An Expectant Lent: For The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory Are Yours

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The sixth and final part of my Lent series for Viva.

We might think that the gap between the sacred and the secular in a Western context has increasingly become a chasm. And yet, you don’t have to search too far to discover that the ways the sacred – something of who God is – permeates the world around us.

The writer Leonard Cohen is best known for his song ‘Hallelujah’, a song which has been covered by myriad artists such as Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainright, and popularised through various cultural outlets, from The West Wing to Shrek.

It’s been the soundtrack to coverage of devastating events including the September 11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombings.

But why has this song become a constant cultural zeitgeist?

In ‘Hallelujah’, Cohen captures a way of expressing an outlook on the world which encompasses and embraces the pain and mess of life, as well as the moments of triumph. He takes the experiences of David and Samson and demonstrates how the stories in the scriptures are not unique for human beings.

Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is both painful and uplifting; the hope that emanates through the hallelujahs is inspiring, while the pain of experiences is affecting.

But ultimately, being able to stand before God is empowering, and it is this chord of rejoicing, despite hurt, which resonates so particularly and why the song has been received so well. Yes, there is an element of redemption, but this redemption is not divorced from the mess of human life.

The final stanza reads: “I did my best, it wasn’t much / I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch / I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you / And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”.

It’s a sentiment with which it’s easy to sympathise: “I did my best, it wasn’t much, but blessed be the name of the Lord”. You could read these words as being defeatist in tone, but actually it points to something far greater about who God is and how he desires an intimate relationship with us.

Hallelujah means “God be praised”. The Lord’s Prayer finishes with a doxology, which is a liturgical formula of praise to God. So “for the Kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever” are words in the same vein as “nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”

These are amazing words with which to finish the Lord’s Prayer: standing in the blood-soaked shadow of the cross, we know that we are redeemed.

As Lent draws to a close, we are confident that our sin is not the final word on who or what we are; the empty cross shouts a cosmos-shattering “I love you”. With God, our death is now just a comma; it’s not a full-stop. We have life, life to the full, because of what Christ did on that cross.

We sometimes reduce God’s love to a cheesy line that can be printed on a pencil. Yet, stationery theology pales in comparison to kingdom theology.

We have a Father in heaven whose holiness is incomparable and whose Kingdom will come; he provides for our needs, he forgives us, he hears our cry in times of despair.

He sees all the children that Viva has ever reached and sees all the children who we will one day encounter and show his love to. The power and glory are his today, tomorrow, for all of eternity.

He knows our past and he holds our future. He sees the wounds we carry and sends his living water coursing through them. He is good. He is faithful. He is God.

And just wait, keep being expectant in these dying days of Lent, because our God will soon be risen.

PRAYER: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For the Kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD: Figures show that one in ten children in the UK aged between 5-16 have been diagnosed with a mental health problem such as depression and anxiety – and that three-quarters of them are not receiving treatment.

Viva’s partner network in Oxford, Doorsteps, is building links with local community groups, churches, and schools to increase the resilience of teenagers facing mental health issues. We want to be there to share something of God’s kingdom, power and glory with children and young people in their hurting situations. Doorsteps and Viva are hosting a conference at the end of May in Oxford to explore the Christian response to child and adolescent mental health. Click here to find out more and to book.

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An Expectant Lent: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

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Part Five of my Lent series for Viva.

Augustine of Hippo is widely considered one of the most important theological voices in the Christian tradition. A theologian, a bishop, and eventually a saint, his contributions have not just been ground-breaking and central to the discipline of theology, but also to politics, philosophy, and classics, amongst others.

One of the (many) delights of reading Augustine is his distinctive tone; his combination of profound statements about God, beautiful imagery, and penchant for sass make him a lively and engaging person to read. One his most famous lines, taken from his Confessions, is “grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” It’s a very Augustine think to remark but perpetuates a stereotype around what we mean by temptation.

