Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Fourfold "Blessing"

The following is the blessing I used at the conclusion of our Harvest Service last night at which Alan Carson spoke about the work of Storehouse in seeking to address the needs of the poor in Belfast. I adapted this from a prayer I previously pointed out in one of my Saturday Supplements, but when I went back to check it out on the original website, it is mysteriously suspended "for billing reasons." It was listed there as a Fourfold Franciscan blessing, but is to be found elsewhere as a Benedictine blessing. Wherever it emanated from, this Wesleyan thought it worthwhile posting here in my amended form:

May God bless you with discomfort. Discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger. Anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. Amen
May God bless you with tears. Tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger and conflict, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and help turn their pain into joy.
May God bless you with foolishness. Enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen


Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Psalm for Harvest Sunday

A short responsive Psalm used as the call to worship for our Harvest Service this morning:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.
I will give you thanks, for you answered my prayers;
you are my salvation and my song.
This is the day the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
You are my God, and I will give thanks;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.
From Psalm 118


Monday, September 23, 2013

What is wrong with this picture?

What is wrong with this picture?
A shorter answer might be elicited by the question what is right with this picture? No-one in their right minds would combine a picture of an armed Klansman and a quote from Martin Luther King Junior.
Yet in my home area of East Belfast the following mural has been painted over a recently commissioned mural of footballer George Best...

At least they didn't have the gall to put Dr. King's name to the quote. Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle's comment that it is "Perverse beyond belief" probably sums up my feeling on it... Although the people that painted it probably couldn't care less what people like Chris or myself think... They clearly don't care what anyone else thinks. They are the faceless men with guns who answer to no-one. Neither democratically elected representatives, including the PUP who have historic links with the UVF, or the people who elected them. It is they who oppress, by threat of violence, the people they claim to defend from oppression. The previous mural was paid for by public funds after a wide community consultation as part of the Re-Imaging Programme across Belfast, aimed at changing paramilitary murals into something that both celebrated the past and pointed towards a more hopeful future. I've written before saying that some of our chosen role models, like George Best, are somewhat flawed, but at least Best was a world class footballer. What this mural speaks of is Northern Ireland's world renown for sectarian violence.
This mural would not be any more legitimate had it been in West Belfast or the Bogside with an IRA crest over the quote rather than a UVF one... (Although one suspects that had it been there then the gunman wouldn't have had a balaclava on... There seems to be an inability among loyalist mural artists to paint actual faces!)
The claim that the terrorist activity of republican paramilitaries was driven by a desire for civil rights is a myth with little basis in reality, and ultimately did little to secure the ultimate establishment of those rights. But I doubt that there are many within the republican community would have dared to put a quote from the most prominent non-violence advocate of the late 20th century beside a painting of an IRA gunman. (I look forward to someone with a more comprehensive knowledge of Republican murals correcting me on that one.)
Certainly Unionist reluctance, nay outright hostility, to equality for the Catholic/nationalist minority in Northern Ireland, added to the sense of oppression historically experienced in the Catholic community, might have resonances with Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham jail" from which this quote is culled. But where he argues for "direct action" rather than waiting for equality to come, he was not arguing for the use of bombs or bullets to achieve his ends, but peaceful protest and civic disruption.
On that front it was encouraging to see that the loyalist flag protest from to the City Centre to the Woodvale/Ardoyne interface was carried out in a peaceful fashion, despite what seems to have been a deliberate policy of flouting the determination of the Parades Commission. It is a "legitimate" if not legal tactic of non-violent protest to contravene what you perceive to be unjust laws and be prepared to take the consequences in order to have those laws struck down or replaced.
However, what saddens me is that all of this political energy in loyalist communities is being chronically misdirected. Is there really oppression of PUL culture when our national flag is flown on designated days, as per many civic buildings in English towns and cities? No other flag is being flown in its place... Is there really oppression of PUL culture when loyalist bands and crowds are asked to respect Catholic places of worship during parades? (Actually, respecting all places of worship fullstop would be good in these celebrations of religious liberty)
Do I think that the Ligoniel lodges should be able to parade past the Ardoyne shops? Yes... Is the current stand-off and rhetoric about civil rights for loyalists and the oppression of PUL culture the way to achieve it? No. Because it is patent nonsense. And the threat of the masked gunman standing up for the "oppressed" doesn't help the case.
I started by referring to a miappropriated Martin Luther King quotation. Let me end by offering another one, from earlier in his career, just after a bomb had been thrown into his house in Alabama:
"If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: "He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword." We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you." This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love."

