Category Archives: Religion

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…


And they claim the Orange Order isn’t sectarian?

The Orange Order is opening disciplinary procedures against two of its members – the politicians Tom Elliot and Danny Kennedy for attending the funeral of murdered PSNI Officer Ronan Kerr.  It follows a complaint made by members of an Orange Lodge (interestingly called ‘Total Abstinence’).

I had to double take when I read this, living in Dublin puts some of the issues I grew up with in a great deal of perspective.

The reason? Because members of the Orange Order are banned from attending Catholic masses and in so attending they have apparently:

“sold their principles for political expediency”

It seems crazy that two politicians who in their attendance of the funeral are reaching out and walking some of the steps of reconciliation between the communities, who are showing respect, should be censured in this way and indeed be accused of political expediency.

What can we do to bring an end to this sectarianism that pollutes the north? What is the role of the church in speaking up and speaking prophetically? What is the role of the ‘chaplains’ of the Orange Order to be held to account by their denominations?

It seems as if the Orange Order is still living in a fear and siege mentality – afraid of the pollution that will come from the ‘papists’. Maybe it’s time for them to re-examine their ‘Protestant faith’ and take some time to soak in the the words of Jesus who is at it’s centre. They are welcome to take a trip down the road to see that of the ‘threats’ (if such language is even appropriate) to their ‘faith’, the Catholic church doesn’t exactly have the influence it once had. But then if the Catholic church is not a threat, and their identity is rooted in opposition to that church then who are they?

Perhaps that is the issue. When we find our identity in opposition to an ‘other’ we define ourselves by what we are not. When that ‘other’ wanes in power or influence we are left with an identity crisis. Perhaps a legitimate question is ‘is there a future for the Orange Order?’.

Vocational Neighbouring

A phrase and concept voiced at an ‘in conversation with…’ event hosted by the excellent EBM/skainos yesterday. Bob Lupton was the conversationalist in question, sharing his experiences of mission in an urban context in Atlanta, Georgia. Wish I’d known about him when I had an enforced stay there. Bob works in inner city Atlanta, and after a decade travelling in, moved there with his family.

The concept of vocational neighbouring grabbed me – its something I have discussed, argued about and pondered, and that something others are trying to have a lash at.

Bob has some great turns of phrase – especially the question – does God have an opinin on where he deploys his saints? When we are making decisions about buying houses and where to live the common elements to are  shops, schools, safety etc, but how much does our desire to see the kingdom of God break in influence those decisions? How much do we think about the areas of the city that need our gifts and skills and abilities? It is true that often the communities in which we exist are more than just the geographical one in which we reside but that doesn’t mean we ignore our location. I think it can be true that where we live, or perhaps how we live where we live can have significant influence on our ability to be redemptive influences. In terms of redemptive influence I guess when it comes to vocational neighbouring it is a long slow patient, incarnational process.

In the block of flats where I live this is pretty difficult – no-one seems prepared to engage in conversation, or too willing to engage in relationship. It is a block of anonymous people who don’t interact. That’s why I prefer houses, at least then you are more likely to see and be able to chat to your neighbours. Bob also talked about how caring, achieving neighbours can dramatically influence people. It is an interesting thought that about making possibility visible. He told a story of his son applying for a part-time job, coming back and telling his neighbourhood friends that this company were looking part-time workers. Subsequently 5 of them ended up working there. Perhaps being a neighbour is about bringing hope by demonstrating that change is possible in our lives, and using the connections we have to be neighbours to those around us.

There was also some intriguing discussion on whether churches ‘compete’ with communities –  how the ‘best’ Christians are often ‘un’ neighbours as their time is consumed by serving the programmes of their church. This raises the question – is the work of the church (or the institution) sometimes in opposition to the work of the kingdom in a particular place? Do churches ‘consume’ our time and talent instead of releasing us to serve in the community?



