Category: Christmas

the neverending story

candleI love the Christmas season. Beyond being the season of sparkle, tinsel, presents and ho, ho, ho it’s the season that is full of joy, hope, intimacy with God and the miraculous wonder of Immanuel. There’s so much in the few verses and chapters that we read at this time of year each year. Given that there are a finite number of verses in the traditional Christmas passages in the Bible you would have thought that by now we would have run out of new things to say but in 22 years of ordained Ministry I have delivered loads of Christmas talks and sermons. I may have recycled one or two but there are probably 50-60 different reflections I have given on Christmas, plus bloggages I have written here. And I have not exhausted the narrative by any stretch of God’s imagination.

Sometimes the thoughts and ideas come easily and sometimes it is a struggle to find something new. But there is always more: I have explored the idea of God in a nappy; written an all-age story based on Nora the Noisy Angel; reflected on the names given in Isaiah 9; stuck a rubber glove on my head in a Christingle (probably best not to ask); compared Caesar Augustus with Jesus and many more. I imagine that if Ministers shared the themes we have explored this year there would be hundreds of different messages. Yet all of them ultimately point towards a baby born in an outhouse and laid in a feeding trough who was born to save the world – God’s creativity is limitless in his desire to communicate with those whom he loves – it’s a neverending story!

One year we took a risk and explored the theme of ‘Disappointment’ on Christmas Day in the first church in which I ministered. We started with disappointing presents and how we say, “Thank you, it’s just what I wanted” through gritted teeth. We then explored how the virgin conception would have led to a lot of disappointment for Mary’s family and for Joseph (initially); that the manner of Jesus’ birth was a disappointment to those who were expecting a royal birth; and that for some people Christmas itself is a disappointment because of their circumstances and who may not be with them. We finished with reflecting on how, even though Jesus’ birth narrative was full of disappointment it actually was just what we wanted and that it was a moment of hope in despair and light in darkness. Many people felt disappointed with that service because it was not the usual upbeat, bouncy, happy Christmas Day service. But I will never forget the lady who came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes as she held my hand so firmly that it almost hurt. She couldn’t find the words to say, but she didn’t need to.

I hope that you will have a joy-filled Christmas. I pray that you will find space for yourself to be refreshed and reflect on something new that God’s Spirit has revealed to you from the Christmas narratives. And I hope and pray that even if there is disappointment you will know encouragement and blessing from people whose lives God has touched through you this year.

Be blessed, be a blessing, and Happy Christmas to you all

a brief history of communication*

communicate

Technological advances have provided us with so many new ways of communicating with each other. It probably started with Thag and Ug gesticulating to each other and making sounds that they mimicked – gradually evolving into a spoken and comprehensible language. Cave paintings at that time of history were perhaps the earliest form of strategy planning – this is what we are looking for and we’re all going to attack it when we see it.

But Thag and Ug could only communicate with each other when within earshot. Maybe blowing into an animal horn or big shell helped with vague instructions and rallying calls, but you still had to be able to hear. Until some bring spark (!) invented fire and then we had the possibility of warning beacons and someone else thought about making smoke signals.

Technological advances from this point onwards seem to have been accelerating at an almost exponential rate. Written language (and the invention of the quill and paper) enabled people to write things down and send them to someone else, perhaps attached to a person or a pigeon (which also provided a tasty snack for the reader). Semaphore and flags enabled more specific communication over distances.

Books and then the printing press were a quantum leap in mass-communication – enabling more people to read the same thing. (Assuming they had been taught to read).The invention of the tin can, coupled with string, gave a brief opportunity for people to speak to each other over distances – limited only by the length of the string and how empty the can was.

And then telegraphs and telegrams and telephones meant that you could speak to anyone, anywhere (so long as they also had access to a receiving unit). Radio enabled longer distance communication without the need for long wires. The next step from radio is television where you can see the person speaking to you.

Innovations on these themes led to satellite communications to speak in (almost) real time around the world. For a while we had pagers (remember them) enabling people to send us a message when we were not at home or in the office. Computers and the Internet then created a whole new way of communicating (email) and bringing that together with the phone produced mobile phones and texting. Video conferencing expanded rapidly at this time, and the ability to create simple websites meant that almost anyone could put their opinions out there for anyone to see: people have visited this blog from almost every country on the planet!

