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January 2015

WE WERE ROBBED - LACK OF PROTESTANT ARTS

Presbyterian Altar

(as I speak tomorrow evening in the 4 Corners Festival event IMAGINATION TOWARDS GENEROSITY - A THEOLOGY (St. Malachy's, Alfred Street at 7pm on Feb 1st)I was drawn back to this extract from my book on U2 - Walk On; The Spiritual Journey Of U2... it will no doubt get a mention in tomorrow evening's talk... the last paragraph in italics is added...)

North Belfast is a place of division and community tension. There exists the most concentrated microcosm of what has become known as the Northern Ireland Troubles. There is a “peace wall,” which is actually quite the opposite, that divides the Roman Catholic nationalists from their Protestant loyalist neighbors, literally a stone’s throw away. In such an environment, many of the area’s youth workers are involved in reconciliation programs, creating safe ways for the youth of both communities to interact, listen, learn and hopefully come to understand one another’s religion, political conditioning and culture. In one such program, a youth worker was showing a group of Roman Catholic youth around a Protestant church. As the group came through the building and into the main sanctuary, a startled Roman Catholic boy shouted, “You’ve been robbed!” Compared to a Catholic chapel, with its statues and icons and multiplicity of artistic representations, the basic, empty, dull, drab Presbyterian building was quite a culture shock.

On the other side of the cosmos, on the other side of time, God moved across the chaos and began to imagine. Colours blue and green and red and yellow. All the colours somehow mixed together. What would green look like alongside blue, with a little thin band of gold to join the two? Mountains. Oceans. Beaches. Rivers. Trees. Canyons. Valleys. Shapes and textures and smells and taste. All these things existed in God’s imagination, even before He decided to make them into a reality and create His artistic masterpieceŃthe world. God was a Creator (Gen. 1:1). The first thing we learn about Him in the Scriptures is that He was an artist. When we read that man was created in God’s image, the only thing we know about God is that He was an artist (Gen. 1:26). 

That should have a deep impact on how those who claim to believe and worship and follow His ways work out their salvation and bring in His kingdom in these dawning moments of the 21st century. Yet that young man in north Belfast may have uttered more than a humorous squeal of naive surprise. Maybe he was speaking in prophetic terms. The Church has been robbed. Robbed of art. Robbed of the creative image of God. Who has robbed the Church? How did it happen? The Church has robbed itself, and many well-meaning worldviews and ideologies down through the centuries have been the tools that were used. 

The Reformation robbed us of art. When Martin Luther discovered that he could be justified before a holy God by God’s grace and the work of Christ (Rom. 3:21-26), it was a crucial moment in Church history. In the ensuing division within Roman Catholicism, many decisions were made in the early days of Protestantism that were taken as being in reaction to withdrawal from Catholicism. With many good reasons at the time, the Reformers reacted to the statues of saints that sometimes replaced God as the focus of people’s prayers. 

To rid churches of any art seems to have been a rather imbalanced response. The Reformers were quick to quote the second of the Ten Commandments, in which God tells His people, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exod. 20:4). The commandment, though, does not forbid art in church. Eleven chapters after the commandments, we find that the first person in the Bible to be described as being filled with the spirit of God is Bezalel, whom God has given “skill, ability and knowledge of all kinds of crafts” (Exod. 31:1-11). And he is to use these divinely given gifts to decorate the Holy Place of worship. Today most Presbyterian Churches do not evoke in people the creative heart of God. People are more likely to think churches have been robbed. The arts are peripheral. 

Modernity also has taken its toll on all things artistic. In the past ten years, there has been an amazing amount said about post-modernity, and there have been evangelicals warning against it as a dangerous new worldview. Any of the lenses by which the world is assessed have to be critically studied, their weaknesses pointed out. For Christians, all worldviews taint definitions of belief and need to be stringently critiqued. Holding post-modernity up to the light of modernity as its winnowing sieve is giving an authority to modernity that is dangerous, but seemingly natural within the evangelical world. Modernity itself is a faulty worldview. It is the failure of modernity in fulfilling its great promises of a better world that has led to its demise.

Under the influence of modernity, the Church became obsessed by definitions and seamless doctrine. Modernity was based on a scientific and rational reasoning that everything could be proven by human experimentation and that this exploration of the scientific field could come up with a superior world and a greatly improved human being. In many ways, this worldview was seen as a huge threat to the mystery of faith. Modernism was driving out the mysteries and belief in a supernatural unseen world, one that was being replaced by a world that could be explained in clear scientific terms. 

