Wednesday, October 31, 2012

haiku 5

autumn morn
-oak tree's shadow
 gilded with leaves

The morning the anthology with my poems arrived I was very pleased. That kind of sudden, unlooked for, affirmation is very encouraging. It made me want to throw myself back into writing poetry - haiku in particular. Upstairs in my bedroom, as I looked out the window I was suddenly struck by the oddness of the scene: the oak trees scattered in the field outside all had at their base, on side nearest our house, what seemed like an outline of the tree shaped from their fallen leaves. I realised it had been windy the night before. Most of the falling leaves had been whipped away. But the side facing the house was sheltered by the tree itself. There the fallen leaves remained, a golden shadow of the tree that gave them birth.

I wrote another version of the poem above:

autumn wind
-in the lee of the oak
 its shadow in leaves

Which do you prefer?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

haiku 4

empty house
soft brown apples
under the tree

My wife and I were looking at buying our first house since coming home to Ireland. The property boom was at full roar & quite ratty old properties were going for what seemed a fortune at the time. This house was particularly sad. An old person had been living in it until the time they died. It was put up for sale with all their furniture, clothes, & many of their possessions still in place. The kitchen was a rotting lean-to extension to the rear. It had an outside toilet. The bath was in a shed next to the kitchen. Upstairs the bedroom floors were eaten away with woodworm, with the joists showing through in many places. In the garden out the back were two old apple trees, perhaps 100 years old, the remains of an old orchard. It was autumn & the trees had produced an abundant crop that year. With no one to pick them, the fruit had fallen to the ground where it was left to rot.

Monday, October 29, 2012

haiku 3

adult child
-his mother small
in a hospital bed

I remember this poem vividly. My mother was in hospital, seriously ill. She needed brain surgery. She was a farmer's daughter who had gone on to be a nurse. She had always been physically strong as well as being a very dominant personality. This was the first time I had ever seen her laid low.

I wrote several poems on this topic. I remember one commenter on the web forum I published them saying he thought they were my finest work to date. I thought it a bitter-sweet compliment.

Ironically, this poem has a particular resonance for me at this time. My mother never fully recovered from that operation & has slowly declined over the years. At the moment she is curled up, small and fragile, in the bed of her nursing home, perhaps facing what will turn out to be her final illness.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

haiku 2

frosty morning
-the long shadows

again, hard to remember the exact circumstances of the writing of this. I know we were living near a small natural lake in Cork City called the Lough. I used to run around it. I am thinking a morning of brilliant sunshine after a night of hard frost. Most of the frost has melted away. But the trees around the lake cast long shadows, areas where the heat of the sun have yet to penetrate. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

haiku 1

child by a tree
-all the bells
 on one branch

the interesting thing about having poems 'track you down' in a manner of speaking after a number of years is that I read them again almost with a stranger's eyes. They could have been written by someone else. I don't remember the circumstances which occasioned the above poem. But reading it, I begin to imagine the memory. Our first Christmas with our eldest son old when he was old enough to take an active part in the festivities. Only two, he proudly helps to decorate the tree. His mother and I distractedly trying to untangle the knotted lights. Glancing up to see our little boy solemnly placing the glittering balls one by one on a single, low down branch, which droops beneath the weight.

Friday, October 26, 2012

a faint flicker in a sea of flashing lights

I got something of a surprise yesterday morning. I got a book in the post, an anthology of Irish haiku poems. The blurb on the back was very fulsome in its praise of the contents: ... the first ever national anthology of haiku poetry. It features work by 77 most accomplished haiku writers who have contributed to the development of haiku on the Emerald isle ...

Of course, blurbs are supposed to play the work up. You'd hardly expect them to say something like: this book contains some quite average poems by a bunch of fairly desperate poets who couldn't get published elsewhere and were the only people who would agree to let their work appear in this volume. Not the kind of PR that'll move many units. 

The contents page, however, supported the contentions of the blurb. There were some very famous names included. Michael Hartnett. Patrick Kavanagh. Seamus Heaney. I flicked through the bios toward the rear of the book. All were very serious poets, with collections under their belts, many of whom were editors of various journals. All but one. One poet had no collections. Nothing to recommend his inclusion in the volume other than the fact that he had once written some haiku and the editor felt they were worthy of being included in this volume.

That poet was me.

Back in the 1990s I wrote a lot of haiku, some of which were published in various online fora, others in some small 'chapbooks,' & one even in Poetry Ireland. But life intervened. Family commitments. Work. The discernment of vocation. I didn't stop writing poetry. I have even put a few on this blog over the years. But I wrote less. And I certainly didn't pursue publication.

Then a few months ago I got an email from a college friend who is active in Cork literary circles. He'd been contacted by someone putting together an anthology who was trying to trace a Cork poet with the same name as me who had written haiku. Was it by any chance me? I admitted the possibility. The editor made contact. Would I mind if some of my poems were used? I agreed, mildly flattered, but not really thinking too much of it. I was getting ready to move parishes & was being pulled in all directions. This seemed very much a faint flicker in a sea of flashing lights all competing for my attention.

So I pretty much forgot about it until the book was shoved through my letter box. And I have to admit I'm pretty chuffed. Very humbled to be in such exalted company - but basically very pleased about the whole thing.

