Monday, 29 December 2008

Easter eggs in December.

Tesco is finished with Christmas and on to Easter. This was the end of one aisle today - I was so amazed, I surreptitiously took a photo with my phone.

Christians often argue that Easter is the other side of Christmas, theologically. Two sides of the one coin. Indivisible from one another. Incarnation and salvation are entwined.

That's all very well, but I'm just not ready to see Easter egg displays, even if it's still just the little creme eggs rather than the big boys. After all, we haven't eaten all the selection boxes yet.

Same old same old.

My gran was 101 back in April, so this is her 102nd Christmas. What a lot of changes have taken place in her life. Probably about as much change, in some ways, as in the 1906 years from the start of the common era until her birth.

And yet the changes are mostly to do with technology and gadgets. They are amazing of course. Even the developments in my lifetime are astonishing - I remember our ZX81 computer and how basic it was, and how the Commodore 64 seemed such an improvement when it came out. I remember my first calculator which was both enormous and expensive, and our big black bakelite telephones. When my gran was born it wouldn't have occurred to anyone that man would walk on the moon, or that we'd have this bizarre and wonderful world-wide web to access information and communicate so easily.

And yet, in other ways, nothing's changed at all. When I read stuff in the Bible written all those years ago, I'm often struck by how all the foibles and frailties and foolishness of the folk then are so similar to our own today. We still make all the mistakes we've always made and seem unable to learn from experience.

The delightfully cynical book "Ecclesiastes" says: "Generations come, and generations go, but the earth lasts forever. The sun rises, and the sun sets, and then it rushes back to the place where it will rise again. The wind blows toward the south and shifts toward the north. Round and round it blows. It blows in a full circle. All streams flow into the sea, but the sea is never full. The water goes back to the place where the streams began in order to start flowing again... Whatever has happened before will happen again. Whatever has been done before will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun."
I suppose that could be depressing but for some reason I find it oddly comforting. Last night I watched on television just a wee bit of a quiz about 2008 and was amused to reflect on how I'd completely forgotten about various things that we'd all been really worried about at the time when they were in the news earlier in the year. We panic about stuff so easily and fear that, to quote the favourite saying of Private Frazer (John Laurie), the miserable old Scotsman in Dad's Army, "We're doomed!".

Aristotle, writing about 300 hundred years before the birth of Jesus, said, "When I look at the younger generation, I despair of the future of civilisation". And yet here we still are, all these years later.

Either it's just dumb luck, or, as I believe, there's a Higher Power holding our metaphorical baby reins to stop us running out in front of a metaphorical truck.

Victor Borge's Phonetic Punctuation

A propos of nothing, this is neither topical, new, nor relevant to my usual subjects but it's made my mum and me laugh a lot over the years:

If that amused you too, there's a musical version as well, with Dean Martin:

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Positive and Negative.

This is interesting. So is this. Both articles are written by people not claiming to be Christians, describing themselves in one case as an atheist and in the other as "of no particular religion". And yet, for a change, they aren't full of the usual negativity and vitriole.

It's not that I don't understand negativity and vitriole when I come across it. I understand it just fine. I just get rather tired of it, and these two articles are so refreshing to read as a result.

I'm not arguing, btw, that the negativity and vitriole are anything more than a chronic minor irritation. I'm not saying they are painful - not as painful, for example, as my current ongoing dental problem (praise God for Ibuprofen) or that they amount to persecution. I liked this image:

I don't actually mind being slagged off for my faith, or laughed at. I don't mind if folk think I'm bonkers. What would concern me far far more would be if I was being arrogant or pushy and deserving of the abuse. Spoiled mollycoddled Christians in the comfortable West too often scream persecution when all that's happening is that their own lack of grace has rubbed folk up the wrong way, and those folk have, understandably, let them have it in return.

On the other hand, persecution is real and alive on planet Earth, and I pray for those who're experiencing the true variety.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

It's not quite midnight, so I can still be on time by posting Christmas good wishes to you all now. Merry Christmas.

Hope Santa stopped by your place. Our bunch did well, even Flora. Him Indoors and I are looking forward to half a dishwasher each in the January sales as the other one is giving up the struggle. When Him Indoors was a very little boy, he once greeted his grandfather on Christmas Day with the subsequently famous quote, "Papa! That Santa Claus! He's a ****ing great man!" much to his mother's embarrassment. Once again I found myself thinking this morning, "That Santa's a great man..."

We did also recall who the day is really about and went to Church this morning, where the kids got to sing "Happy birthday to you" to Jesus!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Santa links.

Santa's bail-out hearing:
Raspberry Rabbit had this on his blog for yesterday. It made me laugh.

Also, if you're viewing this today, you can track Santa's progress here. It's a great link. Please click on it.

NORAD obviously have a sense of fun, which is good. We have a service at 7pm on Christmas Eve at church. Kids can come in their pyjamas if they want (adults don't seem to be allowed to). As soon as it's finished, before dismissing the congregation, Him Indoors gets the tech-heads to put this up on the powerpoint screen so we can all see where Santa's reached, and then he tells the kids to get off home to bed. Not very Biblical but good fun all the same...

If Jesus was born today...

