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August 2018

CONFESSING OUR WAY TO PEACE

We Desrve Better

Northern Ireland is heading towards 600 days without a government. People power went to the street this week with a campaign called We Deserve Better. We do deserve better and it is beyond a scandal that DUP and Sinn Fein would let us down like this. BUT… a lot of people voted for them… the country got what it deserved!

Call me naive but there is a solution to the impasse.

The DUP and Sinn Fein call a joint press conference at Stormont buildings. They then hold their hands up. In fact they could help hold each others hands up, the way Gerry Adams did to Sammy Wilson when Obama was in the Waterfront! 

The hands up though is not metaphorical. They actually do hold their hands up. In one voice Arlene and Michelle confess to all of us that they have been at fault for all the implications that have resulted from us having no local government for almost two years. They both admit that they are both as much to blame as the other.

Then, if my naivety could permit, I would ask them to list ten things over the past fifty years that “their’ side inflicted on the “other” and apologise.

I am utterly fed up with social media messages and blogs and press conferences that blames the other side for everything and then lists what “ you” did to “us” over 50 years. These are very good tactics if we wish to continue our divisions and create stand offs that could spiral into something more dangerous. Where these tactics are used then the public should see this as the intention of that party or grouping.

If it is peace, reconciliation and a shared future that we are seeking, that which the vast majority of us voted for in 1998, then the tactics are very different. Fighting for peace is a more subversive, imaginative and revolutionary act. 

I don’t really think I am being naive. I believe that this is a Biblical model to reconciliation and a model that we can learn from whether we believe in a transcendent God or not. 

In the Bible, we see God's foundations for reconciliation and peace. Shalom is the driving force of the Bible; a broken world being redeemed, restored, reconciled. To do that God moves first. He acts to make the peace possible. He moves unconditionally. He actually gives himself to forgive those who sinned against him? Oh my! 

In Northern Ireland we have fudged this and fell for a heresy that repentance comes first. I am afraid NOT. God’s grace is always first. God’s grace gives us the strength for transformation, the transformation does not earn grace. 

For the human the Biblical message is clear. We are ALL broken. We ALL fall short. We ALL have things to confess. We are ALL complicit in this mess. 

So tell us what “we” did to “you” and alongside it admit to what “you” did to “us”. Anything else is white noise, sectarian bigotry and a flawed understanding of your identity. I am no longer listening, reading or voting for you.

So Arlene and Michelle. Are you up for it? Are you about peace? Or war? Show us your ambition. Go on, confess your part and by doing so you will tell us, loud and clear, that peace and reconciliation are your agenda. 

Let us not leave it to our politicians. The People Power and We Deserve Better are on to something. This is our peace. This is our future. Are we all up for it? Let’s get some balance. We have all been involved in ripping this island and our wonderful people apart. Let’s hold our hands up! Let us be humble enough to confess our way to peace.


ARE WE RUNNING ON MOMENTUM OR IMPETUS?

IMPETUS

Back in my days in Queens Christian Union I used to love the annual visit from Val English, a Baptist evangelist. First I loved it that there was a man called Val! I also loved Val’s humour. Boy could he communicate. 

Anyway, one year Val said something that has lingered with me ever since. I love these quotes that literally jump out of a book or a talk or sermon or song. I mean, I heard Val preach a number of times but all I remember is this one line. I have quoted it a lot. It has shaped my thinking often. I have no idea the context, the passage he was preaching from or the title of the talk but Val said, “Do not settle for moving along on momentum, always find a new impetus". That difference between momentum and impetus has stuck with me. The miracle of its longevity in my head and heart and soul suggests that the Holy Spirit wanted me to hear this line!

So, that is what I am doing this new Church year. Back from ten weeks sabbatical, I am pretending that everything is new. That it is November 2009 and I am walking into the Fitzroy office for the first time. No preconceptions. Maybe I will then look at what we do with different eyes. Maybe I will look deeper. Maybe I will ask more questions. Maybe brand new ideas will emerge.

