Couldn't have said it better myself...



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

Anais Nin




Sunday, May 25, 2014

Not in my name...

I took an extra day off this week in lieu of the couple I missed in Easter week due to one thing or another, and by the time I got back to work and the world of facebook I discovered that a self-described "progressive" political party had pressed the self-destruct button, probably jaundicing young political activists of that ilk for a generation, and that Pastor James McConnell had lit the blue touchpaper on a whole heap of inter-faith fun and games.

I had intimations of the latter before my couple of days off, when I got one of those closing "what do you think of...?" questions at our midweek Bible study, but not having heard/read the Pastor's comments or seen/heard the Nolan Show (given that I avoid it like the plague for the sake of my health), I was relatively circumspect in my comments, at that point. Some of those in the room had serious concerns about aspects of Islam in the light of the recent story regarding Meriam Ibrahim, the pregnant woman sentenced to 100 lashes and death for apostasy under Sudanese Sharia Law, and the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby by Islamists and other horrific stories. (I have subsequently seen other stories of Islamic brutality circulating on facebook illustrating the evils of Islam... sadly when I have gone digging a number of these have been mis-represented by right-wing sites in the US and elsewhere). Even where such stories are accurate, I suggested that to judge all of Islam, and individual Muslims on the basis of these stories is the same as Muslims basing their understanding of Christianity on the behaviour of crusaders (which they frequently do), Westboro Baptist Church, Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army, or the UVF, who, after all, do everything under the banner of "For God and Ulster." So often the problems are caused by an unholy alliance between fundamentalist faith and other issues that have nothing to with faith including, if the Daily Mail is to be believed, sheer greed in the case of Meriam Ibrahim. (Actually to be fair to the Mail - a phrase you might think I would never utter - they have offered a much more nuanced understanding than many of some of recent stories of Islamist extremism).

Anyway, whilst away from my desk for a couple of days it was good to see my friend and colleague here in south Belfast, Steve Stockman, addressing the issue from a couple of angles; first from the perspective of what it means to love your neighbour, and for the congregations that Steve and I serve, the Belfast Islamic Centre and those who attend it are PHYSICALLY in our neighbourhood, and secondly reminding fellow residents of Northern Ireland that is not long ago that we were often all written off as untrustworthy terrorists... That was frequently my experience on trips back and forward to Scotland... so much so that I became sadly inured to it.

However, Steve's blog has, as is often the case, been a lone voice in the wilderness. The wider institutions have been deafening in their silence... A point made much of by William Crawley on facebook and Sunday Sequence this morning apparently. I have seen nothing from the Church of Ireland. The Presbyterians released a short statement on request to those who wanted it, but (at the time of writing) I have not seen it on their main website. My friend and Irish Methodist President Heather Morris put the statement she released to the Nolan Show, plus some wider personal comments on the Presidential facebook page on Friday night, while the Catholic Church were clearly too busy telling people how or who (not) to vote for, but since the Catholic Church and individual Catholics have been subject to similar attacks by Pastor McConnell in the past, perhaps they felt they were better off keeping their heads down.

On my return to the desk yesterday I wondered whether to stick my head above the parapet at that point, but I felt that as a local minister I owed it to my congregation to make a statement to them before putting something on my blog/facebook which most of them do not follow.

Therefore this morning I announced that I would be contacting the local Imam and stating that I would be personally dissociating myself from the inflammatory comments of Pastor McConnell and others, inviting them to sign a simple letter that I intend taking to the Islamic Centre in the next few days.
To the Imam and members of the Belfast Islamic Centre,
We the undersigned are members of Belfast South Methodist Church and, as followers of Jesus Christ, the prince of Peace we wish to dissociate ourselves from the recent uncharitable and inflammatory words of Pastor James McConnell and others regarding Islam and Muslims. We welcome you as fellow citizens here in South Belfast, and pray that you will continue to feel welcome and secure in our midst.
Yours in Christ...

The majority of those present subscribed their names, and a number have subsequently contacted me to apologise for not doing so for various reasons, wishing to have their names added.
We might have massive qualms about the doctrine of Islam (or the many variations of it), and be unequivocal in our belief that Jesus is the way to the Father, but describing their faith as Satanic and writing off all Muslims as untrustworthy will do nothing to foster healthy engagement with Muslims.
The original sermon  was entitled "The Sermon that Ministries and Pastors will not be Allowed to Preach in the Future" , a title which is classic scaremongering, stirring up fear, not only of Islam but of contemporary secularism. It's rhetoric, and that of others like him, even though it may be dressed up in passages of scripture, and may not be "hate speech" as defined in law, can offer false-justification for the racist attacks that are far too prevalent in our society at present, just as similar rhetoric about Catholics acted as the pump-primer for too much of the sectarian violence of loyalist paramilitaries, and the endemic sectarianism that still pervades much politics here. I was encouraged when writing this blog to find a much more irenic statement by Pastor McConnell on his website, but sadly I believe that this will get much less attention than his original sermon, by both his critics and those who will use his words as an excuse to justify their prejudice, hostility and even violence to those of the Muslim faith.
To them I say, their words and actions are not in my name... nor, I would argue can they really be said to be in the name of the Prince of Peace...
Shalom






Sunday, May 4, 2014

Where is the Kingdom?

