Category Archives: Church

A prayer on Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday is one of those mixed days. Especially in church, it can be a day many want to avoid (See Rachel on Krish Kandiah’s blog).
I know since losing my mum I tend to feel it. It’s difficult too for all who would love to be mothers and for many reasons can’t be. And then there is the reality – acknowledged more so on Father’s Day that for some they haven’t had a positive experience of mothering.
So leading the service in church today was going to be complex at least. Finding the tension between acknowledging the realities of life and celebrating the many amazing mothers (both natural and spiritual) can be tricky.

I used this prayer, cannibalised from a few places – the Book of Common Prayer, Grove’s booklet on Mothering Sunday  and a blog from messy middle.

On Mothering Sunday
For all mothers who have loved and laughed and laboured as they cared for their children we praise you and thank you God
For the care of mothers – we thank you God
For their patience when tested – we thank you God
For their love when tired – we thank you God
For their hope when despairing – we thank you God
For their service without limit – we thank you God
For those about to be mothers – we rejoice and ask for your protection on them
For those unable to have children, – comfort them God
For those who long to have children we stand and pray with them, bring your comfort
For those who have lost children – may they know your presence and comfort
For those who bear wounds and scars from mothers in this broken world we acknowledge their pain and ask for your healing, peace and renewal
For those who mourn the loss of their mothers – comfort them God
For those who find this day difficult – bring your peace and comfort

Creator and sustainer God we thank you and pray for all those who practice mothering in our midst, in every shape and form that it takes, give them grace, energy, fill them with your Spirit, nurture them as they nurture us.
Fill us with your love that this community, your family in this place will be one where we each have many mothers and fathers and act as mothers and fathers to many.
Now to the One who is able to do more than all we ask or imagine, to You be glory in Your son Jesus and in the church, for ever and ever, amen.

On poppies, footballers, flags and Remembrance Sunday (part 2)

It seems a long time ago since I wrote this post.

Living in Dublin which has a much more complicated history with the British Empire, things are very different. Here it causes a stir if a TD wears a poppy.

In the UK, Derry born footballer James McClean has also been causing a stir for the opposite reason by refusing to wear the version of his club shirt with the poppy on it.

I recognise this is a sensitive subject and I mean in no way to dishonour anyone. It is important as Christians that we ask the questions about remembering those who have died and where it crosses a line into nationalism or justification of the use of power that does not sit easily with the Kingdom of God. Perhaps where something noble gets subsumed into nationalism. War is ugly and leaves many innocent victims. it is right to remember those who have lost their lives – on both sides of the conflict. For me the purpose of remembering is to honour their sacrifice and also to learn and pursue peace and reconciliation.

As a northerner now living in the very different context that is (the Republic of) Ireland I believe more strongly that national flags have no place in churches  – especially Northern Ireland where they carry such loaded meaning. My friend Kevin writes very articulately about this here.

Flags are different to the wearing of poppies and remembering those who have lost their lives – often family members. Archie Bland caused some controversy with this article in last week’s UK Independent about the pressure to wear a poppy – certainly if you watch the UK media you rarely see anyone on TV not wearing one.

Finally an interesting perspective from across the pond in Canada where Sarah Bessey wrestles with remembering her grandfather and her pacifism.

For Ireland North and Republic this will continue to be an issue in a land where flags are political symbols and carry loaded meaning, where the British state and British Army have been seen and experienced as instruments of oppression. The poppy is the symbol of the Royal British Legion – a name alone which can cause issues in Ireland.

So in 2012, as Christians what should our questions and response be? I don’t think it begins with should we wear poppies or remember soldiers who have lost their lives, or even should we have flags in churches.

It begins with what is the kingdom of God and how is the kingdom of God demonstrated? What will it look like for the kingdom of God to break into current reality in a place like Ireland marred by violence and sectarianism? Those are the filters that will answer our prayer of ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ rather than the primary filters of political allegiance and even personal experience of loss, no matter how great that might be.

Suffering, healing and why getting our theology right matters

Suffering and healing. Emotive issues. Ones with lots of questions and few answers. At least few answers that do it for me.

I come from a family with what can only be described as a ‘difficult’ history. I met my dad for the first time that I can really remember a few months ago (I’m 34). I grew up with my mum. Just me and her. She sacrificed so much to give me the best she could. She faithfully followed Jesus and lived generously with what she had.  At the age of 62, almost 3 years ago she died of cancer, 3 months after her diagnosis. I watched Ruth, a 22-year-old who interned with me lose her battle with cancer several years ago. I saw Andrew, an incredibly gifted leader, surgeon, preacher, husband and father of 3 young children lose his battle with cancer in his mid-thirties.

