'I'm annoyed with God at the moment ... I have a number of really good friends who are fighting cancer and I say to Him, 'This is too much'
In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith
The Rev Brian Anderson has been a Methodist minister for 23 years and serves in East Belfast Mission in the Skainos Centre on the Newtownards Road. He was president of the Methodist Church from 2015-16 and is now the president of the Irish Council of Churches. Rev Anderson has been married to Lesley for 33 years, with three children, Michael, a Church youth worker, Nicola, a support worker in the Belfast Metropolitan College, and their seven-year-old foster son, Colin.
Q. What about your earlier life?
A. I'm the only son of Jack and Joan. Jack taught me about sheer hard work and resilience. He was very talented with his hands, but not a good businessman. He started small enterprises and was knocked back so many times, but he always had another go. Joan taught me to care for others. We didn't have much money, but that was made up for with the care I received.
I discovered, in my 40s, that I was their adopted son. It was a shock, but it helped me to appreciate them even more.
I left school with two A-levels from Orangefield High and my economics teacher, "Wee Bart", got me a job with a large insurance broker, where I worked for 10 years. The haggle over money taught me lots about human nature. My wife, Lesley, has just retired from nursing and her last post was in the Children's Hospice. Our foster son, Colin, has complex medical needs and she is his main carer. Her father was a Methodist minister, the Rev W I Hamilton, and thankfully she was not put off me when my call to ministry came some five years into our marriage.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. Through the Boys' Brigade (BB) at Cregagh Methodist Church and mixing with young people who had something I lacked. Through the influence of leaders in Christian Endeavour, the BB and Sunday night Youth Fellowship, I gave my life to Jesus. I can remember kneeling by my bedside and asking Jesus into my life. That moment shaped my life journey.
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I find that the language of "following Jesus", rather than "being a Christian", suits me better these days. Following Him is a daily task, as Jesus and I go about life together. Titles, labels are nice, but in truth, they mean little.
It is much more important that I act as a good man and as a generous person.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. Not so much a crisis, but frequent gnawing doubts. Some Christians are so harsh in their need to be right at the expense of love and I wonder if it is the same God we both claim to follow. Am I reading the same Bible? How can the influence of the Holy Spirit produce such different people?
But when I am going through those doubts, God turns up in surprising, grace-filled ways and I am reassured of Him.
Then I am challenged about looking at the plank in my eye, when my focus has been on the speck in someone else's.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?
A. I am annoyed with Him at the moment.
I have a number of really good friends who are journeying with serious illnesses and, for many of them, it's cancer.
They are remarkably strong, with amazing faith, supported by the loveliest of families, but looking at the bigger picture, I say to God, "This is too much, not for me, but for them."
I know bad things happen to good people, but humanly it is hard. I recently told a friend to "hold on to that which is good" (1 Thess 5), but, in truth, it was for me also.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? And are you able to live with that criticism?
A. Yes, and I am working hard at understanding it is not me, but what I stand for, that gets the negative action.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own church or denomination?
A. No, never ashamed; frustrated, yes. I am committed to evangelicalism with the considerate understanding of Methodism. I wish to be understanding, rather than "right". I don't feel the need to defend God.
He is more than capable of that Himself, working through spirit-led individuals.
I keep on following, drawing people towards Him, rather than standing against groups in society.
My frustration is with the institution Methodism has become, rather than the movement of change we should be.
The commentator Quintin Letts once described Methodists as "itchy, invigorating people". Many Methodist churches are trying to maintain what once was, but never will be again.
We can be place-focused, rather than people-centered.
There are many exciting opportunities for Methodism at the moment and I hope that we have the courage to redirect resources towards them.
Q. Are you afraid to die? Or can you look beyond death?
A. I hope to live into a good retirement. I want to see special moments in my children's lives, but increasingly death does not worry me. I have been so blessed in this life that I would die happy tomorrow. I find the hope of Heaven reassuring, but I love Jesus, not because He offers me something beautiful in the future, He offers me something transformative today; that increasing ability to love all.
Q. Are you worried about Hell?
A. I hope to be in a cooler place, so no.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. As president of the Irish Council of Churches, it has been a real delight and challenging to learn from the understandings of other denominations. We have so much in common in our understanding of God. That said, I have learnt from the practices of Romanian Orthodox worship, with their liturgy, the icons and symbols enriching the experience. Or how the Quakers take what seems like an inordinate amount of time to listen and seek the mind of God on deep issues.
To understand traditions of others enriches my limited understanding of God and I am the better for it. I am comfortable with my faith in Jesus and I am enriched, not lessened by praying with those who have a different experience of God. I am equally content to enter into dialogue with faith traditions beyond the Christian faith.
Q. Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?
A. Firstly, while many are turning their back on the traditional Churches, like mine, many are flocking to others. There is rapid growth in the Vineyard network, the Elim and independent Churches, where many young adults are being blessed in their faith. Those Churches appear to be good at building community.
Secularisation means that fewer people are desiring Church, so there are too many Churches. Furthermore, individualism as the final judge of what is right, challenges the Churches' stand on religious and social issues. People are consumerist and personal choice is a god.
The Church must respond by listening and engaging with society, rather than telling it how to behave.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A. I watch repeatedly Shawshank Redemption and The Untouchables. I am a big fan of the West Wing (Two Cathedrals is a brilliant episode on the impact reality has on faith).
I'm also currently enjoying Madam Secretary. As for books, I've just re-read The Shadow of the Winds by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. I have also learnt much about deconstructing and then reconstructing a real faith by reading My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman.
As regards music, I like Snow Patrol and the honesty of their latest album, Wilderness.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. Portstewart Strand is the place where I know I am in the presence of God; we have talked long and hard many times. I do like quiet and stillness.
I was on retreat recently and, when the talk stopped, there was total silence - it was a sacred moment. I am an observer of centering prayer, where the time is filled with silence and I gaze at God and He at me and we don't need words.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. They think it's all over, but it's not!
Q. Have you any major regrets?
A. Not really. I prefer to look forward. I hope I did my best, most of the time, and if I didn't, I had the character to say sorry.