Friday, March 31, 2006


Today we had a nice journey to Edinburgh on the train, as Lyns technically had a day off university, and it was our last day together in Dundee for another wee while. So it was off to Edinburgh. Now, I must confess that last night I checked out a website giving listings of bookshops, and had dutifuly marked them on the map in my Rough Guide, in preparation for today!

And so it was that we visited about 6 or 7 bookshops - the best of which I can't remember the name of, but can be found at 72-74 West Port, should you happen to be in Edinburgh looking a good secondhand bookshop! I got a couple of bargains, so was well chuffed. And, in a sort of reciprocal gesture, we visited quite a few shoe shops for Lynsey to have a browse.

We also did a couple of the touristy things, calling in to St Giles' Cathedral (and seeing the statue of John Knox), as well as seeing Greyfriars Bobby - the little loyal dog, and various views of the castle from the streets around it (we decided not to go in as it is quite expensive, and is also a windy hole!)

The sun even came out for a while in the afternoon, which made it a very pleasant day, and also made for nice views of the coastline as the train chugged its way back to Dundee. And so we're into my last 7 hours in Dundee for this trip - before we set off at some unearthly hour to drive down to Stranraer for the ferry home (with Louise). So what am I doing blogging, when I should be spending my time with Lynsey??? See ya!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Stop Press! Sun Shines in Dundee!

Well, I never! For the first time ever, the sun has been out while I have been in Dundee!!! Normally any time I'm here, it's always raining, but this morning when I got up to see Lynsey leaving for uni, the sun was out!

Even with that good news, it was after 3pm before I left the flat. My morning was taken up having a bit of a study of Colossians 1:24-2:5, in preparation for YF on Sunday night (so if any of you are reading this, bring your Bibles on Sunday night!). Then after lunch, we went out for a walk, down by the river Tay, having walked down two really steep hills to get there! The tide was quite high, and the water was coming over the wall as we walked along.

This evening then, we watched Red Eye the film - it was rather good, even if somewhat predictable... The other thing about it was that it seemed quite short - at just 82 minutes, the tension on the plane could have been extended a bit more. But all in all, a good enough film. [Although not as many laughs as 'Mickeybo and Me', which we watched on Saturday night. The other great thing about that film was that it was a bit of Northern Ireland-spotting, with views of Tate's Avenue, Donaghadee, Portrush, and Castlewellan - although it got a bit sad at the end]

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Tonight we had a rather special evening! We decided we would go for a wee walk - there's a park near the flat here, and then a hill with an observatory on top. So off we set, through the park, and up this path, with a large number of steps up the side of the hill. Well, we say 'steps', but really, they were like railway sleepers put in the ground sideways to stop soil erosion and to create the next level up. They were a bit mucky, but we managed to make it to the top in one piece.

At first, we went up another series of steps, but that led us to a field overlooking the city, with some nice views of the city lights looking out towards the Tay. Then we came back down those steps, and followed the tarmac road round the top of the hill and up to the Observatory itself.

I didn't think it would be open, seing it was just after 9pm, but there were lights on, and the door was open, so we went in. It was indeed open for visitors, and free! So we had a look at the exhibition on the ground floor, and then the next floor up. Then there was a spiral staircase up the side of the building to the top floor, a domed roof, and some telescopes. But there was a sort of barrier across the top of the steps, so we thought it was just there to let you see the telescopes, but not anything else.

Just with that, the wee man that works the telescope came up and explained that, while it was a bit cloudy, he reckoned we might be able to see Saturn. So he moved the barrier, opened the hole in the roof, rotated the dome so the hole was over the big telescope, and set to work with levers and ropes etc. Within no time at all he stood back, and with a big smile said, "Yes, we have found Saturn!" So we got a look through the telescope, and we were indeed looking at Saturn, with the ring around it.

He then told us a bit about the observatory, and fortunately enough, we visited in their last week of night-time opening, as it gets too light with Summer Time here again. But it was well worth seeing! Definitely I'll be wanting to return again in the autumn if I get a clear night to see what else is up there in the sky.

So now I'll do my wee tourist information board bit and say that the Mills Observatory is the UK's only full-time public observatory, and is a very good place to visit if you're ever in Dundee.

On the way down again, we counted the steps, and there were 153 - several of which we nearly slipped on, because of all the muck and gutters!

On reflection, the trip to the observatory was really good, and gave me a fresh insight into the amazing Creator God we have. As Psalm 19:1 says, 'The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.' Everything that we can see has been fashioned by His hands, and does, or should, show forth his glory. And yet, the even more amazing thing is that the God who took so much care over creating all that there is, loves us so much more, and sent His Son to die for us. As the hymn puts it: 'Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered' Our Creator God died on the cross for us, in order to bring about His new creation!

Dundee once again

As you know, I'm off at present on my so-called 'Easter holidays'. Having three weeks off college altogether, and spending most of the first week in Venice, and some of the second week in Dublin, I had to make sure I spent some of it with Lynsey. So here I am, back in Dundee again for another wee while.

I flew over yesterday from Aldergrove, travelling up by bus. The way the Ulsterbus ticketing works now meant that money was saved on having one combined ticket the whole way from Dromore to the airport, so I was all for that! At the airport I bumped into a fella I had been to Wallace with (Gareth Allison), so had a good chat with him, and sat beside him on the plane. It turns out that he was also travelling to Dundee to see his girlfriend! It's a small world indeed!

Then it was the train up from Edinburgh, a nice pleasant journey with some wonderful scenery on crossing the Forth Rail Bridge, and the Tay Bridge, as well as some really good beaches visible from the train. Of course, being in the warm train meant that the beaches looked lovely, but I'm sure I would have been miserable out on them in the cold and wet!

My knowledge of Dundee is improving (says you, it would need to have, seeing you're there for the fourth time now), so that I managed to navigate myself from the station to Lynsey's flat.

Today then, I got up after Lyns had left for university (yes, indeed, shame on me...), and got ready and took a wander down into Dundee city centre. There's an episcopal cathedral here, which was always closed when I tried to get in before, but it was open today so I had a nosey round it. I also visited the two Christian bookshops and the secondhand booskshop, which used up a good bit of my time! I even managed to get some good bargains, which I was chuffed at!

With Lynsey being in uni all day, I went out to Broughty Ferry on the bus and had a wander about it too, then came back to Dundee and walked up to the flat again in the rain. My trousers are soaked right up to the knees, such is the weather, but it doesn't matter, seeing I'm here wth Lynsey! It makes it all worth while.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Mothering Sunday

So today is the day of mum's getting breakfast in bed, of lunches out, and of high sales of chocolates, perfumes and flowers in the days leading up to it. It is of course, Mothering Sunday.

I'm not sure how you get on with your mother (or ma, as we affectionately call ours), but I hope you have a good relationship with yours. For all the silliness, strangeness and laughs, my aul ma is still one of the best! after all, think of all they put up with over the years, and love us all the same. Mother's love is something very special indeed.

And yet, there is a love that surpasses it. No surprises, really, but that love is God's. This morning in Dollingstown I started the service with some words from Isaiah, where God addresses Israel: "Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands." (Isaiah 49:15-16). Or as the NIV puts it, "Can a woman forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?"

Could it be possible that a mother, in the act of feeding, could forget the child she has? Even if that were possible, God will not forget us - never ever! And as a 'visual aid' as if needed, God says that he has 'engraved you on the palms of my hands' - or as the hymn 'Before the throne of God above' puts it, 'my name is written on his hands.' God will not forget you! Could this be a sort of foreshadowing of the cross, where the hands of Jesus were pierced for us? We read in John's Gospel that when Thomas doubted, Jesus showed him his hands and side, where the wounds remained. So if you're under the blood, then your name has been engraved on the hands of God, and he will never forget you.


Earlier I said about relationships with parents. You might be blessed with good parents and a great relationship with them, or maybe you haven't had such a good time with your parents. Maybe your mother or father was abusive, or cruel, or just never built you up with any encouragement, but were always critical. Perhaps even the words 'mother' or 'father' makes you uneasy. And to hear God described as Father? Well, that just makes you shudder completely - if God is like my earthly father, you say, then I don't want anything to do with him...

