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Considering Grace: An invitation to listen

Dr William HENRY (Moderator, Presbyterian Church in Ireland), Jamie YOHANIS, and Gladys GANIEL. Book launch: Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles. Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Belfast, Northern Ireland. (c) Michael COOPER @mcooperpics

Considering Grace: An invitation to listen
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
5 November 2019

Considering Grace, by Gladys Ganiels and Jamie Yohanis, is a new book that explores how Presbyterians responded to the Troubles, through a series of narratives from 120 people who tell their stories of how they coped with trauma and tests of their faith. The book was launched with a set of readings and short presentations at Assembly Buildings, Belfast, to an audience of several dozens.


The end of Catholic Ireland?

The end of Catholic Ireland? 
by Allan LEONARD
6 November 2018

In what Alan Meban described the event as a symposium (“but don’t say it was in a bar” [The Dark Horse Inn]), Dr Gladys Ganiel, a sociologist of religion from Queen’s University Belfast, laid out quantitative and qualitative findings about the apparent secularisation process in Ireland. This was discussed by fellow panellists Pádraig Ó Tuama (poet, theologian and leader of Corrymeela) and Professor Margaret O’Callaghan (historian, Queen’s University Belfast). The event was part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science and hosted by Slugger O’Toole.


Listening to the pschogeography of Belfast

One of the final events of the Four Corners Festival was a discussion on what was described as the psychogeography of the city of Belfast.


The Passion Walk – Belfast 2015

20150403 Passion Walk

On BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme, I learned of a Passion Walk event that would take place on Good Friday. Passion Walk seeks to recreate the experience of Jesus of Nazareth’s final days in a contemporary environment, using local landmarks in place of those around Jerusalem.

Based on the success of a previous Passion Walk in Edinburgh, one was organised to take place in Belfast.

The walk commenced at Grosvernor House on Glengall Street, where those who pre-registered (and those who did not) arrived to collect site-marked maps and portable MP3 players, with individual tracks to be played at corresponding sites. (As the website offered the playlist as a download, I only needed the map.)

You’re invited to sit in the chapel hall to listen to the Reflection 1: Introduction track, to encourage you to take a moment to be still: “If you become distracted, you might find it helpful to concentrate for a moment on the rhythm of your own walking feet.”

Duly quiet in mind and body (and bundled up with a scarf and hat for this blustery morning), I set out to walk the journey of Jesus’s Passion in the streets of Belfast, busy not unlike Jerusalem at Passover.

But this being Belfast on a semi-observed holiday, the streets weren’t so busy. So I paused in front of City Hall. Strangers walking past a beggar felt poignant.

Indeed, later in the walk I witnessed an act of kindness – a woman gave a homeless man a cup of coffee and snack.

The next station was the public sculpture of Sheep on the Road (by Deborah Brown), in front of Waterfront Hall. Here I listened to Reflection 3: Gethsemane, explaining how Jesus is ready to lay down all his strength and authority: “the shepherd has become the sacrificial lamb”.

Appropriately, the Big Fish sculpture at Lagan Weir is where we listen to the perspective of Peter, the fisherman disciple struggling with his failed loyalty.

Custom House is where we learn of the complicated politics of the day that Pilate had to deal with – having to balance Roman authority with local customs. The final passage of this track is thought provoking:

“Pilate is both fascinated by Jesus and frustrated by him. This carpenter from Galilee has more strength, more integrity, more dignity, than all the political leaders he has known. How can it be that this man who has relinquished all power is the most powerful person in the room?”

After observing the elevated platform where Jesus’ fate was determined, I go back into the bowels of the city – a narrow back alley that thousands walk past daily, if we even know its existence. Here we listen to how Jesus was mocked and beaten. On the brick wall is a spray-painted acronym “KAH”. Or is it “KAT”? Whether it’s “kill all huns” or “kill all taigs”, the sectarianism in this city is the plank in our eyes.

Or as I listen to Reflection 7: Carrying the Cross:

“From the City Hall to the Falls and the Shankill,
From Helmand Province to Guantanamo Bay,
In the refugee camp and the hospital waiting room,
The job centre and the methadone clinic,
Among the fearful, the joyful and those who pay no attention,
Still, he carries his cross.”

Continuing on the path to Calvary, we hear how Jesus looks back on the city of Jerusalem with sadness. He wants to bring all under his wings with compassion and love, “but they are not willing”.

And another powerful thought, this time from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human being, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world.”

The challenge is whether we have the willingness to accept compassion, to overcome unrest and division.

The walk from city centre to the end of the slipway at Titanic Building is fittingly long. The tall, rusted brown steel beams with jutting lamps now appear before me as mock crucifixes. This is the end of the line. Or is it the beginning?

The Passion Walk booklet provides a reading from Isaiah 53 (extract):

“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was on him,
And by his wounds we are healed.”

I take a moment to reflect, and sea gulls fly overhead, which descend closer to the water’s surface in Belfast Harbour, scanning the sea for a catch of fish.