Perhaps too long to put on a mural... It isn't a soundbite or a slogan... But it is a mindset we could do with living by...


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Follow Me...

No Psalm for Sunday this week (and no Saturday Supplement again either... sorry but I've just been too busy to collate the backlog of weblinks)... instead I offer this reblog based on the theme of discipleship... We're currently exploring what is meant by our President Heather Morris's theme for the year "A People Invited to Follow..." This is as good a place as any to start...

Reader 1:        As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 
Reader 2:        "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men."
Reader 1:        At once they left their nets and followed him.
Reader 2:        As they were walking along the road, a man said to Jesus,
Reader 1:        "I will follow you wherever you go."
Reader 2:        Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."
Reader 1:        He said to another man,
Reader 2:        "Follow me."
Reader 1:        But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
Reader 2:        Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
Reader 1:        Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family."
Reader 2:        Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."
Reader 1:        Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:
Reader 2:        “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Matthew 4:18-20, Luke 9:57-62 , Mark 8:34


Friday, September 20, 2013

A (expletive-deleted) great show...

Last night  my wife and I went to the f*****g Lyric Theatre, and it wasn't to see Pride and Prejudice the f*****g Musical on the main stage, but something much more f*****g earthy in the Naughton Studio space: Re-Energize by Gary f*****g Mitchell, directed by my mate Conall f*****g Morrison with music by John and Damian O'Neill from the f*****g Undertones. It picks up the story of the members of a f*****g wannabe punk band 30 years after Mitchell's earlier play "Energy" was set.

I didn't see that production back in 1999 in the Playhouse in Derry, where this production also originated. But the previous year I first came across Gary Mitchell's work in another collaboration with Conall Morrison when I took a night out from Methodist Conference to take a ministerial colleague to see their play "As the Beast Sleeps" in the bowels of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin... The play was still in a fluid state at that time and one of the discussions between Gary, Conall, myself and my colleague was the relentless use of the word f**k throughout the play. If truth be told I think the writer and director were both more worried about other people's sensitivities than either me or my colleague, because in his liberal use of Anglo-Saxon Mitchell was capturing the lingua franca of his home area of Rathcoole. And if you can manage to hear more than profanity you will find in this play the authentic voice of contemporary post-working class Ulster protestantism. Mitchell has a wonderful ear for dialogue. There were parts of the play where I thought that he had been secretly recording conversations between me and my younger brother or me and my teenage son, minus the swearing of course ... So much so that I had tears of laughter running down my cheeks at one point...

Yet the laughter belied the tragedy that was unfolding in front of us... A story of hopelessness, debt, the threat and reality of violence, depression, alcoholism, broken families, social division (socio-economic rather than religious)... But the black humour, and the music cut through the darkness of the story to genuinely leave me up-lifted and indeed re-energized leaving the theatre.

As well as a brilliant ear for dialogue, Mitchell also has a superb understanding of loyalist society and a sense of the social ills within it - an understanding that sadly led to him being intimidated out of Rathcoole, once his writing started to get TV exposure... However, there is often a absence of a dramatic flow in his work... A lack of a climax, or ultimate denouement... This was true in last night's show and may be deliberate... offering a snapshot of the ongoing nature of existence in loyalist communities, the ups, downs and crises that occur, without anything ultimately ever changing... I recognised far too many of the scenarios played out on the Naughton stage last night... Scenarios played out with conviction and energy by the whole cast, who were a good solid ensemble both in terms of their acting and as a garage-punk band...

Everything culminated in a defiant, high octane performance of the title tracks of the original play "Energy" and the new show "Re-Energize". Circumstances were not going to crush the dreams of these characters...

