Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 6: Fragrance

I once took some spikenard to church. 

The oil had lost much of its pungency in the 10 years since I had bought it. And I only had a 5ml bottle. But it was still plenty strong enough. 

It was two weeks before Easter, Passion Sunday. And by “passion,” I mean “suffering” – because that’s what the word originally meant in Latin. That Sunday, and the two weeks that follow it, are when the church remembers Jesus’s suffering and his death on Good Friday. 

The Bible reading was about a woman called Mary (not Jesus’s mother). She had a pint – note: a pint – of spikenard and poured it over Jesus’s feet (John 12:1-8). People criticised her saying it was a waste of a year’s worth of wages. But Jesus defended her; he said she was preparing him for his burial. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 5: Humility

“Remembering you were lucky is what keeps you humble.”

‘Luck’ wouldn’t be my choice of words, but the point was well made. I was listening to a man of colour speaking about what it took for him, as a BIPOC, to succeed. He had needed to work hard and persevere (more than his white peers), but his success was also partly beyond his control. 

He recognised he had needed help from the outside – and he didn’t want to forget that. Instead, he made a point of ‘holding the door open’ for other people, who hadn’t yet made it like he had. 

I often think of the phrase ‘there but for the grace of God.’ I’m so very conscious that I would not be where I am, able to do the things I’m doing, if God had not been doing things for me, unasked, behind the scenes. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 5: Humility

Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 4: Transience

Can the things we own begin to own us? Maybe. But that’s not the whole story. 

I get frustrated hearing untargeted attacks on all things material. We are physical beings with tangible needs. Maybe we can live without some of the things we own, but that doesn’t mean they’re sinful or bad, or ‘not God’s best.’

That said, I’ve tried to get better at choosing the things I buy. I think through their purpose and research beyond the marketing hype. I resist ‘value for money’ if it means I’ll over-consume, and I think about where it comes from and where it’ll end up. 

Even so… I hang on to some things for too long. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 4: Transience

Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 3: Overwhelmed

“I wonder if I have the capacity to manage something so overwhelming.”

Crystal Pite, choreographer

The Royal Ballet’s production of Flight Pattern is about the experiences of refugees. Its choreographer, Crystal Pite, said the ballet was her way of coping with events happening in the world. 

I went to the cinema live-stream in 2019. I was determined to see it after hearing the principal, Marcelino Sambé, speak about his experience of dancing it. 

He said many of the ballet’s movements were things that Pite had observed in refugees. So he would bring his hands to his face, rub away and stretch his hands as far from himself as possible. Refugees are, he said, trying to remove their situation from themselves, from their skin. A lot of their movements are triggered by pain. 

In dancing his part, he felt a lot of anger, and a sense of helplessness. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 3: Overwhelmed

Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 2: Judgement

“I’ll give you countless amounts of outright
Acceptance if you want it”

Alanis Morissette

Alanis Morissette’s song ‘You Owe Me Nothing In Return’ articulates a lot of what unconditional love looks like. 

It refrains again and again how the person she’s speaking to owes her nothing. It’s not that what she’s giving isn’t valuable or doesn’t come at a cost. But she gives without expectation of repayment, saying, ‘This is the only kind of love, as I understand it / That there really is.”

In an interview she explained the song was about wanting for other people what they wanted for themselves, but without sacrificing her own life and beliefs. She said supporting people in their choices, whilst being honest about her own choices – even if they were different – was the ultimate loving, healthy interaction. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 1: Priesthood

Let’s talk about priesthood. 

You may have noticed that the ‘Faith in Grey Places’ logo is a staff with leaves and flowers. It’s a reference to the staff of the first Israelite priest, Aaron, who was Moses’s brother. The story goes that when Aaron’s position was challenged, God made Aaron’s staff bud and produce almonds. 

The role of the priest resonated with me when I first fully read the Old Testament. I was filled with a sense of awe for God and an aspiration for right living. And I couldn’t get over it. 

My reaction was unusual. Many Christians are discomforted by the animal sacrifices and laws about ritual purity. The whole system seems built on exclusion, rather than inclusion. Plus, a number of priests in the Old Testament were thoroughly corrupt. 