If you have suffered at the hands of your parents, then hear this word of God today: 'Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.' (Psalm 27:10). Even if those that brought you into the world reject you, and hate you, God will take you, and enfold you in his love.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Dublin Tour Guide!

So there we are, my day as a Dublin Tour Guide has come to an end. Thankfully we didn't get lost the whole time, although there was one point where we had to divert cos only service busses could go down Nassau Street the opposite way, and not coaches...

The group is from West Tyrone, some of those I used to work with, and they're down for a project residential. Seeing they're here, they needed a guide, so drafted me in! I've had a great day sitting at the front of the bus with a microphone pointing out things of interest and telling them what Dublin's like.

And even better, we're staying in a very nice hotel out at Liffey Valley until tomorrow...

So if anyone else wants a bit of a tour, come on down!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Books, books and more books...

If you know me any way at all, then you'll know I have a bit of an addiction... My name is Gary, and I am a bibliophile. Yes, I love books and am always on the search for more. So far my library runs to 797 books, although there are others in boxes which haven't been included in my database.

A fair proportion of the books, though, are commentaries which are and will come in handy for sermon preparations and to assist in reading the Bible. Currently, I have completed the new Testament series of 'The Bible Speaks Today' series from IVP, and am one book away from completing the New Testament series of 'Tyndale Commentaries', also from IVP. Both these are extrememly good series, and if you ever see any, and are interested in getting more out of your Bible reading, then buy them for yourself! In these two series, I'm now branching slowly into the Old Testament books, although they seem to be less prevalent in secondhand bookshops. A newer series for me which also seems to be quite good are the 'Crossway Bible Guides', which have come in very useful for some recent sermons.

But as you might realise, space is quite limited, between home and Dublin, so lots of the books are either in piles on the bookcases and not properly accessible, or else stuck in boxes in my bedroom (which also leads to problems of getting about in there)... so I'm looking forward (DV) to having a proper study in my Curatage, when the time comes! Let's hope there will indeed be a spacious room for such things!

If you would like a copy of my database, currently an excel worksheet, then drop me a comment or email, and I'll see what I can do. It's always being updated though, as I find some more bargains...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Having recovered from Venice, I'm still enjoying my holidays, and the break from college. But I have plenty of running about to keep me busy - yesterday I was up in Coleraine and the north coast, and met up with Heather. Twas good to catch up with her, and to hear all about what she's getting up to in Durham at university.

Then today I headed off to Newcastle - it was a nice sunny day, but still cold, and I got a bit of a look at the work they're been doing on the promenade etc. They still haven't completely finished, but what they've done is looking well. A new metal bridge has been erected over the river, in place of the old concrete one.

So tomorrow it's off somewhere with the parents (when they get up from their work), and then Thursday I'm back down to Dublin for a few days to do a guided tour for some friends from the north-west of the province. Then after Mother's Day (don't forget - it's this Sunday!), it's over to Scotland for a few days in Dundee! Then it's back to Dublin for the last four weeks of term... three weeks of revision... then exams and finished by the 2nd June at the latest! And that will have been first year over and done. Any ideas for a summer job for me?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Venice Photos online...

Just a quick posting to let you know that the first set of photos from my educational visit to Venice are now available online. They can be found by clicking here.

Also, a big thank you to Primrose who must have far too much time on her hands for that little copying and pasting exercise she engaged in! All those were taken out of context though, and my conscience is clear that it was indeed a study trip, with educational value!

Confidence. A sermon preached in Dromore Cathedral on 19th March 2006 Philippians 3:4-14

How confident are you? Perhaps, like me, you are more confident in some things than in others. So, for example, when driving, I'm a lot more confident than I am when learning Greek. Or for you it might be that you're most confident in knitting, or your job, or singing.

And what about when it comes to the future? How confident are you when you think about the future? Do you look forward to what is coming, or does it all fill you with fear? Or what about confidence when approaching God? Are you right with God tonight?

In our reading, Paul writes about confidence, as he talks about his testimony. We'll see that he moves from confidence in himself and in his own achievements, to confidence in God, and what he has done for us in Jesus. We'll then look at what that confidence meant for Paul, and how we too can be confident for the future.

For most of his life, Paul had put his confidence in the flesh. He thought that to be right with God, you had to follow all the rules, and that it depended on what he did. And he does indeed have an impressive list of qualifications. The list at the start of the reading details all the things he originally had confidence in.

They all combine to show someone who was deeply concerned with doing his best, and making sure he was right with God. He first had confidence in his race, emphasising that he was born of Hebrew parents (despite being born in the 'foreign' city of Tarsus) of the people of Israel and tribe of Benjamin, and that he was fully made a member of the race when he was circumcised.

He also had confidence in his religion. He was a Pharisee, one of those who took the Law of Moses seriously. In fact, they made it their aim in life to follow the law so carefully that no detail of life could be overlooked. And in Paul's case, in order to defend his religion, he made sure to attack the church when it was founded, because he saw it as a threat to his religion. This surely proved his devotion to the religion, and to the Law.

But even more than this, he had reached the very top. He had confidence in his righteousness. He says that 'under the law' he was considered 'blameless.' He isn't saying here that he had never sinned, but rather, that through following the law's demands, he had done all he could to take away his sin, and could be considered perfect.

As one writer puts it, 'If there had been a Pharisee of the Year competition, Paul would have won it.' All his energy went into trying to be right with God, to be pleasing to God.

Paul's confidence was all in himself, and in what he had achieved. But that situation changed dramatically and suddenly when he met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. And now, years after, Paul could see that his confidence had been misplaced. He had been doing it wrong the whole time. He had been building on sand.

Now, Paul's confidence was not in himself, but rather, in what God has done for him in Jesus. We find it in verse 9, where he gives the grounds for his righteousness. 'not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.'

Paul's confidence was in what Jesus achieved on the cross, as Jesus paid for his sins, and brought him peace. Paul could approach God with confidence, because Jesus had made him right with God. And that approach could only be made by faith.

In many ways, Paul's testimony is like the parable of the two men in the temple. Jesus told the parable 'to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt' – Jesus' hearers were putting their confidence in themselves. And so Jesus tells the parable: '10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

And what do we find? The Pharisee, the one who had confidence in himself, who boasted about the things that he did, wasn't justified in the sight of God. He hadn't lied in what he said, he told the whole truth, but he wasn't praying to God – he was talking to himself. His confidence was in what he was doing. That was how he thought he could get right with God, and be acceptable to God.

But the tax collector's confidence wasn't in himself – he knew how bad he was. His confidence was in the mercy of God, as he prayed 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner.' And the end result was that he was justified. God accepted his humble cry, and had mercy on him.

The challenge for us is the same. As we come before God tonight at Communion, what is our confidence based on? Do we come thinking that we're good enough to approach God, that we deserve his mercy because of what we do for him? That we're doing God a favour by being here? Or do we come, knowing our weakness, knowing our failings, knowing that we have sinned, and that we come only through the merits of Jesus, having confidence in his death for us?

Perhaps when the time comes tonight, we will have a pause before the Prayer of Humble Access. That will give us the chance to fully think about the words we say – words which are so familiar, they can trip off our tongue without engaging our mind. And through them let’s remember that we can only approach the Table through God’s mercy, and not in anything of ourselves.

Having confidence in Jesus brings some changes. For Paul, it meant the complete change in his thinking and priorities. No longer could he trust in his own achievements, nor have confidence in what he was doing himself. It was only when he realised that he wasn't good enough by himself, that Paul could find confidence in God. And the things that he had previously trusted in? He counted them as worthless, as a loss, as rubbish, compared to knowing Jesus.

The same is true for us. If we have previously found our confidence in our race, or culture, or religion, or our outward righteousness, then we need to forget those things, and count them as a loss. Because if our confidence is in Jesus, and we are made right with God through him, then nothing else really matters.

Are there things that you have been building your life upon? Are there things that you have confidence in, to make you right with God? Are there things you need to change?

Having confidence in Jesus also brings hope. We read that Paul was simply bursting with hope, which was one of the reasons why he keeps reminding the Philippians to rejoice, to be joyful. And what was his hope?

Paul's hope can be found in verses 10-14. He was looking forward to gaining Christ, knowing him, being found in him. And at the end of all things, he was looking forward to the resurrection from the dead, and to the 'goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.'

