A Message for the New Year

The Message from Armagh Methodist’s Watch Night Service:

When we met on the Sunday before Christmas I set out a challenge to our church – a challenge to make 2016 the year to get our feet wet.

And what I meant by that was that I wanted to encourage you and the rest of our church to make 2016 the year that you, as individuals, and we as a church, move away from what is comfortable and familiar and within our control to a place where things are not as familiar as we would like them to be, where things are not as predictable as they usually are and where we are not in control of what is happening or what things look like, but rather to a place where we allow God to be in complete control.

Because when we faithfully allow God to be in control of our lives and our situations and we allow ourselves to move into those places where God is ready to do amazing things, then we begin to see the invisible God do visible things.

The challenge of getting our feet wet was introduced into Irish Methodism in Rev Dr Heather Morris’ installation service as President of the Methodist Church in Ireland at Conference in 2013 and it is based on the story found in Joshua 3 where the Israelites found themselves on one side of the Jordan River and the Promised Land on the other side.

It was only when the Israelites stepped into the fast flowing river – off of the safety of dry land and into the uncertainty of a flooding river, that they experienced God do an amazing thing – the parting of the river that allowed them to claim the Promised Land.

They had two choices – remain where they were, in the same wilderness they had been wandering around in for the past forty years, or step into the unknown and trust God to be in control.

In the same way, we stand in this place with two choices – stay where we are and be the church that we have been for the past forty years. I’ve seen photos from the 1980’s and if you have been here since those days then perhaps you might agree with me.

They show the same building, the same pulpit, the same pews – some empty, some with the same people sitting in them – the same organ, the same hymns and the same special services and events.

Or we have another choice, the one that takes us into the unknown and gets our feet wet and allows God to take control and do the new and the unexpected.

Crossing the Jordan River enabled the Israelites to defeat Jericho, to claim the Promised Land for God’s chosen people, to establish a capital in Jerusalem, to build a temple where God could be worshipped and to become a mighty nation.

Staying in the Wilderness would have left them wandering with no purpose and without a legacy to leave for the generations to come.

2016 is nearly upon us and as it approaches, I want to share with you some of the words that Heather spoke in that sermon two-and-a-half years ago:

“You are camped on the edge of the Jordan; you have grown up being told about the land which God has promised, that promise is in your DNA, and now you are camped on the edge of the Jordan with that Promised Land almost within touching distance and with the words ringing in your ears that tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things, can you imagine trying to go to sleep that night, on the edge of wonders, on the edge of the fulfilment of God’s promise?

There may well have been some in the camp that night for whom waiting one more night was almost too much to bear, who would have paced the river bank, looking over, frustrated with Joshua for making them wait until tomorrow; others perhaps who didn’t sleep that night because they were anxious, and understandably so – what would this new land look like? Would a people who had only known desert and wandering, would a generation who had only ever eaten manna, be able to cope in this new space?

And others, others who did not want to go, for whom this call to get ready was a call they didn’t want to hear. They were in a land they knew and loved, why move? This people, young and old, women and men, excited, reluctant, stubborn, frustrated, cynical, longing, all deeply loved by God, all invited to follow.

Now “invited” is a challenging word: “invited” means we can say no, “invited” means we can choose to stay even if everyone else moves on with God, “invited” gives us freedom to go, but with teeth and fists clenched, looking back, reluctant.”

What group are you in? Are you ready to take that step into a place where God is control, or would you prefer to remain where you are, or are you like that third group, not so keen for change, but realising that it’s necessary and allowing it to happen?

2016 can be a year of new things – and we worship the God of new things – or it can be another year in the Wilderness. God invites you in this new year to seek him, to step into the unknown, to do something new and get your feet wet.

“See, I am doing a new thing!     Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness    and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43:19

A Christmas Message

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about smells – about the smell of Christmas. I don’t know why, I’m not sure what brought it on, but I have tried to work out what smell captures Christmas best.

The sights and sounds of Christmas are not hard to identify – the twinkling lights, the tinsel and trees, the jingling bells and the Christmas Carols.

What does Christmas taste like? Well, it tastes like roasted chestnuts, it tastes like turkey and ham and mince pies.

And it feels like warm hugs.

But what does it smell like.

When you walk into the Manse, you’ll be greeted by the scent of cinnamon and in the kitchen you’ll smell something roasting in the oven.

In other homes it might be the smell of mulled wine or scented candles. When I walked through the town centre yesterday, past some of the restaurants, I could smell ham being cooked.

So many smells that we associate with Christmas.

But I couldn’t help but think of the smell of that very first Christmas: the smell that greeted the baby as He entered into this world.

My daughters have been eagerly opening their Tradecraft “Real Advent Calendar” each morning this month, with each window containing a chocolate and another part of the Christmas story. There’s also a little booklet that comes with the calendar that has thoughts and challenges for each day. Yesterday’s final entry went like this:

‘Where were you born? Bet it wasn’t in a stable. That’s where Jesus was born – with smelly animals all around him. The shepherds were poor and smelled a bit. The wise men were rich and important. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they came to see Jesus. They wanted to say, “You are my King” to kneel and thank him for coming.’

It seems to me that their advent calendar was confirming what I had been thinking for the past few days: Christmas does not smell as good as we would like it to smell – the smell of Christmas is the smell of a dirty barn full of farm animals and a tired sweaty donkey. It’s the smell of unwashed shepherds and a man and a woman who have been travelling for days.

