Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Friday, June 27, 2014

Psalm for Another Dark Day

Thanks to everyone who offered words of encouragement and comfort regarding yesterday's funeral. It went as well as a funeral reasonably can do. Today I offer another reblogged responsive Psalm... This time Psalm 13... It is a classic lament, but I'm posting it, not because I'm down in the dumps (far from it), but because it is one of the Psalms set in the Revised Common Lectionary this weekend, and a couple of people recently bemoaned the fact that I hadn't been posting my Psalms for Sunday for some time. I'm not actually preaching this coming Sunday, but I posted this last year on "Health Care Sunday" and thought it was worth another outing:

How long, O Lord?
How long?
Have you forgotten me for ever?
How long will you turn your face in another direction?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and fears through the night
and each day walk around with sorrow lying like a lump of lead in my heart?
How long will my enemies look down their noses at me?
Look at me and give me an answer, O Lord my God.
Restore light to my eyes,
or I will gladly sink into the long sleep of death;
Then my enemy will say, "I have got the better of him at last,"
and my opponents will dance with joy at my defeat.
But I entrust myself to your unfailing love;
My heart dances with joy at the thought of your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
for he has been
and will be
good to me.
Psalm 13


Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Psalm for a Dark Day

Here's a version of Psalm 103 which I previously blogged under the title of "Sing When You're Winning (and at All Other Times Too)". Well today is one of those other times... I'm conducting the funeral service for one of my father's sisters, having done so for another aunt exactly 18 months ago... A slightly more traditional version of this Psalm will be read at today's service as it was at the previous one...

O my soul, praise the source of all good things;
Praise his holy name from the centre of your being.
O my soul, praise the source of all good things;
And don’t forget a single solitary blessing.
He erases all error and offense
He heals all illness and infirmity,
He raises you out of the grave
And dresses you with love and compassion.
He satisfies your hunger with the finest of fare
So that your strength is restored and you can soar like the eagle.
The Lord works makes all things right and just
He upholds the oppressed.
He revealed his ways to Moses,
He showed his people what he was able to do.
The Lord is full of compassion and grace,
He’s not easily angered and he’s overflowing with love.
He doesn’t constantly point the finger,
nor does he nurse his anger for ever.
He doesn’t treat us as our sins truly deserve,
nor does he pay us back for all our wrongs.
Can you jump up and touch the sky?
That’s how much higher his love is than ours.
Can you reach to the other side of the earth?
That’s how far he has separated our sins from us.
As parents passionately care for their children,
That’s how the Lord feels about those who fear him.
He knows us inside out,
he knows that we are dust.
Compared with him men and women live little longer than grass,
like wildflowers in the meadow;
the summer wind blows away their blossom
and you would never know they were there.
But God’s love is for ever and ever
Eternally sustaining those who fear him,
And making everything right for their children's children
As they walk with him and keep his covenant commands.
The Lord’s throne is firmly established in heaven,
And his kingdom claims dominion over all the earth.
Praise the Lord, you angels above,
You servants of God, quick to hear and spread his word.
Praise the Lord, you heavenly hosts,
You servants of God who obey his will.
Praise the Lord, all of creation,
All his kingdom praise the Lord;
And may it begin with me –
O my soul, praise the source of all good things;
Psalm 103


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Changing Scenes but the Same Mission

