Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Recently I've been invited to attend a number of protests concerning the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asked to sign different petitions and encouraged to share different articles about the situation. I've done the latter a couple of times depending on the content of the article, but I have done neither of the former two, because I have not yet been entirely comfortable with the tone or origin of the protest or petition.  I don't know enough about the conflict to know how to effectively register my concerns, but I know enough to know which petitions I am not going to sign, and am reluctant to let my name on a petition or presence at a protest be held to indirectly add support to causes I would never support in a million years. I am not going to stand side by side with someone comparing the IDF to the Nazis, extolling the virtues of Hamas, or on the other hand sign a petition that equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. As a result I have felt somewhat powerless. 
This is particularly problematic here in Northern Ireland where every global disagreement becomes viewed through the myopic green and orange tinted lenses worn by the people in this place, leading most discussions on facebook threads to become relatively predictable in terms of who supports what or whom. So again, I have tended to keep well clear... The following expresses some of my frustrations, but also some of the basic principles that guide my thoughts in this and other conflict situations. 

I'm Protestant...
I'm also pro-Catholic.
Pro-Unionist and pro-Republican.
Pro-Irish and pro-British.
Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.
Pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian.
Pro-American and pro-European.
Pro-Scottish and pro-English.



Anti-simplistic oppositional politics

Divide and conquer
Us and ours
Them and theirs
A long record of wrongs
Zero sum
They win
We lose

My enemy's enemy is my friend
But I long to make my enemy my friend
And to make erstwhile enemies
into new found friends.

And where I cannot find a way
of doing that directly
I will pray for those
who risk their lives
to bring love and peace
to places of hatred and conflict

Palestine... Israel... Iraq... Syria... Ukraine... Nigeria...
Northern Ireland...

I am Protestant


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I am STILL confident of this...

I first posted a version of this back in November 2010, when I was in a deep dark place. Thankfully I am in a much better place today. But part of that is because the God of whom this Psalm speaks is the same on dark and difficult days as well as the bright sun-shiny ones. This coming Sunday we will be using a shorter responsive version of this Psalm, but I thought this version was worth posting today...

The LORD is my light and my salvation:
What have I got to fear?
The LORD is the fortress for my life:
Of whom shall I be afraid?
When wicked men and women bear down on me like beasts
longing to eat me alive,
they fall flat on their faces;
My enemies stumble and tumble.
Though I am besieged on all sides,
My heart will not falter or fear.
Though world war three breaks out around me,
even then will I be cool, calm and collected.

One thing I ask from the LORD,
this is what I’m looking for:
that I may live in the presence of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the glory of the LORD and to serve him in his holy place.
For when times are tough he’ll keep me safe behind his ramparts
He’ll lift me up beyond the reach of those who would pull me down
He’ll hide me in the folds of his tent,
high on the rock of his faithfulness.

Then I will worship with songs of joy;
I will sing and make music to the LORD.
Listen LORD, I’m calling at the top of my lungs
Be merciful LORD, and answer me.
My heart said to me, "Seek God’s face!"
So I sought you out, O LORD.
Don’t hide your face from me now.
Don’t turn me away or forsake me,
For you have always been my helper.

So don’t reject me, O God my Saviour.
Even when my father and mother turned their backs on me,
Your arms were ready to receive me.
Point me in the right direction, O LORD;
lead me along paths where I’ll feel safe from ambush.
Don’t deliver me into the hands of my enemies,
For they will say or do anything to bring me harm.

Despite all that’s going on around me, I am still confident of this:
I will see God’s goodness bear fruit this side of the grave.
Wait for the LORD;
take heart, hold on and wait for the LORD.

from Psalm 27

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Suitable Psalm for the Parading Season?

The following is a paraphrase of a extract from Psalm 118, more commonly associated with Palm Sunday but perhaps a suitable Psalm for the parading season? Not a parade remembering a king conquering his enemies on a white horse with a sword in his hand, but one of a king on a donkey, with palm branches rather than banners and flags... 
We used this last night as part of our Service of Prayer for Parades and Peace...

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.
The Lord is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
Shouts of joy and victory resound from the homes of the righteous:
"The Lord's right hand has done mighty things!
The Lord's right hand is lifted high;
the Lord's right hand has done mighty things!"
Open for me the gates of righteousness;
I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.
This is the day the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
O Lord, save us;
O Lord, grant us success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us.
Holding palm leaves in our hands let us join in this joyous procession.
You are my God, and I will give thanks;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.
From Psalms 118:14-29


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Forgiveness Again...

