Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Midwinter Christingle

Fingers wet from the spilt juice of oranges, and encrusted with gummie bear sugar, I return from the annual Christingle making morning, thinking about sweetness and sharpness, light and dark and the mixed up sentiments of Christmas. 

The front page of the newspaper did for me this morning; somebody's beautiful daughter and her grandmother - one of those photos you proudly display at home on the mantlepiece, never dreaming it'll be seen by thousands - illustrate the news that 6 people died in a freak pedestrian accident as a Glasgow bin lorry went out of control the week before Christmas.

For Ministers there's always a heightened awareness of the piercing sorrow of Christmas, the one Mary, and all mothers, know - the bringing to birth of both the greatest gift and the greatest potential for personal sadness. There's always that pre Christmas phone call from the Undertaker that is particularly dreaded. I came straight from a funeral visit to lead an enormous Christingle service one year and it was one of the hardest things. 

That's why this afternoon in church, the Christingle light will be brightest when the lights go out. It's in the darkness that the light is seen most fully. Because, like the magi's offering to the child who embodies 'the hopes and fears of all the years', midwinter Christmas is always both dark and bright: 

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone cold tomb.

Glorious now, behold him arise,
King and God and sacrifice.
Heaven sings, Alleluia!
Alleluia! the earth replies.

(from We Three Kings).

Friday, 12 December 2014

No more Mr nice guy

Isaiah 64: 40: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down
John 1:23 I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord".

Sermon for Advent 3

It’s sometimes the case that when a new minister comes to a parish, or there's a new doctor in the local surgery, or a new class teacher in the primary school: people want to know, are they nice?
Being nice is hardly an epithet appropriate to John the Baptist – although in John he is more sympathetically portrayed than in Matthew and Luke – where he utters the immortal words, not normally printed on evangelistic leaflets, ‘you brood of vipers!’ to the Pharisees that come to him for baptism.
But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt this Advent and ask what was so memorable about his message, and what can we take from it for ourselves.
So, three things about John the Baptist and his message:

    1.     He sees himself as preparing the way.

Advent is a time of preparing the way – for Christ to be born amongst us again - and a time to think about his second coming too.
For John the Baptist, 'preparing the way' was figurative for getting people ready for the coming of the Messiah.
He didn’t go along the path in the desert with a broom, sweeping the sand off the path so Jesus could walk on by; his preparation was spiritual.
And it’s the same for us.
In many respects the Christian life is about preparing the way, year in year out.
What we prepare is our hearts, to receive Christ – as the hymn says ‘where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’
So it’s not just at Advent that we prepare our hearts for Christ – it’s really all year round.
Preparing a way in your heart for Christ is as good a description of discipleship as any, in fact.
Here, the heart is the centre of our personality, the driver of everything we are – ‘man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and emotional elements. In other words, the heart is used figuratively for the hidden springs of the personal life’ (from
But what does preparing your heart entail?
This question leads us to the second point about John the Baptist:

    2.     He calls people to repentance.

Because the best (and in fact the only) way to prepare for Christ is through repentance.
Repentance is not an entirely easy topic, even for Christians, perhaps especially for Christians, as we can become overly familiar with the confession we say in church week by week.
What does repentance look like for someone who’s been a Christian a long time?
In some ways, it’s easier to imagine someone who’s been estranged from Christ over something quite major, coming suddenly to value repentance.
What of all of the small sinners, who can’t recall the last time they truly felt sorry for anything.
Here it can be helpful to find a spiritual advisor, someone who knows how to discern God’s work in your life and who will suggest ways in which the arteries of the spiritual heart may have got clogged up along the way.
Another way is to read inspiring literature, to see how someone else a bit further along the path has grown in the ways of discipleship.
One such writer for me has been the elderly American pastor Gordon MacDonald, whose book A Resilient Life, really spoke to me this year.
His description of repentance is apt as we think about John the Baptist, out there in the desert.
He writes of a meadow, which he and his wife bought to clear and develop.
First the meadow needed to be cleared of boulders – these were big things, obvious from the surface, and a hindrance to planting.
They were relatively easy to see, and therefore easy to remove.
Then came the middle sized rocks, also fairly easy to see and to remove.
Finally, there were small pebbles scattered over the meadow – there were more of these, and they were less serious, but eventually they were cleared too.
He likens all this to the obvious things in our life that need attention – and the less obvious things, though still seen by God.
Then he takes the clearing of the meadow metaphor one stage further.
He writes, ‘when we cleared the field of its rocks and boulders, and cut back the vegetation so that the grasses could grow, we didn’t anticipate one thing that the locals could have told us if we’d asked. We didn’t know that underneath the soil (shallow as it is) were countless other rocks and boulders, each of which would make their individual appearance in time. As the winter frost went deep into the ground each year, it would thrust up many of these rocks and boulders. In the spring I would climb on my tractor mower and suddenly hear the blade hit a rock I’d never seen before. When I checked, I would be surprised to see the face of a rock peeking up from the soil. I hadn’t known it was there before. And when I tried to pry the rock loose, I often discovered that it wasn’t a rock, it was a boulder – much bigger than a breadbasket – and it had been there all the time’ (p. 122).
Repentance means we take seriously those things below the surface that only the Holy Spirit can point out to us, though we need to be willing and keen for this to happen, and to take steps to make it happen.

