Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Nativity Overload

Just been to the last of umpteen Children's Christmas Shows that I've been attending this year, some in my role as a minister, and one as a father, and the good thing is that this year I haven't yet had to sing "Away in a manger" whereas in days gone by I would have sung it 14 times by December 3rd!
Things really have moved on - instead of the same nativity story and the bog-standard carols of years gone by, now every year-group competes to find the show with the cleverest twist on the Christmas story, and the most upbeat songs - so we now have grumpy shepherds, silly sheep, singing stars and all manner of interpretations of what the word C.H.R.I.S.T.M.A.S. stands for. Of course, just like the old-style nativities, these new ones are enhanced in ways their authors never anticipated - by elves spending the entire performance with their finger up their nose; or by the Angel Gabriel tucking her wings into her knickers in the inevitable toilet stop immediately before going on stage; and by Joseph and Mary both looking mortally embarrassed at having to spend such a long period of time in close proximity to a member of the other sex.
I really could start to do a “Nativity Play” Review column in the local paper. But it wouldn’t matter… Parents will be overjoyed at whatever their little angels, or shepherds, or wise men (delete as applicable) produce.
But one of things that struck me this year was the fact that all of the performances were unashamedly Christian in their content. Even in one case where the main emphasis of the piece was about all the stuff we eat at Christmas, the teacher had clearly rewritten the ending to include the song ''Christmas Means More to Me.''
Against the background of Daily Mail bylines about the increasing pc/secular nature of British society and the shift from Christmas to Winterval or whatever, we in this little cultural backwater are remarkably privileged that a key story from the Christian tradition is celebrated in schools each year. Our thanks must go to the many Christian teachers putting long hours of effort and creativity into these events. For many homes it will be the only insight into the Biblical story that they get all Christmas… Not everyone has to sit through as many as I do.
I hope we never take this privilege for granted, at this time of year or any other…

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Risk Taking

The most recent edition of the Methodist Newsletter, that bastion of cutting edge Christian journalism, the back page includes an advertising feature from an insurance company masquerading as an article… And in it are listed, very helpfully, a number of things that we within churches should check before we start into this season of candlelit services and all the risks that they involve.
Now personally I understand the wisdom of that. Over the years I have watched Cub Scouts setting fire to each other’s carol sheets, scarves and even hair during Christingle services… On one occasion I managed to set fire to my own cardigan… an early Christmas present from my loving wife which I had put on for the first time that night… I have seen at least one advent ring go up in flames when one of the candles burned so low that the foliage around it caught fire… And a carol service nearly came to a premature end when a Christmas decoration caught fire, exploding and sending burning plastic all across the window sill on which it was sitting, setting fire to the cotton wool that was simulating the deep, crisp and even snow… The entire window frame then caught light… but the swift application of a fire extinguisher during the final verse of O Come all you faithful sorted everything out, and we just continued as if nothing had ever happened…
So in the light of that perhaps we should think carefully about some of the things we do in the run up to the big day. And helpfully, the company advertising in the Methodist Newsletter has a handy booklet on Health and Safety in Places of Worship, with a special leaflet for Advent and Christmas, to help with risk assessment.
Risk assessment… that just about sums up our world now… And as far as this insurance company and others are concerned there is much to be wary of at Christmas... Under-cooking the turkey or the stuffing and poisoning your guests. Over indulging in many different ways producing many different hazards. And then there is the ever present fear of burglary... "Wise men keep their presents hidden" we are told.
But when Christmas is to be assessed in terms of risks, then perhaps we have gone a little too far…
Indeed the whole Christmas story is based on the biggest risk in the history of the cosmos, God taking the risk of entrusting his son to humanity… to a couple who couldn’t even organise a bed for the child to sleep. If God took such a risk for our sakes then perhaps we should take a few risks this Christmas… if not with candles, or turkeys at least in reaching out to other fallible human beings…

Produced this as a Thought for the Day on Radio Ulster this week... The other two previously appeared here as rants on Dog Fashion and Heavy Metal, but were broadcast in a highly editted/censored style.