It’s easy to think of temptation as being a vice we are drawn to, such as drinking, chocolate or social media (you know I said I gave up Facebook for Lent? I caved. Spectacularly.)

In its original context, however, ‘lead us not into temptation’ has a far deeper meaning.

As Rowan Williams comments: “[Jesus’] teaching often turns back to this idea that a great time of trial is coming. A time when we shall find out what we’re really capable of, just as we often say you don’t know what someone’s made of until they’re under pressure.

We’re coming towards a time when you really have to decide how much God matters to you; you really have to put your life on the line… the word [temptation] means so much more in its context; it means this huge trial that’s coming, this huge crisis that’s coming.

“Lead us not into crisis, don’t, please God don’t push us into the time of crisis before you’ve made us ready for it. Don’t push us until you’ve given us what we need to face it.”

When we face trials or temptations, often we can feel the need to try and sort it all out on our own, to charge in and try to fix the problem. More often than not, our intentions are good. Here’s a problem, let me try and help.

The temptation can be to say, “God, I’m doing something good, it’s for you, so please will you bless it.” But what God desires of us is: ‘My children, I’m doing something good, come and be a part of it and bless it.”

At Viva, we are called to all sorts of work with children and young people. We see and hear stories of remarkable hope and joy but we also encounter distress and pain. And we want to help. But we know that we can’t do anything in our own strength. We have to decide how much God really matters to us: does he matter insofar as he’s a good motivation for our work, or does he matter so much that we respond to the call of his work?

The writer of Philippians says this: ‘Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… One thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3: 12-14)

A good test when it comes to doing work in the name of Jesus is this: run as fast as you can towards Christ and then look beside you to see who’s keeping up. At Viva, our eyes are fixed on Christ; we are not superheroes, but are servants of our Lord.

PRAYER: Please, God, don’t push us into the time of crisis before you’ve made us ready for it, until you’ve given us what we need to face it. Thank you that you go before us, are behind us, and are also beside us. Help up to trust you with our whole lives and to respond to where you call us to go. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD: It was the disaster that Nepal was anticipating but dreading. Almost three years ago now, two devastating earthquakes killed 9,000 people and around half-a-million families in the central region lost their homes. In this time of crisis, our partner network CarNet Nepal provided an emergency response in the weeks and months after the earthquakes because of the presence they already had in many local communities. And, the network has continued to meet ongoing needs in the years that have followed, helping children and families with projects such as psychological first aid camps, training in hygiene care and the re-construction of school buildings.

An Expectant Lent: Forgive Us Our Sins

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Part 4 of my Lent series for Viva: An Expectant Lent.

Do you ever read something and think ‘can I really say that?’ That’s how I often feel when I come to the line ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ It’s a two-fold challenge: to accept that I am forgiven and to forgive others.

When we don’t forgive each other, relationships break down. The television series, Parks and Recreation, was about a group of local government workers who, despite wildly divergent personalities and worldviews, were close and loving friends. A time jump in the final series revealed that two of the characters, Leslie and Ron, were no longer speaking to each other and refusing to even entertain the idea of working together again, and no-one knew just what exactly had happened to break their relationship down. So, the other characters took matters into their own hands and locked the two of them in a room so they could work out differences. And, in the way only slightly surreal sitcoms can, the two reconciled after much shouting and an explosion of confetti.

This is a slightly trivial example to illustrate something bigger and more serious: to not forgive is both easy and a devastating act of self-sabotage which utterly undermines what God did for us on the cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who was part of the resistance to the Nazi regime and was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp.

In one of his letters from prison, he wrote, “Live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Repentance leads to forgiveness, forgiveness leads to reconciliation, reconciliation leads to freedom, and freedom leads to a life lived in the power and light of the resurrection and ascension of Christ.

From this place, we can respond faithfully to what God has called us to do.

At Viva, we work in contexts where we see the consequences of sin, where we encounter those who have been sinned against. How we live forgiveness and reconciliation in these places around the world is a reflection of how much we ourselves have been forgiven and reconciled with the living God. It’s not easy. It’s not black and white.

