2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats gnomes prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,700 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 28 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Time Between

The time between Christmas and New Year has always seemed weird to me, ever since I became an adult. As a child, you don’t notice the weirdness so much, because school Christmas holidays typically span the entire time from before Christmas Eve to after New Year’s Day. It’s all holiday time.

Conditioned by these years of school, it comes as a rude shock to the system that your employer wants you back at work between the two holidays, especially here in America where Boxing Day (26th December) is not a thing. When Christmas Day falls toward the beginning of the week, you might well only get the day itself off and be expected to put in the rest of the week working; Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, everything.

In the Mediæval period, our modern Christmas Day was only the first day of a 12-day holiday period. The most important day, certainly, but only one day – the day when most of the religious part of the Christmas celebration was done and got out of the way so that the community could relax and celebrate without needing to be on their best behaviour.

Spiritually, too, a time to reflect on the meaning of the Christmas event without being distracted by the preparations. With Christmas beginning on Christmas Day and lasting for a full twelve days culminating on the 5th January, there’s plenty of time to fully digest the spiritual implications of the birth of Christ, and in addition, there are a whole cluster of Christian feast days scattered through the period: St Stephen the first martyr on 26th December, St John the Evangelist on 27th December, Holy Innocents Day on 28th, commemorating Herod’s wicked slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem after he realised the Magi had tricked him, the Feast of the Circumcision on 1st January, right up to the eve of Epiphany on 5th January.

In the modern secular age, all of the little feasts have been more or less forgotten, unless you happen to go to a very traditional church. The holidays have been reduced to two: Christmas, which is the holiday for children with Santa and flying reindeer and presents, and New Year, which is the holiday for grown-ups with parties and excessive drinking.

In addition, all of the attention is on the run-up to the holiday. After Christmas Day you won’t hear I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day or Feliz Navidad on the radio again for another year, thank goodness. We’ve done that now. Time to move on to the next thing. All of the stores are already taking down the red and green Christmas decorations and replacing them with pink and red hearts for Valentine’s Day, telling us that they’ve already milked us for all they can get out of us over Christmas and it’s time for us to be spending our money on the next big retail holiday.

And in our rush to move on, we might just miss something.

Undistracted by preparations, we have a chance to focus on meaning. We squander it at our peril.

Fun for all the Family

My wife got the Meccano (“Erector set” in American-speak) she deciced she wanted for Christmas. I got Lego. So did my kids, and since it’s all going to be pooled together I’ll get to play with that too 🙂

In some households, this would be how you spell “mid-life crisis”.

Around here, it’s just this branch of the Horswoods being themselves.

Some time in the last year or so I decided to stop being embarrassed about being a grown man that still wants to play with Lego. It is, after all, no greater a potential expenditure of money than football tickets, it lasts longer than a cricket test series, and is no sillier than painting your body in your team’s colours. And grown adults do all of these without shame or embarrassment. In the case of sports fandom, it’s culturally the done thing. You get respect for it.

If an adult admits to building things with Lego, though, we think they’re childish. Having a midlife crisis. Trying to avoid the reality that they’re getting old.

I guess I might be. But if so, I’m not going to be bothered by it.

I’m reminded of something CS Lewis wrote once:

“As a teenager I read fairy tales in secret and would have been embarrassed if anyone had discovered it. Now, as an adult, I put childish things behind me, including the fear of looking childish, and read fairy tales openly”.

So I’m going to take it as evidence of maturity, not childishness, that I can openly have a hobby of Lego building.

And given some of the creations that adult Lego builders make, is it really “just” a children’s toy?

I’ve often wondered why the Lego sets have an upper age limit on their “suitable for” age suggestion box. I suppose that it helps the non-builder relative of an avid Lego fan kid to avoid getting something overly simple. But even the simplest little car is still a good source of bricks that you can build into anything. Fun for all the family. In this case, with the probable exception of my wife, quite literally.

Though I still think that if I got Heather some Technic Lego she’d have a lot of fun. She has a mind of wheels and gears, like a sort of unfallen Saruman, and she wants to make something that really works. Hence the erector set.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas – A Parody

Ok, so I wrote this last year, not this year.  But it’s still true, and still funny.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the flat
The family were busy with this and with that
The children were nestled all snug in their beds
While parental threats did resound in their heads
The parents were tidying, cleaning and wrapping
“We vacuumed this morning, so how’d this mess happen?!”
When from down the hall there arose such a clamour
I swear, if we have to use nails and a hammer…!
And what to my half-bleary eyes should appear
But three little kids with wide grins ear to ear?
We bustled, we chivvied, we tucked them back in,
Then at last settled down, thinking “Ahhh… did we win?”
Then on with the wrapping, though tired and yawning
‘Cause Christmas Day comes far too soon in the morning.
At last we were finished! We looked at the tree,
The pile of wrapped presents, now-cold mugs of tea,
The clock with its hands saying some wretched time
Too late to be wakeful and think up a rhyme
And we smiled as the wee hours slipped past out of sight
Merry Christmas to you, in what’s left of the night.

