Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Does God love introverts?

I recently read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan McCain.  

I also watched her TED talk not too long ago, loved her message, and bought the book.  She had me in the first minute, at the bit about taking a suitcase full of books on holiday as a child.

Cain charts the rise of the 'extrovert ideal' in Western cultures, and how we 'innies' find ourselves exhausted trying to live up to the alpha, gregarious, outgoing expectations of the modern world.  And it's tough, she says, when people assume we all need to be in open plan offices, working collaboratively, and that the best ideas are the ones we can defend and persuade other team members of in a focus group.

It always feels good when someone else vocalizes how you feel but don't want to admit.  When Cain says she prefers to work alone independently on something for a while, I get that.  At college, I sometimes feel like I am ready to say something in class about three minutes after the topic changed.  I enjoy teamwork - it's just that I like to know what my bit is and get on with that myself.  On the other hand, I'm only too happy to dwell on an essay question for a few weeks and feel ideas percolate, and reflect on experiences in a journal.

It's not a self-help book really, though I suppose you'd find it in that general area of Waterstone's.  And it does suggest how society might better harness the contributions of introverts, and how in turn introverts can cope better with roles that require them to step out of themselves.

One fascinating insight was the evangelical's dilemma: does God love introverts?  Cain went to Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and met with local pastor Adam McHugh, an avowed introvert.  McHugh demonstrated how some churches make extroversion a prerequisite when recruiting clergy, and implicitly teach extrovert characteristics as Christ-like.

But, says McHugh, evangelicals need to cater for the introverts in their pews, and they might do that by promoting listening as well as talking, incorporating silence and mystery into worship, and aim to include in their ranks some reflective, quiet leaders who can bring other perspectives.

Cain and McHugh go to church together, and compare notes afterwards:

"Everything in the service involved communication," he says with gentle exasperation.  "Greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing.  There was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplation."

It seems that "If you don't love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love." (p. 69)

Back when I was testing a vocation to ordained ministry, leadership was one criterion for selection that I constantly questioned.  If by leadership they meant alpha male style, nope, not for me.  Apart from leadership, what of all the visiting, the meetings, the coffee and conversation after services?  

Would I cope?

Cain claims that introverts particularly need to believe in what they do; it's not the fun and excitement of a job, but the values and convictions that drive us.  I'm sure extroverts have values as deep-running as any introvert, but the idea is that extroverts can get energized by the process of launching a product whether or not that product is something of personal value to them.  Introverts find it harder to get revved up about a project they wouldn't choose to be involved in. 

Cain gives three key steps to choosing a career or project, that gave me some comfort those first weeks at college:

1.  Think back to what you loved to do as a child, and what you wanted to do when you grew up.  I wanted to be a doctor.  I was fascinated with people and how we work.  But as I got older I realized I liked books and words and ideas more than test tubes and dissection.

2.  Pay attention to what you gravitate to.  As a teacher, I loved to provide pastoral care and see people develop.  As a student, I loved words, stories.  Politically, philosophically, whatever you call it, I'm drawn to big questions, and to mystery. I like the idea of being counter-cultural and subversive, and I feel a responsibility to make a difference.

3.  What makes you jealous?  We envy those who have what we desire.  I feel pangs of jealousy when I hear of people getting their writing published, involved in fresh liturgy, pioneer ministry, privileged to be there to pray for people at the deepest points of human need.

I think I've chosen well to be here.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Baking for Theologians

'Reading Week' has just come to an end.

I've never actually had a reading week before, despite my rep as an eternal student.  To read or not to read?

I read.

Let me adjust your expectations of this blog post.  I'm not going to say anything theologically insightful.  I've had six weeks of theological boot camp, hardcore, abstract, mind-blowing stuff, no easy start building up in baby steps, but full-on Master's level philosophizing.  I'm exhausted!

So I have done what I often do when I need to escape the hamster-wheel of talking and listening, reading and writing.

I baked.

Because in baking, it's one egg or three.  Not three and yet one.

Whether you're an empiricist-fundamentalist or a post-modern relativist, 500g of flour means just that.  Easy.  Go on, contextualize the masculine literalness of number, I dare you.

Mistakes are made in baking, like getting your new Swiss roll tin lined, greased and filled with batter, only to find it doesn't fit in your oven.  Oops.  So you bake it in five minute intervals, open the oven and turn it at a different slant each time.  Worst case scenario - not inadvertent heresy - just a misshapen roulade.  I can live with that.

It's been a productive reading week.  I made spiced pumpkin soup, a lemon tart with a fun blackberry jelly layer on top, and a (misshapen) chocolate and pistachio cream roulade.

Man, it felt good to dissolve that gelatin sheet into the blackberry syrup.  I was following bullet point instructions.  Bliss.

Photographed from this jaunty angle, you'd hardly know it was baked at a 30 degree slant!

Lemon tart with a blackcurrant jam layer

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Being Israel

For one million shekels*, answer the following question:

What does 'Israel' mean?