After a brief, pink-tinged diversion from politics, it is back to a recent recurrent theme, this time in the form of a dialogue we used in worship this morning while looking at the phrase "may your Kingdom come" in the Lord's prayer... It is particularly pertinent at present given the run up to European and local elections over the next week or so and bundles up a lot of the stuff I've been saying recently in a slightly different form, with thanks to (or should that be apologies to) John Bell and Graeme Maule of the Iona Community for the format if not the content...
 
 
 
Peter:          Eh... Jesus...?
Jesus:         Yes, Peter?
Peter:          Have you ever heard of democracy?
Jesus:         Where’d you hear about that Peter?
Peter:          Oh, I heard some Greeks talking about it... They said it was some sort of government. But it's all Greek to me...
Jesus:         Well Peter... Democracy is government by the people...
Peter:          Sure we’re always governed by people... People with crowns called kings or emperors...
Jesus:         Yes, but in a democracy the people choose who will govern them by voting.
Peter:          People vote to decide who will become King?
Jesus:         Not quite... Although some of those elected behave like they’re kings or queens...
Peter:          How are people like me supposed to decide who will run the country? I know nothing about politics...
Jesus:         Well, the people who want to be elected produce manifestos to tell the voters what they will do for them if they are elected...
Peter:          Ah... and the voters elect the one who will do most for them...
Jesus:         Well, actually they usually vote for the one who will give them the biggest tax cut...
Peter:          I can understand that, I hate taxes... Actually, that reminds me Jesus... Our tax bill is due again, so Judas says if you could do another trick with those coins in that fish’s mouth the same way as you did last year that would be good...
Jesus:         I’m afraid that was a one off, Peter.
Peter:          Oh well, it was worth a try. So what do you think of this democracy stuff?
Jesus:         Its OK so long as the system is fair and the politicians honest...
Peter:          That would be a first. So is the Kingdom of Heaven going to be a democracy?
Jesus:         No...
Peter:          Why not?
Jesus:         Well, tell me... is the majority always right?
Peter:          Depends on how big a majority.
Jesus:         What do you mean?
Peter:          Well, I’m not going to stand up and tell a mob of people that what they do or say or think is wrong...
Jesus:         You’ll be surprised what you might end up doing for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Peter:          But when are we going to see this Kingdom of Heaven you’ve been talking about? You’ve been speaking about it ever since I’ve known you... And where is its capital city going to be? Where is it going to be founded?
Jesus:         I don’t know when Peter... But I do know where...
Peter:          Where? Here in Galilee?
Jesus:         No.
Peter:          Jerusalem?
Jesus:         No.
Peter:          Rome?
Jesus:         No. Nor will it be in Washington DC, Moscow, London, Paris or even Belfast...
Peter:          Where?
Jesus:         Never mind... The point is that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a country as we know it with borders, governments, elections, taxes and a national football team...
Peter:          What?
Jesus:         Again, never mind. The Kingdom of God is a group of people who have decided to serve God as their Lord and King...
Peter:          So the people do decide who is going to be King...
Jesus:         No, the people decide whether God will be their King... Whether they will be part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Peter:          Oh... But you still haven’t told me where it will be founded, where its capital city will be...
Jesus:         Here...
Peter:          But you already said that it wouldn’t be in Galilee...
Jesus:         No, not here in Galilee... But here, in the human heart. The Kingdom of Heaven is within you...
Peter:          Oh...  Well, I suppose I should have known that the Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t going to be a democracy, because you’d be a dreadful politician.
Jesus:         Why’s that Peter?
Peter:          You’re too honest... You keep your promises...
 
Shalom


Saturday, May 3, 2014

In the Pink and Politics-Free

Here is an amended version of the politics-free Thought for the Day that went out on Radio Ulster on Thursday morning... It was recorded before news came out that both Cathedrals in Armagh have altered the timing of their services to accommodate the Giro or I may well have commented on that (if that was permissible...)
 
