Saturday, December 25, 2010

Pause for Thought - Radio 2

This is Simon Woodman's Pause for Thought from today's Roger Royle programme on Radio 2. Reproduced on the Hopeful Imagination blog with kind permission from the BBC. You can listen again here, 30 minutes into the show.

Good morning, and happy Christmas.

It’s a strange day, Christmas day, isn’t it? I mean, at one level it’s a day like any other, falling rather predictably between the 24th and 26th days of the 12th month. But at another level it’s a day like no other.

We’ve been building up to it for weeks, months even, and the sense of anticipation has been mounting inexorably. From garish grottos in garden centres, to cheesy canned Christmas music round every corner, there has been no escaping the increasingly imminent arrival of Christmas day itself.

And now it’s here, it’s arrived. So happy Christmas.

And what, I wonder, will today hold? Giving? Receiving?; Eating? Drinking?; Family? Loneliness?; Happiness? Sadness? For each of us, today will bring a unique mixture of emotions and activities. But then, as quickly as it began, it’ll all be over. The day passes, and we wonder where on earth it went.

And also, we might wonder, what on earth it meant? Dinah Washington famously sang ‘What a difference a day makes’, and we might well ask this as a question of Christmas day. Just what difference does this one day make?

Within the Christian tradition, Christmas is a day of celebration, but it’s also a day of remembrance. It points back in time to another day, long past, when a young woman gave birth to a child. Just another day, just another birth. And yet Christians believe that that day, that that birth, in some way changed everything. The birth-day of Jesus, one moment in history, one day among many, is celebrated as the moment history changed, the moment God became human.

The Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn puts it beautifully in his song Cry of a tiny babe: Like a stone on the surface of a still river, Driving the ripples on forever, Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

So, as I said, happy Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.
Peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.
Peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair, I bowed my head:
'There is no peace on earth,' I said,
'For hate is strong and mocks the song,
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.'
Peace on earth, good will to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
'God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace on earth, good will to men'.
Peace on earth, good will to men.

For so long now my default “go to” carol over advent has been “O come o come Emmanuel”. I’ve appreciated its element of lament, the great theology in it, the cry of the hurting human heart “O come!”, and the reply of heaven, “Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come”.

However, just recently I’ve been turning to this HW Longfellow poem that has been set to a variety of tunes, but I first encountered performed by John Gorka.

Longfellow wrote this on Christmas Day 1864, a few years after the tragic death of his much beloved wife, Frances, and a few months after the terrible maiming of his son, Charles, who fought in the American civil war.

On first reading it can seem quite simplistic, with its pithy response that the wrong shall fail and the right prevail. That sounds a lot like the kind of things I tell my five year old son, to reassure him, to shelter him from the harsher realities of life as it’s experienced.

And yet, as simple as it sounds, it’s the truth. And for Longfellow, writing in the midst of pain and loss, it speaks of the hope that we’re looking forward to receiving afresh at Christmas, even though sometimes we receive that hope as if from a distance. It’s a declaration of faith. It’s part of the meaning and message that we’re celebrating tomorrow.

Because of this baby, justice will be done; because of this baby, peace becomes a possibility; because even though this baby gently sleeps, God never sleeps.

This Christmas eve, we’re waiting. Waiting for news, waiting for the celebration, waiting for it all to be over, waiting to finish work finally, waiting to see friends, waiting to see if we can make it through, waiting for a clear sound from a pealing bell that will preach the message again. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.

However this waiting day finds you, I pray that when you hear the bells, you’ll hear the angel afresh, Peace on earth, good will to all people.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Another Kind of Waiting

“When angry, count to 10 before you speak.”

“Think before you speak.”

“Look before you leap.”

Wise words from wise people: stop and think before you act, perhaps to prevent an action which you might regret. My favourite ‘stop and think’ advice has to be “Before you criticise someone, try walking a mile in their shoes. That way you'll be a mile away and have their shoes!”

Advent is a powerful time for reminding us what we are waiting for. But as these sayings remind us, there are more reasons to wait than just waiting for something; sometimes we wait because of something, holding back from something... “Before you set out just check the forecast will you?” This might only involve waiting a minute, or even ten seconds just to make sure we’re not making a mistake. This waiting is just long enough to show us that everything might not be as it seemed, and allows us to act from a more thought through or informed position.