In the real world, rebellion against the social circumstances that loyalist communities find themselves in has more frequently expressed in flag protests and rioting recently... That's not to justify the latter, but it is a factor in it all the same...

Is there a romanticism in the refusal of these middle-aged punk rockers to give up on their dreams, no-matter how unrealistic those dreams might be?

Yes. It is, but it is a romanticism rooted in rough and ready reality... pregnant with hope... Offering everyone the possibility of a second chance...

But you've only got two more chances to see it at the Lyric, so if you can get tickets for tonight or tomorrow, grab them with both hands...


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In The Pink and Out of the Blue

I've been using this book for a few months now as a devotional prior to going onto the wards of the Ulster Hospital as chaplain, ever since a number of them appeared there as a resource to share with those  wrestling with cancer. Its authors have experienced cancer themselves directly and within their families, and have a long pedigree of working within the sphere of prayer for healing, and this book finds its origin in a frustration that there was little written from an explicitly Christian perspective as they faced cancer. The title, tone and even the physical form of the book marks it out as being aimed primarily at women, but there is plenty in here that is useful for anyone going through the whole testing-diagnosis-treatment continuum of care, and those accompanying them on that journey, be it as chaplain, pastor, family member or friend. That is especially true of some of the prayers at the end of the book. The folksy "thought for the day" style will not appeal to everyone, but the bite-sized chunks may be as much as those in the midst of dealing with this disease can deal with, and the authenticity of something written from the patient's perspective is very helpful. It has become not only a welcome addition to my shelf of resources as a chaplain and pastor, but I have also given and recommended it to people I thought it might help... both patients and family members. It has also sparked off some thinking in me, prompting more than a couple of blogs (including at least one more to come.)
However, I return again to the feminine tone of the publication. Just as the authors expressed their frustration at the lack of explicitly Christian support for those facing cancer, I repeatedly hear similar frustration expressed regarding the lack of explicitly male-orientated  cancer support and fund-raising... Testicular cancer and other male-gender specific cancers do not get the same attention as breast and overian cancers... There may be many and complex reasons for that, and things are changing, with, for example, the Mo-vember campaign etc. But there may well be a "market" out there for a similar type of publication specifically for men... "Out of the Blue" perhaps?


Monday, September 16, 2013

Looking Back and Looking Forward

My last Thought for the Day for a while, broadcast live today on Good Morning Ulster (as usual approximately 25 & 85 minutes into the programme), influenced not only by my anniversary today but also the Haass talks and the Hope and History campaign... Don't forget to sign up and help shape a more hopeful future for this province.

A few years ago I pre-recorded a thought for the day that was due to go out on my wedding anniversary and I used that as the introduction to my talk, but then forgot that I had doe so AND forgot to tell my wife Sally that I had mentioned it… This then caused her great puzzlement when lots of people wished her happy anniversary throughout the day… 
Well, it is once again our anniversary… I won’t tell you how many years except to say that for some unknown reason the recommended gift for this year is a musical instrument… So I hope Sally enjoys the kazoo I’ve bought her! 
I’ve many happy memories of our wedding day, when people from all the diverse spheres of our lives, family and friends, came together to publicly mark our commitment to each other before God… and have a good party… But that was just one day, and as I often emphasise when I officiate at weddings, no matter how much it has cost a wedding is only one day, but a marriage is so much more… hopefully for life. 
Our married life has brought us through all sorts of ups and downs, twists and turns… But today is a day for being thankful for ALL the experiences that we have come through together. 
One of my favourite writers is Belfast’s own C.S. Lewis, and in his novel “Out of the Silent Planet” one character says “A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered…” 
I heartily agree with that sentiment, as thankfully Sally and I have plenty of pleasures to be remembered… However, if today was only a day for looking back wistfully then there might be more than a touch of melancholy in that… With a sense that our best years are behind us… No… the best is yet to come… 
And what is true of my relationship with my wife is also true of our wider relationships in this province… We spend a lot of time remembering the past here… There always seems to be an anniversary or even a centenary to celebrate… or commemorate in some more sombre fashion, because of the painful nature of the memories involved. 
The past inevitably shapes the present, but as Richard Haass comes to town one of his biggest challenges is helping us to find ways of dealing honestly with the pain of the past, so that it does not imprison us and generations to come… But also we have got to stop looking back to some mythical perfect past when everything was at peace in this land until the “other side” messed it up, whether it be before the Brits came or before the Troubles… 
We need to let the past be the past… coming to terms with where we are in the present, so that we might forge new relationships that will take us into a more hope-filled future.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hope and History

