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March 2021

DISCOVERING SPY WEDNESDAY & THE JUDAS IN US ALL

Spy Wednesday

Spy Wednesday. Hands up I am a Protestant. I had never heard of it. My friend Pádraig Ó Tuama mentioned it on BBC Radio Ulster’s Thought For The Day and I was straight onto the phone to my Catholic Correspondent Fr Martin Magill to ask about it.

Spy Wednesday? My Catholic brothers and sisters it seems concentrate their Holy Week thoughts on Judas on the day he looked for a way to betray Jesus, rather than on the day he actually betrayed him with a kiss.

All these years I have been concentrating my Judas surmises on Maundy Thursday. I can now bring him a day earlier and I am very happy about that.

You see, Maundy Thursday has so much going on. We find the humble God on his knees washing the disciples feet and then breaking bread, pouring wine and suggesting that he will do the same for the redemption of the world.

Catholics do liturgy better. I guess to be truthful even Protestants do liturgy better that Irish Presbyterians. In fact other Presbyterians do it better that Irish Presbyterians! Our theological prejudices have a habit of throwing Biblical babies out with the bath water. Oh, and there was bathwater that should have been thrown out BUT too many babies!!

I love Holy Week. I love walking through it. Theology for me is lived. It has flesh and blood. Even when I hear it preached or read about it in books unless it breathes out of real life events I am suspicious. Following Jesus is never meant to be cerebral. The word becoming flesh was the key!

So, Holy Week is all this theology tied up in the drama of Jesus Passion. 

I gain a day of surmising with Spy Wednesday! I can interrogate this fascinating disciple at the heart of the drama. I can eek out where I might find myself in his attitudes and agendas.

I play U2’s Until The End of The World..The spark that lit Bono’s interest in Judas was a book of poems by Irish poet Brendan Kennelly called The Book of Judas. Kennelly’s work is quite a tome, eight years of poems, where profanity sits alongside Christ as he looks at the Judas of Gethsemane, the Judas in our culture and the Judas in us all. 

In his preface, he asks questions like: Was Judas A man whose vision of things was being throttled by another, more popular vision?” 

Kennelly asks if… Judas is a “spirit not confined to the man who bore the name Judas but one more alive and consequential now at the famined, bloated, trivialized, analytical, bomb-menaced, progressive, money-mad, reasonable end of the twentieth century than ever before?” 

Most of us see Judas as Satan incarnate who sold his soul for thirty pieces of silver. If only Judas’ story was that simple. Judas and his story were so complex that Bob Dylan had wondered if Judas Iscariot had God on his side? It’s a mighty question that like so many other things we want to ignore. 

Like Kennelly and Bono I use a day in Holy Week, from now on Spy Wednesday, looking into the heart of Judas, looking out for where he sneaks around in our society…

 

Judas, Judas

Are you there

In a society kissing God goodbye

As we write our agendas of more and more

Of building bigger barns to horde treasure on earth

 

Judas Judas

Are you there

In our wee country kissing God goodbye

As we fight for a land for ourselves

That we don’t want to share with others

Because others are different

And others might impinge on our traditions and our comfort

 

and then I ask God to search my own heart to see where the traces of Judas are in me.

 

Judas, Judas

I hear you cry from inside myself

When I get frustrated

That my prayers don’t get answered NOW

 

Was Judas just a guy trying to manipulate his agenda and push Jesus into doing it his way? What is my agenda that I want to manipulate Jesus into fulfilling; a political one; an economic one, a theological one? 

In the end my biggest question is about other whether I still cling to my thoughts and ambitions instead of the revolutionary upside down ones that Jesus reveals in this Holy Week.

 

 


BALLYCASTLE BANNED AGAIN - WHY IT WOULD BE ANTI-EASTER TO GO

Jani and Jed Beach

I am aware that I am about to embark on a minor complaint by a spoiled brat living in a wealthy part of the developed world at the beginning of the Third Millennium. Maybe the exposure of that is enough reason for the blog!

I need a wee break. Oh I am not talking European holidays. I think that is the maddest of ideas after two lockdown waves that has stretched our nation’s mental health. To go where there is a huge risk of bringing the virus and even new strains of it back. The £5000 fine is not enough.

