of what shall I be afraid?
Though many enemies besiege me on all sides,
my heart will not fear;
though world war three break out against me,
even then will I be cool, calm and collected.
One thing I ask from the LORD,
this is what I’m looking for:
that I may live in the presence of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the glory of the LORD and to serve him in his holy place.
For when times are tough he’ll keep me safe behind his ramparts
He’ll lift me up beyond the reach of those who would pull me down
He’ll hide me in the folds of his tent,
high on the rock of his faithfulness
Then I will worship with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the LORD.
Listen LORD, I’m calling at the top of my lungs
Be merciful LORD, and answer me.
My heart said to me, "Seek God’s face!"
So I sought your face, O LORD.
Don’t hide your face from me now.
Don’t turn me away or forsake me
You have always been my helper.
So don’t reject me, O God my Saviour.
Even when my father and mother turned their backs on me,
Your arms were ready to receive me.
Point me in the right direction, O LORD;
lead me along paths where I’ll feel safe from ambush.
Don’t deliver me into the hands of my enemies,
For they will say or do anything to bring me harm.
Despite all that’s going on around me, I am still confident of this:
I will see God’s goodness bear fruit this side of the grave.
Wait for the LORD;
take heart, hold on and wait for the LORD.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A New Version of an Old Song

The Psalms have repeated references to new songs. Perhaps the worshipping community in the Jerusalem Temple were as reluctant to try these new fangled Psalms as many are to try new songs today! What follows is my version of an old song, Psalm 98 that we used as a responsive call to worship at our praise service last night:

Sing to God a brand-new song.
Celebrate what he has done!
He rolled up his sleeves and saved us
With his strong right arm he rescued us.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth!
Break into joyful song!
Play your instruments in praise
Sing songs to the God who gave you your voice.
Let your flutes, fiddles and trumpets
Fill the air with praises to God your King.
Let us join with all creation in praising our creator.
Let the waves of the sea breaking on the shore
Sound like applause to our God.
Let the barking, mooing, cawing and roaring of every living creature be a song of praise to the Lord.
Let the rivers speak of his ever flowing grace
Let the mountains speak of his eternal faithfulness.
Let all creation sing before our God
For he comes…
Come Lord God. Come.

From Psalm 98


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Frank's Prayer for Peace

A prayer that will be widely used today in Remembrance Services, either in read or sung form, will be the so-called "Prayer of Saint Francis." It is popularly attributed to the 13th-century saint Francis of Assisi, but I am reliably informed (and not just by Wikipedia) that the prayer in its popular form cannot be traced back further than 1912, when it was printed in French, in a small spiritual magazine called "La Clochette" ("The Little Bell") as an anonymous prayer.

Seigneur, faites de moi un instrument de votre paix.
Là où il y a de la haine, que je mette l'amour.
Là où il y a l'offense, que je mette le pardon.
Là où il y a la discorde, que je mette l'union.
Là où il y a l'erreur, que je mette la vérité.
Là où il y a le doute, que je mette la foi.
Là où il y a le désespoir, que je mette l'espérance.
Là où il y a les ténèbres, que je mette votre lumière.
Là où il y a la tristesse, que je mette la joie.
Ô Maître, que je ne cherche pas tant à être consolé qu'à consoler,
à être compris qu'à comprendre,
à être aimé qu'à aimer,
car c'est en donnant qu'on reçoit,
c'est en s'oubliant qu'on trouve, c'est en pardonnant qu'on est pardonné,
c'est en mourant qu'on ressuscite à l'éternelle vie.