But God is not and has never been, afraid of plunging into our mess. But in being forgiven, we can love and in love, we can forgive others.

Forgiveness changes us and forgiveness changes the world. And God shows us how to do it, gently, lovingly, and faithfully.

PRAYER:
Loving God, as you have forgiven us, help us to forgive others. Help us to ask for forgiveness where we have wronged or hurt other people. Thank you that you are merciful and that through the salvific act of Jesus dying and rising, we will one day be completely free from sin and reunited with you forever.

WHERE IN THE WORLD:
Through its girls’ mentoring initiative in India, Viva is freeing girls from the trappings of their lives; the majority face oppression and discrimination simply for not being a boy. Last year, almost 400 Indian girls took part in the Dare to be Different programme, teaching them about how to make the right choices in life and giving them dreams and aspirations for the future. The training often leads to a change their attitude by the family towards the girl. Read more by clicking here.

An Expectant Lent: Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

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Part Three in my Lent series for Viva.

“Rivers of ink have been spilt over the exact meaning of ‘give us this day our daily bread’, because the word that’s used in the Greek is a very, very strange one that you find hardly anywhere else… The simple meaning keep us going, give us what we need is all we really need to go on.” (Rowan Williams)

At this stage in Lent, keeping going might feel a real challenge.

I’ve given up Facebook and I occasionally find my fingers itching to check in and see what’s happening. Although, so many of my friends have also given up Facebook, that I imagine the answer is probably, not a lot!

In that moment of wanting to see the familiar sight of red notification against a blue background, I have to remember that Christ died for me and that he would love to spend the time with me that I would otherwise waste on social media.

To pray ‘give us today our daily bread’ is to surrender our future plans to God. And that can be hard and it requires a lot of faith.

The French Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, wrote a short poem called ‘Trust in the Slow Work of God.’

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability
and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

God knows about time; he knows about all time. In a way, to pray ‘keep going for tomorrow’ is a gift. God holds the future in his hands and gifts us the present each day.

It seems to be that the hardest day in Lent is Holy Saturday. It must have been a bewildering day for the disciples and all those who believed Jesus to be Lord. The darkness descended, he let out his final cry, and he was laid in the tomb. And then… there was nothing. There was just waiting and grieving and wondering. And then there was a stone out of place and grave clothes neatly folded. They got through that Saturday – and Sunday came.

We don’t pray ‘give us today our daily bread’ in desperation but in confidence of God’s faithfulness. But it’s a challenge and discipline to replace fear with faith.

At Viva we rely on the exceedingly generous support of many people to raise the money required to help vulnerable children around the world. For those of us on the global staff team with projects to manage, we can look at spreadsheets or blank pieces of paper with furrowed brows and, in those moments of worry, we whisper ‘give us today our daily bread.’ It is the gift God generously gives us to keep on going.

PRAYER:
Holy God, you are faithful and steadfast. You have provided for your people in many wildernesses in many times. Help us to fix our eyes on you. Ground us in the present so that we may experience your love and grace for us this day. We surrender to you our worries for the future and thank you that you are with us, that you graciously hear us, and that you unfailingly provide for us. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD:
In 2008, Viva’s partner networks in Bolivia kick-started an advocacy initiative called the Good Treatment Campaign. With support from adults, a few hundred children took to the streets that first year to ask adults to pledge to commit to treating children better through their words and actions. The campaign wasn’t only a one-off; the problems of children being neglected and abused didn’t of course just go away overnight. The organising committee for the Good Treatment Campaign kept going, and it continues to run year-on-year, increasing in number and impact. Last September, more than 72,000 ‘Good Treatment Licenses’ were handed out by children in six cities in Bolivia, and the campaign has also spread to six other countries around the world. Click here to read more about the initiative.

An Expectant Lent: Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done

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Part 2 of my Lent series for Viva. You can read Part 1 here.

‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done’ is a radical line in the Lord’s Prayer. To choose God’s will over our own, to ask for that foretaste of heaven – you can’t pray these words without boldness and expectation of the living God!

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the character of Judas doesn’t like the direction Jesus is taking his ministry. As the character of Mary Magdalene pours ointment over Jesus’ feet, Judas interjects saying, “Woman, your fine ointment, brand new and expensive, should have been saved for the poor. Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe 300 silver pieces or more. People who are hungry, people who are starving matter more than [Jesus’] feet and hair!”

The musical portrays Judas as a hero of the poor and downtrodden, that it was he who kept the focus while Jesus entertained ideas of being the Messiah, riling the Roman authorities and placing a lot of people in danger in the process. In the climactic final song, ‘Superstar,’ the resurrected Judas says to the tortured Jesus just before he is about to be crucified, “Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”

Of course, Jesus did mean to die like that.

Without that death, we could never be reconciled to the Father. In Jesus we have “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2: 5). And that’s part of the good news of the gospel which we anticipate celebrating after Lent. What it requires of us is to trust God, to trust he knows what he’s doing and, he seems to have a pretty good track record! (I’ve given up hyperbole for Lent…)

From the outside, Jesus’ ministry doesn’t always make sense. Why was his first miracle turning water into wine? Why did he tell the man healed of leprosy not to tell anyone what had happened? Why did he talk in parables rather than speak plainly?

But then, why did he die?

We pray ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done’ because God’s eternal perspective is far greater than our finite one.

We pray it because God can and does do far more than we can ever imagine in ways in which would never cross our minds.

God is a God of surprises, of unexpected encounters, of miracles worked in both the spectacular and the everyday.

At Viva, we pray ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done’ because it is God’s children we serve and we want to actualise and realise God’s heart for them. Our heart for them is great, it’s good, it’s well-intentioned and genuine and ardent, but God’s is always better.

It takes faith, it takes sacrifice, it takes obedience – but so did dying on a cross.

PRAYER:
Come, Holy Spirit. Come into our lives, come into our world, guide us in the direction you want us. Give us the grace to see your Kingdom come; give us the grace to be obedient to where you call us to be and what you call us to do. Thank you that we join in the celebration of Heaven when we experience foretastes of your Kingdom. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD?
A refocus of the vision and purpose for work with children can re-inspire people who have been doing it for a while, to improve motivation to keep working, and to work better. Viva’s three-day training course, ‘Understanding God’s Heart for Children’ helps pastors and children’s workers to reflect on the experience and exploration of Scripture, and to enable them to hear and understand God’s desire and purpose for children. The course is currently equipping dozens of churches in India and Zimbabwe to meet the needs of children in their care with excellence.

An Expectant Lent: Our Father In Heaven

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The first in my Lenten reflection series for Viva.

We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, the day we remember that from dust we came ‘and to dust we shall return.’ It’s a time to remember that the world is in a broken state; that its citizens are daily subjected to appalling horrors and terrors.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says of Ash Wednesday and Lent:

“This time of year is a moment in which we are called afresh to look at the reality… of human sinfulness and evil – and to reflect that that lies deeply within ourselves, all of us without exception…

“A good Lent takes hold of that and, in an extraordinary way, makes space for the hope of Christ… not only in our individual lives but also in the life of the household and family, in the life of the Church and of local communities and, I would suggest in the life of society generally.”

Lent gives us reason to be expectant of the living God. One of the ways we encounter God and demonstrate our expectance is through prayer. Psalm 5:3 says, ‘In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.’

In the Lord’s Prayer, the reality of life, the hope of Christ, and the expectation of the living God which Lent encompasses, are beautifully realised and offer to us both challenge and encouragement.

During this six-part blog series, we’ll be reflecting on each line of the Lord’s Prayer, its impact on us personally, and how it relates to Viva’s global work in changing children’s lives.

Today: ‘Our Father in Heaven.’

