the advent sessions // spiderman

23 12 2013

This week our church was protected by Spiderman. Which to be honest was a lot more comforting than all this baby-talk. It’s a lovely story, great for the children. But it’s all a bit… twee. The nativity I mean, not Spiderman. You want a story about unknown local boy made good. It’s Peter Parker. With great power comes great responsibility, and all that.

If Mary and Joseph had grasped that, they would have had him born somewhere safer. Raised somewhere cleaner. Tutored in using his powers for the good of all, you know. By which I mean people of influence. Not just the unseen and unknown. Then the good would trickle down. And wouldn’t end in ignominious death.

Then there’s branding. Spiderman has his web. The baddies see that, they quiver. Batman has the bat. Even Spiderman has the “S”. Jesus? A manger, or a cross? If churches had a symbol that struck fear into their enemies, now that would be better.

But. I suppose the story isn’t so twee once you look at it. Strip away the trimmings and you’re left with teenage faithfulness, courageous parenting, fearful refugees, and the murder of children by a despotic King. The unbelievable risk of God, the risk not to come in power with angel armies, not to leave his terrifying mark on the door frames and be the harbinger of fear and doom. Not to be a one-man superhero show.

Maybe living among and loving your enemies is more courageous than frightening them. Maybe taking a risk and living the daily pain of forgiveness is more courageous than revenge. Maybe including unwelcome shifty shepherds and astronomers of a different religion at the birth of the Son of God was a remarkably brave and unexpected thing to do. And a sign of things to come. 

Maybe the manger and the cross are better symbols than the spiderweb. Maybe the church is protected by something even greater than power.     

the advent sessions // panic

20 12 2013

“Advent. Contains drama and mild peril.” That might be the rating description. There’s no violence (yet) but if people hearing voices, seeing angels and falling unusually pregnant doesn’t have your hand hovering over the panic button, I’m not sure what will.

Christmas angels have an pretty fairy-like quality in our art. But always begin their greeting with “Don’t panic!”. Why? Because they cause panic. Why panic? Ask Joseph. The forgotten character in the drama, the tough guy carpenter who said “I’m outta here”. Until he trusted an angel in a dream. Explain that to your mates at the Bethlehem Tavern.


The ‘my girlfriend’s pregnant’ problem causes panic even in our culture. Hence this leaflet I found on the pavement. If he’d had a phone, he would text OMG. Or OMY. God had a name. And God said don’t panic. 

Panic. What’s God asking us to do that makes us panic? Who’s baby is he asking us to care for? It’s not irony that later on Jesus says: when you care for the poor, naked, and homeless, you care for me. Like his dad did. You can’t get much more helpless than Jesus. And much more selfless than Joseph. 

So, again, what’s God asking of you that is making you panic? Think carefully, because that will be the thing that truly matters.

the advent sessions // floorboards

19 12 2013


Have you ever been in a house with bare floorboards? Not the intentional ones all buffed and polished, smoothed to a shine to be cared for and cherished; but cracked and splintery and dark and unfinished.  Have you ever been in social housing before? To visit people with no pennies to buy themselves carpets or curtains so it’s unintentionally spartan; this is rarely a lifestyle choice, I’m certain.

On the subject of poverty I come over all cynical and my opinions may well not be typical; inside my head I’m so angry like the prophets of old my language is not holy and spiritual but shouty and physical with lyrical rage at how we seem to accept Foodbanks as natural.

Well they are a natural result of the free market that lines the rich with deep pile carpet and hold the poor in the deep pit of hopelessness and bare boards and I know some will say that the poor are deserving with their whiny subservient scrounging taking advantage of the generously benevolently incidentally wealthy and I say so bloody what.

Because for every  person who is taking advantage there’s a thousand others without a vestige of boldness to take what’s not theirs. Have you ever been humiliated enough as to walk into a handout and manage to walk out with your head held even higher lifted by the kindness of strangers who lift you from the dangerous pit of despair not asking how you got there by fault or circumstance but giving you a chance to get through 3 days without a glance askance but seeking to enhance your life from existence to living.

I hate the Foodbank not because it’s not a good system but because the society we live in should damn well not need them so if you’ve never used one put yourselves in the shoes those who do before dismissing the few who abuse them before suggesting we lose them or with it the entire welfare system.

So what has this post got to do with advent; well the prophets spoke of one who would be finally sent to deal with the malevolent, the bent, who with cruel intent that stinks so pungent cause an ancient fermenting lament; and this is what’s meant by the arrival of the pregnant, the silent, the unlikely regent, the beginning of the celebration of the benevolent. The Prince of Peace.

