Monday, December 27, 2010


I was asked a couple of weeks ago what Christmas meant to me. I suppose it is the kind of question that I ought to have a ready answer for - like "why are you a vicar?" or "how did you become a Christian?" At this time of year it can take you by surprise if you're not prepared.

And I wasn't prepared - actually, I was stumped. I didn't have a simple two-phrase answer, and much as I attempted to produce one, one really wasn't for coming. Oh, I said something or other that was superficially interesting... but actually a bit vacuous... and hoped no-one would notice I had no reply to a perfectly decent and obvious question.

Part of me has been worrying since that radio interview the other week (the one where the agony aunt thought I was a great advert for the church & the presenter noticed I hadn't mentioned God) that I'm going through that part of the cycle where presentation is triumphing over substance. Because I have a tendency to beat myself up over these things, I've been fretting over my spiritual state. If I was counselling me, of course, I'd be telling me that care for one's soul is usually a sign that things are not awful. It's when there is no thought for how one's personal walk with God is going that the rot has really set in! Stressing that I'm a bit weak, spiritually - well, you know, I can hear the voice of reason, but still I let the worry play out...

And so back to Christmas.

A girl pregnant before marriage in a culture where that carried the death penalty; a man being loyal despite the disapproval of his whole family; worthless nomads outside the town gates and beyond nice society; philosphers with a screw loose risking political suicide and brandishing the worst gifts ever. And the Creator God born in an animal's stall, but holding every human heart in his tiny fingers and inviting us to let go the things that fill our worlds and simply love him. It's a long way from heaven to Bethlehem. It's just an invitation back.

I live so much of my life so far from heaven. The meaning of Christmas for me is - that's OK; God has made the journey. It's a long way from heaven to Bethlehem. His love comes down and reaches Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, me and you. And he invites us to take hold of his hand, to love as we are loved and as we forget we are loved, and he promises never to let go. Christmas to me means it's not just about my mess; God is here. So there is hope.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

greatest story

The BBC's retelling of the Nativity over four nights this Christmas has, for me, been a triumph. 7pm every night, prime time viewing, the nation's main channel has told the story of the birth of Christ in a way which has blended the Scriptures, the stained glass versions, the traditions we think are in the Bible but aren't, a bit of scholarly guesswork and a lot of human relationships which must be at the heart of any story involving God and people.

Mary & Joseph were particularly good, though I shall never see St Anne in the same light again...

I might vary at various points in interpretation. That would be nitpicking. This isn't a theological symposium, this is the BBC. In the final programme, as Jesus is born and the shepherds are drawn to the stable and the wise men follow, the wonder of God coming amongst us, coming for such as us, and the urge to weep and to worship simply overwhelmed me. I didn't expect that, had no right to expect that, and suddenly found my whole preparation for Christmas had shot into a different league.

To be fair, this has been an unusual Christmas week. Our Carol Service was delayed from Sunday night till last night, and as we sang all the usual carols I found myself again profoundly moved by the awesome majestic God who abandons heaven for a cow shed, perfection for Israel, eternity for the bonds of passing time. And why? Because he loves us. You. Me. And to not make that journey is to abandon us; so love leaves comfort to comfort those who have no idea that they are even mourning.

The greatest stories are great because they draw us into their narrative, or our narrative becomes a part of theirs, and this week Christmas has been working on me. Perhaps it is the fairy tale snow everywhere, or perhaps my heart simply needs to be reminded that I too am with the rest of Creation pressing into that stable, seeing that sight, wondering, worshipping, in awe and struck by love.

Friday, December 17, 2010

December Snow

So as the sun began to rise this morning, it was clear that we'd had a good night of snow. The clouds were still pregnant with the stuff, and from dawn through the afternoon, the town was strangely muffled by flakes of all sizes robbing us of the usual noises of life & replacing them with a gentle wonder.

