Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We are all made in the image of the God we choose to serve."

Blaise Pascal

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Just Pray - Or Just Argue About an Advert About Prayer

Is it safe to come out again? Or is everyone still up in arms about the Lord’s Prayer? According to the Daily Fail the Archbishop of Canterburywas “furious” about the decision of the Digital Cinema Media (DCM) agency, not to distribute the above innocuous 57 second advert to the  Odeon, Cineworld and Vue cinema chains. Really!? Furious!? Throwing teacups at the wall of Lambeth Palace furious? Certainly the little I have seen of Justin Welby would suggest that he doesn’t do furious the way I do furious, which, frankly, raises him in my estimation, and suggests that his particular discipline of prayer, including the Lord’s prayer, works for him.
But were I Justin Welby, I doubt I would be furious with the decision of this commercial company not to show this advert in accordance with its stated policy of not accepting political or religious advertising content in its cinemas. I would however be exasperated with its stated reason that "some advertisements - unintentionally or otherwise - could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith." But it’s not just religion and politics that causes offence… Today, with its usual tabloid hyperbole the Belfast Telegraph tells us that shoppers and various politicians are “very angry” at the omission of a shamrock or any other (Northern) Irish symbol from its “Taste of the British Isles” range of cakes. Now I can’t possibly imagine why M&S would not want to associate the words “Northern Ireland” and “cake” with their brand (maybe I will Google and find out)… but their decision/error has led to demands for an “urgent explanation” by at least one local politician… As if that should be an urgent matter for either M&S or politicians!
But anyway, it demonstrates that EVERYTHING can be offensive to someone, and as many others have already said, much of the crass consumerism, the glamorisation of alcohol  and trivialisation of gambling that goes on in cinema adverts these days, I find grossly offensive, never mind the content of many of the main features.
Some Christian commentators have picked up on the term and suggested that actually Jesus’ words are offensive if viewed from the perspective of secular liberalism and contemporary capitalism. But I don’t think that the DCM decision is as nuanced as that… It is, rather, a straightforward “ban all religious and political stuff” response, using the likelihood to offend as justification. Yet the thing is that many of those objecting to the ban would be the first to object to a similar advert featuring an Islamic prayer or Hindu mantra.
This decision is not an attack on prayer as some of the more excitable voices on social media have stated, nor, as some spokesperson for the CoE said is it “chilling in terms of limiting free speech. It is a simplistic commercial decision, based on an unimaginative if clearly articulated, non-discriminatory policy - take note those of you who have also used this case to jump up and down about the rights of a certain Northern Irish bakery to make a commercial decision based on their Christian faith (guess what that Google search turned up by the way?). But to suggest that the above advert could genuinely offend beggars belief (or un-belief). Actually, in this I find myself in the unlikely company of arch-atheist (but cultural Anglican) Richard Dawkins who is reputed to have said:
“My immediate response was to tweet that it was a violation of freedom of speech. But I deleted it when respondents convinced me that it was a matter of commercial judgment on the part of the cinemas, not so much a free speech issue. I still strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.”
The key difference is that I don’t see prayer as trivial. Rather I am with Karl Barth on that where he said that, “To clasp  hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
And the so-called Lord’s prayer is Jesus model for what that uprising should look like… a kingdom where God’s will is done, not the capricious will of earthly rulers… a kingdom where daily needs are met rather than greed encouraged… a kingdom where forgiveness is encouraged…
That is pretty offensive…
However, and this is what has niggled at me more and more over the past couple of days, when Jesus taught this prayer he suggested that prayer shouldn’t be a spectator sport. That we should go away into a private room, lock the door and pray
“Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
He didn’t say…
"Go into a locked room and make a video of this prayer and distribute it to every cinema in the land…"
I don’t know who was behind this initiative… There are those who cynically suggest that they knew that it would be banned and that the publicity from that would be far greater than any that would have been generated by the distribution of the ad in the first place. Certainly the number of hits on the CoE website this week will far exceed the numbers who would have seen it in the cinema even if it had been shown before every showing of Star Wars VII in every cinema in the land.
But I hope that is not the case. Whilst Jesus tells us to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves", I don’t like seeing the kingdom of God play by the rules of the kingdom it is seeking to subvert (that is too much like the plot of Mockingjay for my liking)…
For exactly the same reason I will not be joining in the boycott of the chains supplied by DCM that some Christians are advocating. I am actually going to one of the chains not supplied by DCM to see Star Wars VII, but I am not even sure whether a Church of England ad will be played in Northern Ireland (although they still insist on advertising Waitrose and Morrisons here despite their lack of presence in this province, so who knows)...  Such boycotts are only likely to bring Christianity into greater disrepute. 
Certainly this advert and the subsequent ban has generated a lot of verbiage on faith, prayer and the meaning of Christmas... It's even got me blogging again. But I do hope that it gets more people praying... 

