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  • Christmas Day Thoughts

    I hadn't intended to post today but it has been a day that has made me pause and think, so it seemed good to record it before it slipped into obscurity.

    Last night's Christingle service was attended by 216 people - I know this because the Anglicans head count every service that takes place on their premises.  It was amazing to see people with no church connection streaming in and enjoying themselves.  We done good!  This morning there were 66 (the Meths are into head counting too!) with a few folk we didn't know among the familiar church folk and 'oncers.'  The service went well, fitted together and seemed to connect with people.

    One of the 'lighter' introductory bits was an activity where by someone placed lots of items that are associated with Christmas in front of the nativity scene - a visual expression of how the spiritual heart of the season can be obscured by activities and things.  What made it powerful was that the person doing it was in his early fifties and his wife died three months ago; one of the items he chose to use was a family photo, taken a couple of years back, of them plus their five children on holiday.  It happened - whether by design or chance - that from where I was sitting the photo obscured the manger; powerful and poignant.  A brave thing to have done - and he did amazingly well to get through it.

    Brave was the word people used to describe my talk too.  I'm not so sure it was much that it was brave as that it was right!  I sensed a change in atmosphere as I spoke - in a good way I hope - as people shifted from fluffy jollity to a more honest thoughtfulness.  One person's mother was in hospital, several had been bereaved, one works for Zavvi and another for Jaguar - it was a God-given moment and I think it connected.

    After the service I visited someone just released from hospital, and then taxi-ed a seventy something spinster for lunch out.  She is what once would have been termed 'a bit simple' - good-hearted, easy-going and vulnerable.  She told me how she'd worked as nursing auxiliary all her life and how she wasn't clever but she was famous.  Seemingly at an age somewhere between three and six (age and year didn't stack up) she had been the only child to survive a local outbreak of meningitis (probably the cause of her mild learning difficulties).  I was reminded of Herod and the slaughter of innocents, of the present day fear that disease brings, and of the countless children in the two-thirds world who die of dread diseases.

    I visited the city hospital where one of my church folk is enduring endless tests which, so far, have failed to uncover any cause - apart from age - for his rapidly declining health and the father of another member is being treated and undergoing tests following a recent emergency admission.  Both were glad to be visited, and both were pleased to be prayed with.  As I walked out of the building to return to the car park, I heard the sound of a trolley, and turned to see the mortuary trolley making its way towards the wards: for some families Christmas Day ends only in tears.

    Tonight many of my congregation - and those in other congregations locally - will be glad simply to have got through the day.  For me, I am glad to have shared in some small way in making today honest and God-aware.  In a good way, it will be the two silent figures pushing a black shrouded trolley in the still, near silent darkness of a December evening that will stay with me as reminder of Christmas 2008 - cradle and cross, life and death, time and eternity: only ever a hair's breadth apart.

  • Liturgical Sensitivity?

    When I was learning to be a minister... No that's not right, I'm always learning to be a minister...  When I was at 'vicar school' I spent a year working with an Anglican who described me as being 'liturgically sensitive' by which she meant I had an understanding of the liturgical year, knew the how and why of liturgical colours and had grasped something of the multisensory aspects of Anglican rituals.  The next year I worked with an RC priest who took dressing the church, and dressing himself, for worship very seriously.  Some of the RC rituals are visually incredibly powerful, and something obviously stuck with me, as I make quite a point of 'dressing' worship spaces and for special services think carefully about how what I wear (as well as what I say and do) relates to the occasion.

    Good Friday in Dibley is a case in point - the Anglicans, of course, robe, whilst the Methodist minister and I wear our 'funeral suits,' he with a black clerical shirt, I with a violet tee shirt (Lenten/penitential colour).  On Easter Sunday he will wear a pale shirt and I usually my red suit.  The contrast is often noted by congregation members, so it presumably is effective.

    Pentecost is another 'red suit day' as is Christmas day and any other great festivals we may have along the way.

    Last Sunday was red suit and Santa hat - because it is a fun outreach service, and it needs to say we are inclusive not exclusive.  Today is our Christingle service for which my liturgical attire inevitably includes some tinsel, for no better reason than it's fun; probably today it will be the green suit (no, not liturgical 'ordinariness' it's Christmas tree colour!!).

