O Christmas Tree

DSCF0286Well, we’ ve been doing our bit to light up Holy Trinity, with a Christmas Tree Festival.  22 different organisations, charities and businesses have each decorated a tree in the church, and added a bit about themselves. (It’s one of the times that having a big church is a real asset rather than a maintenance nightmare.)

Lots of the decorations have evoked the themes of the organisations – ballet shoes for the dance class, minature tins for the Start Up Stirling (packs for the homeless); flip flops for Stirling Street Pastors, and – as you can just see above – a red-brown army mug for Erskine, which cares for veterans.

It’s been a great way to connect with the community around us – as one of them said, ‘Giving us space inside your church’, and I think she meant not just physical space.  And there have been lots of events happening during the festival, with the primary School Choir, and a ballet display, and handbell ringers, and a carol service (packed out!);  tomorrow, it’s the Christingle service.

Of course, the best bit is the conversations you have.  I’ve ranged from the spirituality of mountain tops to the habits of pet chickens.  We invited those who have been married or christened in Holy Trinity to come and visit, and they had their names on their own special tree.    I get the sense that it’s important for many people that the church is still there;  that its doors are (at least sometimes) open to them;  that they know that it has been a place of sanctuary and prayer between their visits.  And just sitting down with them to catch up with news matters.

It’s a lot of work.  I’m not sure we’ll raise a lot of money for this year’s charity (Erskine).  But it’s been one of the happiest times at Holy Trinity that I can remember.  And then we heard about the shootings in Connecticut.  It seemed somehow important to keep that light and warmth alive as a minuscule counterpoint to the darkness.  The children who were so happily exploring the trees became more precious than ever.  And when we sang ‘O Christmas tree’ (Tannenbaum), which I associate somehow with USA, it brought us closer in spirit to those who grieve, with words as defiant as they were hard to sing:

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your beauty green will teach me
That hope and love will ever be
The way to joy and peace for me …

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The Last Day

No, not another Advent theme, though it sounds like it.

Rather, it’s the thought that today is 12th December 2012, and I’ve just dated something ’12/12/12′.  There won’t be a day like that for another century – no 13/13/13 or 14/14/14. 

The Last Day indeed.

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Lighting up Columbia

Medellin, Columbia’s second city, was notorious for drugs, crime and violence.  When one of Holy Trinity’s congregation told me she was going there to share work on urban regeneration through the use of light and lighting, I was a bit concerned.  But she came back with such stunning reports and insight about their Christmas lights that our ‘sermon’ for Advent 2 consisted of a dialogue between us.

Basically, Medellin had had Christmas lights funded by a company, but when things got bad in 1992 and there was rationing and an energy crisis, the lights were cancelled.  So the community rallied around and the women taught people how to make traditional Christmas decorations, which were reproduced on a big scale.  When they were able to use lights again, they were all set to make an amazing display of Christmas Lights which was based on the community working together.

It’s a real story of re-birth and re-generation.  The river was cleaned up and it has now become a lighted pathway to the city at Christmas.  Making and staging the light display employs women, young people and those really needing jobs – at least 1500.  Tourists have brought money into the city, and street vendors are taught food hygiene and made to feel part of the community enterprise.  New energy techniques have halved the electricity used (not insignificant when you realise they have 181 miles of rope lights …)

The Christmas lights festival in Medellin is a place for families to go, for friends to celebrate.  Those who have put the displays together speak of their pride in creating something for everyone to enjoy, something that embodies the spirit of Christmas.

I think it was the river that made me think of Medellin as an example of ‘repentance’ for Advent.  John the Baptist, crying out at the River Jordan, is often presented as a stark and harsh prophet denouncing our sins and making us feel bad.  But actually he is giving a message of hope and possibility.  Rivers can be cleaned up and made to come alive with fish – and lights.

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Advent food

Holy Trinity’s House Group held an Advent meal this week, based on an Iona Liturgy (I was going to write ‘Wild Goose’  – brand name from Iona – but actually we had cottage pie …).  It was a bit like a Passover Seder, in that there were symbolic foods, and question and answer sections.  And like the Seder, it was a happy meal too, with lots of conversation and sharing.

There was a place for John the Baptist, and we drank water for him.  The same for Mary but we drank milk.  And a light for Jesus, then wine for God who ’causes us to rejoice’.  The food courses were interspersed with more questions and affirmations.

