On the Sudden Passing of a Saint…

She was here last week, as she had been every other week before that.

She was old school in that way.
Church wasn’t a side show in her life – it was her family away from family, her community, her tribe.
That’s why she lived here alone with no blood relatives near by.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

“Didn’t your heart burn within you when the preacher preached today?”
Those were the words she would say to me on her way out of church on the days when her heart had been stirred by the words I had preached.
They were the words she had heard within her own family of origin.
I can’t remember whether it was her father, her grandfather or an uncle in her family…
…but those were the words she had heard when she was young; the words she would use to affirm a good sermon.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

And she could sing. Good Lord, but she could sing!
Each word, each note ringing out from somewhere deep.
Each word, each note telling some of the story of her people.
Each word, each note singing out in praise to God.

She loved God.
And God loved her.

She could sing on her own and lead the church in song:
“His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
“Glory, glory, hallelujah! Since I laid my burdens down.”
Each time she stepped up we knew we were in for a treat; a holy moment.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

She could sing in the choir too.
Our choir. Her choir.
That special group of people committed to each other;
Meeting, praying, and singing together every single week.

She loved them.
And they loved her.

And she could sing in the congregation.
She raised her voice alongside the people of her tribe.
And so many times, at just the right moment,
When the tribe needed to know that the words they were singing were deep, and meaningful and true…
*CLAP, CLAP, CLAP*
She would clap her hands in praise.
She would clap her hands to tell her people to sing louder; to lift their praise higher.

And we would.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

She was a lady among ladies.
Well spoken.
Well dressed. Always immaculately dressed.
Assured in her identity as a daughter of the King of kings.

Faith ran deep within her. So deep.
If you had poked a hole anywhere in her, I am sure that Jesus would have oozed out.

She loved him.
And he loved her.

__________

She is gone from us now.
Such shocking news to hear and share with her tribe in church yesterday.
She is gone from us and will not be coming back.
And that makes us sad. Deeply sad.

__________

But even in the sadness we rejoice.

“To live is Christ and to die is gain!”

That’s the faith story of this tribe.

That was her story.
That was the song she sang among us.
It’s the faith story that gives us such hope.

She is no longer with us, but she is dancing with God now.
She is no longer with us, but she is embracing her beloved daughter who went on ahead of her.
She is no longer with us, but she is clapping her hands and leading the choirs of Heaven
Oh yes! The angels and archangels are singing louder today than they were last week. That’s for sure.
She is no longer with us, but she is in a place where there are no more tears; where there is no more grief and no more broken hearts.
She is no longer with us, but she is with her savior.
In this we rejoice.

And in faith we declare that we will see her and sing with her again. Some day.

Rest in peace, dear, beloved sister in Christ.
We love you and we will miss you.

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Martin McGuinness: Some Thoughts on the Passing of a Terrorist Turned Peacemaker

McGuinness meets HM Queen Elizabeth

Long before the language of ‘the war on terror’ became popular in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the USA, terms such as terror, terrorism, and terrorist were already commonly used in everyday language and conversation by anyone, like me, who had grown up in Northern Ireland during the years of the modern day ‘Troubles’ of my homeland. They were words commonly heard on television and news reports, as well as often being overheard in the conversations that adults were having around children and young people. These words were used so much because terror and terrorism were a part of daily life in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998.

One of the names synonymous with the term ‘terrorist’ was that of Martin McGuinness. He was infamous as a key player in the Republican cause, and widely known to have been a senior commander within the IRA. For someone like me, who grew up in the protestant/unionist side of the fence in Northern Ireland, when Martin McGuinness’s name was mentioned on TV, or in conversation with others, the emotional response within was not a happy or pleasant one. No, the very thought of this man, for a young ‘prod’ in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s and 1990’s, was enough to make the blood boil because we all knew, without any doubt, that Martin McGuinness was a man who most definitely had much blood on his hands.

But then Northern Ireland began to change. Paramilitary organizations announced ceasefires. Peace was now, apparently, a possibility in our troubled country. Politicians were sat around the table with a determined hope to create a new Northern Ireland with a brighter future.

And Martin McGuinness was right in the middle of it.

The terrorist was now becoming the peacemaker. And ultimately, the terrorist did become a peacemaker.

Martin McGuinness died today, aged just 66.

