Sunday, 21 January 2018

Epiphany 3: Water into wine

Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.

There’s an intriguing detail in the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, one which I hadn’t really pondered before. It is that detail of what the water was stored in. Stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification. It’s very specific.

Purification rites were very important in the Jewish law, as they still are. You had to be clean before you came to God, and this was symbolised by ritual washing.

It wasn’t about hygiene – ancient people didn’t know anything about germs. It was about ritual uncleanness, which you could contract in all sorts of ways – contact with unclean animals or dead bodies for example. So at home you’d have to wash before prayer, before Sabbath meals, before breaking bread. It’s no accident, either, that this water is held in stone jars. Pottery jars were thought to be able to pick up uncleanness, while stone didn’t – they were more porous, I suppose. Ritual washing water stored in contaminated pottery might become contaminated itself. So stone jars had to be used to store the water you’d use at home.

And look how much of it there was. Somewhere between 120  and 180 gallons. That’s a lot of water. The kind of ritual you would do at home consisted simply of pouring a cupful of water over your hands. How much of that did they think they were going to have to do? Six huge stone jars full of water borders on the obsessional.

The family hosting this wedding strike me as being a very pious and careful lot. They were very well prepared, religiously speaking. There was no way they were going to be caught out without water to purify themselves. If cleanliness is next to godliness, as they say, then this was a very godly family.  They were ready to do whatever was in their power in order to keep themselves in a right relationship with God.

I don’t doubt that they’d been equally careful in the way they had prepared for this family wedding. I am sure they had laid in wine in large quantities. Wedding parties could go on for up to a week, and even for poor families – perhaps especially for poor families - they had to be as lavish as possible. Your family honour depended on it. So running out of wine wasn’t a trivial matter. It was a source of deep shame, which would have lasted for many years. Your neighbours would never forget that yours was the wedding where everyone had to go home early, disappointingly sober!

But all their efforts to get it right hadn’t been enough on this occasion. The wine was running out, and there was no possibility of getting more. Even if they could afford to buy it, I don’t suppose you could just pop down to the off licence for another bottle or two. It is Jesus’ mother who realised what was going on, maybe she was among the women who were actually preparing the refreshments.  And she knew, somehow, that her boy would help .  And that’s what he did – eventually!

I expect there was other water around, water for cooking, maybe even a well close by, but that’s not where Jesus directs the servants to go. The Gospel story is very specific about it. It is this water for purification that he uses. That matters, it seems to me, because John’s Gospel is always very precise in what it says.

This little detail is a reminder of what Jesus’ ministry, his life, his death, and his resurrection will do for people. Jesus’ actions here proclaim that God wants us to have more than ritual purity, more than that rather cold and grudging sense that we can creep into God’s presence, provided everything in our lives is sorted out and ship-shape. No, said Jesus, what God wants is for us to have lives that overflow with joy, hearts that sing, life “in all its fullness”, as Jesus puts it later in the Gospel.  

And this is a gift, a surprise, not something we create through our own frantic effort, but something God gives. All we have to do, like the servants in the story, is to be open to its possibility, to be be prepared to scoop it up and pour it out, to have our eyes open to see God at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

This morning, at our all age worship, I asked people what joys they had had over this past week – the moments, usually unplanned and unforeseen, when their hearts had been lifted. The smile of a grandchild, the sight of the first snowdrops, something going well that they’d expected would be a struggle, unexpected help turning up in the nick of time; these  were some of the answers people shared.  But perhaps if I hadn’t asked, they might not have thought of these things. The moments when water had been turned to wine in their lives, when God had turned up to bless them, might have gone by unnoticed.

Tonight, in the silence, then, let’s think of our own moments of joy, the water that God has turned to wine in our lives, and let’s thank God for those moments, and ask for grace to taste his goodness, the rich wine of his love, in the coming week too.


Sunday, 14 January 2018

Epiphany 2: Being Known

‘Where did you come to know me?’ asks Nathanael of Jesus. ‘Where did you come to know me?’

Jesus’ answer surprises him.  “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”  That may not make much sense to us. What fig tree? We haven’t heard anything about a fig tree. But that’s the point. Jesus knows something he shouldn’t have known, something the narrator hasn’t even told us.  

Nathanael had originally been very sceptical about this man Philip had dragged him along to see. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he’d asked. We don’t know what he had against Nazareth, but it obviously had a bad reputation in the city of Bethsaida, where he lived. Every area has a town or a district which is bottom of the pile in terms of desirability – the wrong side of the tracks, the sink estate, the place where you know that if you put its postcode on your job application you are probably killing your chances. It may not be fair. It may not be right, but that’s how it is. Nazareth was that place, at least in Nathanael’s mind. He couldn’t imagine that any Messiah would come from Nazareth.

Still, Philip is his friend, so he decides that he will at least go and meet this man he’s so excited about.

But when he gets to Jesus he finds that Jesus, who has never met him, knows him through and through.  “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”, he says. The word translated as deceit also means cunning, craftiness, the ability to be economical with the truth – an essential quality for diplomats and politicians!  Nathanael isn’t like that, says Jesus. And he’s quite right. We’ve already discovered that Nathanael is a plain speaking man. He wasn’t prepared to accept Philip’s opinion of Jesus uncritically just because it was the opinion of a friend.  He didn’t sugar the pill or pull his punches in expressing his opinion of Nazareth. Blunt would be the less polite description of him, or even rude. This is a man who calls a spade a spade. He doesn’t swim with the tide or blow with the wind. As Jesus says, there’s no deceit in him. He is who he is, take it or leave it. But how does Jesus know this, when they’ve never so much as exchanged a word before?