ps for another alternative take on this issue read Kevin Hargaden's blog post. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Widow's Tale: 2 for a Penny or 5 for Tuppence

Yesterday morning, as part of our Remembrance Service, Shirley Krakowski, our Student Assistant delivered this monologue (it's more of a short-story than a monologue!) based on the lectionary reading from Mark 12: 41-44, together with Luke 12:6-8 and Matthew 10: 29-31.

I keep chickens… To earn me a penny or two. And sometimes, as I scatter the grain out for them to eat, I watch the little brown birds, sparrows I suppose they are, darting in to pinch a seed or two. I know how they feel. Just trying to snatch enough to get by… Meanwhile my cockerel struts his stuff across the yard… Thinking he is something… when really he is just as reliant on the seeds from my hand as those little sparrows.
A wandering rabbi visiting our village on his way up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the feast, recently recommended that we should watch birds instead of worrying... I’ve got plenty to worry about, but he reminded us that God looks after our little feathered friends and so we shouldn’t worry because we are worth more than many of those little birds, that are sold, 2 for a penny or 5 for tuppence… I joked with him – told him that at that rate I’m only worth 5 of those sparrows, because I only have 2 copper pennies to my name… or had…
He asked me to tell him more. To tell him my story. Well, it’s been a while since anyone listened to me, so I told him… I told him my whole life story…
How when I was a child I would go with my parents on the annual pilgrimage to the Temple… How we would offer our sacrifices… usually only the cheapest, grain offerings, or at most 2 young pigeons… because we were so poor…
He told me that was all his parents could afford to bring as a thank offering when he was born… So we had that in common… He then laughed as told me how he had got left behind at the temple as a young man… He had been so engrossed that he didn’t realise his parents had left for home with the other pilgrims… until they came back a couple of days later furious with him.
I could understand that… I told him how loved the temple as a child… it was still a building site back then… The work begun by Herod hadn’t been finished… but the white gleaming marble with the sun glinting off it spoke to me of the glory of God… the incense and smoke of the sacrifices was the scent of another world… and the priests singing the Psalms sounded to me like choirs of angels…For me the Temple was the gate of heaven… Of course I only ever got as far as the women’s court… But we could peer through the screen to the inner sanctum. And as the smoke rose from the altar I hitched my prayers to it… prayers for a good husband and a family… Year after year we came… year after year I prayed…
And then, when I came of age the match was made and my prayers were answered…I got my good husband… Jacob, and a family of my own… two young boys… Asher and Nathan… And we in our turn made the annual pilgrimages to the temple for the feast… And my prayers turned from myself to my children… That they in turn would find good wives and have children of their own…
But it was not to be… In one fell swoop my boys and husband were all carried away by a fever… And all my hopes and dreams dissolved like the smoke from the sacrifice… Did God not hear? Had my sacrifices not been enough? Or had I done something dreadful to be punished in such an awful fashion? Condemned to be a widow for the rest of my life!? I was still young. I could have had more children. But who would take on a woman who had been cursed by God? Was I to be left on my own until I myself died?
I told the Rabbi that my brothers and sisters did all they could to help me but they have families of their own to look after. I had no land left to me by my husband, only a house… he was a tradesman not a farmer, so I kept chickens in my back yard… but they barely produced enough to feed me, never mind put any money in my pocket. There were times that I was tempted to ring that cockerel’s neck and eat him for a final feast before crawling into a corner to die.
