I’m not sure if absence necessarily makes the heart grow fonder but one thing I do know is that an apple a day keeps the writing at bay!
Let me explain the reason for my absence in blogging over the last couple of months. A period when I had hoped to do considerably more writing, not just my blog but other material, including the completion of my book on spiritual formation and leadership. However, just as in the Genesis narratives, the breakdown in relationship with God and humanity was caused by an apple, so the breakdown of my communications is connected with my Apple. Yes, contrary to the vast majority of Mac users, I have been plagued for the last two years with intermittent problems on my MacBook and throughout the autumn the condition became terminal. Now just as the Christmas story reminds us of God’s intervention and redemption, making it possible for all things to become new, I am today beginning anew, courtesy of the Metrocentre Apple Store manager who has redeemed the reputation of their company and given me a new MacBook. Hallelujah!
I’m writing this during the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. From now on the daylight hours will be longer. It’s a lovely image that echoes the advent narratives that speak of light dispelling the darkness; of hope and peace coming and love transforming the world in the coming of Christ.
The prophet Isaiah declares to the exiles:
With the darker days and cold weather aside, Advent is one of my favourite seasons, certainly in the church calendar. It is the perfect spiritual discipline and preparation for Christmas. An antidote to the rabid consumerism and incipient secularism that blinds us to the realities of the greatest story ever told, the coming of Christ into the world. The life and world changing story that speaks of love, joy, peace and hope to all people, everywhere.
I’ve been reading Richard Rohr’s excellent daily meditations for Advent, Preparing for Christmas. Yesterday’s meditation reminded me that contemplation is about experiencing a transformed consciousness, a new way of being and thinking that is rooted in a relationship with God. Indeed, that is what Christian faith is, union with God. The word religio means “to retie” – to rebind reality together. To live in that place of contemplation is to experience and enjoy that communion with God that is transformative. To have one’s heart and mind changed and transformed from previous life scripts and patterns of behaviour and to enter into the new story that God has for our lives and the world. A story as Rohr goes on to say, no longer based on competition, rivalry, cultures or warfare, but on people who are being transformed.
Crossing Places, the missional initiative that I’m involved with here in Glendale has organised a series of Advent calendar posters that have been opened each day in different shops on the high street here in Wooler. Each window reveals a picture, a line from Scripture, a thought to reflect on and a puzzle to ponder as well as a QR code that points people to the Crossing Places website where the story can be explored further. Walking past the pharmacy today and seeing an image of Mary got me thinking about her part in God’s plot to redeem and change the world. Vulnerable yet trusting, uncertain yet daring to believe, taking the risk to trust and obey she becomes the womb by which Jesus enters the world. She puts herself in that place of acceptance to the will of God and through her obedience brings transformation to the world. Through her a new world order is realised.
Mary’s great Magnificat declares a new way of living;
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Those things that prevent people from entering into the life God intends, those attachments to power, success and accumulation are dismantled and a new way for living is made possible.
It struck me with a greater intensity this year, how relevant, challenging an inspirational the Christmas story is for our contemporary world.
This was significantly illustrated last night when Shirley and I went down to Newcastle. I had been asked to represent the Northumbria Community and lead the prayers at a Christmas Truce Service. The service had been put together by Heaton Baptist Church with the Northumberland Hussars and involved various organisations such as the Martin Luther Kings Centre for Peace at Newcastle University, Stop the War Coalition, the Newcastle Conflict Resolution Network, the German speaking Martin Luther Kirche, and the local Justice and Peace group. Nick Megoran, a lecturer in political geography at the University, (who has written an excellent book, The War on Terror ~ How should Christians respond?) led the moving and very poignant service, interweaving the story of that first Christmas with the stories of the Christmas truces that occurred all the way along the Western front in 1914. Letters, photos, poetry and diary extracts from soldiers who recorded the reality of what it was really like in the trenches, what they thought of the war, how they hated their Generals, who from the comfort of their châteaux, safely distant from the battlefields, dispatched millions of young men to the horrors of war and an early grave.
For one brief and fleeting period of almost 24 hours, a truce broke out with the cessation of gunfire, gas and shelling. Soldiers on both sides broke ranks, disobeyed orders and took the risk, walking out into no-man’s land and reaching out to their enemy and discovering friendship and a common humanity. Food and gifts, together with addresses were exchanged, there was music and dancing, football, drinking and smoking. Conversations flowed as boundaries of class and culture, race and religion were crossed.
