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City Futures – Developer Heaven

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations, you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
Isaiah 58:12

I’m essentially a property developer. I, and my colleagues here at Skainos and EBM.

That’s a confession not likely to make you any friends in Ireland in 2010 and it’s something I only really realised today. A number of things came together.

I walked around Hosford House in the company of a demolition team, who will return on Monday to begin taking down the hostel.

Earlier in the day, I walked into the former Skyline warehouse (block 1 below, outlined in violet) where contractors have been busy for about 4 weeks transforming it into our new furniture warehouse and cafe. It looks great – bright, fresh and clean and ready to open next Tuesday. The newly branded cafe, Re:Fresh, will sell some of the healthiest and cheapest food on the whole of the Newtownards Road, and the new furniture warehouse will continue the work of Re:Store, which has been such a key element of the social economy strategy of EBM.

As we walked out of the store, we noted that contractors had also finished work on repaving the section of the street outside the premises. And the signmakers were finishing erecting the signs for the cafe and furniture store.

Back in the office I looked out my window and realised that the long held vision for Skainos was already being realised. We’ve always aspired to seeing the Skainos Project making a significant contribution to the regeneration of the community – socially, economically, physically, environmentally and  spiritually.

Though the main construction project hasn’t begun yet, already the impact is being seen. By Tuesday the main site (block 2, outlined in yellow below) will be completely vacated ready for the contractor to take possession. By Tuesday, the former disused Skyline warehouse on the adjacent block (block 1) will be back in productive use, employing several people and contributing to the economic life of the area. The office building I’m in has been remodelled by us and the two units next door have been purchased by a private sector developer (block 3, outlined in blue below) . The next block up has had its frontage renewed. And all round the DSD have renewed the paving and kerbing.

The Newtownards Road is changing, and our faith-based, community focused agency is leading the way in our part of it.

The verse from Isaiah up above has been a significant one for me in the last number of years. It is a poetic passage which describes one dimension of the reputation of the people of God.

Now I’ve heard countless sermons pondering what it means for the people of God to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation etc. a more familiar description (1 Peter 2:9). Not once have I ever heard anyone promoting this Isaiah verse as one of our coveted names.

We are the rebuilders of ancient ruins and the restorers of streets with dwellings.

It’s at least as valid as the more spiritual, esoteric names. Perhaps more so, because it describes our impact on the places where people actually live and move and have their being. It describes our intolerance of dereliction. Our intention to create livable, walkable cities of human scale. I think I would also want to argue that it is an approach to development that gives the profit motive a rightful place, which is not pre-eminent.

It is an approach to development that is people focused in it’s outcomes and in the bottom line. It’s an understanding of urban development that draws its inspiration from a biblical vision of the city in the Kingdom of God, developer heaven if you like!

[other city futures here]


City Futures – the Maternal City

I’m reading the Old Testament prophets for descriptions of the City and wondering about contemporary analogues. I want to read the prophets, and their visions of the future city, as if they meant us to take these visions seriously in our day, and not relegate them to some far-off imagined future. In this way we are motivated for action to create today little snapshots of what that future might be like.

10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice greatly with her,
all you who mourn over her.

11 For you will nurse and be satisfied
at her comforting breasts;
you will drink deeply
and delight in her overflowing abundance.”   (Isaiah 66:10-11)

Here is a call to rejoice in the city , even if previously you have had call to mourn for her. This morning I know some people who are mourning the loss of library services – the ‘necessary’ cutbacks have resulted in a slashing of libraries in communities like Ballymacarrett. Education and youth services are already reduced in an area where educational underachievement is endemic. Not much satisfaction there.

But in this vision of the restored city, mourning turns to rejoicing and dis-ease turns to comfort at the nursing breasts of the mother city.

So, some questions. In what ways does the city function as a nursing mother? How does the mother city satisfy? What would constitute overflowing abundance? How do we make progress towards that?

see here for more City Futures.

Another Generation of Evangelicals and the Old Guard

A friend tweeted a link to this article about a new kind of evangelicalism the other day which I found really interesting. The Q-Gathering.

At first, I confess, I was a little cynical, not another cute, branded,  air-brushed image of straight-white-teeth Christianity? But as I read on I changed my attitude ever so slightly. I’m glad that more and more from this quarter are reflecting on issues of social justice.

