Advent Book Club – Twelfth Night

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11

Ben's ChristeningAnd so we come to the last day of Christmas and therefore the last set of readings, thoughts, prayers and actions in the #adventbookclub. I will, I think, have one final post to come to sum up what I thought, what I got out of it, and what I think I have to learn from the whole process.

So, this post is the same as any other. What does Nouwen have to say today? He thinks on the Baptism of Christ. His visit to Lourdes where he bathes in the waters and prays before a statue of Mary.  He understands that water is part of life itself, saving everyone – the Israelites being led through the Red Sea; Jesus baptised in the Jordan; our own baptism.

So. Baptism.  Last February seems a long time ago, looking at the picture above from Ben’s Baptism. It’s only been ten months.  In that time he has grown in every way.  Taller. Heavier. Cleverer. Stronger. Nimbler. Abler in every way.  Would this have happened if he wasn’t baptised?  Yes. Does that make baptism a waste of time? No. Should we have waited until he was old enough to understand or even to decide for himself? No – though I respect those who have different views. It is the grounding of life.  It is the start of a very long journey which will hopefully last his whole life through. It is a sign by us, as his parents, that he belongs to God’s family – and that we want him to belong. It is a commitment by us, and by his godparents, to bring him up to have faith, to be good, to be kind, to do right. It is a commitment from our church to support him and us with our own commitments. It is the right thing to do.

I’ve just got to the final Advent Action in the book.  To take today to honour our own baptism.  I guess we all try to do that each day.   I’ve not done anything specific to honour my own baptism.  I hope that the words above remembering Ben’s baptism will do. So, my prayer for today is from the baptism service in Common Worship:

Heavenly Father, by the power of your Holy Spirit you give your faithful people new life in the water of baptism. Guide and strengthen us by the same Spirit, that we who are born again may serve you in faith and love, and grow into the full stature of your Son, Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit now and for ever. Amen.

And, as it’ll be Epiphany by the time this is posted, I think I can be indulged with this:

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 11

8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they[a] sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
John 6:8-11

In today’s penultimate thought, Nouwen tells us that the world likes big, impressive things; God chooses the small things. The Bible reading, Nouwen reminds us, shows that from a very inauspicious start, thousands could be fed. Something little, with God’s help, can become something big.

And so it is with Christmas. Something so small and easy to overlook – a baby born to seemingly normal parents – is the greatest gift of all. The kindness I experienced in December from those – friends, family, my wife – who realised I was having a hard time meant far more than any gifts. Simple acts from colleagues like appearing with tea. Someone who I’d helped taking the effort to write a personal comment in a Christmas card. A hug from Sarah after my phone was stolen.

I look at our own son Ben and the childlike sense of wonder he has with everything – whether his new train set or his old ball. And I pray that we too can share this wonder, this ability to be happy with whatever we have, large or small. May we be willing to share what we have, large or small:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

And may we continue to appreciate the extraordinary in the ordinary – God in the form of a human babe – today, this Christmas-tide and always.

Tomorrow: the wise men are closing in.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 9

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

And now the end is in sight. Four days more, including this one.

Nouwen notes that fear and hostility don’t only come when we meet the unfamiliar, the violent, the abnormal. They come when we meet rivals – those with whom we might otherwise have a lot in common – colleagues and classmates. And that’s it. No suggestion as to what we might do about this. No magic bullet.

As normal then I turned to the Bible quote in hope of illumination. A call to set aside sin and persevere, in the knowledge that we are following in our endurance in the path of Jesus. I suppose in this situation I’d fall back on the reading from Day 16. And perhaps Day 18. Hmmm….

Some music to end with which perhaps sums it up better than I can in my own words. Not choral this time, either. “Peace, perfect peace” – but not the well known hymn – rather a cover of a song by Toots & The Maytals (no, me neither). Go read the lyrics here – they’ll do as a prayer for today.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 8

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:16-17

Today’s thought is titled “The Discipline of Gratitude”. We have to choose to be grateful.  We can choose to be grateful even when it is hard. For example, if someone criticises us, we can choose to be grateful for honest feedback, or we can choose to feel hurt.  This is hard. With a capital H.  When it’s something we’ve slaved over for hours, or perhaps really taken care with choosing some words or a present, and get criticised, it is very easy to feel hurt and very hard to feel grateful – even if we do feel grateful later on.

