Saturday 21 March 2020

Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder

My friend, Fr Martin Magill, rang this morning and asked me to record a Thought for the Day for him to use on his parish website tomorrow. I agreed, so here it is - five minutes instead of two - but a first attempt at self-recording. I wonder what else I'm going to learn to do!

I'm posting it here because I recorded it on my phone, and it seems to be too big to send. I hope it doesn't spend so long buffering that you give up and go elsewhere...! Oh well, it's all about learning...

Monday 6 January 2020

2020 - Time to pick up the blog!

So, six years on, it's time I said Hello again to the Blogosphere. Been a busy time, raising a teen, travelling internationally and carrying on my education whilst working full time. There's lots, of course, I won't say here... suffice it to say, I'm back, with more to learn, more to wonder about, and lots of things to be grateful for.

While there's life, there's hope
Mass extinction may be underway, but while there's life, as they say, there's hope. And sometimes even death isn't the end. Thinking of folk in Australian bushfires - and feeling their relief at news of a little rain to dampen things for a few days.  Thinking too of USA interactions with Iran and Iraq (inter alia) and wondering where all of that is going to lead us. Meanwhile, we have responsibilities and things we CAN influence for the better...

I'm pondering the possibility of starting a new blog, to address the challenges of continuing to grow and learn and overcome obstacles in the face of adversity, failure and plain stubbornness! Or maybe I'll save the effort and just keep going here for now! Happy New Year, 2020.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Thought for the Day, BBC Radio Ulster, 7 August

I was always intrigued by those signposts that said, “The Ulster Way”.
I have always intended to follow them, ... but never got round to it.
I once believed that roads were objective and absolute facts. I never questioned them.
They were just there.  I travelled the same roads each day for years.
Then they made the Westlink,
and I discovered that roads can be moved,
everyone’s path redirected,
by civil servants and planners,
potentially influenced by politicians
and by the people who take enough interest to think about what is happening,
and protest if they don’t like it.

Roads are a process, not a final goal.
They appear as the process of human interaction.
As ants follow ants,
most people follow people,
a crowd follows a crowd,
and their beaten track becomes the road
around which everything else is built.

In the words of the Dire Straits song:
“The dirty old track...was the Telegraph Road.”

In his book, “We make the road by walking”…
Brian D. McLaren encourages everyone to take responsibility for their part in leading others,
in making the road.
We all shape the direction of society by the choices we make,
the ways we choose to go.
But there will always be what Robert Frost 's poem called “The Road Not Taken",
AND the title of M. Scott Peck's book, "The Road Less Travelled.”  It’s a Way of integrity,
of oneness with God and with Creation.
Jesus of Nazareth spoke of the Road being narrow –
“Enter through the narrow gate.
For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction,
and many enter through it.
But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life,
and only a few find it.” (Mt 7.13)
In the same chapter, Matthew 7, his words are reported:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
 For in the same way as you judge others,
you will be judged,
and with the measure you use,
it will be measured to you.
And take the plank out of your own eye
before you tackle the speck in your brother or sister’s eye.”
 The Traditional Routes
of comparison and resentment,
condemnation and hypocrisy,
of polarised communities
and blind following,
can be changed…
when you and I choose to change direction,
to follow this Different Path.

To love our neighbour
- and our enemy,
to live fully as created and creative beings,
and to be free.
Following this man,
who calls himself the Way, (John 14.7)
is a long tradition of eccentrics.
Their path is neither safe nor mindless. 
It leads through the valley of the shadow of death,

but also through green pastures. AND it restores the soul.
This could be a new Ulster Way.
If enough of us would get round to following Him.

Thursday 31 July 2014

31 July Thought for the day - Radio Ulster 94.5FM

Twenty years ago, I was living and working for the Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (that’s the Association of University Bible Groups) in the South of France. French people reminded me regularly: the French are much less clubbable than the British or Americans.  Individualism appeared to be key. I learned  the phrase, “Tall poppy syndrome:” Anyone who stands above the crowd gets their head chopped off. 

At that time, it seemed to me, the French were still living under the memory of the guillotine. Every 14th of July they remembered the storming of the Bastille and the “Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood” mantra of the French Revolution. I sometimes encountered a critical spirit that I called the Spirit of the Bastille. Fear of authoritarianism made leadership a real challenge. People seemed to dislike taking responsibility or authority themselves and they were quick to criticise and depose those who did. I know now that this is not just a French phenomenon. Though it has a particular flavour because French state schools teach children philosophy instead of religious education: the idea is to equip citizens to think and engage critically and not accept everything they are told. The positive side is that they don’t easily hand over their autonomy to any petty autocrat who wants to run a club or a political party – or a church for that matter. The negative, lazy option is to be critical without engaging.

Today I am a university chaplain and I think a lot about critical minds. Critical minds are crucial to the functioning of any good human organisation. We need critical minds to see abuse, name it, engage to find better solutions and devise ways to bring about change. Critical minds are essential to free people from all kinds of oppression. But a critical spirit brings its own oppression, crushing fresh thinkers, replacing passion with cynicism. A critical spirit destroys community and relationships . A critical mind constructs better alternatives.

