Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We are all made in the image of the God we choose to serve."

Blaise Pascal

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Listening and Learning 50 and 100 Years On...

I am currently reading a book that looks at classical culture and at one point the author questions the possibility (or indeed the point of) establishing the historic truth of any of the foundation myths of an ancient city like Rome, looking back thousands of years to a tradition that was probably already almost a millenium old.
We in this part of the world should know the truth of this as we already have difficulty untangling the historic truths of the past 50 years of conflict, never mind the foundation myths of the two jurisdictions on this island, many of which find their historic roots in the events of 1916 in the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.
There are many upcoming events commemorating/celebrating/reflecting on these and other anniversaries of this so-called "Decade of Centenaries" including two public lectures in Belfast South Methodist:

IRELAND ON THE BRINK 1912-1922: Some Thoughts on the Decade of Centenaries
on Monday 15th February at 7.30 pm with Dr Eamon Phoenix, political historian, broadcaster and head of life-long learning at Stranmillis University College, and

on Monday 25th April 2016 at 7.30 pm with Rev. Dr. Johnston McMaster associate professor of the Irish School of Ecumenics.

The week before last I went to a more theatrical response by Contemporary Christianity, following up their earlier production on the 1912 Covenant. This was entitled "Halfway House" and looked at the events of 1916 from the perpective of 2 women, one protestant and the other catholic, but both brought up in or near Downpatrick, trapped in the mythical "Halfway House" Pub during a snowstorm in 1966. Set in the midst of a decade that seemed to be full of change and hope, politically, socially and relgiously, ostensibly this allowed us to look at 1916 through a lens that was un-muddied by subsequent events, but the developing tension between the two women as they compared and contrasted their families' stories was pregnant with the Troubles to come, (the Belfast premier of the play was staged at Fitzroy Presbyterian and you can read a review of it by Fitroy's minister, Steve Stockman on in blog.) People often suggest that if more women were involved in political life here that things would be radically different, but whilst I am a passionate believer in equal representation of the sexes in all spheres of life, I am not convinced by this reasoning as I have found, in my own family and in community politics that women can be just as bitter about the past and intransigent regarding the future as any man, and sometimes more so. This play, however, removed the often toxic ingredient of male aggression from the mix, allowing raw emotion of competing pain and loss to be more clearly heard. These were human stories being told, rather than a litany of political point-scoring and philosopical one-upmanship that often happens when the events of 1916 are sometimes explored in cross-community settings.
This is the tenor of another piece written by the author of "Halfway House", Philip Orr, entitled "Stormont House Rules". This looks at the events of 1912-16 and beyond via the vehicle of a political debate. It is being staged as part of the 4 Corners Festival this coming Thursday 4th February, at Duncairn Arts Centre at 7.30pm. Having read the script and seen a workshop edition of the play, it is a much more dense affair than "Halfway House" and makes an interesting partner piece... The characters in it are very keen to get their own point of view across but not always too keen to listen... or where they are listening it is generally only for a key point to interupt!
This is interesting given the theme of this year's 4 Corners Festival is "The Art of Listening..." An audience, by definition is supposed to listen, but will we only listen out for those points that reinforce our own perspectives and prejudices? Or will we listen for those unsettling and uncomfortable truths that undermine the myths that established, not only the two different jurisdictions on this island, but the mindsets of those of of us who live within them?
Come along, listen and learn... 


Monday, February 1, 2016

Are You Listening?