Understandably, news of his death has brought about a wide spectrum of responses from politicians, members of bereaved families who lost loved ones during the troubles, and other political commentators. I suppose I want to throw in my own ‘2 cents’ worth too.

As I awoke to the news this morning I could not help but be gripped by the story. Like I said above, there have been years in my life when Martin McGuinness’s passing would not have caused me to have a second thought but this is not the case today. Today I have been gripped by the talk radio programs that are giving a lot of airtime and attention to McGuinness’s passing, and I am paying close attention to the words and tributes of my friends on social media too. Today, I can’t help but feel that Northern Ireland has lost one of its political giants who, despite his evil past, has ended up being central to the creation of a new Northern Ireland; a Northern Ireland which is unrecognizable when set beside the Northern Ireland in which I grew up.

I lament and abhor Northern Ireland’s past and the suffering that took place in those years. I spent three wonderful years in ministry to the Shankill Road community, a Belfast community ravaged by the Troubles. In my congregation I had many people who had lost close relatives and loved ones at the hands of Martin McGuinness’s IRA, including two ladies who had lost their husbands to intentional violent, terrorist attacks on the Shankill Road community. I spent time with and listened to the stories of the people of that community, and I find myself very much in sympathy with them. Their personal loss and pain is one which still deeply scars their lives, and the life of the wider community around them. In love for, and in sensitivity to, my friends there, and the wider community of the Shankill, I do not wish to glorify Martin McGuinness’s life of violence, or play down the pain which was caused by his organization in those most horrible of days. However, whilst McGuinness’s life and actions were almost certainly responsible for much of the pain suffered in those days, it would not be fair to label him only as a terrorist, because, whether folks can bring themselves to accept this or not, Martin McGuinness ultimately laid down the weapons of warfare and terror, and took on the role of peacemaker in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is a complex little country in which the divisions of the past have completely defined how a couple of generations worth of people have formed relationships. Protestant children went to state schools. Roman Catholic children went to Roman Catholic schools. Protestant young men dated and, by and large, ultimately married Protestant young women. Roman Catholic young men dated and ultimately married Roman Catholic young women. The areas in which we lived would be clearly defined by the colours of the various flags and emblems on display: red, white and blue for the unionists, and green white and orange for nationalists. One would always know the ‘identity’ of the community one was in by the presence of those colours. We grew up knowing who was who by where we lived, or by what school uniform we wore, or even by how we spelt our names (unionists tended to use purely anglo names and spellings, whereas nationalists might have been more likely to use more Irish names, and even use Irish spelling of such names). In a culture like this it was all to easy to comfortably live in a society that embodied a “them and us” mindset. In this kind of culture and society relationships could not easily be forged across the lines of division which existed in every aspect of life. But when the peace process gathered pace things began to change. Paramilitary organizations that were once shooting at and blowing each other up were laying down their weapons. Political parties that would never have spoken to one another were now in dialogue. The governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland were now, seemingly, committed to finding a way forward for Northern Ireland.

Martin McGuinness was a major player in this process. That is a fact that cannot be denied.

Inasmuch as Martin McGuinness bears considerable responsibility for the violent past of Northern Ireland, he also must be credited and applauded for his role in shaping a new Northern Ireland – a Northern Ireland with bright hope for the future; a Northern Ireland that has no desire to return to its dark past; a Northern Ireland in which those lines of division are no longer as clear as they once were (although they do still very much exist!)

Martin McGuinness has played a role in shaping a Northern Ireland in which the work of reconciliation and building relationships across the lines of division is possible. This reality was exemplified in McGuinness’s personal and professional relationship with Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley when together they held the office First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. In those days the two of them became affectionately known in the popular media as “The Chuckle Brothers” such was their relationship and public persona. They were diametrically opposed politically and even religiously, but they were able to put their significant differences aside in order to lead the way in the new Northern Ireland that was evolving, and in order to leave a legacy which would be in contrast both their pasts. Together they were able to model something that many people worried was impossible in Northern Ireland: a hopeful relationship which crossed the traditional lines and broke down the barriers of division.

In the new Northern Ireland many things have progressed and wider society is in a much better place than it was 30 years ago. However, for all the good work that has taken place in that time there is still one thing that holds us back: dealing with the past. Martin McGuinness, for all his achievements in peacemaking, was still a man who had blood on his hands and had not been brought to justice. The bereaved families of Northern Ireland’s troubles are still grieving and still have questions as to how and why the things that happened were allowed to happen during those dark days. And this is why the passing of Martin McGuinness today is such a hard event to comment on. In my opinion, the only way the people of Northern Ireland can ultimately move on from the troubles of the past is to work out what forgiveness means for us.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the troubles of the past.
Forgiveness does not dishonour the memory of the loved ones we have lost.
Forgiveness does not mean the end of the ongoing pain of loss and bereavement.

