It doesn’t take much to create a huge distance between people

2015-08-30 13.55.34-2This past week I was in Berlin for a work conference aimed at equipping young(er) leaders across Europe to pursue healthy Christian leadership. For some reason, Berlin has never really been on my list of “places to visit.” With so much going on leading up to this trip, I hardly even had time to brush up on its history and figure out what I might want to see during down time. Well actually, in my ignorance, I didn’t think there would be all that much to see … and I wasn’t really counting on any down time. When Sunday rolled around I was ready to hit the ground running for five hours of exploring before heading back to the airport.

01d59673cea20fedef28aee44749bb62bdadd4e913Climbing the steps out of the belly of the city into the heat of summer, I was surprised to see so few people near the Brandenburg Gate. It was large and impressive but not more spectacular than structures I’ve seen in Paris and Rome. As we passed through to the other side, my co-explorer for the day explained some of the significance of it during WWII. The significance of it isn’t tied to what it looks like but how it was used and what it meant to the people who lived on either side of it. As we walked further through the waves and blocks in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I looked up to see the colour and the shapes in modern buildings surrounding the square. There was a story in each of these – in the hands of the people who designed them. You could nearly feel the heartbeat of the architects as they tried to convey a message to everyone who can see the sky above and feel the earth below. Words were only introduced when we entered the Topography of Terror, explaining how the city under our feet took shape in the last 100 years. Exposed and free of charge, it felt like a public announcement of repentance for past sin and a warning to never return.

2015-08-30 11.51.28-1A good few tram stops north of there, we joined the bohemian crowds filtering into Mauerpark for Sunday afternoon festivities. Passing by musicians and artists we made our way into the large flea market where we jostled our way in search of lunch. Currywurst in hand, we sat listening to a couple of different bands performing under the shade of the trees. A hill ascended in front of us and at the top stood a piece of “the wall” – a colourful backdrop for the lighthearted summer Sunday celebrations of the city. In front of it swings lifted people up and down from sturdy, tall wooden frames. Swings: flying, freedom, play, peace. Families gathered to release a hiss of colour onto the wall, creating something beautiful.

2015-08-30 13.44.15-112 feet high – the wall was part of a death strip from 1961-1989, an area designated to make sure no one crossed from East to West alive. If I had been born near there, I would have grown up with death in my backyard until I was seven, not swings. At the end of that portion of wall, I stopped where a fence replaced the concrete. A security guard in a high viz vest on the football stadium side looked at me strangely through the fence as I just stared at the abrupt end. It was less than a foot thick. I was struck in that moment by how little it takes to create such a huge divide between people. The obstacles themselves are easy to overcome but it is our militant effort to ensure that no one overcomes them without our permission that makes them dangerous.

Leading people towards hope is deconstructing obstacles and helping people move from oppression to freedom, regardless of if they are one of us or not. It is public repentance of how much harm has been done under the false illusion of good. It is recreating something beautiful and useful in the place of damage. It is rebellion against symbols of death by setting up swings in front of them. Can you hear the carefree laughter? That is hope.

Thank you, Berlin, for what you have taught me.

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thanks canada

2014-06-05 12.24.18In grade 11 I went on a drama trip with my school to Ashland, Oregon for the Shakespeare festival. On our first evening south of the Canadian border we stopped in Washington for dinner at Denny’s. Across from our quirky group of misfits was something we had never seen before – teen guys all kitted out in football (the American kind) jackets and girls in cheerleader outfits complete with ribbons around their ponytails. You would think that we had just stepped into a teen angst film! For a long time Canadian culture was identified as what was not American. Canadian culture was not made up of cool football teams and cheerleaders. In the 90s Molson Canadian finally gave voice to what it meant to be Canadian, other than “not American.” In Bowling for Columbine we saw Michael Moore contrast the two cultures by walking into a Canadian home without knocking. Most of us laughed because none of us locked our doors then. Of course, we have had This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer to keep us laughing at our own private jokes. More globally and recently, people like Chris Hadfield have coloured in the shapes of what being Canadian means.