Some of the best people I know – both French and from here use their critical mind with a spirit of generosity. What would this day look like if we engaged in our world with a critical mind and a generous spirit.

Monday 14 April 2014

Duelling with God: Dandelions at Dawn

There comes a point where I have to go looking for God.
"What is this all about?"
Death. Restructuring. Cancer.
and the Democratic Republic of Congo...
Syria. South Sudan.

Gloves off
thrown in the face.
Honour is at stake.

We met at dawn.
I drew a dandelion
in grey pencil.
He drew the sunrise
at the speed of light
and tipped the blades of grass
with dew.
The wildflowers faced the rising sun
and I was lost.
No paint bright enough.
No gold pure enough.
I can't do justice to it.

I can't do justice.
Love mercy.
Walk humbly

Wild flowers grow and glow, 
hated for their perseverance,
glorious in their persistence,
bringing invaluable gold to the wasteland
amidst the empty houses of delapidated estates,
indifferent to ideologies,
kerbstone colours,
ancestral legacies
and bank balances.

They warm and open
to simple sunlight,
are food for insects,
food for birds,
which bring song to barren streets
and silent building sites.

Enough that joy
seeps through the gloom and grey
Enough that life
peeps over decrepitude, dereliction and decay

Honour is at stake.
And life.
And where is God?
Not answerable to me.

Yet answers.
A kind of answer
And a kindly one.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

For God and... the people made in God's image

I grew up in Belfast, where the phrase "For God and Ulster" was present on walls and banners in a way I didn't think about. I guess I didn't feel it represented my faith... As an undergraduate I was given a copy of "For God and His Glory Alone" in 1988 by our Christian Union staff worker. (I won't name him here, though I'm sure he'd be happy to be outed on this. Funny how that old NI fear of irrational reprisals lingers...) The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students has great potential for challenging culturally acceptable idols such as the uniting of faith and political ideology, and also to nurture broader Biblical thinking about how Jesus-followers engage in the world as a whole. Poverty, oppression, structures that damage human beings and inhibit human flourishing. The Prophets are full of that stuff. I remember studying Amos... What a hero. (Let justice flow like rivers and right relationships like a never failing stream...)

ECONI produced the For God and... document as Bible study material to challenge evangelicals about how we relate to our neighbours - in a way that challenged the Paisleyite public rejection of the Roman Catholic Church and implicitly - to loyalists, at least - seemed to sanction attacks on Catholics. It comes down to simple biblical teachings around justice, forgiveness, loving neighbours and enemies - all basic Jesus teachings.

The book has been relaunched. Here's Steve Stockman's review

I think, all these years on, I would like to have renamed the book. But how?
For God.
For God and God's Glory alone (I don't like reinforcing the masculine pronoun for God in a culture where masculinity is often defined as against femininity. A recent article I read pleaded for men to man up against the feminisation of the Church - as if the full participation of any of God's children in Church was a loss to their brothers and sisters!)
Or how about this: For God and the human beings made in God's image...?

What should we be willing to live and die for? (and for what should we be willing to kill?)

Sunday 10 November 2013

Remembering - What we're here for

This morning's Remembrance day sermon was a real challenge... There is so much emotion about. So many sensitivities. And so much opportunity for Remembrance to be co-opted for jingoistic, unthinking and implicit justification of the unjust use of security forces. Stuff that I think stands in the way of faithful allegiance to Jesus Christ, and prevents Protestants in NIreland being effective witnesses to the love of God for their neighbours.  Where to *begin* to unpack all that in 20 minutes?  I began by reading from Ephesians 2.

Ephesians 2. 
14For Jesus Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Remembering is a kind of faithfulness. We remember with respect those whose suffering was the price paid for freedom. 

But certain kinds of remembering can be faithless. Selective remembering, remembering that asks no hard questions of those who sent them to their deaths, remembering that makes saints of one side and demons of the other – these kinds of remembering dishonour the true memory of those real human beings whose lives are destroyed through war. If we remember we must remember the whole truth. Our great respect for those who suffer and die must not stifle the very freedom for which they suffered.

Proper remembrance, to honour those who died for democracy, must make full use of democratic rights and freedoms, never take them for granted, always defend human dignity and encourage the thinking and challenging education of all our people towards full human flourishing. A truly free nation should always ask hard questions of anyone sending others out to kill. If remembrance or wearing a poppy or flying a particular flag becomes an excuse to glorify war-making or killing or wanton destruction, the poppy, the flag and those remembered are dishonoured by that kind of remembering.

So here, in a Christian Church, living under a flag, but subject only to the King above all kings, what Good News shall we preach, on this day when we remember war? What good news, when the First World War, called the war to end all wars, has been followed by war after war after war, slaughter upon slaughter upon slaughter. Genocides, war crimes, crimes against humanity, atrocities… Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya… Those are only the ones that came to mind. Even in our own land, Human lives are sacrificed for causes sold as the greater good, sold as justice. 

