A talkative angel… at Christmas

An angel in the Compton Window in the South Transept of All Saints, Minstead
An angel in the 'Compton Window' in the South Transept of Minstead Church

It’s funny how sermons can change… I barely mentioned donkey’s on Christmas morning!

And I’d been led to believe the smallish congregation wouldn’t have many kids… and of the nearly 40 people 18 were children… at least 8 of them grandchildren visiting one set of grandparents!

What I actually shared was the idea of looking in the face of God (including a brief quotation from Trevor Dennis’s “Three Faces of Jesus”… thanks to a Licensing gift) and the idea that there was lots of talking in the Luke 2:1-20 Christmas Day reading, and on a modern Christmas Day. But what are you talking about this Christmas?

It was in fact a re-hash of something I did for an assignment back last Christmas (though even then partly with Minstead in mind), but had never been used as a live sermon outside tutorial. It was a little autobiographical especially to the venue, and getting the kids to blow a post-horn was quite fun.

With Thomas-the-Tank-Engine being used to remodel pews, and a Jack Russell tied to a tombstone on a long-line but sat barking in the church porch, (as well as suffering from a cold) it was a difficult service and sermon to deliver, but it seemed to get a reasonably positive response.

If you want a read of what the notes said (which wasn’t totally how it was delivered, but hey…) please click to download: Christmas Morning 2009 – Talks

The occasion was also the first since licensing when I wore robes – I was jolly glad of them as they kept me warm! Though without them, I’d have worn more layers… I didn’t want to look too fat!

The back of Minstead Church - Christmas Morning 2009

The Christmas round of visiting parents has been a welcome break from looking at the decorating work that needs to be completed. It has been good to have family time with the folk we are closest too. Everything from walks watching Fallow Deer near Mogshade in the New Forest, to playing ‘Hare and Tortoise’ was much enjoyed. As was Uncle’s always excellent champagne. It’s a pity that the oldest is now to frail to join us, but she wasn’t left out, though I think our brief visit was tiring. Sometimes people feel they’ve just had too many Christmas’s and want to move on.

The young man of the family has delighted everyone in different ways, and been chuffed to bits with the presents he got – a very Ray Mears themed Christmas this year, and he’s already completed one lovely rough spoon in a piece of old oak he had been dreaming of working on.

Between journeys we’ve made a start and tonight completed the painting his new high ceiling bit of his room! Tomorrow we have a date with a lot of walls!!

I hope you have had something good from God to talk about this Christmas.

Sparce Christmas and no donkey

Holly in this weeks snow
Holly in the snow

One of the decisions we made early on in the building process, was that we would not have any Christmas decorations up this year – so no tree, only a few cards up (the one permanent string that hangs cards for all celebrations), and few sprigs of holly over the pictures, simply because Dad collected it with me a week ago from some pre-cut by others for some new fencing in the ‘tussocky field’.

Time and money is limited, so we’ve drastically reduced who we are sending Christmas cards to this year (Church and MU friends have had a verbal explanation) and those relatives and friends to whom we do want to send our Christmas letter, will need to be patient – it will probably arrive in the New Year!

There is a steady flow of services to plan for. This morning I led a Family Worship at 9am for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and I’ve just finished preparing for Wednesday’s 11am Morning Prayer. What I need to do now is focus on Christmas Day itself, when I hope to be leading and preaching at an All Age Christmas Morning Service in Minstead – the other end of the Diocese but where I grew up.

St. Peter’s has been decorated for the last week, partly for the several schools that use it for their Christmas nativity/concerts, and partly because last Sunday all our services had candles in them, from the 8am Communion by Candlelight in the chapel (that I led part of and preached at) through two Christingle services (at two venues) and various Advent/Carol Services at our other congregations. Though less ‘candle orientated’ today I was able to light the four candles on our Advent ‘ring’. I love the glow and smell of candle-light, even in an otherwise well lit room.