This is obviously an ideal time for me to think of a new impetus. I got off the bike in June and here I am climbing back into the saddle. Of course I will have to start afresh. Yet, I wonder if God wanted me to hear Val’s one liner, not just for one day forty years later when I would come back from sabbatical but as a regular warning against drifting along momentum. 

In our lives, whether you are spiritual or not, it is not a healthy thing to just live on the momentum of what we did in the past. We need to be fresh with our ideas and enthusiasm. Why not, whether as an individual or in Church life or whatever group you work with, try to keep it new impetus. Momentum slows down and stops, impetus keeps things alive.

It is a little weird being back but I am going to use it to do the impetus thing


A SPIRITUAL LESSON FROM VINCENT KOMPANY

AGUEROOOOOOOO

(my Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2, Vanessa Feltz Show on August 30th 2018)

I try, with all the discipline I can muster, to stay clear of football in my Pause for Thoughts. But the theme Saving The Day left me no choice. Sorry Vanessa but I could not help myself. 

It should have been the day when all my dreams came true but had turned into the very worst nightmare. After 44 years of footballing misery my beloved Manchester City just had to beat a very poor QPR to win the Premiership. The last twenty minutes were pure torture. 2-1 down with Man United winning at Sunderland, we had blown it again. Into injury time. No one could save us now. United fans were celebrating, smiling to themselves and laughing at us! I was in the garden avoiding the obvious. Heartbroken. When Edwin Dzeko scores in injury time it was only to make it worse. How close... 

… and then the ball is in the box. Aguero takes it past a defender. Shoots. GOAL!. Sergio Agueroooooooooo! The man who would forever after have zillions of o at the end of his name literally saved the day, the season, the club... I watched it for a week and wept every time.

When the City captain Vincent Kompany was asked about that moment, in a recent interview, he said that he never stopped believing. I was struck by why. He said that the team had come back right at the end of games before that season and so he remembered those moments and that had given him hope that we could do it again. Not me! I was in the garden. 

I grew up, here in Northern Ireland, near a mountain called Slemish. It is where it is believed St Patrick was a slave, looking after sheep. Some days Slemish looks clear and beautiful. Other days the soft Irish drizzle covers it up, like it had disappeared. A friend once told me that on the days he couldn’t see it, he remembered back to when he could. Sometimes that is like faith. For me when God feels distant, even absent, I remember back to when God was close, interrupting my life with love and strength and wisdom and believe he is still there.

Today. This week. We might find ourselves a little down or lost. We might find ourselves in difficult moments. When hope seems fading, covered in the mist or fog of circumstances and the day seems lost. It might be good to look back to better days. Look back to something that reminds us and gives us faith and hope to find resilience until the day is saved! 


KINTU - JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI

Kintu

Uganda is complex. We used that phrase so many times on our six week sabbatical in Uganda this past summer. There are 52 tribes and languages. They use English as their first language so that the tribes, thrust together with little say by European colonialism, can talk to one another. It is a young country born, 364 days after me, on October 9th 1962 (would one more day have killed them!). It has gone through huge change in those 56 years. Obote, Amin, Museveni, Bush Wars, Kony and the north never mind HIV/AIDS.

Those who use “epic” to describe Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s debut novel were not kidding. This is an ambitious work. If you are intending to sit down and open its pages then plan a few sittings. It will take time to do justice. Makumbi’s prose are rich and not to be glossed over. There are five stories leading to one last gathering of all the threads of the five. To keep up with the vast array of characters she has given a page to keep your finger in and continually look back to remind yourself who everyone is. It is complex!

What Makumbi does with all of this, and again can I repeat in her very first novel, is to scan the complexities of Uganda over 270 years. Most of it is set in 2004 Kampala but not before we are taken back to 1750 where the tribal ancestral traditions give a foundation to all that happens now. What she does most marvellously of all is to use very individual lives to tell the story of a nation’s history. Every character has their own quirks or scenarios that allow Colonialism, Christian missionaries, Obote, Amin, Bush Wars, Kony, HIV/AIDS and Museveni to be national factual threads in the tighter weave of the personal fictional weave. 

