It was either be saved or face eternal damnation
Whatever you think of Ian Paisley, he was a remarkable figure in the ecclesiastical and political life of Northern Ireland.
He was powerful, outspoken, charming, sometimes scurrilous, remarkably eloquent, never boring and an enigma, right to the end.
We were in different political and religious camps, and he so much loathed the liberal Belfast Telegraph and the vision of its then editor Jack Sayers that he formed his own vitriolic Protestant Telegraph.
The only time we met was just before Christmas last when we were introduced to each other at a City Hall reception by the then Lord Mayor Councillor Mairtin O Muilleoir.
Dr Paisley was in a good mood. He said "I'm pleased to meet you. How old are you now?" I told him, and he replied "I'm older than you are!"
Then he asked "What do you think will happen politically?" I said: "You're the man to know that", and he replied: "I think both parts of Ireland will go forward, but not together."
My final benign memory of Paisley was somewhat tarnished by his unflattering outburst on television the next month, complaining about being kicked out by the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church. Nevertheless Ian Paisley was one of the most important figures I ever wrote about during my career as a journalist, and I wrote about him often.
His political achievements have been widely analysed, but he also had a considerable career as a churchman. He was one of those so-typically Ulster evangelists to whom the reality of hell-fire and damnation was as real, and urgent, and threatening. He was out to save souls, but like so many barnstorming figures of his era the love of God was so often drowned out by his references to the wrath of God.
He was a considerable organiser, and he had the distinction of not only creating his own political party and newspaper but also his own Church.
He maintained his iron grip for many years, until he was ousted several years ago, and little has been heard about the Free Presbyterian Church since then.
I heard his last sermon in the Martyrs Memorial Church, and it was like something out of the Fifties. The building was packed, with the women wearing neat berets and little or no make up, and Paisley showed that in more than 50 years he had not moved an inch theologically. For him it was either being "saved", or face eternal damnation. There was no in-between.
He was equally dogmatic about the Vatican, and although he was a good MP to his Catholic constituents, he had a vitriolic hatred of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
Paisley was a clever man, and in his own right he had the makings of a considerable theologian, but he was incapable of moving beyond his own straight and very narrow version of Christianity.
He was both loathed and loved, and he will be remembered for many things, good and bad. Above all he will be remembered for making the vital step towards peace, which only he could make. Despite everything, he deserves immense credit for that.
Perhaps the Lord really does move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform ...
Always two sides to every story
The Pope’s acceptance of Cardinal Sean Brady’s resignation this week was no surprise.
Such things are carefully orchestrated in Rome and if the Pope had not accepted the resignation it would have been a huge story. It was interesting to note the warmth of the tributes from other church leaders which went beyond the usual anodyne statements on such occasions.
The comments showed that, whatever the Cardinal’s human failures, he was regarded warmly as an ecumenist in a divided community. There are always two sides to every story.
Sanctuary and rest
Day of healing at Lough Derg
Brother David Jardine, the indefatigable founder of the Interdenominational Divine Healing Ministries, is organising a Day of Healing next Wednesday, September 17, at Lough Derg.
This is a place of great sanctuary and healing which is traditionally associated with St Patrick.
David Jardine, also a Canon at St Anne’s Cathedral, says: “I extend an invitation to people to come away to a quiet place, to rest a while and to experience the healing presence of God.”
How much do we interfere?
I hope I’m not being presumptuous in claiming this but I joined a club this week.
I did it online and for free and, trusting that my application is accepted and will be processed, I now belong to the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group, a voluntary association for those interested in monitoring, protecting and appreciating those birds of prey that are found in the province.
In doing so I’ve reconnected with a hobby from as far back as my primary school days when a friend introduced me to bird watching and especially birds of prey.
In the intervening decades, that hobby took a backseat but once our family got a black Labrador a few years ago, my daily walks with him have rekindled that sense of scanning the skies and general landscape for a sight of these majestic creatures.
The suspended magic of a hovering kestrel, the soaring majesty of a wheeling buzzard, the explosive dash of a sparrowhawk or the ‘bolt from the blue’ that is a peregrine falcon stooping on its prey are some of the iconic sights that make the many long hours of watching and waiting worth our while.
Hopefully, my membership of NIRSG will allow many more such experiences and the chance to learn much at first hand from those who are experts ‘in the field’.
On a similar theme, I’m currently reading a book called H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald in which the author trains a goshawk in the aftermath of her father’s death. It’s a brilliantly beautiful evocation which interweaves her experiences as an austringer, a grieving daughter, an academic and simply a human being. Throughout it, a question kept recurring to me: how or how much do we interfere with the world for a particular outcome as opposed to letting things just take their course?
To which Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer is especially apt: ‘God, grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.’
A question of faith . . .
Elder, St John’s
Your idea of Heaven?
A place of no more tears where we can enjoy being in the presence of the creator of the world. Amazing!
Eternity, would it be boring?
Definitely not! It is a place of eternal happiness.
Could God be a woman?
As I understand it, God is a spirit and is neither male nor female. God has the best characteristics of both and so much more.
Your greatest moment of spiritual enlightenment?
Sitting on the rocks at Ballycastle on a beautiful Sunday morning with a Scripture Union leader team preparing for a camp. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, the sea a gorgeous colour and God was very real as we communed with him.
The person you most admire and why?
I admire many people today who I have learnt so much from, but I decided on Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma. I admire her because she was able to withstand 20 years of house arrest. After years of protest from her supporters around the world she was released and is now a leader in Burma trying to make life better for all her people.
If you could ask God just one question, what would it be?
I have so many questions. Why do you continue to love us even though our actions show we don’t deserve it? (Will there be any sport in Heaven?)
Your favourite book/music/film?
Book: Grace by Max Lucado (I also enjoy sport biographies.)
Music: Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
Film: Chariots of Fire.