Following on from yesterday’s blog. Here is, as far as I know, the world’s first Advent Tree. The location is a closely guarded secret, but it’s north of the Tees and south of the Tyne.

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Advent Tree Anyone?

Last Sunday we had our big Advent Service at King’s College Chapel.  It was a wonderful occasion, with lots and lots of people, very beautiful music, carefully chosen lessons, and a splendid procession from west to east to half-way back again. This was first imagined by Dean Eric Milner-White in 1934. The famous Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, who was married to Bursar Maynard Keynes, is said to have remarked after the first service that ‘the Dean is the best choreographer of us all’. Whether or not she really said it, and whether or not it is true, we have stayed with his choreography ever since; no subsequent Dean having been a better one.

You will notice that I said that this was last week. That is, a week before Advent Sunday. Most Cambridge colleges did the same thing because this year term ends and choir members go home before real Advent begins tomorrow.  Because of this I understand that one colleague in another college insisted on not using the Collect for Advent Sunday at the end of the service, as it was not really Advent yet.

I find sure calandrelical  purity difficult.  This is just as well, perhaps, as we are recording a television service for Easter in a few days’ time, and will record ‘Carols from Kings’ a whole fortnight before Christmas.  But the reality for me is that when services go well, they slip us away from the dominion of the clock or calendar into a different kind of temporality. Good liturgy frees us from the power of chronos.

So I was delighted to read this tweet from the Bishop of Liverpool:

Here comes Advent, everyone. May I make my annual plea to Christians not to disdain the world’s tinsel in what is for us a season of preparation and penitence. Christendom is over, friends. So let’s remember, and fast, and pray, while not expecting everyone else to do so. Please?

As a message it has a lot of positives – short, sensible, direct and realistic.  Fussing about when Christmas may or may not start is to my mind, and I rather suspect to the Bishop of Liverpool’s mind, a particularly irritating sort of fogeyism. The sort of spiritual sin Jesus would have been more against than the minor and materialistic offence it is criticising.

Having said that, I do tend to send cards rather late, and by the time we go shopping for a tree the best ones have long since gone.

So I have had a thought. Rather than worry about when to put the Christmas Tree up, why not rebrand it as an ‘Advent Tree’.  For one thing, what on earth is a ‘Christmas Tree’? I read nothing of them in the Bible, and the nearest you get to it in a carol is ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, in which, as I recall it, the plants are still out in the wood.

What is an Advent Tree?  Its rather like a Christmas Tree except that rather than dressing it all at once you dress it one day at a time, perhaps one decoration at a time.  By the time Christmas comes it will be fully glorious, but it will have been very nice indeed from the beginning of December.

This, I think, would be even more fun.  What’s not to like?

People make life worth living, and the quality of your life depends hugely on the quality of the people you meet. How fortunate I was, then, to meet Jessica Kingsley back in 2012.

We met at the Trialogue Conference in the queue for breakfast. I had only written one book at the time, Barefoot Disciple. Jessica had read it and told me what she thought of it over the porridge. She was very kind and very positive, though also said she had to read some it with her hands over her eyes, peeping though the cracks in the way we used to watch Dr Who when children.

I knew she was a publisher at that point, but didn’t know much about her eponymous house, Jessica Kingsley Publishers (JKP), other than that she had put out books on forensic psychology and had published Murray Cox. Murray, as Jessica always affectionally calls him, was the first forensic psychotherapist at Broadmoor, and was famous for taking Shakespeare into prison.  He was also the first chairman of the Trialogue Conference, and, as Jessica often told me, had a knack of leading an intellectual exploration that was also emotionally and spiritually challenging.

I am writing this today because it has just been announced that Jessica is to retire from JKP next year, having sold her company to Hachette UK. It’s a sad day, but its also day to celebrate.  JKP happened because Jessica, sitting at her kitchen table, decided she wanted to publish books that made a difference.  That was thirty years ago.

The differences that have been made are too many to count, and too profound to fathom.

Today JKP is an amazingly forward-looking, socially responsible, and pioneering publishing house, in which the team of commissioning editors do all they can not to follow trends but to make them, not to jump on bandwagons but to give voice to the issues and concerns that somehow just don’t quite get the attention they deserve. Their work on autism is famous and award-winning, their publishing of Chinese spirituality through the Singing Dragon imprint is unique, their books for children quite unlike anyone else’s. JKP is not content to do books about difficult issues but creates books for people who struggle with difficult issues. Who else is publishing picture books for bereaved children or comics for people suffering chronic pain?