So what are the poems like? Well, I have to take a few days off, so what I'll do before I go is pre-programme a few short posts which include some of them, maybe with some notes about the circumstances which led to their being written. In the meantime Deo gratias for this unexpected and unsought affirmation of the fact that I have some talent in this art form. Again, Deo gratias. Amen.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Confessio (I confess)

Constance & Cyril Wilde c 1889

Forgive me, Father, I have sinned. Let's not go into how long it's been since my last confession. As to how I have offended ... well, I suppose I was a bit mischievous in the letters pages of the Belfast Telegraph not too long ago. I don't normally read the Belfast Telegraph. No, that's not what I'm confessing! But the recent opening of a Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast, the first of its kind on this island, led me to its website to see what the local reaction was to the event. While looking through its pages I came across a long and somewhat rambling letter in the opinion section.  The part that attracted my attention most said:

From William III of Orange, to Oscar Wilde, to Roger Casement, gay people have sculpted Irish and world history. Yet the men I have just cited would not have the right to be married in the country of their celebration.
Oscar Wilde once said he could resist anything but temptation. I was tempted to reply. I couldn't resist. What I said was this: 

William Ennis says that William III, Oscar Wilde, and Roger Casement would not have had the right to marry in Ireland. Of these three, two were, in fact, married: Oscar Wilde (to Constance Lloyd in 1881); and King William (to Mary Stuart in 1677). While these unions took place outside of Ireland, there is no reason to believe that they would not have been allowed to celebrate their marriages on this island.

It was naughty I know. Mea culpa. In fairness, I think Oscar would have found it funny. So please don't be too harsh with my penance. At least I didn't say anything about the Black Diaries. And clearly I must avoid the Belfast Telegraph in the future ... lest it be an occasion of further sin for me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

did Jesus see our Church coming?

An article caught my eye in yesterday's Irish Times. The title was What passes for alleged collegiality in College of Bishops is no such thing. That's the kind of title that's likely to catch my attention. But what really drew me to it was the author: James P Mackey. 

Prof Mackey was one of my lecturers in Trinity. I rather enjoyed his classes, despite the fact the topic was cosmology which fairly makes the brain boil. He's a serious academic with a list of publications as long as both of his fairly long arms. I bear him no particular ill will for the fact that his classes took place between 2pm & 4pm on a Friday even though the seminary students were supposed to finish at lunchtime that day in order to allow them to travel back to their dioceses to do their placements and spend time with their families for the weekend. 

All this is a rather long-winded way of saying I know the man slightly. And based on that slight acquaintance I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb in suggesting that he is a man who likes to be a little provocative from time to time. Hence, perhaps, some of the contentions he makes in his article. I'll leave most of them alone ... but I will allow myself to be drawn by one of them. He ends his article with the line It is the details of the governance structures and juridic infrastructure of this ancient Roman empire that still live on in our church’s constitutional law to this day; not anything that Jesus could ever have contemplated.

'Not anything that Jesus could have contemplated.' That's not a charge against the Church unique to Prof Mackey. It's been heard in various forms for centuries. I think by now it has grown a little tired. Or perhaps it is that I have simple grown weary of it. You don't like Church structures? Neither would Jesus. You hate formal liturgy? Gosh, Jesus wouldn't have liked it either. You have a beef with the ordained priesthood? Dollars to doughnuts Jesus never saw that coming & he wouldn't approve of it.

What I dislike about this kind of attitude is that it seems to claim an almost god-like insight into what was possible for the imagination of Jesus' human nature; and suggests a rather lesser insight as to what is possible for his divine. Jesus founded a Church. And he told his followers to make disciples of all nations. But he didn't think it was going to succeed? Or that if it did it would need some kind of human organisational structure? He foresaw divisions and false teachers, he foresaw his own suffering and death, but he somehow missed out on all the rest? 

The Church isn't perfect. It can't be. It is made up of imperfect human beings. But it was founded by Christ. And to say that Jesus, fully human, fully divine, could never have seen that it would become the human imperfect Church we have today is, I think, a contention too far.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

tolerating your intolerables

We live in a world where, in some circles at least, it is OK to be intolerant in the name of tolerance. Free speech is something only those who agree with you are entitled to - all others are to be silenced ... Rowan Atkinson puts how silly that kind of behaviour can be rather well. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

let them come home

I have a good friend who is a priest, a religious. I was talking to him over the weekend and he asked after my mother. When he heard that she was in poor form, perhaps slipping away, he told me he'd say Mass for her on Sunday. He's that kind of a man: a good guy, a good priest ... much loved in his community, much loved in the parish.

He had a letter in a national paper recently. He suffers from depression. He knows what it's like to feel alienated and rejected. And he knows what it feels like to be enfolded in a loving welcome by friends, family, parish, & community when he returns home after treatment. He wishes those who are gay could experience the same welcome from the Church.

He is not a wild-eyed liberal. He has fairly orthodox views. He doesn't want same sex marriage or ask that 2000 years of Church teaching be dumped in favour of making the Church a reflection of the values dear to secular culture. When he and I sit down over a cup of coffee and rant a bit (as priests do) about the problems we face as priests in the modern world we're pretty much ad idem on what the various problems are.

So maybe it's not surprising that he and I agree on this. Everyone should feel welcomed by the Church. How that's going to happen when the debate has become so polarised by the whole 'culture wars' thing I don't know. A great many poor souls have been caught in the cross-fire between extremists on both sides ... 

But I do know that in the Church that Christ founded all must feel welcome.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Can you drink my cup?

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

'The cup that I drink, you will drink; & and with the baptism that I am baptised, you will be baptised.'

Our Gospel reading today is part of a slightly longer section of scripture. It begins with Jesus & his disciples on the road, walking towards Jerusalem, and Jesus again explains to his disciples that he is going to suffer and die. Adding these extra verses to today's reading still gives us a relatively short passage of scripture of only 13 verses. But short as it is, it can still be broken down into five distinct sub-sections.

In the first, Jesus explains for the second time he is to suffer and die. Next, two of the disciples respond to this revelation with the request for places of honour. Jesus replies by reminding them of what his glory is to consist of. In the fourth section the remaining disciples express their anger at what James and John have done. And finally, Jesus points to what true leadership is like for those who follow him & again points to that fact that his own fate is to die.