Quite a lot to unpack! For Paul, while his hope looks to the future, to the fulfilment of all things in the resurrection, his hope is firmly grounded in what has gone before. It is only through Jesus' death and through having faith in Jesus that Paul can look forward to the resurrection, to the time when he will be raised from the dead, perfected, to be with Christ forever.

And having this confidence in Jesus, with the hope it brings, also leads to changes in how we live our lives in the meantime. Because, as Paul says several times – God isn’t finished with me yet… ‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect’ (v12), and ‘I do not consider that I have made it my own’ (v13). The Christian faith is not solely concerned with this life – there’s more to come.

You see, so many preachers, and especially some of the tele-evangelists preach a message of prosperity. They try to tell their hearers that God’s blessings consist only, or mainly of wealth and riches in this world. And so they promise all sorts of things if you support their ministry, and pledge money to their campaigns. But they miss out on the fact of eternity, and eternal life with God after the resurrection.

This world is not all there is. And so long as we’re in this life, we should be looking forward to what is to come, and preparing ourselves for what is to come. We aren’t yet perfect, and so God hasn’t finished with us yet. While we are still alive, we have so much still to do, as we become more like Jesus. And if the prize is still to come, if we haven’t finished yet, then how should we live our life?

For Paul, with the prize ahead, he aims to run to win. The image is of the Olympic athlete, straining forward to win the prize. Now, we don’t have the Olympics on at present, but the Commonwealth Games organisers were very gracious in having them right now. Have you been watching the games at all? Would the athletes take it easy in a race, and not push forward as much as they could to win? After putting in so much effort to train for the games, they will surely push on as hard as they can, in order to win gold for their country.

In the same way, Paul says that he presses on to take hold of the prize awaiting for him. But even more than this, he runs to win, because he is sure of the prize awaiting him. We read, ‘I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’ Or, in stronger words, as the NIV puts it, ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’

It's almost as if he is saying, because of what Jesus has already done, and what Jesus is going to do, then how can I do anything else? If the end is promised and secure, then I'm definitely going to run in order to make the end. He is confident of the prize, confident of the hope, confident of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, because his confidence is not in himself, but is rather in God, and in what God has done in Jesus.

So just as Paul framed his life around the hope set before him, let us, too, run in such a way to win the prize. As we find in Hebrews 12: ‘let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith’ (Heb 12:1-2).

And let us face the future with confidence, as we live our lives worthy of God, confident that he will enable us to win the prize.

And so I ask you tonight, do we fully realise the hope that we have? The future that is promised to us as sure? That we too will share in the resurrection from the dead, and will have the upward call of God in Christ Jesus? And all because of our confidence in Jesus, and in his promises!

Let us put our full confidence in Jesus, and in what he has done for us, and therefore, live in such a way as to win the prize, looking forward with confidence to our resurrection, and the fulfilment of his promises.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Commonwealth Wishes

And so it's another season of competitions, this time the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia. Once again, we have the opportunity to support our wee country, that is, Northern Ireland! Special well wishes go to Roger Aiken, competing for NI in the Cycling Road Race, on Tuesday. It's amazing to think that soemone I went to school with is now off representing our country at the Commonwealths... When I hear results, I will of course post them!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Arrival Home

Just to say that yes, I did arrive home last night, at just about midnight. So far I haven't been able to write up my last day in Venice, but it will come shortly... In the meantime I'm enjoying the rest of my holiday, and preparing for preaching in the Cathedral on Sunday night. Prayers will be muchly appreciated!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Venice Part Ten

Our final day in Venice dawned, and we had an earlier start than usual, with the whole business of checking out from the convent to be completed. That done, we made for the Doge's Palace (officially known as the Palazzo Ducale). The Doge was the head of state in the Venetian Republic, while it lasted, and the palace is located beside the Basilica, just off St Mark's Square.

The Palace contains not only the official residence of the Doge, but also the state chambers, for the different meeting rooms and chambers, as well as the Republic's courtrooms. The tour allows visitors to see all these areas, with their impressive paintings on the walls and the gilded decorations. The only downside was that the palace was crowded with lots of tour groups (in various languages), so in some of the rooms there was a bit of a crush.

Near the end of the tour, you move across the Bridge of Sighs, an enclosed bridge high up, which leads over a canal to the prisons. None of the cells were very big, and if you suffer from claustrophobia, then it isn't the place for you. After the tour we had some free time before heading off to the airport.

So for my last few hours in Venice, I set off on the riverbus and crossed to the Salute church. This was a plague church, built to give thanks for the ending of a plague, and is completely circular. The central section of the church is roped off, but you can get right around the outer edge of the interior. From there, I passed the Guggenheim Collection of modern art – it just isn't my thing, and went over Accademie to check my emails again in my favourite internet cafe. Next on the agenda was a wander up towards the Rialto, for the last bit of window and stall shopping, then across to get lunch in the place we had eaten dinner on the first night. Again, it was of course pizza, and was most enjoyable. I still wasn't getting fed up of the salami pizzas, so that did me for lunch.

Then it was off down the Grand Canal again on the riverbus, to Accademie, where I set off back towards the convent, spending the last half hour of so people watching and enjoying an ice cream in the sunshine in the square outside St Barnabas, waiting on Indiana Jones to appear. Sadly, he didn't show up during my time, so I headed back to the convent.

Our departure was as our arrival, in that we returned back up the Grand Canal to the bus station, and then on out to the airport. The flight home was rather good, and I managed to get a good bit of reading done during the flight. Oh, and the hot panini with ham and cheese was very hot! With a good drive up the M1, I was home for just before midnight, and glad to be home!

On reflection, the study trip was well worth it, giving us experiences of meeting people from different backgrounds and experiences (Lutherans from Germany and Tanzania, Anglicans from Italy, Tanzania and Nigeria, the Waldensian pastor), as well as showing us at firsthand the various styles of church architecture and the periods of church history. A big thank you must go to the principal for arranging the trip and some finance towards it, and also to Alan for arranging the meetings and activities with his contacts in Venice.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Venice Part Nine

Our last evening in Venice was marked by going for dinner, and we returned to the same place we had been to on Saturday. The food was again excellent, and of course, it had to be pizza! I started with the same salami pizza from Saturday, but added peppers. The others got a more fancy one which, among other things, had a fried egg on it. I couldn't bring myself to try it though.

We went for a bit of a walk and stopped for coffee. I'm not sure what notion took us, but we decided to sit outside. Those actually drinking coffee may have been heated by it, but for me, orange fanta only made me colder! That done, we then returned to the convent - our earliest return, but on the last night we're all just a bit tired.

Our flight tomorrow isn't until the evening, so we're going to have a bit of time to wander for the final time. Then home again!

Venice Part Eight

This morning we were up and off again to the Institute, so the boat journey was the same as yesterday. For a bit of variety, we stood on the opposite side, but this meant that we were on the seaward side going round the islands. The wind would have cut corn, and was trying to go through us for a short cut, to coin a couple of phrases! So my photo-taking was cut short as we sought some shelter. En route, the principal talked about the Waldensians, in order to prepare us for the morning's session.

We were joined by the Anglican Chaplain and the Waldensian pastor, who told us about their churches' histories and how they came to be in Venice. We were then able to ask some questions to find out a bit more. What was really interesting was the Waldensian pastor said the debate within his mind was whether Italy was like the Galatians (in that they had heard and known the gospel but had forgotten it and been led astray by outward things), or like the Athenians (in that they had never heard the gospel and were a religious but godless society). But either way, Italy, like Ireland, needs the gospel.

Sadly we weren't staying for lunch, so after a quick reception, we set off for some sightseeing. We visited the Cathedral of St Peter of Castello. This is the 'middle' cathedral, as the oldest is on Torchello, one of the other islands, and the present cathedral is St Mark's Basilica. Inside, like the others, there were a lot of altars, statues and paintings, including one remarkable painting of what can only be described as the 'Bling' Madonna and Child, due to the shiny silver necklaces they're both wearing. Again, the 'priests' line got us in for free, although the woman raised an objection to the principal's wife, until it was explained we were Anglicans!

