Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Haass and Hopelessness, Leadership and Local Action

I've been offline for a few days... Partly holiday... partly the limitations of my computer having blown up... and partly due to illness... But I want to come out of purdah to make a brief comment in the wake of the lack of agreement in the Haass talks last night and what that means for Northern Ireland as we enter into 2014.
I'm actually going to temper my reflections, first because I have long since learned that it is a bad idea to really let loose when I am as angry as I currently am, and second, I am telling myself that this was always an artificial deadline and it is not the end of this particular process... Indeed for a long time now the mood music suggested that the departure of Haass and O'Sullivan would not by any means be the end of the process, as the parties had booted the issue of flags further down the road in the form of yet another commission... But it now seems as if all three issues of flags, parades and the past "need more work." The cynic in me asks "How difficult is it to re-write Eames-Bradley?" But I'm not going to let the cynic in me take over... and give in to the wave of hopelessness in the wake of Dr. Haass's failure to find the silver bullet for our ills.
Instead I look forward to 2014 with hope... It can't be much worse that 2013 (Ooops... Sorry, the cynic escaped again...) No, I do genuinely hope that the discussions so far will not be in vain and that real leaders across the political spectrum will take up the challenge to forge a better future for the children of this province... A future not focussed on defending the interests of one side or the other, but on what is for the common good...
I awoke this morning, not to the depressing news on Radio Ulster, but, because my wife re-tuned my bedside radio on Christmas morning to escape the inane wittering on that channel, to Radio 4's today programme and Archbishop Justin Welby doing Thought for the Day, at the request of guest editor Antony Jenkins, the CEO of Barclays Bank. In that Thought for the Day I learned that there had been no resolution in the Haass talks, but did so against a discussion of the importance of hope and leadership in the light of, not only that "setback" here, but also the violence in Sudan and the future of the economy...
He said: 
"Leadership is the issue. Leadership must have a vision based in justice and hope, so that everyone at every level is committed to change…"
Every level...
In a subsequent interview with Antony Jenkins and presenter Sarah Montague he was asked about how what he said about hope and leadership applied to the Church of England in the face of falling numbers, and he focussed on signs of hope in the church at the local level, reaching out to address local needs, admitting that there is sometimes a disconnect between what seem to be important at a national and local level in church... 
I think the same could be said at times of all churches... and in Northern Ireland.
Frustration with what might be perceived as a lack of leadership in Stormont may be at its zenith at present (and the blame-game currently developing does not improve that perception in my eyes... though it may bolster partisan voting come the elections next year), but the responsibility to build a better future does not just lie with politicians, and our hope is not in them alone, thank God, in whom our hope is ultimately fixed.
Rather the responsibility lies with people at all levels of society, and from my perspective, particularly in the church at the local level, to work for the common good... 
As I said in an unguarded moment a few years back in a seminar I was leading on community development and the church, if the church is not making a positive difference in the local neighbourhood where it is situated it would be better switching off the lights and closing its doors... I still believe that...
Good leadership at political or a local level is about promoting positive change...
I hope and pray and resolve to work for such in 2014.
Will you join me?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bethlehem Road

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas day. The rhythm of ours was slightly different with it being the first year in a new church. At long last, however, I did summon up the courage to perform this song which I wrote about 4 or 5 years ago, with Owain playing guitar. This was a special joy given how little he has been able to play over these past 2 years. It seems to have been well received and a couple of people asked me for the words. I have posted it a couple of times previously. But here it is again. The tune is "Raglan Road..."

Down Bethl’em road from Nazareth,
Came Joseph and his wife
Within her womb God’s promise bloomed
His Word, the Light of Life.
He came to take on flesh and blood
To show us all the way
And through the night a star so bright
Hailed the dawning of His day.

And on the hills round Bethlehem,
Some shepherds heard the song,
The angels sing of a new born King
Awaited for so long.
They find him midst the filth and grime
In a bed of straw and hay,
Ignored by the earth that he brought to birth
The Lord Almighty lay.

And from the east to Bethlehem
Come men who saw the sign.
These eastern seers travelled two long years
To present their gifts so fine.
Gold they did bring, fit for a king
And a scent of untold worth.
But the gift of myrrh that they offer third
Spoke of death and not of birth.

From Bethlehem his parents fly
To save their son from harm
But others die and mothers cry
And wail in their alarm.
The powers that be had come to see
That child as a source of strife
His birth meant despair to the people there
But his coming brought us life.

From Bethlehem to Jerusalem
Is not so very far.
Thirty three years on, on a cold spring dawn
He died on a wooden spar
From he first drew breath ‘til his cruel death
For him there was no room,
He took the blame for our sin and shame
And was laid in a borrowed tomb

But on our streets and roads today,
The Lord can still be found,
Wherever we will bend the knee
The angels’ song resounds.
To heaven raise God’s glorious praise
And on the earth be peace
Where once again Christ comes to reign
His grace will never cease.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Into the Neighbourhood - The King and His Kingdom is Here

Here is the candle liturgy that we will be using in our brief Christmas morning service in Belfast South Methodist... Come and join us if you are in the vicinity at 9.30am this morning.

