Monday, 21 December 2009


On Christmas Eve the eyes of many Christians will turn to Bethlehem as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ our Saviour and Lord. I had the privilege of visiting Bethlehem during Advent last year and so the place and the inhabitants are very much in my thoughts and prayers at this time.

One of my fellow pilgrims journeying to Bethlehem was Revd Dr Andrew Mayes. Andrew is now Course Director at St George’s College, Jerusalem and leads others in reflecting on the places and people in the Land of the Holy One. I have found Andrew’s recent meditation on Bethlehem both helpful and challenging and I’ve illustrated some of his comments with a few of the pictures I took:

manger square At this time of year, hundreds come to Bethlehem to visit the Basilica of the Nativity. It is a fortress of a church, built by Justinian in the sixth century on Constantinian foundations. It is an awesome place. The pilgrims enter by a low door, requiring them to bend low in humility (though the original purpose of the low door was to prevent people riding the horses in!) One enters the mighty nave, with its stunning fourth century mosaics and soaring marble pillars. The church is built over the cave of thsite of Christ's birthe nativity, where a silver star marks the traditional birthplace of Christ. Pilgrims descend steep steps to enter the grotto, as if going into the depths of the earth, where they get on their knees to kiss the star and to touch the rock….

In Christianity the Holy Places developed after the Emperor Constantine's conversion in the forth century and the visit to his mother Helena to this land to identify the Holy Places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Splendid Byzantine churches marked these out as places of worship and pilgrimage, not least at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There is an unbroken tradition of prayer and pilgrimage at this site where it is Christmas everyday! The place of the Nativity speaks powerfully about the Incachurch of the nativityrnation, the Word made flesh (Jn 1:18). It speaks of what has been called the "scandal of particularity" – that is – for God to take on humanity and human nature for the sake of the whole world, there had to be one specific time and one concrete place where that took place. That place is Bethlehem, and here Christians ponder the wonder of God taking on human flesh and blood from Mary and being born our Brother in Jesus. We would indeed bend low….the holy God was laid in the dirt and dust here in Bethlehem's stable…now the grotto of a magnificent adorned church where the famous Christmas Midnight Mass will be celebrated.

But there is another side to Bethlehem and another answer to the question – what is holy? Where can we find God? Where should we be looking for God? Where is God to be encountered today? Bethlehem is hemmed in by the Wall, the Separation Barrier or Security Barrier which here is a concrete wall almost 30 feet in height. This has become a stranglehold and Bethlehem wallnoose around the people of the West Bank. While pilgrims and tourists may pass Bethlehem's military checkpoint at the Wall fairly freely, for Bethlehemites it is often a humiliating ordeal to pass in or out, only possible with the right ID or with special permits, not easily obtained. Many in Bethlehem are separated from their families and relatives in nearby Jerusalem. They can only with immense difficulty worship in Jerusalem, whether at the Muslim Al Aqsa Mosque or Christian Church of the Resurrection.

The statistics tell their own story. In 1947 Bethlehem was 80% Christian and 20% Muslim. Today it is the other way around, due to increasing rates of emigration of Christians in recent years. They are leaving in their droves, in search of a better life, in the US and elsewhere. The local population of Bethlehem, both Christian and Muslim, are prisoners in their own homes, living in the captivity of the West Bank occupied territories….

Where do we find God? Where should we be looking for Christ? Can it be that we can encounter him, not only in holy rocks and grottos but also in the broken lives of the oppressed?……

The life of Jesus redefines holiness. The incarnation redefines the holy. Now we touch the holy God in his incarnate life in Jesus. We see the Holy, in Jesus, in the dust and dirt of a Bethlehem stable, in the simplicity and poverty of Galilee, in the heartache and longing of his tears on the Mount of Olives, in the pain and isolation of Calvary, in the mystery of Easter – there, in these 'Holy places' God's presence is to be discovered and welcomed……

Our God is a God of surprises. He waits to reveal himself in surprising locations and in surprising people. That, perhaps, is the message of Bethlehem. And the question of Bethlehem is for every time and place: What is holy? Where is God to be found?

Please pray for Bethlehem and all its inhabitants this Christmas time.

My account of the visit to Bethlehem can be found here.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

UKBA Christmas Card – part 2

I recently blogged about the appalling UK Border Agency Christmas e-card which has generated an extraordinary amount of web traffic. One of the questions I raised concerned how the card was produced and so I thought I’d do a bit of investigating. I haven’t yet tracked whether the card was designed internally or by an outside agency, however, I did discover the company that has produced a series of posters and leaflets for the UK Border Agency.

The agency is Studio Republic who have posted about the commission on their website. Ironically they have titled their announcement Doors Open with the UK Border Agency; witty little pun but not so funny for the many who find the doors of our borders firmly closed. In their announcement the agency says the following:

We designed and produced as series of posters and leaflets for the service that will be displayed nationwide – the only downside we can see to this is that you need to be a very bad boy or girl to get to see enjoy them! Mind you it’s not everyday that you get a captive audience to look at your work.

