The smallest word……

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There is no doubt in my mind that we live a wordy culture – every time I turn on the  media I am caught in  avalanche of words from pundits who seem to simply repeat the nostrums of the day and usually end up chasing their tails (or should that be ‘tales’?). Whilst this may not be an actual case of logorrhea it can be disconcerting as I try to navigate my way through all the words to find the ones that matter.

As someone who enjoys writing I think that words and language are vitally important, even though body language is useful, words remain one of our primary means of communication – as recent debates about racism and sexism heat up we are reminded that it matters what words you use and how you use them. The late playwright Dennis Potter once commented;”The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they have been in”. This is a cautionary comment, especially where religious words are concerned!

Yet although the stories that cluster around this season are full of words, it is the smallest word of all that starts everything rolling. This is Mary’s ‘yes’ in her response to the vision she received in her kitchen – this deceptively small word unlocks a season’s worth of mysteries. Like the response to a proposal of marriage, this word begins a new relationship, dare I say it, between the divine and human experience. In a sense it does not really matter how this experience was written up – the essential thing is what happened because of Mary’s willingness to give herself to this ‘new thing’ that God was attempting. I think it is fascinating that whenever God wants to try something new, it takes human involvement to bring it to fruition. And this story (and Mary’s deep question; “How can this be?”) turns on this small word that signals a huge gesture of willingness and sacrifice.

The writer Margaret Silf puts it this way in her book ‘Lighted Windows’; “As we pause alongside Mary at the moment of Jesus conception, we are witnessing the moment when God’s idea has come to its time. Life itself is God’s idea, when this Christ child is given to us to bring life in all its fullness……Nothing on earth can stop the fulfilling of God’s idea, now that Mary has said her ‘Yes’. The divine revolution is under way!”.

As we all pause on the cusp of this holy season may we know the power of words to begin something new as well as to assure us hopefully that good things will continue – may we watch what we say, learning afresh the power of even the smallest words. And may we find time to look for that Word made flesh who waits silently at the edge of our celebrations to be spoken into life and to bring light and hope.

Happy Christmas!!!

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(Margaret Silf’s immensely valuable book ‘Lighted Windows – An Advent Calendar for a World in Waiting’ is published in the UK by the Bible Reading Fellowship).

Myths, Stories and Facts?

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About 12 months ago I wrote a post called ‘Print the Legend’ based on a line from the climax of John Ford’s film ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’; “when the legend becomes fact print the legend”. The post was really about the seasons of Advent and Christmas and was a comment on the way that myth, legend and fact collide in the biblical materials that are invariably used in this season. This thought returned recently when I came home from hearing a sermon in which the preacher made the assertion that the prophet Isaiah was writing about Jesus when he records a dialogue between himself and a frightened king deeply worried about the threat of foreign invasion; “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and she shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7; 14 RSV). In some circles these are very contentious words, mainly due to the way that ‘young woman’ is translated and I discovered this week that when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published American Conservative Christians were outraged that the word ‘virgin’ had not been used – a word which is only one of the three possible translations of the word in the original text!

Isaiah’s words make it clear that he was addressing a political situation in his own day – prophets did not have crystal balls, the divine inspiration they received made them adept at reading the signs of their times. Matthew’s use of these words in his gospel come from the convictions of his role and the community he was writing for. Now this might seem like academic hair splitting but to draw a straight line from Isaiah’s day to Matthew’s very different circumstances may well please believers of a particular persuasion but, in my opinion, it diminishes the richness of scripture and the conversations going on within this book.

Why is this is important? Well, if the last sentence of the previous paragraph were not enough, it is important because Christmas brings into focus the strange mix of myth, stories and facts that we find in the bible generally and in the nativity stories in particular. Unfortunately, for some the word ‘myth’ means something that is untrue, but as C.S. Lewis writes in his essay ‘Myth Became Fact’ (1944); “Human intellect is incurably abstract. Pure mathematics is a type of successful thought. Yet the only realities we experience are concrete”. Lewis suggests that myth addresses the tension between thinking and about things and actually experiencing them;“In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction”. I think that what Lewis is suggesting here is that stories work where ‘actuality’ does not. In my experience I have heard many well meaning Christians tie themselves in all sorts of knots trying to ‘prove’ that, for instance, Adam and Eve actually existed instead of recognising that the power of their story comes from the fact that this is a story with a powerful and abiding message.

