Couldn't have said it better myself...

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

Anais Nin

Friday, December 31, 2010

Standing at the Gate of the Year

This time next week "The King's Speech" is due to go on general release in the UK (it was apparently released in the US at the beginning of December). It is the dramatised story of King George VI, who relunctantly took the throne when his brother Edward VIII abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, and his relationship with the unorthodox speech therapist who helped the King conquer his stammer, so that he could speak more confidently in public.

I am not an ardent royalist, and rarely make time on Christmas Day to listen to the current Queen's speech (I'm usually either preparing the dinner, eating it or lying comatose in a chair having eaten it). That said I know the closing words of the King George VI's Christmas Speech from 1939 off by heart. That is because the Principal of my old secondary school, John Frost, finished his speech at every first day assembly with the words that King George quoted that year. The country was uncertain as to what the recently declared war against Germany might mean and what the next year would bring... And that is probably true of many people this year with mounting economic uncertainty... So, into that uncertainty, let me quote those favourite lines of John Frost and George VI

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'
And he replied,
'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!'

by Minnie Louise Harkins 1875-1957

May you know God's presence and blessing as you step out into the unknown of a new year.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

And the VM Award Goes to... (continued)

OK... so, for the entertainment of all three of you sad people who are reading blogs or are trawling through facebook during the Christmas break, here are the VM Awards for things out there in the real world... Starting with some of the stuff that appears in the sidebar of the blog...

Best Read of the Year: This may have changed since Christmas, depending on whether I get any of the books on my wishlist from Santa, but I've vowed not to go near the computer for a week (a sort of pre-New Year resolution), so I've written this before the big day... Whilst it wasn't written or published this year, I was a bit slow in reading Stieg Larsson's "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" but until recently it would have been my favourite read of the year, despite it's unremitting grimness... However, it was toppled at the last minute by C.J. Sansom's "Heartstone", which was published this year, the latest in his Shardlake series which I reviewed a couple of days ago; a sort of Tudor Patricia Cornwell with fleas and lice... If you haven't read them yet, get hold of the first one "Dissolution" and write off the next month as you devour all 5 books...

Best Theological Read of the Year: My theological reading has been relatively low brow this year, and my two favourites probably won't win me any plaudits among my evangelical colleagues. One was Shane Claiborne's "Irresistible Revolution", his autobiographical reflection on Christian community and the political dynamic of the gospel. But my favourite, and given my current state of mind, one that I probably need to go back and read again, is Brian McLaren's "Finding our Way Again" offering his post-evangelical take on the ancient spiritual disciplines.
Best Non-Theological, Non-Fiction Read of the Year: The title of this award is almost longer than the book to which I would award this. In a year where I've read "Schindler's List/Ark", "Churchill's Wizards" and, more recently, "More Than Just a Game", all of which were excellent, the best of the bunch is Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture." While the others were informative, moving and in places inspiring, this book is potentially life-changing.

Best Album 0f the Year: Been buying more CDs this year (and yes I am one of those dinosaurs who still likes a physical object in my hand to prove that I've actually purchased a piece of music - another reason why I still haven't gone down the kindle/e-reader route for books... even trash novels). However, whilst most of the CDs I've bought have been released this year, they have generally been by artists who might be (at best) termed "veterans" including Robert Plant and AC/DC... But the best, for my money, was Tom Jones' Praise and Blame. Yes it may be a cynical exercise by the old rocker's promoters to try and tap into another musical niche, but he carried it off with such verve and passion that I'll overlook that...

Best Film of the Year: This is another area (along with fiction, theology and music) that my tastes are appallingly low-brow. No sub-titled Kazakhstani documentaries for me... Anything I go to see is usually fairly mainstream (although I did watch both the "Hurt Locker" and "4 Lions" on DVD this year... and both, in different ways, packed a powerful emotional punch), and until recently, because of the stage my children are at, generally PG or at most 12A. Whilst Toy Story 3 (3D) would be up there (and I would have gone to see that with or without children), in a year where most things I saw were in 3D (with the exception of Avatar... but lets not go there)... my two favourite films were definitely, indeed definitively, 2D... First was Social Networking or The Social Network (I'm still not sure what it's called) Aaron Sorkin's take on the origins of the Facebook phenomenon. Whilst the writing was not as blisteringly hot as some of his other pieces, the storytelling technique and depth of characterisation was superb, indeed, to over-egg my point, more three-dimensional than anything else this year. But for all that, my favourite film was "Made in Dagenham", the (somewhat glamourised) tale of the fight for equal grading/pay for women in Ford's Dagenham factory in the late 1960s. It's straight out of the mould that made "Full Monty" and "Calendar Girls" though with less flesh on view, and it is a little predictable (not just because it is an historic event) but the ensemble acting from a largely unknown cast is superb. It wasn't critically acclaimed, but I liked it and this is my blog... so there...

Best Theatrical Performance: Haven't been to the theatre as much as I would like this year... However, in a year where I've seen a West-End production of Chicago, which was OK, but without the stand-out, star quality performances from the leads that I would have hoped for, my favourite show was a toss up between David Johnston's hilarious adaptation of "The Miser" or Marie Jones' flawed but powerful "Rock Doves" in the Waterfront Studio... Probably plump for the latter, partly because it contrasted well with the heavily hyped but deeply disappointing version of "Over the Bridge" I saw earlier in the year, and also for the reasons I blogged on it earlier. This was largely because a group from my son's school had gone to it and left at the interval due to the language and subject matter. It probably wasn't a suitable show for 13 year olds... although the sad thing is that for many 13 year olds in our society it isn't a show, but an everyday reality... I doubt that it will be back on stage any time soon... It's not going to draw the crowds that a "Chicago" or even "Stones in her Pockets" would... but it was well worth seeing...

Best Concert: If I haven't been to much in the way of theatre this year, I was horrified when I realised that any award for "Best Concert" would have been between the Mika's opening concert of his current tour, the Jools Holland extravaganza at the Waterfront, a small-scale charity gig by Brian Houston and Ken Haddock, or my eldest son's school Spring Concert in the Ulster Hall... Of course it had to be the latter... OK Owain, you can stop twisting my arm now! He's a big lad...
and finally
Best Beer of the Year: Contrary to what some people might think I am not a big drinker, but, like my literary/theological hero (and local lad made good) C.S. Lewis, I enjoy the odd ale now and again. This year had the pleasure of sampling some really lovely ones while in Brittany emanating from the Lancelot Brewery... But my big find of the year was a dark Mexican Ale called Negra Modelo... Enough flavour to go with the spiciest Mexican fare, but light enough to drink when its hot outside... Superb... You need never drink flavourless water like Sol ever again...

Anyway, those are my Awards for the year gone by... Hope you have enjoyed the year through the distorting lens that is VM, and that the New Year will bring you all sorts of blessings...

For me, my New Year's resolution is that I have to get out more and stop sitting in front of a computer screen...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

And the VM Award Goes to...

As the year hurtles towards its conclusion, its the season of award shows and so I thought I would round it off with my own special VM Awards - an assortment of plaudits regarding some of the other offerings out there in the virtual world - the winners get nothing except my admiration and adulation...

Favourite Methodist Blog: Given that I call this blog Virtual Methodist, I felt duty bound to include this category. In terms of Irish Methodist's there aren't too many consistent bloggers out there (they've probably all moved over to twitter now, leaving dinosaurs like me behind) although Paul Ritchie continues to write "To Whom it may Concern". But extending my view beyond these shores, it will be no surprise to those who have noted the number of links to (and lifts from) it that I would see Connexions as the most consistently interesting (and eclectic) Methodist blog out there... Richard/Kim et al are also one of the few who churn out more stuff than I do... Never mind the quality feel the width!
But there is more to theological life than Methodism... (Much more!) So let's move on to...