We find Joseph receiving his own ‘wait a minute’ call in Matthew:

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (2.18b-21)

In general the sayings collected above are good common sense advice that might be plastered round any anger-management course or self-help manual, but Joseph could have followed every good piece of advice given on prudence and would probably still have resolved to dismiss his pregnant fiancée. The angel’s words however are tailored just for this man whose world has just taken a battering. Joseph was asked to hear a higher perspective on what was happening to him, to stay from his course of action: “stop, wait, know what God is doing.” For Joseph it was an angel, for others it has been different. For me it has been scripture, the preacher, the songwriter, the friend or the silence, all of them carrying the voice of Christ. It is Christ who knows our hearts and our ways.

Anyone can ask us to stop and think, but only those with an extra perspective on our lives will be able to tell us why. Advent reminds us, as we consider both Jesus’ coming and return, that God indeed has that all-embracing perspective. In Advent we hear the voice of the one who is the beginning and the end – might that voice, this Advent, be saying ‘wait a minute!’?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A perilous journey

The call of God is essentially a question to which you need to respond, expose yourself, and kneel before. You don't want an answer you can put in a box. You want a question that will become a chariot to carry you across the breadth of your life.” (Greg Levoy, Callings)

This is all Van Div-s idea. With all the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the newly initiated priest he had suggested this preposterous journey. The signs were clear enough – of that we were all pretty sure – but most of our seniors were too settled to feel the need to do anything about it. I can’t say that I blame them. Most of them are on a pretty good package for the rest of their days, barring major political upset, that is.

Characteristically it was Van who volunteered to investigate. We’d only just finished poring over the charts, consulting the scriptorium, and deliberating as to the significance of this strange conjunction of the heavenly bodies. The land of the Jews was fabled and the possibility of a new king arising among their people was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. ‘Too good to be missed!’ he had assured us.

I have to say that his speech to the Counsel of the Wise was a bit stellar in itself. It sparkled with wit and passion and secured the much needed patronage, protection, and funds for the journey. I guess the two of us weren’t thrilled with the idea that he should get all the glory for himself and although we made a show of pretending we needed persuading, he probably suspected we were interested in the same things he was: fame and glory!

In the private chambers he’d urged us to consider. Phrases come to mind even now: ‘A bit of an adventure! Every new ruler needs wise counselors!’ ‘’Even if we come home it’s got to look good on our Records of Service.’ After fifteen minutes we feigned our reluctant agreement and drank to the idea. We were set. The three of us made preparations and readied ourselves to leave after the allotted two weeks.

Strangely, the journey’s provided time to reflect on why we were foolish enough to actually believe that this would lead to anything at all. None of us had actually considered that we and the Counsel might have been wrong. Sure, we’ve enjoyed one too many nights over a pitcher of wine during which we’ve smiled and laughed at the brass-necked nature of what we thought we could achieve, but I’ll be very relieved to get back home safe and in one piece.

A frosty, arguably menacing, audience with King Herod didn’t reassure me much, other than by providing us with a possible location to check out. Herod’s infamy is commonly reported throughout the civilized world and it’s clear to me now that the possibility of serving as counsel to a potential rival is not going to be a long-term career move in this part of the Roman Empire. So, we’re heading to Bethlehem with just two more days’ to go and I can’t say I’ll be sorry to get back to the Star-temple once we’ve delivered the Respect of the Counsel: their gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Still, I can’t help wondering what we’re going to learn after all of this. Far from fame and fortune I suspect we’ll be lucky to make it into the text of even one of the minor annals, although I hope it’s going to add to our repository of wisdom and stature. The one thing I can begin to draw from it, even now, is the compelling nature of our dreams and ambitions. They can readily grow into a call; something stamped upon our lives that can stay with us for a very long time indeed. The parting advice from the Counsel elders as we left was something in this vein. Something about ‘Remain alert to what you may hear in your dreams. The stars only point to the story, the story is always more than the stars.’ Not a bad piece of advice, I suppose. It may yet come in useful.