In all seriousness thank you to all concerned it was a pleasure working with yUKBA logoou.

Well I’m glad they found it so amusing and no doubt made a tidy profit while having such fun.

Now consider the assumption made in the statement, you ‘need to be a very bad boy or girl’ to see the posters. The 35 or so children in Yarl’s Wood are not bad, they aren’t criminals and nor are their families; they are children who are being damaged by our government’s policy of locking up children caught in the asylum and immigration system. In June this year there were some 470 children locked up in the UK immigration detention centres.

Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Church leaders are encouraging people to send Christmas cards to Phil Woolas MP, the Minister responsible for the UK Border Agency, calling for an end to the detention of children in the asylum system. You can find more information about the campaign here.

This is what Dr Rosalyn Proops, Officer for Child Protection at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said;

We are very concerned about the health and welfare of children in immigration detention. These children are among the most vulnerable in our communities and detention causes unnecessary harm to their physical and mental health. The current situation is unacceptable and we urge the Government to develop alternatives to detention without delay.

No doubt the staff at studiorepublic and the UK Border Agency apparatchiks will have a great time at their Christmas dinners this year; I doubt the children who will have to look at their posters and leaflets while locked up will be enjoying their Christmas.

H/T Annamdrew at the Methodist Church for the information about The most important card you’ll send this Christmas.

UPDATE: Thanks to Martin Beckford for finding out that the UK Border Agency claims it designed the e-card itself and sent it to 'stakeholders'. They have declined to comment on the language used in the card.

Ekklesia have now posted an alternative UK Border Agency e-card.

David Keen has also posted The Arrest on the Flight to Egypt.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Ryan Giggs – SPOTY 2009

At least there was one thing for a Manchester Utd fan to cheer this weekend with Ryan Giggs receiving the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. The award was unexpected as Giggs had been ranked as an outsider and he seemed genuinely shocked to have won; not surprising given the modesty of the man who continues to perform at the highest levels at the age of 36.


There are those who would question the choice of Giggs as winner but just consider for a moment his record:

  • Over 820 appearances for Man Utd so far
  • 151 Goals
  • 11 Premier League Titles
  • 4 FA Cups
  • 3 Football League Cups
  • 2 UEFA Champions League Cups
  • 1 UEFA Super Cup
  • 1 Intercontinental Cup
  • 1 FIFA Club World Cup
  • PFA Player of the Year 2009
  • PFA Young Player of the Year 1992, 1993
  • BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year, 1996, 2009
  • Goal of the Season 1999
  • 64 Caps for Wales
  • 12 International Goal

Giggs is also a UNICEF ambassador and there is an excellent piece in The Times about his trip to Sierra Leone in November.

And if you still question the brilliance of the man check out Ryan Giggs’ goal against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

sign of the times (8) – UKBA Christmas Card

When I saw this Christmas card yesterday I hoped it was a joke but it isn’t. The card is produced by the UK Border Agency, a department of the Home Office and it is a work beyond parody.


This card is wrong on so many levels:

Who thought it a good idea to hi-jack a Christian Festival simply to promote a political message? I know it happens, however, this is just shameless.

The irony is that if the Holy Family had fled to England under Herod’s persecution today, then this is the agency that would have locked them up until they could be fast tracked back across our borders. David Keen has written more about this on his blog.

It speaks volumes about the state of the asylum and immigration debate in our country. Our politicians are involved in a pissing contest to show the public who can be tougher and harder on this issue. I am sick of hearing Phil Woolas, Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, bragging about how tough he is and the other party spokespeople trying to out do him. The truth is that the weakest and most vulnerable seem to be removed from our shores with a complete lack of compassion and in a deliberately callous manner. People like Elizabeth Rushamba and her two children Hilary-Marie and John.

Recently the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre refused to allow St Nicholas to deliver Christmas presents to the estimated 35 children held in the centre; presents that had been donated by London churches. What a great way to celebrate Christmas and how reassuring that our government and its agencies seem so determined to re-enact Dickens’s Christmas Carol (well, the first part anyway). Read more here.

How much did this card cost to produce and distribute? I hope someone will be able to find out because this misuse of tax payers' money is a scandal. In a week when the government offered its pre-budget report setting out its spending priorities, I trust this sort of rubbish will be axed; sadly its more likely that the budget for asylum seekers will be cut.

At least the card says Season’s Greetings rather than Happy or Merry Christmas, because there is nothing joyful or Christian about this obnoxious piece of nonsense.

Update: I have posted a follow up blog here.

There is a video of St Nicholas trying to deliver his presents to Yarl's Wood on the Church Times blog here.

H/T @Jon_Bartley and Ekklesia

Friday, 11 December 2009


This evening marks the beginning of the Jewish festival of Hanukka – the eight day festival of lights. The celebration traces its origins back over 2,000 years to when the Seleucid leader, Antiochus IV, invaded Israel and attempted to force the Jews to assimilate into his empire and to renounce their religion and culture. Under the leadership of Judah Maccabee the Jews revolted and eventually drove out the Seleucid armies.