No, I just want to drive 60 miles to my own house in Ballycastle. That is our house, that we own. 

Where I am living is a house that comes with work and perhaps as a result has me psychologically unable to really take a break. I become an entirely different human being in my own house. I can switch work off. I can relax.

I also have favourite walks across my favourite beach in the world. The familiar scene every day that is never the very same familiar scene every day. 

The light from the sky throws daily different hues across the most glorious creation. The waves are never the same. The sand and pebble patterns on the beach are everyday new and often full of surprise. There is a rock, just out from shore. A symbol. We walk in the shadow of Fair Head and feel its strength. 

Or up the forest, on the side of Knocklayde. A challenging climb that is rewarded with fantastic scenic panoramas. And in the in-between wild fauna, butterflies and on the odd even more sacred occasion a deer right there on the path.

My favourite sofa, head back, legs up. No TV. Fragile wifi. A novel, a rock biography, never theology! Albums I have heard but never had time to really download into my soul. Family all around. Friends in the corner of the cul-de-sac. Sabbath. Rest.

We have not been there for so long. Coronavirus rules have banned us. We feel the strain. The virus, as I have written, has made us all weary. A week in Ballycastle would hit that tired spot like an inner spa and massage! 

We are coming to term with not going. Oh maybe we could sneak. We have a valid excuse to check on the house. It is actually our house. Our only house. Maybe we’d get away with it.

Pandemics though are not about rules. They are about viruses, terrible illness and death and the impact on so many people as the effects ripple out. You can get away with the rule BUT the risk of the real consequences are unimaginable. 

I have gone on about it like a mantra for an entire year but these days demands Jesus call to love our neighbours like no time in my near 60 years on the planet. I need to sacrifice my selfish spoiled brat erroneous thoughts of entitlement to fight the reach of Covid 19 and keep my community as safe as I can.

It would be anti-Easter to break the rules. How I as a follower of Jesus could lean into his passion and cross and not hear him say “follow me”. To hear him whisper those words as he reveals the ultimate sacrifice for the good of others and the common good while flaunting wise caution to keep my neighbours alive and well. Well, I am not sure I could dare to call myself any kind of follower of the Jesus of Easter.

So… we wait wearily. When Arlene and Michelle say “you can go”… GO we will. Until then. Patience, discipline, sacrifice. Glory be but people are sacrificing much more than this spoiled brat!


FR MARTIN MAGILL COMMENDS CONSIDERING GRACE

Fr martin et moi

(Fr Martin Magill's Belfast Telegraph column on Saturday 27 March 2021) 

 

In a previous article for this column, I referred to an initiative by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) which led to the publication of Considering Grace, a book which explored how Presbyterians responded to the Troubles. To prepare for my contribution this week, I had a phone conversation with Rev Tony Davidson, from First Armagh Presbyterian Church who is the chairperson of “Dealing with the Past” the group within PCI which came up with the idea of the book.

Tony explained to me the approach which the committee took to the project which included  exploring the past -Truthfully, Therapeutically, and Together. He also explained how they went about finding people to contribute to Considering Grace. 

The book itself by Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis is in my opinion a ‘must read’. It was written by Gladys with Jamie having conducted the majority of the interviews and transcriptions, as well as providing feedback on the drafts.  I won’t say I “enjoyed” it because the authors “spoke to more victims than any other category” or group and it was painful to read about their suffering which for some continues to this day.

I commend the Presbyterian Church In Ireland for the courage and commitment in the way they went about the book knowing that the Church as an institution would not at times come out well in it. At times it doesn’t! In her foreword to Considering Grace, journalist Susan McKay writes: “Many people feel the Church was too timid in the face of the aggressive scorn poured on it by Ian Paisley in his belligerent days as leader of the Free Presbyterians”. There were also comments critical of PCI for its lack of support of its own ministers involved in “peace and reconciliation”. Two ministers working in North Belfast said this: “We didn’t feel supported by the Presbyterian Church as such. No one centrally contacted us during tense periods, and that was hard.” 

The issue of peacemaking was touched on throughout the book with a certain theme running through the comments well captured by this statement: 

“Quiet peacemakers persisted because they believed churches could contribute to peace. But for this to be fully realised, they believed churches must make peacemaking central to their missions, rather than treating it as an ‘optional add-on’.”