Just a quick post to flag up something that you have probably picked up from elsewhere. Recently there has been much conversation about a marked lack of hope in political and civic discourse in Northern Ireland recently, with positions becoming entrenched in anticipation of the upcoming arrival of Richard Haass. But slowly, largely facilitated by social media and a few conversations over coffee, a momentum has been developing to articulate a more positive vision of how things might be. I am aware of a number of initiatives coming to a head, and will plug them here were I feel they have something to offer... I will also return in detail to the issue of hope when I get a chance to pull my thoughts together.
However, over the past week I have been part of a group who have tried to articulate some thoughts on the themes of hope and healing from a Biblical perspective as Richard Haass begins his work. As we said in a brief introductory statement that went out via facebook and email today "it is our view that when there is an opportunity it should be grasped" and the Haass process provides that opportunity in the face of some very difficult challenges. The past year, and particularly the summer months has been marked by increased community tensions, and a retreat from the middle ground of politics. But we do not want to see the progress that has been made over the past 15 years and more lost or squandered, indeed we want to see further steps towards the establishment of a society truly at peace with itself. And so, after much wrestling over wording and process, we are finally in a position to invite members of the churches to sign up to a statement which aims to give encouragement to those who are committed to improving relationships in this province and forging real peace. The statement reads:

HOPE AND HISTORYAs Richard Haass arrives to help to see us through our current impasse we, as members of different church traditions, want to encourage our leaders and our community as a whole to seek the common good at this most opportune of times.

HUMILITY We believe that in all acts of reconciliation we need to accept humbly our own part in how the past has shaped the present; our complicity in the divisions within our society and our contribution to the pain that different people across the spectrum of our society have experienced. We need to seek forgiveness for the past and change the way that we live and speak and act in the present, in order to foster a shared and peaceful future. 
We believe that key Gospel principles have much to contribute to the wellbeing of all of our community whether we are Christian, atheist, agnostic or of any faith. Central to them all is Jesus’ command to “love God and love our neighbour”; not a passive sentimental saying, but a radically transformational idea, especially as he went further and demanded that we also love our enemies, and forgive those who have done wrong to us. Forgive us, as his followers, where we have failed to follow his words and actions in this regard. Join us as we seek to make such high ideals our contribution to our shared space; as we seek to address the pain of the past and the tensions in the present, so that they may not limit the possibilities that lie in the future. 
We believe that there is hope. Our country has come a long way in twenty years. There are relationships at political, Church and community level that would have been unimaginable in 1993. However we need to draw on sources of imagination, generosity and endurance to go further, going beyond pragmatic, political structures that are based on a lack of trust and common feeling, and seeking to establish a truly peaceful society, where there is not only an absence of violence and the threat of violence, but a common sense of stability, respect and opportunity for all. This begins with a commitment to listen truly to one another, then resolving to work together so that all our children and our neighbours’ children will flourish in a new Northern Ireland, a society that is truly at peace.

This statement has no official standing in any denomination, although the leaders of the 4 largest denominations have personally endorsed it...  As per the disclaimer on this blog, the views expressed in this statement are not the official viewpoint of the Methodist Church in Ireland, or Belfast South Circuit where I now minister (although I did tell my Church Council tonight that my name would be appended to the statement). It is what I (and from the look of the sign up count after a relatively short space of time a substantial number of others) believe and I am prepared to pray and work to see it become a reality.
It is our plan that the statement will appear in the print press by the beginning of next week and that the names of those who have signed at that point will appear with the statement, but at the moment it is still unclear if/how this will happen.
But for now I would simply invite you can sign up at
Please feel free to pass on the word, and do remember to pray for all the participants in these crucial talks.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Education, Education, Education...