Are you listening? 
The theme for this year's 4 Corners Festival, which began last Thursday evening and runs to next Sunday evening in St. Nicholas' Parish Church, is "The Art of Listening". Yesterday at Fitzroy Presbyterian, the church where 4 Corners founder, Steve Stockman, is the current minister, my friend and colleague, Heather Morris, preached a challenging sermon on that theme, and it is worth a listen (or a read).
But we began the festival with an event organised by EmbraceNI, in the City Hall; "From Syria (and elsewhere) with Grace, looking at the plight of refugees and asylum seekers coming to this city and what we as churches might do to help. It was important to be warned of the danger of our compassion for Syrian refugees here and elsewhere adversely affecting refugees and asylum seekers from elsewhere... to hear about the gap between the granting of asylum and the ability to access benefits or be permitted to take a job... and heart-breaking to hear first hand the experience of destitution that many in this process experience, with the suspicion that such destitution is being used as a deliberate instrument of government policy to encourage refugees to "go back to where they came from", But as one speaker said, the combination of the weather and the low rate of refugee support is a big enough deterrent! We need to hear these voices rather than the shrill, fear-inducing voices of too many tabloids... As Richard Kerr reminded us we need to not only discuss welcoming the stranger at the heart of this city but recognise that welcoming the stranger lies at the very heart of the Christian gospel.
But we also need to remember that there are people who come to this city reasons other than being refugees. Indeed, that an influx of migrants of all sorts should be something that we aspire to as a sign of normality and indeed prosperity in this era of "peace." Tomorrow night in one of the newest corners of this city, Poleglass, which only pormally became part of Belfast City Council last year, we encourage you to listen to the "Voices of the New Belfast." 
This is a showing of some of a series of short documentaries produced by award winning film company ESC, telling the stories of various people who have only recently come to call Belfast "home". It was produced as a result of workshops in all 4 corners of the city and tells of the expereinces of these new citizens of Belfast, before and after coming here; their struggles, their joys and what they bring to this city. It was previously screened in Parliament Buildings at Stormont, and in other places during Cultural Diversity Week last year, but we are delighted to be screening it, with the opportunity to question some of the participants and film-makers, as part of 4 Corners this year in a corner of our city rarely visited by even long established citizens of Belfast... 
It is being hosted by Youth Initiatives, (50 Colin Rd, Dunmurry, Belfast BT17 0LG) who for the past 25 years have been working in Poleglass, so there may also be the opportunity to hear a little of their challenging work in this new corner of our city. 
Are you ready to go and listen?
(What follows is a trailer for the documentary series)


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Shepherd's Wife

I haven't been blogging much this year, but here is a wee Christmas present... some of you preparing stuff at the last minute might even find it useful. I wrote it for our Service of Lessons and Carols on Sunday, and it seemed to go down quite well...

There are times when I wouldn’t believe one word that came out of that man’s mouth. My mother warned me. She said “Never marry a shepherd!” she said. “Never marry a shepherd! They spent too much time away from home. Roaming the hillsides… Sun beating down on their heads in the daytime. Drinking home-made hooch in the nightime to stay warm… Addles their minds!” She said “Addles their minds…”
And on face value my man’s ramblings this morning when he came in suggested that his mind WAS addled. He couldn’t get his words out fast enough… All I heard was “bright light, angels, good news, singing, Messiah, manger…” None of it made sense… even when I got him to take a breath and slow down…
He started again and told me that an angel had visited him and his mates up in the hills last night… I mean to say… an angel visiting that lot!? Must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. But he insisted that they had seen an angel and that this angel had told them to go down into Bethlehem and find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in an animal’s feeding trough… and that this would be the Messiah that has been expected for centuries… And then an angel choir appeared, singing “Glory to God in highest heaven and peace to all people on earth!”
Total and utter sheep fodder. Why on earth would the Messiah be lying in a feeding trough? Doesn’t bode well for things to come if God couldn’t arrange a better place for his chosen one to be born than a stable…
But my half-wit of a husband was adamant that this “angel” was right… that they left the sheep on the hillside and went down to Bethlehem and there WAS a baby lying in a feeding trough… Mind you, with this Roman census there are people everywhere… But the messiah? No way! I said that it was probably all part of a con trick to get them off the hill so some sheep rustlers can take away their sheep…
But he said no… that after they had seen the baby they went back up to the mountain to check that all was in order, and it was,,, the sheep hadn’t moved an inch…
I don’t know… He really seemed to believe this nonsense. I suppose I had better check that baby in the feeding trough story for myself… But if he is pulling my leg, I swear, he could end up sleeping in a feeding trough himself… What was it that angel choir sang? “Peace to all people on earth!” I’ll give him peace! A piece of my mind is what I’ll give him…


ps. The artistically minded will note that the image is "The Farmer's Wife" by Joan Miro, but I couldn't find a suitable "Shepherd's Wife" image...