Favourite Irish Theological Blog: There's so much great stuff out there, including Patrick Mitchel's always interesting FaithinIreland and Zoomtard's rebranded Creideamh, but my favourite (and its not just because he's a mate) is Glenn Jordan's "Crookedshore" (as well as his advent "Mockingbird's Leap" although this year, for various reasons, I was merely an interested observer on that...). Why? I suppose it is the depth, range, originality, biblical literacy and practical application... Is that enough to be going on with?

Favourite Non-Irish Theological Blog: Scotteriology used to be a firm favourite, and in the past it could have been in the running for the humourous blog award too, but it has gone off the boil recently. Biblical World turns up some interesting stuff, but is a wee bit po-faced. Ben Myers Faith and Theology is always worth a look, however, in terms of sheer volume of output, Scot McKnight's "Jesus Creed" puts everything else into the shade, and by the law of averages there's something interesting there most days! Whilst it comes from an unashamedly evangelical perspective, it isn't too narrow in its theology and ecclesiology and it treats most subjects with grace and balance... Given the fruit-basket that is the church, particularly the church on line, that is high praise from me...

Most Consistently Amusing Blog: Tight run thing here between two local contenders, WhyNotSmile and 1690 An' All Thon, with our Ulster Scots friend Prof. Billy McWilliams carrying off the honours... Tho' the WNS commentary on the Apprentice is worthy of an award in its own right.
Favourite Non-Theological Blog: Discounting the 2 in competition for the most amusing blog, that only leaves one non-theological blog on my current blogroll, ie. Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science". I used to have more, but since Rupert Murdoch started charging for web-content I dropped them... I like Ben's consistent debunking of pseudo-scientific charlatanism, but he seems to have lost his sense of humour recently...

So those are my picks... don't be too devastated if I didn't namecheck you this year... And if you have other nominations, chip in...

Tomorrow I'll be trying to prove that I don't just exist in the virtual ether by offering my plaudits of real world events...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And Another Thing

In contrast to the review I posted yesterday, I really wouldn't waste your Waterstones vouchers (or spend any money) on this. It is a disappointing addition to Douglas Adams', 5 book "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy", but then I suppose that makes Eoin Colfer the perfect inheritor of Adams' mantle. The original 3books were nothing short of brilliant, but Adam's famous disregard for deadlines and (in my opinion) the contempt that he and his publishers had for his loyal readership, meant that his last couple were merely exercises in commercial cynicism devoid of wit or original narrative... This is actually slightly better, though it only makes it an average read. Like Adams' work before it, it is shot through with some brilliant lines such as when asked whether the god Thor is omnipresent, his agent, Zaphod Beeblebrox replies

"No, but he's pretty fast!"

and I will remember Prefect's description of how he likes his steak cooked the next time I order one

"So rare a vet with shock paddles could revive it."

However, this series should not have been revived, it should have recieved an honoured burial after the first 3. As I have said, this is a slight improvement on Adams' own last 2, with a better storyline, but Colfer relentlessly mines the earlier books for characters and references, forgetting that the fleeting nature of some of them (including Wowbagger) is part of their joy. The satirical, sly social comment, element also seems to have been lost (with the exception of the repeated references to the Sub-Etha videos which are clearly a dig at the You Tube phenomenon... And finally, I'm just not certain he got the characters entirely right... he paints Zaphod and Ford as stupid, which I had never taken from the earlier books... previously I had taken them as the ultimate slackers, but clearly Colfer thought otherwise. Anyway, I hope that there will not be a 7th part of this trilogy.

Monday, December 27, 2010


I've noticed recently that my book reviews in the sidebar have got longer and longer... So as a result I've decided to post the longer ones here in the main body of the blog and just offer a pithy line or two in the sidebar... And this is as good a time as any to start, throwing out my suggestions as to what you should, or should not spend any Christmas booktokens on... beginning with C.J. Sansom's "Heartstone."
Actually I have run out of superlatives for this series of books, with this one being the fifth to feature hunch-backed Tudor lawyer and sleuth Matthew Shardlake. This one took longer to pick up the pace and tension, but the power of these books is not in the plot, which is, at times derivative, based on a stock theme eg. the Apocalyptic themes in "Revelation", or the key narrative twist here, which is taken strait from Shakespeare) but rather the meticulous period detail and depth of characterisation. You can smell the ordure and feel the bites of the fleas and lice in this one. And yes, from the introduction of the Mary Rose into the story you knew where it was going, but that was merely the backdrop... Having visited the Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth this year it was all the more vivid for me, but Sansom paints such a richly detailed picture that anyone with a functioning imagination will be drawn in.
Throughout this series a personal interest is the strong understanding of the theological struggles that underpinned so much of everyday life and political policy at this time... This series does for the English reformation what Umberto Eco did for continental European monsticism in the Name of the Rose... And from me, that is high praise...
So if you haven't yet tried the Shardlake series, get hold of "Dissolution" and start at the beginning... If you have followed Master Shardlake's story so far, you won't be disappointed with this episode.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


I love Christmas cards... I know they are not environmentally friendly, and that the charity varieties are a very bad way to give to good causes, but I still love them. However, the numbers of cards recieved this year were definitely down, with greater numbers opting for electronic versions... And I have resorted to the same, especially for trans-atlantic friends due to the fact that I am so badly organised and invariably miss the last posting date. This isn't quite the same however, as you can't stick an e-card on the wall, to remind you of the great array of friends and family that surround you...

However, this year, in some strange way, in a year of some particularly encouraging cards, my favourite Christmas greeting was this one...

Dear Friends,
The Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board wishes you a Merry Christmas with the gift of love, peace and happiness. May all these and more be yours at Christmas.
Sending warmest thoughts and best wishes for a prosperous 2011.

Maulana Shahid Raza

Chair of the Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board

What would the Daily Mail say about that? Where is the PC wariness about offending other faiths that some unthinking secularists engage in?

Again I turn to that song of praise sung by the angels:

"Glory to God in highest heaven... and on earth peace...
shalom... salaam..."

Luke 2: 14


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Bells

Earlier on this month a friend posted another Christmas song on facebook, and while I had heard it before, I'd never really listened and knew nothing of the background to it. It was Casting Crowns' live version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" which I have posted below...
It is probably better known among my American friends not only in this version, but numerous others, including variations by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, The Carpenters, Bing Crosby and Bette Midler. Most of them, however, omit the central stanzas of the poem on which it is based... "Christmas Bells" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). That's probably because they refer to the American Civil War which was raging when Longfellow wrote this poem on December 25th 1864. Yet it is the contrast between the dreadful reality of war and the promise of God's peace that lends the real power to this poem.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The Carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!’

"Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men"

Luke 2:14
the angels proclaimed... Yet as Studdert Kennedy, the World War One Chaplain was to write in the midst of that bloody war

“Peace we were pledged, yet blood is ever flowing,
Where on the earth has Peace been ever found?”
Nearly 100 years on that question still hangs in the crisp, Christmas air… In Longfellow's case the contrast of God's promised peace with the reality of war was heightened by a personal sense of loss, namely the tragic death of his wife Fanny three years before, in an accident involving fire which led to extensive burns to Longfellow himself as he sought to save his wife. The first Christmas after Fanny's death, Longfellow wrote,
"How inexpressibly sad are all holidays."
This is an experience many bereaved people have, leaving me, as a pastor, wary of presuming that all my congregation see Christmas as a time of unalloyed joy. A year after the accident, Longfellow went on to write:

"I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence.
Perhaps someday God will give me peace."
Then his journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads, heartbreakingly:

"'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."
If that were not bad enough, almost a year later, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles Appleton Longfellow, a 19 year old lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church (in Virginia) during the Mine Run Campaign, with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and injuring his spine. There is no entry subsequent entry in Longfellow's journal for Christmas 1863. But then, on Christmas Day of 1864, he wrote the words of the poem above.
Some have suggested that it was written in response to the death of his son from his wounds, but actually his son lived on. Rather the poem is an affirmation of the fact that "God is not dead." That the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, who was born to die, is risen from the dead, offering the hope of peace, not just to us as individuals, but to the whole world.
In this war-torn world, I pray this day that, whatever wounds you carry in heart, body or soul, you may hear, in bells ringing, or choirs singing, the voice of the angels proclaiming peace on earth, and goodwill to all people...
Indeed I pray that you might not simply hear it, but know it to be true.

Have a happy and peaceful Christmas... And enjoy this...

Friday, December 24, 2010

We Light This Central Candle...

We come to the final leg of out advent journey...

We light this central candle
to give thanks for birth of the baby of Bethlehem,
The child born to be King despite humble beginnings,
The boy in the cattle stall,
Who became the man on the cross,
Born as one of us to die for all of us,
Creator, Saviour and Sustainer of the world,
The light has overcome the darkness.
Thanks be to God.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

And so This is Christmas - And What Have We Done?

I'm not a fan of John Lennon. I know that is almost a stoning offence in this season where people have been remembering the 30 years - yes 30 - since he was killed, but I just don't... I like him marginally more than Paul McCartney... particularly the Paul McCartney that keep on showing up on live shows to sing badly with people who could be his grandchildren... but I was never really a fan of the Beatles full stop...

Anyway, with that admission out of the way, the one track by John Lennon that I do quite like, and actually bought at one point on vinyl... is "Happy Xmas (War is Over)". My liking of it is slightly diminished by the fact that it is now on that continuous loop of non-religious Christmas songs that plays in every shop from mid-November until Christmas Eve, but it is still better than most of the other musical tinsel... And a few years ago I devised a mime with it as a backing track, which, in the 3 minutes 34 seconds it allows, tells the story of the reconciling power of the incarnation, and the role of selfishness and asquisitiveness in Christ's crucifixion... Seriously...

A blog isn't a good place to describe a mime... It's like trying to describe a cartoon on the radio... Suffice it to say that it all ends with the Christ character standing with arms outstretched on the imaginary cross to which he has been nailed, draped with tinsel, adorned with baubles and crowned with a holly wreathe...

But what my words cannot convey about that mime... is much better expressed by Banksy's crucifix... (with a hat-tip to Ben Myers for reminding me of it...)

As many prepare for the last gasp dash to the shops, lets stop and remember why exactly Jesus was born, and died...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Liturgical Dolly's Tea-Parties

I've just finished my pre-Christmas round of home communions, with those who are no longer able, for various reasons, to make it out to church. I use two home communion sets, one which is the natty little pewter number in a zip up bag pictured here, which my previous congregation gave me as a farewell present and a fancy silver-plate one in a polished wooden box which was given to my current congregation in memory of a former member who died young.

I usually take someone else with me on these occasions as it gives a greater sense of the sharing together of Christ's body the church, than if I was there as a representative member on my own, and that is an important element in the idea of coming together in unity, that "com - union" is, in part, supposed to represent... and given that many of these people feel that they have been isolated from the wider church by their age, infirmity or illness, I will do all that I can to emphasise their undiminished place in Christ's body.

However as the three or four of us present gather round one of these sets, appropriately laid out on a small table with a little linen napkin covering the elements, occasionally it seems as if we are participating in the liturgical equivalent of a dolly's tea-party. That image intruded on on my mind a couple of times during proceedings over the past few days... at first it was distracting... And I longed to get back to the origins of communion... breaking bread in one another's houses and sharing in a real meal as well as a remembrance of Christ's sacrifice and the last meal he shared with his friends before that...

But when I reflected on it later, I was much less critical of this dolly's tea-party analogy... Why?

Well, my children are both boys and I have never shared in a dolly's tea-party with them... but I have been forced to do so with friends' daughters in the past and have witnessed a couple of my male friends being made to share in such a repast. And there is something endearing about seeing hulking great rugby players being taught the etiquette of how to drink imaginary tea from thimble sized plastic tea-cups, with little pinkies jutting out, by very serious-minded daughters, sharing the table with an assortment of stuffed toys and ill-dressed dolls...

Such a tea-party is a celebration of love - love of father for daughter and daughter for father...

And that is a fair summation of what we celebrate in these spiritual dolly's tea-parties... With our heavenly Father a loving participant wherever and however his children gather together to remember what his son Jesus gave up for us...

So perhaps next time I'll drink the little glass of wine with my pinkie jutting out...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Game of Life and Death

Christmas is the time when many of us get boardgames of various kinds. I have to confess that I get horribly competitive at boardgames, be they something as complex as Monopoly or even as simple as Snakes and Ladders... Years ago some friends, knowing my interest in all things Egyptian, bought me "The Hieroglyphs Game", which is known in this family as "The Scarab Game" or more frequently "There's No Way I'm Playing you at That Game because you Turn into a Competitive Monster" which may be pushing it a bit far, but only slightly...

Anyway, in ancient Egypt itself they had an interest in boardgames, and particularly one called Senet which, it has been suggested, is perhaps the oldest boardgame in the world and might actually be the progenitor of backgammon.

It frequently appears in the illustrations of the "Book of the Dead" and Senet sets were often included in the funerary gifts for the deceased. Some suggest this is because being "lucky" at senet suggested you were under the providential care of the head gods of the Egyptian pantheon, or that the game itself was a metaphor for the journey through the realms of the dead to the afterlife... a sort of spiritual "snakes and ladders" with ups and downs along the way... It could also be that they packed it away so the deceased could while away long hours in the tomb...

The makers of the TV series "Lost", which I never really got into (life is too short), apparently had one of the characters find a set of senet buried in the sand on a beach... he then invented a set of rules and invited others to play him, in a pretentious metaphor that pointed towards the ultimate denouement of this momumental waste of TV scheduling...

Whilst I am very competitive at boardgames, I was always taught by my Mum that "cheaters never win" so I very rarely (if ever) cheat... though I have been accused of it many, many times... However, in the great game that is life it doesn't seem as if too many people were taught that lesson. Historically the idea of God was often used as a sort of celestial referee who was there to guarantee that cheaters didn't really win (even though it might seem that they do in this world) but that sort of a worldview is diminishing in the post-modern western world... increasingly this world is seen as all there is, so what is there to stop cheaters from winning?

And, as we will find the further we go in looking at the Book of the Dead, even when there is a belief in life after death and divine retribution for injustice, there is always the hope that we can cheat our way into the afterlife... That we can live dissolute lives here on earth and still get a free pass into paradise. Is that part of the allure of the doctrine of penal substitution?I'll come back to this question later on...