In church I hear a lot about healing and praying for healing and that God can heal anything and anyone. We’ve seen people healed and rejoiced with them. God is a good God and a loving Father who wants what is best for his children. But God doesn’t always heal and make people better. My mum died. She may have still received the ultimate healing of a resurrection body but she isn’t here any more. Her last months were painful. For me too. It still hurts. And it hurts when I hear people say God can heal anything. I know He might be able to but He doesn’t. And please don’t even try to trot out the line about “all we need is faith…” I worry about  people being  given false expectations that ignores the reality that we live in a broken world and life is just tough sometimes.

I believe that God is good and can heal. I don’t believe He always heals. I don’t know why but I know that sometimes He speaks and works powerfully in the midst of suffering. As my mum was dying and I was losing my family I got engaged and gained another family. In a beautifully redemptive moment as my mum lay in the hospice I met and embraced one of my uncles for the first time.

Then there is the Calvinist line that takes a belief in God’s sovereignty down to the fine details. That uses the language of “God ordains…”. Suffering becomes something God ordains to teach us stuff. My story of meeting my uncle becomes the reason for the suffering. I worry about the sort of God that this view portrays. One who wilfully causes suffering just to teach us stuff. That doesn’t sound like a loving Father to me. I’m sorry but I cannot believe that God prematurely takes lives or brings illness just for our learning. In this perspective this understanding of suffering comes from trying to maintain a view of God as being totally in control of every little event.

I do believe God is sovereign but I don’t believe he controls every action. That makes us into robots without freedom. I believe God gives us the dignity and freedom to choose.

All these thoughts have been swilling around my mind and occasionally come flooding out in the odd rant.

Then on Sunday Alain Emerson came to speak in church about his experience of hope in the midst of tragedy. He articulated so much of what I’ve been struggling to articulate for so long (and what I’ve been trying to articulate above). You can listen to his talk here.

He talked about how each of our stories find meaning in the kingdom of God. He went on to say that if we go to the extremes of theology (either everyone gets healed or no-one gets healed) then our stories don’t fit. For me this was a lightbulb moment that expressed my struggles and frustrations.

He reminded us that we follow a God who is familiar with suffering, who took on our suffering and is present with us in the pain. He reminded us that there is grace and hope in the pain. In my case mum was able to make it to my graduation, see Emily and I get engaged and get to know Emily’s mum – passing on lots of stories even I didn’t know. Even though I had no words when it came to prayer I felt myself being carried along. Meeting my uncle was part of the process of my dad and I meeting. In the midst of loss there were moments of healing and reconciliation.

In the midst of pain and suffering I experienced hope and grace. But to say that God brought about my mum’s death so he can do those things I don’t think I can believe. And to suggest that God wants to heal everyone. Well, where does that leave those of us who didn’t experience healing?

Getting our theology right matters. Alain’s words that we need a really robust theology of the kingdom of God really resonated.

We live in the in-between. The older I get I realise there is more grey and less black and white. God is not a puppeteer. As his image-bearers He gives us the dignity of freedom and making our own choices. We live in a world full of brokenness and things that should not be. But the kingdom of God is breaking in and one day God will make everything right – that’s the hope I cling to.

Pussy Riot’s closing statement in their trial

This has been a crazy story as the Russian authorities clamp down on protest in the form of the punk band Pussy riot.

You can read the full text of Yekaterina Samutsavich’s closing statement here. Powerful stuff.  A couple of excerpts:

In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to combine the visual image of Orthodox culture and protest culture, suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it might also take the side of civic rebellion and protest in Russia…

…In the end, considering all the irreversible political and symbolic losses caused by our innocent creativity, the authorities decided to protect the public from us and our nonconformist thinking. Thus ended our complicated punk adventure in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Rediscovering Eugene

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Eugene Peterson. In those years I’ve experienced a lot. Moving country, starting up Innovista in Ireland, losing my mum suddenly to cancer, getting married, and most recently meeting my dad for the first meaningful time I can remember. I’ve come to a deeper recognition of the pain and complexity of life, how essential hope (in the NT Wright sense) is and a faith that feels different, deeply rooted, freer and more comfortable holding things in tension. All this to say that I’ve come to appreciate Peterson’s writing in a new way and found profundity and inspiration afresh from his deep thoughtfulness and graciousness. A few quotes that have inspired me so far from Practise Resurrection: A Conversation in Growing Up in Christ (based on Ephesians):

