Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Family Silver

My old-new Home Communion set.  The chalice stands at
barely 4 inches!
Look what I was given recently!

We drove to my native North Antrim to visit Canon Johns, a retired Church of Ireland clergyman.  He spent nearly all his active ministry in rural Billy Parish, the parish that my great-great-grandparents considered home.  
According to the census carried out across Ireland in the late 1901, there were already lots of Mac Bruithins/Browns in Liscolman, a little village in Straidbilly townland, named after Saint Colman who many centuries before came here with the gospel.  

I wonder was it Colman who found religious pagans in the area, venerating their gods in connection with An Bhile (Anglicized as 'Billy'), the 'magic tree'? And who initiated Christian worship on the same site, convincing the pagans in good old Celtic mission style that Christ is the full revelation of the one God.  Of course, it could have been Patrick himself - he was active in these parts.

Several generations of our wee family - farm labourers, mill workers, housekeepers, and more recently my own grandfather who mended clocks and worked for the Department of the Environment - are buried there, by that same ancient place of worship.

Billy Parish Church today
All this intrigues me.  First of all, I tend to forget that my family roots are Church of Ireland (Anglican) because I only remember very vaguely those formative years under the age of five when my father and I went weekly to damp, draughty Billy Church.  By my early primary school years, the family had left and gone to a 'Brethren' church instead.

Secondly, as of this summer, I have lived away from Liscolman slightly longer than the 18 years I spent growing up there.  Sometimes I forget that's where I come from.

Anyway, back to the home communion set.

When we arrived at Rev. Johns' home, and I introduced Sarah, and he told me again and again how delighted he is that an old parishioner of his is heading towards ordination - 

- yes, an old parishioner of his; I had barely seen my baptizer for thirty-odd years, yet he always considered me one of his own -

then he gave me this.  His home communion set.

OK, it's old.  It was made in 1870 in London, according to the box.  And the silver chalice and paten have faded and the flagon is stained.

But did my great-grandparents receive the Eucharist from this set?

Or my grandparents, maybe my late grandfather on in his last weeks?

I'll never know.

But isn't that really special?  To be given something that has been used for so many encounters between Jesus Christ and the sick and homebound of Liscolman all those years, maybe my own folk.

There's a bit of a homecoming in being given that little communion set.

I've given it a wash and polish as best I can.  I think I can rehabilitate it.

And just maybe I'll use it when I do home communions one day?

Friday, 29 August 2014

Turnip Soup Day Comes Early

Turnip soup day comes like clockwork every year.  Late August, usually.

It starts with a listlessness.  The summer days are still achingly long, but darkness descends at 9 pm rather than 11.  I feel jealous of the kids out getting measured for new school uniforms, and getting their compasses and roller ball pens and file dividers for back-to-school time.

They're going back into a routine.  They're going to learn lots of exciting things about the world.

They're getting a fresh start, a New Year.

I want one, I find myself muttering as I walk through a whiff of acid-free A4 paper in the seasonal aisle at Tesco.

Around that time, all summered out for the year, longing for the comfy, indoorsy autumn feeling that comes with September, turnips are just coming into season.

And they make brilliant soup.

I go back to the same trusty turnip soup recipe every August, hoping each spoonful will coax autumn that bit closer.

Three small turnips.  What we Irish call turnips, that is.  You might call them swedes.  Seasonally orange, sweet and comforting.

Fry on a medium heat, with two chopped onions and a diced potato, for five minutes.  Then cover with chicken stock, pop in two bay leaves, a level teaspoonful of ground nutmeg, and season well with salt and pepper.  Simmer for 30 minutes.  Blitz, check seasoning, and stir in a good pour of single cream.

Kick off the frenzy of summer, and eat from a big bowl in a suitably comfy chair, wearing chunky socks.  Look forward to returning to a sensible routine, making packed lunches, having early nights and digging out woolly jumpers.

Sunday, 20 July 2014


Carn Domhnach ('Burial mound of the church'!) is the
ancient spiritual centre of Inishowen Peninsula in North Donegal
This morning, I drove across Postman Pat countryside to the pretty little village of Carndonagh.  It was my first visit to the Moville group of parishes where I'm helping out for a few weeks over the summer.