We have recently established a "Good Book Group" in Belfast South Methodist, and for our third book we wanted to slip in something easy to read before the summer. As it  happens Belfast Central Mission recently distributed copies of an A4 publication tentitled "Through Changing Scenes" to both mark the 125th anniversary of the Mission and highlight a proposed new development - Copelands Dementia and Nursing Care on the site of its former Child Haven/Craigmore complex at Millisle. So we decided to read this, although some, put off by the A4 magazine format, didn't thinkthat it was particularly suitable for a "book" group.
Actually, had the material been in a more traditional format it would probably have been longer than either of our previous reads (Tim Keller's "Prodigal God" and Henri Nouwen's "The Way of the Heart"), while the A4 format seems to psychologically devalue its depth and importance.
I only recently fully read Eric Gallagher's centennial history of BCM, 'At Points of Need' which was in a more traditional format and took a more traditional chronological approach. This history, by Wesley Weir (who assisted Dr. Gallagher with the earlier book and has acted as BCM archivist for many years) takes a more thematic approach, which, I believe allows the reader a greater sense of the breadth of the mission's work over the years, and its ability to adapt its ways of working to address key themes in different social contexts. It also has an advantage over Eric Gallagher's account in that it can more fully reflect the importance of his own role as both Superintendent of the mission and a church leader before and during the early years of the Troubles. This was an era where all the churches had almost an expectation that they would be listened to in the corridors of power and in wider society. Sometimes that privilege was abused or unused, but Dr. Gallagher used his place in the public sphere, partly afforded to him as Secretary of the Conference and erstwhile President, but also on the basis of the respect afforded to the mission, intelligently, courageously and unselfishly. We do not have the same place in the public square today, but where we are afforded the chance to speak and act, we should do so in the same spirit as Eric Gallagher, and indeed his predecessors as superintendents of the Mission, who all spoke with evangelical passion and a strong social conscience.
This account also contains a fuller exposition of the changes in Belfast city centre Methodism than it would may been politic for Dr. Gallagher to explore, and it may have been different had it been written by a member of the erstwhile Donegall Square Methodist. Whilst Donegall Square and the Grosvenor Hall congregations worked together at times and indeed were on a single circuit for a time, there were clearly always tensions and a difference in emphasis of the two societies. That added to the devotion of each congregation to its historic location, seems to have stymied any attempt to have a shared vision of a focused Methodist outreach to Belfast City Centre, and one wonders what might have been achieved had the energies devoted to self-preservation had been diverted into a combined mission initiative.We can't change the past, but I hope that the current generation of Methodist societies do not replicate the mistakes of the past and so exacerbate a period of necessary retrenchment and redeployment of resources.
The account of the 25 years since the publication of Eric Gallagher's book does read in a somewhat disjointed manner, but that may be a function of them being so recent preventing the perspective allowed with previous years... but it may also be a feature of contemporary church and social mission work, particularly where churches like BCM have entered into partnership with Statutory bodies. Instead of having a cohesive mission programme that flows directly our of the worshipping congregation, the current range of programmes are more like a mosaic within a broad social outreach. The proposed Copelands initiative will hopefully be a large part of that mosaic.
However, as I read the closing chapter, whilst I recognised that the mission ethos is still the same, the professional socialwork framework and the contemporary connexional structure of institutional Methodism tend to conspire to prevent the evangelistic opportunism and buccaneering approach to social need as seen in earlier years. The ability to move fast and take risks has now moved to other churches and institutions with lighter administrative structures, like Jack McKee's New Life Church off the Shankill in West Belfast, or, coming from an entirely different tradition, Belfast Vineyard, and their Storehouse ministry...
But at the end of the day I don't care what denominational banner such things happen under, so long as they happen... I have no inherent desire to see the expansion of Methodism in Belfast or anywhere else (except insofar as it is the Methodist Church that pays my stipend) so long as the Kingdom of God is extended, through the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, by Word and Deed.
But in conclusion let me recommend Wesley Weir's "Through Changing Scenes" - and I look forward to the next installment in 25 years time...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Peace-Lovers are Irrelevant...

A few days ago a facebook friend posted a video of Brigitte Gabriel of "ACT! for America" verbally eviscerating a young Muslim woman who asked a question of her and other panellists at Heritage Foundation event. I won't post the video myself as I won't give either organisation easy hits as they are both highly media-savvy right wing institutions that, like our own insidious Britain First, frequently use hit counts as a measure of their reach... If you are interested you can do a bit of googling...
The video produced the usual range of people praising her forthrightness and dismissal of political correctness... And it chimed well with some of the negative things that were said here recently about Islam... But there was little in it that I hadn't heard before... Dressing up general prejudice in righteous indignation. And to be fair, if Ms. Gabriel's life story as a Lebanese Maronite Christian is to be believed, she has good reason to be, at very least, wary of Muslims, given the history of animosity and atrocity in her homeland (though there may be some debate about whether that was entirely one-sided).
But she did make a very challenging point, suggesting that in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, the majority of peaceful or peace-loving Muslims are irrelevant... In exactly the same way that the majority of peace-loving Germans were irrelevant in the face of the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s... or the majority of peace-loving Russians were irrelevant in the face of Stalinist purges... or the majority of peace-loving Japanese were irrelevant in the face of the Japanese military excesses in the Second World War... etc
The clear conclusion she was wanting people to draw from this is that the only way to fight fire is with fire... that you have to hit Muslim fundamentalists hard... and if a few "innocent" peace-loving Muslims get caught in the crossfire, either literally or metaphorically then that too is irrelevant. A clear articulation of the myth of redemptive violence beloved of her adoptive home of America... How the west was won! Peace won at the barrel of a gun.
The thing is that on the basis of Jesus' teaching I believe that her initial analysis is correct but her conclusion is totally and utterly wrong... Because the issue is not about how we deal with the minority of war-mongers in the midst of a majority of peace-lovers... But how we turn peace-lovers into peace-makers...
To continue a theme of recent days, Jesus says
"Happy (or blessed) are the peace-makers for they will be called the children of God."

