Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Innkeeper's Tale: A Story for Christmas

It’s been quite a night here in King David Street.

Bethlehem isn’t a big place.  We are really a dormitory town to Jerusalem.  Yet this year the month of Nisan has been bedlam.

You see the Romans (if they hadn’t got better things to do) ordered a census and everyone has had to go back to their home town to register.

Esther and I are fine.  We were born here and have been running this Inn all our married life.  And to be truthful this census has been great for business.

But the last few days have actually run us into the ground.  Every rooms been taken, but often only for the one night.  You should see the washing – it’s never ending. 

Still, when it’s all over I’ve promised Esther I’ll take her for a long weekend to the seaside at Joppa, one of our favourite places.

But I still can’t get my head round last night.  It was early evening when this young couple tried booking in.  They looked utterly exhausted and I could see she was near her time.  I’d have loved to have been more accommodating but we’ve only got four rooms to let and everyone had paid up front and gone for an early afternoon check in.

I was just about to turn this young couple away – of course I’d recommend some other place to them, when Esther came back from shopping and told me she’d heard every room in town had been booked out by mid-afternoon.

Now, Esther’s what you call the mothering kind.  Our kids are grown up now but she acts as the local midwife and everyone loves Esther. 

So, of course, she twisted my arm and we let this young couple have the storage room just above the stable.  It’s warm but we’ve never let it out before and I’ve no idea what would be its going rate! 

Esther made them comfortable.  But then Joseph (that was his name – he had a Bethlehem accent of course, but he said all his relatives had moved away from town years ago just after he took a job up north, place called Nazareth – I’ve never heard of it!), banged on the inn door around midnight.  Poor guy, he was in such a state, he looked terrified.

Esther took charge for the rest of the night.  I went over once and called up to the room above the stable to asked if she needed extra oil lamps, but she said no, the stable seemed unusually bright and sure enough as I looked up into the night sky the stars seemed to me to be brighter than I’d ever seen them before.

By about 5am as dawn was breaking I heard a baby’s cry and took over some bread, olives and pomegranate juice.  Joseph came down and had a bite to eat alongside the tethered donkeys and the few sheep, goats and hens we keep there.

His eyes were watery and he couldn’t stop smiling.

I said I needed to get back to the main house but he insisted I go up and see Mary.  But by now she was actually asleep.  Esther was holding the baby and Joseph told me he was to be called Yesuha – that’s a variant for us of the name Joshua, meaning deliverer.  It’s a good name, some of my own family have it too.

This all seemed so ordinary and yet a bit different.  That starlight and then as the sun started to rise a group of shepherd friends of mine, Ben, Samuel and Jacob turn up.  They regularly drink here and said they had been told about the birth of Yesuha.  I asked how they knew and they just grinned at me in a slightly gormless way and said – ‘we just know’ and then winked at each other.

Now Ben, Sam and Jake are just regular shepherd mates of mine so I was amazed that these three guys go up to the stable loft as quiet as Synagogue mice and spend ten minutes admiring Yesuha and congratulating this young couple – a conversation that seemed to go so deep even though they had just met – it’s as if my three mates and Mary and Joseph had known each other for years and something, some hope, some truth maybe bound them together.

As these three guys came down from there I saw them in a different light.  After a long night shift on the hills they left our stable as if they were walking on air!

By mid-morning it had all quietened down.

The three in the stable loft were asleep, as was Esther up in our room.

I started to open up for the lunchtime regulars and found myself inexplicably thrilled about all that had gone on the night before.  As if I had been part of a story that was important.

Think of that, Esther and I, just making a living with our little Inn on the corner of King David Street – part of someone’s bigger story.

Seemed important.

Seemed special.

Seemed like something worth celebrating.

Oh well, need to get back to work.  I wonder what I should charge them for the stable loft?  Perhaps I’ll give it to them as a present – never know it might start a tradition!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

A Christmas Thanksgiving

It’s almost here, and on the train to London today to visit a friend, I wrote this prayer for our midnight service on Christmas Eve:

On this holy night
we delight once more in
the song of the angels
the worship of the shepherds
and the adoration of the magi.