I reverse and listen to the story of Joseph of Arimathea, a senior council member who knew Jesus as a boy, then years later found himself witnessing Jesus’s last days. I am moved by Joseph’s words, his jealousy of Mary Magdalene, and how his washing of Jesus’s unclean wounds of his dead body serves to cleanse his own soul.

Indeed I had to stop walking for a moment, for my own body to absorb the enormity of this wisdom.

The walk concludes in the prayer garden in the Dock Café, with a suggested explanation of the conflict between the joy of Easter with the despair we can feel in our everyday lives, “with its tensions, suffering and wanton cruelty”.

One resolution is faith, to “wait for God, holding our questions, doubts, hopes in his presence”.

Though back at the crucifixion station of the walk, listeners are asked if there is one word that summarises the life of Jesus to them. My word is “justice”. Even Pilate found Jesus an honourable man. Yes, there is much injustice in the world, but for me Jesus’s life demonstrated that this will not change if we keep rejecting God in our lives.

The power of this Passion Walk was to be compelled to reflect upon this historical event in a contemporary way. While the crucifixion of Jesus was a couple thousand years’ ago, its context is not so different today.

But are we listening?


National reconciliation: “Patriotism is not enough”

National reconciliation: “Patriotism is not enough”
A Journey Towards Healing seminar
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
19 February 2015

In the second of a series of seminars organised by Niamh Mental Wellbing, Reverend Dr Gary Mason facilitated a civic engagement in a packed room at Skainos on the Newtownards Road, Belfast.


Book review – Coffee with Jesus (David WILKIE)

WILKIE David - Coffee with Jesus

I came across Coffee with Jesus on a display table at the front of a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Just as well, as I doubt I would have perused the religion section to discover it.

Coffee with Jesus originated online, under the consortium Radio Free Babylon. It is a irreverent perspective of Christ in everyday — American — lives, with our Lord dispensing his eternal wisdom on the flawed mortal characters presented in this graphic novel. There’s Carl, Lisa, Ann, Kevin and Joe, each of which author David Wilkie provides pseudo-biographies.

And of course there’s Satan, who taunts Jesus with nicknames like the Boy King, dogmatic Galilean, the Nazarene.

I enjoyed Coffee with Jesus and its theological humour. (Needs to be more like this.) Certainly there will be some who will take offence in putting words into Jesus’ mouth, but the joke is surely at them?

That is, I’m reminded of a small notice stand at a church coffee shop, which declared, “Christ is okay; it’s Christians I can’t stand.” The Word is the message, however delivered, whether the Sunday sermon or a good piece of levity served with a cup of Java.

20140708 Coffee Jesus - Dead Serious


The prevailing wisdom of A Love Divided

The prevailing wisdom of A Love Divided
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
4 April 2014

Based on a true story, “A Love Divided” chronicles the aftermath of a mixed marriage in Co. Wexford, Ireland, where Protestant-raised Sheila refuses to send her children to a local Catholic school. She flees with her two young girls, leaving her husband Sean confused and frustrated.


Accommodating faith and diversity in Northern Ireland

Accommodating faith and diversity in Northern Ireland: @IFNetUK Inter-Faith Week 2011
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
21 November 2011

OFMDFM Junior Ministers Martina Anderson and Jonathan Bell sponsored a panel discussion marking Inter-Faith Week, organised by the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum: “Accommodating faith and diversity in Northern Ireland”.


Book review – Son of God (Angela TILBY)

20010520 Son of God

A good text to start with on Jesus the man

I wanted to read Son of God because of the tie-in with the BBC televised programme of the same name. Surprisingly, the book was not to be found in my local BBC shops or bookshops at the time the programme aired. (Who to blame: BBC or book publishers Hodder & Stoughton?)

Having secured the book, I was disappointed that the link between it and the programme was so weak. So, don’t purchase this book if this is your expectation. (However, the two sets of colour plate illustrations are taken from the programme.)

How about the book itself? The 182 pages are easy enough to read, with large font size and generalist-style prose. Indeed, the book is to be recommended as a starter guide to the human (but not divine) life of Jesus. In this context, it is a good read. Presenting the historical knowledge of surely the most significant human of existence in an easy-to-read format could not be a simple task, and Angela Tilby does well.

The compromise of this approach is to have to omit background knowledge of certain events. Tilby does her best efforts here, but the treatment of historical contextualisation reads like an insider’s knowledge: if you already know the political history at the time of Jesus’ life, then what is presented suffices; if you don’t you just carry on, paying attention to the detail on Jesus. To make curious ignoramuses like me happier, a more comprehensive reading list at the end would have been appreciated: not just on the history of the life of Jesus, but to learn more on the ‘wretched and undistinguished career’ of Pilate, for example.

Overall, Son of God is a satisfactory book. It deflated my raised expectations after watching the very interesting television programme. But the book is a good text to start with, to learn the history of Jesus the man.