Friday, 27 May 2011

Champions League Final - The best of the best

I'm just beginning to get excited and nervous about going to the Champions' League Final tomorrow. It will be fantastic and I fully intend to savour every moment. This is a meeting of undoubtedly the two biggest clubs in world football. Here in the UK, we get use to thinking that Barcelona and Man United are just two out of many clubs in the Champions' League, alongside Chelsea, Arsenal, Inter, AC Milan, Real Madrid etc. I don't think so. Go outside these shores and I reckon there is more fascination with these two than any other clubs. Two vignettes to make my point.

I spoke a couple of years ago at the Yoida Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea. There were around 10,000 Koreans there, and as a bit of a warm-up for my talk, I told them I was a theologian, but I also liked football. Sensing a bit of approval, I warmed to my theme, and decided to find out who they supported. I asked how may Chelsea fans there were. About 200 hands went up. I asked for Liverpool fans - about 400. Arsenal? around 300. Finally I asked how many Man United fans were there. Around 9,000 hands instantly went into the air. South Korea? No contest. Park Ji Sung has done his job well.

I was in Prague recently, and spent a day wandering around the streets. There were various shops selling football memorabilia, with a few scarves from Real Madrid, Liverpool and other English clubs. But one stood out: Barcelona. They were way out ahead in badges, hats, shirts, the lot. They even had Barcelona marionettes - puppets of all the Barcelona players, so you could (presumably) re-enact the moves that led to the 5-0 thrashing of Real earlier this season in your living room, with your very own Messi, Alves, Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol dolls.

Tomorrow is the meeting of the two best teams in the world. Club football is now far superior to the international game, and these two have the best support, managers, some of the best players in the world between them, and probably the best team spirit. I went to the final in Rome two years ago and was hugely disappointed United didn't win, but strangely was not distraught, as I had just seen a fantastic team win fair and square without any shadow of doubt that they deserved it. Fair play, and far better than losing to a dodgy refereeing decision, or a bit of bad luck. I'm just hoping tomorrow is a more even game, and this time the reds are ready.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Queen's Visit and the Power of Weakness

It feels as though something very good and healing has taken place during the Queen's visit to Ireland this week.

The Irish and the English are neighbours whose history is for better or worse tied up with each other. The bad blood between them doesn't need rehearsing, whether felt as '800 years of oppression' or outrage at IRA violence, but it has festered away for years, and left behind all kinds of tragedy and pain on both sides. And it is always tragic when neighbours don't get on.

I am, I suppose, an illustration of the relationship. As the son of an Irish mother and an English father, who grew up in England but spent most childhood holidays feeling at home with family in Ireland, I have always felt a bit of both. I have both an Irish and a British passport. I happily support England at cricket, Ireland in rugby and both at football. My friends are mostly English, my wider family mostly Irish. And I know many others like me. Being such a mixture, I instinctively feel that trying to separate Ireland and England, like Irish nationalism tries to do, expecting everyone to speak Irish, propagating the myth of Celtic origins that made the Irish fundamentally different from the English was crazy (that it is a myth and that we are close cousins genetically and racially was there for all to see in Fergal Keane's excellent history of Ireland showing on BBC on Mondays).

I remember being at school in the 1970s during the IRA bombing campaign and getting abuse and graffiti on my school locker for being Irish, then spending holidays in Ireland and being teased for being English. Such is the fate of the half-breed. But the Queen's visit this week has healed something. No trace of the frequent English superciliousness towards the Irish. No trace of the usual Irish chip on the shoulder towards the English. A good deal of humility on both sides, a touch of repentance and warmth.

It was not insignificant it seems to me that it came through a frail 85 year-old. If David Cameron had gone, with his Etonian confidence and air of superiority, he would have evoked all the classic Irish feelings of resentment and inferiority. As it was, this sense of harmony and healing came through a weak, unthreatening, quiet, polite and humble old lady. A sign again that the deepest healing and true strength comes not through power and force but through weakness, humility and grace.

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Location:Foskett Rd,Hammersmith,United Kingdom

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Feeling hard done by?

At the moment, I'm working on the 'Philippians and Colossians' volume in the forthcoming "Reformation Commentary on Scripture" series, and came across this vintage bit of Calvin, commenting on Philippians 2.21: "For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." If there are any ministers, priests, clergy out there feeling a little hard done by, badly paid, unappreciated, wishing they were somewhere else, hear what Calvin had to say. Typically forthright - he calls a spade a spade, as usual - but there is perhaps some wisdom here:

"It may seem at first sight as if it were no great fault to seek one’s own, but how insufferable it is in the servants of Christ, appears from the fact that it renders those whom it possesses utterly useless. For it is impossible that he who is devoted to self should spend himself for the Church... For it must necessarily be, that one or other of two dispositions rules in us: either that, overlooking ourselves, we are devoted to Christ and the things that are Christ’s, or that, too intent on our own advantage, we serve Christ perfunctorily.

From this it appears how great a hindrance it is to the ministers of the Church to seek their own interests. Nor is there any force in these excuses: “I do harm to no-one”; “I must also have regard to my own affairs”; “I am not so hard as not to be prompted by a regard to my own advantage.” For you must give up your own right if you would discharge your duty: a regard for yourself must not be preferred to Christ’s glory, or even put on a level with it. Whithersoever Christ calls you, you must go promptly, leaving all other things. Your calling ought to be regarded by you in such a way that you shall turn away all your senses from everything that would divert you. It might be in your power to be richer elsewhere, but God has bound you to a Church which afford you only a moderate sustenance. You might elsewhere have more honour, but God has assigned you a place in which you live humbly. You might elsewhere have a better climate, or more pleasant scenery, but it here that your station is appointed. You might wish to have to do with more cultured people; their ingratitude, or barbarity, or pride offends you; in short, you have no sympathy with the dispositions or customs of the nation in which you are, but you must struggle with yourself, and do violence in a manner, to opposing inclinations, that you may cherish the Sparta where you find yourself. For you are not free, or at your own disposal. In short, forget yourself if you would serve God."

Commentary on Philippians 2:21

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