(Darrell Jackson)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Do our neighbours see what the shepherds saw?

I'm trying to work things out
I'm trying to comprehend:
am I the chance result of some great accident?
I hear a rhythm call me,
the echo of a grand design;
I spend each night in the backyard staring up at the stars in the sky:
maybe this was made for me,
for lying on my back in the middle of a field;
maybe that's a selfish thought
or maybe there's a loving God.
Maybe I was made this way
to think and to reason and to question and to pray
and I have never prayed a lot
But maybe there's a loving God...

Life’s full of maybes, some more mundane than the ones Sara Groves sings about: maybe we’ll make ends meet next month; maybe I’ll get that promotion at work; maybe my child will make more friends at school next term; maybe life’ll be better next year…
We’re living through trying times, symbolised by snow-bound Britain making getting about so tiresome. Shrinking incomes, rising prices, job insecurity, a general feeling of uncertainty and malaise leave us feeling we could use some good news.

Like the shepherds: slumbering, star-gazing, shivering, stoical; suddenly roused by choirs of angels and a startling message. I wonder if they got it. We read Luke’s account like good Bible students picking up the echoes of Isaiah, allusions to past stories. But did the shepherds get it as they shambled down the hill into the town looking for the bizarre sign the angel told them to look out for: a baby in a feeding trough?
It was all too unbelievable for words. And yet, they went. Maybe what drew them was the thought that if a baby had been born, there’d be a party going on; there’d be free food and drink and a warm room to gather in for a while. And probably when they arrived at the house, it was teeming with people: relatives crammed in because of the census, neighbours invited to wet the baby’s head, curious on-lookers.

Babies are always good news; they might turn our lives upside down, but they also fill them with joy – even though we know that they are another mouth to feed when the taxes are high and work is hard to find (is that what Joseph felt?).

But this one was particularly good news; this one would bring unimaginable change to the lives of his family, to the neighbours peering into the manger, to the shepherds shambling down the back streets, to the magi setting off from their palaces in the East, to Herod fearfully hanging on to power in near-by Jerusalem, even to Caesar, oblivious to events so far from Rome, who had sent this family on their perilous journey to this birth in the first place.
Everyone’s affected; life will never be the same. This child is the one that Isaiah spoke about: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth' (9:6; 11:2-4).

Did the shepherds see this? Probably not; not fully, anyway. But they felt warm and filled and included. The neighbours had come because of the screaming – first Mary’s then Jesus’ (whatever Away in the Manger says!) – but the shepherds came because angels summoned them; God invited them to celebrate the birth of his Son. They could fill in the details when Luke published his book.

Often we live through events that we can only make sense of later. This morning someone described the 7/7 inquest as the first opportunity to create a continuous narrative of that momentous morning. The gospels are the first continuous narrative of the Christmas story that was experienced by participants in bits and pieces and whose significance was debated and chewed over for days and weeks afterwards.

And our friends and neighbours who shamble through their Christmas celebration, holding on to traditions that are part Christian, part family, part consumerist, do they get it? Probably not; not the first time we tell them or the second or the fifteenth…

But we keep inviting them because this is good news; because God really does like them and look on them with favour – however they choose to celebrate this day; because this child is for them as for the shepherds. And we, like the angels, are sent with the good news of Jesus’ birth to summon them to wonder and possibly even worship.
As Sara Groves sings:

Maybe I was made this way
to think and to reason and to question and to pray;
and I have never prayed a lot;
but maybe there's a loving God...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Continuing the theme of Mary...

Yesterday morning heralded adverse conditions. Two significant snowfalls in quick succession on Saturday left our congregation with an early morning decision to be made: enjoy a relaxing, leisurely time in warm homes or venture out to church in the sub-zero temperatures. Understandably those with impassable roads or a legitimate fear of the adverse weather rightly stayed at home (or to use Black Country speak ‘stopped in’). However the effort made by many to “be in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s day” was commendable and there was a lovely spirit of teamwork and collaboration: people accompanying others and arriving on foot together, offers of lifts for the elderly, others on hand to shovel the snow from the church pathway, extra mince pies for afterwards.

