Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sing when you are Brought Down by Doubt

Every Christian questions their faith at some time or another, unless they have a blind faith that refuses to engage with the world, a faith that is maintained in a sterile environment where questions cannot arise – but a sterile environment produces a sterile faith. It is perhaps this truth that Tennyson pointed to when he said that there is more faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds. There is nothing wrong with doubt as such, it is a question of what you do with it. As Roy Clements, whose book "Songs of Experience has broadly guided this short series says:
“Doubt is to unbelief what temptation is to sin. A test, but not yet a surrender.”
Indeed in the book of James the issues of temptation, trials, doubt and sin are all interlinked, and, in his eyes trials, temptations and doubts can be used to hone faith.
In Psalm 73 the situation that has produced the seeds of doubt is the prosperity of the wicked and unscrupulous (vv2-12), a phenomenon that continues to the present day.
Again the Psalmist is honest about his motivations in this, he doesn’t dress it up as concern for social justice – it is self-interest pure and simple. Evildoers seem to be doing well, while he, who is perhaps an ordained servant of God, Asaph the temple choirmaster, is facing problem after problem (vv13-14). And that is often the way, we can witness all sorts of injustices and cruelties in this world on the news with only a fleeting sense of the unfairness of it all, but when they come to our own doorsteps, then we cry “Why me?” It would have been very easy for me and my family to fall into that same self-pitying mode in the wake of recent events...  Even if his motivations are selfish, the dilemma is a real one. Why do the (comparatively) innocent suffer while the (relatively) wicked seem to get away with murder… sometimes literally.
The answer to this question will not be found by looking around us but by looking up. Again, Roy Clements points to an experience that John Wesley writes about in his journal, where he was once walking with a friend who was afflicted by doubts about God’s goodness and didn’t know what to do with them. Wesley pointed to a cow looking over a stone wall beside the road they were walking on and asked “Why do you think that cow is looking over the wall?” “Well I suppose because she can’t see through it,” his friend said. “Precisely,” said Wesley “you can’t see through your doubts, you must try looking over them.”
From this psalm it seems as if the psalmist took himself into the Temple and while reflecting there he gained some insight into his doubts and the issues that lay behind them:
1) He Gained a Renewed Perspective on Human Destiny: Not only the judgement awaiting the wicked, but the eternal rewards for the righteous.
2) He Gained a Renewed Perspective on Himself: He saw the selfishness of his motivations and his arrogance in his attitude to God and his purposes.
3) He Gained a Renewed Perspective on What is Really Important: Jim Elliot the missionary martyr to the Auca Indians famously said:
"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."
(although he was probably paraphrasing the 17th century non-conformist preacher Philip Henry who said "He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose")

We must be honest about our doubts… In the end the answer to doubt is not to suppress them or deny them (as many Christians do – as with many of these other human emotions that we have been looking at in this series…) but to be honest about them – with ourselves and with God…
On the practical side, following the example of the Psalmist in spending time in a sanctuary, a place of retreat or a "thin space", may help us gain the perspective that we need.
We may not get the answers to our questions this side of the grave – but then that is why we talk about faith…

No doubt about it – God is good to his people;
Good things come to good hearted people.

But in my case, I nearly slipped and tripped;
I nearly stepped off the edge of God’s good path.
For I envied the proud and powerful
when I saw how the wicked prosper in this world.
They seems to have no cares or concerns;
Beautiful people with beautiful things.
Healthy and wealthy
And free of worldly worries.
Not a burden they bear, not a sorrow they share,
Yet they don’t trust God or obey him.
They wear their self-sufficiency like jewellery.
They are clothed with the products of oppression and violence.
Their hard hearts pump ice-cold blood around their bodies;
they use their minds to conceive splendid selfish schemes.
They sneer and scoff and slander,
They boast and bully with their words.
They claim to be heaven’s mouthpieces,
whilst doing great deals to bring them earthly advantage.
And the people love it –
they lap up their poison like it’s cool, clear water.
That’s what the wicked are like – a big black hole;
Sucking others in and accumulating wealth.
They think, "What does God know?
How can he see what I am doing from high up in heaven?"
Have I been a fool to play by God’s rules?
I’ve kept my hands clean but what has it got me?
Each and every day something goes wrong;
New every morning are the frustrations I face.

Should I have given in and started to think and speak like this?
No, because then I would have let down you and your people.
When I tried to figure this out it left me frustrated and confused
till I entered your  space, O God and gained a sense of perspective.
Then I understood the end game
And saw that they were on the road to ruin.
One minute speeding along in chauffeur driven luxury
The next, disaster – death in a ditch.
This world and its wealth is only a fleeting dream
We await the real deal.

When I felt beaten down and embittered, I was eaten up by envy;
I was arrogant and ignorant before you.
A mere creature telling the creator how it is:
An amoeba under your microscopic gaze.
Yet you are always there for me;
you take me by the hand and lead me on.
Your word and wisdom guides me on my walk,
and one day you will lead me to my glorious destination.

What more could I hope for in heaven but you?
What can earth offer to compare.
My heart will stop beating and my muscles will melt away,
But God is the real rhythm of my life, my never failing strength.
Those who distance themselves from you are heading for destruction;
Those who desert you will not endure.
But as for me - it is good to know God’s presence with me
The eternal I AM, the ruler of the Universe is my home.
I will tell the world what you have done
I will make known that you alone are God
Psalm 73:1-28


Monday, May 28, 2012


There's a short Brian Friel play beloved of younger actors entitled "Lovers: Winners." I performed in it many times myself until I was far too old to fool someone into thinking I was a schoolboy... Actually "Winners" also has a partner-piece entitled "Losers", but it is often performed on its own... What makes one set of "Lovers" into winners while the others are losers is that in the former, (SPOILER ALERT) the young lovers die early... while in the latter the lovers live on into an acrimonious old age...
Towards the end of last week a news story all over the TV was that 12 town centres were "Winners" of a government initiative aimed at regeneration, dubbed "Portas Pilots", because of the involvement of TV retail-guru Mary Portas. She is now dubbed the "high street Tsar" - boy I loathe the use of the word "Tsar", given that Tsars were autocratic despots - just what you need for a sustainable grassroots mindset change, a few well-targeted pogroms! Well Mary is going to assist them with their plans to rejuvenate their tired old town centres... and presumably make a TV programme out of it! They get around £100,000 each, but it is being emphasised that it isn't about the money, which is a good job since that amount won't go far in this day and age.
But I'm intrigued by the use of the word "winners" - they are only winners in this particular process, where they have had to force their way to the front of a fairly substantial queue of equally run-down town centres... They are the winners of the losers...
It's a bit like the bizarre phenomenon here in Northern Ireland when an area suddenly finds itself in the bottom 10% of electoral wards on a series of socio-economic measures (the unfortunately named "Noble Indices" - has there ever been a more ignoble index?)... When that happens local community, voluntary and statutory bodies are suddenly torn between compassion for the real life impact that such measures represent (which they were probably aware of anyway) and rejoicing that such a statistic will make it marginally more easy to draw down funding... Hence losers, become winners...
Now that may be less true in today's economically straitened times... indeed it may be that there will need to be a competition between groups in such areas now, with each requiring an action plan that might have a TV spin-off (so Jeremy Kyle-esque dysfunctional families may counter-intuitively become an asset)... We're not that far off the Hunger Games at this rate...
We'll see...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Daily Bread