Matthew 5: 9
Peace-makers NOT peace-lovers.
Peace-lovers ARE irrelevant. Peace lovers tend to seek peace and quiet... anything for a quiet life... Leaving the ground clear for the hate and war-mongers to have a field day. Peace-makers put themselves in danger for the sake of peace... real peace, peace with justice rather than just peace and quiet. Peace-makers ask difficult questions, of their own community as well as of others. Peace-makers are prepared to stand up for others rights and wellbeing, and physically stand with them in the face of intimidation and insults... Peace-makers will challenge those in authority to represent ALL citizens and not just those who elected them. Peace-makers will get involved in the democratic process rather than not vote and just moan about the eejits that get in...
The oft quoted statement of Edmund Burke that "all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men (and women) to do nothing" comes to mind (even though I can find as few sources for that quote as yesterday's "quote" from Chesterton)...
Or indeed Martin Niemoller's famous commentary on Germany's complicity in the Nazi atrocities:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I always find it interesting that he omitted the homosexuals, the gypsies and the handicapped from his list of those he did not speak out over... We can all omit others from our list of those we need to be concerned for... Perhaps with us it is Muslims, or working class Loyalists, or some other group that we can broadly dismiss as being irredeemable as a class... That any within that categorisation who do not speak out are irrelevant... And should be treated as such...
Not so... the key thing is to start to mobilise the "silent" majority to become peace-makers and not just peace-lovers, to face down the minority who want to spread hatred, division and violence... including people like Ms. Gabriel.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The $64,000 Question

Friday was a busy and diverse day... A morning spent hearing about and discussing the work of the Irish Churches Peace Project, an afternoon plotting and planning for the next 4 Corners Festival, then an evening at a fundraising Quiz for my son's gap year project... with a pastoral visit and some sermon preparation squeezed into the gaps...
I enjoy quizzes... I enjoy the challenge of fishing around in the murky swamp that I call my memory to see if I can fish out the right answers to obscure questions... And so long as the subjects have nothing to do with modern culture (eg. soaps/celebrities/boy bands etc) I am usually OK... But on Friday night I wasn't trying to answer the questions... I was merely the beauteous assistant to our question master, having contributed a few of the questions to the pot from which he drew...
And that is a useful metaphor for what I am increasingly trying to do these days... ask questions rather than necessarily provide answers...
Earlier in the day at the ICPP event someone claimed to quote G.K. Chesterton in saying:
"It is better to be unhappy with the right questions than happy with the wrong answers."
I don't know if it actually was a Chesterton quote,as I haven't been able to source it anywhere, but it sounds like the sort of thing he would say... (If you know the real origin, please put your answers on an electronic postcard to me...)
Carrying on from yesterday's post...
Happiness is when people are unhappy with glib and patently wrong answers and start to ask different, more searching questions...
About parades... flags... dealing with the past...
About education... social welfare... health policy...
About global conflicts... poverty... the environment...
About everything...
(ps. Big thankyou to all those who contributed to Owain's gap year fundraising... the total raised since Friday night was, at the time of writing exactly £1000 - not quite $64,000, but not bad all the same.)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Happiness is...

