Monday 28 December 2020

The Miracle of St Wilfred

 In the village of White-Hall in those days, when Great King Boris had shown his power over foreigners by letting them catch very slightly fewer fish, there came word of the Miracle of Saint Wilfred.

Wilfred was the son of St Boris, and possessed of a miraculous head of golden hair from the day that he was born. Another miracle was that although his parents had said he would not be in the public eye, yet he used to appear in the Mail when his father did not want too much close scrutiny. 

But this latest miracle surpassed all the others - for did he not, at eight months old, paint a portrait of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer? And kept his colouring within the lines?

And the people beheld the reindeer, and the miraculous hair, and cried out "Surely this is no mere child, but one of the cherubim, come in human form in Boris's line.

Though some said Boris himself had helped and done most of the colouring for him, others pointed out he could never have raised that much energy.

And then it was revealed that the babe could also sing "Old Macdonald Had a Farm." But the Cynics wondered, if this were true, just when he had been born.

Sunday 27 December 2020

Shepherd of Shepherds

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. Luke 2: 15 –21

A bunch of shepherds turning up at a new-born baby's side? Would have been quite the episode of "Call the Midwife", as they were told they smelt of sheep and had to go wash their hands. 

Maybe it's not surprising that the shepherds got there first. Shepherds worked odd hours in out of the way places; would have been handy for the arrival of angels.They'd have woken the whole village if they'd rocked up first of all at a rabbi's house.

But shepherds are also important as a sign of who Jesus is. They're common people - Christ is sent to earth for common people - but they're also living parables of God.

Among the many illustrations of God's nature in the Bible - farm owner, king, potter - one of the most common is that of a shepherd. Psalm 23 - "The Lord's My Shepherd". Isaiah 40: "He will shepherd his sheep and will gather the lambs in his arm." The King who the Lord loved, David, was a shepherd of sheep before he became a shepherd of his people. Ezekiel 37 has God getting fed up with the shepherds of Israel, and saying if there's a job worth doing, it's worth God doing it properly.  And now these shepherds are drawing to the cradle of the one who will be the shepherd of shepherds.

By far my favourite carol is "In the Bleak Midwinter". And I know some people of more literal tendencies than mine get a grump on about it sometimes - they say it wasn't snowing. But I say to you - firstly if you're super-literal - yes it can snow in Bethlehem.
And secondly - forget the meteorology. Enjoy the poetry. And then having come for the poetry, stay for the theology. Christina Rosetti pours out verse after verse of the most amazing wonders. The one who heaven isn't big enough for, in a manger. The one who can receive the praise of angels and archangels - just needs his mother's breast and somewhere to lay his head. The one who will tear up the heavens and earth - needing a roof over his head for shelter.
And maybe the shepherds brought a lamb - we're not told. But they did all they had to do. The saw the baby. They were amazed, they went out and spread the good news. God has come to earth with an angel train - and they have seen God as a child with their own human eyes. And they fade from the story, go back to the hills. And in keeping with Gabriel's instructions, the baby is called Jesus - because this weak baby in the manger is going on to fight the devil, defeat death, and save his people. The shepherd of shepherds is going to grow up to be the king of kings.

Friday 25 December 2020

The Laws Older than Time

 The star's appearance has been a long time in the making. Forged from the raw materials of the universe, in the depths of space, it has consumed itself to sustain itself - the roar of heat as protons combine, forcing out against the gravity that drags ever into the heart. Unseeing, unknowing, it follows the laws laid out when time began, its silent progress through the universe, held in balance between gravity and inertia.

As it first rises, new against a Christmas sky before anyone knows of Christmas - though some have hinted - it is seen by one who calls some colleagues. They make sacrifices - for they are people of faith. They plot its course - for they are scientists. Maybe they cast some spells - they don't draw the lines between magic, faith and religion like we do. Then they set off. They will be a while.