Golden Menorah The Hanukkah celebration of lighting the menorah traces its origin to a miracle that occurred after the victory of the Maccabees. The Temple in Jerusalem had been defiled by the invading Seleucid army. It was traditional to light a special lamp in the Temple, called a menorah, with olive oil, but all of the vials of oil were made impure, with the exception of one. According to Hanukkah history, the one vial of oil burned for eight days until pure oil could be obtained for the Temple. In gratitude, the Jews began lighting small menorahs in their homes to commemorate this miracle and the victory.

This morning on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke about Hanukka and went on to say this:

But there's a beautiful law in Judaism, and it applies to a day like today, Friday. On the Friday of Hanukkah we light two kinds of lights, for the festival and for the Sabbath, both of which begin at nightfall. What if we only have one candle? What do we light it as: a Hanukkah light or a Sabbath light? It can't be both.

The answer is: we light it as a Sabbath light, because the Sabbath light symbolizes peace in the home. And in Judaism, even the smallest fragment of peace takes precedence over even the greatest victory in war.


The first picture above is of a replica of the 7 branch Menorah from the second Temple which stands in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. The second Menorah is the traditional 9 branch Menorah used to celebrate Hanukkah.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

the Christmas tale

Excellent poetic telling of the nativity story with the unpleasant bits left in. The video is produced by UCCF who suggest: Play this video as a spicy little extra at Christmas events to get people thinking about the Christmas story.

There are some great resources around for Christmas this year and this is another one which picks up on some of the themes explored in Nick Baines’s book Why wish you a Merry Christmas?

h/t Quaerentia

the Twurch of England

Yesterday the latest ecclesiastical Twitter project went live with the launch of the Twurch of England website. The site gives a live feed of tweets from clergy in the Church of England and is the brainchild of the Church Mouse and cyber wizard Revd Peter Ould. For those of you who still question the value of Twitter then check out Bishop Alan Wilson’s inaugural guest blog on Why I Tweet.

twitter The Twurch of England is supported by the Church of England with the message: "The Church of England is happy that this site is available as a hub for people seeking to engage with the church and its various tweeters." I gave my own explanation for using twitter here and look forward to seeing how the Twurch of England develops. The site also offers a widget for adding a live feed on other blogs and a list of known clergy members of the Twurch.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

art and Christianity meme

I’ve been tagged by Jonathan and Paul with the following meme:

To list an artwork, drama, piece of music, novel, and poem that you think each express something of the essence of Christianity and for each one explain why. Then tag five other people.

1. Artwork: Christ carrying the Cross – Stanley Spencer.

Christ & Cross I’m fascinated by what Spencer was trying to do in his paintings. In this work a diminutive Christ is shown carrying his cross through Cookham High Street and for me it suggests Jesus going about his work, fulfilling his vocation, surrounded by others going about their work. Some of Spencer’s work is seen as controversial because of the way he portrays Christ, but I think he is identifying something of the essence of the incarnation.

2. Drama: Babette’s Feast – Gabriel Axel

A wonderful film exploring both the dangers and the glory of the Christian faith. The film portrays the impact of grace on individuals and community with a beauty and richness I haven’t seen equalled in any other drama. A remote community has become desiccated by its commitment to a faith which is austere, ritualistic, legalistic and devoid of the love that should be at its heart. Into their midst comes a refugee who through an act of amazing generosity brings them back to the joy and wonder which should be the essence of the gospel. (Best watched in the original language with subtitles).

3. Music: Grace – U2

Some of U2’s best work has an edginess and ambiguity that forces one to reflect on the tensions and struggles of life and faith. At other times Bono’s lyrics play it straight as he sings in an open confessional style that some find embarrassing, perhaps because people are uncomfortable with the challenge. A recurring theme for Bono is the contrast between Karma and Grace and this song moves towards the essence of grace in a style reminiscent of Old Testament Wisdom literature.

4. Novel: Quarantine – Jim Crace

quarantine This was the most difficult part of the meme and in the end I went for a book that I found disturbing, challenging and yet with the possibility of hope and redemption. The story is about a small group of people living two thousand years ago who for various reasons enter the Judean desert to fast and pray. In the desert they meet a Satan character and the range of human depravation is exposed in the searing heat of the wilderness. However, in the distance is another character, a Galilean healer fasting for forty days. Crace is an atheist who wrote this for to introduce his book to an American audience:

It would be a simple matter. Take a venerated Bible story (Christ’s Judean fast), add a pinch of hard-nosed fact (nobody going without food and drink could survive for anything like forty days) and watch the scripture take a beating. Quarantine with Science as its sword would kill Christ after only thirty days in the wilderness. There’d be no Ministry or Crucifixion. The novel would erase two thousand years of Christianity. This would be my party-pooper for the Millennium.