I have this year been to Germany and France and seen the visible scars and memories of both the First and Second World wars; at the Somme, in and around Nuremberg together with a visit to Coventry Cathedral and carry an awareness of all the names on the war memorials in every village and town throughout Britain. The tragedy of war is immense.
I found it very moving last night when we were singing Silent night, Holy Night / Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, in English and German. The Northumberland Hussars had been fighting a German regiment from Bavaria. Having good friends and visiting that beautiful of Germany for the past five years, it is so incomprehensible and painful to imagine that 100 years ago I would have been coerced to sign up to fight for King and Country and be consigned to kill my fellow human beings on the battlefields of the Western Front.
War is the consequence of sin. It is evil. The breakdown of relationship with God, leads to entity between people, conflict, violence and untold suffering.
As the former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter said in his Nobel lecture in 2002: War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But the matter how necessary, it is always an evil; never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace like killing each other’s children…. In order for us human beings to commit ourselves personally to the inhumanity of war, we find it necessary first to dehumanize our opponents, which is in itself a violation of the beliefs of all religions. Once we characterize our adversaries as beyond the scope of God’s mercy and grace, their lives lose all value. We deny personal responsibility when we plant landmines and, days or years later, a stranger to us — often a child – is crippled or killed. From a great distance, we launch bombs or missiles with almost total impunity, and never want to know the number or identity of the victims.
Carter, a former President of the United States, whom I had the privilege of meeting briefly when I was President of the Baptist Union some years ago exudes humility, grace and compassion. Regarded by many as a weak president, he would be seen in the light of Scripture, as a man of peace. He is someone who is motivated and inspired by Christ and who in Office achieved far more for the cause of peace and justice than most of his predecessors and certainly his successors. His remarkable achievement in hosting the Camp David talks where Egyptian President Sadat and the Israeli Prime Minister Begine worked with Carter in secret talks resulted in a framework for the conclusion of a peace treaty for the Middle East.
When talks were breaking down and it looked as if no resolution was possible, the three men concluded their conversations with an evening meal. Carter pulled out of his jacket pocket photographs of his family. The three men then talked about their families over dinner and as they shared experiences of their children and grandchildren that hearts were touched, diplomats were called back into the room and in the early hours of the morning the peace treaty was signed. Of course, later events, including the hostage crisis and peoples abhorrence of Carter’s emerging foreign affairs policies saw him lose to George Bush, who together with his son George W Bush, with the tacit support of Tony Blair have, in my opinion created untold damage and fuelled the fires of terrorism and global conflict.
When we see the images of war and conflict, terrorism, millions fleeing their homes, starving children, widows and orphans, insurgency and the unabated bloodshed in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan we should hang our heads in shame at the decision our governments made to invade Iraq on spurious claims and deceitful spinning propaganda, the consequences of which, the whole world is reeling from.
The Generals who sent millions to their death in the First World war, The Great War, the war that was suppose to end all wars have been succeeded by contemporary war-mongering presidents and prime ministers.
Nearly half of the nations in the world today suffer from civil unrest or war with their neighbouring countries. Billions of pounds are spent on armaments, weapons of mass destruction, killing machines.
How we need the transforming values and virtues of the kingdom of God. The values that inspired Jimmy Carter, following his presidency, to use his influence, wealth and resources to found The Carter Centre ~ Waging Peace. Fighting Disease and Building Hope. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development”.
As I led the prayers at last night’s Christmas Truce Service in Newcastle I prayed:
…. Lord, we ask that we may reach out beyond the barricades and boundaries wherever they exist, to make friends of our enemies, to bring peace where there is conflict, a cessation of violence where there is fighting…. We pray for ourselves and all who lead and influence that by your life-giving spirit you will fire us with imagination to envisage the possibilities of change and the courage in our hearts, conviction and are words and compassion in our actions to make a difference to the peace in our communities and the wider world….. We pray in the name of the Prince of Peace that your will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven and that the ways of your kingdom will see swords turned into ploughshares, ammunition is become nutrition and bombs become bread to feed the hungry that the news that first Christmas, announced by the angels would be realised in our day, ‘Peace on earth… Peace on earth… Peace on earth…’ Lord we join the vigil of all who cry out throughout the world for justice and peace. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Can I encourage you to take a few moments over the next few days, perhaps on Christmas Day itself, to light a candle and to pray for peace, Peach on Earth.
May your Christmas be peaceful and may the coming year see us aligning our lives more to the ways of Christ and his purposes of peace in the world.
May Christ, the Prince of Peace watch over you and guide you in the ways of His peace.