Thursday, December 29, 2011

i wish it could be Christmas everyday?

don't usually post my preaching - but as a sort of Christmas message to any who care to read it thought i would put up my midnight sermon from this year - didn't know then of course i would share the ending with the Queen's Christmas message - I rather like that unlikely link!

the bible text BTW was John's Gospel chapter 1:1-17 -in particular the following -  in the beginning was the word ...and the word became flesh and dwelt among us....he was the true light coming into the world...the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not over come it... to all who received him he gave power to become children of God....

The Archbishop of Canterbury on the Chris Evans show has told us not to hold out for the perfect Christmas – and for those who as Christmas eve fades and Christmas day comes close are sitting here saying to themselves ‘I’m not going through all this another year’ the quest for the perfect Christmas is indeed probably something we need to banish. It can so easily be that the pressure to have the perfect Christmas ends up as one of the factors that instead ensures everyone is so wound up that all the seasonal goodwill has dried up long before the turkey is carved.

When celebrating Christmas becomes a very expensive headache I can understand the people who say they look forward to Christmas with dread rather than joy. In spite of all that I have to confess to being one of the people who really likes Christmas, and not just because of its significance to me as a Christian. I like the tinsel and lights, and the idea that everyone is having a celebration. I even like the flashing Santa hats and the Christmas pop songs played in all the shops – though I do wish I didn’t have to hear them from sometime in November – there are only so many times you can hear Slade’s merry Christmas before it starts to get a little annoying.

If most can share in this as some of the magic of Christmas then I think for many there is also a special magic in the story that has become the Christian focus of this mid-winter festival – the story celebrated worldwide, even in places where snow and holy are not part of the equation because for them it is mid-summer.

David Cameron may want to draw on the Christian identity of Britain that was so much part of the Dickensian Christmas. That he feels the need to do so tells us how in many ways that Christian identity is far less a feature of most people’s lives. Many people however, still want to be part of the celebration of the story of the birth of Jesus and its magic along with the mince pies and presents.

And the story is magical – the miraculous birth, the angels shepherds and wise men following the star, the nativity scenes from school plays to Christmas cards. And it is also a great drama as Tony Jordan the Eastenders script writer will have shown anyone who saw his nativity series last year of the repeat this year; reminding us that at the heart of the story was a vulnerable young women who in saying yes to God put her life at risk, and a man challenged to stand by her when all the pressure was to do otherwise and doubt seemed wiser than faith.

And here as we move behind the nativity scene and start to think what the story means perhaps the deepest magic emerges, the story of a God who loves the world and wants to be intimately involved with it. Who comes not to a celebrity in a lavish palace but to an unknown woman who finds herself homeless. A God prepared to be vulnerable and in our care as part of a plan to restore love and care between all people that there may indeed be peace on earth and goodwill to all.

It is that story that at its best makes Christmas magical as a time when we do offer good will to others, when people ensure the marginalised and lonely have a Christmas dinner, the homeless are looked after; when we are generous to others in a way that is out of the ordinary. Indeed at its best the magic of Christmas gives us a glimpse into another way of living of a world that I think many of us long for – even in spite of the pressure to create the perfect Christmas.

Another of the ubiquitous pop songs played a little too often is Wizard’s I wish it could be Christmas everyday – and at this time of year someone guaranteed to be in the news, is Andy Park of Melksham in Wiltshire who is dubbed Mr. Christmas for apparently celebrating Christmas everyday since 1993, he has a new video on youtube to tell you all about it. Each day he has mince pies for breakfast, unwraps presents he has wrapped the night before and posts a card to himself through his letter box. He then goes to work – he runs his own electrical business – before coming home to a turkey lunch at 3pm and watches a recording of the queen’s speech.

I don’t know if that was what Wizard meant by wishing it was Christmas everyday but as much as I love Christmas, the tinsel and turkey are only fun because they happen for a few days only – indeed I think we already spend far too long dragging that side of Christmas out for the sake of the retail business.

But what if the care, generosity and goodwill could be for everyday of the year? What if everyday the poor the lonely the homeless and the suffering received the care they do at Christmas? What if there was peace and reconciliation all year round? The trouble is we all know how difficult that is to sustain, the economic realties that work against it, the darker side of human nature that means that greed and violence so often drive out goodwill.

If the magic of Christmas opens a window of longing for such a world then the cold realties of life sooner or later tend to pack away those dreams with the decorations.

God however has not packed away his Christmas gift. God’s love and care and commitment to all creation have not faded. In God’s mind it is indeed Christmas everyday. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Some have suggested that Mr. Christmas Andy Park is not being quite truthful about his daily Christmas, and Tony Jordan found when researching his programme that various scholars told him the familiar details of the Christmas story where also doubtful.  But as he researched further and talked to people of faith he concluded the details mattered far less than central events of the story and the impact of what God was doing in those people’s lives. Indeed if the story had been embellished – just as he himself does as a good story teller – this was to help the point get across. And so he found himself he says to his surprise like the character of Joseph coming to faith in Mary’s story in spite of all his doubts and with a cynical shepherd looking for a political revolution who instead found himself kissing the feet of a tiny baby in adoration.

People sometimes talk of the magic of Christmas as something for children that we grow out of. But John’s gospel reminds that for all who, in spite of their doubts and difficult life experiences, come to believe in God’s presence among us in that tiny baby; for all such people the miracle of Christmas is that they too are born as children of God.

