New Year’s Resolutions for 2018

Yes, I do believe in these things. I think the reason most people fail is because they make resolutions without making a plan to keep them. But I learned in the first half of 2016 that if I make a plan, I can keep it. And I also know myself well enough to know that if I do these things at times when there is a natural ‘new beginning’, it gives me an added psychological impetus.

So, the Lord being my helper, here are my three 2018 New Year’s Resolutions:

Resolution #1: Get back down to 165 lbs by the end of February (I’m currently at 174).

Plan: use the same diet and exercise regime I used January to June 2016 when I succeeded in losing 52 lbs.

Resolution #2: Don’t buy any new books in 2018. Instead, read the dozens of unread books on my shelves.

Plan: sign out of my Amazon account and let Marci change the password! (Just kidding: she knows about this resolution and will help me stick to it! Although, come to think of it, it might not be a bad idea…)

Resolution #3: Each week, plan and implement new ways to love my neighbour as myself.

Plan: Pick a day of the week to journal about this (probably Saturday) and, having decided what to do, put it on the calendar. I need to do this because I’m very selfish and this is the command I (can you believe it?) get most bored with.

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Books I read (or re-read) in 2017

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2017, in the order in which they were read:

Stephen King: On Writing
Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air
Rowan Williams: Being Disciples
Mark Ireland & Mike Chew: How to Do Mission Action Planning
Elma Schemenauer: Consider the Sunflowers
Mark Ireland and Mike Booker: Making New Disciples
C.S. Lewis: Reflections on the Psalms
Harry Mowvley: 1 & 2 Samuel (People’s Bible Commentary)
Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
William Paul Young: The Shack
Duane Pederson: Larger than Ourselves
Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People
Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Mary Oliver: Blue Horses
Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987
Seamus Heaney: Human Chains
Timothy Keller: Preaching
Michael Harvey: Unlocking the Growth
Barbara Tuchmann: The Guns of August
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Michael Frost: Surprise the World
Alan Hirsch: The Forgotten Ways
W.O. Mitchell: Roses are Difficult Here
Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking
Jennifer Robison: Goodnight from London
Adam S. McHugh: Introverts in the Church
Clive James: Injury Time
Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent
Loveday Alexander: Acts (People’s Bible Commentary)
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows
T
remper Longman, Philips Long & Iain Provain: A Biblical History of Israel
Kate Rademacher: Following the Red Bird
Yuval Noah Harani: Sapiens
Justin Welby: Dethroning Mammon
Andrew Marr: A History of Modern Britain
Justin Brierley: Unbelievable?
Chaim Potok: The Chosen
Chaim Potok: The Promise
Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner
Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev
C.S. Lewis: The Four Loves
Chaim Potok: In the Beginning
Ros Wynne-Jones: Something is Going to Fall Like Rain
Chaim Potok: The Book of Lights
Stephen Dawes: 1 & 2 Kings (People’s Bible Commentary)
Melvyn Bragg: William Tyndale: A Brief History
Chaim Potok: Davita’s Harp
Siddhartha Mukharjee: The Emperor of All Maladies
Ursula K. LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea
David Daniell: William Tyndale: A Biography
Rowan Williams: Tokens of Trust
George Pitcher: A Dark Nativity
Khaled Hosseini: A Thousand Splendid Suns

And now, as is my custom, a few reflections.

Most enjoyable read of the year? Definitely Andrew Marr’s We British: The Poetry of a People. Marr is both a good historian and also a lover of poetry, and he manages to combine them both in this volume, which is part anthology, part history of English poetry, and part a social history of Britain and its people. Marci and I read it together and we hugely enjoyed it. And – here’s the rub – Marr introduced me to some poets I knew little about, but who I have since read more of and thoroughly enjoyed.

Honourable mention must go to Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, which not only helped me to understand myself better, but also made me think about the way we do church and what we ask of people – which may be less well suited to the introvert temperament – and how we might make it more inclusive of all temperaments.

Least enjoyable read of the year? Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay. I read and enjoyed the first two books in the Hunger Games trilogy, but this third and final book just didn’t cut it for me. There was plenty of horror in the first two books, of course, but it was contained by the device of the Hunger Games. The third book, however, describes in horrifying detail an all-out war, in which child soldiers fight and commit acts that will give them (if they survive – most don’t) nightmares for the rest of their lives. Collins is a wonderfully skilled writer, but I thought she could have imagined a better and stronger ending to the trilogy than this.

I found myself comparing Katniss’s role in the war against the Capitol with Frodo’s in the War of the Ring. Like Katniss, Frodo is a small and seemingly insignificant person, and the major battles happen in places where he is not present, but in the end, because of the plot device of the Ring, he turns out to have the decisive role in the story. What a pity that Collins couldn’t have thought of a way to make Katniss – supposedly the heroine of the novel – the actual centre of the story! Most of the significant moments in the struggle for freedom actually seem to happen when she’s unconscious (she spends a rather large proportion of the book lying convalescing), and in the end, her role in the struggle seems rather peripheral – she’s the centre of the rebels’ P.R. efforts, but that’s about it.

Important discoveries:

Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air. I can’t say ‘His first book’, because there won’t be any more – he died of cancer before it was published. An amazingly honest account of what it feels like for a brilliant doctor to become a cancer patient himself. And while we’re talking about cancer, Siddhartha Mukharjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer was a brilliant history of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer from earliest times to the present day. I learned a huge amount from reading this book.