Our service focused on Mary, the bearer of God’s son. We reflected on the adverse conditions that were encountered in Bethlehem. Probably no snowfall when Christ was born, but the fear of being a young Jewish girl living under Roman occupation during times of mistreatment, poverty and injustice. Despite this, Mary overcame her anxiety. She knew how to say ‘Yes’ to God even though the future was not yet clear to her and she knew very little detail of what was to come. This young girl’s initial stuttering confidence in God became complete openness to be used for divine purposes, ‘may it be to me as you have said’ she replied to Gabriel.

Mary was as human as we are. Along with other young girls in her day she was perhaps not viewed very favourably by others with more authority and control in her culture, and yet she was captivated by God’s kingdom, of a world put right by God. So she responds with faith-inspired protest:

‘he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts'
‘he has brought down rulers from their thrones’
‘he has lifted up the humble, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty’

Not at all easy for a young teenage girl under foreign occupation to have such audacious confidence, yet her faith in God enabled her to see beyond the adverse conditions surrounding her and to imagine life lived under the kingdom of God.

During our service we also watched a presentation related to the words of a song called ‘Labour of Love’ – reminding us of Mary’s condition. In a gentle way this song gives us some reality of the adverse conditions into which her son, our Saviour, was born. Here's the link:

Faith and obedience in the midst of adversity. May it be so for all who struggle this Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Poor Mary Sits A-weeping?

Advent 4: the Sunday that liturgically ought to see us focussing our thoughts on Mary the mother of Jesus. But come to most Protestant Nonconformist churches and we will be doing other things. Good things, great things even – the Sunday School Nativity, the Community Carol Service, the pensioner's party, the outreach event... But Mary will do well to get a bit-part in the day and may be ignored completely. So does she "sit a-weeping" as we carry on our own way?

Poor Mary! In some churches she is forced to become a plaster saint, eternally perfect, perpetually young and, of course, ever virgin. In other churches she isn't even given house room; prophets are listened to, the Baptiser is feared, but Mary finds herself overlooked or avoided, maybe a young woman pregnant outside wedlock is a step too far. Poor Mary indeed.

Authenticity and acceptability: two things that Mary seems to be denied. All of which makes me think about our own churches and who might be the weeping Marys this Advent.

Who is it, male or female, young or old, who we ignore, overlook or push out in all the busyness of our services? In our doing of much that is good, who is it we inadvertently bruise? Who stays home because it is all too painful? Who is weeping on the inside even they are smiling on the outside? Are our churches places where people can be truly authentic and still be accepted?

The playground song has its Mary weeping for a playmate – someone with whom she can be authentic and still be accepted; someone who will share the lows and highs. Someone who will be there with and for her when she finds herself overlooked or marginalised. Who might be that playmate for us in our own 'Maryness' and to whom might we offer the acceptance they so desperately need?

When the Mary of the song finds her playmate everyone is happy. When Mary the mother of Jesus encountered an angel, she was declared blessed, in Greek makarios, which can also be translated happy.

Can we be messengers of blessing, of true happiness, to the 'Marys' we meet this Advent, accepting them as they are in their raw authenticity? I dare to imagine, hopefully, that we might.


Among the Hopeful Imaginers I know in the 'real world' are some who have had a very tough year; those with eyes to see may have spotted the hints in their posts. Some have faced personal or family problems and some have seen their churches struck by tragedy or ignominy; each has maintained their authenticity and their acceptance of others as well as their ability to imagine hopefully. I am glad, in whatever measure, to count them among my playmates, and to pray that they may dance with other 'Marys' in the ceilidh of God's Shalom and so find blessing indeed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How Shall This Be?

‘How will this be?’ asked Mary when Gabriel announced that she would give birth to Jesus. ‘How will this be? I’m a virgin.’

It was a good question. After all, true faith isn’t, as a child is reported to have said, believing in things you know aren’t true. One of the main arguments perpetuated by the modern atheist lobby is that believers are simple people, believing superstitious nonsense, whilst they just look at the world as it is.

That wasn’t Mary’s faith. She might only have been 12 or 13, from, Nazareth, a bit of a backwater town. Chances are she was uneducated, illiterate even. But she wasn’t gullible. She knew where babies came from - and she’d not been there. She knew what she’d just been told didn’t make a huge amount of sense. But she’s not afraid to ask the question. For Mary, belief in God didn’t mean leaving her brains at the door.

