The gift is given silently…

candleindark

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.

 

1.  Find a couple of candles and light them.
2.  Switch of the lights, the tv, the radio, the mobile phone, the iPad.
3.  Watch the flame until your mind settles.
4.  Use the words from the carol above.  Repeat them.  And wait.  The gift will be given.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1: 4 – 5

 

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Spend yourselves for the poor and hungry…

empty-cupboard

It strikes me that there are unlimited opportunities for the church to stand up and make a significant difference in this country, especially for the poor.  It is very true that many are doing that already.  But there is more that can be done.  I don’t think it is enough to simply criticise the government, although they have to be held to account.  At the end of the day, the church is pretty much the one world organisation with ‘branches’ in almost every town and village in the world.

I’m sitting here this evening both sad and furious after some poor behaviour by UK MPs in Westminster today with a ridiculous and callous response to the debate raised on how many people are having to access foodbanks.  It is expected that around 60,000 families in the UK will have to access a bank this Christmas time.   I’ve been really delighted that Trinity have been able to respond to the food poverty need by being a collection point for a Trussell Trust food bank this year, something that I hope we will continue well into the New Year.

Growing up, I had my own experiences of food poverty.  Our cupboards were very often bare and the food we did have was less than healthy and nourishing.  You just can’t bring up a family like that.  Thank God for the many children who are at least still able to access a free lunch at school.  In my work with The Salvation Army in particular, I’ve filled more empty food cupboards than I’d care to count.  This is first hand experience to me.

I rarely get ‘political’ here on this blog, but you see, this issue is not party political.   This is prophetic political.  The prophets continually hounded Israel to care for the needs of the hungry and the oppressed, to speak up against the oppressor.  This is what it is to be an ambassador to the King of Kings, who has the government upon his shoulders.  Isaiah 58 is a striking reminder of the stark call to action and a powerful insight into the mind of God:

‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:  to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?  Then your light will break forth like the dawn,  and your healing will quickly appear;  then your righteousness[a] will go before you,  and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.  Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;  you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.

‘If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
  then your light will rise in the darkness,  and your night will become like the noonday.

This is quite clear, an astoundingly simple response to need that is more than echoed in the New Testament by Jesus, especially in Matthew 25, and by James in his epistle.   This Isaiah text, however, captures both the needed response to the people themselves and to the people who are oppressing them.  As witnessed today in the Houses of Parliament, an Member of Parliament who can sit in a debating chamber and laugh and sneer at the idea of people fighting over discounted food in the supermarket has really lost touch with his constitutional role to protect, defend and administer rightly and justly.

There are many complex reasons as to why people have to resort to ‘charity’, from issues like addiction, unemployment, lack of community, mental health and other health issues, to name but a few.  Contrary to popular opinion, the ‘scroungers’ are actually few.  I’ve met a fair few of them in the course of life and ministry this far, but this can never, ever, be the brush that we tar everyone with.  Isaiah suggests we forget the malicious talk, the pointing finger, and act with compassion.

I don’t care two hoots if Scotland has independence in comparison to how I feel about people being able to eat a decent meal and for children to have a nourishing meal in 21st Century Britain.  I’ll be blessed to sit down with my family on Christmas day and share a lovely meal, but also thankful to know that I’ve at least done something, however small, to ensure others can do the same.  It is time that the church was even more exercised on this issue than it already is.

Advent Reality

As I’ve walked through Advent this year, I’ve been doing some thinking about what it brings to Christian life to have an ‘Advent’ mindset.  I used to think Advent was nonsense and that the celebration of Christmas Day as ‘Jesus is born today’ was a bit weird because we all know he came 2000+ years ago etc.  Its amazing what you miss when your formative theological paradigm is so triumphal!

It strikes me that the whole point of Advent surely must still be the prayer ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’  The theology of the Kingdom means that we are still, in effect, in Advent.  We do not yet see the Kingdom in all its fulness, there is still a sense of something still to happen, more light to dawn, more peace to come, more righteousness to be restored, more fulfilment of the promises of God to be realised.  In a sense, we are waiting for the Kingdom which is the time when Advent is really over.

I look around and I see people in crippling poverty.  I see people imprisoned and blind in all sorts of ways; physical, mental and spiritual.  There is still ashes instead of beauty, mourning instead of joy, despair instead of praise.  The ‘ancient ruins’ are still ruined and the places are still devastated.  (cf Isaiah 61) The Kingdom is breaking in, but in part.  We want to see an ‘increase of his government and peace there will be no end’ (cf Isaiah 9).  We want to work and pray for ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done.’

It’s not finished.  Christ is born, crucified, raised and ascended,  but we are still waiting.  Still hoping, longing, working, praying.   Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Don’t miss it!

Don’t let it fly past you!  Christmas, that is.  I’ve been passing out a fair bit of bah humbug in recent days quite on purpose.  It is simple because I’m not ready for Christmas yet, I’m still in advent.  I’m still searching, looking, hoping, wondering, holding before God my uncertainties and deepest longings.  Yet, I know all things, in many different surprising ways, will be met in the Word become flesh.

Because in our current ‘church’ culture, Christmas is over by boxing day, I’ll be moving my own thinking towards incarnation and the wonder of the Cosmic Christ of Eternity becoming limited to human for me and us.  I’m going to explore a few ‘practices’ in these few days leading to Christmas.  Here they are:

1.   Explore the light:  John 1 tells us that the Word brings light in our darkness.  I’m going to try and spend an hour each day before God in candle light and ask him what light he wants to speak to my life.

2.    Witness to the light:  John 1 tells us that John came as a witness to the light.  I’m going to try to find ways to bless as many people as I can in simple ways, especially in places and to people where he isn’t recognised.