But wherever you are may you know the blessing of the King of Kings.

VOICE 1:      The Lord himself will give you a sign:
VOICE 2:      A virgin girl will become pregnant and will give birth to a son;
VOICE 1:      She will call him Immanuel, meaning “God with us.”
VOICE 2:      The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
VOICE 1:      on those living in the land of death’s deep dark shadow a light has dawned.
VOICE 2:      You have broadened the bounds of the nation and magnified their joy;
VOICE 1:      they rejoice before you as the starving rejoice at the harvest,
VOICE 2:      or as the oppressed rejoice when dividing the plunder from their defeated oppressors.
VOICE 1:      You have shattered the shackles that bind them,
VOICE 2:      You have removed the yoke that lay across their shoulders,
VOICE 1:      And broken the rod that raised welts on their backs .
VOICE 2:      Every soldier’s boot used in battle, every shirt soaked in innocent blood will be burned,
VOICE 1:      They will all be fuel for the fire.
VOICE 2:      For a child has been born to us
VOICE 1:      The gift of a son for us
VOICE 2:      Good government will be the yoke on his shoulders.
VOICE 1:      And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Almighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
VOICE 2:      His rule and reign will grow and grow and the peace he brings will be boundless.
VOICE 1:      He will reign on David's throne and over the kingdom promised to him,
VOICE 2:      establishing firm foundations and building it up promoting justice and right relationships
                        from that time on and eternally.
VOICE 1:      The zeal of the Almighty ETERNAL I AM will achieve all this.
From Isaiah 7:14 & 9:2-7
VOICE 2:      We lit the Advent candles in anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom of God
                        a kingdom of peace and justice, joy and hope.
                        But now we light the Christ candle at the centre of it all
                        To mark the coming of the King.
                        The Promise of God has become flesh and blood
                        And moved into this neighbourhood.

Shout, for the Lord has come;
 songs be in every mouth;
 Sing in your northern home,
 from east and west and south.
 In Jesus all can find their rest
 And all creation shall be blessed!

We give thanks for the coming of your kingdom
In the Christ-child born of Mary,
Humbly taking on flesh and blood and moving into the neighbourhood.
We humbly admit that in the past we have resisted following the example of Christ
we have restricted his coming  to a story of long ago and far away,
and have turned a blind eye to the details of the story -
of Christ coming through an unmarried teenage mother,
 being born to a homeless couple, forced to seek asylum in a foreign land.
We pray that you would forgive us
And give us a fresh perspective on your word and world.
Open our eyes to Christ’s coming all around us
Open our ears to your story
And our hearts to your glory and grace
for we ask it in the name of your son Jesus Christ
Immanuel – God with us. AMEN

Go out into the neighbourhood
 to put flesh and blood on the truth of Christ’s coming.
 His kingdom has come, may his will be done
 in south Belfast as it is in heaven. AMEN


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Prophets of a future not our own

I promised earlier in advent that we would be hearing from Oscar Romero again... Here is his take on the hope that is ours in the promised Kingdom of God... Worth hearing in the wake of frustration regarding the lack of outcomes in the Haass Talks. Advent is our opportunity to step back and take the long view...

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen

Oscar A. Romero (Archbishop of El Salvador)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Into the Neighbourhood - The Coming Kingdom of Hope

Here we have the fourth of the advent candle liturgies that we've been using in Belfast South Methodist Church derived from the Hope and History material. This is the only one that diverges from the current year's lectionary reading from Isaiah (we are using today's reading on Christmas Day)... By the way, today's illustration is one of the wonderful David Esler windows in our sanctuary entitled "Hope".