 “Where did you come to know me?” he asks. Was it a lucky guess, or something Philip had said?  No, it’s not that. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” says Jesus. That’s impossible – thinks Nathanael – unless God had showed this to Jesus.

It may not seem a very dramatic thing for Jesus to know, but it’s enough for Nathanael. And just as Nathanael was outspoken in his doubts about Jesus, he is now outspoken in his affirmation.  “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  Being known is the thing that swings it for Nathanael. He’s not just a-n-other person, he is someone whom the Son of God has seen and noticed, someone whom the King of Israel has sought out and called to himself.

Being known is a fraught business these days. I’ve spent quite a lot of time this week trying to decipher the requirements of the new General Data Protection Regulation – hereinafter referred to as GDPR. It’s a new law that’s coming into effect in May, which strengthens the existing Data Protection rules. It applies to every organisation and business which holds information about people, including churches, just as the old law did, so we need to know about it and put it into practice. If an organisation has a record of your name and address, your phone number, your email address, let alone any information that is more sensitive about you, then it has to comply with these regulations. We have to be clear why we’re collecting data and get explicit consent to use it, for example to send out mailings. We have to store it safely. We have to delete it if people ask us to. It enshrines our legal right to be “forgotten” – to have our details scrubbed from the records if we want to.  

Being careful with data helps to protect against identity theft and fraud, as well as giving people control over who knows what against them. People have a right to their privacy if they want it, something that’s even more important than it used to be now that the internet makes it alarmingly easy to find out all sorts of things about people that they might prefer us not to.

The irony is, though, that this new regulation is coming in at a time when we are also very  aware of the rise in loneliness. We guard our privacy, but we also want, and need, to be known by others, to feel connected, part of a community. The Loneliness Commission, a brainchild of the late Jo Cox, who was murdered before she had a chance to see it really gain ground, has uncovered some alarming statistics from research done by various organisations. A study done by the Co-op and the British Red Cross discovered that over 9 million adults in the UK– more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely. Action for Children found that 43% of young people using their services were lonely and fewer than half felt that they were loved. Age UK says that 3.6 million people over 65 feel that the television is their main form of company. Fifty percent of disabled people say they are lonely on any given day. Refugees and migrants report loneliness and isolation as their biggest challenge according to charities that work with them. Not poverty or the uncertainty of their futures, worrying though those things may be, but loneliness, the feeling that no one notices or cares. Loneliness is now reckoned to be as bad for our health as obesity or lack of exercise. It seems it can literally kill you. Knowing and being known isn’t an optional extra which we can do without; it’s a life and death issue.  And it can affect anyone. People can be lonely in a crowd, lonely at work, lonely in the middle of a family, lonely when they are apparently successful and wealthy as well as when life is tough.

Of course, the new Data Protection regulations are important. Safeguarding personal information is important. We need to keep confidences confidential. But how do we balance that with the equally important need to be connected to others, known by them, open to one another? It’s a puzzle our society hasn’t really got anywhere near solving yet. When does keeping ourselves to ourselves turn into dangerous isolation? When does the friendliness we long for become the nosiness we hate?

As I thought about this in the light of today’s Gospel story, I wondered how I would have felt if I had been Nathanael, what it would have been like to know that someone knew something about me which I thought was private? To be sure, he’d only been sitting under a fig tree – it wasn’t as if he was up to no good – but isn’t it a bit unsettling to feel you might be being watched when you didn’t know about it? You wouldn’t get away with that under GDPR - you’ve got to tell people if you are using CCTV. GDPR would say that you can’t just go spying on people, however you do it, and I don’t think that being the Son of God would be any justification in law! And yet, Nathanael doesn’t seem to feel alarmed. Quite the reverse. He is so touched by the fact that Jesus knows him that his whole life is transformed. He becomes one of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples.

The key is, of course, that Nathanael realises that the one who knows him also loves him, the one who sees him also cares about him. Like the Psalmist whose words we read this morning, he is comforted and honoured to know that he is known. There’s no sense in Psalm 139 that the writer feels his privacy is being invaded.  God created his inmost parts, and knit him together in his mother’s womb. God knows every word on his lips, when he sits down and rises up, where he journeys and where he rests.  You can’t invade someone’s privacy much more thoroughly than that. But the Psalmist trusts God. He knows that God isn’t going to use his knowledge of him to condemn him but to help him.

That raises some  important questions for us. How do we feel about God knowing us? If God were to offer to show us ourselves as he sees us, would we be alarmed or comforted? Would we rather not know? If we are cringing inside at the thought of being so thoroughly known, why is that? It might be that we are feeling guilty about something, afraid of being found out, but it might equally be that we know we have gifts, talents or longings which we don’t want to own up to, because if we did, we’d have to do something about them.

Being known can feel comforting and enabling but it can also feel threatening and invasive. The difference lies in whether we feel we are loved as well as known. If we are truly convinced of God’s love for us, we have nothing to fear from whatever he might show us of ourselves.

