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February 2010



The night that I came home to find out that Kurt Cobain had died I remember thinking that the newscast was an outworking of the Biblical verse, “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless.” Cobain seemed to prove that life after God was so pointless that suicide might be as good a way to deal with it as any. Last Friday as I sat in a Pittsburgh hotel room listening to Tiger Woods’ efforts to kick start his public recovery I couldn’t help being drawn to another verse, “What good is it for a man to gain the world and forfeit is soul.”

For over a decade I have winced at Woods’ lack of emotion and bland personality. As a pastor of people I couldn’t help but feel sorry for this young man who was programmed from a very young age to be a one dimensional success. It worked. Without doubt Tiger plays golf like no one else ever has. Yet, I always felt that he played a like a spoiled soulless robot and could never quite understand the public’s adoration.  Tragically I seem to be proven correct that the cost of the tunnel vision that got Tiger to the top of his sport has him now languishing in an addiction clinic and going on Friday’s Press Conference failing miserably in an attempt to mature his humanity, perhaps thirty years too late.  

There were two things that stood out for me in the Press Conference. Firstly, Woods spoke of believing that he was beyond the rules. When he betrayed his wife with what it seems might be a whole string of affairs he justified it to himself; the rules didn’t apply to him. This is the mark of someone who had been made to believe that he was above the rest of humanity and I guess when you are told from the age of two or three that you are special and gifted then perhaps you are conditioned to believe it. Again tragically, he was not gifted in the skills of humanity but in swinging a golf club. Perspective in what matters in life is lost and anything can and did happen.

The other thing was his strained efforts at telling us he needed to be different and a better person. Ah! At last, perhaps way too late, what matters. My fear for Woods is that these skills are easier learned when you are mixing with your peers at 7, 11 or 15 years of age. It is hard to believe that it will be easy to develop a fully rounded human being this late on in a life that can still to easily fall back on his billions of dollars rather than real hard worked for character.

Friday’s effort to meet his public failed miserably. One can only pray that Woods can somehow dig deep enough to see what really is success on this planet and restore his marriage and find the real trophies and satisfied feelings that humanity in its fullness has to offer. It is all a lesson to the world that follows the success story of Woods rather than the humbler more treacherous following of Jesus. Woods is a paradigm example in a world where money, fame and success are the sought after holy grail. Even as I visited schools with my daughter last year we were fully exposed to the sales pitch which promised to make our children great at sport or music or academia. Hunterhouse College, where my daughter finally decided to attend, stood out like a diamond in coal (or a little coal in a bag of diamonds might be a better image!) with its sales pitch of pastoral care, development of personality before exam results etc.

As the Woods story unfurls it will be an opportunity to remember what is important and what we as teachers, pastors, parents or whoever are attempting to develop. Again, the Bible comes to mind and you wonder if Woods has the spiritual insight to understand a little more clearly what Jesus meant when he called the poor and the meek the blessed!



(This is the script of my homily at Clonard Monastery during Week For Christian Unity... not word for word though...)

The day before I got a phone call asking if I would consider becoming the minister of Fitzroy, I was chatting to a friend about who might be whackey enough in our entire denomination to call me as their minister. I suggested that I might get a phone call from Fitzroy to which he responded, “But you wouldn’t go there... they talk to Catholics...”

Tonight I presume that you are those he was talking about. I count it a privilege to be invited by you, warmly welcomed by you and to be now... heaven forgive me, speaking to you. I am not sure what damage we are doing to each other by gathering together to share our faith in Jesus around singing his praise and reading the Scripture but hey someone will find something wrong with this moment that I call blessing.

My friend’s comments were not a surprise to me and therefore sadly did not disturb me. I have heard all the rumours about Fitzroy. My predecessor Rev Dr Ken Newell found that because he spoke to Catholics, many within Protestantism negated everything else that he and Fitzroy believed. The blatant lies that are nothing short of the most outrageously imaginative fiction have no bearing on the truth of the Biblically based spiritual strength of that congregation. My friend actually believes that his comment is a virtuous Christian stand when really it is nothing short of sectarianism, the sectarianism that has divided us for so many years and caused so much hurt and pain in our communities. Yes, he and we might never have pulled the trigger but in our dehumanising of one another we are pointing our hearts.