The church is right by the famous Carndonagh Cross.  Saint Patrick himself is said to have founded a worshipping community here.

It was rite one: not my forte!  Lots of -ests and -eths to get my tongue around.  

Over the past year, I've learned this about liturgy.  It is creative.  Even older forms and rites, and even in traditional churches with older congregations.

A year ago, preparing to start training for ordained ministry, I was worried about 'making mistakes'.  By that, I meant accidentally departing from the prescribed rubric. 

Now, I think a bigger mistake is to be a slave to the letter of the prayer book!  It's important to spot those wonderful words 'may be said', 'or a portion thereof' and - my personal fave - 'may be adapted according to local custom'.  

Even the contemporary 'Morning Prayer 2' is titled 'an order' and not 'the order' for regular worship.  Cool!

Don't get me wrong.  I like liturgy.  I think all Christian groups have their standard orders of service, and paying critical and conscious attention to it helps us get it right.  Otherwise, without meaning to, services can get flabby, frothy, and more imbued with wider cultural references than the scriptural, story-shaped liturgy we need.  

Did you know that about 70% of the words in the Book of Common Prayer come straight from the Bible?  There's probably no other denomination that hears so much scripture in one 60-minute service!  (Sermon over.) 

Carn's famous Celtic cross
Close-up shows Criost eirithe - Christ is risen!

I think the Church of Ireland has to be brave and bold and follow the Spirit and do things differently.  But throwing out carefully crafted liturgy isn't itself a barrier to fresh expressions of church.  There's a lot of brilliant liturgy in the treasure chest of Christian experience.  We need clever worship leaders to select the right elements for the occasion.  Post-moderns love a bit of ancient stuff woven in with silence, music, drama ...  

Liturgically freer churches aren't all packed to the rafters (a few are).  So I think Anglicans should continue to do what we do (sometimes) well: liturgy.  Our USP.  Based on scripture.  Flexible.  Economical with words.  Ancient faith expressed for people today.  Tolerant of mystery, using silence as well as sound; shadow as well as light.

That's what I was thinking about on my way home this afternoon.  And just a year ago, I doubt any of this would have occurred to me.    

So thanks, parishioners of Carndonagh church, for having me and helping me reflect on worship.  (And perhaps for putting up with my experimentation a bit too.)  Carndonagh might mean 'burial mound of the church' - but this little Christian community is alive and well!  

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Nile Safari Adventure

The drive from Arua to Entebbe International Airport crosses the Nile twice and goes through Murchison Falls National Park.  So it would have been rude not to make a slight detour to see the wildlife.

We left Arua in the dark.  Bye bye little wooden lodge.  Spirits lifted when the sun came up, and sank again when the rain started.  Not good wildlife viewing weather.
The Nile on a wet morning

I'd been thinking a lot recently about the whole issue of providence.  So I thought, I might as well.  Lord, I think this is a superficial prayer.  I'm not sure this interests you, or figures greatly in your redemptive plan.  But I'd like to see a lion.  I'd really like to see a lion.  'Cos I've never seen one in the wild before.

The rain got worse.  It's not looking good, advised our driver Oyobo.  The animals hide when it rains like this.  

Message received.  Adjust expectations.  We'll see lots of birds and interesting plants.

The ranger, Saviour, apologized as we met him at the park entrance.  You must remember that lions are big cats, he said.  Cats hate water.
Rain eases off as we reach the park

We drove less than five minutes, and already there were hundreds of antelope everywhere you looked: Uganda cob, Jackson's hartebeest, oribi and water bucks.  And buffalo as well.  We saw some elderly males, driven out of the herd by younger ones, in threes and fives.  Each had an egret perched on top, in an I'll scratch your back if you let me eat your fleas arrangement.

Families of warthogs scuttled merrily in front of the car.

There were Rothschild giraffe, too.  Hundreds.  Last year in South Africa, we gasped in amazement at the sight of three giraffe.  In Murchison Falls, they were everywhere you looked.  The older ones are almost black.  We saw some younger males duel by basking each other's neck, just like in the BBC's Attenbrough footage recently.  

Poised and ...
We got a rare glimpse of an elephant lying down.  Apparently you don't see that very often.

So, the rain had not kept the wildlife in hiding all morning after all.  It's so abundant in Uganda.  It couldn't possibly all be concealed in the trees and bushes.  There wouldn't be space to hide this number of animals!