The same is true of our relationships with each other. Saying hello to our neighbours and smiling at our fellow commuters is a good first step – hardly rocket science -  but genuinely knowing and being known, which are the real antidotes to loneliness, take trust and courage and most of all love to achieve. We hold back because we’re afraid it might all go wrong and we’ll find we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. But trying to be open to others is worth the risk. It transformed Nathanael and it can transform us and those around us too. We need to start though, where Nathanael starts, by discovering that we are known and loved by God. That enables us to know and love ourselves. That’s the key to creating communities where we can know and love each other, where we can reach out to those around us and let them reach out to us, so that no one need be lonely.


...and here is a recording of the choir singing "View me Lord, a work of thine"  Words by Thomas Campion. Music by Richard Lloyd.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Epiphany Sunday: Mystery revealed

Audio version here 

Isaiah 60.1-6, Eph3.1-12, Matt 2.1-12

Do you want to know a secret?

I’m not actually going to tell you one, but it’s an offer which usually makes people sit up and take notice. We all like to be “in the know”, to have some piece of information that maybe not everyone has. It makes us feel special, honoured, trusted. Depending on what the secret is it might even give us power, make our lives easier, give us leg up in the world.

At the time of Jesus, there were quite a number of what were known as “mystery” religions around.  To join one you’d need to go through some sort of initiation rite, maybe quite demanding. The lure was that, at the end of it, you’d be given some sort of special knowledge or power that others didn’t have. Of course you’d be sworn to secrecy about it then, which is why today we don’t know much of what actually went on in these cults, but that was their appeal. You became part of an elite group if you were accepted. If everyone was in on the secret, there would be no sense of specialness in belonging . 

The early Christians in Ephesus, who Paul wrote to in our second reading today would have been very familiar with these mystery religions. It’s quite possible that some of them had been members of one of these groups themselves. So when Paul uses the word “mystery” in our second reading today, he knows they will get the reference straight away.  Paul tells them that he’s been shown a mystery himself, something that’s wonderful, something that has changed his life, and it can change their lives too. The mystery he had discovered was at the heart of Christian faith. What was it? It was that the Gentiles,  those who were not Jewish, those who had always been treated as outsiders, were actually fellow heirs, part of God’s family , members of his body, “sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” 

That may not sound very mysterious or unexpected to us, but it had come as a complete surprise to Paul. He’d been brought up to think that God was really only interested in the Jewish people.  He’d been a devout and zealous Pharisee, eager to patrol the boundaries of his faith, to make sure that only those who followed the rules and kept the rituals could be part of it.  When he began to follow Jesus, though, after Jesus had appeared to him in a vision on the road to Damascus, he discovered that God’s love was for everyone, his call was to everyone – Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. It wasn’t just for those “in the know”, the religious elite, the exclusive tribe of people like himself.

Ironically, the mystery he declares to them is that there is no mystery. I think he means this passage to be a bit of a joke. The secret is that there is no secret. There is no elite group, no magic formula, no demanding admission ritual. Everyone can draw close to God “in boldness and confidence” he says.  And far from keeping it to themselves, this mystery is one that can and should be shared with everyone, shouted from the rooftops, preached in and out of season, gossiped about, spread in every way possible.

Why did Paul think this was so important? I think it was because he’d learned the hard way that elite groups are bad for people.  Elite groups are obviously bad for those outside them. They’re denied the benefits of whatever that elite group is guarding as their own possession.  But Paul realised that they were just as bad for those inside them too, because if we can’t hear the voices of those who are different from us, we end up impoverishing ourselves as well as them. We may think we have all the answers, but if we aren’t open to others we may not even have realised what all the questions are.

One of the most significant things that happened last year was a classic example of this. In the latter part of the year, a slew of sexual harassment allegations were made against powerful men in many sectors of society. As the stories broke, women started sharing many other stories of day to day harassment, in the office, in the street, on public transport, stories about things that they – we - had often taken for granted. When I was a teenager and young adult we warned each other about  men who had WHT – wandering hand trouble. Previous generations talked about men who were NSIT – not safe in taxis. And those were only the mildest issues. You just learned to put up with it, because it was a part of every day life for women. And yet, when these stories started to be shared, often with the hashtag #metoo, there seemed to be widespread surprise, especially from men. Some men, the ones who wouldn’t dream of harassing women, had just been oblivious to the scale of the problem, but others were surprised because though they knew it went on and maybe did it themselves, it seemed never to have occurred to them that the women they harassed or abused really minded.  They’d convinced themselves that it was ok to behave like this, and because they were the ones who had the power to decide whose voices were listened to, that was that.

That’s the key. It’s an issue of power as well as gender, and if we open our eyes we can see this same dynamic at work wherever there inequalities in our society.  Able bodied people make assumptions about what disabled people need and want . We think we know, when it is actually they who are the real experts in dealing with their disability. Rich people make political decisions that affect the lives of those who are poor without knowing anything about what it really feels like to struggle to make ends meet, and without seeking to know it either. Adults decide what children will want and how they will feel without asking them.  A report that came out a few days ago highlighted the dangers of “sharenting” – parents who post endless pictures of their children on social media, even if the children would rather they didn’t and ask them not to. “Nothing about us without us” is the repeated cry of those who find themselves in some sort of disadvantaged position, yet we often find it easier to talk than to listen.  

Paul says that, for the church to thrive we need to recognise  “the wisdom of God in its rich variety”.  Inclusivity, valuing everyone, isn’t about political correctness. It’s not just a nice idea: it is at the heart of Christian faith. It reveals the presence of God in our midst and releases his power to work among us. He comes to us in one another. His wisdom is found in our diversity. Each one of us has part of the picture he wants to give to us all. So we need each other, just as we are. We need each other’s gifts, but we also need each other’s struggles and vulnerability. They are what opens us up to God’s grace and love. We need each other’s answers, but we also need each other’s questions to make us dig more deeply into our own faith.  Wisdom and variety go together – you can’t have one without the other, says Paul. This was the mystery that had been revealed to him, but unlike the secretive cults  of the ancient world, this was a mystery that needed to be shared with anyone and everyone, because anyone and everyone was part of it.

