Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jubilee Jigs

Apologies loyal readers (although by this stage I will be lucky if that is "reader") for my tardiness in posting recently... Things haven't eased off much since my last apology... But I've been stirred to return to my virtual sphere by the events on my doorstep today...
I've got a ticket for the big gig in Stormont today... although the fact that it is a family event and I've been given a single named ticket isn't making me that popular in the household... especially when, for various reasons (busyness, weather, back spasm) I'm reluctant to go... But given that the last time there was a jubilee visit to Northern Ireland I was one of the kids packed off to Coleraine to see the Queen, and on that occasion was one of those she spoke to on her walkabout (see photo), it would seem churlish not to go when it is so close at hand... Although due to the entrance restrictions I'm facing a significant route march to get into the Stormont Estate instead of the 2 minutes it usually takes me.
It's interesting to me the differences between that last jubilee visit and this one... Not only was I massively more enthusiastic (maybe it had something to do with the fact that the weather was sunny - but wasn't it always back then?), but the fact that the main event in 1977 was in Coleraine rather than in Belfast. Due to security concerns the Queen couldn't come to Belfast, she stayed on the Royal Yacht Britannia and was ferried across the province in one of the Royal flight of Wessex helicopters... The event I attended at Coleraine University, which for many was a symbol of Unionist mismanagement of the statelet of Northern Ireland, was delayed by a suspicious device thrown over the perimeter fence, though I and the thousands of other eager primary-aged royalists knew nothing of it.
Just over two years later the reality of the threat to the Queen was made apparent with the bombing of Lord Mountbatten's boat Shadow V off the coast of Sligo, resulting in his death and 3 others. The impact of this death on the royal family has been well documented. A number of times in recent days an episode involving the Queen's sister, Princess Margaret has been referred to. Shortly after the funeral of Lord Mountbatten, the Princess was at an event in America with the Mayor of Chicago, who had also been at the funeral, and was reported as saying "The Irish, they're pigs." This, in an ill-thought out piece of diplomatic whitewash, was then said to have been misheard, and that what the Princess said was "The Irish dance jigs..."
33 years on from that and 35 years from the last jubilee visit, things have changed radically, but the diplomatic jigs continue... 
The Queen's Flight of helicopters and the Royal Yacht Britannia have both been mothballed... but they would have been redundant anyway as the Queen stayed in Hillsborough overnight and she IS visiting Belfast today. She's actually visiting 3 of the major signs of hope in this city... Stormont, which has been transformed from the seat of protestant parliamentary power to an assembly for all; Titanic Belfast, which even for someone as antipathetic to the Titanic mythos as me, is clearly a world-class landmark building; and first of all the new Lyric theatre, which is not just a symbol of a new cultural vitality in the city, but a suitable site for all the drama scheduled to unfold there... In a carefully choreographed "jig" Martin McGuinness erstwhile second in command of the IRA and the Queen, the titular head of what some see as the British imperial establishment are to "shake hands"... I appreciate the symbolism and hope that it moves things on... but there are a couple of things that makes me feel embarrassed about it... On the one hand, it seems like something that would have happened in the primary school playground that I left behind before that jubilee visit in 1977... "Now shake hands and lets be friends..." And on the other, the lengths that have had to be gone to in order to allow Sinn Fein to make up for the embarrassment that their boycott of last year's Royal visit to Ireland, without being seen to be at anything to do with the Queen's jubilee... So the diaries of the Queen, the Irish President and Cooperation Ireland have have to be juggled so that Sinn Fein can save face, and the Lyric becomes a bizarre, jubilee-free bubble...
I've grown up a lot since 1977, but I'm not sure that we have politically. We've come a long way, but we've still got a long way to go...
And I've got a long walk to get into Stormont, so I'd better stop blogging and get going...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sing from your Sick Bed

In his reflection on Psalm 102 in his book "Songs of Experience", Roy Clements refers to the 16th century playwright  Thomas Nashe’s poem written during an outbreak of the plague. He only cites a few verses, but for full effect let me quote the whole thing:
Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector’s brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us.

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us.

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us.