On a completely different subject, Michael Frost’s Surprise the World describes a simple rule of life for missional Christians based on the acronym ‘BELLS’: ‘Bless’ three people this week, ‘Eat’ with three people this week, ‘Listen’ to the Holy Spirit for one period this week, ‘Learn’ Christ for one period this week, and journal this week about the ways you have been ‘Sent’ in mission. I read it twice and then lead a book study on it in our church which was very well received. I highly recommend it.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns were both excellent reads. I’m a little late in discovering Hosseini; he is my first encounter with a country I knew almost nothing about – Afghanistan – and his books have given me a vivid picture of what life is actually like in that long-suffering country. They are not easy reads – they describe hard events in the lives of people – but they are powerfully written and I look forward to reading more from him.

Finally I should mention Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust which I read just before Christmas, and hugely enjoyed; it is certainly one of my favourite theological reads. I loved his description of the Christian life as learning to believe that God can be trusted. He covered some pretty basic theological themes – creation, incarnation etc. – but as my friend Clarke French remarked, over and over again as I was reading the book I found myself saying “Wow – it’s never been said quite as well as that before!”

And now – on to 2018!

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 10

Link to Chapter 9

******

Tuesday September 16th would have been Kelly’s 45th birthday. I woke up just after five o’clock and couldn’t get back to sleep, so eventually I got up as quietly as I could, got dressed and went out for an early morning walk. It had rained during the night and the roads and sidewalks were still wet; the sky was clearing but the air was cool, and I was glad of the sweater I had put on under my light jacket.

When I got back to the house at around six-thirty I found Emma in the kitchen in her pyjamas, boiling a kettle of water. “I heard you go out”, she said quietly as she poured the hot water into the tea pot; “I thought you might like a cup of tea when you got back”.

“Thank you; maybe I’ll have a quick shower first and then have my tea with you after, if that’s okay?”

“Sure”. She covered the tea pot with a cosy, then turned to me and put her arms around me. “I love you, Dad”, she whispered.

“I love you, too”, I replied, enfolding her in my arms.

We were quiet for a couple of minutes, holding each other, and then she said, “You’re nice and warm”.

“Are you cold?”

“A little”.

“It’s damp outside; it makes a difference”.

“Yeah; I should have put my bunny hug on before I came down”.

I kissed her on the top of her head; “I’d better get moving here. Will you be okay for a minute while I go take a shower?”

“I’ll be fine”. She frowned, and then said, “Well, not fine, but you know what I mean”.

“I know”.

“Are you going to walk down to the school this morning?”

“Yes”.

“Do you mind if I walk with you?”

“Of course not; I’d be glad of your company. What are you doing for the rest of the day?”

“Later on this morning I’m going to meet Grandma at the hospital; we’ll visit with Grandpa for a bit and then we’re going to go out for a coffee”. She paused, and then added, “Grandma knows what day it is today”.

“I know she does”.

She reached up and kissed me on the cheek; “Go take your shower or this tea will be even stronger than you like it by the time you’re done”.

******

It took longer than a few days for my father to get out of hospital. The infection proved to be very stubborn; it was actually two weeks before he was able to go home, and even then he was very weak and not able to do much more than sit in his armchair. His doctors decided that he needed a longer period of time for the white blood cells in his body to build up again, and so they reluctantly decided to give him a two-month break from chemo. “It’s a shame”, his oncologist said to my mother, “because the spread of the cancer is slowing; the chemo’s having a good effect. It’s always a balancing act trying to get the dosage right; that’s the problem we’re facing”.

The JR was within easy reach of my school, and while my father was a patient there I dropped in to visit him almost every day after classes. I knew he was still uncomfortable with this but I persisted anyway, and after a few days he seemed to get used to the idea. Most days I only stayed for twenty minutes or so, and then walked home to Marston. Emma went down to see him regularly, and she and my mother frequently had lunch together at the hospital cafeteria. She and I took turns with cooking our evening meal, and with both of us busy during the day we rarely sat down to eat before about six thirty or seven.

By the time my father went home it was almost the end of September, and shortly after that Emma finally got word that all her security checks had come through and she could start at Marston Court any time she liked. She began almost immediately; some days she helped the recreation co-ordinator with activities for the residents, some days she helped at mealtimes or assisted with baths, and some days she went over very early to help some of the residents who needed a little more assistance with getting up in the mornings. She was busy almost every day but I could see immediately that she was enjoying herself.

By then we had made the decision to make Banbury Road Baptist Church our new spiritual home; we had accepted Kathy MacFarlane’s invitation to try it out earlier in the month, and we had both enjoyed it. I liked the warm, friendly atmosphere, the mix of traditional and contemporary music and the thoughtful preaching of Kathy’s husband Jim. Emma had also enjoyed getting to know Jim and Kathy’s two children, Matthew and Alanna; she and Alanna were the same age and they shared a love of music, but she liked talking with Matthew too, and the three of them quickly became friends.

******

At school I was gradually adjusting to my new environment. The buildings were different, the students wore uniforms, and their culture was urban rather than rural, but despite these superficial contrasts, the kids were much the same as they had been in Canada. I had the same range of abilities to cope with in each class, the one major difference being the large number of kids from ethnic minorities.

Colin Kingsley continued to be one of my challenges; he was cheerful and co-operative, but he was obviously struggling in most of his academic courses. I gave him extra tutorial help, and did my best to be supportive and encouraging, but none of this seemed to be having much impact on his progress.