But forgiveness does invite us to become reconciled with our lives as they are and with all that has happened in them.
Forgiveness does invite us to live well into our futures – even with the atrocities of our past.
Forgiveness does invite us to break the ties that bind us and stop us from moving forward both as individuals and as a society.

In the various reactions to Martin McGuinness’s passing I have heard today I have been struck by two in particular. First, I heard the Rev. David Latimer, a Presbyterian clergyman from Derry/Londonderry (McGuinness’s home town), being interviewed by William Crawley on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback program. In that short interview Rev. Latimer made reference to his friendship with Martin McGuinness, a friendship developed over the last ten years, which had become something that Rev. Latimer expressed deep gratitude for as he spoke. He told of how he had been able to visit with McGuinness in recent days and express gratitude for the friendship, and even to pray with him. As I listened to Rev. Latimer I found myself deeply moved by the example of reconciliation and, ultimately, forgiveness that he was sharing. I felt myself wanting to be a person who builds deep relationships across lines of division. I felt myself wanting to embody the same hope in my relationships that Rev. Latimer was testifying to as he shared of his friendship with Martin McGuinness. You can listen to the interview here (8:05 minutes into the show).

Second, I heard the former Conservative Party politician, Lord Norman Tebbit, offer his comment on McGuinness’s passing. Lord Tebbit was staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when the IRA bombed it in an attempt to murder Margaret Thatcher. As a result of the attack Lord Tebbit’s wife was permanently paralyzed and 5 of his friends and colleagues lost their lives. His response,  understandably, was not as gracious or as praise-filled for Martin McGuinness’s life as that of Rev. Latimer. Tebbit stated that the “world is a sweeter and cleaner place” now that Martin McGuinness is no longer in it. You can read the details of that interview and hear it here

In Rev. Latimer’s response I hear the voice of a Northern Irish Protestant who has lived through the Troubles and all the division of our past, but has become willing to work at forgiveness and reconciliation that is so important for the future of Northern Ireland. I hear a man who has been able to face the realities of ‘the other’s’ violent past and make a decision that it will not be that which defines his relationships or the long term future of our country. I hear a man who is willing to listen to and be in relationship with one of the perpetrators of the atrocities of the Troubles, and model a new hope for a new way forward.

Sadly, I do not hear a similar voice in that of Lord Tebbit. In his voice I hear the voice of a man who may be trapped in personal pain for whom moving forward in reconciliation is profoundly difficult. 

Please understand, I am aware that it is ultimately very easy for me to say all this as one who has not experienced direct loss as a result of the IRA’s terror campaign. Nevertheless, I still believe, wholeheartedly, that the work of forgiveness and reconciliation is the work that Northern Ireland will ultimately have to go through in order to make the distance from its ugly past even greater than it is now.

Today, I mourn the loss of Martin McGuinness. I lament the events of his life which first brought his name in to my recognition – events which permanently stained my home country and scarred the lives of the bereaved and injured. But I also celebrate his life as one which was turned around and transformed. Martin McGuinness was a terrorist, but that is not the whole story of his life. Ultimately, when all was said and done in his life, Martin McGuinness had become a peacemaker of such significance that his work shaped a brighter future for all the people of Northern Ireland. And so inasmuch as I lament his violent past I also celebrate the transformation which took place in his life, and I celebrate the legacy of peace building and reconciliation he now leaves behind.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

The Calling of Levi – a narrative sermon

Follow Me

This is the sermon that was preached by me this morning (Sunday 19th March) at St. Andrew UMC, in Titusville, FL.

I don’t put all my sermons on here, but I feel that this one went particularly well this morning and folks seemed to connect with it. In fact, folks seem to connect with any story telling sermon I do. Maybe I should do more…

The following was my guide for the monologue. There were points in the delivery of the sermon when I came slightly off script and ad lib’d a few bits and pieces. The entire sermon can be listened to here

Hi! I’m Levi.

I heard that you all were reading a little story about me today; the story of that time when Jesus came up to my table and asked me to follow him. What a day that was…it totally changed my life forever.

