Monday 22 October 2007

Real Kitch from a Virtual Friend

One of my regular haunts on the blogosphere is Reallivepreacher.com aka Gordon Atkinson. Recently his first book also called reallivepreacher.com was remaindered (no reflection on its quality) and Gordon bought up the entire stock to sell to his online friends. I had already read the book but I had to have another copy because this time he was personalizing each edition. My copy, as well as a lengthy inscription also contained between its pages the following items: A Texas Music CD, A Maryland quarter, a US postcard of Route 66 and finally the item in the pics which is self explanatory! I just had to share it :-) (Double click on images to see larger version)

Sunday 14 October 2007

Telling it as it is!

I wish I had the courage to do something like this.....Maybe one day.

Saturday 13 October 2007

Pain so close to Pleasure?

Sermon for Sunday 14th October 2007

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c & Luke 17: 11-19

Leprosy is the common factor in our readings today. Of all of the diseases that afflict human beings Leprosy is at the same time the most familiar to us and the most unfamiliar. It is familiar because all of us grew up with it being the most widely supported overseas charity in our churches and perhaps most especially in our parish schools. Those ‘L’ shaped red transparent boxes are one of the earliest images that remain imprinted on my mind since my days in primary school in Abbeystrewry National School in Skibbereen, West Cork.

And yet for all that how much do we really know about Leprosy? – Do we really know what it is and what it does? We associate it with mutilated limbs and faces but perhaps we are a little blurry on the details. For those of you who are not quite clear on it let me describe it in a nutshell:

Leprosy’s effect upon the body is devastating. Where it attacks it causes a loss of the sense of touch. That doesn't sound too bad but consider the implications. When you reach for the cooker to pick up a frying pan that is hot you immediately drop it and put ice on the burn. You watch as your skin turns red and blister. Now, if you had leprosy you would grab the pan and feel nothing. You've lost your sense of touch. You carry the pan unaware of the damage it is doing to your hand. As you set the pan down and remove your hand several layers of your skin are left around the handle. But you feel nothing! You have no pain – and so everything must be alright but it isn’t!

Philip Yancey in his book called, "Where Is God When It Hurts" tells the story of a basketball player Bob Gross. He insisted on playing in a key game despite a badly injured ankle. Knowing that Gross was an important part of the game, the team doctor injected Marcaine, a strong painkiller into three different places of his foot. Gross started the game, but after a few minutes, as he was battling for possession, a loud snap could be heard throughout the arena!
Gross, oblivious to the break, ran up and down the court twice more, then crumpled to the floor. He felt no pain, and yet a bone had broken in his ankle. By overriding pain's warning system with the anesthetic, permanent damage had resulted and so ended the basketball career of Bob Gross.

To the question “Where is God when it hurts?” we could answer: God is in the pain! Sometimes a bit like disappointment and failure, pain is a way of telling us to do things another way – to change direction and to reconsider our plans. It’s a well worn cliché but sometimes it is true – “No pain, No gain!”

In the readings today then healing is actually a recovery of the ability to feel pain. Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram and the 10 Lepers are healed and can once again feel pain.

Perhaps it’s a strange way of looking at it but it is quite important when we consider it a little further. Without pain life would be nothing but pleasure, there would be no values because whatever you did could only bring pleasure, there would be no need for Love because it would be surplus to requirement, there would no need for loyal friends because there would be no situations in which you needed the support of loyal friends. And so in other words while we do not welcome pain (unless we are very strange) we realise that it is an intrinsic part of the human condition. Without it life would be meaningless bliss – perhaps enjoyable for a little while but ultimately totally destructive and enslaving. Pain is a necessary part of our human experience.

But so too is healing – and like pain it has a few surprises rolled up its sleeve. Healing happens in the most unexpected ways and sometimes it doesn’t seem to happen at all. For Naaman before he could be healed he had to let go of a lot that was dear to him – He had to let go of his pride – he had to accept firstly that this was something that he a mighty warrior could not do for himself – despite all his conquests he was helpless in the face of this illness.

Not only that but he had to travel to a foreign land and accept the advice passed on by a mere messenger telling him to do the most sensless thing – to wash 7 times in the Jordan! He ridicules this suggestion and only reconsiders when his own servant points out that he would have responded otherwise if he had been asked to do something difficult to achieve healing! But because it was a simple thing he was being asked to do it made his own powerlessness even more obvious – he was humiliated and yet the message got through and in what was effectively a declaration of faith he did bathe 7 times in the Jordan and was cleansed and healed.

When we turn to the Gospel we another dimension of this healing from leprosy – again location is important (location, location, location is a phrase that had meaning long before the now fading property boom). We are told that we are on the border between Galilee and Samaria – This was not just any border, this was a border every bit as tense as our own border with Northern Ireland once was. But the message here is that earthly boundaries and rules are overturned by the Kingdom of God – Jesus extends his healing to all, including a Samaritan and what is more attaches no conditions to the healing of the 10 – All they must do is show themselves to the priests!