With the coming of the First World War, it was then promoted by an unusual organisation called "Souvenir Normand", which claimed to be "a work of peace and justice inspired by the testament of William the Conqueror, who is considered to be the ancestor of all the royal families of Europe". William the Conqueror... a harbinger of peace and justice... Who'd have thought it? But to this day many think that peace and justice comes through conquest (See George W's recent biog for example!) even though it seems at odds with the message of this prayer as well as the life and teaching of Jesus.
Anyway, the "Souvenir Normand" sent this prayer to Pope Benedict XV in 1915 and he had an Italian translation published on the front page of L'Osservatore Romano on 20th January 1916. It was subsequently reprinted in many other newspapers across the world in many different languages.
It has been adopted and adapted by many religious bodies and others, including Alcoholics Anonymous, over the years, but probably the most famous version of the prayer is the musical setting by secular Franciscan, Sebastian Temple, published by Oregon Catholic Press in 1967. Like everything, however familiarity can breed contempt... or at least complacency. One of my lecturers at Theological College, Sydney Callaghan, loathed its first line, because he felt that the usual English translations of "channel" or "instrument" reduces us to being merely passive vessels for God's work... And there is something in that... Unless you believe in a sovereignty of God that makes our humanity and free will completely redundant (and there are many who do) there is the sense that God works through us, and can do so whether we want to or not, but it is far better (for ourselves if no-one else) if we work with him. Hence we are not passive/inanimate instruments or channels, but living, breathing agents of his peace...

Anyway, I don't know whether Sydney would like my take on this prayer any better, but here it is:

Lord, make me wellspring of your all-pervading peace.
Where there is hatred and fear, let me show and sow love;
Where there is injury and hurt, let me bring healing and forgiveness;
Where there is doubt and despair, let me bring faith and hope;
Where there is darkness, let your light shine through me;
and where there is sadness, may I share your sustaining joy.

My God and Master, shift my focus from myself.
May I seek to comfort others rather than remain comfortable;
May I listen and hear, rather than seek to speak;
May I love indiscriminately rather than seek love selfishly.
For its only when we give away that we have room to receive;
it is in forgiving that we find ourselves forgiven;
and it is in dying that we really begin to live life to the full. Amen


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Smiles, Sadness and the Silence of God

It's not often that I reblog someone else's piece in its entirety, but this is too good not to... I picked it up through Richard Hall over at Connexions (a great site for picking up material from across the blogsphere when it is not being assailed by Zionists) but it is originally by Ben Myers over on Faith and Theology. Its on a theme I've been touching on a lot recently (clearly my time of life!!!) but it isn't a theme that is covered by many Christian writers. It also mashes well with the song by Andrew Peterson I've posted at the end of the article.

1. The precursor of the human smile was the caveman’s savage grimace (Angus Trumble, A Brief History of the Smile, p. 3). The invention of dentistry is the main difference between this threatening grimace and the polite social convention of the modern smile.

2. In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalisation of a well ordered life. Sadness is moral failure.

3. The motif of late-capitalist society is the stylisation of happiness, the cultivation of lifestyles from which every trace of sadness has been expunged. Peter Berger identified ‘the Protestant smile’ as part of Protestantism’s cultural heritage in the West. In a Catholic country like France, it is still considered crass to smile too often, or at strangers. Evangelical churchliness is the ritualisation of bare-toothed crassness. Our cultural obsession with health, happiness, and positive thinking is a secularisation of the evangelical church service.

4. The cultural triumph of the smile leaves behind a trail of casualties. Where evangelical churches theologise happiness and ritualise the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracised. Sadness is the scarlet letter of the contemporary church, embroidered proof of a person's spiritual failure.

5. When the church’s theological rejection of sadness was secularised, sadness became a pathology requiring medical intervention. The medicalisation of sadness is the final cultural triumph of the Protestant smile. If Luther or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky had lived today, we would have given them Prozac and schooled them in positive thinking. They would have grinned abortively – and written nothing. The truth of sadness is the womb of thought.

6. Somehow the appellation ‘man of sorrows’ attached itself to the church’s memory of Jesus. The sinless humanity of the Son of God was manifest not in happiness or success but in a life of sadness and affliction. Erasing sadness from our culture, we also erase Christ.

7. I know a little boy whose mother had to go away for a few days. When she came home, he cried and told her he had missed her. Touched by his infant sadness, the mother said, ‘It’s nice to be missed’ – and he replied, ‘It’s not nice to miss.’ It is nice to be missed because we learn what love means in the sadness of another. The face that always smiles is the face of a stranger. Love is written on the face of sadness.

