“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind” -Epiphany 2017

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My favourite blog, Brain Pickings, posted a wonderful article of 10 things learnt in 10 years of blogging at the end of 2016. I was very struck by the first lesson learned:

Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

Today is the rich and beautiful feast of Epiphany, marking the beginning of the Epiphany season when we remember the visit of the Magi from the East, the Baptism of Jesus and the early miracle of Jesus’ ministry, the turning of water to wine at the wedding at Cana.

Thinking about those wise men, it occurred to me that their true wisdom was in recognising that their first guess of the palace of Jerusalem as the place to find this boy king was wrong. To use Maria Popova’s phrase, they allowed themselves the uncomfortable luxury of changing their mind. As I re-read the story of the visit of the magi I was struck by the response of Herod – one of fear and suspicion rather than what should have been a response of delight and hospitality. There are plenty of world leaders today whose response to difference, to strangers, to new ideas is one of fear and suspicion. Might we be more like the magi, ready to be open to a new way. They returned home by a new way, a different way, having had their eyes opened to something completely wonderfully new, a new hope perhaps.

This epiphany, this ‘revealing’ perhaps ultimately came to them quietly in their sleep, as they were nudged by an angel not to go back to Herod. This revelation came from outside, not from themselves, their own deliberations. This dream of the magi is depicted in a beautiful and arresting way in this carving at the Cathedral of Autun in France. Look at the gentle nudge by the angel using one finger, waking up one of the men. Might we be nudged awake to tread a new path in 2017 of hope, wisdom and adventure.

  By Cancre (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons HT

By Cancre (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to Sr Catherine for sharing this image on your blog.

Happy New Year! Here are my film, book and music discoveries of 2016

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img_20170104_100937I like making lists. I thought I would have a look back over the films, books and music I enjoyed in 2016 so here are my top 5 of each:

Books

View my year in books on Goodreads

  1. The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley – a great gothic novel, creepy and affecting.
  2. Different Class – Joanne Harris – an evocative book about scandal in a boys’ school.
  3. Enders Game – Orson Scott Card – this was recommended to me by a friend ages ago. It’s a great science fiction story – you can see how much it has influenced subsequent books and films.
  4. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn – best thriller I read all year – really worth a read. The film is also a great adaptation – but read the book first!
  5. Conclave – Robert Harris – really enjoyed this detailed look inside the Vatican and a fun story.

Films

  1. Arrival – my film of the year. A long time since I’ve seen such an intelligent film, an alien invasion which is a really clever thought experiment.
  2. The Martian – a good solid science fiction film, very entertaining.
  3. I Daniel Blake – a must watch about the current state of affairs in the UK and what this government is doing to oppress people.
  4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – I really enjoyed this return to the wizarding universe.
  5. Rogue One – a fab prequel for Star Wars.

Music

I consume music so differently these days. I have a subscription to Spotify – the streaming service – and have enjoyed their weekly discover playlist – which is a list of music that they think I’ll like based on my listening history (old and new tracks). I have also enjoyed buying second hand vinyl to play on my record player. Most of my new discoveries have come from listening to BBC 6 Music in my car. I often use the Shazam app to find out what the track is and this automatically creates a playlist in Spotify for me.

To get an idea of what I’ve been listening to this year, here is my most listened to playlist:

My top 5 songs of 2016 (which are a mixture of vinyl discoveries and others) are:

  1. The Pusher – Steppenwolf (from the Easy Rider soundtrack – sounds amazing on vinyl)
  2. This Year – The Mountain Goats (the refrain ‘I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me’ was very 2016!)
  3. Trouble – Girl Ray (great new band discovery)
  4. Lo, the full final sacrifice – Gerald Finzi (I heard this on Radio 3, a beautiful piece of sacred music)
  5. Heroes – David Bowie (obviously listened to a lot of Bowie this year and I think this is my favourite of his!)

Do you have any recommendations for me for 2017?

The Light Shines in the Darkness – Merry Christmas!