We then headed to St Mark's Square, to visit the 'new' cathedral, St Mark's Basilica. This one is free to get into for everyone (not just priests and seminarians), but the best bits are all separate pay-in sections. First, we went up the steep steps in the entrance hall, which brings you to the museum and gallery. A man was waiting at the top to relieve us of 3 euro, but it was well worth it. The vies, both inside the church, and outside on the balcony overlooking the square were worth the money.

The basicila's interior is covered in mosaics, from the top of the five domes to the floor, depicting bible stories and saints, which the floor is made up of intricate tiled patterns.

It is called St Mark's because the Venetians stole the body of St Mark from Alexandria (Egypt) in the 9th century and placed it under the high altar. So seemingly the Venetians haven't heard of the modern Biblical criticism, which would insist that there wasn't really a man called Mark who wrote his gospel. Behind the high altar (entry 1.50 euro), there is a huge altar piece of gold and gems, which contains about 2000 jewels, and features images from the life of Jesus, the disciples, saints, and even contains the story of the theft of St Mark by the Venetians!

We then moved out into one of the side alleys off St Mark's for some coffee before splitting up for some free time. So I checked my emails, and wandered up to Rialto, purchasing some souviners for the parents and such like. The riverbus again was useful in returning me to St Baranba's and the convent.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Venice Part Seven

Just one item of business to report on since the last update. Tonight was our 'gala dinner', which was basically a thank you to those who have helped us and hosted us over our stay. So we had Lady Clark, and the Anglican chaplain and his wife, and Roberto and Jurg from the Ecumenical Institute. The meal was great, with my first course being pasta, meat and tomato sauce, and the second grilled sea bass with thin potatoes on top.

I was sitting beside Jurg, and learnt a lot about the German Lutheran system, and their education system. But then the bext topic of conversation began, as we discussed international football, especially the glory of Northern Ireland's victory over England in September! He also remembered one night we were leading 1-0 in a game Germany had to win, and it wasn't until the 70th minute they started scoring, with the game ending up 4-1 or 5-1.

However, on a less pleasant note, I have gone a full day without eating pizza! No doubt I'll remedy that by this time tomorrow. Now it's getting late and I'm ready for bed, before tomorrow's excitement and adventure.

Venice Part Six

Just to prove this trip is not a holiday, we set off this morning to the Ecumenical Study Institute. to facilitate all our travel until we go home, we bought the 3-day tourist travel pass, which means we can hop on and off the riverbus at will (although the hopping off will only be done at the stops!). The journey to the Institute took forty minutes, taking us around most of the main island.

Being an island with no vehicles able to go past the car park on the landside edge of the city, everything you can think of that depends on vehicles is done by boat. Hence the funeral hearse boat we saw on Saturday. Today we saw the other necessities - police, ambulance, postman and DHL, all on their own boats. We even saw a coffin being moved, on a trolley rather similar to the ones used to transport televisions and fruit. The other main thing is that there's no bin lorry! Rubbish is collected by refuse collectors with trolleys, then transferred to barges along the sides of the canals.

So anyway, we arrived at the Institute, and were offered coffee. Once again, I had to refuse - I think people here think I'm a rather odd creature for not drinking coffee, and refusing alcohol all the time... We then had a short session with the principal, learning about the role of Venice through the centuries, and particularly the Byzantine influence. We then moved into another room where we met some of the Institutes's students. They come from around the world, including Germany, Ecuador, Congo and Tanzania, and there are Coptics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Orthodox and Catholics.

At lunch, we were divided out round the dining room, with two people at each table round the outsid eof the room. Thankfully, they made sure we were with people who could speak English. My dining partner was Iohannes, a Lutheran pastor from Tanzania. It was interesting to share with him our experiences, and learn a bit about the Lutheran church in Africa.

During the coffee time after the meal (a first course of pasta, which we thought was the meal... then chicken, potatoes and a huge variety of vegetables, then a choice of two desserts - apple crumble and a red fruit salad), Canon John, the Anglican from Tanzania gave us a tour of the college. His room was much larger than ours are in Dublin, then he showed us the vineyards (the Institute grows its own grapes and makes its own wine), poultry farm, boatshed, chapel, chapter room and church.

We then left the Institute, and split up for an afternoon of free time. So I went round by St Mark's Square (by-passing it as we're going there tomorrow), and browsed some of the shops on the way to Rialto and on towards the ghetto. Having the riverbus ticket, I headed down to the canal back to Rialto, and checked out the market stalls and shops. Then back on the riverbus to Accademie, where I wandered and checked emails, and chatted on msn to Lynsey!

After that, I was busting for the toilet, so used the pay loo under Accademie bridge. It was a scandalous rip-off of one euro admittance, but I felt it was worth is... staying longer than the time switch thought appropriate for a stay in the loo. Thankfully it came on again without any problem by flicking the switch again!

Having still some time free, I hopped onto a passing riverbus, and journeyed to the east, where I hadn't been yet. Tyhe sunset was rather good, and I hope I got some good photos of the red sky behind the towers and spires. then I transferred to one coming back the other way, except it decided to go round the back of Dursduro, but with my trusty map and sense of direction, I was able to find my way back to the convent - and probably with a shorter walk than the stop I intended to get off at!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Venice Part Five

After lunch, we had the afternoon free, so I went for a wander round by the Friary, by Rialto (where many small shops and market stalls are), and crossed the Rialto bridge over the Grand Canal. From there, a maze of streets, alleys and bridges lead towards St Mark's Square, where I was able to take a few photos. then I walked back towards the Accademie bridge, checking emails on the way. At Accademie, I took a few more photos, before returning to the convent.

Our next engagement was with Peter and Lady Rose, in their home in the world's first ghetto. Lady Rose is a member of the Mountstewart family from Strangford, but has lived in Venice for a long time. Her grandfather was Lord Londonderry, the first Minister of Education in the NI Parliament, and her ancestors include Castlereagh, who was involved in the Irish Act of Union 1800. Her bathroom contains an autographed picture of a famous politician, which I had to be shown! Peter is an authority on Venice, and they talked to us about its history, as well as what its like to live there now.

As we broke into smaller groups, Peter and the principal delved deep into Byzantine history and stayed there... until Alan decided it was time to leave!

It was getting late, so we walked back to the square where we had eaten on the first night, and found another restaurant. Having already eaten pizza today, it had to be spaghetti, of the bolognese variety. And so our second full day comes to an end.

Venice Part Four

This morning we had nothing on the agenda prior to church, so I managed to enjoy a lie in until 0930. We set off for church, getting breakfast on the way. The church had maybe 50 people present, for a service of 1662 Holy Communion. Alan said that some people come along as they're learning English and think it might help them, but I'm not sure how muhc the thee's and thou's would help!

The English Church isn't really like an Enclish church on the inside, being very simialr to the Venice churches we saw yesterday - a painting behind the 'altar' of Jesus, Moses and St George, and an elegant marble 'altar' up against the east wall.

The minister was dressed in an alb and chasuble, and the service was conducted with his back to the congregation, facing the 'altar' - more like a pre-Vatican II mass, than an Anglican Communion service. And it seemed to me that despite their great love of the 1662 BCP, many of the rubrics (the 'stage directions' and instructions for the minister and congregation) had been conveniently ignored - in celebrating with his back to the congregation, rather than from the north side, and in the use of wafers rather than bread.

The sermon wasn't bad, focusing on Romans 4, doing a fair job of talking about Abraham being justified by faith, and how we also need to be made right with God by faith in Jesus.

When it came to receiving Communion, we went up to the front, and knelt at the rail. Normally Communion rails are solid and fixed, but when we leaned on it, it shot forward... then another of our party came to the other end, and it rotated back towards us!

After the service, refreshments were available at the bacj, and we had an opportunity to tlak to some of the congregation. We then went for coffee down the street, and were joined by Lady Clark again, who seemed to be one of the Churchwardens.

On our way to lunch, we bumped into some of our African Anglican brothers, from Tanzania and Nigeria. They were coming from their service i Padova to the Church Council meeting in Venice.

Lunch was more pizza (yes, again), on the edge of Dursoduro, and was very good (salami and peppers). The sleet which had been falling before church was finished and the sun was out again. Still slightly cold, but at least sunny!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Venice Part Three

Moving on from lunch, we went to the Gallerie dell Accademie, the huge art museum. We started with a whistle-stop tour of the galleries with Martin showing us some highlights (he'd been there before), then a slower journey through, discussing some of the religious paintings on view. Not that the paintings were religious, but that they showed religious things! It being a Catholic place, lots of the pictures were of the Annunciation, the Pieta and the Coronation of Mary in heaven.

