Detroit Vs Everybody. What a slogan can teach us about our need to hide from fear.

There is a famous slogan here that you can wear proudly on t shirts that declares “Detroit Vs Everybody”.

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If you ever bring up the fact that you live in or work in Detroit to someone who hasn’t visited the city recently you get either a sympathetic “That must be very difficult for you” or a look like you’ve just declared how your are to live in a hole in the ground, eat scotch eggs and support Arsenal for the rest of your life. Continue reading

The Grace of Martin McGuinness.

It’s not going to come as much surprise to anyone that the passing of Martin McGuinness has divided opinion. One of the highest ranking members of the IRA during the height of the troubles but equally  as instrumental as anyone of bringing it to an end.

Had you asked anyone at that time, whether Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would be sitting beside each other, laughing and working together just a few decades later you would be considered insane at best.

Sworn enemies, completely at odds with the values of the other. Yet here was one of the greatest examples of Grace and reconciliation in the Western world, written into our history books.

These days following the passing of Marin McGuinness will be a difficult time for many. For some his death will bring no joy but perhaps a type of closure. For others it will be considered great news.

Grace is a word that everyone struggles with. It makes us feel uncomfortable and angry. Confused and frustrated. It is completely illogical. And there in lies it’s strength. That’s why it works.

The fear of Grace is that people will get away with whatever they want and in that tension most of us err on the side of caution and refuse to offer it. (Or for that matter, accept it). Many will have been skeptical that Martin McGuinness ever truly changed and are convinced he turned to political means when it became clear that violence wasn’t going to work. It’s little wonder that we cling to this cautious approach when we view the person we hate as someone still deserving of hate.

What do we do with our enemy who has turned around and changed their ways especially when we are still struggling to forgive?

There are no easy answers to this and we can not wrap this up in a way that everyone can feel comfortable with. I’m fortunate to have grown up during the end of the troubles and beginning of the peace process in Northern Ireland and I am even more fortunate to have grown up without losing someone close to me through the actions of any of the terrorist organizations that existed.

But if I had, could I still believe so deeply in the power of Grace? I’m not confident I would.

When the first images emerged of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sitting together at two tables in Stormont, strategically placed so not to look like either were too comfortable with the other; it was a moment of great significance. I remember watching the news that day and being excited and amazed that something was about to happen. As the years passed and the two grew from cautious colleagues to good friends who genuinely got on well with each other it was a great example of the power of Grace.

A shared anger turned into a shared joke.

It gave us hope that no situation is too far gone to be saved.

Grace takes a leap of faith. Both men took that leap in those days. Having seen the other as an enemy it must have taken great courage fully knowing the backlash they would inevitable experience from their prospective communities.

The leap is even greater for those who have suffered at the hands of violence. It’s an abyss too wide for many.

Healing takes time and maybe it will never come and as much as I believe in the power of Grace, many will not be able to give their enemy the benefit of the doubt. They should never be judged for that but rather given examples of Grace that in time could provide enough light for them to step forward.

Grace doesn’t wait until everyone is ready. It doesn’t wait for an apology or for justice. The time for Grace is now not tomorrow. You can’t justify Grace. You can’t make it fit your agenda. It doesn’t work because you feel good about the situation, it just works. It’s the only things that truly changes you.

The alternative then is to grow weary and for hate to become the undercurrent under which everything else shakily stands. It may feel comforting for a while but it never leads to healing, just bitterness. This is why Grace is not just for the one receiving forgiveness but for she who delivers it.

For millions the Lord’s prayer has become a familiar liturgy, the power of its words having been somewhat lost over time. “Forgive us, as we forgive those who trespass against us” is not simply a nice rhetoric to monotonously recite during school assemblies or Sunday morning church services, but a  challenging call to live differently. It’s a reminder that there is no “us” and “them” but just “we”.  Lord, offer my enemy, the one who has murdered and stolen from me, as much Grace as you are willing to offer me.

Nothing less will do.

That takes courage and a prophetic vision into what is possible when everything inside you or everyone around you tells you to run. Only a few will ever fully experience Grace but those that do will change the world. I believe that is the cornerstone of which the work of Martin McGuinness will be remembered.