Indeed, Quarantine did slay Christ. But novels have a way of breaking loose from their creators. That’s why they’re fun to write. Science does not triumph unambiguously in the book. Faith is not destroyed by Doubt. Jesus does not let me kill him off entirely. Rather than having to endure the wrath of Christians, as I expected, I found that Quarantine had been received by many British readers as a spiritual and scriptural text, an enrichment rather than a challenge to their faith. What’s going on?

Crace remains an atheist, yet he hits on something important. Like much of the best Christian art, Christ is not presented as central but on the periphery and his significance is explored through the impact of his presence on others. Writing this meme reminds me that I need to go back and read Quarantine again.

5. Poem: Love (III) – George Herbert

I came across this poem in the middle of my finals paper on Theology and Literature. I’d never read it before and I had to contrast it with a poem on love by W. H. Auden. I kept reading Love through and then suddenly remembered that I had to get something down on paper. The poem is another example of art suffused with the theme of grace and like Babette’s Feast the image of a meal is central.

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.

Well this meme was a real challenge and I’m sure that if I did it again in a year’s time it would come out quite differently.

I tag David Keen, David Lewis, Maggi Dawn and anyone else who would like to have a go.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

bottling it

I wish I’d heard about this before recycling the bottles from my wife’s birthday party at the weekend. Revd Jairo Lopez is a catholic priest serving in Texas, but he is also a mosaic artist who creates stunning pieces out of used beer bottles as well as other materials. Based in Marble Falls where he works from a garage studio in his free time, many but not all of Lopez’s creations have a religious theme and his work is becoming much sought after. lopez

López, who attended seminary in Colombia, completed his master's degree in theology at the St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Florida. He was ordained in 1994, and his first assignment was San Jose Catholic Church in Austin. He also worked in Killeen, Round Rock and Mexia before he landed in Marble Falls in 2000. In 1999 he began his mosaic art, he studied for a time at the Mosaic Art School in Ravenna, Italy and gradually his work as a priest and his art came together. Lopez says:

‘It's become part of my prayer life, my spirituality.’ ‘When you meditate, you see the beauty of God in the materials, the colors and textures.’ ‘The colors, textures and materials of a mosaic, that's my parishioners. They are all of different styles, sizes and cultures. The community is one big mosaic. Without one piece, the image isn't finished.’

The mosaic work is now something of a family business as Lopez has been joined by his family from Colombia and the art has helped them to settle in unfamiliar surroundings:

annunciation ‘The art is good therapy for everyone’ says Jairo López. ‘It keeps everyone busy. I know that when my father and I deliver a piece to someone, he gets great joy of seeing a finished piece. He's very proud.’

Surprisingly, Lopez is colourblind, particularly to green and red, yet he is able to produce the most vivid images with the help of his family who pick out the appropriate colours for him.

I love the idea of someone taking discarded rubbish and turning it into something beautiful in praise of God.

H/T Luke Coppen

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

sign of the times (7) – cafe nero

cafe nero

Something about this sign wound me up when I saw it in Chelmsford yesterday. Just another advert for one of the many coffee shops in the high street, yet what stood out were the words at the bottom: ‘Fill yourself with joy’. Perhaps it is the appeal to self indulgence, not giving joy to someone else but giving yourself joy that seems to me to be the negation of the Christmas message. It’s part of a particular trend in advertising, what I call the ‘because you're worth it’ approach.

Christmas is an invitation to be filled with joy; joy at receiving the gift of God freely given in his son Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

advent calendar – poem by rowan williams

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

The Poems of Rowan Williams, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Mar 2004)

Other Advent Calendars:

Why we are waiting by The Church of England

Advent Calendar for your web home page by Damaris

Sister Janet’s Christmas Stocking from Premier Radio

Radio 4 Advent Calendar

Alternative Advent a great list of resources from David Keen

Monday, 30 November 2009

lace up save lives

I don't usually do product endorsements but tomorrow is World Aids Day and to mark the event Nike has joined with RED to launch a RED Laces campaign. 100% of the profit from the sale of Nike’s RED laces goes to the Global Fund and Nike’s football based programmes. It’s part of RED’s ongoing work of developing partnerships to fund the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Lace_Up_Save_Lives_2 If you were watching Chelski beating Arsenal in the London derby yesterday you may have noticed Didier Drogba, who scored twice for Chelski, was wearing RED laces. Today Drogba joined Bono (a key player in RED’s work) and other footballers to publicise the campaign at a press conference in London. RED sums up its approach as educate and medicate; aiming to ensure that HIV positive people in Africa have access to the drugs they need to stay alive and supporting education programmes about the illness across the continent.