A.  He who believes in God
B.  He who conquers through God
C.  He who struggles with God
D.  He who is chosen by God

* Not really.

The answer is C - He who struggles with God.  Remember Jacob?  He meets God in a mysterious encounter, wrestles with him, and ends up limping off.  From then, he has this new name.  You can read it yourself in Genesis 32.

It's nice to have such a macho metaphor for life with God.  I think that will resonate with a lot of people.

Anyhoo, I think I limped off from college on Thursday.  I don't quite know what happened, but I felt suddenly overwhelmed by questions.  Big questions.  I'm not sure the answers I come too will be quite the ones I expect, or of I'm honest, hope for.  I got antsy, frustrated at hearing things I didn't want to agree with, but mainly at feeling completely unable to articulate any alternative.  

My thoughts were soupy, swirling and bitty, hard to pin anything down with a fork.  Scary.

Now, I'm not into wrestling as a sport.  But even I know, if you're wrestling with God, you will be overcome and have to surrender at some point.  And during those exhausting moments of wrestling, resisting, depleting energy, it also means we are in God's intimate embrace, his arms around us.

So I guess wrestling, struggling, is OK.  Limping off is OK.  Because it's good to be changed.  It actually feels good to go ten rounds with God and come off worse for wear, but having encountered Him.  Does that sound mental?

I actually think that's a better option than not wrestling, not struggling, never being challenged and knocked out of joint and changed.  It helps to know that it's all part of Being Israel.

So.  Back to Dublin later today for another round.  I thought a couple of years ago that I'd done my struggling and changing, emerging as some kind of post-evangelical.  Oh man ... it's starting to look like that was just a warm-up.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Communion Bread

At college, we all have roles.  Mine is sacristan (a bit like church warden), which doesn't come naturally to me as it is a practical role.  'It's mainly common sense' said the out-going sacristan as he trained me up.  It would have been very comforting, if I were endowed with common sense.

This weekend, one of my jobs is to get bread for the weekly communion service.  Wednesday nights are essentially our Sunday.  We have Holy Communion, with lectionary readings for the Sunday of that week, a wine reception (we are Anglicans you know), and an extra special meal.

Now, I am coeliac - and so is the other sacristan, Suzanne!  I really admired (and felt for) the presiding minister recently as he modelled elegant, sensitive liturgy even when tackling two chunks of dusty gluten-free bread wrapped in tin foil just at the moment of consecration.

Before I head back to college tomorrow, I need to taste-test gluten-free communion bread.  One of the lecturers says we should 'all share the one bread' as it says in the Book of Common Prayer.  He says the symbolism of one loaf is important.  I agree.  But poor co-communicants.  I won't be able to look them in the eye after they have to eat a chunk of a 'Yes You Can! No Wheat No Gluten' loaf.

Sorry in advance.  Hope you manage holy thoughts, and not just Oh My ... !

A few considerations, other than palatability:

1.  Crumb structure.  Not only should it be to Paul Hollywood's liking (some chance!), but it should be chewy and soft enough to break pieces off without small crumbs falling all over the place.  Sadly, turning to smithereens is a specialty feature of coeliac-friendly baked goods.  Not good for consecrated bread.  We all have different views of The Presence in the bread (consubstantiation, transubstantiation, spiritual presence, just a symbol ...) but whatever your churchmanship you don't want it going everywhere.  Suzanne and I would only have to go round late Wednesday night reverently consuming it off the carpet.

2.  Colour.  For communion, it should be the 'finest white bread available'.  The best (i.e. OK-ish-est) gluten-free bread is often brown.  Is it too early in my training to break the rules, choose brown and insist that the body of a Middle Eastern Jew who spent lots of time out in the wilderness most probably was not white?  Maybe.

At least the wine is easier.  It should definitely be red, and thankfully I am not intolerant to that.

Thursday, 26 September 2013


Day one as an ordinand began in chapel, where we were invited to keep silence.

I closed my eyes and vaguely asked God for some kind of sign to make me feel right about being here.  The one I got when I opened my eyes again wasn't vague: right outside the chapel window is a large aluminium sign, a red warning circle around the word SLOW in bold capitals.  Hardly subtle, Lord, but then you know sometimes I need un-subtle.

It was a warm, growthy, sun-shiny day.  Sunlight filled the chapel so it looked like a conservatory.  The trees were primary-school green with a stripe of September gold; the sky was a perfect blue bowl.

In the window, two spider webs fluttered in and out of sight like holograms in the stiff breeze.

A few rusty leaves fell from the big tree, like the first grains of sand in an hourglass counting down to the end of autumn term and the Christmas holiday.


Everyone says once we get into the swing of things, the weeks will disappear like snow off a ditch.  We have been well warned to manage time carefully, choose essay topics early, arrive punctually to lectures and services, plan ahead where we will do placements.

Why would God be telling me to go slow?

0.8 weeks in, the pace already seems rather relentless.  Supinely attending lectures is not an option.  The amount of work required is going to be as heavy as they said it would!