A couple of years ago Martin McGuinness appeared on a stage as hundreds of young people prayed for him. Thousands of teenagers, many who were not old enough to remember the worst of the troubles praying for a man who was responsible for much of it.

What a young, fiery and angry Martin McGuinness would have made of this idea is one that only a few people are privy too. But I will take a guess that he could never have even begun to imagine such a scene.

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This is a stark image and one that I believe we must return to over and over and over. It’s a vision for what can happen when we take a risk. When we invite into our home, the one who broke up our home. When we offer security and Love to those who seek to bring us harm. When we decide that our anger and hatred is not allowing us to experience life and Love and Hope then it is time to allow Grace to do it’s work.

Grace has nothing to do with what is fair. It is bigger than any of us and can’t be easily argued against or understood. But it can most definitely be felt. That is the only way we will know it is real. Not when we try and understand it.

So may Martin McGuinness’s legacy be one of what can happen when we take risks and let Grace do it’s work.

Because tonight Big Ian and Marty will be hoping we follow their example.

It’s up to us now, to not let them down.

I’m an immigrant (but it’s ok I’m the good kind)

I’m an immigrant.

But hold up. Before you leave this post disgusted, I’m the good type.

I’m not one of those immigrants in Calais who are trying to selfishly move to the UK so they can suck the life out of the country bringing their different skin colors and weird smells to our pale and floral smelling cities like London or Glasgow.

I moved to the USA a couple of years because I was able to and I had family and friends who helped us. I mean, we needed help because otherwise I would have had to probably limit my lukewarm chai tea latte from Starbucks to twice or heaven forfend, once a week.

Sure I moved from Belfast, where I had a great community of people around me, a job, a family who loved me, Boojum and a sense of belonging. But ever since they took Chilis away a few years ago I’ve had to wait once, (maybe twice if lucky) a year, until I visited to have a proper hot meal from a US chain restaurant.

And now Songs of Praise, a long running religious show on the BBC are offensively spending money to reporting from a migrant camp in Calais for this weekends episode. That is money that could have been much better spent on bringing back bastions of British broadcasting like Pets Win Prizes or Eldorado.

What does Christianity even have to do with people leaving oppressive living situations and traveling long distances in unbearable conditions to seek a better life anyway?

Jesus would have been ashamed to see the religion he so carefully structured around the rich, privileged and powerful reduced to reporting from this squaller. At least He had strict conditions for entry to the Kingdom of Heaven, like owning a camel. I haven’t seen one camel in the news reports from Calais and that is worrying.

And of course there will be those who claim Britain is anti immigrant and anti Christian because of all of this and especially after recent cuts to asylum support for parents with two children were announced. But we’re actually doing the Christian thing by forcing those people, oops I mean migrants, to live in even more poverty and so receive blessing from God, just like Jesus said.

Look, I’m all for helping people out a little but Jesus always made sure he kept his distance from those in need. That’s why he climbed a mountain to deliver his political manifesto the Beatitudes and another time got in a boat to preach, probably to demonstrate how cool boats were for any immigrants present who had any ideas about over staying their welcome.

And anyway, Britain has worked far too hard to make itself the country it is ever since our forefathers thousands of years before us just woke up magically one day with “British” virtues flowing through their red and blue blood. Although that’s because it’s always so bloody cold but still.

Britain is a country based on minding our own business and not getting involved in other countries affairs and now people from some of those countries, countries most of us have never been on holiday to and whom we most certainly did not have any negative influence on politically, have the cheek to take advantage of our good nature and Greggs.

Coming over here, taking our jobs that none of us really want.

How rude.

Jesus must be turning in his tomb.

Why no one mentioned Jesus in the Asher’s Case.

When there is any debate engaged in the public sphere on the role of religion or conscience or rights there is a lot of talk of belief. How beliefs shape the way we live and act, what we think is right or wrong and how that manifests itself in how we treat each other. Yet, in the midst of all the media reporting and blogging and tweeting about the Asher’s case there has been one voice that has not been mentioned by Christians in all the furor.

