Not so good for the turkey! – may be an appropriate response, but as it is getting near to ‘twelfth night’ some reflection on the Christmas celebrations that have just passed is prompted with, hopefully, an eye to their significance for the year that lies ahead.
For me, the theme of each worship occasion over this Christmas has focussed in some way on the present, our experience of the Christ who is born and our part in enabling a reality and relevance in the world of the 21st century.
Advent began with a ‘shoe box’ version of a calendar in the entrance to the church halls. Each box carried a part of the Christmas story illustrated by one of our church folk. The boxes were opened each day by one of the groups who use our premises. Some creative gifts were evident in the creation of this.
Added to this were some paper angels made in the Moments dementia cafe and some contributed origami angels in silver, which looked good alongside the Christmas tree in the church.
The Extravagance of God’s gift in Jesus …
Eight celebrations were held in local care homes or sheltered housing. These focussed around a Christmas hamper with conversation about the different foods eaten at Christmas, their often rich and spicy nature, and along with decorations and presents the general extravagance of our celebrations and festivities. Apart from the inflatable turkey dinner (!) this was a way to accepting the fact that everything is ‘over the top’. In relation to God’s gift in Jesus, is this not what it is all about?
The Christmas Story – with sound effects!
The sound effects provided by the congregation as the Christmas story was read encouraged us to think about how we react and respond to the coming of Christ in our midst.
A Nativity Play – including a heavenly host!
Christmas Day saw the whole congregation playing parts in our nativity play – with a lot of angels and quite a few shepherds and sheep. We moved around the church as the story progressed. The point? – simply to help us to reflect on the part we have to play to enable Christ to be born, to be a real presence, in our world.
The First Sunday of Christmas
Found us looking at two paintings by Pieter Bruegel. ‘The Census’depicting a village scene in Spanish governed Flanders i
n the 16th century – a place under foreign rule where locals are required to register – and in the midst a carpenter with his pregnant wife on a donkey. It is an everyday
situation and there are no haloes, just plain characters helping us to reflect on the unrecognised presence of Christ in a political situation that is very familiar in our own time. The second painting, ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’, portrayed in the time of oppression of the Flemish by Spain, of Protestants by Catholics. So Christ comes to situations of political tension and religious difference. What does this mean for us as we seek to make Christ real in our world of the 21st century?
Advent 2015 – there have been many deaths through terrorist attacks in Paris, but also in other places around the world. It is easy to despair of where it will all lead. These events are juxtaposed with the British government talking about entering the bombing campaign in Syria, with cinemas blocking a video about prayer and much more. In the midst there is light – found in the personal response of a bereaved husband:
Three stages of life - for reflection ....
This triptych has been hung in a quiet room at an Abbeyfield ‘extra care’ home in Solihull. It’s purpose is to encourage reflection, perhaps particularly on how each ‘stage’ is fruitful and life-giving and might apply to any time in our lives.
I hope that it may be helpful to others, leading to thankfulness for every aspect of our lives.
Edward was born on 5th November 2014 and has been melting hearts from the outset. It is impossible not to be moved by such an event, but of course it touches each person in a different way, depending on the relationship etc.
Interestingly, this momentous event in our family came as I was reflecting around the whole theme of birth as the Christian community looks forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas.
Following a pattern of considering different perspectives, the notes offered below begin to explore the viewpoints of me, you and God.
In relation to the arrival of Edward I know how mind-boggled I feel at the whole experience of a new life coming into the world and how aware of the ‘gift’ that is offered. Apart from the pain, I know my daughter, Rachel, found Edward’s sudden appearance quite surreal, with this little mite instantly beginning to make sense of the world around him and commanding attention care and love. From God’s perspective I can only trust that he is offering life, hope and trust in his creation.
Risk assessment is a requirement in many avenues of life these days – a consequence of a creeping desire for litigation. If someone wants to claim compensation for injury then there is a need to prove that you have done all one can to reduce risk. This leads to the rather comical situation where most assessments conclude that the ultimate risk is death. This may be the result of some dangerous activity, such as sky-diving, but might be applied to something seemingly innocent, like sitting in an arm-chair!
‘The only certainty in life is death’ – an often quoted saying that from a human perspective seems so obviously correct, is from the perspective of Christian faith completely wrong. Yes, the end of physical and earthly life is indeed certain, but the life that comes from a relationship with God, known in Jesus, does not have a certain end, but rather can offer us something eternal. Life is not fatal!