VOICE 1:      Behold, my servant, whom I endorse,
VOICE 2:      The one I chose, in whom I take joy;
VOICE 1:      My Spirit is in him and he will bring justice to all nations.
VOICE 2:      He won’t seek publicity for himself,
VOICE 1:      or raise the rabble with his speeches.
VOICE 2:      He won’t brutalise the bruised
VOICE 1:      or discount those who bring him no benefit,
VOICE 2:      But faithfully he will work for justice;
VOICE 1:      he will not let up or get down  until all things are set right throughout the earth.
VOICE 2:      In his rule these islands will find real hope.
VOICE 1:      This is what God, the ETERNAL I AM, proclaims—
VOICE 2:      he who stretched out the skies like a canvas,
VOICE 1:      he who sculpted the earth and formed all that comes from it,
VOICE 2:      he who breathes his breath into its people,
VOICE 1:      and gives the spark of life to all who walk upon it’s surface:
VOICE 2:      "I, the ETERNAL I AM, have called you to live right;
VOICE 1:      I will take hold of your hand so that you will walk with me
VOICE 2:      I will protect you, binding you to me for the sake of all people
VOICE 1:      As a beacon of hope for all nations
VOICE 2:      to open blind eyes and free prisoners from dark dungeons
VOICE 1:      to clear out the prisons  and release those who have become used to prison life.
VOICE 2:      "I am the ETERNAL I AM; that is my name!
VOICE 1:      I will not give up my glory to another  or share my praise with lifeless idols.
VOICE 2:      The past is the past, and now is the time for new things;
VOICE 1:      I’m giving you a taster before they come in all their fullness."
VOICE 2:      Sing to the LORD a new song,
VOICE 1:      Sing his praise all around the earth,
VOICE 2:      Sing it in the skies as you fly from place to place,
VOICE 1:      Sing it across these islands wherever your national loyalties may lie.
VOICE 2:      Let urban sprawl and rural idyll resound with raised voices;
VOICE 1:      Let shouts be heard on mountaintop and seashore
VOICE 2:      Let us give glory to the ETERNAL I AM
VOICE 1:      and proclaim his praise in these islands.
From Isaiah 42: 1-12
VOICE 2:      We lit the first two candles
 in anticipation of the coming of the kingdom of peace and justice,
and the third to mark the joy that kingdom would bring.
Now we light the fourth candle  
in testimony to the hope that is ours in Christ;
Not simply a hope of heaven but in the here and now,
as a symbol of our commitment
to be bringers of hope to this neighbourhood.

Glens of the north, rejoice;
river and moorland-spring,
hark to the advent voice;
valley and lowland, sing:
Christ comes, the promised Prince of Peace;
To rule and make all conflict cease. 
Hills all across the south
Welcome the coming king,
Hear the words of his mouth;
Justice and peace they bring:
He comes the humble poor to raise,
Let every voice proclaim his praise.
Lands to the east, awake,
soon you shall all be free;
the chains of slav’ry break,
and rise to liberty.
In all your towns, cold, damp and grey,
will dawn that promised joyous day.

Shores of the farthest west,
Land of the setting sun,
Welcome our heavenly guest
The hope of all has come;
He is the never ending light,
That triumphs o’er the darkest night.

We look forward with a sure and certain hope, O Lord
To your kingdom of peace and justice.
When history will come to its consummation,
And all anticipation will find its fulfilment.
Hope for the poor and powerless,
Hope for the ill and infirm,
Hope for the lonely and bereaved.
We humbly admit that in the past
we have offered little hope on this side of the grave,
pointing to a hope of heaven, a hope-deferred,
rather than anticipating the hope to come in the here and now.
We pray that you would forgive us
and fill us with the hope that supplants the pain of the past,
lifts our eyes to the bright new horizon of the future
and helps us to transform the present age
for we ask it in the name of your son Jesus Christ
And for the sake of his coming kingdom. AMEN

According to ancient Greek stories the first woman was Pandora, and as a wedding gift Zeus, the king of the gods, sent her a little box with a big heavy lock on it, but he made her promise never to open the box. He gave the key to Pandora’s husband and told him to never open the box. But Pandora was very curious. She wanted to see what was inside the box, and one day, when her husband lay sleeping, Pandora stole the key and opened the box. And out flew every kind of disease and sickness, hate and envy, and all the bad things that people had never experienced before. Pandora slammed the lid closed, but it was too late. All the bad things were already out of the box. They flew away, out into the world. All except one… One tiny butterfly whose name was Hope…
In the Bible we read a different story. There the first woman is called Eve, but once again it is through that woman that  sin and sorrow and illness and death came into the world… But once again there is hope…All through the Old Testament the prophets said that another woman would give birth to a son… and he would bring in a new kingdom… of peace, justice, joy and HOPE… Not a cross your fingers and hope not to die sort of hope... But a sure and certain hope... Not simply hope of a better life in the hereafter but a hope that transforms the here and now because of our hope hereafter...

Closing Exhortation & Benediction
Go out into the neighbourhood
 to put flesh and blood on the hope that we have in Christ.
 May his kingdom come and his will be done
 in our neighbourhood as it is in heaven. AMEN

Friday, December 20, 2013

You Trample on the Poor and Laugh at the Plight of the Lowly...

