Saturday, 8 December 2012

What became of Advent?

I love Christmas. I enjoy the worship  – the re-telling of the Nativity Story and the singing of the carols. I look forward to the festivities, the mulled wine on Christmas Eve and the sparkling wine on Christmas Day, the family around, the food to enjoy and the fire in the grate. Lovely!
When it comes to the Christmas services, while I know that very many folks appreciate the Christmas Eve midnight service, I think I find myself more drawn to the Festival of Lessons and Carols when the familiar carols are sung and the sequence of biblical readings sets the birth of Jesus into the wider context of unfolding salvation history.
But I also adore Advent. I appreciate Advent not simply because it is a time of preparation, anticipation and hope, but because it is a season which dares to tackle some of the more difficult biblical themes such as death, judgement, the Second Coming of Jesus and so forth.
And I hate the way in which Advent has become invaded by Christmas! Why can we not allow Advent to be Advent?
Now lest I be considered a real Scrooge (and I have lately been so accused!) let me say again how much I love Christmas and let me confess to writing this blog in the shadow of a decorated Christmas Tree! But I did get a bit irritated when two weeks ago I received a text from a family member asking when we could exchange family Christmas presents and again last week when Edinburgh launched its Christmas celebrations with fireworks, tree and Santa... before we had even marked St Andrew's Day, far less begun to mark Advent!
Before Advent had begun, Christmas Trees had appeared, I had been approached by Santa outside Fraser's, I heard a brass band playing 'Jingle Bells' and adverts on the television kept insisting that 'It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas'!
Where did Advent go?
Why are some churches already singing carols?
When did we allow Advent to become simply the prelude to and a preview of Christmas?
A former colleague used to hold off choosing any Christmas hymn in worship until after midnight on Christmas Eve (and then - of course - his congregation would go on joyfully singing them right through the Season of the Incarnation). I can sympathise with his viewpoint. After all we would never dream of singing 'Thine be the Glory' on Good Friday, would we?
But – unlike him – I have never been able to sufficiently resist the congregational demands or the external expectations to completely avoid singing a Christmas hymn during Advent (although I do try to avoid congregational carols until the Sunday before Christmas).
Of course missional and pastoral considerations play a part in our decisions. We touch here on a much bigger tension regarding when it is appropriate to respond to culture and the opportunities with which we are presented and when we need to be counter-cultural.
But that will take us down another road.
Back to Advent.
I do not think of myself as a liturgical purist (although I was recently - and unfairly in my view - accused of being a liturgical legalist on this matter!) But if we continue to allow Christmas to so take over Advent that this wonderful season becomes nothing more than preparation, prelude and preview then I have a number of concerns.
Do we also then follow the trend of seeing Christmas Day as a huge climax after which we forget all about the Incarnation and stop singing Christmas hymns rather than regarding Christmas Day as the beginning of the Season of the Incarnation with so much depth to the mystery of the Incarnation to be explored through the weeks after Christmas and Epiphany?
Are we in danger of being moulded by a culture that no longer sees any necessity for or virtue in the discipline of waiting? (I heard the other day of a mother telling her very young daughter that she could not have a Christmas Tree up quite yet; it was not yet time. I suspect that little girl may be learning appropriate values which others could be denied.) People have forgotten how to wait.
Could we be missing many pastoral and missional opportunities of offering an alternative way of approaching Christmas for those (the many?) who despair of the pressure, commercialism, enforced jollity etc that seems to dominate from mid-November? (It is argued by some that the church is at its missional best when it is counter-cultural. I think that may be right.).
But my biggest concern is this. When does the church deal with the big and important themes represented by Advent if Advent itself becomes swamped by Christmas? The issue of waiting and waiting and waiting more for God's promises to be fulfilled and for our prayers to be answered; questions of life and death, light and darkness; the challenges of repentance and judgement... and so on.
At that other great annual Christian festival – Easter -  I have fears that many Sunday worshippers (who may not attend worship through Holy Week and on Good Friday) can move directly from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Hallelujahs of Easter Sunday without having journey to and through Gethsemane and Golgotha.
I suppose that is similar to what I fear most about the Christmasization of Advent.
So, what HAS become of Advent?

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Borders, Boundaries and Barriers

A day of prayerful reflection on the beautiful Holy Island of Lindisfarne the other day threw up a number of very significant and interesting observations and thoughts.

Indeed, my reflecting actually began in the car, many miles before crossing the causeway.

