Advent 11: worship and adore him…

Today we hear from Graham Peacock – chaplain, music lover, impresario, pantomime dame and somone I am proud to call friend.

We start with some more music.

Sometimes the songs we sing stop connecting with us.

I’ve preached and led worship for years. In the last few years choosing to pick something that I can sing with integrity has been a struggle.

In the early years of my Christian experience I used to like worship songs, then I moved through tolerating them to finally if I was at a large gathering finding ways of not singing them. When I hit crises I felt that the only solution that they offered was just to song louder.

It didn’t work for me.

Then I started going back to the older hymns: largely the ones that I had been bought up and first sang as a child without really understanding their meaning. The language is dated, but often quite beautiful. They do another thing for me now: they seem to hold joy and pain together better than any other form of song that I know.

In Advent, I like singing this hymn the most of all. Some days I struggle to contain the emotion when I do. I don’t know why; perhaps it is the tune which seems wistful and full of longing or maybe it is the childhood memories that it elicits. Sometimes I think that I prefer the uncertainty and ‘not yet’ of Advent hymns than the ‘It’s here!’ of Christmas carols.

As I’ve got older, the words have also begun to resonate: I get the feeling that I’m caught up in a bigger, centuries old story of people longing for deliverance and hope. These people never got to see it, but lived and behaved as if it could be; if not for them, for others yet to be born.

That faith moves me: sometimes I feel that I’ve lost it, yet when I sing that hymn, it returns. Maybe what is sung about won’t happen in the way of the images and beliefs that I used to have. Perhaps though it is the longing for deliverance and hope that gives us reason still  to go on and still to keep singing.

Either way, I like the idea that the hymn isn’t impregnated by the first person singular and that I’m not exhorted to ‘rise up/take this land/press into the promise’ or any of the repetitive activist cliches that have long ceased to speak to me. In contrast the hymn seems more relaxed and comfortable with itself and with mystery.

This version is by Sufjan Stevens. I like how it starts almost playfully before sliding into devotion. The fragility of his voice and the quietness of this version makes it all the more powerful: you don’t always have to ramp the volume up to 11 to encounter the Divine.

Advent 10: all that is beautiful and all that is broken…

It is time to break out my winter music, which always starts with this sublime offering from Over the Rhine, which almost always reduces me to tears, so much so that I save it for soft days when I need something to help me get deeper into this season.

I listened to it with a friend today, through snot and tears, at the same time trying to explain why this was a good thing. Music of this kind breaks through to something that matters, which I can only describe using the words of Jean Vanier;

“The quest for the eternal, all-beautiful, all-true and all-pure, and the quest to be close to the poor and most broken people appear to be so contradictory. And yet, in the broken heart of Christ, these two quests are united. Jesus reveals to us that he loves his Father, and is intimately linked to him; at the same time, he is himself in love with each person and in a particular way with the most broken, the most suffering and the most rejected.”

Jean Vanier, Community And Growth

We worked away over the weekend, at a ‘Winter market’, selling the ceramic art that pays our bills. This meant a couple of days in the middle of Glasgow, along with our daughter and son in law who were there for the same reason. After a busy Saturday, we walked towards a chip shop that served safe gluten free grub, through the massed saturday night revellers.

The shop was predictably busy, so we queued to be served then waited for our order, at which point I noticed a girl sitting on the floor, leaning on an overflowing dustbin. She was young, obviously freezing despite the thin blanket she was wrapped up in and appeared to be from a middle-eastern country. Smiling as if to reassure people that she was OK really, she held out a polystyrene cup towards the mass of moving humanity and from time to time gently utter the word ‘please’.

Something inside me broke. I find myself standing on the pavement openly weeping, this time not in a good way.

All the same questions I have asked a hundred times. How is this possible? How can we have become a country in which this is regarded as acceptable? Surely she is not safe? Where is she sleeping tonight? What can I do? Who in power can I shout at right now?

In the end, we bought her chips and she ate them ravinously as if it was the first meal of the day. She assured us she had a bed for the night at a local shelter and I hope this was true, but still, she was on the street, trying to scape money together for the next meal. The system of support we have carved out from the wealth of those who have too much in this country has shrunken down to this.

Today, I wait for the god who comes first to all that is beautiful and all that is broken.

Photo by Timur Weber on Pexels.com

Last year, pondering some similar matters, I re-wrote these words to a famous carol. I am sure you will recognise it.

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What can I give him, wealthy as I am?

Does he need an i-phone or a well-aged Parma ham?