But in the meantime, what we need to remember is that life and death are not a game...
As a young person I loved wargaming... indeed I still have Egyptian, Greek and Medieval English wargaming figures waiting to be painted and used... But there was a huge difference between that, where life and death were determined at the roll of a dice, and the computer gaming of today where we can be emersed in an alternate reality where we can shoot to kill or be shot and killed, and simply reboot reality to start again... In the first we were like gods, moving our pawns across baize covered battlefields... In the second todays gamers become part of the game... but it remains a game...

That's not possible if you are a real para in Afghanistan, or one of the Taliban he shoots and kills; its not possible for a child living and dying in a less dramatic way in the poverty of sub-saharan africa, or an old man in an icy doorway in downtown Belfast... and its not possible for you and for me...

Life and death is not a game... its not a game we play... nor is it a game in which we are pawns of a God or gods entertaining themselves... But at Christmas we celebrate the belief that God became one of us... living this life by the rules we live by... or should live by... full of grace and truth...

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Digital or Commercial Christmas?

Everyone else is posting it, on facebook and blogs, so I wouldn't want to be left out... but I didn't want to post it until I had used it at last night's Carol Service. Its a clever send-up of our current obsession with the digital world, roughly telling the story of the first Christmas... It seems as if it (like many of the other viral videos eg. the flashmob Hallelujah Chorus in the food-court that I also used last night) is actually an extended ad, but since I don't know what it is actually advertising it isn't likely to impact on buy commercial activities... But it is a classic case of the kingdom of this world trying to subvert the coming kingdom, rather than, as Handel's Messiah would have it, the kingdoms of this world becoming the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ...
But if we turn their efforts on their heads again and use them for God's glory, then the proper balance is restored... I think... Or is it... Or should I just stop and let you watch the film... I think I should...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

We Light This Fourth Candle..

An advent litany for the Sunday before Christmas:
We light this fourth candle
to give thanks for Mary the Mother of Jesus,
Who heard God’s words to her,
God’s surprising words,
And responded with humble faith,
Being ready to welcome the gift of God’s son,
No matter what that would then bring.
We light this candle...
May its light overcome the darkness

Saturday, December 18, 2010

More than Just a Game

One of the great stories offering a glimpse of what Christmas is really about is the oft-told tale of British and German soldiers playing football in no-man's land on the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914. What is less often told is that the next day many of those who participated in that impromptu game refused to shoot at the "enemy" the next day, and had to be disciplined and re-deployed, with the respective high commands making sure there would be no repeat performances in 1915 and subsequent years. This is not just a story about Christmas, but also the transformative power of sport... Although given some of the Boxing Day football matches I've taken part in over the years, they were more likely to cause hostilities to break out!
I enjoy playing sport, particularly competitive sport. I'm not very good at it but there is something about it that helps me to switch off and let-off steam in a controlled way. As a young guy I really enjoyed rugby, but my knees got messed up, and for the last 20 years my main competitive outlet has been Monday night 5 a side football. Sadly, at the moment I'm injured, and have spent large parts of the past 2 years injured in one way or other... and there is no doubt that this has had a significant impact on, not only my physical but also psychological well-being, as I am reduced to "fantasy football" and getting my fix from Football Focus and Final Score...
Against that background I've just finished reading "More than Just a Game", the story of how sports in general and football in particular helped to sustain the prisoners on Robben Island under the apartheid regime. This isn't a story about the few famous prisoners like Nelson Mandela, but the hundreds of largely young men who were rounded up at various periods of unrest and dumped on that rock off the coast of Capetown. In the face of implacable hatred and oppression they used sport, and especially football, to provide a focus and discipline to prison life. They looked to FIFA and its rules as a paragon of fairness and sportsmanship (ironic in the light of recent accusations which paints FIFA's higher echelons as the epitome of corruption and cronyism, and the appalling way that FIFA behaved in relation to the building contracts and sponsorship around the 2010 World Cup in South Africa), and it brought together prisoners across political and generational divisions as well as providing life-skills that many went on to use in post-apartheid South Africa...
It also became the means of bridging the yawning gulf between the prisoners and the white authorities, both the prison administrators and the largely uneducated warders.
Lessons learned by the prisoners in solving conflicts over footballing matters were then applied to their general approach to their oppressors. The following extract was a particularly inspiring story of transformation and reconciliation:
The prisoners also strove to improve relationships with the harshest guards, choosing to target those considered most hostile, the ones who meted out regular beatings, for a variety of reasons. If these warders could be ‘humanized’, the prisoners reasoned, their attacks would decrease and conditions would improve.
Equally, these, in general, older guards exerted a strong influence over the younger warders. If their attitudes could be changed, it was hoped there would be a trickle-down effect. In addition, a hard-line ‘friendly’ guard could be of great use to the prisoners in terms of smuggling out unofficial letters and information. They were the warders whom the prison authorities would never suspect of helping inmates. Perhaps the most remarkable success story concerned the notoriously brutal guard Sergeant Delport, the scourge of the quarry. An older, towering, red-faced Afrikaner, he viewed the political prisoners with utter hatred and was notorious for his violent sadism. In their early years on the island, the men quickly grew to be particularly careful and cautious around him. Swift to anger and quick to use his truncheon, he didn’t need any reason or excuse to beat a man into unconsciousness. Mark Shinners referred to Delport as the ‘chief tormentor’. He was a nightmarish figure and was in complete agreement with apartheid’s ideals.
The four downward-pointing chevrons on the sleeve of his uniform jacket signifying long service gave some clue to the reasons behind Delport’s dark fury. Time and again, he had been overlooked for promotion. His unquestioning loyalty to the apartheid regime was never In doubt, and it soon became clear to the prisoners that Delport’s lack of success was down to his inability to pass the warders’ examinations. He could read and write, but his lack of reasoning and academic skills continually let him down.
One morning when he came to open up the cell blocks he was in a particularly black mood. Unable to stop himself, he confided to the prisoners that once again
he had been passed by for promotion. In order to open the lines of negotiation the prisoners offered their sympathy, praised his loyalty and abilities as a guard, and acknowledged that the prison bosses didn’t appreciate him. Then they quietly suggested to Delport that they could help him win promotion. He would probably remain a sergeant for ever, unless he did some studying - with the prisoners.
Remarkably, Delport sat down beside the men he reviled and began to study. With the help of the prisoners, who taught him maths and how to improve his vocabulary, he passed his matric (school leaving certificate). In the next round of promotions he was appointed from the rank of sergeant to lieutenant. Having studied and shared time with the men, this most hard- bitten believer in the harshest application of apartheid slowly changed his attitude.
He transformed from a brute into one of the most approachable and helpful of
warders. In the years after freedom came to South Africa, Delport encountered
some former prisoners and even apologized to them for his earlier actions on the
island. The former prisoners have no doubts about the sincerity of his words.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Behind the Bright Lights

Here's another possible contender for Christmas No1 if there was any justice in the world. I'm not a big Sufjan Stevens fan but I picked this up over on this side of sunday... The melancholy touched with the hope of resurrection within it is so poignant, particularly when it is contrasted with the bright lights of the video. Such Christmas lightshows used to be the sort of things you only ever saw in America, but like everything else it has made the trans-Atlantic hop and is very popular here... especially in working class areas. I used to work in an area where the lights on many houses at Christmas were so elaborate that queues of cars used to snake slowly through the estate every night from early December to early January... It was way more impressive than the city centre lights. But I knew that behind the bright lights and the closed doors lay broken hearts, strained relationships and shattered dreams...
Celebration of the incarnation is ultimately only good news of great joy in the light of what came later...