JKPs books have had huge reach. I have seen them on shelves in remarkably diverse places, but they are always books that are close to an edge – whether it is an intellectual edge or the edge of coping, or some kind of spiritual or emotional edge.  In these days when everyone wants safe space and risks are to be avoided, JKP seems to take the view that if you feel safe you should begin to take a few more intellectual and spiritual risks and see what happens.

I was fortunate enough to work very closely with Jessica on my last book, God-Curious. She liked the idea of it, was very positive about the plan and the early chapters, and then, part-way through the writing process, started to ask me kind but ever more challenging questions. She wasn’t pushing me to do what she wanted, but was nudging me forward to see what more I could do. She was goading me on to see what other corners and aspects of the subject could be illustrated and illumined by the unpromising method of putting words on a page. This wasn’t ‘writing up’, which simply involves making up the sentences that fit under good looking headings. Nor was it ‘writing down’, which is the composition of nice clear sentences that communicate straightforward ideas. It was a process of self-interrogation from which words dripped like cold water from a thawing icicle.  I am sure she found ways to do something similar with many other authors – and also sure that this is why the books really have made a difference – and not only to the readers.

Sometimes when talking about a JKP book I have mentioned that I know Jessica. People are often surprised . ‘Is she a real person?’ they ask, The answer is, ‘yes, she’s real; very, very real’.  That’s the point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We put this on the King’s website earlier today.

Arrangements for members of the public wishing to attend the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve will be slightly different from the all-day queueing system of previous years. This year King’s will operate a ticketing system.

If you wish to attend, you should come in person to the College after 7.30am on Christmas Eve with some photographic identification.  You will be issued with a ticket for a specific seat at the service and invited to come back after 1:30pm to gain admission to the Chapel. Only one ticket will be given per person. Approximately 500 will be available.

“As in previous years we look forward to welcoming people from the City of Cambridge and from around the world to this very special service. By issuing tickets in this way we will maintain the generous spirit of  the occasion without requiring members of the congregation to stand outside in the cold all morning.”
The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, Dean

Please note that members of the congregation should not bring anything larger than a small handbag with them to the Chapel.

Any questions about gaining admission to the College for this service or at any other time over Christmas should be directed to the Head Porter, Mr Neil Seabridge neil.seabridge@kings.cam.ac.uk

Find out more about A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

 

Haunted by Death?

Early November is a time of late autumnal reflectiveness. The secular focus of this is that variable little space between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.  We remember with relief the cessation of the First World War, and with sadness and regret the loss of life in all the wars since the war.

The related Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls come right at the beginning of the month.  All Saints is in the greater occasion, but its All Souls which touches imaginations and hearts. Many candles are lit, lists of names of the departed are read out – whether they are the recently departed or those whose loss is felt keenly many years after their death.

And ushering all this in is the crazy carnival of Halloween, with its ghoulish costumes, pumpkin lanterns and tricking or treating children. Inevitably those brought up with the idea that this is an occasion of significance feel the need to continue the partying into early adulthood, so halloween parties, for which costumes fit for horror movies seem to be obligatory, are a crucial part of the social calendar at colleges and universities, as well as pubs and clubs.

I am not quite sure what to make of all this, but there does seem to be quite a lot of unresolved energy around death here. And I wonder how healthy it is, and how happy it makes us.

The Victorians made a big thing of death and mourning and we have done the opposite. For us death is unexpected and unwelcome. And when it comes, our inclination is not to focus on the loss but to cover the sadness with the celebration of life that has so recently been snuffed out.

Funerals today are celebrations. They are thanksgivings and upbeat.  People are told not to be sad but wear some particular jolly colour or ‘anything but black’ (Henry Ford would turn in his grave). Music is chosen not from the huge repertoire written to capture, express and beautify the feelings of grief and loss, but to remind us of the good old days, as if remembering them now will not, when we think about it later, rub salt into the wounds of fresh grief.

I may be wrong about this, but might it be that we need a more healthy approach to death and grief?  This might involve overtly sad funerals that, without morbidity, name and capture the reality of the moment of grief-stricken loss, and then, as the years go by, perhaps on the birthday of the deceased, or the anniversary of their death, parties to give thanks for all they did and were and achieved.

And at halloween, rather than tricking and treating, children would be at family gatherings where stories about their grandparents and great grandparents would be told that give them a profound sense of gratitude and respect for their forebears, and a deep sense of existing in a peaceful and good world, where love is stronger than death.

