There have been some interesting conversations going on in Northern Ireland recently, haven’t there? I mean, there have been mostly AWFUL ones, and it is gutting that they have been sparked by the inflammatory comments of one our most influential preachers, and our First Minister. But yet, I have listened with interest to Muslims talking about their faith on the radio, which I would not otherwise have heard. I have picked up wise perspectives anywhere I can find them (like here, and here), including a song that will no doubt save my life a time or 2 in the future. (I hate, of course, that these are sometimes lone voices in church leadership, when Pastor McConnell’s is so LOUD… but also… the lone voices have been the ones I have often listened to in my life and I am just thankful that they are there). And I have been glad to hear Anna Lo’s voice, her hurt voice, played over and over. I am not glad for the hurt, or the stories behind it, but she has spoken powerfully, and I am listening.
On the radio a Muslim leader is repeating how his faith is peaceful, how he too condemns Islam extremism and campaigns against it. He is explaining what Sharia Law means to him, what applies, what doesn’t, how it is interpreted by Muslims in the UK and how certain practices and atrocities committed in the name of Islam are NOTHING TO DO WITH him, and his faith. Some of it is achingly familiar. Christianity, too, has much to explain at times. We, too, want to distance ourselves from practices and atrocities committed in some brutal eras through history, in some other parts of the world, and in our own province’s Troubles. The Book we love contains some dark stories. We cannot explain harsh Old Testament laws and practices – exploitation of women, violence, death – that are an unsettling part of our faith narrative. I, too, want to yell that they have NOTHING TO DO WITH it.
Samantha Eyler wrote in the Huffington Post last week (here) about having to lose her religion to support gender equality. When she tells of a faith lost in horror and disappointment upon discovering Old Testament abuses she writes that: “Obviously, many moderate Christians have managed to more loosely interpret the Scriptures that had become an intellectual and moral glass house for me. But the problem is, I didn’t know very many of those people then, and the ones I did know I had been taught to demonize as ‘backsliders’ or – the worst of fundamental slurs – ‘compromisers’.”
Her article is moving, and relatable. The difference in our stories is probably that I have always known just enough of ‘those people’. I have felt both horror and disappointment with not only what the Bible says in places, but with how it has been claimed, quoted and preached in Northern Ireland. But I have also heard wisdom, known love and seen fruits of a Spirit I couldn’t ignore.
There is a house I return to – it is refuge and tonic when I need it most. It is the house I grew up in. Whenever I find life or people or Northern Ireland or Evangelicalism stressful … this is the place I can breathe again. It is a house of gentleness, peace, love, self-control. It is a house of goodness. A house of faithfulness, and a house of joy.
On Whitewell’s website Pastor McConnell writes “We constantly say we do not want any one to feel lonely, isolated or left out in this great house” … and yet, his sonorous words of condemnation that have reverberated around the world in recent weeks give an image of Northern Ireland and Christianity that many of us want nothing to do with.
When loud thundering voices boom across our province, or when wise leadership is lacking and longed for – I have still been able to trust in God’s wild, unconditional love for me and my neighbour because there is a house where I have been loved like that, there are lone voices that I have listened to, and there are fruits of a Spirit I cannot ignore.
Someone sent me a piece Helen Warnock wrote on Facebook that included these words: “Let’s call out the best. Not naively but with wisdom and honour. Let’s remember some of the great people we rub shoulders with every day and applaud them.” I like this. There is James McConnell but there is also Steve Stockman, there is Peter Robinson but there is also Naomi Long, there are heated arguments on the Nolan show but there are also insightful discussions on Sunday Sequence. There are racial slurs and unkind soundbites but there is also #ShoppingForPeter and #IstandwithAnna. And there are ordinary people, living God’s way.
Samantha Eyler’s article begins with her confession that she wants her faith back but can’t find it, and it ends with this stirring request: “So moderate people of faith, those of you who can endure the cognitive dissonance of espousing progressive politics while gleaning support in religious traditions that are thousands of years old — I ask you to please speak up. There are many of us who need to hear your voices much more loudly.” As much as I am thankful for the people, the voices and the house that made the difference for me, there is a challenge for me when I think of those who don’t have this.
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Galations 5: 22-23, The Message
In a world so rife with vulgarity, with brutality and violence, love exists. I’m grateful to know that it exists.
If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.