That Christianity should be taken captive by such a system of thought seems a little incongruous, but it led to a couple of centuries of clear systematic theology, apologetics and an overemphasis on the word spoken and written in the communication of Christian truth. Most of these things in themselves are great aids to Christianity’s case in the world, but the loss of mystery, experience and any artistic representation of the Gospel was detrimental.

The Bible uses a wide array of creative ways to communicate truth: law, history, poems, songs, literature, lament, prophesy, proverbs, dreams, angels, miracles, parables, preaching, epistles and visions. When the evangelicals of the world decided that the Word preached was God’s most efficient way of communicating, they overlooked the fact that when Jesus was born, God was saying, among other things, that those ways were not sufficient and that the Word had to become flesh (John 1:1, 14). 

God’s Word is much more than words. Modernity coerced Christianity into taking the flesh and making it into words again. Art suffered. It was not a clearly defined and conclusive kind of rationalism. It left feelings hanging. Stories or songs might stress some points of theological truth and fail to cover other aspects of the Gospel. They missed the fact that Jesus left the crucial doctrine of atonement out of the Parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus, in fact, was much more an artist than a preacher, preferring stories to open the truth and in sometimes oblique ways promising the disciples that those with ears to hear would hear. It could be said that the only writer in the Scripture with any interest in theological definition is the apostle Paul, and though we thank God for him and the theological explanation of his letters, we must never lose the balance between this and art.

The Puritans also left a negative legacy on art. Though they were sincere in their attempts to lead their followers into good biblical behavioural patterns, there were side effects. There was a tendency to set up boundaries to help progress toward holiness, but that quickly slipped into a judgmental legalism. The general premise to stay safe from any dangers of “the world” led them into an almost dualist approach to the “spiritual” and the “worldly.” 

Art had a tendency to fall into the worldly camp. The Protestant work ethic, which also seems to have its roots in the Puritan legacy, pushed the arts to the fringes. H.R. Rookmaker, in his influential book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, writes, “We can only conclude that the Calvinistic and Puritan movement (at least from the seventeenth century on) had virtually no appreciation for the fine arts, due to a mystic influence that held that the arts were in themselves worldly, unholy and that a Christian should not participate in them.” 

This all has its impact on not only the place of art in our Churches but the potency of the people of God to being the Kingdom of God transformation that Jesus set in motion. Without the arts and the imagination muscles that art exercises it is impossible to be a people who have visions and dreams as the prophets declared we would have. We were robbed. We need to start stealing the arts back, not only for our own good but for the good of the world.

 


TOMORROW IN FITZROY (and St. Malachy's) 1.2.15

St Malachy's

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy Jonathan Abernethy -Barkley takes us into another of Jesus stories, this time the Parable of the Workers in The Vineyard with its seemingly unfair payment policy of the Kingdom. Be prepared to change your mind about what goodness and generosity mean and be prepared to see other people in a new light! We will also be praying for the 4 Corners Of Belfast, Chris Wilson will be singing the 4 Corners song Imagine A City Without Walls and we will be gathering around the Lord’s Table seeking that the bread and wine would clean and nourish Belfast towards peace and prosperity.

In the evening (7pm) Fitzroy moves location to St. Malachy’s on Alfred Street, fittingly right across the road from Fitzroy’s first building. There we will be attending the 4 Corners Festival event IMAGINATION TOWARDS GENEROSITY: A THEOLOGY. Michele Marken and Steve Stockman will be talking about the Biblical necessity of imagining and how without imagination we can have no generosity or transformation. Expect some Shakespeare from Michele and John Lennon from Steve. Dave Thompson will also be singing some of his songs of Belfast. All taking place in one of the most artistically imaginative Churches in our city.


ART MATTERS - 4 CORNERS FESTIVAL PRAYER BREAKFAST REVIEW (and some Previews)

ARTS Matter Ni 2

Art is the bottom line. I have believed that for some time but this morning’s 4 Corners Festival Prayer Breakfast convinced me once again. It might become my mantra at this year’s festival but let me say it again, if you want to run a marathon you will need to exercise the muscles of your legs to do so. If you are wanting to change the world, whether that is to imagine a Belfast without walls or a world without Human trafficking as the 4 Corners Festival is doing this week, then you will need to exercise the muscles of your imagination. Change in self or society first needs imagined. No imagination - no grace. No imagination - no hope. The arts are the engine of our imaginings. They are the bottom line of a nourished soul or cared for culture.

