distances have been shortened at an astonishing rate…

‘Fast and cheap transportation has been one of the main products of the Industrial Revolution. Distances have been shortened at an astonishing pace. Day by day the world seems smaller and smaller and societies that for millennia practically ignored each other are suddenly put in contact – or in conflict. In our dealings, in politics as in economics, in health organization as in military strategy, a new point of view is forced upon us. Somewhere in the past people had to move from an urban or regional point of view to a national one. Today we have to adjust ourselves and our way of thinking to a global point of view.’

Carlo Cipolla, The Economic History of World Population.

church

That paragraph is lifted from a book first published in 1962, over 50 years ago.

It struck me as  I feel like I’m constantly having a new point of view ‘forced’ upon me through the ‘fast and cheap transportation’ of people in our church. Not that travel is cheap. But it used to be that once people left Ireland the likelihood was that they wouldn’t return. Now people routinely fly back and forth from places like Australia or the USA. We hop on Ryanair flights with little thought.

It allows tourists from places like China to appear here on Sunday mornings (as they did this morning).
It brings students from South America or Europe to the university or to study English. It brings doctors or nurses from Asia to work in the hospital, it brings people who just want a new start in life and choose  the west of Ireland.
It allows some to flee their countries as they are in grave danger and they end up living in direct provision accommodation. Their travel isn’t cheap or choice taken lightly but in less than a day they can leave somewhere in Africa and be thrust into life here in Ireland. That movement of thousands of miles in a day is a relatively new phenomena in terms of world history.

Sometimes I like having a new point of view forced upon me because it adds angles on life and brings a better understanding of the planet we live on  but other times it leaves me exhausted. How am I supposed to understand culture when there are so many cultures to understand? In our church there are so many differentcountries and tourists passing through that I find it hard not feel like I’m being overwhelmed.

As I’ve probably mentioned before world events that used to seem so far away now seem close and sometimes that makes me wonder how to say sane.
A ferry sinks in Korea, suddenly you are aware of the Korean in the church.
A Malaysian plane goes missing, suddenly you are aware of the Malaysian in church.
Boko Haram attrocities make you wonder about the Nigerians in church.
And so on.

Someone in church recently asked for prayer about the Ebola outbreak in Guinea as they are worried about friends and family. Years ago I would have watched something like that on the news and thought that it wasn’t my problem. Now things like that seem like they might be my problem because they are a problem for a brother or sister in our small church and we are to carry each others burdens.

Growing up a Presbyterian in Northern Ireland you were usually aware of  the hurt caused to certain people in your congregation  because of terrorists and ‘The Troubles’. Usually you are informed with  knowledge and understanding that allows you interact with the person as you know the culture and have lived through the bad times as well. You can read read body language or between the lines. It can help you deal sensitively with the person.

Yet I feel that I don’t have any of that basic cultural understanding of the vast majority of people in my church. If I was talking to someone from Lisburn over tea and coffee I think that I might be able to read between the lines if they say something. With someone from Nigeria I struggle.  Language can be hard sometimes. I mumble a lot and speak quickly. If you are an English student from Korea you will struggle to understand me.

That is without considering the cheap and instant transportation of virtual people and their tweets and causes, their issues and campaigns. And they’re not virtual people of course, they are real people with real concerns and passions. So as a Christian should I love my global neighbour and try to take it on board and try to become world Christ like in my response to how LGBT are treated in Uganda?  We should pray for the Turkish miners, the Crimea, Syria, South Sudan etc.

It has made me a bit world weary with some stuff.

The distances might have shortened at an astonishing rate but my brain and soul isn’t a computer. It needs time and space to reflect. In a small church like ours that seems to literally throw and churn up new people all the time from every corner of the world I don’t know how sometimes. I can’t save the world, yet in a small local church how do I love my family when they are so diverse and foreign to my understanding?

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sometimes I miss the blue hymnbook

I probably write the same things over and over again, like a bluebottle banging his head against the kitchen window and I’m not going to let that stop me doing it again.

Sometimes I just don’t know what is going on with my life, or more specifically with my church life, which can sometimes seem like my life.