Since my teen years my Canadianness has been diluted a lot and yet I find myself regularly slipping on cultural values that I forgot I had. For Canada Day this year, I want to recognise some of the positive values that became a part of me just from growing up in Canada. I wouldn’t want to change these for the world:

Optimism and Positivity: Things can be different. This is not the end. Let’s go for it. Why not? You are great at that. There is always a way. I like falling into this train of thought. Not only does it feel good but it also opens up possibilities when there seems to be only problems. I can’t exactly tell you how we learn this or why but I realise that it isn’t normal all over the world. I think you are more likely to find a group of annoyingly happy people in Canada than in most places I have ever visited. Where should you go to experience it? Any shop or restaurant. Everyone is genuinely happy to serve with a smile! Even if everything is falling down around them and they aren’t satisfied in their job.

Critical Thinking: A month ago I was doing an online financial webinar through Canada. This is not a strength of mine so felt like pretty much everything was going over my head. Then they mentioned that there is an online game you can participate in that helps you learn how to understand your finances better. I sat in my apartment laughing out loud! Of course Canadians would come up with a game to teach people how to think through their finances and explore ways to manage them better. I don’t know if children’s programmes in Canada would be allowed to air without educational content in them. Learning is fun. Thinking is fun. Let’s be logical about it all and enjoy it. My memories of growing up are of people challenging us to think instead of memorize, discover instead of regurgitate, break the rules if logical to do so (and only if logical to do so, otherwise keep them).

Peacekeeping: “How did Canada get its independence?” When I mention Canada Day, I have often been asked this question. I have realised how rare it is to tell people that we talked our way into it, resulting in a signed piece of paper that gave us independence. There wasn’t a war (for that purpose). From the very start, people from around the world who were looking for religious or political freedom were invited to become a part of Canada. They came for a dream of peace and a safe place to build new futures without fear. When the potential for war comes up and Canada is invited to join I love that there always seems to be a moments pause to ask the question, “why?” Why should we go to war? What good will it do? It doesn’t just affect international relations either. We had a peer counselling system in my secondary school where peer counsellors were trained in mediation to help students in conflict come to peaceful resolutions instead of using a punitive system. We weren’t the only ones working towards restoration in the justice system.

Human Dignity: A few weeks ago someone in Dublin asked me if I thought that Ireland was really left-wing. I’m not incredibly knowledgeable about politics but I do know that Ireland hardly knows the meaning of left wing. From health care to education, equal access to opportunities to succeed is incredibly high in Canada. If there is one thing that sits on a pedestal and is the taboo to say anything against, it is human dignity. If there is one thing that Canadians will be blinded by emotion about and forget logic, it is human dignity. I was never really taught that I was less important or valued because of my age, gender, religion or lifestyle. Our volleyball team always felt terrible going to tournaments because we didn’t have very many people in our school who weren’t from European descent – we were afraid to be thought of as racist. Opportunities were open to most of us so long as we offered others the same level of dignity to others. In Canada everyone needs to be allowed to co-exist in their uniqueness and not just get what we think they deserve from our limited points of view.

Cultural Criticism: Canada has so many flaws, so many imperfections. It doesn’t live up to the cultural values that make it uniquely Canadian. People get blinded by emotion and group-think and forget to really grapple with issues. The history of abuse of people deemed “less human” is not pretty. There are social injustices everywhere you look and opportunities are not equal. No one is more critical of Canada than Canadians. I value this cultural criticism because it means I have learned that I can look at my own life and not get trapped in seeing myself as perfect while also not getting trapped in how I have screwed things up. We can become a more loving and kind people.

So thanks, Canada, for the values you have given me! Keep up the good work … and please work on your issues.

Happy Canada Day!

freedom stories – D & D


Him – There are different types of freedom. When you are locked up freedom is doing what you want to do. When you are younger you think life is forever. The older you get you realise how short life is. The last time I was locked up was before my first child.