This morning we heard about that at the coal face of the Belfast arts community. Maurice Kinkead from East Belfast Partnership shared with us that six or seven years ago there would have been literally no arts events happenings in East Belfast. A Woodstock Blues Festival in a local pub was the genesis of a movement that has now developed into Eastside Arts and after two recent Van Morrison concerts the prospect of him playing in Cypress Avenue this summer, the street he made famous on his iconic Astral Weeks album. Indeed Morrison’s transcendent imagination on that work and everything since is an inspiration. Maurice added that they lost £70,000 on the first Morrison gig but that the in fact was an investment that has been re-energising the business and other sectors in East Belfast ever since.

Deirdre Mackel from Upper Springfield Road Development Trust shared how arts in the community in the west of the city is transforming lives and streets. She was inspirational as she spoke about a dark areas of the city being transformed into a culture garden where family events now take place and how an old police station was also transformed by ordinary people crocheting covers for the boulders around it. Not only did this transform the site but those who took part discovered that they were creatives and began to build friendships and purpose in their lives. When Deirdre spoke of how the community has started coming to them to unpack the the issues around them I was left embarrassed that they were no longer going to the Churches. Not that it should be either or but both together!

As the Festival has approached we have become aware that we are highlighted imaginatives at a time when arts funding in Northern Ireland is taking a hit. Emily DeDakis is Literary Manager for Accidental Theatre and involved in Arts Matters NI who are an advocacy group hoping “to remind the public, politicians, decision-makers, business leaders, community leaders, the media and society as a whole, of the value of the Arts and work towards articulating a new language of cultural value that will help all of us to understand the essential contribution that the arts make to our lives.” That is exactly what Emily did in a short talk that was a piece of art in itself. yet it was art that drew theatre, news room, sports arena and Church into a community where people took hold of faith and looked to the transcendent for more than survival. 

We ended appropriately with some art. After last night’s launch of the visual arts at our Exhibition at Duncairn Centre of Culture and Art, this morning gave us the genius of novelist Jan Carson and songwriter Hannah McPhillimy. Jan and Hannah are off to Brussels soon, through the Northern Ireland Arts Council, to showcase the talent in our wee place. They are bringing Jan’s stunning debut novel Malcolm Orange Disappears and Hannah’s songs together in a blessing of their disciplines. Jan’s reading from her novel about seven children with wings who flew in naive adventure before crashing with the darkness of the world they discovered was wondrous of art and moving of emotion. Hannah brought it home literally with a song about homecoming or the thought that someday we might decide to. Beautiful both! In her prayer for the arts Gladys Ganiel picked up on Hannah's song by reminding us that all our is some form of a prayer.

Writing about Isaiah, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann shows how the prophet inspires the people with his poetic utterances to believe that another way is possible. He sparks their imagination to have faith in another day. He says, “The practice of such poetic imagination is the most subversive, redemptive act that a leader of a faith community can undertake in the midst of exiles. This work of poetic alternative in the long run is more crucial than one-on-one pastoral care or the careful implementation of institutional goals. That is because the work of poetic imagination holds the potential of unleashing a community of power and action that finally will not be contained by any imperial restrictions and definitions of reality.”

As I left this morning’s Prayer Breakfast my vision for the arts had been refreshed. We must stand with groups like Arts Matters NI to make sure the arts don’t get squeezed out because we think they are an added luxury. That would be the very worst of heretical errors. And speaking of heresy, the Churches need to see the value of the arts in all that we do. It is intrinsic to all personal and social transformation. Finally I need to be open to the arts in my own soul, seeking its nurture. 

After the Art Exhibition Launch and the Prayer Breakfast this morning we will be opening up the messy women of Jesus genealogy tonight in drama form, touring the 4 Corners for 4 art installations in 4 Churches tomorrow afternoon and on Sunday night in St. Malachy’s, Michele Marken and myself will be unpacking the theology of imagination and art. Our imagining muscles need exercised. Art is the bottom line!

for 4 Corners Festival events click here


INSPIRING LEADERSHIP BY A LORD MAYOR - Pause For Thought 28.1.15

Me and Marty

“That’s the way to do ministry,” my wife said as we descended the steps of Belfast City Hall.