I'm taking a brief break from the insanity that is my run up to Christmas and the series of "funnies" that I had set up to post this week as I reflect on this week's advent theme of the Coming Kingdom of Joy, to vent my spleen...
During advent we quote a lot from the prophets, and last Sunday, in a reflection based on Isaiah 61, I spoke about the good news for the poor that the prophet proclaimed... Amos, a prophet we don't often hear much from in advent, probably because his prophecy is not so much "tidings of comfort and joy" but "tidings of condemnation and judgement", by contrast speaks of bad news to the rich who oppress the poor... Among other things he says:
You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.
Seek good, not evil, that you may live.
Amos 5: 11-15

Back in 2002, because I was doing a series of Bible studies on Amos I rewrote the whole book looking at things then as if through the eyes of that shepherd from Tekoa. This passage came out as:
You trample on the poor and the powerless at home and abroad;
You force him to give you coffee beans when he should be growing grain for his children. Therefore, though you are building great glass office blocks,
No business will build a secure base in them
Though you are erecting fine new waterfront apartments
No-one will occupy them;
though new restaurants and bistros have opened across the city,
you will not long enjoy their good food and fine wine.
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.

You ridicule those who stand up for what is right;
All you care is that your bank-balance is healthy.
The police and the courts are there to keep things quiet,
Not promote justice;
And all wise men keep quiet in such times.
These times are evil.Seek good, not evil,  that you may live. 
11 years down the line and a global financial meltdown later and times are no less evil... indeed the world over, governments, including the braying, jeering Old Etonians and their fellow-travellers on the ConDem government's benches, are trying to rebuild the glittering pleasuredome of capitalism on the rubble of poor people's lives. 
This week's debate concerning the rise of the use of foodbanks in Britain, is one of the most shameful episodes I have ever listened to in Parliament. IDS's refusal to answer questions... the baying of the Tory back-benches... Esther McVey's callousness and effrontery in citing blatantly incorrect statistics, together with the walk-out of the entire Department of Work and Pensions team before the conclusion of the debate and the use of the government whip to defeat the motion were all an insult to both those who staff and support foodbanks and those whom they are trying to serve.
Now, for the sake of balance, let me say that I believe that the much reported comment from Fiona McTaggart, the Labour MP for Slough, concerning the poor fighting over marked down food in supermarkets, is a bit of a red-herring. it may have been poor people fighting over the food... But it may not... I have witnessed the same phenomenon in a supermarket near to my previous home, and the combatants were definitely not poor... just greedy... But thereby hangs a tale/tail (which is it?)... What sort of a society are we living in where people fight over 5p apples, and others (or perhaps the same people) stand in line with their precious vouchers at a foodbank... whilst politicians in line for a hefty pay-rise and claiming food expenses for each day at work, laugh and lie and legislate in such a way that makes such things more likely rather than less. The biggest lie (among many) being peddled by this current government is that work is the way out of poverty... while many of those going to foodbanks are actually in work, and average wages are actually decreasing in relation to the living wage... I actually believed IDS when he said that he wanted to reform the Welfare System in order to help those who really needed help... Anyone being honest will say that it did/does need reform, although doing such reforms in a period of austerity is madness (Labour - you DO have something to answer for here)... I also believed that some of his positions were based on his Christian convictions... 
I'm no longer convinced, and haven't been for a long time... Whatever his personal convictions, his tactics, and that of his attack-dog McVey, are culled straight from the Victorian "deserving/undeserving poor" playbook, that is prepared to let "cold charity" take the place of justice... And that includes the restriction of legal aid to those challenging changes to disability benefits etc. 
Amos paints a vivid picture of judgement on those who oppress the poor. He uses fairly graphic imagery to describe their downfall, involving fish hooks, lions and bears...  Judgement will come... Whether it be at the ballot box or, God forbid, in violence... Mary, in her Magnificat, which we often read or sing at this time of year, celebrates the revolutionary activity of God:
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1: 51-53
Amos is particularly critical of those who oppress the poor yet adopt the cloak of piety, and so again, at this time of religious celebration and conspicuous consumption it is probably worth hearing what he has to say to us:
"I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Amos 5: 21-24
Judgement will come... but more importantly justice will prevail...
Let it flow...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dates for Your Diary - The Four Corners Festival

It is usually around this time of year that I have traditionally received gifts that many laypeople would be deeply jealous of... Funeral Directors' pocket diaries... One year I received 4. I offered them to members of my family but they thought them a tad ghoulish. But a member of my then congregation heard me commenting on this and asked me for one... And from there on in he sidled up to me in mid-December and asked had I a spare diary going. As the years went by I received fewer, but I had long since stopped using paper diaries anyway... Then two years ago my friend died... And this year I haven't received any Funeral Directors' diaries at all (just a pen so far, which my eldest son has purloined
In the days when I was receiving them, one of the most frustrating tasks was filling in the first batch of dates (including birthdays etc). With a rolling electronic diary backed up online I don't have that problem... But this year I have more dates than usual coming in to January, because I am involved with the group organising the second year of the "Four Corners Festival" based around Belfast at the time of Christian Unity Week.
The theme for this year's Christian Unity Week is "Is Christ Divided?" The question might also be pertinently asked "Is Belfast Divided?" The answer to both to a certain extent, sadly, is yes... But this festival is a way of both demonstrating and promoting unity in the church and our wonderful wee city...
Here are confirmed dates for your diary so far... You can get more information at the 4 Corners Festival site, and can sign up there for facebook or twitter updates:

in conjunction with Simon Community, Vincent De Paul, Welcome Centre and Salvation Army
in CITY HALL (by invitation only)

