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Christmas, Worship and the Reality of World

23 Dec

In the lead up to Christmas I have been feeling a bit uneasy about the whole Christmas celebration thing. Perhaps it’s because we are so far away from family; or perhaps it’s because we are in the middle of summer here in New Zealand; or perhaps it’s because it’s the end of what has felt like a long heard year. But perhaps it’s something more.

In the news we have recently been confronted with the harsh reality of our world. A few weeks back we had the situation in Gaza which just reminded us of the complexity of that situation – the state of Israel against the Palestinian people; one side seeking security and the other side seeking justice. But neither side experiencing peace. And then, over the past week or so, the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut – 20 school children and 6 school staff.


Last weekend my family and I gathered with nearly 10,000 people at the Vector Arena to participate in the Glow carol service put on by St. Paul’s Anglican Church for the people of Auckland. It was an incredible event: an amazing colourful event (each person had a glow stick with different colours) with great music, adult and children’s choirs, and carols. All of this to celebrate the coming of “the new born King”. And I was this, twirling my glow stick as enthusiastic as anyone.

Glow2012But what moved me most was a video. A film crew from St Paul’s went to Bethlehem to do some interviewing in the town of Bethlehem itself. This was not the romantic version of Bethlehem we find of Christmas cards. This was the reality of people’s lives; a hard realty, not unlike the realty that Jesus entered into 2000 years ago.

It was the video that brought home to me the need to bring together the reality of Incarnation and the realities of our world. So much of our Christian celebrating seems to disconnect the two. It’s like we use these Christmas celebrations to escape the sometimes difficult realities of life – the tinsel, the colours, the romantic  images of the stable with the mystical light shining on it, the carols we love so well, allow us to escape the stuff that we don’t want to face up to – globally and in our own lives.

But the Christmas story is about a God who enters in to our reality. The Word becomes flesh and moves into our neighbourhood (as Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14). In this story, this central truth of the Christian faith, we have the coming together of God’s reality and ours. Jesus, the one who brings salvation, submits himself to our reality, born into the ordinariness of his day – violence, military oppression and becoming a refugee.

Here’s the video…


The good news of Jesus Christ cannot allow us to escape the realities of our world and even our own lives. If it does, then all we will be left with inauthenticity – a shallow faith and shallow lives. But yet, I often feel that this is what we do at church on a Sunday in our search for some kind of “worship high”. We don’t like living in the tension.

waitingAnd we don’t like waiting, which is why most of our evangelical churches are uncomfortable with practising “Advent” – the 4 week period of “waiting” before Christmas itself. We rush too quickly to celebration. I don’t want to sing “Yeah Lord we greet thee born this happy morning” too soon. But this practice of Advent waiting allows us to stop and name the sin which in our own lives and in the world – whether the realities of current day Bethlehem or the realities of our lives. And then we are able to voice our cry, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel”. It is here that the connection takes place. It is here we need our imaginations renewed.

A few days ago I stumbled across a video on youtube – images from the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut set alongside images of the nativity set Rosie Thomas’ amazing rendition “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The video captures the connection I’m taking about and portrays this sense of waiting in the midst of human pain and tragedy for God’s salvation and redemption.

In the Incarnation we meet a God who enters in to our reality. Christianity therefore, does not offer an escape from reality of this world. It doesn’t allow us to ignore. It doesn’t allow us to whitewash over. Instead, as Christians, we enter in to our world with Jesus Christ who has gone before us – without fear and with a sense of hope. But not a fairy tale hope. Instead, a hope that yearns for God’s kingdom to come, and his will to be done on earth as its is in heaven. And a hope that ultimately takes us to the cross.

Here is the Rosie Thomas video…

Poverty, Friendship and What it Means to be Human

7 Jul

A version of this post was published in the July edition of “The Garden“…

I recently asked my friend Dave Tims to come and talk to one of my classes at Laidlaw College about the work that he does among the “urban poor” in Manurewa, South Auckland. Dave has given more that 20 years of his life to working with the poor and the marginalized, so I knew that what he would say would be both real and challenging. But what most surprised me was the link that Dave made between friendship and poverty.

Dave is part of an organisation called Urban Neighbours of Hope which believes in transforming communities, not primarily through social programs and structures, but through individuals relocating into these communities to be present with the poor, living alongside them, serving them in practical, life-giving ways. In other words, for Dave, communities and people are transformed through neighbours who are willing to share life and build healthy relationships.

Such a strategy, though, challenges our understanding of poverty. Most of us, living in our leafy rich suburbs would probably define poverty in terms of “lack of” – a lack of money, a lack of housing, a lack of jobs etc. Claudio Oliver, a poverty activist in Brazil, disputes this notion. He asks those who are “not poor”, what if one day you received the news that you had lost all your money, savings, house, job, etc? What if one day everything was taken from you, and you found yourself basically homeless? And then he asks, how much time would it take to find something to eat… a place to sleep… some kind of work? Most of us, through our friendships with others, could find something to eat in a matter of minutes; a place to sleep in a matter of hours; and some kind of work in a matter of weeks.

