Tuesday, December 23, 2008

expecting, terrified, hurried, search(ing)

On Sunday morning John Bunyan had their carol service with christmas story. As we listened to the story we were encouraged, lectio divina-style, to listen for a word that struck us and ponder on it ... here are my four words ...

Lk 2.1-7 - expecting
what are we expecting? I start advent with high expectations, but the closer I get to Christmas, it as if my expectations get lower ... the tension of early advent, seems to get resolved, as christmas encroaches evermore into advent ... December becomes one long christmas season, which is over by 3pm christmas day ... what should we be expecting? ... the theme of second advent often gets lost it seems these days ... looking back is easier than looking forward ...

Lk 2.8-14 - terrified
what are we terrified about? any terror in the story is removed ... it is a disney-verison of the christmas story ... I must confess I'm ambivalent about angels ... why in children nativity plays are they always girls ... but in scripture, they always seem to be male (or in the film dogma asexual) ... I'm not sure I'm terrified about the economic crisis or the threat of terrorism ... do we need a healthy sense of fear, fear of the Lord - is that why the shepherds were terrified?

Lk 2.15-20 - hurried
where am I hurrying to this christmas? I always have this sense when I hear the story that Mary's labour must have been quick and easy ... but I wonder in the shepherds hurrying they arrived to early and they weren't exactly welcome by Mary ... did Jesus hurry in his coming into the world ... or was it a long and agonising coming? Like the shepherds we seem to do a lot of hurrying, but where they were hurrying to see the birth of a long-expected messiah, we hurry for other reasons ...

Matt 2.1-12 - search
The magi and Herod are searching for a child. Jesus is not easy to find, you have to go looking for him ... perhaps ever so more true today ... what are we searching for this year? is there any mystery left? where is God hidden? Recently in a sermon class I heard Will Willimon preach a sermon (from the Great Preachers video series) on Gen 29.16-30 ... one sentence that has stayed with me was the idea of God whispering/lurking in the shadows of this family ... God is in the background, hidden from centre view, in the shadow of Jeruslaem in Bethlehem, not in the palace but in the stable ... it may not be that God feels that present around the table on Thursday lunchtime, or in front of the television, or as you explain how to play that game to hard of hearing granny for the tenth time, but if you search just a little, you will find he is Immanuel, God with us.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Hearing the Call

Advent is not a particularly easy time for me. In fact that’s a bit of an understatement. I cannot stand this time of year; the build up to Christmas. People often laugh at me for my distain toward the season and call me Scrooge. But you see, for me this time of year holds nothing but painful memories. I did not come from a happy home, and the tension which has come to envelop the season of advent was crippling in my household. The stress got to everyone; my mother spent a large amount of time in tears, whereas my father would simply deal with it the way he dealt with everything - using violence, which was generally aimed towards my brother or I. As I got older and hit my teens, the resentment kicked in, and I rebelled against any manifestation of anything Christmassy and refused to take any part in what I could only understand to be a completely hypocritical holiday. Was the birth of Christ not supposed to be a light for the entire world? Wasn’t Jesus supposed to be our saviour? I remember how I used to remark, bitterly: 'I wish the baby Jesus had never been born'.

Back in 2002, The Samaritans brought out a poster campaign using those exact words. And in fact it’s terrifying to think how many people this advent will buckle under the pressure that this season brings with it. Present buying, credit-crunch, family feuds, tacky decorations, it’s unsurprising really that there are so many out there who, like me, dread the festivities. It makes me wonder what it is that this ‘Christmas’ thing is really all about. Here we are in a largely non Christian society, and this is the one time of year that everyone comes together to celebrate a Christian festival.

But Jesus is generally kept at a distance throughout the holiday. And not just by the secular society. As Christians we’re really good at giving the right impression, showing everyone that we’ve got it sorted; the Jesus thing. But actually, how far do we let Jesus into our lives at Christmas? Where is he in our list of priorities; our very long list of things we need to do for the big day; the gift buying, the wrapping, the food shopping, the cooking, christmas cards, parties, kids shows, circling the best programmes in the radio times and... who's birthday is it again? The list goes on. How much does Jesus encroach into our carefully timetabled routine for Christmas?

'There he is,' I hear you all cry 'there in the manger!'.
Is that where we keep him?
If we take the nativity scene, the image of Jesus as a baby is a nice, easy one. As a baby, he is cute but still out of the way, he is there, but he doesn’t have to have too big an impact on our lives.

The thing is, the baby grew up. And so must our faith. Its easy for us to keep Jesus in church; it’s neat and tidy, and surely that’s where he belongs? It’s safe for us if that’s where Jesus stays; we can encounter him on our own terms, in our own time, surrounded by our family and friends. Because it’s actually quite uncomfortable for us this comfortable Christmas time to see Christ in the eyes of those who are suffering, those who are lonely, homeless, marginalised, unwanted. If we keep Jesus in church, in the manger, in the nativity scene, we don’t have to hear the challenges that he brings this season – challenges of forgiveness, acceptance, justice, peace.

So as I try to recapture some of the magic that is supposed to be part and parcel of this holiday, I cannot forget what Christmas really means. Immanuel. God is with us. At Christmas, God came to earth as human. He identified with us. He suffered as we suffer; he knows the pain of human existence. Christ came to live an ordinary life, he became human so that he could hold our hand. God is yearning for us to let him in, to let him heal our pain and touch our hearts, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable. And we are yearning for God to do this – He is our reason for existence.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary one night more than two thousand years ago and told her what she was called to do, she answered “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word”. She did as she was called to do. She was just an ordinary girl, living an ordinary life, but God called her. She is not alone. We are just ordinary people, living our ordinary lives, but God calls us to serve him.

Ultimately, we are a people called for a specific purpose, we have a great commission, and in this season we are reminded of the message that we are supposed to be spreading; a message of joy, hope, love and peace. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for gifts, or food, or good TV, or (dare I say it) even the Christmas tree, but having spent the past three weeks reconciling myself with this festive time of year, I pray that we will not lose sight of what this is all about. I am not the first blogger to use John the Baptist’s words, but I feel they must be reiterated; “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” As advent people we are preparing for the second coming of our saviour. And that won’t always feel easy, or comfortable, or safe, but that is what we are called to do.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Reflections on Luke 2.46-55

Every day Daphne coloured dozens of pictures. A pad of paper and a box of crayons, that’s all she needed.

Daphne was in her late 30’s and suffered with Downs Syndrome. She was a member of the church where I am the minister, although she moved away with her family a number of years ago now. If you asked Daphne something she would usually repeat back to you the question you asked. There was little conversation with Daphne. Her mother and family understood her, but few others did. Daphne did not communicate very much, she lived in her own world. But she coloured dozens of pictures.