The story of the Magi is a reminder of this truth. We sometimes call the Magi “wise men”, but in reality they weren’t that wise at all. They may have been clever, but that’s not the same thing. They’d seen a star in the sky, and, like many ancient people, they assumed it meant that a new leader had been born.  They knew some old prophecies about a Messiah who would usher in a better world. But the last thing they were expecting was that this new beginning would come through an ordinary child born to an ordinary couple in the ordinary back streets of Bethlehem. That’s why they went looking for him in Herod’s palace, with disastrous results for the rest of the children of Bethlehem. When they eventually found the right place, if only with the help of that star, they must have been baffled. And yet God had drawn them to the place where they needed to be, the place where they could discover that they were welcome in God’s presence. There is wisdom in this story, but it is God’s wisdom, not theirs.

Mary and Joseph must have been baffled too at these strange visitors with their even stranger gifts, but the arrival of these foreign Magi revealed God’s wisdom, the news that his son was for all people.

The Magi’s visit changed Mary and Joseph, just as it changed the Magi. Matthew tells us that they went home “by another way” – not just a geographical detail but a spiritual one also. And the message of the story is that we can, and need to, be changed as well.

This change can only come though, if we are open to the possibility that God’s wisdom can come to us through people who are utterly different from us, whose language and whose lives we don’t understand and whose experiences seem completely foreign. It can only come when we accept that there are pieces of the puzzle we didn’t even know we were missing,  questions we haven’t even thought of asking, voices we haven’t even realised we weren’t hearing. When we fail to notice them, we fail to notice God too. We may also need to learn that we have gifts to give and stories to tell, and if we don’t tell them, others will miss out on some of God’s precious wisdom for them.

The word epiphany means revelation. God revealed himself to the world in the Christ child two thousand years ago. But he also reveals himself in each of us, friend or stranger, because we are now the body of Christ. Let’s pray that in our rich and glorious variety, we might discover the mystery of God at work in us as we travel together through this New Year.


Sunday, 31 December 2017

Christmas 1: Pondering Christmas

The angels left and went into heaven… the shepherds returned [to their sheep]…

This time of year, the week between Christmas and New Year, is often a time when people are going home from family visits, returning like those angels and shepherds, and picking up the threads of their lives again. My two children were with us for Christmas, but Michael went back to Southampton on the 27th and Ruth flew back to Lisbon on the 28th – from Stansted – she managed to pick the only airport seriously disrupted by the snow to fly out of! Fortunately, she got back safely with only a little delay. Even if you haven’t had visitors or been a visitor, though, there’s often a sense that things are getting back to normal after the Christmas break at this point. People are going back to work, groups and activities are starting again. However good a Christmas you’ve had, that can feel like a relief, especially if you put the tree up really early and now all the needles have fallen off. But there’s a danger that in our haste to clear Christmas away we may miss the chance to hear its message to us.

That’s why it matters that in the church at least, Christmas has only just begun. The Magi haven’t reached Bethlehem yet, and won’t do for another week, and then after that the Christmas season continues, with what you might call the “sub-season” of Epiphanytide, until Candlemas at the beginning of February. We’re a long way from being done with this story of the baby born in Bethlehem.

The reason why we cling on like this is that Christmas isn’t just a day. The work of bringing up a baby, as any parent can testify, doesn’t end with its birth – that’s just the beginning, and it’s what comes next that really matter. That’s just as true for Jesus as it is for anyone else. The person who seems to be most aware of this in today’s Gospel reading is Mary, of course - and maybe Joseph too, though he’s not mentioned here. They are the ones who will have to care for this child, who will have the sleepless nights and anxiety, as well as the joy and tenderness of holding him close.  We are told that Mary “treasured” the words she had heard and “pondered them in her heart.” The Greek word translated as “pondered” is only used in this one place in the Bible. Its literal meaning is to bring together, or more accurately to throw together. It is sunballo if you’re interested.

I like that. It’s as if Mary is carrying a rag bag of emotions and experiences at this point, all the things that have been thrown at her, trying to make sense of them. There was the initial appearance of the angel, and his announcement to her that she would bear a child, with all the risks of scandal that involved. Then there was her emotional visit to her relative Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. Then there was the journey to Bethlehem at the diktat of a foreign emperor. Then there was nowhere for her and Joseph to stay. She’s had to lay her child down to sleep in a borrowed manger far away from home, and then these shepherds turn up in the middle of the night, with stories of more angels. She knew that something extraordinary was happening, that this child, according to the angel, was God’s son, the Messiah, the one who who would “cast down the mighty from their thrones”, which is something  the mighty tend not to be too keen on, so she knew there would be trouble ahead. But what would the future hold? What was she supposed to do now with this child? How could she bring him up with the resilience and the courage he would need? How would she find that resilience and courage for herself?  All these thoughts are jostling for her attention – thrown together in her mind as she holds her child to herself.  