I posted this picture last year (but didn't have many readers then!) It's called "If Jesus had been born in Glasgow.." and what I said about it then was: "If you're from Glasgow, or probably anywhere in Scotland actually, you'll get this. Otherwise you won't. It's offensive, yes, but it's touching too, and funny and clever all at once. The bottle the guy in the yellow hoodie is holding is Buckfast wine - produced by monks and originally sold in chemists but now drunk by young teenagers on the streets. The reason I put it on the blog even though I suppose it's kinda blasphemous is that for me it says that Jesus came for this type of person too, and for all the many and varied types of people I come across in prison. The gospel's not for the posh only!!"

My favourite poet is Steve Turner. I've posted two of his poems before, here and here. Here's another to make us think.

If Jesus Was Born Today

If Jesus was born today
it would be in a downtown motel
marked by a helicopter's flashing bulb.
A traffic warden, working late,
would be the first upon the scene.
Later, at the expense of a TV network,
an eminent sociologist,
the host of a chat show
and a controversial author
would arrive with their good wishes
-the whole occasion to be filmed as part of the
'Is This The Son Of God?' one hour special.
Childhood would be a blur of photographs and speculation
dwindling by his late teens into
'Where Is He Now?' features in Sunday magazines.

If Jesus was thirty today
they wouldn't really care about the public ministry,
they'd be too busy investigating His finances
and trying to prove He had Church or Mafia connections.
The miracles would be explained by
an eminent and controversial magician,
His claims to be God's Son recognised as
excellent examples of Spoken English
and immediately incorporated into
the O-Level syllabus,
His sinless perfection considered by moral philosophers
as, OK, but a bit repressive.

If Jesus was thirty-one today
He'd be the fly in everyone's ointment-
the sort of controversial person who
stands no chance of eminence.
Communists would expel Him, capitalists
would exploit Him or have Him
smeared by people who know a thing or two about God.
Doctors would accuse Him of quackery,
soldiers would accuse Him of cowardice,
theologians would take Him aside and try
to persuade Him of His non-existence.

If Jesus was thirty-two today we'd have to
end it all. Heretic, fundamentalist, literalist,
puritan, pacifist, non-conformist, we'd take Him
away and quietly end the argument.
But the argument would rumble in the ground
at the end of three days and would break out
and walk around as though death was some bug,
saying 'I am the resurrection and the life...
No man cometh to the Father but by me'.
While the magicians researched new explanations
and the semanticists wondered exactly what
He meant by 'I' and 'No man' there would be those
who stand around amused, asking for something
called proof.

Steve Turner

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

O Me Miserum

I'm feeling sorry for myself today. On Friday I had a tooth extracted and now have a big old infection in the space, which has given me two pretty sleepless nights (I'm Mrs Grumpy without enough sleep). I have a thoroughgoing head cold as well, so from the neck up things aren't going so well for me.

I went back to work yesterday after a week's annual leave. For the first time since I began in the job, I found I really didn't care about what the prisoners had to say and just wanted them to go away and leave me alone! (I think - and hope - I hid it well!) Anyway I'm not going today as I might do more harm than good with that attitude.

Somehow Him Indoors (who also has a cold) and I and four kids (some of whom also have a cold) will be braving the supermarket today for all we need for Thursday.

On the bright side, however, now that the shortest day is over, although that makes me a year older, it means that we can all start looking forward to spring and the nights getting shorter again. This cheers me up enormously, as did Firstborn making me this:

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Bethlehem Experience

Tonight I was at the Bethlehem Experience. My father-in-law, brother-in-law, two sisters-in-law and three nieces also came along, along with the six of us and (between two showings) well over two thousand other people; the money brought in through ticket sales is going to the local churches' ecumenical homeless charity in this town.

It was really great. Him Indoors was the compere (I was dead proud) and also had to voice God in the drama. In front of me was sitting That Hideous Man (I sometimes forget my fellow bloggers are in fact real people and am surprised to see them in the flesh).

Before the show, Blue Eyed Boy and his pal were dressed as turkeys and giving out chocolate coins to all the kids in the queue. (Roasted chestnuts, popcorn and toasted marshmallows were also available). A Victorian choir were singing to the queue as well.

Once inside the foyer, there were three (real) camels, some wise men, a (real) cow, a (real) two-and-a-half-week old calf, two (real) sheep, a (real) sheepdog and a (real) donkey, as well as more Roman soldiers. A census was being taken at the door as we came in, too. There was also a stable scene where a real couple and their real baby (actually a girl!) were dressed as Joseph, Mary and Jesus. When I saw them the baby was sound asleep.

During the show, the superb ACM Gospel Choir, one of the contestant choirs in the television competition "Last Choir Standing", performed quite a few songs - the girls' somewhat minimalist dresses (who'd a thunk you could have got so many dresses from one piece of material?) not seeming to put them off their planned choreography one bit. My brother-in-law beside me was well impressed. I don't know if he noticed they were singing.

There was a drama about a failed X-factor auditionee realising she was still loved by God, a nativity tableau (with real live donkey and very cute children), and a great swing band to play throughout.

My own Penultimate and Youngest Children sang in the children's choir (look for stripy tights front row and pink tights second front row).

Our resident (and lovely) local Christian multi-millionaire, as well as pretty much funding it all, spoke really well too, with a message to celebrate CHRISTmas, not Xmas.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Memorial Services

My mother-in-law's funeral was on Thursday. Funerals are sad (of course) but the minister (actually my dad) did a really good job with the tribute and even the children were fully engaged and laughing at some of the stories about her that he relayed. He summed her up so well. And yet the final moment of parting is always really sad. At the end of the service the most torrential downpour suddenly began, just as the coffin was being removed from the service room during the singing of The Lord's My Shepherd. The rain seemed completely appropriate to the sadness.

