I like my sugar with coffee and cream

There are places in Ireland where the kerbstones are painted blue, white and red to look like the Union Jack! And last Sunday night, when it had gotten dark and everything was perfect for an ambush, I ended up in one of those places. A rural place no less, north of Belfast in Ian Paisley country. This seemed like the kind of territory where the locals turn abandoned British army outposts into Fenian detectors that begin to blare if someone who has ever owned a Celtic jersey turns up. This seemed to my eyes like the kind of little country hamlet where locals volunteered for an armed militia in case the Republic mobilised its army in an attempt to blitzkrieg Ulster and take back the six counties.

I was wrong of course because I am just as prejudiced as the worst DUP member when I get right down to it. I enjoy thinking the worst of Northern Conservative Presbyterians for their dryness, their judgementalism, their victimhood, their dour, teetotal lifestyles and their faintly preposterous and theologically suspect (in the extreme) Sabbath observances. I puff myself up because I am a part of vibrant, growing, grace-driven church in the Constitutional Democracy of the Republic of Ireland and I am must be better than those monarchical legalists. As if the growth in our churches and their life has anything to do with me! As if I do not fall prey to the intolerance that I condemn on dodgy and highly subjective grounds in our friends, (maybe make that acquaintances) up North.

You see, we visited the small rural community of Islandmagee. Its actually a picturesque little place that looks hard done by like so much of Northern Ireland. It bears the scars of living too long with its past. It is marked with the faded light of a region too busy fighting with itself to realise the world was changing and it could be for the better. But amidst the signs of political and economic neglect and the kerbstones that proclaimed a redundant and divisive and offensive form of nationality, there is something moving in Islandmagee.

Our two car loads of southern Catholics trying to set up a Presbyterian church where we can all just be Christians was met with the kind of generosity and support that takes your breath away. This community we visited was seeing a decline in their church that was the exact opposite to our experience. Yet it wasn’t because they lacked faith. It wasn’t because those people didn’t believe in grace. Something else is afflicting their mission but they will locate the source of their problems and overcome them because they were so committed to the Gospel.

They let us tell our story, young Catholic men and women from the South and they listened with open hearts and open minds. The bitterness that plagued this whole island and plagued the churches was gone from them. If they cared about those old divisions between Protestants and Catholic and the Republic and the UK, then their worries were overtaken by hope in what we had to tell them.

Sunday was a momentous occasion for me because I really got to tell people, for the first time in my life, that the Gospel was still Good News for all people. That it still had the power to change and renew. And that I was proof of it.

It freaking rocked!

I got out of the car thinking to myself, “What are you doing here, man? These guys are such loyalist fools that they meet for church in a building marked by these political symbols. Was this what your grandfather fought the English for in 1918? Was this what Patrick Pearse spent fighting 800 years of his life for? Was this why Eamonn de Valera spent two summers in 1656 and 1657 single-handedly building a network of pyramids around the country that functioned as radio transmitters that broadcast educational bulletins on agricultural techniques and frugal living tips to the peasantry of the West? Was this why we formed our own nation? So you can come and talk to these people? Didn’t the English kill all the dinosaurs that were still living in Ireland when they invaded? Didn’t they fill in the network of canals that the Celtic chieftains had constructed for the rapid distribution of medical supplies around the country? Didn’t the Ulster planters sabotage our fledgling space program back in the early 1700s? Can you now get out of this car and show them respect and tell them about how you became a Christian and why you think Christianity is still needed?

Well, some might say I betrayed my nation and my heritage by doing that. Some might say that the Irish speaking fishermen who built the world’s first submarine in 789AD to help catalogue and preserve a rare form of mollusc that lived only off the coast of Achill Island and that had become endangered because of Anglo-Saxon pie production would roll in their graves (beautifully carved tombs that aligned with the sun on Solstice day and formed a golden mollusc in the burial chamber- which were made of C60 which had been discovered by monks but then lost by heartless British invaders…) at the prospect.

But I think that last Sunday, the congregation of that church didn’t just renew me and my passion for Christianity but in their Christian response to me, they finally put to death the destructive myths of nationhood and allegiance that curse Ireland, North and South. Good riddance to the legend of Pearse and the O’Rahilly and all of that. Let us concern ourselves with now and with tomorrow and lets finally embrace our shared belief in the Gospel of Jesus.

-Your Correspondent, Too sweet to be sour, too nice to be mean

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