One day I asked her mother for some of them. I said that I wanted to put them up in the church. I could see that she was puzzled with the idea but she agreed and gave me six of her pictures. When I put them up in the corridor of the church I felt strangely excited, which was odd as it was very late on a Friday night when I would usually prefer to be at home. I stood back and they looked really good. There was a pattern and a rhythm to them which was only evident when you saw them together. Daphne was an artist.

The following Sunday was the fourth Sunday in Advent. We read the song of Mary from Luke 1: 46-55 which talks about the humble being lifted up. Everyone knew Daphne and the message of the gospel was clear and everyone was as excited as I was to see her pictures up. That was 12 years ago now.

Daphne left a long time ago, but one of her pictures is still hangs in the corridor. Her picture is always accompanied by many others because the same corridor is now part of a larger art gallery which, in turn, is part of an arts centre which is based in the church. The Ark T Centre was opened a year after I first hung Daphne’s pictures up. Daphne’s pictures gave us the idea to open and art gallery and the idea of an art gallery attracted some artists to work in the church which led to us opening an arts centre. Eleven years on and the Ark T Centre spins around visual arts, dance and music and every week many hundreds of people share in all sorts of creativity.

Last week I was invited in to a music session for people with learning difficulities. They wanted to give a little performance of work on the last session of the term. One of them sang ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ all the way through without the words. Then he sang ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ all the way through in Latin! He suffers with Downs Syndrome. Afterwards I asked him how he had learnt to sing, and to sing in Latin, and he told me that he went to a local Catholic Church where he is in the choir. The Church had taught him to sing – and to sing in Latin as well.

Today I celebrate the Church which lifts up the humble and sings the song of Mary.

By James Grote, minister of John Bunyan Baptist Church, Oxford.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


These last few days of Advent are a time of preparation on a number of levels. We all have our various routines and family customs at this time of year. Some of us will still be frantically buying gifts, others will be wrapping and labelling. Some of us will be decorating our homes this weekend. Some of us will be buying food for Christmas dinner, or setting up the TV to record some of the things we will miss.

Christmas, and the days and weeks leading up to it, are often the busiest and most stressful days of the year, as we all dilligently prepare our selves, and our homes, for that 'perfect Christmas'.

John the Baptist was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' John today might be the voice crying out from the wild bustling of the high street, or as we dash about at home trying to make everything 'perfect'. John's voice cuts through the mess and the busyness and the panic of the last days of Advent with a simple challenge to us all, a challenge to pray, and make a straight, level path for Christ in us.

(if you use this as a group, a * indicates a change of reader and bold should be said together.)

* God of the watching ones,
give us your benediction.

* God of the waiting ones,
give us Your good word for our souls.

* God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones
the slow and suffering ones,
give us Your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
that we might rest.

* God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones,
the slow and suffering ones,

* and of the angels in heaven,

* and of the child in the womb,

give us your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
that we might rest and rise
in the kindness of Your company.

This prayer is taken from Celtic Daily Prayer by the Northumbria Community (London: Collins, 2005). The rest of the post is also inspired by the book.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Last Seven Days...

... of Advent before Christmas Eve are in some traditions, marked by the Great 'O' Antiphons. What follows is extracted from a recent service I led focusing on these, and is effectively a series of seven prayers/petitions and a closing thought type bit. Also as the the third December born Advent blogger to have chosen to post on their birthday, all the best ideas had already gone, but I'm glad to discover Lucy is wise and I'm radical!!! (I'm sure Craig could be equally connected if only the dates allowed it).

Hope these are helpful.

In the darkness of winter, we anticipate the coming of light
In the brokenness of sin, we seek the healing of redemption
In the patience of waiting, we journey expectantly

Sapientia - Wisdom

Come, wisdom of God – open our hearts and minds to recognise our need for fresh understanding and new insights.

O Sapientia, come to us, this advent tide, as we look at a broken and disordered world and find ourselves bewildered and bruised, in need of the wisdom you bring.

Adonai - Lord
Come, Lord – bringer of justice for those trampled underfoot by human greed and selfishness; show us how we, too, may be bringers of hope.

O Adonai, come to us, this advent tide, as we long for peace in a world afflicted by sin, we need the justice you alone can bring.

Radix Jesse – Root of Jesse
Come, Root of Jesse, bringer of new life and new hope, enliven our hearts and minds to the new possibilities you bring us.
O Radix Jesse, come to us this advent tide, feed and refresh us, that we may grow in faith and maturity, bearing fruit worthy of our calling.

Clavis David – Key of David

Come, Key of David, unlocking the way to freedom and fulfilment, set us free so that we may bring freedom and hope to others.

O Clavis David, come to us this advent tide, release us from selfishness and send us out to release other captives.

Oriens – Dayspring/Dawn

Come, Dayspring from on high, bring light to the darkness of loneliness, despair, anxiety, grief and pain, leading us, step by step into wholeness.
O Oriens, come to us this advent tide; consume the darkness within and without, and let righteousness shine in our lives.

Rex Gentium – King of the nations
Come, King of the Nations, breaking down barriers between races, ending violence and bringing Shalom. As citizens of your embryonic kingdom, may we serve you faithfully.
O Rex Gentium, come this advent tide, rule in our hearts and lives, and may your Kingdom come on earth, as in heaven.

Emmanuel – God with us
Come, come and be with us, God beyond our understanding. Be born afresh in our hearts, and bring us alive with new hope in Christ, that we, too, might channels of your grace.

O Emmanuel, come to us this advent tide, walk with us in the journeys of our lives, share our joys and sorrows, and bring us safe home to you.

Advent waiting - Ero Cras?

Legend has it, and in a good tradition of sacred writing, the seven great antiphons of Advent can be used in reverse order as an acrostic for another Latin expression, ero cras, which means ‘tomorrow I come’ or ‘tomorrow I will be.’ Whether the legend has any foundation or not, the seven great sayings point explicitly towards Christmas Day, and are traditionally used on the seven days17 to 23 December. In the acrostic, we are left with the enigma of mystery: these seven images point us to Jesus, a baby in a manger, an itinerant preacher and wonder-worker, an executed criminal, a risen and ascended Lord for whose return in glory we wait. We wait for Christmas, we wait for the God who comes – we wait for the Lord, whose day is near.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Steadfastness in a spasmodic era".

Reading a book recently - well as you do. Came across this comment about a poet's work which demonstrates "steadfastness in a spasmodic era". Just another of those cat's eye reflector phrases that throws back light enough to point the way ahead. If Advent is about waiting, it's also about light, the direction of our lives, the road we travel, and believing God knows what on earth is happening and what is happening on earth.

Imagine then, Advent faith is about steadfastness, slowly enunciated, the three syllable solidity of God's promise - steadfastness. Just to repeat the word - steadfastness - pronounced with thoughtful trust, enunciated as slow released hopefulness, wonderingly prayed as both petition and praise. The word suggests a process of thinking and perceiving the world that questions the rapid fire appraisals, pragmatic adjustments and short term loyalties of this spasmodic era.