So John the Baptist prepares the way; he calls his hearers to repentance, and finally,

    3.     He points to Jesus.

Do our lives point to Jesus?
We’ve already mentioned that in John’s gospel we have no ‘brood of vipers’ speech – just John pointing to someone else.
This is John stripped down to the bare essentials – he points beyond himself to Christ - a mere signpost.
His life is in exact contrast to the self-promotion of our culture.
And before we run to judge our culture, when did we last do something, perhaps an act of random kindness, that went entirely unnoticed, and feel happy with that?
It’s not that easy to point beyond ourselves, to let someone else take the credit.
But it is the calling of every Christian.
We point, not to ourselves, but to Christ.
Could someone look at your life and see the connection between your faith in Christ and the fruits of the Spirit in you; see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness and self-control?
Do you have a holy frustration for God, akin to that of Isaiah, who cries out, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!’?

As we approach the final countdown to Christmas, let’s learn form John the Baptist, who, though he may not have been 'nice', knew that we need to prepare the way of the heart; who called his hearers to repentance and who pointed beyond himself to the Christ who was coming, and is coming still.


Friday, 5 December 2014

Advent: Ink

It's probably of very little interest to most normal people caught up in the mad pre-Christmas planning/ spending/stocking up/school plays/boozy party rush, that the Church is observing Advent. The altars are spread in dark blue or purple, for royalty and penitence, and the spiritual atmosphere, in theory at least, is one of waiting.

I've always had a 'thing' for purple. Many moons ago, on a cold, wintry, late afternoon, there was an enticing dress buying outing for one small girl who liked dresses. It may have even been Advent. There was one style in particular in the shop; velvet, long sleeved, with little velvet covered buttons all down the front and a piece of white lace at the collar. It was perfection. It came in purple or deep midnight blue. I can't remember now the exact details, but one colour only was available in my (small, maybe aged 6) size. Was it the midnight blue? Did I long for the purple but make do with blue instead? Or maybe it was the midnight blue that I craved, and the purple was shunned. I can't remember. Anyway, I loved that velvet, wintry, Advent coloured dress.

Sometimes a song comes along that captures the spirit of the season. It's probably very tenuous, but for me, preparing to preach each Sunday through Advent on waiting, repentance, judgment and the return of the King, it has to be Ink, by Coldplay, from their new album, Ghost Stories.

It's partly the artwork. A pair of wings on a deep midnight blue background. They're like angel wings - a Nativity maybe. Or the wings of a dove. And the title. Ink. There's something deep and mysterious about a bottle of dark blue ink. Or sky, just before the dawn. Or the deep waters recalled in the mark of baptism. The singer has marked himself with a tattoo to remember his love ('the pain's alright'). 'Together through life', its message.

Ink is a love song. It talks about being broken and lost and loving till it hurts. Simple. It's haunting, like a Christmas song that's got under your skin without your permission, with a 'to die for' riff and two little melodies that come together as the song builds. It's circular, the chords going round and round with no apparent ending, the base note playing around the fourth, third, fifth and sixth; then the fourth, third, sixth and fifth.

Whether it's purple in Advent, or deep indigo blue; whether in dark skies that will eventually dawn, or in the deep waters of baptism, the song paints the mood. And it fits. Like the perfect dress.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Keep awake!

Mark 13: Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

I wonder what your relationship is with sleep.
For some it’s blessed relief after the business, or busyness, of the day.
For others it’s something that’s troubled – difficult to get into and difficult to sustain, full of tossing and turning, with restless dreams.
Some fall seamlessly into 8 hours of the deep and dreamless, while others struggle to get 3 or 4 uninterrupted hours at a time.
How much sleep do you need and how much are you getting?
Someone wise has said that ‘the amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.’
Some other, wise quotations on sleep are: ‘people who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.’
Hemingway said, “I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake.”
An eminent doctor said “You’re not healthy unless you’re sleep is healthy” and Anthony Burgess remarked, “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore and you sleep alone.”

