Archive for the 'Northern Ireland' Category

Reports from the brown river

Summer has been, as mentioned earlier, officially declared. I’m down to one t-shirt and a fleece as opposed to the extra “thermals” I’ve been wearing for what seems like the last 6 gibillion years or so. I’ve taken to walking round the house with no socks, cycling to work is now up to more than half of the days I go to work. Blue skies have appeared over Portadown. The Rapture may be imminent.

And so finally we’ve dusted off old Pudge and made a trip down the Bann. The last time we did this was three weeks before Da turned yellow and everything changed. To have him in the back of the canoe steering as badly as ever is kind of a big deal. To be honest we thought it may well have been proper summer (the one week of dry weather we’ll get between June and August) before getting him back in the canoe but GOD is good.

So instead of the usual Saturday morning lie in while listening to Fi Glover on Saturday Live on Radio 4, Dad was in like a kid on Christmas day, kicking me out of bed to look at the blue sky and the snow on the tops of the mournes out the window.

One poached egg and a few slices of bacon and a cup of coffee later we were down at Simon’s house trying to contain Lily’s excitement that we were going on a trip. Not that Lily was gong on the trip, she jut gets excited about everything “wow, look at you, you’ve got a stick, wow, what a totally amazingly awesome stick, I’m so excited, wow, I’ve just wet myself…” Ah it’s a dog’s life eh…

So with the usual stares from “the old and the bored” and the fishermen in camo gear (one day I’ll ask “you know what’s the deal with the camo gear? who exactly are you disguising yourself for? the fish?”), we paddled through town beaming from ear to ear on the best day of the year so far.

We canoed as far as we could upstream (about 3 miles) where the river hits a shallow area of “rapids” where the only way on up is to get out and walk and tow the canoe behind us. Maybe some day, not today. Me and Simon have great plans for a wee descent from Katesbridge to Portadown though we’ll have to get over a few weirs, which I’m sure is fine really… We’ll wear helmets Mum honestly…

So instead we abandoned the Bann and headed up the horses leap, which apparently is an old diversion of the river Bann built by the army back in the first half of the last century. I have no idea why they were diverting the Bann, probably something to fill the time between world wars. My (now dead) Grandad talked about how they camped down where Tescos is now. Different age, different world.

Here we stopped and sat on the bank and watched the herons and the microlites overhead (kernan aviation were having a busy morning), Dad popping pills and crisps to keep the blood sugars up till we got back. I get all cynical about the limitations of medicine and how little we can do yet here stands my Dad, doing what he was doing 9 months ago yet if he stopped his medication he’d be dead in a week or so. Gratitude springs eternal.

Incidentally the girl on the right is just Simon with long hair. The girl on the left is Lily.


It’s hard to find a friend

I realize now that the blogs I wrote in NZ in pubs and cafes were really just ways to pass the time and look less lonely when there’s no one else there. Not that I mind being on my own, more that I mind people thinking ‘look at the sad old bugger on his own in the corner’.

I have a mate living in england who occasionally frequents Thom Yorke’s pub and on a random Thursday evening you might find I’m in there ensconced in a corner with a pint and an old paperback. Maybe he doesn’t suffer the same neuroses I do.

So I write this in a snug in a pub in town waiting for two mates to turn up. I have this terrible habit of actually being on time for things, which means i always seem to end up sitting about by myself waiting for other people writing blogs to pass the time.

When I arrive it’s kind of  a slow night, there’s just a few hardened drinkers arranged by the bar who give me a slightly cursory glance and return to Crystal Palace versus Leicester on the telly.

I retire to a snug and begin to fend off my boredom by looking up obscure medical conditions on the program on my phone – this has been a lifesaver to stave off boredom in various isolated situations.

I get bored with Waldenstrom’s macrglobulinaemia (which the first prime minister of Algeria died of incidentally… Don’t ask…) and start to write the blog. Leicester score. A woman walks briefly through and leaves even more quickly. It’s that type of pub. At one point  a non white person arrives and chats comfortably with a few of the locals. I pinch myself to check I’m still in Portadown. Maybe I paint this place worse than it is.

15 minutes later Des sits down beside me having been sitting in the snug beside me for the past 10 minutes but completely oblivious to my presence. He only found me when the bar man suggested that ‘was he meeting anyone’ and that he was probably in the snug beside him.

Shane arrives another 15 minutes later with some lame excuse about baby sitting his 6 year old nephew, or getting beat up by his 6 year old nephew. I’m not sure which.

We all worked (though I use that term in the loosest possible sense) in the hospital as cleaners when we were students. Spending our weekends cleaning toilets and handing out breakfasts to the patients (often in that order).

I loved it, but then I get excited about nearly everything so maybe I’m not the one to ask.

