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A short video…

September 15, 2014

While in America, we made a short video to share something about ministry at East Belfast Mission.  It is set to Andrew Peterson’s song, “The Last Frontier” which portrays someone who has nearly lost all hope and then finds love at one of the lowest places in their lives.

Let us know what you think.

Link to Video

Back in Belfast

September 15, 2014

We have returned to Belfast after spending the month of August visiting Methodist churches in Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.  We were in 20 different places during the month, and it was amazing to witness the variety of settings for ministry across these churches.

  • In Madison county, FL – where the per capita income is the lowest in the state, we met in a building shared by a number of churches for the purpose of local outreach.
  • In Starkville, MS, we met in between worship services with 50 students from Miss St. University who had just returned for the fall semester.
  • In Titusville, FL, we heard about the loss of work due to the changing nature of the USA space program.

Very distinct places, and a wide diversity of community needs, and yet the same God who inspires worship in every place.  Alison and I found there was a unity of spirit in the way people welcomed us across these different locations – and we rejoiced at the Spirit of God within each of these churches.  In Ephesians 4, Paul writes on the topic of unity in the midst of diversity:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.   

Ephesians 4:1-6

The passage highlights our calling to maintain the unity of God’s Spirit in our bonds with one another – and it is hard work!  Welcoming missionaries for a day is no problem compared to the humility and gentleness that are required in our day to day relationships with brothers and sisters we live among.

We arrived back in Belfast on August 31st after an overnight flight – and the girls started school the following day!  In the past ten days, we have sought to reestablish patterns of ‘normal life’ at home and being back at EBM.  In both places, it is an important task to ‘bear with one another in love’.  May we each find God’s strength to do just that in our daily lives.

Peace,

Britt and Alison

Nurturing Hearts

May 22, 2014

One of the amazing qualities about East Belfast Mission is that it has become a nurturing place, a “safe haven” in which the vulnerable and hurting of society feel welcome.  Here, they are welcome.  Here is a “home” for those broken and messy. It is not uncommon to meet the same people multiple times in the day, often hanging around the front desk, to greetings off, “Yes, I’m still here!”  There are no pretenses, importance, or needing to prove one’s worth or successes.  How different from the values of our world when it is what you can offer, your status, your achievements etc. which matter most.

We were recently watching a TV show called “The Voice”.  It is a singing competition with celebrity judges that each mentor several singing artists.  As the show reached the final episode, there was one contestant left for each ‘judge’, and these stars took their contestants on a special day out.

The days they experienced were incredible.  One of the judges, Will.I.Am (a hip-hop artist) took his contestant to Buckingham Palace.  Another, Kylie Minogue, took her contestant to a huge concert where they met Justin Timberlake in person.  The theme seemed clear – doors were opening up for these talented, young singers.  They had made it to the final of “The Voice” and would now be meeting important and influential people.

As we traveled through Easter season it struck us what a contrast this is to the life of the disciples, and the people they met on their ‘day trips’ with Jesus.  They offered healing to the lame, welcomed children, conversed with marginalized women, and ate with ‘tax collectors and sinners’.  Despite this example, we see that the disciples still wanted to be in the limelight. In Matthew 20, we witness James, John and their mother asking for the best seats in the kingdom. Jesus teaches them, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”  He then demonstrates what this looks like by spending time with two blind men on the side of the road.

Recently at EBM, a man (let’s call him Steve) told me how the people and the place have ‘saved his life’.  Coming through the years of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, Steve’s life was under threat by paramilitary groups.   This was no abstract anxiety; he had a good friend killed during these years of violence.  The trauma led Steve, along with many others, to severe depression and struggles with alcohol.

In recent years, Steve found a welcome place in the community groups run by East Belfast Mission.  He began to discover meaningful ways to volunteer, and this opened up further friendships and new possibilities.  When we began a dinner and discussion program called “Questions about God”, he was one of the people who came along and invited others.

