Sunday, 25 December 2011

Cry of a tiny babe

'Redemption rips through the surface of time...'

Bruce Cockburn’s beautiful telling of the birth of the Christ accompanied by Lou Reed and Roseanne Cash.

h/t Andrew Crory

Friday, 23 December 2011

He pitched his tent among us

In the contradiction of the gods of Mammon and the lords of Misrule
In the pavement legalities of occupation and assertion, injunction and counterclaim
At the interface of tourist and worshipper, occupier and passer-by
He pitched his tent among us.

In another place and time, where the Eagle standard spreads its wings
In the tyrant rule of Herod, toying with Magi and butchering children
At the Royal City – subject today to another occupation
He pitched his tent among us.

In a culture where “reality” is pathos and everything has a price
In the lives of poor and privileged, Pharisee and refugee
At the cusp of history, at this time and at all times
He pitched his tent among us.

Come, transforming Christ, manger born and Spirit led
Take hold of what is tawdry and bring your kingdom’s joy
Take lives which ache for vision and instil eternal hope
And pitch your tent among us.

Wonderful poem reflecting on John 1:14 from Pete Broadbent the Bishop of Willesden.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

My player right or wrong

Yesterday I determined not to comment on the Football Association punishment handed out to Liverpool footballer Louis Suarez. An FA statement set out the terms of the player’s charge and punishment:
"An independent regulatory commission has found a charge of misconduct against Luis Suárez proven, and have issued a suspension for a period of eight matches as well as fining him £40,000, pending appeal. The decision is as follows:
• Mr Suárez used insulting words towards Mr Evra during the match contrary to FA Rule E3(1);
• The insulting words used by Mr Suárez included a reference to Mr Evra's colour;
• Mr Suárez shall be warned as to his future conduct, be suspended for eight matches covering all first-team competitive matches and fined the sum of £40,000;”
The full written adjudication is still to be released and so I felt it would be inappropriate to comment until I had read the reasons for the decision.

Later in the day another footballer, Chelsea and England captain John Terry, was informed that he has been charged with the following by the Crown Prosecution Service:
"threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress which was racially aggravated in accordance with section 28 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998".
Again, I do not know the evidence that has led to this decision and until the trial takes place will not know the full facts about the case.

What I will comment on is the reaction of the football clubs in both cases. Liverpool FC issued a statement which defended Suarez and challenged the findings of the commission. The statement can be read here but this section sums up their response:
It seems incredible to us that a player of mixed heritage should be accused and found guilty in the way he has based on the evidence presented. We do not recognise the way in which Luis Suárez has been characterised. Nothing we have heard in the hearing has changed our view that Luis Suárez is innocent and we will provide Luis with whatever support he now needs to clear his name.
The Liverpool manager has also issued statements about the verdict including the following on Twitter:
"Very disappointed with today's verdict. This is the time when [Luis Suarez] needs our full support. Let's not let him walk alone. KD,"
Then yesterday evening before their match the Liverpool team warmed up wearing T-shirts with a picture of Suarez on them, including Suarez himself, and throughout the match the supporters chanted his name.

The reaction of Chelsea FC to the charge against John Terry was more immediate than that of Liverpool, who at least had the grace to wait a couple of hours before issuing their statement. Chelsea responded with the following:
"John has made it clear he denies the charge and is determined to do all he can to prove his innocence. Chelsea FC has always been fully supportive of John in this matter and will continue to be so.”
The Chelsea manager offered his views on the matter:
"For a player with John's experience, it won't be a problem. The only thing I know is that I will be fully supportive of John Terry, whatever the outcome of the situation."
What I find so disappointing in both these cases is that the respective clubs seem determined to support their players whatever the outcome of the cases. This attitude is mirrored in the reactions of the supporters. The airwaves and internet have been awash with attempts to deny, explain, justify and excuse the behaviour of the two footballers. Guilty or innocent their players will be defended by every means at the disposal of the clubs with the full support of their fans.