I am serious about this. It is when we are at peace with death than we can be at peace with life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy People

Here is a brief sermon that I preached at a big service in King’s College Chapel on All Saints Day. The music was wonderful; the atmosphere was mysterious, as it often in the semi-darkness, the congregation was large, international and attentive, and the sermon was well, short. But I hope positive too.

I expect that many people think the word ‘saint’ means something like ‘hero’ or ‘celebrity’. Or maybe people think of sanctity as the spiritual version of a doctorate. After all when you get a PhD you get letters in front of your name – and it’s the same when you become a saint. So perhaps a saint is a spiritual doctor?

Well, ‘saint’ doesn’t mean ‘hero’. A hero is someone who does something exceptional in a life-threatening situation. And you don’t need to do that to be a saint.

Nor does ‘saint’ mean ‘celebrity’. Some saints are very well-known and have been looked up to for centuries, but others aren’t famous at all.

And ‘saint’ doesn’t mean ‘spiritual PhD’ because many saints aren’t especially well-educated or learned people – though some are. (You can’t be too educated to be a saint by the way; just as you can’t be too clever to be a Christian.)

The word saint’ means ‘holy person’, and the New Testament idea is that everyone who follows Jesus and is baptised becomes such a holy person.  But the word ‘holy’ doesn’t get us any further in our understanding because it’s just as alien from everyday speech as is the word ‘saint’.

If I was to say that a certain person is holy many people wouldn’t really know what I meant; though they might expect a person described as holy to be regularly at prayer, vigilant in attending public worship, and perhaps a bit pious in the way they present themselves.  In a word, a holy person is, or so it seems to us, a churchy person. This is not a good understanding, and so I want to suggest that our assumptions about the sanctity and holiness could do with a bit of a shake-up.

So here are two little shakes. First, God’s vision for humanity is so wonderfully diverse that it’s almost impossible to put your finger on what sanctity or holiness might look at the level of behaviour or habit or self-presentation. What makes a saint is something deeper than behaviour.

Second, there are some traits which are common to all people who are rightly called holy. One is that they will be, deep down, a person of joy. You could say that a saint is a person who enjoys true happiness. That’s why the ‘beatitudes’ are the beatitudes.  ‘Blessed are’ means ‘happy are’.   Those strange sayings in Matthew chapter 5 are Jesus’ description of the deepest joyfulness.

In short, a saint is a person who knows how to be happy, eternally happy.

And so the challenge  of All Saints’ Day is simply this: to notice who the most profoundly happy people are, and to seek to follow them in the way of eternal happiness to the place of eternal happiness – the kingdom of God.

Every now and then I preach a sermon about forgiveness. It’s something I do with trepidation because I know as a person how sensitive an issue it is, and also because my studies in theology and psychology have convinced me that it is really difficult to think about forgiveness clearly.  So talk about it coherently and concisely in public is a real challenge, and yes, trepidation is appropriate.

But after all these years of thinking, writing and talking about forgiveness I feel that I am getting towards being able to say something sensible about the relationship between divine forgiveness and human forgiveness.  Anyway, that’s what I try to do in the sermon that follows, which I gave in the Chapel at King’s College Cambridge earlier today.

I offered it there, and share it here, because there is an urgent need to talk publicly about forgiveness, remembering that people who have suffered, and still continue to suffer, abuse or betrayal at the hands of others may be listening or reading.

The key point in the sermon is perhaps this: ‘you are not God, so don’t expect yourself to forgive like God’.

And here ‘s the whole thing.

Christianity is a religion of forgiveness. Jesus preached forgiveness, he regularly forgave others, and the church has taught from the earliest times that Christ died to save us from our sins.

Others may question whether or not forgiveness is a good principle for living, but for Christians, forgiveness seems to be the name of the game.  There isn’t a service that goes by here without mention of forgiveness. Usually it’s God’s forgiveness of us. We say we believe in it the Creed and we seek it as we say the prayer of Confession. Some people might question the sense or the psychological health of all this; but one fairly obvious truth is that forgiving someone something doesn’t necessarily stop them doing it again. So repetition is inevitably part of the forgiveness process.

At the human level, you can be sure that if you have forgiven someone once it’s likely that you might have to forgive them again and again quite a few times. Peter once asked Jesus how often he should forgive. ‘As many as seven times?’ he speculated. ‘More like seventy times seven,’ Jesus replied.

But if Christianity is a religion of forgiveness it is a rather unbalanced religion. For while unimaginably huge amounts of effort have gone into puzzling away at the question of how it is that God forgives sins so readily – these are questions of atonement and justification; and truly incalculable amounts of liturgical and pastoral time have been spent with individuals articulating their need for forgiveness in ways that they believe might elicit the forgiving love of God; the questions of how, when and why it is good to forgive other people for what they have done to us is relatively unexplored.