In a manger in a village in the hills, a mother lays her child. He knows nothing yet of the wonders of the skies. But in the darkness of his eyes are all their glories. Somehow those eyes have seen them at their birth. And yet for now, those eyes are unfocused. All the baby knows is warmth and cold, hunger and milk, light and shadow.

The mother sings the lullabies her mother sang to her - to the one who wrote the music of the heavens, and heard the praise and joy of the angels as he cast the stars across the sky.

The laws of the world, laid out by this child. All things underpinned by him, upheld by him, kept in existence by him. But tonight he is subject to those laws he made.

And underneath those ancient laws, as shepherds shuffle in around the manger, the mother, the confused husband and the still centre of all - underneath those laws lie the older ones.

The love of Father for Son, the love carried by the Spirit, draws the shepherds and Magi, the star and those parents. Stronger than gravity, brighter than light, deeper and darker than that baby's eyes. Love re-enters the world it made in love, sustains in love and redeems with love. And the God that dies - written across the myths and religions of the world like a red cord in golden cloth - enters the world, to live under its laws, and die under them, and then transcend them with the laws older than time.

Monday 21 December 2020

Solstice Morning

 All piled into the Moot House to watch a video of a Winter Solstice sunrise. Cats and dogs outside and we had to nail Hnaef's robes down with tent pegs to stop him blowing away for the Autumnal Farewell.

So. First day of winter. Shortest day of the year. On an island that has, through deception and incompetence, cut itself off from the mainland. Plague-struck, wondering how it will import the food it needs. Struggling through a recession, while planning for the next wave - the crashing down of an act of colossal security and financial self-harm. Led by a huckster who would be out of his depth running a Bible stall at a Secularist Society jumble sale.

The solstice still holds promise though. Maybe the days are short and wet, and the nights are cold. But tomorrow it will be a little lighter. The worst of winter is to come - and this year it will be dreadful, for all sorts of reasons. But spring will get here in the end. It won't be as much fun as springs were in the past. But it will be spring nonetheless.

So lift up your heads and light your bling as an act of defiance. Face the winter and see it through. Spring will get here in the end.

Sunday 20 December 2020

Solstice Eve

Beaker Folk wander out into the dark, holding their phones aloft against the darkness. they sing the Solstice Song.

All: Raise your banners high. Don't die, sun, don't die.

Archdruid: Solstice Eve! The year dies screaming.

All: And that's not the half of it.

Archdruid: Dare we hope that tomorrow will be better?

All: Eileen, we're in Tier 4. 

Archdruid: Does a light shine in the darkness?

All: If it does, it's somebody burning their furniture to keep warm.

Archdruid: But the New Year will bring hope. 

All: Have you even heard about Brexit?

Archdruid: There may be trouble ahead. But while there's moonlight, and music, and love, and romance...

All: Let's whistle in the darkness. It might scare off the demons.

Archdruid: Demons?

All: About the only thing the year hasn't thrown at us.

Archdruid: OK - throw the ritual scarecrow on the Solstice fire.

All: Bad news. That tatty, scruffy, badly-dressed figure with the unrealistic hair?

Archdruid: Yeah? 

All: Wasn't the scarecrow. It was the Prime Minister.

Archdruid: OK. Any ideas?

All: We could ritually burn some bread?

Archdruid: Best not. We'll need that wheat to horde in a few weeks.

All: It really is dark isn't it?

Archdruid: Yeah. But light a candle against the darkness. And the sun will still rise tomorrow. 

Overhead, an asteroid veers into a disturbing path. While beneath our feet, the sound of the Husborne Dragon stirring is heard.

A Child's Christmas Nursery Tale of 2120

 "And so, children, Boris Johnson became only the second English leader to cancel Christmas."

 "Who was the first? "

 "Oliver Cromwell. He was a man who thought he knew what God wanted, and liked to tell people what to do."

 "And was Boris Johnson like that?"

 "No. He didn't like telling people what to do. And he didn't want to think too much about what God wanted."

