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Showing posts from December, 2010

Standing at the Gate of the Year

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This time next week "The King's Speech" is due to go on general release in the UK (it was apparently released in the US at the beginning of December). It is the dramatised story of King George VI, who relunctantly took the throne when his brother Edward VIII abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, and his relationship with the unorthodox speech therapist who helped the King conquer his stammer, so that he could speak more confidently in public.
I am not an ardent royalist, and rarely make time on Christmas Day to listen to the current Queen's speech (I'm usually either preparing the dinner, eating it or lying comatose in a chair having eaten it). That said I know the closing words of the King George VI's Christmas Speech from 1939 off by heart. That is because the Principal of my old secondary school, John Frost, finished his speech at every first day assembly with the words that King George quoted that year. The country was uncertain as to what the recently decla…

And the VM Award Goes to... (continued)

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OK... so, for the entertainment of all three of you sad people who are reading blogs or are trawling through facebook during the Christmas break, here are the VM Awards for things out there in the real world... Starting with some of the stuff that appears in the sidebar of the blog...

Best Read of the Year: This may have changed since Christmas, depending on whether I get any of the books on my wishlist from Santa, but I've vowed not to go near the computer for a week (a sort of pre-New Year resolution), so I've written this before the big day... Whilst it wasn't written or published this year, I was a bit slow in reading Stieg Larsson's "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" but until recently it would have been my favourite read of the year, despite it's unremitting grimness... However, it was toppled at the last minute by C.J. Sansom's "Heartstone", which was published this year, the latest in his Shardlake series which I reviewed a couple of days ag…

And the VM Award Goes to...

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As the year hurtles towards its conclusion, its the season of award shows and so I thought I would round it off with my own special VM Awards - an assortment of plaudits regarding some of the other offerings out there in the virtual world - the winners get nothing except my admiration and adulation...


Favourite Methodist Blog: Given that I call this blog Virtual Methodist, I felt duty bound to include this category. In terms of Irish Methodist's there aren't too many consistent bloggers out there (they've probably all moved over to twitter now, leaving dinosaurs like me behind) although Paul Ritchie continues to write "To Whom it may Concern". But extending my view beyond these shores, it will be no surprise to those who have noted the number of links to (and lifts from) it that I would see Connexions as the most consistently interesting (and eclectic) Methodist blog out there... Richard/Kim et al are also one of the few who churn out more stuff than I do... Never…

And Another Thing

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In contrast to the review I posted yesterday, I really wouldn't waste your Waterstones vouchers (or spend any money) on this. It is a disappointing addition to Douglas Adams', 5 book "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy", but then I suppose that makes Eoin Colfer the perfect inheritor of Adams' mantle. The original 3books were nothing short of brilliant, but Adam's famous disregard for deadlines and (in my opinion) the contempt that he and his publishers had for his loyal readership, meant that his last couple were merely exercises in commercial cynicism devoid of wit or original narrative... This is actually slightly better, though it only makes it an average read. Like Adams' work before it, it is shot through with some brilliant lines such as when asked whether the god Thor is omnipresent, his agent, Zaphod Beeblebrox replies

"No, but he's pretty fast!"
and I will remember Prefect's description of how he likes his steak cooked…

Heartstone

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I've noticed recently that my book reviews in the sidebar have got longer and longer... So as a result I've decided to post the longer ones here in the main body of the blog and just offer a pithy line or two in the sidebar... And this is as good a time as any to start, throwing out my suggestions as to what you should, or should not spend any Christmas booktokens on... beginning with C.J. Sansom's "Heartstone."
Actually I have run out of superlatives for this series of books, with this one being the fifth to feature hunch-backed Tudor lawyer and sleuth Matthew Shardlake. This one took longer to pick up the pace and tension, but the power of these books is not in the plot, which is, at times derivative, based on a stock theme eg. the Apocalyptic themes in "Revelation", or the key narrative twist here, which is taken strait from Shakespeare) but rather the meticulous period detail and depth of characterisation. You can smell the ordure and feel the bites …

Salaam

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I love Christmas cards... I know they are not environmentally friendly, and that the charity varieties are a very bad way to give to good causes, but I still love them. However, the numbers of cards recieved this year were definitely down, with greater numbers opting for electronic versions... And I have resorted to the same, especially for trans-atlantic friends due to the fact that I am so badly organised and invariably miss the last posting date. This isn't quite the same however, as you can't stick an e-card on the wall, to remind you of the great array of friends and family that surround you...