This is another Jesus-Peter dialogue in the style of Bell and Maule, but prompted by the words of the Lord's Prayer and Jesus' story of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18: 21-35. I wrote it years ago and was surprised I had never posted it before. It was originally slated for posting a fortnight ago, when we were scheduled to use it in the morning service... but things went on a bit, so I pulled it both from the service and from the blog... We should be using it in this morning's service at 11am in Belfast South, so long as thing don't go on too long again! But if they do I hope the congregation will forgive me...

Peter:        Eh... Jesus...?
Jesus:       Yes, Peter?
Peter:        How many times did you say I should forgive my brother?
Jesus:       Have you and Andrew been fighting again, Peter?
Peter:        Oh, you know what he’s like... I know you want us to forgive each other, but I really am ready to deck him... And I can’t remember, are we supposed to forgive others 77 times or is it 70 times 7?
Jesus:       Who’s counting?
Peter:        I am… Remember… I asked you how many times should I forgive him and you told me 77, or 70 times 7 or some other ridiculously huge number… And well, I’ve already forgiven him 76 times so I’m wondering if the next time is the last?
Jesus:       How do you know there will be a next time?
Peter:        Oh, Don’t you worry… There’ll be a next time… If I haven’t drowned him first…
Jesus:       That’s hardly the right attitude… I didn’t mean that you only had to forgive someone 77 times, or 70 times 7 times before hitting them with a baseball bat…
Peter:        A what?
Jesus:       Never mind…
Peter:        So if it’s not 77, or 70 times 7, how many times is it then? 77 times 7?
Jesus:       No… Think of a number…
Peter:        What?
Jesus:       Just think of a number…
Peter:        OK.
Jesus:       Double it.
Peter:        Right.
Jesus:       Square it.
Peter:        Yes.
Jesus:       Multiply it by 3 million, raise it to the power of 10 and then add the number you first thought of.
Peter:        I’m sorry Jesus… I never was very good at maths…
Jesus:       But you’re still good at keeping score of the number of times someone has wronged you.
Peter:        So you are saying I should just forgive and forget.
Jesus:       The words never crossed my lips.
Peter:        You can’t just keep letting people off... Pretending that what they have done doesn’t matter.
Jesus:       I didn’t say you should… Forgiveness isn’t about saying that when others do something wrong it’s OK... It’s about saying that what they have done is not OK but you will forgive them anyway.
Peter:        but how many times?
Jesus:       As many times as you need to...
Peter:        But knowing Andrew that could be forever!
Jesus:       And…
Peter:        Well there have to be limits Lord…
Jesus:       Do there?
Peter:        Yes… Otherwise people can take advantage of you…
Jesus:       OK then Peter… How many times do you want to be forgiven?
Peter:        What?
Jesus:       How many times do you want to be forgiven?
Peter:        But this isn’t about me?
Jesus:       Is it not?
Peter:        No… It’s about Andrew…
Jesus:       Well do you remember that prayer I taught you?
Peter:        Our Father and all that stuff…
Jesus:       Yes…
Peter:        What about it?
Jesus:       Well how do we ask God to forgive us in that prayer?
Peter:      “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?” And…?.
Jesus:     What about that?
Peter:      But this is nothing to do with trespassing… 
Jesus:     Don’t try to wriggle out of it… You know what it means…
Peter:      OK… I know… But when do I have to stop forgiving Andrew or anyone else… 
Jesus:     it’s simple…
Peter:      When… 
Jesus:     When you want God to stop forgiving you…


Saturday, July 5, 2014

I will exalt you (Again!)

Tomorrow's lectionary readings include a portion of Psalm 145. Here's a an amended reblog of a reblog of a responsive version I wrote a while back:

I will exalt you, my God and King:
I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will praise you
And extol your name for ever and ever
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no-one can fathom.

One generation will remind the next about your wonderful works;
they will share stories of your mighty acts.
They will sing of the glorious splendour of your majesty
And I will mediate on your miracles
They will proclaim the power of your almighty arm
And I will tell one all about your great deeds.
They will celebrate your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your justice and mercy.

