Small chairs…

Advent, day sixteen.

Many of us will be perched on one of these over the next few days, watching children in tea towels and donkey ears parade onto a stage, herded with only partial success by stressed looking teachers and nursery nurses.

I confess, I used to regard them as something to be endured, but now my kids are both well beyond such things and the distance of time shifts my perspective.

We hear so much about ‘the meaning of Christmas’. It seems to mean lots of things; being nice to people, mostly by buying them presents, or feasting and consuming to excess.  Now, I am not one of those who thinks that this country has a God given right to call itself ‘Christian’- there is too much darkness in that story after all. However, when we see what we have done with the birthday of Jesus, it is hard not to despair.

Then there is the sitting on small chairs business, the point of today’s poem…

nativity play 2

 

Nativity

 

Just another nativity play;

Kids in tea towels and cardboard donkey ears

A tinselled angel picking her nose, and

A manger knocked together by Joseph’s dad

From bits of broken shed.

Jesus may be plastic, but Mary holds him close.

Cameras flash back from stars shaped from foil.

Despite my cloak of cynicism

I feel the approach of tears.

 

It is all so ordinary-

School chairs that turn us into giants;

The rank mix of stale milk and disinfectant;

The creak and boom of a poorly tuned piano;

That kid whose volume far exceeds his musicality;

We have all been here before.

 

Perhaps this is the point;

No facebook fanfare

No media circus

Messiah lies in a manger

Made from bits of broken shed

 

Frankincense…

Advent day fifteen.

We drove to Inveraray today to pick up our son, home from University for Christmas. It was cold, with ice still riming the road edges despite the corrosive salt. Snow lay in verges and in the fields, making the sheep seem bedraggled. It was early still, so the sun was low, lighting the white mountains with long wavelength light- the kind that is gentle; as much amber as white. It was all beautiful.

Michaela told me that this was her favourite time of year. But despite the beauty, I did not concur. There is a cruelty to winter. The cold makes things seem less than possible, or at least improbable. Of course, like all things, we know it will pass. The season will change again.

My favourite time of year is spring. I long for that moment when the ground turns and heaves with new life and you can smell the earth again. No longer sterile and cold, it seems to generate warmth of its own, despite the still-cold winds. In the forest, it scents the air like incense in a cathedral.

Like frankincense carried my wise men from warmer places, out East…

But for now, the ice remains.

Ice, loch Fyne, sunset

 

Frankincense

 

Hot tarmac kissed by a sudden shower.

Nuzzled nape of your slender neck.

How the newly turned soil

Exhales.

Cheap scent overheated

By teenage caresses.

Wool mixed with melting snow.

Coffee calling us towards the kitchen.

 

Baking bread.

The open sigh from crisp cotton sheets.

Superheated steam and well-oiled engine.

That first hint you are nearing the sea

As the air is seasoned by seaweed.

That medicinal miasma in deep pine forest.

Brand new carpet.

Wood smoke curled by early Autumn.

 

Washing fresh from the hanging line, then

Clasped beneath your chin s you fold it.

Frying potatoes.

Gunpowder zinging in November air.

Solder quicksilvered by a blowtorch flame.

Cropped turf on cricket pitch.

The ghost you left in this old coat

Opens the door to home.

 

And in the corner of the old church

Incense is still burning.

The violence of looking away…

Advent, day fourteen.

There was an article in The Guardian yesterday, describing some of the work of the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, following him on his fact-finding mission to examine the inequality and poverty that exists in the USA, the richest nation in the world. If you can bear to read it- you should.

It is a description of what happens when a nation declares war on the poor, at the same time as giving tax cuts to the already super-wealthy. Open sewers. Hookworm and other diseases normally only seen in the slums of the poorest parts of the world. People living in tents for decades with no benefits and no hope of better alternative.