Phoning Home

Joseph is speaking into a mobile phone.
Hello, Mother, it’s Joseph… Joseph… your son! Yes, I know it’s been a long time since I last rang, but I’m afraid I’ve been rather busy… (Joseph looks rather bored) Yes Mother, I’m still here… Oh, I’m fine, fine… Mary? She’s fine… The carpentry business… Yes, it’s fine…
Look mother, I think I ought to come round and see you sometime soon… Oh, it’s no trouble, I’m actually in Bethlehem for the census… Ah, well, of course I would have stayed with you, but I, um, knew how busy you’d be with everyone coming home for the census, without the three of us landing on you… Did I say three? I did!? I was talking about Mary, me and the… um… donkey… That’s it… No its OK we got a room… well more of a stable really… Oh now, Mother, don’t get upset… I only said stable because it’s full of straw and animals and… (sniffs air) things. No what I should have said is “Stable-Like building…” extremely stable-like!
Mother, are you sitting down? Well, its just that I’ve got something to tell you that I really think you would be better hearing in a seated position… Ready?
I’m a father… only I’m not… What I mean is that I’ve got a son… in a manner of speaking… What I’m trying to say is that Mary has had a baby boy which is, I suppose, in some sense mine, if not actually my own… In so many words… If you get my drift… Mother? (no reply) Mother? Mother, are you still there… (Suddenly holds receiver at arms length) Yes, you are still there, are’t… Well, if you’d just let me explain! (Shouting) Well what would you do if your fiancĂ©e told you she’d just been discussing family planning with an Archangel? Of course I didn’t believe her… At least not until I’d talked it over with him myself…
Yes I know it doesn’t take an angel to make a baby… Of course I remember you teaching me about the birds and the bees! How could I forget? I was 10 year old at the time, and I spent the next 2 months in terror of being stung by a wasp in case I got pregnant.
Look sorry mum, I‘ve got to go. We’ve got guests… 4 shepherds 3 oriental diplomats, and a baby lamb, No I know it doesn’t sound terribly hygienic having a lamb around a newborn baby… But things are getting out of control here… See you soon. Give my love to Father.
Adapted from a monologue entitled "Maternity Ward" by Nick McIvor in his now unobtainable book "The Greatest Burger Ever Sold." He gave me permission to use and adapt his stuff years ago but when I tried getting his permission to post this, I had no joy in tracking him down.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Good Samaritans, Innkeepers and the Incarnation

Last week a member of my congregation, who we shall call Jay for want of imagination, was walking in Stormont Estate as is her habit, but she slipped and fell down a bank, and immediately felt a crack in her lower leg. She lay stunned for a moment or two, then gingerly go herself to a sitting position… She couldn’t get up. So she looked around for some help, and thankfully there was another lady walking the same path. Surely she had seen her slip and fall. But this other lady made no move to help her.

“Help!” Jay cried, but the other lady kept on walking. “Please help me!” she shouted from the bottom of the bank, but no more than twenty feet away, the other lady passed by. Someone today said that they probably had their “ipod” or some other such device stuck in their ears and couldn’t hear Jay calling. If that were the case wouldn’t it be even more ironic if they had their ipods in and were listening to some deafening “praise music”? But that is just speculation.
What actually happened was that another girl came tottering up the path on stiletto heels… She didn’t need to be called… She saw Jay, came down the hill, at great risk to life and limb given the shoes she was wearing… She took off her coat and gave it to Jay, and phoned for an ambulance, staying until they came.

This woman had been on her way to a protest at government as she was a classroom assistant who was part of the union in dispute with the Education Department over their terms and conditions… And only a few weeks before Jay and I had been discussing how our sympathy for those care assistants was being slowly eroded because their industrial action was radically affecting the most vulnerable of children.