A couple of miles north of Berwick, on the ScotlandEngland border – the flags of both nations fluttered in the strong breeze. It seemed as if the line of the border was being guarded and maintained by the blue and white of Scotland on the one side and the red and white of England on the other. Yet crossing the border did not feel at all momentous or significant, nor did the landscape south of the border appear any different.

But then, perhaps that line is not really the border at all! There are those who think that the River Tweed (which forms the border for so many miles) should continue so to do right up to the sea thus ‘returning’ Berwick upon Tweed to Scotland.

I stopped briefly in Berwick and was struck by the mix of accents I heard some that were clearly Scottish, others which sounded Northumbrian and a few sounding like a mixture of both.

But back at the border, I had also noticed that a third flag was fluttering in the wind… the Northumbrian flag in yellow and red. I was reminded that at one time in history the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria stretched as far north as the shores of the Forth, thus embracing the present Scottish capital of Edinburgh.

So where exactly is the real border? Does it matter? What difference do borders make, and is it a good or a bad difference?

I am not attempting to make any strong political point here. This is not about the constitutional future of the nations of this island regarding which I have (on the one hand) some fairly strong views and (on the other hand) occasional uncertainty!

But that is not my point. It is more a question of why we humans are so keen to make boundaries, borders and barriers in the first place.

Why are we so keen to emphasise borders that are always human constructs, often arbitrary and sometimes dubious?

And what about the church?

Like all of humanity we keep drawing lines and regarding some folks as ‘in’ and others as ‘out’. We seem unable to help ourselves. We are Protestant or Catholic, Presbyterian or Episcopal, Evangelical or Liberal, traditionalist or revisionist, and so on (and too bad for those of us who might regard ourselves as none or all of the above!)

I suspect that like geo-political borders, these ecclesiastical constructs are also to do with the likes of definition, control, fear, defence and tribal identity.

And perhaps that is all very natural, even inevitable.

I am just not sure that it has much to do with Jesus…

Friday, 25 May 2012

Digging Deep

I am (I admit) hopeless at this blogging business! Other things get in the way and I struggle to find the time to blog, even although it only takes a few minutes. It may be poor planning, poor prioritising, poor discipline or all three (and more). Whatever it is, I seem not to blog as often as I would wish.

But this is in some measure the story of my life. The important gets sacrificed on the altar of the urgent. Of course, sometimes things are both urgent and important. One of the visits I made today was to someone who is nearing death. Clearly the visit was both urgent and important. I wish those of us who are minsters and who have the immense privilege of sitting with, praying with and ministering to the dying could adequately communicate to others how deeply moving, sometimes very emotional and yet always strangely uplifting and encouraging such ministry can be. Rightly or wrongly, I think of myself as a more natural preacher than I am pastor. And yet, if I look back at the most significant and meaningful moments in my over 30 years of ministry then almost all of these involve sitting by the bedside of someone who is dying.

What a privilege it is.

But this brings me back to the battle between the important and the urgent. Getting a paper together for the next Kirk Session meeting may be urgent (there is a deadline after all) but is it more important than sitting alongside a dying person, visiting a city centre workplace where there has been a tragic bereavement, having a coffee and chat with a seeker who is wondering about life and faith and meaning and so on and so on?

Prioritising is a daily battle and a daily chore; and I too often get it wrong.

And sometimes it is spiritual practice and discipline that can become perfunctory or formulaic. Spending time in prayer, studying God’s word, devoting oneself to meditation on the wonders of God’s love, drinking deep at the well of God’s grace… all can be squeezed into an ever shorter space because of the perceived demands of ‘work’.

And when that happens, then where are the resources for ministering to those in need?

I was listening to the radio recently and one of our prospective Olympians was being interviewed. She was asked about her own preparation regime. It sounded daunting! And yet she was utterly dedicated to it because she is focussed on the goal.

It brought to mind the words of the Apostle Paul;

‘Athletes exercise self control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.’ (I Corinthians 9: 25)

On the radio programme the interviewer asked how she could maintain her focus, sacrifice and discipline. She admitted that it was not always easy, but that she had to ‘dig deep’.

These words struck home.

I (and all of us who seek to minster to others in preaching, pastoral care, leadership, vision) need to learn to ‘dig deep’… not simply into the depths of our own character; dig deep into the infinite resources of God who has poured out upon us the gifts and power of his Holy Spirit.

We have been provided with an infinite resource (as we recall at this season of Pentecost). There’s a lot of digging to be done! 

Friday, 16 March 2012

Pulling up the Ladder?