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It can be challenging to call God ‘Father’, and yet, it is one of the most profound names we have for God. That we begin the Lord’s Prayer this way demonstrates that we are God’s children and he wants us to enter into his presence.

God loves his children and the Bible is full of examples of how we should treat children as a result. The most famous is in the gospels where Jesus says, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belong to such as these.”

At Viva, the importance and value of children to God is the catalyst for our work. We work to release children from poverty and abuse worldwide and we’re not content with the status quo but rather we’re expectant for God’s working in the world and to follow where he leads us to work.

There’s a stunning picture of the prodigal son and his father by artist Charlie Mackesy. In it, the father embraces his son and holds him tight. Sometimes, Lent might feel like it’s you against the world: as you give up something, you reflect on your life. 

But it’s our Father we pray to; not only do we have God in all this, but we have each other as the body of Christ. We are dependent on each other. And children around the world are dependent on us.

We cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer in a vacuum, we have to pray it and bring before God all the children around the world whose lives we want to see transformed.

PRAYER
God, thank you that you are our Father and that we can enter into your presence.

Help us to live this Lent expectant that when we call on you, you hear us and that you are a living God who is active in this world.

Thank you that you love all of your children and help us to show this love to all we meet, especially the youngest and most vulnerable in our world.

Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD?
In Uganda, our partner network CRANE has helped over 1,700 children out of institutional care and back into the care of a safe, loving family – sometimes extended family of that child or otherwise foster families.

With support from local churches, CRANE listens to and mentors these families, and trains them in income generation. It also works with 35 orphanages to help them make a shift to places of short-term care, rather than being permanent homes for abandoned children. Read more about this work by clicking here.

 

Hear The Angels Sing: Glory To The New-Born King!

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Part  4 of the Advent series I’ve written for Viva. Please do consider supporting our Christmas Appeal.

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing:
“Glory to the new-born king!”

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the chapel of a former Carmelite monastery in Cornwall. As it housed an enclosed order, the monastery itself is designed to physically create the set-apartness of the nuns who lived, worshipped and served there for many years.

In the chapel there is a round stained-glass window that is just above the main crucifix, which is itself just above the altar. The window depicts what is beyond the monastery’s walls: rolling hills which lead down to the sea, and, perhaps optimistically for Cornwall, the sun blazing through a blue sky.

As I sat in the chapel, cross-legged on the floor, clothed in my brilliant white alb (prayer robe), my eyes were drawn from the gold cross on the altar, to the large crucifix, and finally to the iridescent window.

Suddenly these words flooded my mind: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; who was, and is, and is to come.”

I don’t know for how long I was in the chapel, saying those words over and over again. I said them with many different intonations, from awe and wonder to praise and adoration, and also to a bit of disbelief. “Holy God? You are holy and yet you’re with me here, in this nondescript place? How are you so holy and yet you’re meeting me here so gently?”

When I was a young Christian, I liked my God with a heavy helping of spectacle. I grew up in the charismatic tradition where God did Big Things, but the catch was he only seemed to do them for a couple of weeks in the year and you had to be at this particular Christian festival in order for him to do them.

One of the things I am (slowly!) learning in my walk with God, and which was really made clear to me as I sat in that chapel, was that God’s glory is for the everyday. It is the quotidian spectacle: the extraordinary permeating the ordinary.

There is a paradox in how God reveals himself to us. He does move in the spectacle, in the holiness so bright it is blinding. But he also moves in the everyday, in the humanly comprehensible. This paradox is made abundantly clear in the carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

God has come in Christ, he is the heaven-born Prince of Peace and yet “mild he lays his glory by”. God is just as much on the throne as he is on the road to meet us, arms flung wide, waiting for us to turn back to him.

In Advent, we wait for the display of the Word made flesh. In many ways it is a Big Thing – shepherds on the backside of a hill are overwhelmed by a heavenly host; magi from far off lands follow a burning star; there is nothing simple about the miracle of birth, not least the miracle of a virgin birth.