To be fair Chelsea and Liverpool are not alone in this. Most clubs see their players as extremely valuable assets and will seek to protect their investments at almost any cost and by turning a blind eye to behaviour that would be deemed unacceptable in wider society. Football fans are tribal animals, fed a strong diet of ‘our club against the world’ propaganda by managers and fanzines alike and so are willing to excuse almost anything one of their players indulges in.

The football authorities also carry a burden of responsibility for these attitudes. The English FA appealed against Wayne Rooney’s three match international ban for violent conduct in order to secure his services at Euro 2012 and successfully had the ban reduced. Thus, they sent out a message to the clubs they seek to govern, encouraging them to use whatever means to enable their players to take to the pitch. (I write this as a supporter of Manchester United and Wayne Rooney.)

And don’t look to FIFA, football’s governing body world wide, for leadership on this or any other issue. I have written about the failure of leadership on racism and other matters offered by FIFA in the past and nothing seems to have changed.

Whatever the final outcome in both these cases the message is clear from clubs and fans alike: We support our players right or wrong. Moral relativism eats at the soul of football, fuelled by money and an unthinking devotion to the gods of the beautiful game. I would say it will all end in tears but it already has on too many occasions as Liverpool FC know only too well.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Heart melting

The wonderful Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma perform The Wexford Carol.

h/t Maggi Dawn for reminding me of this gem.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Clearing up the dung

I took this photograph during yesterday morning’s presentation of The Journey in Great Baddow. The production told the story of the Nativity and began in our local shopping centre, before we journeyed to the graveyard for the shepherds and wise men and then entered church for the final part at the stable.

At first I was disappointed that the picture included the young man carrying the brush and shovel to clean up the donkey’s dung; it spoiled the shot. No problem, it wouldn’t have been difficult to crop him out of the picture. Then I decided to leave him in because there is something about clearing up the mess that gets to the heart of the story. How easily we are tempted to Photoshop Christmas.

Bethlehem 0

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Screwtape email

What on earth is going on? How could you be so stupid? Did I not tell you that the best way to defeat the enemy is to stop talking about him and avoid drawing attention to him? Apathy and ignorance are far better weapons than any overt assault.
For a while the enemy’s agents were doing our work for us. Don’t you remember the successes of the last century? We didn’t need to do a thing, just sit back and watch as his supporters did their best to undermine his work. They were tripping over themselves to get into the media to debunk every aspect of belief.
But now, thanks to your incompetence, he’s back in the game. People can’t stop talking about him, even Prime Ministers are saying what a good thing he is. What possessed you? (O.K. I know what possesses you but that’s not the point). Thanks to your recruitment policy there are a few very vociferous people, destroying all our good work. Every time one of your agents opens his/her mouth, or puts fingers to keyboard, a whole new round of discussion and debate opens up. These ‘new atheists’ as they’ve become known, simply do the enemy’s work for him and I seriously suspect they are double agents so effective have they been in raising the enemy’s profile.
The enemy’s supporters have never been so motivated and engaged in the battle: demanding public debates; churning out books putting forward the argument for belief; speaking his name at every opportunity and never out of the media. There are intense discussions going on all over the place and that is not helpful to our ambitions. It’s true some of them overreact and a few make fools of themselves by their aggressive responses and I’d encourage you to play that for all it’s worth. Nevertheless, serious damage to our cause has been done.
As for that bus campaign! What made you think having his name on the side of the Number 23 to Tooting was a publicity coup for our side?
And encouraging our supporters to go to Carol Services to enjoy the singing but ignore the religious stuff, how was that ever going to work? Haven’t you read what’s in those carols? The only saving grace is that the enemy’s supporters are often too stupid to read and act on the words themselves.
I want the whole operation closed down before you wreck our mission for good.
Your seriously hacked off uncle,

Saturday, 17 December 2011

He never said

On a day when there is much debate about the Bible and the values that underpin our society, I’m grateful to Ged Robinson for reminding me about this great song from Martyn Jospeh: He Never Said.

