Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Sunday, January 30, 2011

I will Bless the Lord

A responsive Psalm we're using at worship in DMC this morning, based (very roughly) on Psalm 34.

I will bless the LORD every chance I get;
his praise will always pour from my lips.
My soul will boast about what the LORD has done
Let those who face troubles hear me and rejoice.
Glorify God with me:
let us lift up his name together.
I looked for the LORD, and he didn’t let me down;
he freed me from all that I feared.
Those who seek him will smile in the end;
All sense of shame will be removed from their faces.
The helpless and hopeless call on him, and the LORD hears their cry;
he saves them from their troubles.
Taste and see! The LORD is good;
Happy are those who hide themselves in him.
Turn from evil and do what is right;
seek peace and pursue it.
The LORD looks out for the righteous
his ears are attentive to their cry;
The LORD is close to the broken-hearted
He saves those who are crushed in spirit.
So let us glorify God our refuge:
let us lift up his name together.
From Psalms 34

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Any Human Heart?

I didn't watch the dramatisation of this book on TV recently nor is it a book I would have purchased for many reasons, but it was a Christmas gift and I felt I should give it a go. One the whole I was glad I did... the colour of the characterisations, the narrative drive and overall quality of the writing was excellent, and it offers an interesting snapshot of the 20th century through the eratic, and at times erotic, journal entries of Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, a single lifeline woven through significant political and artistic events of that timeframe... without the whimsical, saccharine coated faux folk wisdom of a Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button...
The diary format is well used... There is a sense of a slightly different voice as the years go by... the format of the entries also changes, and I suppose it was interestiing to read this book which purports to be the private thoughts of a lesser known public figure, while I've been ruminating about the "public journal" function of my own blog.
However, those who have referred to this book in print and on internet forums as an "ordinary life" clearly live on a different planet from me and a lot of the other inhabitants of the UK/world. Many of the references to authors and artists were to people whose names I didn't recognise, resulting in many trips to wikipedia to check whether they were real people or Boyd's literary inventions. Maybe that is a sign of my philistinism or a sign of the rarified world in which Boyd and his creation exists. The picaresque hero, Logan Mountstuart, or LMS as he is referred to in "editorial" comments and footnotes, is part of that priveleged elite that has dominated politics (and the arts) in Britain throughout the past century (and there seems no sign of that changing in the early years of the 21st) simply by dint of their birth and schooling...
And that is one of the reasons that I wouldn't have chosen this book for myself, and am no great lover of Evelyn Waugh, who in many ways seems the literary model for LMS. At the end of the day any interest I had in the life of LMS was simply to "see how it all turns out." I have no real point of reference for his priveleged and largely hedonistic lifestyle. There was only passing reference to spiritual matters, and that was more about the form rather than the substance of faith and religion, but I suppose that is a fair reflection of many people's attitude to matters of faith right across the social divide. Most of the book is about the pursuit of fame, fortune and females... Without spoiling the read for you, his selfishness is ameliorated with age... and ultimately, the big lesson of his life seems that for all his achievements and romantic conquests real relationships are what ultimately matter.
Is that what is really true of any human heart?

Friday, January 28, 2011

To Blog or Not to Blog...

Well, it's been a while... Haven't been blogging much for a combination of reasons... First I was quite busy last week in a way I haven't been for months. Then, this week, I have been feeling a bit down again and just haven't had the mental energy for much more than crawling out of bed (just call me yoyo man). And finally, I've been doing a bit of thinking about the motivations for, wisdom and etiquette of blogging, prompted by a couple of events and conversations...
First, a friend of a friend found herself seriously burned by the print media because of a blog she had been writing... no names, as I don't want to play by the same appalling sensationalist rules the papers do... Essentially she'd been writing a blog based on her life against the background of the current economic ills. It had recieved a little attention in the Sunday Times business section last November, but last week the Guardian/Telegraph/Mail and Express (and probably a few others that I haven't read) made her, her blog and her family the focus of their collective mockery and ire. There has been much talk of her being "outed" or "uncovered", but I'm told that the blog was never anonymous in the first place... Why she suddenly became (relatively) big news is hard to understand... There are many who would argue that the blog was in bad taste... But it was self-mocking, didn't make any claims to be anything special, and anyone offended by it didn't have to read it... But as a result of the print media feeding frenzy, and subsequent internet bitchiness, the blog has been taken down... although it has been replaced by a nasty little satirical blog by some anonymous writer claiming to be the original author and having great fun at their expense...