We managed about 4 years in total. It was better than real work – which by my definition involves some kind of manual labour, probably outdoors on rainy days only. So by that definition I’ve never had a real job. And also that the only people doing real work are the roads service – which is clearly nonsense. Though I suppose it does count with Shane who was briefly (though to be fair bout 4 years…) an archaeologist before taking up a job renting property (or selling guns or something…) in Bosnia. Some people eh?

Des makes TV programmes. Which is well cool. Though I’ve never actually seen any of them. Funny where we all end up.

pub-man.jpgThe bant was good, I didn’t even see who won the match. Shane goes back to Bosnia soon so we say our goodbyes till July when Shane gets back and we do this again. Except next time I’ll just remember to bring a paper instead of blogging to fill the time.

Anybody wanna take me home?

One of the things I planned on doing when I got back from NZ (besides world domination…) was to move into a house in town with a mate. No intention of buying a house – preferring instead that I should hold on to both my kidneys instead of selling one to pay the mortgage.

I enjoyed my year in NZ living by myself in my own space. And I figure, well I’m in Portadown for the forseeable future so why not find somewhere here to live.

Not that I don’t enjoy living with my parents (the rent’s obviously good…), I get on with them very well, I’ve never felt smothered, or impeded or in any way deficient by living with them – though I’m aware that living with your parents at the age of 26 is deemed a cultural faux-pas in some circles.

For some years now I’ve had a certain desire, or perhaps I should say conviction to be living on the Garavghy Rd. Just because there were no other Christians living there, and seeing as I seem in no danger of “going out into all the nations” anytime soon, then maybe down the road a bit might do.

Going to NZ was a lot of things, part of it was running away from that.

I have been a quiet suburban middle-class Prod all my life. The idea of living in any form of urban (not that Portadown ever gets that urban) working class community has some sort of romantic allure – think Pulp’s Common People without the “sleeping with common people like you” bit.

There is a longer explanation but that’s pretentious enough for now.

And so for the past 3 months I’ve read the classified section of the local quality publication – The Portadown Times (the same paper that brought us such page 2 stories as “Missing swan found”) – looking for houses to rent. Largely without success.

Until last week when two turned up at once.

woodsy.jpgMe and Woodster (seen here during his brief spell with the Met) – the only one I could talk into sharing a house with me – spent our evening viewing the two houses.

The first was a newly renovated terrace which fell down on being pricey, having dodgy windows and a peculiar bathroom beside the kitchen thing. Nice but not good enough we thought.

The second was a wee bit more hopeful. An end terrace in a courtyard of relatively recent built houses. Recently occupied by smoking Portugese Moy Park workers (judging by the unopened mail and the smell). Certainly a decent enough wee house Just the landlord who was a bit stand offish. Asking questions like how long we’d known each other and who the girl (a friend who’d tagged along for curisoity’s sake) was, and what we did for a living. He quite clearly didn’t believe I was a doctor, and I hardly blame him, most people don’t. I either look, too young, or too scruffy, or too incompetent, or frequently all three.

As we walked away from the house it dawned on us that his stand-offishness and quite frankly nosy questions were simply explained by the fact he thought we were gay. Northern Ireland is of course a country full of deep seated prejudice and bigotry (myself included) and so a little homophobia is par for the course (again, to my shame – myself included). Of course he would presume two young professionals moving into a house together were gay. I mean Woodsy was even wearing a scarf. What else could we expect, this is Portadown after all.

Young single males are often seen as an odd sort, we’re either of questionable sexual orientation, involved in some form of nefarious criminal activity or drunken violence. Lock up your daughters so to speak. Sigh.

In the end we turned the house down (for various reasons), probably a good thing. It’ll save him the hassle of telling us he’s not a fan of our sort, and me the hassle of explaining.

My body is a cage

Songs for train journeys on sunny mornings:

Eels – numbered days

Gemma Hayes – stop chasing everything

Duke special – Brixton leaves me alone.

Postal Service – Clark Gable.

And so passed my most recent acquaintance with public transport in Norn Iron. The last time was 15 months ago on a trip to dublin for a course. In fact in my whole time in nz I managed not to even come close to public transport.

Anyhow, today I’m on the 0750 (yes there’s a 0750 these days, who’d have thought it!) to City Hospital for my second job. Funny how when you say it like that it makes it sound like I’m overworked. Ha.


I managed to get a part time job as an anatomy demonstrator at Queens. This involves taking a group of medical students through a guided dissection of an elderly, rather saggy looking corpse. And not nude modelling for groups of students to draw charcoal etchings of me sitting on a stool looking pensive, as my brother thought.