It would be very possible to get overwhelmed by all the activity.  I'll need silences like the one last Monday morning.  Silences that serve as white margins between sections so as not to drown in words.

Times to think slowly.  Savour, digest, internalize.

In under twelve weeks now, that big tree will be bare of leaves.  And when I walk under its boughs to get the bus home in mid-December, I hope I've remembered God's warning sign to me on day one: in the frenetic thick of things, take some things slowly.  Enjoy them.  Enjoy him.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

What Would Jesus Eat?

Having recently blogged more on food than anything else, I was struck recently by Nigel Slater.  He didn't actually hit me, but the encounter left my head reeling a bit.
He seems to have written 20% of last Sunday's Observer, between his recent adoption of a rare breed of pig that he hopes to eat one day soon,
"despite its placid nature, its black patches and floppy ears, I'm not remotely attached to it, and am thinking only of its belly, chops and crackling"
and about 16 recipes for the likes of mushroom and blueberry pies.
One cookery show I don't watch is Slater's Simple Suppers.  In all honesty I find it a bit depressing.  A man wakes up thinking about what he'll eat that day.  His deepest conversations, indeed his only conversations, seem to be with the local greengrocer. 
In this programme, food doesn't invite friends and family round the table.  Instead, Slater sits dolefully gazing into the eyes of his sage risotto.
I sometimes feel a little embarrassed about how much I enjoy food - eating and cooking it, fair enough, but watching whole TV shows about it!  I suppose it has its place, and for me a very important place.  But to spend the day cooking for one?  (Apologies - smug married tone.)  In a grey London apartment, all minimalist, devoid of photos?
I think the reason I don't watch it is the fear that I, like many these days, could frighteningly easily become Nigel Slater!  Living to eat, pretty much.  (Sorry Nigel, I'm sure much of this is really unfair.  I'm using you as a metaphor for something bigger than you.  But you're a convenient and recognizable fit.  A psychologist would tell me this is projection or something.)
As an antidote, I have been reading some articles by David Grummett, Professor of Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh.
Grummett describes how food laws in the Old Testament actually limit the type and number of animals we humans can eat.  There are safeguards against factory-style farming providing daily meat with scant regard for the sacredness of animal life.  You can pretty much eat lamb and beef as an Israelite.  The vast majority of animals are not domestic and off-limits.
He also outlines how for Israel and, later, the Church, there were fast days and periods in order to limit food consumption.  Of course, people could enjoy feasts like Christmas - but after enduring an Advent fast. 
He talks of different fasts, mainly partial: one meal a day and a couple of collations (basically a cup of tea and a dry biscuit).  For centuries, Christians of most if not all shades considered gluttony as a serious sin, and refrained from eating meat on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
The anti-nomian in me shudders at the thought of a Church telling people what to eat and when.  Yet my overly snug waistband and the ascending number of food-related posts on this blog are prodding me to think more about food and theology.
How come so much OT law concerns food?  (And so much NT teaching to, come to think of it, although NT material broadly concerns who with rather than what we ought to eat.)  What should I make of the vegetarianism of pre-flood human life?  The explicit torah on animal welfare and the link between sacrifice and slaughter?  The limitations on food types and combinations (meat or dairy, never both)?
'Food and drink' as a blog category isn't watertight, for as with everything, it could be labelled a post on theology.
So, for anyone who's interested, here are two articles by this food-theologian Grummett:

'Digesting the Word: a triptych and proposal on dietary choice', The Other Journal 19 (Fall 2011), 25–34
‘Christian attitudes to animals’, Compassion in World Farming website, March 2010

Monday, 19 August 2013

Adega Nova, Faro

I booked a room in Hotel Eva for two reasons.  The first was the location, minutes from Faro's historic centre and overlooking the marina.  The second was the hotel's roof-top restaurant, Haruna, which apparently had a famous chef and lots of awards.
We were very disappointed, then, when we got in the lift to the top floor restaurant and saw a freshly pinned-up notice: Hotel restaurant closed due to refurbishment
The receptionist was very helpful when we asked for a recommendation, but she was clearly emphasizing one eatery: Adega Nova.  So we went with that.
Past the bus terminal.  Along a couple of poorly lit streets, past shabby shop-fronts.  Had we gone wrong?
And there it was.
By the entrance were two glass cases with that morning's bright-eyed catch on ice, not a whiff of day-old fish.  We were shown to a section of a long cantina-style table and brought the ubiquitous bread and olives, but also some Portuguese cheese and ham, and a menu.
All around us were casks stacked to the ceiling, dusty bottles, and warmly-lit, oaky décor.  We had been transported to the old Algarve from times when Albufeira was a little fishing village - our waiter didn't speak a word of English - bliss!
The specials were hand-written on the first page, all twenty-odd of them.  Mainly fishy, there were a few meat dishes too.  And all very moderately priced, with mains ranging from 7 to 10 euro.  All written in Portuguese, I might add - we were the non-local minority that night.
The fish was tasty, fresh and perfectly cooked.  Served rustically, nothing pretentious, just fantastic Portuguese fare.  Sarah enjoyed the best piece of salmon she claims ever to have eaten.  My seafood medley in a winey sauce, not a million miles off paella, was served in a traditional copper pan, a hotchpotch of what was good and fresh that day: mussels, prawns, squid, fish.  The jug of vinho verde (green wine) helped it all go down very nicely.
We felt very privileged, on this most tourist-saturated of coasts, to find a little piece of Portugal, still in tact, attracting locals and welcoming the few lucky (plucky?) souls to venture away from the prettier quarters of town.
It was so good, we went back the very next night!  Who can turn down top-notch seafood for under ten yo-yos?  Although Sarah decided to give the Portuguese steak a go.  It was served raw, and a hot rock was provided, so she could cook the pieces to her own liking.  We were seated elbow to elbow with our fellow diners - this is a popular place and the hotel was obviously sending everyone here - and they politely pretended not to notice flecks of hot fat speckle their table mats and wine glasses.
How typical - the best meals of our 10 days in Portugal were the cheapest!  And in a jewel of a place that we found only because the one we researched was closed.