Well, with the beginning of May the run in to the Giro D’Italia is picking up pace, with pink-tinted bicycle themed events popping up all over Northern Ireland… even in places the peleton will go nowhere near… For example the Donaghadee lighthouse is turning pink as part of their Giro DEE Italia event, and the Navan Centre’s website that says that this coming Monday the Celtic warriors there are going to swap their traditional blue woad for pink in honour of the coming Giro… And there was me thinking that the Ulster Cycle was a series of Celtic stories and ballads… When it was actually a bronze age bike! I also got a leaflet for a shop having an event celebrating vintage cycling and recycling (can you see what they did there!?) and have seen one church on the Giro route with a pink bike affixed to their notice board.
Anyway… I hope that the current enthusiasm for the Giro encourages more people to get on their bikes… though I don’t think that you’ll get me donning dayglo lycra cycling shorts any time soon…
I really enjoy cycling but not in any competitive sense… I was actually late in learning to ride a bike… probably 10 or maybe 11 before I taught myself on a second hand ladies bike with a basket on the front, belonging to one of my friend’s sisters… Though it was blue, not pink.
Because of my late start to cycling, I made sure my boys learned to ride a bike as soon as they could… I wasn’t necessarily the best of teachers. There were plenty of crashes and scratches and bumps and bruises… But we got there in the end. I was later comparing stories with a friend when he told me that when he was teaching his daughter he eventually got her going in a large empty carpark with a significant slope… But as she zoomed down the hill she shouted back at him “Daddy I can’t remember how to stop pedalling…”
As adults many people don’t know how to stop pedalling. We live in a world which rewards workaholics with more work… and more and more… until finally you can’t pedal any faster and disaster ensues.
We’ve forgotten that God built into the cycle of days and weeks a night time for sleep and a Sabbath for rest…
Do you observe a Sabbath? I’m not asking whether you attend church on a Sunday? That is an entirely different question, and for many involved in churches Sunday is far from being a real Sabbath a time of rest…
Whether or not worship is part of your weekly cycle, make sure that you stop pedalling for at least one day each week… For some, stopping pedalling may involve going out cycling, or, when the Giro comes, going out to watch it… Or getting involved in one of the related events…
It might help to keep you in the pink…
Cheers

Friday, May 2, 2014

Towards a New Model of Political Engagement

With the upcoming council and European elections I've been reflecting lately on the nature of Christian citizenship insofar as it applies to this corner of this island. My thinking is partly shaped by a series of Bible studies I'm leading at church based around the 25 year old, yet still painfully relevant, ECONI document, 'For God and His Glory Alone', partly by reading I've done around a sermon for this Sunday on what we mean when we pray 'your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven', partly by some of the ideas in my ''banned'' Thought for the Day and partly in response to the attacks on the Alliance Party Offices in East Belfast on Tuesday night, and again last night.
Whilst I do not believe that democracy, as we know it, is especially endorsed by God - indeed the Bible has nothing specific to say on the matter, I am worried by any state where it seems to be acceptable that the offices of a democratic party, and a relatively centrist one at that, are consistently attacked. It is good that the leaders of other parties have come out to condemn this attack, without any politicking about the Alliance party's position on the flag on Belfast City Hall, but condemnation is not enough. Here in Northern Ireland we need our politicians to start to model a form of engagement that shows others how to disagree without being disagreeable and collaborate to further the common good, regardless of party political differences and constitutional aspirations. This is especially important in the light of upcoming elections, and the marching season that will follow hot on their heels.

In the wake of the Haass debacle I've been working with a group of Christians from across the denominational spectrum looking at what would be a set of key principles we would like to see underpinning political engagement and wider citizenship in this society... I've been involved in this process before, and some of the same ideas keep recurring again and again, back to the days of 'For God and His Glory Alone' and before. But ultimately we long for politicians of all parties to take seriously in their electioneering and ongoing political activity their responsibility as leaders striving for genuine progress towards a stable and inclusive society where:
  • Peace is nurtured and genuine reconciliation facilitated, so that all can live free from violence and the threat of violence;
  • Truthfulness is encouraged, fostering trust and forming the basis for dealing with the pain of the past, engaging with present problems and forging a more hopeful future for all.
  • Diversity is celebrated and our interdependence is recognised whilst sectarianism, racism and other prejudices that create a climate of fear and division are rejected.
  • Democracy is cherished and fully participative, the rule of law is respected and all communities are liberated from the oppressive grip of organised criminality and paramilitary activity.
  • Justice is treasured, and all citizens are treated equally under the law while victims are treated with compassion, and social wrongs being set right, so that all might enjoy personal dignity and equality of opportunity.
  • Rights are valued, and mutually respected within a context where people also recognise their mutual responsibilities and relationships.
  • Hope and imagination are fostered, thus transforming the dynamic of public life and raising personal aspirations.
Such commitments should shape all aspects of public life, including education, health, arts and leisure, economic and environmental policy, parading, policing and the courts.

