Peace cannot be imposed. That was the mistake made, or lie perpetuated, by Caesar Augustus and his Pax Romana, along with every empire before or since. No, peace cannot be imposed; only given, and received, as gift.
Sunday, December 23, 2018
We’re almost at Christmas. We know that Jesus was born on or around 25 December (we can do the maths from the conception of John the Baptist and the overlapping pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary; though the year is harder to pin down) but we don’t know when he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Yet we proclaim that he will; and, indeed, the Season of Advent is about preparing ourselves for that future moment we don’t know, that will come like a thief in the night, without warning. And so, persistence is at the heart of the matter, actively waiting after the shepherds have gone on their way rejoicing.
Saturday, December 22, 2018
We expect certain things of the familiar nativity. A good, kindly, but ultimately incompetent Joseph, who only manages to get Mary to Bethlehem as she goes into labour. A town-full of harassed inn-keepers whose rooms are all taken; and one who eventually takes pity and lets the holy family shack up in the stable round the back. And yet the story confounds our expectations. According to Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph are guests in a family home, and, because there is not enough room in the guest room for Mary to give birth, attended as she would have been by other women, Jesus was born in the main room shared at night by the family and their animals, and laid to rest in the safe, contained bowl of the animals food trough. According to Church tradition, Joseph was an older widower, who took Mary as his ward; already the father of children by his first wife, or possibly having adopted the orphan children of his brother; in which case there were likely several other children crowding round, some perhaps old enough to be of some help, others underfoot. One way or another, expect to have your expectations shaken, as God breaks in again.
Friday, December 21, 2018
The angel told the shepherds that a Saviour had been born, and that the sign would be that they would find a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12). At the other end of Luke’s Gospel (24:12), Peter finds the linen cloths that had wrapped Jesus for burial ‘by themselves’—a sign to him of the triumph of the Messiah over death. A sign points us to something beyond itself. In the case of cloth, to God-with-us in our struggle for life, from the outset; ultimately defeating the ancient enemy that held sway over us. As we wrap ourselves in a throw to watch Christmas movies or put on new brushed-cotton Christmas pyjamas to snuggle into bed, may we not shut the dark world out but be reminded again of the good news of great joy.
Thursday, December 20, 2018
John declared that the one who was coming would bring fire. Not as an arsonist, but as a smelter. One who carefully tends to fire, and carefully holds ore, in order to extract a pure and useful metal. A master-worker who takes earth and breath—who takes human beings, composed of the earth of the ground animated by the breath of God—and brings about transformation. Substance still of the earth, but able to endure, and precious. Gold and silver for jewellery. Bronze and iron for tools. Women and men, their God-given hidden properties revealed, crafted, brought to bear in the world for the enhancement of life. But not without heat, not without impurity skimmed off and poured away. No gain without loss. And yet the whisper echoing down the centuries, ‘When you pass through the fire, you shall not be consumed, for I am with you…’
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Long ago, the Israelites had entered the Promised Land, crossing over the river Jordan. A homecoming, a return to Eden. But things did not go well, and eventually they were sent, once more, into exile; before, in time, returning again. So, when John came to prepare a people to welcome the Lord, he had them go back to the start, a column of men, women, and children, walking into the promise from beyond the Jordan.
When asked who he was, John quoted prophets of old, Isaiah and Malachi. He was the messenger sent ahead: the one coming hard on his heels would baptise with fire—a partial quote from Malachi, who said ‘he comes with refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap.’ The ancient equivalent of the washing machine. If John came wading in water, Jesus came to scrub his people up and down, plunge them in and out and in and out, and beat them against a rock. To scrape away at stubborn stains; repeat; and hang them out to dry. On the longed-for Day of the Lord’s coming, he will put his people in a spin and through the wringer, before he is done with us and we are washed whiter than snow.
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Today we brought the Christmas tree into the Minster where I serve. It is green now, but it will die. But for now, it stands in that space. It is a space in which there is much older wood, pews and a pulpit carved in the 1930s, and some wood going back centuries. The old will be visible for much longer than the new. And the same is true with us. The present congregation is but the latest ring of growth in a tree planted on a small rise overlooking the mouth of the River Wear in AD930. A continuous worshipping community, though one disrupted many times over the intervening years. And when we sing on this patch of earth, we join in communion with the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us into God’s nearer presence.
Monday, December 17, 2018
Singing has always been a core practice of God’s people, in whatever circumstance they find themselves. The Psalms are the songbook of our faith, songs for every situation: one third of them are laments. Singing resonates with something deeply, universally human. I’m reminded of being in a rugby stadium, the home team having a tough day at the office, the crowd rallying them again with song. Or intimidating the team set against them. But if that team can silence the home support, they steal a huge advantage.