Joyful All Ye Nations Rise

On just about every spiritual gift inventory I’ve ever taken, I’ve come out as having a whole cluster of truth-related gifts: teaching, discernment, prophecy (however the gift inventory defines it) and so on. Something that fascinates me, and which I haven’t seen a lot of literature on, is the way an individual’s various gifts interact with one another, but this is not today’s subject. I mention it because one of the drawbacks of having such a cluster of truth-related gifts is that almost all of them have as a downside or area for growth the tendency to nitpick, overfocus on minor issues or generally get grumpy.

It’s come to my attention that I’ve become guilty of that on this blog over recent weeks. Having what I generally refer to as a “truth cluster” of spiritual gifts is no excuse; I merely offer it by way of explanation. I’m sorry for being a grumpy nitpicker.

So in this post I’m doing what I can to depart radically from that by unpacking the lyrics of one of my favourite Christmas carols, Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

The words go something like this:

Hark, the herald angels sing

“Glory to the new-born King!”

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled

Joyful all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With th’angelic host proclaim:

“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

 

Hark, the herald angels sing

“Glory to the new-born King!”

 

Christ, by highest Heaven adored,

Christ, the everlasting Lord!

Late in time behold Him come,

Offspring of a Virgin’s womb,

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,

Hail the incarnate Deity!

Pleased as Man with man to dwell,

Jesus, our Immanuel

 

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!

Hail the Sun of Righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings,

Risen with healing in His wings!

Mild, He lays His glory by,

Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth,

Born to give them second birth.

Now, not even I can have a problem with that! But I promised I’d unpack it a little. There’s a lot in here, though, so I doubt I’ll do much more than scratch the surface.

It begins in a good place. The angels aren’t just singing about peace on earth and goodwill to men, but about God’s glory. Technically, I suppose, the Bible records that the angels were singing “Glory to God in the highest”, not “Glory to the new-born King”, but since Jesus is God with skin on, the effect is ultimately the same. This is a glorious birth. The glory is not in a halo or radiance, nor in a barely-human “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes”, but in a real birth with labour pains and tears and joy. The birth of the One who would ultimately bring glory to God the Father by His saving death and resurrection.

From there, it’s natural to progress to “peace on earth and mercy mild”, evidenced by “God and sinners reconciled”. Reconciliation of God with those who had made themselves His enemies by choosing the wrong and spurning the right, spilling over in mercy and peace.

It’s no wonder that the carol goes on with an imperative to all nations to rise up in joy. It’s the appropriate response to what God has done.

When it comes to this line, I have the soul of a true missionary. I picture Comanches and Kazakhs and Mongolians racing each other on horseback to be first with the Good News. I picture Iroquois and Australian Aborigines dancing the message of peace and reconciliation. I picture Jews and Arabs joining in celebration of a King of the Jews who is the Light of the World. I picture Japanese, Indians, Mexicans, Russians, Zulus, Maasai and Greeks. I picture wild Celts and civilised English retelling the Great Story in their own wonderful ways.

Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies, the victory-song of Heaven. The Messiah is born! Darkness is being kicked in the teeth for the sake of righteousness and mercy.

The next verse focuses in on the wonder of the Incarnation. “Christ, by highest Heaven adored”, the everlasting Lord, is coming down as a human baby, entering the world in blood and pain just like every other baby there’s ever been. Amazing.

Two thousand-odd years in the future from the great events of the birth, it’s perhaps less clear what “Late in time behold Him come” is supposed to mean. Was Jesus supposed to come earlier? This is, of course, not what it means. Jesus wasn’t “late” in the conventional sense of failing to be punctual. God always does things at exactly the right time. What it means is that even now, there’s a much greater span of human generations before Christ than there are in the Years of Our Lord. Even with the tightest possible Biblical chronology, there are still at least four millennia before Christ, during which time sin was given its head.

