St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path

Over the Easter break I got away for a couple of days to beautiful West Cork to fulfil a long held ambition – to complete St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Walk from ‘Top of the Rock’ nr Drimoleague to Gougane Barra over two days. It’s about 40km over some of the most spectacular scenery in Ireland. But more than that, it’s been developed as a Christian pilgrimage route – part of a wider movement to re-discover and re-develop Ireland’s rich legacy of Christian pilgrimage.

St Finbarr's wayIt’s been partly developed by friends, David and Elizabeth Ross, who have now just opened a wonderful walking centre on their farm, complete with a ‘pod pairc’ – cosy cabins designed from the Gallarus’ Oratory in Kerry. Read a good piece in the Irish Examiner here.

Pilgrimage has been defined as “a meaningful journey to a place of spiritual significance.” The idea is to provide a space and place for spiritual reflection – walking in beautiful countryside, following in the footsteps of 7th Cent St Finbarr.

I can’t speak highly enough of the facility (loved my pod!), the Rosses’ warm hospitality, the lovely weather, the whole idea of a pilgrimage walk (the idea didn’t take into account my hiking shoes falling apart, but I’ll come back to that).


Pods at Top of the Rock
Pods at Top of the Rock

The walking centre has been carved out of earth and stone and wood – those elements getting rearranged from an old quarry surrounded by fir trees into the wooden pods, crushed gravel yard, stone buildings and walls. This is culture-making: – taking the raw materials of God’s creation and imaginatively re-ordering them into something beautiful and yet also functional – done with much love, prayer and a ton of hard work.

David and Elizabeth are the third generation of Rosses to live at Top of the Rock. David’s grandfather lost both legs in his 60s but kept persevering – and the family think he’d like the idea of the farm he worked so hard to establish being used as a walking centre.




These boots are('nt) made for walking
These boots are(‘nt) made for walking

Day 1

Day 1 was a 22km hike, about 8.5 hours. David sent me on my way with a prayer from Top of the Rock viewpoint (looking north at Castledonovan and the mountain of Mullaghmesha beyond over which the path goes). From its summit you can see the Mizen, Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas snaking their way into the Atlantic.

The beginning
David at Top of the Rock

The route follows Finbarr’s journey north to Gougane Barra (the lake is the source of the River Lee) where he established a monastic settlement. He later founded another monastery where the Lee met the tide – which became Cork city.

From first to last, the thing that struck me was birdsong – incessant, loud, joyful, beautiful. I heard far more birds than I saw and wish I knew how to identify songs – the ones I saw included blue tits, chaffinches, thrushes, wrens, robins, coal tits, pheasants, kestrals, wagtails, martins, some swallows just arriving from South Africa, and up higher in the hills, larks.

This was a warm spring day, with hardly a breath of wind and the land bursting forth with life – hedgerows sprouting, primroses blossoming, fushia hedges budding, sheep lambing, cows calving, the gorse exploding in colour and scent …


Castle Donovan
Castle Donovan









Rock on the Road
Rock on the Road









Rest at Coonamore lake
Rest at Coonamore lake









Just after this the sole of my (admittedly 20 yr old) right boot chose to remain in the bog rather than attached to my shoe – this with 10 km still to go. I ended up tying the sole onto the shoe with the laces from both feet. A temporary fix that sort of worked if I walked like Quasimodo. [Eventually the loose left boot helped to develop a nice blister on my left foot, and with a couple of miles to go the right boot fell apart altogether and I finished the last section walking the road in my socks ….]

So that’s how to lose your sole on a pilgrim walk 🙂

The last section follows the Meelagh Valley and then up over the hills and down to Kealkil – passing the Megalithic wedge tomb (c. 2500 BC) near the Meelagh River and the Kealkil Stone Circle (c. 1400 BC) above the village.

Kealkil Stone Circle
Kealkil Stone Circle









Day 2

Day 2 began at Carriganass Castle in Kealkil. This was a beautiful walk up the valley, past the ancient Moughanasilly row of standing stones and remote farms.

Moughanasilly stone row
Moughanasilly stone row

The route then cuts across boggy heathland before winding its way past the Kealkil wind farm and up towards Conigar mountain.