But spectacles are like fireworks: beautiful, impressive and finite. If this was all we waited for, longed for in Advent, then what would be the point?

In theology, we talk about the appearance of God as a theophany. Traditionally, it refers to a visible manifestation of God, along the lines of the burning bush and the pillar of cloud and fire. In Isaiah, the prophet says he “saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne” and that the seraphim around him called out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah says, “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips…and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Theophany in this context is spectacle; something so amazing, yet an experience which is frustratingly finite.

In Rembrandt’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’, there is the theophany-spectacle. In his trademark chiaroscuro technique, the Big Thing of the incarnation is illustrated through the dazzling light of the Christ child; light and life to all he brings. In another signature Rembrandt move, he paints himself into the scene as a shepherd kneeling before the baby with his hands clasped in prayer, his back to us. He has positioned himself this way deliberately, so that we can enter into the scene through this figure. We, too, can be before the Son of God.

The incarnation means we can look God in the eye. It is the gift of grace in the theophany of the ordinary; all the magnificence of the spectacle with the permanence of the everyday. In John’s Gospel, we read of the theophany of the Logos come to earth and then shortly afterwards encounter Jesus at the well, offering an ostracised woman the chance to drink.

In Advent we wait for what we have already received: God with us. God is with us. God is with us! It is incredible and miraculous, and a demonstration of divinity so compassionate and merciful and holy it is near-on impossible to comprehend.

And yet, the event we wait for in Advent, the Word becoming flesh, means we can journey through each day with the knowledge of who God is. It is the theophany of the ordinary; all the spectacle of our holy God with all the love of the God who humbled himself to birth in a stable and death on a cross.

On behalf of all of us at Viva, I wish you a very happy Christmas. May you know the everyday joy of the holy God with us.

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This is the last in four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Read the previous reflections here: Advent 1Advent 2, Advent 3

Hear The Angels Sing: The Dear Christ Enters In

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Part 3 of the Advent series I’ve written for Viva. Take a look at our Christmas Appeal.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.

On Christmas Day 2011, the message of the Gospel was calmly and genially delivered by a octogenarian evangelist and broadcast live across the UK. It was the Queen’s Speech. In it she said:

God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love. In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer: ‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us we pray. / Cast out our sin / And enter in / Be born in us today.’ It is my prayer that on this Christmas Day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.

One of the messages of Advent that runs throughout the carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, is that God comes to us, but we have to choose to receive him. His presence is a gift – a wondrous gift – but we have to make the decision to receive it.

In the beginning of John’s Gospel, Christ is described as being the light that shines in the darkness. John the Baptist precedes Jesus and he repeatedly and emphatically denies claims that he is the Messiah. But people wanted to follow him and he had to keep pointing them towards Jesus.

Following the light isn’t always as simple as it sounds, even in the darkness. The hallway light in my house has been broken for several weeks. If my housemate and I were to fix it, then our downstairs would be filled with light. But with just one swipe, we can turn on the torch on our phones and that tiny spot of light can navigate us to where we need to be.

Fixing the light requires working out what kind of bulb it needs, acquiring that bulb, finding something to stand on to reach the light and, if it’s a bayonet fixture, spending a frustrating few minutes trying to get it to stay in whilst yelling about how screw fixtures are superior. Is that stress really worth it for light?

In William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’, he depicts the various ways that Christ is light: he carries a lantern, an echo of Psalm 119: 105 and the lantern itself is covered in stars and crescents as a reference to his message of relevance for the whole world. The scene is set at night, a metaphor for our postlapsarian or post-fall of humankind world and not only our need for light but also our refusal to acknowledge that we need the light.

Jesus stands at a door, knocking. When asked about the meaning of this, the artist explained that “the closed door was the obstinately shut mind; the weeds the cumber of daily neglect, the accumulated hindrance of sloth,” and when asked why the door had no outside handle, he replied, it is the door of the human heart, and that can only be opened from the inside.

