Sunday, 26 December 2010

light into darkness into light

Rembrandt's 'the stoning of St Stephen', 1625
The way in which Christmas has fallen this year means that straight after the festivities and joyful celebrations of yesterday, we move immediately into the much less jolly suggested lectionary readings for today.  One track takes us to the stoning of Stephen - first Christian martyr.

The alternative track moves us from the celebration of the baby in the manger to the slaughter of the innocents by Herod.

Slaughter of the Innocents - Duccio Di Buoninsegna

It is odd timing.
and definitely discombobulating. 

Through Advent the build up of hope, the sense of expectation, of light in the darkness - of light defeating the darkness - led us to that blazing star hovering over a stable in Bethlehem.  Choruses of angels proclaimed the birth of the Messiah; shepherds and sages looked upon the baby with wonder.
For a brief moment in time, the light shone and fearful hearts were cheered. 
And then, in a fingersnap of time, the darkness seemed to descend again.

Is that it?
It feels a little like the police officer who tells onlookers:
'move along now, nothing here to see.'
Perhaps this is where faith comes into play?
We move from darkness to light to darkness.
Perhaps the glimpses of light are like stepping stones of hope along the way, that keep the fires of faith burning: sometimes a flicker, sometimes a steadier, brighter flame.
We move from darkness to light to darkness... but we do come back to light, and therein is the hope, the faith, that this is not all there is:
the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

a digital nativity?

This vid. has been doing the rounds on Facebook.  V. cute.  I think my favourite bit was the travel planning option 'avoid Romans'.  Enjoy!!

Friday, 17 December 2010

The welcoming church 3: Welcome - a simple and elementary matter...

I do love my research sometimes, especially when I come across such gems as the following entry from Kirkwall U.P. Church, 1894, re. elders and church welcome:

'they are not there for the mere purpose of standing at the plate, but for the purpose of giving a kindly welcome to the worshippers as they pass - were it but a pleasant smile or nod of recognition.  A shake of the hand would not be out of place....This would show the kind of interest which...elders are expected to take in the membership of the congregation....All of us should do what we can to promote each other's comfort, to encourage each other in well-doing, and to foster the spirit of brotherly love.  These are simple and elementary matters, but we require to be reminded of them.'

Seems the difficulties involved with regard to the 'simple and elementary matter' of welcome is no new thing!  Perhaps it's the raging extrovert in me, but I really don't see how difficult it is to welcome folks when they dare to cross the threshold... but it does remind me of a story.

I remember visiting a church [that shall be nameless] for a particular service held annually.  Dragged a pal along and we walked in and sat in the back pew [so we would know when to sit, stand, etc].  An older woman wandered in, stopped at the pew we were sitting in, fixed us with a baleful glare, made a loud choking noise of displeasure and then rather unhappily plonked herself into the pew in front of us, shaking her head.  Friend and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, a bare glimmer of a smile, and together had the unspoken thought that we were, perhaps not this woman's flavour of the month.  Several minutes later, another woman, similar age, also wandered in, stopped at the end of the pew momentarily, and then spotted her friend - woman in front of us.  She waved and then sat next to friend, who muttered rather loudly 'we're having to slum it in this pew - ours is taken.'  Cue eyebrows in pew behind being raised even higher.
For sheer devillment, I tapped the woman on the shoulder and said in incredibly apologetic tones, and with the most sincerity that I could muster: 'Goodness, I'm terribly sorry, I couldn't help but overhear what you said.  We're visitors here and really don't know the drill.  We didn't realise this was your pew - would you like us to move?'
Said woman was about to open her mouth with what I think would have been a 'yes, get out of my pew' comment, when her friend turned around, gave us a huge smile, welcomed us to the church, made sure we had orders of service, invited us for the post-church cheese and wine, and said 'my dear, no, not at all.  There's no such thing as 'my pew' - we do normally sit there, but it will be good for us to sit somewhere else.  We hope you enjoy the service.'  Utter graciousness.  Although her friend was simultaneously giving her a death glare....

Many are called.
Few are chosen.
Some get seats.
Others get death-glares.

