is Christmas over?
Christmas is an amazing season isn’t it? A whole church calendar month is taken up with retelling the narrative from what amounts to just a handful of verses from the Old Testament and a handful of chapters from the New Testament. Yet there is always something new in the narrative to captivate, challenge and provoke us no matter how long we have been a Christian. If you strip away the tinsel, baubles, presents and fat beardy blokes in red suits we are left with an astonishingly complex series of events.
It’s a narrative that begins with a pregnant nation and a pregnant teenager, leads us to a bewildered fiancé, changes scene due to a politically-motivated relocation, peaks with a birth in squalid conditions, involves rough and ready strangers poking their noses in uninvited (reminding us that Jesus is for the rough sleepers as much as the wealthy)… and it’s the story of God with Us. It’s the story of God breaking all of the theological rules because he loves us all.
But we’re past Christmas now. It has been taken down, packed away and assimilated into our churches in the same way that we assimilate that new pair of socks from Aunt Doris into our wardrobe – comfy and familiar, so why am I going on about it still? Well, I am left uneasy with that shift, especially in a lot of free churches. Because we may well have missed out significant parts of the narrative that are as much ‘Scripture’ as any other.
My wife often comments that she has rarely heard a sermon on the significance of the faithful, prayerful expectation of the elderly Simeon and Anna. And I have rarely heard (and even more rarely preached) a sermon on Herod that culminates in the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. He makes a cameo appearance as the pantomime villain in the nativity story – a signpost for the wise men (back to them in a moment) but it’s not easy to think about infanticide on the scale that he ordered. And of course it led to Jesus being a refugee, a ‘migrant’ (asylum seeker?). (Would he have ended up in a rubber boat trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety today, perhaps even ending up in Calais?)
And there are those pesky wise men. Pedants (me included) remind us that there was an indeterminate number of them, albeit three gifts. But they were astrologers, they were foreigners, and (heaven forbid) they may even have been magicians (‘magi’ is the root of the word). They were guided by some sort of celestial phenomenon and play a pivotal role in the narrative by reminding us that Jesus was not just for the Jews. Yet their meddling led them to alert Herod to Jesus’ birth and quite possibly led to the toddler-bloodbath. What good did their worship gifts of gold, incense and myrrh do the bereft parents?
All of this reminds me that to try to create a neat, tidy, sanitised gospel is impossible because God in not neat, tidy and sanitised. He is God with us in the midst of mess and carnage. He is God with us in emotional trauma. He is God with us in confusion. He is God with us when we feel on the outside. He refuses to be limited by human expectations or theology. We can attempt to describe him but he’s always going to surprise us by being beyond our imagination.
We often talk about ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ because we don’t want to be constrained by tradition and expectation. And I warm to that. But paradoxically I want to confine my thinking this year. This year I want to think inside the manger. Who knows where that will take me?
musings on grass*
Vibrantly persistent meadow grass dances rhythmically to the beat of a breeze
that breathes politely across taken-for-granted landscapes
carpeted in verdant swathes of emerald deep pile.
Flexible it bends before the strongest gale.
Ever-thirsty it greedily consumes the heaviest rainfall
yet dries buttery-beige under the summer sun
to yield, apparently barren, to scythes and balers
and become fodder and bedding
for cloven-hoofed creatures.
And yet, somehow, this humble dried bed-food
was worthy of cushioning the God-child
as confused cattle looked down at a new-born gate-crasher
wriggling, gurgling, crying, hungry and helpless
in their feeding trough.
Vibrant, verdant, flexible and fruitful times do not last.
But even that which has been cut down and seems dead and dry
can become a surprising bed of welcome and encounter with God-with-us, Immanuel.
*I am aware that this title carries a certain amount of playful ambiguity but assure you that this poem was not created under the influence of any substances.