Our two readings today touch on both the divine and the human forms of forgiveness. In the Gospel, Jesus comes across a man who is so sick that he can’t walk. But rather than tell him that he is healed, Jesus says that his sins are forgiven. The sick man presumably liked what he heard. But the bystanders weren’t very happy about it. They didn’t say anything, but Jesus knew what they were thinking. Perhaps he saw that they were catching each other’s eyes and raising their eyebrows. There goes Jesus, tut tut tut, forgiving again.

So Jesus spells it out. And he spells it out in two ways. First, he emphasizes that he has gone for the easiest option. ‘Which is easiest?’ he asks.  And implicitly makes the point that it’s right to make divine forgiveness easy.  God isn’t a reluctant forgiver, but a generous and enthusiastic forgiver.  God is quick to forgive and very good at it. You could even say that forgiving is what God does most and best.

And Jesus, the son of man, is equally adept. That’s the second point.  You could almost say that wherever God is, there is forgiveness. Father, Son, and Spirit too, are all equally adept at forgiving; because its forgiveness that you find not on the rare occasions when God’s divine arm is twisted, or God’s ethical algorithm calculates that you have repented enough or suffered enough punishment to deserve forgiveness, but whenever you encounter God.

In the Epistle we also come across forgiveness. It’s another of those passages where Paul is telling us what a good Christian life looks like.  The old man, the old you, is a sad, bitter and twisted sort of person; the new you, the you that believes in the good news that Paul has proclaimed, is no longer to be bitter and twisted, but is to be righteous and holy; living a decent life and being kind, warm and loving towards others.

As part of this we are to forgive one another. And Paul deliberately connects this human forgiveness with God’s forgiveness of us. This connection is made elsewhere in the New Testament, of course. Most notably in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.

But there is a problem with this aspect of familiar Christian teaching. 

Forgiveness, as I have said, is at the core of God’s being and nature. It’s what God does. God’s heart is a forgiving heart.  But human beings are not God.  And while there is no reason why we should not look to Jesus as example as well as Saviour, we should not set ourselves a standard which we can never achieve.

When it comes to forgiving others we need to recognize that while we put our faith and trust in a forgiving God that does not give us superhuman powers of forgiveness. It might seem that our faith commits us to be as forgiving as God is, but it does not, because we are not God. This is a really important message. Should we seek to be forgiving people? Yes. Does this mean that we will always readily and completely forgive those who hurt or harm us? No.

You are not God. God lives in eternity and you live in time.  God lives in heaven, but you live on earth.  God is infinitely wise and powerful and you, my friends, are not. So whatever we might say about human and divine forgiveness we can say that they are connected, but different.

And what of Jesus? Until the last few days of his life, Jesus wasn’t a victim. He wasn’t bullied or abused; he wasn’t subject to domestic violence. No one murdered his mother. Certainly he was a refugee as a child, but he never said anything about that and so we don’t have a clue what he felt about it.

True, Luke’s gospel says that from the cross Jesus cried out, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.  But that wasn’t Jesus saying to those who were hurting him, ‘I forgive you all’.  It was a prayer for their forgiveness. It wasn’t the finished, signed, sealed and delivered moment of decisive forgiveness. It was a cry from the forgiving heart of a man in dire straits.

Forgiveness in real life is often messy, difficult and open-ended.  It’s also quite rare. Obviously there are lots of little forgiveness of minor offences, but the word ‘forgiveness’ really comes it into its own when we have been hurt in such a way that feels – well, unforgivable.

So this is the good news about forgiveness. God is infinitely forgiving, but you are not God, and God doesn’t want you to be God. God wants you to be a forgiving person, but God doesn’t want you to be exploited by people who prey on your good nature.  If you have been hurt or are routinely being hurt my advice to you is as follows. First, get it stopped. Second, get some help to get yourself back to normal. Third, in the fullness of time ask God to give you the generosity to forgive. 

That’s about all that can be said in a sermon. In real life all these things are difficult and so if you are struggling with forgiveness don’t struggle alone. Find some help and support. The Christian gospel is not that people should feel guilty when they can’t forgive. It is that  whatever happens to us God’s love and grace is there not to make matters worse but to bring us, through healing and restoration, to the love, joy and peace that characterize the fullness of life for which we were made and saved. And from which we should not be excluded because people have treated us badly or hurt us deeply.