8. I know a fellow who was interviewed for ordination in an American denomination. Asked to describe his hope for the church’s future, his eyes filled with tears and he admitted, ‘I don’t know if I have any hope for the church.’ Perplexed by this response, his ecclesiastical interviewers furrowed their brows, scribbled little notes and question-marks, conferred gravely about his fitness for ministry – though they ought to have asked for his prayers, or poured oil on his head, or sat at his feet and made him their bishop.

9. Where sadness is expunged from a culture, the cry for justice falls silent. Johnny Cash carried darkness on his back, refusing to wear bright clothes as long as the world is unredeemed. Why do we dress our priests in black? Are they not in perpetual mourning for a world that is passing away? Is not Christian joy carried out in the shadow of this sadness? In a culture of happiness, it is all the more necessary that our priests continue to wear black, refusing the cheap comfort of bright vestments and the empty promise of the rainbow.

10. At the turn of the millennium, J. G. Ballard wondered how the next generation would perceive the 20th century: ‘My grandchildren are all under the age of four, the first generation who will have no memories of the present century, and are likely to be appalled when they learn what was allowed to take place. For them, our debased entertainment culture and package-tour hedonism will be inextricably linked to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, though we would never make the connection.’ How do we explain the fact that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are immediately succeeded by the cult of happiness and the triumph of the smile? How can it be that the worst century was also the happiest? Our children will interpret our happiness as blindness and self-forgetfulness. We have drugged ourselves against history; sadness is truthful memory.

11.Why are clowns so frightening? Their demonic aura comes from the fact that they never stop smiling. Hell is the country of clowns, where tormented strangers smile at one another compulsively and forever. The devil is the name we give to the Cheshire Cat that is always vanishing just beneath the surface of our world, leaving everywhere sinister traces of a cosmic painted grin. This grin is the secret of history.

12. The Bible promises the end of history and the end of sadness: ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’ (Rev 21:4). This can be understood as eschatological promise only on the presumption that history is catastrophe, a vale of tears. Sadness is overcome through cosmic redemption. A culture without sadness is a culture without hope. The cure for sadness is God.

I'm off to Dublin now to watch Ireland against Samoa... Hopefully I'll be smiling rather than sad after that...


Thursday, November 11, 2010


In a few weeks time Sally and I are heading over to London for a bit of a break and while we’re there we hope to take in an exhibition in the British Museum on the Egyptian Book of the Dead… It may sound a bit dull or maybe even slightly creepy, but I am fascinated by Egyptian culture… I was particularly frustrated not to get to see the Tutankhamun exhibits at the O2 in London a couple of years ago… Maybe I’ll just have to arrange a wee trip to Egypt to see them…
The name of Tutankhamun actually means “The living image of [the god] Amon” although it is thought that he actually changed his name from “Tutankhaten” meaning, The Living image of Aten” when there was a religious revolution which meant that Aten, the god of his father, the heretical monotheist Akhenaten, fell out of favour and the older deity Amon became the national god again…
While he was said to be the image of one god or another, it is ironic that we only know what King Tut looks like insofar as his image is reflected in the famous gold funeral mask…
In scripture we are told that human beings are created in the image of God… yet how often do we hide that image behind a mask?
Sometimes it is a physical mask applied with make-up each morning, to hide blemishes or to help us to conform to what the world sees as beautiful or acceptable…
More often it is a psychological mask that we apply to stop people seeing how we are really feeling…
I've usually only worn make-up while on stage... (although my dear wife discovered a "Dead Sea Mud Mask for Men in her basket of cosmetics and other potions the other day and suggests that I try it out... It won't be any day soon) but the actors in the ancient world wore masks rather than make-up... And got the name "hypocrite" or mask-wearer. Jesus gave that term another meaning when he applied it to Pharisees who went through the motions of religion without any reality behind it... Because of that I've always been wary of being seen as an actor playing a part when leading worship or working with people in pastoral difficulties. I try to abide be the old computing principle of WYSIWYG... what you see is what you get... But even in computing that is a fraud, because behind what you see is a whole other world of computer coding and programming that creates the illusion of simplicity. And behind our public face there is always much more going on that most people see... Sometimes, for our own safety and sanity, and to prevent how we are feeling from getting in the way of us helping others, the masks we wear are more elaborate and all encompassing than at other times.