We don’t get that sense of the “thrown togetherness” of all of this in the English translation of that word sunballo – pondering gives a rather different feel to it, but it’s a good word too, a word worth thinking about.  The word ponder is linked to ponderous, of course; it’s about things that are weighty. We get “pound” from the same root. Mary is weighing up all these things that have been thrown at her. They lie heavy in her thoughts. They can’t be cast off like the scrumpled up wrapping paper and Christmas packaging that litters the living room carpet by Boxing Day. They can’t be ignored, they won’t just blow away in the breeze. These are thoughts she will carry around with her all the time. She’ll sometimes struggle to bear them as her child grows and begins to live out his ministry.

Mary ponders in the days after Jesus is born, and if we want Christmas to be more than a couple of weeks of eating, drinking and singing carols, more than a mushy moment in the candlelight, we need to ponder  the thoughts, feelings and questions it has provoked in us too.  We need to allow those thoughts and feelings and questions to have their proper weight,  to have substance and reality in our lives. Where has  Christ been born in us this Christmas? Maybe it has happened in a some small impulse we have felt to set something right, to do something new, to let our lives be changed.  What will we do to turn those impulses into reality? Where has light shone in the darkness for us, and what is that light showing us about ourselves and our world? What will we do to help that light shine out?  The angel told Mary to call her child Jesus – in Hebrew it would be Yeshua, the same name we anglicise as Joshua, that famous Old Testament warrior. It means “God saves”, but how has Christ come as a saviour to us this Christmas. What do we need saving from right now? What do we need saving for? Where do we need God’s help, and how shall we reach out to find it? The Christ child, God’s word and God’s work, lies in the manger of our hearts – what are we going to do to help him grow up and grow strong?

It is easy for Christmas to feel like a bit of a dream, a time out of time, but the questions it asks us are real questions about our real lives, about our relationships, our priorities, our callings. They demand and deserve real answers. Holding onto Christmas isn’t just about keeping the crib up and not packing away the tinsel too soon. It is about finding and nurturing that life which God is trying to bring to birth in us, respecting it, taking it seriously, so that it can grow to fill us, transform us and save us. How shall we do that? That is what we are called to ponder today.  


Monday, 25 December 2017

The Owl's Christmas - a story for Christmas Day

To listen to the story click here Audio version  

I don't read the stories I tell on Christmas day - they are told, without notes or a script. The written version of the story is just a guide! 

This story is based on an old tradition that all the birds of the air came to worship at the manger except the owl. I wondered what he might have been doing instead... 

On the night when Jesus was born, an owl flew through the dark skies near Bethlehem, calling out “Whoo! Whoo!” as it always did. The darkness didn’t bother the owl at all. He was born for the night, a creature of the night. He could see in the dark, and he could hear a mouse creeping through the grass in a field a mile away. But the noise he heard in the middle of that deep, dark night, wasn’t what he was expecting at all. Cock- a – doodle-doo! It was the cry of a cockerel! But it was nowhere near dawn. What was happening? The cry came from the direction of Bethlehem, and the owl decided he should go and check it out. So he flew as fast as he could on his silent wings towards the village. He soon found the cockerel, standing on the roof of a ramshackle stable, cockadoodledoing his heart out.

‘What’s going on?’ said the owl. ‘It’s hours till daybreak!’

‘But tonight something very special has happened’, crowed the cockerel. ‘God’s Messiah, his Son, has been born, the one we’ve all been waiting for, the one who is coming to show us how to love one another and to live in peace! And he is right here, in this stable! See – all the birds are here to greet him! Why don’t you join them?’

The Owl peered through a gap in the thatched roof. There inside he could see a mother, and a father, and a baby lying in the manger, and around him, all the birds of the air. The lark was singing a sweet song to lull the baby to sleep. The stork was plucking soft feathers from her own body to cushion the baby’s head. The robin was fanning the feeble fire with his own wings till it’s breast turned bright red – as it still is to this day.

‘Whoo me? Go in there? No!’ said the Owl., I can’t go in there. It looks lovely, but it’s far too bright. The light will hurt my eyes. And anyway, I am a creature of the night. People shiver when they hear me cry. They think I am the sign that something bad will happen. I will just stay outside and watch from here.’

And that’s what he did. All through that night and the nights that followed he watched over the baby, as shepherds came to visit him and then visitors from far away arrived with strange gifts. In the day time the owl tucked himself under the eaves and slept, but at night,  he watched to make sure the child and his family were safe.

All was peaceful until, one night, in the deepest part of the  black midnight,  owl, with his sharp hearing heard something he didn’t like at all. He heard the noise of marching feet, and of swords and spears, and of men talking to each other in gruff voices. ‘Can’t think why King Herod has to send us out on this job in the middle of the night to look for this baby he’s so angry about! Couldn’t it have waited till morning?’ ‘He must be really determined to get rid of him – a child born to be king, those wise men said – a rival for Herod – no wonder he’s rattled.’ ‘Anyway, it’s no good us complaining about it. We’ve just got to follow his orders – or we’ll be for the high jump ourselves!’

What was this? thought owl, alarmed. King Herod’s soldiers! Coming to get rid of the child! And the mother and father fast asleep below! He must do something!

‘Whoo! Whoo!’ he called out, as loud as he could. Down below, Mary and Joseph sat up in the straw where they had made their bed. ‘What was that?’ said Mary. ‘Just that dratted owl’ said Joseph. ‘I’ll see if I can chase him away in the morning. Mind you, I’m not sorry to wake up. I was having a terrible dream. I dreamt that King Herod was trying to get rid of our baby, and that God was telling us to take him and run. You don’t think there could be anything in it, do you?’ ‘No, surely not! Why would a great man like Herod want to harm our a poor baby? It’s not as if he’s got an army to command’ said Mary, ‘and even if there is something to worry about, I’m sure it can wait till morning. Let’s go back to sleep while we can – if that owl will let us – and think about it tomorrow.’