There are clearest parallels here with Jesus’ story of the “good” Samaritan, an oxymoron in the mind of a contemporary Jew. But perhaps being open to unexpected sources of kindness was a lesson learned early by Jesus, as his mother told him about a kind inkeeper (another oxymoron in the minds of contemporaries) who had given Joseph and her a stable for her son to be born in…

Or perhaps it best expresses what Christ himself has done for us… coming down from a height at great risk… Clothing us in his righteousness… and staying with us…

Originally published in Mockingbird's Leap

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas Preparations

In my role as chaplain I constantly come across those who are deeply frustrated by the current policy whereby anyone going into hospital for scheduled surgery has to phone ahead for a bed in hospital. Thankfully it is a policy that hasn't extended to the Maternity Department.
I do feel sorry for the husbands that find themselves hanging around the Maternity Ward feeling totally impotent… Well… perhaps that’s not the right word to use, but you know what I mean… There is nothing they can do…
How much more was that the case for poor old Joseph… No matter how unprepared a father feels for the arrival of a child, Joseph must have felt worse... No matter how disorganised we are coming up to Christmas, just think how bad poor old Joseph felt that first Christmas.
His wife in the middle of labour, and no Maternity Ward to rely on. Nowhere at all to stay. If only they’d left home sooner. If only they’d packed the donkey the night before. If only they hadn’t gone back to check that they’d kocked the front door. If only they hadn’t missed the turning on that roundabout on the Jerusalem to Jericho donkeyway. If only he’d phoned ahead and booked by Israeli Express. That would have done nicely. But no. He hadn’t done any of that and here he was in Bethlehem, not a hotelroom to be had for love nor money. The only thing he’d been offered was a stable. Well, better than Mary having the baby out in the street. Just about. No. He had really blown it. Why hadn’t he been better prepared!
But then again, why hadn’t God been better prepared. After all, this was to be his Son, not Joseph’s. Scripture suggests that God had all of history to get ready for his son’s birth. Years before God had revealled to the prophets what he was going to do and the prophets gave the world plenty of warning that God’s Son was on his way. And then... As Paul puts it in his Letter to the Galatians:
“When the time had fully come God sent his Son...”
Much has been written on the fact that 1st century Palestine was the perfect time and place for Jesus to be born. Thanks to the strength of the Roman Empire it was a time of unparalleled peace (at the point of a pilum) and prosperity in the western world. The Empire had also laid down an amazing network of roads along which the Gospel would eventually be carried. It had a common language in Greek, making international communication easy. it is said that the speed of communication in the 1st century Empire was never equalled until the 19th century.
It was just the right time for the Messiah to be born. So everything was put in place. God chose a woman to have his child. He’d picked out a name... Always important... Sally and I spent ages trying to come up with a name for our son... And yet even with all that thought, we still picked a name that no-one can spell...
But God had decided that his son was to be called Jesus, which means The Lord Saves because through this young child God was going to save the whole world from their sins. He’d arranged for a choir to go down to earth to sing by way of announcing that he’d arrived. He even arranged for a special star to shed some light on the whole proceedings. Everything was ready. Except he hadn’t arranged anywhere for Jesus to be born...
But then again... Was that an oversight? No. It was a sign of what was to come in Jesus’ life. Even though the prophets had said he was coming. Even though his cousin John went ahead of him to prepare the way, still, as John the Evangelist puts it, his own did not receive him... Still no room. He had, in his own words, “No-where to lay his head.” Jesus lived a life of rejection. As William Barclay puts it :
“That there was no room at the inn was symbolic of what was to happen to Jesus. The only place that there was room for him was on the cross.”

A sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent at the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald, based on the reading from Isaiah 40 v 1-5

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Child Protection

Just completed a day of Child Protection training at the Ulster Hospital where I work as chaplain, and I'm tired, so this is more of a brief question than a developed comment... When is Child Protection more about Worker Protection or Organisation protection?