No Saturday supplement today as most of the stories that caught my eye this week were anything but edifying or encouraging, many of them marking out the church at its most divisive and toxic, and while I have put my lenten discipline of "whatever is good" behind me, I don't want to spread vitriol, animosity and shame on the name of Christ on a sunny Saturday morning. Instead I thought I would pass on my find of the week (with a hat-tip to my wonderful wife who pointed me towards it). It is a short series of 15 minute documentaries about bread on Radio 4... It is available here on BBC iplayer and, so far as I see it isn't on a timed self-destruct fuse. It looks at the role of bread in the history of society, culture, religion and science.
Although every nation has a different cuisine, with different emphases, nearly every nation has a form of bread as a basic. It may be a Mexican tortilla, Italian foccacia, pitta bread or nan bread, it may be German ryebrot, or French baguette, it may be a soda farl or a sliced white, it may be Nutty Crust or Mother’s Pride. Bread is available almost everywhere. And that is one of the reasons that Jesus used bread on a number of occasions as a metaphor: the request for "daily bread" in the Lord's Prayer that gave this series its title, and stood as shorthand for all our daily needs (bread, not cake); his claim to be the bread of life, the universal source of eternal life; and the use of bread to represent his broken body in the last supper.
This is Pentecost weekend, the time when we celebrate the "birthday" of the church through the coming of the Holy Spirit, and sadly, the use of bread in the sacrament of communion, which should be a unifying focus in the church and a powerful metaphor to the wider world, has been the single most divisive factor in church history; whether it be debates about frequency of celebration or who is welcome at the table, the huge schism between the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions over "transubstantiation" or, the schism between east and western churches, which ultimately came down to whether the bread should be leavened or not! It is this last schism which is latched onto in the first of this series, where the commentator rightly points out that really these, and other theological debates of the time were really flags of convenience, or smokescreens for what were effectively political power struggles. I would argue the same today - whether the issue be the evolution-creation culture wars, the debate over same-sex-marriage, or the role of women... Whilst Bible verses are wielded as weapons, and there are people of integrity on both sides of every debate, often at the core of the clashes are people using the issues to gain power and influence... In the midst of whatever battle we find ourselves in we need to remember that the church should be defined by what lies at the centre, not what is on its periphery... In the light of that, let me finish with a quote by Jonathan Kent from the first episode of this superb short series:
"It never fails to amaze me the capacity of religious people to disagree about things you'd thought they have in common."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Sing when you're Afflicted with Anxiety

Last year when I was just coming out of a period of prolonged depression, and pronounced and unexpected anxiety (which is something I had never experienced before) I was involved with a discussion where someone suggested I read a book entitled “Respectable Sins” by Jerry Bridges, which describes many of the emotions that we have been discussing in the light of the Psalms as “sins” including anxiety. Now before my illness I might have done the same, and had preached, slightly glibly, on worry, more than once. But in the light of my illness I saw anxiety or worry not as a sin, but as an effect of being a limited mortal being living in a fallen world… Maybe I was making excuses for myself, but actually I don't think so and have come to believe that to describe those who cope with chronic anxiety as “respectable sinners” is, for me, pastorally and morally repugnant… God repeatedly tells his people not to fear, not because they are miserable sinners in this area, but because anxiety is a natural condition of mortal creatures in a corrupt world… But one which limits what we were created to be.

In Psalm 55 we find the Psalmist feeling that he is at the end of his tether. Much time has been wasted trying to identify the exact context for this Psalm in the light of David’s lifestory, akin to Psalm 51 and the adulterous affair with Bathsheba: was it the conflict between David and Saul, or between David and his son Absalom. We do not know.

Whatever the situation the Psalmist was in BIG trouble, beyond his human resources to cope. If this is David we are talking about, then the man who slew Goliath had no shortage of courage, and the man who wrote the 23rd Psalm had a close walk with God… so us lesser mortals should not feel guilty when we face certain situations with worry.

What follows below is another of my paraphrases of the psalms, and, for the first time, not a reblog... We don't often turn to this psalm, probably, I believe because:

a) the idea that anxiety is a sin is prevalent in the church;
b) some of the language used about enemies sits uneasily within the context of cosy, comfortable Christianity and seems slightly at odds with Jesus' instruction to love our enemies;
c) it is all over the shop structurally... which is a perfect picture of the mind and prayer pattern of someone suffering from anxiety,  with thoughts and emotions flying all over the place like a ball in a pinball machine (which is another useful analogy in that everything comes crashing to a halt at the slightest "nudge").

Within the psalm we hear the Psalmist:
1) Begging God to listen to him ("Listen to my prayer, O God…") perhaps fearful that even God has given up on him... 
2) Exhibiting Paranoia ("I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked") The aphorism “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you” could have been written for this situation. A real situation of tension has produced a situation where the psalmist trusts no-one.
3) Displaying Physical Symptoms of Anxiety... The NIV translation isn't alf vivid enough with its "My heart is in anguish within me..."
4) Desiring Escape ("Oh, that I had the wings of a dove…") How did this ever become synonymous with a cherubic choirboy who has never experienced gut-wrenching fear, singing a high pitched soprano solo... The Psalmist is actually saying "Beam me up Scotty! Get me out of here. Stop the world I want to get off." Temporary escape or retreat is at times helpful to help you gain perspective… But permanent escape schemes drawn up in the midst of anxiety can be disastrous. You can’t run away from your feelings.
5) Calling for Rescue and Retribution ("Confuse the wicked, O Lord…") Throughout the next passage there is pure hostility and hatred on show… because that is what has been experienced by the Psalmist, and at the hands of those he trusted most. Betrayal of trust is devastating because the very people you would normally have gone to in difficult circumstances suddenly become part of the problem rather than part of the solution… contributing greatly to anxiety.
This is not just the Psalmist flying off the handle; he believes that his enemies are God’s enemies… But this is not just based on personal betrayal, but what he sees his erstwhile friend/s doing to his city/community. This leaves him feeling profoundly angry… Anger is NOT always wrong, especially in the face of injustice. But impotent anger can be devastating. Therefore it is important to hand such feelings over to the God who can do something about their causes.
His reference to “confusing” the wicked could well be an allusion to the Tower of Babel, while the request to take them alive into the grave could be a reference to the judgement of God on Korah and his fellow rebels in Numbers.
But if it really was David who wrote this psalm and we look at the life of David in dealing with his enemies, he rarely enacted these feelings of vengeance when put in a position of power over his enemies. Was this because he was all talk and no action, or because he had vented his anger with God? Recent research shows that venting our anger or frustration alone actually leads to greater aggression not less in the long run. However, expressing, or working through our fears, frustrations and anger with God in prayer is akin to working them through with a skilled counsellor…. The Psalmist is practising what he preaches:
"Cast your cares on the Lord…" 

