An unexpected blessing.

At the weekend my wife and I were invited to a BBQ in our friends’ garden. It was a wonderful evening, and great to see some old friends again -as well as making some new ones – after all the covid related restrictions. Our friends have this amazing grill in their garden at which everyone can sit and grill their own food, while chatting…and breaking the 10th commandment – thou shalt not covet your neighbour’s entrecôte steak.

After the meal, we all moved over to the campfire – ingeniously made from the drum of a washing machine! There the craic continued, with deep and moving conversations. Two of the guests that night were from Iran. We had met them before, a gifted and lovely couple who attend the Methodist Church that I used to pastor. They shared stories of their homeland and their family and the challenges of trying to make a new start in Germany. I was impressed by their German language skills – I know myself how difficult things are at first when you are learning the language.

Then Saman stood up to put wood on the fire, and I asked him if I could take a photo. I took a few photos in quick succession with my mobile phone, just to make sure that I had one that was in focus. I looked at the photos and my jaw dropped.

The first photo obviously had a slower shutter speed and it looks like Saman’s arm is actually in the flames. (I have Saman’s permission to share these photos online).

In the next two photos Saman is moving his arm, as if to wave. The first photo shows his arm covered in tatoos. One of the tattoos near his wrist is of a cross.

The last photo was the one that made my jaw drop. A piece of wood dislodged and fell in to the fire, sending sparks up into the air at the exact moment that I snapped the photo. Look at Saman’s wrist!

The slower shutter speed of the camera has captured the sparks in the shape of a cross on Saman’s arm. It actually looks as if Saman is giving a blessing. Wow!

Incredible. Fascinating. Uncanny. A sign?

Now, I know there is a perfectly rational explanation for the cross shaped light on Saman’s arm. It was purely coincidental that the camera lens just happened to capture the tracing of the flying sparks as they moved through the air in that way. And, believe it or not, I am not normally the one to find supernatural answers to natural phenomena. So this sign of the cross was really just a coincidence.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe today you just need a weird photo of a stranger to remind you that God uses the unlikeliest people and situations to bless you in unexpected ways. To show His/Her love for you…through the sign of the cross – the greatest symbol of love the world has ever seen. Maybe, indeed.

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New Year’s Resolutions

It’s that time of year again – the time for new year’s resolutions. They’re all over social media :
– people resolving to get fitter or lose weight
– others want to read more books this year – or write more blogs
– some folk are aiming to run something like 500 miles this year – or cycle 1000 miles this year

All good stuff! Actually, sign me up for any of the above.

But do you ever wish that the incoming new year would make new year’s resolutions?

I do.

What if 2021 Could Make Resolutions?

I wish that 2021 would make some new year’s resolutions of its own. I would actually love 2021 to say something like: Ok folks, I’m gonna do better. 2020 let himself go a bit. I know. But I’m not 2020. I’m 2021 – out with the old, in with the new – and I’m going to do better. Listen up, here are my new year’s resolutions for this year:


I am aiming for less pandemic this year. That’s number one. Cut out the pandemic.
And less refugees! I want fewer of those inhumane camps, and less folk risking their life to cross borders and seas, being exploited by evil traffickers. Cut all that out.

And I wish 2021 would go on to say: There is going to be better leadership at all levels of society. Politicians and leaders in civic and religious life who make wise and competent decisions that serve the common good, and not themselves.

And wouldn’t it be great if 2021 could promise that there would be fewer greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. What if 2021 resolved to give the issue of climate change the attention it so desperately needs? That would be a game changer! I could imagine meeting 2021 in six months time and saying, ”Wow, 2021, I hardly recognised you. You look great!”

And we could go on and on with this list of new year’s resolutions that we wish 2021 would make for us: eliminating poverty, reconciling warring factions, protecting the weak and vulnerable, etc. etc.

Wouldn’t it be great if 2021 could just do better!

If Only It Were That Easy

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Even though you might think so, when you hear how people talk about the change of year. How people were desperate to see the end of 2020 – a dreadful year. And how they thought that 2021 will somehow magically be better just because there is a ‘1’ in the date where there used to be a ‘0’.

I hate to spoil the party, but 2021 is not necessarily going to be any better or any easier than 2020. In fact, much of the evidence suggests that this year could actually be worse. Sorry to say.

But there is hope!

Of course the year 2021 cannot do better. But we can! This new year will only be ‘better’ if we do better. 2021 will only be kinder to us if we all are kinder to each other. There will be less need this year only if we all decide to share more of what we have. There will be less hurt in the world only when we learn to love our neighbour more. Governments. Politicians. Leaders. You and me. Everyone playing their small part for the common good.

And I know that this, too, is of course not easy.

Help From Above

That’s why I believe we need a helping hand. Some outside help. For me as a practising Christian (emphasis on ‘practising’ – I need all the practice I can get!) this help comes from God. And as a Methodist Christian I find the words of the annual Covenant Service (celebrated in Methodist Churches on the first Sunday of the new year) not only challenging and inspiring, but also helpful in orientating my life in a direction that God intends – to serve the common good.

So as 2021 begins I renew my covenant with God, and humbly resolve:

”I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

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Be My Valentine

Back Home

I am back home in Northern Ireland this week for some meetings and preaching engagements. But I am also delighted that we have also finally been able to bring the play, ‘No Man is an (Irish) Island’, which I co-wrote with Play It By Ear drama company, to Ireland. Thanks to sponsorship by the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Zeltmission of the UMC in Germany, we were able to show the play to a secondary school in Tipperary, a church audience in Mount Mellick, and last night in the Grosvenor Hall in Belfast. This play is all about the power of welcome – a timely message, that seems to have resonated with those in attendance. “This play should be seen by everyone in Ireland”, was just one comment after last night’s performance!