Kintu is about an African country moving into modern times. It is about that place of transition. How do the modern Christians, Muslims and secularists cope with the curses of the ancestors? Makumbi is digging deep into the land of her birth. In between the lines of the narrative it is a great orientation manual though I wonder if you would get more of the cultural insights once you had been.

In the middle of all of this the very gifted Makumbi throws in a few depth charges. A critique of one of the Christian characters, “Christianity messed with the mind: how else would she explain Kanani who had frozen all his humanity to turn into a walking Bible.” Ouch! Another provoker is thrown to the spiritual skeptics - “Isaac did not understand, but he was not arrogant enough to turn his ignorance into unbelief.” Wow! In our world of everybody protesting for what they have infallibly believed to be their right, I chortled at, “There is always someone taking a stand and making everyone’s journey miserable, she thought.” Guilty!

The quote that has had me most engaged is one about forgiveness. Since a panel discussion at last year’s 4 Corners Festival I have been surmising on what forgiveness is. “Ntwire must be punished for being unforgiving…” fuelled that thinking. Could it be the most important thing? I have been surmising ever since how crucial an act forgiveness is at the heart our human flourishing and fulfilment!

If you like African literature at all then Kintu is a must read. If you love Uganda it takes you there and further in than you might normally go. So, Kintu is an investment of your time and attention. For me that all paid off!


SURMISING THE FIRE AT BANK BUILDINGS, BELFAST

Primark

We drove back into Belfast last night. We had been away at the coast, after spending most of the summer in Uganda. Ten weeks away and I was apprehensive coming home. I had to go to work this morning. As we drove through from the M2 to the Lisburn Road an old Andy McCarroll song spun round in my head - “I love this city”. As I remembered that chorus I asked myself if I still did? 

I believe that my vocation as a minister is founded on bringing peace and prosperity to the city, as Jeremiah asked God’s people to act on when they were exiled in Babylon. My work is obviously with people and communities, pastorally and missionally but the Bible recognises the fabric of the city too. Parks, rivers, mountains and architecture all make up the character of a city. Coming back to start work again, it was vital that I knew whether I loved this place that, though not where I was born and brought up, has been my home for well over half of my life.

This morning on the first drive back down to Fitzroy I was disturbed by a huge plumage of smoke rising up in front of me from the direction of the city centre. It doesn’t take someone from Belfast long for that kind of image to take you back to the bad old days of The Troubles. Thankfully, twenty years without bombs made me almost forget about it as I went into my first meeting.

Then, as I sat in our Church office about an hour later, I noticed a message from Ohio! My friend Lisa, about 3,500 miles away, was alerting me to what was unfolding less than two miles away. Primark was on fire. With its inexpensive line of fashion Primark’s overseas factory practices are looked upon somewhat suspiciously. Primark up in flames was not what would break the heart of the city today, though the safety and job security of the staff were a priority in everybody’s mind and prayers. Thankfully we soon were assured that no one was injured.

However, Primark inhabits one of Belfast’s most iconic buildings. Right there at the centre of Royal Avenue, our main shopping street, The Bank Buildings were built in 1785. Through a checkered history that includes housing a Bishop, being the venue for a hanging and suffering three bombs in 1975, it is hard to imagine Belfast without it. As the fire spread, the fear was that it might collapse this afternoon. When news reached us, at a meeting I was in, that the clock had fallen down there was a very audible sigh.

Royal Buildings

Social media is full of lament tonight. This is a building that we took for granted. Yet somehow that clock was a bigger part of us than we realised. Twenty four hours after I asked the question I was very raw with an answer. As I mourn the loss of part of the architectural fabric at its heart I well and truly know what Belfast means to me. 