Had I not indirectly known the blogger in question, I wonder whether I would have been happy to add to the collective vitriol, given that their attitudes to many things are a million miles from my own? I hope not, because given that I do know a little of the circumstances I realise the personal impact of such attacks... The author was not advocating child sacrifice or the torturing of puppies... Just engaging in some possibly ill-judged (though not off-colour) humour on a blog read by relatively few people. Neither she, nor her family deserved the derision they recieved, particularly given the right wing political positions taken by many of the papers that were critical of her blog. I hope that the media never have a go at me in such a way, though I'm sure they could, as my world view is equally at odds with theirs, even if in a different direction. But the thing about blogs is, if you put one out there in the public domain, you are opening yourself to criticism by whoever happens to read your stuff... and whether that criticism is justified or not, it is entirely legitimate...

The second event that set me thinking one such things was when a colleague pointed me in the direction of another blog I had been following for a while, but had missed recently due to illness. In the blog various members had been sharing their experiences in a team venture, with different members of the team sharing their perspective each day (again I'm not using names for fear of drawing more attention to this than it is already recieving, but those involved will probably know what I'm referring to straight away). This approach to the blog gave a fairly rounded picture of the whole experience, but then towards the end, one member started to express a viewpoint completely at odds with the others... More negative and, I would say, self-righteous, about the whole thing.

Now a few years ago I found myself at an event which I didn't enjoy very much, and on the pages of this blog I expressed my disatisfaction in technicolour. I had kept things anonymous to avoid hurt, supposedly, but everyone who knew me knew what and who I was talking about, and my blog became one of the most circulated pieces of news in some circles for a while. Then one correspondent rightly pulled me up for expressing my dissatisfaction on the blog without first directly approaching the people in question. In the light of that I took down the relevant postings, apologised to my readers and sent a written apology to the individuals concerned.

I don't know whether the complainant in the team blog I was pointed to last week had aired their concerns in real life too... I hope so... They may well be making valid points but I'm not sure that a team blog is the correct forum to express them without also expressing the ways that they attempted to resolve those issues in real life...

This team blog was in effect a public team journal, and many people, including myself use blogs as a pseudo-journal. But there is a huge difference in writing a journal in a diary locked away safe and sound in your bedside cabinet, or somewhere else, and the semi-public forum of a blog...

Which brings me, finally my own recent blogging...

The few of you who read this blog will have noticed the somewhat introspective nature of some of my output for some months now... This is a function of a number of things... Primarily the fact I've been having difficulties with depression and anxiety recently. I discovered last week, however that a number of people have read these blogs and other updates on facebook and added 2+2 to make 42. Am I leaving the ordained ministry? Am I headed for divorce?

"Not so far as I am aware," would be my answer on both counts...
Why so public about it? Well, it is partly because I DO use the blog as a pseudo-journal... Working out some of my thoughts on screen. I don't have the personal discipline to write a purely personal journal (ironically it seems self-indulgent to me) and I appreciate the (small) audience of people who from time to time act as encouragers, as well as checks and balances (as in the episode mentioned above). In the same way I'm not self-disciplined enough to go to the gym or for a swim on my own regularly over a sustained period, but need others like my football mates to make me take time to exercise. Also, part of my particular condition has been a reluctance to articulate my problems (except under the guise of self-deprecating humour), lest I be seen as "weak" (and for other reasons), so I've had to be relatively public about admitting my needs recently... first with a few colleagues, then my leaders and subsequently my congregation... So, dear readers, please consider yourself in the loop now... Although reading back over the posts between May and October, anyone who didn't spot the signs of depression probably needs professional help themselves!

Is it appropriate for anyone to be exposing themselves in such a way? Particularly a Christian leader? Well the more I've read around the subject in scripture the more I'm convinced that God is more likely to work through my weaknesses than my strengths!