The RED laces are intended for football boots but anyone can wear them, though I’m not sure how they would go down on a pair of black shoes at a funeral. Anyway, I think it’s a simple way of raising awareness about HIV in Africa and an effective method of fund raising. The laces would make a good Christmas present for sports mad friends and relatives and for those not into sport there are other RED partnership products. Other companies working with RED include: GAP, Starbucks, Dell, Apple, Converse and Hallmark.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

last year in Jerusalem

During my sabbatical last year I spent Advent in Jerusalem and Galilee and it was an experience I will never forget. As a way of letting family and friends know what I was doing I tried to keep a daily blog and I also found it a very helpful way of reflecting on the experience. The blogs from my trip can be found starting here and some of my photos here.

family I continue to think about the people I met and the places I visited and hope one day to return. I realise that during the last year the situation has continued to change: the conflict in Gaza that started just after my return to the UK; the removal of Palestinians from East Jerusalem; the ongoing settlement and infrastructure building programme and the development of the security wall / barrier are just a few of the factors impacting on the land and population. From time to time I also think about my fellow pilgrims and enjoy receiving intermittent emails from them.

A few Sundays ago the set Gospel reading was from Mastonesrk 13; Jesus speaking about the destruction of the Temple and I had a vivid recollection of touching some of the huge stones lying in a pile at the site of the Temple in the Old City. The next day several of my companions on the trip, who minister in the United States, emailed to say that they had preached on the same experience. Just a small example of the way in which the visit has brought the scriptures alive in a fresh way.

hand I brought back some small stones from different sites around the country and my favourite is from the shore of lake Galilee; nothing remarkable but the stone fits comfortably in my closed hand and is a reminder of the place and a helpful aid to prayer.

During my time in the Holy Land I spent some time reflecting on whether I was a tourist or pilgrim. A year later I realise the profound impact the place has had on me and on my faith and continue to be thankful for the opportunity I had to spend this time last year in Jerusalem.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

the future is bright

I’ve been tagged by Banksyboy with another Bible meme and this one looks good fun so here goes:

Summarise the Bible in five statements, the first one word long, the second two, the third three, the fourth four and the last five words long. Or possibly you could do this in descending order. Tag five people.candle

  1. Chaos
  2. and darkness
  3. the Light came
  4. it may seem dark
  5. but the future is bright!

I tag Chrisendom, The Ugley Vicar, Between, Graham and anyone else who fancies having a go.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


This is a wonderful, must watch film. When Once came out a couple of years ago my wife mentioned it and I read some great reviews but then it dropped out of sight and I forgot about it. I came across Once on DVD earlier this week when looking for a birthday present for Kate and we watched it last night. Once is the story of two young songwriters who meet up by chance on the streets of Dublin and develop a relationship around their love of music. The narrative of the film is developed through a series of songs that, according to the credits, were actually penned by the leading actors.Once The two central characters are never named in the film, they are simply Guy (Glen Hansard) and Girl (Marketa Irglova) and as their relationship develops we discover something of their past through their song writing. They are both attractive and sympathetic characters, with genuine warmth and vulnerability, conveying an honesty which is at times painful to observe.

I was familiar with Hansard who featured in The Commitments and was in a band called The Frames, but I had never heard of Irglova who is a revelation. The music is a haunting folk style reminiscent of some early Radiohead and there is a raw immediacy to the lyrics and singing. The actors were chosen for their musicianship, there is a naturalistic feel to their acting and to the whole film, complemented by the backdrop of Dublin and its environs. It is no surprise that the film won an award at the Sundance Film Festival and has been feted by critics; it deserves the plaudits.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

must be Santa

Forget the winner of Xfactor or any of the other musical pap preparing to assault our eardrums over the next few weeks, the must have Christmas album is Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart. Royalties from the sale of the album will go to the charity Feeding America, the UN World Food Programme and Crisis in the UK. However, this is more than just a charity album as Dylan plays it straight with a mixture of traditional carols and other Christmas songs. Critics have been mixed in their verdicts on the latest offering from Dylan but I think it’s great fun. There is an element of The Pogues about some of the renditions and I’m surprised that Fairytale of New York is not on the album. I get the impression Dylan enjoyed making this record and the boisterousness of some of the offerings is summed up in his version of Must Be Santa. Enjoy and then buy!

h/t songs for the journey

paperless Christmas nativity

The Adventures of Mary and Joseph – The Road Movie presents a re-telling of the nativity with a series of nine short videos. Simply go to the Paperless Christmas website and the story should load (I had to use IE to view it). The screen displays an open road with a series of billboards to either side which is a neat alternative to the atheist billboard campaign. Click on the arrow to travel down the road and as you come to each billboard, click on play and a video tells part of the nativity story. It’s a great way to explore aspects of the Christmas story and resources have been produced to make use of the videos by Barnabas in Schools.

Paperless Christmas is produced by Jerusalem Productions and the Bible Reading Fellowship and Richard Fisher chief executive of BRF comments:

We hope it’s something that will cause people – both within and outside the church –to think afresh about the Christmas story. Already, since the beginning of October when the website went live, the videos have been viewed just over 15,000 times by visitors from 61 countries. They’re being enjoyed by all ages, and a growing number of churches and schools are telling us that they plan to show some or all of the video episodes in services and assemblies in the lead up to Christmas.