Here in my back garden, the summer trap for barbecues and lazy drinks is nestling under the unexpected weight of a table topping we don't often see. That cushion on the chair looks quite a challenge! 

Matt wasn't at all sure what to do. He does like snow (eating it has become his newest habit) but today as it fell - and fell, and fell - he wasn't happy. Quickly out, quickly back.

I am suffering with fairly fatal manflu. And it's been a day off. Ha! The mayor's office rang & put paid to that. Sunday is our town Carol Service, and of course we have civic dignitaries, the MP, all kinds of people, the Regimental band of the Royal Welsh, the RCT Youth Choir & the Children of Ysgol Evan James.... RCT (local council) have a severe weather warning in across the weekend, and so this afternoon we postponed the whole thing till Wednesday at 7pm.

I can only hope we get decent local radio coverage to advertise this. I am expecting some people will come on Sunday anyway. We'll sing a few carols and see what happens, I think...

Darkness falls, no-one is around. If I wasn't ill I would go & see some people. But I seriously don't feel well. I'm not sad the Carol Service is delayed - I can cope! As long as people know. I'd rather feel well. I was supposed to go to a concert in Cardiff today - ha! I couldn't even get out to the Bunch of Grapes.

But the snow does produce this mysterious beauty, this otherness that transforms and loses us for a while. Some people are stuck away from loved ones, others stuck with them, some find themselves not knowing what the days ahead will hold. Keep safe, be careful, the Lord is with you - but don't travel any distance if you don't have to. Better to travel safely another time than at risk today.

Me? I'm under the duvet, alternating fruit juice, Glenmorangie & paracetemol as my medication of choice. Good night...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Porter Argument

Today Parliament votes on the Coalition's proposals for higher education funding. The stuff that has provoked student protests unseen since... well, quite a while really. One university don commented after a particularly nasty demonstration, "Oh no, none of our students were involved, it was in the morning".

The point I find amazing is this: well - before I get there, what I don't find amazing is the question of raising tuition fees. And I don't find the two-faced cant of the Labour Party amazing either - they introduced tuition fees, increased them, introduced the living allowance, increased it - and all after fighting elections saying they would do no such thing. So they put forward the Browne Review which is the foundation for the current legislation (though rather improved by the Lib Dems in the Coalition, really) and now oppose it saying it's terrible. It would be worse if they were still in power. No - I don't find their opportunism amazing; cheap - yes; amazing, no.

What is amazing is that a huge sea change has occurred in the nature of higher education funding and no-one has debated it. Time was, having a university-educated sector of the population was seen as advantageous to society, a social good, something that made life better for the whole nation. Therefore when it came to looking at funding, it was obvious that in some way society should be responsible for some of the funding.

Now, a university education is suddenly accepted as a lifestyle choice. A personal thing. Self improvement. So you should pay for it yourself. The state isn't there to make you feel better about yourself.

How did this happen? And why is no-one fighting it?

This change is most classicly revealed in the porter & the doctor argument, simply accepted as a self-evident truth, which I heard repeated on BBC Radio Wales this morning as I waited to comment on the altogether weightier matter of Prince William's upcoming marriage guidance sessions (a whole other story). Some well-educated and posh sounding woman said: "Why should a hospital porter have to pay anything towards the education of a doctor in the same hospital, when that doctor is probably earning £100,000 a year plus?" Argument made, education is about self-improvement, it's not a social good, it only benefits the individual.


I hope that porter never needs an operation. Or he may discover there was a social good in educating doctors after all. It wasn't all about self-improvement. It advantaged society to send the doctor to university. Maybe the porter benefitted, and maybe everyone should contribute to this?

Have we totally let go of "Society" as a concept? The way we are looking at paying for higher education right now - yes we have. And we haven't even realised it, debated it, thought about it. All we have is a cheap opposition too stupid to realise that here is a fantastic political issue - the party spouting the "Big Society" are abandonning all pretence at any society at all. God gives us the politicians we deserve. What a state we are in to deserve this.