‘Whoo! Whoo!’ called the owl, even louder. How could he make them listen? The soldiers were coming closer. He could hear them. Summoning all his courage he flew down from the roof and into the stable. The firelight was bright, dazzling, but the owl was determined. He flew right up to Joseph and took his sleeve in his beak and started to pull on it. ‘What on earth is going on? Get off me!’ said Joseph. But then, Joseph and Mary heard it too – the sound of those swords and spears and marching feel – still far off, but unmistakeable. The owl was right. The dream was right. Jesus was in danger.

They picked him up from the manger, and quickly gathered together their few belongings, and stumbled out into the night – the stars and the moon were covered in thick clouds. ‘But where will we go? And how will we find the way?’ said Mary. ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ called the owl, a little way off. ‘The owl seems to know where we should go,’ said Joseph ‘we may not be able to see in the dark, but he can. Let’s follow him!’
They headed towards the owl. He waited for them to catch up, then flew on, hooting again. On they went, on a dark path that lead between the hills, far, far up into rocky valleys with steep sides until they came to the mouth of a cave. The owl flew straight into it, but Mary and Joseph hesitated just inside its mouth. Above them could hear the skittering of bats, and they felt spiders’ webs brush their faces. ‘Ugh!’ said Joseph. ‘I hate this darkness, and the things that live in it!’ ‘But what other choice do we have?’ said Mary. ‘And the owl has been kind to us – and isn’t he a creature of darkness too? Besides, doesn’t it say in our Scriptures that the darkness is no darkness to God, that to him the darkness and light are both alike? And at least we’ll be well hidden ’ ‘Hmm’ said Joseph. ‘Perhaps…’ ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ called the owl. They inched their way deeper into the cave, feeling ahead of them with their hands, until all of a sudden,Joseph felt, under his hand, a rough, hairy head, and pointed ears and a long nose, and sharp, sharp teeth. Just at that moment, the clouds parted and a shaft of moonlight lit up the cave. Joseph looked down. And there, looking up at him, was a great, grey wolf, yellow eyes gleaming in the glow. ‘It’s a wolf! Mary. The owl has brought us into a wolf’s den. We’re done for!’ But the wolf just looked up at them, and the child in Mary’s arms, with kindness and love in its eyes. It made no move to attack them. ‘Oh Joseph! I don’t think the owl would have brought us here to be eaten by a wolf . And doesn’t it say in our Scriptures than when God’s kingdom comes he will teach all things to live in peace and the wolf will lie down with the lamb and live in peace. I think  our lamb of God is safe with Brother wolf here. Let’s find somewhere to sit down at the back of the cave and rest, and hope the soldiers give up and go home.’

But the owl was still listening, and he knew it wasn’t to be so. The soldiers were still coming closer, spreading out to search the rocky valleys in twos and threes. He could hear soldiers coming up the path to this valley, this cave.The owl knew he needed to act fast. ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ he called to the other creatures in the cave, and flew down to a rock by the wolf’s side. A bat flew down from the cave to join them, and a spider scuttled out from under the rock and up its sides. There was a growling and a muttering and a skittering and soft whooting as they seemed to talk together and then, as Mary and Joseph watched, the owl flew out of the cave up and perched in a scrubby tree above it. The bats flew out in a great cloud and hung upside down from the rocky ledges along the valley side. The wolf padded a little way out from the cave, and hid himself behind some rocks, and every spider in the cave scuttled out to the cave mouth and began to spin. To and fro across the cave mouth they spun their silk, until it was a thick curtain hiding Mary and Joseph and the baby.

They were just in time, because just at that moment, two soldiers came  stumbling up the pathway to the cave. ‘What about this then? A cave – that would be a good place to hide. Should we have a look?’ ‘Nah. Don’t be daft! Look at those spider’s webs. They must have been there ages, to be so thick – no one’s been in this cave for years!’ The soldiers began to turn away, and inside the cave, Mary and Joseph silently sighed with relief. But then one of the soldiers said to the other, ‘ Mind you – we could do with a rest ourselves, and that cave would do nicely for twenty minutes kip.  No one would notice if we had a bit of shut-eye. Maybe we could have brew up. We can easily slice through these cobwebs with our swords.. What do you think?’ ‘Yeah, why not?’ said the other. And they drew their swords and raised them, ready to cut their way into the cave…

But the owl saw, and the owl heard. ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ he called out. And he launched himself from his perch, and all the bats swooped down with him from the rocks, and they tangled themselves in the soldiers hair and scratched at them with their claws. ‘Spiders! Owls! bats! – what is this cursed place?” said the soldiers, trying to beat them away. And then, from his place behind the rocks,  the wolf put up his great grey head and opened his great slavering mouth and howled with all his might, a howl that turned water to ice, that turned wood to stone, that turned knees to jelly. And he stepped out from behind the rock, and ran at the soldiers, eyes glowing like coals,  teeth glinting in the moonlight. And they dropped their weapons and they ran and they ran and they ran! They ran as far and as fast as they could, and they never came back again.

And inside the cave, Mary and Joseph laughed softly to themselves, with relief and with gratitude for all that these creatures of the night had done for them and their child.

