Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Advent 2019, day eleven





A Song of the Wilderness

The wilderness and the dry land shall rejoice,
the desert shall blossom and burst into song.

They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weary hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to the anxious, ‘Be strong, fear not,
your God is coming with judgement,
coming with judgement to save you.’

Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

Then shall the lame leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;

The ransomed of the Lord shall return with singing,
with everlasting joy upon their heads.

Joy and gladness shall be theirs,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Say to the anxious, ‘Be strong, fear not, your God is coming with judgement, coming with judgement to save you.’

When God comes in judgement, it shall not be to condemn, but to save.

To open our eyes where we are blind to the enough-ness of ourselves, and our neighbour. To unstop our eyes where we have become tone-deaf to the song of our innermost being, and to the cry of our neighbours’ hearts. To work deep physio to torn hamstrings, and to set free the voice of the silenced. To strengthen the weary, and to take up our infirmity.

God’s judgement upon giving you life was and is and will be ‘very good!’

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Advent 2019, day ten





‘I have a drink problem. I am in recovery. And I wanted to thank you, and the PCC, for allowing Alcoholics Anonymous to meet in the church hall. But I also need to tell you about the judgement I have had from other people. “You’re not one of them, are you?”’

‘Thanks for coming to see me, vicar. I’ll get straight to it. I’ve had a diagnosis of dementia.’

‘In the end, it was mercifully quick. But we’d lost her three years ago. She thought I was my father.’


On what basis does God judge us? On our best days, or our most vulnerable? For the coping mechanisms we turn to, that then turn on us? On who we were, or who we become?

The writers of the New Testament affirm that God has appointed Jesus as the one who will judge the peoples. But what measure will he use? Not, I think, on whether you have subscribed to the right doctrinal statements; but weighing, as no-one else has judgement to weigh, the question God asks of each one of us:

‘What make you of the life I have given?’


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John 1:1-14)

Monday, December 09, 2019

Advent 2019, day nine





If I had £1 for every time a member of one of my congregations has told me that they thank God that we are not like those judgemental Christians in such-and-such a church over there — an Irony Tax, if you will — I would be a rich man.

A sober acknowledgement of the judgement that awaits us all is the very opposite of a judgemental outlook. It is also the antidote.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Advent 2019, day eight





The traditional theme of the second week of Advent is JUDGEMENT.

God alone is qualified, is capable, to judge me.

And this means that, on the one hand, I am freed from passing judgement on myself; and, on the other hand, that I am compelled to live according to God’s judgement.

The judgement God passes on me, on you, on each and every one of us is enough:

‘When I made you, it was enough, lacking nothing. The life I have given you is also enough.’

This is in stark opposition to the insidious whisper of the Accuser, that I am never enough, that what I have is never enough. We are driven to compete, against ourselves and against our neighbour, the survival of the fittest, to control a scarcity that exists only in our imagination.

I am struck by how many people, of late, have told me that they are not enough. That they are not enough to be considered good company; that they are not enough in front of others; that they are not enough as a parent or a child or a student or a worker or a neighbour or a friend. It hasn’t been one or two people; more like an endemic condition in our society.

To say that you are enough is not the same as to say, don’t change for anyone. We desperately need change, to change, in every place where we believe ourselves to not be enough. But the starting point is a right and sober judgement on judgement.

To say that the life we have received is enough is not to say that the gross inequality of experience is God-ordained. Inequality is, rather, the fruit of insecurity, of fear-driven insatiable hunger for more — recognition, status, experiences, toys — at the expense of others. Again, the starting point to the change we all need is right and sober judgement on judgement.

Staring judgement in the face, neither lowering our eyes nor turning away, may be precisely what we need in these dark days.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Advent 2019, day seven





A time to be born and a time to die.

In the days to come, we shall celebrate the One in whom the merest breath of our common human experience, and the untameable wind/life-breath of God, come together without striving.

John, the Baptiser, came weeping and mourning; and his departure, his removal through death, birthed Jesus, come laughing and dancing. And dying — and rising; ascended — and coming again.

When he first came, the men who presiding over his execution could not bring themselves to tear his robe; instead, they threw dice, gambled against death. But even the great curtain in the Temple was torn, from top to bottom; as the Father rent his garments at the news of the death of his only Son. Yet it is neither robe nor shroud nor Temple curtain that has been repaired in his rising, but the very fabric of the universe, of space and time. For, truly,

Everything has a season, and a time for every
matter under the heavens.

and all are fulfilled in him.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Advent 2019, day six





A time to tear and a time to sew.

In Qohelet’s culture, on the news of bereavement, one tore one’s clothes, as an outward sign of the fabric of your world having suffered violence, a tearing in reality. Then, after a prescribed period of mourning, one would mend the garment. From a practical perspective, few could discard garments with every loss; but more, symbolically again, the act of taking needle and thread and repairing the rent fabric is an act of engaging in the very repairing of the world.

In wearing a torn-and-mended cloak, every season carries with it the season before; every matter is woven together, to create a wondrous story...

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Advent 2019, day five





A time to weep and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn and a time to dance.

Death calls time even on weeping, ushering us into laughter once more;
calls time on mourning, and ushers us into dancing.
Without a dying, all states would endure, unbearably.