Friday, 16 December 2011

killing me not so softly with her song

My first Christmas back in parish ministry and I’ve made it through the various school and playschool carol services and nativities. We have two crib services on Christmas Eve when the church will be packed with families and many of the children will come dressed as nativity characters. I’m just wondering if things are going to turn out anything like this?

h/t Revd Richard Coles

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Herod – an exclusive

With Wikileaks in the headlines
you could say
the timing was perfect.

Three Iraqi profs in clown-suits
claimed they had intel
on a need-to-know-basis.

No one used the word coup
but it was clear what they meant.

Said they’d scoured satellites
to find me. Someone’s head
will roll for that, I laughed.
Not even a flicker.

I cut them a deal:
new Jeeps, immunity,
a map of the minefields
in return for his name.

We shook, nothing in writing,
everything clean.

How they twigged I honestly
can’t say. They didn’t look
like hackers, then who does?

Special forces, probably.
They were good, not a trace.

If they ever do go public
I will be waiting.

One thing I’ve learned,
if you can’t give the order
it’s time to get out.

Another powerful monologue from Anthony Wilson for Christmas.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Dwell in Possibility

I was struck by the phrase ‘I dwell in Possibility’ from a poem by Emily Dickenson as a reflection on the Gospel reading for Sunday from Luke 1:26-38 The Annunciation. I’ll let Pastor Keith explain.

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

h/t Elizabeth Drescher

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Christmas is not uncomplicated.

I came across an interesting comment piece on Christmas from Simon Jenkins in The Guardian titled Christmas is a shot of uncomplicated joy. Jenkins makes the following statement about Christmas:
My Christmas favourite is Christmas itself, its lit streets and decorated homes; its food, songs and music. For me it holds no religious import, but only the most hardened cynics could turn their back on this annual celebration of happiness. Christmas is the world's one moment of licensed pleasure, when custom requires us to behave, however briefly, as sociable human beings. A shot of uncomplicated joy is surely a social boon.
Jenkins continues:
Christmas carries little of the theological (or pagan) baggage of Easter. The myth of supernatural birth, common to many religions, focuses attention on children as gifted with unsullied virtue. It honours the sovereignty of childhood, yet of childhood in general, free of the pressures and strains that can come with the intimate rituals of family life, such as births, marriages and deaths.
What Christmas story has Jenkins been reading? The Gospel according to Charles Dickens as he explains:
Most Christmas ritual relies, to an extraordinary extent, on Charles Dickens. To him the event mattered not for its biblical significance but for how society treated it, indeed, seemed to crave it. His novella A Christmas Carol depicted a Manichean triumph of good over evil, warmth over coldness, generosity of spirit over meanness.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like A Christmas Carol. My son played Scrooge in his school’s production last week and great fun it was. However, Jenkins has completely missed the point and this is summed up by his conclusion:
Christmas breaks the harsh rhythm of life, offering an interlude when contact is re-established with neighbours, home and hearth. Hence the curious iconography of a "white Christmas", when reality is blotted out with snow and people are driven indoors to find warmth and reassurance round the fireside. I wouldn't be without it.
‘Reality is blotted out’ says Jenkins. If we go back not to Dickens but to the Gospels this claim couldn’t be further from the truth about Christmas. God is not offering an escape route from reality, he is demanding full engagement with reality. The Word became Flesh is the great acclamation of the Church at this time of year. God in the person of his Son entered our world as a flesh and blood human being. He engaged with a world of teenage pregnancy, occupation, oppression, persecution, homelessness, asylum seeking and mass murder. We might want to skip over these bits of Christmas because they don’t fit with the sanitised version of the story which features in so many of our school and church nativity plays. Christmas IS about ‘the harsh rhythm of life’ not an ‘interlude’ from it.

I know which I prefer. We don’t need a few days to anaesthetise ourselves to the realities of everyday life, usually at the price of getting further into debt and a stinking hangover. And for how many is Christmas an ‘annual celebration of happiness’ anyway?