So often in churches we don’t really offer space for questions. Some churches quite explicitly condemn it. Others are more subtle. Early in my ministry someone wiser than me, warned me against referring to ‘what God has given me today’ because it can suggest that ‘God’s given it, so don’t you question it.’ Even the lecture style set up of our worship can create that kind of impression.

But Mary asks a good question and isn’t chastised for doing so. But nor is her question utterly sceptical. Her questions isn’t ‘how can this be?’, but ‘how shall it be?’ There’s a sense of ‘ok, I believe you, now show me how that works.’

It’s a really good question for the Advent season. We are people, like the Jews of Mary’s day, with a promise that has not yet been fulfilled. We have that great Revelation promise that ‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. I am making everything new.’

And we might ask the question... how will this happen... after all, this person’s cancer continues to spread, these two people haven’t spoken in years, nobody’s taking on new staff these days... you fill in the blank. When millions of people across our globe have no access to medication, how will that happen?

Mary isn’t left completely without evidence. Some of it is within her, in the Holy Spirit overshadowing her. Some of it is external - why else would she go dashing off to see Elizabeth - she wants to know if it’s true.

And before all that she is offered a reason, a why it will happen. Which on the face of it is no reason at all. Because she is favoured and God is with her. The word for favour is the same word as the word for grace.

Why do we believe God will keep his promise? Because God is good, God is gracious. When we ask how will it happen, we can’t see it because we look at ourselves and realise our own inability to bring it about. And God says ‘that’s hardly the point - it happens because of grace.’

Ultimately she is left with one proposition she has to accept - that nothing is impossible with God. At Advent I can name the reasons why on the face of it God can’t keep his promise and we’re not chastised for doing so, but because of Jesus we can say ‘ok I believe you, now show me how that works.’ And we can ask that because nothing is impossible with God.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The people walking in darkness

"The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned."

Isaiah 9:2

As I approached advent this year I have been very conscious of the above words from Isaiah. These words speak of the contrast between dark and light. We don't easily talk about darkness nor are we comfortable living in darkness. At this time of year we like the sparkle of fairy lights, the warm glow of artifical lights, but not the great light, and certainly not darkness. I've wondered what it means to walk in darkness. Is it not knowing where you are walking? Does it mean not knowing what's ahead of you? Is darkness everything that is not of God - injustice, violence, terror, abuse, disease, and death? And if this is darkness what is deep darkness?

It seems we start advent walking in darkness. Then as the season unfolds our gaze is lifted upwards to see the greatness of the light that is on the horizon. As we see it is coming on the horizon we recognise we need to rid ourselves of the artifical light to make room for the great light. And as we rid ourselves of the artifical lights so we become conscious of the darkness. As we continue to live in darkness a light dawns. Our eyes are drawn to this light. As the light breaks we start to see again. We might only see a chink or ray but we wait in ancipation of the dawning of the fullness of light. In those chinks and rays we wait. We watch for the brightness of the midday. We become intrigued by the light and how it dispels the darkness. We are in awe of the light for through it we begin to see. Our whole being is uplifted and peace fills our hearts.

In this chink of light we don't forget the darkness nor do we disregard the coming of the fullness of light. Instead we wait in that mid-point in time. In it we pray "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." My prayer this year is that the light of the world might shine in the darkness; and particularly being with those that experience a chink or a ray admist the darkness.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Guitar

(A story to loosely orbit Luke 2:25-35)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any man in possession of even the most modest of fortunes must be in want of a guitar; especially if, as in Len’s case, one already has a wife. The possession and mastery of a guitar, Len had always felt, was the modern equivalent of wielding one’s trusty spear upon the misty and mammoth-ridden plains of yesteryear. He had dreamed of owning one for many years, but it was only on one cold November morning, in his 43rd year, as he examined his reflection in the bathroom mirror, that the lifelong desire finally congealed into concrete resolution. He went to the music shop that very day; strummed his way fervently through an entire gaggle of guitars; until, at last: there it was! According to the long haired assistant with his unseemly piercings, it had been carefully fashioned from cedar wood by an up-and-coming manufacturer called (rather extravagantly) Messiah Guitars, and was able to do several whizzy things Len had never even heard of (although this didn’t stop him from nodding sagely). ‘I felt like Harry Potter picking up his wand in Ollivander’s!’ he told his wife (Maz) afterwards, his face transfigured with excitement. She’d not read the book, but as it turned out, shared his gift for nodding sagely. After a bit of to-and-fro-ing, Len finally persuaded her to make the purchase and go through the farce of wrapping it up for Christmas. He then spent several tortuous weeks almost wetting himself with anticipation.

