4th June 2006
“all of us hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things that God has done!” Acts 2:11
It has been a week of upheaval and a week of memories—moving back into the old Rectory I thought of all who had lived there before and how they had served the church down through the years, and I wondered what they would make of things today.
Listening to one of the items in RTE’s “The Times of our Lives”, I thought back on the church over the past twenty years.
I remember being at an ordination service at Saint Nicholas’ Church in Galway in 1988. The service was marvellous– there was a big congregation; there were television cameras from Rte; the mayor and corporation were there in red robes and there was a great procession of choir and clergy.
Being at that service, it seemed as though you were being lifted up from worldly things and problems of the world faded away. The service seemed to be outside of time; you could have been there at any moment across the centuries.
Perhaps it was the brilliant lights needed for the television cameras, but there was a feeling of being caught up with the angels and archangels with the worship of heaven.
The service concluded with the singing of the great hymn, “For all the saints”, the words seemed to express a feeling that all of us in that church were part of something beyond human understanding. There was a feeling that the people in that church were part of the worldwide and eternal church of God. The whole service left you with a feeling that you had been lifted close to God.
The next morning, I had a very different experience which made me think about what had happened the night before.
I was driving out of Galway after doing some shopping, when I picked up a hitch-hiker and talked with him as we drove along.
It turned out that he was an artist who made a few pounds by selling pictures of Galway scenery. He lived in a cottage halfway up a mountain in part of Galway called Iar Connacht.
We talked about this and that and, given the fact I was wearing a clerical collar, we talked about religion; he said it was something he could not accept.
When were reached the turning off the main road for his cottage, I said I would drive him up. I had a little red mini Metro and I had to coax it up a winding mountain road.
When we reached the cottage, the man offered me coffee, and because I was curious about him, I accepted.
The cottage was as I expected. There was a stone floor, ember still glowed in the open fireplace; it was not very clean, and there were clothes and dirty dishes strewn around the place. Apart from a fridge, a kettle and a cassette player, the place could have been straight out of a museum.
The man’s name was Jim and he sat and talked about what had brought him to a cottage on a mountainside in Co Galway.
He had grown up in a Republican area of Co Tyrone. His father had gone to jail for membership of the IRA. From an early age, he had been under pressure to support the cause. He couldn’t agree with the rest of his family, so he left home and school and drifted.
I asked him if he went home at all.
Every couple of years, he said, but it was painful. Going home meant threats because of the people he mixed with and because he refused to support his family’s beliefs.
Two of his brothers were in the Maze prison, serving long sentences for terrorist offences. He could not understand it; one of them had travelled to visit him in Cork, and had seemed so ordinary; two days later he was caught planting a bomb.
Jim had no time for religion or the church or anything to do with them—he saw the church as destroying the life he thought was important.
Jim lived a life outside of the law and outside of society.
He was not a selfish man. He spoke warmly of the kindness and acre he had received from people he had never met before. He talked about how he was trying to help a friend through addiction problems.
He picked up a puppy from the floor and cuddled it and thanked me for the lift. As we walked to the car, he said he hoped I would call again.
As my car bumped back down the road, I wondered about it all. The great church service on Thursday night and this strange meeting on Friday morning – what had they to do with each other? The church congregation could have been on a different planet from the people that Jim knew.
My world and Jim’s world were a long way apart in 1988, just think how much wider that gap has grown since then. What do we do about all the people on the outside?
What would Jesus make of our church? He would be delighted with our praise, with all the good things we do, but wouldn’t he also ask us about all the people who aren’t here? What are we doing about them?
The Day of Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit enabling the people of the church to tell the Good News of Jesus to all people, “all of us hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things that God has done!” Pentecost needs to be a day when we pray for words from the Spirit to tell the Good News to our own people in our own time – Good News for those who sing God’s praise Sunday by Sunday and Good News for all those like Jim in Ireland in 2006, who believe the church has nothing to say to their lives or to their world.
May the Spirit give us the words we need.