Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent 22 : Making Room Under The Light



Today is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, and it is surely no coincidence that, being composed in that hemisphere, the Advent Antiphon on 21 December is ‘O Oriens,’ literally ‘the East’ but meaning the Morning Star.  The Morning Star is the name given to the planet Venus at the stage of its orbit when it is visible in the night sky before dawn (that is, in the eastern sky – it is known as the Evening Star at the stage of its orbit when it is visible in the night sky after dusk; whether Morning or Evening, it is an exceptionally bright celestial body).

It is also a title given in Scripture to both the fallen angel who is thrown down on to the earth from heaven, and Jesus who also comes down to earth from heaven.  As such, it is first attributed to the one who attempted to take God’s throne, who rejected light and set themselves to establish darkness and the shadow of death; and then given to the one who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on human frame in order to serve humanity, coming as light that the darkness could not extinguish, but against whom death exhausted itself.

The Morning Star reminds us both that we live in a dark world, and that the dawn is coming.  The Morning Star is visible long before the dawn itself arrives; but guarantees that it is on its way.  It is a thing of beauty, and of hope.

Domestic lights are a poor substitute, but nonetheless sitting in near darkness lit only by Christmas lights, candles, or a lamp engages our senses, heightens our awareness of the dark around us and the gift of light by which we can see.  And so I have chosen to set the fifth Advent Antiphon under the light.  (This one happens to be in a conservatory, hanging from the snow-covered glass ceiling.)

O Oriens

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
 Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.


Advent: making room for Jesus – under the light.



Saturday, December 20, 2014

Advent 21 : Making Room At The Key Hook



Keys have both practical and symbolic significance.  At a practical level, keys represent freedom to come and go.  At a symbolic level, keys represent an additional authority conferred upon the key-holder.

There came a time when I was allowed to take a set of house-keys if I was going out on my own.  (This marks a progression of freedom, as previously I had been allowed to go out on my own, but was dependent on someone being at home to let me back in.)  But there came a later time when I was given a set of keys of my own.  Then I was free to come and go as I chose.  Of course, if I was out late this did not stop my parents from staying up until I got in.

The fourth Advent Antiphon is ‘O Clavis David’ or ‘O Key of David.’  Advent is not only about preparing to celebrate Jesus’ coming as a baby, but – and primarily – about preparing ourselves for his return.  Jesus is an adult, a key-holder; and though we are not his parents, like my parents when I was younger we wait for his return, not knowing when it will be, but knowing that he will come like a thief in the night.

Jesus uses his authority to secure our freedom.  And – like a thief in the night – he will set us free by entering where we have constructed our own defence mechanisms; where we are imprisoned not least by our own attempts to save ourselves from the darkness beyond.

But more than this: Jesus has given his keys to – has conferred his authority upon – his Church, in order that we might exercise his authority to release prisoners from the prison house.

This Advent, make room for Jesus at the key hook by being surprised by his coming, by pondering the wonder of his presence with us, and by asking whose prison we might unlock – in practical acts of loving service, in invitation to welcome the King, in proclaiming that the dawn of the Sun of Righteousness draws near.

O Clavis David

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.


Advent: making room for Jesus – at the key hook.



Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent 20 : Making Room In The Closet



We have an expression in English that every family has its own ‘skeletons in the closet’ – dark secrets that you wouldn’t want anyone else to find out about.  Matthew’s Gospel starts with Jesus’ genealogy, in which every skeleton in the cupboard is brought out and paraded in full view.

There is Tamar: who sets out to entrap her father-in-law, disguising herself as a prostitute to take advantage of the recent death of his wife, with the deliberate intention of becoming pregnant, in payment for his mistreatment of her, his refusal to fulfil his responsibility towards her as her guardian after she is widowed twice-over.

There is Rahab: who, dedicated to (named after) a mighty chaos demon by her parents, grew up to become a prostitute, offering shelter and comfort to travellers, and who betrayed her own people by harbouring spies who came with the intent of overthrowing Jericho.

There is Ruth: who was from Moab, a neighbouring people descended from the elder of Lot’s daughters, who both got their father drunk in order to become pregnant by him after his wife and their husbands had died in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and who herself, when widowed, took advantage of her relative-by-marriage in his drunkenness, in order to secure him as a husband.

