Hope in the ruins



Last year I had the opportunity to visit Ireland. It was a fantastic few days that I spent with a friend of mine, Robert Birnie. Robert’s a minister in the Wesleyan church and we’d met during our studies at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester. There’s something about Robert’s Irish sense of humour that just seemed to ‘click’ with my own Australian one that meant that we became immediate (and I’m sure lifelong) friends.

I’ve been to England a few times now for study and I love visiting cathedrals and old churches there. Maybe it’s because I love to think of worship as transcending time and space. It’s bigger than me and the 100 or so people physically present with me in one given moment. When we gather for worship we join with Christians throughout all places and all ages (past, present and future) to worship one God. Visiting these historic buildings just gives me a very tangible reminder of that theological viewpoint on worship.

Of course Ireland has a rich and varied Christian history. It’s got some of the best stories from our shared past – like that of St Patrick – and some our worst; namely, the complicated battles between Catholics and Protestants. We visited both Cathedrals (Catholic and Church of Ireland) in Armagh, St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast as well as three of the four Wesleyan churches that are part of Robert’s circuit (he is a very busy boy!).

But then we came across what was clearly an abandoned church. It’s in the village of Moy and is an old Church of Ireland church called St John’s. The gate was opened and previous ‘visitors’ had left the doorway open so we went in to look around. The sign above the door informed us this church had been erected in 1831. It broke my heart to see a place of worship lying in ruins. I wondered what songs had been sung here before. I wondered about the baptisms, weddings, funerals and other special occasions that had been celebrated by the church community. I wondered of days when the building was thriving; filled with people. The chatter of friends and the silence of prayer. The laughing of children and the ‘sh-shing’ of parents. The sound of the organ and the voice of the preacher. Then the days when the ‘faithful remnant’  looked around to see more empty pews than parishioners. A finally, the moment when that dreaded announcement was made.

“We’re closing”.

Now, it's all just a faded memory.

As we walked around what was fast becoming a haven for vandals, animals (no snakes, of course!) and curious Australian tourists, I found on the floor pages from a book. Somehow, when the church was cleared of all its contents, a prayer book had been left behind. By the time I crossed the threshold of this building the book was no more than scattered pages on the floor. I took one of these pages and hung on to it – a reminder of this place, and the thoughts it had brought to mind.

The random page I took (stole?) with me contains a prayer (Day 17 – Morning Prayer from BCP based on Psalm 86). As I read it, it was almost like I was reading on behalf of that church community now scattered. It’s something I now keep close by on my desk and I pray it regularly.
Bow down thine ear O Lord and hear me: for I am poor and in misery.
Preserve thou my soul for I am holy: my God save thy servant that putteth his trust in thee.
Be merciful unto me O Lord: for I will call daily upon thee.
Comfort the soul of thy servant for unto thee O Lord do I lift up my soul.
For thou, Lord art good and gracious and of great mercy unto all them that call upon thee.Give ear Lord unto my prayer and ponder the voice of my humble desires.In the time of my trouble I will call upon thee for thou hearest me.
For me, as I think about worship, this prayer reminded me that even where it seems to be the end of the road… there is always hope. In a small but tangible way, God entered into that empty building that day. I’m sure he had done so in a myriad of other ways before, but in this action he reminded me what is in reality central to the Christian message. Where there is devastation, he can bring restoration. Where there is brokenness, he can rebuild. Where there is sickness, he can bring healing and where there is despair, he can bring hope. He may not do it in ways that we expect, or even desire, but he can and will do it.

That’s what he did for us in Jesus. That’s what God continues to do today in the lives of people.

So, of all the churches I visited that day; in fact, of all the churches I have ever visited, a small, broken, run down and deserted church in Northern Ireland will remain one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

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