The next morning, as it happened, I had to conduct a funeral myself. I had never met the person who had died or any of the family either. But at the pre-funeral visit I asked some family members to tell me all about the deceased. They were very good at giving me lots of good information about characteristics and personality quirks as well as just biographical facts. (It is not always so). After the service, a number of people said my description in the tribute had been just spot on, which was a relief of course. How awful if it weren't...

Although it's impossible to sum up a person's life in a few minutes, I do think the tribute is an important part of the funeral service. Otherwise the service is impersonal - it could be about anyone. And when there has been a long illness, as with my mother-in-law, it's so good to remind everyone of the years of life and health and fun and laughter and adventures that went before.

By contrast, though, I've always been very struck by the instructions that Jesus left for his memorial service:

"The Lord, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said,

This is my body, broken for you.
Do this to remember me.
After supper, he did the same thing with the cup:
This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you.
Each time you drink this cup, remember me.
What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Lord. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Lord returns."

When we have a memorial service we, quite properly, try to highlight some of the most important achievements of the person's life. They may be publicly recognised achievements (medals/honours/career advancements/etc.) or more family orientated achievements such as their contribution to their family. Or whatever.

And yet when Jesus was instigating his memorial service, he didn't ask for any of the amazing events of his life to be recalled - his teaching or his miracles - but rather his death.

When Jesus planned his memorial service (not a one off but one that would be repeated in every generation of the Church) it was entirely a memorial of his death. Whereas when we conduct funerals we're trying to help the family get past the memory of the death in all its awfulness to the years gone by, Jesus actually wants us to focus on his death.

The reason for the difference? Well, we may accomplish things in our lives which benefit others. We don't normally accomplish anything by dying. Jesus, on the other hand, whilst accomplishing much of great worth during his earthly life, accomplished something of infinite and eternal worth by the act of dying. He wants us to remember his death because his death is the most important thing about him.

His death was why he came. The shadow of the cross was over the manger. And his death was for us.

Occasionally prisoners tell me they're "doing time" for someone else - they've taken the blame to save their partner/brother/best mate. Being a very skeptical soul, I don't always believe them! But it's possible that it's true. On the other hand I have complete confidence that someone else - Jesus - has paid the penalty for all my sin (which I'm very sorry for) so I won't have to. And that death also accomplished final victory over death in general.

Two more of the many Bible readings I find comforting in grief:

Jesus said: “Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me. There are many dwelling-places in my Father’s house; if it were not so I should have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you and if I go and prepare a place for you I shall come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also; and you know the way I am taking.
I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me. Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest, And banish your fears”.

...and a man called John had a vision:
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem,
Coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband.
I heard a loud voice proclaiming from the throne: “Now God has His dwelling with mankind! He will live among them and they shall be his people, and God Himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away!” The throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see him face to face and bear his name on their foreheads. There shall be no more night, nor will they need the light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will give them light; and they shall reign for ever”.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Shack.

I've just finished reading this book: "The Shack", by William Paul Young and I really enjoyed it.

Not often does a Christian book hit the bookshelf in Tesco, but "The Shack" has done it, and I recommend it, especially if you've ever raged against God because of some suffering or other, or if you've been inclined to see God as a very scary headmaster ready with his belt handy for the next time you step out of line.

It's a novel about a man called Mack who has a terrible tragedy in his life that affects his view of God, and about how God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) meets with him and they all become friends.

For those who like their God scary and inapproachable this won't go down well, and for those whose main priority is perfection in doctrine, it won't satisfy completely, but for those who are even mildly, vaguely, slightly, interested in the possiblity that God in fact loves us very much, this will be a real blessing.

Some of the ideas in it may be slightly wonky, in the opinion of some of us, but not enough to outweigh the power of the message that God isn't interested in making us miserable but in enjoying (yes, enjoying!!) a relationship with us.

Don't knock it till you've read it.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


On Friday of this week, to celebrate the end of term, our primary school is having a non-uniform day. They've billed it as a "Come as You Please" day. Earlier this evening, I heard said Blue Eyed Boy (who's only now, after seven years, beginning to tolerate the idea of school) explaining to his youngest sister that he thought they should all pretend they thought "Come as You Please" meant you could turn up at school whenever you liked. 3.15pm for example. "Hello! Oh is it time to go already?"

Also amusing me today has been this blog. Racing Demon is in good form today, with not one, not two, but three very funny posts today (the 16th) and also this one yesterday.

And, last but not least, I'm responding to a plea to give the Scottish Banter website a plug, to my Scottish readers at least. It can be a bit "earthy" at times, but as a recent recruit, I like it. It's good fun. (I work in prisons - I can cope with earthy!)

Saturday, 13 December 2008

A sad night.

I'm sad to tell you that my lovely mother in law died this evening after a long and fierce battle with cancer. She was such a key figure in our family and will be very much missed. Her husband and one of her four sons were with her when she died; most of her relatives had been with her at some point today, but spare a thought for her oldest son and his wife who are trying to get a flight from New Zealand where they live.