But whatever mask we wear, for whatever reason, let's remember that God sees behind the mask… He wants us to know that he loves us just the way we are… But wants to help us to reflect his image more freely and fully…

(An adaptation of one of my Just a Moment's for Downtown this week)

How Should we Remember?

Last week Channel 4 Newsreader Jon Snow got into trouble in the media over his reluctance to wear a poppy on TV ahead of Remembrance Sunday (actually he has form on this, so perhaps this isn't news at all!) A viewer left a comment on his blog admonishing him for not wearing the poppy and so dishonouring British war dead and our troops in Afghanistan…
Mr Snow’s response was to refer to this type of attitude as “poppy fascism” before going on to say that it was to protect our freedoms, including the freedom of when or if we want to wear a poppy that British soldiers died in the last world war and continue to die in current conflicts… He said he prefers to wear his on Remembrance Sunday in Church rather than for weeks coming up to that date on the TV.
I have to say that I agree with Mr Snow’s response… I referred last Sunday to the great price of our freedom have been purchased… And I will wear my poppy in proud remembrance of that fact both today and this coming Sunday (all be it with a white poppy to mark my commitment to peace and peacemaking)… but it is wrong to dictate to someone how they should remember the sacrifice of others…
I also said that last Sunday was our monthly communion service, where we remember, not the sacrifice of soldiers in war… but the sacrifice made by the prince of peace… And in a simple sharing of bread and wine we remember the freedom that he won for us through his death… Not simply social and political freedoms, but freedom from sin and death…
In a few weeks time a new "Eucharistic Fellowship" will be having its first public event in one of the churches of which I am nominally the superintendent. Those organising the event say:

“As Christians from different traditions, Roman Catholic and Protestant, we are thankful for the wide-embracing love of Christ, proclaimed and received in the
celebration of Communion. We acknowledge the differences which exist in theological and liturgical practice and request respect for those differences, particularly in the Eucharistic discipline of the Roman Catholic Church. However, we believe firmly that the joy of being present at the Eucharistic worship of another Christian tradition is greater than the pain experienced by observing this Eucharistic discipline. We hope that we will contribute to bringing nearer the day on which we may share a common Eucharist.”
The first celebration of Communion will be in Knock Methodist Church on Monday 22nd November at 8.00pm to which all are welcome. Subsequent celebrations will be held on January 25 (Catholic), March 7 (Church of Ireland) and May 3 (Presbyterian) with specific venues to be published later.
Its on a Monday night, and I don't do Monday nights, and I don't entirely buy into their logic, but I do applaud what they are seeking to do... We have a lot to learn from our varied practices in remembering the Lord's death... And I look forward to the day when all of those who seek to follow Christ can share at one table, wherever that table is... But I hope that no-one ever dictates to me, or expects me to dictate to anyone else the rights and wrongs of how we remember Christ's sacrifice for us.
And the symbols (and liturgy) are not everything. Just because Jon Snow doesn't wear a poppy except in the Remembrance Service in his local church, it doesn't mean he doesn't remember the soldiers who have given their lives in the past and who are still serving overseas, And when it comes to Christ's death... it isn't something that we should remember during a formal service of Holy Communion (however frequent that may be... and John Wesley recommended daily communion...) but much more regularly than that:
In the earliest record of the Jesus words at the Last Supper he says:

"This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me."

(1 Corinthians 11:24-25)

There are those who argue that this is Jesus referring to every time the disciples celebrate Passover, and there is a possibility of that, but it is more likely that he is suggesting that every time they break bread and share wine together, not just in a sacramental meal, but in every late night supper, in every shared meal... That we should remember that we are bound together there not simply by the rules of table fellowship and friendship, but by the body and blood of Jesus himself.