Steadfastness can be a matter of perspective, a slow but lived contemplation of the long view. The steadfast spirit is unmoved by the apparent priority of the necessarily temporary, is learning to resist the seductively transient, more and more questions the misleadingly urgent, is becoming tone deaf to the absolutist dictats of change - in other words to working hard to kick the habit of the spasmodic.

The people who walked in darkness didn't redefine darkness as something that when you get used to it can, by a verbal sleight of hand, be called good. Nor can hope ever be the end result of a gradually built up tolerance for darkness. Hope is the steadfast gaze towards the horizon for those first hints that night is giving way. Hope like love, is patient, but linked to justice for others becomes love impatient and therefore faith learning to live with longing.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them has light shined."

Advent then is a time for purposeful waiting, a call to faithful hoping, a provocation to impatience tempered by trust, a season for passionate prayers that condense into vigilant steadfastness of faith, looking for God's coming. In an era of spasmodic shifts in the spirit and goals and mood of our culture, and at a time of short-termism in relationships, social planning, financial and economic policies, maybe one of the more radical expressions of Christian witness would be through communities of faith which talk up and live out steadfastness. Faithfulness in relationships; love as persistent goodwill; not becoming weary in well-doing; kindness as long-term friendship; compassion as dependable supportive presence amongst the vulnerable.

All of which depends first on the steadfastness of God. "Unto us a child is born....and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.... and the government shall be upon his shoulders..." In a spasmodic era, steadfastness is a counter cultural stance. The redemption of a broken world, and of broken hearts, is neither easy nor instant. The steadfast love of God is eternal in its patience, infinitely adaptable to need, inflexible only in its determining purposes of mercy shaped by grace. It is this grace upon grace that enables the community of Christ to live as Advent people in a world of spasmodic uncertainties. Steadfast hopefulness and persistent compassion, embodied in acts of costly kindness and undeflected friendship, all the while gazing towards the horizon because the day is coming, and with it the light of the coming of the glory of God...."and the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Incarnational Mission

It was the end of November and we were planning for this coming Sunday (21st December) our 2nd Messy Church – which is a time for families to come together make things, worship and spend time together at the local school. Having looked at the schedule for Christmas we all anticipated that we would have had enough of making Christmas crafts, singing carols and acting out the nativity story. The leaders of the children’s groups (who are also involved in Messy Church) already knew that by the end of term we would all feel tired out. We’ve probably all experienced sometime that weariness of not being able to cope with seeing another Christmas card decorated with glitter or a tree decoration covered in sparkly bits. So we decided we would take the theme of time, and explore the idea of waiting and we wouldn’t make Christmas stuff!
Then I thought about it, what an opportunity we have. The purpose of Messy Church is incarnational mission and for a moment we were going to by pass the incarnation altogether. Yes we as church folk might be fed up by 21st December with Christmas, but here we had in front of us an opportunity to tell the Christmas story in a creative, fun and exciting way. We are running Messy Church in an urban area that’s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, where barely any families attend church, we have an opportunity to invite people to share in the best story there is. I also suspect that the families who were planning to come would expect us to say something about Christmas especially that close to Christmas Day. What a shame that we, myself included, feel that we’ve had enough just a few days before Christmas.

My hope is that the families that come might feel that sense of yearning and longing; and that we all feel that sense of hope-filled waiting that comes through the season of advent. I also hope that it won’t feel stressful for either those who are preparing, or those who come, but rather an opportunity to hear an alternative story than the world can give, or that we could say ourselves.
So may we all in the waiting, and in the longing, anticipating the wonder of the incarnation. According to M.Frost the incarnation is 'the act of sublime love and humanity whereby God took it upon himself to enter into the depths of our world, our life, and our reality in order that the reconciliation and consequent union between God and humanity may be brought about.' (P35) It is my prayer that we may be caught up again and draw alongside others in the wonder of the incarnation: which is at the heart of our faith.

By the way, thanks Andy for letting me have 17th as its my birthday, it seems there’s quite a few of us on here with December birthday’s!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Peace at Christmas?

Sermon preached in South Wales Baptist College Chapel, 10/12/08.

Dan 7:13-14
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Peace at Christmas! Doesn’t it just make you feel all warm and fuzzy? With images of toasty firesides, chestnuts roasting, and snow a-glistening. Or countless Christmas card scenes, with Mary and Joseph peacefully at ease in their stable and the gentle oxen looking on with large, peaceful doe-eyes… And what could be closer to the true meaning of Christmas than a heartfelt wish for ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all’?

Except, as we all know, there is a dark underbelly to the assertion of peace at Christmas

In the first world war, the initial hope that they boys would be home by Christmas foundered in the killing fields of Flanders and the Somme.

Jona Lewie, in ‘Stop the Cavalry’, one of the few Christmas songs I actually like, sums up the failure of the ‘Peace at Christmas’ hope, as he mumbles:

Hey, Mr. Churchill comes over here
To say we're doing splendidly.
But it's very cold out here in the snow
Marching to and from the enemy.
Oh I say it's tough, I have had enough,
Can you stop the cavalry?
Wish I could be dancing now,
In the arms of the girl I love.
Mary Bradley waits at home,
She's been waiting two years long.
Wish I was at home for Christmas.

And, more recently, the rock group U2 explicitly brought Jesus into the equation of the hope for peace at Christmas, singing:

Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth
Jesus in this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won't rhyme
So what's it worth
This peace on Earth?

Peace at Christmas, I want to suggest, is such an evocative symbol to our world because it represents the hope for that which is missing in so much of our normal experience of life. Whether through war, terrorism or assault we are constantly confronted with violence and we are constantly reminded that we live in a violent world. In our relationships with others: our families, friends, acquaintances or strangers, conflict remains an ever-present possibility with too many of us for comfort experiencing violence within the home at some stage in our lives. Our world, it seems, is caught in an endless cycle of violence as violence is met with more violence, aggression with retaliation, and hostility with vengeance. Is it any wonder that the dream of peace at Christmas represents such a compelling and enduring hope?

But what does it actually mean, to speak of peace at Christmas? Does the Christmas hope of peace on earth and goodwill to all actually make any substantive difference to our world? I think that to find an answer, we need to rewind slightly and take a few steps back from Christmas day itself to discover one of the themes of that time in the year known as ‘Advent’. For many of us, Advent is simply the warning that we’d better get on with buying our Christmas presents and writing our cards. But there is actually a deeper wisdom in this season and it revolves around issues of waiting and hoping.