She was one of the strongest, toughest people I've ever met, but in a good way, and was also one of the kindest, most generous people I've ever met, who would spend her last ha'penny on her seven grandchildren (she got six girls and a boy, after four sons!). She didn't understand the concept of having us drop in without being fed - in the end we gave up protesting. She would come for a meal at our house but would bring the meal with her (this may of course have beeen a sad reflection on my cooking but I think it was just her concern not to put us to trouble or expense). She was also a woman of strong views; she would bring her own teapot and milk when she came because she didn't like our teapot (it was earthenware and she liked a metal one she could reboil the tea on the stove with) and she liked "fresh milk" (i.e. full fat rather than semi-skimmed).

We all loved her very much and we will really really miss her. I'm glad to have known her.

One last thing - when Him Indoors phoned her (in early 2000) to tell her we were expecting our fourth child she was quite annoyed. "There's no need for that", she said. I am so glad she didn't always abide by her theories herself, since the son I got was the youngest of the four...

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


I gave a pint of blood today. Don't be too in awe of my generosity. When they asked when I had previously given, and I couldn't remember, they checked the computer and it was 1994! Still, I've made an appointment to go back in March. If you are fit and well and able to do it, I encourage you to think about giving blood even if you've never done so. If someone as squeamish as me can cope, anyone can. If you're Scottish, you can find your nearest donor point here. It's an amazing thing that someone else can get your blood, and that we can so easily part with it with no ill effect.

It is a severe handicap for us preachery types that we can't do anything in life (perhaps with one or two exceptions which I won't go into) without thinking of sermon illustrations from the experience. (I once went on a two day health and safety course and got lots of sermon illustrations from it, which is hardly what my employers had in mind in sending me).

I'm not going to enlighten/bore you as to what were the sermon points I came up with as a result of giving blood. Mind you, I'd love to know your suggestions for what sermon illustrations you could get from the experience, whether you're the churchgoing type or not.

Anyway, the main thing that has struck me today is what an amazing thing the human body is. As well as some blood, over the years I have parted with my wisdom teeth, my appendix and my tonsils, not to mention the four little humans removed by caearean section over five years or so. I know I could still survive other bits of me being removed. Not that I'm volunteering for it, you understand. According to QI last night, it is not in fact true as I had formerly believed that earthworms can survive being chopped in half. Occasionally the head end will survive, but not always. On the other hand a female human being could, as well as appendix and tonsils, part with gall bladder, breasts, limbs, a kidney, all her teeth, an eye or two, and who knows what else, and still be a person. I don't know what that illustrates, except that I am completely mad to be having such weird thoughts. But it does make me think of how what constitutes a human being needs a broad description. I remember when Firstborn was a wee baby (and she was quite wee - 5lb 12oz at birth) got her first anorak. I hung it on a coat peg beside the front door and found myself saying, idiotically, "Look! Just like a real human!" But to this day, I find it astonishing that a little tiny baby is a "real human".

I guess what makes a real human is quite an important thought when it comes to the euthanasia/assisted suicide debate. Tonight, the BBC is showing the death of a man who, because of his serious illness, went to Switzerland (where the law is different) to have an assisted suicide.

My main concern with that debate is that if the law here was changed to allow it, then perhaps over time, vulnerable ill, elderly and/or disabled people might think that they are too much of a burden to their family and/or the NHS, and that the right thing to do would be to "spare" their family by ending their own lives.

Recently I heard on the radio a debate between a man who had become quadriplegic through an accident, with a lady who also was severely disabled. Both needed 24-hour care. The man said that his special bed had been taken away due to NHS cuts in their area and that he had pressure sores. The lady was pretty incensed about that, and made the very powerful point that "little" things like pressure sores can influence detrimentally someone's quality of life to a tipping point where they no longer want to live. She also said that until, as a society, we are able to support all our citizens with their right to live properly, we shouldn't even be discussing the right to die. Perhaps as a society we tend to discount various categories of people in our minds as not being "real humans". Not consciously, but we still do it. And they are bound to pick up that message.

I mentioned my no-longer-with-me appendix earlier. When the fever was at its height, I would probably have opted for assisted suicide had it been available! Pain stops you thinking rationally. People who are suffering are not in the best place to judge whether it is time to die. People who are clinically depressed aren't either. And the burden on the family and on the doctors, of having to take the decision to help is a heavy burden indeed. We are not God. Even those who don't believe in God must agree that they are not God.

Monday, 8 December 2008

I don't impress me much.

Brian McLaren and also John Drane spoke in our church on Friday, at an event organised by Fred Drummond , who happens to worship in our church.

That sentence, to some people I know, would sound like name-dropping. And yet to the VAST majority of people I know, it would mean nothing at all. I like that thought a lot. It reminds me powerfully that those of us who at least sometimes reach the "in" crowd of our bit of the Church, do well to remember that if we start to be impressed by ourselves, and the fact that we're in the "in" crowd, then this isn't really going to do anything for the world where we live, or the prison where we work! Much better for us to be scratching where the world itches, rather than re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, to mix my metaphors ridiculously.

(It was a really interesting evening, I should state for the record, and I will now make the effort, seriously, to read Brian McLaren's books. I'm very pleased to have been there).

But my point in this post is that people can become Big Names in the Church, and it's not necessarily because they've sought it. All those I just mentioned are to my knowledge, delightful and humble people. But because what they have to say is important, and they are prophetic thinkers in this generation of the Church, their audience has, most deservedly, grown over the years.

And yet, I, and THEY, know very well that our church credentials aren't worth much and indeed can be an absolute danger in terms of puffing us up with misplaced self importance.