There is Bathsheba: whose story is such an embarrassment that she isn’t even named, but identified as having been the wife of Uriah, one of David’s closest allies and military heroes; David, who when pregnancy threatened to reveal his adultery first tried to trick his friend in to believing he was the father and then had him set up to be killed in battle; Bathsheba who later had a surviving son by David, and involved herself in intrigue to ensure that her son, rather than any other son by David’s other wives, succeeded his father on the throne.

There is Mary: a girl waiting to enter into an arranged marriage as soon as she becomes a woman (i.e. has her first period), but whose very first egg is impregnated by the Holy Spirit (i.e. Jesus will spend three semesters in an unused or virgin womb, and three days in an unused tomb); a girl found pregnant by someone else, bringing disgrace on her family and the family of her betrothed.

This Jesus is not ashamed to own the skeletons in his family history; but, rather, comes to fully redeem dark secrets God has been redeeming over and over again.

The third Antiphon is ‘O Radix Jesse’ or ‘O Root of Jesse,’ a title which highlights both Jesus’ ancestry – descended from Jesse – and God’s work of redeeming our past – the root or stump from which a chopped-down tree grows back, straighter than before.  I have chosen to set it at the closet, wardrobe, or chest-of-drawers.

O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.


Advent: making room for Jesus – in the closet.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Righteous Resolving

In the Gospel reading for Holy Communion today, I am struck by two words relating to Joseph. The first is the description of him as a righteous man. The second is that he resolved to do something.

To be ‘righteous’ means to seek to live in right relationship with one’s neighbours. It is about the working-out of what that looks like, from day-to-day and from context to context. The Law found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is case law, a record of the working out of right relationship in different contexts. It exists to be referred back to in working out what to do in the contexts we might find ourselves in.

The word ‘resolved’ here carries the weight of strong emotion, of anger at a violation of righteousness and of a wrestling with how to respond rightly, having been wronged by another.

Within the collection of case law, there is recorded the case of a woman, engaged to be married, who has or who might have been raped (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). In weighing probability, the law states that if she cries out and is heard, whoever hears her is under obligation to run to her defence, and the community is under obligation to defend her honour by putting the rapist to death.

If this takes place in the countryside, the woman must be given the benefit of the doubt, that she cried out and there was no-one to hear her. On the word of her testimony – a woman, without witnesses – her accused attacker should be put to death.

If this takes place in the town – and by town, we should understand a smaller but also far denser population than in our towns, where there is bound to be someone close by – and she does not call out for help to defend her honour, then the woman is dishonourable, must be assumed to have consensually disregarded her family and her husband-to-be. In this circumstance, both the man and the woman involved must be punished by stoning to death at the gate to the city, where the elders sat to deliberate cases.

It is worth reminding ourselves that this collection of case law is concerned with righteousness, with living in right relationships with our neighbours. This law exists first-and-foremost to set out a society where it is unacceptable to rape a woman, and where it is unacceptable to treat people with contempt – to sin against a woman, and her family (what loving parent or sibling would not be devastated by such pain?), and the man to whom she is engaged. Understood in this light, the motivation is not that a daughter is property to be transacted, at the maximum price.

Within the collection of case law, there is also recorded the case of a husband who discovers something ‘objectionable’ about the woman whom he has entered into marriage with (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). He may write her a certificate of divorce, releasing her from their contract, so that she is free to marry another man. Should that subsequent marriage end, whether by divorce or death, her first husband is disqualified from re-marrying her – though she is not disqualified from marrying a third husband.

What’s at stake here? Well, it is a ruling that protects a husband from being bound to a wife who refuses to take on the particular constraints of being married, and that gives a woman a get-out clause from a marriage she does not choose.

It is also a ruling that protects a wife from being divorced lightly – a husband cannot send his wife away on a pretext in order to marry a younger, prettier woman, only to claim back his first wife should his selfishness not work out as well as he had hoped…

Again, this is case law working-out how to live righteously – and in particular, how to respond righteously when someone acts unrighteously towards us.

(An aside: in Jesus’ time, there was considerable debate over what something objectionable might cover, and how that could be abused to fulfil the letter of the law while doing the very opposite of the spirit of the law.)

Joseph hears news that Mary is pregnant. He is devastated. He feels angry, because the evidence before him points to his having been betrayed by her. Because, as someone who lived a life characterised by seeking to be in right relationship, he is deeply saddened when others choose a different way of living. This is clearly not the result of rape.