 "So was he good at leading? "

 "No. He always made the decisions he'd said would be bad decisions, but too late."

 "So if he didn't like telling people what to do and he wasn't any good at it, why did he become the leader?"

 " He thought he'd enjoy it. "

 "And did he enjoy it?"

Saturday 19 December 2020

Is Carbon Evil? Masks, the Universe and Everything

 I fell down a bit of a theological/scientific rabbit hole this morning. Read some "logic" on masks that was so related to the guano of the Vespertilionidae that it left me wondering whether it was deliberately harmful and manipulative, or the result of such groupthink and such a desperate attempt to control reality that anything, even this utter earwash, was better than dealing with hard facts.

The logic is this: 

  1. Oxygen is God's perfect element. (I know. Don't ask.)
  2. Carbon is evil. (Ditto)
  3. When you breathe in through a mask, you are taking in CO2 that you wouldn't normally (for pity's sake).
  4. Which increases the amount of evil.
  5. Therefore masks are the MARK OF THE BEAST because we all have to wear them to buy and sell.

A little clear thought has eased my mind on number 3, I'll be honest. Because the people who wear masks most, apart from bank robbers, are doctors and nurses. Who on the whole I find to be very nice people, interested in making you feel better. OK, they also tell you to drink less, but that's also well meaning if inconvenient. Nurses in my experience actually go to church proportionately more than other people. So that's also good. 

But why is carbon evil? It turns out (I google this stuff so you don't have to) that the logic is that it's because of its makeup at the subatomic level. Carbon is atomic number 6:

6 protons

6 neutrons

6 electrons.

666 - number of the beast. QED. And because we are made of carbon, and 666 is the "number of a man", it proves that our bodies are evil.

Except of course that that isn't how numbers work. 6 times three is 18. Not a scary number at all. And it's not how our bodies work. We are, after all, more water than anything else. We're less than 20% carbon. But even so - since we don't really keep the CO2 in our breath, we dissolve it in our blood, take it out then we just breathe it back out - even if the level of CO2 through a mask was clinically higher (it isn't) it would have to be massively higher to do any harm.

Our bodies make CO2 from the oxygen in the air, and energy reserves in our body, all the time. If wearing a mask is evil, then any respiratory process is fundamentally flawed. Getting out of bed in the morning, walking an extra mile for someone, labouring in a vineyard, walking down the street handing out made-up apocalyptic tracts - all these things generate extra CO2 and therefore must be evil.

But there's more. This piece of logic does not go down a level. Let's ask ourselves this - what lies below the protons etc? Answer - quarks. How many quarks in the common nuclear particles?

3 in protons

3 in neutrons

Plus one lepton in electrons.

In a carbon atom there are therefore 6 x 7 = 42. The answer to life, the universe and everything. 42 is the number of degrees at which a rainbow forms. The time in minutes that a gravity car would take to go through a tunnel in the earth. The number of stations of the Exodus, the number of lines per page in a Guthenberg Bible.

So carbon is a beautiful, wondrous element - the basis of organic chemistry, of everything living and beautiful around us. The thing that gives diamond its beauty and hardness. That burns to keep us warm. Its use to cook bread gave us civilisation. It made up 16% or so of the perfect body of Jesus.

So don't diss carbon. It's beautiful.

And wear a mask. It's just a part of loving your neighbour.

Friday 18 December 2020

St Kirsty's Day (2000)

On this St Kirsty's Day, when we can't get to Soho Square without legitimate reason and we're going to have to sit on our own benches instead, we will light a candle for all those taken cruelly from us too young. The pigeons will have to shiver in the naked trees on their own this year. But we'll hope there is angel floating round someone's house. Even if he's called Terry.

The bloke who works down the Chip Shop who swears he's Elvis looks a lot more like Elvis now he is hiding his false teeth behind that facemask. So at least that's good.

The Mambo de la Luna will be held in the Orchard. I won't be joining. Not in these shoes. I don't think so.