We need to hear and receive the Good News that God invites us to share with him in transforming this world; experiencing abundant life in the midst of the dung and straw of this beautiful yet deeply scarred creation. This is the message that enables me to echo Jenkins’ final words about Christmas:
‘I wouldn’t be without it.’

Update: Check out this report from Theos on The politics of Christmas. h/t Sam Tomlin

Monday, 12 December 2011

Friday, 9 December 2011

Joseph – a nativity poem

They say there are signs.
Not with her.

I’m no professor
but neither am I stupid.

I asked her who she’d been seeing.
She sat there murmuring ‘Angel’.

She went north a few days
- change’ll do you good.

The solicitors said to forget it.
‘Without proof…’ they smiled.

If anything she started to brighten:
‘They’ll be cousins, same age!’

(I can’t be sure,
but I think I saw him, too.)

We left it too late, of course.
The traffic was solid,

some pop idol on the hire car radio
massacring ‘Hallelujah’.

We stopped at a Little Chef
on a B-road somewhere in the hills.

Crystal midnight it was,
good as daylight.

Then she grew wild-eyed.
Her bawling, a blunt saw,

cut through me.
It wasn’t like in the songs.

Wonderful poem by Anthony Wilson. This is part of a series of poems written for a nativity carol service.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

I predict a riot

Not long after the Brixton riots in 1981I happened to be in Keswick and heard a well known preacher proclaim that the cause of the riots was sin. He dismissed economic or social concerns, the racial tensions and problems with policing in the area. Sin is the cause was his message.brixton In one sense he was right, sin was the cause. However, he chose to define sin purely in terms of personal sin and individual responsibility and dismissed the idea that there may be wider sinful structures at work in the situation. I found it somewhat ironic that here was a man whose ministry was based in one of the wealthiest parts of the city, where he served a large eclectic congregation, pronouncing on one of the poorest and most troubled parts of the same city.

I lived in Brixton following the riots and it didn’t take long to see at first hand some of the underlying issues behind the tensions in the community. On one occasion my parents witnessed a racial attack by a group of white men on a black man in the centre of town. The victim knew how to look after himself and got the better of the others only to be arrested by the police who turned up late to the scene and presumed he was the assailant. My parents tried to speak to the police as they had witnessed the whole incident and were told in explicit language to mind their own business. It was only when my father pointed out that he was a chaplain at Brixton Prison that the police began to take him more seriously. So worried was my mother that she asked me to take her to the police station a week later to find out what had happened to the young black man who had been arrested. It turned out that no one had been charged and the case was closed. 

All this has been brought to mind by some of the follow up to the riots in major cities across the land during the summer. I’ve posted on the riots before.This week the discussion about the riots and their causes has resurfaced and the Archbishop of Canterbury has contributed to the debate in an important piece written for The Guardian: Rioting is the choice of young people with nothing to lose. I thought of the Keswick preacher because following ++Rowan’s article several people on Twitter criticised him for not mentioning sin. I think ++Rowan mentions sin in his article quite frequently, though he doesn’t use the word explicitly because of the audience he is seeking to address. Here is his opening paragraph:
The Guardian's Reading the Riots reports left me with a sensation of enormous sadness. So much of what is recorded here reflects lives in which anger and depression are almost the default setting, thanks to of a range of frustrations and humiliations. Too many of these young people assume they are not going to have any ordinary, human, respectful relationships with adults – especially those in authority, the police above all. Too many inhabit a world in which the obsession with "good" clothes and accessories – against a backdrop of economic insecurity or simple privation – creates a feverish atmosphere where status falls and rises as suddenly and destructively as a currency market: good lives are lives where one's position within a fierce Darwinian hierarchy of style is temporarily secure. Too many feel they have nothing to lose because they are told practically from birth that they have no serious career opportunities.
He continues:
But because many of these people are damaged – by unstable family settings, by education delivered in almost impossible conditions, by what is felt as constant suspicion and discrimination – their way of releasing tension is destructive and chaotic. There is no point in being sentimental: they make appallingly bad, selfish, short-term choices.
The Archbishop is not excusing the actions of the rioters, he clearly condemns the choices made by those who took to the streets. However, ++Rowan goes on to question the values and priorities of a society in which these choices are made:
The question is why such choices seem natural or unavoidable to so many. We may well wince when some describe how the riots brought them a feeling of intense joy, liberation, power. But we have to ask what kind of life it is in which your emotional highs come from watching a shop torched or a policeman hit by a brick.
Nearly three years ago the Children's Society produced its Good Childhood report, a careful analysis of what young people thought constituted a nurturing environment to grow up in. Its conclusions were devastatingly simple. Young people need love. They need a dependable background for their lives, emotionally and socially; a background that helps them take certain things for granted so that they know they don't have to fight ceaselessly for recognition. We should be keeping a sharp eye on working practices that undermine this, and asking how law and society reinforce the right kinds of family stability by training in parenting skills as well as high quality out-of-school activity and care. We should be challenging an educational philosophy too absorbed in meeting targets to shape character. And we should look long and hard at the assumptions we breed into our children about acquisition and individual material profit.
In other words we are an idolatrous society whose worship of the gods of consumerism and money making are reaping their own particular fruits. If that isn’t sin then I don’t know what is.