There is a very important message here – The Grace of God is not dependent on our action – Its not so much that we have to earn God’s love – that is a given! – Grace is something we can opt out of but there is no need to opt in because God has already taken the initiative in our lives. This has been described by some as the scandal of Grace – it does not make sense – it certainly doesn’t add up in mathematical terms – there is nothing that we do or can do to deserve or earn God’s Love and what is more it is offered to ALL!

It is no wonder Jesus was seen as a heretic in his day because effectively this subverts all religious systems that seek to control access to God! Not just then but now!

It is a powerful reminder to those of us who call ourselves Church that God is not limited by the boundaries that we draw in the world. The healing of the 10 lepers, regardless of their faith or lack of faith reminds us of the Universality of the Love of God! In performing this miracle where he did and to whom he did Jesus sets the world on fire – he throws out the rule book and gives the complacent and the comfortable a firm boot up the backside!

There is also a lesson to be learned from the conclusion of the story – As you will recall, only one former leper returns to give thanks and he is a Samaritan, an outsider! He is on the margins and yet he is the one, the only one who realises the full significance of what has happened. The others, the insiders take it for granted but the outsider, the Samaritan gets it!

Where is the Church today? Where are we today? – Are we on the margins or are we on the safe ground, the centre where we can maintain our comfort zone around us? Or, are we like Naman becoming aware that we may have to leave this place if we are to find true wholeness, fulfilment and the healing of God?

I leave you with one question: Where would Jesus have us be?.......................

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Rapture - Not what you think!

Via Bock the Robber and Darwin:

This is good - a wonderful if slightly cruel prank played on a very gullible disciple of the 'Left-Behind' nonsense ;-) If you are of the opinion that faith is based on a secure evacuation to heaven then this will probably offend you and further reading of this blog will only serve to convince you further of my heresy! If not - enjoy!

Friday 5 October 2007

Harvest Sermon

Bits of this appeared in an earlier posting: Crazy World - Irish Rugby, Spiderman 3 and the Gardai in Lusk but this is 'churchy' version (greatly expanded).

“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression”


In tonight’s Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy chapter 26, a reading which gives us wonderful imagery, such as “a land flowing with milk and honey”, and a promise that “you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given you”, you might be surprised that I chose as my text for tonight one of the preceding verses which seems to be more about suffering than thanksgiving and celebration! Words like ‘hard labour’ , ‘toil’, ‘affliction’ and ‘oppression’ do not fit well with our traditional understanding and expectations of harvest!

When I think of Harvest the kind of words and pictures that come to my mind are of a happy event, the culmination of a years work – a testimony to the skill of the farmer in knowing when to sow and when to reap, how much fertilizer to use, when to spray – I see full grain silos and plenty of hay and straw, and churches such as this one decorated with the fruits of your labours. We have also come to realize in recent times that harvest is not just a rural festival but can also be a time for those who do not work on the land to give thanks for the fruits of their labour, whether in the home, the office the factory or wherever. But what all of these aspects of Harvest have in common is that they are about success! Harvest is traditionally about success albeit a success in which we acknowledge that God plays the decisive role.

Thankfully this year has, despite predictions to the contrary, been a success – the twin threats of torrential rain and the proximity of Foot and Mouth ultimately did not frustrate the harvest and while quality and quantity might have been down, prices were up enough to compensate. And so this year we do have a lot to be thankful for.

But – What about others? What about the vast swathes of English countryside where the fields turned to Lakes, what about the farms affected by Foot and Mouth and now Blue tongue….. and further afield, what about the Sudan where war and population displacement have destroyed the farming infrastructure or parts of Africa and Asia where drought regularly makes the land barren and infertile?

How would we feel about the harvest if that was the situation we found ourselves in, or to take harvest in its broadest context how do we celebrate harvest when we feel our own lives are not bearing fruit? I don’t want to be a dampner but these are very real questions if harvest is to have meaning in the bad times as well as the good – and I believe it can and does, and perhaps even more meaning in times of catastrophe and pain.

So what is there in this notion of harvest that we can take into the darker corners of our lives? Surely harvest thanksgiving in times of disaster is empty and hollow?! That may be but let us consider what we are saying by implication – We are saying I will praise God not because God is God and worthy of praise at all times but I will praise God when God gives me what I need or want! In other words its about me – Its not about God! Its about my success!