At one level, Advent is the time of waiting for the arrival of Christmas day; a time for considering the implications of Jesus coming into the world as a baby, born into poverty and danger and fleeing his native country as a refugee under threat of death. But at another level, it’s also a time for turning our minds to the second coming of Jesus. It’s a time that invites us to ask the question of how Jesus ‘comes again’ to those of us who live on this violent, un-peaceful earth. And it’s with this in mind that I want to turn to a short reading from the book of Revelation:

Rev 1:5b-7

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

In this passage, John gives us a vision of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, as the one who comes again to the earth, and we see him coming with the clouds, in mystery and majesty, we see him coming as the pierced one, the one who has suffered violence, we see him coming to reveal the kingdom of God on the earth

John’s description of Jesus as ‘coming with the clouds’ is a direct reference to Daniel’s vision with which we started, in which ‘one like a human being’ is seen ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’ to be presented before the Ancient One in order to receive ‘dominion and glory and kingship’ over all peoples nations and languages. And we are told that his ‘dominion’ will be an everlasting kingdom which will never pass away.

It’s this image which John has in mind when he describes Jesus ‘coming with the clouds’… He’s casting Jesus as the ‘one like a human being’ of Daniel’s vision, and is giving us an image of the in-breaking kingdom of God in which Jesus exercises his kingly rule over the earth. This claim that Jesus is the true king of the earth presents a direct challenge to all other earthly claims to power. If we think of the most powerful people or institutions on the planet, we tend to think I am sure of those with the most power to instigate violence. But this image of Jesus coming with the clouds tells us that his dominion and glory and kingship is far superior to those who seek to claim power through violence, intimidation and force.

So when we hear news of the all-powerful multinational corporations controlling the livelihoods and destinies of billions of people living in economic slavery, or when international bankers generate suffering around the globe to ensure their shareholders’ profit margins remain in the black, or when we hear of wars or rumours of wars as nations forge alliances against each other and send in the troops on civilian populations, or when we see tragic pictures of civil wars in Africa, or hear worrying news of those who control weapons of mass destruction, or those who seek to use terror in the name or religion or ideology. When these things and so much more come to our attention, where, in all this, can good news be found?

Well, John says it can be found in the one who comes with the clouds because, against all the evidence to the contrary, Jesus, the one who comes to us in mystery and majesty in some way holds glory and dominion and kingship which is far superior to all other earthly claims to power. Multinational corporations, nation states, international bankers, and political ideologies, all these are powerful and violent, yes, but they also exist within time, and as such are not eternal.

In his song Mighty Trucks of Midnight, Bruce Cockburn sings that: ‘Everything that exists in time runs out of time someday’. And it is in contrast to the powerful, violent and temporal kingdoms of the earth that John presents us with a vision of the kingdom of heaven which comes to the earth with the one who comes on the clouds and we are invited to realise that this is an eternal kingdom, one which will not pass away because it exists beyond time.

The kingdom of God in the here-and-now might be small, insignificant and hard to see! But those who work for its establishment, those who commit themselves to seeing its coming on the earth as it is already in heaven, can be assured that they are devoting themselves to something of eternal value.

The question, though, is what does this eternal kingdom look like? And in what way is it an alternative to the violent and imperial kingdoms of the earth which are so familiar to us as they take up their weapons against each other?

The clue here is found in the way in which Jesus is described… He is not just the one who is seen coming with the clouds he is also seen to come to the earth as the ‘pierced one’ – the one who has suffered violence. We might expect the ultimate king of creation to come in might and power, with an angelic army lined up behind him. We might expect the Lord of the eternal kingdom to come in violent judgment on all those who have challenged his Lordship, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake as those who have opposed him finally get what’s coming to them!

But actually, when he comes to us, he comes not as an avenging monarch but as one who has himself suffered violence. And here we see the genius of the cross: It is the cycle of violence being broken! Instead of meeting violence with more violence, aggression with retaliation, and hostility with vengeance, Jesus meets violence with… nonviolence! He comes not to pierce others for their wrongdoings but as the one who has been pierced by the wrongdoings of others.

The great French philosopher RenĂ© Girard says that: ‘A nonviolent deity can signal his existence to mankind only by becoming driven out by violence – by demonstrating that he is not able to remain in the kingdom of violence.’ And in this he gives us a profound insight into the way in which Jesus comes again to the earth. By his entering into the cycle of human violence Jesus has acted to break that cycle. His crucifixion at the hands of humanity represents his judgment on the kingdom of violence. And his inauguration of the kingdom of God on the earth represents the nonviolent alternative to retribution and vengeance.

The only solution to the violence of the world is for God to take that violence upon himself… To enter into the depths of violence and so point the way to a peaceful future for humanity. The coming kingdom of God, which arrives with the pierced one who comes on the clouds is the peaceful alternative to the kingdom of violence.

So, where is this peaceful kingdom? What does this mean for those of us who still live in the midst of the kingdom of violence? Well, there’s good news and bad news here for us, I’m afraid! The good news is that this kingdom is already breaking in upon the earth! John speaks of Jesus ‘coming with the clouds’ in the present tense… This is something which is happening in the here-and-now! It’s not something which is reserved solely for some future transformation… There is already an alternative available for humanity to the age-old pattern of continually meeting violence with more violence. There is already available to us all another way of being human where peace rather than violence is the order of the day!

But the bad news, or rather, the difficult news, is that this peaceful kingdom breaks in upon the earth through the faithful witness of those who have already transferred their citizenship from the kingdom of violence to the kingdom of peace. That is – through us, the followers of Jesus… And the difficult part of this is that we who seek to follow Jesus, we who have committed ourselves to his path we who pray ‘your kingdom come... on earth as in heaven’ we are called to follow the example of Jesus through breaking the cycles of violence as we encounter them.

This means that we are called to live our lives very differently from the ideology which surrounds us every minute of every day! We are called to meet violence with Christ-like nonviolence. We are called to resist the temptation to enter the oh-so-tempting, oh-so-compelling cycles of violence, retribution and retaliation. We are called to be those who might have to join with Christ in taking up our own cross and sharing in his supreme rejection of violence.

For some this will mean persecution and martyrdom and for many around the world this Christmastime, that is exactly what they are facing and they, of all people, need our prayers. But for all of us it means a rejection of the ideology of violence, and an embracing of a peaceable alternative. Do we genuinely want peace at Christmas? Well, then it begins with us, the people of Christ… It begins with us, as we learn what it means to live in the Kingdom of God, rather than the kingdom of violence. It begins with us, as we explore creative nonviolence as an alternative to retribution and retaliation.

But the difficulty we face is that this is not our natural state! It certainly isn’t mine! Push me, and I’ll push you back. Bite me and I’ll bite you too. Cut me up and I’ll cut you up as well. Each of us faces daily pressures to enter once again the cycle which leads to violence, and choosing the nonviolent path is never an easy option. Walter Wink has said: ‘I don’t regard myself as a pacifist. I see myself rather as a violent person trying to become nonviolent.’ And in this he strikes at the heart of the challenge before us… Jesus did not say ‘blessed are the peaceful’ but ‘blessed are the peacemakers’!