And so, Claudio Oliver argues that lack of friendship is the key factor in defining poverty. We give billions to the poor, but no-one has been transformed by giving away just money. What we, the rich really need to give away, is ourselves and our friendship with all the associated risk and complication which that would involve. This is the most important thing that the rich can do for the poor – on a global as well as a local scale.

Such insight speaks to what it means to be human. In the original Garden of Eden story in the Hebrew Scriptures there was one thing that was not good about God’s original creation… which was that man was alone. And so God makes an “other” for Adam – someone else to share life and friendship with. The story (however we understand it) suggests that we are not meant to be alone; we are not created for isolation. And so, arguably, it is this “lack of humanness” that is at the root of poverty. The way to deal with poverty is therefore for all of us to actually become more human.

This way of seeing things also speaks to the poverty which is present even in the richer suburbs where homes are built for individual space and to be cocoons of privacy. For many of us the garage door goes up, the car goes in, the door shuts. We can live isolated lives, not knowing more than a handful of our neighbours (if that). Although taking very different forms with different consequences, poverty can be as much an issue for “the rich” as well as “the poor”.

Body of Lies

16 Apr

mv5bmti1ndm4ndu2m15bml5banbnxkftztcwmzg2mtmymg__v1__sx100_sy127_Well… I’ve actually been sick (as they say in Canada) with the flu for the last couple of days. As part of my recovery I watched, in my bed of sickness, Body of Lies (a movie which I know that Ruth wouldn’t really like).

It’s directed by Ridley Scott and is fairly typical of his movies – following in the tradition of Gladiator, American Gangster etc. It’s fairly violent, with hard to watch scenes of torture, and is rated 18 (in Canada).

It opens with some lines of poem by W.H. Auden – September 1, 1939, written at the outbreak of the second World War.

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Auden’s poem was widely circulated after Sept 11th and you can read the whole poem here with a couple of short essays on how the poem links to a post-Sept 11th world.

The movie itself is about CIA counter-terrorism operations in the Middle-East and follows the story of a CIA operative  Roger Ferris (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) with his boss Hoffman (played by Russell Crowe). Although Ferris does a fair amount of killing he nevertheless has compassion for others – particularly those innocently caught up in the “war on terror”.

It’s hard to know how the initial poetry quotation relates to the what follows in the movie. And what’s interesting is that very few reviews of the movie do. Does it mean that evil is simply the result of other evil being perpetuated and that human history is simply a vicious circle of evil and violence?

What gives me a sense of hope after watching this movie is that Ferris decides to turn his back on his “trust no-one” CIA life and stay in Jordan. The movie ends with him carrying out the simple every-day act of buying pastries in a market. His compassion, plus his involvement with the real lives of people (including speaking their language), is what makes the difference. Okay… perhaps it’s just the romantic connection he forms with an Iranian-born nurse, but in the end Hoffman (his boss) is shocked that Ferris actually wants to stay in the middle-east even after his “retirement”.

I guess that we can see in the actions of Ferris the kind of actions that might just make a real difference in our world of violence and evil – entering into the lives of others (even our enemies) rather than simply standing at a distance. Kinda makes me think of The Incarnation… again.

The Boy in the Stripped Pygamas

5 Apr

We’ve just finished watching “The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas” – a “Holocaust story” about a young German boy and his forbidden friendship with a Jewish child.

The movie has had very mixed reviews. It gets a 63 on Rottentomatoes and on metacritic gets a 55 (with ratings ranging from 100 to 0). But 3 out the 4 of us ended the movie in tears with all of us being taken aback by the ending. Yes… perhaps emotionally manipulating, but it still brought home a truth that need to be said and retold – especially for our children.

One of the threads in the movie is the innocence of children and the movie in fact begins with a quote by John Betjeman – “”Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.” As I read that quote I was reminded of the words of Jesus, “”I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:13). That made me think about whether faith is something that hears, smells and sees, rather than reasons, but yet I wouldn’t want to say that faith (at least… Christian faith) is somehow not “reasonable”.

I know I probably go over the line in seeing Jesus/faith/gospel parallels in movies but it did seem to me that there was a amazing picture of incarnation. Without giving too much away let me just say that the German boy, Bruno, reaches out to the Jewish boy – wanting to help him find his father – not simply with sympathy, but by actually entering into his situation and coming along side him to help. Thus, Bruno crosses the gap that separates the two of them, dons the clothes of the Jewish boy, and takes upon himself the identity of a Jewish boy. If you watch the movie you will see the eventual consequences of this action.


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