The Orange Order is in decline…

Northern Ireland Orange OrderAnd I can’t say I’m too sorry to hear it. Membership of the order in Northern Ireland has more than halved in the last 60 years. Grand Secretary Drew Nelson blames the decline primarily on the increasing secularisation in Northern Ireland, and that the order was suffering the same fate as churches with people turning away from religion. Interesting and heavily ironic. As an organisation that encourages its members to be church-goers it too is struggling with the church. Or perhaps people are turning away from bad religion as experienced in the Orange Order. Growing up in East Belfast there certainly seemed little connection with church as I knew it to the drinking and sectarianism of the local bands and orangemen. Nelson’s second reason for the decline is:

“Secondly, there’s the whole ethos of the state in Northern Ireland – it appears to be leaning somewhat against the Orange Order.”

In which he refers to PSNI members having to inform superiors of their membership of the order. Just right too. I wouldn’t want any policemen or women to be members of any sort of sectarian, never mind historically misguided organisation which brings ambiguity at best to the gospel of Jesus. The Jesus who told us to love our enemies and to serve – which seem to be things the Orange Order has forgotten or fails to practise.

Could it also be suggested that the fall in membership of the Orange Order is also a result of the ending of the troubles and many trying to move away from the sectarianism that has been eating away at us for the last who knows how long?

The Moderators and the Presbyterian Mutual

I’m sure we’re all a little bored by the story of the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual and the Presbyterian church’s quest to get the government to rescue it. Yes to get the government to bail out the church. I’m not as well versed with the goings on as Will and crookedshore. I’m also aware that it is very easy to take cheap shots at churches – or the institutional parts of them at least. So this post isn’t a cheap shot, it comes off the back of several conversations about a variety of things. One was to do with a view that the biggest challenge to leadership development in the church is sectarianism. Another invovled asking if the commonly perceived view that often the church turns people away from following Jesus because of its hypocrisy is not actually true, and that maybe the problem is that the church is living out what it believes. If that is the case then the gospel it believes bears little resemblence to the gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus spoke of. Another had to do with the old adage that you can tell what we value by what we do or speak up about. You may or may not be aware that 23 previous moderators of the Presbyterian Church wrote to the British and Irish governments asking them for help. Am I being too harsh in asking why when money is involved all these former moderators are happy to sign a letter? Where was such unity in speaking out against sectarianism, denials of civil rights to certain sections of the community, global injustices, in fighting for the rights of the poor and marginalised in our communities? Is this speaking out a damning indictment of previous silences? It begs the question what would I have done? What have I done? What are the things I am prepared to speak out on and get upset about? Despite what I say what does that reveal about the values deep in me and the true state of my heart?

It’s o so quiet – have Irish church leaders lost their voice?

On Boxing/St. Stephen’s day, the BBC website carries stories about church leaders speaking prophetically into our culture in Wales, England and Scotland. There was a general story on the front page, alongside the Pope’s Christmas message. But then I began to look for what Irish church leaders were saying at Christmas. Maybe because it’s Christmas church leaders get more airtime, and it was interesting to read most of them speaking intelligently and some might say prophetically into our society and culture. A simple trawl of stories on front page and search deeper into Europe and NI sections reveal nothing. Is it just they are not getting reported or have church leaders in Ireland lost their voice?

Finally some Justice as kerb-crawlers have to pay more than just cash

It shocked me a couple of years ago to discover that women (or men) could be prosecuted for prostitution but yet those who paid for their services had no censure.
It seems crazy in this scenario that one of the two parties is doing something illegal and the other isn’t, that there is such a disparity. Either they are both ok, or both deserve censure.
But then I guess for too long its been the men that make the laws, and men who use and abuse prostitutes, men who keep women in the vicious circle that prostitution becomes. So obviously they didn’t want to make kerb crawling illegal.

Its not too dissimilar from that story in John 8 (the dubious part of John). Reading it and using it for some stuff with students it really struck me how one of the things Jesus seems to be doing is challenging the injustice of the situation. This woman was dragged in to be stoned having been caught in the act (of adultery). Now if she was caught in the act it would seem to be normal that the guy was also caught in the act but what happened him? Why wasn’t he dragged out to be stoned? Because it was the woman’s fault? The innate sexism in the society of the time maybe isn’t too different from today in many ways. As Jesus challenges whichever of the religious leaders who was without fault to throw the first stone, I wonder if in that he was challenging the injustice of women being punished for the same thing that the guy managed to get off Scot free with.