    All this is probably not very 'Baptist' is it?  I mean, jeans and a jumper would be more typical these days.  Also, as I struggle with the kind of incarnate iconography that accompanies some understandings of priesthood, am I just capitulating (and have clearly swallowed a dictionary this morning)?  I think not.  I think what I'm doing is saying that there are time and places when the visual speaks as much as the audible, and that attention to detail matters.  if that constitutes liturgical sensitivity, then I'm happy to embrace it.

  • Christmas 2008

    This morning I am doing the last bits of preparation Christmas services - prayers for the Christingle and the 'talk' for Christmas Day.  Once printed off that's more or less it for this year.

    2008 has been a very tough one for my little church and, in some small measure, we are fairly typical of what is going on around us.  Lots of bereavement, lots of complex and painful family circumstances, people uncertain about employment into 2009 and the impact of the downturn on property prices (though we have now almost completed selling our building).  To give a saccharine sermon on Christmas Day would be to betray the reality of my people, and of those who we will meet with, so my 'talk' will anything but.

    This blog acts in some measure as a kind of pastoral narrative, so to end 2008, I am going to post here the text of what I intend to say on Christmas Day.  I know that, for me, Christmas Day will include hospital visiting, taxi-ing lonely people to lunch out and supoprting anxious and sad memebrs of my church.  I also know that in the reality the  God who has come, who is coming, who will come again, is with me, and for that I am thankful.

    Hope yours is a blessed Christmas and your New Year filled with hope.

    We began our service by singing ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ – and we are faithful aren’t we – we are here, rather than at home drinking tea, cooking dinner or playing with our new toys. There is a sense in which can feel quietly pleased with ourselves, because we have taken the time to come to church, to focus on Jesus – to do the right thing.

    We have enjoyed opening our presents – privately a home, and here among friends and neighbours. And even as we play the game of piling all the other things on top of the nativity scene, we all know the answer to the question ‘what’s the most important thing about Christmas’ – we know it’s Jesus. But, even as we know why it is we are here, might it not be true that there have been moments when our minds wandered to other things? Did we get enough Brussels sprouts? Will auntie Maud be ready when we go to collect her for dinner? Have we set the DVD recorder (or HDD if you’re really posh!) for that must see film?

    We know all the right answers, because we’ve been here so many times before, and yet we still get caught up in all the busyness of preparing for a happy, jolly Christmas. Somehow, all the tinsel, all the turkey – roasted, in sandwiches, in pies, curried, and soon – all the trimmings pile up and hide reality.

    And this happens at many levels. Christmas can be a very stressful time as people find themselves thrown together for days on end, out of routine, often with poor weather, too much food and too much alcohol. Arguments, relationship breakdown and even violence increase in this season of ‘goodwill and peace for all.’

    For some people Christmas is a sad or lonely time, one that is hard to face because there will an empty place at the table, a name missing from the cards. For others it is an anxious time as they await the results of medical tests or sit by the bed of a loved one at home or in hospital.

    This year thousands of people finished work for Christmas not knowing if there will be a job to go back to in January. 27,000 Woolworth’s employees will be unemployed. Staff of Jaguar, Vauxhall and Whittards must wait and wonder. From bankers to builders, butchers to small businesses, the future is far from clear.

    Nation-wide and world-wide the situation is repeated. And the temptation at Christmas is to cover it all up. It reminds me of those jolly sticking plasters you can get for children with cartoon characters printed on them. Mr Bump smiles at you or some superhero tells you how brave you are, and all is false jollity when underneath it hurts like crazy.

    This Christmas is not an easy one for many people in our community, and I would be failing in my responsibilities if I simply delivered a sugary feel-good talk. Underneath all the glitter and all the jollity, are hurting people, people who need something that is more gritty, more real.

    And this is what lies at the heart of Christmas, this is what gets buried under presents and decorations and food and TV programmes and goodness knows what else. Christmas is about God getting dirty, getting involved directly in the messiness of real human life. Pregnancy is risky, childbirth is risky – especially if it happens in the unhygienic conditions of a first century stable. Being born in an occupied nation with a tyrannical ruler is risky. Speaking against injustice is risky. Preaching a new way of living, offering hope to outcasts, foreigners and sinners is risky.

