How to Make a Happy New Year

Colorful fireworks in the sky.

Germany no longer surprises me

I have been living in Germany for 24 years – scary, I know. So I more or less know how life works here. And it is not often that I am surprised by Germany or by my beloved German friends, neighbours or the citizens of my second home, Chemnitz city.

There is a routine to life here. There are rules and regulations and customs and traditions – like anywhere, I suppose. There are set times for when you can burn twigs and branches on a fire in your garden. There are strict laws around re-cycling your rubbish. And even set times when you are NOT allowed to throw your glass in the recycling bins. At pedestrian crossings you must wait for the wee green man before you cross – and you will be reprimanded if you walk on red – even if it’s midnight and there are no cars anywhere in sight!

And when you have been living in Germany as long as I have, you get used to people not saying hello when you pass them on the street. Strangers don’t greet each other here. In Ireland this would be impossible, and I still struggle to keep my head down and force myself to say nothing as I walk past a person on the street here. (For the record, on the occasions where I have greeted a stranger on the street with a friendly ‘hello’, I get looked at as if I have just been released from the psychiatric ward!)

But I know all this now. I am seasoned pro now. I have lived here long enough now. Little surprises me now.

With one exception

Except New Year’s Eve.

Or as the Germans like to call it: Silvester. Silvester gets me every year. I should know better. I have lived here long enough to know. But Silvester creeps up and surprises me. Every. Single. Year.

For two reasons:

1. On New Year’s Eve the Germans forget that they are German. At Silvester the Germans forget all the rules. For some strange reason – and I have a theory about that, which I will come to in a minute – the normally very disciplined and orderly, neat and tidy, law-abiding, environmentally friendly, animal loving Germans go berzerk! That’s the only way I can describe it.

It seems to me that at Silvester, every member of the family, from 8 to 80 year olds, has bought a ton of fireworks …that all get ignited on the streets of the city at midnight to bring in the New Year.

And when I say fireworks, I mean FIREWORKS – not the tame little bangers and sparklers that were the only fireworks that we were allowed as kids growing up during the Troubles of Northern Ireland. I am talking about FIREWORKS that you would find at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing!!! Rockets, missiles, fountains, zippers, smokers, bombers, wheels and wings. The whole shebang! Being lit by every Tom, Dick and Harriet on the street outside their house…with neighbours and other properties only 10 metres away! I have seen fireworks being dragged out in boxes the size of a small sofa. Placed in the middle of the street – as cars drive by (usually paramedics’ cars!) It’s crazy. It’s bedlam. It’s chaotic. It’s toxic. It’s uncontrolled. It’s very dangerous.

And it’s fun.

And spectacular. And strangely beautiful.

And – most of all – surprising. You just do not expect this from the usually very orderly Germans!

So here’s my theory why Silvester seems to me to be the most un-German-like of nights. I reckon that the German citizens have had to deal with, and live under, all the rules and restrictions that society imposes on them for the whole year. They manage to deal with it all – the do’s and dont’s – for 364 days in the year. But at Silvester, the pressure valve is released. Everything explodes. Not just the fireworks. All that has been suppressed and kept down now comes to the surface. All released. And it is a wonderfully chaotic, untypical, and indeed the most surprising night in the German calendar.

2. But let me come to the second way that Silvester in Germany surprises me. People talk to you!

Strangers on the street greet each other. Wishing each other a happy new year, or a gesundes neues Jahr – a healthy new year. On 364 days of the year these very same people will walk past each other and not even think of greeting each other. Why would they? It’s not a done thing here. They are not being impolite (although to outsiders it may seem so). They are not being unfriendly (although to outsiders it may seem so). No. Not at all. The Germans are some of the most friendly, kind and generous people I have ever met. And I travel internationally quite a bit. They just do not normally greet strangers on the street as they pass them by. That’s all.

Except for – Überraschung! – at Silvester. On New Year’s Eve, in the midst of the firework war zone, strangers will cross the street – ducking to avoid the rockets – to say hello and maybe make a toast with their glass of Rotkäppchen sparkling wine, and wish everyone a gesundes neues Jahr. It is lovely. It really is. A nice surprise.

But enjoy it while it lasts, because a day or two later you had better remember not to greet a stranger if you pass them on the street, that is, if you want to avoid the recently-released-from-the-psychiatric-ward look that you definitely will get.

Happy New Year – more than a wish

Happy New Year! A Healthy New Year! These are lovely wishes, aren’t they? Truly LOVE-ly.

I ACTually believe that wishes can come true.

That’s why I want to not only WISH everyone a happy and healthy new year. I actually want to ACT, where possible, in a way that makes my wish a reality for that person. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? To put it another way – how can I help the people in my life – or indeed the strangers that I wish happy new year to – to actually experience a happy and healthy new year? Can I do anything to bring that about?

Good wishes are nice. Who doesn’t love to receive good wishes? But would it not be even better if wishes did not just remain wishes – things hoped for. What if I could make someone’s 2023 actually more happy? More healthy? In some small way better? What kind of a life can I live that would actually make a difference, and make some of my good wishes come true?

Can I pray more? Can I listen more? Can I spend more time with someone? Can I comfort someone? Can I help someone? Can I give more of my finances, time, resources etc. to make it a happy new year for a family, a friend, a stranger?

Join me and help make 2023 a truly happy new year

I want to try to. Do you want to join me in trying? I would love that.

