Saturday, 11 December 2010

Reflective Blessing

Our forefathers chose to use this
cold and dark, inhospitable season,
to mark the hardness of the world
into which Jesus was born,
and into which many children are born each day,
in poverty, in conflict,
without a safe place to rest and live and thrive.

“Jesus” means God Saves.
And for many people today, as in Jesus' day,
salvation is a really physical, material thing:
safety from enemies, from abusers,
salvation from hunger and thirst,
from cold and disease.

And all of us, at some stage in our lives,
sense a need for salvation,
healing from sickness of body or soul,
freedom from oppression, bullying,
and the internal and external voices telling us:
"you’re not good enough"
"you can’t change the world"
"you can’t do things any better",
oppressing us with guilt

Into the remotest reaches
of the most marginalised people in the world
- and into the cold darkness of our hearts -
the Light of the World comes:
One, short Life,
lived in one small country,
yet transforming hundreds, thousands of lives
in his own day
The light was passed on,
other Hearts were warmed
till they too glowed with the love of God.

He died.
stripped and paraded before the people
hounded out of town.
This is how God chooses to be Immanuel
God with us.
God in Christ
doesn’t avoid the dirt or the darkness.
God in Christ
reconciles the whole world, through his death.

As wick touches wick,
we are united in the darkness of death;
but the Warmth of God in Christ
brings life that death cannot destroy.
Rekindled to a new life.
Everything is possible.
You don’t need to be good enough.
You don’t need to change the world.
You don’t need to do things better.
Christ, the Light, is in you,
and his Warmth is Bright enough for all to see.
In him all things are possible
all things are new
and the world will never be the same.

Light, in our darkness,
kindle a flame.
Let your warmth glow in
and through us.
Let us like Mary be willing
bearers of your light,
trusting you
for outcomes and consequences;
Let your Holy Spirit bring
the new life of the children of God
to dwell in us,
so that the whole world may have
light in place of darkness,
hope in place of despair.

In the Community of all your children,
May the cold be warmed,
May the homeless find refuge and rest;
May the hungry be fed,
May the thirsty be satisfied,
The sick healed
and prisoners find true freedom
May we be united in peace
as children of Light
This Christmas, and in eternity.

I wrote this for our Christmas Carol Service in the University of Ulster last Tuesday, to be co-read with my wonderful assistant chaplain, Katherine Rush.

The picture is my own. If you'd like to use it, please let me know.

An Advent Prayer

A number of people seem to have found this prayer helpful, so I thought I should post it here.

Week 2 - HOPE Came Down at Christmas : Isaiah 9:1 -7

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan —
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”

Loving God, you know the anxiety of poverty,
the gnawing fear of the next bill,
how to feed the children, care for the sick.
You know the brokenness of dreams and ideals,
and the cynicism that hardens hearts
and crushes community.
You know too the foolishness of faith in wealth
and the mystery of great generosity in times of crisis.

This Advent season, we look to you, God,
Father of Jesus, our humble and joyful Lord,
who laughed and cried,
lived abundantly and died terribly
to be with us in every season of life and death.

We look to you, because you have been there;
be our Counsellor, our wise guide through these dark days;
fill us with the hope of those who know their Saviour is coming,
fill us with the love of those who know ourselves deeply loved
fill us with the songs of those who know our struggles are not eternal.

Give us hope in you so that we may be generous and not hoard,
fill us with confidence in your goodness
and gratitude for your faithfulness,
so that our children may live lives of hope.
Shine in us as light in the darkness,
a testimony to the end of war,
an alternative to violence,
and abundance instead of poverty and injustice.

May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth...

The prayer was written in Geneva, while discussing Mission, Justice and Partnership between churches in the strategic planning for World Communion of Reformed Churches. I was thinking of the implications of the economic difficulties facing the Republic of Ireland and beyond. The Bible text was the one I was given, when Margaret Clarke asked me to write the prayer.

The full set of prayers written for Advent is on

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Ups and Downs

Walls Investments
Jericho. Jerusalem.
Berlin. Belfast.

Your investment
may go down as well as up.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The First Blackberry

I started with the dandelions,
the various rampant weeds huddling around the front door
as if they couldn't wait to enter
the empty house.
Trimming, pulling, uprooting
I wreaked order on the encroaching wildness of things.

Inside cobwebs sought to restrain me, restrict my entry
but I pushed through
door after door, room after room
reclaiming my old home, its ownership,
from its new arachnid inhabitants

The enclosed suburban garden silently flourishing
since my absence, convolvulus in spindly seven league boots
invades the jasmine
and I - now I am here - tear it out.
Untangling, painstaking, shearing as necessary
to assert my hope of life and love growing here again.

