The twelfth day of Christmas, Epiphany, was yesterday. We have officially moved beyond the Christmas season. And this devotional series ends today. It is, after all, day 40.
I’m not sure I quite knew what I was biting off when I planned this series. It’s definitely been a stretch assignment, but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and the skills I’ve learned.
If this series has encouraged you, refreshed you in your faith, or given you new insights, I would simply love to hear. Please use the contact form or message me via Twitter or Facebook.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 5: Revelation
Today I want to share two images: one of water and one of fire. But they’re both from the same film. And the plot needs some explaining.
This is your spoiler warning.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is a children’s fantasy-adventure 3D animated film. It was made in 2010, directed by Zac Snyder, based on a series of books by Kathryn Lasky.
Condensing several books, the film has pacing and tone issues. But it is the most visually beautiful film I have ever seen. So much so, it often took me a while to put my finger on what was resonating with me.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 4: Fire
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
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 think we’ve found Screwtape’s opposite number.”
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagined the plight of an ordinary Christian man. His story is narrated through letters – written from one demon to another, both trying to ensnare the man’s damnation.
His ‘opposite number’ is a character in a radio play I wrote a few years ago. I hadn’t been thinking of The Screwtape Letters, but then a friend made the comparison. And I loved it. Best of all, my angels had sass and character; the good guys were savvy and wry. They had the best lines and the best laughs.
In 2019, I started work on another script. This time, you could say the themes were closer to those in TheScrewtape Letters. A guardian angel has a supervision meeting about his ‘assignment’ — being a Western, white, middle-class, Christian man. Who’s overwhelmed and teetering on depression.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 1: Meeting
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
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 published. The book prequels The Lord of the Rings.
I learned about the quote from my best friend. She said she had been reminded of me.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 6: Saviour
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
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
“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
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
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
I am no longer my own, but yours.Charles Wesley
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