Don’t get me wrong, these concerns are valid. But, for whatever reason, they aren’t what I took from the text. Instead, I saw a God who deeply desired intimacy with his people, and mapped out paths to make that possible. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 7: Mystery

I never used to address God as ‘Father’. 

Instead I would just say ‘Lord’ or ‘God.’ It didn’t matter whether I was addressing Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, or… 

OK – Christians have this belief that God exists in three persons. They’re separate, but they’re one. And therefore not separate. It gets confusing very quickly. 

But we believe “the Trinity” is the best way we have of describing a being who is beyond comprehension. 

And it explains things that we see in the Bible. 

For example: Mary was told she would become pregnant with Jesus, who would be called the son of God. When she asked how, she was told the Holy Spirit would come upon her. And the power of the Most High would overshadow her. 

Three persons, one God. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 7: Mystery

Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 6: Temple

Pollution is incredibly unjust.

It’s so indiscriminate, so harmful, and its effects can be so long-lasting. Its point of impact can be far removed from its cause. When you stop and think about it, it’s hard not get angry. 

I don’t just mean environmental pollution. Harmful substances, ideas and actions can pollute our bodies, minds and communities. The biblical writers often spoke of wrong-doing as something that polluted the people and their land. 

(They also believed some perfectly healthy life experiences were polluting, but I won’t go into that now.)

If you ask me, the unifying thing about all forms of pollution, is that it steals people’s futures.

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Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 5: Chosen

You hear some kinds of stories multiple times. Then they become tropes. Then you get fed up of hearing them. 

Take the whole ‘chosen one’ plot. Something bad needs sorting, but fate or prophecy has decided who will do this. And more often than not, it’s a child. Or a baby. Or a yet-to-be-born baby. Whoever it is, they were born for this

And then every now and then, you see the story told well, or in a surprising way. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 4: Translation

“God lets his children tell his story.” 

Peter Enns, biblical scholar

Today, people believe things are true when the history, facts and science stack up. 

(Well… I mean… most of us do…)

Being people of faith, Christians want to show that things about God are true. And sometimes they do this by showing how the facts stack up. 

Now, I have time for this – up to a point. There is reliable historical information, outside of the Bible, to show that Jesus lived and died. There is science behind the study of ancient texts and earliest the New Testament manuscripts date from very close to Jesus’s time. 

But, trying to prove God or the Bible by using science has its limits. For one thing, history cannot be reproduced in a lab experiment. For another, the stories of the Bible aren’t scientific in that way. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 4: Translation

Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 3: Stories

In an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the crew of the spaceship meet an alien race that values stories. (Prime Factors, season 1, episode 10.) The ship’s library of stories, and permission to tell them, was valued as highly as powerful transportation technology. 

I found this idea thought-provoking. 

Personal stories can be immensely precious, but they’re also vulnerable to appropriation – especially when it comes to identity and faith. And the church does not have a good track record here. 

In the millennia since Jesus was born, we have systematically stigmatised the Jewish people, and claimed their literature as our own. I’m not proud of this. That’s why when I write about the Bible, I try to distinguish between what the text says, and how Christians interpret it. I want to remember that this text is not mine; it was not written for me. 

And many Jews do not agree with how I interpret it. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 2: Children

Servants wait to be called. But children approach anyway.

Christians often share their stories about how they’re living out their faith. Many of these are filled with hope and fresh ideas, fitting for our time. But there’s a phrase I’ve heard so many times, “I realised this was what God was calling me to do.” The emphasis is on finding God’s will.

We talk negatively about our own will much of the time. We acknowledge that God is a loving God, so we can trust his call will enliven us. But our will has to be couched within his will.

And… on one level, I get this. I believe God is good. I want his will to be done on earth because I know he’s unselfish and wise. I get that. I’m not interested in doing anything outside of God’s will.

But… I find it dissatisfying when the search for “God’s will” consumes our life of faith. It’s like “the Calling” becomes more important than what God wants to achieve through that calling.

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Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 1: Blessing

This week, we’re looking at the song of Mary. 

If you ask me, it’s massively underrated. 

I’ll talk more about Mary on Thursday, but she was Jesus’s mother. A young Jewish woman, most likely a teenager, she totally knew the music of her culture. 

Growing up, I didn’t think much of Mary’s song. We sang it in very high English, to boring tunes. And we called it by its Latin name, the ‘magnificat.’