Henri Nouwen explains this in quite traditional Christian language:
Jesus Takes Away Fatality – from Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey
The great mystery of the incarnation is that God became human in Jesus so that all human flesh could be clothed with divine life. Our lives are fragile and destined to death. But since God, through Jesus, shared in our fragile and mortal lives, death no longer has the final word. Life has become victorious. Paul writes: “And after this perishable nature has put on imperishability and this mortal nature has put on immortality, then will the words of scripture come true: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Jesus has taken away the fatality of our existence and given our lives eternal value.
This is not an esoteric theological concept, but something that impacts on our everyday existence. Not knowing quite when our physical end may come (from skydiving, sitting in the armchair or getting up in the morning!) God’s promise of an everlasting relationship with him is of significance now as well as then.
Our recent house-move gave opportunity for a ‘big clear-out’. Things of no use were not to be part of the future and the local tip has been visited frequently over a period of weeks. But of course there are those things regarded as ‘precious’. Gifts received for significant events, mementoes of places visited by us and others, photos of family and friends from years past. ‘We must keep those’ gave reprieve for these things to continue as part of our life. However, the time will come when all these ‘things’ will come to an end. So what is it that lasts?
We all have our ‘recycle’ bins, but to give something a renewed life takes effort and care and that useful thing will in the end break down beyond recognition. Transparencies of our wedding need to be given a new lease of life, converting to a digital format, but at some point this format, this ‘life’ will end too. Ultimately, however, it is the ‘core’ of us, our soul in relationship with God, known in this earthly life in the person of Jesus, that can know immortality.
Life is not fatal !
Leading up to the tenth anniversary of the London bombings on 7/7 in 2005 I returned to my reflections of 2009 (read here) for a sermon – challenging the temptation after such events to ‘get things back to normal’, hiding them away rather than allowing ourselves to engage with a motivation to change the world in which we live for the better. This inevitably has something to do with engaging with what God is doing through us and around us.
I was then surprised to learn that my eldest daughter had, at some point, observed that I never talked about the events of that day and that they had clearly changed me. I wonder if I have ‘buried’ my experiences and, if so, has the change in me been for the better?
There are two reasons, I reflect, why I do not share the experience of that day easily. Firstly, it is enough to experience such horrors (even from a ‘safe’ distance of a few yards) without then inflicting others with the reality. Secondly, I have not had the tragedy of losing a relative or friend and there is a sense that it is not my grief to share. However, I do have my own experience and memory of that day and I know that I should not ignore it or shut it away, as of no significance.
Last night Judy and I watched, rather tearfully, ‘A Song for Jenny’, a dramatisation of the experience of one victim’s family. A number of things stay with me:
Grief found a voice in a number of ways and was certainly not suppressed. Julie Williamson, Jenny’s mum and an Anglican priest, screaming and throwing things while others worried over domestic arrangements for the dog. A desire to know every detail it was possible to know about how and why Jenny died and thus to share in her pain and death. The recitation in the funeral service of literature that was significant for Jenny – a sharing of her life and passions. There was no ‘hiding away’ in these.
Faith also had a significant part, despite the understandable doubts that such horrific tragedy brings. Julie feels that she must see the photographs that investigators have taken cataloguing Jenny’s death. They are for Julie ‘the stations of Jenny’s cross and I as her mother must share them’.
Visiting the Chapel of Rest Julie, as both mother and priest, anoints her daughter. She cannot recall the liturgical words, but rehearses the various ways in which, as mother, she has anointed the life of Jenny, ultimately commending her to God.
Grief is very personal but should not, because of that, be closeted away. We may express it in a wide variety of ways and each is our way of sharing the suffering, of marking the Stations of the Cross. This description helps me to understand that I share Christ’s suffering while he shares mine. I trust too that the fruits of ‘resurrection’ will be real too!
This jovial fellow decorates the vegetable garden at Baddesley Clinton (a NT property) and easily catches the eye. The bright colours, the flower in the hat, the broad smile and the open welcoming arms all carry a clear message – but it is hardly the ‘clear off!’ that scarecrows are supposed to say.
It prompts the question about ‘calling’. What is it that God is calling us, as individuals, to be and to do?
Often, like the scarecrow, what God asks of us does not seem to fit with our obvious, presenting, abilities. For myself, with a career in art education and a love for creating, but not the academic life, I discovered myself back at college training for ministry in the Church. Creative gifts have found a place within this ministry, but the craftsman covered in clay would not be recognised by many as the minister in his cassock!