However, this year, in some strange way, in a year of some particularly encouraging cards, my favourite Christmas greeting was this one...


Dear Friends,
The Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board wishes you a Merry Christmas with the gift of love, peace and happiness. May all these and more be yours at Christmas.
Sending warmest thoughts and best wishes for a prosperous 2011.

Maula…

Christmas Bells

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Earlier on this month a friend posted another Christmas song on facebook, and while I had heard it before, I'd never really listened and knew nothing of the background to it. It was Casting Crowns' live version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" which I have posted below...
It is probably better known among my American friends not only in this version, but numerous others, including variations by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, The Carpenters, Bing Crosby and Bette Midler. Most of them, however, omit the central stanzas of the poem on which it is based... "Christmas Bells" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). That's probably because they refer to the American Civil War which was raging when Longfellow wrote this poem on December 25th 1864. Yet it is the contrast between the dreadful reality of war and the promise of God's peace that lends the real power to this poem.



I heard the bells on Chr…

We Light This Central Candle...

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We come to the final leg of out advent journey...

We light this central candle
to give thanks for birth of the baby of Bethlehem,
The child born to be King despite humble beginnings,
The boy in the cattle stall,
Who became the man on the cross,
Born as one of us to die for all of us,
Creator, Saviour and Sustainer of the world,
The light has overcome the darkness.
Thanks be to God.

And so This is Christmas - And What Have We Done?

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I'm not a fan of John Lennon. I know that is almost a stoning offence in this season where people have been remembering the 30 years - yes 30 - since he was killed, but I just don't... I like him marginally more than Paul McCartney... particularly the Paul McCartney that keep on showing up on live shows to sing badly with people who could be his grandchildren... but I was never really a fan of the Beatles full stop...

Anyway, with that admission out of the way, the one track by John Lennon that I do quite like, and actually bought at one point on vinyl... is "Happy Xmas (War is Over)". My liking of it is slightly diminished by the fact that it is now on that continuous loop of non-religious Christmas songs that plays in every shop from mid-November until Christmas Eve, but it is still better than most of the other musical tinsel... And a few years ago I devised a mime with it as a backing track, which, in the 3 minutes 34 seconds it allows, tells the story of the reco…

Liturgical Dolly's Tea-Parties

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I've just finished my pre-Christmas round of home communions, with those who are no longer able, for various reasons, to make it out to church. I use two home communion sets, one which is the natty little pewter number in a zip up bag pictured here, which my previous congregation gave me as a farewell present and a fancy silver-plate one in a polished wooden box which was given to my current congregation in memory of a former member who died young.
I usually take someone else with me on these occasions as it gives a greater sense of the sharing together of Christ's body the church, than if I was there as a representative member on my own, and that is an important element in the idea of coming together in unity, that "com - union" is, in part, supposed to represent... and given that many of these people feel that they have been isolated from the wider church by their age, infirmity or illness, I will do all that I can to emphasise their undiminished place in Christ'…

Game of Life and Death

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Christmas is the time when many of us get boardgames of various kinds. I have to confess that I get horribly competitive at boardgames, be they something as complex as Monopoly or even as simple as Snakes and Ladders... Years ago some friends, knowing my interest in all things Egyptian, bought me "The Hieroglyphs Game", which is known in this family as "The Scarab Game" or more frequently "There's No Way I'm Playing you at That Game because you Turn into a Competitive Monster" which may be pushing it a bit far, but only slightly...

Anyway, in ancient Egypt itself they had an interest in boardgames, and particularly one called Senet which, it has been suggested, is perhaps the oldest boardgame in the world and might actually be the progenitor of backgammon.

It frequently appears in the illustrations of the "Book of the Dead" and Senet sets were often included in the funerary gifts for the deceased. Some suggest this is because being "l…

A Digital or Commercial Christmas?

Everyone else is posting it, on facebook and blogs, so I wouldn't want to be left out... but I didn't want to post it until I had used it at last night's Carol Service. Its a clever send-up of our current obsession with the digital world, roughly telling the story of the first Christmas... It seems as if it (like many of the other viral videos eg. the flashmob Hallelujah Chorus in the food-court that I also used last night) is actually an extended ad, but since I don't know what it is actually advertising it isn't likely to impact on buy commercial activities... But it is a classic case of the kingdom of this world trying to subvert the coming kingdom, rather than, as Handel's Messiah would have it, the kingdoms of this world becoming the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ...
But if we turn their efforts on their heads again and use them for God's glory, then the proper balance is restored... I think... Or is it... Or should I just stop and let you watch t…

We Light This Fourth Candle..