So, three sections where Jesus talks about his own suffering and death; and in between those sections the response of his disciples to what he has been telling them. So let's look at those various sections in a little more detail.

The first is fairly clear cut. Jesus explains to his disciples that he is to suffer and die. It is not the first time he has done so. You will recall he did so before in Mark's Gospel, just after what is often called St Peter's confession that Jesus was the Christ. That time St Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus – he didn't understand; he got things wrong. He thought of the Messiah-ship in terms of earthly glory. This time it is the turn of James and John to get things wrong. Even though Jesus has just finished telling them he is to suffer and die, they are still thinking in terms of earthly glory, and they ask for places of honour when Jesus 'takes over.' Jesus response to them is interesting. He doesn't begin with a plain 'no.' He asks them a question: can they drink of his cup & endure the baptism he is to suffer? Of course we know when he speaks like he is speaking of his suffering and death which is to come; they do not … emphasising even more that they still do not understand what being the Messiah really is all about. 

The two give a confident reply to Jesus' rather ambiguous question: 'We are able.' And then Jesus makes a somewhat curious response to the answer that they have made in ignorance. They will indeed drink from his cup and endure his baptism, but they can not have the places of glory they seek. I'll come back to talk a little more on Jesus' answer to their request later.

The remaining ten disciples find out what Jesus and the two brothers have been talking about and they are angry. Not angry because the two have sought the high-places of earthly glory out because they don't understand what Jesus is about. What Jesus says in our final section makes clear, I think, that they don't understand him either. Indeed, it is clear from all that comes later in the Gospel, from how they react to Jesus' passion in death that they never even came close to understanding what he was saying. Which means they must be angry because the two have asked for places of honour … and they want those places for themselves! Really they are cross because James and John acted before they did.

Which is why Jesus must explain to them what it means to be a leader in his kingdom. Those who wish to be great must think of themselves as least of all; the one who serves others the most is the one who is the greatest. They must follow the example of their master, who came not to be served but to serve, to live a life of such humble service that he would give his life for others.

The structuring of the passage is quite extra-ordinary: Jesus speaks of his death; two misunderstand; he speaks of it again; and even more misunderstand; & so he explains again. And in a structure like this the middle-point acquires a particular importance – it becomes the focus of the piece. And what happens in the middle piece? Jesus tells the two that they will drink of his cup and be baptised with his baptism. I said earlier that I thought it was a curious response and that I would come back to it. And it is curious, for me at least, because of how Jesus says it. 

The two have said they are able, not understanding what it is they are saying they are able for. And Jesus says they will drink and will be baptised. He is essentially saying they are able. They are able to join in his suffering and death. They will join in his suffering and death. Not might. Will. James who died by the sword under Herod and John who tradition tells us went on to live into extreme old age. Both will join in drinking from the cup of Jesus' passion & the baptism of his suffering and death. They, not knowing what they said, said they were able. And Jesus told them that they would indeed be able to be his disciples & face whatever that brought to them.

And of course, Jesus asks that question of us all. Can you drink my cup? Can you endure my baptism? We unlike James and John know what it means to answer 'we are able' to that question. It means taking up our cross and following him; it means turning to God in all things; it means forgetting what we want in life & accepting what it is that God wants for us; it means leaving aside our own judgement in favour of what Christ acting through his Church teaches. We know what it means to say we are able … What remains for us to wonder is how we will respond. Will we also say that we are able? And will we say it not only with our lips but with our lives, our every action displaying to the world that we mean what we say? With God's help, I believe that we all may. And I pray God that we all will. Amen.

sermon notes 21 Oct 2012 (20th after Trinity)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

On your (cardboard) bike!

This really falls under the category of 'just too cool!' If you don't have time to watch the video or read the newspaper article here, then here is the short version. An Israeli gentleman figured out that if you folded cardboard right then you could achieve enormous rigidity (a bit like when you fold paper a few times ... when I was a kid I used to fold an A4 sheet until it was as thin as I could make it & use it to support my weight from a hook in my dad's garage). And if you treated it with the right compounds you could make it completely water-proof. And you could use those materials to make a bike that not only worked, but would probably last at least 10 years, and all for the cost of around $9. What's that - a cup of coffee & a couple of cookies in Starbucks? 

So what's the guy planning to do - get rich selling cheap bikes? Nope, he pretty much plans to give them away ... he'll cover his costs through adverstising; the venders will be allowed a small profit; but he reckons they should retail for no more than about 20 bucks. A genius & a nice guy - doesn't that put a smile on your inside?

So cool. Stuff like this changes the world. I wonder what else you could make? Me, I'm thinking disposable card-board car ... so light you can carry it if you run out of fuel, so cheap you just take it to the recycling centre if something goes wrong, and best of all if you hit something no one gets hurt!

Friday, October 19, 2012

the wedding party

I always feel a little bit uncomfortable at the receptions that follow weddings. It is the custom in Ireland that the officiating priest sits at the 'top table' with the wedding party and says Grace before the meal begins. It leaves me with a 'get thee to a lower place' feeling somewhat, especially when I see close family members of the bride and groom sitting at those lower places. However, it is the custom & of course the respect shown by the 'higher place' accords to the role the priest plays on behalf of God's Church in the proceedings & not to me as an individual. I know for many it is a hangover from an earlier age & is simply a part of the ritual of getting married  ... however it would be nice to think that it also has the potential to serve as a visual reminder to all that the marriage service may be over but the importance of God in the lives of the couple continues. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

a renewal of vows

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Weddings are always happy occasions … so I suppose this occasion must be doubly happy as it is in a way the second time round for the happy couple … not a second marriage I hasten to add, but a second public declaration of the love and commitment that they have for each other!