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Tonight we had a beautiful 9 lessons and carols service. One of our readers, Ros, read this poem by Lisa Debney and it was so beautiful I wanted to share it with you along with my good wishes for Christmas and 2017.

Remember that we carry the light of Christ with us into this dark world – the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it!

Find this poem in this book.

Mary by Lisa Debney

Your eyes are open now.

Those eyes which will open the eyes of others.

You study my face and, just for the moment,

though you came for the world,

you are mine and mine alone.

I made you and you made me

and we gaze at each other in equal wonderment.

 

Your eyes are open now,

so dark-bright –

sent from a night full of light and stars –

that I could watch you for ever,

watch your chest rise and fall

as you breathe the cattle-soaked air.

I would like this moment to last for ever,

you are so wonderful to me,

so truly wonderful as you are.

 

But not my will, Lord, but yours be done.

I must hand you over for the world cries out for you,

though I cry out to let you go.

Just for tonight let the future leave us in peace.

Close your eyes, baby.

Close your bright eyes on the dusty darkness of the world.

There is majesty in you but for now let it hide,

let it hide like a gem while you sleep.

 

 

Another TV Vicar – Reese Shearsmith on Victoria Wood’s Midlife Christmas 

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Being in a mood for some Christmas comedy I decided to watch Victoria Wood’s Midlife Christmas from 2009. I had totally forgotten this masterful turn by Reese Shearsmith – giving a kind of 21st century version of Rowan Atkinson’s litany of vicars.

Maybe a little too close for comfort for some! Watch until the last shot. Any vicars out there will empathise! 

Enjoy! 

Gaudete Sunday – “that deep shiver of gladness” – CS Lewis

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This Sunday is Gaudete Sunday, yes, the one with the pink (sorry, rose) candle!

The point of the rose candle is to stop us in our tracks, it’s supposed to stand out and make you go, ‘why’s that there?’ just as the reading from Isaiah set for this Sunday says “the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isa 35:1). Blossom in the desert would make you sit up and take notice. Gaudete Sunday is all about taking notice of the signs of the coming kingdom, the glimmer of light in the darkness.

I don’t think I can encapsulate the mood of Gaudete Sunday any better than CS Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He uses the appearing of Father Christmas in the land where it is ‘always winter and never Christmas’ as an allusion to the appearing of John the Baptist in the wilderness. Here is an extract:

“Didn’t I tell you,” answered Mr Beaver, “that she’d made it always winter and never Christmas? Didn’t I tell you? Well, just come and see!”

And then they were all at the top and did see.

It was a sledge, and it was reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the Witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard, that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest.

Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world – the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.

“I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”

And Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still.

fatherchristmas

 

Advent – the opposite of hygge – for the night is dark and full of terrors

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Hygge has ended up being one of the words of the year for 2016, largely due to some clever British marketing of a Danish concept of cosiness. Hygge totally appeals to me. It is a bit obvious though, of course getting cosy in slippers and a blanket and cuddling up shutting out the world appeals! Especially in this annus horribilis. These books about finding hygge will end up in stockings everywhere this Christmas.

So when I came to preach on this Advent Sunday I came with thoughts of getting cosy in my mind and was reminded again of how counter-cultural advent is. Our churches are devoid of decoration for most of advent. We don’t sing the gloria. Our vestments and altar cloths are a sombre purple. The traditional themes of advent are death, judgement, heaven and hell!

The New Testament reading for today was from Romans, Paul writes:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:11-14

Everything our culture tries to do at this time of year is an attempt at hygge. An attempt to block out the darkness by wearing Christmas jumpers, putting up Christmas trees and lights in November and showing adverts presenting us in our best light, showing goodwill to all. There are some downsides to hygge. One element is that it is trying to anaesthetise us to the darkness – this doesn’t make the darkness go away. The other is that it blocks out the element of surprise, it shuts us down, it makes us exclude (the hygge concept is popular with the far right in Denmark – foreigners are not welcome in our cosy homes). So this is where advent comes in, to shake us out of this all too human desire to shut out.