Cheery wee number… and completely out of tune with the modern age which is running headlong to avoid the inevitability of death. Indeed the middle-aged man on a treadmill may be the perfect metaphor for the modern world’s attitude to death… Running ever faster but getting no-where… At best delaying the inevitable by a few years…
Health and well-being is a major industry… and a fertile field for charlatans and quacks. The sad thing is that the Church has it’s fair share of the same… The superstition around some Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites, the inappropriate emphasis placed on “signs and wonders” in certain Pentecostal and Charismatic strands of the the church, and the unashamed money-grabbing of  some supposedly Christian "faith-healers” are all manifestations of this… 
In the light of this the approach of Nashe or the "afflicted man" cited in this Psalm, would be seen as being defeatist and betraying a lack of faith… But as Roy Clements points out:
“A believer is not a person who believes in healing; a believer is a person who believes in God.”
God does heal… but not “on demand” and anyway, any earthly healing is only temporary. Unless Christ returns, we will all eventually die and return to dust… even those who have been healed. 
The original of this psalm is the prayer of someone who is clearly physically ill, but this is complicated by the fate of Jerusalem, which seems to have been destroyed at the time of writing. We don’t know whether the psalmist has been exiled, or is literally living in the ruins of the city (as verse 6 might suggest), but either would have a profound affect on his emotional wellbeing, and our physical health is, as we have already said in this study, is deeply affected by our psychological and emotional health.
His description of his condition is evocative… he’s clearly fading away… he’s lost his appetite… everything tastes like ashes… and he is weeping uncontrollably… He blames God, because if God is truly sovereign then everything is his fault. But he is also looks to God as the source of all healing and restoration. But God’s timing is not necessarily our own, and Hebrews 1 would suggest that while this Psalm may not have been fulfilled in the Psalmist’s lifetime, it was ultimately fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in his body, the church. Jesus, through us, is the source of all healing, for all nations…
One final thought before I offer you my paraphrase of this Psalm (heavily influenced as usual by Eugene Peterson's work); The concluding contrast between the Psalmist’s mortality as a creature and the finite nature of creation over and against the infinite, immortality of the creator, who was there in the beginning and always will be, was an explicit challenge to the contemporary cosmologies of Babylon which were supposed to be recorded in the stars in the heavens. But it is also a challenge to the Godless science of the so-called “New Atheists” which claims that an absence of evidence of God in cosmology and evolution is evidence of his absence… Not so says the Psalmist… his fingerprints are to be found all over the place if you have eyes to see… And not only was he around in the beginning, he will be around long after we (and the New Atheists) are gone… indeed will be there long after all evidence of our earthly existence is gone as well.

Listen to  my prayer, O Lord; hear my cry for help.
Don’t turn your back on me when I am in desperation.
Pay attention to my pleas and hurry to help me.
I’m fading away to nothing; I’m burning up with fever.
My heart is shrivelling up within me; I’ve lost my appetite for food and life.
I moan and groan all the time; I’m reduced to skin and bones.
I feel like a vulture, picking over the ruins of my life.
Or a lonely tawny owl twit-twooing in the twilight.
All day long my enemies mock me; while others call me accursed.
I live on a diet of ashes; I drink deeply from my own tears;
In  your great anger, you seem to have swept me aside discarded me;
You have plucked me from your path like a withered weed.
But you, O Lord, are still on the throne; always and forever sovereign.
Yet it is time for you to  arise from your throne and show compassion to your people;
The time to act has come.
Rescue your people from the rubble and the ruin and the world will sit up and take notice;
When you, O Lord restore your people, your glory will be clear.
They will see that you respond to the prayers of the wretched;
That you do not dismiss their pleas.
Write this down for generations to come, so that those yet unborn may praise the Lord:
"The Lord looked down from his high and holy place, from heaven he surveyed the earth,
He heard the piteous groans of the prisoners; he released those on death row."
So the name of the Lord will be praised among his people;
It will be honoured in all nations when people gather to worship the Lord.
While I was striding tall through life he brought me to my knees;
he cut me down in the prime of life.
"Don’t let me die so soon, O my God” I prayed; “while you endure eternally.
You were there at the beginning shaping the sphere on which we stand,
and leaving your fingerprints all over the sky.
All of creation will crumble to dust, but you remain forever;
They will all wear out like an old suit of clothes;
In time you will change them and throw them away.
Everything changes but you remain the same, your years will never come to an end.
The children of your servants will live under your shadow;
their children’s children’s children will find their home in you."
Psalms 102

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Back from Conference...