When the people of Israel were looking for their Messiah the place they should have found him was in a palace with the scent of wealth – of good food and expensive wines, of perfumes and burning incense. They would not expect to find the Messiah in a smelly, dirty barn.

But then the God we worship turns up in the most unexpected places. We can find God in the homes of the wealthy, but we also find Him in the homes of the poor.

In fact we find God in places we would not expect to find him and we find him in places we would not choose to be:

In the streets and slums of Calcutta; in the homeless shelters of London, in a refugee camp in Lebanon, in the home of a displaced Palestinian and in a settler home on the West Bank.

The smell of Christmas is dirty and messy and smelly because that’s where God turns up. Even in our own messy lives.

We are told that Christmas is the time to be jolly. We wish each other a Happy or a Merry Christmas. We are told that Christmas is about family.

But it’s not like that for everyone, because sometimes Christmas doesn’t look like it’s supposed to look. It doesn’t smell the way we expect it to smell.

Perhaps Christmas this year doesn’t look or feel the way you had hoped or expected it to be. But that doesn’t mean that God is not in it, that God is not in the midst of the unexpected twists and turns your life is taking.

Because when you take away the farm animals and the messy barn and the dirty shepherds and earthly parents, what you find at the centre of it all is Jesus.

Today I’m not going to wish you a happy Christmas, because for some reading this it might not be a happy time. But I pray that on this Christmas day you will find God in the midst of everything that is happening.

May God bless you at this time.

Rev Rowan Zeelie

Four Seasons Care Homes

It is with concern that we have read of and followed the development of the planned closure of seven care homes across Northern Ireland including the Hamilton Court Care Home in Armagh.

It might be easy to reduce this story to numbers, profit and loss and viabilities. This is symptomatic of the government’s policy of austerity, where the goal is to balance the books. One way of doing so is to cut the costs of caring for the elderly by outsourcing it to private companies, whose own purpose is to generate profit.

But this story is really about people.

It is about the residents of these homes who will be traumatised by the anxiety of moving. Patients of Alzheimer’s and dementia find comfort in the familiar and predictable. To move them from where they are now to somewhere new will be a great cause of anxiety. Profit, loss and viability are meaningless to them. The closure of these homes is their story.

It is also the story of the families, those who’s loved ones are about to undergo a time of extreme anxiety and trauma. They are desperate to stop this from happening, they are emotionally invested in this situation and they are driven by their love for that precious person. It is the story of trying to keep stability while planning for change. It is the story of the elderly man now trying to find a new home for his elderly wife. It is the son and daughter who had prepared for a comfortable end of life for a parent now needing to do it all over again. The closure of these homes is their story.

It is also the story of the staff that work at these care homes – the managers and the helpers – who have invested not just their time, but themselves into caring for the residents. They, too, have become like family. And while some might have been offered the opportunity to be absorbed into other care homes owned by the company, this will not be as simple as moving up the road. When I visited the home this week I was impressed by how the staff conducted themselves. How, in spite of the uncertainty and upheaval in their own lives, the residents of Hamilton Court Care Home always came first. They recognised that the residents did not live in their workplace, but rather that they worked in the residents’ home. The closure of these homes is their story too.

But it is also our story, because in the decision to close these homes we see the shortcomings of the government’s policy of austerity. We see the shortcomings in the government’s decision to outsource the care of the elderly to private companies whose purpose is to generate a profit. We do not condemn Four Seasons for this, because profit is the purpose of any company, although we question why care for the elderly should be considered an investment opportunity rather than an act of sacrificial love. Perhaps non-profit organisations would be more suited to this responsibility.

The real question, however, is why the government would think that it is okay to do this. How they could expect a care home to be a viable investment if there is not sufficient support given to these companies to deliver. A company’s responsibility is to its shareholders, but the government’s responsibility is to the people of the country.

It is our story because as long as this policy continues, we are all at risk of not receiving sufficient care as we grow older, and so we call upon our government to reconsider this flawed policy and to no longer relinquish their duty of care to all the citizens of the United Kingdom

The Methodist Church in Armagh recognises that we are called to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; that we are called to care for and speak out for those who cannot do so for themselves. And so we offer our support to those relatives who are seeking a change to what is happening and those who are beginning to plan for the period of transition that lies ahead, always recognising that this needs to be as peaceful and comforting as possible.

While we recognise that it is likely that we will see the closure of Hamilton Court at the end of February we will continue to pray and speak out for a different outcome. We offer our prayers and our support to the families as they begin to seek and plan for the transition in care for their loved ones, and to the staff as they also prepare themselves for the uncertainty of their future employment.

We ask the Minister of Health, Simon Hamilton MLA to do all in his power and circle of influence to try to reverse this decision, and if he is unable to do so, then to take steps to ensure that these traumatic experiences do not happen again. We call upon the government, in Stormont and Westminster to prioritise and protect the care for the elderly.

We ask the people in and around Armagh to sign the online petition that calls for a government review of their policy towards care homes and care for the elderly. While we hope that it is not too late to reverse the decision regarding Hamilton Court Care Home, it is also our hope that the voices speaking out now might make a difference to future decisions regarding care for the elderly.