At that time you were getting into trouble because you were trying to fit in with people. Freedom was a matter of “fuck you” about the consequences. You don’t need to fit anymore. The only time you feel free when you are locked up is for recreation. Then you are locked up again. If you wanted to go to the toilet you had to ring a bell and it might be an hour before you might go. At that time you had no telly.

I remember when I was locked up I couldn’t read or write. When I was in I learned how to read and write. The very first book I read was A Sense of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle. Now he is a TD. You find that words that you don’t know at the start of it, they come into place by the end of it. That’s how I learned to read. All the years I was in school I couldn’t read a thing. When I learned to read I could do couriering and could get a job out of that. I couldn’t go for a job because I couldn’t read and write. When I learned I got my first a job.

Freedom is to get up in morning. To do what you want. To go to the shop when you want. When you are locked up you realise what your freedom really means to you. You take it for granted until your freedom is taken. Then you realise what you had and what you haven’t got. Jump on the bus. Walk in the park. Make a phone call. To look at the telly when you want.

Her – Freedom is also peace of mind. Not constantly worrying about someone. You know where they are and know when they are safe. I know where they are so my worry is over with them. The way I felt about my sister was always worry, worry, worry, worry. When she passed away she went into God’s arms. I couldn’t get over that we were there with her. When she was back on the street I never had that peace. Freedom is knowing she is back in the Lord’s hands. It is a weight lifted off. There is a great freedom to know she is safe. (His) ma was free when he was locked up because she knew he was safe at night.

Him – I would rather peace in my mind than not be locked up. When you are out you are done. If you have problems in your head that will last a life time. You never know when you will get put into a mental prison again. If you walk away in freedom you might be back in again in 6 months.

D & D

freedom stories – Emma

emmaFree For…

For a while I stopped believing that freedom existed. As soon as you attain the thing that you might call freedom, you immediately become entrapped by something new. I longed to be an independent adult when I was a child. I did not imagine that the price I would pay was the unutterable tedium of pricing broadband providers. I’ve had bosses who have made me long for freedom due to their ineptitude and unfairness. On the other hand, I’ve learned that the grass can be greener when I’ve found myself in charge of a project and felt responsibility weighing on me. Suddenly being someone’s under-appreciated minion becomes attractive again. At least I got to sleep at night.

I began to believe there was no such thing as freedom and that we are perpetually doomed to be out of control of our own lives. In physics class I learned that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only moves from state to state. I wondered if the same was true of entrapment. We feel oppressed and crushed by a set of expectations or circumstances and then a molecular shift happens and we find ourselves subject to a different set of expectations and circumstances. Instead of freedom we simply have a more favourable entrapment.

The freedom I believed in could not be. I thought freedom was a state of limitlessness. It meant nothing and nobody had the power to influence or affect you without your permission. We learned to think this way during the Enlightenment when we officially took God out of the centre of the universe and put ourselves there instead. It’s all about me, don’t tell me what to think. At university I felt this influence a lot as we congratulated ourselves on our liberal dialogue about self and “other”. We laughed at our ancestors who had “othered” blacks, women, gays and the poor and we patted each other on the back for our enlightened view of the equality and independence of humanity (conveniently forgetting that our being at university made us simultaneously the demographic most empowered to work for justice and at the same time the least likely to ever do anything about it). The point is, in most classes I was being taught to understand that the “self” had no right to tell the “other” who or what they were. We are free beings, and we determine our own lives as we float unconnected in a meaningless universe. Once you understand that, you may choose to have relationships with others in order to pass your meaningless life more pleasantly.

