Bruce Munro’s Star of Bethlehem

At about this time every December I suffer from an affliction familiar to many preachers: familiarity overload. I find myself with numerous occasions to tell the same story to largely the same group of people. How does one pursue originality without tipping over into novelty? When encouraging other preachers to maintain their communicative health, I encourage them to drink deeply of other people’s creativity to feed their own.

Today, I am indebted to artist Bruce Munro. Charged with creating a Christmas installation at Salisbury Cathedral, he decided to use the existing feature of the ‘Living Font’ and combine it with light. The story of the Magi’s journey is now projected down onto the gently flowing water in morse code. On and on the story cascades, ever reflected in different water as it flows. I am inspired…

And losing the thread

This morning I read an article claiming that the Evangelical Alliance and others had decided to ‘take on’ the advertising might of giants like John Lewis and Sainsburys by producing a Christmas advertisement of their own. The 45-second commercial, which you can see below, is nicely produced and depicts its message with a kind of understated simplicity. However, surely we are kidding ourselves if we think that such a campaign will put the slightest dent in the fender of the commercial juggernaut as it rumbles down the hill towards December 25th, brakes off and engine revving?

Not only that, but isn’t it a mistake to even try? In the final event, Christmas is all about incarnation – making the word and promise and Gospel of God into flesh. The single most effective means of spreading the Christmas message is that which God himself employed, surely?  In other words, those enthused and transformed by the message are the best advert for it.

Of course, the advert below may help them to talk about it, but I am unconvinced. What do you think?

 

 

To Mary…

…a son

I find myself part way through writing a sermon this morning on the conversation between a terrified young girl and an angel.  How quickly an ordinary evening turned into a moment to change eternity.  Been trying to picture the scene:


 

In the little house late Summer is starting to give way to autumn.  Outside, a light breeze shakes the leaves on the olive trees and they hiss and clatter. The smell of cooking fires drifts from one small house to another.  In one of them, a young girl, just a teenager, sweeps the beaten earth floor as shadows lengthen through the open doorway.  Reaching the far corner, she turns back to look at the sinking orb of the sun -and finds it replaced by a brighter light still.

The light takes shape…the shape takes a voice, and the walls of the little house seem to shake as it speaks.  “Greetings to you, o favoured one, the Lord is with you’.  “Isn’t he with all of us”, she wondered “with my father and mother, and my grandmother and all the rest of the family here in the village?  Why should I be greeted like this?”. Words begin to form on her lips – words like how and why and who – but they don’t come out – like shouting in a dream when no voice comes

She grips the broom a little tighter – the roughness of the wood reassuring in this strangest of moments. The voice is speaking again. “Mary”.  “How does it know my name”, she wonders?  The voice goes on to speak about promises of a bygone age; about David and Jacob and thrones and kingdoms and a son to be born.  This is getting scary now.  She looks around her, anxious for someone to break the moment and make it stop.“The son will be born to you”

At this she lowers her eyes and half turns away. She has never known a man – not like that.  What if her mother overheard this…or worse still, her father? His brow would furrow, his heart would break, and the family would be forever clouded by shame.  Good girls don’t do that. “How”, she whispered “how can I”?, eyes still cast down.

This time the voice seems more reassuring – like the warmth of that low sun spilling into the room.  “Elizabeth knows all about this”, it said “she will bear a child too”

Daring to look up again at this, Mary sees only the full glare of the orange sun, filling the doorway as it sets. Feeling its warmth on her face, she feels those last words driving the chill form her heart “Nothing is impossible with God”  Head up once again , she speaks in a clear voice to the now empty room.  “Let it be so. Let it be as you have said”


With that, the  course of history, like a river diverted by a newly placed boulder, begins to chart a different course…

 

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Reflecting on Zechariah and Alfred Delp

Last week I was reflecting on here about the young Roman Catholic priest Alfred Delp, executed by the Nazis in 1945.  His writings on advent, smuggled out of his prison cell in his washing, sing with hope in despair and light in darkness.

Was he fooling himself, though, talking about golden threads, coming harvests and new dawns as he shuffled, handcuffed, the three feet from one side of his cell to the other?  For that matter, was Zechariah fooling himself when he opened his mouth to sing to his new born son after nine months of silence? After all, even if the boy would grow up to point the way to a long-awaited (and as yet unseen) messiah, Zechariah himself would never live to see the day.