But Lewis goes further; “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact”, and “I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths”. (my emphasis).

As I wrote a few days ago, I accept the mythical aspects of these stories and I believe that they spring from a strong historical core but the sheer mystery of these stories is too important to be explained away as ‘just a fact’, or even as ‘historical truth’. Luke, in particular, wrote about experience lived and then remembered – two things that are often subtly different but equally valid. Lewis writes of the “imaginative welcome” we should offer these stories. As I have written before I believe this is the only way to make the stories live in our own imaginations. To do this we need both the gifts and insights of the biblical scholar and the storyteller – one without the other would be useless and perhaps less attractive to everyone.

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(Perhaps I should have subtitled this post ‘An Approach to Christmas’. C.S Lewis’ elegant essay (printed in a book of theological essays called ‘God In The Dock’) has helped me a great deal in my reading of the stories this year, as has the suggestion of Gerald O’Collins writing on the ‘virginal conception’ in his great book on Christology; “Yet why should we rule out the the possibility of our being confronted with an historical truth (the bodily reality of the virginal conception) which yielded and yields a great depth of symbolic interpretation?”. This year I have also gained a great deal of insight from Geza Vermes’ book simply called ‘The Nativity’. There is much more here…..for further thoughts and perhaps more posts!!). 

 

Christmas Echoes.

Today has been a particularly wet and stormy day and, as I was travelling home on the bus I passed a group of workmen trying to erect a Christmas tree in the car park of a shopping centre. They were doing this work in the teeth of the wind and rain. Although the tree was up and standing tall, the lights were proving to be a slight problem as they blew around in the wind. As the bus had stopped to admit more drenched shoppers a thought occurred to me; Christmas is often celebrated against the odds. It may not be wind and rain but this midwinter feast brings light into the darkness whether it be the person I spoke to a couple of days ago who couldn’t stand all the fuss and who suggested he would be happier when it was all over, or the children living in a refugee camp in Greece that was built for 2,000 people and currently houses ten times that number. Many of them may not be Christians but they are surrounded by those seeking to show compassion to them and to help them in some small way – surely that is what the feast of Christ is all about!

Television adverts paint an idyllic picture of ideal families around the family board – everything is ready and prepared on time – but the reality is often quite different as family gatherings can be a time of real tension and unresolved difficulties. And what about those who have no home this Christmas, and no family to bicker with and to eventually realise that love is what holds our difference together until they can be healed? The truth is that if you want to be ready on time you never will be, and the perfect Christmas only exists in the minds of advertisers.

And yet, in a culture which has mostly turned its back on ‘organised religion’ (anyone who has ever been involved in the church to any degree will know what an oxymoron that is!) what I call ‘echoes’ of Christmas remain. They are sometimes very faint and sometimes twisted out of shape but they remain. I believe that is because this season is above all about light (or lights) breaking into the darkness and shining bright despite all the odds and all evidence to the contrary. So wherever there are acts of kindness and compassion, Christmas is there. Wherever strangers are made welcome and those on the edge of things are valued and accepted, Christmas is there. And wherever the light breaks in and scatters the darkness, Christmas is there.

Christmas can be a time of cliche – we see the films and hear the stories and the same things come up year after year. But this repetition is never boring because something new is always there to be discovered. It may be a line on a carol, or a scene in a film that brings a lump to the throat, or that familiar thing you do every year that is suddenly charged with a new immediacy and a new perspective breaks in. Some of the very familiar words that will appear again this year come from the gospel according to John. This mature reflection on what some call the ‘Christ event’ reads like this;

“All things came into being through him (the Word), and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.