It’s week two of Advent. Traditionally we look at the Old Testament prophecies that look forward to the coming of the Messiah. It never ceases to amaze me how Jesus’ contemporaries were looking for a ‘knight in shining armour’ Messiah rather than a suffering servant given that they had the same prophecies that we do. Somehow they managed to spin things in such a way that they could ignore the difficult and awkward passages and focus on the ones that they liked – perhaps they called the ones they didn’t like “fake prophecies”.
Of course we’d never do that, would we? This Christmas we’ll all be referring to the slaughter of the innocents in our nativity plays and emphasising the ‘sword piercing your soul’ heart-rending aspects of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary in our 9 Lessons and Carols won’t we?
I can still remember one of the comments made to me in sermon class at Spurgeon’s College*. It’s not because it was a really traumatic experience, but because it was profound. I had preached from Genesis 22 on God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and had spoken about Abraham’s faith, God’s honouring of that faith and the prophetic nature of the Lord providing a lamb for the burnt offering. One of the lecturers pointed out that I had ignored the darker side of the narrative and (to paraphrase him) made a profoundly macabre passage into one that was all light and fluffy! How would it have felt to be Abraham and be told that he had to sacrifice his son? Never mind that he was the miracle baby through whom the prophecy would be fulfilled, it was his son whom he loved!!
I took that on board. In my first church as one of a team of Ministers we took a risk one Christmas Day by taking the theme of ‘Disappointment’. We messed around with giving each other disappointing presents (“Have you got the receipt?”); explored the disappointment of God’s people expecting a warrior king and getting a baby in a cattle feeding trough; and then finished by talking about how Christmas can be a time of disappointment for some people – marked by loneliness, sadness, painful memories and a sense of being left out by all of the frivolous festivities. We pointed out how in the midst of the joy and wonder of the nativity narrative there were people walking in darkness, there was the inexpressible trauma of mothers weeping for children ripped from their arms, and even Mary and Joseph experienced rejection, loneliness and had to flee for their lives as refugees. And while we spoke of the great light, of the one who weeps with those who weep, and of the place for all in the cold, dark stable we got quite a lot of criticism from people for whom that was too sombre a message for a Christmas Day service. But I will never forget the warmth, length and strength of the hugs I received from people who with tear-stained faces needed no words to express that by exploring the darker side of Christmas we had enabled them to feel included and ministered to. It was worth it.
This Advent may you experience Immanuel’s light in dark places, his consoling embrace in abandonment, and his presence in loneliness.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*Sermon class was the occasion when a student preached in front of the whole College and then everyone decamped to a lecture room where it was analysed (not always positively).
a brief history of communication*
Technological advances have provided us with so many new ways of communicating with each other. It probably started with Thag and Ug gesticulating to each other and making sounds that they mimicked – gradually evolving into a spoken and comprehensible language. Cave paintings at that time of history were perhaps the earliest form of strategy planning – this is what we are looking for and we’re all going to attack it when we see it.
But Thag and Ug could only communicate with each other when within earshot. Maybe blowing into an animal horn or big shell helped with vague instructions and rallying calls, but you still had to be able to hear. Until some bring spark (!) invented fire and then we had the possibility of warning beacons and someone else thought about making smoke signals.
Technological advances from this point onwards seem to have been accelerating at an almost exponential rate. Written language (and the invention of the quill and paper) enabled people to write things down and send them to someone else, perhaps attached to a person or a pigeon (which also provided a tasty snack for the reader). Semaphore and flags enabled more specific communication over distances.
Books and then the printing press were a quantum leap in mass-communication – enabling more people to read the same thing. (Assuming they had been taught to read).The invention of the tin can, coupled with string, gave a brief opportunity for people to speak to each other over distances – limited only by the length of the string and how empty the can was.
And then telegraphs and telegrams and telephones meant that you could speak to anyone, anywhere (so long as they also had access to a receiving unit). Radio enabled longer distance communication without the need for long wires. The next step from radio is television where you can see the person speaking to you.