Neither was fooling themselves, but Zechariah’s song (Luke 1 v. 68- 79) certainly gives some clues as to how this hope may be seen…

Guerrilla theology

As I wrote last week, this is guerrilla theology where raiding parties are sent over the border from the present to plunder the future and bring back golden, shining orbs of hope.Of course Zechariah won’t live to see it all. Of course the birth of his little boy is one drop in a very big ocean.However, such is his confidence in the ability and willingness of God to do such things , that it sends his grammar into overdrive and he uses the “prophetic perfect”, talking about future things as if they have already happened.

v.68 “He has come to his people” – not yet he hasn’t

v.69 “He has raised up a horn” – so far the person who will be blowing through the horn can’t even speak!

v.71 &72 In all these things he will be fulfilling promises made so long ago that most have forgotten about them!

Advent is a time to remember that we ARE a people in waiting. Waiting is at the very heart of what advent is all about – like the child checking and rechecking their list;or waiting through what seems like the longest  night until Christmas morning. This is a time to plunder God’s (unseen) future promises and use them to decorate the hearth of our faith. Like a man coming back from dark depth of the forest, tree over his shoulder to make the house bright for Christmas – so we strike out into future, grasp the promises that God has yet to fulfil, and set them like lanterns about our hearts. Alfred Delp:

Let us hike and journey onward, neither avoiding nor shunning the streets and terror of life. Something new has been born in us, and we do not want to tire of believing the star of the promises and acknowledging the singing angels’ Gloria.

The scent of change

we quite often get candles at Christmas, and quite often use them rest of year too! Just recently we have been  burning some called “Christmas vanilla” , which are reputed to have a  hint of Christmas about them.  Smell can be so evocative.  That is why the smell of fresh baked bread it put in show homes. That is why those seeking to bring a riot by hungry prisoners to en end started frying onions just beyond the barricades. That is why people buy ‘new car spray’ before selling their car, so that it ‘smells of newness’.

Zechariah sings his song as the priest of a muzzled religion in an occupied country where as yet there is no sign of the Messiah. However,it is infused with the scent of a different day not yet seen

v.72 There is to be mercy instead of shame and embarrassment

v.74 Despite the Roman soldiers at the gates – there is to be the shining prospect of rescue in the air.

v.76 At last there is to be a someone with a ramrod straight back who will stand up for God in the face of whatever happens (which was imprisonment and violent death in the case of Zechariah’s son).

v.77 There is to be forgiveness, the drawing out of the poison in the veins of human race.

v.78-79 Like a rising sun, transforming the landscape as it creeps over every roof and sends a shadow behind every tree these things will come.

Years ago, I spent one night in a cave hotel in Cappadocia, and rose time after time to see the dawn come up over that bizarre landscape. It was worth every moment of lost sleep to see the twinkling lights gradually extinguished as the sky turned from black, to inky blue, to pink and a hot air balloon drifted serenely into view. As the first rays of the sun transform every landscape or cityscape – so God will change things, and Zechariah can smell it in the air. Alfred Delp:

 The promises of God stand above us, more valid than the stars and more effective than the sun.

The people of tomorrow

Alfred Delp was not kidding himself. Zechariah was not kidding himself. Years ago, the Christians living under Ceausescu’s brutal oppression, with churches burned and pastors tortured, were not kidding themselves either. Asked why they were so happy when life was so bad, they replied that ‘we are the people of tomorrow’

Advent is all about living like the people of tomorrow today.

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We followed the sermon by listening to the O antiphon for December 21st – the day in the calendar where there are more hours of darkness then light. It sings about Christ’s coming as the ‘radiant dawn’ , which will rise like the sun on those sitting in the shadow of death. You can hear it by clicking on my dawn picture from Cappadocia below.

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Struggling with advent

I once heard it said that if London drivers actually waited to move off until all traffic lights turned from amber to green, the whole city would grind to a halt within minutes. Whether or not that is true, it is certainly the case that we do not like to wait. In an age where instant is king, pause is the fool.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. If you can’t wait for a whole nine months, our express delivery service is available for an extra premium”.

Mary, however, could not afford the premium. When a decree went out that everyone should travel to the place of their birth to register for the census, people tutted and sighed as Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife went by. “If only you had registered online”, they said, “you could do this all at the click of a button”. Joseph and Mary, though, plodded on. By the time they got to the town, every room had been pre-booked by others who could not wait to arrive in order to find lodgings. A stable had to do; and that is where the son of God was delivered, at just the right time.