Apart from sports the one area in which he was performing very well was his design and technology courses, especially the woodwork and carpentry he was doing with Simon Bennett. I had met Simon a couple of times, but in early October we arranged to get together specifically to talk about Colin; we met after classes one afternoon at Simon’s woodwork shop. He was a rough-hewn Yorkshireman of about my age, with a big nose and a rascally look about him, and I quickly warmed to him.

He showed me some of Colin’s work, and I saw immediately how good it was. “I’m not worried about Colin”, Simon said. “He’s never going to be an academic but right now the building trade’s crying out for lads like him. Nowadays lots of parents don’t want their kids to go into the trades of course; they want them to go off to university and get degrees. Fortunately Colin’s mum’s not like that; she’s not trying to pressure him into an academic life when she knows he’s not suited for it. She’s really supportive about his sports interests too; she goes to all his football games and encourages him in his running and all that”.

“She’s okay with the idea of him being a carpenter?”

“As far as I know; she’s always been positive about it at parent-teacher interviews”.

“What about his dad?”

He frowned and shook his head. “Colin never says much about him; I get the sense that there’s some bad feeling there”.

“Wendy and Mickey are divorced, I hear”.

“Yeah”. He frowned; “Do you know them?”

“I used to; Wendy and I were friends during my last two years of university, but we lost touch with each other a long time ago”.

“Well, you’ll be seeing each other again before too long”.

“Yes, I know”.

******

The next day I had a meeting after school with Margaret Greer, who was Head of Year Eleven and my immediate superior in the tutorial system. Margaret’s office was delightfully disorganized, and she had to move a pile of books to make room for me to sit down. We talked about several of my students who were struggling in one way or another, and eventually our conversation turned to Colin. Like Simon, it turned out that Margaret was not seriously worried about him.

“He’ll never be one of our great academic successes, but then he probably doesn’t need to be, does he? I expect he’ll leave school at the end of this year and go to a vocational college or something”.

“Yes, Simon Bennett showed me some of his work yesterday; he’s got an amazing talent for cabinet making”. I frowned. “It actually feels a little surreal having him in my classes. I knew his mum when we were in university”.

“Oh yes?”

“She was doing her masters in English, and I was doing my teacher training. But then I went to Canada, and she went to London, and we lost touch with each other”.

“She’s an excellent person – very supportive of Colin. I’ve taught both her children”.

“She has more than one?”

“Oh, you didn’t know about Lisa? She’s Colin’s older sister; she’s been at university for a couple of years now. Excellent student – she specialized in Languages and she went out of here with A2s in English, French, German and Latin. She’s reading Modern Languages at university now – here in Oxford I think, but I can’t remember which college. I taught her French and German; she was a real delight to have in class. She’s got a very good ear for it; she sailed through her A2s with very little trouble”.

“Funny how siblings can be so different!”

“Isn’t it? That’s so often the way, though. So you had a meeting with Simon then?”

“Yes. I saw in Colin’s file that he was doing well in Simon’s classes so I thought I should find out more”.

“Good for you. Simon can be a bit of a rough diamond but I’m a big fan of his. Some people at this school are a bit snobbish about the vocational classes we offer, but for kids like Colin they’re vital. Simon stands up for them, and he speaks his mind; sometimes he annoys people but at the end of the day there’s absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do for his pupils, and I approve of that”.

“I quite liked him, actually”.

“Good; if you two keep in touch about Colin, that’ll be a big help”.

******

In mid-October, just before the end of term holiday, the Year Eleven short reports were due to go home. At the end of Colin’s report I typed the words, “Interview requested”; then, on a separate piece of paper, I wrote a handwritten note:

Wendy:

You said on the phone the other week that we’d probably see each other at parent-teacher interviews. Well, now’s the time! Colin’s struggling a bit, as I’m sure you know. Please call or email me to set up an appointment. The official appointments are on Wednesday and Thursday next week, late afternoon or evening, but I could also do Friday late afternoon if that’s better for you. Please let me know. It will be nice to see you again.

Tom

Three days later I found a not from Wendy in the in-box of my school e-mail account:

Tom:

Friday 24th at four would work quite well for me for an interview. I look forward to seeing you again too.

Wendy.

******

I was just finishing my last tutorial on Friday when Wendy slipped quietly into my classroom; I saw her out of the corner of my eye as I worked with one of my Year Eleven students on a history project. When we were done I praised the girl and told her to keep up the good work over the holidays. She laughed, wished me a good holiday and left the room, and I got to my feet and went over to greet Wendy.

She was wearing a formal coat over a wool sweater and grey skirt. Her dark hair had a few streaks of grey in it, and there were some lines around her eyes, but apart from that her face was barely altered. I smiled and held out my hand to her. “It’s been a long time, Wendy”, I said quietly.

She took my hand and gave me a slow smile. “You look well, Tom; short hair suits you”.

I laughed; “I can barely remember having long hair, but I guess the last time I saw you…”

“It was almost down to your shoulders”.

“I cut it short in about 1984, I think”.

“How’s your dad doing?”

“He’s on a break from chemo right now”.

“Does that mean things are going well?”

I shook my head; “He got a nasty infection and he had to be in hospital for a couple of weeks. His white blood cell counts were just too low, so they had no choice; they had to give him time to build them back up again”. I smiled at her; “How about you; are your parents still alive?”

“They are – a bit old and frail, but they’re living in retirement down in Chelmsford, not far from my brother”.

“I read your latest book; congratulations!”

She smiled with pleasure. “Thank you! I hope you enjoyed it?”

“I really did; I found myself remembering some of the conversations we used to have in our last year”.