But, while we are at it, would social services have called a case conference about a certain Jesus Bar Joseph, born in Bethlehem, Judea to a pair of feckless parents from Nazareth in Galilee?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Rainbow Day

I caught sight of it as I crossed the Albert Bridge across the Lagan, leaving Belfast city centre on the way home after a fractious meeting on the issue of Human Rights… (When are they anything other than fractious?) But anyway, I saw that one end of it was resting on the Titanic Quarter (the old Harland and Wolff shipyard which has now been zoned for major gentrification, for those not in the know) and I looked across to see where the other end fell… And there it was, resting on Parliament Buildings at Stormont! God must have been having a laugh with me, as I am sceptical as to either of these entities being all that some hope for them…

But, as is always the case, when I drove on and my point of view changed, the ends of the rainbow seemingly retreated… This time towards north Down, just like most of the Protestant middle classes in their pursuit of the pot of gold…

But the proverbial pot of gold, even if it were to be found via a programme for government emanating from Stormont, or from inward investment into the Titanic Quarter (a name which always inspires hope in me!) is not the source or ground of our hope…

Genesis asserts that God put the rainbow in the sky as a promise of his faithfulness.

Science tells us that rainbows are the product of billions of insignificant droplets of water, each reflecting and refracting the light of the sun in their own particular way… Together producing an effect of dazzling beauty.

Both understandings are compatible, because God most clearly reveals his faithfulness through different people reflecting and refracting the light of his love in different ways to create a thing of beauty even in the wake of the worst of possible disasters.

Another blog which started out life as a comment in response to a piece by Glenn Jordan on Noah and the Ark in Mockingbird's Leap

Monday, December 3, 2007

Grace and Truth

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
John 1:17 (ANIV)

It’s sad that truth and grace come as a surprise to us… Or even as an annoyance!
I was getting diesel yesterday and found that the tills in the service station kiosk (curious word that give the size of these places now) were staffed by two of the least competent assistants on the face of this earth… They will have many other laudable qualities but manning tills is not their thing… But just as I was finally getting to the head of a very long queue, a woman who had just left the shop came back in and squeezed ahead of me to inform the assistants that she had paid the wrong amount… a smaller amount than she should have, and that the older lady in front of me was going to be hit for her much larger bill… This of course sent the assistants into a tail-spin, and me, the fine, gracious, truthful Methodist minister that I am, into a huge huff of annoyance that this lady’s honesty was going to hold me up even further. Why could she not just have pocketted the change and done a runner like I presumed 90% of the population would do…But on more measured reflection I give thanks for her honesty (as I am sure the elderly lady does)…
She didn’t have to do it… But to be true to herself she did…
God didn’t have to do it… But to be true to himself, he did…

Again, this started as a response to someone elses blog in Mockingbird's Leap as they reflected on being surprised by the grace of another.


Advent is a time of waiting, yet that noted philosopher Dr. Seuss states in his magisterial work "Oh the Places You'll Go" describes one of the places we might go as:

a most useless place.
The Waiting Place...
…for people just waiting
Waiting for a train to go
Or a bus to come, or a plane to go
Or the mail to come, or the rain to go
Or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
Or waiting around for a Yes or No
Or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape
All that waiting and staying.
You’ll find the bright places
Where the Boom Bands are playing.

I’m not too sure its such a useless place, or that the Boom Bands would be quite so exciting without the waiting and anticipating…
We need to beware of filling every available moment with “useful” activity…
And at this point everyone who knows me falls around laughing…

Originally submitted this as a comment on someone else's blog on Mockingbird's Leap

STOP PRESS: News for Cat Lovers

Just incase dog lovers think that I'm only getting at them... (see my post of last Thursday) I also think that cat lovers are insane too!!! Proof positive in this case is that you can now buy an Advent Calendar for your moggie... I hope our cat won't be too disappointed not to have one!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A Quick Word in the Xmas Rush

In the light of my earlier post, but in a much lighter and more trivial vein, here's a piece I wrote aeons ago (though have revised in the light of the world wide wonder web...) It is more than a little influenced by the monologues of David Kossoff in a previous generation.

Lord, Do you have a minute?
I hope so, because I don't see how I'm going to fit you in between now and the New Year.
You know what it's like.
The first three weeks of December disappear almost as quickly as my money...