Welcome to the church... you're in my pew.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Feasting on the Word - review

Feasting on the Word - preaching the revised common lectionary [Yr A, vol. 1]; edited by Don Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. £26.99

This is yet another excellent edition in what is an absloutely superb series.  The overall series aims to cover the three years of the Revised Common Lectionary, splitting each year into several books. With an eye on the price, I wondered if collecting the whole series might be just that bit too pricey, but realise that I'd be short-changing myself not to buy into this brilliant resource; it is far too good an investment to miss.
What I've really enjoyed as I've prepared worship has been the layout. Sunday by Sunday, each of the four key lectionary passages are explored, examined and discussed - each of the passages considered by dividing them into four columns and using four different angles: a theological perspective, a pastoral perspective, exegetical and homiletical perspectives. This ensures that Feasting on the Word is indeed just that: a veritable feast of a resource. 
Truly, a must for the bookshelves of all those who lead worship - but also a great resource for lay-folk who want to dig deeper into the word. Perhaps a useful parallel function might be to employ Feasting on the Word not only as a worship leader's resource, but as a regular group study focus. Just a thought. Why should ministers get all the good stuff, after all!?  ;)
The entire series will be available to buy as a set from May/June 2011 @ c.£299.  Individually, or as a set, you can pick it up in via the UK distributor Alban Books or give Cornerstone Bookshop a wee call...

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Great Expectations? A sermon for 3 Advent...Yr A

It's a little rough... but here goes:

'Great Expectations'

Isaiah 35: 1-10; Matt 11: 2-19

If Charles Dickens hadn't pinched it first, I think I'd have titled this sermon 'Great Expectations'...

Great Expectations -
the hope that something quite extraordinary is going to happen.
That sums up Advent.
It's the waiting time.
The time when we identify with Mary all those years ago in her time of waiting.
We wait with expectation to celebrate the mind-boggling idea of God coming to us,
to be with us,
to be one of us:
God coming to us on our own, very human terms.
Expectations that are great?
Expectations of greateness?
What is greatness?
And what happens when the expected...
is completely

The Third Sunday of Advent traditionally focuses on John the Baptist -
a man we heard a bit about last week...
a man who knew a lot about waiting and expectaion:
His entire life had been spent waiting for the fulfillment of God's word,
and his ministry was one of preparing the people of God for this event.

In our Gospel passage for today, we see John coming near to the end of his life and ministry -
imprisoned for speaking out against Herod's lack of moral character:
prisoners of conscience are no new thing.
But there he is,
languishing in jail at Herod's mercy.
John had spent the greater part of his life living out of doors in the wilderness - we'd say in Australia that he'd 'gone bush'.
William Barclay, commenting on this passage, describes John's situation like this:
'he was a child of the desert; all his life he had lived in the wide open spaces, with the clean wind on his face and the spacious vault of the sky for his roof.  and now he was confined in an underground dungeon.  For a man like John, who had perhaps never lived in a house, this must have been agony.'
Quite poetic for a commentary!  Barclay tries to enter into the mind of John, and, if John wore shoes, to walk in his shoes.

What was in John's mind when he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask the question:
'Are you the one, or should we expect someone else?'
What was John's expectation of who the Messiah should be?
Of what Messiahship should be about?
Were his great expectations of a warrior-hero, coming to liberate Israel from the Romans?
Or, since his role was that of a prophet,
a forth-teller of God's truth,
did he expect the messiah to be a mighty judge,
who would bring the divine fire of purifying judgement on the nation -
and we saw a little of that last week....
Did John ask because he was impatient
and wondered if Jesus was ever going to get on with the job?

Sometimes, because we know the story
because we've heard it so many times,
are so familiar,
we flick through the pages of the Gospels seeking for theological truths
but in doing so,
the people on the pages become like mere characters in a book:
we lose sight of the dirt-under-their-nails very human people -
everyday, ordinary, people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
In asking the question of Jesus, was John, this wild-man of the wilderness,
who didn't know if his next day would be his last,
was he wanting to know that he hadn't got it wrong?
That his expectations
his hope in Jesus
hadn't been in vain?
Did he need to know that at this end-point of his life
that it hadn't all been a useless waste of time?
I wonder...
if the question was about his own faith and hope
and a need to seek confirmation of this hope
confirmation of his life's mission in his last days?
What were his expectations?