The big day finally came however, and there, squat beside the twinkling tree sat the beautiful dream. Len almost fancied he could hear its siren strings whistling under the wrapping before he tore it off. He missed the Queen’s speech, a slice of yule log, and several films he’d circled in the TV times, because of his new love; and tinkered away on its frets and strings with the concentration of a saint at prayer. He kept up the strumming for what his neighbour dubbed ‘three blesséd weeks’, and bought no end of gadgets and guidebooks to fuel this ‘new way of life’. But, sadly, as is often the case with these things, and despite his wife’s continued encouragement, his enthusiasm began to wane. He realised the closest he’d got to becoming an acoustic maestro were the calluses that now crowned his fingertips. He couldn’t even do block chords. And – insult to injury – it all finally came to a standstill when his friend Mike popped round in early Feb, presumptuously plucked Len’s guitar from its stand, and deftly knocked out some Eric Clapton number. ‘Didn’t know you played’, Len observed darkly; ‘Yeah. 12 years. Guitars ay?! Five minutes to learn; a lifetime to master!’

Quite a lot of dust settled on the Messiah after that. On the odd occasion he’d pick it up, but the strings were all out of whack from neglect and he didn’t have an ear for tuning. Over time he even came to feel that the thing was quietly judging him from the spare room; accusing him with its polite and infuriating silence. Having said that, he surprised even himself when he smashed the thing to splinters three years later. He’d come back from a high school reunion, where his old classmate Dave Romanov had had the cheek to turn up in a Merc. Len knew he’d had a few too many by the end of the evening, but felt bizarrely sober as he thoroughly annihilated that guitar against the garage wall, before burning the evidence in the metal bin at the end of the garden. As the firelight spluttered over his down turned face, he reflected glumly that he’d have to make up some story to tell Maz about lending it to Mike. She still proudly described him as ‘the musical one’ to friends; it’d pierce her heart like a dagger if she knew. It’s funny, he mused, how you end up hating the very thing you once longed for. He blandly watched the popping blaze for some time. Should have sold it on e-bay, he added to himself, would have got enough to buy that exercise bike. The one from the Argos catalogue.

Christmas is all about presents...

This weekend I took my annual trip to London. I’m not a massive fan of London, I must admit, it’s big and anonymous and the tube line I need is never working properly. But once a year I take a trip to London and do the oh so commercial walk from one end of Oxford street to the other, admiring the christmas lights, and spending a few hours in Hamley's, to do my Christmas shopping. Now I’ve spent many years kicking against the commercialism of Christmas, to the point where I’ve been a bit of a scrooge. But sitting in a coffee shop on Carnaby street, watching the happy shoppers pass by the window, I came to the conclusion that Christmas is all about presents. And we’d all be better off if we just accepted it.

You see a precedent was set in that very first christmas story, as the magi made their very long journey to visit a new born king. I suppose my thoughts may have been somewhat coloured by the salvation army’s rendition of We Three Kings outside the window. So I sat and pondered the gifts the magi brought with them to greet that baby, born in a stable among the animals, his life already threatened; not the most regal birth one could imagine.

“Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown Him again.”

Gold is the symbol of wealth, and power, and excellence. We still give gold medals to those who achieve great things. Our wealth, our material substance, represents the investment of our time and the application of our abilities. Our “gold,” whether it’s money or some other entity, shows what’s important in our life. What we do with our “gold” reveals what we hold to be of greatest value. It was important to the Magi to find the Saviour of the world, and when they found him they honoured him with their substance, that gold that speaks of his royal authority.

