Tuesday, 27 October 2020

An Advent diary, a tale of gluttony and desolation

An Advent diary, a tale of gluttony and desolation

November 21

“To be positive”, wrote the late great Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary, is “to be mistaken at the top of one’s voice”.

Nevertheless, I am positive that well-meaning and amiable people begin to ply me with mince pies earlier every year. Fatten up the minister, the cry goes round, expand his waistband, wreck his digestion and clog his arteries.

The first mince pie of 2019 came my way today. A solitary pie, a good clear month before Christmas. Soon there will be an avalanche. Splendid!

December 1

Advent Sunday. Let me unload some ecclesiastical snootiness straight off and purge it from my system.

I had an email from a great Henley institution today urging me to snap up a bargain for my true love on “The First Day of Christmas.” No! The “first day of Christmas” is December 25, not December 1.

The fourth Sunday before Christmas marks the beginning of Advent, the slow build-up to Christmas in the church calendar. Have we become like children who have not learned to wait for things? Quite possibly. It is at least a month since I heard an advertisement on local radio urging me to hurry up with that “last minute” Christmas shopping.

December 3

It was a real delight and privilege to host and chair the hustings for our four parliamentary candidates here in Henley in partnership with Greener Henley and our own Henley Standard.

Four impressively thoughtful and committed people, clearly wanting to do their best for their local community, the candidates came as a huge relief after the barrage of bilge to which we have been subjected by their national parties.

The questioning was thoughtful, too. Though most “political” questions have a moral dimension, I was grateful for one about assisted dying and the legislation surrounding it as it allowed the candidates to address a difficult and definitely moral challenge and share their thinking, however tentatively. All most encouraging.

December 5

A day of firsts. Specifically, the first Christmas dinner and first Christmas cracker.

Tottering into the Christ Church Centre, having delivered a Henley Handybus-load of Bluebells (dementia day care) clients to their destination, I was greeted with a Christmas dinner which was surplus to requirements.

How does one say no and then how is one to maintain the streamlined physique of one’s dreams in such conditions?

And with the dinner came the first Christmas crackers. I love cracker jokes. Mine said: “Why did the orange take a prune to the Christmas party? Because it couldn’t find a date.” And one from my neighbour’s cracker: “What’s the difference between a snowman and a snowwoman? Snowballs.” Hmmm, maybe I won’t share that one at the children’s carol service.

December 6

An interesting encounter today. An elderly man took a tumble and grazed his head. He then walked to the disabled loo and returned to the entrance, guided by his very capable wife.

Enter his agency carer, oddly missing during all the excitement, who without any consultation called an ambulance, shouting down (quite literally) the objections of his wife.

After a couple of hours waiting in vain (paramedics being much in demand and carer playing with her phone throughout), we loaded him into the car with zero help from the “carer” and trundled him round to the minor injuries unit at Townlands.

I have written to the “care” agency involved.

December 7

Several encounters with parents and teachers today, all telling me how exhausted their children are. What are we doing to ourselves and our children at this time of year?

December 10

WWW — not the world wide web but Welcome, Worship and Witness — what our life as a church is about.

It’s great to be able to welcome so many groups and individuals to the centre and provide hospitality for some of Henley’s most significant events.

Alas, we had to say no to the children’s pantomime who are seeking a new home for 2020. Being an overgrown child, I was rather looking forward to it but the elders, bless them, rightly pointed out the strangeness of it all.

How can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper amid the scenery for Aladdin or Jack and the Beanstalk? I can see it now:

Minister: The Lord be with you.

Congregation: He’s behind you!

Minister: Oh no he isn’t!

Congregation: Oh yes he is!

I do hope their search is successful as it’s a great production and means so much to the children involved.

December 11

Three carol services. First Lashbrook House, a care home in Shiplake. I have to learn to stop sharing my pious opinions with the residents and give them time to share their memories.

Then the Henley Village Montessori Nursery School Nativity. Lovely to meet the children, staff and parents, and belt out the good old Christmas classics. Old Macdonald Had An Inn is always a favourite. Amazing how children can make even a tea-towel bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat.

Finally, the town carol service in the town hall with wonderful performances from the school choirs involved, a funny but thoughtful presentation on the meaning of Christmas and some cracking mince pies handed out at the door.

December 11

Headway Thames Valley concert. A great time with the Headway Choir, the Henley Bellringers and a young lady harpist giving the most fabulous twinkly renderings of Christmas songs on an instrument which looked like it might need a team of strong men to move it. In fact she popped it on to a nifty little trolley and wheeled it way with no trouble at all, making my old man fussing look rather silly.

December 12

Election day. A steady stream of people visiting the church hall, which is used as a polling station. Watching from my study window, some were grimly determined, some clearly excited.

Media coverage suggests we are a nation deeply divided. We’ll see.

December 13

So Boris remains in No 10. Unlike those tormented by paroxysms of despair or who indulge in orgies of victorious gloating, my main response is simple relief that it is all over and with a very clear outcome. Surely it is time to move on? The stasis of the last years has helped no one.

Messy Church today, a combination of worship, crafts and a hot meal. Somehow that is appropriate and reassuring. Elections come and go, the Christmas story is for all eternity.

December 14

A series of annoying phone calls today. I always know when they call me “Mr Mellington” that a sales talk or a survey is coming next. How do you deal with them? My usual reply is, “I’m afraid he’s too drunk to come to the phone right now. Shall I ask him to ring you back when he can stand up? ” They invariably put the phone down. The damage done to to the reputation of the free church ministry is unfortunate but it relieves my feelings.

