Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Messy Women in a Crazy week

"The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men Gang aft agley..."
So wrote Rabbie Burns in his poem "To a mouse", and among the best laid plans that have gone agley for this man this week has been any attempt to celebrate Rabbie's "immortal memory" with a some haggis, neeps and tatties... A combination of pastoral issues, health problems, computer glitches and other things have derailed a number of things that I had planned and put me under more pressure than usual... And that is without taking into account the hectic whirlwind of events associated with the 4 Corners Festival that are about to start tonight with the opening of Bronagh Lawson's "20 artists: Religion and Spirituality" at the Duncairn Arts Centre. Do check out the festival programme, as there is plenty there to interest people from all sorts of perspectives...
Tomorrow night I am helping to re-stage Wendy Johnston's wonderful "Night with Messy Women" which premiered in the Agape centre back in November. In it Wendy tells the sometimes shocking stories of the women five women named by Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. I've blogged about it previously here, but don't take my word for it come along and see it for yourself... And remember it, and most of the other events in the festival are FREE.
Yesterday I was talking to a Catholic colleague about it and he confided that some of his parishioners were a bit wary of the terms "Messy Woman" being applied to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to which I reassured him that the event merely tells all the stories EXACTLY as they are in scripture, with no added commentary or interpretation... but that in doing so we reveal all the stories in their messiness... there is no hiding the inequality and misogyny, the sex and violence that we often do when we explore these stories in sermons and Bible studies (where we are even brave enough to do so). None of the women in these stories expected their lives to be as messy as they were... or that despite or even because of that messiness they would be used by God and that their stories would continue to challenge and inspire generations of women and men down the millennia. Their plans, like those of mice and men went "agley", but God's didn't... He wasn't put off by the messiness and neither should we.
Tomorrow night's performance takes place in the Canada Room right in the heart of Queens University Belfast, under the stirring mural “Women Emerging from the Shadows”, by award winning Newry artist Michelle Rogers, illustrating all the women who play vital roles throughout the university, and by inference, across society. It will be followed by a discussion panel with Michelle Marken (former principal of St. Joseph's College and broadcaster), Linda Ervine (Director of EBM's Turas Irish Language Programme) and Karen Mbayo (Presbyterian Chaplain to QUB), exploring the importance of these stories and women’s stories in general in a world that often overlooks them, particularly in the male dominated world of faith.
Come along and see how these stories might shape yours in a messy, crazy world...

Monday, January 26, 2015

Prophetic Imagination...

Another 4 Corners prompted post before I go back to my reflections on Living under Empire, although like that series this draws on the wisdom of Walter Brueggemann... After my slightly frustrated read of his book "Out of Babylon" and because of the themes of Imagination and Generosity that stand behind this year's 4 Corners Festival, I have turned back to Brueggemann's inspirational "Prophetic Imagination"  where he says: 
"It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one."
For king we can read zeitgeist/powers that be/popular culture/tradition... But I believe that we as Christians have a responsibility to offer an alternative hope-filled vision to the pessimistic, apathetic and/or selfishly individualistic perspectives of much of the media and/or political parties at present.
And in terms of our wee city I believe that this year's 4 Corners Festival makes a small but significant contribution to that role of imaginative vision casting... Indeed when I look at some of what is going on I feel that my contribution is akin to Charlie Brown's in the famous cartoon strip from 1960:

In this case "Je suis Charlie!" But whether we are a Linus or a Charlie, whether we paint pictures of inspiring saints and sculptors, or duckies and horsies with our imaginations, let us continue to exercise them and have them enlarged by the skills and inspiration of others... Four Corners is an opportunity to do that...


Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Gift to the City

Before I return to further thoughts prompted in part by Brueggemann's "Out of Babylon" I just want to point you in the direction of another wonderful book, entitled "GiftED: The Tale of 10 Mysterious Book Sculptures Gifted to the City of Words and Ideas." This slight but beautifully illustrated book tells the story a series of book-based paper sculptures created anonymously and left in various literary venues across Edinburgh and subsequently Scotland, starting in March 2011, with a "PoeTree" left in the Scottish Library of Poetry and inspired by its motto "by leaves we live" (taken from a poem by Patrick Geddes). As well as being an act of artistic grace this was also a profound political statement in the face of austerity-based cuts to education, libraries and the arts. On Goodreads I gave the book a 5* rating, as much for the generous, creative imagination behind this one person campaign as for the book itself. I have already been recommending it and may be gifting copies to various artistic and/or activist friends.