The light was diamond clear to begin but the weather began to close in on the mountain as showers developed. The views from the top were marvellous, looking across to Kerry and the Magillycuddy’s Reeks on one side, Knockboy on the other and Bantry Bay lying behind. And also, looking down, the welcome view of Gougane Barra, the final destination, set like a jewel in the valley floor.

The final descent, I don’t mind admitting, was tough going with weary legs, and soaked feet (in runners since the boots had done their last walking). About 5.30 hours in all.



Gougane Barra
Gougane Barra
Magillacuddy's Reeks
Magillycuddy’s Reeks









Some Reflections

These were a fantastic two days: pristine air, magnificent scenery, extravagant beauty and all in the context of warm hospitality.

Pilgrimage has an integral place within Roman Catholicism, tied closely to devotion to saints. Because of this, Protestants and evangelicals have tended to shy away from pilgrimage – which is a shame. I don’t know about you, but I think more and more are rediscovering the value of a journey: a walk, time to reflect, to pray, to enjoy creation, to go in company, to slow down, to be physically stretched out of your comfort zone, to get away from the incessant clamour of capitalism, 24 hour news and the tyranny of the urgent.

In saying this, it is not as if God is somehow only found in ‘retreat’ and silence – he is there in the ordinariness of everyday life and work. But, sometimes we need a shift of gear, a change from ordinary routines to create space for spiritual refreshment. I can’t say I had a blinding mountain top ‘spiritual experience’, but I do know that I returned physically tired but with renewed joy and peace in my soul ….

Have you a place you go to or a pilgrimage you have done where you have experienced God in a different way?

Two words come to mind after the walk, both talked much about in Psalms of praise – which have most to say about God and creation:

Beauty: Walking gives time to pay attention and to hear creation as well as see it; to get in tune with the surrounding world in a culture of terminal distraction and noise … The words of Psalm 98 of the rivers clapping their hands and the mountains singing for joy at the justice and goodness of God took on new meaning for me in West Cork.

Journey: St Finbarr’s pilgrim path is only two days – it is not quite the Camino yet. But it is a physical reminder of how the Christian faith itself is a pilgrimage – a journey towards a known eschatological destination – a renewed creation where God will be with his people.

At times the path gets hard (a mountain or bog in the way), there are self-made diversions (getting lost by not following the map), unexpected obstacles and temptation to give up (soles falling off),  opportunities to help others (being asked to herd cattle along the road), weariness (physical limitations / getting older!) … but the good news is that Jesus promises rest for the weary and burdened.

And that final destination is where beauty and journey meet – and there is no more powerful image for this than the breathtaking valley of Gougane Barra …

Gougane Barra
Gougane Barra

Resurrection changes everything


If you believe in the resurrection of the Messiah, it changes everything. There is no middle ground.

Take some implications for Paul, who came to believe on the Damascus Road that Jesus was indeed God’s promised Messiah who had  been raised from the dead.

1) His view of God is transformed:

The mystery of the gospel (which had NOT been revealed before the resurrection) is that God has chosen to effect salvation in and through the death and resurrection of his Son by the power of the Spirit. The cross is the supreme act of love by the Triune God.   Paul’s Christology is as exalted as can be imagined. The saving purposes of God are centered in and through Jesus. Jesus is revealed to be the reigning Lord who alone is worthy of worship, love, and wholehearted obedience.

2) His view of God’s people is transformed.

Since Jesus the Christ is raised from the dead and is Lord of all, the saving significance of his death is relevant to ALL people. The entire story of Israel has reached its climax and fulfillment in Jesus, but he is not a Messiah only of the Jews but for the whole world. God’s people are now made up of all who believe in and follow Jesus – whether they are Jews who follow the Law or Gentiles who do not.

3) His view of the future is transformed

Since Jesus is raised from the dead, his resurrection proves God’s victory over sin and death. All who are ‘in Christ’ are guaranteed to follow the same path of resurrection to new life. Christian hope is of resurrection life in a new resurrection body within a renewed creation.

4) His view of his own life and identity is transformed

No longer does Paul the Pharisee seek to persecute the fledgling Christian movement but becomes its champion to the Gentiles.  Whatever was dearest to him – his religious identity within Judaism – becomes of relatively zero importance in light of the resurrection. His life is changed forever, shaped around proclaiming, persuading, talking and writing about the glorious good news of the victory of God in Christ – whatever the cost to himself personally. Nothing is more important than sharing the gospel of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord.

