Monthly Archives: December 2011

If you are going to Midnight Communion, look away now….

The phrase I hate most at this time is “Christmas is for the kids.” That has never explained for me all the alcohol consumed, the lingerie M&S sells in December or the new cars, TVs and furniture that make their appearance around the holidays.

Many Christians get overly concerned about the commercialisation or secularisation of the season but for me the real danger is infantilisation: Christmas not for the children but rather for the childish. The more childish we make it, less seriously we will need to take what we are celebrating and the easier it is for us to mask its significance.

It might surprise you to know that the official date of Christmas was not set until the 4th century. You will not find reference to it in the epistles, which were written before the gospels. Only two of the gospels mention the Christmas story and you have to read them both to get the whole story. The Puritans banned it and the Victorians turned it into a fashionable and lucrative enterprise. The nation doesn’t believe the story anymore but Jesus is still the saviour the economy.

Once the church did pay attention to Jesus’ birth, it found the occasion was a useful way of presenting the deeper themes of salvation, liberation and healing while addressing directly the tyranny of the powers that be.  The story uses the imagery of the obscurity of his birth, the lowliness and vulnerability of his mother, his earthly father having to deny his ego and raise a son who wasn’t his, the only worshippers being three foreign pagans and shepherds bunking off work. The reigning monarch tells us exactly how friendly to the real story the powers that be are. Herod comes with swords not presents. Jesus starts life as a refugee in Egypt.

This is not a children’s tale. It is high drama. It is a story illustrating less the divinity of Jesus and more the nature and status of those who will find his coming and message to be good news. The poor, the outcasts, the sinners who no longer want to be sinners. While always welcome at the heart of winter, the pretty lights and lovely plays carry the danger of masking the darkness and the danger of God making himself vulnerable so that we might be able to come near to him.

The angels do not announce Jesus’ birth with the disinterested patronising voice of a royal spokesperson. The angels go and find the shepherds and tell them there is great news for humans! They are so excited for what we are receiving. They only tell us what they hear at God’s throne. The message they come away with is good news of peace for all humanity. God is excited about what he is going to do for us and among us.

The gospel is that God comes to us and offers life rather than making us accomplish an assault course testing our worthiness to receive mercy and salvation. God comes among us, sharing our lot while at the same time showing us how a human being can really live. He walks with us in our afflictions and under the oppression of the powers that be. He knows (and they know) that he will defeat them so that we might be free to enjoy him, the source and root of all life that is worth living.

This isn’t a Jesus who sprinkles fairy dust on us and makes us feel better till we die. He calls us to follow him, to experience his way and learn it as our own.  He is not here to get us into heaven, he is here to make heaven close enough to taste and close enough to offer to others.

In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is haunted by his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge is puzzled that Marley seems unhappy with his lot, as if his life was a waste. How could a life so devoted to profit and prosperity and productivity be a waste?

Marley replies with a moan:

‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’

It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

‘At this time of the rolling year,’ the spectre said, ‘I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?’

Following Jesus, means making our fellow humans our business in the way that God makes us his business. Celebrating his birthday should be a declaration that we will make our fellow people our business, not just today, or this season but at all times.

Marley’s ghost bemoans that he cannot now make up for what he did not do and his words imply that his focus on his prosperity at the expense of his fellows increased the distance between him and heaven.

He tells us a truth we need to hear and heed.

Like a ghost in a Christmas Carol I put it to you this night that you must let the story of this birth turn you to heaven’s way. If you prefer the childishness, the brevity and the false show of a western Christmas, then it will not be heaven’s way, it will be the highway.

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Who Ya Gonna Call…

Plan A has a habit of sounding much better in your head than out in the real world.

Let’s say you want to save the world. More than save it; save it and then restore it to its intended glory.  To save the day you would gather your best guns together and go kick butt . You’d summon lots of guys like Arnie, Van Damme, Bond and St Chuck. They’d blow stuff up and  smack bad guys while wisecracking about righteousness. Big smiles all around as the battle ends, the sun rising on a new day in paradise.