Steve’s story is not alone.  There are a lot of people who have stories filled with pain who have found support, friendship, or new possibility in the hallways of the Mission.  But Steve’s story is unique and sacred, for he is created in the image of God.  He may not have what our culture values as important, his pained face tells a different story. But at the Mission, he matters.

Prayer: God, open our eyes to the ways you view the people around us. Guard us from selfish ambition, or wanting to be ‘the best’, and teach us to serve with humility. Help us remember that our lives are valuable because of your love. Amen.

 Family News:

 We recently had a wonderful week with a visit from the American Grandparents: GG & Poppy. We visited the beautiful North Coast and crossed the treacherous Carrick-rede-rope-bridge (aah!!!)

 

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The morning’s golden rays

April 7, 2014

Early this morning I got to sit outside on the porch and watch golden rays across the skies in its beauty and ever changing shapes.  A lovely reflection of God’s artwork in many lives here in Belfast.  The shape of situations change and there is often beauty, but we sometimes fail to experience it.

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Picture of sunrise in Belfast

This week within counseling, I got to experience one of those golden moments.  With kids having more than one emotional upset, Britt’s bag being lost {and found!}, a new course starting at the Mission, and other stresses of life, I think God wrapped me in His embrace and reassured the heart of why we do what we do.  Working with one client for the past two years, a former paramilitary member, we have come to a great working relationship.  Despite our differences, there is respect and understanding.

We talked about forgiveness and remembered a certain father (Gordon Wilson) who publicly forgave the men that planted a bomb, killing his daughter, at a Memorial Day Service in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh in 1987.  That happens to be my home place and I remember the day that dreadful bomb exploded, killing 11 civilians.  Wilson’s response to the bombing, which was broadcast around the world, was a huge shock to many in this community – “I bear no ill will.  I bear no grudge.”  Gordon Wilson was a sincere and devoted Christian who served his family and community well.  He was also our neighbour and a man who continued to speak out for peace and forgiveness until he died.   For a father to come to a place of peace in his own loss and pain was the man my family knew him to be.

Mr. Wilson’s modeling of forgiveness, though inspiring to some ears, was also surprising, shocking, and even revolting to others.  For my client, hearing Wilson’s plea for peace on television, was sickening.  He looked at me with such harshness, as he bellowed, “Alison, it made me sick to see him [offer forgiveness]”, “how could a father forgive the scum who murdered his daughter?”, “he was nothing but a stupid ### to forgive those IRA murdering ####”.

Vicious language is hard for me to grasp.  It was especially hard since it was about someone I knew growing up.   I also know that forgiving anyone or anything seems so far removed from any common sense place.  But I also know that this client knew very little of what it is to be offered second chances, to be offered hope or to be offered a new possibility.  Can God re-shape his story and create beauty in the place of darkness?

I began to share with him a little of what I believe forgiveness to be.  We talked and listened a lot to each other that day.  Forgiving is the means to let go, not because the other person ever deserves it, or accepts your forgiveness, but it is to let go off the angry twisted pain that chokes your own heart and leaves you drained and bitter and resentful for the rest of your life.

His tense body began to ease.  This is a man who is so full of hurt.  He is angry toward himself, God, his own life and relationships.  What is it like for him to take all his own guilt, shame and hatred and let it go? What is it like for him to seek something more life giving?  To seek to forgive and be forgiven?

Spring daffodils

Golden daffodils

To forgive is a powerful act and one we all battle with.  Sometimes our minds return to the same situation and hurt, and we must decide to forgive again and again.  I sat this week and felt the great power of God opening the eyes to one who held a gun and committed crimes and begin to do a work of change within his life.  This was a golden moment for sure.   I love to seat with him each week in this place.  Beautiful privilege.  It was a real embrace from God to me and, I also believe to my hate-fueled client who is softening and being changed.  His response the following few days was, “I would like to shake his {Mr. Wilson’s} hand.  Because he is a better man than I”.  Moments of golden rays sprinkling all over our messy lives.  God, is indeed here.