In fact, I must admit to being slightly puzzled about what it was that we would be doing here today when the bride first called me from the States. Because frankly there was nothing in the BCP to cover this. It wasn't a wedding, as they were already married; it wasn't the blessing of a civil marriage as they had already been married in Church … after a bit of head-scratching we decided the term 'renewal of vows' best described what was happening, even if it did seem a little soon to renew vows when they had only been married a few months … a cynic might wonder if they weren't sure that the vows had taken the first time round!

But truthfully, I think it is lovely that 
the happy couple wanted to do something publicly in Ireland as well as in the US. The service sheet speaks of their making their commitment before God and congregation … God is the same today, always, and at their first ceremony … but today the congregation is different … the first congregation was there to witness on behalf of Church and community in the United States … and the congregation gathered here today is here to witness on behalf of the Irish Church and community of the commitment that they have made before God to each other …

So what is that commitment? When we gathered for the wedding rehearsal on Tuesday evening, we had a short prayer service … I thought it was a good way of everybody getting to know each other … and certainly a good way for me to get to know them better … praying together is a powerful way of communicating with each other … and of course by springing a service on them that they weren't expecting and having them engage with it without a murmur I found out just how biddable they all were & how difficult they would or wouldn't be today!

But for the service I had to chose a reading … & the one I chose was from Genesis: let me read it to you … I know you have all heard it before, but it never hurts to hear the word of God read aloud:

Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

There are some important concepts in there: it is not good for people to be alone; we need helpers and partners in life; we must rely on God to help us find that companion, rather than relying on random chance or thinking it is something for our own wills and choices; and once the two are joined together, they are one flesh, joined together, not by human action, but by God.

That's a pretty clear outline of what Christian marriage is: as it is outlined in the Bible & as it has been authoritatively taught by the Church from the earliest days of her history … a powerful counter cultural witness to a society that increasingly sees marriage as just one among many of a range of life-style choices … and certainly not part of God's plan for humanity …

and lest anyone think I am singling out those who are not following the Church's teaching on marriage as being particularly egregious sinners, I am not. We are all sinners … there is not a saint in heaven who wasn't a sinner on earth … if the doors of the Church were only open to saints there would be no one in here today or any day. The Church teaches what it teaches … and then says: now welcome sinners one and all!

But still … it is wonderful that 
the happy couple have chosen to publicly witness to the importance of their marriage not just once but twice … & I wonder if we all might not learn from their example? It is common practice in the Church to have regular & public renewal of baptismal vows … but the renewal of marriage vows is very much an optional thing … & even then only done after many years … essentially when there is no doubt that they have 'taken'! But perhaps we should change that … perhaps we should all regularly renew those vows we made on our wedding day … privately if nor publicly … looking the person you committed to spend the rest of your life with in the eye & reminding yourself and them … and perhaps the world … of the vows you made on the day when you were joined together with them by God in Holy Matrimony.

In a couple of minutes we will all be witnesses as 
the happy couple renew their vows of Holy Matrimony … so let us pray that these vows will not only be kept over many long years of marriage, but that they will be a source of strength to them in all the woes they will face, along with blessings of this life, even as we give thanks to their witness here today before us and God: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

(sermon notes for 18 Oct 2012; renewal of marriage vows) 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

an autumn evening wedding rehearsal

Last night I walked in the drizzling gloom up the steep, leaf-strewn drive of one of the four churches in my parish. I was on the way to a wedding rehearsal. The happy couple are based in the US and all the preparations had been done by distance, using the phone and email. It struck me that this would the first time that I would meet the bride and groom face to face.

As the wedding party gathered, I realised that I knew few of them also. The bride was a daughter of the parish, so I was familiar with her parents and siblings. But the rest were either friends and relatives of the bride who had traveled for the occasion, or family and friends of the groom who had flown in from the States.

Watching the two sides greet each other before we got started it was clear that I wasn't the only one meeting a large number of people for the first time. I wondered what I might do to address the 'familiarity gap.' I knew enough about the group from my prior communications with the couple to know that all their friends and relatives were Church going people who took the practice of their faith seriously. I decided to build on that. I gathered up an arm-full of prayer books and started handing them out. 

'We don't really know each other very well,' I said. 'It would be nice if we could do something about that before we begin. And one of the best ways I can think of to help a group of people to get to know each other a little better is to pray together.' 

As they thumbed their way to the page for the Late Evening Office the intimacy of prayerful silence fell over those gathered. Quietly & meditatively we read the short service together. The Office allows for a reading & a short reflection. As this was part of a wedding rehearsal, I chose to read Genesis 2.18-24. But I decided there was no need for a reflection. As I told them, sometimes it is best let scripture speak for itself. They nodded and smiled. 

I don't know if they felt they knew each other better when we had finished the service. But it seemed to me that they did.   

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Lectio Divina

Wanting to try some lectio divina in my parish, I thought I'd ask a friend of mine, a Carmelite brother, for some tips. So I sent him an email:

I'm planning to start some lectio divina in the parish & I believe that it is something that Carmelites are quite good at (I hope I'm not believing wrongly!) so I was wondering if you had any advice? I will say that even though the plan is for it to be for a group, it could well end up being just me on my own ... but that's ok, because time spent in prayer is never time spent alone ...

Brother, being a very good man indeed, had a reply to me within a few hours. Below is a little of what he said: 

... of course we are never alone! ... lectio is not I repeat not an academic exercise but an encounter with the risen Lord, present in his word. I always remind my group the scripture is not just another book that recalls past events but is essentially alive and makes present to us the reality of Christ within our lives who hungers to engage in intimate relationship with us. Lectio is about creating the space for that encounter!