Joseph wrestles. He wrestles with how to respond, rightly – the best possible response in a far from ideal circumstance. He wrestles with case law. This is no black-and-white ‘the Bible says x’. The law provides precedents, and drawing on these a decision must be made in this new case.

Precedent would allow Joseph – or anyone else, for that matter – to drag Mary before the elders, submitting her to public disgrace. The ruling might well acquit her – the law calls for the death of the man, or the man and the woman; but the circumstance of a woman brought to trial without a corresponding man lies outside of the precedent. But even acquitted, her reputation would be destroyed, her life – in this town, at least – over.

But another precedent would allow Joseph to dismiss Mary quietly, to set her free to marry her lover, to walk away from any claim to her. This precedent would also allow Joseph to overrule – or at least to speak against – any other call for her public trial.

Joseph the righteous wrestles to reach a righteous resolution to his anger, as opposed to giving that anger free reign. And when he is resolved, what he resolves is to choose mercy.

Being righteous does not mean being resigned. It does not mean that we don’t get angry at the way in which other people treat us or others or themselves. But it means wrestling with how to respond rightly, how to channel and express our anger in a way that is liberating and not destructive. Even if it costs us. Even if it costs us everything.

Only once Joseph has reached his righteous resolution does God step in and give him the fuller picture. Being righteous does not mean being in possession of all the facts. It does not give us insight into other people’s lives, insight that they themselves do not possess.

All the more reason why the righteous are deliberate in seeking resolve.

What, in the world around you, makes you angry, perhaps rightly angry?

How will you resolve what to do in response?


Sunderland Nativity

I have already put pictures of the Sunderland Nativity on Facebook, but wanted an archived record here. This year we have created a life-sized walk-in Nativity scene, set in contemporary Sunderland. The hope was that by removing the scene from its familiar setting – which is really the clothes assigned to the characters in Renaissance Italy – those who enter in might experience the moment afresh.

The most striking thing has been people’s first reaction, which has been to be frightened by the angel, translated into a doorman for security. While we have been trained to imagine angels as small children with halos and wings, this shock is exactly the reaction recorded in Scripture when people encounter angels.

The shepherds had a noble tradition – in the city of David, who started out as a shepherd boy – but had, over time, been pushed to the margins, not least because goats ate/damaged property. They have been re-cast as a football supporter and a hoodie. Everyone wants the local football team to do well, but we find crowds of supporters intimidating. Everyone was young once, but we look down on the youth of today. Perfect shepherds.

The Nativity was made possible by the gift of two mannequins, the loan of three more from the Bridges shopping centre, and clothes from a variety of sources including private loan and local charity shops. The Nativity will be in place until early January 2015.


Advent 19 : Making Room At The Advent Ring



The second Advent Antiphon is O Adonai.  ‘Adonai’ is a title, meaning ‘Lord’ or ‘master’ and given to God in the Jewish tradition; it is a grammatical plural in form (i.e. literally ‘Lords’), which has particular significance for Christians, who believe that God is ‘One God in three persons’ (Trinity).

Throughout Advent, an Advent Ring sits on our dining-table: four candles surrounding a central candle.  Some years we have placed a decorative wreath around the ring.  The central candle represents Jesus, the light who is coming into the world, whom we wait for.  The four surrounding candles, lit accumulatively on the four Sundays of Advent, represent the Patriarchs & Matriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary.  In this way, we prepare for Christmas by telling the story of God’s salvation, framed in a particular way:

that God called one family, Abraham & Sarah, from whom he would call-forth a people, through whom he would bless all peoples;

that in  his commitment to his plan of salvation God sent prophets to call his people back into relationship with him when they went astray – including messages of promise that God would send one who would save his people;

and then, fast-forwarding towards the main event, that God sent John to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming;

and that God called Mary to be the one through whom the Lord would be born into the world - through whom a people would be re-gathered, through whom all peoples are to be blessed...

It is a story of faithful obedience to God’s call, of faithful response, of believing that all things are possible for God acting in covenant partnership with human beings (for a start, there are three miracle births in this telling: Abraham and Sarah’s son and John the Baptist are both born of mothers too old to ovulate; Mary’s son born of a virgin – literally, a girl who is yet to ovulate).  It is a story in which we are invited to place ourselves, to find our place, to write our chapter.