The hedge has gained feet of thickness,
reaching out for its old comfortable chaos
but the shears are in my hands,
the grass collects the leafy twigs in loose piles
till they too are consigned to that plastic brownness on wheels.

But the blackberries, shining there in sunlight, promising fruit for days to come,
for these, I hesitate.
And there are apples on the lawn. I look up.
The tree, baubled like a Christmas fir,
holds out one branch at hand-height,
offers me a single share of its wealth.

In this old, hard-won garden,
unrequested, quite in grace,
the fruits of summer,
hope of warm puddings for colder, harder days.

I gather the blackberries,
consider storing them,
then eat
moment of eternity
present gift.

Tomorrow, I will gather for the winter.
These firstfruits we must celebrate today.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Blair's Bloody conscience? A hill of beans?

The story that emerged yesterday, that Tony Blair is planning to donate a substantial amount of revenue from his forthcoming publication of memoirs to a rehabitation unit for injured soldiers is a mediatic delight. It's poetic. It's political. It generates conversation, discussion and even motivates me to write a blog post!

I'm fascinated with the instinct - in myself and other observers - to judge Blair, to call it blood money for his guilty conscience, to assume that he's trying to buy himself a better place in history. Well, he may be... and it may be the job of commentators to comment. And comment sells better if it's outspoken, i suppose...

For my part, I want to try to remember that Blair stepped up to the plate, took difficult decisions that someone had to take, and lives with the consequences, if not now, then this is what eternal judgment is for. Whether he turns out to be only a cold and calculating media manipulator, or in fact a human being who was trying to make the world a better place, and who is now trying to make peace with his conscience, let's have mercy on our own souls, by choosing to withhold judgment of others... I'm told by a reliable source (that'd be Jesus...Matthew 7v1) that we will be judged by the same measures we use for judging others.

At certain levels of public life, (and if we're honest, in almost anything we do!) it's hard for motives to ever be totally pure. God alone knows the heart.

But Tony, if you're reading this, there's other important stuff in Matthew. Chapter 6v1 would be a start. "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
On the other hand, if you don't care about what the rest of us think, then your £4m is still money well spent! You could do worse than give the rest of it away too. There's a great social welfare system in this country, if ever you find you don't have enough to live on...
Who needs millions anyway? Pakistan, perhaps? Africa... Afghanistan... if you could get it to them. (Check out ) I was just tonight reading about a mother of three who couldn't scrape together the 5p a week needed to access a micro-lending scheme in Ethiopia. Tony, if you want to make the world a better place, you have been given the means to do it.

World Communion of Reformed Churches

In June, I went to Calvin College, Michigan to witness a birth. On 18th June. REC and WARC united to become WCRC... You can read the official story at

For me, it's the start of a new element in my life - connecting the Presbyterian Church in Ireland more intimately with the other member churches of this new communion - at least for the duration of my service as one of the four European members of the WCRC executive committee.

What difference would it make to us, to be more consciously connected with other churches flowing from the Reformation? As Ireland becomes more international, might it be a key time for us to relate to churches and cultures that expand our imaginations to assist us in connecting with the new Irish on our doorsteps?
Meanwhile, our local "government" has at last seen fit to produce it's paper on "Cohesion, Sharing and Integration" - which should have appeared at least two years ago. Glad it's here... and hope they mean it! Sadly, I'd have been more inclined to be convinced if it had appeared back then. Still, let's work with what we've got , hey?

For today, I just want to pick up one little statistic in the document:

In 2009, respondents to the Life and Times survey were generally supportive of the rights of EU citizens to live and work here with 69% saying they were very or fairly welcoming of the idea.
Only 69%? Don't they realise this is the same mechanism that opens up the whole European landscape for them too? I guess one third of our population can't imagine ever wanting to live anywhere else than here... What can we do to encourage a more outward view?

I've got so much learning and growing to do myself, it's hard to see how to share what I'm experiencing. Can one person making occasional trips to committee meetings make any difference to a culture of fear of difference, and glorious isolation? God alone knows...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Chaplaincy through the eyes of Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett is "chaplain" to Titanic Quarter in Belfast... and free to imagine and engage with fresh expressions of Christian ministry, mission and church. He's developing a vision for "The Dock Church".