Listen to my prayers, O God, 
Please don’t turn a deaf ear to me.
hear me 
answer me. 

My thoughts are in turmoil 
and I am driven to distraction: 
Every voice I hear I assume to be plotting against me;
Anyone who looks at me I presume to be wishing me ill.
I’m buried under anguish
And feel like everyone is against me.
My heart is constantly in my mouth, and my guts are knotted up within me;
I feel the cold hand of death on my shoulder.
I quake with fear
And tremble with terror at the slightest thing.

"Oh, if only I could fly like the birds!
Soar away from the source of my sorrows –
I would fly far away to some oasis of calm;
To a place of peace and quiet, free from storm and strife.
Thwart the plans of the wicked, O Lord,
Stop their rabble rousing.
Their words and actions have divided this city,
Scarred it with violence and hate.
Night and day they prowl its streets looking for a fight;
Seeking to spoil and destroy;
Intimidating and insulting and slandering.

If this were an obvious enemy insulting me, I could cope with it;
if I had done anything wrong, I could accept it.
But it is one of my own, my friend, my trusted confidante,
We laughed together and we worshipped together.
But now I wish only death for him;
May he be buried alive for evil flourishes within him.
But I call to God, O Lord save me.
Morning, noon and night I cry out in anguish, and he hears my voice.
He rides to my rescue me in the midst of battle,
I am completely unharmed despite the hoards besieging me.
God hears from his eternal throne and brings judgement on those who do evil,
But they’re set in their ways and have no fear of God. 
My one-time companion turns on all his former friends;
he breaks faith with all his promises.
His silken speech hid the violence in his heart;
his words were like soothing oil, but they burn with hatred and violence.

Pack up your troubles and place them on the strong shoulders of the Lord;
he will support you when others let you down.
He will sustain the good and crush the wicked;
The ruthless and liars will have their lives cut short.

But as for me,
I trust in you.

Psalms 55:1-23 


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Youth of Today...

Here is a link to yet another video... but this is substantially longer than the others I have posted recently, and, as it leads to a programme on BBC iplayer, has a limited lifespan (only 3 more days as I write).
I was feeling a bit off colour this morning and rather than pollute my brain with what passes for daytime TV I looked up this programme as I had heard some good things about it, and I wasn't disappointed. Too much of the media today portrays young people as feckless and feral, and programming aimed at them is usually aiming at double digit IQs (at best)...
This, however, showed 9 young people between the ages of 13-15 tackling Shakespeare monologues in front of a large audience at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a panel of 3 judges: Sam West, Imogen Stubbs and Simon Schama. These were the best of thousands from across the country who had entered the "Off by Heart" competition and represented young people from all sorts of backgrounds. It was particularly pleasing to see Amy McAteer from my alma mater, Sullivan Upper School, doing so well in the competition (though there were 2 annoying factors there; first, her participation prompted the worst punning headline I have ever seen on the BBC NI website, so bad I refuse to repeat it, and second, Sullivan is not, as the narrator of the programme states, either a catholic school or in sectarianly divided Belfast, but rather a mixed (majority protestant) grammar school in Holywood, North Down).
When I was at school an aeon ago, I did a lot of Shakespeare, both in class and in performing a full play every December. The class work was generally stultifying, but the challenge of performing it has helped to shape and stretch me mentally and emotionally... It isn't for everyone, but it made a big difference to this former working class boy from East Belfast, and I would love to see more people, especially but not exclusively young people, wrestling with the bard's texts... I am told that, sadly the weight of academic work has made full productions impossible at my old school these days... So the work of groups like the Schools Shakespeare Festival, where pupils can perform abridged productions becomes more important. 
Shakespeare is also used in other ways outside of schools, notably in the work of the Educational Shakespeare Company, that works with prisoners and ex-prisoners, work-shopping, adapting and filming Shakespeare plays.
But back to the production... I missed the original broadcast on BBC2 because I was watching the Champion's League Final, which had its own "To be or not to be" element. But it contrasted more notably with the programme on BBC1, "The Voice" - which, frankly, I enjoyed in the first few audition weeks, with it's gimmicky rotating chairs etc., but which has, in my estimation descended into the same genre as the X-Factor and the like... Sadly it has become less about the voice, and more about the image, and the competition between the coaches egos, where hype is everything... every performance is "nailed", "owned" or "dope".
Thankfully there was no such hyperbole on "Off by Heart"...  There was measured praise and appropriate, constructive criticism. It was also free from any reality show gimmickry, and who will it be eliminations, although I could have done with the Apprentice-like shots of the competitors wending their way round stainless-steel railed walkways at the beginning. At the end of the day it was down to one young person wrestling with the words of the greatest writer in the English language... All of the finalists deserve great praise, but the well-deserved winner (NO SPOILER) was simply spell-binding...
Pah... the youth of today...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Seen and Unseen

A continuing theme... this isn't quite a timelapse, but not far off one... This is a classic short film "Powers of Ten" which I first saw many years before the founder of fb was even a twinkle in his father's eye, never mind fb itself...
I had looked for it many times over the years without any success... but it was Roddy McDevitt, who also was the source of yesterday's gem, who posted it on Friday...
I can't watch it without thinking of the opening of the Nicene Creed:
"We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen."
Seen and unseen at both ends of the spectrum...


Monday, May 21, 2012

Stable Euro?

To follow on from the nuclear timelapse video on Friday, here's another one (or rather two for the price of one). Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, suggested last Wednesday that the Euro-zone was "tearing itself apart." This timelapse shows that Europe hasn't been a particularly stable place politically over the past 1000 years... It is interesting that two of the most unstable areas historically have been the Balkans (nothing new there then) and interestingly, up until the mid 19th century, Germany and northern Italy.
Take a look at both the shorter video (with the scary music) and the longer one, with much more information...