But again and again I came back to the question as to whether a blog is a healthy way to air any of these things. And, anyway, is blogging not just an exercise in vanity publishing without the expense of producing a book? This post has sat on my desktop for a week now, and in my darkest days this week I have seriously thought about taking down the entire blog. However, I've given it a reprieve and will continue for the time being. As for those of you who don't like the fact that I've been so navel-gazing recently, then, repspectfully, don't read it... or unfriend me on facebook to prevent you seeing syndication there... For those who have seen what I've written and got in touch one way or another to express concern or support, thank you.

Meanwhile I'm waiting for the day when the Methodist Recorder does a hatchet job on me! Then I'll have really broken through!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Everyone Needs Compassion (except myself)

Everyone needs compassion,
Love that's never failing;
Let mercy fall on me.

Ben Fielding/Reuben Morgan © 2006 Hillsong Publishing

I need help with my homework… I’ve been set a challenge by the person helping me to work through the mess in my head, to do a Biblical exegesis on compassion and, more specifically, self-compassion, in scripture… And the thing is, it’s not going well…
I’m enjoying the challenge… and there’s plenty of really good stuff to be drawn from it, particularly on the compassion of Jesus… (Congregation beware, I feel a sermon or two coming on). In the Old Testament compassion is seen as a synonymous term for mercy or pity, and it can be a human or divine attribute, although at times God's compassion can seem a little arbitrary eg. Exodus 33: 19 “I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion”. Paul tends to use the more commonplace Greek word for compassion/pity/mercy which equates fairly well with the Old Testament concept, but the Greek word which is most frequently translated as compassion in the Gospel, splanchnizomai, holds within it the idea that compassion is something that grips the very viscera of Jesus…
Time and again the gospels tell us that Jesus “had compassion on them/him/her” - delete as applicable (Matthew 9: 36; 14: 14; 15: 32; 20: 34, Mark 6: 34, 8: 2) or that he was “filled with compassion” (Mark 1: 41 a phrase which is also used to describe the feelings of the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15: 20). It is an unusual word in Greek, indeed it may have been coined by the writer of Mark’s Gospel to express the depth of Jesus pity, drawing on a word that usually referred to the bits of a sacrificial animal reserved for Zeus, the most high god of the Greeks.
But therein lies part of my problem… I’m so wedded to a theology of Jesus as the sacrificial, suffering servant, that seeking to be, in Graham Kendrick's words, a "servant of the servant king" means self-compassion can often take a back seat in seeking to serve others… The suffering servant passages of Isaiah are jam-packed with references to compassion on others (Isaiah 49: 13; 51: 3; 54: 7-10; 60: 10 & 63: 7) but the servant takes a terrible beating because of his compassion and calling. Indeed I can find no explicit scriptural references to self-compassion…
Does that mean that I have Biblical warrant to beat myself up when I invariably fail to live up to my own exacting standards, never mind God’s? I have spent a lifetime living by a code of “no matter how hard anyone else is on me, I’m harder.” That’s how I’ve achieved what I have… but its also what has driven me to the edge of complete collapse. That sort of a mindset, wedded to a sacrifical servant theology and a messiah/superman complex, where I (like many pastors/care professionals) am sure that I have/am the answers to everyone's problems is very, very dangerous...
Everyone needs compassion, don’t they?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Not So Blue Monday...

This post actually started out as a facebook status update... But it got so ridiculously long that I thought I'd write it up here instead...
According to those who know about such things (like producers of daytime chatshows on TV and radio) this is "blue Monday"... the unhappiest day of the year, thanks to weather, bills from Christmas, family tensions that have been boiling up over the holiday incarceration with the family etc. According to Ben Goldacre, the author of Bad Science, back in 2006, it's all a piece of spurious maths prompted by Sky Travel, but the story still keeps rolling out year after year regardless.
I, however, am quite happy to buck the supposed trend towards doom, misery, hopelessness and despair today... Despite some sad news from a friend yesterday, this is the best day of the year so far for me... After weeks of physical ailments, including a chest infection and more recently food poisoning, I'm feeling relatively healthy this morning (despite the worst tasting cup of coffee in history)... I'm still carrying a couple of physical injuries that I'll have to work on, but that's a function of being a fat 45 year old diabetic, and I can live with that...
But I'm also feeling more like myself mentally than I have in nearly 9 months, and for that I am profoundly thankful... I'm not back on par yet, and I'm not rushing to take on all that I have been forced to set down over the past few months, but it is a relief to feel good about myself again...
And the main point of this post is simply to say thank you... to colleagues, professionals, family, friends, members of the congregation (in no particular order and no names, no pack drill), who have stuck by me, helped and are helping me through it...
But as I was writing this post, my thoughts were drawn to the phrase "Blue Monday" itself... the title of New Order's most famous track and the soundtrack to my last year at school thanks to it being played on a constant loop in the 6th form centre.
A lot of my melancholy over the past year has involved nostalgia about school and university days, addressing issues about my upbringing, and unachieved goals (typical middle-aged stuff), but also issues concerning my vocation as a Methodist Minister. In "Blue Monday" it says:

Those who came before me
Lived through their vocations
From the past until completion
They'll turn away no more

I doubt they were referring to the vocations of Methodist ministers when they wrote that... but certainly the myth of vocation in the past has been one of a single motivating vocation for the whole of life... And I look with awe and admiration on the lives of those who have lived out such vocations... But at the moment I'm trying to work out whether the call that drew me into ministry and which has shaped my life over the past 20 years is what will determine the direction of the next 20 (or hopefully more)? Before anyone panics, that doesn't mean I'm about to throw everything up in the air... but because of the help of those mentioned above, I'm now in a better place to listen to what God is actually calling me to do, rather than everything I have been doing for a long time...
I hope you'll keep me company as I explore what that is... and that today isn't too blue for you.
ps. No sooner had I posted this than WhyNotSmile posted another of her Guides to life the universe and everything, including some very helpful tips on coping with being down...

Monday, January 10, 2011

The University of Animated Characters

Followers of my wife on facebook may have noted a few days ago (epiphany to be exact for reasons that will become obvious) a comment concerning the sources of information drawn on by our youngest son and a question as to whether she should be encouraged or despairing... What happened was that we were having a discussion about the 12 Days of Christmas, Twelfth Night and Epiphany, whilst taking down the Christmas decorations (we often have such high-brow conversations in our house). Our 15 year old son asked "What's Epiphany mean?" to which Ciaran, our 10 year old said "Epiphany - a sudden realisation..."

"Where did you learn that Ciaran?" I asked, only to be told "The Simpsons Movie."

On Saturday we had a second episode - I came into the kitchen to find him discussing Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's 5 Stages of Grief with his mum... The source of this bizarre conversation - a section in his "Spiderman Handbook" entitled "How to Deal with the Death of a Loved One". This, apparently is important since the "Bureau of Superhero Statistics" suggests that the friends and relatives of masked do-gooders are 61 times more likely to suffer tragic (and bizarre) deaths than the general population. Hence Kubler-Ross's much misunderstood stages of grief were translated into the webslinger's words of wisdom as follows:

1) Denial: "She can't be dead. She'll turn up and everything will be fine."

2) Anger: "How could this happen to me? It's not fair!"

3) Bargaining: "If she comes back I promise never to wear the costume again."

4) Depression: "The world is an ugly place full of shape-shifting villains and psychotic robots."

5) Acceptance: "Wow. She really is dead. Well... on to the next one."

Also, super-heroes have an added layer of guilt... the feeling that "if only I'd been there sooner, she'd be alive."

All very amusing... but I wouldn't recommend passing this on to anyone coping with actual grief, unless of course they too are complete Spiderman addicts.

In the meantime I look forward with anticipation as to where Ciaran's next nugget of knowledge comes from...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Treasure in Jars of Clay

Just thinking about what I want to say at a service tomorrow night regarding human weakness, and remembered a short poem/pensee I wrote years ago II Corinthians 4: 7. Its a reblog...

Cracked, clay pot
containing hard cold earth
beneath the surface
sits a seed-stored life


Thursday, January 6, 2011


Partly prompted by the thoughts of Will Grady reblogged on Connexions, what follows is a brief excerpt from the New Irish Arts show "I Witness" that I wrote a few years ago... They're the words of Mary, Jesus' mother, as she thinks back on her first-born's early years...