Here I am living in a manse, in a pretty middle class area, married to a minister (a female minister), in a church that is mostly Methodist, where most if not all of the children are African-Irish, with lots of single parent families, and asylum seekers, and people from different parts of the world on the edge of an Irish speaking region, in a city that pulses continually with tourism and students and so on.
There is often a conversation going on in my head on whether all of this is great or terrible.
There is just too much coming at my senses sometimes, too much to get me thinking or reflecting or angry and frustrated.
Sometimes the frustration comes from just wanting everything to be in its place and organised and familiar, for people to be like a good old Presbyterian church of my past where you roll up and roll out no alarms and no surprises. It has happened recently that I’ve craved the grey suit and tie of my past, the efficiency of the soup lunch that has been served and cleaned up in under an hour, the same person sitting in the same pew for 40 yrs and no new faces, everyone living a few minutes away, the same old badly sung but familiar hymns from the blue hymnbook.

On the other hand it’s great because lots of my preconceptions about Christianity or the church are being challenged by the collision of cultures and by meeting people from around the world.
For instance my view of other churches and particularly the Roman Catholic church is being  gently prodded. I don’t remember meeting my first Catholic until I was about 10 yrs old. He was the neighbour beside where we briefly had a mushroom farm. He came over the fence with a football wearing a Celtic top and we briefly played football in a rushy field.
My next memory of meeting a Catholic was in the minibus going a cross community hike up a mountain organized by the RUC in 4th yr at school. All I remember is that despite being a Catholic she was cute. There was another cross community trip in lower 6th and a nun, Sister Rose was present. I was wary and kept my distance. So we’re up to 3 Roman Catholic experiences by 18. It was time to take things to the next level…

I briefly lived for a year with a bunch of Catholic in student halls at QUB, lads from Strabane and Derry. Yes, that is right. I actually lived with Catholics for about 9 months.
They took the piss out of me buying ‘The Daily Express’ (and rightly so) and asked searching questions like ‘Are you coming out with us tonight or are you going to hang out with your real friends?‘. By ‘real friends’ they meant the people I knew in halls from Christian Union, people like me and possible Christian snogs or links to snogs. Female snogs of course.

I escaped into a house with my real Christian friends in 2nd and 3rd year. Once a Roman Catholic girl in my chemistry class called Maria invited me into the Roman Catholic chaplaincy for a carol service or something. I am not sure if I even set foot inside the building such was my fear of the papists doing something to me. It was a no go area that large building on Elmwood Avenue. What happened beyond those doors was anyone’s guess but after reading Chick tract literature in my teens I was aware that it could only be badness.
Catholics where dodgy when it came to religion. About the same time an elderly man my mum did home help passed away and there was a discussion about how to go to the funeral in the chapel. I think my parents went but stood at the back of the chapel.
A ‘mixed marriage’ was something that was foreign to my experience.
Basically a Roman Catholic wasn’t really a Christian because they went to a false church and was a member of a false religion and a believer shouldn’t be yoked to a non-believer.
So I grew up with a deep rooted suspicion of Roman Catholicism that is almost part of my DNA and still flares up.

Yet that is being gently challenged. Nothing major has been said, no great event just watching for example the love of  some couples in ‘mixed’ marriages. Growing up in my evangelical Protestant circles with all the politics the impression was that these really where recipes for disaster, something bad or far from ideal. There are other things to challenge my thinking as well, but it’s not really the place to talk about them.It’s just good to be challenged.

One of the local ministers told us how he gets pissed off (not sure that those are his exact words mind..) about the missionaries,outreach types, church planters etc he encounters from time to time who say things like ‘We just want to bring Jesus to the west… ‘.
He gets annoyed because he is in charge of church which has been used since the 1300’s right in the centre of city. I probably thought the same last year. There where not many churches here, we could be missionaries to this city that needs a vibrant Christian witness.
Is this not an arrogant thing to think? That meant  for example I was discounting the large and active Roman Catholic church I can see from my bedroom window as being a church.  I walk past it multiple times in a week and rarely think of it as a church.
If I’m being honest I’m still not completely comfortable with saying it is. There are suspicions and issues and things that I think wrong.
But what makes a church or what doesn’t make a church? Why am I Presbyterian? What does it mean to be a Presbyterian here? Does it matter? Are you saying that your branch of Christianity is without its fault and heresies? And so on.

boundaries,

I’m currently sitting upstairs in my house avoiding the ‘home group’ (aka. growth groupconnect groupcare group,life groupfellowship groupsmall group, cell group) that is currently meeting in our home.

