Breaking new ground. Beyond the call of duty. Behold, I am doing a new thing. How could you? Why would you? Ever? Take a risk. Say yes. To invite. To be invited. Risk takers say yes, ja, oui.
Ideas are easy. Talk, too. Living it, making it real, is much harder. That’s the Spirit. Put yourself out. Out there. And see. If they like us? If we like them? Or were we both right all along?
Worlds with their views collide on a brown rock. All rebels with a cause. And songs without applause. Filled with new meaning partly. To make meaning full. It’s all just words that become flesh. Like a 75 year old nun. And strangers become friends.
Co-workers shop for a better world. Full of children. With their laughter. Improvising as they play. And holy hymns – alleluja! The pioneer Spirit runs rings around us. Freeze! But don’t stop us now.
For we’ve still got split personalities. And a half a hectic lifetime to live. Filled with the sound effects of the Other. Leading me to ask, ”Who am I?”. Hopefully with helping hands. ”I am who I am. I am there”, is the answer that I hear.
Come Holy Ghost, save me from men drunk in the spirit. But in Greek people say, ”Yiamas”. Me too. Celebrating friendship. Hurting and healing. Sharing and journeying, as pilgrims do. Not knowing where we will end up in the dark with a light between us.
A feast fit for any child of God. And for pioneers and personalities. Every one special. Desired. Loved. By the unspeakable Name who asks the impossible. For life. Doors are closing. Setting us free to pioneer new and old ways. I can only say Goodbye to you because it’s short for, ”God be with you”.
A Holy Communion of saints and sinners. And a God who makes no difference. Remember. I am who I am at a burning bush with rainbow flames enveloping us. All of us are unbelievers on this holy ground. Incredible! We take off not just our shoes. And dedicate ourselves to embrace this pioneer spirit again.
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)
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.
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!
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.
I didn’t even hear her falling.
Dawn revealed her to me, there where she lay.
So matter-of-factly sprawled out on the ground.
Silent. Forlorn. Broken.
Yesterday she stood tall. Upright.
With spindly arms raised skyward,
In some demonstrative act of adoration.
Somehow majestic. Even defiant.
Those same arms humbled,
Bony fingers now extended more in an act of desperation.
Hoping someone would catch her. Hoping I would catch her. In vain.
Now she moves not. Her lifeless limbs frozen in time,
Capturing the fateful moment that dislodged her crown and forced her bough down.
The ultimate snapshot. Of an act of God, conspicuous by his absence.
Whose breath blows where it will. Or so they say.
A witness no more, unable to speak
Of comings and goings. Of forbidden encounters or scars that recall liberties taken.
And so the names of her tormentors go with her to the grave.
Etched into her memory, carved now into oblivion.
The rings under her eyes would surely tell tales.
When rooted to the spot as that ferocious storm trooped past, dictating destruction.
Or of people and power and a peaceful turning.
She was there.
Recounting regimes and rules and the common era.
And the wallflower who danced to the wind of change,
Blowing autumn leaves from brown to red to green shoots of new life.
We forget how much she knows. No longer.
Every fall leaves her pale. But the fruits of her labour, all around to see.
Like her, a breath of fresh air. Sheltering, nourishing, expiring life.
Why did I take her for granted?
I didn’t even hear her falling.
I am delighted to announce that my book “Pilgern auf Irisch” will be published in English. The English title is: When the Saints go Marching.
Official launch is in Bangor, Northern Ireland (Saint Columbanus Parish Church, Ballyholme) at 11.30 am on Saturday, 21st November. This will be part of the official celebrations marking 1400 years of Columbanus. More details here.
Some blurb about the book to whet your appetite …
Why would a Northern Irish Protestant, raised in a staunchly loyalist community, hitchhike through Catholic Europe on the trail of medieval celtic monks? What role did an Ulsterman play in the creation of the European Union, and what can be done today to break down walls and bring people together? Who was Columbanus of Bangor and why are present-day librarians from all over the world indebted to him? Why does God not like zebras, has Murphy’s Law anything to do with chaos theory, and why are the Germans the reason Ireland had to wait 1900 years to get decent, straight roads?
The answers to these questions are found in ‘When the Saints go Marching’, the story of 6th century Irish saint, Columbanus, and of a 21st century sinner, the book’s author! Weaving history, politics, theology, and personal narrative together in a humorous and readable way, Sloan tells the fascinating story of Columbanus and his colleagues from Bangor and their legacy in uniting Europe. Profound moments of reflection, insight and food for thought are punctuated with hilarious episodes of breakfast with Vikings, an attack by monster bees, and lunch with a talking horse!
From November my book can be ordered from either here on my website (just drop me a line here), or over Amazon or at any good book store (ISBN 978-1-909644-95-3). Hope you like it!