God is interested in a global rescue too. He gets his posse together and rides out. The first member is a teenage girl. If she says yes to the plan, she invites scandal, family rejection and social exclusion. The second is Joseph, Mary’s fiancé and small business owner. His yes also risks scandal, humiliation and whispers behind his back for idiotically believing his girlfriend’s story about her pregnancy.

We may be a little disappointed at the lack of a thunderous army of smart ass hard men. Instead God enters human reality as the most vulnerable thing on earth: a human baby born in an era of violence, poverty and massive infant mortality. He is totally dependent on the very people who have a track record for letting him down. The only people interested in this birth are a  young couple out of their depth, a jealous and murderous king, a trio of high born foreign pagans and some shepherds looking to get in out of the cold for awhile.

What was God thinking? This plan has a lot of holes in it.  What if Mary had said no?  Did lots of other girls say no? When Gabriel got to Mary was he was just working his way through the Ms? What if Joseph opted out? Were these the only people he chose?

The fragility of these humble beginnings  prompts us to ask just who all this was for. Did God do this for us or for him? Did he empty himself of all his glory so that he could do a make over on the universe? Or did he do this for us so that the universe could be made right in a way for us (and him) to forever enjoy and thrive within? Did he do it because he loves his creation so much the thought of it being lost breaks his heart?

One of the underplayed bits of the nativity is the heart of the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth. They don’t speak with the  patronising voice of a royal spokesperson. The angels go and find the shepherds (the only people listening apparently) and tell them there is great news for humans! They are so excited for what we are about to receive they burst into song.

Angels aren’t the originators of messages. They only tell us what they hear at God’s feet. The message they come with is good news of peace for all humanity. God is excited about what he is going to do for us and among us. The incarnation is an expression of God’s love for us and a declaration that he will never give up on us, though he’s been tempted to many times.

God invites us, one by one, to join this fragile plan of rescue through love. He doesn’t conscript us. Instead, he invites us to join him in loving the world back to life even when the world doesn’t want to be loved.  He shows us in Jesus how this is humanly possible.

Christmas is an invitation to join God’s posse of love and hope. There is no plan B. Good luck everyone!

Jimmy Jimmy

I’ve become a fundamentalist atheist. I think the idea that death is not the end, that your dog’s just “gone to live on the farm”, is limiting and can prevent you making the most of all the time you have.

Jimmy Carr, Comedian

It’s a shame  Jimmy Carr’s experience as a Christian was with small minded people who believed that life was little more than a waiting room for heaven (or hell depending on your commitment to naughtiness). He may think that he has made a bold statement about how mistaken he was and we are in following  Jesus but he will find that Jesus believed the same as  him. Jesus was constantly expanding people’s horizons and expectations about how full life could  be.  He was also pretty good at chastising those who sought to make life small and confined.

I suspect if Jimmy commented on this agreement with Jesus he might define his  atheism more clearly as an aversion to being associated with the kind of people religion tends to attract. To be honest I could be tempted towards atheism for the same reason.

It is easy and lazy to heckle and belittle simplistic faith and stereotypes. It is dishonest to present them as the only representation of people of faith. Imagine his response if comedy was criticised as a racist pursuit because Bernard Manning was a comedian. I suspect he would laugh at that as simplistic and stupid. And he would be right. Every area of human endeavour has sects within who make everyone else cringe. Nazi scientists doing human experiments, racists comedians, corrupt politicians, , followers of Jesus who revel in exclusion and ignorance and violence. They are the ones none of us want to be defined by.

Jimmy joked once  (thus provoking controversy) that due to all the maimed soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan Britain should have one hell of a Paralympics team in 2012. In a radio interview he explained that his critics should have understood that the heart of the joke is the fact that the Paralympics were started by wounded soldiers who wanted to overcome how life limiting their injuries were. His critics were offended by his belief that his joke was acceptable because he believed there was a more noble purpose to his joke. If we understood that, we’d see it wasn’t really a joke, it was a statement of support. That’s clever but disingenuous.

