Putting yourself out there

It’s the time of year when most of us come home to more election literature being put through the letterbox. As Northern Ireland prepares for Assembly elections on 5th May, most of the candidates are getting their information out there in the public domain. Whether it’s the aforementioned leaflets of posters on the lamp posts or party political broadcasts on radio and television,  we can’t avoid exposure to this big event.

I don’t know if you would consider yourself a political person, but I have always been fascinated by elections. I usually follow them wherever they are happening, so kept an eye on the events unfolding in France over the weekend. I get drawn into the American presidential elections with all of their razzamatazz and even the election contests within political parties whether here on the mainland UK, or across the Irish border.

Perhaps, this interest stems from my training as a historian, but I know that politics and elections often evoke a cynical response. We often form our own opinions of particular politicians and parties and their behaviour. We expect certain standards and are quick to identify the inconsistencies between the words spoken, the promises made and the actual reality that unfolds.

Since the advent of social media, we notice that election time brings us highlights and sound bites from the various parties and personalities contesting the elections. We see them out in their constituencies, speaking out on issues of local importance. Sometimes, in this particular place, we hear them raising fear or concerns about what their opponents might do if they are elected. At times these campaigns and debates seem to cross a line. The emphasis seems to be centred on personal differences and criticisms rather than on policies that might make a difference to all our citizens. The tone can become very toxic and society seems to become increasingly polarised as a result.

One of the things I admire about political candidates of every party is their willingness to put themselves up there for election. It takes enormous courage to say I want to work in the bear pit of public life and make a difference in the community. It takes bravery to allow your poster to go up on the lampposts where those posters are often defaced and sometimes in a very sinister way. It takes conviction to go on the television or the radio and speak about what your party stands for and believes in. Who would want their public and private life under such intense scrutiny?

When analysts and commentators, whether of the journalistic variety or the general public, have their opinion on what your stance is on a particular issue, it brings a certain pressure with it. If you have a clearly defined position on a moral or political issue, it will always lead you into opposition to those who have different opinions and aspirations on the same question.

That’s why it’s important, both in our private and public prayers, to pray for those who seek to represent us. May they be people of integrity and conviction. May they seek to work, not just for themselves, but for the common good. May they stand up for fairness and justice for all people and be prepared to stand against what is evil or wrong.

As I focus this week’s blog on the forthcoming elections and our political representatives, it got me thinking about the ‘church without walls’.

Very often we do our best as Christians to live life under the radar. We don’t want to offend people or come across as too pushy or enthusiastic about our faith. We often stay silent on debates in the public square for fear of what others might make of us.

Sometimes, when I prepare with families for baptism and we talk about the point in the service where someone is signed with the sign of the cross using the water that has been blessed for that purpose, I pose a question. I ask people to imagine what it might look like if, instead of water, I used ink? Imagine, if everywhere we went as the ‘church without walls’, we could instantly be recognised as followers of Jesus because of the cross publicly displayed in ink on our forehead. I wonder would that impact the way we spoke to other people, the way we spend our money, the way we drive our car, do our job or behave on the sport’s field?

Do we as the ‘church without walls’ have the courage of our political representatives to put ourselves out there as identifying with a particular set of values or way of life? Are we prepared to stand up for those who are oppressed or downtrodden? Do we follow the radical principles of Jesus our master loving our enemies, praying for those who might persecute us, putting others before ourselves? Do people even know that these are the sorts of teachings that shape or govern our lives? Do they know about the grace that is available when we fall short of those standards and mess up? Are we honest about the times we get it wrong, about the doubts that are part of our life of faith or do we try to deceive them that we never have struggles in order to convince them of the reality of our faith?

Whatever our political preferences or aspirations might be, it’s good to have the opportunity to cast our vote and live in a democracy where we do have the freedom to choose who we want to represent us. As we continue to pray for the peace of our broken and divided world can the church shine out in the darkness as a beacon of hope?

I met someone this week who works for a church based organisation that is helping refugees fleeing Ukraine in the neighbouring countries of Romania and Moldova. One of his observations, from conversations with their partners working on the ground, is that when people are arriving as refugees after very stressful and dangerous journeys, rather than approach government agencies many come instinctively to the churches. They know that they will receive help, love and compassion there.

I thought that was quite a telling and powerful observation. Could people say the same of the ‘church without walls’?

Look forward to speaking again soon. Much love to everyone.

Jono.

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