Well, this morning we showed SlingshotCreations' "Happy Methodists" video from Conference at our morning service, subverting the fine work I have done for years in describing my attendance at Annual Conference as a trial akin to a millennium in purgatory (if we believed in such a thing)... I may not have looked it in the video, but I genuinely was happy at the overall direction of conference this year... certainly more so than for most of my ministry and more so than last year where I felt somewhat out of joint with everything for various reasons.
This year was not perfect by any means, but this is not the forum to discuss what I perceive as it's shortcomings... and I have already discussed them with those who can actually make a difference. But throughout and after conference I have had a number of experiences that have made me genuinely happy... not just the somewhat superficial happiness induced by this video (though there is nothing wrong with that)...
  • Happiness is... to see the amazing generosity of people, giving not only out of their prosperity but out of their limited material wealth...
  • Happiness is... to see people genuinely acknowledge their faults and failings and turn to God for the forgiveness and healing they need...
  • Happiness is... to see people who have served others sacrificially without seeking the limelight being acknowledged in the Queen's birthday honours list.
  • Happiness is... to see people with a hunger for God, longing to serve and worship him faithfully, and earnestly seeking his will for their lives;
  • Happiness is... to see people responding with grace and forgiveness to those who have treated them with contempt and disregard...
  • Happiness is... to see people who genuinely can see nothing wrong in others because they would never contemplate that others would be cynical or pragmatic...
  • Happiness is... to see people who are not just peace lovers or profit from the "peace industry"  but who are those who genuinely make a positive difference in their local communities...
  • Happiness is... Those who do and say what is right whatever the cost, in finance, reputation, or even physical health...
  • Such people prompt real happiness in me, and one day they will know a happiness more real than we have ever known...
(I was going to complete this list with a complementary negative one a la Jesus in Luke 6, but this video already portrays me as a party pooper and I don't want to reinforce my curmudgeonly image more than is absolutely necessary...)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

What's the Right Time?

There’s an opportune time to do things,
a right time for everything on the earth:
 A right time for birth and another for death,
A right time to plant and another to reap,
A right time to kill and another to heal,
A right time to destroy and another to construct,
A right time to cry and another to laugh,
A right time to lament and another to cheer,
A right time to make love and another to abstain,
A right time to embrace and another to part,
A right time to search and another to count your losses,
A right time to hold on and another to let go,
A right time to rip out and another to mend,
A right time to shut up and another to speak up,
A right time to love and another to hate,
A right time to wage war and another to make peace.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
We'll it's almost a month on from my last blog post... and a number of people recently have asked why I have stopped posting so regularly? Frankly it has been a question of time... I haven't had enough of it to do all that I have needed to do... Particularly writing, as I have had a number of things I have been writing for others recently that have eaten up any free time I have had. But I've decided to make a concerted effort to blog more regularly again. 
I did however also want to leave things a little fallow after my last post to consider again why I blog at all... and what is the purpose of, as with the  last one, making those sort of public statements? I was challenged on that by a fellow cleric on facebook... and in our discussions the passage above was mentioned... Prompting the question what is the right time to shut up and the right time to speak up... As well as what is the right reason to speak up?
I'm not even going to try to answer that question... Actually I'm more comfortable raising questions than making statements or offering answers at the moment... but more of that in a future blog... But they are useful questions to ask of ourselves before we say/blog/tweet anything... Is this the right time to shut up or speak up? And am I doing so for the right reasons? Perhaps if certain church and political leaders had asked those questions before opening their cheepers over the past month things might have taken a slightly different turn...
But some of my reflections on shutting up and speaking up are not simply a function of recent events and my response to them, but also some of my recent reading... particularly Jean Pierre de Caussade's "Sacrament of the Present Moment" and Henri Nouwen's "The Way of the Heart." Both emphasise a more contemplative, if not mystical spirituality than comes naturally to me... Indeed a number of years ago one colleague went so far as to say that I was so much of an activist that my space for  spirituality was almost non-existent - like many protestant clergy... and he was probably right in that... I think I am better now, but it is a constant battle for me... As I reflected last week at conference on the upcoming ordination of 4 probationers and what my own ordination meant 18 years on, I remembered that I was ordained to the "ministry of word and sacrament" and that in the intervening years there have been an awful lot of words... but perhaps not enough times of silence between and informing those words...
Nouwen suggests:

"we have become so contaminated by our wordy world that we hold on to the deceptive opinion that our words are more important than our silence."

Today in Northern Ireland was a time for silence. The 7th annual Day of Reflection, when Healing Through Remembering encourages to take time to personally reflect on the conflict here... the pain of the past and hopes for the future... But I wonder how many people took time to stop... be quiet... remember and reflect...
Perhaps if we did then when we do speak and act it would be with more wisdom and grace...