After the Gallerie, we had some free time, spent back at the convent relaxing and writing up the journal, then we ventured to the Friary to sit in on a mass. It was all completely over my head, being in Italian, but it was interesting to sit and watch the priest, server and congregation. The Friary itself is a huge building and was freezing!

We then went and had drinks, then dinner (another pizza, pepperoni this time). Oh, and we were overjoyed to hear the news of Ireland's rugby win!

I then wanted to check emails, but the internet cafe we went to had closed at 2000. so we headed on to St Mark's Square, the most famous part of Venice, and the big tourist trap. there weren't too many people about, and in the night time with the lights on, it looks so good. En route, we passed two concert halls with Vivaldi concerts (then passed the church he was the musician in), as well as an opera-singing busker! She had a backing tape playing on a stereo, and sang along - a much better class of busking than you would find in Belfast or Dublin!

We brought our evening to a close with yet more coffee (or coke in my case), and some lovely gelato (ice cream), and a walk back to the convent. Tomorrow we get a bit of a lie in before heading to the English church.

Venice Part Two

What a day of excitement and activity, and we're only halfway through! Due to my fondness and attachment to bed and sleeping in as long as I possibly can, I missed the first sightseeing - a 7am jaunt to St Mark's Square. Seemingly it is fantastic - I haven't encountered it yet.

So at 0815 we assembled in the front hall and set off for breakfast, almost beside where we dined for dinner last night. My non-coffee and rarely tea-drinking is making it interesting, as coffee is the staple diet of Venice, so this morning with my croissant I had a glass of warm, frothy milk. Then it was back to meet our first resident guide.

Lady Frances Clark is the widow of a former British ambassadior to Italy, but for the past 37 years has lived in Venice, helping the 'Venice in Peril' fund. Her tour was entitled 'My Dursoduro'. Perhaps this is the appropriate moment for some background.

The city of Venice is built on a series of inter-connected islands. Some are built on reclaimed land, which needs constant supervision and restoration, and some are on proper rock. Dursoduro, meaning hard back is safe enough, being on rock (so where we're staying won't be sinking!) Lady Clark lives on this part, and took us on a tour of this section of the city, mostly of churches in the area. Firstly, the Carmini, with its huge altars and statues and paintings (including one painting of cluds and angels on the ceiling, with a hole in the middle with more painted above on the next roof, giving the impression of inifinity and space). Another feature of this church was what looked like parking meters - insert your 50 cent coin, and the lights over one of the paintings would come on.

From there, we went to the church of the Angel Raphael, with more statues etc, and a back baptistry where some old lace robes and copes were on display. Then on to St Nicolas' which seemed to be older. Venice in Peril was marked with a plaque to celebrate their restoration work in the 1970s. This was needed because the church is surrounded by water on three sides. Here we had another special treat thanks to the Lady Clark connections - we were taken into a kitchen above and behind the sanctuary, where an ancient pectoral cross had been put on display for us. We were then taken up a few more steps to the original church/meeting room? where an old painting of the crucifixion had been partly restored on the wall.

We then headed back, calling in to St Sebastian's where Lady Clark got us in for free, by telling them we were clergy and seminarians. Here there were private side chapels up both sides as well as the main altar at the front. A new feature here was the organ doors which were t oclose over the pipes, but when open (as yesterday), revealed paintings on the 'inside'. The sacristy was covered, both walls and ceilings, with paintings of scenes and stories, for example, Jacob's dream, the baptism of Jesus and the crucifixion.

After a bit of a walk, we arrived at San Trovaso church, where a funeral was just drawing to a close. The man had been a champion rower in his time, and appropriately enough, with the service over, the coffin was brought out and put on the hearse - a motor boat with room for carrying the chief mourners. Two rowing teams on gondolas provided an escort for the hearse as it went off down the river to the Grand Canal and on towards the cemetery island. And in a continental expression of mourning and respect rarely seen in the UK (except, for example, the funerals of Princess Diana and George Best), the mourners applauded the coffin as it passed.

We stopped for a quick drink on the sunlit bridge beside the church before saying farewell to Lady Clark. With half an hour before lunch, we went on a bit of a walking tour of the eastern bit of Dursoduro, past the English Church (that is, the Anglican Church), and the Guggenheim modern art museum, to the church which dominates the southern skyline - Santa Maria della Salute. We didn't go in, not having much time, but lo and behold, I noticed a girl from Dromore going in, and thus it was proved that you can go nowhere without seeing someone you know!

We then came past the Galleria and into a cafe for lunch - vegetable soup and then pasta with bacon, onion and tomato sauce. It was all very good, but made me feel very full again... a constant feeling in Venice, it seems!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Venice Part One

After classes (Church History and Systematics), the last bit of packing, a final dash to the shopping centre for necessary supplies (headphones and batteries for minidisc player and camera), it was off to the airport for the start of the big Venice adventure.

We had left about an hour to get around Dublin to the airport, and a good job too - an accident was making everything go very slow. But we made it to the fancy automated check-in with lots of time to spare. Through security (without beeping), then lunched on sandwiches at the departure gate.

The flight wasn't too bad, although June, wife of the Principal, and not a great flyer, was a bit uneasy, despite being well drugged on anti-sickness and sleep-inducing tablets! Thankfully I'm getting better at the whole flying lark, and don't notice the bumps and slight movements so much.

We landed in Venice in the dark (local time 1935), and in the rain. So not only would the 'streets' be flooded (as mum had so helpfully warned me), the bits above ground would also be wet. The bus took us into the city from the airport, but in Venice, wheeled vehicles can only go so far. If we were to go any further, it would be by waterbus or on Shanks' pony.

Having bought the travel value ticket, our introduction to Venice would be on the water, appropriately enough. The waterbus took us down the Grand Canal, past many impressive buildings rising up out of the water. The service was the slow one, which would have stopped at every hole in the hedge had there been hedges, but instead, stopped at every boatstop.

After about 25 minutes, we got to the stop we needed, and followed Alan, wjho took off at great speed down a tiny alleyway. At the other end, the alley opened on to Campo San Barnaba - an open square with an imposing church at one end. The church in question (San Barnaba, of course), is featured in Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail or as Alan described it, the one with Sean Connery in it. Seemingly Indie emerges from the sewer in front of the church before having a fight and dashing off. (I'll have to watch the film when I get home to check that!)

And just as Indie dashed off in the film, so we had a job keeping up with Alan who was away down another alley, then a sharp left down a smaller one (if that were possible), then over steps (over a tiny canal), and more steps to the right over the same canal, and there, we had arrived at the Convent we were staying in. The Convent is only staffed by a few nuns now, but they let out their rooms to female students at the university here, and have some rooms for tourists.

We had a few minutes to acclimatise in the enormous study bedrooms before heading out for drinks and then into a pizzeria for dinner. What a feast! I got a sort of a ham and mushroom pizza, which was folded in half with all the 'topping' inside - a bit like a Cornish pasty, only much bigger!

Then it was back to the room for some sleep before tomorrow's day of excitement and adventure as we go exploring, and meeting some of the members of the Anglican congregation.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Essays update

Just to update you, by the way, the Trinity essay for Systematics has been completed! Hurray!!! So that's all my essay obligations until the 10th April, when my Old Testament essay is due. For it, we're working on a critical analysis of popular versions of the David story - in terms of the films 'King David', 'Saul and David' and 'David and Bathsheba', as well as the novels 'The King David Report' and 'God Knows'.

So my reading at present is taken up with getting through 'God Knows' before trying to analyse it for the essay and a subsequent seminar presentation on it...

On other matters, a big thank you to the three contributors to the comments on the blog earlier... a bit like busses, no comments for ages and then three turn up at once! So keep them coming in, especially since Primrose pointed out the word verification is turned off again!

Blast from the past 2. My second ever sermon. August 2002 on Mark 4

This is the second sermon I ever preached in the Cathedral. It was one night during the summer, in our 'Summer Praise' series. We were looking at incidents from the Gospel of Mark, as if they were postcards from Peter. I'm not entirely fond of this one now, but this is at it was preached, so I might as well include it for your reading...