I think I asked the right person for advice ... 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

doing the impossible

Kitchen Cabinet Hinges Best Tips to Install a Kitchen Cabinet Hinge

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

That verse from today's Gospel puts me in mind of a summer I spent working with my father. The same year I finished my first year of university my father was made redundant. He had worked in Ford's in Cork and when the plant closed in the mid-80s that was the end of his working life. He was in his mid-50s and this was a time when fresh-faced college grads couldn't get a job. By the time the Celtic tiger rolled around he was well into his 70s.

My Dad didn't feel sorry for himself. My parents had always been careful with money. The house was paid for. The children were almost grown. He and my mother had both worked for many years in England and the US & so had bits of pensions coming in from various sources. He got a very good redundancy package which went straight into the bank as a nest-egg for any rainy days that might crop up. My mother was a nurse & while she didn't have a full-time job, she was able to get quite a bit of part-time work evenings and weekends. So there was no financial worries.

Looking back it is extraordinary to think how well my Dad coped. He wasn't much older than I am now. All of the men from Ford's who lost their jobs that day knew, given the economic climate of the time that there would be no chance of another job for a good many years, until the economy picked up … & those past a certain age knew it meant this was the end of their working lives. I don't know how his peers managed, but I never once heard my Dad grumble.

My Dad had left school at 14 to train as a car mechanic. But the truth was he had always wanted to be a carpenter. There was no carpentry apprenticeships available when he left school, so he took what there was, and worked hard at it, and did very well at it. But he always enjoyed working with wood & was always making little things  … bedside lockers … the box with a lid that sat on our door step for the milk so that the sparrows couldn't peck away the tin foil to get at the cream … little square boxes for nails and screws that he kept in the garage …

But this summer, he really through himself into his passion for working with wood … and he decided to make built in wardrobes in the bedrooms and fitted cabinets in the living room and the dining room … and I'm not quite sure how the decision was arrived at, but it was decided that this summer I wouldn't get a summer job but would be his assistant!

Since my part in the affair largely consisted of carrying and holding things, it didn't require much aptitude or skill … and since my father was always such a neat and precise worker it was a pleasure to watch him work … he was very much a measure twice cut once kind of guy … never once did we end up with a door too short or too narrow or even the tiniest bit off square …

But of course the day came when my Dad wanted me to do a bit more than just watch … I'm sure you all know those fiddly kind of spring-loaded hinges that are used on cabinet doors … I believe that is the technical term for them … the sort that require some counter sinking into the wood of the door in order to fit them … well, with all the doors we were putting up, there was quite a lot of these fiddly hinges … and to speed things up, my Dad thought it would be a good idea to get his 'helper' to put some of them on …

Except, maybe it wasn't such a good idea … because the 'brainy' college student looked at these odd-looking bits of metal, all shiny with springs and adjusting screws and seemingly way too many holes for screwing them into the wood than could possibly be needed and had no more idea how they could ever be attached to the door and frame in such a way that it all worked than he had of flying an alien space-craft … maybe less, because at least I was a fan of science-fiction movies and had seen a variety of those being driven! Try as I might, it just didn't seem possible to make them work.

But what was to the clumsy college student impossible, was possible for the car-mechanic who had always wanted to be a carpenter. Calmly and gently he showed me … the wardrobes and cabinets were finished … where they remain to this day, over 30 years later, working as well now as they did then.

‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Now, I'm not ascribing to my Dad god-like powers, but I do think what Jesus was talking about with his disciples that day and what my Dad showed me that day with the hinges is a little bit alike. We think things are impossible and we want to give up … but with the right help not only are they possible, we find that we can actually make a good job of it. There are a lot of 'hard teachings' in the Bible … sometimes they seem so hard that we think they can't be lived up to … but with the right help they can be … with God's help … but of course, we have to want his help … 

Saying it is impossible and then neither asking for nor accepting help ensures that it is impossible for us … but if we ask for his help and take it when it is given – always trusting that it will be given – then what seems impossible is possible … because Jesus assured us all things are possible … the hard teachings that we find difficult to accept, and even harder to live out, will not stand in the way of our salvation … because Jesus told us that for God all things are possible … even helping us to live up to that which we think is impossible … and I ask that you will pray for me that just as with my Dad I did what seemed impossible and got those hinges on, so too in my life I will achieve the seemingly impossible things that our heavenly Father asks of us … even as I will pray the same for you: in the name of God: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon notes for 14 October 2012 (19th after Trinity) 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Let's call her Annie ...

I met a woman the other day in a care home. Let's call her Annie.* The home is intended for short-stay patients, what we call 'respite care.' They normally live at home, cared for by their family, and come to the care home to give their loved ones a break, usually for around two weeks.

When I went to Annie's room she was in bed. She looked about 70, with short grey hair and glasses. Her fingers were bent crooked and twisted on the sheets. On the shelf behind her bed were a few small sacred items ... rosary beads, a small icon of our Lady, a small crucifix. Clearly a woman of faith. 

'Hello Annie.' This was my first visit. I only knew her name because it was on the door. I introduced myself. She smiled. It was a friendly smile.
'So how long have you been here Annie?' It was my opening question to all the residents. Usually the answer was somewhere between a few days to a few weeks. Those who had been there longer usually had a medical condition that couldn't be looked after at home and required the extra attention the care home could provide. Annie's answer rocked me back on my heels.
'Thirty-two years.'
'I beg your pardon?' 
Annie explained she had been in a wheelchair all her life. When she was a child she contracted an untreatable disease that left her unable to walk. The time came when there was no one left at home to look after her. And so she had come to the care home.
'That must have been tough,' I said.
'No,' she said. 'I have no complaints. They look after me well. I'm happy here.' She smiled as she said it. A member of staff bustled in with her meal.
'Annie was telling me a little about her self,' I said. The woman smiled.
'She's a great girl. She never complains or feels sorry for herself.'
'You're an inspiration, Annie,' I said. I meant it. 'I'll head away and let you get on with your dinner.' Normally when I leave someone after a visit like this I tell the person I'll keep them in my prayers. Not this time. I put my hand on my shoulder and leaned in closer.
'Will you keep me in your prayers, Annie?' She smiled.
'I will,' she said. 'Of course I will.'