THU. JANUARY 16th @ 4pm – PEACEBUILDING NETWORKING (South and East Belfast)

with politicians in STORMONT LONG ROOM


TUE. JANUARY 21st @ 4pm – PEACEBUILDING NETWORKING (North and West Belfast) 

WED. JANUARY 22nd @ 7:30pm – TENX9 with 4 CORNERS 

in 174, Antrim Road


MON. JANUARY 27th @ 7:30pm – 4 CORNERS, 4 STORIES
with Church leaders
in BELFAST SOUTH METHODIST, Agape Centre, Lisburn Road


with PAT MAGEE and JO BERRY chaired by Rev Lesley Carroll in SKAINOS, Newtownards Road

across BELFAST

Further information will follow... 


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Joyful Noise

I love the Carol of the Bells... one day I hope to sing it.
I love the Muppets... they are guaranteed to brighten up the grimmest of days.
Joy is not necessarily about jollity (and certainly not about enforced jollity) but it is good to have a laugh some times...

So that said, here is a wee muppet gem...


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Black Dog is Not Just for Christmas, but he can be a particular problem at this time of year...

Over the next few days I am going to be a tad preoccupied with preparing for seasonal services and the sleigh ride of home communions and visits that are the rhythm of the run-in to Christmas. So for the next couple of days I've pre-posted a few interesting/amusing pieces that I have found elsewhere... Starting with this one on the "equal-opportunity mongrel" that I have had as a regular companion over the years... It is in tune with WhyNotSmile's piece that I referred to yesterday... Please take time to watch... You may not have such an unwelcome pet in your life, but I guarantee that someone close to you does and it might help you to understand and support them a little better...


Monday, December 16, 2013

Why Keep Christ in Christmas?

Around this time of year Christians are often encouraged to sign up in one form or another to a campaign to "keep Christ in Christmas." Depending on how contrarian I am feeling I will either endorse such a campaign or seek to debunk it... A key factor is often whether the campaign has any sense of humour...
One of my virtual friends who is consistently humorous (and I frequently laud her as such at this time of year in my VM Awards, which may or may not make an appearance this year depending on whether I can be bothered) is WhyNotSmile. Last week Mrs Smile took on an atheist campaign that, Grinch-like, seeks to take Christ out of Christmas... There isn't a lot of humour in her response, a lot of her characteristic wit, but not much to laugh out loud at... Instead there is a depth of feeling that is important to hear in the run up to this "season to be jolly..." Let me quote a huge chunk of her piece where she says why she needs Christ at Christmas even more than at other times of year (but don't just read this bit - read the whole thing here):
  • I need Christ because Christmas fills me with dread. At the darkest, coldest, most difficult time of the year, I'm expected to be merry and bright; I'm expected to go to parties; when all I want is the safety of bed and quiet and warm...
  • I need Christ because I often don't like myself; I hear criticism where none is meant; I hear sarcasm and anger when I need gentle words and compassion; and every time the fear rises and the anxiety comes and I need Christ because, Oh God, I don't want to cut again, but I need to let the feelings out...
  • I need Christ because I don't always love my husband as well as I could; because love is not a feeling, but a series of choices, and a lot of the time I need help to make the right one.
  • I need Christ because I've made mistakes this year. I've hurt, I've lied, I've let down, I've judged, I've condemned. My best efforts have missed the mark. I need Christ because I need to hear "You're forgiven. You will always be forgiven. And you will overcome."
  • I need Christ because I've been lied to, I've been let down, I've been betrayed and abandoned, and I need to hear "I am with you always".
  • I need Christ because my friends have been beaten, abused, raped, cheated, widowed; they've had miscarriages and cancer and depression; they've been hurt and belittled and seen their dreams ripped up and their stories trampled. I need Christ because I need to be able to say "There is healing; there is hope; there is peace and joy and love for those who cannot even dare to imagine it".
  • I need Christ because my friends have cheated, lied, stolen; they've had affairs, fought, and gossiped, and I need Christ because I need to be able to say "There is redemption and restoration, and there is forgiveness and there is reconciliation, and sin is never the most powerful thing".
  • I need Christ because all the willpower in the world can't make me less afraid or more patient or give me any hope of transformation. As Robbie Williams sang, "You can't manufacture a miracle", and yet, a miracle is exactly what I need to hope for, in my life, and in my friends' lives, and it would be nice to have a machine to churn out miracles on demand, but instead I can only hope and pray and hold on to the promises with the tiny grain of faith that keeps living when it should have died.
Yesterday morning we in Belfast South Methodist affirmed our commitment to Christ's coming Kingdom of Joy, while last night we stood in solidarity with those who have lost loved ones recently... The two are not incompatible... This is the season of comfort and joy... Comfort which is not "there, there it will all be alright" but a coming alongside people when it isn't alright and offering them the strength to push on... and a joy which isn't rib-tickling hilarity, but assurance that even in the midst of despair there is hope... 
And that comfort and joy is ours through Christ...
So have a joyful Christmas when it comes...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Into the Neighbourhood - The Coming Kingdom of Joy