Whatever his psychological state of mind,
whatever the reason for the question,
I hope he found the answer he needed in Jesus' response.
At other times when such questions were asked of him Jesus was likely to say:
'happy are they who believe without seeing'
but here, Jesus shows great compassion in his reply:
'tell John what you hear and see -
the blind receive sight,
the lame walk,
the deaf hear,
and the good news is preached to the poor.'
Jesus is quoting the prophet Isaiah to John -
the last and greatest of the prophets.
And in doing this,
gives John what he needs to know:
Jesus is the one expected -
and the proof in the (Christmas?) pudding,
is the fulfillment of the prophecy.
What Isaiah never saw in his own lifetime,
John has seen in his -
though perhaps not quite in the way he'd envisaged or expected.

If John had to slightly revise his idea of the Messiah -
if even John the Baptist felt the need to ask if Jesus was the one -
how did the people of Israel imagine the Messiah?
What were their expectations?
Under the yoke of the Roman Empire,
longing for independence,
did they dream dreams of Messiah as a great freedom fighter?
I wonder if the people of Israel would have coped better with Jesus if he'd just done 'the decent thing'...
had conformed to the stereotype of what great deliverers should be like?
But then, from their very own history,
they should have known not to try and force God into a box,
because sometimes, God is a little like the jack-in-the-box
that you know is there,
that you know will appear,
and yet who still manages to surprise and startle when the lid finally springs open.
The expected
and yet the unexpected.

Can we really blame the people of Israel for maybe having these expectations of a mighty super-hero Messiah?
Don't we ourselves often define greatness as who the strongest is?
Now, if we were God, we'd probably plan this whole coming into the world business quite differently.
We'd arrive on the world stage as the big strong warrior-hero type
overpower those pesky Romans
make a real name for ourselves,
possibly even set ourselves up as Caesar -
be at the top of the hierarchical power pile -
that'd convince everyone we weren't to be trifled with...
But our God...
is the God of surprises.
The one who turns our value systems
our expectations
Who completely makes a nonsense of what we think of as great and powerful.
God defies our definitions.
Perhaps even laughs at our definitions
and challenges us to redefine them again and again and again.

Matthew goes to great pains in the Gospel to point out exactly where Jesus came from:
his lineage certainly contains a few surprises,
and who would think that a virgin would or could conceive?
And that the Messiah would, like us,
have to undergo the whole messy, undignified birthing process?
Yet, the prophets foretold it.
Who would think that the Messiah would be found in a stack of hay in a stable...
and not a grand palace?
Who would think that the 'little baby Jesus' could possibly be 'Immanuel' -
God with us?

I remember a conversation with a friend a long time ago.
Said friend was saying with some feeling that she was sick to the back teeth with the idea of the cute 'n cuddly 'little baby Jesus' -
helpless, sweet, inoffensive.
An anaemic, watered-down religious symbol for people not quite comfortable with the grown-up Jesus.
In many ways, she had a point... but...
let's not sneer at the idea of 'little baby Jesus' too readily:
without 'little baby Jesus' there can't be a Christ crucified.
Without 'little baby Jesus', we lose Jesus' humanity.
Without Jesus' humanity we lose the idea of the God who feels our pain
who knows us utterly,
identifies with us completely...
and who, in turn, we can identify with.
Without 'little baby Jesus' we lose the wonder of God who turns the meaning of greatness on its head
by coming to us as a helpless, gurgling baby
dependant on the hospitality of the human heart to take him in...
God needing us...
as much as we need God...
a mutual bond of relationship forged in fleshly incarnation.
The expected, yet unexpected coming of God-all-powerful
who comes as God-all-vulnerable
in that tiny scrap of human flesh:
'little baby Jesus'
and who, by doing so, puts hope in the heart of humanity.

We come full circle at Advent:
back to the waiting time
to the having of great expectations...
Great expectations:
the hope that something quite extraordinary is going to happen...
when the expected is completely unexpected.
And what could be more unexpected than the idea that a helpless dependent baby could be the God who created the universe?
The God who comes to deliver us
by becoming one of us in our frail humanity?
No wonder John felt the need to ask the question of Jesus:
'are you the one?'

May the God of surprises teach us to expect the unexpected,
and fill us all with joy this season.

Monday, 6 December 2010


The recent launch of the Not Ashamed campaign backed by Lord Carey leaves me a tad baffled.  I'm baffled by the use of such words as 'victimised' and 'persecuted'.  I'm further disturbed by the faint sounds of Christian jingoistic sentiments in the background that seem to run along the old, tired theme of 'our nation was great and we can be again.'