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Just Pray - Or Just Argue About an Advert About Prayer

Is it safe to come out again? Or is everyone still up in arms about the Lord’s Prayer? According to the Daily Fail the Archbishop of Canterburywas “furious” about the decision of the Digital Cinema Media (DCM) agency, not to distribute the above innocuous 57 second advert to the  Odeon, Cineworld and Vue cinema chains. Really!? Furious!? Throwing teacups at the wall of Lambeth Palace furious? Certainly the little I have seen of Justin Welby would suggest that he doesn’t do furious the way I do furious, which, frankly, raises him in my estimation, and suggests that his particular discipline of prayer, including the Lord’s prayer, works for him.
But were I Justin Welby, I doubt I would be furious with the decision of this commercial company not to show this advert in accordance with its stated policy of not accepting political or religious advertising content in its cinemas. I would however be exasperated with its stated reason that "some advertisements - unintentionally or otherwise - could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith." But it’s not just religion and politics that causes offence… Today, with its usual tabloid hyperbole the Belfast Telegraph tells us that shoppers and various politicians are “very angry” at the omission of a shamrock or any other (Northern) Irish symbol from its “Taste of the British Isles” range of cakes. Now I can’t possibly imagine why M&S would not want to associate the words “Northern Ireland” and “cake” with their brand (maybe I will Google and find out)… but their decision/error has led to demands for an “urgent explanation” by at least one local politician… As if that should be an urgent matter for either M&S or politicians!
But anyway, it demonstrates that EVERYTHING can be offensive to someone, and as many others have already said, much of the crass consumerism, the glamorisation of alcohol  and trivialisation of gambling that goes on in cinema adverts these days, I find grossly offensive, never mind the content of many of the main features.
Some Christian commentators have picked up on the term and suggested that actually Jesus’ words are offensive if viewed from the perspective of secular liberalism and contemporary capitalism. But I don’t think that the DCM decision is as nuanced as that… It is, rather, a straightforward “ban all religious and political stuff” response, using the likelihood to offend as justification. Yet the thing is that many of those objecting to the ban would be the first to object to a similar advert featuring an Islamic prayer or Hindu mantra.
This decision is not an attack on prayer as some of the more excitable voices on social media have stated, nor, as some spokesperson for the CoE said is it “chilling in terms of limiting free speech. It is a simplistic commercial decision, based on an unimaginative if clearly articulated, non-discriminatory policy - take note those of you who have also used this case to jump up and down about the rights of a certain Northern Irish bakery to make a commercial decision based on their Christian faith (guess what that Google search turned up by the way?). But to suggest that the above advert could genuinely offend beggars belief (or un-belief). Actually, in this I find myself in the unlikely company of arch-atheist (but cultural Anglican) Richard Dawkins who is reputed to have said:
“My immediate response was to tweet that it was a violation of freedom of speech. But I deleted it when respondents convinced me that it was a matter of commercial judgment on the part of the cinemas, not so much a free speech issue. I still strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.”
The key difference is that I don’t see prayer as trivial. Rather I am with Karl Barth on that where he said that, “To clasp  hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
And the so-called Lord’s prayer is Jesus model for what that uprising should look like… a kingdom where God’s will is done, not the capricious will of earthly rulers… a kingdom where daily needs are met rather than greed encouraged… a kingdom where forgiveness is encouraged…
That is pretty offensive…
However, and this is what has niggled at me more and more over the past couple of days, when Jesus taught this prayer he suggested that prayer shouldn’t be a spectator sport. That we should go away into a private room, lock the door and pray
“Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
He didn’t say…
"Go into a locked room and make a video of this prayer and distribute it to every cinema in the land…"
I don’t know who was behind this initiative… There are those who cynically suggest that they knew that it would be banned and that the publicity from that would be far greater than any that would have been generated by the distribution of the ad in the first place. Certainly the number of hits on the CoE website this week will far exceed the numbers who would have seen it in the cinema even if it had been shown before every showing of Star Wars VII in every cinema in the land.
But I hope that is not the case. Whilst Jesus tells us to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves", I don’t like seeing the kingdom of God play by the rules of the kingdom it is seeking to subvert (that is too much like the plot of Mockingjay for my liking)…
For exactly the same reason I will not be joining in the boycott of the chains supplied by DCM that some Christians are advocating. I am actually going to one of the chains not supplied by DCM to see Star Wars VII, but I am not even sure whether a Church of England ad will be played in Northern Ireland (although they still insist on advertising Waitrose and Morrisons here despite their lack of presence in this province, so who knows)...  Such boycotts are only likely to bring Christianity into greater disrepute. 
Certainly this advert and the subsequent ban has generated a lot of verbiage on faith, prayer and the meaning of Christmas... It's even got me blogging again. But I do hope that it gets more people praying... 