Against all the odds, and in spite of all the rotten things that go unchallenged every day, the light has come and nothing can put it out. It may be blown about by the winds of circumstance (or the fiery Northern Irish weather!) but it shines on drawing all people of good conscience towards its glow. To mix my metaphors, the echoes are resounding all around us, the question is whether we can hear them through all the static surrounding us in these days above all.

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My Desert Island Discs.

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Like most interesting and long running radio programmes the conceit of Desert Island Discs on the BBC is remarkably simple. Someone in public life is invited to chose eight records that they would take to an imaginary desert island; they are also given books like the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, and are asked to choose a luxury that must be of no practical use. This format has been running in the same format since 1949 which is surely a testament to its popularity and longevity.

As I have written before my daughter Rebecca gave me a list of possible subjects for blog posts and she suggested that I write about my Desert Island Discs – this is by no means and exhaustive list and  have written about some this music before, so here goes;

  1. The Laughing Policeman by Charles Penrose; One of the highlights of my early life was a radio programme called ‘Junior Choice’ – in its early days it specialised in what might be called novelty records (in the 1960’s the format changed and started to include current chart records) but I remember this song with affection. I could have chosen a song about mice in a windmill in Old Amsterdam, or pink toothbrushes, or ugly ducklings but Charles Penrose’s bravura performance and the jazzy background make this a real treat. Many memories of listening to the radio on a Saturday morning in the long ago.
  2. Twist and Shout by The Beatles; again memories of singing in front of a mirror with a tennis racket standing for a guitar – even though I love the ‘later’ Beatles this record is a good example of the raw excitement they had in spades in those days.
  3. I’ve Got You Under My Skin by Frank Sinatra; The Beatles upstairs and the Voice downstairs – this record (and many others by Sinatra) reminds me of my dad, and my bad grace in dismissing and artist of his stature in the way that only teenagers kick over the traces and reject their parents. A great chart by Nelson Riddle, a storming (and unaccredited) trombone solo and Sinatra’s voice, an unbeatable combination!
  4. Make My Day by Labi Siffre; first love – or so I thought – still a great record that reminds me of the 1970’s and the ‘anguished’ singer songwriter phase – But Labi is much more than that!
  5. Tinseltown in the Rain by The Blue Nile; this song always reminds me of meeting my wife Heather. I have recounted somewhere else how I thought they were from Australia (still don’t why!), and Heather pointed out that they were from Scotland! I played this song and the album it came from (‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’) constantly during the first months of our relationship. The Nile have only made four records and there isn’t a dud among them. And Paul Buchanan’s voice……
  6. Quiet City by Aaron Copland; catching this piece on late night radio is an experience I have written about before and this remains one of the most moving pieces of classical music I have ever heard.
  7. Carry On by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; another song I keep coming back to for its positive lyrics and those voices!!
  8. Creation Dream by Bruce Cockburn; my favourite singer, songwriter, guitarist reflects on the act of creation and the Genesis poem from the Hebrew scriptures. Bruce’s songs mean a great deal to me and it was hard to choose just one. I consider him a fellow pilgrim along the road.
  9. Cello Suite No. 1 by Johann Sebastian Bach; more moving music – I read somewhere that Bach was writing these suites when he was travelling with his patron and he learned that his wife had died and he arrived home to find her already buried. I find that the cello mixes sadness with exultation and that singular genius – marvellous music described by one critic as “a dance with God”.
  10. The Man in the Green Shirt by Weather Report; again, as I written here before I came into jazz through what was called ‘jazz rock’ or ‘fusion’. WR were the most intelligent practitioners, improvising all the time. I thought that the title was about some Graham Greene – ish character in a tropical thriller, but it is an homage to trumpeter Miles Davis who wore a green shirt on the cover of his album ‘Milestones’. This one of the most joyous pieces of music you are likely to hear!!

So two more than people are usually allowed, don’t ask me to pick one because I can’t – there were many other songs I could have chosen, but any choice is invariably a snapshot – goodness knows what I would do if I was ever invited onto the programme!! Some hopes………

What Does Christmas Mean?