5) His view of a life pleasing to God is transformed

Rather than a life under Torah being the goal of a holy life, now, in light of the resurrection, the goal of life is to be conformed to the image of Jesus. The Torah can’t achieve this, only the Spirit of God can bring new resurrection life. It is through faith in Christ that sins are forgiven and new life entered into by the Spirit. It is life in the Spirit that fulfills the Law, pleases God and leads to a transformed life of love and joy, lived out of thankfulness and response to God’s redeeming love.

That’s a lot of transformation. Nothing for Paul was ever the same again. Nothing for any of the first disciples was ever the same again. The world changed on that first Easter Sunday.

It continues to call you and me to deeper worship of God, a transformed community of fellow believers, a transformed hope, a transformed identity and purpose, and  a transformed life in the power of the Spirit ….

Best wishes for a joyful Easter Sunday!

How does the cross trouble you?

The CrossThis Good Friday Christians remember, reflect upon and celebrate the death of Jesus, the Messiah.

Christianity is nothing without the cross. (And the cross is nothing without the resurrection – but that’s for another day).

Paul would only boast in the cross (Gal.6:14). Christians are baptised into the death of Christ. The share the Lord’s Supper to remember and proclaim Christ’s death. The gospel begins with ‘Christ died for our sins’.

But to boast about or celebrate the cross would have been utterly bizarre for a first century person, especially a Jew. It should strike us as pretty weird too but we are inoculated by over-familiarity.

A positive assessment of a barbaric pagan execution method? Impossible. A crucified Messiah? Grotesque.

If Good Friday reminds us of anything, it is of the shocking ‘otherness’ of God. His ways are not predictable or nice or neat.

The life and mission of Jesus began and ended in violence and bloodshed. His ministry was shaped by increasing conflict that climaxed in a solitary,  brutal and unjust death at the hands of Empire.

And yet the united witness of the NT writers is that this was no accidental or insignificant event,  but God’s dramatic confrontation of sin and death and evil in his Son made flesh.

No-one imagined that this would be the identity and calling of the Messiah until Jesus burst on the scene, healing people, announcing the coming kingdom and uttering dark predictions about his voluntary, sacrificial and substitutionary death (Mk 10:45).

The cross announces to all that our lives and this world are so broken and distorted by sin that absolutely nothing else can begin to set things right except the death of the Son. For if there was any other way to effect forgiveness and avert the wrathful judgement of God, then the cross would indeed become a symbol of an unjust and unloving Father who allows his Son to suffer unnecessarily.

This death is the decisive event in God’s saving purposes for individuals and for all of creation. It is a place where something so deep and mysterious happened that the Bible talks about it in multiple ways. For centuries Christians have wrestled with what happened at the cross – how atonement ‘works’ – and it’s remarkable how no one explanation can ‘capture’ the atonement, it is simply too big and rich and breathtaking to tie down in one image or idea.

But, however understood, it calls each and every person to worship of the self-giving God who in himself and out of love atones for sin, enacts just judgement, defeats sin and death and overcomes evil.

Too often, Christians can think of the cross as only a ‘past event’.

But the cross is never an end in itself – it is only the beginning of a whole new life within the bigger picture of salvation. Consider Titus 2:11-14

11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

The self-giving Messiah dies to redeem his people from something to something else: from a life lived for the self in this age, to a life shaped by the age to come.

All of the Christian life is to be lived under the shadow of the cross – the Christian life is nothing if not cruciform. To follow Jesus in living life for the good of others; in putting to death the old and putting on the new; in being willing to face suffering.

As I think about Good Friday I am troubled by how comfortable and untroubled I am by this God.

This cross confronts my self-sufficiency – it announces to you and me that there is no human way of salvation for if righteousness could be gained in any other way then ‘Christ died for nothing’.

The cross confronts my theology of God himself. I fear that in studying the big picture unfolding narrative of the Bible and being able to see something of how it fits together, God can be all too easily boxed away; his present and future actions fitting safely within the boundaries of an already written story that we, as NT Christians, now have a much fuller understanding of than in the OT.

But at the cross, God exploded his people’s understanding of who he was and what he could and would do. I wonder how and where he might do the same for his people today?

Comments, as ever, welcome.





crazy little thing called love

The church is a unique sort of community. All those in Christ are brothers and sisters (adelphoi) within the family of God. Blood ties are relativised. The issue of Paul’s day was that being Jewish is no longer of any spiritual significance within the covenant. Membership of the family is by faith in Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.