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An advent litany for the Sunday before Christmas: We light this fourth candle
to give thanks for Mary the Mother of Jesus,
Who heard God’s words to her,
God’s surprising words,
And responded with humble faith,
Being ready to welcome the gift of God’s son,
No matter what that would then bring.
We light this candle...
May its light overcome the darkness

More than Just a Game

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One of the great stories offering a glimpse of what Christmas is really about is the oft-told tale of British and German soldiers playing football in no-man's land on the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914. What is less often told is that the next day many of those who participated in that impromptu game refused to shoot at the "enemy" the next day, and had to be disciplined and re-deployed, with the respective high commands making sure there would be no repeat performances in 1915 and subsequent years. This is not just a story about Christmas, but also the transformative power of sport... Although given some of the Boxing Day football matches I've taken part in over the years, they were more likely to cause hostilities to break out! I enjoy playing sport, particularly competitive sport. I'm not very good at it but there is something about it that helps me to switch off and let-off steam in a controlled way. As a young guy I really enjoyed rugby, but my knees got…

Behind the Bright Lights

Here's another possible contender for Christmas No1 if there was any justice in the world. I'm not a big Sufjan Stevens fan but I picked this up over on this side of sunday... The melancholy touched with the hope of resurrection within it is so poignant, particularly when it is contrasted with the bright lights of the video. Such Christmas lightshows used to be the sort of things you only ever saw in America, but like everything else it has made the trans-Atlantic hop and is very popular here... especially in working class areas. I used to work in an area where the lights on many houses at Christmas were so elaborate that queues of cars used to snake slowly through the estate every night from early December to early January... It was way more impressive than the city centre lights. But I knew that behind the bright lights and the closed doors lay broken hearts, strained relationships and shattered dreams...
Celebration of the incarnation is ultimately only good news of great jo…

Breathe...

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OK... Back to the "Book of the Dead" (a great pre-Christmas topic!), or as it should be known "The Book of Coming Forth by Day" because it was written to cover that period when a deceased person's spirit (or Ba) would be out and about during the hours of daylight, scouting for safe-passage through the Duat, or underworld, to the afterlife... The spells/prayers within the book offered various ways to avoid some of the various traps that an unsuspecting spirit could fall into en route like cheats in a computer game (more on that next time)...
But in many ways the process begins, not with death, but with the "opening of the mouth"... After the complex process of mummification, the priests then have to ceremonially open the mouth of the deceased, with an adze so that the ba spirit, in the form of a human-headed bird, can flit freely between the underworld and the mummified body... Because there was a belief that the spiritual life was only a half-life, and…

Bethlehem Road (Revisited)

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Nothing new this morning... But this little ditty that I wrote a couple of years back has been getting a few hits recently, so I thought I would reblog it. I've never had the nerve yet to ask anyone to perform it... If anyone else does, let me know... The tune is "Raglan Road..."


Down Bethl’em road from Nazareth,
Came Joseph and his wife
Within her womb God’s promise bloomed
His Word, the Light of Life.
He came to take on flesh and blood
To show us all the way
And through the night a star so bright
Hailed the dawning of His day.


And on the hills round Bethlehem,
Some shepherds heard the song,
The angels sing of a new born King
Awaited for so long.
They find him midst the filth and grime
In a bed of straw and hay,
Ignored by the earth that he brought to birth
The Lord Almighty lay.


And from the east to Bethlehem
Come men who saw the sign.
These eastern seers travelled two long years
To present their gifts so fine.
Gold they did bring, fit for a king
And a scent of untold worth.
But the gift of …

The Truth Shall Set You Free...