How do we allocate the resources with which the Lord has blessed us? For truly, our “gold” isn’t about us — it’s about God, and how he has worked in us to bring about the rewards of honest labour and diligent effort. Will we, like the Magi, recognize and honour our Saviour with our gifts of gold? Will we bring our substance to the feet of our King, no longer a babe in a manger but the victorious Lamb seated at the right hand of the throne of God — “King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign”? What we do with our money and other resources tells the whole world who we think our King and Provider really is. When we offer our gifts for the work of the gospel of Christ, we join the Magi in declaring his kingship. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).

“Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh.”

In the Bible, incense is a symbol of prayer and worship, for it was offered along with the sacrifices of the sanctuary. The Psalmist cries, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” (141:2). When the Magi offered incense to the Christ child, they were acknowledging that they knelt in the presence of the holy, they came, worshiping — bending the knee, falling down before the Christ, perhaps bowing in awed silence in the presence of a divine mystery they could not fathom.

As we enter the place of worship, do we come with that same sense of the holy mystery of God that the wise men brought to the Christ child? Do we come, offering the “incense” of our worshipful expectancy and humble adoration? Do we come with “prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high?” The Magi remind us that it’s no casual thing to enter into the presence of the living Christ. They remind us that we don’t come to be entertained, amused or even instructed; we come to meet the Lord, to encounter the overwhelming majesty of God. If that doesn’t happen in our gathering, we haven’t brought the right gift into his presence. We’ve brought another agenda with us, an agenda that runs counter to the purpose the Lord has for us when he declares, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Let’s always come into God’s presence as the Magi did, offering the gift of our prayerful devotion.

“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.”

What kind of a gift is this for a newborn — myrrh, the spice used in preparing a body for burial? Death is usually the furthest thing from our minds when welcoming a new child into the world. Yet, somehow, the Magi knew that this child of Bethlehem was destined for death — not in the massacre of King Herod, who murdered many innocent children in trying to wipe out this threat to his rule, but death on a cross bearing the sins of the world. Had the wise men heard the ancient words of Isaiah, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (53:3)? Somehow they understood what would happen to this child, and their understanding was perhaps confirmed when they saw the reaction of the Jerusalem leaders to the news they brought of the birth of a ruler. And so they came, kneeling in humility before a King, kneeling in worship before a God, and kneeling in sorrow before a Saviour who would one day give his life for them.

How do we offer our own gift of “myrrh” when we come to worship the Lord Jesus? As we gather about his holy table, we remember the words of the apostle Paul: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. As we gather around his table, we hear his words: “This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Even at the most joyous of times, even in the high of the Christmas period, we never forget the price Jesus paid to reconcile us with our heavenly Father. We come in humble thanksgiving, remembering what Jesus has done for us, “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,” his body “sealed in the stone cold tomb.”

You see in our own Christmas story the precedent was set; giving presents is an important part of Christmas. Sitting around the tree together and exchanging gifts is not something we need to kick against, it is something we can embrace. But we need to remember, as we swap gifts with one another and share our generosity, not to forget the birthday boy! We must ask ourselves as we walk along our high streets laden with bags full of presents and cards and wrapping paper, what gifts we will be offering to our king this Christmas, will we arrive empty handed and underprepared, too worried about who we have and haven’t bought for? Or will we arrive full of wonder, love and awe, offering our gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advent, Eschatology, and the Unity of the Church

I’m posting to hopefulimagination from Regent’s Park College of Oxford University, where I’m serving as a member of the Baptist delegation to the international ecumenical dialogue between the Baptist World Alliance and the (Roman Catholic) Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It’s fitting that we’re having these conversations during the deeply eschatological season of Advent, for the Christian eschatological vision is the only thing that can make sense of the otherwise hopeless task of seeking after the visible unity of the church in the midst of its divisions.

The basic premise of New Testament eschatology is this: the reign of God that has come near in Christ is already a present reality, but it is not yet fully realized. That’s the biblical framework for the quest for the unity Christ prayed for his church in John 17. Christians already possess unity in that they belong to the one body of Christ and are indwelt by one Spirit. But as the current divisions of the church attest, this unity is not yet fully realized, for its fullness is not visible. If unity, however, is conceived primarily as a spiritual reality, we may see little reason to devote our energies to the earnest contestation of church-dividing issues of faith and order that must precede visible unity. After all, this unity in Christ and in the Sprit is already a present reality quite apart from any visible manifestations of this unity.

