Rev Karen Sethuraman is the first female Baptist Minister in Ireland and is currently a Pastor of SoulSpace, a Peace and Reconciliation hub, based in Belfast.
Her passion is peace and reconciliation/social justice and she is a champion of gender equality.
The Rev Karen is also one of the founders of Spectrum - a space set up in Belfast for LGBT+ people of faith. Karen feels particularly called to minister outside the Church walls, journeying with people who feel they ‘don’t fit’ in Church.
She has served as Chaplain to two Belfast Lord Mayors.
LAST week, I had the privilege of representing Ireland’s Future, along with the fabulous Tadgh Hickey, on Cork 96fm, to talk about the upcoming event to be held on Saturday, October 1, at the 3Arena, Dublin.
RECENTLY I attended an Anabaptist Theology Forum held in Birmingham, as part of my PhD journey. You’re probably wondering, who on Earth are the Anabaptists? Well, during the Reformation, when the principle ‘Cusis regio, euis regio’ (‘The religion of the rulers must be the religion of their subjects’) held precedence, the Anabaptists made a faith decision that directly confronted and challenged the social religious, and even political status quo. These courageous radicals had the courage to take a stand and call out the abuses within the church. However, this resulted in them finding themselves ‘outside’ of the institution, and even labelled as the ‘unwanted and unloved stepchild’ of the church.
WE all know what it is to be offended and hurt by the words of others. Over the course of my ministry life, I have received many unpleasant messages. The majority of them are from other Christians, and are usually because I am a female minister. I tend to ignore such negativity and move on. However, I am concerned that such people tend to weaponise the Bible. In other words, they use the Biblical text to attack and wound others; and it is usually toward people they have never met. They appear to be confident that not only has God given them the role of judge and jury, but also that God would want (and be even pleased) for them to make contact with someone and rip them apart. They don’t make room for healthy theological debate, other different interpretations, and understandings. The very basis for any healthy faith conversation is respect. Of course we are going to have differing views, but this does not give any of us permission to attack anyone. Jesus said: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I believe the heartbeat of this verse is to love even when we don’t agree. We must stop tearing each other apart, and stop with the theological red lines. I am worried that often the Church is more concerned about whose theology or doctrine is correct, without ever mastering what it truly means to simply “Love God and our neighbour.” Let’s remember…• God is not male or female. • God is not doctrine.• God is not Protestant.• God is not Catholic.• God is not hell.• God is not hate.• God is love. And we are His beloved. The word ‘beloved’ derives from the Greek agapétos, meaning our worth is not based on what we do, what we have achieved, how good we are, or even in what we believe. We are the ‘beloved’ because we are created by a God who cannot love us more or less. You are loved by God no matter what. You are His beloved. May His love overflow from our hearts towards other’s; including those we disagree with. Let’s remember, there is room for us all.
THE Latin phrase ‘Solvitur Ambulando’ was coined by St Augustine, and has come to mean so much to me over the past few years. It means ‘It is solved by walking.’ There are many times over the course of our lives when we can feel stuck, trapped, uncertain and directionless. However, there is something about placing one foot in front of the other and taking tiny steps, Even when we cannot see what is up ahead. We may not have the answers we think we need, but this lovely phrase reminds us that as we walk... it is solved: •As we walk with uncertainty.•As we walk with grief.•As we walk with division.•As we walk with brokenness.•As we walk with failure.•As we walk with the unknown. I love the words of the psalmist: “God made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before him. When I got my act together, he gave me a fresh start. Now I’m alert to God’s ways. I don’t take God for granted... I feel put back together and I’m watching my step.” (Psalm 18). The psalmist knew what it was to walk through the highs and lows of life. Throughout the psalms, we read his words of joy and praise, as well as his anger, rants and frustration at life; and even at times his anger toward God. Yet he kept walking. Friends, as we journey through this life, let’s keep walking. Things may appear hopeless and helpless, you may not be able to see up ahead, but keep putting one foot in front of the other. You will get through whatever you are facing. It is solved as we walk.
ISN’T it hard to believe that our summer is coming to an end? As we get ready for another change of season, I want to pay tribute to all you mums and dads out there who will be getting ready to return your little ones (or not so little ones) back to school/ college/university, including those of us helping navigate the next chapter for our graduates and older children. Let’s be honest, we can love our kids deeply, and we can love being a mum or a dad, yet still feel that being a parent is sometimes challenging. I get it – I truly do. Whether it’s a new born baby constantly crying, or toddlers and their tantrums, or our ‘teens’ who we feel are ‘ageing’ us, parenting at times is very tough. On top of this, I’m also very aware that we are living through a cost-of-living crisis, and I am conscious that there will be many parents feeling the stress of not only not knowing how to pay their bills, but also wondering how they will be able to afford school uniforms.
WE all have a story. Our book of life contains chapters of joy, pain, struggle, failure, illness, betrayal and a million other emotions that make up the great tapestry of our messy lives.