Part of me wants to go down and sit in the living room because I like everyone but part of me still doesn’t know how to sort  boundaries and if my wife being called to work in a church means that I am also called to work in a church by default.
I feel called to being an artist and would love to work at that now up here in my room. I don’t feel like there is ever enough time to get things sorted and who knows what I could come up with in the next few hours? 
If someone was on the rota at a hospital to work now they couldn’t come to home group.
I have to put myself on a rota of sorts and I know that I work best at this time of the day. So it would naturally be a good time to work on stuff. But I can’t concentrate as the people downstairs know that I’m upstairs and I know that they’re downstairs.  There is a guilt that I’m being a poor witness and a terrible minister’s spouse. It’s the boundaries. 

There is also a feeling sometimes that H is bringing her work home with her. Maybe it’s a little like a doctor bringing home his patients  or school teacher her kids every few weeks for a cup of tea and bun? Again it is OK but I find the boundaries in my head hard to manage sometimes. I know  church is a place where we should love each other and be open, where I am called to be a member and to love people, to be a friend and to worship. But I’m also an introvert who likes his own space, who needs time to reflect on things rather than sitting in a room rushing through an ice-breaker and 5 questions before working out how this applies to us to today and then praying and having a cup of tea and a bun. Even the way my beloved asks the questions in home group confuses me. Most of the time questions in the living room are asked naturally and without a small booklet. They have  context about what to have for dinner or’ what are you doing this afternoon?’ There is a certain tone of husband and wife just doing the day to day business. Then when home group comes it’s not the same tone and questions aren’t asked ‘naturally’ and it doesn’t seem so much to being my beloved but a minister, which confuses me and adds to the general feeling confusion or chaos but this time its not in the church, but in our home. It’s the trying to work out the boundaries or if there should be the boundaries and that sort of thing.

questioning the Bible and stuff

OK, here is the scenario. We have a bunch of ordinary men following Jesus, men like Peter who doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory in the Gospel accounts but are still men of faith.
Then years down the line they are the leaders of the church, men who write letters that are more than letters but scripture and God’s Word. The memory of Peter the bumbler seems long gone when we read 1 or 2 Peter, almost as if a different man has been writing the book.

There is an authority in his words that is used as the measuring tool against which Christians 2000 years later still measure their lives by.

But there is something in this all that doesn’t measure up.

Yes, Peter was older and wiser and far more importantly he had witnessed the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He had changed. Who wouldn’t?

Yes there was something profound that happened but did  Peter the bumbler still exist after all that or did he become (for want of a better description) ‘super-spiritual‘?
I expect that as Peter got older and older he did become more and more like Jesus, but did he become so like Jesus that the impulsive, ‘speak-before-you-think’ type of guy completely disappear?

The impression I’ve gathered over the years are that there are two Peter’s.  The  ‘get behind me Satan’ fisherman Peter of the Gospels and the eloquent church leader Peter.

I guess this is all coming from thinking about the character of any Christian leader I’ve encountered.
They are far from perfect men(like us all!),
they all have deep character flaws even if they’ve been Christian’s for decades. Of course those character flaws might be less pronounced than when they started following but still, they persist (like us all!). There are human and sinful and it’s to be expected. Nobody is perfect.

Yet they are also adopted into the family of God like Peter and Paul, the same Holy Spirit who was in Paul is also in their lives and the life of any Christian you know.

So should we expect the leaders of a church to be any less holy than the Apostles?
Should we expect the Apostles to be any more Holy than our church leaders or Christians we know?

Or as I should have put this at the start and saved out wading through all that, where the Apostles special?

Of course they where in a way because they witnessed Jesus and all that happened back 2000years ago which I certainly didn’t.
In the regard they are special.

