I am writing this sitting in the bay window of Letterfinlay, looking out over the lake at Ballydugan in County Down, Ireland. It was here in this house that Shirley and I lived for a year back in 2007/8. The sun is shining, the skies are blue, all around us are signs of summer. It is very beautiful but like so much of Northern Ireland it is also a paradoxical place. We’ve watched and marvelled at the birds on the lake, the rabbits running in the meadow below the house and seen teems of fish in the shallow waters by the foreshore. The potatoes are growing well in the vegetable garden, (oh how we miss the lovely flowery delicious tasting potatoes that come from this part of the world), the hens are settling into their new coop and butterflies are flitting from flower to hedgerow. Then an act of violence; nature reeking its savagery on the idyllic scene before us. A magpie swoops into the bush and kills a young baby bird. For food? No, just an act of violent brutality. They are like cats, those natural born killers, who kill thousands of birds on a systematic and regular basis, (why don’t owners put a collar with a bell on their ‘doted upon’ carnivorous mammals, thereby giving the bird population at least some chance of living beyond infancy?).
The incident with the magpie, amidst all the beauty of the place and the friendliness of people here speaks to me about those isolated incidents of violence and the underlying threat and simmering unease in some of the troubled communities in Northern Ireland. On our way through East Belfast the other evening, as we travelled to the North coast, we were delayed for a few minutes at a major intersection in an area that has frequently witnessed tension and conflict between Loyalist and Republican communities. Police and their landrovers lined the adjoining street and a crowd of people were gathering. Six teenage boys were standing with their unionist flags in the middle of the road by the traffic lights, watched over by their ‘minders’ on the street corner. It was calm but ugly. The pleasant summer’s evening was scarred by tension in the atmosphere. There are understandable reasons that lie behind such actions, e.g. communities under threat, hostile to a process that has reaped little for some neighbourhoods, inevitably the poor and marginalised, a feeling of injustice etc but there is also a sectarianism that continues to poison the attitides and actions of a land and people that have so much goodness about them. Seeing the flags there and witnessing so many red, white and blue painted kerbstones and unionist flags as we drove through at least a dozen towns and villages on our way to Coleraine I just couldn’t help feeling a deep sense of revulsion. This might be a stance for the United Kingdom but it is not a sign of the Kingdom of God.
We’ve just spent a delightful few days in Coleraine when I was speaking at the New Horizons conference. The opportunity to speak to audiences of predominantly young people, keen followers of Christ, hungry to hear and respond to God’s call upon their lives was a great privilege. The welcome, courtesy and respect with which we were treated as guests spoke volumes for the warm hearted and hospitable nature of so many people here in Ireland, north and south.
Following the conference we drove down to spend a couple of nights here at Ballydugan and spent yesterday evening with good friends and former neighbours of ours, Dominic and Kathleen and their son Michael, together with Jim and Jeannie, who own Letterfinlay and who carry a great heart for this place, this special place to be used to serve God’s purposes. I would like to feel that we and the Community have made a little contribution to helping them to lay some foundations and explore what this place could become. Many Companions and Friends have been here and stayed at the cottages for a holiday, on retreat, come for a Community gathering or on one of our teams. Related to what’s going on here is the work that we were privileged to be part of in its early days, the founding of the community prayer at Saul. Another sacred place, a place where we have prayed and supported, the repairing of the broken altars, the restoring of the ancient ruins and the raising up of the foundations of many generations. I have just been there this afternoon and whilst spending a few moments in prayer became aware of people entering the church building. I welcomed them and engaged in conversation. Saul is an out of the way place yet a place that God brings people to, a special place. The next twenty minutes saw me in conversation with five South Koreans, a couple from Bangor in Northern Ireland and the guest from a wedding that had taken place a little earlier in the day in the church. Each conversation though short felt important. Why? ~ because of a sense that this place is a sacred place, a telling place, a place of encounter with God and others. Returning back to Letterfinlay and looking out over the lake and holding this place and the people whom God has brought together for his purposes feels very special. At short notice we are shortly to be welcoming a group of people; friends and others whom we have prayed with and got to know whilst we lived here. I’m looking forward to another good evening with good and godly people who counter those incidents that scar the lives and cause a blot on the landscape of this delightful place; this place from where the gospel came to Northumbria.