She laughed softly; “Hopefully I’ve learned a bit since 1982! How did you happen to come across it, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Completely by accident actually, in Blackwells, toward the end of August. That’s how I discovered you were back in Oxford”.

“Oh, right”.

“Well, come and sit down, and we can talk about Colin”.

She followed me over to the corner of my classroom; I offered her a seat beside my desk and sat down in my own chair. “Colin’s a pretty amazing cabinet builder”, I said.

“Have you seen his work?”

“I’ve been down to the woodwork shop to have a look; I was quite impressed. I’ve had a conversation with Simon Bennett about him”.

“He really likes Mr. Bennett”.

“Yes, I know”. I sat back a little in my chair. “So – he’s doing well in his design and technology courses and he’s good at sports, but as you know he’s struggling in his academic subjects”.

“Yes”.

 “I’m new here but my colleagues tell me this isn’t a new story with him; I’m assuming you’ve tried everything there is to try?”

“I think I have. Of course I can’t sit with him every night but I ask to see his journal, and I remind him about homework and I work with him regularly. I also try to encourage him in his other activities; I go to his football games and athletics meets and we do a lot of things together. I actually really enjoy his company and I think he enjoys mine”.

“What about his dad? I understand he lives in London”.

“Yes”.

“How do they get along?”

She shook her head; “It’s not a good relationship. Actually, at the moment they don’t see each other at all”.

“I’m sorry to hear that”.

She was quiet for a long time, looking down at the floor, and I began to wonder if I had said something to upset her. But eventually she looked up at me again; “Mickey’s involvement in Colin’s life was always part of the problem. The reason I left him was that he was abusing me. He couldn’t control his temper, and I got tired of being assaulted. Since our divorce I’ve done my best to keep his involvement in the children’s lives to a minimum”.

“I’m very sorry; I didn’t know”.

She shook her head; “Of course you didn’t; there’s always more to the story, isn’t there?”

“There is”. I looked down at my desk for a moment and then said “Look, the truth is that I’m not really worried about Colin; we all know not everyone’s cut out to be an academic, and with the skills he’s got he’s not going to have any difficulty finding a job. But I’m just wondering if there’s anything more we can do to help him with his academic work, even just a little. Would you like to go through his classes with me for a minute?”

“Yes, of course”.

She moved her chair over beside mine, and for a few minutes I took her through the list of classes Colin was taking, going over my records, talking with her about the homework he had handed in and the marks he had received. I noticed that she remembered many of his assignments, and on occasion she made comments about particularly difficult ones and how he had stayed up late working on them. When we were finished I sat back, smiled at her and said “Well, I’m impressed”.

“With what?”

“With you; you’re really on top of all this”.

“I try to be, anyway”. She shrugged and looked at me, tilting her head a little in a characteristic pose that I remembered well. “In my mind I’ve accepted the fact that he’s not going to be a university student, but I suppose somewhere inside I still keep hoping that if I just try hard enough with him something will click eventually”.

“Spoken like a true parent”.

“You’re a parent too, you said?”

“Yes”. I pointed to the small framed photographs of Emma and Kelly on the corner of my desk. “That’s my Emma; she’s almost eighteen”.

“May I see?”

I reached over, picked up the photograph and handed it to her. She looked at it in silence for a moment, then glanced across at its mate on the desktop; “That must be her mother?”

“Yes”.

“They look so much alike; are you a close family?”

“We were, but Kelly died of cancer two and a half years ago, so now it’s just Emma and me”.

“I’m sorry; I can’t begin to imagine…”

“No”. I shrugged; “She had two bouts with cancer, but she came through the first one alright. We always knew it might come back, though. Still, we had fifteen more years…”

“Is Emma all right?”

“Most of the time she is. Like me, she has her days now and again”.

“Is she in school here?”

“She finished her Grade Twelve back home in June. She’s volunteering at a nursing home in New Marston right now; she’s hoping to go into nursing training as soon as we can get all the red tape worked out. I think she’ll be pretty good at it”.

“You’re obviously very proud of her”.

I nodded; “I only have one child, but I’ve been really lucky with her”.

She looked down at Emma’s photograph again. “She’s a very beautiful young woman”.

“She is; she takes after her mum that way – and in other ways, too”. I gave her a smile and said, “Anyway, getting back to Colin…”

“Yes; is there anything else I need to know?”

“Well, we should probably talk about his mock exams”.

“Right”.

“You know they’re coming up at the end of November, and you know how it works – he has to do well in the mocks or the school won’t recommend that he take his GCSEs. Even if he’s planning to go straight from here to a technical college or something like that, it’ll be a real help if he’s got even a couple of good GCSEs under his belt”.

“So you’re telling me the next four weeks are crucial”.

“That’s right. I don’t have anything new to say to you about helping him study – you’re already doing it, and more besides. But I’m going to try to impress on him the importance of these mock exams, and it would be helpful if you would do the same”.

“I’ll do my best”.

“I assume he’s planning on leaving at the end of this academic year?”

“Yes; he wants to go into cabinet making”. She gave me another smile; “He actually made new cabinets for our kitchen a couple of years ago, when he was only fourteen”.

“It must be encouraging for him that you let him do that”.

She laughed; “He gets quite embarrassed about them now; he says they’re not up to acceptable standards. I know he’ll replace them sooner or later”.

“Has he always been interested in woodwork?”

“Since he was a little boy; he used to watch my dad puttering around in his workshop, so after a while Dad started teaching him things”.

“I thought your dad was a clergyman?”