Innovations on these themes led to satellite communications to speak in (almost) real time around the world. For a while we had pagers (remember them) enabling people to send us a message when we were not at home or in the office. Computers and the Internet then created a whole new way of communicating (email) and bringing that together with the phone produced mobile phones and texting. Video conferencing expanded rapidly at this time, and the ability to create simple websites meant that almost anyone could put their opinions out there for anyone to see: people have visited this blog from almost every country on the planet!
And yet, with all of the technology that we have now, and with all of the innovations that will come, nothing actually beats Thag and Ug in each other’s presence communicating face to face. If you want to communicate best with someone it’s best to be in their presence.
And so, dear bloggists, I give you the reason for Christmas: if you want to communicate best with someone it’s best to be in their presence (cue sounds of a baby being born)…
Be blessed, be a blessing
*I don’t claim any particular expertise in this area. Don’t rely on this as rigorously researched wisdom, it’s light-hearted speculation to make a point!
nora the noisy angel
In the interests of recycling I am reposting something I wrote 3 years ago. It’s the text for a story that you might like:
Nora the noisy angel*
Heaven was normally a calm, quiet place. It was peaceful, gentle and lovely. The angels would talk to each other in gentle whispers because it was so quiet.
Except for Nora. She could not speak quietly. If one of the other angels whispered, “Good morning Nora,” she would respond in a loud voice, “GOOD MORNING!”
If one of the angels whispered, “How are you?” Nora would bellow, “I’M WONDERFUL THANK YOU, HOW ARE YOU?”
And when the angels suggested that Nora should speak more softly she would shout, “I’M SPEAKING AS SOFTLY AS I CAN!”
The other angels called her Noisy Nora and that made her a bit sad. She wanted to be quiet but didn’t know how.
One day Nora heard that they were holding auditions for a very special choir of angels. She was very excited and went along. Thousands of angels were singing in sweet harmony: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to everyone!” It was a lovely, inspiring, melodic sound.
When it was Nora’s turn she tried her hardest. But instead of a gentle harmony she sang at the top of her voice, “GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST AND PEACE ON EARTH TO EVERYONE!”
“I’m very sorry Nora” say the angel choirmaster, “You’re too noisy. We can’t hear anyone else.”
Nora was really sad. She knew that the choir were practising for the most exciting moment since God had said, “Let there be light!” and she couldn’t be a part of it.
She went and sat down on a small cloud and cried.
She was still crying when she noticed that it had got brighter around her. She looked up and saw the Kindest Face.
“Hello Nora,” said the Kindest Voice.
“HELLO!” she said loudly, instantly feeling guilty about speaking so loudly to Him.
“I’ve got an important job for you,” said the Kindest Voice. And He whispered in her ear to tell her what He wanted her to do.
The next day the massive choir was ready, lined up in the darkness, waiting to sing their special song in honour of the special baby. They all waited for their cue. Then they noticed Nora walk out in front of them and step out from behind the night curtain in front of a group of startled shepherds.
“DON’T BE AFRAID!” shouted Nora in her loud voice, so everyone could hear, “I’VE GOT GOOD NEWS FOR YOU. IT’S NEWS THAT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD FOREVER! A SPECIAL BABY HAS JUST BEEN BORN IN BETHLEHEM. GOD’S COME INTO THE WORLD AND YOU CAN FIND HIM WRAPPED UP WARM AND LYING IN A MANGER!”
That was the cue for the rest of the angels. The night curtain was raised and the massed choir sang their special song: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to everyone.”
The night curtain came back down and the angel choir went back to heaven. Nora peeped through and watched as the shepherds faces shone and they hurried off down the hill into the village to find the baby.
When Nora got back to heaven the rest of the angels cheered and shouted and made such a fuss of her because she had done such an amazing job with her loud voice. And Nora could see the Kindest Face beaming at her.
She was so pleased that for the first time in her life she whispered, “Thank you.”