From November 2011

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Top Kitchen Gadgets

I tend to get fun, kitchen, gadgety things for birthdays and Christmasses, mainly because I ask for them.  Over the years, we have all accumulated things that sounded great at the time, but ended up gathering dust in the utility room because they were just too darn hard to wash, or didn't actually save us that much time or effort in the end.
I'll never forget that juicer.  It took hours to take apart and clean, and even so there was still old fruit pulp hiding in the crevices ... eugh ....
The following five items are things that I actually use regularly, because they really do help more than they hinder.  I have chosen them based on the following criteria:

1.  They make life easier.
2.  They don't cost a fortune to use.
3.  They aren't impossible to wash up.

1.  Garlic Zoom
I don't know what I ever did before the Garlic Zoom.  Think Matchbox diecast toy car meets Nighmare on Elm Street.  Put a whole (peeled) clove of garlic in, zoom zoom vroom across the worktop like a toy car, and tip out finely chopped garlic.  Your hands won't smell.  A few bits will get stuck on the blade or in crevices, but a quick swish in warm soapy water is enough to get it clean again.  About £10 online.  Chef'n is a good (the original?) brand.  You'll still want to keep your garlic press for more pulverized garlic.  Otherwise, the job takes seconds, washing takes seconds.  Thanks to our friend and all-round kitchen queen Clare Higgins for introducing us to the Zoom.

2.  Mini-Chopper

I was dubious about this one, but it has convinced me.  Much smaller than a food processor, I wondered how well this little guy could do the job.  But he does, to perfection, every time.  Lemon zest, chilli, herbs, breadcrumbs, dressings, ... no trouble.  Cost us about £10 in a half-price Kenwood sale.  Much quicker to set up than the big food processor, this works in seconds and is washed in seconds.  Slightly too easy to break - ours is missing a few bits of plastic lock, but it still works fine.

3.  Mezzaluna
OK, so I wanted this at first because it looks cool.  But I have learned that it is useful too.  It came with its own wooden board, into which it slots for easy storage.  Excellent for herbs, and sun-dried tomatoes.  With some ingredients, especially if using them in more than small amounts, a mezzaluna is just easier than a knife.

4.  Hand grater
I have always hated standard graters, because the stuff gets stuck inside, and they are a nightmare to wash.  I can never get my hand inside properly.  No such middle-class problem with a flat hand-grater.  Excellent for nutmeg, parmesan, garlic, ginger.  So simple - who knew?!  The big grater is still needed for carrots, cheddar, etc. 

5.  Breadmaker
OK so this one was a wedding present from my sister and brother-in-law, and I know it costs more than numbers 1-4 combined.  But it features here because it makes it so incredibly easy to make delicious fresh bread with no chemical preservatives.  (You can use it to make jams and chutneys, various enriched doughs and stuff, but I haven't tried those.)  Recipes are easy - so long as you measure accurately, you are basically guaranteed a perfect loaf every time.  There are gluten-free settings.  You can programme the machine to have the loaf ready in the morning and wake up to the smell of fresh bread.  You can experiment and add seeds, herbs, cheese, garlic, tomatoes, olives ...  The making of the loaf takes approximately 3 minutes, and then the machine does the rest.  Washing = a quick wipe of the pan with kitchen paper. 

Friday, 9 August 2013


A few days laid up with a sinus infection was the perfect opportunity to watch the BBC sit-com Rev all over. 

Before I had any inclination to watch the first series, I'd read reports of complaints at the depiction of an urban C of E priest as a smoking, swearing, drinking character.  Obviously, I'd heard rumours that ordained clergy might say the odd fiddlesticks or sip a small sherry - but the first five minutes of viewing were quite surprising!