I loved the leisurely feel, taking time between each course, and reflecting before we went on to the next.  I loved the family feel that’s created when we eat together, and you realise that a Christian ‘family” has its own stories and dynamics.  I love the all-age possibilities of worshipping in this way.

The bit with most impact for me?  It had to be drinking a glass of water for John the Baptist and tasting the clear, sharp prophet, stripped of colour and impurity, radical, uncompromising.  It reminded me of Antoine de St Exupery’s hymn to water when he was rescued from his crashed plane in the desert, mad with thirst:

“Water, thou hast no taste, no colour, no odour;  cannot be defined, art relished while ever mysterious.  Not necessary to life, but rather life itself, thou fillest us with a gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses.  …  Of all the riches that exist in the world, thou art the rarest and also the most delicate – thou so pure within the bowels of the earth!  A man may die of thirst lying beside a magnesian spring.  He may die within reach of a salt lake. He may die though he hold in his hand a jug of dew, if it be inhabited by evil salts.  For thou, water, art a proud divinity, allowing no alteration, no foreignness in thy being.  And the joy that thou spreadest is an infinitely simple joy.”

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Advent therapy

I now know that if I stop blogging for a bit, ‘re-entry’ is like getting into the water to swim – lovely once you’re in, but requiring a bracing plunge.  A challenging and busy time just lately meant I did not have enough energy to reflect and write, nor to relax properly.

So, words from Monday’s reading hit home hard:

Why should you be beaten any more?  Why do you persist in rebellion?  Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted.  From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and bruises and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil.  (Isaiah 1:5-6)

Well, a sore back, anyway!   My hope is that Advent will be for me a time of cleansing and ‘making sound’, repairing and being mended.  But what about the ‘rebellion’ Isaiah mentions?  He is talking about Israel rebelling against God, which often meant going their own way and not trusting God.  Self-reliance can lead to overwork.  So there is a spiritual side to burnout too.

Our congregation at Holy Trinity has been exploring ways to share faith, as part of our ‘Mission Action Plan’.  We are practising sharing faith with each other, and one of things we have done is to put together an ‘Advent Calendar’ made up of contributions from the congregation – texts, ideas, poems, suggestions of things to do in Advent, one for each day.   I guess plunging into blogging again with this post is my contribution to that sharing.


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Dangerous insects

I happened to acquire a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy at the weekend.  Yes, I know I should have read it ages ago, but I find him hard-going, apart from the Narnia novels (and sometimes those are a bit much too).  So I thought I’d find out more about him from this spiritual autobiography.

I haven’t got much further than his childhood.  Writing about his fear of insects, which he found to be like machines come to life, he added: 

You may add that in the hive and the ant-hill we see fully realised the two things that some of us most dread for our own species – the dominance of the female and the dominance of the collective.”

He was born in 1898, and so this is in a sense a period-piece. And I imagine he would view modern developments as the nightmare scenario he dreaded as a child.  Do the two fears hang together though?  Do women necessarily encourage the ‘collective’ rather than the individual?

Women are often assumed to be ‘better at relationships’, good at pastoral work, family-oriented.  I don’t much like stereotyping of any gender, but in any case, I don’t think this trait is about the ‘collective’;  it’s more to do with wanting to get individuals to hang together and celebrate their diversity.  It’s this which makes the increase in female entrepreneurs, political leaders, and even religious leaders, a matter not of ‘dominance’ but collaboration.

I had always thought Lewis was a Classicist in outlook – and yet the hive and ant-hill which he fears were praised by the ancients as models of society.  So was he a modernist?  Romantic?  For he seems to be an individualist.  How do you understand his perspectives?

I’d like to have some motivation to continue reading Surprised by Joy – is anyone willing to supply it?

Posted in books, gender, leadership, women | 1 Comment


Thinking about eyes, sight and blindness ahead of next Sunday’s sermon on Bartimaeus, who was blind, I was taken back to the exhibition of Edvard Munch at the Tate Modern that I saw a week or so ago.  Munch was fascinated by the thought that each of us sees things differently, not necessarily more truly.  He experimented a lot with painting the different perspectives associated with film, for example.  People had been terrified in the cinema when a galloping horse first came charging out of the screen, apparently, towards them.  Munch painted figures almost coming out of the picture frame straight at you.

But it was when he had a haemorrhage in his right eye that he really saw the world differently.  He was fascinated by it, and painted what he saw – including the ‘distortions’ made by the blood inside his eye.