Twenty years.  Is that how long it is? I look to the future and see a thousand setting suns. But tomorrow never came. 

Sunday 13 December 2020

Just a Voice

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

One of the great chapters of the Bible, is John 1. We hear it on a midnight clear, when in the amongst the debris of the Nativities and burnt-down candles and left-over Christingles (in a normal year), the first 5 verses put the manger, the shepherds and sheep and all the rest into an eternal context - talking about the Word who is before time, who is with God and is God, becoming part of our story.

And into that first chapter with all its deep theology and mystic overtones, John weaves the story of God's second cousin, John. As the director cuts from the places before time to a deserted scene outside Jerusalem. And we plunge from eternity into a bunch of establishment figures questioning a scruffy prophet.

But then scruffiness in a prophet can be a sign of holiness. And eccentricity is what you get from prophets. And he's drawing the crowds. So what's going on? The leaders want to know.

How tempting it must have been for John. When the leaders from Jerusalem come out to see him. 

 "Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet, the one who stands in the footsteps of Moses?"

Now John is full of power and the Holy Spirit. The whole world is coming out to see him. And I remember the story of Corporal-Signwriter Walter "Foggy" Dewhurst at the end of the Second World War. He - at least in his imagination - has built up an awesome fighting force from a tribe of Burmese forest-dwellers. And when they can't kill the Japanese any more, they say OK - we'll kill someone else, then. And for a moment Foggy is tempted to invade the Dutch East Indies - but then he remembers there's a job for him back in England so decides not.

For John maybe it's like that. With all these people hanging on his every word. With a feeling of the End Times in the air. With the Romans hated, and Caesar a long way off in Rome - is he Messiah? Is he the Prophet? Or can he make a good impression of it? Can he act against the Establishment and the rulers? Can he say to these leaders - yes, it is me. Follow me! If so, will it end in glory, or terrible defeat? 

 And I was thinking about that scene in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo, in the Garden of Lothlorien, offers the Ring to Galadriel. You know the scene? And Galadriel, the great elf-princess, becomes incredibly tall and terrifying and tells Frodo she would be a beautiful, terrible queen. Because she knows that though she might want the Ring for good, the exercise of power will instead be the thing that rules.

And then she goes back to normal size. Gives Frodo the Ring back. And says, "I pass the test." She will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.

 And so for John. He's not claiming to be any of these things - he's just a voice, in the wilderness, saying Make Way for the Lord. And that is enough.

We are so often tempted to put ourselves or others on a pedestal. It can be a temptation for a preacher - because preaching is a performance, and it puts adrenalin and endorphins into you and that feels good - and about 3pm of a Sunday afternoon you're wiped out like you've come down of a drug fix and you look forward to it again and think - can I, next time, be funnier? Be wiser? Be more controversial?

Which is natural but you run the risk of the show being about you, not Jesus.

Or I've seen churches where the vibe is about how cool the leaders are, how attractive their family lives  look or how famous the people are that they hang out with - and that's the kind of leader you're thinking that God's church needs, even as weak human beings are being put up where they can be pulled down from later.

And as a leader it's so important to ask yourself what is this about - this sermon, this coffee morning, this meeting - who is being glorified? Is this building project for God's glory and the good of God's church, or is it about my mid-life crisis and wanting to leave something behind?

And John - out where the air is clear and so is his mind - says "I'm just a voice. I'm just telling you to get ready. But there's someone out there - maybe even here now - He's the one that will be worth following. Now get ready.

 John stands in the great succession of prophets. All the good ones pointed to God. He, uniquely, will get to pour water on God's head. To greet him as a cousin. To wonder if he's found the right one. And then, like Galadriel, to diminish and leave the story, having done his job.

And we, as God's church, we can scrabble and argue about how we work during a pandemic - between those who prioritise people's safety, and those where the scale is further over to the spiritual need to meet together physically. We can - in more normal times - worry about whether we've got the leading part, or the bit part. Are we leaders, followers or people who just want the attention? 