He who was there when the universe was formed, took form inside my womb… He who is the source of all good gifts suckled at my breast… He who walked in the Garden of Eden, I taught to walk as a toddler… He who carved the commandments on tablets of stone with his finger, learned them from me at the kitchen table… He who inspired the psalmists, learned their songs on my knee… It was amazing… I saw the son of God grow into a man…
I know every mother thinks that their child is perfect… Particularly their first… But my son was…


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Total Church

Before I turn to the actual review of this book, let me put this on record... What follows is the material that originally sat in the sidebar of this blog, and I'm merely doing what I said I would do after Christmas, ie. thinning out some of the longer reviews and posting them in the main body rather than clogging up the sidebar. When I first posted this I was surprised to find it picked up and quoted by Tim Chester on his own website, not in a negative way, but simply as a matter of record... I've previously noted this and would recommend that if you want to learn more about the Crowded House/Total Church idea, that you don't simply look at this book but go to Tim's blog, it actually, gives a better idea of what it is all about... But, here's the original review, unadulterated or adorned...

This is a book in which the authors write as if they have just invented fire, or rather recieved it express delivery from heaven... they completely disregard historic, and contemporary precedent for their "gospel & community" approach, falling into the trap of some of the "back to the New Testament Church" brigade, who forget that those NT models sat within a specific time and culture. Their approach to the poor is patronising. Their attitude to other forms of ecclesiology is arrogant. Their dismissal of academic theology is disengenuous, given the level of theological content within the book. Their comments on worship within a less literate society is shallow, again especially so given the high view of written scripture espoused here. And as for their introduction to the section on pastoral care, rarely has any book left me so angry... They are clearly tapping into the post-modernist zeitgeist, whilst remaining rigorously, and self-righteously orthodox (or should I say conservative evangelical) in their theology, unlike more emergent community/house churches. There is something to be said for their critique of a lack of community within many established churches, the lack of scriptural orthodoxy/rigour within many emergent communities, and the subjective individuality of much modern "spirituality"... But the whole book left me with a sense of frustration at the "we know best" mentality... They have NOTHING good to say about anyone else or any other Christian tradition... This may not be a fair representation of the actual church community associated with Crowded House, but on the basis of this book, they needn't bother making any room for me...


Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year, New Sense of Perspective...

Happy new year...
At least I hope it is for you!
I began the New Year with a stinking cold that has crept down into my chest and "maketh much mucus..." However, it is only a cold (not that disparaging ailment "man flu")... and my moans and groan were put into perspective by news on new year's day of a friend being in intensive care with swine flu... She seems to be slowly improving, but isn't entirely out of the woods yet...
Christmas brought another set of contrasts... We were due to have another friend and her mother from America with us for Christmas dinner, but a few days beforehand, that friend ended up in hospital with diverticulitis and a perforated intestine. She was in great pain... and what is worse, our Christmas day plans were thrown up in the air! But at least she was in a hospital being treated (without cost to herself)... Just after we got home from visiting her in hospital on Christmas Day I got a phone call from a colleague telling me that his mother had just died in Zambia, probably due to intestinal ulcers. My colleague had sent money for various scans, scopes and blood tests to be done, but there were no doctors on hand to do them... We may moan about the NHS and refer to "third world" conditions, but we really don't know what we are talking about...
There have also been references to the third world with regard to the recent poor performance of Northern Ireland Water in the wake of the big freeze-thaw here, resulting in water being cut off for tens of thousands of households and people queueing for water at bowsers distributed around Belfast. Local radio talkshows have been jammed with people on complaining. Again, however, we really don't know what we are talking about... What has inconvenienced us for a matter of days is a daily reality throughout a huge portion of the world... Indeed the provision of a water-bowser with slightly cloudy water in it would be an unimagined luxury for many...
Don't get me wrong... I think that the performance of Northern Ireland Water in this incident has been appalling, and that there should be repercussions for those in charge (including those with political responsibilities) but I think that, perhaps, our transitory experience should make us more careful of our use of water (though I doubt it) and more supportive of those agencies, such as Water Aid, trying to provide clean water for all of earth's inhabitants...
Equally, I am not blind to the deficiencies in the NHS (as part of my job I work in it so I see them only too clearly), but not only should we be working for a more efficient, fairer system here, but striving for better health care for all people, everywhere...
My thoughts and prayers this morning are with my friends, in hospital, recovering at home, and in mourning with their families thousands of miles away... but also with untold millions who suffer and die without anyone mentioning anything on a local radio talkshow.