Peace at Christmas is not about the absence of violence, it’s not about the suppression of violence, it’s not about some pacifist utopian dream where we all love each other. Rather, peace at Christmas is about turning our eyes once again to the one who comes to us with the clouds of heaven, in mystery and majesty, to the one who comes to us as the pierced one, the one who has suffered violence, to the one who comes to us as the prince of peace to reveal the kingdom of God on the earth. It is about turning our eyes once again to the one who comes to deconstruct all human power claims, to the one who comes to transform the human tendency for violence, to the one who offers the nonviolent alternative to the cycles of violence which oppress and distort humanity.

Peace at Christmas is about turning our eyes to the in-breaking kingdom of God as the future hope for humanity becomes realised in the present through the faithful witness of those who pray for the coming kingdom

Monday, December 15, 2008

Highly favoured?

This advent, as our church has been paying particular attention to Luke ch1 I’ve been struck by the Angel’s words of greeting to Mary as one who is ‘highly favoured’.

Yet I bet Mary didn’t feel so highly favoured when people whispered about her pregnancy. I doubt she felt highly favoured when she became the centre of a sex scandal and when everyone felt she had dishonoured her family and religion.
She wouldn’t feel highly favoured at the pain of becoming a refugee and moving in fear of her life. The heartache of losing her husband while the children were still growing up wouldn’t feel like high favour. Her agony, when her first-born son got executed as a criminal by one of the cruellest and most painful forms of death ever invented, wouldn’t feel like divine blessing.

Which just goes to show that being highly favoured by God doesn’t mean it all goes well, being blessed by God doesn’t mean all your problems disappear. Neither does God being gracious to you mean that you enjoy health, wealth and happiness for the rest of your life.
Mary was highly favoured because she was an instrument of God’s salvation; blessed because she had the opportunity to play a part in God’s unfolding plan and purpose in the world. Mary was given the opportunity to be the Mother of the Incarnate Son of God.

The remarkable thing is that this young girl says ‘yes’ to God. Whatever her fears and insecurities, regardless of her uncertainty and perplexity, she willingly plays her part in this history changing moment.

Perhaps this advent as we wait on God we might ponder the implications of divine favour, mull over opportunities to play a part in God’s purpose and prepare to embrace God’s call afresh.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Uncomfortable Love

Even in his birth Jesus was never going to bow to general expectation or “fit in”.

He came bringing not only joy to Mary but presumably a certain amount of fear and trepidation. Her pregnancy could have brought social disapproval, rejection, (as reflected in Joseph’s initial response…)- even the death of an adulteress???

He came bringing a challenge to the insecure Herod, who responded with an excessively violent attempt to sure up his power base. Not unlike some more modern scenarios...

He came bringing a whole new take on “royal birth” to the wise men, who did not find Him in the palace.

It was an aptly uncomfortable start to an uncomfortable incarnation. Jesus was misunderstood and rejected and killed as a social and religious outcast.

This is the Jesus we are waiting for, the Jesus we seek to emulate.
What is the implication to us this advent as we seek to follow Him?

Our family has again this advent been praying for Zimbabwe- thinking of our friends there in such appalling circumstances who understand better than us the meaning of true joy…
Whilst here in the UK we are caught in the trap of feeling we NEED what we really just want whilst lacking the want for what we really need.

Love came down at Christmas- uncompromising and uncomfortable Love reiterating the prophets cries for justice and truth and commitment. Love willing to go against the flow; to surprise and confound whilst fully embracing the humanity He challenged.

Saturday, December 13, 2008



I love Advent – a time of waiting in breathless awe and expectation of what God will do. But God is a God of surprises and nobody expected a small helpless baby, born to ordinary people who would soon become refugees – these were not the expected circumstances surrounding the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

This painting by Fernando Aritzti is always part of my Advent preparation–‘it represents the love of God for our African American people in a voyage of time and space. It shows the history of these people from their beginnings in Africa.
On the lower left side is a Zulu warrior with shield, looking up into the sky; below him stands a princess also looking up; to her left are two slaves, one standing and the other sitting on the ground.
This grouping of figures is the representation of millions of Africans who were brought in shackles from the motherland. They are watching their beloved land disappear over the horizon - a homeland they will never see again.
In the lower center of the painting are plantations of the deep south where slaves laboured in the fields for many years in the most dehumanizing conditions. These figures look steadfastly up into the sky.
On the lower right side of the painting the figures represent their African descendants. Though their lives have changed significantly since the civil rights movement, still today they are victims of prejudice in most levels of society.
Their pain-filled existence has not been overlooked by the loving and compassionate God.
On the center right side are the souls of the deceased ascending to God as the Son descends from God's hand. "Emmanuel" - God among us. My painting endeavours to emphasis the facet of God made human- the great gift of incarnation for all people of the world in time and in space.' Fernando Arizti writing in Christ for All People: WCC publications

Waiting for what?
For all to have clean drinking water.
Waiting for what?
For all to have food.
Waiting for what?
For women to be treated equally to men.
Waiting for what?
For workers to receive a fair wage.
Waiting for what?
For the rich to share their wealth.
Waiting for what?
For the caste system to end.
Waiting for what?
For baby Jesus to be born.
This is some Advent.
Waiting for rather a lot it seems .

Rosie G Motion

Friday, December 12, 2008

More Reflections on Advent as Waiting

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. (Luke 2:25)

Is a species of death
Is the longest side of resurrection’s arc.
Is a transparency of soul
An active passivity; a participation.

At Advent we remember that we are waiting with Simeon in the temple for the coming of Jesus. We are not only waiting in the great temple of history, but in the temples and histories of every situation, relationship, and conversation; every work and endeavour; whether these be cruel, joyful or mundane. We wait like Simeon for the ‘consolation of Israel’ in all the myriad little Israels of our day-to-day lives. This is a form of giving up and letting go. It is the act of saying ‘I don’t have the answers’, of ‘ultimately I am powerless and need God here’. It is a ‘by myself I can do nothing’ (John 5:30, 15:5). In this sense,
Waiting is a species of death.

With Jesus, death is never the end; in fact it is the very beginning of something new he is doing. That’s a fact spelled out at the empty tomb, but it is also expressed in the miracle of the incarnation – in the birth itself. The birth pangs are the sign that life is coming; so it was with Mary, so it is with the groaning world, so it is with our broken lives. And if we wait, though we die, we also find ourselves swung up into life and redemption. It is a miracle with G-force. In this sense,
Waiting is the longest side of resurrection’s arc.