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Saturday Supplement

No supplement last week as I was a little too-pre-occupied to collate the few things that had caught my eye... But here are a few from  the past couple of weeks...
First is this news that, in the midst of the Euro-meltdown, the Greeks have apologised to the rest of the EU with a huge wooden horse...  I'm not an economic expert... indeed balancing my own chequebook stretches me to my limit (although I have to say I get a little frustrated with those who constantly compare maxing out their credit card with the management of sovereign debt... the two don't actually bear any relation to each other... unless we are using our credit cards to pump-prime potentially money-making ventures), so articles or programmes about economics and finance usually don't hold my attention for long... However, last September on Radio 4's More or Less I listened the whole way through a programme which explained the crisis in terms of Homeric myths and in the light of the above link I sought out and found the blog of the programme, entitled Debt: A European Odyssey. It's worth a look and/or listen whether you are ignorant of economics, Greek myths or both...
Bringing the effects of austerity and the debt crisis back home, this assortment of columns gives a slight flavour of what those at the bottom of the pile in Britain are having to cope: The Mirror's piece on the "Hidden Poor" looks at the unlikely range of people having to draw on the burgeoning range of food banks (a phenomenon we have witnessed locally), while the this Guardian piece looks at the real cost of sickness benefits cuts... again not hitting scroungers but people who have or are attempting to work for a living. Sir Tom Hunter's ill-judged comments re the poor in Scotland being "pampered" because of the benefits culture, have produced a massive backlash. There are issues regarding the dependency culture that has developed in some quarters through mal-administration of the welfare state and generational unemployment, but this piece, again from the Guardian, challenges the idea that it could be described as pampering the poor.
Moving from one bĂȘte noir of the right wing, to another... I was shocked, though sadly not surprised by this article regarding the execution of the wrong man in Texas... Personally I find state execution in general morally repugnant, especially since it has been demonstrated to have little deterrent power, but stories like this emphasise that until we can guarantee a perfect criminal justice system, the costs to the innocent victims of  miscarriages of justice outweigh any conceivable benefits to society as a whole.
Back on this island the criminal justice issue that has caught my eye this week relates to the activities of RAAD- Republican Action Against Drugs... the Provisional IRA splinter group which specialised in punishment beatings/shootings of alleged drug-dealers, seems to be branching out into dealing with other "anti-social behaviour" leading to the bizarre story of one person being threatened with shooting unless he went to "anger management classes." Some have poured scorn on this story, but what was more distressing was to read and listen to the account of a mother who shook hands with her son before he was taken out and shot in the legs by RAAD, telling the reporter that her son "had to be shot." Without condoning the actions of the son, or passing any judgement on the mother, any society where a mother will state publicly that her son "had to be shot" has been brutalised to beyond breaking point.
Its against that background that it is especially sad to mark the death of Walter Wink, who coined the phrase "the myth of redemptive violence." Far too few Christians have paid attention to his writings (hence the broad silence that marked his demise) which is why a Christian critique of retributive punishment, be it by the state or by vigilantes, has so little power... Wink would have scored a 7/7 in Michael Patton's "7 Marks of a Good Theologian". On a good day I might get 3.5!!
On a lighter note Prof. Billy McWilliams is doing his bit for Ulster-Scots culture and international relations. With the European Cup Finals coming up he is plotting how Northern Ireland could be joint hosts of the 2020 Finals with the Faroe Islands.
Finally, however, here's a wee something to help you while away a Saturday morning... A little reaction time test from the BBC... Go top up your coffee and see if you are bobbing bobcat or better... Thanks Jools for that one... I owe you... Or rather you owe me about an hour's work I didn't get done this week!


Friday, May 18, 2012

A Terrible Beauty

I was going to include this in tomorrow's Saturday Supplement, but it deserves a post of its own, especially given that it is over 14 minutes long... But please don't let that put you off. I thought I'd put it on the blog because, rightly or wrongly I still see my fb posts as somewhat ephemeral... But if this picture is taken to its logical conclusion all human life on earth might be somewhat ephemeral...

What follows is a time-lapse representation  of every nuclear explosion on earth between 1945 and 1998... As Simon Conway, who I stole it from, wrote on fb, it starts slowly but hots up... It is by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto, with the citizens of Japan being the only people to know first hand the dreadful reality of nuclear warfare.

I was astounded by the sheer numbers (and in particular the number initiated by France - you can see why Greenpeace and they fell out!) I also wonder, has it slowed down any since 1998.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sing When You're Grappling with Guilt

Few of the Psalms are related so directly to the life of David as Psalm 51. Some include echoes of his life story: as a shepherd, a soldier being hunted by the then King Saul, and of events in his own reign as King. But none so specifically pinpoint any of the stories of his life as this one, which is directly associated with his adulterous liaison with Bathsheba and its consequences. We don’t know whether it was written by David, or simply inspired by his story, but it still speaks of someone wrestling with guilt.
Unattended to guilt can be the grit that produces, not a pearl within the oyster of our hearts and minds, but a series of spiritual and psychological problems, that may also manifest themselves in physical illness. But even where we think that we have "got away with it" (much like David) we are assured that no wrong-doing goes un-noted, and we will have to answer for our guilt one day. David's story may be about sex, conspiracy and murder in high places, but the Psalm it inspired speaks into the need that we all have to face our guilt and experience the grace of God. Here is yet another paraphrase of this Psalm (again a reblog).

Out of your unfailing love, O God, have mercy upon me;
Out of your grace, wipe out my wrongdoing.
Wash away my guilt
Cleanse me from my sin.
For I know what I have done is wrong,
My sins are staring me straight in the face.
You, above all, are the one I have sinned against.
You have seen the full extent of my evil.
You have all the facts before you
So your judgment of me will be fair.
I have been sinful since my birth
A sinner born of sinners.
You want us to be true from inside to out.
Enter then, and renew me with your wisdom within.
Cleanse me with spiritual soap, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, so that I might be whiter than snow.
Let my ears hear songs of rejoicing and happiness;
Let my heavy limbs dance for joy.
Turn your face from my sins
Erase my errors.
Create in me a new holy heart, O God,
Breath a new steadfast spirit into me.
Do not turn me away from your presence
Or remove your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore within me the joy of your salvation
Grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will tell other wrongdoers your ways,
and more sinners will turn back to you.
Save me from death, O God, my Saviour, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
O Lord, unbutton my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
You don’t take pleasure in public acts of penitence, or I would make them;
You don’t desire showy sacrifices, or I would bring them.
The sacrifice you desire O God, is a broken spirit;
A broken and repentant heart, O God, you will accept as your own.
From Psalm 51:1-17


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Week of Weeks

Today's offering on God Morning Ulster's "Thought for the Day", my last for a wee while...

