My work with the Church of Ireland during the previous five years has been almost exclusively in the rural areas where my eyes most often feasted upon tranquil pastoral scenes punctuated by hedgerows separating neighboring patches of farmland. My most recent trip took me into the heart of East Belfast where vestiges of the divisions between Protestants and Catholics are still very real, highlighted by tall fences separating housing areas, murals delineating territories, a prevailing mood of suspicion and a marked absence of smiles. I suspect the close proximity of extremists on both sides of the religious divide coupled with high unemployment serve to sustain the combustible nature of the city setting in a way that's not so obvious in the bucolic hinterlands, for it's there as well.
Reflecting on the context for ministry in Ireland during the return flight, I caught myself looking forward to a few moments on the bluff gazing at the May River as if that peaceful scene were indicative of my setting for ministry. Then it occurred to me that memories die hard, especially those that have been branded into our being by tragedy. That's true for all of us - it's not a function of geography or social standing or root cause. The tailored appearance of our lives is akin to the ordered landscape of the Emerald Isle, seldom does it show our hurts as nakedly as do the streets of the Titanic's birthplace . . . a point underscored in a letter from a parishioner that arrived during my time in Ireland.
Dear Father Owens, You are blessed with your family life. Let me share what I learned from my mother and father. From my father: how a 25 year old man can beat a 5 year old boy with a razor strap; how to abandon your wife, son and 2 daughters so that the family children are split and siblings don't see each other often, all gone. From my mother: how to be an alcoholic and drink up food money; how at age 10 to take a long neck beer bottle and fight off a drunk at 2:00am trying to attack mother; a mom who had much love but couldn't control booze. I learned to be hard and survive. But Jesus loves me so I'm ok.
I share this letter with you not to draw your attention to our friend's horrific old memories but to emphasize the last line, But Jesus loves me so I'm ok. Absent a faith in Jesus, Ireland and Bluffton and me and you are chained to our yesterdays, held hostage by memories that rob us of hope and the ability to give and receive love. Jesus said of Himself,
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. Luke 4:18-19
Therein do we find our rationale for ministry in Ireland and at home and our compelling sense of urgency.
In His power and for His glory,