Sometimes Jesus’ relationship to the Father is described as one of ‘transparency’; that in his human nature he was utterly transparent to the reality and presence of God, who showed and worked through him perfectly. Our spotless window. Philosophers get a little too excited about this sort of imagery but it’s useful and quite beautiful really. So we should be like Jesus right? Transparent to our Father. To consciously wait is to look for the coming of Jesus, and to become more and more aware that his presence is shining in the room. In this sense,
Waiting is a transparency of soul.

By ‘waiting’ I don’t mean some abstract and philosophical state. I mean – actually waiting. Sitting in a chair and saying in your head: ‘Right, I am going to wait for God’. I suppose it is what mystics might call attentiveness, but it’s not really that complicated. It’s thinking ‘I am waiting for God’ as I brush my teeth, or drive the car, or watch my body fail, or enjoy a conversation with a friend. It is opening these moments up to God. It is dying to them and miraculously receiving them back from the hand of the Father. This goes against our inherent busy-bee instinct: ‘I don’t like waiting’, ‘I could be doing something useful’, ‘this is such a waste’. But as we wrestle these struggling urges in our waiting, we feel something rising – first expectancy, but then something else. We feel God’s boiling, silent power smiling at us. Try it! Hold yourself down long enough! It’s not a case of my will (I am active), or God’s will (I am passive); it is ‘I will God’s will’. It is handing over the reins at Gethsemane; it is lying in a manger. And when we act like Jesus we take part in Jesus, our deaths are held in his death, and our resurrection is assured in his resurrection (Romans 6:5). In this sense,
Waiting is an active passivity; a participation.

And, after all those years, Simeon held the tiny baby in his arms. He looked down and saw the salvation of the world was resting massively in his open palms. And we shall too! Happy Christmas!

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Term ended last week at Regent's Park with a quiet day led by Rev Dr Jo Harding, a Baptist minister in Cheadle Hume. Jo led us through three excellent advent reflections and provided some space for our own reflections. The second of her reflections was on the subject of 'expecting.' The session began with listening to the U2 song ' When I look at the world' (from the album All That You Can't Leave Behind) with some images and then a reading from Isaiah 2.1-5. Here is then something of what she said:
Advent isn't about events. Advent, it seems to me, is more about an experience that is part of our faith, not one that the church gives expression to very much - the experience of the tension that we live with, as people who talk about hope in the promises of God.

Advent is a time when we acknowledge the tension between anticipation and fulfillment. The tension between the light and the darkness that are both present in our life in this world. The tension between certainty and mystery. Between what we long for and believe is possible, and the reality of what life can be like in this world today.

Some of us perhaps prefer to deal in certainties as believers, to know exactly where we stand in relation to the things of our faith and what we should expect of our Christian experience.

But for me, part of the point of Advent season, is that it lays out in front of us a myriad of expectations, hopes and dreams of what is possible ... insists that Emmanuel has come, that God is with us in this world.

... but then it offers us the space, a liturgical season, to explore the questions it makes impossible to avoid, to engage with the uncertainty and the darkness, to explore what we actually expect of God and of ourselves as we live mindfully in the gap between hope and despair, presence and absence, breathing out and breathing in.

The kingdom of God is at hand Jesus said, but when is it coming, and where do we see it? and what does it look like when we refuse violence? and what we do dream of when we refuse to place our hope and expectation in violence or the smiting of a violent God? but rather in the God who kneels and washes feet, and who places a child at the centre of the whole mystery and says 'begin here'.
That evening I ran the first of some advent reflections at John Bunyan Baptist Church and part of that was reflecting on the year just ending through the front pages of the Independent newspaper. It was a reminder of all those now but forgotten events: violence in Kenya, cyclone in Burma, Josef Fritzl who held his family prisoner, the discovery of Radovan Kardadzic, earthquake in China, ongoing political violence in Zimbabwe, conflict between Russia and Georgia, the more recent violence in the Congo and Mumbai, and of course the ongoing violence in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan and global economic troubles. The Advent tension that Jo speaks of between the hope we proclaim and the reality of the world as it is was more than evident. The cry for the coming of God becomes more urgent, more desired as we hold on to and cling to the promises of God in the face of a world that feels so stuck in a spiral of violence.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

where are you in advent?

Presents wrapped?


Read Luke 2:8-9.


Presents wrapped?


Read Matthew 2:1-2.


Filled with expectation?


Read Luke 2:13


Filled with expectation?


Read Luke 2:25-26


Prepared for what’ll happen?


Read Luke 1:20


Prepared for what’ll happen?


Read Luke 1:38


Hopeful of a good time?


Read Luke 1:51


Hopeful of a good time?


Read Luke 1:48


Knowing how Christmas will work out?


Read Matthew 2:8


Knowing how Christmas will work out?


Read Luke 2:38


If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, now read Isa. 9:6.


However, if you have answered ‘no’ to any of the above, read Isa. 9:6

Prepared ... In The Wilderness

It would be very easy to underestimate the importance of John the Baptist. Our four Gospels all highlight the pre-eminence of Jesus, and as Christians we would agree with that assessment. Yet John’s impact was immense. Josephus expends more column inches on John than he does on Jesus. When news reaches Herod of Jesus’ activities, Herod fears he is John the Baptist resurrected, whilst Peter offers John the Baptist as one possible explanation for who ‘people say the Son of Man is.’ Jesus appears to be understood with reference to John the Baptist and one wonders just how much sense Jesus of Nazareth would have made without the man in the open, uninhabited spaces by the Jordan, with his camel hair robe and his locust and wild honey diet.

Our Gospels don’t underestimate John. Each time the Good News of Jesus Christ is recorded, we find that the pathway to that Good News takes us past the baptizer. Each time he is understood with reference to Isaiah 40 and the message of comfort, tenderness and forgiveness. With the exception of forgiveness, this is at first glance somewhat surprising, for comfort and tenderness aren’t words which automatically spring to mind when I think of John.

Yet it is quite appropriate, for just as Isaiah 40 marks a turning point in the affairs of the people of Israel, in which God will do a new thing, something so surprising that they would never believe it, so John comes to announce a turning point in God’s dealings with a creation exiled from him, which will again be new and startling.

Yet perhaps more disturbing is the direction in which we are pointed in each case. We’re directed towards the wilderness, where the way is being prepared, the valleys are being lifted, the mountain and hills are being made low and the rough, uneven land smoothed out. A new era is breaking in, God’s glory will be revealed, the obstacles are, one by one, being overcome. But if we want to see it, if we want to be prepared, the place to look is in the wilderness.

It’s probably not where we want to be, but the wilderness is the place of preparation, where God can be heard away from the bustle and busyness, where God gets us ready for what is to come. The wilderness experience of the Exodus people who had left Egypt came to be seen as the place where they heard and saw God most clearly and were prepared to be God’s people. After his baptism Jesus is prepared for his ministry by being driven into the wilderness. At various key points in his ministry Jesus withdraws to seek God – and he withdraws into the wilderness.

