Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 3: Ways

As any consent activist will tell you, boundaries are crucial to your health and wellbeing. Transgressing boundaries is inherently unfaithful. It’s no accident that in the Lord’s Prayer, in its traditional form, we ask God to forgive us our ‘trespasses.’

I’ve long believed it’s important to respect God’s boundaries. If God has set them, then they must be both ethical and important. But whilst I still believe this is true, I don’t act on it in the way I used to. 

You see, I used to believe I had stay well within the lines. I’d be nervous not to get anywhere near God’s boundaries. I believed the onus was on me to build up my own little guard rails to stop me from coming close. 

But then I wondered: what if I don’t need to be like that?

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 3: Ways

Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 7: Gentleness

Apparently, Google translates “Kyrie eleison” as “Sir, take it easy.”

Christians are more familiar with “Lord, have mercy.”

But the Google Translate rendering strikes home with me. 

Christians often say that mercy is not giving people bad things that they nevertheless deserve. But this has problematic overtones.

I’ve heard it stated, or strongly implied, that the slightest error warrants a gory death in God’s eyes. This is considered the reason behind Jesus’s awful death: supposedly, he took the punishment we deserve. 

Again, I find this highly problematic. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 7: Gentleness

Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 6: Saviour

Above all, Tolkien has a fascination with names for their own sake that will probably seem excessive to anyone whose favorite light reading is not the first book of Chronicles.

Robert M Adams

This quote comes from a 1977 review of The Silmarillion shortly after it was first publishedThe book prequels The Lord of the Rings. 

I learned about the quote from my best friend. She said she had been reminded of me.

Touché. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 6: Saviour

Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 5: Integrity

In 2019, I read Kathy Khang’s book “Raise Your Voice.” She writes as a Korean-American about having courage to speak up and bring about change for the better. 

Throughout the book, she speaks about the sensitivities involved, as well as how hard it is to gain traction with people. She writes about changing structural problems, often from a position of little power/influence. 

Her insights were a balm for me and there are fabulous one-liners. 

One of them was this: “the Old Testament prophets not only recorded history but also remind the modern church of the need for people who say things that need to be said, even when it’s uncomfortable.” (p89)

I nearly pushed this sentence out as a Facebook status, but just before I hit post, I hesitated. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 5: Integrity

Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 4: Empires

Let’s talk about divisions. 

On the one hand, boundaries are good. We put down markers to divide one space from another, to distinguish the public from the private, to delineate ourselves from everything else. When it comes to confidences, people need “safe containers, not leaky vessels.” 

Holding and respecting boundaries are where we find wisdom and faithfulness. 

On the other hand, boundaries can create silos and conflicts. They can segregate people and create disunity. 

People talk about ‘divisive’ topics, or say that certain political figures are ‘divisive.’ But much of the time, these aren’t what divide people. The divisions were already there, it’s just that the underlying disunity has been exposed. 

When that happens, we lose the luxury of believing we were on the same page. And it disappoints, exhausts and hurts. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 4: Empires

Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 3: Justice

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Grantland Rice, sports commentator

There’s a day in the Bible that gets call the ‘day of judgement.’ It’s described in various ways: something long-awaited, vindicating, something that ends long-standing injustice.

But it’s not described as joyful or even good. If anything, it’s described as terrible. 

As I’ve said before, prophecy is a complex genre. The ‘day of judgement’ can be interpreted in a number of ways – many place it as a past event. 

That said, many Christians believe, myself included, that there is one ultimate judgement day yet to come, when God calls all wrongdoing to account. We don’t fear it, but we ask how to live as the day approaches. (Though it could be centuries yet.) 

For some Christians, this creates a desire to “be on the right side” before time runs out. And I kind of agree. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we all like to think that we’re right, good and loving. We all think we deserve to be on the winning team.

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

Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 2: Accountability

Some of the things Jesus said were pretty uncomfortable. 

One of them was this: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Matthew 25:29, see also Matthew 13:12)

As a Christian, I don’t want to dilute Jesus’s words. I believe he said them for a reason. I also trust that the gospels were written and compiled reliably enough. But sayings like this can make for awkward conversations – particularly with people who are fragile in their faith. 

And I don’t believe the words of Jesus should make us anxious. 

I come to this question: who were these words intended for?