And yet, with all of the technology that we have now, and with all of the innovations that will come, nothing actually beats Thag and Ug in each other’s presence communicating face to face. If you want to communicate best with someone it’s best to be in their presence.

And so, dear bloggists, I give you the reason for Christmas: if you want to communicate best with someone it’s best to be in their presence (cue sounds of a baby being born)…

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I don’t claim any particular expertise in this area. Don’t rely on this as rigorously researched wisdom, it’s light-hearted speculation to make a point!

nora the noisy angel

In the interests of recycling I am reposting something I wrote 3 years ago. It’s the text for a story that you might like:

Nora the noisy angel*

nora-the-noisy-angelHeaven was normally a calm, quiet place. It was peaceful, gentle and lovely. The angels would talk to each other in gentle whispers because it was so quiet.

Except for Nora. She could not speak quietly. If one of the other angels whispered, “Good morning Nora,” she would respond in a loud voice, “GOOD MORNING!”

If one of the angels whispered, “How are you?” Nora would bellow, “I’M WONDERFUL THANK YOU, HOW ARE YOU?”

And when the angels suggested that Nora should speak more softly she would shout, “I’M SPEAKING AS SOFTLY AS I CAN!”

The other angels called her Noisy Nora and that made her a bit sad. She wanted to be quiet but didn’t know how.

One day Nora heard that they were holding auditions for a very special choir of angels. She was very excited and went along. Thousands of angels were singing in sweet harmony: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to everyone!” It was a lovely, inspiring, melodic sound.

When it was Nora’s turn she tried her hardest. But instead of a gentle harmony she sang at the top of her voice, “GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST AND PEACE ON EARTH TO EVERYONE!”

“I’m very sorry Nora” say the angel choirmaster, “You’re too noisy. We can’t hear anyone else.”

Nora was really sad. She knew that the choir were practising for the most exciting moment since God had said, “Let there be light!” and she couldn’t be a part of it.

She went and sat down on a small cloud and cried.

She was still crying when she noticed that it had got brighter around her. She looked up and saw the Kindest Face.

“Hello Nora,” said the Kindest Voice.

“HELLO!” she said loudly, instantly feeling guilty about speaking so loudly to Him.

“I’ve got an important job for you,” said the Kindest Voice. And He whispered in her ear to tell her what He wanted her to do.

The next day the massive choir was ready, lined up in the darkness, waiting to sing their special song in honour of the special baby. They all waited for their cue. Then they noticed Nora walk out in front of them and step out from behind the night curtain in front of a group of startled shepherds.

“DON’T BE AFRAID!” shouted Nora in her loud voice, so everyone could hear, “I’VE GOT GOOD NEWS FOR YOU. IT’S NEWS THAT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD FOREVER! A SPECIAL BABY HAS JUST BEEN BORN IN BETHLEHEM. GOD’S COME INTO THE WORLD AND YOU CAN FIND HIM WRAPPED UP WARM AND LYING IN A MANGER!”

That was the cue for the rest of the angels. The night curtain was raised and the massed choir sang their special song: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to everyone.”

The night curtain came back down and the angel choir went back to heaven. Nora peeped through and watched as the shepherds faces shone and they hurried off down the hill into the village to find the baby.

When Nora got back to heaven the rest of the angels cheered and shouted and made such a fuss of her because she had done such an amazing job with her loud voice. And Nora could see the Kindest Face beaming at her.

She was so pleased that for the first time in her life she whispered, “Thank you.”

I have worked out some lyrics for a song that can be sung to the tune of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer after the story has been told:

Nora the noisy angel
Didn't have a quiet voice
And if you ever heard her
You'd be deafened by the noise
Nora just couldn't whisper
Her voice was always far too loud
She only had one volume
That echoed loud around the clouds

'Glory to God on hi-gh'
Went the special angel song:
'Peace on the earth as well'
And Nora went along
She sounded like a foghorn
Drowning all the harmonies
She couldn't join the choir
And sing the baby-melody

As she cried upon her cloud
She heard the Kindest Voice
"I have got a job for you -
I need to use your mega-voice"

Nora spoke to the shepherds,
She didn't need a microphone.
She told them about the baby
Born to bring us all back home.
When she went back to heaven
How the other angels cheered.
And Nora's First Christmas message
Echoes down across the years.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*If you like the story and want to use it, feel free. If you fancy giving me a credit that would be nice.

the magic of Christmas

playing cards 2Regular bloggists among you will know that I am rather keen on magic tricks. I don’t have any special magic powers, I went to a normal school rather than Hogwarts, I am not in league with the Devil and don’t access the ‘dark side’: it’s all down to skill, technique, practice and sleight of mouth.