Among all this, and the snow and ice, I have been very struck about how wonderful it is to be in Church, following in these last two weeks of Advent the increasing anticipation of that Christmas birth. Having so sparce a Christmas at home, has made me look forward even more than normal to the times of worship at church, as well as allowing a little for the different stresses of decorating. And I’m hungry for the space to appreciate some new nuances to the Christmas stories even more, though I suspect that will not happen until after Christmas Day, when I’m promising myself serious time with Trevor Dennis’s ‘The Christmas Stories’  (though I might just dip into it to inspire Christmas morning).

I am thinking of focusing on what is missing from the ‘Christmas Story’ we think we know so well, when we read closely Luke 2:1-20… where, for example, is the donkey that features in so many pictures, and nativity plays? There are good reasons why Mary probably did ride on a donkey to Bethlehem (I heavily pregnant woman would be unlikely to walk the 80 mile journey from Nazareth) but what else have we added into our Christmas’s? The cards, the tree, the flashing lights … should they be part of the story too?

The cards and ‘circular letter’ – are they a chore, or a way of staying connected and in community with people we know and love, and wish to remember even if we’ve not seen them in… too long! The God of love that came at Christmas, came for all people, surely then he would want us to remember all people as we celebrate his coming?

The Christmas tree – probably more common now than a nativity set, is a living thing (at least until we cut it down) that comes into our homes, as Christ came as our living Lord into the world and wants to be present in our homes.

The lights on the tree, or on the house – a personal pet hate in the latter instance, but Jesus was after all the light of the world… it’s just a pity this form causes so much light pollution! Did you know there is now a Christmas Nativity done in lights? I could almost be tempted  (but not quite) be tempted next year.

But with so much added in, that I struggle to find some Christian symbolism in, what has been crowded out?

Technical problems and questions

I’ve been a bit off-line for the last week.

Firstly it wasn’t helped by the laptop developing corrupted Windows. Was it a virus – even the shop it came from wasn’t sure, but a complete overwrite was necessary, so woops there goes everything on the hard-drive! Fortunately hero husband had managed to back everything up onto our PC as it died, so no loss, just lots of hastle time re-loading stuff when we got it back, though it has helped to concentrate the mind about what to put back on it!

Here’s the first question then: We run Norton antivirus currently, have done for several years, and this is the first possible virus we’ve encountered. The shop we got it (and the laptop) from, now reckon that Mcafee is far better and cheaper per machine. For those blog readers who dare to use Windows… what is your current experience of either Mcafee or Norton (or anything else) for anti-virus software?

(And yes, I know if we ran a sensible operating system we wouldn’t have the problem… but needs must… )

So on the PC I managed to complete my final Reader Training essay, and submitted it yesterday. All I have to do is complete 6000 words of extended essay by Easter, but I discovered today my ‘tutor’ for it is a man I’ve got to trust and like during training, so I at least know I’ll get good guidance.

The other technical issue that’s exercising the brain is this. We’ve started using Google Calandar as a family to keep track of what each of us is doing and be able to see each others commitments. BUT it means that my old PDA Palm Tungston E which I’ve used with great joy for several years, isn’t getting updated regularly, thus my portable diary is er… out of date. Not helpful – and I don’t carry my brick of laptop around in my handbag whilst I do carry round my Palm.

Family budget constraints (see ‘extension’ tag!) mean that buying an ‘all singing, all dancing’ phone isn’t an option for the foreseeable future (and I’m quite happy with Nokia clamshell with the internet disabled so I still ‘pay and go’). So, (how) can I get GoogleCal to talk to a format that talks to Palm? (I don’t think Palm talks to Outlook, least it didn’t last time we looked.)

Or am I just too big a dinosaur?

In the meantime, today  I started on Chris’s room… sanded all the new plaster on the walls, and filled the odd discrepancy that resulted, plus the crack between the skirting board and the walls, with builders caulk. All dress in a very old flying suit I was given for decorating in, many years ago. I was impressed it still fitted.

Will try and catch up on some less boring, less technical thoughts over the next few days, but have plenty else to do – ’tis the season to be busy… 3 services in the next week to fit in the planning for round decorating.

Responding with commitment – those Winchester cuts!