I particularly liked the humour, choice of actors and the contrast between traditional costumes and modern settings. The videos can be downloaded from the Barnabas in Schools site, so even if your venue doesn’t have internet access you can use the material.

Monday, 23 November 2009

dead tired?

You would be if you had to sleep in a graveyard every night. How about doing it for just one night? Will you choose to sleep rough for one night to help those who have no choice? Chelmsford CHESS is a Chelmsford and Essex homeless project and they have organised a graveyard sleepout for 27/28th November at St. John’s Church graveyard in Chelmsford. All you need to take part is your sleeping bag, cardboard boxes or pgraveyardolythene and get sponsored. There will be musical entertainment in the church between 9:30-11pm before people bed down for the night. Given the way the weather has been over the last couple of weeks it is going to be quite a challenge.

CHESS have been organising these sleepouts for a couple of years and they are a good way of getting across to people the challenges faced by the homeless, as well as an effective way of raising much needed funds. Our parish has been a supporter of CHESS for some time and several members of the congregation take part in the sleepouts.

Chelmsford CHESS seeks to reflect Christ's love by relieving hardship and distress amongst the single homeless in Chelmsford and Essex through:

  • the provision of temporary accommodation for homeless adults
  • Day Centre activities meeting users' essential needs
  • the opportunity of progress towards a more settled way of life
  • active promotion of a sense of security and self-worth
  • respect for the dignity of all

Further information about the work of CHESS can be found here.

Friday, 20 November 2009

memorable musical moments meme

I was tagged by Jonathan Evens for this meme that’s been doing the rounds.

Think of eight memorable musical moments, not necessarily all time favourites, but those when, for example, you felt compelled to wait in the car when listening to this amazing song on the radio because you just had to know who it was by. Or the piece you heard on the tv in a drama that drove you straight onto iTunes to download... (remember once we spent the princely sum of 6s 8d on a vinyl single?!). Optional details for each song give where, why and Spotify or youtube links ...

  1. Dr Who theme. Saturday evenings in my Gran’s house in Belfast where we lived during the mid 60s. I’d had my bath and the football results were in and then the highlight of the week as the theme to Dr Who started up – magical memories.
  2. Get It On – T. Rex from Electric Warrior. My first Christmas present album (1971/2?); the black cover with Bolan in outline posing with a Gibson Les Paul in front of a Marshall stack summed up rock n’ roll.
  3. House of the Rising Sun – The Animals. My sister had this on the Stardust (David Essex & Adam Faith) film soundtrack and it was the first song my band played in school assembly, 1974? I was on guitar, an electric with a tele style body and strat neck – I loved that guitar but can’t remember what happened to it after I switched to drums.
  4. Echoes – Pink Floyd. Saw the film Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii at the Chelmsford Odeon (1974?) and it blew me away. My musical transition from glam rock to prog rock was complete (sorry Banksyboy).
  5. Rock n’ Roll – Led Zeppelin. I was at Earls Court for the first night of Zeppelin’s legendary five nights in 1975 aged 15. When Bonham’s bass drum kicked in and Page struck up his riff and duck walked across the stage, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and stayed like that for two and a half hours. I got home from London at 2:30am and my mum went mad; at church that morning I couldn’t hear a thing as my ears were still ringing, but my fate was sealed and Zeppelin remain my favourite band. I saw them again at Knebworth in ‘79 and both performances are immortalised on DVD.
  6. Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2. So much about this band resonates. They’re Irish, they keep evolving, they sing in the light of Christ and occasionally about Christ (as in this song) and they make great music. For me U2 summed up Live Aid in 1985 and opened their set with this song which has it all; great drums, unique guitar sound, solid bass and a gobby singer who isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself and really does get angry about sin, including his own.
  7. The Island – Iona. I saw Iona at Greenbelt in 1992 standing next to a gorgeous young woman who I was desperate to ask out; we got married the next year. Runrig were headlining but Iona had the class and played a great set. I could even forgive Nick Beggs who is an amazing bass player for the abuse of the senses that was Kajagoogooo.
  8. Old Man – Neil Young. I finally saw Neil Young at the Hop Festival in 2008 and fulfilled a lifetime’s musical ambition. Young is a force of nature capable of incredible sonic assaults and then the most exquisite melodies. As a teenager I used to lie in bed for hours listening to Young’s triple album Decade. It was a difficult choice between Old Man and Don’t Let It Bring You Down but the Old Man just edges it.