Wake up! Says Jesus to the disciples. Wake up, says Paul to the Romans. The responsory for morning prayer in advent is the rather Game of Thrones-like:

Now it is time to awake out of sleep,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.
Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed,
for the night is far spent.
Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
for the day is at hand.
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ
and make no provision for the flesh,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

(or, for the night is dark and full of terrors!)

light-draw-1565448

Our only defence in these dark times is to put on the armour of light. That’s right, to arm ourselves against the darkness, not to anaesthetise ourselves by cosying up and blocking out others. It’s a much more dynamic way to respond to these dark times we’re living through.

Let’s get armoured up. Let’s wake up in the morning and make the devil say ‘Oh crap, she’s up!’

Here’s a way to arm yourself, St Patrick’s breastplate prayer:

I bind unto myself today

The strong Name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same,

The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever.

 

 

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

 

 

I, Daniel Blake – and the problem of digital exclusion

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I wrote an article over a year ago about my frustrations in trying to help a young mother, whose child was just starting school and who was keen to start work, to get online for Universal Jobmatch. If you are in receipt of Jobseekers’ Allowance you must demonstrate that you are actively looking for work. The preferred method is for individuals to use the Universal Jobmatch website which can track your activity.

The system and the website for this are almost impenetrable – even to a regular user of the internet. The Universal Jobmatch website and system appear not to have changed for some years now where the internet has moved on. Many jobseekers will have a smartphone but not a PC and yet the website is not available as an app nor is it mobile friendly.

There is nothing about the current system that makes it simple for people to look for work. The cynic in me feels that this is almost deliberate.

This weekend Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake was released. I went to see it yesterday. It made me extremely angry. At our community project Space4, where I regularly offer IT support, I meet people all the time that are struggling to create a CV or register with universal jobmatch. Most of the time these people have never used the internet, few have an email address and many can’t use Google or Microsoft Word.

This issue is highlighted very well in the film as Daniel is shown how to use a mouse for the first time:

He then later on visits a library where there is free access to the internet but he has to rely on the people around him for help before his session time runs out. He is unable to complete the form he needs to complete to make an appeal against his benefits decision.

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Daniel is asked to put the mouse on the screen – and so he does.

The thing that is making me so angry about this is that this is not something it would be costly to change or do something about. Some government websites are very well designed, such as NHS Choices and the Vehicle Taxing Service, why is the Universal Jobmatch site still stuck in the internet of 10 years ago? Given the early deaths caused by benefits sanctions one would think that making the job search easier to do online might be a health issue as well. After all, we know how frustrating trying to get something done online can be – when it’s a matter of literally whether you’re going to get food this week it is even worse.

I would suggest that the following needs to happen:

  • make the Universal Jobmatch website mobile friendly
  • make the registration process simpler. Forget ‘government gateway’ etc. Make it that you can register with details provided by the Job Centre in a letter. Just in the same way as I can renew my road tax on my vehicle easily online, look how clear this webform is:road-tax
  • Make a free app available for tablets and smartphones
  • Change the language to make it understandable. Here is an extract from the current ‘help’ page on Universal Jobmatch: “The Universal Jobmatch website is run by Monster Worldwide LTD (*monster*) on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).This page explains the Password and User ID Reset Process, for when you have lost both your User ID and Password.Password and User ID Reset Process

    By carrying out this process correctly, you will be able to log back into your Universal Jobmatch account without changing your email address.” – does that make sense? No, especially not to someone who has never used the internet before.

Is there any good reason why this can’t be done, and immediately?

Other press articles

This week, I Daniel Blake has very much been in the news and the subject of much commentary. Here are some related articles that are worth reading:

Of course Toby Young understands what life is like on benefits – he knows what ‘rings true’ – Mark Steel in the Independent

I am Daniel Blake – and there are millions more like me – Jack Monroe in the Guardian

Benefit sanctions forcing people to use food banks, study confirms – The Guardian

We, Daniel Blake: readers on the UK benefits system – stories from Guardian readers on their experience of the benefits system