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In this season where we celebrate the incarnation, of the one who was said to come "full of grace and truth" is it any wonder there are a number of commentators who are suggesting that some look on Julian Assange, the editor in chief of Wikileaks as a pseudo-messiah? Don't think that Jesus was accused of sexual assault, but he was accused of associating with some dodgy people, was imprisoned on trumped up charges and executed as an enemy of the state.
Is Julian Assange a tireless champion of freedom of speech, a self-seeking sociopath, an IT terrorist, or a post-modernist messiah? Or is he just a very naughty boy?
Most of the "disclosures" on the recent ambassadorial cables told us things that anyone in the chattering classes had already uninformed opinions about... Israel and Saudi Arabia want the US to bomb Iran - you don't say! Sarkozy is short and Berlusconi is an old letch - never! The Americans think British soldiers in Afghanistan are useless - amazing…

The Alternative Christmas No 1

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As I write this there's lots of hype about who will go on to win X-Factor and subsequently gain the prize of the X-mas No.1 record... By the time this is posted we'll know who will carry Cowell's imprinature in the Christmas charts... But I can't be bothered revising this in the light of whatever the result is...
Last year the Cowell-machine was derailled by the campaign to put (Sony-EMI backed) Rage Against the Machine, into top spot, but there doesn't seem to be a coherent alternative being offered this year, although blogger Cranmer was, earlier in the month, pushing a facebook campaign to at least make Sir Cliff's "O Little Town" (one of the few of his offerings that I can actually stomach) chart, and a group of other artists have banded together as "Cage Against the Machine" to record John Cage's (See what they've done there?) "4 minutes 33 seconds" of silence. Given some of the artists involved, this will be the best…

We Light This Third Candle

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The series continues... By the way, I should have said earlier, but this series of introductory litanies is designed to work in parallel with John Bell's "Christmas is coming, the church is glad to sing" which wouldn't be a particular favourite, but hey ho...

We light this third candle...
to give thanks for John the Baptist
Drawing crowds out to hear him in the wilderness
Preparing the way for the coming King
Calling people to change direction
Warning of judgment and punishment
But offering forgiveness and cleansing
We light this candle...
May its light overcome the darkness.

Poor People Need Not Apply...

Well, its 2 weeks today since Sally and I visited the "Book of the Dead" exhibition in the British Museum. It was luxury to spend nearly 3 hours wandering around an exhibition without either of the boys getting bored. That's not to say that they don't enjoy history and museums... they do, but their patience has a limit.
I loved history when I was a child, not just Egyptian history, but I am sure that my love of history would have been deepened had "Horrible Histories" existed back then... They started showing them on BBC2 in the morning's recently and I kept getting sucked in... Their "Awful Egyptians" strand is particularly funny, including this musical introduction to the process of mummification.




It's not strictly accurate (eg. they didn't use scrolls inside coffins to write the book of the dead during the period of the pyramids, they carved/painted them of the walls of the tomb) but that's just me being pedantic...

Another "A…

Only Connect...

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My good friend and colleague in exile Barry Sloan posted a link to this piece by Victoria Coren in the Guardian. I'd half heard a reference to it earlier in the week on some discussion show or other (can't remember which) but was interested to read the article in full... Especially as I have the same sort of intellectual crush on Victoria Coren as she has on Rowan Williams... her quiz show on BBC4 "Only Connect", is an oasis of intellectual challenge (together with Paxo and "University Challenge" immediately before it on BBC2) in a wilderness of reality TV, soaps and quizzes for the illiterate or money-grabbing (or frequently both).
I'm sure we've all had fanboy/girl embarassing incidents in our day... Mine involved some simpering infront of Brian Cox years ago before he was famous (the actor not the astro-physics popstar)... although the thought of trying to extricate yourself from an embarassing situation with the Archbishop of Canterbury using a s…

Mary's Song

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Last weekend there was a whole hoo-haa about the injustice of 50 year old Dublin Tesco employee Mary Byrne getting axed on the X-factor... Even prestigious Anglican bloggers have been vexed by it... However, I'm not convinced that the X-Factor being unjust is particularly newsworthy... Indeed, whether the decision as to who stays on is decided by a democratic phone-vote, or by a Cowell-dominated cabal, justice is unlikely to play a huge part in it all.
But today, my thoughts are not primarily with a 50 year old singing Mary from an unprestigious area of Dublin, but a somewhat younger singing Mary, from an equally unprestigious village in northern Palestine. Carrying on the story from yesterday's annunciation, we turn to Mary of Nazareth's song of praise to God in the light of his promise of pregnancy to Elizabeth, her elderly cousin being fulfilled.
This familiar song of praise, read or sung in various forms not only in advent, but throughout the year, should resonate power…

The Annunciation

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Over the next week the lectionary shifts its focus from John the Baptist to Mary, the young, unmarried, mother of Jesus... I'm conducting a few services in the next week that focus on her and the "Annunciation" of her impending pregnancy... And in them I'll be using probably the first monologue I ever wrote... written way back in 1995 for my friend Diane Petherick (as she was then) to deliver at a Christmas show we had "conceived" called "Christmas Craic!" It was subsequently filmed for UTV, but I didn't get to direct it and (in my not so humble opinion) it was rubbish.
I thought I had posted it here previously... but for some reason I haven't...
I now correct that omission...