But I finished reading it on the day on which I joined with some of those friends in Belfast's City Hall to launch the third annual "4 Corners Festival". This faith-inspired festival seeks to entice people out of their own ‘corners’ of the city and into new places where they will encounter new perspectives, new ideas, and new friends, and together pursue peace and prosperity for all its citizens. This year the key words that underpin it are "imagination and generosity" which I suppose is one of the reasons "GiftED" seemed to resonate with the aims of the festival, and indeed I would love to see a similar venture taking place in this City... maybe as part of next year's 4 Corners Festival... But for this year we have enough to be going on with, including...
20 ARTISTS: RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY: From Thursday 29th January in Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts An art exhibition curated by Bronagh Lawson looking at contemporary spirituality in print, painting, sculpture and digital images.
A NIGHT WITH MESSY WOMENFriday 30th January at 7.30pm in Canada Room, Lanyon Building, Queens University. The  Biblical Storytelling Event with Wendy Johnston which premiered last year at the Agape Centre, I blogged on it then, so this is your chance to see it if you missed it then. It looks at the sometimes shocking stories of the women five women named by Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary, followed by a discussion panel exploring the importance of these stories and women’s stories in general in a world that often overlooks them. 
CORNERS OF THE CIRCLE: Saturday 31st January from 1pm – 4pm. Bus leaving from PS² Gallery, 18 Donegall St, Belfast, BT12 2GP at 1pm.  An opportunity to visit a series of art pieces installed in four different churches around the city, with the artist Bronagh Lawson. 
IMAGINATION TOWARDS GENEROSITY: A THEOLOGY: Sunday 1st February at 7pm, in St Malachy’s Church, 24 Alfred Street, Belfast. Michele Marken and Steve Stockman explore the Biblical mandate and the pragmatic outworking of imagining generosity in Belfast. 
IMAGINING A BELFAST WITHOUT WALLS: Monday 2nd February at 7.30pm in Townsend Street Presbyterian Church. “Belfast: Towards a City Without Walls” by Vicky Cosstick with photographs by Frankie Quinn, will be published in 2015 by Northern Ireland publisher Colourpoint. The book tells the story of Belfast’s “Peace” walls and of some of the people who are directly engaged with them. This is a chance to see some of the images and hear some of the stories in a church immediately adjacent to Belfast's longest "peacewall."
3 MAYORS FOR ALL 4 CORNERS: Tuesday 3rd February at 8pm in the Ulster Museum. The last two Lord Mayors, Gavin Robinson and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir along with the current one, Nichola Mallon, who helped launch the festival in City Hall on Friday, share their stories of their year as Belfast’s first citizen.
IMAGINE A WORLD WITHOUT HUMAN TRAFFICKING: Wednesday 4th February at 7.30pm, Fortwilliam & Macrory Presbyterian, Antrim Road. Representatives of Tearfund, Trócaire and Stop the Traffik discuss the global and local fight against human trafficking and the exploitation of people as modern slaves or sex workers.
GREATER LOVE - STORIES, IMAGES & MUSIC FROM WW1: Friday 6th February at 8pm, Clonard Monastery, TICKETS £10The stories of several local individuals who were involved in the Great War, drawing hope from the selfless acts of people who put others before themselves, set against music from the period of the war and some more recent reflective items. This event is produced by New Irish Arts 
A STEP TOO FAR? A CONTEMPLATION ON FORGIVENESS: Saturday 7th February at 3pm, in Strand Arts Centre. A film investigating an alternative to revenge; the idea of forgiveness. From Northern Ireland to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, ordinary people share their real life stories and how they have come to view forgiveness. The showing will be followed with a conversation with the Director of the Film and others. This event has been sponsored by Irish Churches Peace Project. To book, please email: .
'SLIGHE NA BEATHA’ 'THE PATH OF LIFE': Saturday 7th February at 7pm in Skainos, 239 Newtownards RoadA journey through the Psalms with Scottish Gaelic Psalm singers, in a programme devised by Linda Ervine of the Turas Irish language programme in East Belfast Mission, exploring anger and despair, healing, forgiveness, acceptance and hope, in the light of the "progress" of our peace process and the confrontation that developed as a result of last year's 4 Corners event in Skainos.
A NEW GENERATION OF PEACEMAKERS: Sunday 8th February at 7pm, in Sacred Heart Parish Centre, 1 Glenview Street. An evening of worship marking the end of this year’s festival led by Fitzroy’s Source group and North Belfast’s Search group. Jasper Rutherford, who works for Summer Madness and the Church Army will be helping us to think about the need for a new generation of peacemakers.
See for details on all these events.