It was still early in Jesus' ministry. His disciples were still sizing him up – getting an idea of who or what he was. This man who had called them with the words “Come, follow me.” This teacher.

He had told them to come over in the boat with with. And then suddenly, a storm breaks! It must have been a huge storm – the disciples were obviously fearful enough to wake Jesus – remember, four of the disciples, including Peter, were experienced fishermen!

And where was their teacher, their friend? Lying sleeping?! How could he sleep in a rocking boat with waves breaking over the side?

So they woke him. “Teacher, don't you care if we drown?” What was he doing? Does he not care for his friends, or his own life? And then... He starts talking to the weather? Rebuking the wind, telling the waves to be still? And... it happens?!

The wind dies down. The waves are still. And Jesus is telling the disciples off? Asking why they are so afraid – why they have no faith?

No wonder the disciples are terrified and confused. “Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!”

So what can we learn from this?

Just as the disciples thought he didn't care about their danger, so we may think that Jesus is asleep to our problems. However, sometimes we may need a storm to teach us something new. In the disciples' case, they saw Jesus' power in a new way – because he had been asleep. It can actually be the best time for learning – when we are seemingly alone – with nothing but God to trust.

Jesus showed how much he cared about his disciples' problems. Although the roar of the storm could not disturb his sleep, as soon as his disciples cried out to him, he awoke. God is never asleep to our prayers. He is always listening. This should give us courage and help in the midst of the storms. God does not sleep to our prayers, he is always watching over us, as we read in Psalm 121.

Jesus could comand the wind and waves. He could, because he made them. He spoke to the wind and waves like a master speaks to a servant. All things in our universe are under his control. And God is a God of love. Thee is an old story of a Christian army officer at sea with his family in a storm. The passengers were all terrified, but the officer was calm. His wife was upset, that he wasn't concerned for his family, if not himself, in such danger. He made no reply, but later came to her, with his sword drawn, and pointed it close to her. Yet she was not alarmed – but smiled at him. He asked her, “Are you not afraid to have a drawn sword threatening you?” “No,” she replied, “Not when I know it is in the hands of one that loves me.” “Then why would I be afraid of this tempest when I know it is in the hands of my Heavenly Father, who loves me?” He asked.

One more thing to be noticed. The disciples called Jesus 'Teacher' – after all, he had been teaching the crowds all day. But by the end of the storm, they were terrified, and confused. Who is this? Was he just a great teacher and nothing more?

Indeed, some people today would still regard Jesus as just a teacher, perhaps even the best. But this isn't true! He must be God – to rule the wind and waves, to bring us comfort, to care for us, and to answer our prayers.

So when was the last time we were amazed or terrified by Jesus?

Blast from the past 1. My first sermon ever: Romans 3:21-27

This is quite a blast from the past! Below is the first sermon I preached, in the Wednesday of Holy Week 2002, in the Cathedral. I recently realised I didn't have it on my laptop, but had a paper copy, so typed it up. I might as well include it here for your reading. The theme of the week's sermons by members of the congregation was 'What the cross means to me'.

Our passage tells us that 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' – 'all' so inclusive. What the cross means to me? Forgiveness of sins.

It can be a shock to us, or alarming to hear, as simple as possible, that 'all have sinned'. For us in Northern Ireland, we seem to think that so long as you are decent enough, and don't do anyone any harm, you'll be fine, and God will let you into heaven.

Or someone says, “I've been to church every Sunday, twice, so God has to let me into heaven. Or, “I'm not too bad, well, I'm better than yer man down the street – did you hear what he did last week? Compared to him, I'm fine. I will get into heaven.”

And, as I was growing up, that's the way I thought as well. “Look, I'm here in church, in the choir even, and I'm a lot better than some of my school friends who curse and drink and...”

But God says, that isn't how it works. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None of us, on our own, can achieve God's standard or glory. Compared to Jesus' perfect, sinless life, we all fall short of God's glory.

As the hymn writer says,
Just and holy is thy name, I am all unrighteousness,
False and full of sin I am, thou art full of truth and grace

As you know I'm a student, and regularly, we do exams. Our pass mark is 45, but the higher the mark, the higher the grade. But that's not the same as the exam of life. In it, every sin is like a mark off, and for God's glory, the pass mark is 100%. Anything else is a fail, whether 99% or 1% - and doesn't get a pass into heaven.

Or to think of it another way. Imagine someone stepping off a cliff while walking along the edge. They just fail to stay to the path. It's like the 99% mark in the exam – it ends in failure – death. Just as much as the person who takes a massive run and jump off the cliff – while they fail in different ways – one totally intentionally, the other just a wee slip, the same result comes to both – death.

For those of us who think that so long as we're decent, and not as bad as someone else, the Bbile has some things for us to consider:

– 'For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.' (James 2:10)
– 'The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ our Lord' (Romans 6:23)

We don't realise the seriousness of sin. Sin brings death. Sin brings separation – think of Adam and Eve after their sin in the garden of Eden – they were banished from the garden. And it brings separation for us from God – he is perfect holiness, and can't have sin in his presence.

So is that it? Do we stand here, condemned, all in sin, with no hope of rescue or salvation? Does Paul tell us we're sinners and leave us? Would God point out sin, in all its seriousness, and leave us like that? No!!

As the passage reads 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.' The cross is, for us, 'the righteousness form God.' In the passage, then, we find words that we maybe hear, but don't fully understand. Paul tells us that through the cross we are 'justified' – or in other words, in a right relationship with God – it is 'just as if I'd' never sinned.

Jesus is also the Redeemer. Indeed, this building is dedicated 'The Cathedral Church of Christ the Redeemer'. The Greek word that redemption comes from refers to a release secured by the payment of a ransom, or a setting free. It is through the cross that we are freed from the 'wages' of our sin. Jesus has borne them in his body on the tree.

You see, God had a dilemma. He is perfect love, but also perfect justice and holiness. He loves us so much, but our sins had to be taken away from us, but also punished.

The only way through was that Jesus, the sinless One, should die in my place and in your place, bearing our punishment and bringing us salvation.

Guilty, helpless, lost were we,
Blameless Lamb of God was he,
Sacrificed to set us free,
Alleluia! What a Saviour!

Our sins were so serious, and God so just, that even despite His almighty power, Jesus had to die. When he created the world, it took a word and it happened. But for our sins to be paid for, for atonement, it took the death of Jesus, the shedding of His blood, for 'without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness' (Hebrews 9:22).

There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,
He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.

It was there on the cross that Jesus died in my place and yours, taking the punishment due to us, where He shed his blood to pay for our sins.

The question now for us is this: What do we do in response? As we heard last night, we have a choice. You can either trust in Jesus' blood to bring forgiveness of sins, or you can reject Him. That is up to you individually.

It must be an individual choice of trust. Simply by knowing that Jesus died on the cross is not enough, We must trust in it. A cure for disease only works when it is applied – it's no good just looking at it sitting on the shelf or in the medicine cabinet.

In Sunday Club we were talking about this last Sunday. One of the boys asked, 'If Jesus has died on the cross, then why doesn't God just forgive everyone?' But He is a God of love, and love never forces. God loves us, but doesn't want robots – we have the freedom to choose or not.

It's like me giving you a cheque. If you never cash it in, it's no good to you – you won't get the benefit of it. It is only when we cash it in, we apply it, that we get the benefit.

For me, I'm trusting in the cross as my means of salvation – where Jesus paid my debt, and has redeemed me.

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel's veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.

'Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.' (Isaiah 53:4,5)

'While we were yet sinners...' A Sermon Preached in Liturgy Class at CITC on 7th March 2006. Romans 5:1-11

In Liturgy Class we each have to prepare and lead a Service of the Word lasting no more than twenty minutes, with no more than five minutes for the sermon. This is the text of my sermon, which came in the middle of the service, which focused entirely on the cross. The hymns were 'Here is love', 'Man of sorrows' and 'When I survey'.

Who is your hero? Have you someone you look up to, or respect? Or perhaps someone in history you wish you had seen. One of my heroes is a Belfast man named Billy McFadzean. You've probably never heard of him, so I'll tell you a bit about him.