Did you miss me? Looking at the blog stats over the past few weeks, the answer to that is clearly no, but never mind... For those interested, I've been a little busy recently with a jaunt to Scotland for a family celebration, and another to Enniskillen for the Methodist Church in Ireland conference, with a couple of funerals thrown in for good measure. So I'm punctured now, and am likely to be absent from the blogsphere for a few more days as I have a bit of catch-up to do out in the real world... But first a brief comment on the conference...
Some people expressed surprise that I, and others were so positive about the past few days... I don't tend to look forward to conference... It used to be that it was a time that afforded us the chance to catch up with colleagues that we haven't seen for a year and long coffee breaks allowed important discussions to take place behind the scenes. In recent years a shortened agenda has reduced the space for those encounters, whilst a lot of the discussion on the conference floor has been more administratively focussed, and hence quite dry. Add to that a gloomy picture regarding church statistics and finances and it has tended to make conference a relatively depressing (if not infuriating) experience for me.
But something strange happened this year... I disappeared for the first day of the representative session in order to conduct 2 funerals back on my home patch, and as I prepared to come back, the comments on facebook and twitter (#mci12 if you're interested) suggested that things had been very positive in my absence, including the election of my friend and predecessor in Dundonald Methodist, the Rev. Dr. Heather Morris as the President-designate of the Methodist Church in Ireland for 2013-14. Now this is a pretty big deal in the context of conservative Irish Christianity, even bigger when we later, almost unnoticed, passed legislation that means that when she is installed as President next year it will involve 2 Church of Ireland Bishops, and she will be regarded by the CoI as an "episcopal minister" ie. a Bishop in all but name... Add to this the fact that she was elected by a significant margin and with many years of service yet to go (ie. it is not a "gold watch" appointment) and this is momentous.
There had been, apparently much discussion about the perilous state of our finances in my absence as well, but this did not seem to produce the grey, gloomy clouds of doom and depression that other such discussions had elicited, but rather a resolve to teach more about Biblical stewardship (including but not restricted to tithing), to trust in the boundless grace of God and to radically rethink our mission and how we resource it.
I did return to a somewhat rancorous debate on the future of one of our congregations, and there were some difficult discussions in the course of the rest of conference, but on the whole we managed to disagree without being disagreeable... Now, I may feel somewhat more positive than others in that in each of those difficult debates, I found myself on the "winning" side (a rare occasion indeed)... So I didn't leave conference with my customary sore head through frustration, and pray for those who did...
Perhaps one of the thorniest debates was that concerning the ability or otherwise of Methodist Missions and other church bodies being able to apply for Lottery funding, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of those in situations of social need, when all other avenues of funding have been exhausted... Many found it impossible to square this permission with our church's continued implacable opposition to gambling of all forms, including the lottery... and this is understandable and laudable, but given
a) we accept money from "gambling" on the stock markets, and from various dubious sources including gambling, tobacco, alcohol and arms dealing, via both bank interest and government funding from taxation.
b) the UK government have irrevocably moved the goalposts re statutory funding, directing most partners in their so-called, "Big Society" towards the lottery as the main source of funding, with no real sustainable alternative likely (contrary to the proposed "third way" funding package proposed by our CSR Committee).
c) the black hole in funding within the community and voluntary sector due to the economic recession and the petering out of "peace money"
d) the dubious morality of any prophetic stance on the lottery being paid for by other people's jobs and programmes and services for the poorest people in our society being cut...
I and others argued and voted for the ability to apply for lottery funding under strict criteria. To be fair I would have liked more specific criteria and a mechanism for approval of such applications to make sure that they are not being made on spurious grounds, but by the time the vote was won I didn't want to start a whole new debate.
But I don't want to end this brief reflection on a contentious matter, rather on two highlights for me...
First, the President for this year, the Rev. Ken Lindsay has chosen as his theme, "Strength through Prayer". Now, this is perhaps a little to close to the motto/title of the  Nazi "Strength through Joy" movement for my liking, and I never was a fan of snappy slogans, but it was borne out in the 2 Bible studies lead by Dom Mark-Ephrem Nolan of the Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor. I missed the first of these, but the second was a real joy, and I hope the text of both will be published in full. Not only did he open up the Biblical text clearly and helpfully, but his presence, leading a Bible study in the Methodist Conference in Enniskillen is a sign of hope... Again I appreciate that some may not see it that way, but I do...
But finally, the final act of conference, with the ordination of 4 fine ministers with different gifts and graces reminded me that God hasn't finished with us yet...