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The Questions Children Ask

This video clip from the BBC comedy show Outnumbered has gone viral in the last year or two:

My reaction on watching it again this week is that many of young Ben’s questions to the vicar were all too reminiscent of the attitudes many adults have shown this last week when thumping their fists in the air to celebrate the killing of Osama bin Laden. Why not sort everything out with a quick bit of violence? These attitudes start young.

Probably the best question in the clip is from Karen, when she asks the vicar whether Jesus could have found another way apart from the Cross of saving people.

On Friday, I went into our children’s school to be quizzed by Year 1 and Year 2 children. It was our son’s class. On Thursday evening at the meal table, he told me the class had prepared sixteen questions to ask me. The little so-and-so wouldn’t give me a heads-up on any of them! His teacher was very pleased with that the next day.

Some of the questions were routine: do you marry people? What is a christening about? What does your font look like? Do you pray every day? But some were harder, and especially to give an accurate, succinct answer in understandable language. Why did you want to become a minister? Well, actually I didn’t …

After we got through the sixteen questions, the teacher invited a few additional spontaneous questions from the floor. That yielded one I could only answer concisely, and as briefly as I could in the limited span before playtime: do you believe all the stories in the Bible? A ‘yes’, combined with an explanation of needing to treat different literature differently, pointing to the different styles of books in the classroom.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while I had questions about baptisms and weddings, I had none about funerals. The questions were about what interested and affected them.

But the honesty and directness were refreshing, and a world away from the spite and hate behind many such debates among adults here on the Internet.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 6: Taking On Decentralisation

Notes etc for part six below.

Going after the catalyst or the circles won’t work – cf. attempts to destroy Al-Qaeda. Instead, those who want to counter starfish groups must use different tactics:

Strategy 1: Changing Ideology – rather than go after terrorist circles (cells) or catalysts (bin Laden, etc), change the ideology in areas where they thrive, e.g., bringing hope to hopeless, poverty-stricken villages. Has the church at times been crippled by subtle changes to her ideology? Missional Christians would probably answer, ‘yes’. If church members are asked what the main priority of the church is and frequently reply, ‘worship’, then the ideology may well have changed. It will have become a much more internalised organisation.

Strategy 2: Centralise Them – when a catalyst gains property rights (Apache Nant’ans being given cattle by the ‘Americans’), centralisation happens and the catalyst’s power moves from their example to their resources. Is this why issues of ‘the building’ are so crippling for churches and their mission?

Strategy 3: Decentralise Yourself – if you can’t beat them, join them. This could be where traditional Christianity needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming. Church decline and increasing age demographics are already causing a crisis; what if the current recession lingers for a few years? Might we need some radical rethinking? For a few years now, the Church of the Nazarene has been talking about bivocational pastors: might we? It could be a development of no-stipendiary ministers in local appointment. And that’s just to deal with the biggest expense on the average church.

Carol Service Address: Who Is Christmas For?

Luke 2:1-20

Poverty
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.

Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.

In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?

I think it does.

Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers.  Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.

However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.

Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.

And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.

What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.

The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.

So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.

Exclusion
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.

But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.

But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.

Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.

We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.

Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.

Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.

And …
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).

Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.

Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?

I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.

Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!

The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.

Why? Because politicians can’t deliver peace on earth. Augustus couldn’t. Obama won’t. It will be just as The Who sang, ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’

Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.

What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.

The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.

May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.

London

I am a Londoner. Although neither I nor any of my relatives live there any more, today’s vile news has hit me hard. My father used to take the train each morning to Liverpool Street and then a tube to Aldgate East. My sister used to commute to Edgware Road. Friends used to go through King’s Cross to work. I once went for a job interview at Tavistock Square. When I came in at lunch-time and saw the TV news, I just said, “Evil.” I wanted to say something far worse. It was certainly in my heart. Only the presence of my small children stopped me.

I wanted to wish evil things on Osama bin Laden. Like a British judge sentencing him to life, but the prison warders allowing other prisoners to inflict a tortuous, slow death upon him. I had to fight to tell myself that I believe in a better way as a Christian. What that inner fight would have been like had I lost any loved ones in the atrocities, I don’t know.

I’ve offered up the odd prayer about what I shall preach on Sunday. What words, what hope can I give? Must there also be a challenge, with the risk of causing deep offence?

Then I stopped thinking about myself. I thought about Mr Kahn, who runs our little neighbourhood sub-post office. And I prayed that no-one would take it out on him. I prayed, too, for the Sikhs who now own the former Methodist church building nearby. After 9/11 British Sikhs were attacked. I pray for their protection now.

I pray, too, for those trained to help at times of disaster. Last night I was at a District Council meeting where we lamented a lack of volunteers among ministers to be undertake Critical Incident Volunteer training in Kent. London already has people trained – thank God.

And naturally I pray for the injured and the bereaved.

But I must pray, too, for the perpetrators. Yet it’s too easy to parrot the words of Jesus, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” because to some extent these people do know what they’re doing.

Lord have mercy on us all.