This morning's Thought for the Day... For those who missed it and prefer to listen rather than read, you can find it here 25 minutes and 85 minutes in, and in the second case just after an interview with Linda Ervine, about the Irish language classes in East Belfast Mission, proving the power of education in all its forms to help us to understand one another and find a new way of relating to each other.

It was encouraging to read over the weekend that a stand-off at Hazelwood College in North Belfast, between their management and the Belfast Education and Library Board is heading towards a resolution [although to later hear of the issue being dragged into the High Court didn't exactly fill me with joy... recourse to law rarely produces reconciliation...] I don’t know all the rights and wrongs, but it was not good to see children padlocked out of classrooms…
Much worse however, were the threats supposedly made on Friday, by the so called Red Hand Defenders, against parents, pupils and teachers at three North Belfast Catholic schools. The police say that they are aware of these threats but that there is currently no evidence to corroborate them.
Some however, have suggested that these threats have simply been cooked up by republicans to smear the loyalist community, undermine the ongoing protest at Twaddell Avenue and stoke up tensions across North Belfast.
Again I don’t know where the truth lies… If these threats genuinely came from a loyalist grouping, even without the desire or ability to follow through… it is a disgrace… But if they have been fabricated as part of some sort of propaganda war, then that too is appalling… Because a perceived threat, genuine or not, still generates anxiety and stress… and means that already stretched police resources need to be diverted to the protection of pupils and teachers.
Jesus, in one of his less “meek and mild” statements suggested that it would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck rather than cause a child to stumble in any way… This might be a millstone moment…
Education is a precious thing… It is the key to employability for young people in this era of extreme competition for jobs… And this is especially important in an area like North Belfast, which for various reasons has largely been by-passed by any significant economic peace-dividend to date…
It is also potentially, a forum where young people might learn what has happened in this province in the recent past, in the hope that they never have to experience it themselves…
Victor Hugo famously said that “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”  Well, given the pressures on the justice budget at present surely that is a good thing.
But we have a history of using education as a party political football in this province so that, instead of it being part of the solution it is often a symptom of the problem and a focus of tension… Whether it be about the merits and demerits of faith schools or integrated education, the merits and demerits of the transfer test, be that at 11 or 14, or politicking regarding the resources allocated to a school on one side or another…
If G.K. Chesterton is right in his assertion that “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another” may I respectfully suggest that there is a profound soul sickness in our society at present…


Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Psalm for Sunday

For the second time in a matter of months this morning I'm preaching on the theme of "New Beginnings" based on Luke 5: 33ff. The last time it was in my previous congregation, Dundonald Methodist, where they were anticipating changes with a new minister arriving in a matter of weeks, while this time, I'm on the other side of the move and my new congregation are probably a bit anxious about what upset this new minister will cause. The last time I said on the blog that I wasn't using David's Penitential Psalm (I managed to delete the previous post instead of re-blogging it... not having a good time with technology at present), but that it might have been appropriate... this time I am using this plea for forgiveness and spiritual renewal... 

Out of your unfailing love, O God, have mercy upon me;
Out of your grace, wipe away my wrongdoing.
Wash away my guilt
Cleanse me from my sin.
For I know what I have done 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 judgement 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 ring with songs of rejoicing;
Let my heavy limbs dance in happiness.
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

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Big Dose of the Bard...