I BELIEVE the heartbeat for true and authentic community is hospitality. And so often, hospitality begins in our homes around the kitchen table. Yes, there are times we must rest and enjoy time alone, but nothing beats getting folks around our tables for food and drinks together. Furthermore, I also believe hospitality is the heartbeat of the Christian faith. It is about opening up our hearts and our homes and welcoming others to our table; a table where:• Conversations happen.• Stories are shared.• Visions are birthed,• Friendships are formed. Hebrews (13:2) reminds us to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Why, some have extended hospitality to angels without ever knowing it.” Of course, we will always have our family and friends who we live life and share food with many times. However, I believe the challenge concerning intentional hospitality is to extend our tables to include people who are outside our circles.
I’VE been thinking a lot about fear. Let’s be honest – we all fear something.I think what triggered my thoughts regarding fear was when I recently sat in my garden on a hot afternoon and in the distance, I could hear the rumblings of thunder. Immediately, I remembered that as a little girl I was terrified of thunderstorms. Why? Because someone told me that thunderstorms are a sign that God is angry with me. I can’t recall who told this to me, but I do remember being told that the lightning was God smashing light bulbs, and the thunder was the sound of his anger. Sounds crazy now, doesn’t it? But not to this then five-year-old child. I used to climb into my mum’s bed, pull the covers up over me and quietly repeat the word ‘Sorry’ over and over again. Goodness, what I would give to go back and tell my five-year-old self that this is nonsense, and God is not angry; He doesn’t hide behind a bush waiting to pounce out at us every time we make a mistake, and he certainly doesn’t gather up lightbulbs as a sign of his anger for the next thunderstorm. Isn’t it funny how fear comes and goes? I no longer fear thunderstorms (thankfully), but yet fear can come in so many forms: •Fear of heights and spiders.•Fear of others, rejection, failure or even success.•Fear of the future or the past.•Fear of illness.•Fear of death. What is it you fear? Friends, there is nothing wrong or weak in confessing when you fear something. In fact, bringing it out into the open can often allow others to comfort and help settle our fears. I love the words of Isaiah: ‘“Fear not, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name. You’re mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end. Because I am God.” In the Bible there are over 360 references to the concept of ‘Fear not.’ God continually reminds us that He is with us. We do not walk this journey of life alone – even the road of fear.
THE Belfast Pride parade is taking place on Saturday July 30. I always love to see the displays of the Pride flag, and also the many organisations and companies that will take part in the parade showing their support for our LGBTQ+ community. One of the groups that will be walking in the parade is called ‘Christians at Pride.’ This UK movement is ‘an ecumenical grassroots movement.’ and it is great that we, here in Belfast, will once again have many Christians who will take part in the Pride parade. Pride provides us not only with the opportunity to remember and reflect on the difficulties our LGBTQ+ community have come through (and continue to), but also gives us an opportunity to celebrate the positive changes. I love that there are so many people of faith stepping up and speaking out for inclusion and equality in our churches. It is important that we continue to: •Champion love not hate.•Champion inclusion not exclusion.•Champion equality not inequality. The Church is falling so behind on this. No-one should be made to feel ashamed or belittled because of who they truly are. Yes, we are going to differ in our theology and understanding of the bible, but we must be determined to always err on the side of love, grace and acceptance-even in the midst of our disagreements. I give thanks for the Christians who will take part in the parade. I hope and pray we all have a blessed day as we celebrate our precious LGBTQ+ community.
RECENTLY, the High Court ruled that exclusive Christian religious education taught in primary schools is a breach of human rights and unlawful. I found it interesting hearing the different reactions to this news. On one hand, people voiced their relief, stating that religion should be kept completely out of our schools. Yet, on the other hand, many Christians voiced their concerns as they feel their faith and values are being eroded.
RECENTLY, as I have walked around our great city, I have noticed the amount of rubbish overflowing from bins and lying on the streets. I can’t help but wonder why people think it is okay to toss their rubbish on to the kerb. And I wonder too what visitors must make of Belfast with our streets in such a mess? It really isn’t a pretty sight. However, I am glad that there are action groups set up to improve our littering problem. This has caused me to consider how my Christian faith informs what I think, and how I relate, to our environment. I think the first thing to say is that whether we have faith or not, we all have a part to play, and this can be a simple act of placing our rubbish in a bin. Secondly, and in relation to faith, the Genesis story is key to this conversation, as we read that God, Himself, is inextricably linked to His creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Furthermore, Psalm 24 reminds us that “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, and all who live in it, for He founded it on the seas and established it on waters.” I only have to capture a roaring sea, sandy beach, gorgeous sunset, snowy day or a mountain top view to be taken up and blown away by God’s handiwork. After all, taking the time to enjoy nature can help improve our stress levels and mental well-being. I love the words of CS Lewis: “Something of God... flows into us from the blue of the sky, the taste of honey, the delicious embrace of water, whether cold or hot, and even from sleep itself.” I truly believe He has given us this world to not only enjoy it, but to also look after, including our city of Belfast. We have been given the responsibility to be caretakers of this Earth, our communities and streets. Spending time in creation helps us to connect with our Creator. So, yes, let’s enjoy our beautiful creation – but let’s also make an effort to maintain its goodness, and that includes simple tasks such as placing our rubbish in the bin.
