Advent 2016: The Most Famous Stepfather in History

Other than his occupation, Joseph of Nazareth is famous for one thing and one thing alone: being a stepfather. His life has accumulated centuries of tradition, but turn to the Bible and Joseph is a fairly minimal presence – we don’t know if he was a contemporary of Mary or substantially older, we don’t know if he was really a carpenter or if the word would better be translated as ‘builder’, we don’t know why this loyal and righteous man disappears so suddenly from the pages of the gospels.

This last mystery is the one that’s always stuck with me. Tradition says he died of old age, but that always feels like a plot device necessary to support Mary’s eternal virginity. And yet there’s something shocking about saying he may have died of cancer, or violence, or an accident on a building site, something intimate and intrusive about the speculation. The very idea brings into focus the Now-But-Not-Yet Kingdom of God and all its tensions – the Son of God who healed so many couldn’t save the man who raised him. There’s something heartbreaking about that.

Maybe I take the story personally. I’m a stepfather myself, and that means you ask yourself questions, questions about where you fit in, about how to relate to your kids, about how it feels to be reminded you’re the latecomer every time someone realises you’ve got a different surname to your children. And yes, twenty centuries separate those specific questions from Joseph’s own experience, but something similar would have gone through his mind, when the workshop was quiet, when he lay awake at night.

But you put t5hose thoughts aside. You have a family, you have kids, and you love them and look after them. That’s what Joseph did; from the start he tries to make the right choices. Instead of having Mary stoned for apparent adultery,  he decides to quietly divorce her and let her go. When he discovers the truth he doesn’t run, he accepts his role in God’s plan. And when the death squads come looking for Bethlehem’s baby boys, Joseph gets his family the hell out of Dodge and into Egypt. The Bible tells us he’s a righteous man, but that sounds lofty and pious; in reality, he strikes me as a normal, practical man who makes the right choices for those he loves. I pray I’d be able to do the same; often that prayer comes from my weakness and my failings.

But then, I think most of us are like Joseph – ordinary people trying to figure out ordinary lives in which the divine sometimes visits in unexpected ways. And when that happens, Joseph is a decent role model. There are so many calls to ‘Christian’ ‘masculinity’ that want men to be the next David, the next Braveheart. Yeah, okay, but I don’t want to be a warrior. Given the choice, I’d rather be a carpenter, rather be able to build things, rather be able to fix things, rather be able to craft things. I’m not, of course; my dad was the carpenter in the family, and my granddad. Me? I’m an office manager, a writer, an occasional preacher. And God can work through all those, and my family, just as he worked through Joseph. All I can do is pray that I’d be a righteous man; a righteous man and a decent stepdad.

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Blue Christmas 2016

I was born and raised a Methodist, so the liturgical calendar was, for me, something that happened to other people. Sure, Christmas and Easter were the two big services of the year, and other traditions had developed over the centuries – Covenant Sunday, Harvest Festivals, Ladies Day – but ask me when the 12th Sunday after Pentecost was and I’d’ve looked at you as if you were crazy. Heck, I always got a little confused about Pentecost itself.

I’m getting old though, and I’m beginning to appreciate the quirks of the Christian year, especially the smaller, quieter festivals, the ones I’d never heard of. That’s why today I’m thinking about Blue Christmas.

Blue Christmas is an acknowledgement that the festive season isn’t, for a lot of people, the most wonderful time of the year. For many, this will be the first Christmas spent alone, or without a loved one. There’ll be an empty place at the dinner table, one less present to buy and unwrap, a tangible emptiness in the room as the Queen’s Speech comes on. Loss and absence are amplified, just as much as peace and goodwill.

So many churches will be holding services to support those who’ve lost family and friends over the last twelve months. And it feels right that these services are held on the longest night, because that’s when loss is often at its most brutal, in the quiet, in the dark. These are the times we need a flickering candle to light the way out of the night.