This fascination with success was brought home to me recently in the context of Ireland’s World Cup campaign and the criticism of the squad and most especially Coach Eddie O’Sullivan. Criticism is certainly justified but it is thrust of that criticism that concerns me. It was typified by the crass interview question put by TV3 reporter, Sinéad Kissane, who asked if, in light of the Irish performances in their pool, he would now consider his position. This to me was depressingly symptomatic of the ‘One strike you’re out’ culture which now defines Irish society. In this rarefied environment failure is unacceptable and carries an immediate and terminal penalty. This is a pessimistic culture which assumes we are defined by our past with no hope for a better future – once a failure always a failure! Such a society that cannot accept failure and learn from it is dehumanising and demoralizing. It ensures constant frustration and ultimately destroys the learning curve that is part of life. To use a basic if not base analogy: When potty-training a child do we expect a constant and unbroken progression or do we resign ourselves to the inevitability of the you know what occasionally hitting the fan rather than the potty? One of the things that appeals to me about Christianity is the expectation that we will make a mess of life on a regular basis – and that despite this we can pick up the pieces and start again. We may live in a post-Christian Ireland but this is one element of Christianity that even the most militant secularist might usefully take on board. The alternative is a very ruthless and cruel society where success is the new God and failure the new leprosy! Its worth noting that the Gospel from Luke 17 about the healing of the 10 lepers does not see leprosy as the end! – There is life after leprosy!

This is an area where we as church can make a difference – we can challenge a society which is based on instant gratification and a lack of tolerance for failure.
In a time of instant credit, instant communication there seems to be no place for looking forward – we live in the moment and what we cannot have now is useless and irrelevant to us.
Something happened to me this week that illustrated this perfectly. On Wednesday afternoon I got a phone call from my wife who was in Scotland on business. She had called to confer over a gift for our son. She was in Woolworths and saw ‘Spiderman 3’ DVDs on sale and was checking whether he had already got the film. I was able to tell her that he had not and so she decided to buy it as a “I’m home – sorry for going away gift”. A few minutes later another call from Scotland – “It’s not available yet! – It’s only on pre-order! – all the DVD boxes were empty! – The displays were just an enticement to purchase something that didn’t yet exist! Not only can we not wait for success but we can’t wait for anything and if we can’t have it now then we console ourselves in purchasing an option now on future fulfilment. It seems to me that this demonstrates how insecure we are as a society. We worship success but we have no resources to deal with failure and disappointment.

So, how do we turn our failures around? How do we celebrate harvest through times of ‘toil and oppression’ as the writer of Deuteronomy describes it?
For me the answer, or at least the beginning of an answer came in a sermon I heard last Sunday. We clergy don’t get to hear others preaching very often and it is important to hear others proclaim the Gospel if we are not to get entirely wrapped up in our own agendas. This is where the internet is a great resource – Some years ago while visiting America I paid a very short visit to Harvard university campus in Cambridge Mass and in the college bookshop came across a book of sermons by Peter Gomes, an African American who is the senior chaplain to the university. I came to love his writing and still listen to his preaching online on a regular basis. Last Sunday he preached a sermon entitled “When things don’t go your way”, and there were a couple of very profound observations that he made that might be helpful to us. He said that it was important to make mistakes and that we should even be thankful for our mistakes!

Does that sound strange? It should do! It flies directly in the face of the culture of success that increasingly dominates our lives! So why or how can mistakes be a good thing? Because they present an opportunity for change. Our mistakes draw us up short – they cause us to stop dead in our tracks and ask questions like Why did that happen? What am I doing wrong? How could I do better? What are the things that really matter to me?

These are questions we don’t ask when things are going well – rather we sail on regardless, increasingly addicted to the drug of success and with no time for reflection. I can’t remember who said it and the quote may even be a bit inaccurate but there is a lot of truth in the saying that “an unexamined life is no life at all”. Reflection and memory are part of being human – how sad it is if we have no time for them!

Our own Judaeo Christian tradition has huge resources to help us with living through the difficulties of life into a time of fruition and harvest. Harold Kushner a Jewish rabbi points to the story of Cain and Abel (the sons of Adam and Eve) and how Cain killed Abel and then fled as a fugitive. Despite that tragedy which taught Adam and Eve about heartbreak, they picked up the pieces, had a third child and several more after that. Commenting on the same passage, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said of Adam & Eve: “It is a fine thing to begin, but it is a much greater thing to begin again after what you have worked for has been taken from you. Again coming from Auschwitz (the most terrible failure of humanity) was Victor Frankl who said: “What happens to you, no matter how hurtful or unfair, is ultimately less important than what you do about what happens to you.

So back to tonight and our celebrations – let us indeed be thankful for the success that is demonstrated around us – for the Harvest, for the fruits of our labours that God has blessed. And let us also try and bring that harvest into the broken parts of our lives and our World – We might be surprised at how receptive those places can be – but perhaps we should not for as the songwriter Leonard Cohen puts it: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”.