Whatever the exact details of his birth, God’s word did come in flesh about 2000 years or so ago in Jesus, and his influence on those he encountered has had lasting consequences. But that is not the end of the story. Each Christmas he seeks to be born again in human form in the lives of all who will open themselves to his presence. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in him tonight not just because of the magic and the meaning of the story back in time. It is God’s life in us that can enable us to be the people who whilst we pack away the decorations to enjoy another year really do live as if it is Christmas everyday. It is that light shining in our hearts that can banish our darkest places and enable us to be people of the light in the darkest places of our world.

And so, as the carol tells us, God imparts to human hearts the wonders of his heaven. That earth may become like heaven, that the magic of Christmas may not fade but transform us and our world.

This Christmas let it be for each one of us as that carol continues
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

the carol referenced is printed in full below - every blessing for Christmas and 2012

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel  

Friday, December 02, 2011

Mission, Maori and the Anglican Covenant

for those not in the Anglican Communion there is an international debate going on in response at least in part if not predominantly over the tensions created between liberals and traditionalists and majority world and 'western world' countries over issues of same sex relationships. a proposed solution is a covenant that creates more accountability across the communion - or from another angle more control on what have been independent churches.

this can be viewed simply as a tension between traditional and liberal Christians. There is also a very real backdrop of colonial Christianity; it is the old colonial nations that are pursuing more liberal agendas and their former colonies tat are arguing against them on the whole, though there are diffrent voices in both contexts.

the Maori Christians in the church of New Zealand have opposed this covenant by viewing the issue very differently - see they have i think rightly perceived that diversity in the church is not about liberals vs conservatives but the nature of the church's mission. the choice is between a church whose form and practice are dictated from a centre, and it mattes not if that is Canterbury or Lagos or Washington, and one in which each church incarnates the faith within it's own culture.

globalization, the fading of Christendom and the shift towards post-modern culture all put enormous pressure on different cultures and societies. in such a world it is understandable to seek security and a strong global identity. if you are a Christian in central Africa or much of Asia you live alongside a strong Islamic presence and the tensions often tip over into violence. being associated with 'liberal western Christians' can be a trigger that lights the volatile material in such places, this can lead to death and destruction. in our world we no longer live within our own small cultures and communities, we are increasingly global citizens.

yet as many missiologists like Andrew Walls have noted, churches have failed in may areas of the world because they failed to remain at home in the local culture. in a world in which increasing diversity exists alongside globalization we are pulled in two ways - i think history suggest the Maori have seen he issue correctly - the future mission of the church requires it to be more diverse not less in our changing world, we need another way to live together and it will not by tightening the rules at the centre, but by understanding and blessing the many edges that the chuch's mission will be strengthened. it is this principle that lead to the great diversity of early churches across the world that i believe we need to re-capture today

Thursday, April 07, 2011

does my society look big in this?

rather taken with the idea of these tee-shirts bearing the legend 'does my society look big in this?' i think good Greenbelt festival wear.

OK i am by inclination a committed Christian Socialist so i am likely to think the Big Society is just another way of expressing the ideology of a small government - which i think may be driving cuts as much as a desire to reduce budget deficits. So you can see the appeal of the tee-shirt - as well is it being great fun. But how should Christians view this idea and does it have any implications for mission?

regardless of whether i am right about the ideology of the Big Society and Christians will take different views, clearly it raises an expectation that groups like churches are possibly being invited to play a more prominent role in community projects, welfare provision, youth work, health care etc. how should we respond to this?

well from my viewpoint there may be some weariness. if the churches do step in to fill roles left vacant by government cuts are we not simply supporting a policy we don't agree with? this is true but can I as a Christian not offer care to people simply on those grounds? my ideology is based on a belief that the whole of society should care not just those who chose too; it is a shared responsibility. but i do want to see care happening. i also would be an advocate of Christians doing so regardless of public policy; it is part of being agents of God's Kingdom in which the poor hear good news, the hungry are fed and the sick healed.

if you do not share my political concerns this may indeed look like a great opportunity for the church to return to a role it played for centuries of being the centre of care and education for the community. i certainly know Christians who thank that way. so perhaps whatever our ideology, Christians may find themselves united in filling those Big Society roles.

however, i don't think that solves the issue. there are i think some underlying pitfalls that may await us. i hear from some a sense that the Big Society agenda may help reverse the marginalization of churches in our public life; returning to them essential roles in the community. this may be partly true, but there are two dangers here. one is that we can even if we don't mean to, appear to be doing our bit for the purpose of gaining status and not because of our care for others. a test of this will be our willingness to be involved in care projects that are not specifically Christian as opposed to those that look as if they are rather like company charity giving; basically an advertising exercise. the other is how this new church involvement can be portrayed by those who view all church involvement in society as dangerous and to be challenged. if the church gets more involved in social projects we can expect more scrutiny from the secularist lobby wanting to catch us out. these two danger clearly fuel each other. a sense that the Big Society projects aid the church's profile is exactly the kind of evidence that will be used against such involvement.

i think for all these reasons, whatever our ideology, we need to offer care to those who need it as best we can. however this has to be based on people's need not on how it makes the church look. for both reasons the best answer may not be lots of high profile church care projects, but Christians joining in with wider based community action. this is likely to best use skill and resources as well as being clearly free of an ulterior motive. it may also be the best way to be salt and light in our society - whatever it's size.