This morning I blogged a review of my friend Fr Martin Magill’s book about The Poor Clares, an enclosed order who made Belfast their lives from 1924 to 2012. I wrote of being so inspired by their commitment and compassion for Belfast, mentioning how they prayed right through the Blitz of World War 2.  

I quote again, verses I used in that blog from Isaiah 61:

 

They will rebuild the ancient ruins

    and restore the places long devastated;

they will renew the ruined cities

    that have been devastated for generations. 

 

Tonight, as I feel the deep sadness across Belfast I recommit to the 4 Corners of this wounded and wonderful city. Do I love it? More than I was aware last night!


MARTIN J MAGILL - THE POOR CLARES IN BELFAST 1924-2012

Martin and Poor Clares

There is something about committing to a city, giving yourself to it and for it. I think it is a Biblical idea. My friend Desi Alexander in his book From Eden to The New Jerusalem suggests, with some seriously well thought through Biblical evidence, that God was always planning a city. The getting ourselves back to the garden that Joni Mitchell suggested in her song Woodstock wasn’t the destination.

Jeremiah and Isaiah also seemed desperately keen that we prayed and acted for the well being of the city. Even in exile in Babylon, Jeremiah was asking, “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7).  in Isaiah 61 we hear what the people of God would do for cities, “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”

In 1924 five sisters of the Poor Clares Order followed such a call to Belfast city. Arriving from Dublin they set up their enclosed Order firstly on the Antrim Road and latterly the Cliftonville Road where the order’s witness remains for 88 years. 

It could be said that Fr Martin Magill touched the hem of their habits when he became parish priest at Sacred Heart Parish in 2014. The sisters had gone by then but their legacy was still remembered and having an impact around Sacred Heart and beyond. Fr Martin gave a talk on the Poor Clare’s one evening and got hooked. This book is a labour of love. He has a done a fine job. With deep research into the Sisters well kept journals and news letters he takes us through the decades, laying out their ministry, revealing the characters of the Sisters as well as the events they lived through.

It is the way that the Poor Clares dealt with the events they lived through that caught my attention. I was particularly drawn into their experience of World War 2. On the nights that north Belfast was blitzed from the air by the Luftwaffe, the sisters were prostrate on the altar interceding for their neighbours and the city of Belfast. As I read I felt the terror of their positioning in those horrifying Belfast nights.

It challenged me about how we should be the presence of God in such hopeless and frightening places. The word made flesh and moving in among us indeed, as John called the incarnation in his Gospel prologue. They did it right through the Troubles too. They stayed out. While people were being murdered on the streets around them, these women believed that prayer might make the difference and committed to it. 

If my good friend had not written The Poor Clares in Belfast 1924-2012 would I have even picked it off a shelf. Of course not, but I am glad that I did. As ever I learned a lot about Catholicism and of course my Protestant sensitivities got a little roughed up at times! I thought they had moved up to convert us all, in the early pages! However, I was particularly enlightened about the life of a closed order and the lives that inhabitant such. 

These women were funny (I laughed out loud - who’d have thought!), completely on the pulse of the world around them and open to be listeners to a neighbourhood that needed listened to. Even boxing legend Barry McGuigan benefited from their pastoral gentleness. I was inspired about how the followers of Jesus should love a city, in war and peace.


ASK A SHORT TERM MISSIONER FOR A COFFEE - GO ON!

UGANDA 2418

Short Term Mission is an exciting thing. You get to visit the most interesting of place. Short Termers are stretched. They have to come to terms with a new environment. They find out what their gifts are. There is an intensity about being with a team for a short time in very close quarters. Camaraderie is strong. Friendships are nurtured. Then there are those you are working with. If, like us, you work in a Primary School then relationships with pupils are strong and emotional. There are tears on the last day.

Short Term Mission is over too fast (there’s a clue in the title). The adrenalin is still running. The excitement is high. That emotion is palpable and, before you would like to, you are going back through customs to the flight home. It’s a flight that seems longer and less comfortable and more boring than the outgoing journey because there is nothing to look forward to at the end. 

