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  • Mean Innkeepers: Myth, Midrash & Mystery

    Recently I was chatting with a minister friend about preparations for Christmas.  She commented on how she had tried to challenge the sanitised view of Christmas of her folk by arranging to hold a service in a barn.  I replied that I had attempted something similar in our newsletter, including pointing out that the innkeeper does not actually appear in the Bible.  She was shocked, surely I was wrong!  Even if he wasn’t there, surely he and his harsh words were clearly implied.  I am not convinced.  We then got into a discussion about Midrash (a concept I’ve never really got to grips with) and tradition and their benefits and weaknesses.


    Mr Mean Innkeeper does not appear in Luke, in fact neither does a stable, an ox, ass, lamb or a glittery roof; all that is recorded is “she gave birth to her firstborn wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” 


    Notwithstanding the truths contained in the “traditional” version of the story, I wondered what the mythical innkeeper might want to say about what really happened that night.  No doubt this is not original and many good creative writers have already done this, but here’s my attempt.


    “You don’t know my name, nor anything about me, but I get the impression you’d probably call me Mike (Mean Inn KEeper) given that the first words you put in my mouth are ‘no room,’ and I try to close the door on a heavily pregnant teenager and her gentle, older-man, partner.  It’d be nice to have the chance to give you my version…


    Bethlehem was heaving, and I mean heaving, every day.  Couples, families, men on their own, old, young, serious, laughing, moaning, healthy, sick… you name it, they came piling in.  We worked our sandals off (socks, you will recall, had not been invented) just to keep up with it all.  But we coped, and somehow, despite it all, I kept my cool.


    It wasn’t easy – all those Roman Health and Safety Rules to comply with, Kosher food only (you always assumed I was a Jewish innkeeper didn’t you?), endless hard work.  And every night all the inns (how ever many you think there were) full to bursting and countless bodies curled up in doorways, under trees, along the roadside.  We packed in as many as we could, but there were always far more.


    So the fateful night came. I was walking through the market when I saw them.  Her already in the early stage of labour, him trying to help, looking for a tree to provide shelter.  I felt for them, went to see if they were alright – did they have far to go back to their family home?  They turned out to be visitors, caught out by her confinement, frightened and alone.  So what else could I do?  I took them home with me. 


    The lower part of the house – what you call a stable – was empty, the sheep were out on the hillside (haven’t you ever read the rest of the story?!), swept clean and already had seen several overnight guests that week.  I settled them in and waited for the ear-splitting cry that would announce a baby’s arrival.


    I feared for his safety, this tiny scrap of humanity, in an inn overflowing with tired, often irritable, travellers, so I suggested they place him in the food trough away from trampling feet and heavy packs.  There was no room in my inn, the storyteller is right, and she did lay him in the manger.


    But was Mike the Mean Innkeeper?  Was it Mike or Michelle?  Was I Jew or gentile?  Kind or cruel?  Young or old?  You have to decide for yourselves.”




    Another thought occurred to me while writing this – there is nothing to say where the manger was, presumably it could have been out in the open and not in a ‘stable’ at all?  Part of the wonder of the birth narratives is not how much, but how little, they actually say.  Whilst clever scholars discuss myth and Midrash, wide-eyed children retell the story of the Mean Innkeeper, and the ubiquitous ox and ass look on lovingly at a baby who never cries, I continue to marvel at the new discoveries waiting for us when we start to read what the Bible actually says.  Mike the Innkeeper is a figment of my imagination but maybe he, too, has his place in the mystery and magic of Christmas?

  • Child of Africa - Home Grown Wristbands

    Anyone who reads this stuff will know that my congregation has had a high speed version of the Christian Aid Child of Africa advent material.  When I was working with the story of Edouard, I hit on the idea of using ordinary rubber bands as 'wristbands' that folk could use for one week only to remind them of children (and adults) whose lives are lived in poverty.  Sadly the bands I had were a bit small - OK for my relatively slim wrists but not for the larger ones; also I was a little concerned about the fragile skin of older folk.  In the end I suggested that people put the band around their purse or wallet, or on a pen or pencil - something they would use each day - so that they would see the band and be reminded.

    I'm not entirely sure it worked - two people left the building saying 'look I've found a use for that band you gave me' - but at least it tapped into contemporary culture (several of my folk have well bangled wrists in rainbow hues) and I've found it helpful.

  • Rocket Man Reviewed

    It was hardly rocket science, but the recent BBC 1 serial Rocket Man seemed to me to successfully combine many elements, and many levels of interpretation under the guise of warm, funny, feel good, family viewing.  Ideal Sunday evening ‘blob-out’ viewing and at the same time, for me anyway, thought provoking.


    The basic plot line was the well-travelled route of downtrodden skilled craftsmen triumphing over adversity but the bye ways of teenage dreams and relationships, infertility, depression, bereavement, literacy difficulties, kitchen sink science (literally in the final episode), community spirit, letting go and moving on all added depth and richness without it degenerating into the gloom and despond of the average British soap.  Whilst the story had a happy ending – rocket launched, widower father and children set free to face the future and infertile couple expecting triplets – it wasn’t too neat or contrived, the scrap yard had closed down, the new relationships were tentative, the way ahead was uncharted and perilous…


    The tag line left the way open for a sequel. Personally, I hope there isn’t one. A second series would lose the charm of this warm story of hopes and dreams.  The messiness of real life, with broken dreams and clay-footed heroes combined with the hope of a new start seemed to have echoes of the story we retell every Christmas.  I’m sure the scriptwriter’s intentions and my ‘reading’ were wildly divergent, but it was good in this age of cynicism and pushing the pre-watershed boundaries to experience something my mother would describe as ‘wholesome family entertainment.’

  • Core Competencies

    There has been a lot of talk recently about 'core competencies' for ministers, causing various repsonses among those involved in training, pastoring and employing said persons.  Not long after I left college, one of my former tutors asked if there was anything obvious I hadn't had opportunity to think about whilst at college.  My answer then, and I adhere to it now, was that without being able to see into the future we cannot know what might have been helpful.  It would have been nice not to have had to study the BU guidelines on asbestos during my first year in pastorate, but it hardly features high on the list of training priorities!  My past life skills enabled me to write the ALARP assessment for the insurance company on our low level glass (if you don't understand that, believe me, you don't want to!  If you do, you will appreciate the amusing and ridiculous aspects of risk assessment).  After almost two years in pastorate, I still remind my congregation that I did not study either mind-reading or how to do miracles, but on the whole I think I do a good enough job and was adequately prepared.

    Having read various people's thoughts on this core competency thing, I was reminded of the following which although a few years old, still raises a smile and has a ring of truth...

    The Perfect Minister preaches for exactly 15 minutes - he condemns sin but never upsets anyone.

    She works from 8.00 a.m. until midnight and is also a good caretaker. He receives slightly more than the minimum wage established by the government, pays his taxes, wears good clothes, never looks shabby, keeps his library up to date, entertains regularly, drives a new car and gives £x,ooo a year to the poor and to the congregation.

    She is 28 – 30 years old and has approximately 25 - 30 years experience in the ministry.

    He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens.

    The Perfect Minister smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humour that keeps him seriously dedicated at all times to the work.

    She makes daily calls on church families, shut-ins, and those in hospital.

    He spends all of his time evangelising the un-churched and is always in the office when needed.


    As for the rest of us... well we try (oh yes, I can be very trying!)