Jesus.

Now before I lose you, and maybe I’ve already lost some of you, this is not an attempt to get you to believe one side over an other. This is not an attempt to bring you round to one understanding or to lay out an array of Bible verses to support or reject gay marriage. It is simply my attempt at bringing the central Christian message that Jesus came to share of Peace, understanding, Grace and Love for all people, back into focus in this conversation.

Stay with me, you may just be surprised.

Let me explain.

As a Christian my primary goal has to be to live in a way that not necessarily directly mimics the way Jesus lived but to mimic the principles that he exhibited in His interactions with normal people on His journeys prior to and also after his death. To copy a life that sought to show people what truly being alive feels like; to show how we can creatively live in ways that allow everyone to be part of something that includes but is so much bigger than themselves.

If we were to study Jesus life, we’d see that He rarely took concrete stances on issues like many of us feel is our Christian duty today. He didn’t protest, He didn’t refuse to speak with certain people, He didn’t gloat. What He did was to see what was going on above and beyond any issue and dig deep into the root of what it means to be a human with all our flaws, especially our flaws. He questioned His own religion, He remained calm when dealing with those who thought He was a threat, He got angry only with the religious. He was never defensive.

Yet why do many of us who claim to be followers of His teachings insist on maintaining such a posture?

One reason is I believe is, that Christians have allowed our beliefs to become more important than the reason for the belief. (Tweet This)

Where you stand on gay marriage determines how welcoming or how apprehensive we are towards each other.

Take for instance, the time when Jesus was found by the Pharisees, the religious fundamentalists of the day, to be picking grain on the Sabbath. A seemingly innocent enough activity, but one which was forbidden by the Law. The very Law that Jesus was brought up on and was the central teaching of His Jewish faith. (Yeah that’s right, Jesus wasn’t a Christian, He was Jewish). Like Jesus put to the Pharisees, what good does is it do for anyone to leave their ox stuck in a well on the Sabbath (least of all the ox, poor thing), just because you’re forbidden to do any work.

When questioned on it, Jesus made the point that the Jewish Law was made for man, not man for the Law. Simply put, these ancient rules were to bless and give life, rather than for us to blindly remain loyal and obedient to the Law.

For Jesus, beliefs were fine until they got in the way of sharing life with others. Or got an ox killed.

This means that when it comes to the Laws and ideals for us to live by as Christians, we are not called to follow them blindly if it means others are oppressed or hurt.

Put another way, Christians don’t need to protect themselves because that leaves us unable to be loving and compassionate.

Sometimes we behave as if loving others and being vulnerable is going to end up with the end of Christianity. (Sidenote, we’ve done a pretty good job at self destruction over the years and we’re still doing alright)

But what does this have to do with the Asher’s case, the broader issue of religious conscience and especially how Christians should approach these types of situations?

To answer this we must first answer a question that I was posed on Twitter several weeks ago.

Would Jesus have baked the cake? Jesus cake

Well, I’m not sure. But I do know that his reaction would have shocked and surprised us. To understand a little about how Jesus would have responded, let’s consider other instances in which Jesus used examples to show us how we are to react to those that we may fundamentally disagree with and the fears that underlie them.

An argument that I have heard throughout the Asher’s trial is that if we’re forced as Christians to support ideals and beliefs that we fundamentally disagree with, then somehow our Christian voices will be completely removed from the public sphere.

Whilst I can understand how one may come to that conclusion, like Jesus demonstrated this is a simplistic and closed view of how we are able to influence our communities for Him.

In one famous illustration, Jesus commanded his listeners to not just carry a Roman soldier’s bags one mile, which was well in the right of the Roman soldier to demand, but to walk a further mile. Something that would have made the soldier a very naughty boy (Well done if you get this reference).

What Jesus was doing here was showing another way of reacting to someone rather than being defensive. We could very easily read this as Jesus demonstrating total and complete agreement with the way the Romans ruled the country since He was willing to go further than He was required. Yet, Jesus suggestion of walking the extra mile did not mean that He was asking His listeners to simply bow down and lay down their beliefs and morals, but like we have already seen, as a way of showing that we don’t need to fight for our beliefs.