So we remember our individual losses, but maybe, as communities, this is also a time to remember those losses that shook us corporately. David Bowie. Jo Cox. Terence Crutcher. 50 people killed in Pulse, 12 people killed in Berlin. There’s a communal aspect to all this, and it’s political and social, but it’s also spiritual – how do we perceive other people? How does the dehumanised way in which others are treated scar our communities and our souls? How the hell do we stop things like this happening on a weekly basis? These are everyday questions, sadly enough, but on the longest night we need to see that candle again.

I think, deep down, there’s a reason we seem to hold all our services of remembrance in the dark, cold months. Maybe that’s when we need them most. And so maybe that’s when we most need to remember each other, to remember those who’ll be shedding tears this Christmas, to hold in our hearts those that most need to experience the hope and peace that the season promises. These are things that can’t be forgotten behind the tinsel and 24/7 movies about Santa falling in love. These are difficult days for many and that’s when we need to stand together, standing in the dark, following a star till morning.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Advent 2016: Song of the Christbearer

Imagine a teenage girl. She’s kneeling on the floor, angelic light filling the room before her. She’s just learned of her calling – to become the Christbearer, the Mother of God. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all, all she can do is worship, worship amid the shock and the fear and the awe and the worry.

We tend to see her reaction as being passive, quiet, meek; she accepts her fate and becomes a mother, a wife, an eternal virgin, and she’s immortalised every Christmas by little girls in blue dresses clutching a doll that represents the Saviour.

But that’s not the case, is it? This imagery robs Mary of her power, her agency, her prophetic fire. We trap her in a Christmas card and stop her from singing.

This week, the theologian Cheryl Bridges Johns, writer at the Junia Project, tweeted that “we often forget Mary was a prophet. Before she gave birth to the King, she spoke of the subversive Kingdom.” This is true. She visits her relative Elizabeth, and as they talk Mary lets rip with a spontaneous eruption of praise and passion and prophecy.

But this isn’t a worship song born out of comfort and religious respectability. This is a song from below, a burst of praise to the God who lifts up the lowly while toppling the powerful, who feeds the hungry while plundering the rich, who sends the proud running for cover. Remember that Mary lives in an occupied land, she’s an unwed mother living in a patriarchal world. This is the sort of song that draws worried glances, this is the sort of song that could put Mary on a list of troublemakers somewhere, and maybe even as she sings, someone’s having a quiet word with Joseph to suggest that he keeps his betrothed in line.

But Mary sings anyway, because she’s a prophet, and she’s the Christbearer, and so it’s her calling to hear from God and act on what he says. She’s no coward, no fool, she’s someone who’s already experienced the weight of divine calling and the knives of local slut shaming, even while she’s just a teenager. Later on she’ll lose her husband at an early age (to violence or illness, who knows), and she’ll see her son brutalised and nailed to a cross. This is a woman with a strength of faith that’s incredible – how else would she survive all this and still believe?

The Irish singer Frank Harte once said that “Those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs.” Mary’s song is rooted in the knowledge of suffering and occupation, but also in a vision of liberation and hope and transformation. Her history isn’t written by the powerful; that history is undermined by God working in the lives of the poor, the hungry, the people on the margins. Mary sings a subversive song and joins the chorus of Miriam and Hannah, a legacy of women who hear from God and sing of what they heare,  and when we speak of Christ being born of a virgin, let’s never forget that he was also born of a prophet.

Advent 2016: Be Still

Be still.

Advent is a time of expectation, so they say, a time of hopeful waiting. We light the Advent candles to guide us through the dark and hope for the coming of Christ at the end of it all.

That’s the theory. That’s the liturgical expectation. But Christmas is a busy time, pausing and waiting doesn’t feel possible because the festivities bear down on us like a freight train. We get so stressed out trying to find room at the inn that the stable is easily forgotten.