There is an aptness, then, even to death, within the mystery of God, and the revelation that draws us deeper into mystery.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Advent 2019, day four





When Qohelet speaks of the approach of death as ‘the days of evil come,’ he does not mean moral evil, but something akin to Colin Dexter naming the novel in which Inspector Morse dies The Remorseful Day (itself taken from a poem by A E Houseman). Death comes to us all, leaving things undone that ought to have been done. But death is also a door, a frame, through which we step out of one thing and into another. Indeed, looking back over the years, it has been so our whole life, the threshold we cross back and forth in ten thousand-thousand rehearsals. Qohelet again:

Everything has a season, and a time for every
matter under the heavens.

A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to rip down and a time to build.
A time to weep and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to fling stones and a time to gather stones in.
[In English, we might say, A time to sow your wild oats and a time for your chickens to come home to roost.]
A time to embrace and a time to pull back from embracing.
A time to seek and a time to lose.
A time to keep and a time to fling away.
A time to tear and a time to sew.
A time to keep silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace.
What gain is there for him who does in what he toils?
(Qohelet 3:1-9)

(Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, The Writings, pp. 685, 686)

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Advent 2019, day three





One of Qohelet’s most enigmatic turns of phrase is,

I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look,
all is mere breath, and herding the wind.
(Qohelet 1:14)

We humans expend ourselves attempting to herd the wild and free life-breath given us by God. In attempting to control the gift of life, it slips through our fingers. We grasp after it, but it eludes us. And we either keep chasing, or fall back.

This is so not only at a personal level, but — consequently — as a society. While some enjoy the means to chase where the wind may blow, attempting to herd life into some order, into some show of wealth and status, others are at any given moment within one step of being winded by a sucker-punch. Nowhere in the ‘developed’ world of democratic nations is the inequality between citizens greater than in the nation where I live. Children are living, in increasing numbers, in poverty many feel we should have left behind generations ago, while others are indifferent to their plight. The malaise of anxiety and depression — a ghost-life, mere breath — so common among us — whether because no matter what we do the odds are insurmountably stacked against us by our neighbours, or because of our unease at our own complicity in such injustice and seeming impotence to transform it — are symptoms of the toil Qohelet observed long ago (to borrow another of his phrases, there is nothing new under the sun).

In the light of our common life and death, we can do no better than to enjoy the simple gifts of security — as long as we have breath, until it is taken back by God — of work to offer, a roof over our head, food on our table, that we might rest in peace in the embrace of committed, loving relationships and not be torn apart.

Advent calls us to long for such as this, for us and for our neighbours. To catch our breath. And, instead of fighting against the wind of change where it blows, to be caught up and carried along by it.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Advent 2019, day two






The ancient text known as Qohelet in the Hebrew Bible or Ecclesiastes in the Christian Old Testament offers us one of the most beautiful reflections on life lived in the light of death that has ever been composed. One of the key images is the tension between havel havalim — merest breath — and ruah — life-breath, or wind; between life which is fleeting, insubstantial, and yet possessing an animating force that, while just as elusive, is endlessly active.

Here are some extracts, from Robert Alter’s translation:


Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.
What gain is there for man in all his toil that he toils under the sun.

A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and to its place it glides, there it rises.
It goes to the south and swings round to the north, round and round goes
the wind, and on its rounds the wind returns.

I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere
breath, and herding the wind.

(Qohelet 1:2-6, 14)


And recall your Creator in the days of your
prime, until the days of evil come, and the years arrive, when you will say,
“I have no delight in them.” Until the sun goes dark, and the light and the
moon and the stars, and the clouds come back after the rain.

On the day that the guards of the house will quake
and the stalwart men be twisted,
and the maids who grind grow idle, for they are now few,
and those who look up from the casements go dark.
and the double doors close in the market
as the sound of the mill sinks down,
and the sound of the bird arises,
and all the songstresses are bowed.
Of the very height they are afraid,
and terror is in the road.
And the almond blossoms,
and the locust tree is laden,
and the caper fruit falls apart.
For man is going to his everlasting house,
and the mourners turn round in the market.
Until the silver cord is snapped,
and the golden bowl is smashed,
and the pitcher is broken against the well,
and the jug smashed at the pit.
And dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the life-breath returns to God Who gave it.
Merest breath, said Qohelet. All is mere breath.

(Qohelet 12:1-8)


(Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, The Writings, pp. 679-681, 706-708)

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Advent 2019, day one







Advent is the season of preparing ourselves to live (to keep living) in the light of the Lord’s return. The thing is, no-one knows when he will return. Jesus could have come again for me and my family last night, when we went to bed forgetting to blow out a candle on the mantlepiece. Instead, he sent an angel to keep watch over it all through the night, and make sure our house didnt burn down.

The first of the four Last Things, traditional themes of Advent, is DEATH. Death is the moment our whole lives inexorably lead up to, the culmination of our life’s work. Every preceding moment is a rehearsal, to die well, to come to the end of our lives in wholeness, at peace. The primary vocation of all God’s people is to be recipient ministers of reconciliation.

Advent, then, is a season of preparation to be peacemakers. In as much as it depends upon us, to be reconciled with those to whom we are presently estranged. In as much as it depends on them, to bring them daily to God in prayer, forgiving them where they have wounded us, and asking for and receiving Gods forgiveness where we have wounded them —

for it is in receiving God’s forgiveness that our anxiety over the present condition of estrangement is stilled, allowing us to be a non-anxious presence in the world in the face of death, which is common to all, and all around us.