I’m both scared and quite sure that they’re gonna know all the anatomy  better than I do. Though we are starting with the pancreas, gallbladder and spleen – all the organs my Dad no longer has, which is convenient (though not for Dad). I suppose it’ll give me an anecdote or two.

Anyhow getting to see Norn Iron in all it’s crispy clear beauty is just the best. To not have to worry about pressing the acclerator or not driving into the car in front is just wonderful. We’ve driven quarter of the way to NZ (about 4500 miles) just in visitng dad in the past 7 weeks.

And so I find myself back in the dissecting room. I love the smell of fomaldehyde in the morning.

The first group of the day are already huddled round their corpse, the plastic sheet still covering it. On a friday morning many a tall tale is told over (my dead body?) the plastic sheets about how drunk so and so was the night before.

They all look so young. Almost a definiton of getting older, that all the new doctors look incredibly young. I doubt most of the other demonstrators believe I’m actually a doctor, looking no older than the students, even with my 3 day old facial fluff. Coupled with the fact that I’m the only one not wearing ‘proper clothes’ ie shirt and tie. I mean who are they dressing proper for – the cadavers?

I start off with little simple questions about our poor recently departed stiff. For example, ‘my Dad no longer has this organ (Nelly points out recently departed’s pancreas) what does that mean for him?’

I’m surprised that what we’re teaching is so… Well… Basic I suppose. I forget easily that I knew none of this at their stage, and indeed only learnt a lot of it in the past few years. At least my fears of students pointing to obscure organs and blood vessels and asking complicated questions were unfounded.

I must admit it became something like anatomy according to my da. It makes for an excellent clinical scenario to give the students. Even other demonstartors used dad as an example. I’m not sure he’d like the (in) fame.

The second group reminds of that time I tried to get blood out of a stone, and even more of what it’s like to lead groups of young Christians to think about anything.

I run out of Dad related anecdotes with them and settle on getting them to learn the ‘hip bones connected to the … Other bone’ rhyme and send them on their way to make the lame see and the blind walk.

Our future is safe in their hands. As long as they can remember which bone the hand bone is connected to…

Common People

So I was having this discussion (in a taxi headed downtown…) in a coffee shop with a friend, Mostly about Christianity. All the things that piss us off about ourselves and the church and the world we live in. We end up talking about the gap there appears to be between the type of Christianity we see in our church – Bible centred, mostly cerebral, a lot of consideration and understanding, by a mostly highly educated group of people. Contrasted with the normal everyday society of a working class housing estate – educated as little as possible, where books, never mind the Bible have any role, where reaction is more important than consideration, who dance and drink and screw, casue there’s nothing else to do.

This begs two questions.

1) is the Christianity I describe what should be called ‘compulsory’? Is a love of study and theology and a grasp of the finer aspects of the five points of Calvinism what we need to be looking for in a believer?

2) if not, what type of church do we end up with and how should we do it? Together or separate? And how does this affect how we reach all the people in the working class housing estates.

Now there is enough in the two paragraphs (in which I have made huge generalisations and ignored many important points) preceding to spark all types of debate and controversy. That even may be the point. But I will try to explain a few things.

I grew up in a pleasant, safe (though not leafy) housing estate on the outskirts of town. Born to two first generation professionals, one of whom even had some form of degree, well a teaching certificate at least, and Da had 3 O-levels and some gnarly side burns so all’s fair there….

I was loved and nurtured and educated, both at home and in school. I was amply provided for and raised in a stable, loving and caring environment. Churched from a young age and taught the value of hard work, honesty, integrity and what would have been called moral values. Though perhaps I was just indoctrinated by a bunch of fundamentalists and projected some horrible Oedipus complex. I’m not sure. You choose.

I have been educated to a tertiary level and am a qualified professional in a very well paid and respected job with career possibilities coming out of every orifice. I am, by any stretch of the imagination, a golden child, one of the luckiest people on the planet.

There are now over 6 billion people on this planet. Most of whom without a toilet or running water, many of whom who die before the age of 5 from (what would be in our society) entirely preventable diseases. Many go hungry. Many can’t read. Few drive a car. Few have electricity to their home. Even fewer have used the internet or listened to a CD or read a book. Even fewer have been on an airplane to another country.

In terms of standards (education, finance, health, opportunities, safety) I’m somewhere in the top oh… 0.001% of the population of this planet. The white, middle class, Protestant male is the top of the food chain. Mostly by clambering on top of everyone else to get there, but I have no time for history.

If you are reading this then you are a) probably lost, b) full of perseverance to make it this far down and c) probably in the top few percentage points along with me.