Should I bring him trainers, a pair of brand-new jeans?

Or Halo for the X-box (whatever the hell that means)

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In a tower block in Camden, a woman breaks her heart

Her credit score is hopeless, her marriage fell apart

Her cupboards all lie empty, her clothes are wafer thin

Her kids can thank the food bank for turkey from a tin

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If I were a kind man, I would bring good cheer

I would house the homeless, if for only once a year

I’d buy my cards from Oxfam, for virtue is no sin

I’d send some Christmas pudding to poor old Tiny Tim

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In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds still moan

And Mr Wilson’s waited ages to get the council on the phone

He’s worried cos his boiler has given up the ghost

And since Mabel got dementia, she feels cold more than most

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If I were a wise man, I would do my part

I’d sell that gold and incense and invest it for a start

In gilt-edged annuities and solid pension schemes

For without good fiscal planning, what can ever be redeemed?

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In a lock-up by the roadside a bastard-child is born

To another teenage mother whose future looks forlorn

A host of heavenly angels up high in star-strewn sky

Sing blue-scale hallelujahs as lorries thunder by

Advent conspiracy 9: the invention of Christmas…

Today, Bob Fraser takes us on a bit of journey about the origin of our seasonal festivities.

Photo by Samuel Becerra on Pexels.com

In this reflective season of Advent, I’ve been thinking about traditions and religious festivals, and last week I re-watched the seasonal film ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’.

At this time of year the amount of daylight is getting less and my brief and rather unscientific research suggests that the Norse tradition of Yule marked the winter solstice – the day with least sunshine, which occurs around 21st or 22nd December in the Northern Hemisphere. Dec 25th was also when the Romans celebrated with a festival for one of their Gods, Saturn, (Saturnalia).

In our western culture, an eclectic mix of secular and sacred have, over the years, been fused together to form something else altogether – a bit like copper and tin making bronze.  Somehow The Roman good luck practice of using Holly and the Celtic Druids use of Mistletoe have found their way into the mix. The Druids seemed to be reflecting the ancient Greek practice of people kissing underneath mistletoe during weddings to symbolise peace and people coming together. Even the German tradition of candlelit Christmas trees, has its origin in symbolic use of evergreens in ancient Egypt and Rome. The giving of presents was part of Roman tradition too, as gifts were offered in worship of the God Saturn. It seems then that many of the traditions we associate with Christmas have their origin around two thousand years ago.

So here we are in the Christian season of Advent with Christmas on the horizon, and, as a believer, I am about to embark on a journey of stories and traditions, many of which have their origins in pagan celebrations.

Perhaps the Romans would have been aggrieved at their traditions being hijacked and trampled on, in just the same way that I felt a tad upset some years ago when the Post Office had a spell of not producing stamps with a religious image on them, and some local authorities banned the word Christmas, in an attempt to reflect a more inclusive and multi-cultural approach.

To be honest, I’m way more accepting now of differing traditions than I used to be when I was younger. Issues are no longer as black and white. Yes, I’m uncomfortable with some of the excesses of this season, but it’s good to mark these celebrations in some way. Cultural traditions, beliefs and expressions change over time. Each generation may adapt things from earlier practices. So I don’t expect everyone to align with all the things that I might believe in, just as I might not align with theirs. Surely, a measure of mutual acceptance of the differing stories is more likely to bring peace on Earth than haggling about whether celebrations should be secular or sacred.

So despite it being an enjoyable film, it wasn’t Charles Dickens or the Victorians who invented all of our western Christmas traditions after all. Perhaps they just pinched ideas from the Romans and the Druids and forged them into a new narrative for Christmas. 

Advent conspiracy 8: treacle tins and transcendance…

Another post from artist Steve, whose eye for beauty in the ordinary is remarkable.

Christmas is that magical time of mystery, wonder, miracles and angels.


But lots of us have become ‘selective’ as to what spiritual significance it may all have.


For many, Christmas has become a focus for family gatherings, food+drink, giving+receiving presents, trees+decorations, music playlists, opening doors on Advent calendars, Christmas cards, yearning for snow (but only the kind that makes everything white for just two days and disappears by Boxing Day), family walks, bubble+squeak on Boxing Day, party games and fun+laughter. It might even include midnight mass – but perhaps only as part of a family tradition.


Does God feature at all?
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published figures for 2021 indicating that, for the first time, less than 50% of people in England+Wales identify themselves as Christians (46.2%, compared with 59.3% in 2011… with 37.2% as of ‘no religion’, compared with 25.2% ten years ago).