God comes to us in the most spectacular ways; from the manger to the cross to the road to Emmaus covered in scars. He comes to us, but he won’t enter in unless we ask him to. He comes and we see a bit of the light, but there is always more light to be found when we ask.

At Viva, we cannot achieve things without God’s help or with less of God’s help. We could take his charge to love our neighbour, run with it and do good things with that little bit of light. Or we could let him do extraordinary things through us as vessels of his love and light. It takes patience. It takes perseverance. And it takes a lot of prayer!

After Christmas, we will come to the story of Simeon, the man promised that he would not die without seeing the Messiah. In compline, or night prayer, the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon is always sung: “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace / Your word has been fulfilled. / My own eyes have seen the salvation / which you have prepared in the sight of every people / A light to reveal you to the nations / and the glory of your people Israel.”

Simeon waited patiently; he persevered until he encountered the whole light; and he prayed. In Advent, we wait for God’s coming and he waits for our saying ‘come on in.’

He has come for you; will you let the dear Christ enter in?

This is the third of four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Click here to read the first and click here to read the second in the series. Look out for the final one published next Sunday.

Hear The Angels Sing: Two Thousand Years Of Wrong

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Part 2 of the Advent series I’ve written for Viva. Please do consider supporting our Christmas Appeal.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

1849:
14,000-15,000 civilians are massacred in Transylvania during the Hungarian Revolution. 96 inmates of an overcrowded workhouse in Ireland die from famine-related conditions, a record high for the Great Famine. The republican government of Sicily is crushed. As part of the ongoing repression of Christianity, Ranavalona I of Madagascar orders four Christians be burnt alive and fourteen others executed.

In the US, still in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, the seeds of discontent are being sewn for what will become the American Civil War. Against this backdrop of strife and violence and suffering, a minister in Wayland, Massachusetts finds melancholy as his muse and writes a poem (we now know as ‘It came upon a midnight clear‘) which is almost a plea to humankind: ‘hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.’

2017:
The UN has warned that the world is facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II, with up to 20 million people at risk of starvation in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria.

A terrorist attack targets children at a pop concert in Manchester, killing 22 and injuring over 100. Hurricanes devastate Puerto Rico, causing many deaths and billions of dollars of damage. 58 people are killed and 546 injured in a gun massacre in Las Vegas.

In the space of 24 hours, more than 4.7 million people use #metoo about sexual harassment and assault. A magnitude 7.3 earthquake in Iraq and Iran leaves 530 dead and over 70,000 homeless. An attack at a mosque in Sinai kills 305 and leaves hundreds more wounded.

The world has, indeed, ‘suffered long’. The joyful waiting we endure in Advent for God with us is held in tension that in the birth of Jesus, as soon as the Word is made flesh, the countdown to his death begins. It feels macabre to even contemplate death alongside birth, especially the birth of a baby, and yet we are forced to.

As Mary and Joseph, and the haphazard group of worshippers, celebrate the birth of Jesus, ‘a voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ (Jer 31: 15)

Maíno’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ is an enormous piece of work; it’s physically imposing. At its display in the National Gallery last year, if you sat on the bench in the middle of the room to look at it, you came eye level with a lamb, its feet bound, its final living expression one of anguish. A grieving shepherd holds the lamb’s, his eyes are shut tight, as a final barrier against tears.

It’s an obvious foreshadowing of Christ’s passion. But there is even more meaning to be found in the shepherd and his sheep in the dark beneath the Christ-child with his parents, lit resplendently. But there is also a predominantly hopeful and joyful meaning to that image.

For just as Christ is the lamb upon the throne, so is he also our shepherd. We are wounded sheep, we are at war with each other, two thousand years of wrong treatment of our fellow human beings, and in our pain and in our despair, our good shepherd sees us and holds us to himself. In quieting us with his love, we can again hear the love-song which the angels bring.

God incarnate means we can come as we are: human, fallible, wounded by people and wounding people, comforted by Christ through others and comforting others through Christ in you. We can recognise the pain in the world and know that it is not God’s plan, but we can do something.