The third of the Hope and History Advent Candle Liturgies that we will be using in Belfast South Methodist this morning as an introduction to our "Gift Service", where members of the congregation bring gifts for the Belfast Central Mission Christmas Gift Appeal. These gifts go to help families facing less than "joyful" circumstances, and will hope fully brighten up some young people's lives this Christmas. But real joy is not to be found at the foot of a Christmas tree wrapped in gaudy paper, at the bottom of a bottle or on a table laden with food. Real joy, from a Christmas perspective is something that is independent of material circumstances, but one day we can know perfect joy when we are in tune with our creator and the rest of creation. That is as much of a sermon that I am offering here this morning. You will have to come to Belfast South Methodist if you want more... But if you scroll to the bottom you will find a wonderful rendition of "Joy to the World" performed by Aaron Neville and The Blind Boys of Alabama. 

VOICE 1:      The wasteland and the no-go zones will be glad;
VOICE 2:      the barren wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
VOICE 1:      Like a crocus, it will burst into bloom,
                        Herald of the coming spring.
VOICE 2:      The awesome wonder of God’s creation will be restored,
VOICE 1:      the splendour of nature will be seen in all its technicoloured glory.
VOICE 2:      Exercise the hands that have grown feeble,
VOICE 1:      Work on those wobbly knees;
VOICE 2:      say to those with fear-filled hearts,
                        "Be strong, do not be afraid; your God is coming,
                        he is on his way to put things right and redress all wrongs
                        to bring judgement and salvation."
VOICE 1:      Then blind eyes will be opened and deaf ears unstopped. 
VOICE 2:      The lame will leap like a deer, and the voiceless will break into song.
VOICE 1:      Springs of water will burst forth in the wasteland
VOICE 2:      and streams will irrigate the barren land.
VOICE 1:      Burning sand will become an oasis
VOICE 2:      Parched ground will bubble with water.
VOICE 1:      And even the dark haunts where jackals preyed,
                        Will become a place of growth and refreshment.
VOICE 2:      And the King’s highway will be there;
VOICE 1:      it will be called the Way,
VOICE 2:      the Way of Holiness.
VOICE 1:      The unclean will not walk on it;
VOICE 2:      Only those who follow the Way;
VOICE 1:      The wicked and the foolish will not use it;
VOICE 2:      Predators will not prowl along it.
VOICE 1:      But only those bought out of slavery will walk there,
VOICE 2:      Those whom the Eternal I Am has ransomed from captivity will return along it.
VOICE 1:      They will enter God’s holy city with a song on their lips
VOICE 2:      And their heads will be crowned with everlasting joy.
VOICE 1:      Gladness and joy will overwhelm them,
VOICE 2:      and sorrow and sighing will be banished.
From Isaiah 35:1-10

VOICE 1:      We lit the first two candles
                        in anticipation of the coming of the kingdom of peace and justice.
                        Now we light the third candle
                        as a celebration of the joy that kingdom will bring
                        in place of despair
                        and as a symbol of our commitment
                        to rejoice in the Lord at all times
                        in this neighbourhood.                               

Advent Song
Glens of the north, rejoice;
river and moorland-spring,
hark to the advent voice;
valley and lowland, sing:
Christ comes, the promised Prince of Peace;
To rule and make all conflict cease.

Hills all across the south
Welcome the coming king,
Hear the words of his mouth;
Justice and peace they bring:
He comes the humble poor to raise,
Let every voice proclaim his praise.

Lands to the east, awake,
soon you shall all be free;
the chains of slav’ry break,
and rise to liberty.
In all your towns, cold, damp and grey,
will dawn that promised joyous day.