When they arrive home the most natural human thing happens. Their parents, brothers, sisters, friends and members of their Church ask them how their trip was? Short Termers are full of it. Full of all the new experiences. Full of all that it meant to them. They want to talk about it, rave about it, wax lyrical. They want to share the experience of a lifetime, wide eyed and from the depth of their soul. BUT…

One of the things that Janice and I were trying to tell our Fitzroy Short Term Team before we left them at Entebbe airport was not to be disappointed when people just want a quick “I had a great time” when they asked about their trip. “How was your trip” can be very like a throw away “how are you?” When we use “how are you?” in a greeting we really are not inviting someone to open up about their physical, emotional or psychological concerns. We are just saying hello before we move on to the weather or the football or the latest gossip.

I understand. It was our Short Term Mission. You don’t need the details. We might get out the photos and now with smart phones there are a lot of photos! There are actually thousands! The football season has started and so much happened when we were away. Apparently the weather was amazing!

This is where I want to encourage the parent, brother, sister, friend or member of a Short Termer’s church. I am not asking for polite listening. I am asking for almost a wee ministry in itself. Some Short Termers are looking for, needing indeed, someone to listen with a little bit of depth.

They do not want to boast about their time. They do not want to bore you with it either. They long to share it in order to help themselves make sense of it. The Short Term Team experience usually has ten to fourteen days of full on stimuli for the soul. Something happens then the next thing leaves that first thing behind.

As summer ends there are a lot of ripe Short Termers all around us. It would be a wonderful thing to invite someone you know who has been a way this summer for a coffee, ask them about their trip and invite them to unpack it with you. I imagine you might learn all kinds of wonderful things about mission and places and about your friend too. You will make their day and perhaps be a real contribution to them fully understanding what just happened to them.


JUSTIN ZORADI - MADE FOR THESE TIMES

Zoradi Cover

“I envision the work of the Lord as gigantic heavenly wheels rotating all over the earth. They roll around scrubbing up the darkness. mowing down injustice, and building up shaky structures of redemption and renewal. Put in motion centuries ago, the wheels are relentless vessels of creativity and disruption. The greatest opportunities of our lives are when you are invited to ride on the wheels for certain seasons. We may join with God for one or two rotations, and then shift off so others can hop on when our time is up.”

 

Wow. I love this. I love the poetry. I love the wide scope of history it encapsulates, the Kingdom of God eternally interrupting. I love the fact that it personalises, me or you, in the vastness. It gives me a glimpse of what I have already seen in my life, the privilege at times of feeling that I am riding on a bigger purpose that effects history. It also prises open what I long to do next, with the rest of my life.

It is a paragraph that I would have loved to have had at my disposal when I was attempting to fill my students with a prophetic vision of the promise of their vocations back when I was a Chaplain at Queens University Belfast. Amazingly it was one of those very students who wrote it. 

There is a strange quirk in my memory. With pretty much everybody who would eventually become important companions on my journey, I can remember very vividly the first time we met. So with Justin Zoradi. I was standing at the top of steps in the Calvin College Fine Arts Centre. They were loading in for a Joseph Arthur concert. As he walked up the steps I had this weird feeling that he was walking right into my life. Who was he? I thought he might be a roadie but he was actually interning for my good friend Ken Hefner. We connected and I told him he needed to take another year out and be my intern in the Presbyterian Chaplaincy at Queens University, Belfast.

The next summer I was on sabbatical at Regent College, Vancouver sketching out a possible book based on the teaching I had given my students. It never came together. However, I did write a letter to get Justin Zoradi a VISA to come and work with us. Twelve years later and it is as if this was the book. It was not mine to write. It was one of those who’d follow behind me. 

I remember another moment in Justin’s life, just as vividly. We were in Cape Town a few days ahead of two teams of students were leading. We were organising events for the trip and had a coffee with Ace, a friend who ran a soccer team in Guguletu that we wanted to play against. Ace had brought Anda and Michael, two of his players. I was well impressed at how Justin engaged with the boys. 