And then the prayer scene (I think there's one in every episode).  While washing dishes, navigating a precarious cycle lane or on the loo, Adam's prayers are often very touching.  Natural, honest, caring.  His is no superficial spirituality.
Adam faces the reality of contemporary parish life.  His ministry seems to revolve around fundraising far more than he wants to; the urban needy erode all hopes of boundaries and a private life; the old moral certainties seem strangely absent in inner-city East London life today.  Enthusiasm about church-going tends to coincide with school league tables and having children around the age of 10.

Yep, there's just one thing harder than being a vicar.  Being married to one!
My goodness, I hope it turns out to be a bit easier in real life!  And yet, the show is extensively researched.  I've heard that the elements about which most complaints have been made to the BBC, happen to be the very ones based on real life ministry!

The series one finale depicts a crisis of faith and vocation.  That one was an eye-opener, as well as a tear-jerker.  It's a must-see for anyone considering ordained ministry - although the House of Bishops may decide the language is slightly too colourful to warrant being included in a selection conference.
As a younger Christian, I think I would have doubted whether Rev Adam Smallbone could really be saved.  Now, aged 34 and about to embark on ministerial training myself, I think there are many admirable qualities in him.  I hope not to be quite as potty-mouthed, but I could do far worse than to emulate his honesty and graciousness.

New series to air in 2013!  Yeroo!

Profane Language

 As you might know, I am a huge geek, and was delighted to be given details of books to get and read, so as to get a bit of a head start before semester one begins.
So I am learning Hebrew.  (It's really fun!!!)
I've made several attempts over the years to gain a reading knowledge of Hebrew.  I've always had a penchant for Old Testament stuff, and I think that a knowledge of Hebrew will be a great help in the future for the teaching role within ministry.
Plus it's really fun!  (See?  Geek.)
Two Sundays ago, I preached on the Lord's Prayer from Luke 11, and as part of my preparation I read some of Kenneth Bailey's masterpiece, 'Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes'.  It's a great book for seeing familiar passages afresh and a-challenging.
Bailey reminds us that Jesus didn't go about talking Hebrew.  The educated Jew understood Hebrew, yes, and used it as the language of the synagogue.  And your average Joe would've known some passages of scripture and prayers in Hebrew.
But the language people spoke in the marketplace, in the street, the language Jesus would have taught in, was in fact Aramaic. 
Hebrew was the sacred language of a sacred culture - Israel.  Aramaic was everybody's language precisely because it was no ethnic group in particular's language. 
And when Jesus' disciples asked 'Lord, teach us to pray', WOW he said Abba, the Aramaic word for (Our) Father!
Not, in Hebrew, Oh Lord God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, Jacob ... but he made us all brothers and sisters, Jew and Gentile, by teaching us to call God Abba.
Bailey talked me through each line of the Lord's Prayer, with loads of illuminating pointers from cultural and linguistic studies.  But it was the use of an everyday, earthy lingua franca for prayer that struck a chord in me. 
I'll keep battering away at the Hebrew, because it's the language most of the Bible is written in, and when I preach and teach I don't want to get confused with different translations.
(And it's really fun!)
But Jesus' use of a non-sacred, non-ethnically partisan language challenges me to take great care as I approach ministerial training.  I won't be there to learn to speak Churchese.  Rather, I need to learn the ideas of the Bible and, crucially, how to translate them into the culture, the language, of ordinary people.

That's what I took from the day's gospel reading.  Even harder, perhaps, than mastering those elusive Hebrew verb patterns.  But - I predict - also fun.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Staying in Legenderry

Sarah and I have decided to stay in Derry.  My course, the MTh for ordinands, runs just half the weeks of the year, and we feel extremely settled in this town we have come to call home.  I only moved here in my mid-twenties, yet this is the place I was confirmed and we were married, and where Sarah has found a fulfilling role working for the Bishop, and we have found our spiritual home at Christ Church, and made friends.

Derry feels like a world apart.  It has its own identity.  When Belfast-bound, coming over the Glenshane Pass, suddenly Mid-Ulster stretches out in front of you.  Flat, green.  Tame?  You are now entering Norn Iron.  Coming back the same way, this point feels like entering a transition zone, a sort of special administration nestled between 'Norn Iron Proper' and County Donegal.

In Belfast, Maghera, Newry, Omagh, the lingo is referred to as 'Norn Iron' - what's the craic wi' them waines? [what about those children].  Yer man's wil' [he's terrible].  In 'Stroke City' (L/Derry), this idiom is called 'Pure Derry'.

Yes, there are some Derryisms not readily understood far past Altnagelvin Hospital or the service station in Bridgend.  Where else could you be 'up a tree in Rosemount, mucker'?  But I'm often struck by the readiness to designate anything Hiberno-English, Scots-Irish, or regional, as 'Derry, hi'.

This sense of specialness works both ways.  Bad grammar is found everywhere.  But when 'Derry Wans' say 'I done it' or 'I didn't say nothing' (heard just as often in London, Manchester, Glasgow or downtown New York), poor grammar is labelled 'Derry' too.