How can we try and feel gratitude up front? To respond positively to criticism rather than losing our rag, sulking or bursting into tears? Hmmm… And here we are, right back at the start of Advent, when I confessed to finding it hard to follow St Paul. If we followed today’s reading from Colossians, we would be doing everything joyfully in the name of Jesus. Yes, it’s hard. But yes, we must try. As Pam says, we need to strive to see the glass as half full, rather than half empty. Both she and Dorothy seem to be doing so. And I’ll try to strive too.

Finally, some more music. This is by a school choir from Australia, singing Benjamin Britten’s “This Little Babe” from his Ceremony of Carols. Bear with me – there is a link to the reading above – the last two lines are:

If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Help us, as this little babe is so few days old with Christmas only a week ago, to inspire us with joy for the next year, and so to foil evil.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 7

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Luke 2:22,25-32

Nouwen tells us of his struggle when he reads a passage like this – the temptation to analyse intellectually rather than to simply be there. I pondered this approach back on Day 4.

With a familiar story like this one, it is all to easy to recite the words of the Nunc Dimittis by rote. Anyone who has grown up with the Book of Common Prayer service of Evensong, or indeed who uses the current Common Worship service of Compline, will be used to it. It is perhaps easy to start worrying about the shopping list, work deadlines or your tax return – those things we have left undone… But I do find that when I actually stop to listen – to myself, or to a choir, and actually contemplate the words, I realise that this truly marks the end of Israel’s Advent, if they but knew it. An old man, realising that this was not just the Messiah for one oppressed people, but the Messiah for the whole world.

I was so tempted to indulge my love of Howells again here with the Collegium Regale setting of the Nunc Dimittis, but here’s something else – the Geoffrey Burgon version made famous by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. One unlikely hero – an old, balding man – with music written about another – a baby barely days old.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 6

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Today Nouwen reminds us that to become a child of God, we need to live the Beatitudes. We need to become childlike again to enter into the Kingdom of the Father.

I’m not sure how this quite works. Unless we believe that all children are poor, hungry, weep… How can this be being childlike?

The prayer in the book did Help me to unpack this a little. Lord, give us beatitude instead of superficial happiness. The theme of Advent was of waiting – not surrounding ourselves with the glitz of the party season, the materialism of a retail bonanza. Now that Christmas is here – with the one gift we really need – God coming down to earth in human form and lying in a manger – should suffice. Yet it is all too easy for us to forget that gift and move on. Today, indeed, the set readings for Church have moved on to the visit of Jesus to the temple as a child – are we stil not marvelling over that simplest of gifts – a newborn baby – life itself?

Lord, may we be blessed. May we never forget the gift you gave us of Jesus, lying in a manager. May we never forget to count this as the greatest amongst our many blessings; nor forget that it is a blessing for those who have little else. May we value not matters, not the ephemeral. May we be less selfish. May we give of what we have of both material vale and of our time and our humanity. Amen.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 5

2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11

Today Nouwen reminds us that true ministry is not just the giving of gifts – it is the giving of self. How then do we fit this with today’s Bible reading, which seems to be about the giving of gifts?

Perhaps the message is that it is all to easy to remember the gifts and be vaguely aware of the journey that brought the wise men there. Wise men? Magi? Sorcers? Members of an obscure sect? What does seem certain is that these travellers had come a long way, and ultimately risked life and limb if discovered fleeing from Herod without telling him where Jesus was – and that giving of self, as well as the giving of gifts, was a sign of their wonder at what had occurred and their need to pay homage themselves.

So to I guess it must be in life. I could just turn up to church on a Sunday morning, safe in the knowledge my standing order is in place. But I don’t. I feel called to do more – to give up time – far less than many, but still a fair amount given my somewhat insane work hours before Christmas.  In setting an example in other spheres of life – I will muck in to cover for those who are sick or busy at work. I could go on, but I won’t.

There is, of course, a big risk that you, my reader (an estimate of one reader isn’t far wrong!) think that this is a vainglorious exercise and that I need to go read Matthew 6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Perhaps. But that isn’t the point I was trying to make. It is that with prayer, I realise that I cannot not do some of these things.

How much more so then for those called to the priesthood. In our lent course last year, we looked at the sacraments, and in one session we covered ordination.  Our course was being led by a (then) aspiring (now current) ordinand, and we looked at the words of the Common Worship service for ordination: “Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.” Again, we all realised that this isn’t something that you necessarily want to do – but perhaps something that those called to priesthood can’t not do?

Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to serve you and to serve others. Help me not to turn a blind eye when I see those in need of my time. Help those called to greater service than I in their ministry of service to you and your people. Sustain them, uphold them, support them when they are unable to serve, and pray that we, in turn, may graciously accept that service and through it learn more of you. Amen.

And, as the readings seem to have skipped to Epiphany before we have even reached twelfth night, we might as well have a setting of We Three Kings. After all, why not a jazz version performed on an ice rink?

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 4

Sing praises to the Lord,
O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning…
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul may praise you
and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30:4-5,11-12

Today Nouwen challenges us to turn loneliness into solitude. He thinks we spend too long clinging to people, things and experiences in trying not to be alone, rather than learning to let God fill the silence. I guess this is true of me – I can easily find 101 things to do with my time other than pray.

Oddly enough, though, today’s Bible reading is a good example of the sort of thing that helps God fill the silence. I’m thinking again of the discipline of Daily Prayer.  I can’t promise that I do always manage it, but my hit rate is getting pretty good. And the psalms play a very important part in that cycle of prayer. When we are short of our own words, we can often find something in the psalm of the day that chimes with us.

Like Dorothy, I found today’s suggested action – resolving to practice cheerfulness – and prayer – to cast away all our sackcloth and ashes and be joyful in the Lord – didn’t quite fit with the Nouwen thought. Both of these seem easy to do from the sake of appearance but hard to do from the heart. I loved Dorothy’s suggestion that instead we are honest with God – we share with him the rough and the smooth – we are not artificially happy.

One cannot simply be relentlessly cheerful.  Indeed, as we all have occasion to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness, it would seem odd to be cheerful throughout our prayer time or any formal liturgy that includes repentance and absolution. Likewise, intercessory prayer is not tailor-made (at least for me) for outward cheerfulness.

I promised yesterday to pray for the Syrian orphans. Today I found the obvious link too of the Holy Innocents, commemorated in the church calendar today, with the massacre at Newtown. Indeed, that chimed again with the psalm above – in a speech given by President Jeremiah Bartlet in the West Wing episode College Kids in the aftermath of a massacre at a college, we have the following quote: “Joy cometh in the morning,” scripture tells us. I hope so. I don’t know if life would be worth living if it didn’t.”  Let this be our thought for the day too.

May joy come to your mornings.

Advent Book Club Bonus Day 3

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:5-7

Stretching our hearts out to God. Nouwen’s thought is that it is not us that prays – it is the Spirit of God that prays through us.

Today’s Bible quote fits with this. The Spirit of God prays through us when we surrender ourselves to God we can always reach out to him, however broken the world around us is. How can we understand God if he is truly in us and is all-knowing? It just isn’t possible with our finite sized brains.  Yet what we can see of him reassures us if we but let him do so.  As we hear in almost every blessing at the end of a Common Worship service “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord…

Today’s prayer asks us to pray that our world is opened out towards God, and likewise that the world of those who have never had the chance to know God.  Perhaps this is a good prayer for me to hold close tomorrow on the feast of the Holy Innocents remembering the TV footage of Syrian orphans?


Advent Book Club Bonus Day 2 – Boxing Day

18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

John 21:18

Again, so soon after celebrating the birth of Christ we are taken to the end of the Gospels – this time, John. Nouwen challenges us to see a surrender to the unknown as a sign of spiritual maturity, rather than weakness.

We are asked to pray that we will be able to willingly subject our way to God’s will. To follow Jesus. Perhaps, even to take up our cross?

All this didn’t leave me feeling very Christmassy. Christmas is a time of joy and celebration – the darker turn to the tale can wait a few weeks, can’t it? Yet ultimately the end of the tale figures right in the Christmas experience at church. Without the end of the story, there would be no midnight mass. There could be a service, but it wouldn’t be mass.

So, other than turning more towards the end of Jesus’ life, how can we see anything of the early stories of Jesus in today’s thought? Perhaps it is this: without Easter there would be no Christmas; without Christmas there would be no Easter. Even at the start of the Gospels we hear the tale of John the Baptist echoing the prophecies of old. As John might have said if it were today: Hey folks, this is it. It’s not some great King with a crown and a huge army. It is that most unlikely of things – a baby, lying in a manger. God, loving us as we love a baby – unconditional, forgiving love. That love being so great that he is willing to give us his firstborn to serve us all. May we be willing to give ourselves to God, even if we meet him the most unlikely places.