Most of us, if we were God, would have tried to fix the problem of sin immediately after it occurred. God didn’t. He let it go on until Jesus, giving the dark impluse to choose the wrong enough time and space to show that it really was bad and wrong. From that perspective, yes, Jesus does come “late in time”, the offspring of a Virgin’s womb, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah and the word of the Lord to Eve that one would be born of her seed who would crush the serpent’s head.

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead. The entire fullness of God dwelling bodily. Pleased to live as a man amongst us. Coming from the purity and radiance of an unsullied Heaven to the squalid mess of a sin-infested planet with its cruelty and violence and greed. For love of mankind.

The last verse references Malachi 4v2: the prophecy that the “Sun of Righteousness” would rise “with healing in his wings”. I’ve talked before about the pagan solar imagery appropriated here to talk about God’s Messiah, and I don’t want to rehash that. I want instead to point to how Jesus is like the sun, bringing light and life to all, just as the sun sheds its rays and warmth not just on one people but on all. Jesus’ death and resurrection aren’t just for the Covenant people of God in history (though they certainly are as well. God has by no means abandoned His Covenant), but they open the door fully for those outside the Covenant to be brought in. Praise be to God!

“Mild, He lays His glory by”. He could have come in radiance and splendour flanked by angel armies with drawn swords aflame. He could have been born in a palace amid gold and silver and pearls. He wasn’t majestic. He had no visible halo or beauty to make Him attractive. He was ordinary. Despised and rejected. A social outcast. A man of no reputation.

And yet this was the way God chose to come into the world. As a helpless baby, with human parents who had to teach the Word of God to speak. Born in a stable, laid in an animal feed-trough. But nevertheless born so that we might live forever. Born to raise us up at the last day, as Jesus would later put it, to give us a second birth, a new birth into a living hope, into the bloodline of the righteous Second Adam rather than the corrupted one from the First Adam that we were born into naturally.

Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the angels’ song. Christ has come!

Their Unfamiliar Carols Play

The other week we sang that slightly odd Christmas carol written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

“I heard the bells of Christmas day/Their old familiar carols play…”

It’s rather an ironic choice of lyrics in my case, because in many cases even Christmas carols are sung to different tunes here in America than they are in Britain.

Some of the American tunes are known, though less common: we’re aware, for example, of the American tune to Away In A Manger, though compared to the more usual British tune I always think the American one sounds like a drinking song.

The American tune to It Came Upon A Midnight Clear sounds like something out of a Broadway musical to me, but I’ve heard Americans say that our tune sounds like “a hymn tune”. This seemed like a weird characterisation; Christmas carols are hymns. Or the proper ones are, anyway; stuff like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aren’t carols, they’re just Christmas songs.

Some of the British tunes are sung with a completely different carol set to them: the British version of Angels From The Realms Of Glory has the same tune as the American Angels We Have Heard On High.

Which brings us to the other facet of carolling in America: the carols we simply don’t have, or which are vastly less prominent. Like Angels We Have Heard On High, O Holy Night and I Heard The Bells of Christmas Day. Some of these are great carols that we’re beginning to pick up on, like O Holy Night. Others I’m less enthralled with.

It’s not that we don’t have a few the other way around. I’ve yet to hear Americans sing Once In Royal David’s City, with its dubious verse about how “Christian children all must be/Mild, obedient, good as He”. And Come And Join The Celebration is similarly unknown.

I’d sung I Heard The Bells maybe twice before in my life, both times in America. Singing about “old familiar carols” as part of a basically unfamiliar Christmas song is kind of amusing.

It’s an ok song, I suppose. My wife likes it. But the part that most speaks to her is the part I find most weird and uncomfortable. All those follow-on verses about “there is no peace on earth, I said” and how the bells tolled back the answer that God is still at work and all hope is not lost.

It’s a true statement, and one I sometimes think we as followers of Jesus could do well with bearing in mind. Sometimes we seem to just love playing the martyred doomsayer prophet.

But the song as a whole just doesn’t sit well with me. Apart from this vague idea of God not being asleep, there’s little Gospel in it. “The wrong will fail, the right prevail/With peace on earth, goodwill to men” is true, but there’s no indication in this song of how or why.

The focus of the song is peace on earth. I suppose that’s fair enough; Jesus is the Prince of Peace. But Longfellow’s carol almost seems humanistic in its focus on peace while practically ignoring the One who makes it. It’s a song for the birth of the Saviour with no Nativity and no Saviour, which just seems unaccountably weird to me. Still, it’s better than Deck The Halls With Boughs Of Holly, which we sang at the Hanging of the Greens and which has even less Gospel in it. Why do we sing these things?