 

 

Looking back. Looking forward.

January 20, 2014
A family outing this autumn

A family outing this autumn

As we begin 2014, we wanted to share with you some reflections on the past year.

The Congregation at EBM

As we began 2013, the congregation had only begun to share times of worship within the new Skainos building.  Some people occasionally spoke of ‘missing something’ about the old church, even though it was hard to pinpoint the reason.  Alongside the tasks of supporting congregational life, one theme has been providing a steady presence to help people “settle in” to everything that is new.

As the year unfolded in worship, prayer, and simple acts of service to the community, we ended the year feeling more familiar with our surroundings.

There have been testing times along the way; 2013 began with a shadow of tension in the community due to ongoing issues of national identity and a lack of ownership in the political process.  Some of the ‘flag protests’ led to gatherings which morphed into violence between protestors and the police along the road beside EBM.  There have been some major changes to the team at EBM which has caused great stress for many.

Remembering God's goodness; Emily helps Jake place a stone

Remembering God’s goodness; Emily helps Jake place a stone

There were also significant moments of experiencing God’s grace as a congregation.  At our Mission anniversary service, we invited people to place a stone which represented some way that they had known God’s presence in this place.  All piled together on our new communion table, the stones reminded us that God’s presence has guided the Mission throughout it’s past and we can continue to trust God for the future.

Skainos Square

Skainos Square

The vision of the Skainos project to be a place of healing and renewal for this hurting community has unfolded in a beautiful way.  A steady stream of people have flowed through the site from a wide variety of backgrounds.

People have come:

  •      to meet friends in the cafe
  •      to enjoy poetry and music nights
  •      to learn the Irish language
  •      to meet with an AA group
  •      for help in times of crisis
  •      for children’s and youth clubs and activities
  •      and for so many other reasons….
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Worship at EBM

Counseling at EBM

Along with the numbers of people visiting Skainos, so too the number of people looking for counseling has grown.  We now provide 100 hours of counseling per month, shared among Alison, Eileen, and four volunteers.  It’s a challenge to resist the urge to hurry people along.

The past six months has been a special, if not hard time for Alison.  She had one violent person, which made the mission assess safety.  Once she recovered from that shock, there was a clear sense that most people were just thankful to have care. On a lighter note, we were able to fund for book shelves, a filing cabinet, and new pictures thanks to IKEA and Ellie’s good taste in art!  Interestingly, one picture has a yellow flower and a little word inscribed “hope”.  More than one time, a client has paused to look at the picture and say, “that is what I long for in my life”.  It sums up what the counseling team strive to do – to walk alongside people and discover deeper meaning in their search for hope.

Alison has also offered counseling over Skype to a few individuals serving with Global ministries around the world this is a welcomed opportunity to help other missionaries in the context of faith.

Reaching out to new people

Another theme this year has been finding ways of reaching out to new people, offering pastoral care and support to those who receive meals on wheels from EBM, and also those living in apartments on site.  In December, Britt and others offered three dinners allowing space for people to express doubts and questions about God.  One woman shared a feeling that God was punishing her.  Another man shared how broken relationships have led to depression.  These conversations over a shared meal have led to new relationships; some of them have come asking for more “God-talk” over dinner.  We look forward to what this may bring.

Supporting Edgehill Theological College

What will this year hold?

What will this year hold?

Another part of our ministry over the past year has been extending support to Edgehill Theological College (the seminary for the Methodist Church in Ireland).  Over the past year Britt has assisted the staff team by meeting regularly with four students, and Alison has been invited to share a 3 day seminar on listening skills with the students this May.  These times have added interesting variety to our work.

As 2014 unfolds, we do not know what joys and struggles lie ahead.  As we have served at the Mission we have seen promises fulfilled and have also walked through significant turmoil and our faith has been stretched.   However, for today, we know and trust that God is at work in the lives of people here.  He is constant and ever present.  It is to this truth we cling.