... thump.  Two young males neck-duelling.
On our way across Buligi, a strip of savannah between the Albert and Victoris Niles, to see the hippo, Saviour noticed that the hundreds of antelope were on high alert, motionless and emitting a strange high-pitched noise.  Then he spotted an antelope carcass.  More accurately, half a carcass.  The insides had been expertly removed to leave a rib cage and pelt and no more.

There must be lions nearby!

We drove up to the carcass, beside a clump of bushes.  We drove as slowly as Oyobo could round and round the bushes ... and then we saw it.  This was a lions' den.  And inside, you could just make out a massive paw.  And every few seconds, a big face lowered to lick said paw.  

We decided there were in fact two lions in there.  Oyobo whooped.  In all his years driving Mzungus round on safaris, he'd never seen a lion himself.

Unfortunately, there was no way of getting a photo.  It was dark in there.  And we definitely weren't going to get out of the car for a better angle!
Antelope carcass minus innards

Off we drove.  God, you're good.  I saw a lion's paw and face!  After such a rainy morning, too!

We saw more of everything, plus a mongoose and a few monkeys.  Even the birds and trees were more interesting now, because there were lions around!

On the way back, Saviour wondered if the lions had dragged the rest of the carcass into the den, so we swung by.  It was gone.

But antelope is salty meat and makes lions thirsty.  And there they were!  A lioness and her adolescent male, walking to a pool for a drink.  Crouching every few metres in case another kill might present itself.

They lapped.  And lapped.  Thirsty work, this.

They were so close, you could see the expressions of contentment on their faces, the ambivalence about taking down one more antelope if it just walked into the mother's teeth, but hey they'd eaten well so no need to fret if not.

Off they sauntered, as only the queen and prince of the jungle can do.  Back to their den.

Wow.  That's providence.  Next time I must be specific and pray I get to see an adult male.

We'd been so transfixed by the miracle spectacle of these lions drinking right in front of us that we were late now for our ferry crossing over the Nile.  So, we had a picnic of boiled eggs, groundnuts, sesame cakes and bananas on the banks of the great river.  In the distance were some volcanoes.  

As we were enjoying the view, some baboons had been getting closer.  Oyobo was sitting outside; we were in the car, terribly overheating but safe from the baboons.  We thought.

One jumped onto the roof of the car.  My window was open six inches.  A dirty hand was thrust into the car.  I pressed and pressed but the window wouldn't wind up.  Oyobo had the keys.

He thought quick, though.  He flung his banana one side of the vehicle, and the big hairy burglar went off in pursuit.  Oyobo jumped in and wound up the windows.  Who needs sub-35 temperatures when there are baboons about?

He was about to punch you in the face, Oyobo said, grinning in his new status as hero.  He was going to punch you to disorient you and enter the car and steal your bags.

I'd take on a lion any day before one of those brutes.

Our vehicle crosses the Nile
Keeping cool
At 2 pm, the boat arrived.  As a ferry transported the car to the other bank, we took the cruise boat down the river.  We watched antelope take their chances at a good drink of water from the river's edge.  We lost count of the hippo.  

We had a close encounter with some crocodile.  One in particular was barely arm's length from the side of the boat, basking in the hottest part of the day.  It slowly opened and closed its mouth.  Our guide reassured us he wasn't anticipating a nice meal of Irish visitor, but was regulating his body temperature through his mouth, because the scales keep heat trapped inside.
Also keeping cool.  Phew.  I thought he was poised to bite.

Normally, you'd see giraffe and elephant come down to the water's edge.  Not today - the morning's rain kept them away.  Still, who cares when you've seen lions up close and personal?

The water got choppier and scummier as we came close to the Falls themselves.  The mighty River Nile, having flowed from its source near Jinja, from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert and through this lush, vibrant National park on its way to Sudan, Egypt and the Mediterranean, is squeezed at this point through a six-metre cleft in the rock.  That's some power.  

That's around when we saw African eagle.  

From the south bank, it was a bumpy drive through Rabongo Forest towards Masindi, where we'd spend our last night in Uganda.  Our last night for this trip, of course.

