Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Christmas Songs

I wonder what is your favourite Christmas song.  White Christmas, perhaps.  Little Drummer Boy.  Mary’s Boy Child.  Maybe Merry Christmas Everybody.  Or I wish it could be Christmas every day.  Or Lonely this Christmas.  Perhaps you also have a favourite Christmas Carol.  One of my Christmas song memories comes from the three years my wife and I lived in the Republic of Panama, when the temperature never dropped below 23 degrees day or night all year round, but we still found that one of the most commonly played songs in the shops was – I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.  Quite a dream in that oppressively hot climate.

I guess my favourite Christmas song has to be the one sung by the angels and written down for us by Luke in his Gospel – Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours

This was surely the X-factor winner of its day, and the shepherds, out in the fields, must have been completely bowled over by this fantastic and unexpected choir.  It certainly had an impact on them.  They abandoned their sheep for the moment and went rushing off to Bethlehem to visit this special new baby. 

Mind you, I do sometimes wonder how welcome they were.  You’re stuck in the stable because it is the only space anybody can find for you to stay.  You’ve just had a baby.  And a bunch of smelly shepherds arrive at the door.  Talk about unwanted Christmas visitors.  But the story brings home to us the message that what really matters about Christmas is that the extraordinary God comes into our messy world in such an ordinary way, born as a baby, an event that is always both ordinary and amazing – and has it announced not to the powerful and influential of the day, but to a bunch of very ordinary shepherds. 

I know that sometimes it seems as though Christmas has got over-commercialised and that there is a real risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  I have even heard it asked whether we really needed to have baby Jesus in a nativity play.  And it is difficult, in these days, to see how peace is being played out.  We live in times where people are too easily labelled in ways that they don’t deserve.  A horrific terrorist act deserves all the condemnation it gets, but that should never include the condemning of a whole faith the vast, vast majority of whose followers would be equally condemnatory of the terrorism.  The events in other parts of the world have led, in recent weeks, to the biggest migration that has been seen for a long time.  That causes its problems and its issues.  But, as has been often said, Jesus himself became a refugee, fleeing to Egypt.  Are we ready and willing to rise to the challenge of welcoming the stranger in our midst when God so calls us?

You see, it’s easy to sing or listen to nice Christmas songs, and I invite you to enjoy doing so – but if we are not doing even the little we can to bring about the peace and goodwill and justice of which most such songs speak, even the secular ones, then we are missing out on the true challenge of Christmas which is that God came to this world to love it – but that love requires some changes.  The Christmas story is of God’s loving coming in to the world.  That’s what we celebrate.  That’s what we are called to reflect.  That’s what can make a difference to the world in which we live.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

In the Night

I have been reading Daniel Munoz's Transformed by the Beloved" which reflects on St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul. It is important to recognise the transformative potential of the place that we might want to avoid. Munoz points out that "The night, for John, has a transformational power and a redemptive power." The 'night' has all sorts of challenges and difficulties. The question is not how we avoid these - though that is sometimes what we attempt - but what we do with them. Even more important is what God, in his grace, does with us in such times.

Questions and doubts can emerge in the 'night' and that can be difficult, but it can also take us where we need to be. As Munoz puts it: "The night is the place where growth happens, where God stretches our spiritual muscles, where we experience maturity and increasingly reach our full potential as human beings."

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Praying Makes A Difference

"Praying, therefore, is the most critical activity we are capable of, for when we pray, we are never satisfied with the world of here and now and are constantly striving to realise the new world, the first glimmers of which we have already seen." Another quotation from Henri Nouwen's With Open Hands, offering a reminder that prayer does make a difference because it is the expression of our relationship with God. Praying helps us to recognise that God can take us to new places. Too often we are caught up in our own thinking and planning. Nouwen points out that "Christ is the one who in the most revealing way made clear that prayer means sharing in the power of God."