Standing back from the project and whilst acknowledging the criticism of PCI, I believe the Church needs credit for doing so. As I look at our society so many organisations resort to spin and presenting themselves in the best light, here we have PCI having the humility to embark on a project which would bring to light criticism from its own people. How many other organisations have done the same? Let me throw out this - what about some of the other Churches, adopting a similar approach and see what comes of it? 

Considering Grace presented various challenges such as how does a worshipping community respond when a traumatic event happened in the previous week. Several people gave examples of violence taking place in their community and no reference made to it at the Sunday worship. 

Aaron (not his real name) had this to say about dealing the past: “Somebody needs to have some vision and take some leadership on how to deal with the past, because it’s not going away, is it?” 

In this well written book, Considering Grace we have the example of the Presbyterian Church In Ireland showing leadership and offering one way of dealing with the past. 

This week’s scripture verses come from the book and were quoted by people who spoke to Jamie or Gladys: 

Monday: Matthew 28:20

Tuesday: Ephesians 3:20

Wednesday: Philippians 4:7

Thursday: Proverbs 3:5

Friday: Romans 12:19 


EDGE IN CONVERSATION WITH PÁDRAIG Ó TUAMA - The Corrymeela Podcast

Edge podcast

The calm and charm of poet, author, peacemaker Pádraig Ó Tuama shooting a gentle breeze with U2's guitarist Edge. What a beautiful conversation. That was my initial reaction to this unique podcast.

Let me confess something. Having spent two decades of my life, writing a book and talking about U2 all around the world, keeping up with all the songs and interviews. Every album or tour or whatever I am deluged with messages asking my opinion. I am a little U2 weary. 

As a result I probably wouldn't have given this a listen if it hadn't been Pádraig or a Corrymeela podcast. But it is and I am glad. I enjoyed it very much.

Pádraig has a way with conversations and it is obvious from the outset that he has already worked up some trust with Edge. U2's guitarist sounds like a man at ease with the process and he is not always the first in his band to give himself away in public.

The human that Pádraig is, he doesn't abuse the trust. He draws out Edge's early years as a Welsh Presbyterian moving to Catholic Dublin. He almost shows Edge how music was his way to communicate as he found identity in a new space.

Faith and reconciliation are obvious subjects in a Corrymeela podcast and Edge speaks honestly about his questioning faith and how in reconciliation he sees compromise as a strong need week virtue.

The most interesting bit of all for me is the post interview chat which asks quick answers to Short Story Questions. In this we hear about his early love of The Jam, his love for American poet, former slave, Phillis Wheatley and what got me most excited of all naming Roger Casement as his very favourite Irishman.

My friend David Dark always suggests that if you meet a hero you should have a question ready so that you don't look stupid. If Edge ends up with me in a lift we'll be talking about an ex Ballymena Academy knight of the realm who was hanged for gun running for Irish revolution! 

Maybe it is just me but having written extensively on U2 I have an ear to every article or interview wondering if they'll say something that proves my writings wrong. There is thankfully nothing here. What is here though are things I didn't know which is not always the case. My hard drive is so crammed with U2 that it is hard to hear anything I haven't heard.

Pádraig does draw out such insights. As I said earlier about that early identity checking in his move to Dublin. He also opens out the song Van Diemen's land which has me off researching John Boyle O'Reilly.

Most wonderful and intriguing of all is Edge's take on Irish Presbyterianism. In his youth he found it dull most interestingly compared to his Welsh Presbyterianism.

Later he was fascinated when his mother would go north with her Church to visit Northern Presbyterians. She and he were rather stunned that when Mrs Evans asked their thoughts on a united Ireland, as they found Dublin a wonderful place to live, that there was just blank faces and no response.

How interesting. As his the entire podcast. Top job Pádraig and Corrymeela.

https://www.publictheologyireland.com/podcast


THE FLOWING TIDE

Abbey-st-side

This story is now well known. Way back around 1993 I was leaving my office on Lower Abbey Street in Dublin. My office was at the back of the Ormond Quay & Scots Church and on a Tuesday they hired out the hall for keep fit. Paddy did the door.

As my mate Chris Fry and I were heading out for lunch Paddy says to us, “Away into the flowing tide lads…” We laughed and thought how poetic and almost missional Paddy’s phrase was. Good for Paddy we thought! I immediately thought poem and Chris thought song! Out onto O'Connell Street. The flowing tide of the city… brilliant!