Thursday, December 16, 2010


OK... Back to the "Book of the Dead" (a great pre-Christmas topic!), or as it should be known "The Book of Coming Forth by Day" because it was written to cover that period when a deceased person's spirit (or Ba) would be out and about during the hours of daylight, scouting for safe-passage through the Duat, or underworld, to the afterlife... The spells/prayers within the book offered various ways to avoid some of the various traps that an unsuspecting spirit could fall into en route like cheats in a computer game (more on that next time)...
But in many ways the process begins, not with death, but with the "opening of the mouth"... After the complex process of mummification, the priests then have to ceremonially open the mouth of the deceased, with an adze so that the ba spirit, in the form of a human-headed bird, can flit freely between the underworld and the mummified body... Because there was a belief that the spiritual life was only a half-life, and that the real life force, or ka, could only be expressed when body and spirit were united...
It is like Hebrew theology where the life force or nephesh is physically identified with the throat... and why Biblical theology majors on resurrection, which is both spiritual and physical, rather than the immortality of the soul. An immaterial existence is almost meaningless in Biblical terms... but so is one where there is no awareness of the spiritual dimension.
At the moment I am engaged in some "mindfulness" exercises, focusing on very basic things like, colour, texture, ambient sound, and my own breath. It is so easy to get caught up in doing (and that includes intellectual pursuits) that we forget that we are human beings. Many of us who are pastors have, I am sure said that (in one way or another) over the years, but we say one thing and do another... We get caught up in the rush, the need to do, especially at this time of year... and what we end up with is a half-life... Fit only for the tomb...
If we are to "go out by day" and find eternal life, then our mouths need to be opened to let the spirit return... We need to nourish both body and spirit...

"O Lord, open my lips..."

Psalms 51:15 (ANIV)

And breathe...


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bethlehem Road (Revisited)

Nothing new this morning... But this little ditty that I wrote a couple of years back has been getting a few hits recently, so I thought I would reblog it. I've never had the nerve yet to ask anyone to perform it... If anyone else does, let me know... The tune is "Raglan Road..."

Down Bethl’em road from Nazareth,
Came Joseph and his wife
Within her womb God’s promise bloomed
His Word, the Light of Life.
He came to take on flesh and blood
To show us all the way
And through the night a star so bright
Hailed the dawning of His day.

And on the hills round Bethlehem,
Some shepherds heard the song,
The angels sing of a new born King
Awaited for so long.
They find him midst the filth and grime
In a bed of straw and hay,
Ignored by the earth that he brought to birth
The Lord Almighty lay.

And from the east to Bethlehem
Come men who saw the sign.
These eastern seers travelled two long years
To present their gifts so fine.
Gold they did bring, fit for a king
And a scent of untold worth.
But the gift of myrrh that they offer third
Spoke of death and not of birth.

From Bethlehem his parents fly
To save their son from harm
But others die and mothers cry
And wail in their alarm.
The powers that be had come to see
That child as a source of strife
His birth meant despair to the people there
But his coming brought us life.

From Bethlehem to Jerusalem
Is not so very far.
Thirty three years on, on a cold spring dawn
He died on a wooden spar
From he first drew breath ‘til his cruel death
For him there was no room,
He took the blame for our sin and shame
And was laid in a borrowed tomb

But on our streets and roads today,
The Lord can still be found,
Wherever we will bend the knee
The angels’ song resounds.
To heaven raise God’s glorious praise
And on the earth be peace
Where once again Christ comes to reign
His grace will never cease.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Truth Shall Set You Free...

In this season where we celebrate the incarnation, of the one who was said to come "full of grace and truth" is it any wonder there are a number of commentators who are suggesting that some look on Julian Assange, the editor in chief of Wikileaks as a pseudo-messiah? Don't think that Jesus was accused of sexual assault, but he was accused of associating with some dodgy people, was imprisoned on trumped up charges and executed as an enemy of the state.
Is Julian Assange a tireless champion of freedom of speech, a self-seeking sociopath, an IT terrorist, or a post-modernist messiah? Or is he just a very naughty boy?
Most of the "disclosures" on the recent ambassadorial cables told us things that anyone in the chattering classes had already uninformed opinions about... Israel and Saudi Arabia want the US to bomb Iran - you don't say! Sarkozy is short and Berlusconi is an old letch - never! The Americans think British soldiers in Afghanistan are useless - amazing (just wait for revelations regarding British estimations of American forces abilities to kill the enemy rather than their allies!). The Vatican was annoyed at their "sovereignty" being challenged in the Irish child abuse enquiries - that's a surprise! Gerry and Marty know more than they admitted to about the Northern Bank raid - the stray dogs on the Shankill Road were expressing opinions on that one!
However there were other disclosures, regarding China's opinions re North Korea, and American security assets, that may have significant detrimental effects on diplomacy and global security. Is that tantamount to information terrorism? I don't know... certainly such a label has sent financial institutions resourcing Wikileaks into a tailspin, which has, in turn triggered attacks by what may well be an unholy alliance of IT-idealogues, cyber-criminals and genuine terrorist organisations.
There is something questionable, however, about a world order that expects dishonesty in its international representatives, and is founded on secrecy and suspicion.
Maybe that is why God's ambassador on earth stood out as "full of grace and truth"... but will the truth set Julian Assange free in the near future... Again I don't know.
But meanwhile, Kim Fabricius over on Connexions has unearthed some other earth-shattering revelations...

The Jerusalem Enquirer has just learned that Augustus has recalled Quirinius to Rome for failing to arrest a group of shepherds who leaked eye-witness testimony about the alleged birth of a rival emperor in the small southern town Bethlehem. The Governor of Syria will face a charge of treason, and a Senate sub-committee has already been appointed to arrange a secret trial for Quirinius who, if convicted, will face the death sentence. The Vice Emperor has called the leaks “the work of a terrorist agricultural network, known as ‘El Seraphim’, that threatens to unravel the very fabric of the Pax Romana.” Another source close to the Emperor declared, “Crucifixion is too good for these traitors.” The shepherds are thought to have left their flocks by night and are now in hiding on a lonely mountain steep.

The Enquirer has also learned that Herod has sent secret agents to apprehend three Persian consuls, members of a secret astrological society, who have also publicly divulged first-hand information about the alleged birth of the Messiah after the Palace had warned them that, under the Prevention of Messianism Act, diplomatic immunity notwithstanding, they would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law were they not to report back solely to the King. It is thought that, when detained, the three informants will be taken to an unspecified location (probably the citadel of Machaerus) at which they will be subject to what a Palace spokesman called “intense interrogation”. When asked whether this procedure might include torture, the spokesman answered, “Your words, not mine,” adding: “we have ways to make heaven and nature sing.” There is, however, concern that the astrologers, who are said to be very smart, are carrying not only highly explosive balms but also large quantities of gold with which they will attempt to buy their way back to the East through underground contacts.

A joint statement by Rome and Jerusalem declares: “It is clear that the shepherds and astrologers are part of a global conspiracy to undermine imperial security and destabilise the international community. They hate our freedoms. No effort will be spared to bring the culprits to justice.”