AS I pen this article, I am currently in bed recovering from Covid. Just when I thought I was one of the lucky ones to dodge this virus, on Sunday morning I stared at the dreaded two red lines confirming I was Covid positive. Suddenly my plans were cancelled, including visiting my mum’s grave (as it was the second anniversary of her passing). For someone who struggles at the best of times to rest, this certainly left me with no choice but to surrender to the fact that I need to rest and recover. I remember years ago hearing a preacher say: “Sometimes the only way God can get you to look up is to put you flat on your back.” I’m not sure that I agree with his theology, but I do know that in the midst of our growing things-to-do lists, busy work schedules and demands on our time, God teaches about the importance of rest, refreshment and recovery. So, what are my plans until I get the all-clear? At first, I thought I would catch up on reading and some PhD work, but I’ve discovered that the physical exhaustion I am experiencing means that my concentration isn’t the sharpest. Therefore, my plan is to simply lie down and rest. I’ve been thinking about Psalm 23, especially verse 2: “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters.” I remember as a little girl hearing this famous chapter being taught, usually with the backdrop of a picture depicting a lush green open field with sheep enjoying the beautiful serene meadow by a glorious river. However, this is not what the hillsides of the psalmist’s day would have looked like. Instead, they were often hilly, parched, rocky, dirty, with the odd patch of grass due to the dry seasons they experienced. Interestingly, the warm wind blowing would create moisture on the cool rocks at night allowing pockets of grass to grow. The shepherd would take his sheep along the dirty dry paths so that they could graze of the sprigs of grass. There wasn’t much, but there was enough to help them journey a little bit further on the hillside. Also, the shepherd would build a pen that would provide protection and rest at night for his sheep. Life isn’t always green and lush; instead, the hilly, dirty and often rocky paths of our lives can leave us feeling parched and exhausted. God longs for us to rest. Whether we are on the rocky paths or resting up in the pen, Go. And, even when we walk through dark valleys, He is with us.
THIS week I attended my son’s sports day. Yes, I am that mum: The one shouting ‘Come on, you got this!’ from the sidelines.
SO often social media can be a cesspit for online abuse, character assassination and downright negativity. However, there are those moments when it can be used for good. Recently, I was invited to join a group of stellar women for a gorgeous Palestinian meal to discuss the possibility of setting up a Twitter Space that gives women across our island a platform to speak out about issues that affect them. If you don’t know anything about Twitter Spaces, they are open spaces, led by two hosts, and a number of people are invited to speak. Anyone can join in and simply listen. A few weeks ago, we launched #ListenToHerVoice #Sisterhood (held Wednesdays at 8pm). We were all blown away by not only the number of women (please know men are welcome too) who joined the space, but also engaged in the conversation. Various topics have been discussed such as the cost of living, violence against women and girls, and other everyday living challenges. And we have had the honour of being joined by speakers such as Naomi Long, Kellie Turtle and Elaine Crory as well as many other phenomenal leading ladies. I confess I have enjoyed simply listening. There’s just something about passing the mic to others, especially voices who are often unheard. I have been deeply moved as I have listened to heart-wrenching stories of women sharing their experiences. In a job that requires me to often speak a lot, I have found this space invaluable in reminding me of not only of the power of listening, but also: • The power of sisterhood.• The power of togetherness.• The power of a deep sense of community.• The power of giving the microphone to people who so often aren’t heard. I’m reminded of the words of James (1:19): ‘Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue.’ Listening is something I need to learn to do better. It is something we can all seek to do better. There are so many people in our everyday lives who are not looking for us to fix them, but to simply listen. Let’s remember that we are not competitors, but rather companions on this life journey. I hope and pray we learn to ‘Lead with our ears.’ Let’s learn to listen – truly listen to those who long to be heard.
FOR those of us who have lost a loved one, so often there are places, songs, photos and so on, that make up a great collection of memories. As I approach the second anniversary of my mum’s death, I confess I always dread this month. If I’m honest, for me the last few weeks of her life were probably the most horrendous. I still remember every detail. As I was looking through old photos, I came across a photo I had taken of a hospital corridor. Yes, you read that correctly: I took a photo of a hospital corridor. Interestingly, the corridor was empty. Immediately, my memory was transported back to the Christmas Day I took this particular photo six months before she died. I remember it so well. • It was the corridor where I came out to catch my breath just after being told that my mum had Stage 4B cancer.