No Saturday supplement this week... not because there isn't much out there of interest in the virtual world... if anything there is too much to swiftly sift it... but because there has also been too much on in the "real" world with the beginning of September and trying to find a new rhythm to life in a new setting...
But despite my busyness I did manage to carve out a whole day last Saturday to enjoy my birthday present from my wife... a triple bill of Henry VI parts 1, 2 & 3 performed by the Globe Theatre company... So at the same time as 400 people were gathering in the Lyric theatre to mark the passing of the bard from Bellaghy, I and about 400 others were staggering punch drunk into the Grand Opera House for the final furlong of nearly 8 hours of Shakespeare.
I don't recollect ever having seen any of these three history plays before so I have nothing to compare them with from my own experience... all I can say is that I enjoyed the whole day. There were no big names in the cast (an I have to say that I wonder whether that, combined with the huge cost to see all three, resulted in the relatively paltry turn out) but that was not a disadvantage in my eyes. Too often I have gone to see a Shakespeare play with some sort of celebrity in the lead role, only to watch someone sleep-walk their way through the production. Instead this cast, all playing multiple parts except Graham Butler as the titular Henry, delivered a superb, high energy, ensemble performance. This has something to say, not just about theatrical performances but about any corporate enterprise... including church and society as a whole... We may bleat on about leadership, but the leadership that produces coherent, collaborative work is not necessarily about charismatic, celebrity-style stars, but the creative, hard work of directors, producers and stage managers working behind the scenes with actors playing their parts to the best of their abilities.
As well as having no big celebrity names in the cast, this production also had no over-arching political message impressed upon it, unlike some previous ones I have read about like Hall's in the 1960s or Noble and Bogdanov/Pennington's concurrent cycles in the late 1980s. However, letting the story tell itself allowed the enduring, if not eternal themes to emerge with a number of highly relevant issues:
  • The vacuum created in the absence of strong leadership... a vacuum which is then filled by the self-seeking agendas of competing potential leaders... 
  • The dangers of leadership that is too far removed from the people, be it through intellectual elitism or personal piety... Henry VI was an innovator in the field of education and widely praised for his piety... but is generally recognised as a relatively ineffectual King... The fact that he lasted as long as he did is generally held to be due to the fact that his rivals were too evenly balanced...
  • The "history" of a country being judged in terms of the effects on the rich and powerful. This period of history which covered the latter years of the Hundred years War and the Wars of the Roses were seen as a calamitous time by the Tudors, and much of the machinations by Henry VIII and later Elizabeth regarding the succession were largely prompted by fear of a descent into the wranglings that preceded Henry the VII's usurpation of the crown... However, the ironic thing is that the peasants were largely unaffected by these events... Their liege-Lord may have changed a number of times, but they simply got on with their, relatively miserable, day to day lives... But in this play the turning point for Henry VI is when he sees the cost of the civil war to the poor, of fathers killing their sons and sons their  fathers. Today the well-being of a country is still ultimately judged by the effects on the rich and powerful... but often it is the poor and powerless who end up paying the price of keeping the structures of power and privilege in place...
  • The poisonous cycle of vengeance... The trajectory of York's life, is set by the "wrongs" done to his father and uncle Mortimer in the preceding historical cycle, starting with the deposition of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV... and then the killing of one father by another, leads a son to kill a son in revenge... and no-one can see further than their own need for vengeance... Leading to the irony of a mother pleading for pity for her son before the son of a man she had mocked in the face of the murder of one of his younger sons... The only way that such a model can bring about peace is through the wholesale obliteration of the enemy. Leave one enemy alive and the violence escalates. Such injustice is never forgotten. Breaking the cycle of revenge through compassion and forgiveness is the only mechanism to address the pain of the past... Recognising the suffering and common humanity of others, rather than just recording the wrongs done to you and yours...
  • The nature of history... Shakespeare's history plays were unabashed political propaganda... They were not an accurate record of events... they melded multiple characters into one for the sake of simplicity and painted different characters sympathetically or not depending on what might be popular with the people in power, or the hoi-polloi in the theatre pit... For example, Jean d'Arc (brilliantly played by Beatriz Romilly) is ultimately painted, not as a martyr-saint, but as a demon-conspiring witch... The actual facts of history (particularly the history of Northern Ireland) are not what what matters... but "the truth" that people have been taught from one perspective or another... Such histories shape us and and ultimately shape our future...
And it was partly with that in mind, despite the numbness in my backside and the mental fatigue of processing Shakespearean English for 8 hours, I actually came to the end of the production wishing they had completed the cycle by including Richard III in it... because in many ways it not only completes the story of the houses of Lancaster and York, but it also shows how such a toxic history ultimately plunges everyone into darkness... In this version of history Richard of Gloucester, son of Richard of York and later to become Richard III was misshapen in body (and the recent excavation of a Leicester carpark suggests that wasn't just Tudor propaganda) but much more crucially, his spirit was misshapen because of all that had gone before...
History shapes the future... and stories shape spirits...