Bishop Michael at MU/Lambeth Festival Service 2008
Right Revd Michael Scott-Joynt at MU/pre-Lambeth service, Winchester Cathedral 2008

Last Sunday every congregation in the Diocese of Winchester should have had read to them in full, the Pastoral Letter issued by Right Revd’s Michael Scott-Joynt (Bishop of Winchester – pictured) and Trevor Willmott (outgoing Bishop of Basingstoke). It followed up the previous weeks Diocesan Synod meeting that made £1million+ cuts to the budget, by cutting a range of clergy and lay posts which I’ve posted about previously here and here.

I’m not sure if you can here the heartbreak in the words “we much regret”, but I am quite sure it is there. The hurt is probably in the fact that they feel they have no other choice. Certainly the Diocesan Synod had to attempt to balance the books. Where the cuts had to be made can, has and will be further debated I’m sure. It is good at least to see the acknowledgement that where possible other solutions will be sought.

I wonder how much those of us who sit in the pews of the Diocese can echo the sentiment “we much regret” with a reasonably clear concience, having contributed all they are able to the ministries that are among those most valuable to our shared mission in Christ in the region. This household has now increased its giving twice this year, most recently following all this news, but can’t go further. Whether or not you live in the Diocese of Winchester, your own church leadership are probably facing similar decisions to Winchester’s: can you help by responding with commitment?

What I wonder though is if the Pastoral Letter itself was used as effectively as it might be? I missed the reading of it here in St. Peter’s (I was preaching at HMP Winchester) but I understand from G that the most was not made of it at one service at least:

  • the full impact of the cuts on our parish (we won’t get a curate next year unless unexpected giving allows the Diocese to rescind the cuts in stipendiary curates) was not explained;
  • the congregation were not directed towards the inside features of our church newsletter ‘Crucial’ (bottom of page 2) issued that morning that highlighted some of issues and actions required to change the situation;
  • there was not a call to prayer or action, but rather the service simply ended with a song.

There may well have been good reason for this, as I suspect the service leader was not privy to the contents of the letter and possibly not the background to it, so would have been ill equipped to respond appropriately (one of the problems in a parish with so much lay leadership is communications). But was an opportunity missed?

Further afield, but still within the Diocese, I now know that in one parish the vicar forgot to bring the letter with him, tried to give a precis of it, and didn’t attempt to explain any background, or suggest prayer or action. According to the first-hand source, the impact possible, was totally lost.

It is a pity that “proclaiming the mystery of Christ” costs money, but we have to connect that Gospel with the world we live in. Where is our commitment? Partnership in the Gospel surely requires us to make the most of every opportunity, and that our conversation be full of grace ? (Colossians 4:2-6) We have to live with the fact that ‘grace’, though freely given by God, is not always easy to either offer or receive.

Preparing the way – positives and negatives in prison

I spent yesterday morning with a few other Mothers’ Union members and 5 really welcoming chaps I’d never met before – in the surroundings of the West Hill Wing Chapel of HMP Winchester. The Chapel serves the men who are living in the wing as they are nearing the end of their time and preparing for release. Going to chapel must make the guys stand out as within the life of the wing, it is very much an optional extra – they are free of their cells most of the day, so chapel is not simply used as as a ‘get out’ clause. The population of the wing is also really transient, so Mothers’ Union members who regularly go to West Hill on the first Sunday of the month, rarely get to see the same faces regularly.

I found it quite poignant preparing a sermon which was in part based on Phillipians 1:3-11 (as well as Luke 3:1-6) a letter of joy written by Paul after receiving a gift whilst in prison. Although preaching at West Hill was one of the things that led me into Reader Training (because I felt ill-equipped for either the preaching or the environment), I’ve not been back for a couple of years. Although I felt better equipped to write a sermon, my life experiences are so relatively good that I continue to fear I have little to offer. But spending time with these guys reminded my the sheer fact of taking the time to be there with them, and listen to the stories during refreshments after the service, shows that people care – coming into their world and being among them… a small token of what Jesus did for us! A hope-bringing Advent thought for them, and me.

If you’re even faintly interested my sermon is here (comments welcome): Sermon Phill1v3-11andLk3v1-6 HMP6-12-09

G, the Baptist Minister who led the service, did something that hasn’t happened on previous visits – after the intercessions he talked to the men updating the issues currently affecting them, and then prayed specifically for those issues. I was great to pray into specific situations affecting them, but it was also a really useful tool to give us visitors a ‘heads-up’ on things that the men would want to talk about with us after the service. Thanks G – much appreciated.