Like so many aspects of an ill informed public life the traffic doesn’t go both ways. You should do your research so you know I am right and well intended, but I don’t need to explore your views to see if you might be right too. The problem with militants and fundamentalists in religion, politics, comedy or science is the dialogue is never two way. Weak targets are set up and then blasted away.  Which ironically is what racist comics, nazi scientists, corrupt politicians and TV evangelists do.

Jimmy Carr is right in rejecting a faith that is solely about getting your ticket punched to a far off paradise when you die. Faith should be about challenging  a world that is unnecessarily broken by living in a way that is abundant for ourselves and for others. Jesus said that is why he came: to offer life in  abundance.  Such a life should produce fruit such as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Things in pretty short supply these days.

Surely that isn’t a bad thing is it?

The reason for the season…

 

I’m prettty sure that when we get the Christmas stuff out of the loft, there will be a tree ornament that declares: “Jesus is the reason for the season”. It will be a message delivered by a sheep or a reindeer (both biblical animals, apparently).

JITRFTS is not found in official church liturgy or scripture. My guess is that it is the brain child of someone who felt Xmas (felt you flinch there) was becoming too commercialised and isolated from the real reason we celebrate it. They felt so strongly they put it on an ornament, to be sold in time for…well you get the picture.

I have to admit I’m pretty poor at this advent stuff. It’s all about patience and reflection on a mystery.  We are encouraged to ask: “who will come and save us!” It is about pretending Jesus hasn’t been born yet. It is about pretending we don’t know who exactly John the Baptist is talking about when he says, “Prepare the way of the Lord”.  Having read through John’s part in the Gospels, I’m not convinced he was sure either!

I like problems sorted and answers I can serve up confidently.  Like most of my culture, I see a mystery as something to be solved rather than as the context of deepening my knowledge of God,  my neighbour and the world around me. I’m happier seeing advent as a season of countdown to the big day when there are no parish troubles, everyone is smiling and the words of faith spring easily off our tongues.

This year, however,  I’ve decided to give advent a try. The first thing I’ve learned is that Jesus is not the reason for the season of advent.  Hope is.  Throughout advent We tell the stories of announcement. Mary’s special baby. John the Baptist’s declaration that the kingdom is coming and the only way to be prepared is to repent. We’ll remember ancient prophets who would never see their words come to fruition speaking of Israel’s hope to come. We will get used to the words “fear not” being good advice and a call to opening the door of faith. We are practicing being hungry for hope that God will deliver us and be with us.

We retell the stories not to satisfy some rigid ritual that will increase our heavenly score. We tell them because they were told by and about people who walked in darkness and hoped there was something more. They hoped there would be a light that transformed them and their world.

John the Baptist, whose story we explore a little on Sunday, made a career of looking for that that light because his job was to tell everyone once he found it. He lived in a generation who yearned for it.

Every generation sees its tribulations as unique because we are short lived creatures who measure everything by the brevity of our  lives. 9/11 is the worst atrocity ever.  We are living through the worst financial crisis ever.  We have such a bad deal from our times.  But ask anyone who lived through the depression of the 30’s how bad this is. Ask a Hiroshima survivor to measure what happened to them against how bad 9/11 was. If you think you life is hard imagine being a man in Mozambique who will expect to only live to the  age of 40.

John has a long vision. He sees that all these episodes are standard behaviour for human beings. This “way of the world” will be judged by the coming kingdom. All who do not “repent” of that way of the world will be lost with it. Hope is an engine that drives us to refuse to cooperate with the way of the world if it does not lead to what we hope for:  love and justice and peace and equity. Our hope transforms us into agents of change, working with God to renew the world now.

Advent calls us to have long vision too. For a little over a month we are to live in hope while still shadowed by darkness. It will sharpen our appetite for Jesus and his kingdom. It will help us to taste again what it might be like to live without hope and thinking maybe the darkness is forever.  Like John, we should see that as an unacceptable future. Our hope brings light to the darkness, no matter how small that light may seem to us. Powered by Jesus it can and will burn brightly in the lives of others.

Hope is the reason for the season.