Monday, December 13, 2010

The Alternative Christmas No 1

As I write this there's lots of hype about who will go on to win X-Factor and subsequently gain the prize of the X-mas No.1 record... By the time this is posted we'll know who will carry Cowell's imprinature in the Christmas charts... But I can't be bothered revising this in the light of whatever the result is...
Last year the Cowell-machine was derailled by the campaign to put (Sony-EMI backed) Rage Against the Machine, into top spot, but there doesn't seem to be a coherent alternative being offered this year, although blogger Cranmer was, earlier in the month, pushing a facebook campaign to at least make Sir Cliff's "O Little Town" (one of the few of his offerings that I can actually stomach) chart, and a group of other artists have banded together as "Cage Against the Machine" to record John Cage's (See what they've done there?) "4 minutes 33 seconds" of silence. Given some of the artists involved, this will be the best album they have ever recorded. But I doubt that either of these offerings will wrest the top spot from Cowell's anointed one.

I doubt that the song below would ever be in the running... But it is refreshingly apposite and doesn't take itself too seriously... It reminds me of some of the earlier Housemartins stuff, or an act from way back in the 90s called "Fat and Frantic" (anyone remember them?)
A few friends posted this on facebook earlier in the month, but I thought I would post it now as a bit of an antidote to the mainstream nonsense...


Sunday, December 12, 2010

We Light This Third Candle

The series continues... By the way, I should have said earlier, but this series of introductory litanies is designed to work in parallel with John Bell's "Christmas is coming, the church is glad to sing" which wouldn't be a particular favourite, but hey ho...

We light this third candle...
to give thanks for John the Baptist
Drawing crowds out to hear him in the wilderness
Preparing the way for the coming King
Calling people to change direction
Warning of judgment and punishment
But offering forgiveness and cleansing
We light this candle...
May its light overcome the darkness.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Poor People Need Not Apply...

Well, its 2 weeks today since Sally and I visited the "Book of the Dead" exhibition in the British Museum. It was luxury to spend nearly 3 hours wandering around an exhibition without either of the boys getting bored. That's not to say that they don't enjoy history and museums... they do, but their patience has a limit.
I loved history when I was a child, not just Egyptian history, but I am sure that my love of history would have been deepened had "Horrible Histories" existed back then... They started showing them on BBC2 in the morning's recently and I kept getting sucked in... Their "Awful Egyptians" strand is particularly funny, including this musical introduction to the process of mummification.

It's not strictly accurate (eg. they didn't use scrolls inside coffins to write the book of the dead during the period of the pyramids, they carved/painted them of the walls of the tomb) but that's just me being pedantic...

Another "Awfull Egyptians" sketch that I couldn't find online is based on the fact that Egyptian funerary rites were an expensive business... and the Book of the Dead was part of that... Originally the prayers and spells known collectively as the Book of the Dead were only to be found on the walls of Royal tombs... after a brief time when they fell out of fashion totally they later became popular among the wealthy, first being painted on coffins and later on papyrus scrolls. The very wealthy would commission scrolls specifically for themselves... the merely moderately wealthy would simply buy mass produced versions and fill in the blank spaces left for the name of the purchaser.

Now remember... these spells and prayers are supposed to guarantee safe passage for the deceased from this world to the next... So whilst there was a certain democratisation of life after death down through the years, it was a democratisation proportionate to wealth... Poor people need not even think about the possibility of safe passage through to the next world... But just incase that then meant that the wealthy would actually have to do their own work in the next world, they generally packed some "shabti" figures, that were there to do any nasty manual labour required of them...

But why should the transition from this life to the next be any different from any of the transitions from one stage to another in this life? For me one of the most transformative factors in my life, enabling me to transcend my working class origins, was education, which, through the 11+, grammar school education and free university places, was wide open to ANY young person willing to apply him/herself. That brief window of opportunity is rapidly closing in Northern Ireland. The 11+ is not the gateway to advancement it once was, with poorer parents unwilling/unable to pay for the exam fees and the coaching that more well-off families take as a matter of course. I have no hard facts to back it up, but anecdotal observation would tend to suggest that the social mix at my old grammar school, now attended by my eldest son, is significantly less heterogeneous than it was in my day. Then moving on to university, the increased commoditisation of third level education and putting fees up will, undoubtedly disproportionately deter those from poorer background, whose parents and peers tend to see education as an "ivory-tower" endeveavour. And I don't care if the current ConDem proposals mean that effectively those going to university don't have to pay up front and will only pay back their debt at a time when their pay level rises to a higher level than at present (probably just when their own kids are wanting to go to university!), it is the thought of debt that will deter many. As a friend and colleague posted on facebook yesterday, why does the endebtedness of the country matter, yet burdening young people with debt doesn't? These are proposals coming from people who have never known what it is to want, and have enjoyed the best of education in private schools and top-flight universities. And before you think I am being party political about this, I was equally opposed to the initial introduction of fees introduced by a Labour Prime Minister who had never known what it is to want, having enjoyed the best of education in a private school and top-flight university. This all smacks of the priveleged pulling up the drawbridge and leaving the poor to struggle on. All they are good for is becoming plumbers and painters and decorators. For the rest there is the bread and circuses of the minimum wage and X-Factor (or "Horrible Histories" for the kiddies). Until they die...

Within the church we have sometimes fallen into the trap of preaching pie in the sky when we die. That this world is not what is important... But even there we have occasionally become "Egyptian" in our approach to the afterlife... sometimes blatantly so with the selling of indulgences that in many ways precipitated Luther's reformation, but also more subtly with the "brass plaque" mentality in many churches... memorialising former (wealthy) members in wooden pews and stained glass windows... not actually promising that this would get the deceased a fast-pass to paradise, but not disabusing the bereaved of that idea...

But as we come towards the celebration of the birth of Christ, we should remember that he promised a very different paradise from the Egyptian one(and yes I know that Paradise was a Baylonian/Persian concept rather than Egyptian one, but lets not be pedantic). The one alluded to in the Song of Mary that I blogged on earlier in the week... the one that is summed up in the idea that the first will be last and the last will be first... An upside down kingdom...

But also that that promise is not just about pie in the sky when you die... It is, as the angels reminded those social pariahs, the shepherds, about glory to God in highest heaven AND peace (justice, equality and prosperity) to God's people ON EARTH, Not life after death, but life that transcends death... Eternal life, which is not about the hereafter, but which begins here and now...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Only Connect...

My good friend and colleague in exile Barry Sloan posted a link to this piece by Victoria Coren in the Guardian. I'd half heard a reference to it earlier in the week on some discussion show or other (can't remember which) but was interested to read the article in full... Especially as I have the same sort of intellectual crush on Victoria Coren as she has on Rowan Williams... her quiz show on BBC4 "Only Connect", is an oasis of intellectual challenge (together with Paxo and "University Challenge" immediately before it on BBC2) in a wilderness of reality TV, soaps and quizzes for the illiterate or money-grabbing (or frequently both).

I'm sure we've all had fanboy/girl embarassing incidents in our day... Mine involved some simpering infront of Brian Cox years ago before he was famous (the actor not the astro-physics popstar)... although the thought of trying to extricate yourself from an embarassing situation with the Archbishop of Canterbury using a story involving watermelons in the film "Dirty Dancing" strikes me as a case of "when in hole stop digging." I've never seen the film so I don't know if the anecdote made any sort of sense... but her recollection of it was at least funny.

But this article is important not simply because it is funny, but also because it is true... there is a dearth of witty, intelligent believers in the public eye. And the problem is not, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury and his cohorts would have us believe, that there is a huge anti-Christian conspiracy in the media and in the public square in general... Yes there is less deference to Christianity these days (something which Christians, particularly those in the established church in England have difficulty in accepting) but we also reap what we sow in disparaging the intellect... especially within evangelicalism... where many are actively hostile to most intellectual pursuits... the sciences, especially biology and cosmology are derided as godless, the arts are effete and dominated by people of dubious morals, and theology can be injurious to faith. If there is any lauding of intellectual pursuits then it must be within safe boundaries, and within a Christian sub-culture... creation science, Christian arts and reformed/evangelical/sound (delete as applicable) theology in a bona fide evangelical institution.