My sermon was very much on how we need to prepare ourselves for God, but also that it’s actually God that we’re inviting to make the preparations. These guys were all preparing to leave and so the things they were talking about afterwards were the preparations they are trying to make for when they get out sometime in the New Year.

J had become a Dad whilst in prison and wants to make a life for his family. He didn’t come from a lifetime of crime, but had spent 18months inside because of one rash moment that had disastrous consequences, losing his job being the least of them. He’s taken prison as an opportunity to learn new skills and prepare himself to earn money in any job he can get, but the Probation Service won’t let him return to the community he and his partner grew up in. Although he sort of understands why (I’m deliberately not going into detail) it means uprooting his partner, and their child to make a new life somewhere – but the Probation Service haven’t told him where he can or must go, so currently neither he or his partner can make preparations, something the Chaplaincy are trying to support him through.

I had a long chat with K – his brother died last week, and he will be allowed out to attend the funeral on Wednesday. This is Ks third spell in prison – the shortest, but the one that has made the most difference. He’s sure prison has saved his life. He reckons he’s kicked the drug habit that caused his partner to die of an overdose in the hostel they lived in before this spell – and even more movingly he told me how he’s been able to forgive his father (now dead) for a childhood of hatred. Despite his recent loss he radiated joy at the sense of release he’s found from the past because he’s been able to forgive. He’s looking forward to returning to family life he’s not participated in for many years, and especially to seeing grandchildren he hardly knows.

I thought the stories worth sharing as I think it’s important we try and understand the issues these chaps face whilst ‘paying’ for their crimes, and don’t think I’ve said anything that will stop me being asked back. I’m delighted the colleague I took with me will offer to join the preaching rota for Mothers’ Union – thanks E! Next year, I’m hoping to attend the ‘presentation day’ of the restorative justice scheme at HMP Winchester run by the Church Army Community Chaplain – there’s more about this at www.muwinchester.org.uk – a day I think will prove quiet emotional.

The Alpha and Omega of our extension

It’s been a while. What started on 3rd August finally finished on Wednesday 2nd December – 4 months exactly. It’s over, the extension is complete. The porter-loo finally departed yesterday! And, it’s quite a transformation as you can see from the piccies.

Before...
The beginning...

I have to say that M & P D’Santos have been fantastic: Mick, Paul and Joe plus Ben in the early weeks and all the various sub-contractors recently, have been great. They have worked really hard, provided their own facilities, coped with my inane questions and taught me much. I can’t say I miss them, the peace was wonderful on Thursday morning, but if you’ve got to have builders, they are good to have around.

... and after!
...and the end!

They have even provided me with the inspiration for tomorrows sermon – I’m preaching on the Advent 2 readings of Phillipians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6 at the West Hill Chapel of HMP Winchester… a more evangelistic style than my usual – I’ll post it tomorrow! (Part of my ministry as a Mothers’ Union member, if you’re wondering.)

So they’ve done the really hard work, making everything ready for us (spot another Advent theme) and all we have to do now is bring the project to completion (like the Kingdom of God being ‘now but not yet’?) with the addition of some sanding, some paint and some furnishings! Nice gentle winter occupations then 🙂

I have to admit, we’ve not strained ourselves this weekend – I think we’re just enjoying the end of this building phase. We did however do some desperately needed cleaning in the kitchen – condensation had caused an infestation of mould behind the houseplants on the window sills which we attacked on our return from showing a great-gran photo’s of the home improvements!

Even Honey-dog is beginning to relax, a bit, slightly. I think she’s even more pleased to sense the return of normality than I am, though she is fascinated by these new rooms that she has to explore in. As we all wander through on odd errands a few minor niggles are becoming noticeable (the utility door needs tweeking slightly) and the electrician re-appears briefly on Monday to sort the new front light fitting (either we’re being ditsy, or the wiring’s not quite right) but we’re really pleased with the finish inside, and just hope we can make it as cheerful and welcoming as it deserves to be.