Kindness with longevity not just seasonal generosity. Long may it reign. For many need it so desperately.

This is part of a series called the advent sessions, using local images to help reflect on advent.  Previous posts are:
the advent sessions // fork handles
the advent sessions // for candles
the advent sessions // rebuild
the advent sessions // despair    

the advent sessions // despair

15 12 2013


The often forgotten partner of hope in advent.
Captured, I thought, in this discarded lottery ticket by the church door.

Despair follows hope and tries to drain it of colour.
John the Baptiser. Radical preacher. Dramatic prophet.
Cousin of Jesus.
From prison asks
Have I got it wrong?
What are you doing?
Where there was hope
Now there is despair.

Jesus replied. I am he. This is what is happening.

Great, thought John, immersed in the irony
Of an ascetic repentance-preaching
anti-establishment prophetic fire-brand
Beheaded for sport at an opulent royal feast.

Capture the despair of advent.
The pain of waiting.
When the bottom falls out of your world.

Because things do not always turn out well.


This is part of a series called the advent sessions, using local images to help reflect on advent.  Previous posts are:
the advent sessions // fork handles
the advent sessions // for candles
the advent sessions // rebuild

the advent sessions // fork handles

10 12 2013


Preparing the ground.
Digging in.
Turning it over.
Turning lives over.
Elizabeth. Zechariah. 
Nobody believing.

Preparing the ground.
Digging in.
Turning himself over.
Turning his very nature over.
Father. Son. Holy Spirit.
Nobody believing.

Imagine the conversation
Even in the omnipotent mind:

We must prepare the ground.
We must dig it over.
We must be safe.
But nothing that grows in nature is safe.
We know that.
We made that. 

So we dig.
We prepare the ground.
We choose faithful people.
Unexpected people.
Unexceptional people?

Take hold of the fork handle.
For the triune God
Preparing the ground is not static.
It is not safe.
It is not clean.
And it is not done alone. 

This is part of a series called the advent sessions, using local images to help reflect on advent. This picture is from my garden. It may be the last with the four candles/fork handles reference, but who knows. Previous posts are:
the advent sessions // for candles
the advent sessions // rebuild

the advent sessions // rebuild

8 12 2013

scaffolding houses_snapseedThe local housing association are doing a massive improvement project on local homes. New windows, doors, roofs. Scaffolding everywhere. More hi-viz jackets than you can shake your staffie’s stick at. And it’s about time. A lady I know is in a house that still has bomb damage. From WW2. And she has to pay the bedroom tax.

It reminded me of this promise from Isaiah:

They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. (Isaiah 61:4 NIVUK)

In church it can be easy to talk in Advent about awaiting the return of the King to transform the earth like it’s some kind of fairy tale, wishful thinking, the end of a Disney movie with rousing music and glowing sunshine. Get outside amongst scaffolding and skips and hard-working labourers in freezing cold wind and it makes it more earthy. Who knows what the end will bring but in the meantime the transformation of which we are a part is dirty, cold, and hard work. Which is basically what John the Baptist said.  

His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” [Matthew 3.1-11 The Message]

This is part of a series in Advent using images from the local area. See also: the advent sessions // for candles 

the advent sessions // for candles

4 12 2013
for candles

for candles

Are essentially interwoven through Advent.
But they are not Advent.
Are not the point, but they point to the point.
Are not holy, but they point to the holy.
Are not sacred; but they point to the sacred.
Are not God; but they point to God.

May we always keep the love in focus
Not the candles. 

Yet may these advent candles be the light
that lights our journey from
Abraham to Isaiah to Mary
from birth to death to resurrection
from peasant to cross to coming King.

This advent I will be using pictures to explore Advent and it’s meaning in my local area. This first picture is the Advent candles in Bishop Andrewes’ Church. Previously I did the Lent Sessions, some of which you can see here:

a rebellious repenting

16 12 2012

Repentance turnaroundSo today I did a bit of a spoken word poetry in church about John the Baptist, I didn’t introduce it or explain it, I just did it as unexpectedly as I could, because John himself was unexpected as was the man he projected, and others rejected… see there I go again. The context is me hoovering. Obviously. If it’s too long for you, jump to the green bit at the end. 