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Franchise Faith

This summer we spent our holiday in London, where I realised, yet again, how heavily our high streets are dominated by franchises... especially food and drink ones. I think that within central London, apart from in the parks, it must be impossible to go more than 100 yards without a Mega-Bucks, Cafe Nero and/or Pret hoving into view... and often you can see one Starbucks from the doorway of another...

As such it's a bit like churches in Belfast... Not only are there more pew places in Belfast than could conceivably be filled by its citizens, even if there was wholesale revival and an obesity epidemic that resulted in mega-sized gluteus maximi... but they are often arranged in clumps... And not just the Christ-shaming juxtaposition of different denominational mausoleums next to each other, announcing to the wider world that these Christians really don't love one another... but the insane proximity of buildings belonging to the same denomination. Sometimes they are due to historic spats, that while not serious enough to spawn another denomination, were serious enough to result in separate buildings, while at other times they are the product of a denominational division being healed, but the local congregations refusing give up their historic separate identity... And still others are because of historic social divisions between the haves and have nots, which were sometimes subsequently dressed up in theological clothes, often with the reverse snobbery of the working class churches being more evangelical and hence the "true" church.
There are those who have noted the similarity of churches and commercial brands and offer lessons from the commercial world for churches... Lessons in marketing, management, communication and other things... There have also been a proliferation of programmes over the past few decades that are little more than faith-flavoured franchises, covering all sorts of aspects of the church's mission and ministry... All come with their own branding and franchise manual, allowing you to replicate what was originally (like Starbucks) a successful, local initiative, into a national or multinational movement: Alpha, Christianity Explored, Street Pastors, Christians Against Poverty, Back to Church Sunday, Foodbank...

Don't get me wrong, I am not opposed to the use of such programmes, far from it... Indeed I have used, participated and promoted many of them in the past... But we need to use them wisely and in response to appropriate local needs, rather than simply jumping on the latest bandwagon rolling into town... Because another lesson to be learned from the commercial world is that franchises can go out of fashion as quickly as they came in... For a number of years you couldn't go half a mile without encountering a Pizza Hut... now they seem to be an endangered species, while the ubiquitous Pizza Express is everywhere... At the moment social outreach programmes like CAP, Street Pastors and Foodbanks are the in thing... which is good because they are needed out there in what is fast becoming Victorian Britain revisited... But I hope we don't run out of enthusiasm for them, discarding them like many have discarded Alpha... A few years ago the Faithworks Network stemming from Oasis was the Christian community development model of choice... now it is Redeeming our Communities... Whatever model or programmes we may or may not choose let it be because of an authentic commitment to the communities in which God has placed us rather than in response to fad or fashion... because if it isn't and we drop such programmes to move on to the next big thing, we will not only be doing a huge disservice to those whom such programmes are aimed at helping - but also to the reputation of the Church within the wider world... 

Back in ancient history churches in Northern Ireland were heavily involved in the administration of the government's ACE scheme... which was an employment scheme for the long term unemployed. There are many complaints in the wider community of abuses of that scheme, with accusations being made about churches and manses being repainted and church members' lawns being carefully tended... I don't know the truth of any of them, but the stories are out there jaundicing the view of the church in some communities... but much more damaging is the feeling that when the government pulled the plug on the scheme, the churches simply dropped those they were working with like hot bricks...Again that was not true in a number of cases, but it was sufficiently true that there are many who remain suspicious of the church's re-engagement the community sector... And given that the community sector is currently contracting at an unprecedented rate because of cuts in government funding and charitable trust giving, there is genuine hostility from some, who see churches as johnny-come-latelys who might seek to steal some of the few remaining sources of sustainable funding. So we need to behave with particular integrity and persistence in this field... And that will cost in terms of money and time...