We had just left the then Lord Mayor, Belfast’s leader. I too was impressed by what I had seen but I was still a bit peeved. 

We had been in the City Hall for an event in the 4 Corners Festival. Hosted by the Mayor we had given 80 of the city’s homeless a banquet in the plush surrounds of City Hall. It was my first opportunity to watch this Mayor at work and it was impressive as he spent time at every table, engaging, charming, making the homeless feel special.  

After the event the Mayor rushed off to another engagement with some international delegation. However, at 9 o’clock he was back. He could have gone home after a long day but no. The volunteer waitresses at the banquet were from a Woman’s Group in a Methodist Church. They were from the other side of the Belfast political divide from the Mayor. Yet, the he was back specifically to give them his time. He took them into The Mayor’s Parlour where he gave them a fascinating tour and upped his charm by giving them all a flower from the arrangement on his table. If they could have voted that night those women would have marked an X for the traditional enemy.

The entire evening was leadership that inspired. We had watched the first citizen humble himself to literally serve across class and political boundaries. He is a man who claims to not have any faith and yet that evening he reminded me of Jesus who modelled leadership by humbling himself to be born in straw and die on a cross. The first in the Universe becoming last so that those who were last could become first.

When the leader gives of him or her self to serve others then the leader changes the world that he or she leads. And we are all leaders. Today we lead in our world, in our family, on our street, in our office, in our school, over our cup of coffee. As I go into today I will be remembering my wife’s words, “that’s the way to do ministry.”


4 CORNERS FESTIVAL REFUGEE FEAST

4 Corners Feast

4 Corners Feast 2015

As part of this year’s 4 Corners Festival, we have organised another Feast! Hosted by the Lord Mayor, Nichola Mallon, and once again prepared by Root Soup, this year’s 4 Corners Feast will be for Refugees and Asylum Seekers living in the greater Belfast area. 

The meal has been organised in partnership with NICRAS (Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers), Embrace (a group of Christians from different Churches working together to promote a positive response to people seeking asylum, refugees, migrant workers and minority ethnic people in Northern Ireland), Bryson Intercultural/Migrant Help UK and others serving refugees and asylum seekers across Belfast.      

We are inviting Churches – or individuals, small groups, etc. – across all 4 Corners of Belfast to sponsor a meal (or even a table!). The cost for this special 4 course meal will be £20. 

Let’s together provide a memorable evening for those who have come to live among us to escape wars, poverty, oppression and violence and reassure them that there are many people who care about them in the Churches across our city.

Contributions can be made at www.4cornersfestival.com under ‘Refugee Feast’, or by cheque payable to ‘Root Soup’ and sent to 4 Corners Feast, c/o Clonard Monastery, 1 Clonard Gardens, Belfast, BT13 2RL. Alternatively, cash donations can be made to 4 Corners Festival committee members.  

Root Soup is a social enterprise that involves people who have learning disabilities and people who are homeless working together to learn and grow, part of an overall ‘Field to Fork’ initiative.

 


GENEROUS ACT OF A HOMELESS SHELTER - REMOVED!

Homeless Shelter

An act of generosity appeared in Belfast city centre this past weekend and was quickly removed by the City Council. Someone erected an emergency sleeping shelter, a wooden box for homeless people to find some protection from the wind and cold. It even had a phone charger inside. What a generous thought and action? 

There was a plaque on the side of the box which read “SOCIAL EXPERIMENT - Do Not Remove” and gave an email address commonlawni@gmail.com. If the experiment was to see whether the city would allow such shelters then the answer was swift.  

Let us not damn the Council too quickly. There has to be a fear that one of these shelters is far from enough and that it would take perhaps 100 erected in city centre locations if they are to make the inroads into Belfast’s homeless problem. The Council then thinks about how the shoppers will feel walking around homeless shelters to spend their well earned cash. Common Law NI technically broke the law in not having asked for permission  for the shelter. 

However, as a social experiment it raises serious questions about the soul of Belfast city. It has often been said that if you want to examine the social health of somewhere do not ask how well a place looks after its strongest but how well it cares for its weakest. Without question this shelter brings us face to face with the uncomfortable reality that our city, like all western cities, puts its emphasis on the wealthy and healthy and not the poor and vulnerable.