    Christmas is about God with us, not just for a day, not just a gorgeous newborn boy held by an adoring young mum, but for always and everywhere – in the hospital ward, in the nursing home, in the dole queue, in the homeless shelter or women’s refuge, in the waiting, in the wondering, in the weeping.

    God loved the world so much that, instead of simply putting on a gigantic sticking plaster with a smiley face and the slogan ‘God loves you,’ Jesus came and lived as one of us to heal us with his own lifeblood.

    Life can be incredibly tough – but God is with us. And this is the hope we have, that however bleak life may seem, this God, who cannot be constrained by the glories of heaven offers us hope and joy, a light that shines in the darkest night and cannot be put out. This is what we celebrate, and this is why we are here to rejoice and sing with the angels themselves this Christmas Day – Christ is born, Jesus, our Emmanuel.

  • Angel Highlights!

    In response to David's question - it was great!  Not sure on numbers, lower than last year as no school choir meant no parents, but considerably more Anglicans and some new faces, so definitely quality over quantity.  For all that, we gave away all of our 200 angel notebooks by getting people to take extras to pass on to family and friends.

    Here are my editted highlights (names have been changed) ....

    • The fantastic attention to detail - hand made angel-table centres, home-cooked pastries and cakes, both rooms laid out beautifully, smiling greeters and smooth delivery of everything that we did
    • Elsie, who lives literally across the road from school but who can no longer walk more than a few steps who was thrilled that I collected her by car
    • Similarly, Ernest and Patience, who could not stop thanking me for booking them a taxi each way from the far side of Dibley (whilst, alas, one of their fellow passengers moaned that the taxi was 2 minutes late and, being an 8-seater, was tricky to get into!).  Got a surprise Christmas kiss from Ernest who, at 92 is a rather crusty Gideon who doesn't do emotion - don't tell ministries dept!!
    • The coach driver deciding to stay for tea and the service - and then helping to give away the angel notebooks (and sticking a 'fallen angel' onto his tie!)
    • The presence of Mary and Ruth, both bereaved in the last few weeks, and especially Ruth's husband Tony who 'doesn't do church'
    • Seeing people there who have no other church connection, some for whom I'd done funerals, some for whom Christmas is very difficult
    • Seeing all three traditions participating fully in the service rather than the usual two
    • People's delighted giving to the offering for the local children's hospice

    Of course there were a few grumbles, some poeple love to moan it seems, but overall it was a great evening.  When I said 'goodnight' to the school caretaker, handed him some home-made mince pies and left a school tidier than we'd found it, I was tired but content that we had indeed sung with the angels and passed on the message.

  • Angel Voices Ever Singing

    In a couple of hours time I will be loading my car and heading to school to help set up for our tea and community carol service, Sing Like an Angel. The title we stole from Spurgeon's Child care when they weren't looking, and there will be loads of angels - as table centres, on the front of the hand-decorated gift notebooks, in the carols and so on.

    We have around 100 booked in for tea - but how many that might really be is anyone's guess, as lots of people don't book on the basis that 'one more won't matter' and if anyone asks me can they bring a friend/neighbour/relative at the last minute I say yes.  We have a coach and a taxi gathering folk from selected highways and byways to ensure they arrive.  We are borrowing every Methodist and Community Centre stacking chair to supplement ours and the school's (Anglican chairs don't stack, it seems!).  We have two pianists, two sketches and half a dozen Bible readings.  We have a Methodist minister on threat of excommunication if he exceeds five minutes, goes off theme or talks over people's heads, a newly arrived rector who has never been to an unrehearsed service and is mildly panicking - oh and a weird Baptist woman who will be wearing a red suit and a Santa hat.

    Set up starts at 1:30, tea at 4:45, the service at six.  By 9p.m. the school halls will be tidy, the guests will be safe and warm at home, and the members of four smallish churches will be tired but fulfilled, slumped on their settees with horlicks, cocoa, beer or wine!  But the angels will be still be singing and my biggest hope is that the evangel - the good message - will still be ringing in our ears, minds and hearts as we curl up to sleep after a day well spent.