I don’t mind Christmas carols, but I love Advent carols. Majors give quick wins in the present moment, but minors carry the hope of generations for future glory.
Sunday, December 16, 2018
This morning as I stepped out of my front door, Venus, the morning star, was looking down. A friend waiting for me, accompanying me as I ventured out, making my heart glad. When I retraced my steps an hour later, though I looked to find her, she was nowhere to be seen.
Experiencing joy has very little to do with our circumstances, the good as much as the bad, and much more to do with finding ourselves caught up in wonder. Even on the brightest of our days, joy tends to catch us unawares. Search for joy directly, and it will prove elusive; try to hold on too tightly, and it will slip away. It comes, unbidden, when needed.
Saturday, December 15, 2018
I prepare most of the meals in our household. Tonight, I am preparing an aubergine curry. It will have all the beautiful flavour of aubergine, but it won’t look anything like what I begin with. We will never return the aubergine to its original state. As we wait with God in Advent, we are being prepared for Christ’s return. But God does not come to make us a smoother, silkier version of our current state; God comes to transform us. At the resurrection, we will not be recognisable, physically, any more than an oak tree looks like an acorn; but we will be known. There is both discontinuity and continuity—and that work begins now, in this life.
Friday, December 14, 2018
Winter pruning serves a variety of purposes, from establishing new plants to rejuvenating tired old shrubs; from training a fruit tree to grow against a wall, to encouraging a bigger harvest; from removing disease to promoting health.
Recently, a friend, somewhat beating themselves up for not always being loving and kind regardless of circumstances, asked me, “But aren’t Christians supposed to be always bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit?” [love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Galatians 5;22, 23]. I responded no: we are called to be fruitful, but not to bear fruit continuously; even the tree of life bears its fruit on a monthly, i.e. not continuous, cycle [Revelation 22:2]. Lasting fruitfulness requires times of pruning, resting, and new growth between each harvest.
What is the divine gardener pruning in you, and in your community, this Advent?
Thursday, December 13, 2018
Smooth does not mean there are no scars. Smooth means that we can run our hand over the surface without experiencing fresh pain. Our scars are the means by which are stories are marked down, carried with us. God comes not to erase us, but to heal us. To honour our life-story. See, the rough places are being made smooth. Even the scars are beautiful to the touch.
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
Luke the Gospel-writer quotes John the Baptizer quoting Isaiah the Prophet to declare that our preparations for the Lord to arrive must include the rough ways made smooth. One might say that Isaiah, John, and Luke rub up against each other. Most days, I pass by this bench, with its peeling paintwork and its broken slat. It is rough; and yet, ironically, the thing that will make it smooth is to subject it to sandpaper, to abrasion under a loving hand. Not once, but regularly. And this is how we, too, are made smooth: our rough edges worn off by the rough edges of our sisters and brothers, under the loving hand of God who creates, redeems and sustains us.
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
Every Christian—all of the baptised—is called by Christ to be a eucharistic* minister. To go out into the world; to live our lives as embodied, flesh-and-blood, prayers of thanks and praise to God; carrying the real presence of Christ, encountered in bread and wine and in our sisters and brothers gathered round the Lord’s table with us; freely sharing with others what we have received. The culmination of the celebration of Holy Communion is the dismissal:
“Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.”
“In the name of Christ. Amen.”
We are all commissioned to go; and all take up that commission. And yet.
What is stopping you?
*Eucharist, from the Greek ‘to give thanks’ [and praise to God]. Technically, the celebration of Holy Communion involves the liturgy of the Word followed by the liturgy of the Eucharist, culminating in the dismissal [from which the Roman Catholics get the term mass to describe the entire rite].
Monday, December 10, 2018
Sunday, December 09, 2018
In Isaiah’s world, the King’s Highway ran through the Judean wilderness, connecting Egypt and Babylon, the Great Pyramids and the Hanging Walls, the past exodus out of slavery and the hope of a future return from exile. The prophet borrowed the well-worn image to call the people to get ready for God on the move. Four centuries later, John the Baptiser took up Isaiah’s words, with the added irony that he lived in a world paved-over by Roman armies bringing the Pax Romana. God has always been encountered on the wilderness road; but for centuries now we have been at work to level the land, to tarmac over the wild places, to obliterate them with our superhighways of politico-economic salvation. If we are to prepare the way for the Lord in our day, we might need to begin with digging-up our old familiar routes before we can rebuild.
Saturday, December 08, 2018
Our outhouse is spun with gossamer web. Not a fly enters the space, but the spider knows it. To be alert to what God is doing in our neighbourhood calls not for frantic activity, but for a well-maintained wide-reaching network of informants—say, the Church; though not exclusively so by any means—and attentive, trustful, rest.