William McFadzean was a young man when the First World War began, and like so many of his generation, went off to war, as a member of the Ulster Division. He never came home again, but was awarded the Victoria Cross, posthumously, and his citation will tell us his story:

For most conspicuous bravery near Thiepval Wood, on 1st July 1916. While in a concentration trench and opening a box of bombs for the distribution prior to an attack, the box slipped down into the trench, which was crowded with men, and two of the safety pins fell out. Pte McFadzean, instantly realising the danger to his comrades, with heroic courage threw himself on the top of the bombs. The bombs exploded, blowing him to pieces, but only one other man was injured. He well knew his danger, being himself a bomber, but without a moment's hesitation he gave his life for his comrades.

Billy gave himself for his comrades. Seeing the danger, he willingly gave his life for them. And that, in a small way, is what Jesus has done for us. He saw the danger we were in, not from bombs, but from our sin, and he willingly gave his life for us.

But what makes Jesus' death for us even more amazing is that he died for us 'while we were still sinners'. You see, as Paul points out earlier in Romans, each one of us is a sinner, a rebel against God. We have, in the words of Isaiah, 'gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.'

The result of our turning away in sin from God was that we were separated from God – think of Adam and Eve who were removed from the Garden after their sin – and that we were destined to die. As Paul tells us earlier in Romans, 'the wages of sin is death'.

Through the death of Jesus on the cross for us, though, our situation is transformed. Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree. This is what the Old Testament reading is all about – how Jesus has 'borne our griefs and carried our sorrows... he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.'

Jesus has paid for our sins, by dying in our place, so that through faith in Jesus, and his sacrifice for us, we can be justified. That is, it is 'just-as-if-I'd' never sinned. We are also reconciled with God , brought back to God, and welcomed into his family, through what Jesus has achieved for us no the cross. This is indeed wonderful news!

And Jesus did all this for us while we were in rebellion against him. We notice the contrast in verses 7 and 8 between human thought and God's love. Humans may indeed be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to save someone who they deem to be worthy of it, but God gave up his Son to the death of the cross for those who he knew to be utterly vile and rebellious. How great was his love for us!

His love for us has also brought us hope, as we learn from the first five verses. This hope, which looks forward to the fulfilment of all things, to the glory of God, has been given to us through the Holy Spirit, with God's love being poured into our hearts.

So therefore, let us, who trust in Christ's atoning sacrifice, praise God today for his love shown to us, in providing the means for us to be reconciled with him, and to have our sins dealt with. And if we have lost sight of Jesus' death for us, or have never known the blessings of his forgiveness and love, then let us come afresh to the cross.

After we affirm our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we will have the opportunity to ask God's forgiveness for the wrong things we have done, and to invite him to take control of our lives. But let's pray together:

Lord God, we thank you that you sent Jesus into the world to die for our sins, even while we were yet sinners. Grant that we would all know the joy of sins forgiven, of the hope you bring, and of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.


These essays are really doing my head in now... Although thankfully I have one down and one to go... before tomorrow at 12noon (with classes from 9am - 12), so the second essay has to be done today!

The one I finished yesterday was for Liturgy, and had this title: 'Give a definition of worship and explain its role in the formation of Christian communal identity.' I'm not entirely sure how good it was in the end, and I got a bit fed up and just continued writing up to the word limit.

So today's entertainment will be for Systematics: 'Why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter to Christians?' I think my main argument is going to be that if you now got rid of the trinity, you would have to re-name a whole lot of churches, and that would be a big bit of hassle, so it's important to keep the Trinity so as not to bring confusion to places like The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Downpatrick; the Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Magheralin; and Holy Trinity Portrush...

I've just heard that my second class of this morning has also been cancelled, so I'll get down to my essay quicker than I thought! Here goes...

Monday, March 06, 2006

Open up, O Ground!

Have you ever had one of those moments when you wish the ground would open up and let you fall in? I had a sort of cringeworthy moment yesterday morning in Dollingstown, not long before I preached...

So there we are, up at the front, and the Sunday School kids have been leading the congregation in singing some songs. I move over to the lectern to do the Bible reading, and Gareth whispers to me to get the people to sit down. So, as I get to the lectern, I look at the Bible, to check where the reading starts and ends, and as I do, I say, "Will you please be seated." And just as I say it, I look up, and woe is me... they're already seated. So, trying to cover myself, I continue speaking and this is the entirety of what I say:

"Will you please be seated; oh, you already are!"

Whoops!!! In future I will look with my eyes before I open my mouth!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Kingdom of God: A Sermon Preached in Magheralin Parish on 5th March 2006. Mark 1:9-15

What is the Kingdom of God? We often hear those words in church, or when reading our Bibles, or as in this morning's reading, from the lips of Jesus. Yet what does it mean when he says 'The kingdom of God is near'? Is it something similar to the United Kingdom – an area of land that God rules over?

This morning we're going to think about the kingdom of God, in the past, present and future, using the words of Jesus from the reading: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.”

Perhaps the best concept of the kingdom of God I have come across is that of Vaughan Roberts, following Graeme Goldsworthy, and it is this: 'God's people in God's place under God's rule and blessing'. So, for example, at the beginning of the world, we find Adam and Eve, the people of God, in the Garden of Eden, the place God put them. They are under God's rule as they obey his word to them, and as a result, they are blessed, living in Paradise with all they need for existence.

However, we all know that this situation didn't last. Adam and Eve think they can do better without God, by disobeying him. They move from being under God's rule to trying to rule themselves, rejecting God's right to make decisions for them. But this means that they are no longer God's people, and are separated from him, being removed from the garden, and that instead of blessing, they now suffer the curses of Genesis 3 – of pain and labour in tilling the ground, in the pains of childbirth, of thorns and thistles in the ground, and of family breakdown.
Things could not be worse. The kingdom is nowhere to be seen. Yet God determines to restore his kingdom, because of his great love. And this is where the Old Testament fits into the grand scheme of things.

[We see a picture of the kingdom in our other reading this morning (1 Peter 3:18-22), where Noah and his family are the people of God in the world at the time, are saved by being in God's place, the ark; under God's rule by obeying his command to come into the ark, and under God's blessing by being saved]

We see the beginning again of the kingdom, as God calls Abraham to go to a place he will be shown, called to obey, and as he obeys, he will be blessed – and all nations through him.
The children of Abraham are made into a great nation, and we see the kingdom partially, as they enter the promised land, at times obeying the word of God, and receiving his blessing in the land of milk and honey. And yet, even in this situation, there is the rejection of God as king. The people ask for a king of their own – as someone said, despite having God as king, they wanted a 'king with skin.'

The end result of this period of their history is the exile, where the Babylonians come and destroy Israel and Jerusalem, and take them into captivity. Yet even in this bleak period, the promise of the prophets is that the kingdom will come again, that firstly, a remnant will return to Israel, but secondly, and more importantly, the promise of a new creation and a new covenant for God's people. The Old Testament closes with this promise, as Malachi says 'for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall arise with healing in its wings... Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.' (Malachi 4:2,5).

And then silence. God's voice isn't heard afresh in Israel for about four hundred years. And yet there are many ideas of what will be coming. The people know that God has promised to send his Messiah – his anointed one – the king.

But where was he? Had God abandoned his people? After all, God had promised the Messiah, the king, would come. And yet, nothing. All the ideas about the Messiah contain the thought of delivery from Roman occupation, of Israelite domination, and of peace for the land. Some false messiahs came, who claimed they were he. They started rebellions, but were never very successful (see Acts 5 :35-39, where Gamaliel refers to the rebellions of Theudas and Judas the Galilean, both of which came to nothing).

Yet God was not slow. He was following his own time scale. God had appointed the time for Jesus to come, and nothing could make it happen early! There would be the time of waiting.
And now Jesus appears on the scene, and his first words, according to Mark, are “The time has come.” The waiting is over, God's appointed time has come. Or as one commentator puts it, 'God's hour had struck, the time to which all the Old Testament had looked forward.'

I don't know about you, but in the mornings I'm not the best at getting up. My tendency is to lie on, after the alarm has sounded (and the snooze button had been used a few times...). But what we see here is that God had 'set the alarm' and appointed the time for Jesus to come, and when the time came, then it happened.