Times have surely changed since God and Empire were so tightly entwined, and, I think, this is for the betterment of Christianity itself.
Power and prestige are the antithesis of what I believe to be the message of the Gospel and the followers of God have always seemed to have done better when as the 'faithful remnant', not the dominant power group oppressing others.  And why is it that this particular campaign smacks of toys being thrown out of a pram?

But back to this victim mentality thing: what leaves a very sour taste in the mouth is using the language of persecution when Christians in other places on this planet are actually awaiting execution for just being Christian, as per the case in Pakistan with Asia BiBi.

I'm not ashamed to be a Christian, but sometimes I'm a little ashamed of the behaviour of other Christians.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Sunday song: 2nd Advent

Matthew 3: 1-6
In those days 
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, 
proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 
This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair 
with a leather belt around his waist, 
and his food was locusts and wild honey. 
Then the people of Jerusalem 
and all Judea were going out to him, 
and all the region along the Jordan, 
and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, 
confessing their sins. 

Advent: prepare - people, get ready...

Saturday, 4 December 2010

light in the darkness, and how...

I know it's the season of light... I'd just hate to pay the electric bill on this!!
You'll need your sound on to fully appreciate the display...  :)

Friday, 3 December 2010

Friday Five: December Survival Guide Edition

Gosh, haven't played this game for a wee while.  Over at RevGals the theme has turned to surviving the December busy time... Kathrynzj asks:

Whether a RevGal or a Pal most of us in this cyber community have enhanced responsibilities during this time of year. We also have traditions - religious and secular - that mark the season for us in a more personal way.
For this Friday Five please let us know five of the things that mark the season for you.
And the bonus? Tell us one thing that does absolutely nothing for you

The strange thing for me this December is that for the first time since I can remember, I have no extra duties at all... no placement and, subsequently, am a fairly free spirit, a luxury which I'm going to very much enjoy while I can!!  However, my five things:

1/ watching that first Advent candle lit and then the weekly progression until all are finally flickering
2/ the first singing of 'O Come O Come Emmanuel' - its bare-boned, simple, pared-back beauty: a plaintive yet hope-filled cry in the darkness
3/ lighting the fireplace for the first time
4/ when the eggnog and gingerbread latte arrives in a certain large chain of coffee shops that shall be nameless
5/ reading John's Prologue and the words that never fail to stir and move and thrill me: 
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. 

Ahh, and the one thing that really doesn't do it for me... I almost forgot:
Seeing Christmas dec's up and hearing carols in September - people, please, no!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

the more it snows...

The more it snows
(Tiddly Pom)
The more it goes
(Tiddly Pom)
The more it goes
(Tiddly Pom)
On snowing.

And nobody knows
(Tiddly Pom)
How gold my toes
(Tiddly Pom)
How cold my toes
(Tiddly Pom)
Are growing.
                                                   A. A. Milne

The most amazing dumping of snow in 40 years, according to that vital arm of journalism The Metro [a boon for the weary traveller].  Having been relatively snowed in, I pulled on the sheepskin boots and trudged into uni. on Tuesday.  Oh, it's hard to be shut in when you're an extrovert and I was going a little stir-crazy; plus, I'd run out of chocolate and useful work books.  Mr Knox looked resplendant in his fluffy white bunnet.... and as I looked out at the New College garden I would not have been at all surprised to see Mr Tumnus rushing by with his brolly and packages. 

So many people complaining about the Council: how ineffective, how inefficient.  Grumbling that the pattern of life has had to s l o w down, and what a terribel nuisance it all is, mutter, mutter - and I grumbled at first too.  And then I began to think how amazing it's been, given the unexpected freak conditions that the Council's managed to keep some buses going, have main roads gritted, etc.  I think the bus drivers have done an heroic job.  And - good grief - I've still been receiving mail.  Astonishing.  Pity about the local shop running out of milk, but I can drink herbal tea!  It's also been fun seeing just what stuff is hidden at the back of food cupboards; various friends are counting how many tins of tuna seem to have gathered.  For what it's worth, I discovered amongst other odd things four tins of tuna, plus several jars of black olives and a bottle of cocktail gherkins... I'm sure I can make some kind of fascinating concoction out of that lot and team it up with all the various pastas and rice I've also got.

These are the times when I realise that we humans can't control absolutely everything, and perhaps it's good to be reminded every now and then.  It's been freezing, and yet there's been a glorious, quiet beauty as the snow has softened the corners of the landscape.  Perhaps time to give thanks for enforced slow pace, and possibly even a surfeit of tuna.