Friday, December 07, 2018
I never imagined that I would be a runner. Some things sprout inevitably, in defiance of all odds. A flower pushing up through the concrete jungle. But more things will sprout given a nurturing and focussed community cheering us on. Unlikely and life-giving things might yet surprise us.
Thursday, December 06, 2018
Each winter, the trees rehearse their death. Light floods in through the gaps. Light always floods in through the gaps, the cracks, what some mistakenly call negative space. Numinous in its super-abundance. This is mystery. The light of Jesus, the one called Emmanuel—God-with-us—floods in through the gaps between the living and the dead, between dying and bursting to life, illuminating all.
Wednesday, December 05, 2018
We live half our lives in the dark, which should tell us that night is as much gift as is day. As night falls, the earth draws in a deep breath, gathers itself together. And God watches over the creatures that sleep and over the creatures that come out under the cover of darkness, from timid mice to mighty constellations in the heavens.
Tuesday, December 04, 2018
The first frost of the winter transforms the fallen leaves; dew, in sharply concentrated form; drawing the eye to what we had thought of as discarded waste, now changed. Leaves that had laid down their lives so that the tree might live, revealed in glory. So, may the focus of our adoration point others to Christ’s glory.
Monday, December 03, 2018
Stop, watch, until the swirling anonymous crowd of Christmas shoppers comes into focus; watching for signs of divine grace. There, did you see? A glimpse of God walking among us, in a burst of laughter, in that tender assisting touch, in the gathering-up of weary bones to keep going…
Sunday, December 02, 2018
Saturday, December 01, 2018
We think of death as failure. Of our body failing us, and us failing those closest to us. We are wrong.
Dying is the culmination of our life’s work. It is the singular event we have all been moving inexorably towards from the moment of conception. “Pray for us,” Catholics implore Mary, “now and at the hour of our death”—because ‘now’ and ‘the hour of our death’ are the only moments given us, the only moments that matter. And each ‘now’ is preparation for ‘the hour of our death’.
The answer to the question, “What am I for?” is to prepare for a good death. To discover that I am unnecessary—the world was doing just fine before I came along and will manage perfectly well without me when I am gone. And to believe that I am loved—and that, held by love, my life, however short or long, makes all the difference in the world.
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
CHRISTMAS Overflowing gladness and praise
[This fifth conversation is intended to take place at some point over Christmas.]
We light all four Advent candles, and the Christmas candle
Blessed are you, sovereign Lord, King of peace:
to you be praise and glory for ever.
The new light of your incarnate Word
gives gladness in our sorrow,
and a presence in our isolation.
Fill our lives with your light,
until they overflow with gladness and praise.
Blessed be God for ever.
Optional props: a selection of Christmas cards and letters received in recent weeks.
What was your favourite Christmas card this year, and why?
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
What are you thankful for, this Christmas?
Where have you known gladness in sorrow and presence in isolation?
How might we hold one another in our hearts, and so share in God’s grace?
Lord Jesus, Light of light,
you have come among us.
Help us who live by your light
to shine as lights in your world.
Glory to God in the highest.
ADVENT 4 Renewed in Christ’s image
We light all four Advent candles
Blessed are you, sovereign Lord, merciful and gentle:
to you be praise and glory for ever.
Your light has shone in our darkened world
through the child-bearing of blessed Mary;
grant that we who have seen your glory
may daily be renewed in your image
and prepared like her for the coming of your Son,
who is the Lord and Saviour of all.
Blessed be God for ever.
Optional props: a doll, or selection of dress-able play figures with moveable body-parts.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up, and why? (And what came of those dreams?)
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
What might it mean to present our bodies as a living sacrifice?
Do you know what gifts God has given you to enjoy using?
What might be your function within the Church?
Lord Jesus, light of the world,
blessed is Gabriel, who brought good news;
blessed is Mary, your mother and ours.
Bless your Church preparing for Christmas;
and bless us your children, who long for your coming.
ADVENT 3 To witness to him
We light the first, second, and third Advent candles
Blessed are you, sovereign Lord, just and true:
to you be praise and glory for ever.
Your prophet John the Baptist was witness to the truth
as a burning and shining light.
May we your servants rejoice in his light,
and so be led to witness to him
who is the Lord of our coming kingdom,
Jesus our Saviour and King of the ages.
Blessed be God for ever.
Optional props: running shoes.
Have you ever been enlisted to a group, other than the Church? And have you ever enlisted others?
You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well. Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer. And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things.
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
2 Timothy 2:1-13
Who told you about Jesus, that caused you to respond?
How does it feel to have been entrusted to bear witness to Jesus?
How would you summarise the gospel?
Lord Jesus, light of the world,
John told the people to prepare,
for you were very near.
As Christmas grows closer day by day,
help us to be ready to welcome you now.