I can hardly believe that it is almost 20 years since some Christians started describing themselves as ‘post evangelical’ and 17 years since Dave Tomlinson’s book ‘The Post Evangelical’ was published to a mixture of acclaim and criticism.

All those years on, many people continue to self identify as ‘post evangelical’. I am not entirely happy with the label (I am not entirely happy with any labels!) but I do identify with the journey that has led many one time conservative and charismatic evangelicals to end up as ‘post-evangelicals’. Those of you who have read my previous blogs will not be at all surprised at this.

On his webpage, Dave Tomlinson writes, ‘The post-evangelical impulse does not necessarily imply a move away from Christian orthodoxy or evangelical faith – though it does for some. Rather it demonstrates that in order to remain true to a tradition, we must come to terms with its changing cultural context so that an authentic expression of that tradition can be found’. Indeed! (Although it will be clear enough from this quite that there is no coherent body of thought that constitutes ‘post-evangelicalism’!)

What for me is more interesting is that so many of those who found themselves caught up in the stream of post-evangelicalism in the 90s are now well involved in ‘mainstream’ church settings, often embracing a more ‘catholic’ expression of worship. I can most certainly identify with that trend.

But I am also aware of tendency over the past 5 to 10 years of those who were early adventurers into the stream of post-evangelicalism’ wondering if they can still be effectively missional, open to the enquirer and seeker, and passionate in worship.

It is perhaps to be expected that those who begin to question and challenge can initially become distanced from faith, distrustful of church and cynical about mission. I wonder if there are hints of that in Richard Holloway’s recent book (not that he comes across as cynical, but there is a bleakness lurking within the beauty of his writing).

I am intrigued that Tomlinson’s more recent book is entitled ‘Re-enchanting Christianity’, in which he ‘explores how Christianity, once deconstructed, can become credible again’.

I am not sure that my Christianity was ever thoroughly deconstructed, although my views have certainly shifted and developed over the years. But I do like the idea of ‘re-enchanting Christianity’. Our faith cannot be ‘good news’ to the world if we are so disillusioned with it and so unsure of it that we have lost all passion, vibrancy and conviction.

I remember hearing someone publicly worrying that those of us who had come into faith through a fairly standard, simple, straightforward (possibly even ‘naive’) evangelicalism were now unintentionally guilty of pulling up the ladder behind us and – having moved on – failed to provide a way into faith for other seekers and enquirers.

And perhaps – for all its inadequacies – that is where the likes of the Alpha Course does so well, and some of the more explorative and ‘sophisticated’ offerings, while they may excite and intrigue and stimulate those who are ‘questioning’ Christians, seem not to engage those yet to begin the journey of faith.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Orthodoxy and Openness

Several people say to me (in person or by email etc) ‘why do you blog so infrequently?’ Now I know you are likely to immediately doubt this and imagine that it is some vain fantasy on my part! But really there are a few who do say this!

Of course, part of the answer to that is ‘time’. It may only take a few moments to blog, but it seems that ‘few moments’ are few and far between!

There is also the question of controversy. I seem to want to blog on controversial issues and that cause trouble, stirs up heated debate and can even result in unpleasant vitriol.

And that last point is part of what takes me so long. I know this is entirely against the spirit of the internet which is all about instant comment and instant response. But I cannot take that risk. Too many colleagues have got into trouble by making comments too quickly. Too many people have been hurt. I have become more cautious. And so I write ‘blogs’ offline… go away and come back to them… and then sleep on it… edit it… come back a few days later and wonder about it and then, frequently, ditch it!

So no wonder there are ages between my blogs… which rather undermines the whole purpose of a blog, I guess!

But all this raises for me once again my feeling of loneliness. I am an orthodox Christian, in that I gladly affirm the ancient faith of the Church and the faith we confess week by week in the Creeds. That does not mean I do not wish to ‘unpack’ the Creeds... or the Bible for that matter! And that is where the openness comes in. As it also comes in when I yearn for a congregation (and am blessed to minster to one such!) that embraces a spectrum of theological opinion. It is this tension between ‘orthodox’ and ‘openness’ that allows me to be passionate about communicating the Good News of God’s love in Christ (does that make me an evangelical?) while also being ‘open’ on the human sexuality debate (so does mean some would wish to label me a ‘liberal’?).

‘Open’ and ‘orthodox’. Now, amongst all the labels that fly around, these are two I can live with… at least for the moment.

But even this may occasion some nasty responses. I can no longer guess what the outcomes will be of such postings!