Have you ever said “There aren’t enough hours in the day” or “there aren’t enough days in the week”?
Well now there aren’t enough weeks in the year… Because at the moment we are apparently in the middle of, not only the well publicized Christian Aid Week and Community Relations Week, but also, Choose Charity Shops Week - a nationwide campaign to encourage people to donate goods to charity shops; Dying Matters Awareness Week, aimed at encouraging individuals and organisations to take simple steps that can make a big difference to people when they are dying or bereaved, and International Food Allergy Awareness Week, an initiative of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Alliance… a group name that was a significant challenge to say live on radio at 6.55am…
All of these are important issues but it does speak to me of a world where, despite the proliferation of ways of communicating with each other, and the fact that many people will have diverse interests… hence many of those working in the community relations sector will be keen Christian Aid supporters and may have a range of food allergies… still, all too often those at the centre of worthy causes think that theirs is the only show in town…
Earlier this week I watched a documentary on the stock-market flotation of a certain HUGE social networking site, and the assertion of its founder that he wants to make the world more open and connected… Aiming for multi-dimensional relationships across the web – or “friendships” as they call them, fuelling greater communication and collaboration.
I’m not entirely convinced about the seeming altruism of this organisation’s so-called “social mission” even though I use its site... I’m also not convinced that simply having the information out there is enough… Much of what happens on social networks these days follows the pattern of previous media, from the printed word to television… including what I am doing now on radio… One way communication… A monologue…
For a truly connected world we need to listen as well as speak… we need to be aware of other’s interests and initiatives and not just our own…
That’s what is at the back of both Christian Aid week and Community Relations Week… With the latter we are being encouraged to look beyond our narrow definitions of us and them… While, through the efforts of Christian aid… and other development charities, we are prompted to look beyond our borders to the needs of others across the world…
And it is something which is right at the heart of the Christian faith… that we are called on not only to love God with all we have and are… But to love our neighbours as ourselves… And in this shrinking world our neighours may live half a world away…
That is an important challenge for this or any week…


Monday, May 14, 2012

A Voice Calling in the Wasteland?

Those on Facebook and/or Goodreads will already have read the guts of this post as it is largely a review of David F. Wells book "God in the Wasteland" Subtitled "The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams". You can imagine from that that it doesn't have many laughs in it, indeed as I posted on Facebook it is a tough read... I bought it nearly 10 years ago originally and it took me 3 or 4 false starts before I got through it. But it is worthwhile, because, again as I said on my facebook post about it, I believe when it was written nearly 20 years ago now, it was a prophetic word in the wilderness of contemporary evangelicalism... and one that has, sadly, largely gone unheeded...
On Goodreads I gave it a 3/5 rating, which, for those uninitiated in that site means "I liked it" but it also reflects the fact that throughout the book I found myself agreeing with the author and being frustrated by him in roughly equal measures... 
Dealing with the frustrations first I found that he was treading similar ground to that covered by both Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness from an overtly evangelical context, yet there were only two fleeting references to the latter's work and none to the former... The fact that many of the warnings of these earlier writers, who were both deep thinkers and powerful communicators have also been ignored by the church did not bode well for the impact of this much less populist tome.
Secondly, as a Wesleyan I was also never going to entirely buy his thoroughly Calvinist perspective - his recommendation that the church needs to focus on holiness and truth, comes across slightly differently in a Wesleyan tradition that defines holiness in terms of "perfect love", however, taking that into account, I think he may be on to something... and the insights of writers like Hauerwas and Wink may be helpful in exploring what that actually looks like. [By the way, I write this in a week when Walter Wink has died. Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.]
But the biggest frustration was his contention that many of the ills he was identifying were features of modernity, whereas most would suggest that they were classic features of post-modernity... I put a lot of that down to the fact it was written in 1994, before thinking on post-modernity was particularly widespread in the church. Then, towards the end of the book he revealed that he didn't see the sharp discontinuity between modernity and post-modernity that others do, which is actually something I could accept... It would, however, have been helpful to have explained that before launching in to his critique of modernity and the church... and saved me a lot of ink devoted to scribbling in the margin...
But having aired all that, I say again that much of what he writes about is truly prophetic, raising important questions regarding various aspects of contemporary evangelicalism, including the church growth movement, "seeker sensitive worship", "the church in the markeplace", individualism and the retreat from the public sphere into the private. Actually, I found his definition of the private sphere an interesting and perhaps even more devastating one than that which is usually held, ie. that of a reduction of Christian faith into a system of personal piety... He would also see the church's retreat into dealing purely with local outreach as a feature of the privatisation of Christian faith, which is something few would recognise. 
In an era where there is much whining about the secularisation of society and how the church is being pushed out of the public sphere (and there is a concerted attempt by some militant secular humanists to do this), the thesis of this book might suggest that we are retreating from the public sphere as quickly as we are being actively expelled. It is, I believe, an exercise of spiritual/theological and intellectual cowardice... a position close to that repeatedly outlined by Guinness. I would also contend that in many ways the culture-war battles  of the past 2 decades are a smokescreen to cover that retreat... Stir up contention and that makes it seem that we are being forced out of areas of society where we already feel ill-equipped to contribute/thrive, while in other areas where we can get people to adopt a pre-modern analysis, then we can maintain the illusion that Christendom is alive and well... I would be interested to read his analysis of the "culture-war" approach to the public sphere... its advocates may claim that they are simply "speaking with a different voice", as Wells argues that we should do in his book... but he argues for intellectual rigour (or should that be rigor since he is an American?) which has not been a feature of those on the conservative side of the culture wars.
Getting back to the book there are times when I believe he unhelpfully confuses the psycho-social/therapeutic model of the contemporary church with the consumerist/commercial thinking which pervades the church growth approach, although they both probably stem from the same ills of the modern world ie. the narcissistic need for individuals to have their own personal needs met in everything... This reaches its zenith (or nadir depending on your perspective) in the more post-modern manifestations of the contemporary church, and, again, it might be interesting to have his take on some aspects of the Emergent movement.
There aren't many reasons to be cheerful in this book, or, to be honest, many easy answers. Most depressing was the fact that towards the end of the book he looks at some research done among American evangelical seminarians in the early 1990s... effectively my transatlantic peers... showing that like students in every age they saw the failings of the church then and had identified a theological deficit as a key problem... Many predicted a further division within evangelicalism between conservative and "liberal", and some were sadly comfortable with that... It is interesting to see, 20 years on that those college insights are coming to fruition, with the neo-Calvinists and the fracturing of evangelicalism along various faultlines... However, another finding was that despite their theological professions, their beliefs didn't actually make much difference to their practice... at the end of the day, there was a huge element of pragmatic compromise with the world at work... And that is still true in many ways...
As a result the wasteland has become yet more wasted... But God is still in the midst of it... the wasteland that is the church itself and the wider world... He's still speaking through his prophets in the wasteland... The question is whether we are ready to listen and respond?!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Looking for Love (again)

Yet another reblog... But I've put it up here again as a number of people asked me for a copy after a brilliant performance of it, at short notice, by Sharon Thompson during our service this morning... It is based on John 8: 1-11, exploring what happened to the woman "taken in adultery" after her encounter with Jesus.