What do I believe anymore?
Next year, I will have been a Christian for fifty years. At times, it’s been a bumpy journey but, despite my doubts, there remains something that continues to hold me.


Confused+stumbling, stubborn+steadfast… waiting+wondering.

This sketch is of one of our bookshelves at home. As you can see, the image includes three ‘Golden Syrup’ tins. In fact, there are a total of TEN of them on this shelf(!) – including one with holly leaves and the phrase ‘Bake, Eat and Be Merry’ and another which contains fourteen palm crosses. As you can imagine, both the tins and the palm crosses have been accrued over several years.


They’re a reminder of the passing of time.


And for those of us in our dotage perhaps (as Bob Mortimer frequently asked Paul Whitehouse in their ‘Gone Christmas Fishing’ television programmes): “So, how many Christmases have we got left then Paul?”


The continuity and the appreciation of experiences gathered over the years (not just consuming golden syrup!).


The highs and lows of our spiritual journeys and the sense of God somehow always being there along the way.


And, of course, the journey continues…


All those possibilities (and uncertainties)… the extraordinary within the ordinary.

Advent conspiracy 7: Pax Romana…

Lord of Lords.

Saviour.

Prince of Peace.

It may be a suprise to some that these titles – which we know so well as religious descriptors of Jesus Christ that have been sung through generations – were borrowed from an earlier historical figure, known first as the Emperor Augustus.

In the year 34 BCE, Augustus defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium, and this Victory ushered in a period know as the Pax Romana, defined this way;

The Pax Romana (Latin for ‘Roman peace’) is a roughly 200-year-long timespan of Roman history which is identified as a period and as a golden age of increased as well as sustained Roman imperialism, relative peace and order, prosperous stability, hegemonial power, and regional expansion, despite several revolts and wars, and continuing competition with Parthia. It is traditionally dated as commencing from the accession of Augustus, founder of the Roman principate, in 27 BC and concluding in 180 AD with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “Five Good Emperors“.[1]

Wikipedia

In other words, the first advent of Jesus happened right in the middle of the Roman peace, wihch was really no peace at all. Not for those oppressed by an expansionist unequal empire.

It was in to this world that the Prince of Peace arrived as total contrast to the Prince of Peace.

I have been thinking about how my lifetime has been lived in peace. Sure, just as during Pax Romana, there have been wars and skirmishes happened all the time away somewhere else, but these cost me almost nothing. However, just as during the Pax Romana, a different kind of peacelessness has been gathering. It might be understood as the end of the Pax Britanica and the beginning of the Pax Americana.

In total conttast to the Pax Christi.

This Advent, we need the upside-down principles of the empire of the Prince of Peace to disturb us still.

Peace to the world

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After war came peace

But after peace came profit

And after profit came wealth

And after wealth came inequality

And after inequality came accumulation

And after accumulation many were left with nothing

.

And with nothing there is no peace at all

After the war came peace

But after peace came empire

And after empire came corporation

And after corporation came globalisation

And after globalisation came exploitation

And after exploitation came exhaustion

And those who are exhausted feel no peace

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After the war came peace

But after the peace came aspiration

And after aspiration came property

And after property came debt

And after debt came foreclosure

And after foreclosure came homelessness

And without a home, there is no peace

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After the war came peace

But after the peace came consumption

And after consumption came more consumption

And consumption became the only thing that counted

And after consumption came obsolescence

And after obsolescence came more consumption

For without consumption, there is no peace.

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After the war came peace

But after peace we lost our unity

And for unity we need an enemy

And because of the enemy we need a leader

And great leaders need a great army

And a great army needs a war

And with war there is no peace

Advent conspiracy 6: stories we find ourselves in…

Today’s advent conspiracy comes from Bob who takes inspiration from The Detectorists to imagine something just below the surface that we half percieve…

If you haven’t watched any of the excellent TV series ‘Detectorists’ then I can heartily recommend it. You can find it on BBC iPlayer here: BBC iPlayer – Detectorists

The series first aired on BBC Four in October 2014, and it’s written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, who stars alongside Toby Jones. The two key players are Andy (Mackenzie Crook – The Office, Pirates of the Caribbean) who wrote and directed the series, and Lance (Toby Jones – character actor in many films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Hunger Games, Captain America, Jurrassic World and numerous TV series).

The series is set in the fictional small town of Danebury in northern Essex, and the plot revolves around the lives and metal detecting ambitions of Andy and Lance. They both have an obsession to find buried treasure, but, more often than not, all that the metal detectors pick up is a ring pull off an aluminium can, a metal button or a few nails.