Meanwhile, out on the hills, there were shepherds watching over their flocks by night. An angel appeared to them and said  “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. If you wish to get there with minimal risk to your abandoned flocks, high-speed angelic transportation is available for one customer only”  The shepherds, however, wished to travel together – and so they made their way on foot down the hills and into the town to see the baby. He was still there when they arrived, and nobody missed out.

Whilst all this was going on, Wise Men from the East were making their way on shifting sands across the desert towards the place where the child lay. Their camels were slow, though, and the star seemed to inch across the heavens. By the time they got there the crowds had subsided, rooms were free, and the child was in a house, rather than the stable. As they knelt with their curious gifts, no-one seemed to feel that they were late – for the timing seemed just right.

In an ‘instant-on’ culture, the notion of advent as a season of intentional waiting seems more counter-cultural then ever. Wanting Christmas perfection, and wanting it now, is an ailment – and a little advent waiting may be just the balm it needs.

Three Sundays to go…

S

…to grasp eternal things”

That phrase is one of many descriptions of advent by boyish-faced Jesuit priest Alfred Delp, written from Tegel prison in 1944. Accused of treason by the Nazi regime, he was held in solitary confinement and handcuffs even in his cell – a cruel reminder of his destiny as a traitor. This week I have been reading his final sermon, written as the handcuffs clunked , and smuggled out of the cell in his washing. Not surprisingly, he says that he “sees this year’s advent with an intensity like never before. When I pace back and forth across my cell, three steps forward and three steps back, hands in irons, ahead of me an unknown destiny”

Image: heiligenlexikon.de

From that tiny cell, the theology just kept coming, like flares fired into the darkest of night skies:

To wait in faith for the fruitfulness of the silent earth and for the abundance of the coming harvest, means to understand the world- even this world- in Advent.

Advent is one of the primeval tides of the human soul, in which we become conscious of reaching out to grasp eternal things.

The promises of God stand above us, more valid than the stars and more effective than the sun.

Light the candles wherever you can, you who have them. They are a real symbol of what must happen in Advent, what Advent must be, if we are to live.

This, surely, is guerrilla theology – sent out as a raiding party from the present to plunder the future and bring back vital supplies of hope?

After leading an advent meditation on some of this last night, I called into the church to fetch something and noticed the effect you see in the photo below. Looking outwards, an illuminated star suspended inside the church appears to hang outside in the street. It is not so. If we want advent hope to go beyond the walls of the church we have to carry it there ourselves.

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The man who carved Christmas

I love to collect nativity sets: big ones;small ones; funny ones and strange ones. I bought a new one last week, and out of it fell a lovely smiley wooden sheep. When I turned it over in my hand, it reminded me of an old story about the man who carved Christmas. It’s a story about a little wooden donkey, a little wooden sheep, a little wooden cow and a little wooden camel…and I want to tell it to you now.


The story takes place long, long ago, when a monk from Germany left his home and walked all the way to Spain. His name was Foilan, and he wasn’t quite sure how to go about things.

He wasn’t very clever with words, and he wasn’t very impressive to look at. In fact, most of the grown-ups took no notice of him at all. With the children, though, it was a different story.

You see, Foilan loved nothing more than to sit by the fire, take an old piece of wood, and carve it into a little wooden animal. He would carve ducks, and pigs and dogs, and cats and give them to the children.

One day, as they sat by the fire, Foilan carved a donkey – but he didn’t give it away. “That’s for Mary”, he said – “to ride to Bethlehem.” The children looked at one another and said ‘there’s no Mary here’. There was a an Alys and a Rita….but no Mary. “She’ll need it, he said, to ride to Bethlehem”, and put it on one side.

Next time they were all gathered round the fire he made a sheep. The children laughed. “Why make a sheep”, they said “we have so many of them here”. “I need a sheep to sit with the shepherds when the angel comes”, he explained, and set it aside. Next day it was a cow he made, and he explained to the children – “the cow will have to step aside when the baby comes” and they scratched their heads at what he said.

Now there was a little collection beside his fire – a little wooden donkey, a little wooden sheep, and a little wooden cow. When the children came running to sit by the fire, their breath like smoke in the cold night air, he was just finishing another animal. This time, it was a camel – and he had to tell the children its name as they had never seen such a creature before. “The great kings will need their camels”, he said “to travel far and far so they can see the baby”

By now the children were bursting to know just what the story was all about – so he told them.