ps for another alternative take on this issue read Kevin Hargaden's blog post. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Widow's Tale: 2 for a Penny or 5 for Tuppence

Yesterday morning, as part of our Remembrance Service, Shirley Krakowski, our Student Assistant delivered this monologue (it's more of a short-story than a monologue!) based on the lectionary reading from Mark 12: 41-44, together with Luke 12:6-8 and Matthew 10: 29-31.

I keep chickens… To earn me a penny or two. And sometimes, as I scatter the grain out for them to eat, I watch the little brown birds, sparrows I suppose they are, darting in to pinch a seed or two. I know how they feel. Just trying to snatch enough to get by… Meanwhile my cockerel struts his stuff across the yard… Thinking he is something… when really he is just as reliant on the seeds from my hand as those little sparrows.
A wandering rabbi visiting our village on his way up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the feast, recently recommended that we should watch birds instead of worrying... I’ve got plenty to worry about, but he reminded us that God looks after our little feathered friends and so we shouldn’t worry because we are worth more than many of those little birds, that are sold, 2 for a penny or 5 for tuppence… I joked with him – told him that at that rate I’m only worth 5 of those sparrows, because I only have 2 copper pennies to my name… or had…
He asked me to tell him more. To tell him my story. Well, it’s been a while since anyone listened to me, so I told him… I told him my whole life story…
How when I was a child I would go with my parents on the annual pilgrimage to the Temple… How we would offer our sacrifices… usually only the cheapest, grain offerings, or at most 2 young pigeons… because we were so poor…
He told me that was all his parents could afford to bring as a thank offering when he was born… So we had that in common… He then laughed as told me how he had got left behind at the temple as a young man… He had been so engrossed that he didn’t realise his parents had left for home with the other pilgrims… until they came back a couple of days later furious with him.
I could understand that… I told him how loved the temple as a child… it was still a building site back then… The work begun by Herod hadn’t been finished… but the white gleaming marble with the sun glinting off it spoke to me of the glory of God… the incense and smoke of the sacrifices was the scent of another world… and the priests singing the Psalms sounded to me like choirs of angels…For me the Temple was the gate of heaven… Of course I only ever got as far as the women’s court… But we could peer through the screen to the inner sanctum. And as the smoke rose from the altar I hitched my prayers to it… prayers for a good husband and a family… Year after year we came… year after year I prayed…
And then, when I came of age the match was made and my prayers were answered…I got my good husband… Jacob, and a family of my own… two young boys… Asher and Nathan… And we in our turn made the annual pilgrimages to the temple for the feast… And my prayers turned from myself to my children… That they in turn would find good wives and have children of their own…
But it was not to be… In one fell swoop my boys and husband were all carried away by a fever… And all my hopes and dreams dissolved like the smoke from the sacrifice… Did God not hear? Had my sacrifices not been enough? Or had I done something dreadful to be punished in such an awful fashion? Condemned to be a widow for the rest of my life!? I was still young. I could have had more children. But who would take on a woman who had been cursed by God? Was I to be left on my own until I myself died?
I told the Rabbi that my brothers and sisters did all they could to help me but they have families of their own to look after. I had no land left to me by my husband, only a house… he was a tradesman not a farmer, so I kept chickens in my back yard… but they barely produced enough to feed me, never mind put any money in my pocket. There were times that I was tempted to ring that cockerel’s neck and eat him for a final feast before crawling into a corner to die.