(An adaptation of my Just a Moment for Downtown Radio this morning)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Education and Learning

Currently there’s is a lot of tension concerning the future of education in this country…
First there's the debacle concerning the local post-primary transfer tests, which condemns kids to up to 5 tests over the next 4 Saturdays in alien surroundings... and asking their parents to pay for the privilege.
Then there's the likely threefold increase in third level education tuition fees, resulting in the protests, peaceful and otherwise, in London today.
In both, people from poorer backgrounds will undoubtedly be affected more than others… Yes there is provision for those who recieve "free school meals" to have transfer tests waived, and there will, we are told, be no up-front costs for people going to university and graduates will only have to pay back their "loan" when their earnings rise above a certain level, but this ignores some key facts about those from some disadvantaged areas.
First, not everyone takes up the option of free school meals because of the percieved stigma involved, having their children come home or take low-cost packed lunches instead. Second, many of those who are second or third generation unemployed have never experienced or known anyone within their circle of friends who have experienced the full benefits of education... particularly as the schooling system in our selective system has become more and more divided in socio-economic terms, hence they are less likely to pay the money for the transfer tests and are likely to be wary of getting deep into debt for something as intangible as a university education…
And to those people who see education at worst as a chore or at best a bit of a luxury some of the courses on offer at university don't help… The strangest I’ve seen recently was one entitled "Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame". Admittedly this isn’t on offer in a British University, but at the University of South Carolina (although I'm sure I could find equally bizarre options this side of the Atlantic with little difficulty).
Education was a key factor in helping me to become the person I now am (for good or ill). My love of learning and particularly through the written word was triggered by my brothers buying me the "Junior Encyclopaedia" when I was 8 years old... It arrived one volume at a time on a Thursday night every two weeks, and I devoured every page, right through to Volume 18 the atlas and glossary! I then went on to pass what was supposed to be the last ever 11 Plus in Northern Ireland back in 1977, one of very few from my primary school to do so... Most of my male classmates were destined for the local secondary school. It is now a superb school, but then it was simply an exercise in marking time for the kids to go on into the shipyard, the aircraft factory, or increasingly the dole, and/or paramilitarism...
But education freed me from that... opening the way for me to go to university. I was the first person from my immediate family ever to go to university, and I valued that privilege enormously, especially given that I was able to attend a university outside Northern Ireland… giving me a perspective on this province that I would almost want to make compulsory for anyone growing up in this wonderful, yet chronically introverted part of the world. At university, for both my degrees (education is like a drug, I just couldn't get enough) most of my courses were slightly less bizarre than The Lady Gaga one… although many of the facts I learned I have never used subsequently (how useful is it for a Methodist minister to know how a female drosophila melanogaster selects its mate?). What I did learn, however, was how to learn… and that has stood me in good stead for the rest of my life…
Over on Crookedshore, Glenn Jordan has flagged up the following wonderful lecture from the RSA on the nature of teaching and learning... take some time out and have a look for yourself...

Sadly, I don't think that ideas of this kind are shaping the education policy either here in Northern Ireland or at Westminster... I fear it is more to do with party politics ("If they're for it, I'm against it!"), pounds, shillings and pence, and keeping teenagers off street-corners and unemployment statistics.
But going back to my experience, as well as the educational, economic and social doors that passing the 11plus opened for me, it also took me to a school with a strong Christian ethos (without being an explicitly denominational or "faith" school) and within that school I came under the influence of wonderful Christian teachers, and within the orbit of Christian peers, who helped to challenge and shape me, and introduce me to the Jesus who says:
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Takemy yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and youwill find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
(Matthew 11:28-30)
No admission tests, written assignments, course fees, or student debts… Just an invitation to all to learn from the Master…

(An adaptation of my Just a Moment for Downtown Radio this morning.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Massive losses for the Democratic Party in this week’s US mid-term elections, mean that President Obama will have to deal with a somewhat hostile House of Representatives for the next two years (although they did manage to hold on to the Senate, and some commentators point out that it wasn't all good news for the right wing Tea Party…)
I don't know why it came as such a surprise as, even from an observation point thousands of miles away across the Atlantic, that seemed to be the way it was shaping. Obama described the defeat as a shellacking, which produced a flurry of etymological debates... Where did this unusual word come from? Again, I'm slightly mystified as to the surprise and confusion, I've seen and read this in American sports commentaries and gangster movies for years. Originally I, like most of the current crop of internet etymologists, associated it with the "shellack" varnish, in the same way that we might talk about someone getting "pasted" but then I was reliably informed by an Irish speaker (though it was in a pub after a number of Mr Arthur Guinness' most famous product so perhaps it isn't that reliable a source) that it is an Anglicised spelling of the word meaning to be beaten with a shilleleagh, and was only associated with the varnish because it sounded similar. Given that some of the original usage of "shellacking" in terms of a "beating" seems to have been around Boston, which is easily the most Irish city in America, I could believe that. And don't forget that there's no-one so Irish as Barack O'Bama...