Loads more I could have added but I decided to resist the temptation Sam Norton succumbed to. I tag Anna, Alice, +Nick, Tim, David and Elwin.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

let's do theology

I spent an enjoyable lunch quaffing a glass of wine and munching peanuts at the launch of the new edition of Bishop Laurie Green’s Let’s Do Theology. Many theology students will be familiar with the book which was first published in 1990 and is based on the pastoral cycle model of theological reflection. The book had begun to look rather tired, with a dated cover and dense typesetting that put some off reading and using the book. Laurie was asked to consider freshening up the appearance of the book for a new edition but decided that it really needed a complete rewrite. The new edition has a different subtitle, Resources for Contextual Theology, and draws on work published since the first edition. As someone who has found the book a great resource in training people for ministry, I can highly recommend it and would suggest that it also has a great deal to offer for those wanting to encourage theological reflection as part of discipleship in their churches.

Commendations for the new edition include the following from some very big hitters in the theological world:

Leonardo Boff: ‘This is a book of authentic liberation theology set within the English-speaking context: it takes instances of human experience, analyses them, reflects theologically and proposes practical ideas for transformation. I enthusiastically recommend this significant book.’

Rowan Williams: ‘Laurie green’s experience as a teacher, pastor and agent for God’s change informs every page of this accessible and challenging book…. It retains all its freshness, insight and sheer groundedness.’

P. Mohan Larbeer: ‘Bishop Laurie challenges the Western bias of traditional theology by explaining that every theology is contextual theology…. a must read.’

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

no faith schools officer

I had a look at the British Humanist Association website today and was interested to discover that they are appealing for money to fund a dedicated campaign officer against faith schools. Here’s what they say:

Help the BHA in its effort to phase out state funded 'faith' schools by ensuring we can employ a dedicated campaign officer against faith schools for another year. When we raise £30,000 we will be able to continue employing our dedicated campaigner for twelve months. Our campaigner will make sure that the voice of UK citizens who oppose faith schools is represented in the most powerful way. To do this our campaigner helps to stimulate and organise local campaigns against new faith schools and lobby government and parliament to reform the laws that allow state funded schools to discriminate in their employment and admissions on religious grounds, and to teach unbalanced curricula of religious education.

I was wondering whether the position of campaigner against faith schools was open to anyone or only to humanists? In other words does the person have to subscribe to the beliefs of the British Humanist Association as a necessary requirement for the job or can people of other faiths apply?

Update: If you want to see what a positive contribution church schools are making to education then check out +Alan Wilson's blog on Seer Green School.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

cash not credit

The Church of England is producing three short videos with suggestions for an affordable Christmas. The videocasts are made by Dr John Preston the C of E’s Resources and Stewardship Officer and offer money saving tips and advice in the lead up to this year’s festivities. Resources include The Affordable Christmas Planner to help people plan a budget for presents, food, drink, travel and other expenses.

One key tip from the first video is to use cash for purchases rather than credit cards, as a way of consciously recognising how much you are spending. In parishes where I’ve served I knew people who spent all year paying off the credit card bills run up over Christmas at exorbitant interest rates, only to go straight back into debt again for the next Christmas. The only caveat I would suggest is that on larger purchases credit cards can offer added consumer protection and some offer cash back, but it’s only worth it if you can pay off the bill in full. Beware the ‘buy now pay back in six months interest free’ offers from cards and stores because people often fail to pay back in time and then get clobbered with six months interest. Anyway, the videos offer straightforward and practical suggestions and are well worth a viewing.

Monday, 16 November 2009

cyber bullies

No, not the latest episode of Dr Who but an increasing problem for young people. The National Centre for Social Research has just published a summary of a major study into the bullying of secondary school pupils between the age of 14-16. The full report will be available in January 2010 but the headline findings are:

  • Bullying decreased with age: The prevalence of reported bullying decreased over the three years of the study. 47% of young people reported being bullied at age 14, but this had reduced to 29% by age 16.
  • Name calling/cyberbullying was most common: The most common type of bullying was name calling/cyberbullying, followed by being threatened with violence, being socially excluded and being subjected to actual violence. The least common type of bullying was being forced to hand over money or possessions, which was much less common than all the other types of bullying.
  • Vulnerable pupils and girls were more likely to be bullied: The main risk factors for being bullied at ages 14-16 were having a special educational need, having a caring responsibility, having a disability or having spent a period of time in social services care. Girls were also more likely to be bullied at ages 14 and 15, but not at age 16.
  • Parental awareness of bullying helped to reduce it: Young people whose parents had also reported that they were bullied at the age of 14 were almost twice as likely to stop being bullied by age 16 compared to those whose parents did not know they were being bullied. The same was also true for young people whose parents were aware they were being bullied at age 15.
  • Victims of bullying had worse educational outcomes: Young people who had been bullied at the ages of 14 or 15 had an average GCSE score two grades lower than those who had not been bullied. They were also more likely to be Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET) than those who had not been bullied, and less likely to still be in full-time education.