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Key of David

During Advent I have been reading Malcolm Guite's Waiting on the Word.  He offers a poem - or extract from a poem - for each day and gives a reflective commentary.  Over this particular few days the poems are a series of seven sonnets which he himself wrote reflecting seven great prayers of the early church in which Christ is addressed by a series of mysterious titles found in the Old Testament, mainly in Isaiah.  Today's selection takes the fourth of these and so reflects on Christ as 'the Key of David'.

There is a particular link with Isaiah 22:22 and 42:7.  The first of these refers to receiving the key off David and what it will open and close while the second mentions some of the things that are unlocked.

It is not one of the most commonly used images, but I like this idea of Jesus being the means by which crucial things are unlocked.  The world is complex.  We need a key to unlock its challenges. That key is Jesus.  This especially works as an image in those places where we are struggling.  We might join Guite in referring to Jesus as a Key "that finally fits, unlocks, opens and heals our woundedness."

Guite also reminded me of another useful application of this image when he talks of how "we speak of the need on the one hand for 'closure' and on the other for 'unlocking', 'opening' or 'liberation'."

The key plays a crucial role in getting us in to situations, and so we talk about things that are key and people who have a key role.  I think I want to also make that connection - and look for the key things that God is calling us to do - which, incidentally, might mean that we need (and ought) to give up some of the not-so-key ones in order to make space.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

God is not Santa Claus

Reading further into Henri Nouwen's "With Open Hands", I was struck by what he says about expectation and hope within prayer.  This concerns the whole question of how we approach God. What do we think might happen?  Where might our praying take us? Nouwen recognises that many of us are more focussed on what we can get than on our relationship with God. God does give us a lot. We sometimes call those blessings; but God wants to engage with us and be part of our lives.

Nouwen points out that "People of little faith pray like children who want a present from Santa Claus but who are so frightened of the 'Holy Man' that they run away as soon as they have their hands on their package. They would rather have nothing more to do with the old bearded gentleman than getting his gift. All the attention is on the gift and none on the one who gives it."

Prayer is not about guaranteed results. Putting it another way, it is not about just going to Santa for a gift.  Prayer is rather the expression of our relationship with God, recognising that God is alongside us, come what may, and shares both our pain and our joy. Life is often messy, and God doesn't offer an escape route, but does offer the strengthening relationship of accompaniment.

As Nouwen puts it: "In the prayer of hope, there are no guarantees asked, no conditions posed, and no proofs demanded.  You expect everything from the other without binding the other in any way. Hope is based on the premise that the other gives only what is good."

Friday, 18 December 2015

Opening Clenched Fists

I have  been reading Henri Nouwen's "With Open Hands" - and found it packed with helpful thinking on prayer.  Nouwen accepts that prayer is not easy.  After all, as he puts it: "It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very centre of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched."  Of course, it is difficult to do that - and something we naturally resist.

Nouwen suggest that it is rather like a clenched fist.  "The resistance to praying is a bit like the resistance of tightly clenched fists."  What we need to do is to prise open that clenched fist.  We need to let go of all those things that get in the way, and that we are holding on to so tightly, in order that God can engage with us as needed.  We need to listen to the words of the angels telling us - 'Don't be afraid!'

So often it is fear that gets in the way of trust.  As Nouwen puts it: "Each time you dare to let go and to surrender one of those many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving."

It is good to give; but why are we so often so afraid of receiving?

Monday, 14 December 2015

Living Water

Meditation of a woman from Samaria -

I remember that day well, a day never to be forgotten.  It was close to noon as I made my way to the well to fetch the day’s supply of water.  I always went around that time of day.  It was usually pretty hot, but that way I got the well to myself and didn’t have to put up with the stares and comments – folk thinking that they could say whatever they want and absolutely no regard for my feelings.

But on this particular day there was somebody sitting beside the well.  I could see him as I approached.  He looked hot, tired and thirsty.  It was clear that he wasn’t one of us.  I could tell that immediately.  He was a Jew – and so I was stunned when he asked me for a drink of water.  Everybody knows that Jews won’t drink from any cup that has been near a Gentile!