The Mighty Nile is squeezed through a 6m cleft

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Fan Seeks Football Team

The pre-birthday existential angst is manifesting itself in a whole new way this year.  I've decided my new year's revolution is to choose and support a football team.

Too many Mondays in work and education, I've been unable to join in discussions about weekend matches.  I don't know any managers now the cross Scottish one has left Man U.  (I do actually know his name, it just slips my mind .... Fergie!  That's the one!  Either Alex or Alasdair Ferguson.)

And there's one whose name even sounds like his team ... Arsenal.  Arsen Wenger?

I'm stumped when it comes to the off-side rule.  I understand it in a diagram, but on the TV screen it happens too fast.  I stare at the screen during a match, but I just follow the crowd's lead.  Is this too honest?  (I happen to know I'm by no means alone in doing this but I won't name names.)

Anyways, so I decided recently that I must not become a theological bore.  I'm not musical, so the other fast-acting social glue available to me is football.

I know plenty of people who feign interest in the beautiful game in order to fit in.  I never even bothered to.  Figured, why should I be something I'm not?  Better to be authentic, different if needs be.

I'll tell you why.  Ministry.  I need small talk in order to engage people without going straight for the theological jugular.  Not for any dodgy, manipulative evangelizing purpose, but to be a well-functioning member of larger society.

So, this is the year I learn to appreciate football, and crucially, support a team.  I never understood why people felt such loyalty to a team from a far-off city they have no link to, when their success depends on international financial transactions more than any sense of local pride.  But I divert ...

I'm going to go the whole nine yards.  Not a quirky European team, it's got to be an English premier league or first division team.  I couldn't do Scottish football, far too sectarian.

So, if you have any suggestions other than Man United (I couldn't quite go that mainstream), for an as yet team-less fan, please tell me in no more than thirty words why your team deserves my support.

Choroko with sticky rice and chapattis

This dish does not look pretty, but it tastes good!

We had this a few times in Uganda.  Juliette, who cooked for us, was unsure at first - she felt she should be giving us more meat.  But we loved her traditional Lugbara food: rice and cabbage, white beans and garlic, courgette in groundnut paste, and this yummy stew of mung beans.  

I wish there was another name for mung beans.  The name doesn't do them justice.  They are delish.

Choroko (mung bean stew) with sticky rice and chapattis

It's easy to make.  Soak two cups* of mung beans for 6 hours or overnight.  Rinse, boil in plenty of water for 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute** two onions until soft and translucent, then add four (yes, four!) cloves of garlic, a teaspoonful of ground coriander and half a teaspoonful of cayenne pepper.  A minute or two later, add a can of chopped tomatoes, and season well.

When the beans are soft, drain them and add two thirds to the tomato mixture.  Mash the rest up before you add them, with a cup of water, as that'll help thicken it up a bit.

Cook on a medium heat for another 10-15 minutes.

Now, my sister-in-law recently told us she makes her rice in the microwave and it comes out nice and sticky.  So, microwave some basmati rice.

Ugandans serve choroko with chapattis.  I found an easy peasy recipe for gluten-free ones.  Put a cup of gram (chickpea) flour in a bowl.  Add a tablespoonful of olive oil.  While stirring, add up to a cup of warm water.  You won't need the whole cup - don't let it get too sticky, but if it does just add more flour.  Make four balls, roll them flat, and dry-fry for a minute on each side.  They're ready to turn when bubbles rise.

Of course, if you want to be really authentic, you'll scoff it down using your right hand instead of cutlery!  

* Measuring cups are the way to go.  Americans are on to a good thing.
** How do you do an acute accent on Blogger?

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Sundays in Uganda

Sarah and I with Collins from whom 
we have learned so much about ministry
The first service is at 7.15 am, and it's the most well attended of three.  Although very few people are there when it starts other than the worship band and choir.  Even the clergy arrive a bit late.

We process in during a rousing rendition of 'The River' by Brian Doerksen.  I barely knew this song before I heard it in Emmanuel Cathedral but it's a great start to a service.  We line out to reverence the altar together - the provost, vicar, Sarah and I, and the readers.  In fact, no one really walks past without a quick bow - worship leaders, ushers, wardens.  Ugandans know how to do Anglicanism in this respect.  Everybody's a bit of everything when it comes to churchmanship here.  Lightly charismatic worship with uplifted hands, evangelical approach to the Bible, liberal social concern for the world outside, and catholic reverence for the Holy Communion that's set up.  And vestments.  Lots of vestments!