Let’s not kid ourselves that this is only relevant to people living in the US. Our cultures are intertwined. Ideas that are pervasive in the US shape us too. They become ‘common sense’. In the US, the American Dream imposes a logic that suggest that everyone can succeed, if they are willing to work hard. Therefore, government spending that uses public money to assist the poor is seen as iniquitous,. The poor only have themselves to blame. Consider then, how this idea sits within our own welfare system, in a time of austerity.

In the article, someone uses the term ‘the violence of looking away’. We should take it on board, as if it was an antidote to the American Dream, or the British ‘skivers versus strivers’ equivalence.

There is hope to be found in the fact that there is a resistance. In the US, as described in the article, this sometimes comes from within the church.

I make no apology for bringing us down with a subject like this on our advent journey. Today’s poem celebrates the fact that Christmas is ultimately about the coming of our God to be amongst the poorest and weakest of us.

It is about a God who rejects the violence of looking away, replacing it instead with incarnation.

homeless people, church

 

Open the sky

 

Open the sky and let some light in

Let this night be night no longer

Let stars shine down in shafts of love

Illuminating the ordinary things

All down with dirt and common use

Let donkeys laugh out loud

For now the basest things

Are all silvered up in grace

Lubricated with kindness

For he is coming

 

Not to penthouses, or to plump our cushions of comfort

Or to stroke the fragile ego of celebrity

Not to strengthen the armies of the powerful

Or to expand their empty empires

Not to shape a new cathedral from seductive certainty

Or to doctor our old doctrines

 

He is not coming to the exclusive religious few

But to you;

The mess of you

All your brokenness

All your failure

He comes in the certain knowledge that

You will fail again

 

So open the sky and

let some light in

 

Gathering the family…

Advent, day thirteen.

Today’s advent poem is about family.

You know- those people you will spend Christmas with. You will eat too much with them, drink too much with them.

With a smaller number of them, you will waddle out into the winter air in a futile attempt to walk of the mountain of calories you have collectively consumed.

You will share moments of deep joy, if you are lucky. You will almost certainly irritate one another too. You will grit your teeth against the kind of anger only possible in the close company of family members.

It was always like this I reckon…

ChristmasChoir5

 

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth

 

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth

They’d prepare the way of the Lord

The in-laws would gather, take over the manor

Young Joseph would just be ignored

 

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth

The paths would have all been made straight

The midwife would chide, send the kids off outside

A whole village would stand by and wait

 

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth

He’d have a fine bed for his head

But while men smoked cigars and blew smoke to the stars

He was born in a stable instead

 

Jesus was not born in Nazareth

This king never needed a throne

The first thing he saw was dirty old straw

Our Lord was a long way from home

 

 

Ordinary…

Advent, day twelve.

The surprise of simple kindness usually reduces me to tears, particularly when it comes from an unexpected direction. This is the best of us; the very best we can be. Forget the self sacrificing soldier, or the hyper-successful entrepreneur, or those at the pinnacle of sporting success.

Give me instead the man whose simple acts of service go unnoticed.

Give me the nurse who is not just concerned with treatment, but still finds ways to love.

Give me the policeman who spends a little longer with the drug addict than he is supposed to.

Give me the musician who sets aside the endlessly self-referential, self-absorbtion of their own art in order to encourage the lesser skills of someone who is just developing theirs.

Give me the posh restaurant owner who feeds rough sleepers.

Give me the inn-keeper whose rooms are bursting, but still has time to do what he can for those who are in need.

do-you-have-to-be-a-tough-guy-to-be-a-man_610_439_80

 

Big man

 

He was as wide as the city gate

(Although half of him was heart)

 

Arms like beer barrels

Fists so big that even fighting men

Thought twice despite the libation

 

In the post-clatter calm that follows closing time

He lifts a broken man from the gutter

Props him on a wall while he

Wipes reek from wrinkled mouth

Lifts him like lost luggage

Carries him home

 

He was a big man.

Good shepherds…

sheep, shadows b and w

Advent, day eleven.