The O Adonai Antiphon recalls the fire of the burning bush, and calls on the Lord to come bringing light to our darkness – by redeeming us with an outstretched arm – and so I set this prayer at the Advent ring.

I like to light the Christ-candle throughout Advent, and to light the other candles from it.

O Adonai

O Adonai, the leader of the House of Israel,
 who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush,
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.


Advent: making room for Jesus – at the Advent ring.



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Disabled/Enabled Christmas

People come in a diversity of brokenness, whether from birth or through accident or malicious action or as a consequence of illness or aging. This is a gift, if we will receive it, to keep us from the terrible isolation of independence through giving and receiving love as one who is cared for and cares for others - interdependence. We are disabled or enabled, to greater or lesser degrees, by the actions of community to exclude or to include us. We are further wounded by every act of rejection – and wound ourselves when we reject others. We are further healed by every act of embrace – and experience healing ourselves when we embrace others.

The heart of Christmas is Good News. Good news for all humanity. The Good News that, in Jesus, God is with us. If we cannot present Christmas as Good News, we have not understood it.

For a whole angelic host of reasons, I have cause to reflect on how Christmas might be – more than just a party season – deeply enabling for those who are most disabled by our society.

I am struck that for 400 years before the births of John (the Baptizer) and Jesus, God is an elective mute. God is so emotionally overwhelmed, so unable to make sense of human behaviour, so traumatised by his experience of the world, he withdraws into silence. I am also struck that while there were some who went about life as if God did not exist, there were others who waited all that time (not any one individual, of course, but within the community) for the day when God would speak again. And I am struck that when God does speak, through his angel, he enables the priest Zechariah to share in the experience of muteness.

‘God-with-us’ is God with those of us who have retreated deep within ourselves and who watch from the relative safety of that place. ‘God-with-us’ is God with those of us who have chosen not to give up on someone who has retreated into themselves.

Moreover, I am struck that in the baby born on ‘Christmas Day’, God knows what it is like to be totally dependent, to be unable to speak, to be frustrated by not being able to make himself understood, to be incontinent. These are things I have largely forgotten – though I may encounter any or all of them again in the future – but not God. And I am struck that in the Christmas story there is a special place for Mary and for Joseph, both visited by angels.

‘God-with-us’ is God with the one who needs a Carer. ‘God-with-us’ is God with the one whose life is largely (if not exclusively) defined, in the short- or long-term, by being a primary Carer.

I am struck that the baby in the manger grows up, and there comes a time when his family intervene because they do not believe that he is capable of taking responsibility for himself. And I am struck that when he is led away and nailed to an executioners scaffold, he has the presence of mind – and strength of heart – to provide a Carer for his mother.

‘God-with-us’ is God with the misunderstood and rejected. ‘God-with-us’ is God with those who struggle to know how best to walk alongside their child, or how to navigate the path of interdependence with them. ‘God-with-us’ is God going into the future with us, into the unknown.

‘God-with-us’ can never be abstract – for we are concrete (or at least, of the earth).

‘God-with-us’ can never be (Christmas card) ‘picture perfect’ – for we are all broken.

‘God-with-us’ means God, both disabled and enabled by human action.

And ‘God-with-us’ means God’s enabling presence holding our brokenness in a beautiful wholeness.

This Christmas, and beyond, GOD BE WITH YOU.


Advent 18 : Making Room Online



Today we enter the Advent Antiphons, a series of ancient prayers said (traditionally, sung) in the evening from December 17 to December 23.  Each Antiphon is based on a particular title ascribed to Jesus, the coming king.  My intention is to suggest a place in the house where we might make room for Jesus by meditating on these prayers.

The first antiphon is O Sapientia, or O Wisdom.  Today, the internet gives us unprecedented access to information, and indeed to other people’s knowledge – knowledge being an understanding of how to interpret and present information.  But just as information is not knowledge, so knowledge is not wisdom...

O Sapientia

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.


There are lots of ways in which we might make room for Jesus online. This is one! You can find others by entering ‘Advent resources’ into a search engine, or via links on the Church of England website, http://www.churchofengland.org/



Advent: making room for Jesus – online.



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Advent 17 : Making Room In The Vegetable Rack



This particularly handsome chap is a celeriac – surely the inspiration for the Ood race in Dr Who.