As we left the Mugg and Bean Cafe Justin turned to me and asked, “Stocki, how are those guys going to get to college?” “I don’t think they are Justin. They’ll never afford it,” I answered. “well, I am going back to Portland to start something that’ll get them to college.” 

Made For These Times tells us not only that Justin followed through but also how he did it and what else came of that moment. In the book Justin calls it a moment of obligation. A need opens up in front of you. You feel an injustice. You are brought before someone that you yearn to help. Your soul gets the wings of a hopeful vision of how you can transform something. In the book Justin sees that moment a few months later in Portland but I was there and I believe Cape Town was the moment.

Within a short time of leaving Belfast Justin started These Numbers Have Faces (TNHF) and Anda was the first student he took through college. The book acts as part memoir and part spiritual development. Later in the book we find TNHF doing amazing work in a refugee camp in Rwanda. In the process Justin is revealed as a social entrepreneur with a story but more than a story he has gathered the lessons needed to do such work. He has delved deep. Deep into himself and deep into what it takes to change the world. In doing so he pinpoints the answer to the deepest joy of us human beings - purpose!

For years I have taken hundreds of people to first South Africa (Justin was one of those) and more recently Uganda. I want everyone who went to read this book. Justin is vulnerably honest about his weaknesses and the struggles. He then very practically gives us a manual for any ordinary person to move on after those moments of obligation.

Reading it in the last week of sabbatical was utterly perfect. Justin who I hoped to inspire thirteen long years ago comes back to inspire me to keep on riding the “gigantic heavenly wheels.” He even corrects me and tells me where I have things to sort out. He concludes “You were made for this and now is your time.” I want some of that!


SHORT PRAYER FOR UGANDA

GRACE AFRICA

Just a few weeks since we returned from Uganda, it has found itself living though some tense days. I am surmising what my friends there are surmising and praying that they will all find peaceful ways though.

 

My crane

You are crest fallen

My pearl

You are tarnished

So, I pray 

That between the ruffle and scuff

And the preen and the shine

God will keep

Your hearts compassionate

Your souls humble

And fire your minds

With wild imagination

That casts light and visions

Of peaceful pragmatism 

To hope upon. 


CHRIS WILSON & THE HERESY - DOWNFALL

Chris Wilson Download
 

Chris Wilson wears a cap. All the time. He came for Christmas dinner, cap and all. Chris Wilson is not bald. He is not follicly challenged. He just likes caps!

As I listen to his new EP I wonder if the cap expresses his songs and maybe the truth in the depth at the every heart of him. It is almost that he has nowhere to lay his hat. He has to always be ready to move on. We were blessed by having his big voice in Belfast for a couple of years, and as he sings on Indiana, where he is now, “It wasn’t so long ago/We lived eight miles from Mexico”. On Hey he sings "where are we gonna go now/We're gonna find our way."

Wherever his rambling soul takes him, and his lovely young family, (that’s his boy on the EP cover) Wilson is finding the songwriting chops to use the journey to create literate songs with memorable melodies. His phrasing has become more confident, taking us off in beautiful little surprises. 

Wilson has been gifted with a voice that I suggest Ezra and even Hozier might die for! The danger with a voice with such natural power is taming it, making less more. In this collection Wilson uses it not to boast about having it but to colour and shade the songs that are given as important a place as the voice.

Of the five delicious tracks here Lower was on his first EP Fragile. It is a stunning song full of emotion. In this incarnation it is sharper, brighter and maybe more match fit. The surprise for me is that it is Hey that my head cannot let go of and I find myself singing over and over. One of my songs of 2018.

If Chris Wilson had been around 10 years ago the record companies would have been wise to flock. In 2018 I am just hoping, with the new way the industry runs, that he’ll find his fan base wherever his travelling cap takes him. I want more EPs as good as this one.