Tom Krattenmaker, who wrote the piece, makes the judgment that,

As they keenly sense, a major problem with evangelical Christianity in our time has been its bold assertion that is has an answer — the answer — to everything, namely, a particular understanding of the Bible and how it applies to present-day issues. Not that they are any less on fire for Jesus, but these Q-generation Christians are comfortable in complexity and ambiguity. The new guard seems to be pleading with the elders: “It’s not that simple!”

So the questions being asked are not the traditional ones of how to get to heaven, or deal with abortion or same sex relationship, rather, as Krattenmaker asserts, they are more interested in addressing the hells on earth.

I dropped an email to my friend to thank him for the link, and also to make a comment or two.

Such as to say that this is not new. For years now many of us have been thinking, and writing and working on these things and with this perspective. But we’re old now! And we never had the tech, nor the design skills to brand the movement – some of us weren’t even that cool or trendy even when we were younger. But our sensibilities were right.

And another thing, very few of us who have been doing these things have been welcome within the evangelical mainstream, even though we owe a great deal to the movement. So we’re outsiders who find allies in small networks. Our mentors and heroes are not selling shed loads of books nor headlining international conferences, and they generally have gained an authority for what they say among us by virtue of what they have done.

Anyway, I’m delighted to see that such ideas still percolate within evangelicalism. I hope that the movement, if it can be called that, continues to grow. I hope that it finds space for those who are above 40 and have been round the block a few times. And I hope they don’t yearn too much to be on the ‘inside’.

Between Mystery and Committee on the way to Pentecost

As we get closer to Pentecost, things get stranger and stranger. Just 40 days after the resurrection is the startling event known as the Ascension, which was marked just last Thursday. The bible records this extraordinary event in the most unadorned of ways. It says:

“After he had spoken, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”

Is that all? Just those few words to describe such an jaw-dropping event? Just one verse? You’d never guess that this is a central mystery of the church. What happened there on top of the mountain? What did it look like? Were the disciples scared? Surprised? WHAT HAPPENED?

It is, perhaps, the strangeness of it all that has led to what I sometimes think of as the church’s embarrassment over this story. In many streams of Christianity it never bears a mention, yet without it, the great quest of redemption is incomplete. Ascension stands along side the birth, life, death, resurrection and Pentecost as vital elements of our salvation. But some reckon this story as primitive, perhaps. Childish. Hard to sustain in a more scientific age.

And yet mainstream science is not worried about talking of multiple dimensions and multi-verses each overlapping and intersecting  yet entirely separate. Is this not just as magical and strange? Celtic Christianity speaks of thin places. Sites where it appears that the normally opaque membrane between heaven and earth thins and paradise seems to draw close and press in. Perhaps the ancients understood more than they knew.

After the ascension there follows 10 days before the Spirit comes at Pentecost. Jesus is gone and so are the sporadic appearances. We could forgive his followers for feeling abandoned. 10 days to wait back in the centre of the drama in Jerusalem. Amid the murdering soldiers and the rejecting religious leaders. 10 days to ponder on the great mystery of the Ascension.

What would you do in those days?

Bizarrely, facing all they were facing, the disciples call a committee meeting, and announce an election for a new member to replace Judas. How very Presbyterian. It intrigues me, this period of the church year. The resurrection, strange unpredictable appearances, the mystery of the ascension,  and just prior to Pentecost itself, a committee election.

But there’s something real in that too isn’t there? Pastor, theologian and writer Eugene Peterson says ‘we live in the midst of immense invisibles’. I love that phrase. The stuff that we can experience with our senses is not all there is. There are invisibles out there which are more real than all we can see, and Ascension reminds us of this each year.

But we make our way through our days and can’t avoid the burdening reality of committees and administration and the mundane grind of work and school and exams, of struggling relationships, bad investments, fragile employment, aging parents, wayward children.

We live, always, between, mysteries and committees.

A reflection used in Ballycrochan Presbyterian Church on 16 May, on the way to Pentecost.

A Searching Question on the way to Pentecost

We read it last week at this time (Acts 1:1-11). The story of how, after his suffering, he showed himself to his followers convincing them he was alive. How he told them to wait for the gift promised by his Father. The Holy Spirit who would empower them for the immense task that lay ahead.