Are you ready? Are you ready? Am I ready for what? 
I saw John the Baptiser dancing on the spot
Or not so much dancing but he’s getting excited you see
Waving his arms all enthusiastically 
Are you ready! He calls out, somebody’s coming!
You’d better have a wash then Jonny-boy cos your armpits are humming

It’s alright for you to say 
we all need to change our ways
Like it’s some kind of last days
When the valleys will be raised
Are you in some kind of crazed
Desert preacher prophet phase

Hang on there’s a car pulling up it must be my special guests 
And here am I hoovering in my pants and vest
Quickly I’ll get dressed and stoke up the fire
Because it’s my friends Elizabeth and Zechariah
I say they’re my friends, I’ve known them for years
They’re worried about their son John they’ve been reduced to tears
They knew he was special but they didn’t know why
And now he’s doing all this preaching in the public eye
And it’s not harmless stuff he’s saying; no sentimental guff
He’s a gritty young fella and he looks pretty rough

Not what they were expecting
After the angels projecting 
Their son so rejecting
And all the time expecting
A rebellious repenting 
This desert preacher prophet thing

He was so rude to all the people who had come to follow him
Like they were jumping on a bandwagon just so they could get in
To God’s good books – you know, repenting but not in their hearts
Hypocrisy was the biggest thing that wound up John by far
You brood of vipers, you liars and thieves 
With your cheap repentance the axe is coming to your trees
To cut you down and throw you into the fire 
He said it again and again like he was never going tire
But still they came what shall we do they said
Share you clothes, your lives, your love, your bread

This is a big changing
A wide and ranging
Values exchanging
Family estranging

And rearranging 
This desert preacher prophet thing

The soldiers came to John and said so tell us what you mean
Cos’ we’re in charge of behaviour here: do we need to be clean
And John was brave and bold I think he was stupid actually
And told them not to thieve and rob and act like thugs and bullies
He even said that they should be content with all their pay 
They looked him in the eye and laughed and then walked away

And then there were the tax collectors who came to be baptised
To see them talking to a prophet I’ve never been more surprised 
They asked him what they should do to repent like he was saying
Don’t take more money from anybody than the amount they should be paying
It seems obvious to us but tax collectors are hated thieves
There’s no way John’s the messiah while those people live and breathe 

So yes I can see why his mum and dad are worried 
That before long it won’t be them but be him that’s being buried 
And his cousin Jesus is beginning to hang around him
More shame on the family might be about to surround them
They’ve come to me for comfort but I don’t know what to say  
Because he’s set apart for God that John, in a funny kind of way
With his camel hair and funny diet and as tactful as a hatchet
He reminds me in distinctly of an Elijah-style prophet

Not what they were expecting
After the angels projecting 
Their son would be rejecting
And all the time expecting
A rebellious repenting 
This desert preacher prophet thing

It seems John was talking about a rebellious repenting 
And that’s why God called him to life and then he sent him
To soldiers to be different and to tax collectors the same
And to ordinary people to live in honour and not in shame
If we are serious about following the God who we profess
Then it’s not enough to come week after week just to confess
But we make serious changes to our lives and be generous all the time
Are you ready? Am I ready? To be generous with my life? 

It’s more than just a sweeping and a cleaning to look pretty
It’s more than just covering over the parts that look dirty
It’s more than just plumping the cushions and hiding the toys
Quickly running the hoover round and poshing up your voice
When your friends come round they should see you as you are 
When God comes round to live with us? I know it sounds bizarre
We show him that we love him not by following all the rules 
But by a rebellious repenting that might make us look like fools

Cos we won’t buy dodgy goods or take cash in hand on the side
And we won’t swear at our families because in our hearts we take pride
We won’t cheat the welfare system or claim someone else’s pension
We won’t do dodgy tax arrangement or things too complex to mention
When we lose our rag we apologise even though it means losing face
Then we don’t do it again – it’s called living in expensive grace 
Living life a different way – the hard way – following The Way
I think that might be Jesus, I think that’s what John’s trying to say.

May we be people who live differently, living lives of rebellious repentance.

advents’ unexpected journey

2 12 2012
an unexpected journey

an unexpected journey

Advent is the season of unexpected journeys. You can take precautions against such things of course, like not listening to anybody called Gandalph, or having an emergency 50p sewn into your pocket. But epic and unexpected journeys just keep coming. And I don’t just mean hobbits, though they do have a habit of appearing during advent.

At advent we look back to God’s epic and unexpected journey through history, beginning with awkwardly naked people in a fruity garden, and taking in wife-swappers, murderers, inheritance-stealers, foreigners and hairy fox-burners, the rise and fall of kingdoms, the liberation of slaves, epic adventures, tragic failures, Boney M and prophets marrying prostitutes. An unexpected journey indeed.