But still I persisted in my annual pilgrimages to the temple… Though I noticed something I never had before… The number of other widows… Some widowed by disease like me. Some by the famines that racked the countryside from time to time. And far too many widowed by war. Some whose husbands had died as zealots fighting the empire, others whose husbands had signed up as soldiers of the Emperor to escape the poverty of our land…
But whether their husbands had died fighting for or against the Empire their widows were in the same boat. Pouring out their hearts in prayer at the screen in the women’s court or queueing for alms at the treasury gate.
The law provides for widows and orphans… and the temple alms go to help them. That’s one of the reasons why widows flock to the temple. But alms have no arms to embrace you when you are lonely and afraid… They provide for our hunger, just about, but they cannot replace the embrace of a husband or a child or a grandchild…
The prayers I brought to the Temple had changed now I was a widow. I asked God “Why have you punished me so hard? Why did you allow me to experience marriage and motherhood only to snatch it away? Yes I have sinned. Everyone has sinned. But did I do something awful to endure sure cruel punishment?”
I prayed and I cried. I cried, and I prayed, but I never got an answer to my prayers.
And the rabbi didn’t offer me any answers… He just offered me an embrace. A welcome embrace… before resuming his journey to Jerusalem and the Temple, saying, before he left…  “Remember mother,” he said, ”you are worth more than many, many sparrows.”
I remembered his words as I fed my chickens and the little brown sparrows darted in and out among them, foraging for seeds… And I remembered them this morning when I arrived in Jerusalem for the feast… The Temple courts were crowded… Families with mothers clucking around their children like brood hens… Pharisees and priests strutting across the court like my cockerel back home… And others like me… Single women… widows… some old, some not so old… dressed in drab colours… little brown birds… Weaving their way through the crowds, almost invisible… until they found their way to the screen in the court of the women … Or joined the queue for alms at the treasury gate…
I thought about joining them in either place… until I saw some of the cockerels… Pharisees I think, making for the treasury gate… They weren’t joining the queue for alms… In fact they made a point of turning their faces away in distaste from the line of human misery there… No they went straight to the head of the queue and made a big show of pulling out a large bags of money… and tossing them carelessly into the offering basket…
I was furious… And yet the words of that rabbi stuck in my head “you are worth more than many, many sparrows.” The same heavenly hand who provided for that crowd of cockerels, ultimately provided for me… I turned over the two copper coins in my pocket… And instead of joining the queue to receive… I followed the path of the Pharisees… strutting the way that they did… There was a murmur from the widows and beggars in the queue… And when I got to the Treasury door I produced my two copper coins with a great flourish and tossed them into the basket… The Pharisees were furious and stomped off, while the alms-queue dissolved in waves off laughter… Probably the first laugh some of them had had in years…
I took a bow and went to go and pray… for forgiveness for my impiety if nothing else… Then I saw him… that rabbi.. sitting with some others across from the Treasury gate… pointing at me… He nodded at me and I at him, and then went on my way…
I made my way to the screen at the front of the women’s court, and I prayed…
“Heavenly father… you who made the sparrows and the cockerels, the wealthy and the widow… I do not know what tomorrow will bring… But I commit myself into your hands… I give you my all… My hopes and dreams… My doubts and disappointments… My hurts and my fears… My worries and my worship… In you do I trust…”


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cracked Pot... revisited

This morning at the Agape Centre, Shirley Krakowski, a second year Edgehill ministerial student wwho is on placement with us in Belfast South Methodist was leading a service where she was reflecting on II Corinthians 4: 7:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
My mind went back to this short poem/pensee that I wrote when I was on a mission in Wicklow Methodist at the outset of my final year as a ministerial student:

Cracked, clay pot
containing hard cold earth
whilst beneath the surface
sits a seed-stored life


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Dreams and Visions

It's been a while... More recently because I've been on holiday. Before that because unless I was writing something for another context I was becoming more wary of being yet another megaphone commentator on the issues of the day, be it gay marriage, gay cakes, the election, bonfires etc, where my online comments were not matched by action or discussions in the real world, or might have hindered such actions or conversations. I am so tired of polemic and ranting (including my own) that ultimately achieves nothing or simply reinforces divisions, and increasingly that is what the media and especially social media is full of.
However, we do need genuine opinion formers in the public sphere who are able to articulate a vision for doing things differently at a local, national and global level, and they are few and far between.
During our holiday in the US we visited the Washington DC, and saw the Lincoln Memorial, scene of Martin Luther King Junior's famous, "I have a dream" speech, and the grave of JFK at Arlington National Cemetery... Lincoln, King and Kennedy all had clear visions of where they wanted their country to go and actively worked to make that dream a reality. When he first appeared on the global scene Presidential wannabe Barack Obama seemed to be in that mould as he articulated a "hope-filled" vision of how things might be... For a long time and for various reasons his rhetoric has not fully matched reality, although there are signs that in the latter stretch of his administration he is seeking to make up for lost time.
But whilst in DC I was also reading a piece of trashy fiction by Justin Cartwright - "Lionheart" - a Dan Brown-esque book based on the story of King Richard I (only read it if you are picking it up cheap in a charity shop, and have absolutely nothing better to read), and apart from prompting me to read more about the real histoy of that iconic King, it made me think when the central character writes:
"When Obama talks about the American Dream, as though it is something real and wonderful, rather than what it is , just a figure of speech, I can't help thinking that this contains within it the assumption that the dreams of other nations, say Palestine or Britain even, are not even in the same league. Only America is in the major league of dreams."
There is a certain truth in this, and we in the "old world" can comment cynically about the teenage idealism of the global youngster that is the USA. Personally I am not convinced by some elements of the so-called "American Dream", which seems to be too closely wedded to individualism and consumeristic capitalism, but at the same time I long for leaders in the UK and Northern Ireland who will both articulate a clear hope-filled vision of the future and strategically work with others against established gatekeepers and powerbrokers to achieve that vision. Yet what we persistently get are those who pedal fear and feed the demons that lie at the heart of established power blocks, be they left or right, green or orange, Christian or secularist...From a Christian point of view I long to see the promised pentecostal fulfilment of Joel's prophecy where our "young men will see visions," and our "old men will dream dreams."
This old man dreams of 
  •  a province where politicians really seek the common good and don't just pander to the extremes, genuinely engaging with bread and butter issues like education, health, transport and the environment that will make a real difference to the lives of generations to come...
  • a nation that is more interested in wellbeing than income generation, both at a personal and governmental level. That is not to decry the importance of economics for wellbeing, but to see things in a much more holistic, healthy fashion...
  • a church that is more focussed on those outside our doors than those inside, with a greater emphasis on love than on law... Where all people feel welcome and able to articulate their hopes, their dreams, their fears and their failings without experiencing condemnation or condescension...

That's enough to begin with...

Sunday, June 28, 2015

My Beloved Little Lamb

This morning the lectionary readings contained what might be said to be an over-familiar passage, so I decided that instead of reading it and then preaching on it at Belfast South this morning, I would retell it as a monologue by Jairus in the light of the leactionary Psalm. So here it is...