There's an inferiority complex just scratch-deep underneath the surface of this proud and wonderful city. 
I ought to be careful here, because I've learned that while Derry Wans can be their own fiercest critics, beware any blow-in who dares to weigh in!

I'll be brave and mention the few things that I don't like so much about Derry.  I've already mentioned the fact that true Derryites can be very (too) down on themselves and their city.  I really hope that City of Culture status can change that, but to do so, we have to remember why Derry was chosen in the first place - because of who she is, not because of the programme of big events and names brought in from elsewhere.

Another aspect of life in this city that I'd love to see change is the use of the name.  Setting aside for one moment the whole Derry/Londonderry/Doire debate, it's sad to hear 'Derry' used as a synonym for 'Cityside' (i.e. west bank), as if the Waterside (east of the River Foyle) were another city altogether.  Thankfully, the Peace Bridge is in place to help mend the psychological gash that runs through the town.

Would Derry fit any better into a United Ireland?  I don't know that it would!  Apart from political arguments based on history, economics or cultural ties, if Derry feels so far away from Belfast, I'm not sure how easily it would relate to Dublin. 

Whatever happens with the constitutional status of 'The North', I think Derry will always happily (and post-modernly) accept its own uniqueness, hard to tie down, making the porous nature of the border work for it, with all but the most stubborn of ideologues revelling in the existential complexity of who and where Derry Wans are.

I think Derry will continue to operate as an unofficially 'special jurisdiction' for years to come.  And I'm very glad that we'll continue to enjoy living here for a bit longer.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


Three months ago, I drove from Derry to Newry for the Selection Conference that would determine whether I would be recommended for training towards ordination.
All that is pretty wordy, but people discerning a vocation to ordination get used to couching things in careful terms.  For example, 'recommended for training towards ordination' means just that, because you aren't selected for ordination until a couple of years further down the line.
I arrived just on time, and a bit stressed, at Dromantine Retreat Centre, just outside Newry, Co. Down.  It had snowed and Mid-Ulster traffic was down to a crawl.  This was my first big solo drive after passing my test.

 This place is a maze.  Key.  Nice lady giving housekeeping instructions - there's no way I'll remember all this.  Room.  Hmm nice view.  En suite, great.  Coffee dock.  Sounds good.  Oh wait.  Probably should pray first. 
That was the jumble of thoughts the first half hour.  Not as I had planned it.
Then I accepted the inevitable: this would be a caffeine-jacked two days.  I went to the aforementioned coffee dock.  There I met others in the same boat - this was the great thing, we knew each other already from the Foundation Course.
There were three interviews over the two days.  My first, by two lay people, was that afternoon.  I waited outside the room, and could just hear the conversation as they prepared by leafing through my mammoth application form.  I heard 'interesting' - was that good interesting or bad interesting?  I heard comments on writers I'd mentioned - Rob Bell seemed to evoke a reaction.  Why on earth did I go and mention him?!
I moved away from the door.  Not a good idea to overhear interviewers talk about you before they meet you.
What did they ask me?  I can't remember much.  I do remember thinking some questions were really three different questions, and I didn't know where to start.  I think I was trying to say the right answers, more than I was trying to be honest.  That caught me out.
I remembered a really good answer that another person had given to the question 'why ordination'.  But I couldn't remember it well enough to re-formulate it.  So I had to give my own - and I have no idea to this day what I said.  (See below for the outcome!)
Thank goodness for chapel that evening.  The nerves were jangled after that first interview.  I had the distinct feeling I'd said at least a couple of the things they tell you not to say!  I knew from the looks on some faces that my answers hadn't exactly elucidated things.
Oh well.  At least they fed us well.  The gluten-free menu was great - good job for my waistline (and mental health) it was just two days.
The last thing on the programme for that night was a group meeting with the chaplain, who talked openly and frankly about life as a parish priest.  The more he talked, the more I wanted it ...
It's so dark out there in the country, and when I pulled the curtains there wasn't the slightest chink of light in the room.  Unlike most others, I slept soundly until six the next morning.
On Day Two, I felt very serene.  This is what happens when you have people praying for you to stay calm.  There was absolutely no human reason to feel this way, because I was about to go into the academic interview with the Director of the Theological Institute!
The focus was on learning in the broader sense of the word.  Life experiences, whether these had been integrated.  There were a couple of curve balls.  What would you say in a short talk on the topic of ...  I got Holy Communion (we all soon realized everyone got a different topic).  After the interview, I realized I hadn't said any of the more obvious things.  I may have gone on a slightly mad tangent.
Some of these questions were probing, bordering on difficult.  This was also the shortest interview.  One of those ones that's over before you know it, and you wonder what on earth you can have said that was sufficient in such a short time.
Coffee dock.  After every interview, some candidates came straight to the group.  It might not have been altogether helpful to arrive fresh from an interview and debrief, while others were waiting out the minutes until they were next up.  But it's what I needed.
I tried not to go overboard at the three-course lunch, in case it left me sleepy for my third and final interview: clergy (one Bishop, one other ordained person).  I also felt keenly aware that I was sitting at a table with selectors.  'More water, Reverend?'
Last interview.  I felt wrung out by this stage, and could only be myself.  All the interviewers were very good, but the Bishop exuded a sense that it was OK to be open and frank.  I think this is where I most opened up.
Some questions were similar to yesterday's - was this a second chance?  Others got me excited - church growth, new approaches, parish mission.
And it was over.  It was out of my hands completely - not that it ever really was in my hands to begin with.  I could do no more. 
We said some difficult goodbyes, because unless everyone was selected, this would be our last time all together. 
And the next three weeks were the longest wait of my life.
*          *          *
I was selected.  I go 'back to school' in September.
And I remembered recently the great answer someone else gave to the big 'why ordination' question.  I'm glad I didn't think of it during my interview, because their answer wasn't mine, and as it turns out they aren't going to train for ordination (yet, anyway).
My advice for anyone going to a Selection Conference:
It feels like a bubble, and it is.  Remind yourself of the outside world and call a loved one at the end of each day.
Don't drink way more coffee than normal.  It will be tempting to do so.  But you need to sleep and not feel twitchy.
Read the ordination service before you go.  Think about what appeals most to you about it.
Take a trashy book (as well as something non-trashy).  There is a lot of waiting round, and it's a heavy couple of days.  Chewing gum for the brain helps.
Take a walk, or similar, for a few moments before and after each interview.  I really enjoyed listening to 'Yes and Amen' by Matt Redman.  I got to know the words by heart - and they're really good!
Make sure you know (and can verbalize) what you'll do if the answer is 'no' or 'not yet'.  It's important that life as we know it doesn't depend on one outcome.
If you can, use public transport.  My long drive there got me stressed, and on the long drive home I was exhausted.
And most of all, be honest and don't give other people's answers!  I'm so glad I couldn't remember that other person's 'good' answer.  No two journeys are the same. 