I suppose I was looking for love, but I got more than I bargained for. Everyone talks about love... But there’s precious little of it about. When I was a kid, my Mum and my Dad both called me “Love...” “Love, would you give me a hand to set the table...” “Would you run down to the market for me, Love...” “Look love, would you clear off and give my head peace...”
It’s an easy word to say... its not so easy to find. And let me tell you I’ve looked. I’m not blaming anyone else... I made my bed, and I lay in it... The only trouble was I lay in it with someone else’s husband. He told me he loved me... he promised he would divorce his wife, but of course that never happened, and when the God squad broke down the door, and dragged me out of bed, he just sat there... Said nothing. And why they just picked on me I don’t know... There were two of us in that bed... The law says we’re both guilty... But its one law for men, and another for women in the eyes of the Pharisees.
They dragged me out into the street, half-naked... I thought I was a goner. They’re not allowed to stone people... The Romans put paid to that... They’ve got more sophisticated ways of putting people to death... Like crucifixion. But they would never crucify you for adultery... Too many of the Romans themselves would end up on crosses if that were the case. But even though it’s not allowed, I still thought I was done for... They took me to a Rabbi, who was teaching in the town... they threw me on the ground in front of him and asked him to pass judgement on me.
He was a strange man... Not like any other Rabbi I’d ever seen. He didn’t quote scripture, or other teachers... He crouched down on the ground in front of me and doodled in the dust with his finger... Then he looked up at the crowd and said: “If any of you is innocent... He can throw the first stone.” Innocent... that lot! I knew, from personal experience that quite a few of them were far from innocent... And they knew it too. They were horrified. They looked at me... Looked at the Rabbi again, and turned away, one by one... Even the leaders... The real holy rollers.
While all this was happening, this Rabbi just went back to his pavement art. He only looked at me for the first when everyone had gone... But what a look. In his eyes I found all the love I had ever looked for.
“Where have your accusers gone?” he asked. “I don’t know.” I said.
“Well, I don’t accuse you of anything. Go on home. But mend your ways.”
And I did. I picked myself up off the ground and out of the gutter... It hasn’t been easy. It won’t be easy. I still have one big physical reminder of that day. (Runs her hand over her belly). But that day I found love. And now, I’m ready to share that love... Not only with my unborn child but with anyone who would accept it. Without having to share my bed with other women’s husbands...
Other people find it hard to accept that I’ve changed. Some of the men who dragged me into the street that day, have shouted insults at me when they see me, and have said that the Rabbi was going to get his come-uppance. I didn’t know what they were talking about, until I saw him again this morning... It was the first time I had seen him since then, and strangely it was on the same street were I’d met him before. This time however, he was half naked... And carrying a cross.
I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a sick joke. But I followed the crowds out to the execution ground, and I watched them nail him to the cross. I stood and watched him die. I watched the light fade from his eyes... And yet they still seemed to be filled with love and sadness right to the end.
But why crucify him? Was it the Pharisees getting their revenge? If it was it seems strange that the Romans wouldn’t allow them to stone a woman for making love... But that they crucified a man for showing love...

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sing to God a New version of an Old Song...

This is my version of the Psalm from the lectionary readings tomorrow, Psalm 98. Once again, it's a reblog (with a slight revision) but we're using it tomorrow as part of our morning service. But given I'm constantly coming back to the Psalms at the moment a friend recently recommended a new anthology of different settings of the Psalms entitled "Psalms for all Seasons". I haven't checked it out yet, but all the reviews seem very positive... Anyway... here's a version that hasn't appeared in any such anthology:

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 barking, mooing, cawing and roaring of every living creature be a song of praise to the Lord.
Let the waves of the sea breaking on the shore sound like applause to our God.
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


Friday, May 11, 2012

Lost in the Jungle

On Sunday Sequence last weekend on Radio Ulster, there was an interview with Dr. Daniel Everett, a linguistic anthropologist and former Bible translator/missionary, about his loss of faith and the negative consequences for his relationships with his family and friends. Over the past year our church "Good Book Group" read his book "Don't Sleep, There are Snakes" in which he describes his experiences amongst the Piraha people of the Amazon, including, in the concluding chapter, his loss of faith.
I subsequently gave it a relatively poor rating on the Goodreads site not because of his conclusions, but because it was a literary dog's dinner. As I wrote in my review of it, I wasn't entirely sure whether it was an autobiography, linguistic anthropology, critique of Chomsky's theories, or an anti-missionary apologetic?
The lack of a clear structure and aim to the book didn't endear the author to me, and the more I read (long before the final chapter) the more antipathetic I became.
There seemed to be a naivety in his approach, which was neither innocent nor endearing, but appallingly arrogant. I trust that he has grown out of this in the same way he claims to have grown out of his faith. But there was a curious contradiction between his latter description of the Piraha as not needing what he had originally gone to share with them ie. the Bible in their own language and the gospel it speaks of, whilst earlier he had described a people with little fellow-feeling, who (possibly through an enhanced sense of mortality) had an almost callous disregard for the lives of others, be that Dr. Everett's malaria-stricken wife, a member of the tribe giving birth alone on the riverbank, or a woman effectively gang-raped by the males of the tribe. This is, by no means, a tribe of bucolic innocents.
I was also struck by the fact that while he identified ties between their language, culture and (lack of) organised religious rituals (although I would contend that he missed the sense of an existential/experiential spirituality which is as valid a starting point as any), he seemed unable to identify the strong cultural conditioning of his own faith... the Piraha were not interested in his American Jesus, and why should they be? Especially when the actions of this American missionary didn't match his profession - early on in the book, there was he, who professed belief in life after death, frantically trying to save his ill family (and making some dreadful decisions in seeking to do so) while the Piraha, who believed in death as a part of life with nothing afterwards, simply watched on dispassionately.
But I have to say, what I found perplexing, was the Christian culture that Everett seems to have come from and subsequently rejected. His rejection of Christianity caused a breakdown in his marriage, and wider family relationships, which he only mentions in passing in the book. But in the interview on Sunday he said that not only had his family relationships been shattered, but that he was effectively ostracised by his former friends and colleagues. Now this can be the experience of many people who go through divorce in a faith setting... it has been said that the second question in such circumstances after "who gets the kids" is "who gets the church". This must be exacerbated where there is a loss of faith involved, as the individual involved absents him or herself from worship, Bible studies and other gatherings that used to be not only spiritual but also social in function. Are such people actively ostracised? Or is that simply the perception? Is there a difference? It has certainly raised questions for me regarding how I deal with people who have walked away from faith or the church. Am I like a shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, or a father who waits for the return of the lost son, or do I simply delete them from my pastoral care list and my memory?
But the aspect of Dr. Everett's formative Christian culture that most frustrated and infuriated me was the missionary mindset that he seems to have blithely accepted at Bible College, that "you have to get people lost before they can understand their need to be saved..."
Whilst I understand what is meant by this, frankly I believe it does a huge disservice to the gospel. It speaks of the old joke where a tourist asks an Irish farmer for directions to somewhere and he tells them, "Well, if I was going there, I wouldn't start from here!" But this isn't a joke... If there is to be any authenticity to the gospel we seek to share we need to start where people are and help them to encounter Jesus there, rather than get them to retrace our faltering steps on the journey of faith...
Whether it be in the Amazon or the post-Christian west, we need to free the Bible and gospel from its cultural and linguistic shackles... So that the lost may find their way home...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sing when You're Stressed