The Archbishop is not content to sit on the side lines finger wagging like many of the commentators who spouted so much ill considered nonsense in the aftermath of the riots. Nor does he settle for platitudes and misty eyed optimism. ++Rowan presents us as a society with some hard edged truths which we have to face up to if we aren’t to see our inner city streets going up in flames every summer.
Demonising volatile and destructive young people doesn't help; criminalising them wholesale reinforces a lot of what produces the problem in the first place. Of course crime needs punishment, and limits of acceptable behaviour have to be set. The youth justice system has a good record in restorative justice that brings people up sharp against the human consequences of what they have done. We have the tools for something other than vindictive or exemplary penalties.
The big question Reading the Riots leaves us with is whether, in our current fretful state, with unavoidable austerity ahead, we have the energy to invest what's needed in family and neighbourhood and school to rescue those who think they have nothing to lose. We have to persuade them, simply, that we as government and civil society alike will put some intelligence and skill into giving them the stake they do not have. Without this, we shall face more outbreaks of futile anarchy, in which we shall all, young and old, be the losers.
This is the Archbishop doing his job. Speaking prophetically to a nation that needs to wake up before we drift into a state of perpetual anarchy.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Conspiracy of hope

This is one of my favourite Advent Conspiracy videos. It was created in 2009 but I think it stands the test of time.

There was an interesting comment left underneath the video on Youtube:
You had me 'till 1:28. The message you are spreading does not need to only apply to the religious. So don't market it only to the religious. I'll still probably go along with this, but that bit put a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
Interesting question: if I follow everything you say, except that part at 1:28, what do you think of me? Am I headed for hell?
The words at 1:28 on the video are ‘worship fully’.

The commenter is right, the message doesn’t need to apply to the religious and I don’t have a problem with anyone being encouraged to engage with the suggestions in the video. However, this comment does seem to highlight something important. For Christians our Advent starts with a focus on God and it is in the light of his now and not yet Kingdom that we are called to realign our priorities, values and concerns. From our worship flows our response in loving service. To worship means to reorientate not  just a few actions or attitudes but our whole lives towards God. The Advent Conspiracy website expresses it like this:
It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus. This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year. Entering the story of advent means entering this season with an overwhelming passion to worship Jesus to the fullest.
As for the question asked by the commenter ‘Am I headed for hell?’. The answer is I don’t know; that’s between him/her and God. I do believe that until we enter into a relationship with God in which we are so overwhelmed by his love that our only response can be worship, then we are not experiencing the fullness of life that God longs to share with us.

