A year with the Lears (2013 version)

Dear friends

letter c

A Christmas letter

It’s time for one of those lovely Christmas letters* from the Lears, where we bore you silly with our news and gloat about our successes. So, if you are kind enough to continue to read this we hope it might at least make you smile, and can guarantee it will make the cracker jokes you have tomorrow seem a lot funnier.

SONY DSC

Nick has a new hobby: he is writing film scripts. So far he has written three blockbuster epics – a trilogy about an ordinary disgraced policeman who realises that a master criminal has bought the world’s supply of indigestion remedies and will only sell them at triple the price. Meanwhile his henchmen have altered the recipe for pastry in order to make crusts inedible and it’s up to our hero to stop them on his own. The trilogy is called ‘Pie Hard’.

Nick got banned from a local pub this year but had thought it was a compliment. He did a poetry reading and the pub landlord said, “You’re bard!” Next year Nick will be performing magic at an international venue. (He is sure that someone from overseas must have been to Maldon Town Hall and at some point so that makes it international in his mind).

He has just started on the 5.2 diet – where you eat what you want for 5 days and then fast for 2 days. He says that the first 5 days have been brilliant.

Sally asked her gym instructor to teach her how to do the splits this year. When he asked her how flexible she was she told him that she could only do Wednesdays.

She has given up her job at the shoe recycling centre: it was sole destroying. She got the job after visiting a local shoe shop having heard they were selling recycled shoes. She was struggling to get one on and an assistant said, “Try it with the tongue out.” And she replied, “Itth thtill too thmall.”

Thomas has been working on a new computerised payment system based at the Vatican: Papal.

He went to the doctors and asked him if he had anything for wind. The doctor gave him a kite. This year he has broken the world record for giggling at the most flatulence-related jokes and noises.

>I'm back dook

He was impressed by recent research into feet. Apparently ducks have webbed feet so they can stamp out forest fires. And elephants have flat feet to stamp out burning ducks.

Hannah is still engaged to Olly Murs, but there is no wedding date yet. We’re keeping it quiet so that she is not inundated with attention from Hello and so that she does not receive too many death threats from other fans. She wishes you all an Olly MrsMurs.

Next year she will finish the supercar that she has been hand-building in her bedroom and will be allowing the team from Top Gear to drive it around their track… once she has worked out how to get it out of her bedroom.

She went to the local bakery in order to set up a bank account: it was a currant account.

Her geography teacher asked her if Sally helped her with her geography homework. “No,” said Hannah, “she did it all on her own.”

We wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Be blessed, be a blessing (with tinsel on as it’s Christmas)

*Any resemblance to actual events is completely coincidental and should be ignored. The rest of the family wish to distance themselves from these jokes and would like you to know that it’s all Nick’s idea.

it’s a cracker!

christmas crackers

Why are Christmas Cracker jokes so bad? They seem designed to illicit a groan rather than a giggle. It’s almost as if they have a testing department and reject any that make someone smile. [Horrible thought – imagine being a joke-tester for Christmas Cracker jokes?!]

crackers

Someone somewhere is employed to find these jokes or even write them. Or perhaps now they have a computer that does that for them?

nutcrackers2

Christmas Crackers are a strange phenomenon aren’t they? A roll of paper with two crimps, a small explosive device, a paper hat, a small gift (to which we will return) and a joke. What an unusual combination, especially to celebrate Christmas. We don’t have them for the rest of the year, so why are they exclusively Christmas Crackers? Quick, down to Dragon’s Den with the idea for a company to make Crackers for all occasions…

Oh yes, the gifts. It seems that the only significant variable in a box of Christmas Crackers is the quality of the gift. The cheaper ones have a piece of plastic that has been moulded into a shape that resembles something in everyday life but which is entirely useless and will be thrown away with the rest of the cracker rubbish. The more expensive ones will have something that looks like it might be useful but will break the first time you use it. And the very expensive ones have things that we are sure will be very helpful but are priced out of the reach of most of us. If the gifts are the only variable then they must dictate the price of the crackers.

So here’s another idea to take down to Dragon’s Den (or perhaps combine with the previous one)… make another variable – the quality of the jokes! The cheaper ones will continue to have the ones that make you groan, but the more expensive you go, the funnier the jokes.

However, I want to subvert that idea even before you offer me £100,000 for 10% of my company. I would imagine that those who can least afford crackers deserve the funniest jokes and the best gifts. So my company’s USP* would be that the more expensive the cracker the worse the joke and the less useful the gift – playing on the expectation that crackers must be crummy – and these expensively priced but cheap to produce ones would subsidise the production of wonderful ones in the budget range.

Wouldn’t it be nice at Christmas that the first really are last and the last first?

Be blessed, be a blessing

There was a recent competition to find new, funny up to date cracker jokes. My favourite was “What does the Queen call her Christmas broadcast? The One Show!”

Closely followed by: “How did Mary and Joseph know Jesus was 7lb 6oz when he was born? They had a weigh in a manger.”

*Unique selling point

Happy Mas

Happy Birthday to whom?

Happy Birthday to whom?

Each year at about this time someone complains about ‘political correctness gone mad’ or ‘health and safety gone mad’. It’s usually because of some well-intentioned attempt to avoid causing offence that ends up causing more of a problem. So we have ‘Winterval’ instead of ‘Christmas’ so it’s not religious. We have Mary told to wear a hard hat when riding on the real donkey through the streets.

I try not to get too hot and bothered about these things because I do believe that there are good intentions behind most of these things and those are not usually reported in the hysteria.

