I'm sure that I don't have to remind you of the humor and genius of the travel writer and commentator Bill Bryson, but after having made a recent return journey to the UK his writings of the 1990s come to mind.
Bryson settled in England in 1977, but moved back to the United States in the mid-90s where he published a series of observations and newspaper columns under the title "I'm a stranger here myself." (Or, to give it its British title: "Notes from a Big Country." )
Dealing with everything from the garbage disposal unit, through the awfulness of television programming, to junk food that lives forever in the fridge, and the fact that the 1996 Dodge Caravan came with as many as seventeen cupholders, despite only holding seven passengers.
It's no secret that I'm a great fan of Bill Bryson's work) and not all of it is comedic. (His book on William Shakespeare is a prime example of serious historical study.) But in all his writings I admire his ability to approach a subject afresh - come at it from a new and often unexpected angle.
The book "I'm a stranger here myself" does this in two ways. It takes every-day, familiar subjects, and treats them in a most unusual way, and it also reflects the thinking of a man who had returned to his country and culture of birth after many years away, and the differences that he had noted.
To a lesser degree I had that same experience this last vacation. Yes, I had returned to England a few times over the past nine years, but somehow this time was different. For reasons I cannot fully fathom, I was, this time, able to look at places and people and events in a new way - objectively, noting the way the country had changed during my absence. And although I do not wish to be drawn into detail, most of the changes were not for the good.
Nevertheless, the ability to see things from a new and different perspective is always a good thing. It educates and informs, and even changes opinion and attitude.
On this Sunday of the Christian calendar, a day which bears the lack-luster title of the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear once again the story of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
It's a good theme for this time of year as baptism implies re-birth and a new beginning. And within the Gospel story we have definitely begun again, leaving the Christmas tales behind us, and embarking on the journeys and ministry of Jesus which began that day in the Jordan.
And at 11.00 this morning another young person will be baptized here in church, and no doubt there will be countless others all over the world receiving the same sacrament.
And just as we have heard the story of the Baptism of Jesus before, so too there is a chance that we can, at best, take baptism for granted, or at worst, overlook its significance and importance.
Just another "christening." Rite of passage. Celebration of new life, etc, etc, etc.
Time perhaps to take another look at baptism, come at it afresh as it were, and re-evaluate just what it means to us. Us. We who are baptized.
What is going on at Baptism? Both in the River Jordan and in St. Ann's Church? There's no need to dress it up in fancy language and theology, for the explanation is there in both scripture and church tradition.
... and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Three things are happening. First, the Holy Spirit is at work in the person being baptized; second, that person enters into a relationship with God. And third, that person is blessed.
The spirit of God at work? A relationship with that very same God? A blessing?
All of a sudden this sounds less like a social and religious custom, and more like a serious sequence of events!
And so it should be.
Naturally I was not here to wish you a Happy New Year last weekend, so I do so now! And I wish to plant a question in the minds of everyone here, my mind included. And it is simply this: Let us ask ourselves....
What does my baptism mean to me?
A new question to begin a new year. And one which perhaps needs a new and different perspective of faith.