Like the paper sculptures in Edinburgh these events are our gift to the people of Belfast. All events (with the exception of the Greater Love concert) are FREE, but donations are welcome towards the cost of the programme. There is also the opportunity to support one of the private events, the 4 CORNERS REFUGEE FEAST where, in conjunction with Embrace, NICRAS and others, Belfast Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon, will host a meal for refugees and asylum seekers in Belfast City Hall.  £20 will provide a meal for one of our guests.

I hope that you will join us at at least one of these events as we seek to imagine an even more generous city.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Living under the Empire... (2) Where is Babylon?

We were driving back from school last week, talking about books that we had been reading and my younger son, Ciaran, asked me "Where is Babylon?" I have to confess that my history is better than my geography, and I said that it no longer exists as an inhabited city, but its ruins were to the north west of the current capital of Iraq, Baghdad. When I checked however, I discovered that it is actually about 50 miles south of Baghdad and the modern town is the administrative centre of the province of Babil...
But just as the modern city is but a shadow of the historic capital of 2 ancient empires, first under Hammurabi in the 18th century BCE and then the "Neo-Babylonian" empire (under Nebuchadnezzar etc) in the 6th century BCE, so the earthly Babylonian empire/s was/were fleeting in comparison to the enduring metaphorical idea of Babylon.
The original Empire under Hammurabi was probably the ultimate origin of some of the early Biblical stories, including the "Tower of Babel," but the experience of the Jews at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar shaped the subsequent thinking/worship  of the entire Jewish nation whilst the metaphor was subsequently adopted by the early church as a cover for criticism of the Roman Empire.
Because of the identification of Babylon with Rome, particularly in the book of Revelation, some of the earlier reformers subsequently identified Babylon with the Roman church, and some within the more fundamentalist wing continue to do so... Though others point to the treaty of Rome as the foundation document of the European Union, and so identify the EU as the evil empire. Others have pointed to the United Nations, or (for example the Rastafarians), the British Empire (which by extension makes Queen Elizabeth II Revelation's Whore of Babylon), or the USA.Historically black pentecostal traditions tended to do this, being descended from slaves who could see a direct equivalence between the Jew's Babylonian captivity and their own. In more recent years there have been others who have compared contemporary USA to Babylon from both conservative perspectives (criticising modern America for its moral laxity and pagan pantheism) and more liberal ones, pointing to America's misuse of its economic and military hegemony.
My own feeling is that Babylon can be different things at different times. For me it is the prevailing socio-economic system we find ourselves living in at present... an aggressively capitalist/consumerist culture that perhaps emanates from modern America, but should not be uniquely identified with the USA. This culture pervades the whole of life and demands loyalty of all within its sway.
But just as the Jews of Babylon and the Christians in the early Roman empire refused to live entirely according to the culture they found themselves under, we too need to reflect on how far we kow-tow to wider society, whether that be the wider socio-economic culture, or more local powers and principalities, whose territories may be marked by flags and painted kerbstones (as in certain areas of this city) or by much more subtle signs...
The Kngdom of God cannot be marked out on a physical map, and neither can contemporary Babylon... Both battle over the territory of the human heart and mind.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Living Under the Empire (1) What Stories Shape us?