As I have stated repeatedly previously we are called to worship God with our heart, soul, strength and mind... not simply use the rice pudding in our heads as packing material to stop our heads from caving in...

We are called on to take the gospel into the whole world, including the world of the intellect and the media... to make connections for the sake of Christ...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mary's Song

Last weekend there was a whole hoo-haa about the injustice of 50 year old Dublin Tesco employee Mary Byrne getting axed on the X-factor... Even prestigious Anglican bloggers have been vexed by it... However, I'm not convinced that the X-Factor being unjust is particularly newsworthy... Indeed, whether the decision as to who stays on is decided by a democratic phone-vote, or by a Cowell-dominated cabal, justice is unlikely to play a huge part in it all.
But today, my thoughts are not primarily with a 50 year old singing Mary from an unprestigious area of Dublin, but a somewhat younger singing Mary, from an equally unprestigious village in northern Palestine. Carrying on the story from yesterday's annunciation, we turn to Mary of Nazareth's song of praise to God in the light of his promise of pregnancy to Elizabeth, her elderly cousin being fulfilled.
This familiar song of praise, read or sung in various forms not only in advent, but throughout the year, should resonate powerfully this year, especially as we look at Mary Byrne's home nation... If we think that public service cuts on the Northern side of the border on this island are savage, indescriminate and ill thought out, of the border here in Ireland, we only have to look south to think "There but for the grace of God etc." But grace has little place in the economic measures being employed to address the current economic crisis. In both jurisdictions, but particularly the south, it is wealthy investment bankers who are being lifted up, and the poor who are being sent away with their pockets even more empty than they were. Where are the economics of grace in this?
Mary Byrne sang powerfully in her audition and in her final sing-off showdown "This is a man's world" (in her case that man is Simon Cowell and she no longer had a part to play in his world so she got the boot), but she could qualify that further by singing "This is a rich man's world." But Mary of Nazareth's song tells us that it won't always be that way, and one day the victims of injustice and inequality will be able to sing with young Mary...

I give glory to the great I AM from centre of who I am!
My spirit sings songs of joy to my saviour God.
For he has seen my lowly position,
I am only a servant... his servant.
But from now on all generations will call me "The happy one";
Happy because the Almighty One has done amazing things for me,
in me and through me —
His name is set apart from all other names.
His love and kindness reaches out to those who understandably fear him,
generation after generation.
He has performed miracles with his strong right arm;
he has scattered like skittles those who are proud and powerful.
He has dethroned rulers and lifted up the lowly.
He has put good food in the bellies of the starving
but has sent the rich away with nothing but a flea in their ear.

from Luke 1: 46-53


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Annunciation

Over the next week the lectionary shifts its focus from John the Baptist to Mary, the young, unmarried, mother of Jesus... I'm conducting a few services in the next week that focus on her and the "Annunciation" of her impending pregnancy... And in them I'll be using probably the first monologue I ever wrote... written way back in 1995 for my friend Diane Petherick (as she was then) to deliver at a Christmas show we had "conceived" called "Christmas Craic!" It was subsequently filmed for UTV, but I didn't get to direct it and (in my not so humble opinion) it was rubbish.
I thought I had posted it here previously... but for some reason I haven't...
I now correct that omission...

What a dream! No... No... It wasn't a dream... I wasn't even asleep... Or if it was a dream then it was more real than anything else I've ever known! I could smell the light and feel every sound. And no, I wasn't drunk!
It was the morning time. I was at home... My mother's house... and I was staring out the window, aware of the bright summer sun streaming in, warming my face. Then I became aware of the sunlight getting brighter and it seemed as if the very light itself grew arms and legs and sprouted wings. I thought it was my eyes playing tricks with me. But then the light stepped through the window and filled the room. It was blindingly bright. Yet I could do nothing but look at it. I didn't have to squint, or shield my eyes, but it was brighter than the sun itself. I thought I could make out the face of a man. By now I was terrified; I wanted to look away, to run away, but I couldn't. For that moment in time the only things in existence were me and that light in human form.
The face was looking at me, and speaking, as if with a thousand voices at once:
"Don't be afraid Mary" He said, it said,
"Don't be afraid!" I ask you!? What was I supposed to be!? I closed my eyes but I could still see it. It spoke again. I pressed my hands to my ears, but still I heard it.
"Mary you have been singled out by God. You are going to have a child!"
"A What!?" I shouted as I opened my eyes and took away my hands from my ears.
"A son," he continued. "You will call him Jesus and he will be known as the son of the Most High. He shall sit on David's throne and will reign over the house of Jacob for ever."
"But that's not possible, I'm an virgin!" I thought, or said, I'm not sure which. What and whichever, the light smiled, and it's beauty was overwhelming. I was won over and heard myself saying:
"I am the servant of God. Whatever he wants me to do I'll do!"
And again the light smiled. A great big broad cheesy grin, so broad that the light stretched out to either side, and kept on stretching out and out until it disappeared.
That can't have happened I thought, but I knew it had. Then I thought of Joseph. How can I tell him? I thought:
"Joe. I'm going to have the Son of God Almighty!!"
The shock will probably kill him. Or he'll kill me! But I needn't have worried. I should have known better. He's a good man Joseph. He was going to hush it up; divorce me quietly and then one afternoon he rushed in...
"Mary... Mary... You'll never guess what I just saw in a dream."
Oh yes I could...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Book of the Dead - The Journey Begins

Did I ever mention that I once met a man who claimed to be the reincarnation of Pharaoh Ahkenaton's daughter? No?
One of my most bizarre encounters over the years. He was totally and utterly convinced of the fact... he had vanity-published a set of hypnotically "recovered" memoirs and wanted me, off the back of a production of Macbeth directed by me that he had seen, to adapt these into a dramatic form. When he realised that I was slightly sceptical as to the veracity of what he was claiming, he took the memoirs back, which was a shame, because they would have made for an interesting play or even novel, but not one that would have achieved his desired end of championing his claims.
It was strange that our paths should cross, however, since his opening gambit was "Have you ever thought of directing a play about Ahkenaton?" Now most people, when asked that question would probably have said, "Ahken who?" But the truth is that I had been interested in Egyptian history for years (particularly their military history) and specifically in Ahkenaton ever since I had seen the truly appalling film "The Egyptian" when I was young. For those who are not blessed with such an interest, Ahkenaton is regarded as the "heretic" Pharaoh, one of the earliest recorded monotheistic monarchs, and perhaps a key influence in early Israelite religious practice, theology and liturgy (eg. the comparisons made between the so-called "Hymns to Aten" and Psalm 104).

This is just a long way round of saying that I am a bit of a closet Egyptian nut... and am fascinated by what, on the face of it, with the hieroglyphs and animal-headed gods, seems a totally alien religious culture... yet one which existed in close proximity to the monotheism which developed into modern Christianity. One of the key elements of any religion is how they help their adherents address the reality of life and death... whether it be a belief in reincarnation, like my friend who thought he was Ahkenaton's daughter, or the annual advent service of remembrance and prayer for those who have been bereaved that we had last night in the Methodist church I minister to.

In the light of all that I was determined to go see the British Museum's special exhibition of the Book of the Dead, and so trailed my dear wife off to see it last weekend.