Imagine a city that was more generous. Imagine a city that practiced indiscriminate acts of kindness as, one of our favourite sons, Foy Vance sings. Imagine if, as Jesus suggested, we put the the first last and the last first. What kind of city and society would we breed? 

This year’s 4 Corners Festival is all about imagination and generosity. We are encouraging our city to imagine what it could be. We are hoping to inspire a generous city at every level of political, religious ad community structures. 

So… why not imagine a generous act that we can do. We could pay for a meal at the 4 Corners Festival Refugee Banquet at City Hall. Perhaps we can pay for the office coffee for day… or a week? Maybe we can do something for a homeless person? What about doing something for our neighbour or for a relative? Why not pay for someone’s coffee in advance of them ordering? Common Grounds on University Avenue allows you to do that.  

What if we were generous enough to see the other side of our historical story, listening to the other side’s opinion? What if we found it in our hearts to forgive and even seek forgiveness for our contribution to the conflict? 

The homeless shelter on the street might have been removed but the act of its social experiment should inspire us all to be generous.


ART PLAYS A ROLE IN HOW GOD WORKS - My Irish News Article

4 Corners Launch

The Arts in Northern Ireland have been taking a battering for some time. Cuts have been tough, Festivals have been under threat, we almost lost the Ulster Orchestra and now we are hearing that the government department Dept of Culture, Arts & Leisure is merging with other departments to become Department of Social Welfare, Communities and Sport; Arts has disappeared from the title altogether! 

That the arts should be connected to Social Welfare and Communities is absolutely right. The role they have to play in our social welfare and community life is utterly crucial. However, the way that the arts are being slowly squeezed out of existence is going to have a detrimental impact on our social welfare and communities.

For me this is a Biblical issue. The arts have a vital place in the Scriptures. In both spiritual and social transformation the Bible uses art. The books of the Bible are literary works in themselves. I do not believe that to be a coincidence but a declaration that God recognised the power of the arts. Jesus himself used storytelling as one of his main avenues to re-envision the people of God. 

The Psalms sung or read or prayed are poetry to soothe the soul. How do we wrestle the messed up world we live in? How do we deal with the injustices, the horror of war, the deep frailties and failings of our own lives or the everyday reality of sickness and death. The laments of the Psalms are the artistic medicine for the soul. 

How do we attempt to transform the way the world is into what a better world can be like? The Bible again uses art. The prophets were those that raged against injustice and inspired the people to reimagine and hope for a better future. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians uses subversive poetry to free the people from Caesar’s dominant imagery and help them think alternative ways to resist Empire. In their book Colossians Remixed, Sylvia Keesmat and Brain Walsh suggest that the way the Empire rules is to take away our imaginations so we cannot crack the status quo. If we lose our vision, we lose our power. 

I am not sure that Stormont’s MLAs are attempting to oppress us by killing the arts but there will be consequences to the future dreaming of a better Northern Ireland if the arts are not cherished, funded and allowed to flourish. The arts are not a side show luxury of entertainment that we attend after the real work of our day. They are far more crucial than that. They go to the very core of what we are and can be. 

The Churches need to awaken to the potency of the arts and the vital role they play in how God works and in the bringing of Christ’s Kingdom. That is why this year’s 4 Corners Festival is putting such an emphasis on the arts. We did not contrive it as a result of the arts cuts but our programme could not be more relevant at such a time. Surrounding by the artistic beauty of St. Malachy’s, Michele Marken and Steve Stockman will look at the theology of imagination; other evenings will be imagining Belfast without walls and the world without Sex Trafficking. The Gaelic Psalm singers will bring the lament of the Pslams to Skainos as we attempt to heal the tension of our event there last Festival. We will use visual art in all 4 Corners and music and film and drama to hopefully contribute to the peace and prosperity of the city. 

At our Prayer Breakfast we will be listening to Maurice Kinkead share about Eastside Arts and Van Morrison’s gig on Cypress Avenue, Deirdre Mackel will tell us about how art is being used in community development in west Belfast, Emily DeDakis will share her concerns about Arts Funding cuts and novelist Jan Carson and singer Hannah McPhillimy will be telling us about representing the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in Europe. We will then be praying for the arts in our city that they will be a vibrant transformational force. 