I think that’s part of the Advent Conspiracy. As Christians we are called to live, liberated from and challenging those things in this world which damage, debase, dehumanise and ultimately destroy us as human beings. That's a conspiracy worth being part of.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Not so cute

You know Tian Tian and Yang Guang, those two cute and cuddly Pandas that have just shipped in from China. Turns out they aren’t so cute and cuddly.

h/t Chris Tilling


I returned home from church this afternoon to hear the news that Socrates, the Brazilian footballer, has died. When people think of Brazil Pele is the name most often mentioned but for me Socrates epitomised the glory of the South American game. socratesA heavy smoker and drinker throughout his playing career, Socrates never the less stood out as one of the exceptional midfielders of his generation and was capped 60 times for his country. The languid grace with which Socrates stroked the ball around the pitch, married to great vision and physical strength made him an ideal captain for Brazil. Socrates captained Brazil at the 1982 World Cup finals and was the epitome of footballing cool at 6’ 4” and with his trade mark beard.

Following his career in football, Socrates practiced as a medical doctor; he qualified while playing. However, he was troubled by ill health later in life and this is largely attributed to what he acknowledged to be his dependency on alcohol going back to his playing days. A sad end for such a great footballing icon.

Here’s one of Socrates great goals, celebrated with a wonderful exuberance.

RIP Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira

Saturday, 3 December 2011


I’ve added a countdown to Christmas calendar to the Treehouse. The calendar comes courtesy of Damaris who produce some excellent resources. Each day the calendar displays a video on a theme connected with Advent and you can preview all the videos online. There is also a tab to play the Real Jesus video.

This is just one example of the many high quality digital resources available at the moment. I came across the calendar via the Digital Evangelism Issues blog.

Wait on the Lord

Friday, 2 December 2011

track record

The most surprising thing about Jeremy Clarkson’s ‘shoot the strikers’ comment on the BBC One Show is that people were surprised that he made it. Clarkson, who has a new DVD to promote, has developed his own niche market in this sort of thing. Any regular viewer of Top Gear or reader of his newspaper columns knows this is how Clarkson makes his not inconsiderable dosh. A casual racial stereotype here, a quip about murdering prostitutes there, pepper his reviews of the latest hatchback or four wheel drive.

What has received little attention was a comment Clarkson made later in the show. He apparently made a joke about people committing suicide on the railways. I say apparently because I couldn’t find a transcript or video clip and the Beeb has pulled the edition of The One Show from iPlayer. The joke was referred to in the BBC news report on the programme and several newspapers have summarised the comment, though none gives a direct quote. Here’s The Guardian’s reference:
Clarkson went on to shock viewers by saying trains should not stop for people who have committed suicide by throwing themselves onto the rails.
Well it’s just Jezza being Jezza isn’t it and no doubt he and his mates Hammond and May will have a snigger about the whole incident next time they meet up at the license fee payers’ expense to do their boy racer shtick.

Unfortunately, I am no longer surprised when I receive a text or email from a parishioner apologising that they will be late or miss a church meeting because of a suicide on the railway line. At the moment it is an almost weekly occurrence. I find myself wondering how desperate someone must have been to throw themselves under a train. I pray for their family, if they have one; I pray for the driver of the train and for the emergency services called to attend the scene of the incident.

I can’t help but think it might do Mr Clarkson some good to attend one of these incidents with the public sector workers who have to do their work in these situations: the police; the fire brigade; the paramedics; the ambulance crew. The same people he jokes about in these terms:
Frankly, I'd have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean, how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living?
Who knows, one day Jezza may find himself in an accident and in need of the people he quips about executing. I hope they don’t treat him as a joke.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Aids and Abishag

Today is World Aids Day. When I was in Kenya last month I noticed this sign outside a large tea factory on the slopes of Mt Kenya. These signs are quite common in Kenya. A person I met who really impressed me was the wife of Bishop Charles, the Bishop of Meru. Whenever her husband preaches the bishop’s wife then speaks and she invariably repeats the ABCD message on this sign. She does. however, change the last part so her message is:
A very powerful message spoken by a remarkable woman whose name is Abishag.

Update: And here is the Archbishop of Canterbury's message for World Aids Day.