In God’s Peace, Britt, Alison, Ellie, Emily & Jake

Grace in the Wilderness

November 2, 2013

Over the month of October, we spent some time in worship considering the message of the prophet Jeremiah, particularly his words spoken to Israel at the beginning of the Babylonian exile.  He was speaking to a nation who had been devastated by their enemies and who had been removed from their homes.  After so much loss, they were desperate for any vision of hope for their future.

One phrase that was beautiful to me was:

“The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness…”

Jeremiah 31:3

These words imagine and proclaim that God’s grace can be experienced not only in seasons of plenty and joy, but also in moments of need and pain.  In desperation and in heartbreak, God is still with us.

This is an important theme for the community in Inner East Belfast because there are many ways in which life can seem painful.  We have shared in previous posts about the challenges of unemployment, the high rates of depression and suicide, a lingering sectarianism, and the feelings of uncertainty about cultural identity.  On top of this, there has been a recent increase in local drug-related crime.  All of us have times of ‘wilderness’ in our lives (for any number of reasons) and these broader community-wide challenges can add to the sense of helplessness that people feel.

In this spirit of Jeremiah 31:3, I wanted to share about two moments of grace that I have experienced this past month.

Britt assists with a 'crazy science' show

Britt assists with a ‘crazy science’ show

Festival Fun

One of these occurred during a festival day that we hosted at EBM for the community.  Skainos square was buzzing with a variety of events – people planting something in the community garden, others enjoying a science demonstration, and others learning something about the ancient languages of this island.  We had incredible, sunny weather, and hundreds of people were milling about.

The significant moment for me came at the end of the day, as two volunteers shared how great it had been to help to help with the day.  They had been around for six hours, watching kids at the bouncy castle, helping with crafts and also enjoying the day themselves.  As we celebrated the day, I realized that it had been exactly a year since I met them, at the previous year’s festival day!  Now, this couple has become interwoven with the community at East Belfast Mission, attending church every Sunday, volunteering with the children’s ministry every Friday night, and helping share encouragement with others.

Praying (together!) for peace

In the past year, one encouraging development has been a greater level of interaction between churches in our neighbourhood.  Within a few hundred yards of East Belfast Mission, there are churches representing the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Nazarene, Pentecostal, and Baptist churches as well as other Methodists that are not too far away.  As I learn their history, it seems that all of these churches used to be overflowing with people (or at least that is their memory!), while most of them are now struggling.  Though there has been various levels of co-operation in the past, the recent past has been a time of isolation and seeming apathy between these churches.

It has been encouraging, therefore, to see the re-formation of a local minister’s meeting over the past year.  Several of us have been sharing news and praying for our community together.  There is a sincere desire to speak well of one another and to see God’s blessing shared across the community.  In one of these meetings in September, about eight of us were huddled in a giant cathedral building – and one person prayed about a vision that this huge space would one day soon be filled to capacity with the sound of worship.

Gathered for prayer

Gathered for prayer

Alongside these meetings, as a response of the increased crime levels mentioned above, a larger gathering of clergy occurred about three weeks ago.  It was decided that a good response to the violence would be a united gathering of prayer.  Just 5 days later, the largest church building in our midst was filled to capacity with folks from 35 churches in the east Belfast area.  People wrote prayers of blessing for the community and made a giant paper chain with these prayers that stretched the entire length of St. Patrick’s cathedral.

Praise God for grace in the wilderness.

On the family front

Smiles at Dundrum Castle

Smiles at Dundrum Castle

The girls have been off school this week and we have enjoyed a couple of wonderful days of adventure and fun (one trip to Dublin where we toured the Butlers chocolate factory – yummy).  Another joy is that my mother has arrived to be with us for a couple of weeks – it is great to have “GG” with us.  She took this picture at the weekend as we explored Dundrum castle.

Please pray for:

* Our congregation to have our eyes and hearts open to people in our community who are isolated, lonely and hurting.  Help us to welcome others as we worship God.