If we want to see change, whether personal or societal then we will need to imagine what that change will look like. To do such radical rethinking we need the muscles of our imaginations to exercised and fit for such a task. No art, no hope! Let’s not just keep the arts alive. Let’s see them flourish!

4 CORNERS FESTIVAL click here


U2... WHY IMPORTANT? WHY DAMN THEM?

Bono YEH!

(this article from 2007 came to mind as I head to Dublin to do an evening of Reflections on U2..)

Cathleen Falsani from the Chicago Sun has been doing an article on Bono and his faith for Christianity Today and her main reason for interviewing me was to ask why U2’s lyrics and faith is such an important issues among evangelical Christians. 

My initial response was that this was not a unique thing to evangelical Christians and U2. I was reading the jacket of a biography of Bill Hicks in a shop and I think it was John Lahr from the New Yorker was quoted as saying something like “the popular entertainers have become the unelected legislators of our time.” And so the lifestyles quotes and songs of most artists, whether it is the depth of Radiohead or the shallowness of Britney, is important if not crucially influential. So U2 is important for that reason alone but they have a special place of obsession within evangelical Christianity because there is a certainty among some and a suspicion among many that when you engage with their work and lives there is a Christian heart and soul to it.

Can I add at this point that if our popular entertainers are the unelected legislators, then Bono and U2 bring a depth of humanity and spirituality to that which is little short of salt and light into a culture where many of the unelected legislators are only selling hedonism, materialism and violence if anything at all! About a year ago I and my Church Of Ireland counterpart at Queens University were invited onto a BBC talk show to talk about whether the Church was dead. The host at one point said that he had been to Slane Castle the previous summer to watch U2 and asked us if we ever thought the Church would have that kind of influence over young people. My response was to say that if he was saying that rock stars are the ones who are today’s priests and preachers then I was delighted that U2 were the biggest band in the world because they bring a serious spiritual influence to bear.

In the interviews and the emails and letters I have been responding to since Walk On was published I have come to realise that there are two distinctly different reasons why people are so intrigued by every album that U2 releases, scouring the lyrics with Bible Study intensity. There are those for whom it is important because they have come to rely on U2 as a spiritual encouragement and inspiration. Believing them (particularly Bono and also Larry and Edge) to be without doubt followers of Christ this group of Christians have found the band a source of prophetic wisdom into the ways of the world and how faith caresses and collides with it.

I think too that this group are looking for more evidence that the band are still following. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, and I do not think this is at all wrong, they are encouraged, affirmed and given confidence in their own encounters with modern culture when they can feel a spiritual kinship with the biggest rock band in the world. It gives their faith credibility. Secondly and more trivially they are constantly battling an apologetics war with the suspicious group that the band is indeed still “walking with God.”

There is another group who are equally obsessed and that obsession is to be a judge and jury to the band’s faith and to prove without doubt that they are not Christians. When you stop to think about that it is a bizarre pastime but it alive and well and opens up a few things at the heart the evangelical psyche that need a good deal of investigation. Firstly, there is the judgementalism. This grouping is very determined to castigate and exclude and damn and do it with a fervent glee. There is a lack of gentleness and grace. At times there is a frightening viciousness.

When you look at where this comes from within the evangelical psyche it is hard to get past two things that are intrinsically linked; security and fear. This groups security is locked up in words and definitions. In one recent attack on Bono through my web page from someone who seemed very much in this grouping it was said that Bono had never even professed to be a Christian. If it was merely words that answered the query then I could very quickly have relieved the attacker’s ignorance though they may have responded by asking how recent Bono’s words were. The exactness of the time of the words is as crucial as the precision of the wording within this mindset.

This in itself needs a serious investigation. That a few words of how people define themselves are what we use as evidence for or against their inclusion in the community of believers is hugely suspect. On my first day as an assistant minister my very wide boss told me that I would visit people who were very quick to tell me the minute and hour of their conversion and talk length of their testimony. In other homes he said there would be little understanding of evangelical buzzwords or how to express faith. In time, he warned me, those quickest to talk about salvation would be oftentimes slowest to live it and those who found it hard to verbalise would prove themselves saints of God.