*the name and some details have been changed to protect 'Annie's' privacy

Thursday, October 11, 2012

more on St David Lewis SJ

Saint David Lewis
I posted a few weeks back about St David Lewis SJ (Mr Baker - here & here), the Catholic priest and martyr who is buried in the local Anglican churchyard in the town of Usk in Wales. Usk is in the diocese of Monmouth & by a pleasant twist of fate the speaker at our diocesan clergy conference was the Anglican Bishop of Monmouth, Dominic Walker OGS. Over dinner one evening I told him I had come across St David's grave in a churchyard in his diocese & asked him if he was familiar with him.

'O yes,' he said. 'You mean St Mary's in Usk. Very much so. I had a confirmation there only a couple of weeks ago. Every time I have a confirmation in that parish, I bring all the children being confirmed outside to gather around St David's grave. It is wonderful to see how well tended his grave is. There are always flowers there when I visit.'

When I posted (& preached) about the life and death of St David, the thing that touched me most, and literally brought a tear to my eye, was the great esteem this holy man had been held in during his life by the non-Catholic people of the place where he had lived and worked & how they had tried to protect him in life & treated him with dignity in death. It is wonderful to realise that their spiritual (& no doubt many actual) descendants regard him with equal esteem & affection today.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

some words at the door

Had a curious comment made to me at the door of the church the other day. I was standing there shaking hands next to our guest preacher after the Harvest Thanksgiving service. It was an ecumenical service so there were a lot of folk from the wider community and I wasn't surprised that I didn't know quite a number of people. What did surprise me is what one man said as he shook my hand. He leaned in to me and said in a confidential whisper:
'I liked your letter in the paper. Thanks for standing up for us.'

I just smiled and nodded although I hadn't a clue what he meant. I was rushing. There was an institution of a clergy colleague I'd been at seminary with later that night. So his words got filed away until later. On the drive home they came back to me and I figured out what he was talking about. One of my letters had been about Enda Kenny's seeming act of deliberate disrespect when sitting at the front row a papal address (he had spent the time fiddling with his mobile phone throughout - you can see my post on it here). The man was one of the local Catholic parish & he was thanking me for calling Enda Kenny on his behaviour publicly. He saw a lack of respect for the Pope as showing a lack of respect for Catholics everywhere - including Ireland.

God bless the man. It is nice to know there are people out there who appreciate your efforts. And nice to know that my letter was seen in a positive ecumenical light.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Jesus' teaching on divorce

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Our Gospel this morning talks about a difficult topic, that of divorce and remarriage. It would be tempting to 'kick for touch' on this one & talk about something else. But it is too important a topic, I think, for us to ignore simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Jesus says that those who divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery, a mortal sin, so the issue is of utmost seriousness - it concerns the salvation of souls. Also, it is a pastoral issue. I know many parents of adult children who are uneasy or indeed distressed when those children divorce and remarry, because they worry that their children are breaking God's law. I know also from speaking to those who are remarried and divorced that they sometimes feel that there are many who do not accept the validity of their second union, despite the fact that their remarriage took place in Church. And I know those whose spouse who walked out on them who are hurt and confused by the Church seeming to take the side of their errant spouse by allowing them to remarry in Church. All of this means that it is a matter that we must look at.

So, what of the words of Jesus on this issue? First, I'm sure you are all aware that there are many so called 'experts' who spend their time endlessly debating what parts of the Gospel are 'true' or not … they will pick the texts apart in minute detail trying to decide whether this incident or that is historically accurate …and the reason I mention these scholars is that even such as these have no doubt that the teaching we have today is truly that of our Lord's ...

One of the main reasons that they all agree is because the teaching would have been so controversial. The Jewish faith was regarded by all in the Mediterranean world as having a very stringent moral code. And yet, for all it's strictness, even they allowed divorce. It was as if human kind regarded it as part of the natural order of things: marriage was something that men and women entered into of their own free will … and therefore why should they not be able to leave it if they so chose with equal freedom?

But this is not what Jesus taught. And so to the ears of his hearers this would have made what he had to say shocking, not to say scandalous. It is what we sometimes call a 'hard teaching' … and it is so hard that those who might doubt almost everything else that they read in the Bible accept that this is not something that his later followers would simply have made up … if Jesus did not say this, & was widely known by all his followers to say this, then it would seemed like something coming out of nowhere if the Gospel writers had tried to include it without this being what Jesus taught … and we must remember that this is a teaching that is in all the Gospels – directly in Matthew, Mark, & Luke, and indirectly in John in the passages concerning the woman at the well & the woman taken in adultery … and also in the letters of St Paul … 

And note also how this scene begins. The scribes come to test him and ask him about divorce. It would be odd to test him this way if they did not already know that this was his teaching ... again adding weight to the truth that there can be no doubt that Jesus unequivocally taught that once a man and a woman were married it was for life – until death do you part as the prayer book says. This is because, as Jesus says, once a man and a woman are married they have become one flesh. This is not something that they do themselves. God has joined them together. And what God has joined together, human beings may not put apart. And yet we live in a world where there not only is divorce, but the Church of Ireland permits the re-marriage in Church of those who have been divorced. 