In the dark of a winter morning, I’ll be honest: these last few months have been hard. They’ve been stressful and frightening, the noise of hundreds of voices and demands all speaking at once. Details aren’t important, but it feels like a maelstrom, a whirlpool of emotion and fear, a babel of randomess that starts to feel conspiratorial. The storm rolled in, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The rational part of me knows that this storm is transitory, that it’s a downpour rather than a hurricane. But the rest of me sees the clouds, and the lightning, and the rolling, hungry waves.

Psalm 46 encourages us to be still, and in that stillness to sense and hear that God is present, that he is with us, that he’s on the throne. In the stillness we can find hope and start to trust. Maybe that’s part of the problem: knowing how to let go of it all and just trust. I’m still wedded and welded to the idea that there’s something I’m missing, some trick or hack or insight that would make everything right, that I’m just not smart enough to see.

I know that’s crazy. I know that’s not really the case. But I’m still scared of what will happen if I don’t figure out the secret incantation, the life goals ninja move that would make everything right. And that fear, that stress, that unexpected arrogance, keeps me from the stillness, keeps me from knowing that God is there, and that that’s enough. I want everything to change, to calm down, to stop being so damn noisy that I can’t hear God.

But that’s backwards, isn’t it? It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know. And knowing the theology and the dogma and the atonement theories isn’t a substitute for knowing God himself. Don’t get me wrong; I still follow Jesus, stumbling and fumbling along the way. It’s just that, when the rubber meets the road, he gets crowded out. Everything else looks bigger, more intimidating and imposing, even if it’s just an image of the Great and Powerful Oz rather than the conman behind the curtain.

And yet “Be still!” isn’t just a devotional suggestion; sometimes it’s salvation. “Be still!” is what Jesus commanded the storm when the disciples felt sure they were all gonna drown. And maybe that’s my calling throughout this Christmastide; to trust that the storm will eventually calm, and even if it doesn’t, to look into the eye of the hurricane anyway and see Jesus inside of it, letting him be the stillness in the squall, letting him drown out the words of the man behind the curtain.

Even when the man behind the curtain is me.

Advent 2016: Ephrathah (Micah 5:2)

Ephrathah. It’s one of those strange biblical words we only hear at Christmastime, an enigmatic reference in the famous messianic prophecy of Micah. It would be easy to filter it out – I’be done that for years – but names mean something, don’t they? Names have power.
Ephrathah is the ancient name for the region around Bethlehem. It gets its name in Genesis 35, in which Rachel gives birth to Benjamin but tragically dies in the process. In commemoration,  Jacob names the place Ephrath, which most commentaries will tell you means ‘fruitful’.

So Ephrathah celebrates birth, new life. Looked at through a prophetic lens it speaks of the birth of Jesus in the manger, the birth of the Messiah, of the Saviour. This is the birth we celebrate at Christmas, Ephrathah becoming fruitful again with the coming of redemption. A place that’s written off as a one-horse backwater town is the source of something amazing. All of this is true.

And yet Ephrathah has another meaning. Someone in its etymology are darker connotations, because Ephrathah can also mean ‘ash heap’.

This isn’t a joyful meaning. It reflects the tension in the story: Jacob may have gained a son here, but he also lost his beloved wife. The celebration of new life is cut through with mourning. Hope and despair hold each other close.

In some traditions, the second candle on the Advent Crown is the Bethlehem candle. We remember the place where Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph travelling there on a hypothetical donkey, no room at the inn, all of that. And, because this is part of our Christmas celebrations, it becomes a joyful scene.

But the story is marked with tragedy: the Slaughter of the Innocents is never far away and Jesus himself came into the world already on a journey to a cross. Bethlehem’s fruitfulness is accompanied by its ashes.

There are a lot of scared people out there. Many are mourning. Maybe, this Advent, we need to make more space for that sadness and fear, amid the tinsel and the office parties. Because it’s only in acknowedging the ash heaps of life that we can discover hope; only by facing the mourning that we can begin to heal.

And may Advent become a time of healing and hope for each of us, as the hopes and fears of all the years embrace each other in Ephrathah.