Yet, I think it is insecurity that makes us want to know and makes us keen to confine spiritual life to a well structured sentence of appropriate wording. If we do minimise it to that kind of size then we ourselves can be sure of our salvation because we are like everyone else in on the salvation train. If we open our inclusively to blurred definitions then how does that effect our own security. Of course the fixated tendency to want to draw lines between the saved and the damned itself is something that leads to all kinds of varieties of unkind behaviour towards the “outsider” or those we are determined to keep as outsiders until they become exactly like us.

Peter Mullan is the director of a new movie on The Magdalene Sisters, horrific institutions in Ireland where nuns literally imprisoned unmarried mothers and abused their human rights in various ways during the late fifties and early sixties. In a TV interview with BBC Northern Ireland’s Ralph McLean, Mullan said that when he asked a nun how this tragedy was able to happen her reply was “the absence of doubt.” This is a profound truth that is not only the cause of misdemeanours within Roman Catholicism but also many areas of spiritual abuse within evangelical Christianity. How can people lambaste and damn Bono and other believers in U2 and make every effort to keep them outside the community of the Kingdom, to destroy their character rather than pray and build them up. It is the absence of doubt because we are so arrogantly sure that we are infallible at how we accept and reject people from the fellowship of the Kingdom of God.

Of course Bono and Larry and Edge are not in the slightest interested in whether the evangelical Church accepts them or not. The “U2 apologetic” strand of my book would not be of the first bit of interest to them. They are only too aware that it is God who judges and it is God who offers grace. Indeed I do not think they have any interest in what the evangelical subculture thinks about them at any level. When they are speaking publicly, as Bono is more and more, about God and Scripture and how to live by that Scripture they are not carefully choosing their words to gain enough marks to pass some sceptic evangelical’s test. They are working within bigger contexts taking what they really believe to the world beyond the Christian ghetto and to reach that world they are happy to be misunderstood by the evangelical doubters who live in their absence of doubt world! Their faith is bigger, their vocation is bigger and their God is bigger.

The other reason that the doubters desire to rid themselves of any doubt over Bono’s damnation is fear. If this band’s message and lifestyle is Christian then it comes with huge challenges to the evangelical subculture. It will mean that the definition of a Christian as someone who does not smoke or drink or swear will have to be reconsidered. How then should we define a Christian? It would be fearful to think that the message and lifestyle of this band was what might fill the gap. Would that mean campaigning for the ridding of the world of Third World Debt, campaigning to get AIDS victims in Africa the same opportunity to have the drugs as those in the west have. Would it mean immersing ourselves in culture at the risk of being misunderstood within the evangelicalism that we find our security in.

In the end we have to ask if the evangelical subculture has become a mirror image of the comfortable western world so beautifully described by Radiohead - “no alarms and no surprises please.” If that is the spiritual life you want sit back in your comfortable chair and only break your relaxation to throw the odd judgemental hiss across the room at a few ordinary guys in extraordinary jobs trying to tumble and stumble on in their Christian pilgrimage. If you want something more then do not be afraid to engage as they engage and take risks as they take risks. Alarms and surprises please!


WE ARE PIONEERS... SPIRITUALLY HEADING TO THE FRONTIER

Bigger Picture

Two things yesterday had me surmising this old poem, part of which is my most used poem. 

The first thing was a photograph on Facebook, which sadly I cannot find 24 hours on, that showed how tiny the earth was in the vastness of the universe and then asked how even tinier we were in the midst of all of that? 

The second thing was The Waterboys new song Long Strange Golden Road. I am loving the new album Modern Blues. It is a southern rock groove of a thing and wonderful to listen to in the car. No more so than this final track, weighing it at over 10 minutes long. I had heard it when they played a concert in Belfast last November and it is a Mike Scott poetic, musical and spiritual epic. More on the song in another blog but the following lines had me surmising that poem again as I drove around yesterday. 

“Keep the river on your right

And the highway at your shoulder

And the frontline in your sights

Pioneer…”

The entire photograph and every second of the ten minute song reminded me of my poem but it was these particular references to the size we are in the universe and the idea of being pioneers that  encapsulated the whole.  

I wrote Bigger Picture on a journey back to my flat in Antrim in maybe early 1991. I can remember being on the M2 from Belfast turning off towards Antrim and the sky as it often does grabbing my attention. I was gazing into the sunset surmising. I had just seen Dances With Wolves and in that film Kevin Costner’s character says, “I want to see the frontier before it’s gone” and I think he made some reference to the miracles at the start and end of each day. I was also reflecting on my own smallness in the Universe and in history and therefore the desire to live life in all its fulness (John 10:10) that has now become our logo in Fitzroy.