We know the story. Simple shepherds on the hillside. An explosion of light. Polyphonic glories. Rough men, enfolded as worthy of royal appointment. How they set off on their own journey of discovery.

Of course, the Bible is full of sheep and shepherds. The Passover lamb. David in the fields with his sling shot. Psalm 23 and ‘the Lord is my shepherd, so I’ll not want…’

Jesus used the image a lot too. There is that bit in John 10 were he talks about the Good Shepherd. Perhaps the most famous passage is this one though, from Luke 15 (here from the Message version);

1-3 By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.

4-7 “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

I don’t mean to get hung up on sin and what being saved might mean other than reminding us that this is a parable, a story to make us think, to trip us up a little in our easy comfort.

What I want to take us back to is this.

Each sheep is loved.

But each sheep returns to the flock.

We are one, but we are part of each other.

The good shepherd knows this. She gathers us together.

sheep, snow, hills

 

Shepherd

 

Gathered

Like the late autumn crop

Like loose threads in a sock

Like post box gets mail

Like the children of Israel

Like birds overheard

Folk at a deathbed

Chicks under a wing

A choir come to sing

Like stories not told

Like the sheep in this fold

 

Gathered

Like wet fallen leaves

Like fields full of sheaves

In the arms of a mother

In the life of my lover

Crowd comes to band

Like a beach full of sand

Like hook and like eye

Like clouds in clear sky

Like boats back from sea

Like you gather me

 

Gathered

Like slow recollection

Like mutual affection

Like pond-bottom slime

Around the scene of a crime

Bright hearths in December

Like football club members

Like the hungry to feast

Around the holy high priest

Honey bees to a hive

Refugees who survived

 

Gathered

Like dry clothes from a line

Like grapes to make wine

Like fish in a net

Like old age regret

Like friends in a pub

Like the weft of a rug

Like cards from the table

Like telephone cables

Like hairs in a comb

Like prodigals now back home

 

 

Mary; woman, not womb…

Advent, day ten.

Mary, mother of God has been venerated throughout Christendom. The tradition I grew up within was however very suspicious of Mary. She was after all, not God- she was just a girl. Praying to Mary (as was common in Roman Catholic traditions) was regarded as heresy. To us, Mary was a footnote, merely offering a willing womb.

I read this article today, which said this;

It’s Advent, and the same old lies about Mary are slipping over pulpits and out of parish letters, Christmas cards, public prayers, TV holiday movies, and late night comics’ jokes.The subjugation of Mary, the maligning of her as meek, mild, and mindless, has been harmful to millions of women over many centuries.

Hiding within the wonder of Christmas are a thousand years of doctrinal female subjugation, doctrines that, like tinsel, are dripped all over the season of Christmas. In the midst of the celebration of Wonderful Life, these malicious ideas keep women from feeling empowered, invited to be strong, and urged by God to imagine new ways to live, as Mary of Nazareth did, who mothered God’s redemption of the human world.

Read the article, particularly for its rather interesting description of the meaning of the word originally translated as ‘virgin’…

So, today’s poem remembers Mary. Not for her meekness, but for her grace and bravery.

mary-1

 

Mary

 

Where you born already divine;

A scrap of human flesh with a

God only skin deep?

 

Or did the shape of Messiah-

The mewling lion of Judah

Need nurture?

 

At the breast of this mother

Scarcely beyond child herself

You took in milk

 

What sort of woman

Might school the star maker?

Whose sharp words

 

Could cut through a

Heavenly tantrum like a

Shaft of light through shadow?

 

Did she teach the turning of

The other cheek against some teenage

Provocation?

 

Or perhaps this was always the point-

Power and might made tender flesh

The highest now most lowly

 

The filling up of hungry mouth

The arms that hold

The pride at a first step

 

The learning and the loving

The pulse of blood in fragile vein

The summer cough

 

From this material

A man was made

Who was also Messiah