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.

an independent (and beardy) people

So I watched the first episode of  ‘An Independent People‘ , a  3 part BBC Two show telling ‘the dramatic story of Ulster’s Presbyterians’, something I didn’t realise that we Presbyterians had. We’re box office material.

Saying it is such a dramatic story I would have perhaps preferred an art house film starring Daniel Day Lewis. Daniel could have perhaps thrown himself into the part by enrolling at Union Theological College and becoming a real life Presbyterian minister for a number of years complete with superb facial hair just to get a real life feel for things. For the role of Presbyterian arch nemesis I would have gone for someone like Liam Neeson (though I’m not sure about his facial hair capabilities).

My initial reaction was that this dramatic story of Ulster Presbyterians seemed to involve a lot of beards, which reassured me that I actually do stand in the tradition of Presbyterianism (contrary to those who think I might look a bit more like someone out of The Dubliners or even Mohammed)

It actually places me in the line of every illustrated Biblical character I remember including Jesus himself, but the ‘Gerry Adams effect’ is a powerful force to be reckoned with that means fellow beardys may feel excluded in some current Presbyterian circles. (‘Would you wear that beard if you were meeting the Queen young Ronnie Drew?‘)

My other initial reaction was that this show seemed to be a nicely shot celebration of people I know, or people I used to know or people I nearly know.It was like having a tribute to your Presbyterian friends mixed with a Sigur Ros video made in Northern Ireland.  Oh look, there is your man! Oh, I know him! I remember that guy from university! I’ve been to that church! He gave us a lift home from Cookstown! (moody music plays in background)

I have to admit I feel a bit confused by the actual history of our church though.

I still don’t really understand what was going on and even feel a bit disillusioned by what was going on (if it’s possible to feel disillusioned hundreds of years later?)

So much of it seems to have been about power struggles or striving for freedom or their rights. And bloody as well.
Someone in the show pointed out that the first Presbyterian congregation was set up by members of the Scottish army who came with the Bible in one hand. There are so many blurry lines and things that are complicated, things are messy.

Part of me knows that is just the way things are, life is messy and people are broken and have feet of clay.

On the other hand part of me struggled to see how God was working in the Presbyterian Church. Or too put it another way, watching the program last night I didn’t see too much evidence of people acting like Jesus. I know it was a TV show but if a Christian is a follower of Christ and a church is made up of Christian then those early Presbyterians would be Christ like. Did I get some sense of that coming through the nicely shot camera work? I’m not sure. Can you be Christ like holding a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other?

I know that the right answer should be yes otherwise there isn’t hope for someone like me. Sometimes I can act in a Christ like way, but a lot of the time I don’t. So it would be hypocritical or unrealistic to point out the faults in other people even if that was hundreds of years ago. Also perhaps if someone was acting in a Christ like manner around Ahoghill in the 1700s or Ballycarry in 1800s on a Monday morning it mightn’t make sexy TV. Someone sharing a potato with a hungry neighbour mightn’t make the most dramatic viewing on a Sunday night whereas stories of a woman throwing a chair at the minister in the pulpit and rioting does.

Yet there is something about the way that our church was planted (or officially planted) that doesn’t seem particularly Christian.

Another thing which I’ve just realised is that the story is telling the story of Ulster Presbyterians. I wonder if that story is the same story of Irish Presbyterians? We’re officially known as the Presbyterian Church in Ireland but everything about the Presbyterian Church in Ireland seems to centre around Ulster so sometimes the Presbyterian Church in Ulster would be a more accurate description of the way things really are? The Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland would be even more accurate.
A few months back marked all the current Presbyterian congregations in Ireland on a map and ended up with this. (If a gap is appearing in North Antrim its only because Google can’t load them quick enough. )