And in the morning, before they set out on their way, they promised that they would bring up their child never to be afraid of the darkness, or the creatures that live in it. And they were true to their word, because when he grew up this child, Jesus, never shunned or feared those who found themselves in dark places and dark times. And when he hung on a cross and the sky turned dark in the middle of the day, he remembered it for himself too. God is with us in the darkness, just as he is in the light; to him the night is as bright as the day.

This story is based on fragments of folklore, but it is an Anne Le Bas original. Please credit me if you use it elsewhere! Thanks
For more Christmas stories, click here. 

For more about the tawny owl....

Midnight Mass

John 1.1-14 & Isaiah 52.7-10

In the beginning…

If you’ve been rushing around getting ready for Christmas and you’ve come here this evening to hear readings about mangers, babies, shepherds, magi and stables I can only apologise.

John’s gospel doesn’t begin with the story of Jesus’ birth in the detailed sense, and we wouldn’t be the first people to hear these words and struggle to make sense of them. When you heard them you may have done so as a prologue, poetry, a declaration or something you might expect to find in a hymn. You may think where’s the bit about the birth of the Christ child? Well it’s in there but the greater focus is on what God can offer us, which gives an important insight into his nature.

The Christmas message from John is that God invites every one of us to be born as his children, to truly be children of God.

It’s the part where John tells usHe was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’

‘Power to become Children of God’, power to become children? Mmmm that’s an interesting one isn’t it do you associate power with children? Perhaps more so at Christmas when failing to meet their expectations in the present department might not be well received. One lady I know through work told me that her 4 year old had been waking up at 4.30 am every morning since early December asking whether it’s Christmas yet, so her expectations might be building! Maybe if you want to watch something on TV and they want to play the Xbox the balance of power is against you, maybe if you get some new technology and you want to get it working without spending hours reading manuals you might have to make some concessions.

One little girl went to see Father Christmas at her local shopping centre but stormed off when he asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she turned to her mother in a disgusted fashion and said ‘ he hasn’t even bothered to read my email’. Teenage children will know that once you stop believing in Father Christmas you start getting clothes as presents, perhaps they lose their child like powers at this point?

Of course in reality children aren’t all powerful, I remember being punished at school for speaking in class, being sent out to play in freezing weather when I’d rather have stayed indoors and feeling that I had to ask permission to do so many things. Power to become children! The preacher Tom Wright more accurately describes it as power to become powerless, authority to be under authority.

Would the prophet Isaiah have recognised this vulnerable baby as the triumphant God he sought? He did indeed bare his holy arm but that of new born boy rather than a conquering warrior.


Though the character of God starts to make sense when we realise that it’s this powerless vulnerable human form of a baby that he chose to take when he sent the light into the world. God is being redefined and we get to know him so much better when we take time to look at who Jesus is.

There’s nothing wrong with a sentimental view of Christmas with the baby Jesus as long as we don’t let it hide God’s promise for us. He is offering us every positive aspect of the parent - child relationship, nurturing, feeding, protection and above all love.

Many of us experience a sense of powerless to change the sadness and evil we see in the world, many others are left feeling powerless and forgotten including homeless people, refugees and those living in loneliness. When we consider such people we are reminded that Jesus experienced homelessness, life as a refugee, a humble birth place. He didn’t pace the corridors of power but mixed with prostitutes and those collecting taxes for the despised occupying Roman army. He refused to follow meaningless temple rituals and refused allegiance to the emperor because he knew that the systems were there to control and oppress the very people he cared for and he came to show a new type of kingdom which honoured sacrifice, humility and servanthood.

It can be an overwhelming realization that the one true God who created the universe, who was there ‘in the beginning’ chose to come to us a servant with a depth of compassion that we struggle to comprehend.

As we look to Jesus the nature of the otherwise invisible God is revealed to us in a helpless baby who grows into the man who dies on a cross.

Surely this makes us think that maybe we are sometimes looking for meaning and guidance in the wrong places. It’s often when men and women have the courage or instinct to go against the grain of what is accepted as normality by so many that we find the greatest rewards. A moment of sanity broke in when a football was kicked into no man’s land in Flanders, the site of horrific human slaughter in WW1, and on Christmas Day 1914 and the opposing forces found they could play sport rather than kill each other for a while.

Many people are naturally sceptical about the phrase ‘born again’, maybe it’s the association with sun tanned TV evangelists who always seem to have the toll free number in the corner of the screen for our credit card. I’m sure they share the same fake tan with the TV sales channels.

Yet being ‘born again’ in the sense that we can become children of God and start a new relationship with real depth and meaning is what we are being offered. A relationship which is not burdened by the weight of our past failures, an invitation which doesn’t have any preconditions and which is for absolutely everyone without exception or time limit.

God doesn’t want to keep himself to himself but comes to us, seeks relationship with us, shows us what is important to him and then it’s for us to decide whether we want to accept. It’s the living relationship day by day which is important, not the mere knowledge.

If Christmas is to mean anything beyond decorations and sentimentality then it has to be lived out, on a daily basis through our imperfect lives in the real world. I love the words of one fellow preacher who beautifully describes this as ‘the supreme defiance of pessimism.’

At this time of year when days are at their shortest I’m rather pleased that we took over what was a pagan festival, to have Christmas lights in all their formats which offer welcome illumination from the darkness. When some people moan that Christmas is over commercialised I guess we Christians have to hold up our hands and admit that we did nick it off those with other ideas in the first place.