Our beliefs aren’t what change the world, it’s our actions that do the talking. (Tweet This).

Unfortunately because of the Asher’s case, many outside the church, LGBT or otherwise will know exactly where many Christians stand on homosexuality but will not have witnessed very much of the love we’re called to show to the world.

Jesus example of the Roman soldier shows us that even if we are forced to work and serve (or bake a cake) for those who we completely disagree with, there is a more imaginative and creative way of reacting.

In this case I think that Asher’s had a wonderful opportunity to do just that. But I don’t blame them for not taking it. We’re just not used to this type of thinking in the church. We are afraid of thinking outside the box, or loving others in surprising ways.

We’re so consumed with what we believe about something and making sure that that isn’t compromised that we fail to see that all that demanding our rights to be heard and obeyed leads to, is our love for others being compromised.

Another fear is that a defeat for Asher’s will open up a whole can of worms which would allow those who are intent on causing trouble to demand services from others, simply to cause them pain. Even if this would be true, there is one example from Jesus life that shows what a wonderful opportunity this would be to bring healing.

Along with the previous example of carrying a Roman Soldier’s bags two miles instead of one, Jesus, shockingly and puzzlingly suggested allowing someone to hit you twice. You know, because there’s nothing worse than having just one side of your face in pain.

This has often been taken to mean that as Christians we are to let people walk over us in this world as if God is biding His time and in the end will smite our enemies for being a dick towards us. But this isn’t the Old Testament we’re living in.

What Jesus is doing here, is cleverly showing us that by allowing someone to hit us twice we can ultimately alter perceptions of hate into Peace. One slap to the face, using the outside of the hand signified a stance of control over you. Effectively showing the person being hit who exactly is in charge. But rather than offering the other side of your face as a way of cementing that control, it would be essentially forcing your oppressor to punch you. A significant move, only when we understand that for Jesus listeners, they knew this meant that you were equals. As you only reserved using the inside of your hand to hit someone on a par with you.

So what does this have to do with Asher’s. If we have a cream pie jammed into the side of our face, turn your cheek for a banoffee?

Like carrying bags for a Roman soldier, it means there are more imaginative ways to deal with those who we feel, whether it’s true or not, are persecuting us.

Jesus had so many opportunities to turn down his Love for those that stood fundamentally against the faith He grew up with. He had dinner with Zacchaeus, a tax collector which was the worst type of job for a Jew, as it meant cheating your own people out of money for “the man.” He gave a woman caught in adultery, something that demanded by Law for her life to be taken, freedom and hope. He promised a Samaritan (big enemies of the religious establishment) woman, everlasting life. He healed the daughter of a soldier of the oppressive Roman government.

What religious stance He was “supposed” to take in regards to Samaritans or people who slept with others spouses or Israel’s enemies, wasn’t Jesus chief motivation for His actions towards them. That’s why He was such a threat to the religious; He didn’t act the way He was “supposed” to. He saw the bigger picture.

The way he acted towards these people went against everything He was supposed to believe in. But ultimately the most important belief for him was Love.

And Jesus saw something else equally important. He saw that we’re all really the same. Jewish, Roman, Protestant, Catholic, straight, gay, not sure, male, female, baker, candlestick maker.

Whatever the final verdict from the Asher’s case, there is no winner. The lines are wonderfully and fantastically blurred. We’ve had quite enough of that in Northern Ireland. This is not an Us V Them case.

And this is exactly what ties all the examples from Jesus life that I have used together. Jesus, time and time again with subtle, creative, beautiful ways, broke down this decisive and dangerous idea of Us and Them. He blew open the expectations of what it means to be His follower. And what it meant to be for someone to be your “enemy”.

God is not on the side of Ashers. God is not on the side of the LGBTQ community. God is on the side of all. (Tweet This).

He doesn’t operate in the ways in which we have regularly and aimlessly fought to protect.

It is time for Christians to really stand up for what we believe in.

But that is not what we believe about homosexuality. But Love and Hope and acceptance.

For all.