So today, as a special treat, I am going to perform an illusion for you on my blog.

I want you to try not to think of anything in advance of this, but I am going to attempt a bloggage-mind-reading. Clear your mind [insert ‘that didn’t take as long as it should’ type magician joke here].

For those who are unfamiliar with them, let me explain about playing cards. Playing cards come in four suits – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. They are marked from 1-10 (one also known as the ace) followed by three court cards – Jack, Queen and King. That makes 52 different cards in a deck of cards (plus Jokers if you want to be pedantic).

Now, when I tell you I want you to think of any playing card apart from Jokers. Not yet! When I tell you.

Okay, think of a card. You may have thought of the Queen of Hearts but that’s not surprising because it’s in the picture.

So now change your mind and think of a different card with a different suit.

Now change your mind one more time and think of another different card, not the first one.

You are thinking of…

[dramatic pause]

[extended dramatic pause]

[additional text to put my mind-reading answer further down the page, forcing you to scroll down to it and making sure that it was less likely to have been on the screen when you started thinking of cards so you can’t claim I influenced you]

You are thinking of…

[drum roll]

the seven of spades.

This is the moment where you leap up screaming, “That’s amazing!” (I hope you are on a train at the moment!). You will be wondering how I did that and are either extolling my skill and calling the BBC to demand I have my own TV show or are calling a psychologist to sort out the mess I have just made with your mind.

Actually most of you won’t have leapt up screaming, “That’s amazing!” Most of you will have been thinking of a different card. Now you may be feeling rather disappointed and let down because what I promised and what you had hoped for was not what you got. But try to imagine how you would have felt if I had chosen your card – a freely chosen card that I could not have known when I wrote this bloggage.

All I did was create an expectation and choose a random card. I had a 1 in 52 chance of being right. Most of the time I will be wrong, but probability suggests that some of you will have been thinking of the seven of spades. And for those people, for a moment, the improbable or even the impossible happened.

Advent has been a season of expectation and hope. We reflect on God’s promises and how, at the time of Jesus’ birth many people felt disappointed and let down because they were not getting what they hoped for. We reflect on our own hopes and how sometimes they go unfulfilled.

But we also anticipate how, when Jesus was born, those promises were fulfilled. Not in a spectacular way for everyone but in a subtle way to a few. And for those few there was a realisation that the impossible and improbable had happened to them and it overflowed in joy.

The wonderful thing is that now, because the improbable and impossible has happened, we can all experience it for ourselves because it’s available to us all. Jesus the God-human born in Bethlehem can be born in you too.

This will be my last bloggage before Christmas, so I pray for a hope-fulfilled, fear-turned-to-joy, peace-on-earth Christmas for you all.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Candles by Carollight

I was listening to one of my favourite Christmas CDs in the car today: Annie Lennox’s Christmas Cornucopia. She has a beautiful voice and the arrangements of the carols and songs are lovely. I find it very uplifting and inspiring. (In the middle of the collection of songs is a French carol, sung in French. I will come back to that later.)

I don’t know if Annie Lennox has an active Christian faith. But at the very least in recording these Christmas carols she will have a greater awareness of the nativity and what Christians believe about who Jesus is. I wondered whether those recording the songs regarded them as something spiritually significant or simply as a variety of folk song.

Worship BackgroundTonight I will be attending one of my favourite services of the year. (I am not sure I actually have a favourite, they are all special, but I think you know what I mean.) I love a traditional Carols by Candlelight service. This will be the first time for a number of years where I will be attending as a member of the congregation rather than being part of the planning and preparation and leading of the service. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (he says ironically as a coffee-drinker). I know some people who don’t find it uplifting (including some Ministers). That’s okay. There will be other services that bless them more.