I may be taking things too far. I Heard The Bells does not, after all, totally leave God out of the picture. “God is not dead, nor does He sleep”, it says clearly. If you have a tendency towards pessimism, especially where society is concerned, it’s good to be reminded that God is still at work in the world, that there is still Righteousness and Justice and Goodness, in God if nowhere else.

But a Christmas carol without the Messiah? This is a Very Odd Thing.

It’s a very secular thing to focus in on the second half of the angels’ song, the bit about “peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, in the old King James version of the Bible. Other versions put it a bit less human-centredly: “on earth, peace to men on whom His favour rests”. But all versions definitely connect the idea of peace on earth with the missing first half of the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest”.

God’s glory comes first, in pre-eminent place. The great event of the Birth is first and foremost one that brings glory to God. It’s as a result of God being glorified, as a consequence of the things that bring Him glory, that it spills over into peace on the earth.

What kind of peace?

Peace as in “peace and quiet”, that treasure so lacking in this season of busyness, shopping and stress? Peace as in the absence of war?

The angels sing that it’s “peace to men on whom His favour rests”. This implies that it might be primarily about our upward relationship rather than our outward ones. Not that peace with God is not manifested in peace between us as human beings, but that without that peace with God, the tendency toward selfish pride leading to arrogance and conflict remains within.

Peace on earth comes together with glory to God, at the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Longfellow’s carol skips right over this and keeps on going. It shouldn’t really surprise us; I’m not sure he was anything more than just a churchgoer rather than a man who had trusted his life to Jesus the Messiah. Why should we expect people who don’t really believe to write poetry as if they do?

But it’s a weird song. Too religious for the secular Santa/mistletoe crowd, too disconnected from the real story for those of us who believe. At best, it implies the Christmas story. But I’d be more comfortable with it if it did a bit more than that.

The Gift of Freedom

On the way into work the other day I was listening to the radio playing O Holy Night. This is a great carol, and it’s one I don’t think we really have that much in Britain. At least, I don’t remember singing it more than about once or twice in my youth.

Anyway, the version of the carol on the radio did the first verse, then skipped over the first half of the second verse and picked up again with “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother/And in His name all oppression shall cease”.

Wonderfully modern, egalitarian and Civil Rights-y, and quite apropos at the present time perhaps, but I kept thinking “that’s not how that verse begins!”

I memorise the words of songs. I just do; it’s not even something I have to expend effort on. The idea that someone might, after 40+ years of singing it, still not know all the words to O Come All Ye Faithful is baffling to me.

O Holy Night isn’t quite as familiar, so I had to think for a moment to recall the rest of Verse 2:

“Truly He taught us to love one another/His love is life, and His Gospel is peace”.

And I started to think “what is so objectionable about that that you felt a need to skip over it and go straight to the breaking of chains?” Bear in mind, this is the Christian station. Of all people they shouldn’t have a problem with the idea of Jesus being part of the Christmas season.

I mean, when I first heard the carol, it was the bit about breaking chains and the slave being our brother that made me uncomfortable and not sure it belonged in a Christmas carol. It called to mind things I’d rather not think about, especially at Christmas time: the bad old days of the early 1800s, the pre-Wilberforce times of the slave trade, Dickensian child labour and debtors’ prisons, the ruthless pre-Shaftesbury industrial capitalism that saw poor people and children as a means of profit. More, the (at the time) barely-grasped American system of colour-based slavery and its associated racism and discrimination, from the same period.

Why on earth would you skip over the apparently innocuous stuff about love and peace to focus on that disturbing morass of past sin?

I don’t know, but I can think of at least a couple of possibilities.

The first is that it’s a political statement. Perhaps, we might guess, sung by someone in the 1960s during the era of the Civil Rights movement when that was the really appropriate part for the times. The breaking of chains, and the fact that “the slave”, ie black people who had been in actual slavery until the Civil War, was indeed “our brother”, which is to say, our equal in every way as white people.

This is an important truth. In these days of debate over racism, justice and oppression in the wake of recent events in New York, it’s one we may need to hear again. No matter the outward packaging of skin pigmentation or its lack, gender, facial features or human circumstances, be you in chains or be you free, be you powerless or a power holder, we are sisters and brothers.

It’s easy as a white male, thus a representative of the fully enfranchised, to say this. It’s another thing entirely to really do it in a way that means it to those on the outside or the margins. We all tend to view life through the lens of our own experience, and since we don’t personally experience any discrimination, it’s all too easy to suppose that it doesn’t exist. Or the other way around. If we’ve experienced discrimination in some way, it’s easy to magnify that up to the scale of a major national crisis involving the entire population of our identity group.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, but let’s not be smug about this. The problem may well be closer to home than we’d like to believe, and it’s our responsibility as representatives of the group that has power to examine ourselves first. Being cruel and unloving is, after all, the natural bent of fallen humanity.

