‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.’ Micah 5:2 (NIVUK)
Today’s reading is Luke 2:8–16, the story about the shepherds coming to visit Jesus.
Continue reading Luke 2:8–16: Shepherd, leave your flock and fold (a poem)
Today’s reading is Luke 2:1,3–7. It’s the story of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. There, Mary gives birth and famously places Jesus in a manger because there was no room in the ‘inn.’ (My post from Christmas Eve last year has some useful notes on this word.)
Continue reading Luke 2:1–7: The Prince of Prayer (a poem)
Continuing the series of poems drawing on the scripture readings in a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Strictly speaking, the reading for today is Luke 1:26–35,38.
This is one of those passages that’s so famous, it’s hard to know what more can be said about it.
Continue reading Luke 1:26–38: The Weight of Wings (a poem)
Bible references for this poem: Luke 24:13–35.
As if the title didn’t give it away, today’s poem draws on the story of when Jesus walked with two disciples along the road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. The account is in Luke 24:13–35. They were downcast and somewhat astonished that Jesus didn’t seem to know about the crucifixion, but then Luke says they were prevented from recognising him.
Whilst they walk, Jesus is described as ‘opening’ the scriptures to them so that they could understand that the Messiah ‘had to’ suffer and die. It’s only when they reach Emmaus that they invite Jesus in to stay with them and, over a meal, recognise him for who he is.
Continue reading Looking back from Emmaus (a poem about how we make sense of our experiences)
Bible references for these poems: Luke 23:33–35.
Also: John 14:25–31, John 16:5–15.
Two short poems this week, both reflecting on a prayer Jesus made whilst he was on the cross on Good Friday: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
It’s recorded in Luke 23:33–35, though some manuscripts don’t include it. Curiously, the NET footnotes say that “even those who regard the verse as inauthentic literarily often consider it to be authentic historically.”
Continue reading Father, forgive (two poems inspired by Jesus’s words on the cross)
People say that shame is the feeling you have when you believe something is inherently wrong with who you are. Guilt, on the other hand, is feeling there’s something wrong with your actions.
But actually, shame stems from a fear of exclusion. It’s not just about how you relate to yourself, but how you relate to other people.
I learned about this when I read a definition from a 2003 paper by Thomas Scheff. He wrote that shame is:
“the large family of emotions that includes many cognates and variants most notably embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and related feelings of shyness that originate in threats to social bond. This definition integrates self (emotional reactions) and society (the social bond).”Scheff, Thomas J. “Shame in Self and Society.” Symbolic Interaction, vol. 26, no. 2, 2003, pp. 239–262. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/si.2003.26.2.239. Accessed 23 Dec. 2020
Suddenly a whole heap of experiences made sense to me. Including those times when I haven’t felt shame.
You see, when I felt no shame, it’s because I had no fear of exclusion – even if I was aware that something I had done wasn’t fabulous.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 2: Growth
“I am no longer my own, but yours.”
These are the opening words of a prayer written by Charles Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church denomination. It’s prayed annually, as part of a special ‘covenant’ service where Methodists renew their commitment to God.
That said, many Methodists find the prayer intimidating; they’ll even avoid attending the covenant service so that they don’t perjure themselves. It surprised me when I learned this, but… maybe it shouldn’t?
Even amongst Christians, there is so much misinformation about God. So many questions, some of them unanswerable; so many people we’ve known who’ve let us down.
Never mind that it’s a big ask to unconditionally surrender your entire life to another. It’s hard not to see such unqualified commitment as a very bad idea, full stop.
And yet… I cannot bring myself to dilute my understanding of God. He is awesome and holy, fully deserving and trustworthy of total submission.
So where do we land?
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 7: Calling
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.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 6: Princeling
It’s Christmas Eve. And I’m not where I expected I would be nine months ago. I’m not even where I expected to be nine days ago.
Mary must have had similar feelings of bewilderment. She had thought she .would give birth to Jesus in familiar surroundings with friends and family helping her. Instead, a Roman tax census had sent her to a distant and over-crowded town. Joseph was at her side, but so were farm animals. She put her baby in a manger instead of a cradle.
This was not the plan.
Luke doesn’t tell us where Mary and Joseph stayed, just that there was no room in the ‘lodging place’ (frequently translated ‘inn’). It’s like we should know what he means. He doesn’t say where the manger was; again, he assumes we know.
Instead, he just says Mary lay Jesus in a manger. That was the bit he didn’t think we’d guess.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 5: Unexpected
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
“Family is the first community you know.”
I was listening to a British Asian woman speak about her experience of living in the UK. Her parents and grandparents had made a huge effort to settle in the UK. It hadn’t been easy and she felt a weight of responsibility not to disappoint them – especially in the life choices she made. Her family was, after all, the first community she had known.
I find the idea of family so hard to reckon with at times. Who is family? What is family? When do we see family happening?
Children can be unjustly burdened by the expectations and demands of their parents. But children can also unmake or misuse the hard-won rights their parents fought for. When I ask what family really should be, I don’t like the idea of blanket obedience, but I can’t shake off regarding elders with respect.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 3: Family
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
I always loved the nunc dimittis.
That might sound contradictory. Earlier I said I hadn’t thought much of Mary’s song when I was growing up. Because we sang it to boring tunes and referred to it by its Latin name ‘magnificat.’
Well, we also sang Simeon’s song to the same kinds of tunes and used its Latin name. But for some reason, I loved it.
It conjured the feeling of a peaceful evening. When everything is winding down and all is well with the world.
As we’ll see in today’s reading, Simeon was an old man who lived in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus’s birth. He met Mary and Joseph in the temple a few weeks after Jesus was born. He had been waiting to see this promised child and, even though he was old, he knew he would live to see Jesus face-to-face.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 1: Departure
“With hindsight, some could see why things had gone wrong and recognized they had been hard to work with.”
Ruth H Perrin, Changing Shape, The Faith Lives of Millennials.
Ruth Perrin’s book studies the experiences of emerging adults who, when they were teenagers, described themselves as Christians. Given that I’ve met a number of people who are now ‘ex-church’, I was particularly interested in the chapter about ‘the disenchanted.’
She found nearly all the ‘disenchanted’ millennials she interviewed had been strong contributors to their churches. But then that was derailed, and the fallout was deeply damaging.
In retrospect, some could now see how it happened, however as Perrin writes: “had they been better managed, or had communication been clearer, events might have turned out differently.”
Her study focussed on the cost to the individuals she interviewed, but the wider opportunity cost was undoubtedly huge.
At least, it was for me.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 7: Cause
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.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 6: Fragrance
“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
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
“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
“I’ll give you countless amounts of outright
Acceptance if you want it”
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.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 2: Judgement
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.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 1: Priesthood