I thought that he must not have realised who I was, what was my background – and I thought that I had better mention that little problem.  I couldn’t see how he might expect another Jew to be passing by, but I did not want to be accused of tricking him into using a Gentile cup. 

But then – and this really did not make any sense – he said that, if I knew who he was, I would be asking him for a drink.  I felt bound to point out that the only way to get water out of the well was with a bucket, and he didn’t have one.  How was he going to do the impossible?  Was he greater than Jacob whose well it was?  I asked him how, and what he said was this: “Everyone who drinks will get thirsty again; but those who drink my living water will never be thirsty again.”

That made even less sense, and yet somehow I knew that he was telling the truth.  I couldn’t understand how he could give me water that was so special that I could never be thirsty again, but I knew that I wanted that water!  I wouldn’t be thirsty.  I wouldn’t have to go to the well.  I wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of all the bad-mouthing.  I wanted that water, that special, living water.

And, after it was all over – because we did talk some more, and then I ran off to tell this exciting news to the rest of the village, who were rather stunned to get such news from me – but, after it was all over, I wished I had given him a drink from the well.  I never got round to doing that.  And he looked so hot and thirsty.  I don’t think he would have minded where the cup came from.

But, if I had, would he still have told me about the special, living water?

See John 4:4-15

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Water for the Thirsty

Isaiah 55 begins with a rousing encouragement - come for water, all who are thirsty; though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat; come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price.  This passage is a resounding reminder as to how different God's ways are from ours.  Later in the chapter the prophet says, passing on God's message - for my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.  As I often say in preaching, God turns things upside down!

The reminder is that God's ways are higher than ours.  We need to look up to God.  The images of the chapter - watering the earth, giving seed for sowing and bread for eating - are reminders of the abundance of God's gifts.  [Am I ready to receive God's gifts?]  We often talk - rightly - about the importance of giving, but receiving is also important!

The image of the mountains and the hills shouting for joy and the trees clapping their hands is crazy - but that craziness equals the love of God!  It is all about transformation.  

Friday, 11 December 2015

As A Deer

Psalm 42 begins with the poignant image of a deer desperate for water and arriving at a stream bed that is now dry and water.  The deer cries out in urgent thirst.  Walter Brueggemann describes this psalm as "a prayer of an individual in crisis."  He continues: "Just as water is necessary for life, and just as the deer's need is urgent, so is God necessary for life and the speaker's need for the divine presence urgent."  Henry Wansborough similarly points out that the psalm expresses "the ardent longing to come close to God."

The idea of longing is a particular focus in this psalm.  The deer's hope of getting thirst quenched by running water is a fantastic model of how God's love sustains and refreshes us.  There are things that look as though they might overwhelm us, but God's presence assures us of a different result.

The deer of the psalm might be struggling, but is an important reminder of the possibility that is there for us to turn to God.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

St. Beuno's

"... You saw there how the Lord carried you all the way to this place .... " (Deuteronomy 1:31).  I am just back from a six day silent Ignatian guided retreat at St. Beuno's in North Wales.  As on my two previous visit, this was a great opportunity to spend time in prayer - as well as doing a little bit of "light" walking in the Welsh countryside.  I found both elements of the experience enriching - how good to focus on prayer, to the exclusion of emails, for a few days!

I started out with this verse from Deuteronomy and reflected both on how God "carries" me and what are the things that I am carrying.  One of the great things about God's carrying is its supportive nature and how that gets me where I need to be, even when that is through the wilderness, as in tis particular instance in Deuteronomy.  The wilderness is a difficult and barren place, but it needs to be crossed.  It is also not insignificant that God's carrying is total - "all the way".  There are no half measures with God.

The context of this verse reminds the people of what God did for them in Egypt and in bringing them out of Egypt and so challenges them to trust God, the one who can be trusted.