But it’s also the service that sees attendance at church increase significantly because there is still enough residual affection for the service within our society that attending the Carol Service is an important part of what makes up Christmas. There will be a number of people there whose church attendance is limited to once a year – regular if not frequent!

Churches get quite excited by this annual influx and will also work hard at helping people to feel welcome and inviting them to increase the frequency of their attendance or deepen the level of their engagement with the church. Messages will be preached that explain that it’s not just a nice story but really happened and has significance for us today, that Jesus can be incarnate in our lives as much as he was in the stable. Friends and relatives will be there and Christians who invited them will be pleased that they came and heard the message and sang the carols. But should we be that excited? Singing the words of a carol will not make people a Christian any more than singing in French makes Annie Lennox a Frenchwoman (I told you I’d come back to that). And going to church won’t do that either, no matter how frequently we attend.

There will be people there tonight who come to enjoy singing the Carols and who need to hear that message, but who will go away untouched by the message. They will have sung their lungs out, enjoyed the atmosphere, appreciated the welcome, nommed the mince pies and will go away mentally ticking that off their to do list for Christmas without it making any difference to them.

Before you think I have gone all ‘Bah Humbug!’ on you, let me say that I am delighted that people come regularly once a year. I think it is important that we can provide this part of their Christmas experience. I think it is right that we offer a different perspective on the festival and remind people what it’s really about. I hope and pray that it will make a difference.

But it’s not the church’s job to make that change happen. It’s not even up to us (although we have to do the inviting). That’s up to God and the people who come. Let’s come with expectation of a special service, expectation that we will enjoy ourselves, and expectation that we will experience a fresh encounter with God.

Be blessed, be a blessing

small children in the park, tea towels for goalposts?

kids footballThe text below comes from an article in today’s The Independent newspaper. Click on the link for the full glory of the article and cheesy pics.

Chelsea have made some star signings over the years but this one would trump the lot – that of Jesus Christ.

However, even with all his roubles, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich won’t be bringing the Son of God to Stamford Bridge. But a survey has found that 20 per cent of kids think he already plays for the Blues.

A total of 1,000 children were asked the following multiple choice question as part of a survey for Netmums: Who is Jesus Christ? a) A footballer for Chelsea b) Son of God c) TV presenter d) X Factor contestant or e) An astronaut

Incredibly, 20 per cent of the children asked at a shopping centre in Brent Cross went with option a).

Even if Jesus was available in the transfer market, one suspects Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who styles himself as the ‘Special One’, might feel uncomfortable about being upstaged by such a star name.

It might be possible the children confused Jesus Christ with Jesus Navas, who plays for Manchester City.

The discovery that many children believe Jesus plays for Chelsea wasn’t the only worrying finding. According to the results a quarter of them think the shepherds found the infant Jesus with the assistance of Google Maps and that more than half think Christmas Day marks Santa Claus’s birthday.

***article finishes***

So if you have any doubts about the significance of Nativity plays (tea towels included), Carol Services, Christmas School Assemblies and so on…

Be blessed, be a blessing

(corny joke alert)

The survey didn’t say what position they thought Jesus played but we all know he must be a goalkeeper because Jesus saves!

(you were warned!)

bad news good news

This week Microsoft announced that they were pulling the plug on their clipart. Apparently it was because so many of us now search for images online that there has not been much demand for clipart. That’s bad news. Not because I am a big fan of clipart. And I do search for images (royalty free) online.

sheep cartoon
a captured screenshot from a PowerPoint slide I created, hence the crosshairs!

But it’s bad news for those of us who are not good at drawing – it was a real blessing to be able to create images by using clipart. A few years ago I created this cartoon (left) using clipart. I had a concept but I needed ready-made components to be able to make the concept a reality. Now that Microsoft has withdrawn clipart I am either going to have to learn to draw, or find another source for the components I need.

I think that I have always had an affinity for the shepherds and angels part of the Christmas events.  I think the whole episode lends itself to all sorts of comedic interpretations and slants – for example the cartoon below (again created using clipart)Christmas Card 09, or Nora the Noisy Angel (last year). But most of all I like it because it shows that the incredible good news of God’s gift to humanity in Jesus is for everyone – even (or especially) those who were excluded from mainstream society.

Which indeed is “Good news of great joy for all people.”

Be blessed, be a blessing