* Cooperation between local churches in East Belfast – that the prayer gathering mentioned above would not be an isolated event, but that we might find a way to further build relationship.  This is a task that requires humility and flexibility (two things that usually challenge churches!!)  There is a meeting of local clergy on November 12th.

Approaching Winter

September 24, 2013

DSC_0817Dear Friends,

Winter is beginning to set in on our city.  Time for warm coats, mittens, lighting fires and thinking of soups, stews, and foods that bring comfort, occupies our home.  Britt surprised me with an electric blanket and now it is shared with the kids who love to read their books snuggled up before bedtime.  I wonder where did those long, bright summer evenings go?  Why is there a surge in church meetings and activities when it is nicer to be indoors rather than face the cold?

DSC_1328Facing winter, whether that brings dread or happy prospects, is necessary for brightness and newness to occur.  The counseling room is busy with many dreading the dark memories and coldness of their broken relationships.  Last week I experienced the swirling emotions of one client wanting to live but also wanting to die.  Death seemed more appealing.  As their therapist, who cares deeply, I needed to ‘fight’ to hold out the possibility of a future, the hope of a slightly better, but not perfect, tomorrow, the joy in releasing the grip of pain and guilt and receiving life.  God offers so much more than what we can imagine.  Even in the darkness, He is there.  Safe.  Constant.  Forgiving. Real.

DSC_0616I have often wondered: how can Britt and I keep our own lives protected when we regularly face the darkness and weariness of the souls we serve? When we share stories from the Mission, many ask the same question.  We returned from the States in July with an assurance that we are in exactly the right place for now.  There is great hope when we believe that this season offers new journeys to take.  We also believe that God is enough to deal with our shortcomings and failings.  Not surprisingly, it did not take long for that hope and certainty to be tested, as the Mission has experienced some difficult times this past few months.  But I believe that, in the midst of uncertainty, we trust God and hold out for God’s Grace in how we live, interact with others and be.  It is all Grace.

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As a family, the girls have settled well into new school years –  Emily now 1st Grade (P.3), Ellie now 3rd Grade ( P.5).  Emily asked on Sunday night how many hours would it be till she saw Miss Haire?  The answer of ’14 hours’ was received with an “Aah, I wish it was 14 minutes”.  It is safe to say she has the sweetest teacher in the school and dearly loved by our little Goldilocks.DSC_1286

Ellie won a place on the Philharmonic Choir in Belfast.  Along with 80 other 8-9 year olds she is learning to enjoy music in a fun and creative way.  It is wonderful to see her growing in confidence.  Big conversations about heaven and “why, oh why, does God allow suffering” has swirled around in her head.  Ellie recently described the difference between Belfast and Orlando. In her eyes: Orlando was spacious, wide roads, bright and colorful with happy people; Belfast was grey with dark pictures on walls, flags and sad looking people.  I ached a little at her honest thoughts but used it as a moment to rejoice in the fact that she perceives life well.  The girls are growing up stepping between different cultures, and it is “kind of okay”.  As you can see, Ellie is an intriguing and sensitive 9 year old, who still dreams of having a dog. Maybe next birthday.DSC_1283

Jake turns two on 1st October and can already answer “do you love, Emily?” questions, with a “I love Ellie” statements.  It’s probably because Emily torments him more by dragging him away from dangerous objects like fires, stairs and her toys.  You can safely say he is adored by both girls.  He is happy and joy and fun on multi levels.  We are grateful to parent them.

In November I have decided to attend a three day training offered by a former professor from Atlanta on couple therapy.  It will be held in London and will be my first time away alone for years.  Excited to receive the training.  Not too happy about leaving them all.  Sad, I know.

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As we are uncertain about future holiday plans in the States, Britt’s mum will fly over for 12 days in November.  She is a welcomed and loved gift to us all. So we light the fire, find our boots and trust that this new season will be one off hearts turned to find warmth and wholeness in Christ.

May we all seek to know Him a little bit better this winter.

In Christ,

Britt, Ally, Ellie, Emily and Jake.

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