Root vegetables are overlooked.  They aren’t the glamorous stars of the vegetable world.  They are, properly, dirty – pulled from the earth (though those root vegetables supermarkets deign to sell are thoroughly washed, air-brushed up).  They aren’t the sexy tomato, beaded with raindrops.  (And yes, I know that technically the tomato isn’t a vegetable; but as the saying goes, “Knowledge is knowing that the tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”)

Kept in the cool and dark, root vegetables don’t go off quickly.  In fact, some will last for months.  This meant that historically they were the staple of our winter diet.  And this gave rise to great versatility: soups, mashes, winter salads, stews, roasts.  Today, we can fly vegetables in from warmer climates, or grow them in controlled conditions.  The root vegetable has gone out of fashion, out of favour; and with it, we have lost the versatility we once had.

Root vegetables are tasty and nutritious; and, for those with eyes to see, beautiful.

When God told Isaiah that he would one day send his servant, who would establish God’s justice, having first suffered and then been exalted, he said that there would be nothing in his appearance to draw people to him: indeed, he would be so marred, so disfigured, that those who looked on him would be appalled (Isaiah 52:13-15).

At his most marred on the cross, perhaps Jesus wasn’t such a gorgeous baby.

When he grew up, he told those who were drawn not by his celebrity good looks but by his disturbing teaching and wonderful miracles that he was the bread of life: that is, that they needed to make him the staple of their spiritual diet, that he would provide spiritual sustenance day after day after day, where spiritual sustenance was in short supply.  Perhaps, to these islands – to any land where it is always winter and never Christmas? – he is the potato, the turnip, the celeriac of life?

This Advent, make room for root vegetables.  And as you do, make room for Jesus.


Advent: making room for Jesus – in the vegetable rack.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Vintage Blogger

On 15th December 2004, I wrote my first blog post. Ten years on, today I become a ‘vintage blogger’.

Over the past decade, our family has moved from Sheffield (S6 postcode, from which my blog took its original title, ‘6 good reasons’) to Perth (Western Australia) back to Sheffield (S10 postcode) to Nottingham (to theological college) to Liverpool to Southport (curacies) to Sunderland (and hopefully a longer settled season of life).

The look and feel of ‘kairos : kisses’ has changed with each of these new chapters, but I still find myself reflecting on life from a particular faith perspective, wrestling with words to navigate and provisionally shape the world in response to the Word through whom the world was created. It turns out that this is one of the tasks to which I am called.

Along the way, I have made new friends and kept in touch with old friends through writing this blog, even if most of our conversations have taken place in other places – face-to-face or through Facebook or by email or Skype. By the gift of these friendships, I am blessed. For the gift of these friendships, I am thankful.

So ‘thank you!’ to everyone who has been part of the story, past and present, for all of that time or more recently.


Advent 16 : Making Room At The Fireplace



One of the things I greatly appreciate is to sit in front of an open log fire in winter.

The secret to being able to enjoy a log fire in winter is to take the time to split logs throughout the rest of the year.  It is a slow, careful process of making sure you have the resources you will need to get through the lean time.  Not long ago, an older local man showed me the log-pile at the side of his house; I wonder whether a younger man would have the patience?

It strikes me that this time of year we have a tendency to combine a flurry of additional activity with the peak in coughs, colds and man-flu, thus making ourselves susceptible to illness.  We run ourselves down.

Perhaps our pacing is somewhat out.  Yes, there are certain activities which by definition belong to this season.  But perhaps if we find ourselves fitting-in too many Christmas dinners, socials and parties, it is an indicator to us that we are connected to too many communities at once.

Jesus told his disciples, go to one village at a time, and look for one person who will welcome you through serving you.

You can only fit so many people around a fireplace.  Perhaps Advent is rightly a time to slow down, not speed up.  To ask, who are the people who have helped me stock the log-pile this year – who have put in the time investing in our relationship over the course of many months – and to prioritise spending time with them over other invitations and opportunities.

That is not to deny the place of networking – of connecting people who have you as an acquaintance in common.  But it is to attempt to address the hectic nature the approach to Christmas has built up around it.

In this way we make room for Jesus at the fireplace, by taking time to honour those who have ministered to our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs.


Advent: making room for Jesus – at the fireplace.