On the other hand if I was born in a sink estate in Belfast, or in any city of any industrialised nation, I could well be an unwanted child of a teenage parent, with no father present. With an unstable family upbringing, few opportunities, an early entrance to anti-social and criminal behaviour, becoming heavily involved in alcohol and recreational drug abuse as a way to escape the awful pain of being alive and falling just short of the higher percentage points of human existence.

I draw generalisations to make a point. We are exceptional. Not in the BUPA advert type of a way, but that life is, in general, for the majority of the population on this planet and in this country, in this town, a conveyor belt of fear, pain, misery and death. I got lucky, though I in no way I believe I ended up with who I am by luck but you know what I mean.

I am a thinking Christian. I read books, I have vague notions of artistic appreciation and creativity. I need to understand my faith. To understand something of what expiation, imputation and sanctification mean. I need to question what my faith means, not even always finding satisfactory answers. I need to understand why I am what I am, why I do what I do.

Does this make me a better a follower of JESUS CHRIST?

The question I think should be this: does this make me a better follower of JESUS CHRIST?

It is subjective. Surely it must be. It would be anathema that GOD would create a faith accessible only to the top 0.001% of the population. Aren’t we to become like children in our faith? Heaven will be largely full of people who never learnt to read (assuming this whole shambles of a universe is called to a close sooner rather than later).

The gospel message is simple enough for a child to grasp and believe. Yet complex and deep and meaty enough to dedicate many of the finest minds of humanity into dedicating their lives into its understanding and unpacking.

So it seems clear that I’m not right about everything. A shock to us all I know…

I mean that how I relate to GOD will be different from how you will relate to GOD. That somehow GOD is glorified even in the variety of our personalities and our intellects. That the faith of a peasant believer in India (note how he is not simply a believer but a ‘peasant believer’, because I believe a delusion that my circumstances are normal, and his are in someway exceptional and deserve the preceding adjective) brings equal, if not greater glory to GOD. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

So perhaps that’s question 1) dealt with, in the smallest and most superficial form of course.

As for what our churches should look like then I have only begun to scratch the surface in my own mind. For now I’m more concerned with how that affects our evangelism.

Most of us are strategic about our evangelism. Trying to get the best understanding of the culture to which we are preaching the gospel. As a simple example, when I was in Malawi a few years back, we had to do some ‘preaching’ in church on a Sunday morning. Often it consisted of little thoughts from the psalms. In a burst of enthusiasm I got our translator to translate my psalm to English from his Chichewa (the language not the Wookie from Star Wars) Bible. I soon realised that there are no deer in Malawi and therefore my psalm had been modified to ‘As the giraffe pants for the water’. There are cultural barriers to be crossed. Most much more complex than this.

This town is divided by all kinds of barriers. Most obviously by that which cost the lives of 3000 people in the past 30 years. I rarely call myself a Protestant (though I indeed sign up to the doctrinal statements) but a Christian. But I can’t ignore the fact that I am a Protestant and the person I am speaking to is a Catholic. I cannot close my eyes and pretend the issue is not there. It is. I need to busy myself with dealing with it.

I have a secure and well-paid job. You are on income support, with no qualification and indeed no motivation to work. The simple and inevitable conclusion is that if you sign up to what I preach then you will become like me. Though the even scarier conclusion is that you need to be like me to sign up to what I preach. I cannot ignore this.

It is vital that we understand the significance of the barriers (and sometimes opportunities) that stand between human cultures. CHRIST was undeniably Jewish and preached to an almost exclusively Jewish audience. Paul spent his time with gentiles on his journeys, indeed in Athens he grasped and understood the culture of debate and pantheism that surrounded him. The consequences of the tower of Babel did much more than simply separate us in terms of language.

A ‘one size fits all’ Christianity does not work. The world is not full of Christians like us. I in no way want to come across as a lefty universalist, let’s just all hold hands and praise the Lord – that type of thing. It matters who you think the Lord is. It matters how you get to know him. It matters how you relate to him. Doctrine matters. Do not doubt me on that.

But what we are so often trying to do is make more people like us (by which I mean more people who are like us, not simply make people think we’re fun to be around). One of my biggest fears about church is that we are simply dividing along the secondary issues. That all we will be left with are groups of people united not by their love for JESUS CHRIST, but their taste in music, their age, their personality or the style of the sermon. But don’t get me started.

GOD wants disciples, wants people who love and treasure him for who and what he is. He does not want us to be making Presbyterians (though this may end up being the case) out of people. He does not want us to make Protestants (most Protestants know nothing about the reformation or have read any of Luther or what he fought against, most Protestants in this country are Protestants because it simply means they are not Catholics) out of people. He does not want us to make white, middle-class males, lovers of CS Lewis and a good self-deprecating lyric. He does not want me to make people just like me. He wants to make people, to remake people, to make them what they were meant to be. He is into making them like himself.


August 2019
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