One of my favourite "books" in the Bible, really a letter, is Philippians. (I partly like it because it's so incredibly cheery despite being written from prison). A bit of it is particularly relevant here. Paul is the writer and he is aware that his religious credentials are second to none, and yet he consigns that thought to where it belongs as you'll see. I like to read it sometimes and reset my default settings. I am a minister, my husband is a minister, my dad is a minister, his brother (my uncle) is a minister, my much beloved late great uncle (my mum's uncle) was a minister, and his maternal uncle was also a minister. Will that impress God? Nope. Will it impress my friends, neighbours, or the prisoners? Nope. Will it, in the end, get me anything other than the risk of misplaced smugness? Nope. (Btw, now I've gone and got Shania Twain's "That don't impress me much" in my head - it'll keep me awake...).

I really love what Paul says. Here it is in the Message translation:

"We couldn't carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it—even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God's law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God's law Book.

The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I'm tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I've dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn't want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God's righteousness.

I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it".

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Porridge for Christmas.

I was asked to write something for the prisoners' magazine, produced by and for the guys but with the aim of improving their literacy skills and computer abilities. I forgot until the very last minute so quickly dashed off the following. borrowing two old illustrations, adapting the first one from its wartime setting to the prison setting:

Christmas as it's now celebrated in this country is completely mad. It makes stressed people more stressed. It makes lonely people more lonely. It brings a lot of fun, especially for many children. But some kids dread Christmas because of what their life is like at home. "Dad will get drunk more". "Mum and Dad will fight more". "Everyone at school will be boasting about the presents they got and I won't be able to". And we all know that Christmas is hard for prisoners and their families.

As a Christian, I have to try to remember to see past all the madness of how we "do" Christmas in 2008, and try to think about what it was really about. There were no crazy shopping sprees or booze-ups the first Christmas - just a baby born to a poor couple, who were far from home and could only find a stable to stay in for the birth. But Christians believe that baby was the ultimate Christmas present of all time, to all of us. The baby Jesus grew up to be the adult Jesus who died on the cross so that we could be set free from our sin, forgiven and adopted by a loving father, God.

Two stories:

A guy once went to prison, leaving his wife pregnant. Some months into his sentence the baby was born. He didn't want the baby to be brought in to such a dark place, and it was a long way to travel anyway, so by the time of his liberation he still hadn't met the child, now three years old. While he was in prison, his wife had formed the habit of getting the wee lad to kiss the photo of his dad goodnight before he got into bed. On the day he was libbed, there was great excitement as dad and son met each other for the first time. Dad got to bath him for the first time and help him into his pyjamas. Together, Mum and Dad took the child through to his bedroom. But when Mum said, "Now kiss your dad goodnight", the child ran past his father and kissed the photo, leaving his dad with open, empty arms. As a Christian, I believe that if we do all the celebrating at Christmas and leave God out of it, we leave him with open, empty arms, as sad as that dad was, because he loves us.

A woman staggered into the lift in a shopping centre to take her to the car park. It was Christmas Eve and she was struggling to carry all the bags of stuff she'd bought. As the lift doors closed behind her, she turned to the other folk in the lift and said, "Show me the man that invented Christmas and I'll shoot him". "Too late, madam", came a voice. "They already crucified him".

Tree huggers.

It finally occurred to me this weekend that no amount of protests about how tired/stressed/lazy I am will stop the world from celebrating Christmas, in all the mad fashion we have now adopted, and that the four young members of the world who live in this house may as well get the chance to join the fun, so this weekend we put up the Christmas trees. I know one tree is the norm but after we bought our big tree a few years ago, we just kept the old one, even though it looks somewhat plucked, and now have two. I've got to admit that they're quite jolly. The Christmas stockings were brought out just to check they were ready, and Firstborn has made one for Flora at school in her Home Economics class. Flora of course hasn't a clue what's going on but decorations are something else for chewing since she's running out of undamaged shoes. Incidentally, before you report us, that was Shloer grape juice we were giving the kids to toast the occasion with.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Three weeks more and we're past midwinter.

This is not the best weather or time of year for the heating to stop working, as it did yesterday. However, thankfully it was fixed late this afternoon. Hurray!

I saw the above Christmas wreath for sale today. Real snow included for free!

By the way, may I suggest y'all go to the photo on Connika's blog here if you could use a kind smile. I saw the same sight today, but in the northern hemisphere, the smile is upside down and the eyes are below it, which doesn't work so well... Apart from which, visiting her blog reminds us that it's not winter everywhere.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Fame at last.

After seeing the photo of me speaking in a church the previous weekend, today I discovered that my sermon from yesterday (30.11.08) is on t'internet, so now I've heard myself in action too. How disturbing. I sound like Billy Connolly. To think I thought I didn't have an accent. You could hear what it sounds like here BUT I must warn you that as to listen to it compromises my otherwise watertight (not) anonymity on this blog, then if you click this link I will have to kill you. Please note I wasn't doing the Bible reading which you hear first - that was a man. If you do listen to it you will be giving up a good chunk of your life as I went on a bit and also you will have to do without my lovely powerpoint slides which I neglected my children to produce on Saturday.

Not so much Iron Maiden. More Old Wifie.

I got sent a picture of me speaking at a church service last weekend. A view of myself I never see. You can see the man I've offended walking out. (Kidding, I think...).