They are convinced that there is something to find and, despite the set-backs, they keep searching. There’s a wonderful drone shot of the field at the end of the first series when they head off to the pub after another fruitless day’s searching and the shot reveals the outline of a large structure below the surface. It reminded me of times when there has been a long spell with no rain and the outline of buried building remains are revealed as a different shade of colour to the surrounding ground. There’s something there, but they can’t yet see it from where they are looking.

I wonder then what grand obsessions existed in the story from two thousand years ago when humble shepherds left their sheep to follow a bright light in the sky, and richer noblemen made a long journey from their homeland far away. What drew them to a small village in the Middle East? How often on their respective journeys would they have doubted what they were doing? How often would they have considered turning back? Was it something they had long anticipated? Was it a story of a hope to come which had been passed down and re-told through many generations? Something must have drawn them onwards.

In the initial post of this Advent Conspiracy by Chris here:  he says,  ‘in moments and in places like this, I find myself sensing something beyond myself that draws me’.

For me too there is something about Advent which draws me and provokes reflection about a journey bigger than our journey; about a story bigger than the story we find ourselves in.

Advent conspiracy 5:

The further adventures of our joint Advent blog, this one coming from Steve Broadway. I love his counterpoint between struggle and persistence. The work of the spirit has both, but it also has moments of transcendent joy. It seems to me that transcendence always has to have the absence of transcendence, in the same way that light can only be seen through darkness…

We also get to see some of Steve’s incredible drawing skills more of this to come!

Reflecting on life’s uncertainties…
Depressing stuff affecting so many lives
Like wars, sanctuary-seekers and homelessness
Abuse, poverty and fear
Hopelessness and despair
The cost of living and heating homes
Some having to decide whether to eat or heat
The haves and the have nots
Caught up in a spiral of hardship.

Reflecting on my spiritual path…
Typically struggling through the wilderness
Often intolerant of biblical interpretations
Annoyed by what I think are lop-sided homilies
And put off by the exuberant faith of some
My own blinkered attitudes don’t help
But still I’m happy to keep searching for meaning
Still seeing goodness in the world
And heaven on earth right now.

Advent conspiracy 4: The god who always arrives in troubled times…

Following on from Steve’s honest description of travelling through unbelief, and Bob’s description of rumbles of war just over the horizon I find myself once again wondering about the enforced jollility some of us often feel as disturbing dissonance as this season unfolds. It has always seemed to me that if there is joy at all, it is as likely to be encountered accompanied by tears as much as laughter. Sometimes both come together. I have tried to write about this apparent contradiction many times in my poetry. Advent, it seems, is a paradox.

Perhaps you will call me miserable (or use the slightly kinder word ‘melancholic’) but this would miss something important. Advent is always hard for many and this one is harder than most. Yesterdays post from Bob about Ukraine offers a very present example, but there are many closer to home who are also struggling.

The individualisation which has defined our age has also condemned many in western societies to solitary confinement just when we needed each other the most.

In the midst of my own Advent ponderings I am reading this book, which Michaela bought for me as present. She knows me well. The author places her Advent in the context of the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people, but also in the context of the first Advent, which describes the arrival of Jesus into chaos… into an Israel overcome and broken by a succession of occupations, only the latest one being the Romans. The book starts like this;

What does joy look like from the perspective of broken troubled times? What is the peace that we hope for? What justice? These are never just individual questions, rather they move us away from self-religon back towards the collective, shared consciousness that rediscovers our connectedness to both each other and to the created world. To the ‘Christ who loved things by becoming them’.

As I read Steve’s words two days ago describing his thinking seat in the face of an ebb of faith, a poem was nagging at me. I offer it here in the hope that it wall say more with fewer words.

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Light of the world

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The low winter sun takes power from

Puddles of last night’s rain and I turn away

Resonating to signals sent from distant stars

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Something glints at the top of bare branches –

A flash of wing or a white tooth or the

Coming together of choirs of angels

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And in a wet manger of clogged earth, summer

Sleeps, waiting for light to burst out

Brand-new hallelujahs

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For behold, the light is with us. The light is

In us. The light shines in the darkest places –

It even shines in me

Chris Goan, from ‘After the Apocalypse’ available here.

Advent conspiracy 3: the best is yet to come…

This is part of our daily collaborative advent project, which will be spread accross a few locations/blogs.