Ashers, the diversity of Northern Ireland and loving your neighbor.

When I left Northern Ireland almost 18 months ago, it was a diverse country. In that time, I believe it has become even more diverse than ever and this is a beautiful thing. We need to be different, not simply because it would be boring otherwise but because we can learn from each other.

This applies to whether you live in Belfast or Detroit.

But the temptations still exist to pigeonhole each other. It makes life so much easier for everyone if we make huge assumptions about someone when we meet them which saves us the trouble of actually sitting down and talking to “themuns”.

Because Heaven for fend that we might actually come away seeing how we are similar.

But the real problem with ignoring our diversity is funnily enough that it leads to ignorance and arrogance.

When my worldview is threatened by coming across someone from a group that I had previously neatly squished into their box, I go on the defensive. I don’t want to be wrong; I can’t be wrong. If I am then I have to open myself up to everyone. And that could be disastrous for my beliefs.

I say all this because I have witnessed somewhat recently this very thing happening in Northern Ireland concerning the Ashers case.

Basically there are two camps. The Christian/religious camp and the LGBT equality camp.

At least that is what you may believe but the truth is that there are not two distinct sides but a blurry, kaleidoscope of differing and agreeing opinions. There are those in the church who think that all Christians are (or should be) in agreement with Asher’s and the recent DUP plan to introduce a conscience clause. Then are those outside the church in the LGBT community who think that all Christians are jerks and all look at them as perverse or abominations.

But even that isn’t right because, wait for it, there are those in the church who are gay. Yes, for many of us that is not shocking in the slightest but for a great deal more of you that just can not be true can it?

Not only that but there are those inside the church, who are gay who don’t support the Equality Commission. And if you think that is mad well there are those outside the church, who are gay and agree with Ashers and the Christian Institute on their stance.

You might need to sit down to try and collect your thoughts and preconceived notions.

I know I have. new UJ

But this is the beauty of Norn Iron. It’s a country that is changing. And changing for the better. Sure there are still bigots and there are still those who can not or will not let go of their hate. But rather than in the 70’s or 80’s or even for a huge part of the 90’s, when this was the norm, folks like this are now in the minority.

We do not have to agree. We do not have to see eye to eye. But we have to be willing to at the very least look into each others eyes.

Because when we do we may just realize that the beliefs that we hold so closely and vow to fight for so vehemently may well just be causing hurt and pain to others. Does that make our beliefs worth it? I’m not so sure it does.

Of course we still need to challenge bigotry and call out injustice as it happens. We still need to stand up for what we believe in but the minute we start dulling our love for those who are different than us simply because they are treating us poorly, the minute we have lost our own identity, not “them”.

For Christians in Northern Ireland are you willing to take the time to think through how your actions effect those in the LGBT community at large and the LGBT community in your congregations?

Love is a powerful force, much more than we usually give it credit for. I don’t really care what other groups do but as the church, our mandate is clear. It is to love everyone regardless of…..
(You can fill in what you need to here)

It that extremely hard? You bet it is. Is it the only way? You bet it is.

Are your beliefs as a Christian being challenged because someone can be gay and Christian? Or because a Presbyterian Minister can be a speaker at a Sinn Fein conference? Or because a Protestant could vote Sinn Fein and a Catholic could vote DUP?

If they are, don’t run from it. Don’t give into the voice that says they must be written off. Embrace it. Lean into it. Question why this might be the case. Look deep into yourselves and ask..

What belief is most important to you?

That being gay is an abomination?

Or that nothing is more important than loving everyone?

When Faith and Politics Collide

One of the biggest obstacles according to Brennan Manning that unbelievers have from engaging with Christians is Christians “who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle …”

And I have to admit that as a Christian that loves the church and loves being a part of a community of followers of Jesus I also find myself struggling to believe sometimes. Continue reading

The Identity Crisis of LAD and Jamie Bryson

Yesterday morning as I opened up my twitter feed to see what latest wacky method someone had employed for their Ice Bucket challenge, I soon found myself reading through another twitter discussion between Northern Ireland’s two greatest parody twitter accounts, LAD and Jamie Bryson. Only one of which is actually a genuine parody account believe it or not.