The air we breathe and the atmosphere we inhabit as believers and followers of Jesus is grace. If we don’t know wat grace is, the last place to go looking for help is the dictionary. Grace is everywhere to be experienced but nowhere to be explained…

And on peace:

Jesus respects us as persons. He does not force himself upon us. He does not impose peace. He does not coerce. Jesus treats us with dignity. Peace is never external to us. It is not the absence of war or famine or anxiety that makes it possible to live in peace. It is not accomplished by getting rid of mosquitos, rebellious teenagers and contentious neighbours, or burning heretics at the stake.
All of us are participants in peace. Jesus is at work bringing us, all that is us into a life of connectedness, of intimacy, of love. There is a lot going on, a lot involved. We are all involved whether we want to be or not. It takes a long time, because Jesus doesn’t push us around and make us shape up, doesn’t shut us up so that we don’t disturb the peace. Peace is always in process, never a finished product.

And finally (for now) the church as a place where this peace is worked out:

The church comprises a vast company of men and women in all stages of maturity: crawling infants and squalling babies, awkward and impulsive adolescents, harassed and fatigued parents, and occasional holy men and holy women who have it all together. All of us who understand and practise peace in the company of Jesus, who is our peace, have a lot of maturing to do… …Humankind does not mature all at once. And so peace is constantly in the making, and also constantly at risk. Church is where Jesus is proclaimed as ‘our peace’.

This give me hope. Hope for myself, hope for those who have to live with me (and endure my occasional rants!) and grace in my heart for those who I look down on because they  ‘just don’t get it’ the way I do!

International Women’s Day – Let Freedom Ring!

I have a dream that one day our little children will not be judged by their bodily appendages but by the content of their character.

Let freedom ring!

Not just because today is International Women’s Day but every day. Let strong men stand up and allow there to be strong women. Only when women are liberated to be the people God has called them to be – given full expression of their gifts and abilities, with male and female working not in subjugation but partnership can we see the image of God in humans fully realised and made flesh.

In too many places women are still not being given their God-given dignity and respect. Even in the church…

We shouldn’t need a day to celebrate women, to fight for the rights of girls to be educated, or to remind ourselves that discrimination against women is not how things should be. Every day should be a day when we celebrate the dignity, gifts and abilities of each other across the globe and where each of us has the strength and courage to empower others to flourish, to be confident, to be strong, and to be all that they can be.

I am grateful for the influence of many strong talented and gifted women in my life. It also grieves me that many of those women were denied the opportunity to demonstrate some of those gifts and talents by men who were too weak and afraid to allow them to flourish. If women are to flourish then as men, we need to stand up and play our part. This is one small step in that direction…

I leave you with the words of 2 women:

Sheryl Sandberg on TED – Why we have too few women leaders

Claire  – Burning heart opens can of worms

Get involved practically in different ways with Tearfund, Oxfam or the Sophia Network.

The Bible Posters

I came across Jim LePage’s Word Bible Designs through an interview on Rachel Held Evans blog.

Over the past couple of years, every time I take a training session or do a talk in church I’ve used more and more images as I’ve realised I’m a visual learner and there is something about the power of art and visuals that communicates powerfully in tandem with the words we speak. I lament how so often it seems the evangelical church has lost art and the power and beauty of visual art in fear of being offensive or blasphemous. I was at a wedding recently in a new church building which apart from candles and decorations felt like an empty soulless shell. I long for churches to recover visual art. It’s not something I ever grew up with attending a brethren church but a conviction that has grown as I have become more aware of the creativity that God instills in us and the power of beauty to instil hope.

So bring on a more colourful and beauty-full church – and enjoy the posters on Jim LePage’s site many of which depict the books in a wonderful honesty we sometimes don’t get in church…

Leading by the book?

Over at the Innovista Ireland page I’m asking what leadership shaped by the ‘good book’ should/could look like.

Is the model of leadership practised in most of our churches really a biblical one?

How can we move towards an understanding and practice of leadership that is less ‘one-man-band’ or about maintaining the status quo but instead more closely reflects the New Testament?

Those are the questions I have been asked to tackle in a seminar at New Horizon on Wednesday 20th July. At 10pm (As if the questions weren’t daunting enough!)