Prompted into lurching back to the blogosphere for a series of short thoughts by a number of things... Recently reading Brueggemann's "Out of Babylon" with my church Book Group which looks at living with the reality of empire... reading a number of pieces on Martin Luther King Jr. last weekend... currently reading Tom Hartley's book on Belfast's City Cemetery "Written in Stone" which points up how intertwined the history of industrial Belfast was with British Imperial history... thinking about the J.G. Ballard book/film "Empire of the Sun" about a boy living under the Japanese occupation of China... talking with my lounger son about "Lord of the Flies..." the letter of the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to British imams asking them to explain how Muslim values fit within British values... preaching last weekend on the politically provocative proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom of God by Jesus at the beginning of Mark's Gospel... and a line in a Rend Collective song at the end of that service which called on God to help us "win this nation back..." It is out of that primaeval soup that these unevolved thoughts have crawled...
But let's begin at the beginning, and effectively that is with Walter Brueggemann's book "Out of Babylon." What follows is the review I wrote of it on Goodreads:
Brueggemann's writing has been hugely influential for me, particularly his seminal "Prophetic Imagination," which is why I suggested that my church book group might like to read this book with me, and why I had a deep sinking feeling as I waded my way through the first few chapters of it. It is inspired by an Emmylou Harris song "In Babylon" which uses the metaphor of Babylon to reflect on contemporary America, but whilst the lyrics of the song are printed at the beginning of the book he doesn't refer to them again until chapter 7, two thirds of the way through the book. In the preceding chapters he effectively reprises/précis his earlier work/theses on the dynamic of Israel and Empire and the exile/return metaphor in the Old Testament prophets. But he does so in an unnecessarily repetitive and overly detailed fashion with large numbers of piecemeal quotes from different passages. This alienated some of my book-group who were not particularly theologically literate, and actually, if truth be told, caused me to lose interest too. It was not devoid of interest or new information, but this section could easily have been reduced to a chapter or two by a courageous editor, with interested readers directed to Brueggemann's earlier works if they wanted more detail. However, when he returned to the song and the interface of the Old Testament prophets with contemporary America the book regained its passion and power, particularly when he moved from the metaphor of "Doin' time in Babylon", to the less romantic metaphor of "Doin' time in Persia", and the subtleties of accommodation/resistance to that enduring and pervasive empire. Had the book only consisted of those last couple of chapters I would have rated it much more highly...
I will come back to the last couple of chapters in future posts, but briefly I want to reflect on one of the things that struck me anew from the earlier, somewhat more turgid chapters. I am sure it isn't the first time I have heard this... I am actually sure that Brueggemann himself has stated it in earlier books, but what struck me with new clarity this time was that not all the inhabitants of Jerusalem went into exile in Babylon, and not all of those who did go returned. Yet despite that the experience of exile and return became one of the defining metaphors of Jewish faith... and indeed perhaps reshaped (if not generated) the key liturgical understanding of the earlier Exodus, ie. the domestic rehearsal of the Passover Meal.
And it left me wondering what are the stories that shape our spiritual and cultural lives? They may be stories that only affected a relatively few people but which have subsequently been appropriated and mythologised by wider groups of people... Indeed some of the stories may have little basis in reality at all, but still serve to shape us...
In Northern Ireland stories like the Battle of the Boyne, the Potato Famine, the Titanic, the Battle of the Somme, Bloody Sunday, the Hunger Strikes, the Enniskillen Bombing are all woven into the certain people's self-understanding, whether or not they or anyone know to them were directly affected by those events...
In global terms 9/11 has and will continue to shape the lives of people who never came within the physical shadow of the twin towers... and government policy across the western world is still being driven by the acts of a relatively few investment bankers in the run-up to 2008.
Are we as Christians and churches predominantly shaped by the stories that dominate the wider world, or do we rehearse different, revolutionary stories in our songs, sermons and liturgy? 
It was only a few men and women crowded into an upper room in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, who heard Jesus completely transform the story of Passover in the light of what was yet to happen to him... But although only a few experienced that first/last supper, the liturgy it inspired has been a source of comfort/challenge/sustenance for millions of disciples living under many different empires, some ruthlessly oppressive, and others much more subtle in their resistance to the coming Kingdom...
What stories are we sharing to shape a new generation of followers of Christ for living under the empire in which we find ourselves?


Saturday, January 17, 2015

It's Our Time

A brief thought for this weekend where many in the USA and elsewhere are remembering Martin Luther King Jr. Some remember his legacy and seek to build on it, others bewail the lack of prophetic leadership that seeks to bring people together for the sake of justice and peace, in the face of those who chose to peddle fear and foster division. But just today I was reading a passage in Ruth Patterson's book  “Looking Back to Tomorrow” (Veritas 2009) where she quotes from Coretta Scott King’s “My Life with Martin Luther King Jr." (Hodder & Stoughton 1970) and the record there of Martin Luther King's funeral. At the funeral Benjamin E. Mays, President Emeritus of Morehouse College, where King had been a student, said:

“No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else's time — Abraham leaving his country in obedience to God's call; Moses leading a rebellious people to the Promised Land; Jesus dying on a cross; Galileo on his knees recanting; Lincoln dying of an assassin's bullet; Woodrow Wilson crusading for a League of Nations; Martin Luther King Jr. dying fighting for justice for garbage collectors — none of these men were ahead of their time. With them the time was always ripe to do what was right and that which needs to be done."
This is our time and what we do with it is down to us... there is no point in awaiting another MLK, or Moses or Mother Teresa - their time is over and done with. This is our time and the time is ripe to do what is right.