But the thing about a family is that you don’t get to choose who else is a member. Family life ain’t always easy and often it can be damned difficult.

Same with the church – you have no control over who else is in the household! There are differences of age, culture, language, personality, opinion, doctrine, maturity, gender, taste and well … you add your own to the list …..

As we’ve talked about in a couple of recent posts, conflict is an inevitable part of family life – whether at home, the church or a Christian organisation.

The crucial ingredient to maintain strong healthy family life, without which any family will eventually fall apart, is that crazy little thing called love.

Love is hard to define and pin down. You tend to know it when you see it or experience it from someone. Often it is easier to spot unloving behaviour. Paul does a bit of the latter in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says what love isn’t:

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil

But he also says what love is

Love is patient, love is kind … love rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails

Paul has a ton to say about love. Scholars have long recognised that it lies at the core of his ethics. Most of his letters are written to address some sort  of community problem of one sort of another. He knew about the importance of love.

If love was absent, he could write letters til the papyrus ran out and they wouldn’t make a whit of difference. Paul is no romantic idealist when it comes to love.

One of his more remarkable statements is this one from Galatians 5:6

‘the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’

Faith (and not the Torah / circumcision) has been the big theme of the letter. This is a radical thing for a Jewish man to say. But Paul knows how easy it is to be ‘correct’ theologically and yet miss the point. For faith in Christ to be authentic it must express itself through love.

Elsewhere in Galatians:

– love is the primary characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit (5:22).

– The entire purpose of the law is summed up by ‘Love your neighbour’ (5:14).

– The goal of freedom in Christ is to ‘serve one another in love’ (5:13).

And that’s just Galatians.

Elsewhere, Paul talks lots about how God loves his people, most supremely in the self-giving death of his Son. Christians are to love one another (repeated theme). God has poured out his love into their hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5:5).

Christians are simply to do everything in love (1 Cor 16:14).

Now this sort of love to those outside the immediate family would have been considered bizarre in the Greco-Roman world. Love for others, across boundaries of race, gender, social status, hierarchy, culture and religion was alien and unparalleled.

Such love is as counter-cultural and counter-intuitive today as it was then.

I’ll say it again – Christianity should appear to be crazy when compared to the norms of wider culture.

And if all this is true, what are some implications?

Why is love so easily sidelined, and often little talked about, in  a lot of Christian ministry? What takes its place?

Can or should churches and Christian organisations (and individuals for that matter) do some sort of ‘love audit’? A check on relational health? Have you heard of this sort of thing?

One thing is sure I think: the longer a Christian, a church, a ministry continues rolling along, busy in activity yet without love, eventually the wheels will fall off.

And there is nothing more powerful, missional, transformative and attractive than love being put into practice. For love makes visible the presence of God’s Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Cheesman on conflict

ConflictGraham Cheesman is a friend and colleague and blogs once a month or so at Teaching Theology.

His posts are always worth waiting for; seasoned with grace and wisdom. This one is especially good and offers a practical and challenging framework for facing conflict. Graham’s context is a theological college. but much applies to any Christian organisation or church.

Recall that the report on conflict within churches in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland concluded that ALL the cases reviewed were to do with relational breakdown, not one was about  differences of doctrine.

Put differently: in Christian ministry, having a common set of beliefs, a common task, being efficient and productive, reaching goals and targets, being successful in fundraising, growing the church or organisation – none of this, to paraphrase Paul in 1 Cor 13, is worth much more than a Ryan Air trumpeted celebration for landing on time if there are not loving relationships at the core of all the activity.

Those relationships are not secondary to the work, they are the authentication of the work for they show the presence of the Spirit whose fruit they are.

This is why conflict is fundamentally a spiritual issue – for it revolves around issues like forgiveness, repentance, humility, showing grace, considering others better than ourselves, having the maturity to know ourselves with sober judgement, kindness, doing to others as you would have them do to you.

Over to Graham:

Dealing with differences

I doubt if it will come as a shock to anyone reading this that those working in our colleges do not always agree with each other and that tension sometimes occurs between staff.