But there’s also what people didn’t say. No one said, “Hey, you want to know what Christmas is about? Read Mary’s song.” If someone tried to explain the good news, they would give you an analogy or draw a diagram. They wouldn’t point to this song.

I guess it’s partly because she was writing within the Jewish tradition – which the church hasn’t studied well. And maybe the church preferred to think of Mary as a musician, but not a theologian. 

Whatever. I get to appreciate it now. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 7: Dreams

“Never surrender dreams.”

J Michael Straczinsky, screenwriter and author

I once read a fantasy novella called The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson. It was all about a magic of forgery, where you could make alternative identities for people and even objects. But for an alternative identity to stick, it had to be plausible. The more plausible it was, the longer it lasted. (I highly recommend the book.)

I found this a fascinating and creative take for how we bring about change. Change only happens if people can envisage the new way of being; ideas only get traction if they’re seen as achievable. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 6: Bones

I have a strange relationship with legal codes. 

On the one hand, I love seeing how they interact. Geeking out on Old Testament laws is one of my pastimes.

On the other hand, there is something very dead about written regulations. They are static. They always have cracks and limits. And legal documentation can be dry as a bone. 

But sometimes things need to die before they can really live. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 5: Politics

At the start of this series, I said the Christmas story both begins and ends with tears. Today, I want to look a bit more at that ending. Sorry, it’s not easy going. 

A woman once told me her account of when she’d been sexually assaulted. When I said I believed her, she said people often doubted her because she was calm when she spoke about it. 

I replied saying that she had become practised at telling her story; after all, she’d had to tell it to police, to social workers, to family, to friends, to her employer and to domestic violence workers. I said she probably wasn’t nearly so calm the first time. And she laughed; she hadn’t thought about it that way before. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 4: Speech

“I explained it when I danced it.”

Margot Fonteyn, ballerina

Speech is possibly one of the greatest gifts we have as human beings. 

But not all speech is words.

In May 2019, I heard Sybella Wilkes speak at the Royal Opera House in London. She was the senior communications officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

She said that the world is going numb to the global refugee crisis; people want to turn away and not look. Perhaps that’s unsurprising – there isn’t a solution and the problem is getting worse. 

Over the evening, a panel of speakers talked about the importance of music and dance. The arts give voice to experiences that do not have words; they express something which cannot be communicated through conventional means. What’s more, refugees need spaces to express themselves in the arts — just as much as they need water, food and shelter.

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Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 3: Endurance

It’s funny how stories help us bear the unbearable.

A couple of years ago I watched a Danish crime-thriller series called ‘Department Q.’ Based on a series of books, it was about two police officers who investigate cold cases. Fair warning: these stories are very grim and violent!

The last episode, A Conspiracy of Faith, was about a serial killer and extortionist tried to destroy devout believers’ faith. 

What struck me was how, despite his cruelty, despite his cunning, despite his having the upper hand, the police officers and their colleagues didn’t give up. Good people died, sustained serious injuries, or lost a loved one, but they all kept going. They didn’t hold back saying, “If we keep going, this might cost us even more.” 

I found it healing to see the police team’s determination, even in their weakness, to keep going until the killer was caught and stopped. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 2: Testimony

A couple of years ago, I heard a short talk about how Christians share personal stories about their experience of God. We often call this ‘testimony.’ 

The speaker highlighted how during the 80s in the UK, testimony in churches became sensational. You would hear polished packages of very dramatic stories. But along the way, these stories lost their authenticity and their usefulness; they became repetitive and weren’t easy to relate to. Partly because of this, the word ‘testimony’ can have tainted connotations within the church. 

And yet, if a Christian was asked to write a letter to a younger person, to convey something about their faith, then the letter would probably be a form of testimony. They would be sharing their lived experience and showing a part of why they believe what they believe. 

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Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 1: Tears

This is a story that begins with tears.

Well, that’s where many biblical authors chose to start when they told their stories. And 

I am glad. 2020 has been a year of tears for many people. Christmas needs to meet us in our tears. It has to understand lament. Otherwise, how can it speak about hope? How can it offer comfort?

All that said, I found something else very uncomfortable about the Christmas story: it also ends with tears. 

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