Stress is a natural part of life. In physical terms, muscles etc. couldn’t work unless put under a certain amount of stress… but equally, in physical terms, whether it is a muscle or a metal, there is a difference between stress, and strain which ultimately leads to breakdown.
This is true of our emotional and spiritual wellbeing too. A certain amount of stress in not only natural, but also helpful. My blood pressure is on the low side of normal, and I have often joked with the nurse who regularly measures it that it is only stress that keeps me upright! 
But you can’t live under significant stress forever and there are times when the extent of stress leads to a catastrophic breakdown. The earth seems to shake and give way and those things that seemed to be immovable mountains, fall into the heart of the sea.
Psalm 46 speaks into times of national disaster and personal catastrophe. I originally wrote the following paraphrase on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but it as I reblog it now as part of our weekly series on the Psalms, it is also appropriate for me and my family as we juggle more than our usual quota of stress.

God is our strength and a safe place to hide,
In time of trouble he’s always there to help.
So we will not fear, even if the earth should shake
And mountains be reduced to rubble,
though the seas rage and roar
and cities be swept away in the surge.

The River of Life sustains the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is within her walls, so she will stand;
God will ride to her rescue with the rising sun.
Nations rant and rave, kings and kingdoms fall; 
The I AM speaks, and the whole earth dissolves .
The Almighty I AM is always with us;
The God of promise is our protector.

Come and see what I AM can do, 
Sweeping away what we thought to be indestructible.
He will bring war to an end
From one end of the world to another;
Putting weapons beyond use eternally
And disarming hearts and minds.

Stop. Be still. Know that I AM is God;
I will be exalted among all nations, 
I will be exalted over all the earth.
The Almighty I AM is always with us;
The God of promise is our protector.
Psalms 46:1-11


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Its a Funny old Game

This morning's Thought for the Day offering...

Well today the back pages of the newspapers have been filled with stories of my beloved Liverpool's all-too-late thrashing of a weakened Chelsea side. As  Jimmy Greaves used to say of to erstwhile Liverpool player Ian St. John, “It’s a funny old game, Saint…” And throughout this season it has been just that… Though funny in the sense of strange, rather than “ha-ha”. It has been on the front page of the newspapers as much as on the back…
Allegations of racist language being used by high profile premiership players caused huge repercussions, not only to Liverpool, where it may have contributed to their lacklustre season, but also to the English national team, necessitating the appointment of a new England manager,  leading in turn to controversy about misjudged jokes in the press about the speech impediment of appointee Roy Hodgson
We also had the seeming suicide of Welsh national manager Gary Speed, which, briefly put the importance of football into perspective…
Then we have had the ongoingimplosion of Rangers in Scotland threatening the future of one of the most famous (and toxic) rivalries in the sport; while south of the border we have the development of a real rivalry between the two Manchester teams, which will only be resolved this year on the last day of the season.
But the biggest front page football story of the year has undoubtedly been that of Fabrice Muamba and his recovery after heart failure in the FA Cup quarter-final between Spurs and Bolton. His appearance at Wembley on Saturday during the final was undoubtedly the best thing about Saturday for me… and probably would have been whatever the result… It certainly seemed to be an answer to the high profile Pray 4 Muamba campaign that crossed all boundaries of team loyalties… uniting fans of all faiths and none in praying for him and wishing him well.
But from the positive side of football we descend to the depths with the news yesterday, that in the wake of former Derry City player James McLean’s selection for the Republic of Ireland squad in the European finals, some so-called Northern Ireland fans have been sending him death-threats
I said last Wednesday that I have mixed loyalties when it comes to sport, but in football I am a Northern Ireland fan, through thick, and more frequently thin… But in the light of these revelations, I’m going to be backing James McLean the whole way… including praying for his safety and for  the prosecution of those who look on football as a way to pedal prejudice…
But I want to leave the last word of this football themed thought for the day to Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, who was recently asked, in the light of the Fabrice Muamba affair and after being spotted at church in the run up to the end of the season, whether he prayed. His answer:
"Pray? Of course... everyday... but not about this stuff!"
In prayer and in football, we need to sort out our priorities…
And that Liverpool team need to buck up their ideas!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Job Lite