Later in the week Chris and I found ourselves in a car, travelling somewhere, and we started talking about how The Flowing Tide poem and song were coming along. I think it was Brian Colvin who leaned over and said, “You know that that is the pub across the road from your office!” We all started laughing. Paddy wasn’t being as poetic as we all thought. He just thought we were off to the pub! 

That The Flowing Tide is a pub, and indeed popular for the audiences of the famous Abbey Theatre across the road, is almost more perfect for how I used the phrase. I was pondering at the time the way that the Church was no longer in the places Jesus had called us to.

I was thinking that we cannot blame the dark for being dark. That is to be expected. We can blame the light for not shining though. Jesus did say we were the light of the world… and I remembered where he died... which is where we should be, should we not!

 

I see the dark

But where is the light

Shining in the day

Away from the night

I hear the sick

But where are the well

Too close to heaven

And too far from hell

We've got to climb out of these trenches

Where we sit in comfort and condemn

We are not called to be their judge

We were called to go and love them

There where evil fights the good

There where no one believes

There where the city gambles

There among the thieves

There where innocent blood is spilled

There where love violently dies

Out there where the world is changed

In the flowing tide.

 

I hear the cries

But where is the shoulder

Warming the heat

As the cold is getting colder

I see the lonely

But where is the love

Too busy to care

With those who have enough

We must grab apathy by the throat

Shove respectable against the wall

Open our doors to a wounded world

Hear their broken hearts call

There where evil fights the good

There where no one believes

There where the city gambles

There among the thieves

There where innocent blood is spilled

There where love violently dies

Out there where the world is changed

In the flowing tide.


NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS - CARNAGE

Carnage_(Nick_Cave_and_Warren_Ellis)

 

Nick Cave is mining the very richest musical seam at the moment. Ghosteen was my third favourite album of 2019 and Live at The Alexandra Palace was my favourite live record of last year. He is already throwing down the gauntlet for the high echelons of 2021’s end of year lists with Carnage.

Carnage has some of the traits go Ghosteen yet slightly rawer in sound. Though there are these beautiful grace notes of Gospel choirs, the whole thing hinges on, collaborator on this album, Warren Ellis’s string laden atmospheres that bring to bare visceral emotions in their minimalism.

Cave’s voice, like Leonard Cohen’s before him, and maybe Johnny Cash’s alongside, give the questions of human existence, the emotions, spiritual searching and mental wrestling that goes with the depth that all that deserves.

The lead off track, Hand Of God, lays the mission down: 

 

There are some people trying to find out who

There are some people trying to find out why

There are some people who aren't trying to find anything

But that kingdom in the sky

In the sky

 

It is not that “kingdom in the sky’s” only appearance.

Carnage is, as ever with Cave, deeply personal. It is also political in White Elephant that deals with American racism with a definite reference to the murder of George Floyd. We also get a Jimmy Webb lyrical style look at lockdown in Albuquerque.

A key line to understand the Cave muse these days is:

 

"Reading Flannery O'Connor with a pencil and a plan".

 

Goodness that sounds like a great vocation!

Imagine a songwriter who channels the ghost of O’Connor and ploughs the spiritual poetic sage like furrows that Leonard Cohen might have handed him just as Elijah handed his Old Testament mantle to Elisha millennia ago. That is Nick Cave and I cannot get enough of it. 


SURMISING IF NOT DOING THE RIGHT THING CAN BE THE RIGHT THING

Love and Law

- What you did was wrong

- I know

- Why did you do it then

- Because it is right

 

These might be the words that Rahab might have said when she lied about those Israelite spies in Jericho.

Or could they be said, at various stages in the Old Testament Book of Ruth, where a family go against law and tradition in moving to Moab, marrying Moabites and bringing the Moabite Ruth back to Israel.

Or maybe when Jesus was healing on sabbaths and the Pharisees were holding him to what was right and Jesus knowing he was wrong did what was right! You wouldn’t have your animals in pain on a sabbath he probed.

In all these situations what was right in law and tradition was over turned by what was right in loving, being gracious and kind.

