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 // 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 

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.

a bit of a looker

18 01 2011

Being a bit more Captain Jack Sparrow than Captain America, John the Baptiser is not normally thought of as a bit of a looker. Unless you like the rugged type of course; a bit of a wild locust in your crazy beard might go down a treat with you, especially if you know Johnny Depp is somewhere underneath. But anyway, a looker he was.

He looked to the past and saw what God had done; he looked in the present and saw what God was doing; and he looked to the future and saw what God was about to do. He didn’t understand it, but he could point to it.

We read John 1 on Sunday and discovered John was a bit of a looker. I wonder if you can spot it too.

v29 John looked and saw Jesus coming towards him. John tells everyone to look at Jesus because he is important.
v30 John tells everyone this is who I told you to look for.
v32 John says I know this because I looked and saw the Spirit come down on him at his baptism.
v34 John says I looked and saw this is God’s Chosen One because I had been told what to look for.
v36 John saw Jesus the next day and said “Look!”
v37 John’s 2 disciples looked and saw and followed Jesus.
v38 Jesus looked at them and asked them a question. They asked him where he was staying.
v39 Jesus told them to come and look.
v41 Andrew went to look for his brother to tell him to come and look at who they had found.
v42 Simon came to Jesus and looked.
v43 Jesus went to look for Philip and asked him to follow.
v44 Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him that they had found the one they were looking for, the one the prophets told us to look out for.
v46 Nathanael didn’t believe him; his prejudices got in the way. Philip told him to come and look.
v47 He went to look at Jesus. Jesus looked at him and spoke kind words.
v48 Nathanael looked confused; Jesus told him he had already looked at him.
v49 Nathanael declared Jesus was the Son of God.
v50 Jesus told him to look for greater signs including seeing heaven opening.

And so it goes on. Beginning with John the Baptiser, who did the brave thing and looked on his own; he started off the ‘following Jesus movement’; he encouraged his disciples to leave following him and to follow Jesus because Jesus was bigger than him. Because he looked and he saw.

This has a lot to say to us about looking and seeing. Because it is so easy to go through life with our eyes closed. Because we are busy, because we are tired, because we are fitting in our faith around so much stuff or because we don’t realise there is anything to look at beyond the rhythm of church and life. But we can be people who look. Who look at our own lives, who look at others lives, who look at what is happening in the world and then look to God and say What do you want me to see?

May that be our prayer for 2011. In this life, in this home, in this church, in this school, in this office, in this coffee morning, in this bus, in this coffee shop, in this pub, in this park, in this toddler group, in this TV programme, on this sofa, at this bus stop, in this car, in this film, in this blog, in this book, in this conversation, in this bible passage… what do you want me to see?

Then we can all be a bit of a looker. We might not understand what we see, but at least we can point to it.

2 fingers to the inheritance of vipers

15 12 2009

No babes in mangers but broods of vipers. No chestnuts roasting on an open fire but the rotten fruit of the children of Abraham. No royalty privilege but repentance.

brood of vipers

The set reading for this Sunday was a bit of surprise for those who think Christmas has already started. According to the Church of Retail and Commerce, it begins in September when the suntan lotion is replaced by tinsel and baubles. But according to the Church of England lectionary (like Pictionary only without the giggles), we are still firmly in advent. So, for us this week there were no shepherds or kings, no stables or donkeys. Instead, some fiery John the Baptist having a pop at his own followers.

The crowds follow him, as he preaches his message of repentance. He spots a bit of hypocrisy. Some people coming who are in it for the ride, going through the motions, don’t fully get it. He doesn’t have a quiet word. “You brood of vipers!” Wow. These are the people who are coming to him; not the classic scary street preacher having at go at those who don’t come. Why does he do this? Because repentance is a serious business. There is no room for elitism. And definitely no room for hereditary holiness: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our Father'”. To a nation and belief system based on the assumption that they were the chosen ones and therefore were ok, this is big stuff.

We, of course, would never fall into that trap. We, the Church of England, the ‘proper’ church. We would never be arrogant enough to assume that we had it right. That all others were a pale reflection of proper worship, proper repentance, proper priesthood. Would we? We, the nation of the United Kingdom, a ‘proper’ country, would never assume we have a right to be healthy, wealthy, rich and comfortable at the expense of any others. We are the good people.  Aren’t we?

christmas crunch

When questioned, John goes on to give examples of living out true repentance, rather than paying it lip service. “Anyone who has two shirts should give to one who has none. Anyone who has food should do the same.” Here comes the Christmas crunch. In a time of excess of things and food, we are called to share. Our food our clothes our presents our chocolate our families our wealth. Not just some loose change as an after-thought.

This is bigger than you, me and our next-door neighbours. A global economy means global consequences. Who makes the clothes we wear? Who makes the chocolate we eat? If we close our ears to those difficult, very un-festive questions we are no better than a brood of hypocritical vipers looking for a salve to our conscience without a change to our lifestyle.

know this logo

Did you know that if your chocolate isn’t marked as fair-trade, then there is no guarantee the farmer was adequately paid? Or that slaves were not used in its production? Slaves! Often children. Most of our cheap chocolate comes from the Cote d’Ivoire, where use of chocolate slaves is rife. Now, thankfully there have been some significant victories in the world of chocolate production recently. Some of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars are now Fairtrade. Nestle have recently announced that their 4-finger Kit Kat bars will be Fairtrade from January. These are big hitters and this is big news. It is an encouragement to people who have been campaigning for years. But it is still a tiny proportion of the market.

christmas crunch

If we want to take seriously John the Baptist’s challenge; if we want to take seriously the true, raw, honest and painful meaning of Christmas; if we want to be followers of Christ and not the crowd, then we must act differently. It may make us unpopular. Our families may not like us only buying fair-trade chocolate as presents. It is more expensive, so we buy less. (Why is it more expensive? Ask Tescos why they cannot absorb the extra cost into their vast profits.)  Our families and friends may not like us turning our lives around to fit Jesus in rather than just turning the lounge around to fit the tree in.  Tell them why.  And tell Cadbury’s, tell Nestle. Thank them for the fair-trade 4-finger Kit Kat, then give them 2 fingers, and ask them why not that bar too. Because we have no inherited right to chocolate produced in the dark, underbelly of slavery. We have no inherited right to have 2 shirts when others have only 1. We have no inherited right to speak of repentance if it does not impact us where it hurts.

Now that is a Christmas message. And John ended up dead for it. Nice.

For more information on these issues go to the Stop the Traffik campaign, the Fairtrade Foundation, visit your local Oxfam shop, and remember to always ask for Fairtrade coffee in in your local coffee shop. Contact Cadbury’sNestle and Mars here to thank them and ask them for more Fairtrade products.

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