People are complicated and every situation is different, but are there some basic rules that we can all follow to help us in such situations? Here are a few suggestions – OK, more than a few but life is more complicated than four simple rules:-

  1. If you are in leadership, do everything you can to lead within an open and trusting relationship with staff.
  2. If you are staff, recognise the complexity of the task of leading and recognise the authority of those who lead.
  3. Remember that the best decisions, especially in a time of conflict, are those taken together with as many people involved as possible, who then own the decision.
  4. Exhibit gentleness as a fundamental Christian virtue – both a beatitude and a fruit of the spirit – it must govern the way we speak to others and of others at all times.
  5. Acknowledge weakness and sin in all. We are not, any of us, wonderful people with perfect hearts who nonetheless occasionally make mistakes. We are all selfish, sinful, weak human beings and we therefore need to be humble with ourselves and forgiving of others.
  6. Say sorry when necessary. It is a sign of maturity and strength, not weakness. Everyone knows you are not perfect, so why pretend to be?
  7. Strive for consensus, but if that is not possible, look for compromise, except on those things that damage the fundamental mission of the college.   Even God compromised with his people in the Old Testament.
  8. Be there. Spend time in each other’s offices; of those we agree with, but especially of those we disagree with. Leadership especially needs to be constantly talking with all staff on their own territory.
  9. Always thank God that you are working together for him in such an influential job as theological education, training the future leaders of his church.
  10. Model for the students the attitudes and processes of good, loving, co-operative Christian service in a team. If you can’t do that, better stop teaching them scripture.
  11. Respect must always be offered and be seen to be offered to all by all. In some situations, trust breaks down, but basic respect must survive – to those above you, below you and alongside you, at all times.
  12. Attend to the issue of communication, especially from the decision makers to all affected; from one department to the other; to all, about everything possible, in every way.
  13. Consider whether the structure of the college and in particular its leadership and decision making structure, needs to be changed.
  14. If you are in leadership, never simply tell staff off for their attitudes but deal with the issues.
  15. Remember that your unity is based on a common experience of Christ. You are in the same family together whatever arguments may take place within that family.

There is nothing more difficult than leading in a time of conflict, or being authentically Christian in a time of conflict.   However, when those in an organisation come back to a position of serving together with joy after a difficult period, this is a wonderful gift of God.

an antediluvan review

NoahDavid Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House has a surprisingly positive (to me anyway, given it’s Hollywood) pre-release review of Noah. I might even go to see it ..

For once it is no hype to say this film has a canvas of Biblical proportions.

Though in today’s language you might compare it more accurately with Lord of the Rings. Look out for images akin to Isengard, fighting as impressive as Aragorn’s and creatures suspiciously similar to the Ents.

If you are wondering where all this fits into Genesis, be prepared to let your imagination soar. Storylines from the Book of Enoch, other Jewish myths and the director’s imagination supplement the Bible text. Together they create a compelling story and a surprise ending.

Charlton Heston famously defined an epic as a film that he starred in. He was wonderful at portraying strength with a smouldering anger. Russell Crowe is starting to fill his shoes, and is very suitable as Noah, because he can show the same strength though with an underlying sadness. In this film he also adds a convincing hint of madness, but I mustn’t give too much away.

It is unfair to ask “Is it accurate?” If it were, there would be only ten minutes of story plus lots more special effects. Actually, “special effects” is an understatement. Throughout the film everything is so real that I was glad it wasn’t in 3D.

The really 3D aspect of this film is in the characterisation. Noah and his sons are totally believable and the tensions with Ham flesh out the Biblical narrative convincingly. But the female roles carry the dramatic turning points, conveyed with Oscar-quality acting. They also get the best lines and appear to speak the director’s message.

Although the film takes liberties with the story of Noah, the essential message of Genesis is conveyed clearly and accurately. The story of Eden, the snake, temptation, the murder of Abel and subsequent decline of humanity is referred to frequently. The bigger picture of God’s plan to undo this damage is hinted at, but it would not be true to Genesis to state this clearly.

“How do we know God’s will?” is the unspoken question addressed by various characters throughout the film. How can Noah know what to do, and does he really understand God’s plan accurately? His dream informs him but also misleads him. His wife (who, as in the Bible, is nameless), says the goodness in our character comes from God so we should listen to it. Tubal-Cain, the violent self-appointed king, says God has left us to do whatever we want.

This film shouldn’t be seen as an accurate portrayal of the Bible, but can be treated as a thought-provoking way to explore the message of Genesis.