That secular society should provide for the possibility that there should be a possibility for a couple to end the civil portion of their marriage is not something that I need discuss. But we must bear in mind that when a couple marries in Church there is in effect two things happening simultaneously: one is that a couple's civil marriage is registered; but also that they have entered into what we call Holy Matrimony, which is a separate, sacramental event. This is perhaps clearer in some jurisdictions such as France which does not allow couples to join the two & so therefore they must be two weddings, one civil if the couple is to be legally married, and a second in Church if the couple is to be married in the eyes of the Church.

Now the ending of the Civil side of things is the concern of the state authorities. And the ending of the Sacramental side is a matter for the Church. Historically in the Latin, or Western, Church of which the Church of Ireland is a part, this was dealt with by examining if in fact a true marriage had taken place – if God had actually joined the couple together or not if you will. You may be more familiar with this procedure under the name of 'annulment.' I can't go through all the reason that might lead to a decree of nullity  but for example one issue might be that of consent: had both parties to the marriage freely given their consent to the union? Or had perhaps one been put under some pressure? Not unheard of when the parties were young and their parents were eager for the match; or indeed when the girl was pregnant and terrified of what might happen to her if she was left to bring up a child on her own.

In the Church of Ireland we do not issue a decree of nullity; neither do we have some kind of a central office filled with canon lawyers and other such experts looking at these cases. But that does not mean we simply avoid the issue either. For example, it is clear that by allowing remarriage in church we have not simply adopted a new doctrine in this matter. For example we have not changed the wording of the marriage service where the couple not only declares that will remain married until 'as long as you both shall live', but the priest declares before those gathered that what God has joined together let no one put asunder. And when it comes to the remarriage of a divorced person we will also use this same service  … our canons also continue to affirm that the teaching of the Church on this matter is the same as it always has been. 

So how do we resolve the apparent contradiction of the fact that on the one hand we declare that our doctrine is unchanged but on the other allow for the remarriage of a divorced person in church? My interpretation is that the simple answer is that although we deal with in a different manner, we still follow the same teaching as before in that the Church must still decide whether such a marriage may take place in church .... in other words, it is not automatic. It is not a right that the divorced person may present themselves at the door of their local rector and demand that he facilitate them. Questions must be asked and a decision made, just as it always has been in the Church. 

In the Church of Ireland it is simply that the procedure takes place at a lower more local level. According to the canons of our Church such a decision as to whether a re-marriage may take place is in the hands of the incumbent of the parish and the diocesan bishop … and even though the language of the canons is not terribly specific on the procedures to be followed, the main thrust is that the individual facts of the situation are to be investigated and the decision made based on those facts … and on the basis of the teaching of the Church, which the canons state to be permanent, life-long, & till death to them part … 

And as no incumbent can be forced to perform such a marriage unwillingly, clearly he must be satisfied in his own conscience that the marriage will be a valid one … and as always, when I speak of someone acting according to their conscience I mean that they are acting according to the dictates of informed conscience, a conscience that is formed by the teaching of scripture and the doctrines of the Church as has been passed down to us, not according to their own whims and pleasures …

So, theoretically at least, when such a marriage takes place, no outside party should have any doubt as to the validity of the union. One must in Christian charity presume that the parties to the marriage have acted with integrity when providing the needed information to the bishop and incumbent; and that the bishop and incumbent have diligently performed the sacred task entrusted to them by the Church in coming to their decisions – stressing here again that it is a long-standing tradition that the Church does indeed have the authority to make such decisions … 

truthfully, I could wish that the Church of Ireland did have some kind of central office for making these decisions ... it would give greater certainty that all the needed information had been gathered and correctly assessed ... and it would avoid the danger that those deciding might be thought to act according to their own prejudices on this issue, whether liberal or conservative. However, in the absence of such an office it is not, I think, for those entrusted by the Church to make a decision to avoid their responsibilities to do so.  

And once that decision is made all the community must accept it ... even if that is naturally harder for some ... the former spouse, any children of that union, and the parents and in-laws of both the past and prospective marriage. And so this morning I end by asking you to keep all those people in your prayers ... even as I ask that you pray for all those who must make these decisions ... the couples who have gone through the pain of having previous unions fail and who faithfully seek to follow God's will in the contracting of another union in Church … for the clergy who must help them in this process … that they may all engage humbly and honestly in this sensitive task … faithfully seeking to follow the teaching of Christ & his Church in all that they do … we pray this in the name of God: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen. 

sermon notes 7 October 2012 (18th after Trinity) 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

walking on water

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

first of all, thanks to your Chaplain for the invitation to speak to you today, & to the Monsignor for making me welcome … it's great to have such a big crowd of people here today … to see such a large church so full … so I thought we might begin by letting ourselves and the Lord know just how full this building is … did you ever see in movies when they're in a church in the American South and the preacher says: can I have an Amen? Perhaps we could do that now & see just what a joyful noise we can make: can I have an Amen? Oh, please! The first years on their own should be able to do better than that! Again: can I have an Amen? Better … but still room for improvement! So deep breath … let it out … another deep breath … let it out … slowly now! One last deep breath … deeper … ready? Can I get an Amen?

What are you trying to do? Deafen me? Seriously, well done … during the course of the next few minutes I might ask you all to try that again … we'll see who's paying attention!