And the wilderness can be the place where we start to see those promises come true. Just last week the lectionary pointed us towards the desire for God to rip open the heavens and come down. And before the end of Mark 1 we see that prayer answered, as the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends on Jesus. God reveals himself, to Jesus at least, in the wilderness.

How different from the preparations we normally associate with getting ready for Christmas. The shops seem to have been ready for ages. Even as staff started packed away pumpkins and witches outfits, Roy Wood was wishing it could be Christmas every day. Within a couple of weeks the question ‘are you ready for Christmas?’ will divide people into the smug and the panicking. When Christmas day comes we’ll have been celebrating Christmas for weeks. At best Advent has been merged into Christmas. Skip the preparations, let’s cut straight to the main event, to the shepherds, wise men and little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. Ignore the wilderness.

Yet is we do, do we miss the chance to hear and see the Good news of the newness God can bring? It’s in the wilderness that we, with the people of Judea and Jerusalem get the chance to identify ourselves with the newness God offers. Without that, how do we even know we want what God has prepared for us? It is no foregone conclusion that wanting God to act and wanting what God does, particularly when he acts in new and surprising ways, is the same thing. It was in Judea and Jerusalem, the places where they’d flocked to identify with what God was doing, that God met most resistance when he did finally act in Christ. I wonder if I am any different?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Death's dark shadows put to flight

On Saturday morning the local churches sang some Advent hymns and related songs in Stourbridge town centre. A street-seller engaged me in conversation and spent the next few minutes lamenting about our nation's current financial struggles and economic downturn during these recessional days. "It's going to hit us all very hard this Christmas". But looking around the shops and market stalls, traders were still busily trading and shoppers were still eagerly buying.

Later on, I then read a harrowing story in The Times about the ongoing plight of many folk in Zimbabwe. The article movingly described the Ncube family who live in the bushland of western Zimbabwe. They are just one family that represent many of the five million currently facing food shortages. They live in a thatched mud hut, one hundred miles away from any main population centre. They rely on nuts and berries to survive, for which they spend hours foraging in the bush each day. The father has recently had to bury their eldest daughter who died following severe stomach pains, caused by the berries she had eaten. Their two remaining children suffer from kwashiorkor, a bloating of the stomach, caused by severe malnutrition.

A local priest has offered help from his nearby church-run clinic. He described the growing crisis as "a silent tsunami", later adding: "I've seen too much suffering. We were never trained for this sort of priesthood. This is the priesthood of the concentration camps". The article also included a prayer he has prayed with the family:

"Lord, help us during these terrible times of hunger.
Give us hope and courage.
Heal these children.
Bring food to our fields and homes.
Show us your love!"

During our church services yesterday we will no doubt have used very similar words to the prayer above, despite living in a vastly different environment. Hope, courage, healing, love are familiar words in our intercessory prayer vocabulary, regardless of where in the world we live or who we share our lives with. Preparing intercessory prayers on a weekly basis is not always easy, particularly when we are not directly confronted with praying about where our next meal may come from or for a young child that is on the cusp of starvation. But pray we must. It is an eschatological longing for the coming Kingdom. Sometimes it feels like the actual words I use in intercessions probably sound nothing more than a half-hearted sentiment to send some warm wishes to those who just happen to be less 'lucky' or 'fortunate' than ourselves. Maybe in such cases, getting the right words isn't what matters: the Spirit carries forwards our inner thoughts and prayers, however inarticulate they may be, and offers them to the Father.

As we sang 'O come, O come, Immanuel' last night, the image of the Ncube family and the struggles for freedom and peace in Zimbabwe came into my mind.

"O come, Thou dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight."

May Immanuel come to them.

(by Andy Scott)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

birthday reflections

It's hard to focus on Advent things today, because other pressing concerns have occupied my mind ... namely its my birthday.

I love birthdays ... mostly because like Christmas, I enjoy receiving presents. But unlike the festive season, on my birthday I don't have to sit and wonder:

'Did i get him a card as well?'
Did I buy something for her too
and if so ... did I spend as much on her as she has done on me?'

Of course I realise that this is not a healthy way to view the giving and receiving of gifts ... but few of us seem immune from this. So many of us seem to feel a perpetual need to balance the cosmic scales of our giving.

God has other ideas.
At the birthday of Jesus the world receives the greatest gift of all
God takes on the risk and vulnerability of flesh
And there is no way that we can ever balance the munificence of the giver of the gift.
At Easter time, God does it all over again, with another unrepeatable act of generosity.

It is a great moment of personal awareness when he discover and admit our finitude
when we confess that there is nothing we can give to God to balance up the abundance of heaven's giving. But somewhere in the bleak mid winter of this advent time I can hear the soft refrain of carols ... 'what can I give him ... give him my heart.'

by Craig Gardiner

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Lead, Kindly Light – An Advent Reflection

Two themes often seem to be associated with Advent – ‘waiting’ and ‘journeying.’ For me, the last few weeks have seen the two drawn together: intersecting, interpenetrating, paralleling, combining. It has been a time when I spent many hours driving from one hospital to another, visiting people connected in some way with the fellowship I serve as minister. There was Ernest*, quietly waiting to die, who greeted me with a smile and said, ‘will you say a prayer for me?’ – I was glad (in the right way) when I received the news that his wait was over. There is Florrie*, frustrated by a broken hip, waiting for the intensive physiotherapy that will enable her to resume her independence and return home. There is Jim*, medically confused, with his wife Vera* waiting anxiously for the day his mind clears enough for him to resume domestic life. Waiting and travelling - journeys that must be taken but which, mysteriously, depend on being still, on waiting.

My own, physical, journeys around the hospitals have been long, and most have been on dreicht days: mizzle and mist, half-hearted fog, encroaching darkness ahead of dusk - an encircling gloom. One day as the mist closed in, and spray spattered the windscreen, I followed a car whose driver had deemed it unnecessary to turn on the vehicle’s lights. I found the words of the old Henry Newman hymn coming into my mind:

Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom,

Lead thou me on;

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

Lead thou me on.

Keep thou my feet, I do no ask to see

The distant scene, one step enough for me.

What might a kindly light be like, I wondered? Not the stark brightness of halogen fog lights, that’s for sure, nor yet the shimmering brightness of distant stars on a clear winter’s night. A kindly light seems to me to be an Advent light – perhaps a torch (as in the battery powered things we have nowadays) or a lantern (as in a Davy lamp) – something that gives enough light to take the next step but requires the traveller to be patient, to ‘wait and see’ what will come next. This is the light my hospitalised people need (needed) for their journeys… Ernest, as he made the last journey into the mystery of death; Florrie as she literally travels, step by painful step, the journey to independence; Jim and Vera as they wait for light in the mists of medical confusion. And it is the light I need as I walk with them.