“He was – he is – but he’s always enjoyed carpentry on the side too, ever since I can remember”.

“That’s neat; I enjoy people with multi-faceted personalities”.

She laughed; “That’s one way of putting it!”

At that moment there was a knock on the door of my classroom. “Excuse me a minute”, I said; “I’ll just see who that is”. I got to my feet, went to the door and opened it to find Emma standing there, an impish smile on her face.

“Did you get lost?” I asked; “If I remember correctly, home’s in the other direction!”

She laughed and reached up to kiss me on the cheek. “I thought I might walk home with you”, she replied; “I’ve been doing baths, and we finished about half an hour ago. Are you almost ready to go?”

“I’m nearly done. Come in for a minute; there’s someone here I want you to meet”.

She followed me into the room, and I said to her, “Emma, this is Doctor Wendy Howard. Wendy, I want you to meet my daughter Emma”.

Wendy got to her feet, shook hands with Emma and said, “Your dad’s just been telling me about you”.

Emma grinned; “You’re Wendy Howard the writer, aren’t you? I’ve been reading your book about George Eliot; it’s amazing!”

“Thank you”.

“Emma’s a great reader”, I said; “She’s been helping herself to books from my bookshelf for a long time”.

“I read Middlemarch earlier this year”, Emma added, “and then The Mill on the Floss”.

Wendy nodded; “Good choices”.

“Thanks. And you used to sing with Dad and Uncle Owen, right?”

“I did, although it seems a very long time ago now”.

“Dad’s got a couple of pictures of the three of you in his old photo album; he used to have one on the wall of our house back in Meadowvale”.

“Wearing the worst early 1980s fashions, no doubt?”

“Yeah, the clothes are kind of cheesy”, Emma agreed. “But Dad told me once that you had one of the most beautiful singing voices he’d ever heard in his life”.

Wendy smiled; “His memory may not be as good as it used to be. Anyway, I’m afraid I’ve got to be getting along”.

“Listen”, I said, “would you be interested in getting together with Owen and me some time in the not-too-distant future?”

She smiled; “You mentioned that on the phone the other week”.

“Well, I have some good memories…”

“I know; me too”. She hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Let me think about it. My life’s quite busy, and it really has been a long time since I’ve sung any of those old traditional songs”.

“Do you still listen to them?”

“I do, but most of my singing over the last few years has been in choirs”.

“I understand. Singing or not, it would be good for the three of us to spend some time together again”.

She nodded slowly; “Yes it would. Still, like I said, let me think about it; I’ve got your number, so I’ll give you a ring”.

“Okay”.

“It was lovely to meet you, Emma, and good to see you again, Tom; I’ll have a talk with Colin about what you’ve said. Thanks for all your help with him”.

“Not at all. I’ll look forward to hearing from you”.

“Right; bye for now”.

******

“How did she come to be visiting you in your classroom?” Emma asked me as we walked home together.

“It was a parent-teacher interview; her son’s in one of my classes”.

She glanced at me in surprise; “You didn’t tell me that”.

“I guess not”.

“Any particular reason?”

“Not really. He’s in my tutor group, too”.

“Quite the coincidence”.

“I guess so”.

“You haven’t talked about Wendy Howard very much over the years, Dad”.

“Well, I kind of lost touch with her after I moved to Canada”.

“But you had her picture on the wall for a long time”.

“A picture of the three of us, you mean”.

“Yeah. Still…”

I shook my head. “I know what you’re thinking, Em”, I said quietly, “but Wendy was never my girlfriend. We were good friends for a while, though, and I’m glad to have made contact with her again”.

She grinned at me; “I’ll admit I was curious”.

“I could see that”.

“I’ve always assumed you and Mom had other dating relationships before you met; I wouldn’t have been upset if she’d been your girlfriend”.

“Well that’s a relief!”

We both laughed, and I felt a raindrop on my head. “Do you have your umbrella in that backpack?” I asked.

“Of course; I’m learning to be a good Brit!”

“I think you’re going to need it”.

******

Link to Chapter 11

‘Nowell Sing We’

This is beautiful:

 

Here are the lyrics (close enough):

Nowell sing we now all and some,
For Rex pacificus is come.

In Bethlehem, in that fair city,
A child was born of a maiden free,
That shall a lord and prince be,
A solis ortus cardine.

Children were slain in full great plenty,
Jesu, for the love of thee;
Wherefore their souls saved be,
Hostis Herodis impie.

As the sun shineth through the glass,
So Jesu in his mother was;
Thee to serve now grant us grace,
O lux beata Trinitas.

Now God is come to worship us;
Now of Mary is born Jesus;
Make we merry amongst us;
Exultet caelum laudibus.

Nowell sing we now all and some,
For Rex pacificus is come.

For background information about this fifteenth century carol and its meaning and story, see this really interesting post by Eleanor Parker, the ‘Clerk of Oxford’.

The Word Became Flesh (a sermon for Christmas morning on John 1:14)

I think most of us here are probably familiar with MASH, that great TV comedy show from the 70s and 80s about the staff of an army field hospital in the Korean war. One of my favourite episodes was when Father Mulcahy and Radar found themselves on the front line having to do emergency surgery on a wounded soldier – a job neither of them was capable of. But they were able to get Hawkeye and B.J. on the radio, and after they described the symptoms the doctors walked them through what they had to do. To their great surprise everything worked out well, but I can imagine that would have been a scary situation for anyone to be in. A voice from far away is better than nothing, but it sure doesn’t beat a real live flesh and blood human being who knows what they’re doing and can give you the help you need.