Likewise if visible unity is only fully realized in the age to come, then some may decide there's little or no reason to seek it in the present age. Many Protestants have insisted that the four “marks of the church” in the Nicene Creed, including the oneness of the church, are eschatological marks of the church. That’s true enough. One legacy of this insistence, though, is an aversion to efforts to realize these marks, especially the mark of visible oneness, in the present. But even if the oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church will fully be realized only eschatologically, that does not mean that the church shouldn’t seek to attain to those marks here and now.

The inadequacy of both of these patterns of relating eschatology to the ecumenical task is apparent in light of an analogous relation of eschatology to the saints’ quest for holiness of life. Even now in this earthly life, the saints already are just that—“holy ones” (Eph. 1:1) who are “seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6 NRSV). But in this earthly life the saints are not yet fully holy in person or practice. The completion of sanctification awaits the “eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Cor. 4:17).

Just as the present positional holiness of the saints in Christ does not warrant a refusal of the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the present, and just as the deferral of the glorification of the saints until the resurrection should not de-motivate the present pursuit of the sanctification that will be completed in the eschaton, so it is with the already / not-yet nature of Christian unity. Because we’ve already been entrusted with the lasting reality of oneness in Christ and in the Spirit, we must seek to make this oneness visible to the world in advance of the age to come. And because visible unity is a vision of the last things disclosed by Jesus himself, we can be confident that when we take action to seek the visible unity of the church, we’re joining God in what God intends to do in and through the church in the culmination of God’s goals for all things.

May it be so. How long, O Lord, until it is? Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at the Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and is the author of Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (Cascade Books, 2010). This blog post is adapted from a chapter he contributed to A Century of Prayer for Christian Unity, ed. Catherine E. Clifford (Eerdmans, 2009).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Waiting for God

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard examines two aspects of stalking animals: stillness and pursuit. She employs them both to catch a glimpse of the fish and the muskrats that live in the creek. Dillard writes about seeing. She writes of encountering nature and the divine. Like Moses in the cleft of the rock she waits motionless and watches, for fish and muskrats and, we suppose, for God; or like Jacob at the Jabbok she pursues her quarry with patient, unrelenting persistence.

‘You have to stalk everything. Everything scatters and gathers; everything comes and goes like fish under a bridge. You have to stalk the spirit, too. You can wait forgetful anywhere, for anywhere is the way of his fleet passage, and hope to catch him by the tail and shout something in his ear before he wrests away. Or you can pursue him wherever you dare, risking the shrunken sinew in the hollow of the thigh; you can bang at the door all night till the innkeeper relents, if he ever relents; and you can wail till you’re hoarse or worse the cry of incarnation always in John Knoepfle’s poem: “and Christ is red rover . . . and the children are calling / come over come over.” I sit on a bridge as on Pisgah or Sinai, and I am both waiting becalmed in a cliff of the rock and banging with all my will, calling like a child beating on a door: Come on out! . . . I know you’re there.’ (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Perennial Classics edition, 1999, 207)

(By the way, I have read a few of Knoepfle’s poems but have never come across the one Dillard quotes – does anybody know where I can find it?)

Advent is about waiting, not only for Christmas but also for God. It is about opening our eyes and ears, attuning our spiritual senses to the presence of the Spirit. We can do this in at least two ways: We can sit or kneel quietly and, ceasing all other activity, turn our attention toward God. We can also, during the course of everyday living, pay greater attention to the people and circumstances around us, actively looking and listening for traces of God there. We need both approaches. When we follow them we might find, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Aurora Leigh’, The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Macmillan, 1897, 466)

Taken together, these two ways might produce a kind of virtuous circle. The practice of Morning Prayer attunes our senses to the presence of the divine. As we live attentively, we discover God in the everyday and so return our prayers in thanksgiving. As Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, ‘Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.’ (Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, Aurora Press, 1998, 5)

Advent gives us an excuse to practise.

‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!’ Psalm 27.14