Yeah…I heard you were reading that story today and I wanted to come along and make sure that you heard it right. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I don’t trust Dr. Luke – everybody trust Dr. Luke – he is a great writer and always gets it pretty much spot on. But Dr. Luke had so much to write about when it comes to those three years of Jesus’s life I know that there is no way he could get everything that you need to know about me in there. So don’t consider this conversation between you and me to be a corrective of Dr. Luke’s work. I would never think to do that. Just think of this as some additional information that the good Dr. did not have room for. A little bit of personal testimony if you will.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself first. I had a fairly average upbringing. Nothing special at all. I was a reasonably good kid and didn’t get into that much trouble. Eventually I grew up and had to start thinking about how I would make a living. We weren’t a rich family – I could not rely on an inheritance. No…I would have to get a job and I would have to work hard to provide all that I needed in life.

I can’t remember how I got into this line of work. Trust me, no one grows up wanting to be a tax collector. I guess the opportunity was just there one day. I needed the work. There was the job and here was my need – I just went for it. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as everyone made out? Right?

There are two sides to every story. Everyone says that tax collectors are the worst kind of people. They call us traitors because we are collecting funds for the Roman Empire. They call us thieves because they think we take more than we ought to from them. But it’s not that simple. When we get sent out as tax collectors we are told that we have to get from the people what we have to get from them and then there Roman’s tell us what we owe them. If there is a difference in those amounts, and it is to our benefit we are under no obligation to give it back. It’s just the system.

Well I got the job and I was good at it, and I would also say that it was good to me too. I had to put up with some social rejection and stigma, of course, but back in the early days it was worth it. I looked up to one of our big bosses, Zacchaeus, and I thought to myself, “I want all the things he has.” He really looked as if he had everything that anyone would ever want in life.

As the years went by I noticed that while I was doing very well and getting all the things I thought I wanted, I wasn’t really getting any happier. On the outside everything looked amazing. But on the inside I felt like I had nothing: no friends, no encouragement, and really no love in my life.

So I was stuck. I was in a corner. I was between a rock and a hard place. I needed the job to pay the bills and have the stuff I thought I wanted to have, but the job also meant that I had none of the things I really need in life; no fulfillment. I was just empty.

But what could I do?

I used to set up my table anywhere a crowd was gathering. I would go to the temple some days. On other days i would set up outside the governors office, knowing that the people would gather their to make a complaint or bring a case before him. On other days I would go to the market place – people always went there and they always had money too – the market was a great place to collect tax!

Then I discovered this other way to get people. We had so many traveling teachers and rabbis who would journey around the region saying this and saying that. Most of them had small followings and it usually was not worth setting up my table where they were. But that all changed when Jesus came on to the scene. Word had spread like wildfire about this guy. He was the one worth hearing. He was the one you wanted to be around. I know that one day the crowd was so big where he was that one group of guys who wanted to get close to him actually climbed on top of the house where Jesus was and made a hole in the roof so they could lower their friend to where Jesus was.

I thought to myself, “If that’s where the people are then that is where i should be to collect their taxes.” So I took my table along and set up shop right there where he was. I did so well that i started to follow him around. Wherever Jesus was, I would go too. I heard every word he said and I saw every person he interacted with.

The funny thing about it was this: when Jesus spoke; when he said his words and told his stories, I found myself feeling different inside. I don’t know what the feeling was exactly, but there was something going on inside me – I felt alive inside, and I had not felt that way in a very long time.

But I did nothing with those feelings. Jesus was never going to have anything for me. I was a tax collector. I was one of the worst. I knew that and everyone else knew that, and Jesus probably knew it too.

Or at least I thought he did, but the evidence pointed somewhere else. You see, I began to notice that everywhere he went he was not spending his time with good people. Normally religious teachers and rabbis spend their time with the good people; the people on the inside. But not Jesus. No! He spent his time with different people; ordinary people, and some downright rough people too – you know the ones that no-one would be seen with. He spent time with fishermen and shepherds, with lepers, he spoke back to the teachers of the law and to the Pharisees. There was even this one time when he got close to that lunatic in the Capernaum synagogue and told the demons to leave the luny alone. And they did. Jesus even spent time with women. In public. And they were not always respectable women. No. You think that tax collectors are looked down on? The only person considered as bad as people like me are those kind of women. The women Jesus seemed to always spend time with – and not in a bad way either.