Religious history is full of voices from far away. Ancient gods live in seclusion, on Mount Olympus, or Asgard, or the top of Mount Sinai. When they speak, they speak in thunderous voices, and human beings are afraid to hear them or encounter them. The gods send oracles and prophets to speak in their name, but they themselves rarely come close to human beings. And human beings are glad of this, because the presence of gods is dangerous to mere mortals We’re talking about mighty supernatural beings with unimaginable powers. In Hebrew thought the contrast is even more striking: we’re talking about the almighty Creator of everything that exists, the one whose holiness burns like a fire. No one in the Old Testament ever assumes that an encounter with that God would be a therapeutic experience! Their attitude is ‘No one can see God and live to tell the tale!’

It’s true that the Old Testament assumes that God lived among his people in the tabernacle in the desert, or in the Temple in Jerusalem. But his presence was still a scary thing. Right at the centre of the Temple was the room called ‘The Holy of Holies’, the focus of God’s presence in the whole building. That room stood empty for most of the year. Only once a year did the high priest enter that place to burn incense to God, and when he went in there he had a rope tied around his foot, so that the other priests could pull his body out if he died in there!

That’s how the Old Testament people felt about the presence of God. If you touched the furniture of the tabernacle in an irreverent manner you might die. If you approached God without the proper ceremonies, it could be fatal. Yes, God lived among his people – but he definitely wasn’t one of them. He was wholly other, wholly different from his human creations, terrifyingly divine. No one took it for granted that such a God would love his people; they all though it was an amazing wonder.

And that’s where we have to start when we think about the miracle of Christmas – the problem of any sort of contact between the Creator and his creation, especially his human creations. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says the apostle John (John 1:18), and the Old Testament people were thankful for that. How could a mere human being actually ‘see’ the great and powerful Creator of the universe? The circuits of our brains would be fried by such an encounter! Our hearts would stop with the shock!

And yet this is right at the heart of what’s going on in the Christmas story. ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). God didn’t just speak his Word to us from a safe distance, like Hawkeye and B.J. speaking through the radio to Father Mulcahy and Radar. God’s Word actually ‘became flesh’ – actually took on humanity, physical humanity – and shared our human life.

Who is this ‘Word’? John describes him to us in language that recalls the first chapter of Genesis:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:1-5).

In the book of Genesis, you’ll remember, God brought creation into being through his word. He didn’t get out a tool kit like a divine construction worker; he simply spoke, and it was done. “Let there be light”, he said, and there was light. “Let there be a firmament”, “Let there be lights in the sky to separate day from night” and so on. God’s word is powerful. Psalm 33 says, ‘By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Ps. 33:6).

Later on in the Old Testament period there was already a Jewish tradition of personalising this ‘Word’, in the form of the ‘Wisdom of God’. In the book of Proverbs Wisdom speaks on her own behalf:

‘The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago…When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep…then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always’ (Proverbs 8:22, 27, 30).

But John takes this a step further. This ‘Word’ by which God speaks and creates the world is not just a disembodied voice; he’s not just an embodiment of wisdom. John was a Jewish writer who firmly believed that there was only one God, but now he speaks of the Word as divine:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1).

Obviously we’re talking about God here, and the first rule for human thinking about God is that if you think you understand it, it’s probably not God! God is far above our human understanding, and the exact relationship between God and the Word who is also God – between Father and Son, to use Christian Trinitarian language – is far above our comprehension. But as Christians who take scripture seriously we have to hang on to both sides of this paradox: ‘and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’.

And now the Word becomes flesh.

Some people want to make Christianity into a spiritual religion. It’s about ideas and feelings. It’s about the soul, and life after death. Material things are less important. Material things don’t matter.

Nothing could be further than the truth. If God had believed this, the Word would never have become flesh. Some modern translations say ‘The word became a human being’, and I don’t object to that, although I think it falls short of the stark physicality of what John actually says. God became a real human being, with a heart and blood vessels, and a nervous system, and a stomach, and bowels. The Word didn’t just speak and think. He also ate and drank with outcasts and sinners. He touched the sick and healed them. He got tired and fell asleep. He touched people who were ritually unclean and he did it without fear. And on Good Friday they drove great spikes into his wrists and feet and hung him on the cross, where he bled and died.

One of my friends likes to talk about ‘head’ people and ‘heart’ people. ‘Head’ people, in her mind, are rational people; they’re comfortable in the world of ideas and logic and theoretical learning. They like Bible studies full of facts, studies that give you good background information about the world of the scriptures. But they tend to be afraid of excessive emotion, and they keep their feelings to themselves.

‘Heart’ people are the opposite. They find excessive rationality irritating. They’re in touch with their feelings and they relate to God on the level of their feelings. It’s important to them to feel God’s presence, God’s joy and peace. If they don’t feel anything, they quickly get discouraged about the state of their spiritual life.

I’ve always felt that this ‘head’ and ‘heart’ division was too simplistic, and in the last few years I’ve begun to understand why. Neither head nor heart are particularly physical. One is about ideas and the other is about emotions. But I think true spirituality involves a third ‘H’ – ‘Hands’. True biblical spirituality involves our bodies. The word for ‘worship’ in the Bible literally means ‘to prostrate yourself on the ground before God’. Biblical people clap their hands with joy; they pray by raising their arms in God’s presence. And not only that: they use their hands to care for the poor and needy. “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36). You can’t do any of those things without using your body. A word is not enough; the word has to become flesh.