The blessing at the end is inspired either by John Martyn’s May You Never, Bob Dylan’s Forever Young or both. Those last lines are the most requested and most used lines I have ever written. Maybe my best. So that idea of vastness… that idea of being a pioneer… they blended into that old rhyming surmise! Almost my life statement in verse. 

In one of later poetry books Dare I wrote in the Preface about CS Lewis’s book The Magicians Nephew where magic rings transport Diggory and Lucy into Narnia. Lucy is frightened to go on but Diggory says something like, “What good is it if you find magic rings that get you into a whole new world if you don’t explore that world when you get there.” For me what good is it if God made us and if Jesus came to live, die and be raised to life so that we could live life in all its fulness if we don’t live that life when we are gifted it by grace! 

I want to see the frontier

Before the frontier’s gone 

Miracles happen every day

At the dusk and the dawn

The visual aids of nature

Pointers to the Grand design

In the span of everlasting 

How insignificant this life of mine

The billions of unknown faces

Who’ve maintained this life on earth

Dying in search of answers

To the questions of their birth

So I gaze in the eye of the sunset

Such a reason to believe

It reminds me another day is gone

That can never be retrieved

So give me faith to believe the truth

And the right to ask why

Give me joy in life’s fulfilment

And the right to cry

Give me the strength to carry others

And the right to wilt

Give me grace towards holiness

And the right to confess my guilt

Father God show me a bigger picture

Jesus play me a longer song

Holy Spirit put me on a road that’s deeper

And more eternal than the one I’ve been on.

AMEN

 

 


3 MAYORS FOR 4 CORNERS

Van, Gavin and Mairtin

I was struck by a photograph in Mojo magazine. It was the taken at the event that made Van Morrison a free man of Belfast city. That in itself is a thrill for us Belfast folk but it was what was happening around Van that revealed something powerful about our very recent history. It was the other two guys in the photograph. There standing side by side and obviously working together were our last two Lord Mayors; Gavin Robinson and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. Gavin is DUP and Máirtín Sinn Fein. This photograph, while declaring to the world that Belfast is home to one of the rock music’s great geniuses, also celebrated a city in a better place than it was twenty years ago. I felt Van should have presented Máirtín and Gavin with an award too!

Lord Mayors have an opportunity to shape a city. In Belfast they only serve for one year but if they do that job well they can make contributions to the peace and prosperity of the city. Gavin and Máirtín did just that. They were not easy acts to follow BUT Nichola Mallon from the SDLP has followed them with ease, exuding passion, inspiration and grace. 

Nichola and the Queen

The 4 Corners Festival saw something of their raison d’être in the way these three Lord Mayors went about their business. All three made a conscious effort to represent all of our citizens. That is often not easy in a city divided, a city where you can find little reason to visit certain corners. Often times people in some corners would not be most welcoming to a Mayor who is a member of a political party from another corner. 

4 Corners Festival is all about shifting us across our corners. So, we have invited our previous two Mayors and our current one to come and share their stories of their year in office. I have glanced across Donal McCann’s photographic account of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s year, in his brilliant book We. Too, Sing Belfast, and it is breathtaking in the distance covered, the breadth of the people met, the scope of the issues connected with. I am also fascinated that for Gavin and Nichola their Christian faith, from different traditions, is very much at the core of who they are and that Máirtín, though not calling himself a person of faith, is very often Tweeting Scriptures and promoting the work of the faith communities.  

So, in the Museum on February 3rd at 8.00 we will be hearing their stories. What did they learn about Belfast from the opportunities and challenges of having to be in places they had rarely been? What were they surprised about in the different corners? How did their year challenge their views of their city? Where were they most challenged in their own lives? What were the obstacles that stood in their way in representing all the citizens of Belfast? How were they changed by the experience? What is their hopes for the future of our city? What do they think the people of Belfast and indeed the faith communities can do to make our city one of peace and prosperity as the prophet Jeremiah sought for the city he lived in. 

3 Mayors For 4 Corners - February 3rd, 2105 at 8pm in Ulster Museum

4 Corners Festival Website click here