During that service, at one point we were asked to turn round and say hello to the folk around us. That's a good idea in many ways but I'm shy and often find it excruciatingly embarrassing - almost as bad as when you've to pass the peace in some churches. Anyway, since From The Inside is baring his soul re his musical taste, I thought I'd tell you this. During the greeting each other time, I turned round to find a group of young studenty looking guys. One of them had an Iron Maiden teeshirt on. I said, by way of making conversation, that I used to like Iron Maiden a lot and had had a poster of them on my bedroom wall. I can't tell you how amused I was by the look on his face of total and utter disbelief. It amused me all the way home and for several days until I realised this was not a Good Thing. Am I really so ancient-looking and so frumpy and middle aged that such a thing is really impossible to believe or imagine. Oh dear.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Harlots, thieves and murderers...

I'm preaching this coming Sunday, as the minister of the church in question is out of the country. I was asked to pick a "rousing" hymn to start - one that would sound good on the organ. Since I don't know this particular congregation's repertoire of modern hymns, I thought I'd go for an old faithful, and what better than "Oh for a thousand tongues.."? That's a rhetorical question, folks. I'm not looking for the definitive answer.

Although there are others, this is the tune that's been traditionally popular in Scottish churches for this hymn, providing the congregations are big enough to handle dividing into two parts.

Anyway, I went on t'internet to check the words and discovered something I didn't know about this hymn. I grew up with it. It's been a staple part of most Scottish churches' repertoires (I can't speak for other countries), and even with the arrival of an abundance of modern hymns, it's never been dropped. I knew it was written by Charles Wesley (pictured). It was published in 1740, and apparently he wrote it to com­mem­o­rate the first an­ni­ver­sa­ry of his con­ver­sion to Christ. The stanza that be­gins “O for a thou­sand tongues to sing” (now our first line) is actually verse seven of Wes­ley’s orig­in­al po­em. Most churches would probably sing the first six verses below. What I hadn't realised was that the original poem had eighteen verses! I'll not be suggesting we sing all eighteen on Sunday, but I thought I'd cut and paste and post them here. Incidentally, it's not just fear of running out of breath or time that puts me off having all eighteen verses. You may see why:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!

My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of Thy name.

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
’Tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’Tis life, and health, and peace.

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.

He speaks, and, listening to His voice,
New life the dead receive,
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.

In Christ your Head, you then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below,
And own that love is heaven.

Glory to God, and praise and love
Be ever, ever given,
By saints below and saints above,
The church in earth and heaven.

On this glad day the glorious Sun
Of Righteousness arose;
On my benighted soul He shone
And filled it with repose.

Sudden expired the legal strife,
’Twas then I ceased to grieve;
My second, real, living life
I then began to live.

Then with my heart I first believed,
Believed with faith divine,
Power with the Holy Ghost received
To call the Savior mine.

I felt my Lord’s atoning blood
Close to my soul applied;
Me, me He loved, the Son of God,
For me, for me He died!

I found and owned His promise true,
Ascertained of my part,
My pardon passed in heaven I knew
When written on my heart.

Look unto Him, ye nations, own
Your God, ye fallen race;
Look, and be saved through faith alone,
Be justified by grace.

See all your sins on Jesus laid:
The Lamb of God was slain,
His soul was once an offering made
For every soul of man.

Awake from guilty nature’s sleep,
And Christ shall give you light,
Cast all your sins into the deep,
And wash the Æthiop white.

Harlots and publicans and thieves
In holy triumph join!
Saved is the sinner that believes
From crimes as great as mine.

Murderers and all ye hellish crew
In holy triumph join!
Believe the Savior died for you;
For me the Savior died.

With me, your chief, ye then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below,
And own that love is heaven.

Singing "Cast all your sins into the deep, and wash the Æthiop white" wouldn't be such a good plan today. I was really shocked when I read that line, although having checked out some other stuff on t'internet, it seems as though the original intent wasn't as racist as it sounds. It was perhaps just talking about the apparently impossible being possible, and the change being as dramatic as that, rather than the implication being that the black skin of the Ethiopian was an indicator of moral inferiority. Whatever the case, I won't be putting it on the screen for singing on Sunday.

"Harlots and publicans and thieves in holy triumph join! Saved is the sinner that believes from crimes as great as mine. Murderers and all ye hellish crew in holy triumph join! Believe the Savior died for you; For me the Savior died". (It's interesting that publicans are included with the others as if on a par). I can't imagine our modern day congregations singing those words either! I've got to admit though, that I secretly quite like them. As someone who works with thieves and murderers, and some sons and brothers and partners of "harlots", I am all in favour of them being invited to join in holy triumph as forgiven sinners with the rest of us non-harlots/non-murderers/non-thieves. Good for Wesley.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Too many pieces.

I drove home from work today slowly, not because slowly is my normal driving style (it's not), but because I'd gone the scenic route (though it was dark) to avoid a traffic jam. Unfortunately I was not the only person who had thought of this cunning plan. As I was driving slowly along, in the dark, I was reflecting about all the stuff I had to do. This didn't improve my frame of mind. I was factoring in the visitors tomorrow, the preaching on Sunday, the fact I haven't seen my very ill mother-in-law for ages, but mainly the fact I haven't really thought about Christmas yet. I don't mean I haven't thought about the true meaning of Christmas (although I haven't much, recently); I mean I haven't got my to-do list for the practial stuff either workwise or domestically.

The image came into my head of a jigsaw with too many bits. I feel like there are too many bits in my life just now and my brain can't hold them all. ("The ship can't take it, captain", as Scottie on Star Trek was wont to say, but that's changing the analogy).