However, in one class in my final year I learned that I had simply gotten it wrong about freedom; it’s not that freedom doesn’t exist, I just didn’t know what it was. I had to write a paper about the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for one class. While he is probably best known for his assassination attempt on Hitler, he really was quite a phenomenal theologian. On this subject, in Creation and Fall (1932) he wrote, “Because [Christ] does not retain his freedom for himself the concept of freedom only exists for us as ‘being free for’.” What this means is that freedom is not something to gain for ourselves, freedom exists to benefit others. Bonhoeffer also argued that the Self-Other relationship I had been learning about is a falsity. We are what he called “ethical boundaries” to each other. Instead of being unconnected to and independent of each other, we are the boundaries and limits to each other.   Freedom happens when you are free for God and for others. It’s when you try to be free by yourself that you become trapped; you are striving for the impossible.

For you were called to freedom brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Galatians 5:13

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honour everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the emperor. 1 Peter 2:16-17

A metaphor to finish. Imagine, if you will, a ballet dancer. Or Brian O’Driscoll. Someone with beautiful feet. If their feet were shackled together they would not be free. However, on being set free they will use their freedom to follow learned movements. Their steps are planned. Every footfall is the result and the reward of hours of disciplined training. When a dancer performs some choreographed piece or when a sportsman executes a rehearsed set-play we don’t think of them as trapped. Nor do we think of them as limitless and undirected. They use their freedom for something. They are beautifully free in conformity with a greater reality – a dance, a game that cannot be denied. The beauty is drawn out by the direction of a master. Who is yours?

Emma Rothwell

freedom stories – lent 2015

freedom stories
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. ~ Galatians 5:1

Freedom. When was the last time you thought about the freedom you have?

Last year I was really struck by the types of freedom that are celebrated in Ireland at Easter.

Firstly, it is about Jesus’ rising from the dead. His defeat of death and promise of freedom to all people who believe in him and accept their need for him. This is the first Easter story of freedom, which is why we have a national holiday dedicated to it. Everything else has tried to move with the momentum that Jesus’ resurrection had – laying down his life for the purest freedom that lasts forever.

The second Easter freedom story is that of Patrick when he lit a fire on the Hill of Slane, opposing the gods and goddesses of the Druids and High King of Ireland. The opportunity to experience personal freedom in Jesus throughout Ireland is a result of that event on Easter in 433 AD – a fire is still lit on the Hill of Slane every year at Easter in remembrance.

The third freedom is the Easter Rising. Carefully orchestrated on the freedom holiday 99 years ago, Ireland finally busted open the 800 years of oppression from the British. This happened on Easter with the purpose of obtaining freedom. Shortly after, the Republic of Ireland was born. As the 100 year anniversary is on our doorstep, I am becoming more and more aware of the mixed emotions people have about it.

There is something that triggers the spirit-heart of Ireland that cries out loudly for freedom – sometimes in whatever means possible for mere illusions of freedom, as was seen during the Celtic Tiger (hint: freedom is not found in wealth). Lent begins today and thousands of people around Ireland will be giving things up for 40 days. My neighbour in pilates class will be giving up everything (bad). She normally can’t give any of it up but for some reason is able to live free of those things over Lent every year. It is within this context that I plan on thinking about freedom this Lenten season – a lot! What does it mean to be free?

When we really think about it, freedom is deeply emotional. Freedom is sometimes taken away from us and returned to us. Often, someone has paid a price along the way so that we could be as free as we are, whether we agree with their methods or not. There are also some freedoms that we  find only when we are willing to lay down our own lives, be it physically, emotionally or spiritually. Sometimes freedom is uncomfortable.

So, I have asked friends from around the country to write a bit about what freedom means to them. I’ve left it wide open for response! There will be different voices, different backgrounds and different types of freedom represented. As citizens of Ireland, they all have lived in political freedom. They have also been exposed to and experienced measures of freedom because of Jesus.

Join me each Wednesday and Saturday during Lent for Freedom Stories and Thoughts on Freedom.

mammy mary

“Now don’t you be minding him! You just do whatever he tells you to do,” Mary says to the catering staff while giving Jesus a pointed stare. He hears the silent message in her eyes, “Stop messin’ and just help. I don’t care right now if you don’t think it’s ‘your time.’ It’s not like we don’t know you can.” She gives one last sweet smile and heads into the party leaving Jesus alone with a very confused staff who are, by now, a little embarrassed.