Some people would just have considered it a disability and tried to paint round the blob in his eye, rather than make it an integral part of what he saw and recorded.  For Munch, it was an experience of being ‘differently-sighted’, that fed into his artistic vision. The exhibition blurb said his notes suggest “the damage to his eye had enabled him to experience new visual sensation that would not otherwise have been available to him”.

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The shaky ego

So the Prime Minister is rattling the sabre again.  After a week of embarrassment and bad news, he is to announce a tough new approach to crime and imprisonment, in which ‘retribution will not be a dirty word’.  And the £46 routinely given to prisoners on release may be cut.   The BBC reporter said that this would ‘steady Tory nerves’, and presumably thereby re-establish David Cameron’s authority as leader.

It’s a very well-known syndrome:  you experience a failure or defeat, and respond by asserting power and a strong-man image.  That was what I found in today’s gospel (Mark 10:35-45):  James and John had shared the disciples’ failure to cope with 5000 to feed, or to understand the Transfiguration, or to heal a young epileptic. So they ask to have the best seats in heaven – blustering their way to power, covering failure with assertion of ego.

Contrast Aung San Suu Kyi who simply accepted her situation and did not try to grab power by compromise of her principles or sheer force.  Once ‘despised and rejected’, she is now being hailed and welcomed and honoured.

The tragedy is that there is always a cost.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s family suffered.  And it may well be that many prisoners will suffer too from Cameron’s law and order drive, for not all prisoners are alike, and many women in Scotland really need that £46 to get a bus, a meal and a bed when they emerge from Cornton Vale Prison.  I thought we had passed beyond retribution as a solution to crime, or even as a category of thinking in justice policy, but it seems not.  I just hope that his words about extending rehabilitation do translate into action.  It’s about serving others, not bolstering the ego.

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Joining in

It was quite a weekend at church, hosting a diocesan gathering and then celebrating Music Sunday.  We ended with a lunch and then a short musical about St Francis led by what – perhaps – may become a junior choir. Our Director of Music had taught them the music splendidly in record time, and they were great.  But I say ‘led’ rather than performed …

Some time ago, I went to the Rocky Horror Show with our kids, and, for a sad person like me who has always frequented well-behaved classical concerts and operas, it was, shall we say. disquieting. Not because of the content (though that was an eye-opener), but because you were supposed to Take Part, even standing up in your seats.

Then there was the Dougie MacLean concert at the Albert Hall in Stirling.  Sit back and listen to my favourite folk singer, I thought.  Not a bit of it – we all joined in when allowed,  and like most other people there, I discovered I knew the words already from CDs on long car journeys.

And St Francis the Musical?   Well, there was a line sung by St Francis or Christ, then by his Companions (the children), and then by ‘ALL’.  And we did sing – adult choir and mums and dads and the rest of us who were there to see what it would be like.  Fantastic! 

We had explored in the service beforehand the effect that music and singing has on you.  And now we were able to enter into the story of St Francis rebuilding the Church – first with bricks and mortar, and then with joy and peace and love.  We were there and we were one in the task.

I just wish we had done the St Francis musical at the diocesan gathering:  it was exactly the message we were trying to absorb, and being led into singing it would have grafted it onto everyone’s hearts.

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The successful heretic

I remember so distinctly all those years ago as a student hearing one of my tutors claiming that St Francis was a successful heretic.  It seemed so deliciously iconoclastic in those days, and it makes a lot of sense.  The saint, whom we celebrated yesterday, managed to keep within the Church – just – when those around him who were saying very similar things fell foul of the authorities.

Fra Dolcino church

On holiday recently by Lake Garda, I found a simple little church currently used by the Alpini – the mountain regiment. Apparently Fra Dolcino preached there in the early C14th.  Now Fra Dolcino is well-known from The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s novel that was made into a film starring Sean Connery.  Some of the inmates of the monastery it features were charged with being among his heretical followers. Dolcino was a radical anti-clerical preacher who lambasted the wealthy churchmen of his age and tried to create a new world.  He and his followers ended up stealing and fighting and trashing any community that resisted them;  also, reputedly, indulging in free love.  He met a very nasty end at the hands of the Inquisition.

The Franciscans were all too easily tarred with the same brush by forces in the Church who squirmed at their critique of wealth and power – this was the context of Eco’s murder mystery, and they strove to disassociate themselves from radicals like Dolcino.  But what constituted their innocence?  Holding an idea that in the wrong hands could become dangerous and unlawful but which was good in itself – like the need for the Church to be poor and to side with the outcasts in society?   Are we responsible for the use that people make of our ideas?

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