What do you think?

Head on over to weigh in…

Weeding (out the heretics?)

The coming of spring sun and longer nights finally spurred me out of winter hibernation and into finally starting to tackle our garden. Over the winter I had tried to avoid looking at it, preferring to think of it as a wild habitat. The sight of our elderly neigbour’s beautiful spring blooms finally spurred my shame into action. The garden is full of flowers, but was also full of weeds. It may be hard to believe but this picture is taken after an afternoon and evening’s weeding. The weeds I managed to remove (mostly dandelions) filled two black bags. It was fascinating to see how the weeds were tangled around the flowers, the roots of the weeds and bulbs almost intertwined. As you can tell the garden still isn’t exactly a thing of beauty, and removing the weeds caused a fair bit of damage to the flowers. It’s hard to get rid of weeds by the root without pulling out a few good plants. Or to get at some of the weeds without standing on lots of the plants. But at least the flowers not have less weeds to compete with for sunlight and nutrients.

It got me thinking about the parable Jesus told about sowing seed, how the weeds choke the good plants, and also about the wheat and the weeds.

Getting rid of the weeds without causing too much damage to the good plants is a painstaking and delicate process. I could have done a much better job but my impatience got the better and I just planted my size tens on top of a few bunches of daffodils to get at the weeds.

I wonder if sometimes in our passion to be right and root out the heresies we take the quick route (pardon the pun) and end up causing some unnecessary damage to ‘good’ people, trying to figure out how to follow Jesus. It seems to me sometimes the readiness of some people to brand someone or something heretical without fully engaging with the questions/fears/doubts they raise may be an example of this.

The collateral damage caused by rooting out the weeds choking the flowers seems to be dependent on the sensitivity and patience of the gardener…

Will the ‘real’ Rob Bell please stand up?

So it seems Rob Bell has a new book coming out which seems to be stirring up a lot of controversy (or just an absolutely cracking marketing campaign by HarperOne -the publishers?). At the weekend he hit top ten in twitter trending topics. Now if you know anything about Rob Bell you’ll know a lot of people aren’t exactly what you could call fans. So spare a thought for a web designer called Rob Bell in the UK whose twitter address is unsurprisingly @robbell (he got in there first). Rob Bell the author/speaker is @realrobbell. Why he needs to insist his namesake is not real is beyond me.

I’d love to know how the web designer feels about being the subject of so much anger by Christians..

Some of his tweets are wonderfully gracious and amusing:

@andrew_novell I wish anger was an emotion that led to buying websites, but if that were true I’d be minted!

@andresdja When you read it, let me know – I don’t remember writing it 🙂

@the_youthguy I’m not writing a book, not at the moment, so don’t clear a space on your bookshelf yet! It’s a shame to see anyone hating me

Remember, it’s @robbell for wonderful web services & @realrobbellfor contemporary christianity, simples! http://ht.ly/44t1I 🙂

@sethtowerhurd Do I have to fight @johnpiper or something? I’m not really into fighting, can I get @joelauzon to stand in for me?

Tomorrow on mistaken identities we’ll be talking to plumber Osama Bin Laden, dinner lady Kim Kardashian, and bricklayer Lany Gaga

@geekrev why would they preach about me, I’m but a web monkey from England? I know my front room’s a bit untidy, but Hell’s a bit much!

I look forward to the day when my namesake has to deal with all the Geeks, Marketers & SMB Folk trending my name for something I said, lol

@theonetruemyles who is this @johnpiper and why is he denouncing me? Did he not like a website I designed?

@reverendjohnson do they? Why would an entire religion want to bash a simple Englishman like myself? I’m quite concerned…

oh dear, my namesake is now a Trending Topic worldwide on Twitter, best get ready for fresh lunacy! What else is gonna go mad today?!?Dear Christians, I am not @realrobbell although I hear he does really great things. Please at least look before you ‘quote’ me as him

Poor guy! Although it does raise an interesting question about the grace and gentleness with which Christians treat each other with. I remember Jesus saying something about people knowing we are his followers by the way we love each other. I don’t think we’re painting a very good picture at the moment…

As for the book. The buzz is making me want to read it – so well done admen. I’ll maybe form an opinion then. Its good to question and debate but its also important to show some grace… I remember being at an event with Rob Bell speaking (the author) and when he asked how he deals with all the criticism his answer was “it hurts..”