Monday, 1 July 2013


A hermeneutic for church growth?
The Exodus narrative is rehearsed frequently in Hebrew liturgy, including Biblical text.  It is a key part of the controlling story, the bigger picture, of the Bible.  At key turns in Jewish history, the Exodus is recited, almost relived, as a defining event.  There's something deeply resonant, historically yet universally, about the Exodus.
For Christians, too, the liberation experienced by oppressed slaves, the road out of Egypt, has echoes of Divine salvation with wider implications than those mistreated Hebrews.
I have always found the bit starting in Exodus 2:23b very moving: "The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them."
Yet, the climax isn't rescue from slavery and peril.  The road travelled by escaping Hebrew slaves didn't go to the other side of Yam Suph, the Reed Sea, but just through it.  It went to Sinai.  The literary climax of Exodus isn't the action scene, parting the water for the Hebrews to pass safely.  Rather, it's the Covenant on Mount Sinai.  Another moving passage - the Hebrews are camped at Mount Sinai:

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."  (Ex. 19:3-6)
And it got me thinking about church growth, of all things ...
McGospel or Contextualized Gospel?
A big issue in church growth these days is whether we should try to meet people's needs at the risk of a diluted, or humanized, message, or stick to the 'pure gospel' and expect more from people.  On one side, we have the seeker-friendly, needs-meeting approaches like those of Saddleback and Willow Creek.  'But is the good news about spiritual massages and feel-good?' ask the critics.  On the other hand, we have advocates of a narrow church, where people know from the start what it means to set your hand to the plough, to be a sheep and not a goat.  Many are in aging congregations, feeling increasingly distant from the culture of the community outside.
The story of the Exodus has stuck in my mind recently in relation to this tension.  At our own juncture in place and sacred history, a post-Christian Ireland, recession-bitten, debt-laden Ireland.  Because as universally as Exodus resonates, it was an experience in this time-space continuum we call history.

God was concerned at the suffering of his people, their oppression, their cruel treatment, their tears.  And he acted to rescue them.
In his two-pronged redemption, God started by freeing slaves from forced labour, unnecessarily cruel treatment, targeted infanticide and dehumanized status.  How can the church not be in the business of caring for the suffering?  And there's plenty of it around us today. 
But that wasn't the telos of his salvation of the Hebrews, because he led them, not just to the other bank, but to Sinai where he entered into a covenant with the people.  Essentially, a relationship.
The word 'relationship' maybe doesn't carry quite the same weight as once it did - maybe when we talk about a 'relationship with God' it sounds a bit facebooky, transient, sentimental.  Maybe marriage is closer in meaning.  Something binding, permanent, solemn and very, very full of love and grace.
We can't ignore or be hardened to the plight of people around us.  That would be neither godly nor Christ-like.  But of course, we aren't social workers or therapists (except of course those  many Christians who are in fact social workers and therapists!).  We are witnesses to the fact that God desires to be in a covenant relationship with his people. 
Social action, mercy ministries, are essential hallmarks of the church, and ultimately expressions of God's character, God who Rescues.  They are not optional.  And they are not the end, either, but should lead people to Sinai, to covenant with God who Rescues.