My mouth will shout out in praise of the Lord
Let every creature praise his holy Name

Psalm 145

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Return of the Prodigal and the Banishing of Pessimism

For those who haven't heard already via social media the prodigal cat has returned... at 3.30am on Thursday morning. Never has meowing outside our bedroom window at such an ungodly hour been greeted with such joy... The fatted calf wasn't killed, but the feline equivalent was served up as Claudia ate her bodyweight in Whiskas and Iams (other catfood products are available), suggesting that she had been stuck somewhere without food for 3 days...
Anyway, my worst fears expressed on Wednesday evening had not come to pass...
The question is whether my worst fears of Thursday evening will do so? 
On Thursday afternoon the Democratic and Ulster Unionist parties involved in Haass-lite talks at Stormont pulled out because it had just been announced that the Ligoniel Oranges lodges have been refused permission to return from the field on the 12th via the Ardoyne shops by the Parades Commission determination... I have already expressed on facebook that, from my outside perspective the determination seems wrong-headed, but also my incredulity that Unionist politicians were withdrawing from talks which, theoretically, included the possibility of removing/reforming the Parades Commission because the current Parades Commission was not doing what they want... Given that this is the third process to reform/remove the Parades Commission that has been rejected or withdrawn from by the Unionists or the Orange, a cynic might suggest that they seem to like having the Parades Commission there as a bogeyman to blame for intransigence, rather than actually having to support another agency they helped establish when it inevitably will be forced to make decisions they don't like... That cynicism might be reinforced as some say that the parties involved were already priming the pump for such a move days before the Parades Commission determination was announced, and that their coordinated statement with the TUV, PUP and UPRG was far too well crafted to have been quickly cobbled together in the wake of the determination... given that those parties couldn't normally agree on the time of day this statement with its promise of a "graduated response" was not a spontaneous moment of unity. 
My fear is what that response might graduate into... The claim that the Parades Commission is perceived to be rewarding the threat of violence by representatives of Ardoyne residents might well be true (and I for one cannot understand why the representative in question who reiterated those threats on TV cannot be prosecuted for incitement to violence), but their approach may well foment violence on the loyalist side... as happened with the ill-chosen strategy regarding the same march last year and regarding the vote over the Belfast City Hall flag... And once again there will be much washing of hands in public and blaming of the police/parades commission/politicians of other hues/residents of Ardoyne/uncontrolable hooligan elements within loyalist community/the church...
I hope and pray that those fears will no more come to fruition than my fears about our cat did. 
I unashamedly said I loved our wee cat, and I longed for her to return...
I unashamedly say I love this wee country and I long for it to return(?) to some semblance of normality... where we can learn to live with each other despite our present differences, past hurts and future aspirations... 
But if we are going to get there then we are going to have to abandon traditional routes of confrontation and whataboutery... There will need to be a lot more grace injected into the mix... Forgiveness and forbearance... 
A number of months ago church leaders agreed the following principles that would characterise a healthy community here... a 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 recognised, whilst sectarianism, racism and other prejudices that create a climate of fear and division are rejected, thus contributing to our cultural and economic vitality and indicating our openness to new ideas, perspectives and people.
  • Democracy is cherished and fully participative, the rule of law respected and all communities are liberated from the oppressive grip of organised criminality and paramilitary activity.
  •  Justice is treasured, not only in terms of perpetrators being prosecuted, but also  victims being cared for, 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, meaning that in a spirit of generosity some may choose not to exercise their rights for the sake of the common good.
  • Hope and imagination are fostered, breaking a spirit of pessimism and apathy that has convinced many that things will never change, thus transforming the dynamic of public life and raising personal aspirations. 

It's not just church leaders or political representatives that need to commit themselves to these principles, but all of us in all our enagements with one another, wether or not they are ostensibly political. Some are more pertinent at particular times and places. In the light of yesterday and with the 12th looming, the point regarding the respect of the rule of law being respected is particularly poignant... and personally my thoughts and prayers are with the PSNI and their new Chief Constable as they seek to implement the rule of law in the midst of this morass. But given my personal depression at present, maybe I should highlight the last one, which speaks of "breaking a spirit of pessimism."
May my pessimism on Thursday night prove as fruitless as that on Wednesday... I long to be a  prophet of doom who is proved wrong...


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Just a Cat...

There was me posting two Psalms for dark days last week little knowing that this week I would have need of them myself... because a deep dark cloud has descended on Virtual Methodist Manor. 
Our cat, Claudia, has disappeared...
On afternoon Sunday we were telling visiting friends how big a part of the family she was... and Sunday night was the last time we saw her. She headed out on her routine summer nocturnal prowl and hasn't been seen since... by anyone... the neighbourhood has been leafleted but no-one has seen her.
She has gone missing for 24 hours before, but it's now approaching 72 hours and there is no sign of her...
Those who are long time readers of this blog will remember that 4 summers ago we lost another cat, Mitten... To paraphrase Oscar Fingal O'Flaherty Wills Wilde, to lose one cat may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But Mitten's loss was due to a combination of old age, ill health and the thoughtlessness of a new neighbour while we were on holiday... 
This time Claudia's disappearance is an, as of yet, unsolved mystery...
And we are all heartbroken...
It has left me unable to think straight for long periods of time over the past 24 hours, and joy seems to have been sucked out of the house as if by an enormous vacuum pump...
Yet you may be thinking she is "just a cat..."
Give you a tip... don't say that within range of a right hook...