I have worked out some lyrics for a song that can be sung to the tune of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer after the story has been told:
Nora the noisy angel Didn't have a quiet voice And if you ever heard her You'd be deafened by the noise Nora just couldn't whisper Her voice was always far too loud She only had one volume That echoed loud around the clouds 'Glory to God on hi-gh' Went the special angel song: 'Peace on the earth as well' And Nora went along She sounded like a foghorn Drowning all the harmonies She couldn't join the choir And sing the baby-melody As she cried upon her cloud She heard the Kindest Voice "I have got a job for you - I need to use your mega-voice" Nora spoke to the shepherds, She didn't need a microphone. She told them about the baby Born to bring us all back home. When she went back to heaven How the other angels cheered. And Nora's First Christmas message Echoes down across the years.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*If you like the story and want to use it, feel free. If you fancy giving me a credit that would be nice.
the magic of Christmas
Regular bloggists among you will know that I am rather keen on magic tricks. I don’t have any special magic powers, I went to a normal school rather than Hogwarts, I am not in league with the Devil and don’t access the ‘dark side’: it’s all down to skill, technique, practice and sleight of mouth.
So today, as a special treat, I am going to perform an illusion for you on my blog.
I want you to try not to think of anything in advance of this, but I am going to attempt a bloggage-mind-reading. Clear your mind [insert ‘that didn’t take as long as it should’ type magician joke here].
For those who are unfamiliar with them, let me explain about playing cards. Playing cards come in four suits – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. They are marked from 1-10 (one also known as the ace) followed by three court cards – Jack, Queen and King. That makes 52 different cards in a deck of cards (plus Jokers if you want to be pedantic).
Now, when I tell you I want you to think of any playing card apart from Jokers. Not yet! When I tell you.
Okay, think of a card. You may have thought of the Queen of Hearts but that’s not surprising because it’s in the picture.
So now change your mind and think of a different card with a different suit.
Now change your mind one more time and think of another different card, not the first one.
You are thinking of…
[extended dramatic pause]
[additional text to put my mind-reading answer further down the page, forcing you to scroll down to it and making sure that it was less likely to have been on the screen when you started thinking of cards so you can’t claim I influenced you]
You are thinking of…
the seven of spades.
This is the moment where you leap up screaming, “That’s amazing!” (I hope you are on a train at the moment!). You will be wondering how I did that and are either extolling my skill and calling the BBC to demand I have my own TV show or are calling a psychologist to sort out the mess I have just made with your mind.
Actually most of you won’t have leapt up screaming, “That’s amazing!” Most of you will have been thinking of a different card. Now you may be feeling rather disappointed and let down because what I promised and what you had hoped for was not what you got. But try to imagine how you would have felt if I had chosen your card – a freely chosen card that I could not have known when I wrote this bloggage.
All I did was create an expectation and choose a random card. I had a 1 in 52 chance of being right. Most of the time I will be wrong, but probability suggests that some of you will have been thinking of the seven of spades. And for those people, for a moment, the improbable or even the impossible happened.
Advent has been a season of expectation and hope. We reflect on God’s promises and how, at the time of Jesus’ birth many people felt disappointed and let down because they were not getting what they hoped for. We reflect on our own hopes and how sometimes they go unfulfilled.
But we also anticipate how, when Jesus was born, those promises were fulfilled. Not in a spectacular way for everyone but in a subtle way to a few. And for those few there was a realisation that the impossible and improbable had happened to them and it overflowed in joy.
The wonderful thing is that now, because the improbable and impossible has happened, we can all experience it for ourselves because it’s available to us all. Jesus the God-human born in Bethlehem can be born in you too.
This will be my last bloggage before Christmas, so I pray for a hope-fulfilled, fear-turned-to-joy, peace-on-earth Christmas for you all.
Be blessed, be a blessing.
Candles by Carollight
I was listening to one of my favourite Christmas CDs in the car today: Annie Lennox’s Christmas Cornucopia. She has a beautiful voice and the arrangements of the carols and songs are lovely. I find it very uplifting and inspiring. (In the middle of the collection of songs is a French carol, sung in French. I will come back to that later.)