Thursday 4 October 2007

Lecture of a Lifetime

Randy Pausch is a US college professor who is terminally ill. In what will probably be his last few months he is facing the prospect of death head on and in a very public manner. Here he delivers his 'last lecture'. A lot of wisdom in this man's thinking, which while not cold is certainly not sugar-coated or overly sentimental. This is straight talking about an issue we will all face sometime.

UPDATE: Full lecture is available here

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Crazy World - Irish Rugby, Spiderman 3 and the Gardai in Lusk

It’s been a funny sort of a day today – busy, but with some time to reflect on the absurdity of existence. I spent a lot of time in the car and listened to various stuff downloaded from itunes, including a wonderful sermon preached by Peter Gomes of Harvard Memorial Chapel last Sunday. The sermon had the title: “When things don’t go your way”. It was a superb argument for the importance of making mistakes, which might sound strange but Gomes made a convincing argument for the case that it is through our mistakes rather than our successes that we grow and develop. Our mistakes pull us up short and cause us to ask the ‘Why’ questions of life and to reflect on what we are doing wrong so that we can move on and do better. Gomes even goes so far as to suggest we should be ‘thankful’ for our mistakes!

In light of this I couldn’t help but think of the Irish rugby squad and coach Eddie O’Sullivan. I watched the immediate aftermath of the defeat by Argentina last Sunday afternoon and was disgusted by the crass ignorance of TV3 reporter Sinéad Kissane who asked if, in light of the Irish performances in their pool, he would now consider his position. This to me was depressingly symptomatic of the ‘One strike you’re out’ culture which now defines Irish society. In this rarefied environment failure is unacceptable and carries an immediate and terminal penalty. This is a pessimistic culture which assumes we are defined by our past with no hope for a better future – once a failure always a failure! Such a society that cannot accept failure and learn from it is dehumanising and demoralizing. It ensures constant frustration and ultimately destroys the learning curve that is part of life. To use a basic if not base analogy: When potty-training a child do we expect a constant and unbroken progression or do we resign ourselves to the inevitability of the shit occasionally hitting the fan rather than the potty? One of the things that appeals to me about Christianity is the expectation that we will make a balls of it on a regular basis – and that despite this we can pick up the pieces and start again. We may live in a post-Christian Ireland but this is one element of Christianity that even the most militant secularist might usefully take on board. The alternative is a very ruthless and cruel society where success is the new God and failure the new leprosy!

This afternoon I got a phone call from my wife who is in Scotland on business. She had called to confer over a gift for our son. She was in Woolworths and saw ‘Spiderman 3’ DVDs on sale and was checking whether he had already got the film. I was able to tell her that he had not and so she decided to buy it as a “I’m home – sorry for going away gift”. A few minutes later another call from Scotland – “It’s not available yet! – It’s only on pre-order! – all the DVD boxes were empty! – The displays were just an enticement to purchase something that didn’t exist! Being in a reflective and profound mood this immediately struck me as another perfect example of the impatience of our culture – not only can we not wait for success but we can’t wait for anything and if we can’t have it now then we console ourselves in purchasing an option on future fulfilment. Talk about insecure!

The last provocation for my philosophical musings came with the evening news and the announcement that the Lusk enquiry had sensibly ruled that the armed robbers who had threatened the lives of innocent civilians by their actions had had ample opportunity to surrender before being shot. Thankfully the political correct bleeding hearts lobby had been frustrated in their attempts to blame the gardai for their deaths. I was surprised at Connor Brady (who I thought quite sensible in his previous Irish Times incarnation) and his inept and clumsy intervention in the procedure. There is no question that any death involving members of the gardai should be investigated but that does not mean that the integrity of the force should be undermined by unsubstantiated claims of undue force. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. If gardai are met by armed (or possibly armed) criminals they have every right to protect their own lives and the lives of innocent civilians with lethal force. I don’t see why any guard should have to risk their own life on the possibility that a criminal may or may not fire on them. If a criminal carries a gun then they have already determined the rules of engagement for themselves and anybody who accompanies them. Excuse the pun but we need to cop on and support the gardai who face the real ‘One strike you’re out’ situations on a daily basis!

Monday 1 October 2007

Choir for Sale on Ebay! - In Good Condition!

Yes its true!
Venerable Anglican scarlet-robed choral tradition (SATB), of St Stephen's Church, Centre of Bristol. Good condition.
Reason for sale: The choir have (with extreme sadness) decided that even though they would have liked to have assisted with the future plans for the church, they essentially have no place in the new worship arrangements that will soon be imposed, and that little opportunity for negotiation now exists.
Over the past few years the choir have sung in guest appearances at: Notre Dame de Paris, Wells Cathedral, Buckfast Abbey, Bristol Cathedral, and St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, and produced well reviewed concerts.
Bid for this item on Ebay