Anyway, I was there time after time with Jesus. Sitting at my table, collecting my taxes, feeling something inside when he spoke, but always thinking that it could never be for me. People like this guy Jesus could never do anything for people like me. I was as far gone in life as anyone could imagine and that was just the way it was. I was a sinner; a reject; a social misfit and that was how it was always going to be.

Or so I thought.

That day when the guys had made that hole in the roof and lowered their friend through it; that day when the crowd was so big that no one could get close to Jesus. That was the day when I found out that Jesus is interested in sinners like me.

He came out of the building that day and made his way straight to my table.

“Follow me.” He said.

That was it. Nothing more. Just those two short words. Follow. Me.

You know what they say about those moments when you life is threatened and things all seem to slow down and your whole life flashes before your eyes? Well thats what it was like for me in this moment.

The main man; the star of the show; the biggest name in town who could get in to any house and sit with whomever he desired to sit with had just come to my table and asked me to follow him.

What was I to do? I had a good gig going on here. I was rich. I was only going to get richer. I had everything I wanted in life. But I also had nothing because the huge emptiness within me was always with me.

Do I stay in this job and keep on earning all the while feeling empty on the inside and rejected by everyone on the outside?

Or do I take a chance with Jesus.

I could continue to walk on the same road and continue getting what I had always got. Or I could make a change. Now. In this moment. A change that might break all the emptiness.

I have no idea what made me do what I did next, but I made the choice to go with Jesus. I got up and left my table right there and started to follow him.

This was a game changing moment for me and there was only one way I knew that would mark this moment appropriately – to throw a party. So I did. I threw a party at my house. I invited all my other tax collection colleagues and any other reject we could find and we had a banquet right there at my house. Jesus was in his element as we laughed and joked around the table. He told us stories that night which helped me understand just how much I needed him in my life. Where I had felt rejected, he made me feel welcome. Where I had felt too sinful to be in anyone’s company, he assured me that I was just as deserving of love as anyone else. Where I felt ashamed about my past and the things I had done in my life, he taught me that I could lift my head and starting living a new life.

Not everyone heard Jesus the same way though. And funnily enough it was the religious people that were making all the noise of complaint that night. “Why do you spend time with tax collectors and sinners like these?” They asked.

Jesus looked straight at them and said this:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Boom! Na na na boo boo! Take that, religious people! In your face! Ha ha ha

I know, I know…Jesus told me already that I can’t go showboating like that when I tell this story…but still!

Anyway the point is this:

Jesus came for people like me.
Jesus came to the world for people like me.
Sinners. Rejects. Misfits.

The ones everyone else can’t stand.
The ones no one else has any interest in.
The anonymous ones who go through life with no name because no one cares.
The ones who knew most that they needed Jesus’ help.
Jesus came for them.
Jesus came for you.

Yes. You.

You guys look really good – like butter wouldn’t melt.

But I know that all of us have things in our lives that we think might just be enough to turn Jesus away – regrets, actions, thoughts, those words we spoke in the heat of the moment, that relationship that did not work out, that habit we just can’t seem to kick.

We all have them.
We are all sick with sin and Jesus has come to us to call us to repent. To turn from those things and walk in a new path.

For me, that meant walking away from the table…literally. For me, that meant sacrificing the riches and things that I had become accustomed to in life. but you know what i learned? It’s all just stuff and none of that stuff on the outside of my life could ever have, or has ever since come close to the feeling I get on the inside when I remember that day that Jesus showed me that I am worthy of love and worthy of being welcomed. Nothing.

So…yeah…that’s my story. It has been amazing being here with you all, but it’s time for me to get back to following Jesus…

Oh yeah…just one more thing. I just described to you the moment in my life when Jesus came and asked me to follow him. Well I just had a thought. Maybe this is your moment. Maybe this is the moment in which Jesus has come to you and said those two little words: Follow me.

If he has. If that is what you have heard today then take it from someone who knows – don’t say no. you may think your life is okay without Jesus right now, or you may think that life with Jesus is not a life that you could handle very well. But let me guarantee you that walking away from the table of my life that day was the best and smartest thing i ever did. Before that moment I was lost and lonely, i felt rejected and ashamed of myself all the time; Before that moment I was a sinner – pure and simple. But now I’m free. I am loved. I am changed.

I. Am. Free.

If this is your moment – don’t miss it.

Seriously.