Tyrants may, perhaps, occasionally, be stopped, dethroned, even brought to trial, or killed; Great evils may be challenged, but war never achieves real justice: How can there be justice for the child whose mother was raped and killed by occupying soldiers; or for the child whose father comes home from long periods of absence physically unharmed, but violent, angry, emotionally distant, or dependent on alcohol to forget the brutality in which he has participated?

In human terms, there is no justice, no adequate mechanism for taking an eye for every eye taken: If one old man gives an order to invade or bomb or massacre, how can those deaths be avenged? If one woman soldier kills a thousand villagers, how can she ever repay even one of those lives? If one child soldier is forced to torture and kill his own parents, who is the victim? And who is the perpetrator? Who is righteous? 

And if all have sinned, and if all of us fall short of the glory of God, for which we were made, is there no righteousness? No true justice in the world? What good news is there, when there is no justice? If young men or women from East Belfast or Seymour Hill, with limited education and few options, are being brought up on the heroism of the Somme, in such a way that they are led to believe without question that it is noble to fight and kill and die for a flag, are they being trained to serve a false god? Where is the Good News of Jesus Christ?

The Good News begins, not at the Cross, but in the nature of God, who is love. The Good News begins for us in this: that we were created within the good Creation of a Loving God; and so all people are made in the image of God. No matter what they have done, every person is a precious fragment of the human race; every person should be respected as an important part of our picture of God, a sculpture or a holy temple dedicated to God. Not every person believes that they are a temple dedicated to God, but it’s what every one of us was made for. 

Ephesians takes a more corporate view: We are being built together to be a living temple, held together by Jesus Christ. It is in relationship with each other, as Christ reconciles us to God and empowers us to make peace with each other, with neighbours and with enemies, we are being built into a place where God’s presence is made manifest. Those of us who believe in the God of the Bible must honour God’s image in every person we meet, and encourage them to grow in body, soul and mind, to think and thrive as fully as they can, using every gift God has given them...

I spoke of how Jesus saw beyond the labels and empowered the real human being to step up... and how his torture and abuse, nakedness and grotesque (though for the Romans, banal) death united God with our misery. His resurrection proclaims that even if we lose our lives, we have not lost our humanity - the image of God...the temple of God's Spirit, being raised up and built into a home for God's living, loving presence on earth.

and I concluded with this: 
Remembering that God's very nature and Creation are Good;
Remembering that God’s image is in every human being; 
Remembering the human being behind the label; 
Remembering the human capacity for great evil; 
Remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus;
Remembering to follow Jesus to the cross rather than collude in oppression;
Remembering to love our neighbours as ourselves; 
Remembering to love our enemy and seek the good of those who may seek to do us harm:

This is the Good News:  that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself;
This is the 
Good News: that while we were still sinners, Christ saw us as God’s beloved children, and died for us;
This is the 
Good News: that Christ died and rose again, so no powers of death or hell can destroy the temples of God;
This is the 
Good News:  that there is now no condemnation for all whose lives are hidden in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free.
This is the Good News: that the deepest human divisions are bridged by the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Christ himself is our peace.

Let us Remember what we were made for: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 1) Go then, to build peace in this world of conflict, to bring wholeness to the temples of God, to build God’s temple, God’s church and God’s kingdom in, through and over every nation on earth. Start here, where God has placed you. Be leaven in the dough. And may the peace of the Prince of Peace empower you to live and die and bring resurrection life into every dark place.

And this prayer: Ephesians 1.15-21

And this: Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us
And lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil
For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
For ever and ever

Well, it was a start...
The question now is, what will we do differently tomorrow?

Saturday 21 April 2012

Worth coming back for

Facebook has tended to encourage my brief musings and online spare moments... writing my own blog fell by the wayside. But I am angry. Angry enough to put one more page on the internet in protest. Only Virtual Methodist knows the details better, and he is more measured than I, so follow the link and have a think.

My rant starts here:  This is Northern Ireland. People under threat (often police and paramilitaries) can have their house bought so that they can repurchase somewhere safer. So, a black African family receives concrete through the window, hitting the little girl, and somehow, without anyone being arrested, charged or convicted (or cautioned?) for that attack, they are supposed to believe that it is magically safe for them to return to the house where they were attacked. Has all racism suddenly been removed from Ballybeen estate? If so, tell us how - I'm sure there are other parts of the world that could benefit from such wonder-cures. Has someone leaned on a paramilitary "community worker" to lean on the idiots who threw the concrete? And that's supposed to make the family feel secure in their beds? They are as safe as the particular paramilitary leader's power and influence. Given the capacity of Loyalism to tear itself apart, I wouldn't want my daughter's wellbeing to be resting on that kind of security. Nor I suppose would the dear person who has decided this family don't qualify for the rehousing scheme.

I believe the Chief Constable would not stand over blatant injustice or discrimination... so I'm curious as to how this family don't qualify for rehousing.

Come on, Northern Ireland. We can do better than this. On so many levels. (Credit where it's due - I'm glad to hear the Church has been supportive... and some notable politicians... But come on, guys. If this family's name was... well, the right name... I'm convinced they wouldn't be having to try so hard to avail of the help they need.)

This is the land that got us the Good Friday Agreement. When it's the right thing to do, it has to be possible. Make it possible.

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.