As Paul puts it in Galatians, 'But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.' (Galatians 4:4-5)

The kingdom of God is near. So what did Jesus mean when he said those words? Was he establishing a new state or country on earth, with borders and boundaries; would Israel again come into its place among the nations?

An earthly kingdom of this sort isn't what Jesus came to build or to proclaim. Rather, the Kingdom is all about the rule of God. Using our definition from earlier, the kingdom is God's people in God's place, under God's rule and blessing. The important factor is whose kingdom it is.

Jesus was proclaiming that the kingdom was near. For so long, people had rejected God's rule, by disobeying his commands, and going their own way. But now the kingdom was coming in a new way. Jesus, through his life, ministry, death and resurrection would establish the kingdom, would open the way for people to come under God's rule again.

And yet the people of Israel weren't expecting what Jesus came to do. Yes, they were looking for the Messiah, the anointed one, the king God would give them, but they thought this Messiah was going to be a great military leader, and would rule again from Jerusalem over the nation of Israel. They were expecting a new and glorious temple to be built, better than Solomon's Temple, and for the restoration of the Law as the basis of life.

Jesus, in establishing the new kingdom, does fulfil these promises, but not in the way the Jews expected them to be fulfilled. If you can imagine a father a century ago, who promises his young son a horse on his twenty-first birthday. But in the meantime, cars are invented, and the son receives a car instead. The promise has been fulfilled, but in a way not expected beforehand. To have talked about cars before they had been invented would have been impossible for the son to understand, and in the same way, God's promises to the Israelites were in terms they could understand.

So God's kingdom was near, or at hand. How was this so? Well, if the kingdom is all about God's people in God's place, under God's rule and blessing, where can we see this while Jesus walked on earth? Jesus is described as the 'new Adam' (Romans 5), the start of the new creation. So while Jesus is God, he is also fully human, and as such, was the beginning of the kingdom, being God's people. Jesus is also God's place, as he is God, and describes his body as the 'temple' in John 2, as he tells the Jews 'Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days' (John 2:19). Jesus is where God now dwells with his people.

Jesus also lives under God's rule. In many places, we are told that Jesus was sinless, that he obeyed the full Law, and fulfilled the demands of the Law. Indeed, Jesus is the King, and through his life and death, he brings about the means for his rule over us, as he defeats sin and death, and wins the blessings of forgiveness and life for us.

Therefore, Jesus could indeed say that 'the kingdom of God is near'. And while the incident we're looking at comes from the beginning of his life, his whole ministry is about the kingdom. Through his life, he paves the way for us to come under God's rule and blessing.

He was beginning to call a new people to be the people of God – not based on nationality, but open to all peoples, to live under God's rule, in obeying his Word, and to enjoy God's blessings, through having their sins forgiven, and the promise of eternal life. But where would God's place be? No longer would it be a geographical place, but rather, he would rule in his peoples' hearts, as he dwells in us through his Holy Spirit.

So now that we have established that Jesus has fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the coming kingdom, and has proclaimed that kingdom, what should our response be? Two thousand years later, the kingdom of God still grows, as more people submit to Jesus as Lord. And how can we become part of the kingdom?

Jesus himself tells us, in the final part of verse 15. “Repent and believe the good news.” This is how we can join the kingdom, but both elements are essential. We must both repent, and believe.

Repentance is all about a change of heart, a change of direction. We have all gone our own way, and made our own decisions. But we need to repent, to turn away from our sins, and the things that hold us back. For example, if I set out tonight to go back to Dublin, but instead went onto the A1 and started driving towards Belfast, then I would be in a bad way, and wouldn't make it to Dublin. And if Alan, who I give a lift to says to me, should you not be going the other way? Then I have a choice, either to admit my mistake, and turn around and go the right way, or else continue on in my error, and say, no, this is the way I want to go... but it won't bring me to my proper destination.

If we have been going our own way, in doing wrong things, then we need to hear the call of Jesus to turn away from those things, to repent.

Or think of it this way. God's kingdom is all about his rule. But each of us has taken God's place by putting ourselves on the throne of our hearts. We have tried to make our own decisions, to do whatever we wanted. Repentance is therefore us getting off the throne of our hearts, and submitting to God's rule.

But the second command clarifies it even more. Because if repentance is turning away from our sin and our own way, then faith, belief, is turning towards Christ. We are called to 'believe the good news'. The good news, the gospel is there before us today. Jesus has brought in the kingdom, and offers us the blessings of forgiven sin. And all we have to do is believe in the news, to accept it, and build our life on it.

This message of turning away from sin, and turning towards Jesus isn't unique to the teaching of Jesus. We find Paul describing the same thing in his sermon to the Ephesian elders: 'I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.' (Acts 20:21).

[We find the same ideas in the Baptism service, where the candidates or their sponsors are asked: 'Do you reject the devil and all proud rebellion against God? Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?' The three questions of rejection and repentance are then followed by three questions of faith: 'Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? Do you submit to Christ as Lord? Do you come to Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life?']

One day the kingdom will be brought to completion, when Jesus returns to earth as judge and king. He will bring in the new heavens and the new earth, and God will dwell with his people, as we find in the later parts of Revelation. As Vaughan Roberts writes, 'The promises of the kingdom will all be completely fulfilled at the end of time. God's people will consist of all those, from every nation, who trust Christ. They will be united together in God's place, the new creation and new Jerusalem, which is the new temple. And they will all submit to God's rule and therefore know his perfect blessing. The throne of God and of the Lamb is right at the centre of everything, and from it, a river flows, bringing life and prosperity to everyone.' (based on Revelation 22:1-2).

We have heard the message of the kingdom, and have the choice – to continue in our own way and reject God's right to rule over us; or we can turn from our sins, and believe the good news, accepting what Jesus has done for us, and finding his blessing as we accept his rule in our hearts.

Let's hear those words of Jesus one more time, and then we'll have some silence before we pray.

'The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.'

Prayer: Lord God, we confess that we have not obeyed you as we should. We have gone our own way, and sinned. We repent, and turn back to you in faith. Forgive us our sins, and reign in our hearts as Saviour and Lord. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


'What are you giving up?' This is probably the most common question asked in recent days, as we moved into the season of Lent last Wednesday. I'm not sure what you make of Lent, cos I know that some of my readers won't agree with it at all.

For me, it's a chance to reflect on the time Jesus spent in the desert being tempted, at the start of his ministry. And it's also a preparation for the joy of Easter. But back to the temptation thing for a moment.

Matthew and Luke go into more detailed accounts of what happened, but for pure simplicity, Mark can't be beaten: 'The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.' (Mark 1:12-13).

This forms part of the passage I'm preaching on this Sunday in Magheralin, and yet it isn't what I'm preaching on. And yet, some things occured to me as I did my initial preparations.

1. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days. Is there some sort of link here to the wilderness experience of Israel on coming out of Egypt? Is Jesus the 'new Israel', the new people of God?

2. Being tempted by Satan. There's no doubt that Jesus was tempted. This is of comfort to us, because while he was tempted, he did not sin - there is no sin in being tempted! But even more so, as the book of Hebrews tells us, he has compassion on us, as he has been through the same experiences of temptation: 'Since then we have a great hgh priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.' (Hebrews 4:14-16).

3. And he was with the wild animals. The commentaries I had a look at suggest that this goes to demonstrate the care and protection of God for Jesus, as he wasn't harmed by the wild animals. One commentator drew a parallel between God shutting the mouths of the lions for Daniel, and for protecting Jesus in the wilderness. But there's another thought I've been having, and I'm not sure how true it is, but I'll put it out there anyway... If Jesus is described as the new Adam, or the second Adam (e.g. Romans 5), then is this the start of the new creation, reflecting the situation where Adam was with the animals in Eden? and does it ultimately point us towards what the new creation will be like, when 'the wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD.' (Isaiah 65:25).

4. And the angels were ministering to him. Jesus was strengthened and encouraged by the angels who served him. We tend not to think of angels so much, and yet, we're told at the start of Hebrews that 'Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?' (Hebrews 1:14). I'm not sure where I'm going with this angels point. Any ideas?

As I said earlier, these are brief sort of thoughts, but perhaps they will be of some help to you. And if all else fails, 'What are you giving up?'