For those who don’t know and who maybe don’t even care let me explain briefly who LAD and Jamie are.

LAD are a satirical twitter account, who under the guise of a quintessential Loyalist seek to highlight the absurdities of those cultures in Northern Ireland (both Unionism and Republicanism) which from the outside must look like parodies in themselves. The obsession with flegs and culture and parades. They bring to light the contradictions that many in the political world of Northern Ireland seem to have no problem in portraying. Using twitter as their main tool as well as occasional parody videos (where they are strongest), they for the most part are successful, while being hilarious. Think, a sort of Stephen Colbert type character, that is employing the beliefs they obviously don’t agree with in order to highlight their absurdities. But with bad grammar (intentional) and an ironic love of flegs.

They are not however perfect. More on that later.

In the other corner we have Jamie Bryson. A young (at least I assume he is, his baby faced features make it truly difficult to tell), proud, Loyalist who was seen as a spokesperson of sorts for the fleg protests of November 2012, after Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union Flag on a select designated number of days, rather than the entire year. And yes, this did warrant country wide street protests and violence. Want to fight about it?

Jamie is passionate, of that no one can deny (is this a lyric?) but his own contradictions are his downfall. Like continually lambasting LAD for their “hateful” and “vile” attacks on those in his culture, while being caught on camera in a crowd of people throwing missiles at another community. D’oh!

But they both have something in common which may just be the last thread of hope for reconciliation between the two.

They both have an identity crisis.

With LAD, I’m never quite sure of who they are supposed to be. While they make a very good go at using humor to view the political situation in Northern Ireland, they often find themselves being sucked into petty twitter disputes with the likes of Jamie Bryson. They break out of character, which weakens the power that their satire has, as rusty and as rough around the edges as may be sometimes.

Compare this to earlier in the year when someone from the aforementioned Stephen Colbert show, tweeted from his characters account something which was deemed racist. It wasn’t. It was a use of satire to highlight the ignorance of racism. He wasn’t really being racist.

Rather than personally taking to twitter or social media to get angry or annoyed, he and his writers took a breath, stayed in character and delivered this amazing response on the next edition of the show.

This is what LAD need to perfect if they are to truly shake up the political landscape of Northern Ireland.

They need to understand that Jamie is someone who has a limited voice in politics and since many of his ideas would have been embarrassing at the height of the troubles, they should seek to make fun of them without getting personal. This only gives Jamie more ammunition and also distracts LAD from what they do best. Making fun of those who have outdated and harmful views on how Northern Ireland should be run.

Lately, Jamie has threatened to expose the real faces behind the LAD account. He says he knows, and he may well do. But LAD should put an end to this and expose themselves (simply their identity that is, nothing illegal). This would take the one trick Jamie could possibly have up his sleeve and would give LAD the chance to concentrate on doing what Northern Ireland politics is crying out for them to do.

Jamie’s identity crisis is just a little more sinister.

As someone who claims to be a Christian but sees no problem in attacking his fellow Christians, he fails to understand the life that Jesus came to offer everyone. Concepts like, loving your enemies, forgiveness, caring for those who face injustice (and no, having your flag taken away doesn’t count Jamie), and turning the other cheek. His faith is one based on fear, fear of the unknown, fear of what would happen if his identity, one held together by a tradition that is famous for it’s role in dividing communities not building it, was placed in something much larger, much more beautiful than “For God and Ulster.”

This is only important because the Gospel that Jamie believes in is far removed from the life that Jesus led where He challenged His own tradition and most pertinently for Jamie, one that is unrecognizable from the call to love His enemies.

Until Jamie, sorts this muddled view of His faith then His identity will always be confused.

For Jamie, this will diminish his great passion that he could direct at building a Northern Ireland where we make the next leap from peace to one where we trust those on the other side.

Perhaps even, to a time when there is no other side.

But for now, as Jamie threatens and promises to finally expose the faces behind LAD, maybe there is one possible explanation for why he keeps stalling.

One that no one would see coming.

What if Jamie Bryson is LAD?!

Now wouldn’t that be amazing?