So God doesn’t just announce his love from heaven; he embodies it. Love is vulnerable; to love someone involves opening yourself up to being hurt. So God becomes vulnerable; he becomes a foetus in the womb of Mary, and is born as a human baby. He needs to be fed and clothed and touched and cleaned and loved and hugged. Love isn’t just feeling for someone; it’s actually being a blessing to them in the things you do. So Jesus grows up to become a man and he doesn’t just teach and pass on wisdom; he embodies it. He doesn’t just make friends with people; he shares meals with them, and uses the meals to build relationships and have important conversations. He doesn’t just care about people’s souls; he cares about their bodies too, and heals them. He doesn’t just teach us to love our enemies; he loves his enemies too and forgives them.

Bethlehem tells us that the Word became flesh. Jesus isn’t just about the head or the heart; he’s about the hands too. You don’t just become his follower by believing in him; he says you have to get baptized as well. You don’t just remember him in your head; he says you have to eat his bread and drink his wine as a way of feeding on his presence and being nourished by him. These aren’t just optional extras for those who like that kind of thing. Jesus makes them mandatory. “Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. “Do this in remembrance of me”.

So today as we celebrate the birth of the Word of God, we celebrate it in action, not just in word or thought or emotion. This morning we gather around the Lord’s Table again and share the bread and wine as he taught us. The Word who came to us in flesh comes to us again in physical form. We don’t understand it, but we believe it, and so we come to him with our hands open to receive the gift of his presence.

Later on we’ll go home, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get together with family and friends to celebrate Christmas. I doubt very much whether anyone here will do that without earing or drinking! Quite the opposite! We’ll share the turkey and all the trimmings, and maybe a nice bottle of wine, and mince pies and Christmas pudding and all that stuff. Sitting around the table and eating together makes our fellowship real and tangible. It’s a sacrament of human love, just as the Eucharist is a sacrament of God’s love. And this is real and important to God too. If it wasn’t, Jesus wouldn’t have accepted so many dinner invitations!

But let’s not forget the third part of this. Celebrating Christmas isn’t just about hearing communion together and sharing a meal with family and friends. Celebrating Christmas also involves recognising the continuing presence of Jesus in the ones he calls “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40). Our gifts to World Vision of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund – to the Bissell Centre and Hope Mission – are an integral part of our celebration of Christmas. Our presence as volunteers at the Bissell Centre lunch our parish will be involved in on January 14th is a part of our discipleship. Our visiting someone in hospital, our handshakes and hugs for lonely friends and neighbours – these things aren’t optional extras either. The word has to become flesh – or, to use the language of the letter of James, faith has to show itself in works. Faith without works – faith that’s just head or heart – is not enough. It has to involve the hands in order to be real faith.

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us’. God’s love was incarnated in a human body, and so it became possible for us to see God and know him in a way never imagined before. And now that continues in us. The Word of the Gospel continues to become flesh in us, as we use our hands and feet and eyes and ears to bless others in the name of Jesus. Or, in the words of the well known carol,

‘Therefore Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing’.

“It is for You that He Comes” (a sermon on Luke 2:11)

Since the year 1611 many, many generations of English-speaking Christians have greeted Christmas by hearing these words:

‘And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:10-11 KJV).

The old words of the Authorized Version of the Bible, better known in North America as the King James Version, held a rock-solid monopoly in the Bible-reading world for hundreds of years, and even today many of us who are older can repeat them word for word without even thinking. ‘Good tidings of great joy’; ‘the city of David’; ‘swaddling clothes’; ‘no room at the inn’. Scholars know today that there are actually problems with all of these traditional translations, but no matter: for better or for worse, they continue to be the best known versions of the Christmas story.

That can be problematic, though, because sometimes words become so familiar that we don’t think about their power, and sometimes their placing in the sentence softens the sharp edges of their meaning. There’s one word in the King James translation that I didn’t notice for years: the word ‘you’. ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour’.

Who is that ‘you’?

In 1977 Franco Zeffirelli brought out what I still consider to be the best movie of the life of Jesus ever made: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. In his version of the nativity story Mary gives birth to Jesus in a cave on the edge of the village of Bethlehem. A little later, as she and Joseph are welcoming their baby son, the shepherds arrive, just as we would expect: dressed roughly and with working class accents. They start talking about angels, and of course Mary is all ears, because she remembers the angel who came to visit her. The shepherds stumble a bit over their words, and one of them has to pick up the story when another one drops it. But the phrase that sticks in my memory is when the old shepherd, with wonder on his face, repeats the angel’s words to them: “It is for you that ‘e comes!”

‘You’! You see how the change in word order in Zeffirelli’s version redirects our attention to that little word!

So who is that ‘you’? Well, who would we expect it to be?

We’re used to the idea that Jesus is a great religious leader, the founder of Christianity. Today over a billion people around the world claim to be his followers. Leaders in his religion have exercised a massive influence throughout the last two thousand years of history; they’ve crowned kings, excommunicated emperors and walked the corridors of power with their heads held high. Distinguished scholars have written countless Ph.D. theses about different aspects of Christian theology and New Testament translation. Preachers go through years of study and training before they get ordained and stand up in pulpits to instruct their congregations.

What sort of people would we expect to get an invitation to the birth of a great religious leader like Jesus? Well, not the non-religious, that’s for sure! We’d expect bishops and popes, Bible scholars and very, very godly people. They’d be the ones with the inside track.