The grade 12 literature class I took was one of the most unusual learning experiences of my life. As we studied Shakespeare we also had classes that involved clearing the desks and chairs away so we could learn a  medieval dance while our teacher strummed his lyre. We learnt about the Wheel of Fortune and illnesses in the 16th century so that the humour and solemnity in Shakespeare’s dialogue would flow through the words into our imagination with a clearer understanding. When it came time to involve an audience in A Midsummer Night’s Dream we were able to succeed. Shakespeare became accessible and relevant, even in a school that was nicknamed ‘skid row’.

It was our understanding that led to a living interpretation that an audience could understand.

This past week I laughed out loud as I was read through the book of John for the umpteenth time. My attention snagged on this story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana, where he turns the water into wine. Out of nowhere, Mary suddenly materialised into this Irish mammy taking control of the situation and telling everyone what to do. I had never seen her in this story as anything but an underdeveloped character in Jesus’ shadow. Two worlds collided as my knowledge of Jesus’ story and my experience of Dublin’s story entered from opposite directions.

One of my professors in college would read to us at the start of the class. The words he read were the original Greek of New Testament texts. The words that came out of his mouth made his knowledge of the Greek meanings relevant to us in that moment. The words of that book are life to me. I want others to discover what I have so I pursue understanding and allow the two cultures to collide in the middle.

It is amazing what we can discover when the bridge of interpretation is crossed.

So what can we learn now from Mammy Mary? Mothers – you can cut yourself a bit of slack. Even the mother of God interfered when she might not have supposed to (and he was 30!). Adult children – cut your mothers a bit of slack. Even the mother of God told him what to do when they were out in public. All of us – although Jesus’ first public miracle was turning water into wine it probably wasn’t his first miracle. Who knows, maybe everyone in town loved going to dinner at Mary and Joseph’s whenever Jesus was there because they always had the best wine around. Mary obviously knew that Jesus could do this.

reflections on patrick: a living alternative

Patrick held out to these warrior children (the Irish), in his own person a living alternative. It is possible to be brave – to expect “every day … to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved – whatever may come my way” – and yet be a man of peace at peace, a man without sword or desire to harm, a man in whom the sharp fear of death has been smoothed away. He was “not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.” Patrick’s peace was no sham: it issued from his person like a fragrance. And in a damp land where people lived and sleep in close proximity, everyone would have known sooner or later if Patrick’s sleep was brought on by the goddess of intoxication or broken by the goddess of fear. Patrick slept soundly and soberly. ~ How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill

Patrick was far from someone who merely integrated into a culture so as to subdue or convince them of a different god. His faith was real and it was living in him to the point that a spiritual people couldn’t help but sense it all over him. Like Paul before him, he became all things to all people so that by all possible means he might save some. He was a living example of what a life lived out in complete humility before the God of the universe would look like while in an adopted home. He struggled with guilt over the sin of his past. His writing suggests that we might classify him these days as having poor self-esteem. He sure wasn’t the charismatic and confident leader we might wish to see. He was, however, focused on the profound and unimaginable greatness of God that transcends cultures and found true peace and true courage. He oozed the presence of the Prince of Peace and Lord of lords.

This is the Patrick who stood alone in the confidence of his Saviour, defying the Druid gods and goddesses in a strikingly similar story to that of Elijah on Mount Carmel. As the Druids looked across from the Hill of Tara to the Hill of Slane where Patrick was they trembled at the thought that Patrick’s fire might burn forever on this island. Patrick defied their gods and goddesses that night. He defied them with his life as he was welcomed into communities after that. He defied fear by going to sleep sober. When others would wake in horror during the night finding that intoxication had only saved them a short while, he slept on. His peace and courage were not lip service to a constructed spiritual being. They were completely transcendent.

This is the Patrick of St. Patrick’s Day. A man who fiercely loved God and fiercely loved the Irish. He committed his life to being a living alternative.