Here's what he came up with after his visit to 5F01. You'll see a glimpse of our own work at the chaplaincy at University of Ulster at Jordanstown.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Three Cups of Tea

The most inspiring book I've read in a very long time, Greg Mortenson's story is of the mysterious love a human being can have for strangers, and that understated love's capacity to inspire them to do the impossible. Greg has nothing... except a United States citizenship and a heart that carries his childhood of loving, inspiring strength.

To take on the building of one school, without any personal or institutional resources, in remote Karakoram mountains below K2 seems idealistic madness... To achieve it, and the many, many schools for boys and especially for girls, in this region, is the stuff of miracles.

Well worth the read, it has opened my heart and eyes and imagination to Pakistan, and also to Afghanistan - though I gather I now need to read the sequel, Stones into Schools, for more on the ongoing Afghan story. It's pre-ordered...

I work in education; I believe in its importance for opening minds and hearts to others, to possibilities that may be creative rather than destructive. Education without love can create monsters... And so I wonder how to encourage "my" students and staff to appreciate what an opportunity they have here, and also what challenges may face them if they are willing to share those opportunities with people of different backgrounds and cultures. Greg's respect and love for his country's perceived enemies has won hearts and is transforming lives, communities, and perhaps the face of future conflicts.

I'm touched by his humble simplicity - this is no hagiography. The account of his life and work is full of his mistakes, ignorance and naivete, not to mention the sacrifices made by his wife and children - and yet, and yet... it is this very honest humility which inspires us. If he can make such a big difference, with so little resource or proper organisation (at least at the outset!) what couldn't the rest of us do if we put our minds to it!?

Well-written, intriguing insights into a part of the world hitherto known to me only in two dimensions, I want everyone to read this and be genuinely inspired to make the world a better place.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Beauty and Danger

This morning I wrote on Facebook: "it's snowing... again! (beauty and danger) -not so good if you're queuing for an op. UDA are supposed to have decommissioned (worth waiting for? I hope so!). I wonder what mixture of beauty and trouble lies ahead... "

At 6pm, I heard another dangerous and strangely beautiful thing. Deeply saddening, and at the same time humanising, Peter Robinson barely held his composure whilst telling us of the crisis in his marriage and Iris' affair and suicide attempt. I've never met either Peter or Iris, but I have often disagreed with what I saw of them in the media. I have judged them for their apparent judgmentalism, and what has appeared to me their ungracious engagement with political opponents. Most recently I was angry with the First Minister for failing to show the minimum grace to the Catholic population and some normal humanity by issuing a statement on the passing of Cardinal Daly.

My heart was transformed by seeing him as a weak, pained, human being. How danger and fragility brings about beauty!

It was a beautiful thing, to hear him speak of his journey from wanting to ditch Iris, to realising he loves her, appreciates what it has cost her to be married to him, and wants to save their marriage work.

But the danger note was struck again when I heard him say, "I have done nothing wrong." I think he meant in terms of his role as First Minister, but it had broken the spell. For a second, I had thought he was saying, "I'm the victim here!"

So many righteous people think we have been injured and wronged (and so we have) but we fail to see how our way of being, our words, our rightness, have quietly crushed our neighbours, denied them access to our God, left them feeling that they could never be good enough... and how our failure to walk in others' shoes has led us to effectively exclude them from things that might have enabled them to live peaceably as our neighbours, even embrace us as brothers.

God, forgive me for judging the Robinsons, as if I knew what it was to be them. Teach me to let you be judge, while I learn to love as graciously as Jesus. Surround them with wise advisors and loving friends, and above all, let them find that their one real strength is in this: that you loved instead of judging, that you chose to die rather than punish... and so may the future of our land be found in the story of grace. As you give our First minister courage to forgive and rebuild, let us all be empowered to build a seriously better future. And let the powers that would drag us backwards to competing with each other instead find that the only real victory is in listening, giving, forgiving and sharing.

Monday, 4 January 2010

How far have we come?

Found this tonight, remembered, and wondered.... how long will it be before we're back there again? Please, God, make it a long, long time...

Thankful for Cara Dillon's soul... and the many like her who draw us towards a new future. Pity our "leaders" seem to be having such a rough time leading as statesmen, putting the good of the whole population ahead of the short-termism of perceived party priorities... Short term, because ultimately it is not in the interests of the parties - or at least, of the people who vote for them - to be stuck in the polarised hatreds and fears that enslaved us.

Please... please give us leaders who can see the bigger picture, statesmen and women who can rise above the next election and inspire another generation to integrity, generosity and courage.