And the church's job is not to rule people's lives, not to be a power in the land, not to have everyone think we're perfect. 

We're just a voice. In the wilderness. Saying get ready, He is coming.

Sunday 6 December 2020

"Mary Did You Know?"

Songster: Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?

Mary: Let me put it this way. Gabriel told me who my Son was. Elizabeth's son John leapt in her womb to greet him. Anna and Simeon told me what he would be like. And I wrote the Magnificat. What do you reckon?

Songster: I'll get my coat.

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Psalm for Sorting Out and Hanging Up the Christmas Lights

Oh wow, how many are the knots
and to what degree are these lights tangled.

I tug them to see if they will come apart
and they huddle together, 
like unto the knot that is Gordian
like unto a nest of serpents that twine in the darkness

If that is what serpents do
I try to stay away from serpents.

I look back to last Epiphany
when I put the lights into their box
consigning them to darkness
even as the light of the year grew.

And I said to myself, "let us not thrown them in randomly
like unto last year 
and the many years of our forefathers and foremothers before us
even like unto those who went down unto the grave
in despair that they could not untangle their bling.

And so I carefully coiled the wires
Keeping the plastic icicles separate
cunningly using those little twisty bits of plastic-covered wire
so that no two wires would be entwined.

And now look at what I have.
A nest like unto a consultant's chart
constructed by Dominic Cummings 
and a superforecaster 
with a hangover.

A solid mass of wire and plastic 
and there is no sign of an end.
When will I see the end?
And yet the end is not nigh.

I struggle all afternoon, even as the light fadeth
and still I have not a single string.

The lights come on in my hand as the timer cuts in
which at noontime I said I would have them hung up
long before this happened.
And still there is no end.

The day turns to evening
the sheep return to the fold
the chickens come home to roost
and I have found the end.

As darkness falls
like unto the Valley of the Shadow of death
I stretch out the strings of lights 
until I have the lights apart.

In gladness I climb the stepladder
hanging up the lights
to celebrate the birth of a king in the middle east
through blue LEDs and plastic things that could resemble icicles.

Some of the icicles are missing.
In vain do I search the loft for the missing icicles
But none are found.
Not in a box
nor on the insulating foam.

And so I resolve to give it in.
90% of the icicles are there.
And maybe nobody will look too closely.
Next year, I will do it better.

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Tuesday 1 December 2020

Betjeman in Coronatide

The tills in Marks and Sparks are quiet
James Dalrymple is running riot
We hang the lights up on the roof
To shout this loud and lasting truth
That though the times are wearing grim
We still won't let the virus win.

The early reindeer  on the lawn
And round the bungalow the strings
of fairy lights in many colours
and many flashing, tasteless things
mean that the passers-by will say
“We're glad you did” on Christmas day.

The Coca-Cola ad is stilled
retailers face a grim new year
the top toys though will still sell out
cos Amazon still gets about
and people say the Pogues are haggard
and try to find a rhyme for "maggot".

And no-one's flying out to Spain
We're stuck here in the Advent rain
And no-one's going down the pub
Unless they eat some token grub.
Instead we order online beer
To generate some FaceTime cheer.

We try to rank our family near
Which granny do we hold most dear?
But hugging granny's not so wise
This weird, unfair Coronatide.
Though Laurence Fox might act quite brave
Please don't help grandad to the grave.

But is it true, can it be true
This most unlikely tale of all,
As Brexit looms through Advent mists
A baby in an ox's stall?
But is it true? That ancient tale?
I'll have to check with Ian Paul.

And is it true? For if it is
No virtual drinks upon the screen
No social-distanced carollers
Around the empty village green
No massive fight about the right
To eat Scotch eggs on Christmas night
No DPD upon the drive
No PS5 that won't arrive
No Xmas rat-run thanks to Waze
Can ever this great Truth erase –
Our God was born to share our pain,
And so this Advent does again.

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