He told them about Mary, who rode a donkey to Bethlehem, where the baby Jesus would be born. He told them about the sheep – who looked on as the shepherds met an angel. He told them about the cow, who stepped aside to make room in the stable, so that baby Jesus had somewhere to lay his head. He told them about the kings who rode from far far away on their camels to see the baby king.

When the children came next day – Foilan’s fire was all gone. Wherever could he be? They looked and saw a commotion further down the road where two paths met. Into the fork of a tree Foilan had placed a little wooden stable, with a little wooden donkey, a little wooden sheep, a little wooden cow and a little wooden camel. The grown-ups couldn’t make head nor tail of what it all meant…but the children could, and they told them the story.

To be quite honest, they are still doing it now. Now that you know the story of Foilan, the man who carved Christmas…you can do it too.

 

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A moment to be grateful

This has been a weekend of celebrations for #Open10 – the celebration of ten years since Teddngton Baptist Church opened our newly developed buildings to the community. On Saturday we had an ‘open house’. celebrating all the partnerships we have built up with different groups within the community over the years. There were aid agencies, social care groups,  a musical theatre session, an art workshop, a nursery rhymes session, stories and wonderful food cooked by local cafes.

This morning we started our service in the atrium – the heart of the redeveloped building. On March 2nd 2003, when we first started raising funds for this ambitious project, we sang ‘I believe in Jesus’ – declaring that the day would come when we would sing it in the new building.  On November 21st 2004 we did exactly that – our voices curling up into the heights of the new two-storey atrium. This morning, we sang it again – ten years on. This is not the sound of a choir – but the sound of a diverse family, forged out of shared experience and held together by the love of Christ. It is, in every sense, music to my ears:

 

After that, we went back into the church and worshipped together. Two of our children’s groups had worked on separate sections of a large picture of the church. Individual children worked on small panels, and this morning it all came together. What is not to love about this spectacularly colourful picture of the church?

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

 

In the evening a smaller number gathered to give thanks for blessings past. As each shared their story, or insight, or verse, they added a brick to the sculpture below. With the lights out we looked at this quirky, precarious, glorious structure, and thanked God for…the church.

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Serendipity redeems an orb

Two days ago, I was idly watching the TV advert below. I didn’t even have the volume up – but something caught my eye:

Before going to bed I wrote a note to ‘try photo with paperweight’.  We are in the midst of a rather special birthday at the church where I work, so some kind of quirky photo celebrating the light and beauty of the building could be just right . Yesterday morning, in between stampedes of buggies and babies down the church atrium, I placed my little paperweight on the floor and took a string of images.  Some of them have captured the green plants or the warm brick walls, some have captured the space in different ways – but the one below is the gem. To me, on this special celebration weekend, the rainbow reflections are a symbol of all the colour and light which the building facilitates.

The funny thing is, that paperweight has been relegated to a distant shelf for years. In my previous job I had floor to ceiling windows in my office. I came back from a lunchtime meeting one day and noticed whilst on the phone that there was a wisp of smoke curling up from the desk. It turned out that the sun had focused through my little paperweight and started to melt my desk tidy! I feel this simple orb of glass has more than redeemed itself now.

Do you agree?

S

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#Open10

A day to be thankful

Ten years ago today, Teddington Baptist Church opened the doors of its newly redeveloped buildings to the local community.

The Mayor of Richmond helped me to cut the ribbon:

 

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A jazz band played in the lofty new space:

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A new story began…

Ten years on, it is time to celebrate that story.  Over the passage of those years thousands of feet have made their way up and down the atrium. It has played host to:

Art exhibitions

Christmas trees

A sailing boat

An exhibition on forgiveness

A small business fair

Workshops

Concerts

Gatherings for prayer and worship …and so many other things too.

It can now be visited on a 360 degree Google Tour and is recognized throughout the local area.

How best to celebrate those ten years?  In the end, much like the symbolic act of Mayor and Minister cutting the ribbon together – we have opted for an event which celebrates partnership. Throughout the day on Saturday November 22nd, the church will play host to other organisations alongside a shop window to its own work. There will be open sessions by Go Glee, Kumon and Jo Jingles (three of those who regularly hire the building), exhibitions by some of our weekday users, a free art workshop hosted by an artist who helped to design the facilities, storytelling by the church’s Early Years worker, two Songs of Praise sessions, and a food court provided by Diners’s Delight, Love U Mum and Fallow Deer Cafe – three of our local food outlets. This has been a shared story with our local community – and we want to mark it that way.

Wish us Happy Birthday, if you’re passing, and if you are too far away to do so – why not send a birthday greeting via the comments box below?

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