The cast: Ross, Chris, Barry – and Matthias (Techie). Photo: Ruth Matthews.

Migration

The topic of migration and refugees is one that will be with us for years to come. The huge inequalities that exist in the world, that are also fuelled (literally) by a climate crisis that will exacerbate those problems in the all too near future, means that increasing numbers of desperate people will be forced to flee or migrate in order to survive. Building higher walls and tighter borders to keep them out, is not the answer. No man is an island. No one is an island. We need each other. Everyone counts. And as simplistic and naive as it sounds, I really do believe that the only force powerful enough to get us to comprehend that, is …love. True love will motivate us to see the ‘other’, and hopefully be willing to put ourselves out for the other… so that our politics, our thinking, our giving and our religion may then be informed and influenced by it.

A New Song

That’s why today, on this Valentine’s Day, I want to share a song with you, that I just finished writing. It’s a rough recording and could certainly do with some polishing. But I did not want to miss the opportunity of sharing it today. The song relates to the refugee theme. And it’s a love song. Watch and listen to the song on YouTube

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Brexit Reflections

Brexit Reflections

Photo: K.U. Ruof

Fly the Flag

Flags have always been a part of my life. Ironic, considering that my home country, Northern Ireland, does not actually have its own official national flag! But growing up in a housing estate near Belfast during what is euphemistically known as ‘the Troubles’, you simply had to know your flags. On the one hand, our flag, the red, white and blue of the union and my almost sacramental understanding of it as an outward sign of a deeply held inner belief.  And then their flag – the green, white and gold of the Irish Republic. Of ‘the other’, who no doubt had equally deeply held beliefs about what their flag meant and signified. Beliefs I could never really understand. Probably because I never tried to. Nor wanted to. At least, not back then. Flags can do that to you.

My Journey

I came to the Christian faith as a young man, studied theology and became a minister of the Methodist Church in Ireland – a church that serves the island of Ireland, both north and south. My first appointment was right on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Flags were everywhere. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ were everywhere. ‘We’ were few.

In 1998 I was appointed as a mission partner to serve with the United Methodist Church, our sister church, in Germany. Again, flags – or rather, lack of them – was a theme. In Northern Ireland I was accustomed to seeing flags in churches or at particular worship services throughout the year. But the members of my German congregation had a very different attitude to flags. They had experienced the horrors of the Nazis during the Third Reich. The Hitler youth – and in East Germany, the Communist youth – with their flags and their uniforms, led the German church to be much more careful, much more critical of flags and their abuse for nationalist and populist purposes. In all my time here, I have never seen the German national flag in a church!

Identity Crisis?

For the past year I have also been serving the Methodist Church in Britain (MCB) as Europe Relationships Coordinator. It’s an interesting time for this Northern Irishman, living at the heart of Europe in eastern Germany, and working for the British Methodists, particularly as the Brexit deadline approaches and the UK formally leaves the European Union. And once again, flags are having their say. It is the Irish flag, for instance, that will enable me to stay, and travel and work in the EU. Yes, I did apply for Irish citizenship and now have an Irish passport. And yes, my father, staunch loyalist that he was, may well be turning in his grave because I now not only have our flag, …but also theirs!

The fact of the matter is that I no longer think in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Flags and indeed my whole sense of allegiance took on a profound new meaning all those years ago, when I became a Christ follower. Don’t get me wrong – when Northern Ireland (try to) play football, I’m a loyal member of the green and white army. Or when Ireland are playing rugby in the 6 nations, you will know where I stand. And when I watch the Olympics, I always want to see Team GB do well.

Business as Usual – LOVE!

But as Christians our true allegiance transcends countries. Flags. Man-made borders. Jesus teaches us that every single human being is created in the image of God and is therefore our brother, our sister. The apostle Paul teaches us that our citizenship is not of this earth, but is in heaven. And John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, reminds me that the world is our parish.

That is why it will be pretty much business as usual for me and the rest of my Methodist family in Europe come the 31stJanuary. The UK may be leaving the EU on that date, but as Partnership Coordinator for Europe I will be helping the Methodist Church in Britain to continue its joint ventures with all its partners in Europe. We will remain active members of the European Methodist Council and its sub-committees, indeed honoured and delighted as MCB to be co-chair of the council in the coming year (together with UMC Germany). The national youth gathering of the Methodist Church in Britain (3Gen) will continue to invite, welcome and be enriched by their guests from the wider European Methodist family. Every district of MCB is currently being actively encouraged to seek and initiate church twinning and partnerships intentionally with churches in Europe. Group visits and joint mission encounters to, from and with our partners in Europe, will continue as before. And the many social, diaconal and missional initiatives of our partner churches all across Europe will continue to be supported with grant aid, scholarships, mission partner appointments, and prayers.

Why?  Quite simply because we are Christians. Our allegiance is to Christ, and through Christ to the world. Our mission and our calling remain the same, and for that reason, we will keep flying the flag, so to speak. Being church. Journeying together. Humbly doing faith in love.

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A Documentary Short about INSPIRE Chemnitz

Here is a brilliant little documentary about INSPIRE Chemnitz. INSPIRE was started in 2014 by 8 Christians in Chemnitz who have a heart for the Brühl neighbourhood. We work and collaborate with all kinds of people to share light and love and breathe new life into this part of town. We are grateful to Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church for encouraging us and helping us to make this short film. Hopefully it will inspire churches to engage their communities and bless their neighbourhoods. For more follow us on Facebook or here.

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