Like the Jews before us, we look back at what God has done. As they looked back to the Exodus as the marker and definer of their faith, so we take in that story and the story of Jesus’ new exodus. But advent isn’t about looking back for its own sake. We look back to in order to look forward. As God has done things in the past, so God will do new things in the future. And that is the case in the epic over-arching story, and in the individual story, whether person is Elizabeth or Mary or Nora..

a young gandalph

a young gandalph

Nora? I want to tell you about Nora. That’s not her real name though she is real. She is a lady from one of our previous churches. An extremely shy old lady, one of the few times her eyes would light up is when she told the story of coming to faith, during a Billy Graham mission in the 1950’s. This was the marker and definer of her faith. We often encouraged her to ask God to do a new thing in her, but she was happy with the memory she had, not believing God would bother to do a new thing in little her.

One day we (unusually) did a call for people to come forward if they wanted a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit. I really hoped she would come. She was sat at her usual chair, right at the back. She didn’t come. Until the very end of the queue. I can’t tell you my surprise or joy seeing her shuffle up the aisle with her stick. I prayed for her. She went to sit down. It was only in the next few weeks she told us that she had felt that same feeling in church that day as she had had 50 years ago. God had done a new thing in her. She had a new story to tell. She had a new smile. 

This is the unexpected journey of advent. Re-telling old stories to remember that God will give us a new story. Old ladies making the journey up to the front to be anointed. Or giving birth to John the Baptist.

God is doing a new thing. It’s an unexpected journey. And we go together.

… [ waiting ] …

1 12 2011

I wonder what your symbol of waiting is. The bus stop, train station, school gate; red brake lights, red traffic lights; the egg timer on the computer, the slow-boiling kettle, the long-winded preacher…

We spend a lot of our time … waiting.

I struggle to enjoy waiting. Some might take the opportunity whilst stuck in a traffic jam to pray or worship or something equally holy. I just get cross and put the Foo Fighters on.

Advent is about waiting.  Advent isn’t just ‘that bit before Christmas’, like the check-in desk is to a holiday. And advent isn’t Christmas itself, whatever the shops would have us believe.

Advent is when we remember that the people of Israel waited for their expected Messiah for a very very very long time. And we remember that we are waiting for that Messiah to return again and finally and once and for all sort everything out. So advent is definitely not just the bit before Christmas.

There’s a lot of biblical precedent for waiting. Noah waited. Abraham waited. Moses waited, Joseph waited, Ruth and Naomi waited. David waited, the prophets waited. All these different people pleaded and begged and bribed God to do things at their speed, rather than his, and all failed. Because God will not be rushed.

As we wait for Jesus to come again, I wondered which biblical characters we might find ourselves behaving like.

The story of the golden calf tells us a lot about waiting. Moses had gone up the mountain and had been gone ages. Aaron and the people got fed up with waiting. Things were better in Egypt, at least there we could do things to make the gods work for us – rituals and sacrifices and we could touch and see the Egyptian gods because they were made of real stuff. So instead of waiting for God, they made their own out of gold.

A lot of people have got fed up with waiting for God and decided to make their own. Or to go back to their old ways. Or make church like the golden calf – familiar things, familiar rituals, that feel like they are achieving something. But God will not be bribed with ritual.

Maybe we find ourselves waiting like the zealots or Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Two very different groups that both wanted to make the Messiah come quicker because he would overthrow the Romans. So they busied themselves with forcing God to act quicker – the zealots with violence and the Pharisees with holiness.

It can be very tempting to try and rush God. How many times have you heard people say that once everyone in the world has heard the gospel Jesus will come; or if we all say the right prayer;  or return the Jews to Israel; or believe the same things about Jesus or moral and ethical issues… then Jesus will be forced to return because we’ll have done our side of the bargain. I’ve done a, so will you do b. Bargaining with God. We always try it, but he doesn’t do it.

The prophets had a lot to say about waiting. They were constantly addressing a people who were waiting. And their message I think is the same as the message to us as we wait.

Wait patiently. And while you wait, be faithful. And by faithful I mean worship God even when he doesn’t work at your speed; submit to God even when he doesn’t do what you want when you want; and serve God even when it feels like a waste of time. 

There is hope.

Jesus will come again. That is our hope. We will meet him and welcome him here to earth where he will renew all things. In the meantime we live lives in which we do not get distracted into making our own gods or bribing or bargaining with God but in which we wait expectantly, live hopefully, and serve faithfully.   It won’t make him come any quicker, but the waiting will be much better, and allowing God to break into our lives like he did at Christmas is the best type of waiting there is.

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