But wait a minute – the words the angel uses here aren’t just about a religious leader. King James’ men don’t help us here, because they use the traditional word ‘Christ’, which many of us think is just Jesus’ surname: Jesus Christ, son of Mr. and Mrs. Christ!

But the Greek word ‘Christos’ is not a name; it’s a title. It means ‘The Anointed One’. Kings in ancient Israel were anointed with olive oil as a symbol of the power of God’s Spirit coming down on them to fill them and equip them for their ministry. ‘Anointed One’ in Hebrew is ‘Messiah’, and so our pew Bible, the NRSV, says ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11). But I think you could make a very good case for just translating ‘Christos’ as ‘King’ – which makes the verse doubly appropriate of course, as David was the greatest king of ancient Israel, and Jesus was his descendant. ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the King, the Lord’.

Who gets an invitation to royal birth celebrations? Not the likes of you and me, that’s for sure! You have to be royalty, or at least aristocracy. A royal child is firmly included in the 1%; the rest of us, the 99%, are in a completely different category.

But God blows all our expectations out of the water with the birth of this child; he turns everything upside down – which, if you read the rest of the gospel of Luke, you’ll discover is very much part of his way of doing things. “It is for you that he comes”, the angel says to the shepherds, and we can imagine how they would have treasured those words in the years to come when they told this story to their children and grandchildren. “There we were, minding our own business, sitting by the fire in the middle of the night trying to keep warm, with sheep sleeping all around us, and suddenly the sky lit up with the most terrifying light you can ever imagine! You can bet we were terrified! But then this voice speaks to us, the most majestic voice you can ever imagine – it seemed like it was coming right from the centre of the light! It told us about the birth of a Saviour, a Messiah. And do you know what it said? It said, “It is for you that he comes!”

Religious people looked down on shepherds in the time of Jesus. Jewish people were under strict instructions to do no work at all on the sabbath. Farmers have struggled with this law from time immemorial; how do you ‘do no work’ when you’ve got animals to keep alive? But the priests and religious leaders in Bethlehem would have looked down on these shepherds as sabbath-breakers. They certainly didn’t make it to synagogue every week! Oh, they would have known their Bible stories alright, but they would have struggled to obey all the six hundred or so laws spelled out in the first five books, the Torah. Maybe they felt guilty about this, maybe they didn’t; we aren’t told.

And of course, Herod the Great gave no thought at all to these shepherds – as he gave no thought at all to the vast majority of the people in his country. His only thought was for his own power and wealth. Like many rulers, he ruled for his own benefit. When he heard the threat of the birth of a new king, he had no hesitation in ordering the brutal murder of every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem – rather kill too many than let the fake Messiah escape and cause more trouble. They were nothing; they were just peasant children. He certainly never knew their names.

But the God Luke tells us about knows their names. He knows every one of them. He’s the God of the Old Testament prophets, the God who has a special care for the orphans and widows, the poor and the helpless and the vulnerable. Mary the mother of Jesus knew about that God too. When the angel brought her the news that she – a humble village girl, probably fourteen or fifteen years old, not part of any elite circle in her home town – was going to be the mother of the Messiah, she sang a song of praise to God. Let’s blow the cobwebs of this song by hearing it in the words of the New Living Translation:

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed…
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands” (Luke 1:46-48, 51-53 NLT).

How did Mary know God had done all these things? Because when he was looking for a family for his Messiah, he didn’t choose a couple from the circles of the rich and powerful. He chose her – a humble village girl, engaged to be married to the local carpenter. That’s the kind of God he is!

And that’s the kind of Messiah Jesus grows up to be. Don’t get me wrong: Jesus did not exclude the rich and powerful from his circle of friends. It’s clear that some of his friends were wealthy – but it’s also clear that he treated them exactly the same as the poor. Everyone came to him on exactly the same basis, and he welcomed them on exactly the same basis. And if he gave anything like extra attention to the rich and powerful, it was more in the way of an extra challenge: beware of the poisonous power of wealth. Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and then come and follow me.

That’s the God we celebrate tonight. That’s the sort of Jesus we believe in. And what the angels said to the shepherds I want to say to you: “It is for you that he comes”.

Some of you here tonight might not think of yourselves as particularly religious. Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, you don’t get out to church every week! Maybe you weren’t even sure that you were going to make it tonight. Maybe you’re not sure if the gospel of Luke is in the New Testament or the Old Testament, or what the difference is. No matter – “It is for you that he comes”.

Some of us here have had a bad year. Maybe we’ve lost family members who were dear to us. Maybe we’ve gone through debilitating illness and struggled to recover from it. Maybe we’ve had difficulty making ends meet financially. Maybe we’re just hanging on to our mental health by a thread. Maybe we’re struggling with an addiction and are only just managing to stay clean. Maybe we haven’t managed to stay clean. Maybe we’ve gone through a family breakup. Maybe we’ve come out to our family as gay or lesbian or transgender, and the response wasn’t quite what we were hoping for.

“It is for you that he comes”. Don’t exclude yourself from that ‘you’, because God does not exclude you. Jesus once said, “It’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick”. You don’t have to have everything together in your life before you can keep company with Jesus. He goes out intentionally looking for people who don’t have everything together. “Come to me”, he says, “all of you who are tired of carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest”.

“Don’t be afraid!…I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Saviour – yes, the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David” (Luke 2:10-11 NLT). And “It is for you that he comes”. You, and me, and everyone, righteous or sinners, rich or poor, brown or white or any other colour of skin. The gift of Jesus is offered to all of us, without exception. All are invited to come to him, and all are invited to follow him. That’s what Christmas is all about.