People will relate to darkness differently but when we speak of dark times it is unlikely to be in a positive context. People have felt that they are walking in darkness at times of war and oppression when they suffer the consequences of greed and injustice.

I took my summer holiday in Washington DC this year and discovered how Churchill and Roosevelt used the illuminated community Christmas tree outside the White House as a sign of hope in 1941. Just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbour and the entry of the U.S. into WW2 Franklin Roosevelt declared defiance ‘against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them,’ stating ‘we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere’.

Most of us will have our own dark times, losing someone we love, facing frightening illnesses, feeling ground down by hardship or rarely finding love and kindness.

I’m all for joy and happiness, merriment and feasting at Christmas but we’d need to have our heads in the sand to think that this is the case for everyone. For those who are generally finding life hard this can be made even harder at Christmas by the unrealistic expectations of others to be joining in when all they really want to do is find some peace. It often invokes strong memories and for some it can be painful and empty.

Although it’s sometimes easier said than done such times are those when we need to draw on the depth of our confidence as children of God, people he considers worthy of love and respect, people he trusts to care for each other and his world.

It reminds us of the choice we must make and to accept Gods invitation to life in the light as children loved by him seems overwhelming, to do anything else is not life at all.

So I end by wishing us all a Christmas which leaves us certain in the knowledge that we are loved by God who came to give us eternal hope, whose light continues to shine and the darkness did not nor never will overcome it.


Kevin Bright

Midnight Mass Christmas 2017


Monday, 18 December 2017

Advent Breathing Space 3: A child is born

During our three Advent Breathing Spaces this year, I’ve been picking up on the theme of birth and babies, which our daily Advent reflections have been exploring, and I’ve been using some of my own poems as a “hook” to hang my thoughts on. In this third and final service, I’d like to begin with a poem I wrote when my children were still in primary school. It was, perhaps, an attempt to remind myself what it was all really supposed to be about, in the midst of the day-to-day realities of family life, the piles of washing, petty squabbles and lego all over the floor. It’s called “Parents should be singers of a song”.

Parents should be singers of a song,
murmuring the ancient lines
like waves into the seashell ears of new-born children,
    "You are beautiful,
      and beloved
      and the best thing in the world."

The whispered tune is tangled through their hearts,
and, humming with the resonance of love,
the contrapuntal melodies turn softly in the pathways of their souls,
to spin the strands of safety with their song of reassurance.
    "You are beautiful,
      and beloved
      and the best thing in the world."

And when they are grown, these love-sung children?
When they are grown they echo still with music.
    "You are beautiful,
      and beloved
      and the best thing in the world."

You’d have to ask my children how much the aspiration matched up to the reality! All I can say is that I am very proud of them both, and that it is a privilege to be their mum, and I hope they know it! But I knew then, and I know now too, that no family is perfect, no parent manages to sing that song all the time. Sooner or later, parents and children are bound to disappoint each other.

I spend a lot of my time dealing with families in the course of my ministry. Weddings, baptisms and funerals give me a privileged glimpse of their inner workings, as well as all the normal ups and downs I get to hear about between those moments. The conclusion I’ve come to after this exhaustive research is that all families are different, but none of them is perfect.   

The series of daily Advent readings I’ve been posting this year, on Biblical birth stories, show us that things were no different in ancient times.  Any attempt to glorify Biblical family values soon founders when we actually read the Bible.

Children in the Bible were born into families that were incestuous, polygamous, or abusive. They were born to slaves who had no choice in the matter, and to free-born women who might as well have been slaves for all the power they had to direct their own lives. They were bereaved of mothers, fathers and siblings. They fought among themselves, locked in bitter rivalries that stretched over lifetimes. They were refugees and economic migrants, oppressed by war and famine and political situations they had no control over.

Sometimes Biblical parents were good and loving. Sometimes they were shockingly bad. Mostly, like all parents, they were a mixture, trying to get it right, but often failing just like modern parents.

When that happens, when parents fail their children, or children their parents, it’s important to know that our families don’t exist in self-contained bubbles, and nor where they meant to. Our first reading spoke of God, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”  Our human families are just a part of his great family. Our love may be limited and fallible, but his is not. We may be pushed to the boundaries of our patience, but his knows no boundary. It is longer and higher and deeper and broader than anything we can ask or imagine. We, and our families, are part of an eternal and limitless family.

The early Christians were very much in tune with this reality. In following Christ , they found they had suddenly acquired brothers and sisters they never imagined they might share kinship with. Rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. For some, this family might be the only family they now had, because they had become estranged from their families of origin, but for all, there was a new sense of identity to be discovered and owned. Whoever else’s sons and daughters they were, they were also  the sons and daughters of God. Whatever other household they belonged to, they also belonged to the household of God. In those famous words of John , “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”.

This is our truest and deepest identity. It isn’t in rivalry with the sense of identity we have in our human families. It is beyond, above and beneath them.  All our human families, with their joys and sorrows, their love, and their failure to love, are held in God’s embrace. He can forgive and heal whatever in them is broken or lacking. Parents don’t have to parent alone – God parents with them. Children can know ultimate safety, even though their human parents can’t always protect them.

“Parents should be singers of a song”, I wrote, and sometimes they are. But whether they are or not, the good news Jesus was born to proclaim is that God, who is Father and Mother to us all, sings within us. And if we learn to listen to him, he can fill our lives with his music.

“You are beautiful
and beloved
and the best thing in the world.”