I know that I am not very disciplined. I can talk a good talk, but I don’t always practice what I preach. So I reckon it will not always be easy to be the wish-fulfiller that I would like to be in 2023. But I worship a God who sees me just as I am – with all my faults and shortcomings. And who loves me all the more because of that. And this crazy, chaotic, dangerous, surprising God of infinite love calls me every day to do life with Him/Her, and to help make my wishes come true.

Come join me this year. My “Happy New Year” to you is not just a wish, but an invitation. A call.

Together, let’s see how we can bring healing and happiness in 2023.

Jahreslosung (Verse for the year 2023): “You are a God who sees me.” (Gen. 16,13)

#CtheUnseen

Graffiti on a wall: This world is so broken, I can't keep my eyes open.
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For Grace

I recently attended a day-conference in Rome entitled “Encountering Modern Day Slavery”. This event, run by the Clewer Initiative, had gathered young adults from various parts of the world, with the aim of highlighting and raising awareness of the issues around modern day slavery. I was there in my role as Partnership Coordinator for Europe, accompanying the current youth president of the Methodist Church in Britain.

(Trigger warning – the following contains some general details of rape and sexual violence.)

We heard two very powerful and moving testimonies from a young man and a young woman from different countries in Africa, as they shared about how they were deceived and exploited by people near and dear to them. The young man was betrayed by a close friend, who had offered to help him find a hopeful future in Europe, but in reality was sending him into forced labour, without pay, in Italy. This very moving story was tragic in and of itself, but it was the story of the young woman that touched and disturbed me even more deeply. This young lady was deceived and betrayed by her own (female) pastor in Africa – a lady who was very close to her family and who had helped them on many occasions. The young lady was sold into the sex trade and ended up working as a prostitute in Italy.

Group discussion

But it was an incident before she arrived in Italy that moved and disturbed me the most. A 13 year old girl, named, Grace, was also being trafficked into Europe. The lady shared how she had taken Grace under her wing and tried to protect her from the horrors of the camp and the dangers of the journey. But one day she could not protect Grace. Nor herself. The guards came and took them and violated them.

Two days later, Grace died of her injures. She was just 13 years old.

As I listened to this story being told, the tears were running down my cheeks. But I was also in awe of the strength and faith of the young lady who was sharing this story. “In an almost entirely hopeless situation, Grace’s deasth actually gave life to me,” she explained. “I promised myself that I will survive. I will survive this hell so that I can tell Grace’s story. This will not be the end of Grace!”.

In the afternoon the organizers of the event invited us to reflect further on what we had heard and how we were feeling. We could also make our own kites and decorate them in ways that might help us to express our thoughts and feelings. The leader played a beautiful piece of music from a Kenyan artist and asked us to be still and think about what we might like to draw or write on our kites. The Greek word χάρη came into my mind. It is Greek for ‘Grace’, with the last letter looking like a bird flying away. And so I began to draw. In spite of my limited artistic ability, I wanted to honour Grace. I wanted to see her transformed. I wanted to show the journey of this 13 year old from a place of darkness and fear to a place of light and hope and healing…and metamorphosis. A beautiful creature. As her Creator intended her to be. Risen. Flying high. Free.

Risen and Free

The act of drawing and reflecting was actually a very useful way of processing some of the horrific accounts we had been hearing about that day. These painful and personal stories were incredibly moving. Moving, too, in the sense that they move me to action. That I quite literally move – do something – something other than just draw on a kite. This blog is a first step.

You can find help and resources here, here and here.

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Kaleidoscope of Hope

Refugee Centre in Przemsyl, Poland.

Poetic reflections on a recent trip to Poland – Ukraine.

Early morning flights. Ours were planned. Others were not so lucky.
The Lion of Poznan. With battle scars on show.
Taking us to mothers and children. Children and mothers. Sent into the unknown.
And men who have no choice, but to stay and wave their arms.

On the road again. Off it too, in more ways than one.
With Trinity at the wheel.
Journeying to a line drawn on a map. By men who dictate things.
Thankful for traveling mercies, and slow tractors.

Yellow and blue. Everywhere yellow and blue. Trooping the colours.
The call to arms. For cakes and buns. Enough to feed an army.
Of God’s people. Churches, that not only pray.
Faith expressing itself in love. Come, stranger! Welcome! Stay!

A roof over my head. A nice one too.
With ways and means. And money and food.
A laptop charger. A phone cable. My favourite baseball cap. Things I leave behind.
Ridiculous in comparison to those in the Centre. Who know loss of a different kind.

400 field beds in an overflow place.
Dog food and cat litter. Sim cards. With gigabytes and minutes.
Men playing Guitars. Kids playing ball. Help in every corner.
And the best use of national flags I’ve ever seen.

Aid trucks and campers and lorries and vans.
Folks who cross a continent because they must. And can.
Indian Chai from a German of Pakistani descent.
Sikh, Christian, Muslim, Jew. Normal service has been resumed.

Breakfast with dozens of policemen. Safe and secure.
Convoys of tanks and military vehicles.
Bringing hope. Or despair. Depending on who you talk to.
My heart breaks for those who are forced to choose.

Brothers and sisters singing songs of hope.
Believing. Hoping that Europe will now see them differently.
That Europe will see them. That Europe will see.
We will. We do. But why did we need a war to open our eyes?

Barry Sloan (Poland/Ukraine border, 25th April 2022)

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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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