My favourite personal anecdote about sleep took place when our eldest was a toddler.
It was a hot day and it was tea-time. He was sitting in the high chair after a big tea when Daddy came in from work.
Some of you know Chris has recently got a Bishop’s Permission to preach and is going to undertake some training to this end in the new year.
In those days, Chris was new to preaching and he had written a talk that he was preparing to give in church.
He’d sweated hard over this talk and he decided to try it out on me, at the tea table.
Our toddler was happily finishing his sandwich, and seemed content to carry on sitting there, and so Chris began.
He was very proud of that talk – he’d put a lot of effort into it and had thought through the bible passage carefully and thoroughly.
He began. I listened.
It was an idyllic family scene.
In those days we only had one toddler and he was pretty settled, sitting happily in that high chair, although it was a hot day…
It’s quite helpful to read a talk out loud, and Chris was getting into his stride.
Five minutes elapsed. It was a good talk.
Ten minutes and he came to his final, serious point.
He hadn’t looked up from his paper, but now he did, with a hopeful look on his face.
“What did you think?” he asked.
I said something encouraging. He turned to our happy toddler, and as a joke, asked, “What did you think?”
Our well fed toddler, having been ignored for ten whole minutes, though he was sat in a stiff high chair and was normally quite active and wanting to run around after tea, was absolutely fast asleep.
We both dissolved into helpless laughter.

Hoping that the same effect is not achieved at the end of this talk, let’s ask ourselves why it is we are asked to stay awake in today’s gospel.
Of course it’s the beginning of Advent, and we’re reminded that Christ is returning.
Mark records that Jesus taught about the coming of the Son of Man at the end of time, and the first Christians lived in expectation of this event being fairly soon in the future.
May years have passed and we still wait.
But just because it's been a long time, we don’t give up the expectation, and part of Advent is about recalling this hope yearly, and asking ourselves, how should we live in the light of it?

Three times in the gospel Mark records Jesus as saying ‘keep alert; keep awake.’
Because ‘about that hour (that is the hour of the return of Christ) no one knows.’
‘Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.’
‘Therefore keep awake, for you do not know when the mater of the house will come.’
If you know a burglar is operating in your area, you don’t become complacent about security; you tighten it up.
Because you know you need to be ready, you act in certain ways.
You tighten up the windows; you lock up the shed and double lock the front door at night.
We’ve all seen the films where someone’s trying to penetrate a high security setting, like James Bond or Johnny English, and first you see them approaching the CCTV, wondering how that's going to go, and then there’s a shot of the security guard…
He’s usually a big guy, not terribly bright, and ah, what a surprise, he’s fallen asleep (or been drugged with a sleep potion).
Whoever it is creeps past the camera and gains entry right under their nose.
When that guy wakes up and sees the CCTV footage he’s going to be in for big trouble.
Keep alert! Keep awake!
It’s the message of Advent.

So, given Christ is returning, how should we live?
How do we keep awake, spiritually?
If someone said to you, what’s it like to be spiritually awake, what would you say?
How would you describe a spiritually awake person?

Here are three suggestions for keeping awake spiritually (you’ll have your own I’m sure).

    Be prayerful.

We had an interesting discussion at PCC about how prayerful we are as a church.
We asked the question, to what extent do prayer needs of our community reach our ear and then reach our worship on Sundays?
Could we pray for each road in our parish, as they do in some churches?
How do we feel about midweek prayer groups, honesty in prayer and praying for ourselves?
When did you last read a book about prayer?
What strategies do you have to be a prayerful person?
Do you know God’s guidance in prayer; have you learnt to discern his voice?
Can you sit for five minutes in silence, in the presence of God, and know his loving gaze upon you?
When did you last offer to pray for one of your neighbours?

Be informed.

It’s a bit like Have I Got News For You.
If we don’t know what’s going on in the world, how can we pray for it?
As a little barometer, here are some current or recent stories: how well up are you on them?
What are the hot topics in the UK at the moment?
*Child sex abuse scandals
*Black Friday

    Finally something that we need Christians to do deeply, wisely and theologically: 


Reflecting on the news is a step deeper than merely consuming the news or even praying about it.
It involves being prophetic.
How does God see our nation? What is really going on spiritually?
So with immigration: what is fact and what is opinion?
How do the newspapers sway our opinions?
How does Jesus view the stranger?
What do the Scriptures say about the stranger, the poor and the weak?
In which of our MPs do we see the fruits of the Spirit? Are they people of good character; are they wise?
Child sex abuse scandals: What kind of country are we where large numbers of children are routinely abused and civic bodies fail to notice or do anything about it?
Where is repentance?
How do we value children in our own community?
Black Friday: why is it that people will crush each other underfoot in supermarket queues to get £20 off a coffee maker? What are our values? What could the Church’s contribution be to this?

 How do we stay awake?

1. Be prayerful. 2. Be informed. 3. Reflect.

During this Advent time, may God give us grace to stay awake and to grow together in these three things.