For everyone at Viva, from the staff in head office to the networks around the world, the two thousand years of wrong against children are not ignored or dismissed – but we can do something.

We can be that voice or that presence which comforts people, which does not flinch in the face of unrelenting anguish, but holds on. We can stop the cycle of man at war with man, in the myriad contexts that war can be.

So this Advent, hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.

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This is the second of four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Click here to read the first in the series and look out for more published on the next two Advent Sundays.

Hear The Angels Sing: Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall Come!

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‘Hear The Angels Sing!’ is the Advent series I’ve written for work, which they’re graciously allowing me to cross-post here. You can support Viva’s Christmas Appeal 2017 here.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent is a special time of the year. It’s a time of waiting expectantly for what is to come; waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, this miraculous moment when heaven touched earth and God made his dwelling among us. And then there is the waiting for what is yet to come, the promise we live with that Jesus will come again.

Advent is about our waiting and God’s coming. The Latin adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia. It’s used 24 times in the New Testament and 16 uses of it refer to the second coming of Christ.

There’s a tension present in our waiting for the Parousia, the certainty of it coming and the uncertainty of when it will come. But the hope the certainty we have engenders, permeates our waiting and expecting far beyond the uncertainty.

In the advent carol ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ that longing for God’s coming is repeated throughout the song. The longing is sometimes out of despair, asking for the Saviour to ‘disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.’

But that longing is always in the context of rejoicing because it will not be in vain: ‘Emmanuel shall come.’ Emmanuel, God with us, is a perennial truth. So be glad, take heart, and rejoice!

We put our hope in the mystery made flesh. In the incarnation, humanity and divinity collide; it is a spectacular and emphatic ‘yes’ proclaimed by God over human beings; ‘yes’, you are my children and ‘yes’, you are my very good creation.

The incarnation speaks of the profound commitment of God to his children.The theologian, Rowan Williams, says of the incarnation:

Jesus of Nazareth is the face of God turned toward us in history, decisively and definitively. All this life is God’s act. The Church did not invent the doctrine of the incarnation: slowly and stumblingly, Christians discovered it. If Jesus is translucent to God in all he does and is, if he is empty so as to pour out the riches of God, if he is the wellspring of life and grace, what then? He is God: in infancy, in death, in eating and drinking, in healing and preaching… He is there for all, because he has made himself God’s ‘space’, God’s room in the world… God and humanity are knotted together there in that space of history.

Human beings matter to God. We need only look to God in Christ so see that is true. It means we have a duty to honour human beings and make the way for those without hope, without the comfort of longing for God with us, to have that certainty-in-mystery.

At Viva, our mission is clear: children matter to God and therefore children matter to us. We wait expectantly for God to ‘make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery’ and yet seek to bring it about now for children at risk, in whatever humanly-limited way we can.

There’s a beautiful painting by an early Netherlandish painter, Geertgen tot Sint, Jans called ‘Nativity at Night’. The painting depicts a tiny baby Jesus as an emanating source of light, with Mary and angels kneeling around him in the foreground, and an angel appearing to shepherds in the background. In the painting, Emmanuel has both come and is coming.

It is the paradox of faith in oil on oak: the now and not yet; the hope and uncertainty. And yet, despite all that we can – we must – rejoice. God has come. God is coming. God will come.

In this Advent season, let us rejoice in our longing, let us wait with joyful expectance, and let us bring about his coming in whatever way we can for the people around us in celebration of the unequivocal divine ‘yes’ to human beings God made manifest beginning in the birth of Jesus.

This is the first of four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Look out for more published on the next three Advent Sundays. 

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The folks over at Bible Society are running #AdventChallenge – a chance to daily acts of biblically-inspired kindness in the run up to Christmas. In a world where Advent Calendars have become about extravagance, hedonism, and extortionate cost, counting down the Advent days through acts of kindness is a wonderful witness to the light of Christ’s coming.