Now, our Gospel reading put me in mind of a story I once heard. It wasn't long after the Ascension; Peter, his brother Andrew, and a couple of the other disciples were out fishing one day … the fish weren't jumping so they got to talking … and as they had before, they got to talking about which of them was better than the other …
'You all know I'm the man,' said St Peter. 
'yeah right,' said one of the others. 'You had so much faith that when our Lord asked you to walk on water with him you nearly drowned … if he hadn't taken your hand, you would have!' 
'True,' said St Peter. 'But that was then. I'm much better at it now. Just watch me.' And he got out of the boat and started walking on the water. The other disciples gasped in amazement. His brother Andrew just rolled his eyes and told him to stop showing off! 
'Now,' said St Peter to the one who had challenged him. 'Let's see how strong your faith is. Out of the boat and walk … if you can.' 
'well, my faith is at least as strong as yours … so if you can, I can.' So out of the boat he stepped … and sank like a stone! Peter of course rolled around laughing. And while the other disciple was pulling the poor fellow out, Andrew leaned over to his brother and whispered: 
'Sometimes I wonder about you … do you not think you should have told him about the stepping stones?' 

Can I get an Amen? Just checking!

Now that wasn't a true story of course! But it seemed apt given the miracle we heard about in our Gospel reading … Now miracle stories in the Gospels are, as you know, about showing Jesus' power and authority. But they have also been called parables in action … and parables are stories designed to teach us something … so what can we learn from our Gospel reading today?

Well I thought we try a little experiment to see if we can tease the meaning out of it. Could I have some volunteers … maybe two boys and two girls from the first years? Now to make this more realistic, I would have liked to flood the church, but the Monsignor wouldn't let me … so you'll just have to pretend that the floor is covered in water … deep, deep water … now, without getting wet, I'd like you to walk from the chancel steps down to the back of the church … girls are always much better than boys, so ladies first? No?
Too hard? Well how about getting from the step to the middle of the aisle there … it's only about 20 feet … can one of you jump … no, you can't get behind the altar and take a run at it from there! The step there is your boat and you're stuck there!

Hmm … not working out too well, is it? Maybe we need some help … Maybe they need some encouragement? How about if we all gave them a great big Amen? Can I get an Amen? Again! Again!

Still not working! Let's think about this … you're being the disciples in this experiment … how did St Peter manage to stay out of the water? Jesus took him by the hand … well, obviously we don't have him here today, but maybe we could get someone else to be his angels? Could I have 8 big strong sixth years up here please? No one with bad backs or dodgy knees now! Look at those fine angels! Could I get an Amen for the Angels? Excellent! Now big strong angels, if you put your arms together & carry these poor disciples over the water and put them back in their pews … carefully now … I'm not sure the Monsignor's insurance will cover it if you drop someone! Well done … didn't they do well? Can I get an Amen for that?

And the point of our experiment is much the same as the one the little story I told earlier makes and the one that our Gospel reading makes … sometimes we can't do it on our own … sometimes we need a little help … and that help is available … and what our Gospel reading is telling us is that when we need that help, it is there … all we have to do is reach out our hands and Jesus will take it and help us … whether we just need help to get through the day … or help to do something extraordinary with our lives … can I get an Amen?

And if I may finish with a prayer: Lord, I pray that all here will find the strength, the faith, & the courage to reach out their hands to you when ever they need it, & know that you are always there for them … this I pray in the name of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Oh, go on … give me another Amen! 

Sermon notes for 3 October 2012 (Community School Ecumenical Service) 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

a numbers game?

I noticed a curious phenomenon over the weekend: the steady rise of the reported figures for those who attended Saturday's 'pro-choice' rally in Dublin. The initial Garda estimate was around 500, with the IT online edition saying that perhaps as many as 1000 were there. That was later amended to a possible maximum of 2000 by the Gards (police), with the Irish Times online headline saying 'thousands attend pro-choice rally.' And apparently the organisers, felt that even those rapidly expanding numbers were insufficient: one made a claim of 5000 on Facebook & another put the numbers as being as high as 7000.
Astonished by this frantic growth rate over the course of a single afternoon, I checked online to see if there was any video of this event in the hope of trying to establish the facts for myself. RTE hadn't sent a camera along, but apparently the organisers did and posted the result on YouTube. Sadly for them, their own clip (which as I write has attracted all of 10 views) shows that the originally reported figures were correct, with only hundreds in attendance. 

I wasn't the only one who noticed this. The always sensible Fr Blake wrote an interesting post on it. And the Thirsty Gargoyle did a fascinating numbers crunching job on the claims of the marchers, using his skills as a classical military historian (which as a former soldier who majored in Classical Civilisation in university, I thoroughly enjoyed). His far more rigorous assessment of the numbers, using a variety of methods of calculation (including actually taking the trouble to take video still and actually count heads - respect!) confirms my own estimate. 

However, I think there is something positive for the 'pro-choice' folk to take from this experience. Their wish to see abortion made legal may not have much popular support in this country. But they certainly have great talent with the media spin game and getting the numbers to say anything they want. Such talents would surely be of great value in the government press offices in these bleak economic times.

Monday, October 1, 2012

a portrait of the blooger as a younger man!

Photo: Thought you might want to remember THIS gentleman!
My friend Lee, a fellow broadcaster from the 'old days' surprised me with the above visual reminder of a past life. More than 20 years have past since that young man above 'moved on' from being a sailor sailing the airwaves, broadcasting 'coast to coast' on an island in the Atlantic that was 10 miles by 15. Hard to believe that I was ever that young.

I have no idea why my eyes are closed in the picture - but I can assure you, I wasn't singing ... that never happened live on air I can assure you! But I'm clearly enjoying myself ... even though I'm probably doing nothing more exiting than extolling the virtues of the base bowling alley or letting the listening audience know about the bargains to be had at the local thrift shop. 

I spent four years at that TV & radio station ... and despite the fact that the military considered Lajes Field remote duty, and something of a hardship location, I loved it. They were some of the happiest days of my life. Thanks for the memories, Lee.