I don’t know if Annie Lennox has an active Christian faith. But at the very least in recording these Christmas carols she will have a greater awareness of the nativity and what Christians believe about who Jesus is. I wondered whether those recording the songs regarded them as something spiritually significant or simply as a variety of folk song.
Tonight I will be attending one of my favourite services of the year. (I am not sure I actually have a favourite, they are all special, but I think you know what I mean.) I love a traditional Carols by Candlelight service. This will be the first time for a number of years where I will be attending as a member of the congregation rather than being part of the planning and preparation and leading of the service. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (he says ironically as a coffee-drinker). I know some people who don’t find it uplifting (including some Ministers). That’s okay. There will be other services that bless them more.
But it’s also the service that sees attendance at church increase significantly because there is still enough residual affection for the service within our society that attending the Carol Service is an important part of what makes up Christmas. There will be a number of people there whose church attendance is limited to once a year – regular if not frequent!
Churches get quite excited by this annual influx and will also work hard at helping people to feel welcome and inviting them to increase the frequency of their attendance or deepen the level of their engagement with the church. Messages will be preached that explain that it’s not just a nice story but really happened and has significance for us today, that Jesus can be incarnate in our lives as much as he was in the stable. Friends and relatives will be there and Christians who invited them will be pleased that they came and heard the message and sang the carols. But should we be that excited? Singing the words of a carol will not make people a Christian any more than singing in French makes Annie Lennox a Frenchwoman (I told you I’d come back to that). And going to church won’t do that either, no matter how frequently we attend.
There will be people there tonight who come to enjoy singing the Carols and who need to hear that message, but who will go away untouched by the message. They will have sung their lungs out, enjoyed the atmosphere, appreciated the welcome, nommed the mince pies and will go away mentally ticking that off their to do list for Christmas without it making any difference to them.
Before you think I have gone all ‘Bah Humbug!’ on you, let me say that I am delighted that people come regularly once a year. I think it is important that we can provide this part of their Christmas experience. I think it is right that we offer a different perspective on the festival and remind people what it’s really about. I hope and pray that it will make a difference.
But it’s not the church’s job to make that change happen. It’s not even up to us (although we have to do the inviting). That’s up to God and the people who come. Let’s come with expectation of a special service, expectation that we will enjoy ourselves, and expectation that we will experience a fresh encounter with God.
Be blessed, be a blessing
small children in the park, tea towels for goalposts?
The text below comes from an article in today’s The Independent newspaper. Click on the link for the full glory of the article and cheesy pics.
Chelsea have made some star signings over the years but this one would trump the lot – that of Jesus Christ.
However, even with all his roubles, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich won’t be bringing the Son of God to Stamford Bridge. But a survey has found that 20 per cent of kids think he already plays for the Blues.
A total of 1,000 children were asked the following multiple choice question as part of a survey for Netmums: Who is Jesus Christ? a) A footballer for Chelsea b) Son of God c) TV presenter d) X Factor contestant or e) An astronaut
Incredibly, 20 per cent of the children asked at a shopping centre in Brent Cross went with option a).
Even if Jesus was available in the transfer market, one suspects Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who styles himself as the ‘Special One’, might feel uncomfortable about being upstaged by such a star name.
It might be possible the children confused Jesus Christ with Jesus Navas, who plays for Manchester City.
The discovery that many children believe Jesus plays for Chelsea wasn’t the only worrying finding. According to the results a quarter of them think the shepherds found the infant Jesus with the assistance of Google Maps and that more than half think Christmas Day marks Santa Claus’s birthday.
So if you have any doubts about the significance of Nativity plays (tea towels included), Carol Services, Christmas School Assemblies and so on…
Be blessed, be a blessing
(corny joke alert)
The survey didn’t say what position they thought Jesus played but we all know he must be a goalkeeper because Jesus saves!
(you were warned!)