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I am writing this on the eleventh day of December and approaching the third Sunday in Advent, here in the United Kingdom we are on the edge of a General Election tomorrow but the thing that is on most people’s minds is Christmas. The shops glow brightly in their efforts to make us buy more and more and we have Black Friday and Cyber Monday but actually the most important day of this month is Christmas day; a day upon which people will (hopefully) feel better disposed to others and especially those who have very little. Families will gather too and be together to celebrate and past memories will collide with present realities and hopefully the result will be light and joy.

But a question remains; what does it all mean? Where does all this light and joy come from and why is this season different from all the others? It is actually quite sobering to remember that this is the feast of Christ, the ‘mass’ of ‘Christ’ – you do not have to be a Christian to appreciate Christmas but the origins of this feast lie deep in history and tradition. Whether you see the biblical stories as a strange mix of myth, story and history or believe that they describe actual events there are strange resonances here. The Christ child may be suspiciously absent from adverts and the general atmosphere but a proper understanding of this feast begins and ends with a birth and the life that followed it.

Even though I have spent years reading about Christmas, preaching about it and leading bible studies on the two accounts from the gospels I cannot get over the sheer weirdness of this conceit. The church may have altered many of the details (like the date of the birth to correspond with the festival of Saturnalia) but I remain convinced that there is a core of historical reality at the heart of these stories. In my opinion this is quite separate from the way the narratives have been crafted – and crafted they are. Matthew and Luke are supremely talented creative artists and the narratives are a mix of theological history, myth and tradition because that is the way that stories are always told. But at the heart of all this lies an astounding claim, as the poet John Betjeman put it;

“No love that in a family dwells,

No carolling in frosty air,

Nor all the steeple shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare –

That God was Man in Palestine

And lives today in Bread and Wine”

Of course this is a reflection that comes from the poet’s Christian faith and I remain convinced that faith is the key to understanding these stories. Any storyteller will say that in order to truly hear a story you have to open yourself to it, embracing the possibilities it offers. And even the most fanciful story carries a potentially life changing truth. Matthew and Luke’s stories are not propaganda (even though that is the way they have often been used through the years!), they are stories told from faith the summon faith up. If only we could extricate them from this toxic use we might rediscover them afresh and marvel at their audacity and parabolic significance.

There is a sense (referred to in some carols) that unless Christ is born in us then the stories remain stories, when Philips Brooks wrote these words he was reciting an important truth;

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem,

descend to us we pray;

cast out our sin, and enter in;

be born in us today”

I think that this is the essence of Christmas; to let these stories change us – it does not mean that we all become convinced Christians overnight but that their wonder, love and grace make us more compassionate and more open to the true value of very human being.

Finally, I find myself enchanted by the conceit that divine purpose depends on those who are small and insignificant in the eyes of the world. Luke’s version, in particular, is full of people like that, people who are easily written off but who actually are of immeasurable importance. And at the heart of the story is a baby, weak and vulnerable, and as much as we want to fast forward to what he did when he grew up Christmas will not allow that – it simply asks us to listen to and enter into the stories and open ourselves to their message and have faith that a better world is possible. As the photograph above suggests Christmas is always a journey towards the light, it is, as G.K. Chesterton suggests “a door set open” from his poem ‘Xmas Day’;

“Good news: but if you ask me what it is, I know not;

It is a track of feet in the snow,

It is lantern showing a path,

It is a door set open”

And more from the sage of Beaconsfield to end this open ended post; this is from his poem ‘Gloria in Profundis’;

“Glory to God in the Lowest

The spout of stars in spate –

Where the thunderbolt thinks to be slowest

And the lightning fears to be late:

As men dive for a sunken gem

Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,

The fallen star that has found it

In the cavern of Bethlehem”.

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(John Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas’ is well anthologised, Christmas carols are everywhere, as are readings from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. G.K. Chesterton’s poems are found in ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ selected by Marie Smith in 1984. I turn to this valuable volume every year at this time).

The Unknown Christ.

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“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside; he came to those men who did not know who he was. He says the same words ‘Follow me!’, and sets us to those tasks which he must fulfil in our time. He commands. And to those who hearken to him, whether wise or unwise, he will reveal himself in the peace, the labours, the conflicts and the suffering that they may experience in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery they will learn who he is…….” (Albert Schweitzer ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’ p. 487).

