Sermon Preached at St James’ Church Alderholt on Sunday 3 May 2015 (Easter 5)

Readings – John 15:1-8; Acts 8:26-40.

Pruning doesn’t seem like a very pleasant process for whomever is being pruned. It carries connotations of being taken down to size, perhaps of having one’s wings clipped. Christ says in today’s Gospel that abiding in Him, and bearing fruit for the Father, means that at times we’ll have to undergo the process of being cut back. It’s right here in one of the most loved passages of Scripture.

Currently in the Church, it can also be an idea that is pushed to one side, replaced by a forced confidence that “good” vicars and “faithful” parishioners will have “growing” churches that run a whole range of social projects which never go wrong. They not only feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but get them signing up to adult baptism courses as well.

We shove out of the way the idea that we are a vine that sometimes needs pruned, perhaps because it brings into the open a difficult reality: that following Christ is often painful. It is emotionally painful – for trying to love our enemies or forgive those who have wronged us always hurts, and is so difficult that it often ends in the second hurt of failure. Truly following Christ is often financially painful, or painful in the way that it shatters our ego and self-delusion, and it can be physically painful. As we meet here in peace to celebrate the feast, somewhere in the world, someone is being put to death for their faith in Christ. Continue reading

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A Good Week for Democracy Globally

General Buhari holding a broom “to sweep Nigerian politics clean” at a campign rally. Photo: Heinrich Böll Foundation.

General Buhari holding a broom “to sweep Nigerian politics clean” at a campign rally. Photo: Heinrich Böll Foundation.

This was originally posted to Slugger O’Toole

There was something discomfiting about the funeral of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore’s achievements under his rule were extraordinary, but the story presented on his death was a sanitised fable. World leaders queued up to subscribe to the cult of wise old Harry, father of the nation.

Lee wasn’t so benevolent when challenged. Opposition politicians were sued for libel and bankrupted for criticising government policies during election campaigns. When the opposition had the temerity to actually win some seats, the state set out to destroy the new MPs financially and professionally, before gerrymandering them out in the following election.

Ironically, for decades Lee’s PDP would have won every election with an overall majority even under pure PR. He was genuinely loved by the majority of Singaporeans, as the scenes at his funeral showed. That made his suppression of minority opinions all the more distasteful. Continue reading

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Your Guide to Israel’s General Election

Originally posted at Slugger O’Toole

Israel goes to the polls on St Patrick’s Day to elect a new parliament, which in turn will either confirm incumbent Binyamin Netanyahu in office or oust him in favour of the centre-left. The St Patrick’s Day connection? If Netanyahu loses, he will be replaced by a man whose father was born in Belfast’s Clifton Park Avenue and whose grandfather was Chief Rabbi of Ireland.

Polls indicate that it will be a close run thing, with 11 lists, many covering multiple parties, likely to win seats and small shifts in votes making particular coalitions possible or impossible.

Israel is a country that everyone has an opinion on but few have a working knowledge of its politics. So, why not be one of the educated few and show off your expertise the next time you’re involved in an argument in the pub about the Middle East? Crash through the [too long:don’t read] barrier with me as I look at what Israelis are voting on, why they’re voting at all, and take a tour d’horizon of the bewilderingly complex Israeli party system. Continue reading

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Two Tribes, The Winds of Change and an old man’s death


Originally posted at Slugger O’Toole

30 years ago today a man only moderately old died in an élite Moscow hospital; he had smoked incessantly for six of his seven decades and drank heavily for five, and after years of mounting illness, his liver, lungs and heart had all given in. His name was Konstantin Chernenko and he had, for 13 months, been the leader of one of the world’s two superpowers, and he was a gravely ill man for all of that time. Never in history had such a mighty realm had such an anonymous tyrant.

Chernenko’s life started six years before the birth of the world’s first Socialist state and ended seven years before its doom. When he was born as the son of an impoverished miner in smalltown Siberia in what was still the Empire of the Tsars, it would have been unthinkable that he might end up heading up an empire with military might and global reach beyond any Tsar’s wildest imaginings.

For ambitious men from proletarian backgrounds, born in the decades before the First World War, the establishment of Soviet power was a tremendous boon. With the children of the aristocracy and liberal intelligentsia suspect on class grounds, and the peasantry being only slightly less suspect and considerably less educated, the correct proletarian origins provided a lottery ticket to promotion in the expanding middle bureaucracy of the burgeoning Soviet state. Khrushchev and Brezhnev were from similar stock. Young Konstantin joined the Communist Party’s youth wing in 1929 and never looked back, aided by the elimination of countless older and more capable rivals in the madness of the Great Purge and desperation of the Great Patriotic War.