So, what might this mean for you who are reading this? Well, simply sensing the promptings of God’s Spirit – often found in the things that challenge us and urge our action, as well as in the insights others have regarding your particular gifts.
Once the visitors have left the vegetable garden the scarecrow, no doubt, discovers his true calling. It is not the arms of welcome but a loud ‘clear off!’ to the birds.
A holiday Sunday found me in Warwick to discover a Food Fayre taking place. Crepes to buffalo burgers, Thai to cupcakes, artisan bread to pulled lamb baps and much else all served to indicate how interdependent we are around our world for the basics for living.
The crowds filling the square contrasted with the numbers that would have been in church. Those leaving after worship seemed happy enough, but it seemed so insular compared with the crowds in the square. How do we make the connection between one and the other – after all the crowds were certainly celebrating God’s gifts and his sustenance of human life.
I wonder if the church might have a presence in such events as this, simply encouraging people to reflect on the goodness of God – through leaflets, displays, music, conversation? The briefest reflection in people’s minds becomes a moment of worship!
In Solihull the Jazz Festival was creating energy and crowds while church folk were closeted away celebrating Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Yet, was not the Spirit present in Mell Square, offering creativity and joy? Again, how might a connection be made – after all Christian living is not too far removed from playing jazz!?
(another reflection ‘I think God likes jazz’ can be read here)
A chance encounter at the Bloomsbury Festival some years ago encourages some reflection on perspectives.
The size bit is obvious. I can’t imagine what the toddler thought of this encounter, when I am sure ordinary sized adults seem large enough! For most of us it is the ‘human scale’ that we live with. We cope with ourselves as individuals and our families, friends and colleagues, but even then often struggle with seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint. An even broader perspective becomes more difficult.
The recent referendum in Scotland highlighted that in one nation it is hard to grasp the perspective of another and then many others have wondered if the view from Westminster includes anywhere other than London or the South-East, yet all are part of the United Kingdom. We find ourselves confronted by complex political issues which, while affecting the lives of individuals, seem too vast to get our heads around.
The matter of age or generation is also illustrated. Here is another aspect of human relationships where understanding between one and another often seems impossible. It might be described as youth and wisdom, but sometimes one wonders where wisdom is truly to be found.
The other obvious element in the illustrated encounter is that of reality. It is not easy for the very young who absorb fairy stories and Disney films rather quicker than right and wrong. Even for the ‘grown ups’ who are meant to know better life is often lived in ways that are not very grounded. There are many realities that we turn a blind eye to for the sake of an easier existence.
The toddler in the photo is trying to make sense of their world. It is a task that perhaps we never fulfil. From a Christian viewpoint we bring the God who is known in Jesus Christ into the picture. We catch a glimpse of the loving purpose that brought all into existence at the outset. We learn that the way things are can be changed through a sense of justice and an acceptance of forgiveness. We are invited to enter a relationship that will last for eternity and not just the moment. Making sense of life and the world involves being honest about ourselves, taking others seriously and exploring who and how God is – in order than we can know and love each. Length, breadth and height give us the perspectives to make visual sense. Me, you and God give us the perspectives to make spiritual sense.
Preparing a Harvest Festival service coupled with baptisms has led to thoughts around fresh starts. The tendency is to think of harvest as the end of the year for the farming community, but in reality the cycle continues. Preparations are already in hand for the next year’s crops and so on … Life in general can often feel the same. ‘What goes around come around.’ is a common saying and even an opportunity for a fresh start like the New Year, with half-hearted resolutions, carries little hope of significant changes coming about. And life is full of new beginnings – starting school, change in job, marriage, new home, retirement etc. – but human nature remains stubbornly similar before and after.
Another fresh start can come when we are forgiven for something we have done. The future can be different, unencumbered by guilt. This is where a faith in Jesus Christ finds its significance. If a Christian life was just about following his example or teaching, then human nature will likely make it a mockery. But at the heart of what Jesus is about is God’s love and forgiveness and there lies the opportunity for real change and a meaningful fresh start.
Baptism is the mark of grasping this God-given opportunity. The water indicates a washing away of the past and, while human nature might easily draw us back into the cycle of ‘what goes around comes around’, Baptism is also about openness to the Holy Spirit, the power of God within to overcome our natural inclinations.