But whatever the origins of the word, whilst the Democrats may have taken an electoral beating, thankfully it was not a physical one (they stopped using physical intimidation in American elections years ago... although in Obama's own electoral home of Chicago that wasn't too long ago…) In America, Britain and much of the rest of the western world we enjoy enormous political freedoms. But other nations are not so fortunate when it comes to elections… Today Burma goes to the polls for the first time in 20 years… During most those 2 decades the winner of the last election Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest by the military dictatorship which overturned the previous results… And they do not seem to be willing to give up power without a struggle… The junta is implicated in widespread intimidation, electoral fraud and the disappearance of opposition activists… There is also speculation that they have conspired with cyber-criminals to paralyse the internet in Burma to prevent outside bodies and countries influencing the populace as they go to the polls.
But as well as political freedoms we also enjoy phenomenal religious freedoms… As we worshipped in peace last Sunday some of our Christian brothers and sisters in Baghdad were dying because of the actions of Islamist Al Qaeda terrorists who had kidnapped them at Mass in Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church… Like Richard Hall over at Connexions, I am perpetually dumbfounded when some in the United Kingdom whine about religious persecution here, in the light of real persecution in Iraq and elsewhere, and by the fact that we forget that the Christian community survived (if not thrived) under Muslim rule for around 1500 years in Baghdad until Bush and Blair decided to go on their hunt for weapons of mass distraction.
Two days ago on Guy Fawkes night, Britain remembered a period in British history when religion and politics were, literally an explosive combination… But we turned our back on that and built an inclusive democracy based upon tolerance and freedom… The United States theoretically went one stage further by separating church and state, a (literally) revolutionary idea at the time.
This coming week here in the UK we remember the cost of defending our freedoms in terms of the death of people in two world wars and more…
And today, in our local church, we remember in communion, together with brothers and sisters all around the globe, the freedom that Christ won for us through his death and resurrection… Not just political and religious freedom, but freedom from sin and death…
Let us not take any of these hard won priveleges for granted, but live our lives in thankful service to God… doing all we can through prayer and action to share our freedoms with others…

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Last Saturday I noticed an amusing coincidence... I routinely listen to music while I read or write, and more so when I am doing paperwork, and I generally just set my substantial collection of music to shuffle itself in order to provide the audio-wallpaper. If I'm concentrating on what I'm doing I don't really pay much attention to the individual songs, but I was jarred out of what I was doing by the fact that two consecutive songs by different artists or different albums used exactly the same words in their introduction... the songs were "Becoming more Like Alfie" by The Divine Comedy, and "Michael Caine" by Madness, both of which use variations on the line "My name is Michael Caine". Bizarre! I can't imagine what the odds were... I'm sure I could calculate them, but I'm not that dull or devoid of more useful things to do...
It was an amusing, but essentially trivial coincidence...
But over the past few weeks more significant coincidences have taken place in my life, people contacting me and suggesting a coffee or turning up in unusual places at just the right time, and unprompted and unexpected words of encouragement just when I needed them. On two of those occasions they occured immediately after someone else had directly prayed with me or said they would pray for me.
They brought to mind Archbishop William Temple's famous statement:

"When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't."
My mother in law is a great believer in coincidences as signs of God watching over us, or prompts in the right direction... She compiles such stories and has even written about some of them in the light of her own bereavement in a book called "Joyful Witness", but I am also aware that many poo-poo such incidents as being our brain imposing meaning on chaos. They argue that we only see such events as significant when they actually occur and we ignore all the other incidences where nothing happens.
Coincidences or God-incidences? Statistically improbable miracles or retrospective re-interpretation of events?
Either way, the people involved have helped me to find my way through an apparently chaotic set of circumstances... So I thank them as well as the God whom I believe stands behind them...