I have been increasingly intrigued by this this conversation between law We often seem caught into an erroneous idea that law is the power that defines love. 

Not so said Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

So the law hangs on the love not the other way around. We would do really well to get that right.

Oh… the opening quotation is from the TV detective show Luther. Maybe well named. Wasn’t it Luther who realised that love was more important than law too!


AMERICA YOU ARE OUR MYSTERY (for the Boulder Shootings)

Boulder shooting

(American friends... I am tragically posting this again... forgive me if this is insensitive... or I have got it wrong... BUT we are exasperated, frustrated, confused... and in mourning with those who lost loved ones...)

 

America oh our friend

This time its in Boulder Colorado

Where next, the random madman

Russian roulette of no one knows

Who will be the next child wasted

"Bang Bang" just cover over your ears

Today’s not the day for politics

And the days turns into years

And years 

And tears flow

Upon blood and tears.

 

America you are our mystery

We’re all confused by your altar of guns

And how a right in anybody’s constitution

Can cut down all these innocent ones.

 

America oh our friend

We pray for your mourning nation

Oblivious to the patently obvious

So lost and in need of salvation

It seems everywhere you’re fixing

As if all the rest of us are owing

But there you are a broken heart

Cancerous sins rampantly growing

And growing

More seeds sowing

In the cancer growing.

 

In the racism

Between the walls

In your increasing division

The devil calls

“Let what you love

Blur what you believe

You’ll be better for it

Just be prepared to grieve”

 

America you are our mystery

We’re all confused by your altar of guns

And how a right in anybody’s constitution

Can cut down all these innocent ones.


SURMISING THE HIDDEN THINGS - CORONAVIRUS WEARINESS

Covid-fatigue

The hidden things. We do well to surmise the hidden things.

In 2000 I was leading a team of students on a Habitat For Humanity build in Cape Town, South Africa. We hit the ground with great enthusiasm and on the first day on site we dug the tenches for the foundations of three houses. Two would have done but instead of taking the late afternoon to rest we let our enthusiasm get the best of us. 

When we finished it was exhilarating. I remember taking my gloves off and throwing the shovels into the back of the van. For someone who works on lap tops and at lecterns it was like the first hard days work I had done since my summer job green keeping at Ballymena Golf Club. 

A couple of hours later we were in The Waterfront in Cape Town with half an hour to shop before our evening meal. My hands were sore so I picked up some painkillers and a bottle of water. My hands were by now is some pain. A medical student on the team sent me off for some pain killing tablets. So I did BUT I couldn’t get the top off the bottle of water to wash them down.

I understood the pain. I had quantifiable evidence for the weariness. Three dug out trenches. The lifting of the spades. The shovelling. There were no surprises at the conditions of my hands.

There are many things that weary us that are not as obvious. Hidden things. I find grief to be such. Bereavement is exhausting yet you don’t see the heaviness that you are carrying to make you feel tired. 

This past Coronavirus Year has laid many hidden upon our minds and hearts and souls. We have been unknowingly burdened. We might not understand our weariness but I want to say that after a year of this strange kind of living it is totally understandable.

In March 2020 so many of the hidden energisers in our lives were ripped out without a sound. I didn’t notice them for such a long time. Indeed I thought I was glad to be missing them. Yet eventually even my introverted only child syndrome realised that I was weary because so many adrenaline stimulations were withdrawn from our lives.

All those casual conversations with friends. All the different places we used to find ourselves. High streets, shopping centres, sports stadiums, concert halls, cafes, restaurants. Sitting in the same few rooms for 12 long months is not as rich in spark. We end up weary. I certainly have.

There is more. All the worry about family who we cannot see. No church or singing. All the concentration on social distances and remembering to wash hands. The new skills needed to work social media. On top of all of this many have grieved without the familiar grieving processes of house visits and funeral services. 

All these hidden things. There seems no evidence for why were are tired. But we are. With all that we have been through we should be weary. As my late friend the singer Rich Mullins used to say, “The life I’m living you should worry about me if I’m not weary. I’d had to have done a deal with the devil to not be weary.”

It is a time to be gentle with self. To be honest. Not to lie to ourselves. For me it is a time to fix my eyes on what we also cannot see, God’s grace and strength. There I might find resilience to make it through the weariness, that probably won’t come back until the hidden things return.