Again, for the uninitiated, the Book of the Dead is a set of around 200 prayers/spells that, in various forms were used in Egyptian funerary rites for over 1000 years prior to the birth of Christ... first, carved on the walls of royal tombs, then later painted onto the coffins of the wealthy, and finally produced on papyrus scrolls to be placed in the grave with a suitably prepared mummified body. Each of these prayers/spells were supposed to assist the deceased at some point or other in their journey from this world to the next...

This particular exhibition brings together a wide range of versions of the Book of the Dead and related artefacts to offer a detailed picture of the whole journey and its associated rituals. It is set up in the reading room of the British Museum (which is pretty close to my personal idea of heaven) and wends its way around the exhibits like some ancient funerary maze. The amount of information and range of artefacts on display is amazing and, incase you were thinking of going but are put off by the entrance fee, is well worth every penny.

I found my wife after 2 1/2 hours, in the middle of the final astonishing gallery, slumped on a bench, saying "I can't take anything more in!"

Anyway... it has taken me a week to post this first reflection on the exhibition, but I intend posting a few more over the coming weeks... However, given the subject matter and the season I thought that I might ration my reflections to one or two a week, lest I be accused of being a bit grim...

But this particular journey from death to new life has only just begun...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

We Light This Second Candle

A short liturgy for lighting the second candle on the second Sunday in Advent...
We light this second candle...
to give thanks for prophetic voices
Speaking truth into a world of dishonesty
Speaking out despite the cost
Bringing good news to the poor
The blind, the imprisoned and oppressed
Comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.
We light this candle...
May its light overcome the darkness

Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas Movie Meme

Today the plan is that I get all my work done by tea time, then we settle down as a family to watch "Nativity" with Martin Freeman... I think it is my wife's attempt to get this particular Grinch geared up for the coming season. So I thought, given that so many of you loved the recent flurry of memes (yes... with the exception of you Mrs. "I'm too busy for that sort of thing, unlike you boys" Holt), that I would set you another one... Your ten favourite Christmas-related movies...

Same rules apply... Post 10 and tag 10 people including me so I can keep track of the fun and games... You can post them as a comment here, on facebook or on your own blog...

Here's mine... in no particular order except the first one which is unimpeachably the best Christmas movie ever... and if anyone wants to disagree, its pistols at dawn...

1) It's a Wonderful Life - The piece of Frank Capra magic starring James Stewart which was, mystifyingly, a flop on its cinema release but which subsequently has gained legendary status. The first film I remember crying at... which given I was about 14 at the time I first saw it, was dreadfully embarassing. Of course I am referring to the original black and white version, not the aberrant colorised version publicised in the above picture...

2) Holiday Inn/White Christmas - take your pick... they're essentially the same schmaltzy snow-bound tale with Bing Crosby singing his big hit... I can never remember which one is which...

3) Home Alone - I know, I really should hang my head in shame, but the original was quite funny in a cruel, slapstick kind of way... and was every young boy's (and grown up young boy's) fantasy, wrapped up in a "pro-family" message... It has been greatly diminished by repeated rehashing of the same formula however...

4) Die Hard - Hardly saccharine Christmas fare, but set as it, and it's immediate successor, was, at Chrismas, it fits my criteria... Again, as with Home Alone, it has been diminished by repeated cloning... and its successors don't have the superb Alan Rickman as an over the top villain...

5) Nativity! - the film that inspired this list, and one of the best modern takes on this time of year...

6) Meet Me in St Louis - another classic (by which I mean black and white weepie) Christmas musical, this time with Judy Garland doing the warbling...

7) Scrooged - another slightly guilty secret, as this is such a saccharine remake of the Dickens' classic... but I'm not a great fan of Dickens and would need someone to stand over me with a pistol to watch a more literal adaptation... Anyway, Bill Murray is always good value... Which leads me to...

8) Groundhog Day - yes I know its not got ANYTHING to do with Christmas per se, but it's got snow in it, and is a piece of comic genius that not even Andi McDowell can spoil, so it's good enough for me...

9) Millions - Danny Boyle's pre-slumdog sleeper, about two boys doling out money that has "fallen from heaven" in the run up to Christmas and the abandonment of the pound in favour of the Euro. I think it deserves greater prominence than it has got since it was released 5-6 years ago...

10) The Great Escape - OK the only link to Christmas is that throughout my childhood it always seemed to be on every Boxing Day... but that's good enough for me... and one day Steve McQueen will manage to jump that barbed wire border fence!

You'll notice that there isn't any explicitly Biblical take on Christmas in these films (Nativity! is as close as it gets). i've never seen "The Nativity Story" released a couple of years ago, so I don't know if it would have muscled its way into this list if I had. But I haven't seen any others that have done the "original script" justice.

Anyway... It is only a bit of fun, so don't spend too much time on it... Or else you'll find the productivity police like Petherick/Holt on your back!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

139 Sleeps to go...

Just got some good news today meaning that I, my family and my church can start to make provisional plans up to June 2014... However, I no sooner had got that message than I looked at a blog over at Biblical World, and discovered that all such planning may well be in vain. Now, I know that, in the words of Rabbie Burns,
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley,
No-one knows exactly what the future holds... Well I say that, but apparently someone does... Family Radio Worldwide and their friends on the WeCanKnow website... and because of what they know, there's not much point in making long term plans (unless of course they are plans for our eternal well-being) because according to billboards they have been erecting around Nashville, and material on their websites, the rapture/armageddon/the second coming is going to happen on May 21st 2011...
Do these people not read the Bible, including the passage for the lectionary on Sunday (which I spoke about on Radio Ulster), beginning:
No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Matthew 24:36 (ANIV)

Here we are in the season of Advent, preparing for the coming of Christ... not just a remembrance of his first coming, but his promised second coming. Now we could debate until the cows come home (or until Jesus comes again) what exactly is mean by that... But there is no debating the words of Jesus above... He didn't know when, so why should we expect God the Father to let us in on the secret?
Plenty of people are quick to tell me, when they look at the state of the world that "it can't be long now!" And in response I've often quoted the words of Tony Campolo when he was challenged about the timing of the second coming:

"I don't know when Jesus is coming back. I'm not on the planning committee. I'm on the welcoming committee..."
ps. I home that Family Radio Worldwide and WeCanKnow have the integrity to pull the plug on May 22nd... Or perhaps they won't be around to do so...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Born of Water and Blood

I suppose this poem/reflection was a product of many thoughts colliding: a reaction against the idealised views of birth, especially the birth of Jesus in less than ideal conditions, the discipline of waiting in both advent and pregnancy, as well as the Jesus' phrase about being born of "water and Spirit" (John 3: 5) to Nicodemus, a conversation which also gave us the much-misused or misunderstood statement about being "born again/from above", as well as the verse in the first Letter of John:

This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood.

1 John 5:6 (ANIV)

Born of water and blood

He’s coming Joseph
He’s coming…
The waters break…
And the agony begins.

Through the water
The people were saved.
Through time of trial
A place of promise was reached.

Wait, my love…
Wait, don’t push…
The time is not right,
But he is coming…

Why must we wait?
Why not now?
Let’s take what is ours
It’s the way of the world

He’s coming, my love…
Born in blood…
He is born, he breathes
And he cries…

So many tears and so much blood
The blood of battlefields
And the blood of beasts
Flowing free in the temple..

Born of water and blood
Born to bleed and die
Born to cleanse and restore
Born that we might live…

Born of water and blood.

David A. Campton November 30th 2010