What a dream! No... No... It wasn't a dream... I wasn't even asleep... Or if it was a dream then it was more real than anything else I've ever known! I could smell the light and feel every sound. And no, I wasn't drunk!
It was the morning time. I was at h…

Book of the Dead - The Journey Begins

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Did I ever mention that I once met a man who claimed to be the reincarnation of Pharaoh Ahkenaton's daughter? No?
One of my most bizarre encounters over the years. He was totally and utterly convinced of the fact... he had vanity-published a set of hypnotically "recovered" memoirs and wanted me, off the back of a production of Macbeth directed by me that he had seen, to adapt these into a dramatic form. When he realised that I was slightly sceptical as to the veracity of what he was claiming, he took the memoirs back, which was a shame, because they would have made for an interesting play or even novel, but not one that would have achieved his desired end of championing his claims.
It was strange that our paths should cross, however, since his opening gambit was "Have you ever thought of directing a play about Ahkenaton?" Now most people, when asked that question would probably have said, "Ahken who?" But the truth is that I had been interested in Egypt…

We Light This Second Candle

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A short liturgy for lighting the second candle on the second Sunday in Advent... We light this second candle...
to give thanks for prophetic voices
Speaking truth into a world of dishonesty
Speaking out despite the cost
Bringing good news to the poor
The blind, the imprisoned and oppressed
Comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.
We light this candle...
May its light overcome the darkness

Christmas Movie Meme

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Today the plan is that I get all my work done by tea time, then we settle down as a family to watch "Nativity" with Martin Freeman... I think it is my wife's attempt to get this particular Grinch geared up for the coming season. So I thought, given that so many of you loved the recent flurry of memes (yes... with the exception of you Mrs. "I'm too busy for that sort of thing, unlike you boys" Holt), that I would set you another one... Your ten favourite Christmas-related movies...

Same rules apply... Post 10 and tag 10 people including me so I can keep track of the fun and games... You can post them as a comment here, on facebook or on your own blog...
Here's mine... in no particular order except the first one which is unimpeachably the best Christmas movie ever... and if anyone wants to disagree, its pistols at dawn...

1) It's a Wonderful Life - The piece of Frank Capra magic starring James Stewart which was, mystifyingly, a flop on its cinema releas…

139 Sleeps to go...

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Just got some good news today meaning that I, my family and my church can start to make provisional plans up to June 2014... However, I no sooner had got that message than I looked at a blog over at Biblical World, and discovered that all such planning may well be in vain. Now, I know that, in the words of Rabbie Burns,
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley,
No-one knows exactly what the future holds... Well I say that, but apparently someone does... Family Radio Worldwide and their friends on the WeCanKnow website... and because of what they know, there's not much point in making long term plans (unless of course they are plans for our eternal well-being) because according to billboards they have been erecting around Nashville, and material on their websites, the rapture/armageddon/the second coming is going to happen on May 21st 2011...
AAAARRRGHHHHH!!!!!!
Do these people not read the Bible, including the passage for the lectionary on Sunday (which I spoke abou…

Born of Water and Blood

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I suppose this poem/reflection was a product of many thoughts colliding: a reaction against the idealised views of birth, especially the birth of Jesus in less than ideal conditions, the discipline of waiting in both advent and pregnancy, as well as the Jesus' phrase about being born of "water and Spirit" (John 3: 5) to Nicodemus, a conversation which also gave us the much-misused or misunderstood statement about being "born again/from above", as well as the verse in the first Letter of John:

This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood.
1 John 5:6 (ANIV)
Born of water and blood

He’s coming Joseph
He’s coming…
The waters break…
And the agony begins.

Through the water
The people were saved.
Through time of trial
A place of promise was reached.

Wait, my love…
Wait, don’t push…
The time is not right,
But he is coming…

Why must we wait?
Why not now?
Let’s take what is ours
It’s the way of the world

He’s coming, my lo…