But still I persisted in my annual pilgrimages to the temple… Though I noticed something I never had before… The number of other widows… Some widowed by disease like me. Some by the famines that racked the countryside from time to time. And far too many widowed by war. Some whose husbands had died as zealots fighting the empire, others whose husbands had signed up as soldiers of the Emperor to escape the poverty of our land…
But whether their husbands had died fighting for or against the Empire their widows were in the same boat. Pouring out their hearts in prayer at the screen in the women’s court or queueing for alms at the treasury gate.
The law provides for widows and orphans… and the temple alms go to help them. That’s one of the reasons why widows flock to the temple. But alms have no arms to embrace you when you are lonely and afraid… They provide for our hunger, just about, but they cannot replace the embrace of a husband or a child or a grandchild…
The prayers I brought to the Temple had changed now I was a widow. I asked God “Why have you punished me so hard? Why did you allow me to experience marriage and motherhood only to snatch it away? Yes I have sinned. Everyone has sinned. But did I do something awful to endure sure cruel punishment?”
I prayed and I cried. I cried, and I prayed, but I never got an answer to my prayers.
And the rabbi didn’t offer me any answers… He just offered me an embrace. A welcome embrace… before resuming his journey to Jerusalem and the Temple, saying, before he left…  “Remember mother,” he said, ”you are worth more than many, many sparrows.”
I remembered his words as I fed my chickens and the little brown sparrows darted in and out among them, foraging for seeds… And I remembered them this morning when I arrived in Jerusalem for the feast… The Temple courts were crowded… Families with mothers clucking around their children like brood hens… Pharisees and priests strutting across the court like my cockerel back home… And others like me… Single women… widows… some old, some not so old… dressed in drab colours… little brown birds… Weaving their way through the crowds, almost invisible… until they found their way to the screen in the court of the women … Or joined the queue for alms at the treasury gate…
I thought about joining them in either place… until I saw some of the cockerels… Pharisees I think, making for the treasury gate… They weren’t joining the queue for alms… In fact they made a point of turning their faces away in distaste from the line of human misery there… No they went straight to the head of the queue and made a big show of pulling out a large bags of money… and tossing them carelessly into the offering basket…
I was furious… And yet the words of that rabbi stuck in my head “you are worth more than many, many sparrows.” The same heavenly hand who provided for that crowd of cockerels, ultimately provided for me… I turned over the two copper coins in my pocket… And instead of joining the queue to receive… I followed the path of the Pharisees… strutting the way that they did… There was a murmur from the widows and beggars in the queue… And when I got to the Treasury door I produced my two copper coins with a great flourish and tossed them into the basket… The Pharisees were furious and stomped off, while the alms-queue dissolved in waves off laughter… Probably the first laugh some of them had had in years…
I took a bow and went to go and pray… for forgiveness for my impiety if nothing else… Then I saw him… that rabbi.. sitting with some others across from the Treasury gate… pointing at me… He nodded at me and I at him, and then went on my way…
I made my way to the screen at the front of the women’s court, and I prayed…
“Heavenly father… you who made the sparrows and the cockerels, the wealthy and the widow… I do not know what tomorrow will bring… But I commit myself into your hands… I give you my all… My hopes and dreams… My doubts and disappointments… My hurts and my fears… My worries and my worship… In you do I trust…”


