Finding Faith in Ireland Day Seven

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Friday 9 August - Trim to Buncrana via Cavan and Monaghan

This summer, VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams is travelling around Ireland to hunt down stories of faith, life and reality. Each day, she will share the story of her journey and some of the stories she encounters along the way.

It's the final day of the tour and I'm reaching the end of my physical and mental resources! Starting the day with a strong cup of coffee I work away at some editing before enjoying breakfast with my lovely hosts (and their four wonderful children) - pancakes and maple syrup... mmmm! We head out to the church (Living Hope Community Church) in the centre of Trim where Ciaran and June have arranged for me to meet folks from Navan and Dunboyne.

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First up is Ken McKnight from Navan. Although Ken has been a Christian since he was 12 years old, he shares how his faith was just "coasting alone" until five years ago. Ken explains:

"I was listening to a sermon in church and it really spoke to me and made me challenge the way I view God and the way I was carrying on with my life. It was like a light was switched on. How many sermons have you heard in your life and how many of them really change your life? It made me really understand that verse, 'You are not your own, you have been bought with a price.'

"I was unemployed at that time. The following Sunday someone said,“if you want something from the Lord… ask Hm.” So I said, "Lord give me some work." The next day I was working in Galway on a temporary two month contract. I was living in a tent on a camping site for two months. All I had with me was my Bible and my ipod which I had loaded with podcasts.  Every night I would get home and read and pray and listen to podcasts."

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Ken suffered a massive heart attack two years ago but recovered well and is now studying at the Irish Bible Institute (IBI).

Mark Forsythe is a rather unusual Methodist minister living in Dunboyne. He works three days a week in a "normal job and spends his time engaging with his local community. Mark spends his Saturday evenings at the pub (drinking non-alcoholic beer and playing pool). Out of this has arisen opportunities to work alongside some of the men he meets.

[mark] "One guy in the pub knew I was a minister. He called me over and said, 'Mark, as a minister do people ever come to you looking for help in life?' I answered, 'All the time.' He told me, 'I’m lacking bit of direction in my life…' So we met for coffee.  As we were talking he told me, 'I’ve no time for religion and church.'  I asked, 'If jesus came into this pub and was looking for 12 discples and invited you, would you go?'  He banged down his pint and said, 'Of course I would. I’d drop everything and I’d go.'"

"People are disillusioned with religion but they admire Jesus,"Mark shares. "In terms of mission, we are only scratching the surface. Not only can we not do it on our own individually, we can’t even do it together because it is God’s work." Having said that, Mark is passionate about networking and building links between Christians and churches across county Meath. "I think God is calling us to pray and to build stronger links with one another."

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I ask Ciaran and June (who have hosted me so generously in Trim) what Jesus means to them and what difference God makes in their lives.  Ciaran admits he has been pondering this question over night.

 "I’m only beginning to formulate an answer.  For me, He means direction.  Before I knew the Lord, I had no direction in life I was aimlessly wandering. I watched life passively happen to me.  I floated along with the next current. Now I have direction, meaning and purpose in every area of my life.  The other word is 'mystery'. Because He is utterly mysterious, I will be forever learning. I can never fully understand a mysterious maker."

For June, finding faith has meant "identity and freedom".  "I'm no longer striving to find identity through my career, my ministry or my clean house. I have the freedom to be vulnerable because He loves me unconditionally. I grew up in a culture that hides - there are so many secrets. But through Jesus I'm free so I don't have to hide any more.  That's why we named our first daughter Saoirse, which means freedom.  It kind of sends you into orbit when you realise what He has done for you!"

From Trim, I head north to Cavan and I'm running late for my lunch with the new bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh. It seems as If I get behind every slow moving vehicle in the county and I'm also anxiously watching the petrol gauge. By the time I finally arrive a Kilmore, I'm running on little more than petrol fumes!

Lunch is a casual affair with Bishop Ferran, his family and the vicar of Virginia, Craig McCauley who arranged this meeting. The bishop potters around the beautiful kitchen serving us with soup, bread and cheese. It's a lovely relaxed meal and a chance to hear about the story of Ferran's appointment to his new Church of Ireland role.

Just over 12 months ago, there were no thoughts of purple cloth. Ferran and his family had been serving at Kill o'the Grange church in Dublin for many years but had finally agreed to move north to the Hillsborough parish church in Co Down. The family were barely settled in their new situation when news came that Ferran had been norminated as bishop. "But don't worry," a friend and advisor told them. "There is absolutely no chance that you will be elected, so relax and settle into your new parish."

Ferran admits he was not looking for "promotion" and was happy working away as a local rector. So it came as a shock when he was in fact voted in with a strong majority. "Miraculous" was one of the words bandied around.  But it was also painful to leave Hillsborough so soon after arriving. One "coincidence" (or as Ferran describes it "God-incidence") helped to confirm that the new role was God's idea.

Before leaving Hillsborough, Ferran discovered that the copy of Bedell's Irish bible, kept in a glass case in Hillsborough church was in fact one of only two originals in Ireland. Bedell who was the Bishop of Kilmore, was responsible for commissioning the Irish translation of the Old Testament in 1634 and was a passionate advocate for the Irish language. 

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From Cavan, I drive to Monaghan (having first found a petrol station) but find my final interview has been postponed, so instead I head for home.  These are familiar roads, as I'm regularly travelling between Donegal and Dublin but my tiredness makes it feel over-long. I also pass two nasty car crashes, which make me extra careful.  

I've now listened to the whole of Mathew and Mark's gospel and have reached chapter 17 of Luke's gospel but finally aceept I won't make it through to the end. In the end I turn to pear drops and some up-tempo music to help me over the final miles.

My last stop is at the "Amazing Grace Country" sign as I arrive on the out-skirts of Buncrana. For me this shouts "home".  I take my final photo before driving up to my front door.  In seven days, I have travelled 1,200.7 miles / 1932.3 km and have visited (or at least driven through) 20 counties:Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Fermanagh, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick, Cork, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Carlow, Laois, Wicklow, Dublin, Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Tyrone and Londonderry.

I have interviewed 21 people and spoken to many more about their faith. The whole experience leaves me with kaleidoscope of emotions and impressions but with an overwhelming sense that faith is alive and well in every corner of Ireland. Where-ever I went, I found people who are passionate about following Jesus, hungry for God's presence in their lives and longing to make a difference in their local communities. And to all who have shared with me, hosted me, prayed with me and cared for me along the way... I simply want to say THANK YOU!