Sectarian stereotypes, caricatures and labelling. It allowed people in our small community to so dehumanise that they could carry out the most violently heinous of acts upon fellow citizens. Many times in the aftermath the killers were also dehumanised as animals. Jesus lived in that world too. Your theme for the week has been “you are witnesses of these things” from the end of the Gospel According to Luke. Tonight’s reading was from the beginning of the same Gospel where Jesus reads Isaiah in the synagogue kicking off to his own ministry to give the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed their freedom and full humanity. In between those verses we are witnesses to Jesus ministry of interrupting dehumanisation with the loving warmth of grace. There are a range of people that Jesus walks around that were dehumanized. The tax collector, the leper, the prostitute and the Samaritan woman are all people dehumanised by the centre of social, political and religious power in Israel. Time after time we are witnesses of Jesus crashing down those barricades to bring grace, redeem, save, rehumanise those who have lost the preciousness of their humanity, made in the image of God.

My favourite Irish theologian, who walks very happily between his mother’s Catholicism and his mother’s Protestantism is U2’s Bono and he speaks of interruptions of grace. God interrupts our lives by his grace to rescue us. God interrupts history by ending apartheid or the Troubles. We join God in bringing his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven by becoming grace interrupters. It is what Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds and many of you from Clonard and Fitzroy have been doing for years. Let us not grow complacent. Our community still needs rehumanising. As witnesses of Jesus ministry we must move on. We must be interrupters, rehumanisers in our own communities and across those “peace walls” and “barricades” that the spirit of the age builds up.

In rehumanising I am not talking about conforming. Neither do I mean denying our differences theologically. My friendship with Father Gary Toman at Queens has been a real encouragement in my faith over recent years but I know that Gary went away perturbed many times at the seeming anarchy of everyone getting their chance to interpret Scripture and have a plethora of positions on baptism and communion etc. I on the other hand am a contrary wee Ballymena man who could never live under a Majesterium! We made each other more Catholic and Presbyterian and were happy to feed the soul beneath our different creeds.

Neither can we deny the hurt that we have caused each other. We carry deep wounds physically, emotionally, mentally, culturally and need to bring those before a grace that can interrupt our pain so that we can by grace reach out to those who we feel have caused that pain. Jesus never said that grace would be an easy thing to give. He just called us to follow him into our world to do as he did.

One of my favourite West Wing clips is when after an attack on Americans in Gaza fictional President Bartlett is expected to launch an immediate attack to assure the American people that they are strong and safe. He refuses a revenge strike and instead, against even his own staff’s advice, says he is going to seek peace. He looks at his critics and says, “I am trying to find a way to make peace... and when I do you can go on television and explain why you were against it.” To my friend who wouldn’t want me to come to Fitzroy because he didn’t want me to talk to you I would like to say that when we make peace I’d like him to stand in the fulfilled Kingdom of God and tell Jesus why he thought that was a bad idea!



I read the thoughts of someone on the BBC Sport Website this morning who suggested that John Terry’s indiscretion was a private not a footballing matter so therefore they were on the side of Team Terry! Well, that is alright then. So long as John betrays his wife and good friend Wayne Bridge in private and doesn’t bring it onto the soccer pitch it is ok! Adultery, murder, theft... sure as long as it doesn’t interfere with the football! England seems to be a society that got so freed from the horror of religious accountability that their open mindedness has led to their brains leaking out! To be on John Terry’s side against the innocent parties in this sad sordid story is actually quite frightening moral thinking or lack thereof!

Yet, there is more to the comment. The pontificator might say that he is not speaking about morals in general but about John Terry’s ability to be the captain of England. What he does in his private life doesn’t affect his ability to lead a team at the World Cup Finals. Ah... I see! Accept that his affair was not isolated from his soccer, he betrayed his wife by having an affair with a team mate’s partner! Though his wife doesn’t play, and therefore it seems can be callously dismissed from this story, his team mate does and might be right there in the back four alongside him in South Africa this summer. What trust and respect can this captain garner not only from the player already sinned against but from those who now have to look at their leader with a little more suspicion?

If I was John Terry’s pastor I would, as seems to be a common theme on my blog just now, offer him grace, forgiveness and a brand new start. However, grace does not mean an immediate return to the practical trust needed to be the captain of your country, to be the leader of men and the hero of a nation. It effects his wife most, and please let us not dismiss her because she is not involved in the footballing side, but it also effects team mates. Terry’s misdemeanour has implications to the players he might lead. In a few years time he might prove that the grace was well received and be a giant among redeemed men, perfect to lead a nation. Just now, on and off the pitch his credibility is in tatters.

(For worldwide readers, especially the American ones who know nothing about the beautiful game, John terry is the English soccer captain and it has just been revealed that he was involved in an affair with a team mate’s partner. The question on British talk shows and tabloid newspapers is about whether he should remain captain).