John 1:5 says ‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.’ (NIVi) How can darkness understand a kindly light? The brash brightness of a searchlight can be understood, as it endeavours to displace the darkness. But the kindly light is something different; quietly and resolutely it enters the darkness, confusing it with its vulnerability and smallness – how easily a candle could be snuffed out, how feeble its flame. How crazy the God who enters the world as a child, through the waiting of gestation, through the pain and travail of human birth, to share our vulnerability and to walk, a step at a time, a journey that offers hope for our own.

Lead, kindly light,

In the waiting and watching;

In the walking and wondering;

In life, in death;

In joy, in sorrow;

In health and in illness;

In sunshine and shadow;

Lead us on -

Lead us home,

Through Christ, our Lord. Amen

* Names have been changed

Friday, December 05, 2008

That halfway place between prayer and protest

A number of years ago we received a Christmas card from a friend who was a long serving doctor in the Middle East. Card is not quite true – it was on rough cheap tissue paper, the picture stamped by a crude stencil. Paper and “card” were produced by refugees and survivors in one of the world’s suffering places, war-torn Beirut. It lay beside my Advent candle for most of the Advent period. In the clear up after Christmas I lost it.

In the more than ten years since, the story of the new millennium so far has increased the available vocabulary for the litany of suffering places in the world. The Twin Towers. Asian Tsunami. Darfur. Beslan School. New Orleans. Afghanistan. Iraq. Zimbabwe. Congo. Mumbai. In alphabetical order these and other place-names would make up a human lexicon of loss – lost life, lost family, lost homes, lost limbs, lost health, lost direction, lost innocence, lost hope.

The Beirut Christmas card is still important to me because that one picture portrayed the despair and the hopefulness that often co-exist in human suffering, the coincidence in the heart of fear and faith in the future, the desperate dance of darkness and light in our human, and inhuman history. The massacre of the innocents is there, disturbingly embedded in the Nativity story. And perhaps the greatest danger to biblical truth today is not liberal demythologising of stables, donkeys, shepherds, angels and mangers. Much more dangerous in our own all too real world is our editing out of the Christmas narrative the political ruthlessness that sees the collateral damage of a few dozen slaughtered toddlers as no big deal in the world of realpolitik.

As a result of all of this I’ve thought and prayed about the picture on the Beirut Christmas card, which remains a clear image in my mind. I've tried to describe it in this poem – like the Beirut Card, a rough draft, an amateur attempt to say and live the word hope, looking firmly in the face of world realities. Card and poem, offered in the hope that the miracle of mother and child will push us into that highly charged halfway place between prayer and protest that we call the coming of God.

Beirut Christmas Card.

Crude coloured, Beirut Christmas card,

hand-printed tissue roughly made;

pressed shapes, deep dyed against despair,

stencilled hopes of refugees.

The woman holds her crying child,

trapped in a doorway late at night,

silhouette, and threatening dark,

lit from behind by a transient star.

Two arms half open, cradled child,

Cherished and held, a cross beam of love;

body conformed and protectively hunched;

motherhood shaped to a cruciform shield.

Shared shadow falls, reshaping the light,

history told in the shape of a cross.

© Jim Gordon, 2008.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

How music instructs Advent

In Maggi Dawn’s Beginnings and Endings, she says, ‘Christmas can sometimes feel less like a feast to be celebrated and more like a deadline to be reached.’ I know what she means. Increasingly the celebration starts earlier, so that when eventually we arrive at Christmas, instead of marking the commencement of the festival, it’s the climax of one that’s been going on for ages. The festival that should start on Christmas Day and continue for twelve days is virtually over by Boxing Day, St Stephen’s Day. And this happens both outside the church and within. 

In my present role as a regional minister, at this time of the year I miss being the minister of a local church. This is because I find Advent deeply enriching.  Advent marks the beginning of a new church calendar. But also it’s a time of waiting, of preparation, of suspense. And I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not great at this.

It’s at this point that I find music instructive. Music works on the principle of ETR, that is equilibrium, tension and resolution. It starts from a place of equilibrium from which tension is created, and then the tension is resolved. How composers handle the resolution of tension is what music is all about. Take a nursery rhyme like ‘Humpty Dumpty’ (you need to know the words for the next bit!).  At the end of the first line at the word ‘wall’ you’re still more or less at home. By the end of the second line and the word ‘fall’ you’re at a point of tension and definitely away from home. As you reach ‘men’ the tension is intensified.  ‘Again’ brings the resolution, and you’re back home again.  For a more sophisticated version, try Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, or the slow movement of Brahms Second Symphony, or if you’ve got five hours to spare, Wagner’s Tristan. 

In these examples there are tensions within tensions, and how the tension is held, partly resolved, resolved only to open up another tension, and resolved completely, bringing closure, is the stuff of music, all music, and I could have illustrated with Coldplay, Oasis, Take That, or Girls Aloud. Great composers use tension to generate expectations which are deliberately delayed through the diversions and digressions that the music takes. The ‘not yet’ of resolution through delayed gratification is reckoned to be one of the essential skills to be learned by any composer. And regardless of the musical style, be it rock music, symphony, popular song, or jazz in particular, where music is ‘composed’ in the instant, a huge amount depends upon learning to manage the space between tensions and delayed resolutions in ways that sustain both expectation and interest.

The effect that this has is to give music a forward moving feel. Music is directional. It goes somewhere and drives towards rest and closure. And it does this by drawing the listener in, by pulling you in and pulling you forward. As you listen to music you want the next sound so you are pulled into a dynamic of desire, or put another way, a pattern of hopefulness. Music is therefore inherently hopeful.

And this is where we connect with Advent. Important question - what are we waiting for during Advent? We’re waiting for Christmas, when we look back to the beginning, and to Christ’s first coming.  But Advent is far more than this as we look forward to the ending and his Second Coming.  Advent is when we are particularly conscious of living in hope between the ‘here now’ and the ‘not yet’, between the beginning and the ending, between this present creation and the new creation, which we have begun to experience but not fully. Christ has come, but Christ will come again.  We live in the penultimate and not the ultimate. Our hope isn’t fully realised. We live with the given, but aware that all is not yet given. ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us … we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only’. But while we have seen, not all have seen, and those who have seen have not fully understood. ‘We know in part and we prophesy in part’. What we see is ‘but a poor reflection in a mirror’ but the day will come when finally ‘we shall see face to face’. 

To return to music, music can’t be rushed through, you can’t just fast forward it. Music takes place in time and music takes time. To rush it is to weaken or ruin it. And again this is played out in the Scriptures. God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Which means that waiting is a huge part of what it’s all about.

Jeremy Begbie, from whom much of this thinking originated, brings a Word for Advent when he says, ‘Music is especially qualified to form in us, not just the patience required when something takes time, but the patience needed in the midst of delay.  Delayed gratification is … integral to music, which leads us into a particular kind of beneficial and enriching “meantime” in a manner which can be theologically instructive.’