This week, Penultimate Child managed to complete her first 300-piece jigsaw without help. I helped her do it on Saturday and on Sunday she did it herself. It seems only yesterday she was at the stage of the big wooden 5-piece jigsaws with little plastic handles to hold each piece. It's great to see how her capability has increased. What I wouldn't do now, though, is put a 1000-piece jigsaw in front of her just now. That would put her off, and make her feel inadequate.

Am I the only one who feels like there's a 1000-piece jigsaw to be done but we only have the capacity for a 25-piece one?

I'm reminded of Noddy's wonderful statement on his sidebar: "God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now I am so far behind, I will never die"!

Don't get me wrong. I'm not sad about my too-many-pieces problem. The truth is I love all the pieces. I love all the people in my life. I love my job. The things I have to do are not bad things (apart from the housework). I don't want them taken away. I could do with at least double my not-very-impressive energy levels mind you, but this is the point:

Please God would you help me with this jigsaw? I can't do it on my own.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

We're all different. My branch of different is this:

How to Hide Jesus by Steve Turner

There are people after Jesus
They have seen the signs.
Quick, let’s hide Him.
Let’s think; carpenter,
fishermen’s friend,
disturber of religious comfort.
Let’s award Him a degree in theology,
a purple cassock
and a position of respect.
They’ll never think of looking here.
Let’s think;
His dialect may betray Him,
His tongue is of the masses.
Let’s teach Him Latin
and seventeenth century English,
they’ll never think of listening in.
Let’s think;
Man of Sorrows,
nowhere to lay His head.
We’ll build a house for Him,
somewhere away from the poor.
We’ll fill it with brass and silence.
It’s sure to throw them off.

There are people after Jesus.
Quick, let’s hide Him.

I love this poem. It says what I think, and how I feel. Once upon a time, when I was chaplain in a cancer-care day-centre, though that's not relevant to the story, I was invited to a lunch at a volunteers' trainer's house. We were all asked to bring a poem with us. Being the chaplain at the time I thought I'd take along this one which expresses how I feel about some church stuff. I went in full confidence that I'd be the only clergy person there. However, to my surprise an Anglican bishop had been invited. I'm not sure that he shared my enthusiasm for this poem. The Anglicans have a name for folk like me - they call us "low church".

Now that I've matured/aged, I get it that we're all different. I really do. Smells and bells (as we're inclined to describe "high church" rather cheekily) just do it for some folk and - now - I totally accept that. Robes and cassocks do it for some clergy and congregations and - now - I totally accept that, although I'd rather die than wear them myself. I think God made us all different because our different ways of doing church express different things about who He is. He's too BIG for us to grasp everything properly. So some of us, I reckon, are charged with the responsibility of emphasising and understanding His holiness. Some His awesomeness. Some His approachableness. Some His miracles of healing. Some just the sense of the numinous. Some major on preaching. Some on worship. Some on formal ceremonial. All these things express something important. It could be argued that the ideal would be a perfectly balanced ecclesiology that reflects every aspect of God. Certainly that's worth striving for, but I don't think, tbh, God's that fussed about achieving unity in the sense of union of denominations. What matters is that we can WORK together and just get on with it! Squabbling over minor differences is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

The emerging church movement is asking really great questions of the institutional church at the moment. There are some very good questions to be asked back though. In the end, what will count is if we all stop looking at each other and working out how exactly all our fellow Christians should be labelled, and just march forward together. As I've mentioned before, working ecumenically outwith the traditional church structure has shown me just how quickly the regimental colours fade into irrelevance when we're on the front line together.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Today's post was brought by the letter p.

Over at A Cowboy's Wife's blog, I volunteered for a meme, which involved asking for a letter. I got the letter "P" and now I'm to list 10 things I LOVE that begin with the letter assigned. Since Him Indoors is in Norn Iron (as the Northern Irish pronounce it) for the weekend and I've already had the girls sit through "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and made them sing along, I need something to distract me. (That's a lie - I never need any help to be distracted).

In no Particular order, and resisting the urge to use "Participating in..." before lots of non-p words, here goes.

1) I love Prisoners. Love isn't always a feeling. It's an act of the will. But the feeling comes along behind. I don't love what they've done. Some of their attitudes annoy me intensely. But I love them because I've chosen to do so, and I believe God has (a) asked me to do that and (b) enabled me to do that. I love them so much that quite often my secret reaction when they come, all excited, to tell me they are getting their parole is, "Oh no!"... I also love the Prison staff, even though I'm pretty sure some of them think I am an unnecessary expense and a waste of space. As I get to know them I begin to find I'm involved in the Pastoral care of some of them, though.

2) I love Pavement cafes in Paris, where we went on holiday in October. It was our first foreign holiday as a family and we loved seeing the sights, and experiencing the culture, so different from our own and yet not so very far from the UK. Now that we're getting into dreich Scottish winter days, I find myself revisiting the place in my head quite a lot these days.

3) I love Potter, Harry Potter. I know they're not really aimed at my age group but I love these books. I wish I could write like that - not just because I'd be mega-rich (!) but because I love how she creates a whole fantasy world. For example, it amuses me that I could describe to you the rules of quidditch and only remember half way through doing so that it isn't in fact real. Some Christians (mostly those who haven't read them) think the books are bad because they are about witchcraft. I find them to be about love, about being noble and heroic, about perseverance, and about self-sacrifice.