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cracked Pot... revisited

This morning at the Agape Centre, Shirley Krakowski, a second year Edgehill ministerial student wwho is on placement with us in Belfast South Methodist was leading a service where she was reflecting on II Corinthians 4: 7:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
My mind went back to this short poem/pensee that I wrote when I was on a mission in Wicklow Methodist at the outset of my final year as a ministerial student:

Cracked, clay pot
containing hard cold earth
whilst beneath the surface
sits a seed-stored life


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Dreams and Visions

It's been a while... More recently because I've been on holiday. Before that because unless I was writing something for another context I was becoming more wary of being yet another megaphone commentator on the issues of the day, be it gay marriage, gay cakes, the election, bonfires etc, where my online comments were not matched by action or discussions in the real world, or might have hindered such actions or conversations. I am so tired of polemic and ranting (including my own) that ultimately achieves nothing or simply reinforces divisions, and increasingly that is what the media and especially social media is full of.
However, we do need genuine opinion formers in the public sphere who are able to articulate a vision for doing things differently at a local, national and global level, and they are few and far between.
During our holiday in the US we visited the Washington DC, and saw the Lincoln Memorial, scene of Martin Luther King Junior's famous, "I have a dream" speech, and the grave of JFK at Arlington National Cemetery... Lincoln, King and Kennedy all had clear visions of where they wanted their country to go and actively worked to make that dream a reality. When he first appeared on the global scene Presidential wannabe Barack Obama seemed to be in that mould as he articulated a "hope-filled" vision of how things might be... For a long time and for various reasons his rhetoric has not fully matched reality, although there are signs that in the latter stretch of his administration he is seeking to make up for lost time.
But whilst in DC I was also reading a piece of trashy fiction by Justin Cartwright - "Lionheart" - a Dan Brown-esque book based on the story of King Richard I (only read it if you are picking it up cheap in a charity shop, and have absolutely nothing better to read), and apart from prompting me to read more about the real histoy of that iconic King, it made me think when the central character writes:
"When Obama talks about the American Dream, as though it is something real and wonderful, rather than what it is , just a figure of speech, I can't help thinking that this contains within it the assumption that the dreams of other nations, say Palestine or Britain even, are not even in the same league. Only America is in the major league of dreams."
There is a certain truth in this, and we in the "old world" can comment cynically about the teenage idealism of the global youngster that is the USA. Personally I am not convinced by some elements of the so-called "American Dream", which seems to be too closely wedded to individualism and consumeristic capitalism, but at the same time I long for leaders in the UK and Northern Ireland who will both articulate a clear hope-filled vision of the future and strategically work with others against established gatekeepers and powerbrokers to achieve that vision. Yet what we persistently get are those who pedal fear and feed the demons that lie at the heart of established power blocks, be they left or right, green or orange, Christian or secularist...From a Christian point of view I long to see the promised pentecostal fulfilment of Joel's prophecy where our "young men will see visions," and our "old men will dream dreams."
This old man dreams of 
  •  a province where politicians really seek the common good and don't just pander to the extremes, genuinely engaging with bread and butter issues like education, health, transport and the environment that will make a real difference to the lives of generations to come...
  • a nation that is more interested in wellbeing than income generation, both at a personal and governmental level. That is not to decry the importance of economics for wellbeing, but to see things in a much more holistic, healthy fashion...
  • a church that is more focussed on those outside our doors than those inside, with a greater emphasis on love than on law... Where all people feel welcome and able to articulate their hopes, their dreams, their fears and their failings without experiencing condemnation or condescension...

That's enough to begin with...