3.  Glorify God:  Luke 1 tells us that Mary’s response to the coming Messiah was to rejoice in God.  Elf tells us that the ‘Best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear!’  I’m going to find times to sing out praises to God each day.

4.    Ponder these things:  In Luke 2, we read that Mary, amazed by the happenings surrounding her baby’s birth ‘treasured these things and pondered them in her heart’.   I’m going to spend some time reading  a little book of Christmas reflections I’ve bought by one of my favourite writers, Fr Richard Rohr.

5.  Bring Gifts:  The magi, In Matthew 2, brought their gifts before Jesus.  I’ll bring mine to and give my heart afresh.

Spiritual Inventory 2013

2013All in all, 2013 has been a real mix of a year in spiritual terms.  I think it has probably been the most significant spiritual years I’ve had.  There have been several new discoveries, commitments and landmarks on the way alongside some very difficult deeper work, mainly around issues like rejection and the clinical depression that has been dogging me and keeping me low for some time…years in fact.  Thankfully, I have a clearer mind now than I’ve had for a while…which explains a lot, in retrospect! Ha!

It has also been a year of vocational and theological exploration.  I’ve taken on some new writers on topics I wouldn’t normally have read by writers I wouldn’t normally pick up and I’ve sought to find ways to settle the sense of ‘unsettled’ vocational identity and I’m getting somewhere with that.  I’ve been living with the call to availability and vulnerability, both to God and to others, as I’ve lived with the Rule of the Northumbria Community.  I’m also looking at making a reaffirmation of my ‘ordination’ promises through an act of consecration in the new year…more to follow on that one.  Identifying with Jesus and the wider church in baptism by immersion in the Almond was a significant new landmark which was followed by a strong sense of calling I’m still working out.

I’ve taken to visiting a spiritual director, which has been humbling.  The poor guy must wonder what has hit him when I arrive with my varied contradictions and confusions.  But it has been excellent to have someone ‘independent’ to talk to about spiritual stuff.  Quite great.  I’ve also been seeing a counsellor to talk through lots of baggage and have a good old clear our all round.

The overwhelming result of this bloomin’ hard work is, I suppose, a sense of reemergence and a new sense of adventure at the same time.  I find that I am totally over the cult of busy, recognising that I can only realistically function when I am living a life in balance.  I’ve found a love and desire for silence and stillness as a key antidote to a workaholic ministry that was dragging me into the ground.  When the world seems to be saying I’m useless and short of the mark, I can say, honestly, that I am enough, that I live as wholeheartedly as I can, and that people genuinely appreciate the ministry I am able to offer in spite of my limitations.

More than all that, I find a great liberty and freedom to respond to the call of God in the day to day things.   I also enjoy the freedom to doubt and question, to entertain mystery as I go through this faith journey, which is serving as a great teacher.  It is for freedom that Christ set us free, but I find my biggest task is dealing with my home-made chains.  Its the battle we’re in!

I approach 2014 not with a revelation of the complete path ahead, but enough to be confident to take the first steps into a new year in the footsteps of Jesus the Nazarene.

Convergence

convergence (n.) – the arrival at a common point of various different streams or lines

I guess you’ve heard people say ‘oh, it’s great when it all comes together.’  Pretty common thing to say.  I mean, we love it when the plot of a crime thriller arrives on the last page or when the Kat and Alfie get themselves sorted again or when the meeting goes right or the cake looks like you wanted it to.  We tend to like things coming together.

I spend a lot of time pondering why it is so easy for Christians to spend so much time worried about how orthodox they are.  And, in my more stupid moments, I spend time wondering ‘if I do or say that, how will that stream of friends view me?’  You know what?  It’s hard work.  It is hard work when you no longer see the need or have the desire to see things from one point of view.

At the heart of life and faith is Jesus.  He is the one around whom things should converge, come together.  So long as something takes us there, we might just want to embrace it in order that we might learn.  None of us possess Jesus or the whole truth.  It’s when we take the space to look at him from different angles we begin to understand.

The main streams of faith I find myself looking at these days are as follows:

evangelical – this is how I was ‘discipled’, taught to have an appreciation of God’s word and the centrality of the Cross

– charismatic – my experience of God, from the very beginning, was Spirit-filled.  Spiritual gifts ‘happened’ to me before I knew about them.

– sacramental – from the Salvationist view point of seeing life as a sacrament, to the growing awareness of God as mystery in many things

– liturgical – there was a day when I wouldn’t have thanked you for a bit of liturgy, but these days I am often caught by the poetry and creativity of meeting a wild God in a set prayer.

– celtic – an earthy, practical, Trinitarian and realistic spirituality with an eye for art, colour and imagination

– contemplative – so much of my prayer life until recent years was 100% intercession, asking for stuff, pleading for stuff…its a wonder to sit in the presence of God, to become aware and allow the transformation to take place.

– activist – at the end of the day, religion that the Father loves is one that ‘takes care of widows and orphans’.  A Matthew 25 approach to life and religion.

All these things have so inspired my Christian life and it really feels that it to cut one of them off would be to cut off a limb, an artery.  I wonder what you might add to the mix?

As I’ve arrived in Advent this year, I’ve come in aware of how easy it is to lose your focus.  Spiritual life can be a pain to maintain.  Keeping the disciplines required isn’t easy, and yes grace is always a gift, but grace is never an excuse for neglect.  Rather, it is the force that picks us up and sets us back on the path.

One of the habits I want to avoid is the blocking up of streams.  I want to experience a relationship with God in all its fulness whilst allowing imaginative awe in recognition that there is so much I don’t know.  You might call it spirituality without walls.  As I go through this ‘lowering mountains and raising valleys’ time, I hope I can call my attention to just that.