Why should we be surprised at the amount and nature of bullying amongst the young when bullying has become so prevalent in wider society? We have bullying as entertainment in reality T.V. programmes like Xfactor, where contestants are ritually humiliated, most notably during the early audition stages, for the enjoyment of the wider public. Even on Strictly Come Dancing there is a spitefulness to some of the judges’ comments that goes beyond the critical to what seems intended to wound. Sir Alan Sugar made his reputation on The Apprentice for what at times could only be described as the denigration of his potential employees and he often rewarded the most Machiavellian contestants while dismissing others as weak. I should of course refer to him as Lord Alan Sugar as he was recently ennobled and made the government’s Enterprise Tsar, presumably because of the charm he exhibits in telling people ‘you’re fired’.

Bullying seems to have become a significant feature of our political discourse; when Ed Balls recently appointed the new Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson despite significant opposition, Barry Sheerman who chairs the Children’s Select Committee commented: ‘Most of us know that Ed Balls is a bit of a bully and he likes his own way’. A great epithet for the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, though it should be noted that Sheerman has his own agenda. The Sun’s recent hounding of Gordon Brown over his letter of condolence to Jacqui Janes is seen by many to be little more than the petty bullying of a man suffering from poor eyesight. The pathetic school ground baiting and name calling across the House of Commons’ chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions suggests a deeper culture of bullying.

Unfortunately the church’s record on bullying has also left a lot to be desired. I have close friends who were driven out of the church where they worshipped by a new incumbent who bullied anyone who refused to go along with his agenda. However, I also know there are clergy colleagues who feel their ministries were made untenable because of the bullying antics of key figures in the congregation and community. Anne Lee writing in the Church Times in 2007 identified some of the damage caused to the ministry and mission of the church by bullying: ‘An organisation that allows bullying behaviour to continue unchecked is compromised in proclaiming good news. Whenever a church or church organisation refuses to answer questions, punishes those who express concerns, abuses confidentiality, covers up, coerces, threatens, or deceives, it is directly undermining gospel values.’

Unless we name bullying for what it is and refuse to tolerate it in the name of effective business practice, the rough and tumble of political culture, entertainment or, in the case of the church, ministerial leadership styles then we cannot expect to address bullying amongst young people effectively. Why should our children take bullying seriously if we will not?

Saturday, 14 November 2009

are the Christmas stamps Christian?

There has been much rejoicing in the Christian press in the last couple of weeks with the news that this year’s Royal Mail Christmas stamps will feature the Nativity story. The stamps take images from stained glass windows by artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Dr Christian Baxter greeted the news with the following: ‘a wonderful narration of the Christmas story, through some of the country’s best examples of stained glass’. Well, they may be great examples of stained glass window art, but are they Christian? Do they really reflect the story which is part of the foundation of the Christian faith?

Christmas stamps

I fear these images contribute to the maintenance of a fantasy which is very far from the reality of the story of the birth of Christ and therefore will never really challenge people to engage with what that story is about. The stain glass images reinforce a Christmas sentimentality that makes the story seem like a romantic fairytale. Take for example the portrayal of Mary; Revd Neil Spencer, the vicar of the church from which the image of Mary is taken, comments: ‘What I love about it is that she’s surrounded by angels and cherubim, but she looks like a real person. She reminds everyone that this isn’t just some imaginary, mythical figure, but actually a real woman.’ No she doesn’t. Mary in this image is an idealised Pre-Raphaelite depiction of a white, western European woman not a Semitic young girl from the ancient Near East who has just endured the trauma of a pregnancy outside marriage and child birth. A better image would have been of a young Palestinian mother struggling with a baby in the Bethlehem of today. A Bethlehem surrounded by a wall and barbed wire, patrolled by soldiers and with a population experiencing the tensions and turmoil of occupation. A Bethlehem in which the shepherds would never have got near Mary from their fields because of the barriers that prevent movement between workplace and home. The Bethlehem I experienced when I visited the Holy Land this time last year and wrote about in my blog.

Until we are prepared to depict the Christmas story in ways that connect with the real world and the pain, suffering and mess in the world, we deny the incarnation and reduce the greatest story ever told to a Christmas pantomime. That is why I welcome the bus stop advertising campaign Christmas Starts With Christ organised by ChurchAds.Net. The holy family is portrayed in a traditional nativity scene, but that image is then located in a bus stop surrounded by ordinary people. A thought provoking representation placing the birth of Christ in the everyday world.

nativity 09

Friday, 13 November 2009

xfactor nightmare

I’m reading Ben Elton’s Chart Throb; it is to Xfactor what The Thick Of It is to Government. The book is a vicious satire on the Reality T.V. industry; mapping out the cynical manipulation of contestants and viewing public to powerful effect in Elton’s typicachart throblly over the top pastiche. Best bits so far are the Prince of Wales as a contestant singing Jerusalem as his audition piece and Beryl as one of the judges; a former satanic rocker who has had a sex change and stars in her own T.V. series about her family life. Chart Throb makes watching Xfactor great fun as we spot all the ploys, gimmicks and pre-planned shenanigans of what must be the epitome of debased popular culture. Oh, hang on a minute, I got that last bit wrong, here comes I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

But could this be the real Xfactor nightmare?

xfactor h/t @JohnPrescott