VOICE 2:      Let us pray:
                        We look forward with joy, O Lord
                        To your kingdom of peace and justice
                        When crying and mourning will be no more,
                        And all tears will be wiped away.
                        There is a time to weep and there is a time to rejoice.
                        We humbly admit that in the past
                        we have got our timing wrong.
                        At times we have celebrated when we should have lamented,
                        And at times we wallowed in the doom, misery and despair abroad in the world,
                        rather than rejoicing in the great good news of Jesus Christ.
                        We pray that you would forgive us
                        and heal the hurts that prevent us from
                        weeping with all those who currently weep
                        and rejoicing with those who rejoice,
                        in anticipation of that great and glorious day
                        when our joy will be complete
ALL:              for we ask it in the name of your son Jesus Christ           
                        And for the sake of his coming kingdom. AMEN


Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Census

One of the blogs I've been following through advent is Patrick Comerford's "Art for Advent", and a particular favourite post was the one on the ‘The Census at Bethlehem’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, first because I like Bruegel in general, and second because this picture captures the political import of the census noted by Luke... 
Bruegel translates things to his own time and country, the Netherlands, at that time ruled, with a certain level of ruthlessness, by Spain. Snow has fallen (snow on snow), but that does not deter the census-takers. 
We often miss the fact that Augustus' census, like any census, is not about keeping some sort of record for posterity, but is an instrument of policy... and for both the Romans and the Spanish whom Bruegel lived and worked under, it was tied to taxation and social control. Augustine's census was a marker being laid down that the Roman Empire was in charge (even if Herod the so-called Great was still ostensibly the King)... But the angel's announcement to the shepherds later on in the same chapter, was a marker laid down that the Messiah had come and that God's Kingdom was on it's way... a kingdom that would be bigger than any empire... Roman, Spanish, British, American, News International, Tesco, Google...
There are 3 key resources that earthly empires require to function... Military might, material wealth and information....
But the Kingdom of God doesn't have to gather information by way of a census (I say that in the week that our church membership figures should be reported), or wealth by means of taxation (or Sunday offerings), nor does it rely on military might to expand and maintain its borders... even though it would have armies of angels at its disposal...
The Kingdom of God came cloaked in the form of a baby... among the poor and oppressed.
And still does...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas at the Foodbank

In honour of those running foodbanks and putting together emergency Christmas hampers in this season of conspicuous consumption and even more conspicuous inequality... Conspicuous to all but the government.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Words and Actions

I haven't had a good old fashioned rant in a while, so here goes...

"Selfies" and "onesies..." 
Have there ever been two words and concepts that sum up a civilisation in serious trouble as powerfully as those two?

"Onesie" has been an acceptable word in the eyes of the OED at least since 2007 when it appeared in the Shorter OED, but it will never be acceptable to me, either as a word or a garment... As both word and garment it represents, to me, the infantilisation of the English language and western society... Adult baby-grows described in baby talk... So family members may take back any humorous Christmas "onesie" intended for me, as one would be Queen Victoria-like in one's lack of amusement if presented with one...

But I loathe "onesies" much less than the concept and word "selfie". Others have been ranting about this "OED word of the year" since it was declared such last month. I have only been moved to do so in the wake of Nelson Mandela's memorial service where we had the edifying sight of the Prime Minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, taking a "selfie" flanked by the "Leader of the Free World" and David "I always thought Mandela was a true global hero even when my fellow Young Conservatives were calling him a terrorist" Cameron. Now, I find myself in the unusual position of being on similar ground to the front pages of the Daily Mail, the Times and the Sun today, making me wonder if my moral compass has gotten distorted. But no, I'm sorry, no matter who you are, a "selfie" at what is to all intents and purposes is a funeral, is so crass as to be unthinkable... or so I thought... I have asked people to turn mobile phones off or to silent before such a service... I have never had to ask members of the congregation to STOP TAKING SELFIES! But how could you miss out on taking a "selfie", suitably tagged for posterity, at such an event?
But therein lies my problem not just with the word, or even the practice, but also the mindset behind it... That whatever the place or event, our presence there is the most important part of the story... Even when it shouldn't be...
The story SHOULD have been about the memorial service, but it turned out to be about "selfies" (together with the competence of the "signer for the deaf" and those organising the somewhat shambolic event who employed him)...
The modern mobile phone with its two lenses is a perfect object to illustrate how this world has gone so badly wrong... there is usually a really good lens which we can use to look at the wider world... And then a dreadful grainy one that we can use for "selfies" and "facetime/skype"... Eventually phone manufacturers will realise that they have got it the wrong way round... We are so self-obsessed we need a lens facing us that is perfectly calibrated to focus on the centre of the world... at arms length from the camera...

"Selfies" and "Onesies..." Infantile words for a society where people, like pre-social children, assume that the world revolves around them...
Words are so important... but the mindsets they describe and the actions they inspire are so much more important... I long for a world in which, as another friend put it, 2014 is described as the year of the "unselfie..."
Actually no... I cannot stomach a word derived from "selfie" even if it means the exact opposite... Lets give up on such words altogether, and get on with making the word become flesh...


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Doing what you can...