Sinai Communities

Both opportunity and responsibility, people are in need of wholeness and the church must respond.  And we have to do more than fix problems and ills of society, we have to draw people into relationship with God.

Maybe we could design a new 'R&R' service, 'Rescue and Relationship' incorporating both strands?  (Think electronic music for the canticle 'Song of the Sea'!  That would be pretty cool!)

And/or start parallel 'Sinai' congregations in our parishes, perhaps in new housing estates, student halls or inner cities, wherever there are people in need of 'R&R'?

So, maybe my naïve ecclesiology is that churches are Sinai communities.  Groups of people who have this experience of rescue and relationship, tying both in some way to Jesus Christ.

And I think Exodus, this paradigmatic event in the Salvation Story of the Bible, can help those of us involved in growing church, in including more people in this Sinai experience.


Wednesday, 12 June 2013


The After Shot ... how long can I keep it this tidy?

Since finishing the Foundation Course with St. John's, I have been enjoying some more mindless tasks.  Sarah is enjoying having a husband who isn't too zonked reading theological tomes to wipe kitchen surfaces.

One domestic chore has stood out for me, though: coming up to two years in my current abode, I am sorting the study!

It's been a dumping ground for anything written or printed on paper that we don't immediately know what to do with.  As a consequence, I never studied in my study.

Over the years, I have acquired hundreds of books.  When we eventually move, I dread to think how we will take them all with us.  They take up more space than we really have available.

And as with any major household chore, the best start is to make a coffee, and sit down with a pen and paper.  The result: The Mac Bruithin Theological Library categorization system!

Obviously, there are more books in some categories and others are almost mono-tome, but I'm very pleased at how over the years all those books have formed a good overview of theology.  Now I just have to read them!  (And lend them - seeing all my lovely books made me feel very blessed and in need of sharing the wealth.)

I am considering going completely OCD and buying colour coded stickers for the spines. 

Interestingly (to me), it wasn't as easy as I expected to designate books 'theological' or 'not'.  Many are straight forward enough: 'The Atonement Debate'?  Theology.  'Essential Norn Irish'?  Not. 

Some are less straight forward.  'A Dollar a Day'?  'Making Poverty History'?  'Living in an Age of Absurdity'?  Anything by Michael Moore?

I suppose in real life, things aren't so easily labelled 'sacred' or 'secular'.  And when we try to divide the two, that's when the trouble starts.

When education, politics, economics, psychology, are considered 'secular' and beyond the remit of theological significance.

Actually, the Bible has a lot, an awful lot, to say about how our human life is to be celebrated and ordered, about poverty, philosophy, economics, leadership ... and not just cult and spirituality.

And if I only read theology and am ignorant about wider society and the realities we experience every day, how people are affected by globalization, by cuts to education and neo-liberal market policy, and the history of our country ... well, the theology might come across as a bit irrelevant.

So, I decided in my categorization system to be generous and open-minded in deciding what goes under 'theology'.  As an ordinand and hopefully one day as a priest, I hope to be the same in my approach to life in general!


1.1            Bible Overview & Reference
1.2            Exegesis
1.3            Hermeneutics
1.4            Biblical Languages
1.4.1                Hebrew
1.4.2                Greek
1.5            Bible Translations (English, Other Languages)
1.6            Old Testament
1.7            Intertestamental Studies & Second Temple Judaism
1.8            New Testament


2.1            Overview, Reference & Foundations
2.2            Groups, Denominations & Ideologies
2.3            Individuals
2.4            Periods of History
2.5            Theological Topics
2.5.1                Thinking about God
2.5.2                Christology
2.5.3                Pneumatology
2.5.4                The Trinity
2.5.5                Christian Cosmology and Anthropology
2.5.6                Providence & The Kingdom of God
2.5.7                Soteriology
2.5.8                Ecclesiology
2.5.9                The Last Things
2.6            Apologetics & World Faiths
2.7            Ethics
2.8            Philosophy of Religion
2.9            Other Philosophy


3.1          Practical Theology
3.2          Church
3.3          Ministry: Ordained, Leadership, Team
3.4          Preaching
3.5          Pastoral
3.6          Mission
3.7          Evangelism and Discipleship
3.8          Christian Living
3.9          Family
3.10             Christian Counselling
3.11             Social Justice
3.12             Faith & Politics


4.1            Prayer
4.2            Church Year
4.3            Liturgy
4.4            Music
4.5            Mysticism and Monasticism
4.6            Other


5.1            Dictionaries, Thesauri, etc
5.2            Writing
5.3            Research
5.4            Languages
5.5            Arts & Culture
5.6            Geography & Travel
5.7            History & Biography
5.8            Humour
5.9            Natural Science
5.10          Social Science
5.10.1             Psychology
5.10.2             Education
5.11             Management
5.12             Self-Care & Management