December 15

The beginnings of a sermon… this week I walked into a drama in the church concourse. Mother and daughter were on their way out and it was raining outside, hard. Mum wanted child in the pushchair, child wanted freedom, the right to roam. Mum pleading, child standing back and screaming. Then the girl spotted me. “No!” came at me with all the considerable wrath and rage a two-year-old can muster. Little Miss Grumpy had discovered she has a will and a mind of her own. I’ve known eight-, 18- and 80-year-olds behave in just the same way though with a more developed vocabulary and more interesting arguments.

Listen — every human existence is a negotiated existence. Whatever some politicians and advertisers may tell us, whatever the spoiled child in us would like to be true, we simply cannot have life entirely on our own terms, we have to deal with family, friends, neighbours, we have to handle a real world which just will not bow to our will and we must somehow come to terms with that. Every human existence is a negotiated existence. Except one. Jesus.

“He left his Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite his grace, emptied himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”

He came because he loves us. He was born in a stable because he loves ordinary people, not just the successful and those who live in palaces. He roamed around like a tramp because he wanted to be where the need was. He was crucified for love, it didn’t have to be that way.

He didn’t have to do that, no one forced it, there was no reckoning with mortality or moral and physical limitation that made him do what he did.

The one who is uniquely and utterly free entered our negotiated life to teach us how to conduct our negotiations with life and find our own freedom — not freedom from reality but the freedom of love and ultimately the freedom of heaven. That’s what Christmas is about.

December 15

Carol singing in two care homes this afternoon, the palatial Chilterns Court and Acacia Lodge.

Every now and again one of the gentlemen (it is always a gentleman) in such settings will begin to treat us to the playground version of one or another of the carols: “While shepherds washed their socks” or “We three kings of Leicester Square.” I think they want me to act shocked but, alas, I am nobody’s maiden-aunt and rather love to see the naughty boy they once were peeping through again.

Do people have maiden-aunts any more? I had several, they being of the generation whose sweethearts died in the Great War trenches.

Christmas always brings back memories of those indefatigable ladies — Auntie May on a cloud of goose feathers as she plucked the Christmas dinner and Auntie Violet going out with her 12-bore to say hello to the fox who had been haunting the hen-house.

December 16

Driving the Handybus to take the Bluebells clients home, I mentioned to the passengers that I wanted to know their favourite Christmas carols for inclusion in their carol service.

General silence ensued for some minutes. Suddenly one gent let rip with “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. How deeply some songs and words are embedded into us, usually those we learned as children, and bring us strength.

December 17

We hosted the Living Advent Calendar at Christ Church this evening. Terrific mince pies provided by the sponsor. The performers were the younger children from the Henley Music School, a local charity doing its best to make up for the deficiencies in school funding.

As always where children are involved, there is a fascinating mixture of narratives, the Christian story of the birth of Christ and the Santa/snow/reindeer/ let’s-be-jolly-round-the-holly thing.

December 18

Walking through the centre I heard the strains of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” being belted out by our friends from the Royal British Legion.

Doug Richards, one of the centre chefs, along with the lovely Donna, receiving due recognition (he IS a jolly good fellow) for a splendid meal, a warm welcome and a huge Christmas pudding. Wonder if any pudding will be left over…

December 21

Someone (modesty forbids) has a bright idea. “We’ve got those huge cardboard panels — why don’t we turn them into life-sized angels and give them the faces of the children in Messy Church? We could suspend them from the gallery.”

The crowd went wild. “Great idea, let’s go for it.” Now what is the size of an angel? People who mock mediaeval theologians for raising such seemingly pointless questions have never tried to put on a nativity or been involved in touching up the handiwork of the children to an acceptable standard.

I seem to have painted acres of angels but I do not complain. The children look positively angelic in white robes and tinsel halos.

December 22

Our nativity service this morning with a grown-up angel delivering all sorts of letters and parcels to a waiting team of shepherds and soon-to-be parents. The Junior Church worked so hard on this.

December 23

The anniversary of my first funeral, long ago now, just in case you thought a minister’s Advent is one long round of mince pies and carousing.

The funeral was memorable from my point of view because of the goat, belonging to the deceased, who was customarily tethered in the churchyard to keep the grass down. Being a friendly beast, he wanted to join the procession to the grave and was only with difficulty kept from butting the bearers and dislodging his late lamented owner.

Joking aside, there is always much sadness around at Christmas, for some there is a gentle sense of loss, for others bitter grief. I try to keep an eye open for such and regularly offer prayers of thanksgiving for those splendid neighbours who likewise are aware of lonely friends and find ways to offer companionship and encouragement.

Christmas Eve

The children’s carol service. Essentially lessons and carols but the children read the lessons which they always do very well.

I love this service. Amid all the bustle of Christmas it is a gentle pause, much less X-Factor than many of the services around this time, simply hearing the story read by the youngsters to the other children and their families.

December 25

Not the end but the beginning. The baby has been born, shepherds serenaded by angels, Magi set on the road, carols sung, mince pies consumed, cards sent, gifts bought, wrapped and posted or given — and Mary and Joseph, like the rest of us, must puzzle over what it all means.

If the story is true (I realise, gentle reader, that you may have some questions about that) then my feeling is that the only response that does it justice is that of Phillips Brooks in that wonderful carol O Little Town of Bethlehem:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.

Beyond the business, booze, bloat and inevitable bills, may you find something of the peace he promises. Happy Christmas.

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