Pioneer Spirit

Photo: J.J.

Pioneer Spirit

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.

”And scene!”

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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)


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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