But as I have thought on my response to this loss whilst engaging in diversionary activities (never have hanging out washing, or sorting socks, receipts and pastoral lists become such appealing tasks) it has prompted these mini reflections -

The Power of Pet Therapy - and Uncomplicated Companionship
On the loss of our first cat I vowed I would never have another pet, such was the emotional cost. But I was in a vulnerable place at that time, and some months later was when the wheels fully came off the wagon. An American friend was staying with us on and off at this time and she bullied (not too strong a word) Sally and I into going to Assisi Animal Sanctuary to get another cat. And so Claudia entered our lives. She was a rescue cat who had been abandoned in a bag in Ballycastle and was a bundle of nerves when we got her... But she and I soothed each others frayed nerves over the coming months. Later, as my eldest son went through a tough time physically, she was his constant companion... developing an unhealthy relationship with the rubber stopper on the end of his crutch at one point...
Both Owain and I are now in better places physically and mentally... but now it seems our companion Claudia is no longer with us. She helped pull both of us out of dark places, but now her absence has left us in a dark place again... However, I believe we are both in better places to cope because of her brief sojourn with us. I often say at funerals that loss is the price we pray for love... That is true even of the cupboard love that pets bestow on us...
But if that is the emotional impact that a cat can make on us... for good or ill... How much greater should be the impact of unconditional love offered by other fellow humans?
How much of a difference can you or I make by simply being companions to people walking through difficult days? Not offering answers or explanations or solutions. Just offering of ourselves... 

The Significance of Loss...
I have no doubt that the loss of Claudia has been exacerbated by the loss of my Aunt Winifred last week. I didn't see her half as much as I should have, but her loss brought back to me again the loss of my Dad, her brother, and my Mum before that again... Reminding me that I am an aging orphan...
Yet saying that, I did not feel my aunt's loss as viscerally as the loss of our wee cat...
One of the things I often hear in my chaplaincy rounds in hospital is "When I see what other people have to cope with it puts my troubles into perspective" (or words like that.) I am usually quick to remind people that while that is true, we all have our own burdens to bear and battles to fight, and it isn't always matter of comparing our lot with others... 
Yet here I am mourning the loss of a cat, and I think not only of the loss of my cousins...
But of the loss of those mothers in Israel and Palestine (3 Jewish and now, sadly, one Palestinian as well it seems...)
Or the loss of those parents of girls taken by Boko Haram and now almost forgotten given that the news cycle has moved on...
Or the loss of the McCanns, uncertain about the fate of their daughter Madeline 7 years on...
Or the loss of those who watched their sons go off to the war to end all wars 100 years ago... and the wars that have happened in the intervening years...
Or the loss of those whose loved ones "disappeared" in the Troubles here... and indeed those others where loved-ones' deaths have never been properly prosecuted, or (some suspect) investigated...
It is not just the loss, but the unknowing... Not knowing exactly what happened to the one you loved...
I hope that my little loss makes me just a little more compassionate to those whose hearts seem to have been torn out and left with an aching void that can never be fully filled...
Long ago a wise teacher told me that time alone doesn't really heal loss (or indeed any other hurt)... that the best we can hope through God's grace and the help of others is a well-formed scar... 
That hope is less achievable when there is a lack of information... the edges of the wound simply won't meet...

and finally...

The Parable of the Lost Cat...
You know the other variants... the Sheep, the Coin, the Sons (remember - there were two)... In each of the other stories parties were thrown when the lost was found... Except in the last of the three, where there is a cliff-hanger... Yes the Father threw a party for the return of the younger son, but would the elder son come in, given that the Father had thrown away all dignity in going out to him, in the same way as he had thrown it away in running out to embrace the younger one...
Well, at the moment I'm still in cliff-hanger mode... Like the Father on the roof-top looking out for the younger son... or waiting to welcome the older one into the party...
I'm still waiting for a cat's paw batting the window at my right ear as I write this... or turning up at the patio doors as we settle down to watch some late night TV... or mewing at the back door in the morning... I am still waiting...
And so is our heavenly Father...

So don't you dare tell me Claudia is just a cat...