The Holy Spirit would inaugurate them into the next stage of the mission of God in Jesus, to take the good news of the Kingdom to the very ends of the earth. Good news for the poor, good news for prisoners, good news for the blind and the oppressed, that the time of God’s favour had arrived.

And then, the Scriptures say, he departed. Taken from before their very eyes.

Two men, dressed in white stood beside them and asked a question. We read it last week and it has been rebounding in my head ever since.

Why do you stand here? they said.

Now there’s a question worth asking. Why do you stand here?

Why do I stand here? Not here, behind this lectern this morning. But here. In this place, as opposed to all the other places I could be standing, or lying, this morning.

Why, Sunday after Sunday, do I choose to stand here with all of you?

Why do you stand here? I guess there will be as many answers as there are questioners?

You stand here out of habit? Well, as habits go, it’s not a bad one. From custom and tradition perhaps? Not all traditions are to be disdained. Dragged by your parents? All I can say is, hang in there, it will all make sense in time. But it’s worth asking—why do you stand here?

I’ve thought a lot about the question this week and I think I might answer it today in this way. I stand here because I believe the local church is the best means of change that God has chosen. We stand here not in order to sing hymns, or preach sermons, we stand here week after week to affirm again and again what animates us, motivates us, drives us forward and satisfies us. That is what matters about our standing here.

I stand here because I am foolish enough to believe that the people of God are here for the transformation of the world, person by person, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, village and town and city and nation. And there is no other community of people called and empowered and purposed as we are.

But I learned one other thing this week, that standing here is not enough. The two men in white asked why are you standing, and then said, ‘this same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven will come back’. Between this, his first going away, and his return we are to do his work, be his hands and feet, so that all the world will know the Good News, and we begin in standing, here on the Silverbirch Road, but then walking, on and on, to the ends of the earth.

a reflection used in Ballycrochan Presbyterian Church on Sunday 9th May 2010

Ched Myers on the Resurrected Jesus

The resurrected Jesus appears first as a Stranger – indeed as one needing hospitality. Let this be a Christological lesson to the church!

From: Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel, ed. by Peter Laarman, Boston:Beacon Press, 2006, p66, reflecting on the story of the Road to Emmaus.

[For a comprehensive archive of Ched’s work, check out his website HERE.]

Worship, the Poor and Life or Death Decisions in Mark’s Gospel

In Mark’s Gospel, the greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to love God with everything and your neighbour as yourself (12:29-30). (Elsewhere on this blog I reflected on the connection between God and neighbour.) I think Jesus is stressing that the truth of my confession to love God is measured by the extent to which I love my neighbour. These are inextricable.

The teacher of the law who asked the original question commends Jesus, and takes the risky step of alienating the Temple aristocrats and religious leaders by saying this kind of neighbour love is far more important than the performance of worship (12-33-35).

Such a move allows Jesus to launch into an astonishing diatribe against the religious leaders (Mark 12:38-40).

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”

Devouring widows houses is an interesting charge. I suspect it’s to do with taking a poor widows house in exchange for her religious contributions. She signs over her house, so to speak, on the death of her husband so that she can continue to use the Temple, and the proceeds are used to pay the living expenses of the leaders and enable them to make their long prayers. Their piety is a convenient cover for thievery.

This is then followed by a familiar story of ‘the widow’s mite’ – the poor widow who gives out of her poverty all that she has to live on (Mark 12:41-44).

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Usually this passage is used to make a call for sacrificial giving, or to extol  the spirituality of poverty. But I wonder.

Is it not a statement by Jesus against a system that forces the poor into these life or death decisions? As they watched this widow, they must have known that by giving what she gave she was now going away to die – it was, after all, in Jesus own words, ‘all that she had to live on’. And it was the religious caste which forced this decision upon her.

Was Jesus making a comment about the kind of faith that can live in a world in which people must make these forms of decisions – like last winter, the common situation where older people made a choice to be warm or to be fed?

No wonder then, that in the previous chapter, the incident of the cursed Fig Tree stands as such a chilling parable (11:12-14; 20-21). If the faith we practice sits comfortably in a world in which the poor must make these decisions, then our love for God and our worship , measured against our love for neighbour, is a sham, empty, useless and dead, like the fig tree.