And yet they were also men like me.

The reason I’m struggling with this is (once again) reading church history.

There is so much in the way that we do church that isn’t in the Bible but has been the work of early church leaders or from tradition and what has ‘worked’.

To pick one example ‘The Holy Trinity’ isn’t mentioned in the Bible.
To pick another the way that a church might be organised with bishops and archbishops being more powerful(?) than those priests or vicars below them doesn’t really seem to be in the Bible.

Or to pick another the books that made it into the New Testament where not decided by someone in the Bible, but by early church leaders centuries afterwards.

I find this lack of acknowledgement of the early church leaders and their reasons for closing the canon of scripture or for saying ‘Yes, the book is divinely inspired and should be in while this one isn’t‘ a bit disturbing or dishonest, or maybe false?
I’m not trying to go all da Vinci code with conspiracy theories either, just that it doesn’t seem to me to be as simple as some pastor saying that everything you need to know about life is in the Bible as it’s divinely inspired by God. That’s not to say that isn’t true either, just that history is important as well. Especially history that makes a decision as fundamental as the formation of the Bible.

Bruce Shelly writes in his book ‘Church History in Plain Language’
‘To this day we find it almost impossible to think of the Christian faith without the Bible. It is the foundation of Christianity’s evangelism, its teaching, its worship, and its morality. When we look over Christian history, we find few – if any – decisions more basic than those made during the first three centuries surrounding the formation of the Bible….We need to ask, then, how did we get the Bible?’

And that’s the whole problem there. Never once was it deemed important to question the Bible in my evangelical, Christian bubble.
In fact it was the opposite. You should never question the Bible, the Bible and Scripture should question you.
Much of my Christian bubble has been based on this premise that the Bible is God’s Word and that it’s our supreme measuring rod. You don’t question it, you obey it. Often it was a rod to beat down rebellion or to beat down those who might be homosexual or Roman Catholic or a woman in ministry.

Yet here is the thing just to say it again.
There is a history of the Bible that is vitally important yet is never mentioned or deemed important of mention. As Bruce Shelley writes
‘When we look over Christian history, we find few – if any – decisions more basic than those made during the first three centuries surrounding the formation of the Bible

The formation of the Bible isn’t deemed to be important even though few decisions have been as important to our entire faith. The decision of what should go into the canon came from church leaders who I know absolutely nothing about, as if what they did wasn’t really that important.

I’m not sure why this is disturbing me so much. I guess that it might have something to do with having to trust leaders I know nothing about, who if they are anything like the men and women I know will make bad calls even though Godly and expect that they made a decision that had immense importance (When we look over Christian history, we find few – if any – decisions more basic than those made during the first three centuries surrounding the formation of the Bible.) and that it was completely spot on and Holy.

 

domination systems

I randomly picked up a book  called ‘Beyond Empire’  by Jonathan Ingleby at this year’s Greenbelt and brought it home with me. Its a challenging read but I’m nodding my head in agreement so often that I wanted to share a big quote out of it. I hope thats OK.

‘It’s time that we read our Bibles more and read them more carefully. Perhaps we could try and get some serious help in thinking about the circumstances of those to whom the Bible messages were addressed, the people of the Bible. They were people who lived in a country which was always liable to invasion by ruthless and powerful enemies. (The history of Israel might be better to compared to that of Poland in modern times rather than that of Britian or the United States.) They were people in exile (‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept.’). They were living in a country side by side  with a pemanent occupying force as was true in Jesus’ day. They belonged to a ‘minority religious group’ like the Christians in the Roman Empire. There is hardly a book in the Bible that is not coloured by these massive political realities. Some, like Daniel and the book of Revelation, were written precisely to confront them. So how do we read the Bible? As if it had nothing to say about invasion, exile, occupation and resistance, about  injustice and the abuse of power. Even more worringly, what if we can see no connection between the Bible and the arms industry, Third World poverty and debt, neo-colonialism, and the plight of refugees?
What if we could not even see the imperialistic forces of today despite the fact that the Bible provides a magnifying glass which displays, even to the partially sighted, the text of Domination System?”

p231, Beyond Empire – Jonathan Ingleby