Old Testament Reading
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lordfor with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

Psalm 130 (NIV-UK)
Gospel Reading
Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him.  Then a man named Jairus, a synagogue leader, came and fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come to his house because his only daughter, a girl of about twelve, was dying. 
Luke 8: 40-41
My Beloved Little Lamb
I was down in the depths and time was of the essence. He was our last chance. We had tried everything else… but she just kept getting worse and worse… I didn’t go to him lightly… I’ve got my position to think of. As a leader in the synagogue you can’t give credence to these itinerant wonderworking rabbis… Most of them are charlatans. And whilst we had heard about all the amazing things this one had done since he had come down from the hill country, he still kept strange company and said perplexing things… Challenging the traditions that I was sworn to uphold. But by the time he came back across from the other side of the lake this morning I was ready to try anything… Because she’s my life, my only daughter, 12 years old and so full of the joys of life… It seems like only yesterday that her cries as a newborn had filled our home and melted my heart… I had rocked her to sleep and bounced her on my knee. Her first word was Abba… I was her Abba… she was my taleh katan… my little lamb… my Rachel… and it was my fingers she held onto when she’d taken her first steps…
And now here she was about to take her first steps into adulthood... a beautiful young woman, and out of nowhere illness had struck her down… It started as almost nothing, a sniffle, a headache. We put her to bed; and we figured she’d be up and about in no time, but no, she just kept getting worse, day after day, developing a hacking cough, sweating and complaining that light hurt her eyes. She couldn’t keep anything in her stomach… Not even her mother’s broth, and that is usually the cure for all ills... Then she slipped into a deep, deep sleep… and her breathing, laboured at first, became shallower and shallower…
I’d seen it before… I’m sure we all have… and there was no reason to think that we should be immune… The angel of death was just as likely to visit us as any other house… And we felt his shadow looming over us.  But I still prayed “Why my little lamb?” I cried out to God for mercy… Did he not understand how much I love her? I would have done anything to save her...
So as I said, by the time news came that this rabbi Jesus had come  back to the town this morning I was completely distracted… I fought my way through the crowds to the shore and threw myself in the dust at his feet… I didn’t care about my reputation, all I cared about was my little girl. I begged him to come with me and heal her if he could.
And he reached down and helped me up, simply saying “lead the way…” 
But we had got no distance at all before he stopped dead in His tracks and asked “Who touched me?” It was ridiculous, I mean, there were people all around him, trying to get a piece of him, so there must have been hundreds who had “touched him”. But then a woman steps forward, and explains that she had reached out and touched just the hem of his garment, hoping that somehow this would heal her. She gabbled on saying that she’d suffered from bleeding for 12 years… And at that there was an intake of breath and a step back from most of the crowd around her…
A whole storm of emotions broke over me… I thought “How could she? She’s unclean. She shouldn’t even be out in public… Never mind going out deliberately to touch someone else…” And here she was stopping Jesus from getting to my little lamb before it was too late. I was appalled and angry…
But he just said to her “Go in peace; your faith has healed you”. Just like that! Faith. But she hadn’t been faithful. She had broken the law. And just at that moment my brother in law appeared, and I knew what he had to say before he opened his mouth.
‘Your daughter is dead, so don’t bother the teacher anymore.’
My world just dissolved…  I let an inhuman howl out of me… I was distraught… But in the same tone of voice he had used to that woman a moment before he said, “Don’t be afraid; she’ll be okay, just have faith.”
Again, faith… Of course I had faith… I am the leader of the synagogue… I have been faithful to God all my life… But right then I was angry at God for taking my daughter, angry at that woman for stopping us, angry at Jesus for spending time on a woman who had been unclean for the same time my innocent little lamb had lived…
I rushed back home… I didn’t care whether he was coming or not… I just had to get back. But he did come, and when he arrived he chased off all those who were wailing and weeping inside the house. ‘Stop wailing,’ he said. ‘She is not dead but asleep.’ He went in to her bedroom with my wife and I and a couple of his followers… and, right enough, she did look just as if she was sleeping… But I’ve seen that before and it was no comfort at all, But then he just took her by the hand and said, “Child, get up!” and her eyes opened, and she smiled that smile that I always thought was only for me… and she sat up in bed! He then just turned to my wife, and said “You’d better get that girl something to eat!” She rushed off saying “I’ve got just the thing… some broth… would you like some yourself rabbi?”

But he’d gone again, with his followers. I didn’t even get the chance to say thank you… But at least I got the chance to tell my little lamb once more how much I love her. 


Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Trinitarian Creed (Reblog)

Again, something from the earliest days of this blog, this time a  little something for Trinity Sunday... That Sunday when all sane preachers fein illness, and congregations stagger out of church after sermons that try (and invariably fail) to "explain" the trinity... A day when I am happy to live with mystery rather than try to comprehend the fullness of God in my tiny mind.

We believe in one God,
A Community of Three in a Unity of Being.

We believe in the Creator,
Creator of sky, earth and sea,
Creator of birds, animals and fish,
and us…
Creator of all that is, seen, unseen and unimaginable.

We believe in Jesus Christ,
Born of God…
Born of woman…
Born, lived, died, and rose again,
Born to teach, save, and give us hope.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
The all pervading breath of God.
Who breathed life into us in the beginning
Who breathed life into the church at Pentecost
Who brings gifts and strength, and encouragement.

We believe in God, the Three in One.
The One in Three
The blessed, sacred Trinity.
An eternal dance of personality;
Diversity in unity
Creator, redeemer, sustainer.

We believe in the Church
Diversity in unity
A community stretching around the globe
And through the ages
And stretching out to all creation
Redeeming, sustaining.

We believe in God
We live in God
Three in one, one in three.
The living, loving trinity.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Happy Birthday Church (Reblog)

Next Sunday is Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church. It is also Aldersgate Sunday/Wesley Sunday in Methodist churchianity, and as of last year it is also the day when we in Ireland are supposed to remember the Methodist/Church of Ireland Covenant, AND its our local church anniversary and Presidential visit... So my head might be addled by the time I get that far... But I thougth I would post this wee skit for anyone looking for something for pentecost. I wrote it years ago and posted it in the early days of this blog. It's based on Ephesians 4: 7 which says:

"Christ has given each of us special abilities—whatever he wants us to have out of his rich storehouse of gifts." (The Living Bible)

All:            (Standin in a line and singing) Happy Birthday to you... Happy birthday to you...
1:              Happy Birthday... (Offering gift to number 2 out of a sack of gifts)
2:              O thanks... (taking gift and putting it straight down behind him)
1:              Aren’t you going to open it?
2:              Open what?
1:              The gift!
2:              What gift?
1:              That gift!
2:              Where?
1:              There!
2:              I don’t see any gift?
1:              There... I just gave to you...
2:              No you didn’t...
1:             Yes I did...
2:             Don’t believe you...
1:             Oh I give up!

All:           (Singing) Happy Birthday to you... Happy birthday to you...
1:             Happy Birthday... (Offering gift to number 3)
3:             O thanks... (taking gift and ripping off paper... finding tambourine) Amazing just what I always wanted... (starts banging it without any sense of rhythm... until finally throws it over his shoulder...) Anything else?
1:             What?
3:             Any other gifts?
1:             No... That was yours... You just threw it away...
3:             I was tired of that one... You must have others in there...
1:             No... They’re for others...
3:             Aw... Come on...
1:             No...
3:             Spoilsport!

All:           (Singing) Happy Birthday to you... Happy birthday to you...
1:             Happy Birthday... (Offering gift to number 4)
4:             No thanks...
1:             What?
4:             Don’t need it...
1:             What?
4:             I’ve got lots of great stuff... Why would I need your cheap gift?
1:             Well... I... Oh, never mind...

All:           (Singing) Happy Birthday to you... Happy birthday to you...
1:             Happy Birthday... (Offering gift to number 5)
5:             O thanks... Thanks very much (taking gift and unwrapping it to find a big tin of Quality Street)1: You’re welcome...
5:             That’s so kind... There’s so much here... Do you mind if I share them out?
1:             No... That’s why I gave them to you...
5:             Would you like one yourself...
1:             Don’t mind if I do...

All:             (Singing) Happy Birthday to you... Happy birthday to you... Happy Birthday dear church... Happy Birthday to you...
1:             Grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ's gift.
© David Campton 2005