4) I love my very shabby Portacabin which passes for a chaplaincy centre at one of "my" jails. I have a photo of it but if I posted it here I'd have to kill you - official secrets act and all that. When I first saw it I could have cried but I love it now. It's home, it's in a very central spot, yet it's private, and the only thing I'd swap it for is a new one on the same site. I know it sounds very airy-fairy, but I like to think of it, and indeed of church buildings too, as being like a wee embassy of the Kingdom of God. According to the Bible, Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God. We are aliens/foreigners/strangers in this world, here on a work permit rather than a tourist visa till we die and go home. Churches (and chaplaincies) work to Kingdom rules and values (or they're supposed to at least, and we certainly try). I like to think that when a prisoner, or indeed a member of staff, crosses the threshold into my crappy Portacabin, or when a local resident crosses the threshold into the church of which Him Indoors is the minister, they are stepping into an embassy where different rules apply from those they normally experience. In the kingdom of God, there aren't grades of human beings. All are loved equally and fiercely. All are accepted. Prisonworld especially, but society generally are prone to lots of "them and us-es". Not so in our embassies. I'm thinking of renaming the Portacabin the "Portanacle". A prisoner asked me one day what Tabernacles were in the Bible. When I said they were temporary dwellings, he said, "like a portacabin"!

5) I love my Parents and my Parents-in-Law. I recognise that the Privilege of having good parents is such a blessing that I shouldn't have taken it for granted when I was young, and now am determined not to. So many of our prisoners suffered for the lack of good parenting themselves as kids and it is being visited on the next generation.

6) I love my Partner. Yes, we are legally married, but husband doesn't begin with "p", does it? He's a star and I don't deserve him. We met in the street (!) in 1987, and were asked by our then minister to run a youth group together. One thing led to another, and we became engaged in 1990, three days after hearing that we had been accepted as candidated for the ministry. We were married in 1993 whilst still at university. He has more energy than me, and has done some sporting challenges such as biathlons and a marathon. He works really hard and keeps us all organised. He has the exact opposite taste in television from me. We solve this by one of us getting the remote control (usually him - I'm not so bothered about tv apart from all the "America's Toughest Jail" type programs which I gleefully watch when he's out) and the other one the computer (usually me).

7) I love my Progeny, seen here at Notre Dame in Paris. Known on this blog as Firstborn, Blue-eyed Boy, Penultimate Child and Youngest Child, their real names are: Pinky, Perky, Bubble and Squeak. No, they're not. I jest. They bring us lots of fun, and the fun outweighs the stress. Just. It's great to see them coming on, and although I miss having a baby in the house, I'm enjoying this stage. We are untroubled by the "terrible twos" of toddlerhood, and we still haven't reached the time when we will have four teenagers, and their attitudes, snarling at one another and at us. (They assure us they won't be like that). They love our church, and have a great circle of pals there. Recently I've been visiting an atheistic website where they get very upset about us Christians "indoctrinating" our children. I have commented a few times to the effect that all parents "indoctrinate" their children. There's no way round it. Children are like big sponges and will pick up whatever their parents believe. Even, I have argued, if you teach your children, as many of my very lovely non-Christian friends seek to do, that it's up to them what they believe, this is still a point of view. The kids will deduce that their parents think that it doesn't matter what you believe. That is a point of view. Our kids aren't force-fed the Christian faith. They could reject it now, though they'd still be coming to church, at least for childcare reasons (!) and they may reject it as adults, but there is no doubt in my mind that their faith is real and is their own.

8) I love Pride and Prejudice. I've read it so often I know bits off by heart. When the BBC series starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy (it's good to admire God's creation...) came out I remember hurrying home from an evening service I'd been preaching at in Partick in Glasgow to see it. In the scene in this picture, when he came up out of the water, I said to Him Indoors, "that's not in the book! Oh, but never mind, it's a good addition"! My daughters are hooked too. I love to hear them squealing about the awfulness of Mr Collins, or about Mrs Bennett's rudeness to Mr Darcy when she doesn't know what she owes them. They've also watched the Keira Knightley version and the Bollywood "Bride and Prejudice".

9)I love when our caravan is Pitched somewhere nice, and we get some Peace to chill out with a book while the kids Play. I'm definitely a People Person (I was thinking that this morning as I sat in a senior management meeting and found I was constantly distracted from the fascinating statistics we were looking at by thinking about the characters of the different people around the room) but, sometimes I can have too much of a good thing and then getting away from it all is Perfect, although I miss Perusing all the blogs I love to visit.

10) Lastly, I love Photographs. When the kids were wee, I fear it may have been because in the photos all four were clean and smiling AT THE SAME TIME whereas in real life this was less likely to be the case. We have a whole wall of photos of the kids in the living room. I'd take a photo of it to post here but I can't find my camera. I may edit this paragraph later! I hope to find it tomorrow to take our Puppy (now eight months old and not so puppy-like now) and Put one foot in front of the other and go for a nice walk somewhere. (Edit Sunday 23/11/08 - found camera, but not in time for either yesterday's walk or the beautiful snow scene which we woke up to today. The kids all enjoyed a snowball fight outside church after the service, and as usual I tried to convince them all I am highly allergic to snowballs).

Thanks, Cowboy's Wife. I enjoyed doing that. If anyone else wants to join in, please let me know and I'll assign you a letter and await your post with eagerness.