It seems to have taken 2000 years for the same sense of injustice to hit the UK with Home Secretary Jacqui smith announcing a range of new laws to deal with those paying for sex, and especially with trafficed sex workers. Still not a crime to be a pimp and pimp out women though. It seems we still have a way to go…

For another perspective from someone who spends time with many of the women ‘working’ on the streets of Belfast check out a Velvet Bridge.

Relevance? or Reality?

Is the church relevant today? It the question being posed by BBC Newsline’s latest mini series on faith. With footage of a declining traditional church, a doom-mongering priest and of vibrant youth events with cool music and trendy speakers the impression given was that unless the church is ‘relevant’ it will die off. But what are we talking about when we talk about relevance? For many people and the BBC programme it seems to be about aesthetics – the church is relevant when it has ‘contemporary music’ (don’t get me started on my views of lots of ‘christian’ music) or cool visuals, or trendy speakers who sit on stools and dress down to give their talk. But if this is what we are thinking about when we think about being relevant to our culture I think we’ve got it all wrong. The church – God’s people on earth – his means of bringing the good news of the kingdom can never and should never be irrelevant. I think the problem is more the church is not dealing in reality. Too many churches and too many Christians pretend. The bible is full of the gritty questions of life, of meaning, of purpose, of love and loss, relationships, justice and injustice. God deals in reality and in the messiness of people’s lives. The message of the gospel is one of reconciliation that speaks into every part of our lives. The problem is that churches have become divorced from reality, many play at Christianity, pretending to live happy lives, not acknowledging the reality of how messed up things are at times, not admitting when they don’t understand. The show Christianity we see in many places, and many of us (me included) is almost a denial of the gospel which actually tells us that we aren’t ok, that building our life on anything other than God won’t work long term, that God became one of us and lived among us in poverty and oppression, that there is hope of redemption and resurrection through a path of suffering and death, that we are forgiven but won’t be perfect until Jesus returns.

So maybe the issue isn’t that the church needs to be relevant and have up to date music, glitzy multimedia presentations, and trendy TV show host-esque communicators, maybe for lots of us the problem is that churches don’t deal with the reality of people’s lives – if there was more honesty and dealing with the issues we all struggle with instead of peddling trite shite then maybe the church would connect better with people around them as it is speaking abut the issues they are facing and bringing good news into those situations.

If Jesus was present in many of our churches today (of course meaning more than just a Sunday service!) I imagine he would bring a dose of reality that may not make him very welcome…

A few thoughts in progress from a slightly fuzzy post lunch Friday brain…

A Man Called Cash – Steve Turner

I sat slightly embarrassed on the bus a couple of days, misty eyed as I read the last few chapters of Steve Turners fantastic look at the life of Johnny Cash. Unlike many biographies he didn’t gloss over anything, its a brutally honest appraisal yet that is exactly how Cash himself was. Its made me dip back into the back collection of ‘the man in black’ and discover the haunting power of many of his songs.

Beginning to understand more of who Cash was, the transparency of his faith and failings has breathed new life into many of his songs. The man who dressed in black, and had seen so much of death was at the same time someone obsessed with life. His faith and Turner’s last chapter on that inspired me no end. Cash for me is an example of a treasure in a clay pot – all is there to see and amid the failings God is clearly at work. Perhaps Cash lived out that battle in public that most live out in private, pretending n the outside that everything is fine when actually the pain, the struggles are overwhelming.

Perhaps Cash’s greatest attribute was the recognition that he knew what it was like to be in the places were many are, so when it came to faith there was never a self-righteous, sanctimonious or ‘preachy’ way with him. Larry Gatlin described Cash and June’s life as an open book, people who weren’t perfect but had found hope that they shared. The God that shined through Cash related and spoke to people as he wasn’t dressed in cliches, and genuinely cared for people. Bono summed it up well

“People were selling God like a commodity, and I couldn’t relate to them. Then I met Johnny Cash and i felt like him. You read the scriptures and you realise that he’s actually like these guys in the scriptures. He’s not like these weirdos.”

Maybe a good dose of Cash-esque honesty may be of more use to the church than slick programmes and great pretenders…