Today’s piece comes from singer/songwriter Bob Fraser, who has written some of the soundtrack to my (and perhaps your) earlier life.

We would love you to come with us on the journey. The simplest way to do this is to subscribe to one of the blogs, and then you should get a daily notification (you can always unsubscribe later!) Otherwise, you can interact with the posts via the usual social media platforms (although I am no longer doing twitter.) A few shares and likes will help us make connections too…

Our intention is to move forward with hope, savouring questions and having no fear of doubt. We live in darkness but look towards light.

Photo by Matti Karstedt on Pexels.com

How must it feel to have your homeland occupied by the enemy, to be dispossessed of your land, to have your home bombarded and devastated, and reduced to a pile of rubble? How must it feel to lose relatives and friends, lose possessions, lose dignity, and be surrounded by devastation, chaos and uncertainty, knowing no security, and not knowing where the next meal may come from, or whether you even have a table to sit at? How would we cope with no electricity, no running water, living the life of a refugee in a climate of fear? What must it be like to be frightened by the callous actions of extremists, and equally fearful of your own emotions which may boil over in desperation demanding justice and revenge?

For an ordinary bloke wanting to live a peaceful, meaningful life, earn a living, care for a family, bring security and protection to those you love, and maintain a grip on beliefs and values, a life in that kind of environment would be severely restricted.

Even when a cease fire is declared, providing desperate civilians a much needed opportunity to assess the damage, look after the wounded  and somehow go on with their lives, it’s a fragile peace and experience suggests it will not last, that conflict will resume, and there will be yet more suffering.

Sometimes, our hearts can feel like that enemy occupied land – battle weary, battered and bruised after yet another enemy onslaught. Every now and then there is a temporary cease-fire, giving chance to re-group, offering new hope and encouragement to keep going. Yet, after only a brief respite, another bombardment comes, threatening to destroy much of what we had salvaged from previous wreckage. Enemies know how to target with precision any weakness in defences. Their aim is to steal, kill, destroy, immobilise, silence, and distract. They know how to create dis-unity, spread lies and confusion, cut off supplies, extinguish hope, break the battle line, prey on the vulnerable, sever communication, dampen spirits and create exhaustion.

Options are limited in a situation where most of what is happening is outside our control. The only choices available are probably equally daunting. Neither choice comes without risk. Neither is right nor wrong. We can remain victims, hunkering down until the next cease-fire, longing for peace, yet existing and surviving rather than really living, but at least being close to roots and family and all that is familiar.

Or, we can gather all those we love and anything we can salvage, and start out on a path that is unfamiliar, heading for a destination which is unknown, taking on a new adventure with hope of a better life.

Whichever option is chosen, we’ll need to cling to the hope that even though life at the moment is not how we imagined it would be, the best is yet to come.

Advent conspiracy 2…

This is the second part of daily collaborative advent project, which will be spread accross a few locations;

This one (obivously.) Steve Broadway, who has a prodigiously varied output of drawings and photographs here. Graham Peacock; pantomime dame, chaplain, former methodist minister, terrible cricketer, who has a wonderful eclectic, thoughtful blog here.

We will also be having some contibutions by the fantastic singer/songwriter Bob Fraser, who has written some of the soundtrack to my (and perhaps your) earlier life.

We would love you to come with us on the journey. The simplest way to do this is to subscribe to one of the blogs, and then you should get a daily notification (you can always unsubscribe later!) Otherwise, you can interact with the posts via the usual social media platforms (although I am no longer doing twitter.) A few shares and likes will help us make connections too…

Our intention is to move forward with hope, savouring questions and having no fear of doubt. We live in darkness but look towards light.

Today’s reflection comes from a typically honest Steve Broadway, pondering matters of faith…

Advent is particularly associated with waiting… but for me, this year, Advent will be a little different from the Advents of the past. My own ‘faith journey’ has stalled – so much so that I’ve decided to take an indefinite sabbatical from attending church services while I endeavour to wait for this period to pass.


In some ways, agreeing to be a part of a ‘multi-blog collaboration’ seems both inappropriate a little scary.

I am an early riser. I’m usually up by 5am.


At various times in my life, I might have used this time for prayer and/or reading daily reflections/Bible passages.


I no longer do such things.


I can no longer be bothered.


And yet, since moving house, I now frequently find myself in my ‘Thinking Seat’ staring out of the window at the dawn of a new day.


It’s something of a magical time.


Could it be the start of my journey to rediscover my faith?


“Caught by the light of some small heaven” (as my good friend Ian has described it) perhaps?