They should also affect how we practice our faith, and certainly, as Churches we have not always done all that we might have done to foster the society described above. Where that is the case we need to humbly ask forgiveness for what lies in the past, commit ourselves to acting and speaking differently in the present, in order that we may help shape a more hopeful future.

And as we prepare to exercise our hard-won votes we need to compare the various manifestos that are stuffed through our letterboxes with the Biblical principles outlined above, and in turn compare the words of the candidates on their electoral leaflets with their actions in the past, and having done so we need to challenge them about their commitment to work constructively with all members of society to address the issues which perpetuate strife and division and are holding this society back from being all that it might be. George Jean Nathan once said:

"Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote."

I would go further than that in saying that bad officials are also elected by good citizens who vote along narrow partisan lines. And once the officials (bad or good) the role of the good citizen is to hold them to account, and to play their own part at a local level in forging a more healthy society.

Condemning the acts of others is not enough, whatever those acts and whoever those others are. And criticizing those in positions of political power is not enough either. We all need to treasure and play our parts in the democratic process for the benefit of all our fellow citizens, whatever their political allegiances.

Shalom



ps. If you want a ("slightly" partisan but very funny) guide to the electoral process here, check out WhyNotSmile's recent post...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Nationalism, Denominationalism and Idolatry

What follows is a "Thought for the Day" that was "banned" by the BBC... Actually, that's a bit of an exaggeration. It is a revised version of one that I pre-recorded during Holy Week to go out today, but I had only gotten home from the studio when I got a call from the producer to say that there had been a mix-up and the script that I had submitted for approval would not, unfortunately, be suitable for broadcast because of its political tone, given the upcoming local elections and the Scottish referendum... I have to say I wasn't that surprised... indeed I had been more surprised not to have received a phone call BEFORE the recording, especially given that the original script was much more partisan than this one (I'll leave you to guess in which direction)... Anyway, even after a swift revision that produced the following it was decided that I needed to avoid politics in general and the Scottish referendum in particular, so I had to go and write something else much more anodyne, which I then recorded on Good Friday (what else had I to do that day?). It was broadcast today, but I'll post it in the next day or two... Meanwhile here's the one that (almost) got away... It specifically refers to today and I don't have to be as politically circumspect as the BBC...
 
This year is significant for Scotland with September’s referendum on independence… But today is also significant on those terms, given that on May 1st 1328 the Wars of Scottish Independence ended with a treaty between Robert the Bruce and the English Parliament, where the latter recognised Scotland as an independent state. Ironically however, on May 1st 1707 the Act of Union joined England and Scotland in the United Kingdom of Great Britain. So today might be trumpeted or mourned in both Yes and No camps…
My wife is Scottish and feelings are running high among her family regarding the referendum… She and other Scottish expats don’t have a vote however… And neither do I… Although the lack of a vote doesn’t stop me having an opinion… But this is neither the time nor place for me to be pushing it... (even that unusually cautious line didn't allow me to smuggle this past the powers that be...)
But whatever political jurisdiction we find ourselves living under Christians are instructed by Paul to “be subject to the governing authorities” and Jesus famously told those trying to trip him up politically that we should "give to Caesar what is Caesar’s." Despite that instruction, the early church understood that our ultimate loyalty to God means that, at times, we might find ourselves at odds with the established government. In the story of Good Friday, when Pilate, the local representative of Caesar, asked Jesus whether he was King of the Jews, he replied: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Christ’s Kingdom is not run on the same principles as the Kingdoms, Republics and Dictatorships of this world, nor should it be identified uniquely with any of them. It should never be dressed up in red, white and blue, green white and gold or tartan of any hue. Because the first loyalties of Christ’s people should never be to a nation state, be it the United Kingdom, a United Ireland, the United States of America, or the United Arab Emirates, nor to supra-national bodies like the United Nations or the European Union. All earthly institutions are fallible and potentially idolatrous… be they local, national, international or the multi-national corporations where some would argue that real earthly power now lies. Even denominational structures are flawed and their thinking can run contrary to the rule of God’s Kingdom.
Our loyalty should not primarily be to an earthly prince or president or political ideology, not to a lump of land or to a flag… But to a King who was only ever crowned with thorns, a Kingdom that has outlasted empires and will outlast the earth on which we live.
Christ’s is the Kingdom, the power and the glory forever.
 
Selah