 It may seem perverse to begin this reflection with such a deep theological statement but Christmas is a deep theological statement so I make no apology!! Once I saw a magazine article entitled; ‘150 ways to a relaxing Xmas’. Christmas spelt with an ‘X’, is it an aberration or a symptom of the commercialisation and secularisation we see all around us? Those people who talk about recapturing the ‘real’ Christmas should be careful! It is easy to forget the pagan roots of this season and how Christians adopted and adapted the feast of the winter solstice to their own purposes. But the ‘X’ is useful as it reminds us that, in Schweitzer’s words, Christ comes to us ‘as one unknown’. ‘X’ is the unknown factor and it also marks the spot where God enters his creation. As the hymn reminds us; `For lo! The world’s Creator wears/ The fashion of a slave: / Our human flesh the Godhead bears/ His creature, man, to save` (from Hymns and Psalms 99). ‘X’ is also a symbol for Christ from the first letter of the Greek version of his name.

So what does all this mean for us as we celebrate yet another Christmas? If ‘X’ is unknown and Christ comes to us as one unknown we have to be permanently ready for his coming. We need the vision to look beyond the tinsel and the glitter and anything that obscures his coming. This will take a great deal of courage because the diversions are so beguiling and seductive. Like the Greek hero Odysseus tying himself to the mast of his ship to escape the siren’s song, we will have to bind ourselves to the solid fact of Christ’s coming and presence and be deaf to the racket of the Christmas machine. Then we have to remind ourselves of the importance of that which is small and insignificant. From the small components in our machines to the tiny cells that ensure our health and welfare to the ‘little Lord Jesus’ who comes to reveal the purposes of God, Christmas is about the small and the powerless interfering with the purposes of the powerful. It is truly a radical and subversive season! Finally we have to be ready to look for Christ in the unexpected places. Not in the palaces of the powerful or in the policies of governments but in the people on the margins. God could have entered human history with all the symbols and trappings of divine power but he chose to come as a dependent, vulnerable child. He may come among us as one unknown but, as Schweitzer again reminds us he can be discovered in the efforts we make to live in his way and accomplish his purposes. As the theologian William Willimon puts it; “Then this stranger comes to us, blesses us with a gift, and calls us to see ourselves as we really are – empty handed recipients of a gracious God who, rather than leave us to our own devices, gave us a baby” (from ‘The God we Hardly Knew’ in ‘Watch For The Light’ from Plough Publishing).

“So the word of God became a human being and lived among us” J. B. Philips.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s son, full of grace and truth”. John 1; 14 (from the New Revised Standard Version).

A Meditation.

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God is there,

Where the words end

And the language runs out.

 

God is there,

When the new day rises free,

When the sun splits the sky

Into a thousand shining pieces.

 

God is there,

When the trees cover their heads

Against the artillery of the sky.

 

God is there,

On the edge of my vision,

Balanced and waiting

Daring fresh discoveries.

 

God is there,

When windscreens fuse the flash

Of the seeding sun

Into slow motion action.

 

God is there,

When the world breaks into bloody pieces,

Where sweet grace breaks in

With a shout.

 

Over the last few months I have been revisiting a spiral bound notebook containing poems that I wrote in the 1980’s – whilst I have recently come back to writing poetry these early poems were, I felt, ripe for reconsideration. Thanks to Ted and Janet for sending me a copy of some poems I gave them when they were first married, they provided the encouragement to go back to this writing and take another look at it.

Recently I have been reading Richard Rohr’s book ‘The Universal Christ’ (SPCK 2019) and this passage took me back to this meditation written so long ago; “Everything visible, without exception, is an outpouring of God. What else could it be? ‘Christ’is a word for the Primordial Template (“Logos”) through whom ” all things came into being, and not one thing had its being except through him” (John 1: 3). Seeing in this way has re-framed, re-energised and broadened my religious belief, and I believe it could be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world religions”.

I was glad to find Rahul’s photo – it reminds me that in these dark days “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.