I hate shopping.
I particularly hate shopping at Christmas.
Lot's of people with no time...
Lot's to buy and none of it's for me...
Bells ringing all around, on cash registers, devouring my money...
Seven days a week almost 24 hours a day, the song goes on
Glory to God in the High Street
And on earth, complete and utter chaos…

On every other street corner stands a Santa
In ill fitting red nylon suit and fake-fur trimmed wellies.
Wishing everyone a happy Christmas... Ho! Ho! Ho!
Shop at Woolies! Ho! Ho! Ho!
What a way to make a living!
I wonder if you need special qualifications to be a Santa?
A GNVQ in Ho-Ho-Hoing!

Its the same every year...
First there's the Christmas cards to buy... Charity of course...
This year I'm supporting Combat Cancer, the Hospice, Christian Aid
And a retired donkey's home in East Sussex...
And of course they're printed on recycled paper...
As is my wrapping paper...
Costs three times the price and looks like its been made
using potato prints & food dyes by a nursery school somewhere in the third world
But we've all got to do our bit...

After the cards are written and sent off...
Which you've no sooner done than you get one from someone you've forgotten...
Well, after that, it's present time…
I rack my brains trying to think what to get Uncle Godfrey and Aunt Hilda
But it always ends up the same
Old Spice aftershave for him, so he can smell like a Christmas pudding,
And a calendar for her... Kute Kittens this year
Kute with a K of course
Kute kittens doing kute things like sitting in goldfish bowls
and playing with balls of wool
Funny that, they don't have any pictures of a kute (with a K) kitten,
Tearing the wallpaper off the dining room wall, or being sick on the bathmat...

“Don't be spending too much on me!” I always tell my friends,
But for years I still spent six days traipsing in and out of shops
Looking for fabulous presents for them.
Well, I wouldn't want to look cheap…
Now I do all my shopping on the internet, were possible…
Thank you God for ebay and amazon…
because now I don’t have to brave the cold and the queues…
Yet despite the wonders of the world wide web
And the information superhighway
I still don’t have enough time for everything that needs doing.

No, there'll be no rest ‘til Christmas day
Shopping, writing cards and wrapping presents
Swapping cards and opening presents
Oh it's lovely...I've always wanted a porcupine foot scraper...
Parties, carol services, parties and Christmas lunches
There'll be no rest 'til Christmas day
When I collapse on the couch
Stuffed with six pounds of sage-and-onion and dead turkey
To fall asleep in front of the Queen,
Only waking up to find Aunt Hilda flicking through the channels on the TV
To find some good family entertainment
Like a circus or Disney time or Reservoir Dogs.

No rest 'til then....
So I'm sorry Lord,
I won't be able to fit you in for the next few weeks
Hope you don't mind, just booked up
You know what it's like
No room in the diary.

David A. Campton © 1992 and 2007

No Room

Just been listening to Glenn Jordan's reflection for the beginning of Advent on Radio Ulster... Until 8th December you have the chance to listen again... But anyway, in a typically perceptive and challenging programme he included a reference to Thomas Merton's amazing piece entitled "The Time of No Room," as good a description of the era we find ourselves as any.

In it he says:
We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.
The primordial blessing, "increase and multiply," has suddenly become a hemorrhage of terror. We are numbered in billions, and massed together, marshalled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race and with ourselves, nauseated with life.
As the end approaches, there is no room for nature. The cities crowd it off the face of the earth.
As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.
In the time of the ultimate end, there is no room for man...

The time of the end is the time of demons who occupy the heart (pretending to be gods) so that man himself finds no room for himself in himself. He finds no space to rest in his own heart, not because it is full, but because it is void. If only he knew that the void itself, when hovered over by the Spirit, is an abyss of creativity...yet he cannot believe it. There is no room for belief.
In the time of the end there is no longer room for the desire to go on living. The time of the end is the time when men call upon the mountains to fall upon them, because they wish they did not exist...

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it - because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it - his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.

Nuff said. Go read the whole thing for yourself. And perhaps patch into the weblog Glenn is facilitating over advent on Mockingbirds Leap. Perhaps see you there.