This, as well as being, in some ways, an update on my post for Friday last, was also, originally intended to be the basis of my Thought for the Day tomorrow morning... but it is of such epic length (reading a little like a "Book of Job Lite") I couldn't see any way of reducing it to the requisite 2 minutes and 30 seconds... So thought I'd post it here anyway as a form of catharsis...
Is being accident-prone hereditary? The experiences of my eldest son and I might suggest that it is… Especially this year… Since January we’ve had a number of sport-related injuries (nothing new to us, they've just happened slightly more frequently than usual)… First I cracked a rib at football, then a rugby scrum collapsed on him injuring his neck and shoulders… in March I was only back at football 2 weeks when someone kicked my in the back of the calf rupturing the muscle… 
But the real fun and games began four weeks ago… I’d said on Thought for the Day that morning that I had dropped him off for his Duke of Edinburgh practice expedition… Well, later that day I got a phonecall asking us to come pick him up from the Mournes as he had injured himself… A combination of falling in a boulder field and subsequently taking his rucksack off had caused a posterior dislocation of his right shoulder (and yes, he is right-handed)… 
Thankfully they were able to put it back in that night in A&E at the Ulster, and they discharged him in a wrap-around master/Lancaster sling… However, over the next few days he developed tonsillitis, necessitating the prescription of oral antibiotics, but before he got those into him his vomiting caused him to dislocate his shoulder again. It was then reset under general anaesthetic and placed in a very interesting piece of almost architectural plaster work… 
One week on, however, it seemed as if it had slipped again… so the orthopaedic consultant sent him for an MRI in preparation for more radical surgery… But while being placed on the bed for the MRI he felt the shoulder click back into place… And sure enough, when the results came back, everything was where it should be, if a little bruised and bent out of shape, and the operation was off, at least for the time being… But back on went the so-called "airplane cast"... 
Then, over the weekend he started to develop a fever again, and his ear started to ache before starting to discharge some truly foul stuff… The out-of-hours doctor thought he had ruptured his eardrum and that it might be caused by a peri-tonsillar abscess and so prescribed another course of oral antibiotics, but he started to throw up again, rendering them useless. He was then admitted on Sunday, in order to administer IV antibiotics, sickness-suppressants and fluids... Thankfully he didn't throw out his shoulder again, and a visit to the ENT clinic revealed that he hasn't (yet) ruptured his eardrum. They suggested that the blisters around the eardrum which had caused the pain and discharge, may be due to infected tonsils, but it is more likely given that they noted a depression in the aural nerve function, that it is actually a result of shingles…
So we have a boy with shingles, facing surgery on both his shoulder and his tonsils at as yet undetermined times in the near future. Add the fact that he was supposed to be starting his AS levels on Friday, with, ironically, the long-term aim of becoming a doctor, and you find a boy who isn’t a happy camper…
Indeed he said to me over the weekend… 
 "Dad!? You know the way people say that God won't give you any more than you can carry!? Do you think he's got me mixed up with someone else?" 
Hard question to answer… And the Bible doesn’t offer any easy answers to the issue of suffering… As a family we've seen enough of real suffering on the part of others to prevent us asking "Why us?" for fear of hearing the answer "Why not you?"
On Sunday evening Sally was due to speak at a service of prayer for healing which I was to lead... but because, ironically, she herself wasn't feeling well (she was and is barking like a bull-seal) and we couldn't both desert the boys, I said I would "throw something together."
I spoke from a passage that came immediately to mind, in John's Gospel, where Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind:
His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?""Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life."
John 9:2-3 (ANIV)
Was it the fault of this man or his parents?
Our response to suffering and illness is to seek someone to blame, whether it be with ambulance chasing, no-win-no-fee lawyers advertised incessantly on TV, or people blaming themselves. But here we find that Jesus isn't interested in the blame game... but in healing and salvation. And in this particular healing Jesus got his hands dirty to achieve his ends, conjuring up a healing balm with spit and mud.
In Christ and his cross we remember that God doesn’t just look on a suffering world from a safe distance, but gets his hands dirty and bloodied, sharing in human suffering and death, in order to redeem and conquer it…
And so, I’m thankful, not just for the National Health Service and those who have tended to us through it, for an understanding school who are doing all they can for my son’s well-being, and countless friends supporting us in prayer and in practical ways… But for a God who truly does understand...
The prophet Habakkuk once wrote in a time of national calamity: 
Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
Habakkuk 3: 17-18 
I’m not sure how I would paraphrase that to fit our own situation at present, so I’ll simply say “Amen!” Whilst praying that things turn around soon…

(ps. Got stung on the head by a wasp as I left the hospital this afternoon... so it hasn't turned around just yet!)


Friday, May 4, 2012


My son has had a rubbish week (and I am being polite in my use of words here). He's in the run up to his AS levels and may be forced to miss some of them because of a freak chain of injuries that ultimately have left him needing major reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder - and yes he is right handed. He's having an MRI this morning in preparation for that, but even before the full extent of his injury became clear he was having a hard time getting any kind of a fair deal from the examinations board, probably making his road to his preferred profession (ironically medicine) a much more protracted one.
And in the light of that NOTHING else that I have to deal with is a priority... (so if you are expecting some form or report off me in the next few days - forget it!)
Indeed there is nothing else that I can do or achieve in this life that compares with the honour and duty of being the father to my two boys... That became even clearer today as I talked to a girl whose husband had just walked out on her and her infant son... 
And it brought to mind the closing scene of the film I watched with my eldest son and wife earlier in the week... Brad Pitt's "Moneyball", which is well worth watching even if you aren't a baseball (or Brad Pitt) fan. 
What follows is an out and out spoiler, especially if you watch the following clip... In it, Brad Pitt's character, Billy Beane, is reflecting on a tumultuous season, where he bucked the system, challenged long established records, and ultimately was offered one of the biggest jobs in baseball. But he does so to the soundtrack of his daughter, who lives with his estranged wife, singing a cover of Lenka's "The Show" - helping him sort out his priorities...
Enjoy the show... 


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sing When You're Down in the Depths

Depression is one of the most common mental health problems. It is reckoned to affect one in six people in the UK at some point, and that 5% will experience major, or clinical, depression. I am one of the 5%, although in Northern Ireland, this figure is probably higher.  A 2001 survey revealed that those directly affected by the Troubles were twice as likely to show signs of depression and other mental health issues as others. 
Depression is, however, one of those illnesses that sits uncomfortably with Christian faith. Tony Campolo writes that years ago, one of his students tried to explain that he had been too depressed to study and asked to be excused from a scheduled exam. He refused and told him to get over it. Only hours afterward, the student jumped to his death from a high-rise apartment building, leaving behind a suicide note telling his parents that he just couldn’t endure the sadness that had been torturing his soul. Campolo never took depression glibly again.
Many Christian leaders have wrestled with depression, including the hymn-writers William Cowper and John Newton. But long before them, another hymnwriter, the Psalmist responsible for Psalms 42 & 43, which almost certainly were originally intended to go together, probably wrote them in the midst of depression.
What follows is a reblog of a paraphrase of these Psalms, as the first of a weekly series of studies of the Psalms which I have called "Songs of Experience" stealing the title for Roy Clement's book. If you want to join us in Dundonald Methodist for them at 8pm each Wednesday night for the next 8 weeks... Alternatively you can wait for the weekly update!

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.