But that’s only one of the reasons I can think of to skip the first half of the verse, and in some ways it’s one that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Loving one another as Jesus taught ought to go hand in hand with the breaking of chains and the ceasing of oppression.

Is it that it mentions the Gospel?

I personally like to maintain that a lot of the US church’s sense of being persecuted is a load of old cobblers. It isn’t persecution to have someone wish you “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”. It isn’t persecution to have atheists free to buy advertising space to put up billboards alongside the Christian ones telling us how they believe you don’t have to have God in the equation to be a good person. It isn’t persecution when someone makes a joke at your expense as a believer. It’s persecution when people throw stones at your kids or try to drown them in the river because your family trusts in Jesus. It’s persecution when you get fired without just cause from your place of work just because you have a Bible in your own personal vehicle. It’s persecution when you run the risk of being jailed or killed simply because you believe differently to the people around you. This is what people in other parts of the world face on a daily basis. Let’s stop minimising their sufferings by appropriating the word “persecution” for our own light and momentary troubles, ok?

Right, soapbox moment over. Back to topic. What I was trying to say before I interrupted myself was that though we aren’t experiencing anything reasonably definable as persecution, that’s not to say that we might not face opposition. There are people who would like nothing better than to see Christianity removed from the public sphere, and there’s a tendency among ourselves as Christians in some quarters to unilaterally skip over anything that we think might offend someone. “I’m offended” is the siren-song of our time, and often seems to mean “I’ve seen something I didn’t really like” rather than “this is insulting on a personal level”.

I’ve complained about being offended a couple of times, like to the store selling those crooked and broken fake teeth for kids as “British teeth”. This feeds into that popular but bizarre American myth that the land of my birth has really bad dentistry, but it is insulting to my entire nation and there’s no call for it. But I don’t really like to pull the “I’m offended” card; most of the time it feels like it’s my responsibility to suck it up.

Anyway, despite my own qualms it seems easy for some people to claim offence, and there are people, including followers of Jesus, who use the cover of offendedness in order to try and avoid seeing anything that makes them uncomfortable. And unfortunately the attitude is prevalent enough that some of us want to remove the possibility of conflict by glossing over those things we think are likely to offend. Very few of us actually relish the thought of conflict. Better to avoid the likelihood by censoring ourselves, right?

Whether it was censorship or self-censorship (or something else entirely) that axed the reference to the Gospel I don’t know. But the link is a powerful and informative one.

You can’t have the breaking of chains and the slave being our brother without the teaching of Christ to love one another and the Gospel of peace. The one arises from the other.

The New Testament didn’t directly advocate the immediate abolition of the institution of Roman slavery. A persecuted minority faith already believed by the authorities to be seditious has no call to be doing that. But it did sow the seeds of its eventual destruction. If masters and slaves both had the same Master in Christ, then they truly were brothers. The positional inequality under the law would eventually crumble, made nonsensical by a people who ignored its implications to follow the command of Christ to love one another.

Trying to have the breaking of chains and the ceasing of oppression without the Gospel of peace is all very social justicey, but it ends up, if it doesn’t start, depending entirely on human effort in political change through top-down reformation or bottom-up revolution. Not that achieving social justice through political action is or should be anathema to followers of Christ, but that it isn’t separate from the Gospel of peace. Because as terrible as it is and was, there are other chains than the ones of literal slavery. There are all manner of bondages and oppressions in the world, sown liberally like tares by the evil one and all tracing back to that great master bondage of Adam and his race to sin.

Those chains were broken almost 2000 years ago on a Roman instrument of judicial execution. But what of the follow-on corollary, that “the slave is our brother”?

It’s very easy as those who have been set free to think of those still in slavery not as brothers to whom we must go but as enemies that we need to fight. I’m not going to say much more than that right now; I’m just going to leave that out there where we can reflect on it.

The message of Christmas is all about the coming of the Deliverer. My initial misgivings about those lines about slavery and the breaking of chains not really belonging in a Christmas carol were, in fact, wrong. After all, didn’t He come to set us free? All the way free, as in the day of Midian’s defeat (Isaiah 14), doing away with the heavy yoke of oppression and making peace with God and men?

What better context than the songs of His Advent for that sort of idea?

Jesus: God’s gift of freedom.