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 2: Accountability

Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 1: King

Gondor has no King, Gondor needs no King.

Boromir, The Fellowship of the Ring

Some days, I’m with Boromir. 

This quote comes from the film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s an epic high fantasy, supposedly set in Earth’s distant past. And it has many plot threads. One of them concerns the land of Gondor, which has been bereft of a king for generations. 

Meanwhile Boromir, son of the Steward of Gondor, is resentful of how much his people have endured, being bordered with the black lands of Mordor. And he’s cynical that some random ‘ranger’ from the North, Aragorn, could be the rightful heir and king. 

And you know, there are days when I’m similarly cynical. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 1: King

Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 6: Princeling

I’m a feminist but… I’m still a sucker for good princess stories.

I love the idea of being special (who doesn’t?). I love royalty being bestowed upon good people who serve their kingdom. I especially love the idea of a young daughter fearlessly weighing in on matters of state, albeit seasoned with just enough decorum for what’s at stake.

Of course, not all princesses are born into royalty. But when they are, there’s so much baggage of the state. It’s hard to shed the feeling of being a prize, a treasure, a someone-born-for-someone-else. It’s easy to think of her as merely a trophy for some handsome prince who’ll later be king. 

The church does not help in all this. Borrowing from texts like Ephesians 5, 2 Corinthians 11:2 and Revelation 21, Christians often say the church is the bride of Christ – metaphorically speaking. 

But I dare say this distorts our perspective. I can understand the appeal of saying the gospel is like a fairy-tale, but some of those tales have a sickly-sweet edge. Count me in for the magic and the mystery, but I don’t want a faith draped in pretty white veils. And I don’t want to be dolled up to fit the image.

And yet… 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 6: Princeling

Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 4: Gateway

It’s funny how crime and throwaway culture go hand in hand. 

Take fast fashion. It’s not technically a crime, but it’s polluting, it impoverishes communities, and produces vast amounts of waste. It does these things unsustainably. And it’s largely because people see clothes as disposable.

So we might say that throwaway culture is a crime of sorts. 

But what of the things we actually call crimes? While some crime is malicious, a lot of it is driven by pre-existing injustice and inequality. 

When people don’t have the basics of what they need to be healthy, when they don’t have stability, they get desperate. They find methods of making ends meet. Those methods aren’t always pretty and can trap them on the wrong side of the law. At which point they become fodder for exploitation. It cycles.

We have to find a sustainable way of dealing with this. It’s not that I think crime is good. But I’m yet to see a single ‘zero tolerance’ policy that works. And the problem is only going to get bigger. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 4: Gateway

Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 2: Scandal

The Greek word ‘skandalon’ is the root of our English word ‘scandal’. It means ‘stumbling block.’

But it should mean ‘something that causes people to argue.’ 

The idea of ‘stumbling blocks’ recurs throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament. And it’s a bit weird. 

When Jesus’ warned his close friends that he would be killed, one of them, Peter, said it would never happen. In response, Jesus called him a stumbling block (Matthew 16:23). 

The early churches were told to consider their example so that they didn’t mislead or be a ‘stumbling block’ to others (Romans 14:13, 1 Corinthians 8:9). 

And with graphic hyperbole, Jesus preached that if parts of our bodies cause us to stumble then we would be better off losing those parts altogether. (Seriously, don’t take this literally! Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 18:6-9; Mark 9:42-47.)

So stumbling blocks are… bad?

But on the flip side, the New Testament says Jesus is a stumbling-block. 

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

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 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. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 7: Dreams

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. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 6: Bones

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. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 5: Politics

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.

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 4: Speech

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. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 3: Endurance

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. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 2: Testimony

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. 

Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 1: Tears

Isaiah 58:1-9a (remix) – a call to Christians who campaign

I wrote this poem as an alternative ‘remix’ version of these verses to raise a contemporary challenge to the church. I want to get us thinking not just about the causes we campaign for, but also about the methods we use in our activism, and what it is that produces lasting and fruitful results.

Like many of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah spoke about injustice, calling the people of Israel and Judah to account for their actions and appealing to them to change their ways. And I know it’s a cliché but: many of his words, written hundreds of years ago, are deeply resonant today. Especially when it comes to ending oppression and showing hospitality to the poor.

Continue reading Isaiah 58:1-9a (remix) – a call to Christians who campaign