Rev. Collins keeps me right
The service is from the new liturgies of 'Come and Worship'.  It's not a million miles away from Morning Prayer in the Church of Ireland, but fewer canticles.  They project it onto a screen at the front, and the congregation (filling up by now, maybe several hundred) look like they believe every word of what they're saying.  It's essentially a prayer book service, but it doesn't feel like one because people look up and look enthusiastic.

Just a short sermon.  Thirty minutes or so.

Leading morning worship
from 'Come and Worship'
As the service continues, wardens bring bottles of Rwenzori mineral water to us.  One sits on the altar alongside the bread and wine.  What would they say if I set up a bottle of Evian on the communion table at home?

Leaders slip seamlessly in and out of the liturgy, engaging the congregation naturally and warmly but with no frothy blah-blah-blah.  A massive mic floats around as clergy and others share out the service, dropping out every few sentences as batteries run low.  But to compensate, the keyboard, guitars and drums are hooked up to an amp and PA system so as to reverberate across the greater West Nile region.  It's about decibels rather than clarity!

There's a measure of comfort in a hand-held mic when preaching.  By now, there were close to a thousand people in the cathedral.  My biggest congregation yet, probably ever.  What could I say to these people that would connect, relate?  Oh well, give'em a few words in the local language.  Yesu ru ma ovo inzizaro!  (Jesus' name be praised!)  They laughed.  OK so I butchered their language ... but they laughed.

I take the cash ...
The offertory is a sight to behold.  It's not really a cash economy, and rather than put a couple of grand into the collection bags (several thousand Ugandan shillings isn't that much), some bring a 'hand' of bananas, a basket of mangoes or a goat.  The goats offered were not sacrificed, you'll be relieved to know, but were 'offered' so they could be sold for church funds.  Or provide clergy with some milk or failing that some meat, as part of a stipend. 

... but the provost receives the goat!
Then the Eucharist.  To avoid the spread of HIV or hepatitis, it's administered by intinction (dipping), which I prefer by far to using a thousand tiny cups.  The wafers are made mainly of rice flour, so coeliac moi can even join in!

Holy Communion service

Many bow low as they receive the bread and wine.  They have a high regard for the sacrament here.  But one man gets onto his hands and knees and practically crawls towards us.  He's wearing a white suit, he looks rather well-to-do, and generally it's lower class people who bow the lowest.  Later, I ask about this man.  He was a general in Idi Amin's army.  He did a lot of bad things.  He bows so low because he feels so penitent.  I don't know what to make of all this.

Holy Communion service

It's hot under a surplice.  When at last we recess out into the sunshine and back to the vestry, I neck a couple of bottles of water.  And they serve us breakfast.  Why did we have those mangoes this morning?  Milky chai, groundnuts, boiled eggs, bread.

Another two services back to back, after which second brunch and then lunch will be served.  Each service will last a couple of hours or thereabouts.  The record was 3.5 hours (a Lugbara language service, by the way, so we didn't understand much of it!)
In the vestry, so eating lunch number ...
actually, who's counting?

While all this is going on, there are a thousand Sunday School kids, divided into five classes.  We were invited into a class one week to teach them the story of the prophet Samuel anointing a new king from Jesse's sons.  That was a real highlight of the three weeks!  As you can see from the photo, I was really getting into enthusiastic narrator mode, while some of the children acted out the scene.

Jesse said, 'Look how big and strong this son of
mine is.  Surely he should be king!'
Liveliest Sunday School class I've
ever taught!

After a lunch in the vestry, there might be a last-minute invitation to a wedding anniversary reception.  Meaning another lunch!  Otherwise, it was home about half three for a quick rest and some preparation for the next working day.  Which started at 7 am!

Zzzzzz said the mosquitoes.  Lights out, mosquito net tucked in, and before long at all we couldn't hear the bats drop fruit on the tin roof any more because we were zonked and fast asleep.

Recessional hymn after the Lugbara
service (#3)

Last day in Arua with my mentor,
Uber-Pastor Collins

What a congregation of 1000 looks like leaving church.