However, going back to the world of franchises, congregations and denominations at times act like high street brands, often with the same cut-throat mentality, seeking to out-compete other brands and fellow franchise holders of the same brand. But this sort of a mindset should have no place in churches that are truly seeking to build the Kingdom rather than their own little empire... That is why it is encouraging to see churches working together to address local needs through Foodbanks etc. I've said before that my experience in Dundonald regarding the establishment of a foodbank there was that I had never before known that level of cooperation between different congregations... I hope it continues... And I hope that in my new patch I will experience similar cooperation and collaboration for the sake of the wider community... Perhaps using a few of the faith-flavoured franchises out there, but perhaps developing a few distinctive locally produced programmes specifically addressing the needs and opportunities of south Belfast.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Saying Nothing and Doing Something

I don't know whether it was the shadow of Seamus Heaney looming over me, or due to biting off more than I could possibly chew, but I have never had so much difficulty distilling my thoughts for Thought for the Day, into this single thought... If you didn't hear it live and would like to "Listen again", you will find it at 25minutes and 85 minutes in to Good Morning Ulster for Monday 2nd September on BBC Radio Ulster's iPlayer.

Like many I was saddened on Friday to hear of the death of Seamus Heaney, that most humane, humble and humorous of poets… I was waiting to pick up my son from school, the school I used to attend… the school where, in the midst of the troubles, I first read Heaney’s poetry … a school where, because of the mixed religious backgrounds of the pupils, we practised the art of evasion famously identified by him as a characteristic of our conflict… “whatever you say, say nothing…”

The church has been repeatedly accused of doing that in this province… Yet there were plenty who condemned violence from pulpits… Plenty who appealed for peace… But such pronouncements can be cheap if done from a distance… and even finely crafted words, be they those of a poet, a preacher, or an orator like Obama can seem empty without action…

On Friday the American Secretary of State John Kerry said that something must be done about the situation in Syria… Something perhaps, but what? A military strike against the Assad regime?… A tomahawk missile may be expensive, but the real cost of their use is borne by those killed and injured in collateral damage, or in the escalation of violence that may take place as a result.

The vote in Westminster on Thursday means that the UK will not be part of any military action, but will we do anything else to effect change other than using words to condemn abuses?

John’s Gospel describes Jesus as the Word of God… that life-giving word that brings order out of chaos… But it also says the word became flesh and lived among us… Jesus was born as a vulnerable child whose life was nearly taken by a brutal dictator; he lived as a humble carpenter and teacher who told tales of God’s Kingdom of grace, using, like Heaney, carefully chosen words and the experience of everyday local life; and ultimately his flesh was flogged and pierced, when he was unjustly executed as a rebel against the empire…

Words, as Heaney, demonstrated, can be powerful… But we who claim to be people of the word, followers of Jesus, need to remember that our words should find flesh and blood expression… That conflict must ultimately be addressed up close, through costly service. And that we are called bear the cost…

Whether it be with regard to Syria or Northern Ireland, we need to avoid using words to ultimately say nothing, or doing anything just to be seen to do something. Instead let us in everything seek to say and do the right thing… 


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Psalm for Sunday

This ( I think) is based on the Psalm for this Sunday's lectionary readings... We're not using it in South Belfast Methodist this morning, but if you are going to be with me at the Ulster Hospital we will be using it there as a call to worship:

Praise the Lord.
Blessed are those who fear the Lord;
Those who delight in his commands.
Their children will be powerful in the land;
the offspring of the righteous will be blessed.
Wealth and wellbeing come from his hand,
and his righteousness will endure eternally.
Even in darkness the righteous walk by the light;
Dawn will rise on the gracious and compassionate.
Good will return to those who are generous and share freely,
Those who conduct their business fairly.
Surely the righteous will stand unshaken;
Their name will be remembered for ever.
They will not fear bad news;
Their hearts are without anxiety, trusting in the Lord.
Their hearts are free from fear,
for they will triumph over their foes.
The wicked will see their plans come to nothing,
They will waste away and their desires will be frustrated.
The Lord will bring blessing to the poor,
and his righteousness will endure eternally.
and his throne will be exalted.
Praise the Lord.
From Psalm 112