At the time of Chernenko’s appointment in 1984, the USSR seemed to be imperious in its power – secure domestically and in its Eastern European satellites, still glowing in Indo-China after the relatively recent defeat not only of the United States, but the Khmer Rouge and China in succession, and adding new loyal satellites from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. Solidarity had been crushed in Poland. Soviet SS-20s menaced London and Paris – this was the era of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes. Soviet misreading of NATO’s Operation Able Archer exercises in 1983 and shooting down of Korean Air Flight 007 saw the world stare over the edge of a nuclear precipice. Continue reading

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James Tissot, Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness, c. 1890.

James Tissot, Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness, c. 1890.

What am I giving up for Lent? I’m going to try giving up cynicism and unhappiness.

Cynicism is worn as a badge of maturity in 2010s Britain. To dare to be optimistic, to dare to hope, is a sign of being a tragically naïve mug; and there’s nothing worse in our oh-so-sophisticated-and-worldly culture than being naïve. Actually things can and do get better; wrongs are often righted and the mistreated ultimately vindicated, often when their cause seemed utterly lost. People do choose to be good and kind and selfless, rather than being mean-spirited and grasping, and they do it all the time. The public narrative that everybody is only out for themselves isn’t just wrong, it’s damaging: if we are convinced that we live in a selfish world then we begin to conceive of living kindly and generously as a dangerous act of rebellion rather than the stance that makes us happiest.

I’m going to spend Lent trying to see the best in people, in institutions, and goodness help me in the run up to a General Election, even in politicians. Call me naïve, but I don’t think there’s anything sophisticated in thinking everyone is heartless and shallow and selfish (except of course for deep and meaningful me). It’s actually incredibly juvenile. How come the material and sexual liberation of the past half-century has made us regress into being grown up teenagers? Continue reading

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Flegs and Anthems

Originally posted on Slugger O’Toole…

On The RoadI was interested to note the Union Flag carefully positioned immediately beside Belfast PUP Councillor Julie-Anne Corr Johnson for her interview with BBC NI’s The Viewrecently. “On one hand they tell us the British identity of Northern Ireland citizens is under threat”, she thundered, “whilst at the same time denying British citizens like me access to British laws and British rights.” The openly lesbian Corr Johnson was objecting to the DUP campaign for a ‘religious opt-out’ to equality laws for same-sex couples.

It was interesting, because in Northern Ireland flags aren’t usually identified as symbols of equality or human rights. In particular, those most likely to consider the Union Flag an important political symbol have traditionally been those in Northern Ireland least likely to support gay rights; on gay pride marches, neither Union Flags nor Tricolours are to be seen at all. In that context, Corr Johnson’s positioning of herself with the flag was an interesting and clever subversion of the accepted political order. I’m a Unionist and a Loyalist too, Corr Johnson was saying, and actually people like me are the ones committed to actual British values, not the DUP and TUV.

That sort of cultural positioning and visual imagery is common in the United States, where the flag and Constitution seem to outsiders almost to be objects of worship. Over there, claiming a share in the flag is now a core strategy of not just LGBT activists, but minority activists in general. Was it always thus? Continue reading

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Gay Life in NI if the Conscience Clause Were Enacted

Originally posted on Slugger O’Toole…

It was a summer Friday in 2008, and we were in a provincial town West of the Bann. Jordin Sparks was Number 1 and Ian Paisley’s tenure as leader of Our Wee Country had ended a few weeks before. We’d planned a day trip, but we’d ended up exploring a bit further than expected. It was chilly for June, but the showers from earlier had cleared into that gorgeous, soft, summer evening light that is the thing I miss most from home.

Why drive all the way back to Belfast, we thought? Why not check into a B&B for the evening, have a nice meal out, and explore even further the next day? I had just bought my first car. I could drive with L plates as long as he was in the passenger seat. I’d never driven so far before. It was all very exciting.

The local tourist office helpfully supplied some numbers, and the first number we called was very keen to let us a double room, and we were very keen on the price. There was no rush, so we’d be along in a few hours’ time. After a bit more sightseeing and church crawling, we arrived at our lodgings for the evening.

Our hostess was very definitely a West of the Bann Protestant lady of a certain age and social standing. When I said I was the Mr. Lynch who’d booked the double room a few hours before, she looked positively alarmed.

“Now, you asked for a double room”, she says, dispensing with any pleasantries, “but it’s really a twin room you want, isn’t it?”

No, I insist, we really do want the double room we’d booked. Continue reading

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