Yesterday a friend posted on facebook a link to the following excerpt from a 1988 recording of BBC TV's "That's Life", honouring Sir Nicholas Winton, a stockbroker and former banker, who, before World War II, almost single-handedly organised an operation known as the Czech Kindertransport. This involved the evacuation of about 669 children, most of whom were Jewish, to Britain from German occupied Czechoslovakia. 250 further children were due to leave Prague in autumn 1939, but the invasion of Poland and subsequent declaration of war stopped that. Winton kept quiet about his humanitarian exploits for many years, until his wife Grete found a scrapbook in their attic in 1988 listing the children, their parents' names (most of whom perished in Auschwitz), and the names and addresses of the families that took them in. This then prompted the telling of his story on "That's Life" where Winton finds himself surrounded by some of those whom he had saved... (There is a slight continuity blip in the middle of the video where the audience stands up... but I suspect that was because of the limitations of 1980s British TV.)

My friend then posted after the video...
"You make a difference every day to those you love around you. Save a life, give a hug."
I was just about to mount a very high horse and send a message to my friend that included the use of the word "banal", when a post came in from Sojourners entitled "Would It Be Okay If You Hugged Me? What a Tearful Teenage Boy Taught Me About Advent." Not the catchiest title... but the content moved me almost as much as the Winton video... And it reminded me that we might not be a Nicholas Winton, (or as I said on Sunday, a Nelson Mandela) but every kindness that we share with those around us, every act of compassion and righteousness, be it saving people from death or giving a young lad a hug and the assurance that he is loved, is an expression of what Oscar Romero was saying in yesterday's quote... Seeing Christ among us... and being Christ to others...

So, let's dismount our favourite hobby horses and get on with the business of turning the word of God into flesh and blood wherever we are... In whatever way we can...


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Romero on Advent

Further thoughts from Oscar Romero (and probably not the last this advent), this time explicitly on advent and the theme of last Sunday's "Hope and History - Into the Neighbourhood" candle liturgy - "The Coming Kingdom of Justice." 

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.
Archbishop Oscar Romero


Monday, December 9, 2013

On Animals and Advent

Yesterday in church we celebrated the coming Kingdom of Justice... and I was at pains to point out that, as with the concept of peace the previous week, the Hebrew concept of justice or righteousness is so much richer than ours, which is often reduced to a legal/judicial framework... I might come back to that later in the week as it is a live issue in this part of the world at present.
But one of the aspects that our limited understanding of justice/righteousness misses out on is the idea of the whole world order being put right again...
Every year my wife puts up an advent calendar... You might think that our boys are now beyond such things, but there is generally a scramble to see who gets to open the window each morning (even though there is no chocolate involved this year). I was mightily please however to see that this year's advent calendar includes a very prominent elephant (above)...
It reminded me of our 20th anniversary trip to Munich four years ago when the city was getting prepared for Advent and their  Christkindlmarkt, and everywhere there were nativity sets of all styles, sizes and sorts… Most of them had the usual suspects visiting Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus… angels, shepherds, wise men etc… but among the assortment of animals on parade were elephants… We didn't buy a nativity set including an elephant, but we did buy an elephant Christmas tree decoration to remind us... And it is once again on display with all the other eclectic decorations on our tree.
It seemed strange at the time, but really the elephant has as much right to be in on the nativity scene as the adjacent camels in our advent calendar. There are no mentions of camels in the Bible's account of Jesus' birth, nor of cattle (lowing or not); there is no suggestion that the shepherds brought their sheep with them to see Jesus nor is there any mention at all about the "little donkey..."
So, if cattle, sheep, donkeys and even camels have squeezed themselves into the stable (if there was a stable) then why not an elephant? Because scripture tells us that the whole of creation is waiting in eager expectation for the Kingdom of God to come in all its fullness (Romans 8: 18-21). And it can't come quickly enough as far as elephants are concerned... This week a conference on conservation and trade in endangered species, suggested that the continent of Africa could lose 20% of its elephant population within 10 years because of poaching and ivory smuggling. That needs to be put right... 
Earlier in the week a colleague was telling me that she had been asked about the Christian position on equal rights for chimpanzees... Not convinced about equal rights, but we as Christians do need to take more seriously humanity's role as stewards of  the earth... because frankly, we're doing a pretty poor job, and we, as Christians, are rarely at the forefront of the environmental movement... We are frequently ahead of the curve on issues affecting the poor in the developing world, and where their needs intersect with environmental concerns then we get involved, but sometimes we act as if it really doesn't matter because this world is going to be rubbed out and started again... But that isn't the picture painted in scripture... It is of a redeemed creation art peace with itself (See Isaiah 11: 1-10)
As I said in a post shortly after I returned from that Munich trip, 
The whole of creation (elephants included) is straining on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the coming Kingdom... and given the mess that we have made of it you would understand the eagerness...
Mind you, I don't anticipate seeing any elephants at a neighbouring church's live nativity next Saturday... Nor indeed a camel, even though there is one on their advertising leaflet...