On this holy night
we rejoice
that light has pierced the darkness
hope has tempered our despair
and joy has touched our sorrow.

On this holy night
we give thanks and praise
that Love came down and
The Word became flesh.

So, on this most holy night
accept, we pray, our Christmas thanksgiving
for the gift of your Beloved Son
The Christ-child of Bethlehem
God, come among us.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

O Magnum Mysterium - and no, it's not an ice-cream!

An old hymn we sometimes sing in church has the line, ‘tis mystery all…’  I wonder if that really describes faith?

For me, much of Christianity has a sense of cohesion which I find inspiring.  I think it makes sense to have a faith in which ‘love’ is central, a love that moulds and sustains us.  It’s almost creedal to say that love is at the centre of:
                              every relationship
                              every community
                              every positive act
                                                            and surely one of the most foundational statements we have in our scriptures is the verse that proclaims with a simplicity that disguises its profundity: ‘God is love’.

And yet I would also want to willingly acknowledge and embrace that ‘mystery’ can both deepen our faith and free us from the need to have a full sheet of water tight answers to all those questions we’ve been asking since we were six.

Don’t get me wrong.  At AFC we are quite a ‘questioning’ church.  We like digging deep in our attempt to make an honest critique of life and faith.

Yet when it comes to Christmas I’ll happily settle for mystery.

The idea that God shared our life in Jesus, born at Bethlehem is as mind-blowing as it is inspirational.

At the centre of Christianity is an idea beyond explanation: that God comes alongside us.  Not a far away God, but one closer than our breathing.

Our Jewish cousins have a word for it: ‘Immanuel’ – meaning ‘God with us’.

That love of God is found in the new life of a baby, the faithful care of parents and the intuitive worship of the shepherds.

God comes close.

If Easter is the Christian festival of life, then Christmas is surely our festival of love.

One of the simplest carols puts it this way: ‘Love came down at Christmas…’

Over these coming days as Advent erupts into the joy of Christmas may God come close to you.  Maybe in the smile of a child, the flicker of a candle or even in the struggles that simply don’t go away.  Struggles which we can bear because of the love and support that surrounds us.

A verse from the Latin Mass for Christmas Day begins: ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ – ‘O Great Mystery’.

There is an implicit mystery to Christmas as there is to Love.  Yet all our lives are the better for it.

Better for the mystery which unfolded that night in Bethlehem when ’Love came down...'.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Avoiding Advent Adverts

As I was driving to Cambridge to meet up with a friend yesterday, I tuned in to Classic FM.  I couldn’t help but notice how prescriptive the adverts felt in between the music.  I was told that Raymond Brigg’s Snowman was an essential part of Christmas (so why not go out and buy a copy!!), and that shopping at Morrisons would make it a good Christmas!

Does anyone believe adverts anymore?!

So, as I drove up the M11 I made a decision that, essential or not, I can do without the Snowman this year, and just because it’s Christmas I won’t abandon our regular supermarket retailer in favour of one promising ‘good’ seasonal cheer.

It strikes me we all have choices to make at this time of year.  We don’t have to become a victim to other people’s agendas.

We even make choices about the story at the centre of this season.  We don’t have to take it all as historical fact, instead we can see the enduring value of ‘myth’ at its very centre.  We can choose not to get over concerned by the details but simply rejoice in the concept of Immanuel, an ‘alongside’ God, and just how mind-blowing that thought always is.  We can choose to balance a family celebration alongside a season of prayerful worship whilst seeing value in both.

And perhaps most of all we can choose to be open to the surprises of The Spirit and the joys of Advent without having too much of a prescribed plan; because living in the moment and valuing it is, I suspect, never more important than it is in December.

Actually I love the Snowman story and if Morrisons were local I’d happily shop there.  But I don’t believe either is essential to Christmas and that neither will inevitably make it good!

I make the choice to look elsewhere for a deeper meaning to the season.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Advent Blogs by the Baptist Union Retreat Group

During Advent the Baptist Union Retreat Group (BURG) are posting weekly Blog Reflections - they can be found at

Friday 29th May 2020

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