This year there is an advert for Christmas that says ‘Christmas starts with Christ’, which is a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. We have a poster outside our church with that message, which is a gentle riposte to ‘Winterval’. But I have another suggestion. If we want to de-religiousise Christmas let’s just call it ‘Mas’. The suffix ‘Mas’ means ‘Festival’. So if all we want to do is have a party then let’s just call it ‘Mas’ and be done with it.

However, if we want to wish everyone a Happy Christmas, let’s really go for it – baby in the manger and all – let’s tell people the reason for the season.

This Saturday the local Salvation Army band will be playing carols on our forecourt in the Town Centre. I’ll be there with them, giving out invitations to our Christmas services in the hope that this year some people will add Christ to their mas. You’d be welcome to join us!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

The twelve days of Churchmas

chordTo the tune of Twelve Days of Christmas – you can sing through it in reverse order and cover each day individually if you want (and please bear in mind the sentiment behind yesterday’s bloggage: it’s not a grumble and it’s very tongue-in-cheek):

On the Twelfth day of Christmas this was my ministry

Eating twelve more mince pies

Thanking eleven helpers

Ten late arrivals

Nine ‘Hark the Heralds’

Eating eight more mince pies

Preparing seven sermons

Six nativity plays

Five mince pies

Four turkey dinners

Three broken bulbs

Two days off

And a fresh encounter with The Baby

Be blessed, be a blessing

Yay for Christmas!

Let me start by saying that I love Christmas, and I love Colchester Baptist Church – they are wonderful. This is NOT a complaint it’s an observation and a reflection. If you sense any complaining or self-pity in this bloggage it has sneaked in without permission. ‘Bah, humbug’ is banned!

People sometimes say to me that Christmas must be the busiest time of the year for a Minister. Yes it is busy and yes there are extra things to do, but part of me wants to say ‘no’ because it’s not as if I am sitting around twiddling my thumbs for the rest of the year (cue jokes about only working on Sundays…). I also want to say that if there is any extra busyness it’s no more than lots of other people experience at this time of year. And lots of other people in the church are also working their socks off in a voluntary capacity (which is why they need new ones for Christmas). And I want to say that I love it.

The Christmas-related work may mean that some of the ‘normal’ (if anything I do is normal) has to be postponed until January. It may mean that I have to prepare a few more ‘thoughts’. It may mean that I eat a few more Christmas Lunches than is usual (4 this year). It may mean that I have to try to be more organised than usual in order to do everything. It may mean that there are fewer gaps between activities. If I had time I could re-write the twelve days of Christmas for Ministers. (Perhaps one day!) But I love it.

Before I was called to this church I worked at our Baptist Union’s office in Didcot. I loved what I did there, but at Christmas I missed being a Minister in a local church. It was not always specific things I missed (like all the lunches) – it was simply being among people as their Minister at this incredibly special time. I love it.

And each year there are new insights from the age-old story. Each year I am captivated by the realisation that the baby in the manger was God with us. This morning I was blessed by watching this wonderful video on YouTube, especially the ‘twist’.

This year some of my pondering has generated the following story, which I shared with one of our parent and toddler groups…

little angelNora the noisy angel*

Heaven 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.”

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 late wise men

starWe have now entered the period of the year which in church calendars is known as ‘Epiphany’. It is the period of time when we are supposed to reflect on the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus. In reality I think it is time of year when most people reflect on how much we have eaten over Christmas, how much we have spent on presents, and how come the decorations multiply in number between when we put them up and when we put them away for another year. On the whole I think it would be fair to say that in nonconformist churches like ours the Feast of Epiphany doesn’t really get a look in.

Which is a shame. Not necessarily because of the feast, but because of what it represents. In our traditional nativity plays the wise men turn up at the stable shortly after the shepherds have put in an appearance. But Matthew gives us hints in his gospel but this was later: perhaps up to 2 years after Jesus had been born. These hints include the fact that the star they saw rose to signify his birth (not Mary’s pregnancy), the length of time of preparation for and travelling on the journey from ‘the East’, that they visited Jesus in a house rather than a stable and Herod’s parameters for his infanticide, which were to kill all baby boys under the age of 2.

Timing aside, I think it is important that we recognise the significance of the wise men arriving to worship Jesus. This is a sign even in the birth narratives of Jesus that what he had come to do was for the whole world, not simply the Jewish people among whom he would live and predominantly share most of his teaching. These wise men were foreigners, not Jewish, and (scandal of scandals) were astrologers – all of which would have disqualified them in the eyes of the religious leaders of the day from being included in God’s story. It’s not insignificant that is Matthew who tells us about the wise men, since he was writing to a predominantly Jewish audience about Jesus. He was making the point right at the beginning of the Jesus narrative that the Kingdom of Heaven was much more inclusive than anyone had previously imagined.

And actually all those of us who have not been born with Jewish heritage should identify most with the wise men in the Christmas narrative. Not because of our wisdom or even because we read horoscopes (I still can’t understand why anyone does that!) Rather it is because they are our spiritual forefathers. They worshipped Jesus despite their lack of Jewish heritage. And of course in 3 gifts they gave we have a succinct summary of Jesus’ identity: gold, for the King of kings; frankincense, for his priestly role of making God accessible to us; myrhh, for his sacrificial death.

In our school nativity plays I always ended up as a narrator because I was good at reading (at least that’s what I tell myself, not that I was poor at acting). I always wanted to be Joseph because he had a key role, he was on stage for the whole time, he was the centre of the action. But now I rather fancy the idea of being one of the wise men. Perhaps I’ll see how wise a man I can be today…

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A woman takes her 16-year-old daughter to the doctor. The doctor says, “Okay, Mrs. Jones, what’s the problem?”

The mother says, “It’s my daughter, Debbie. She keeps getting these cravings, she’s putting on weight, and is sick most mornings.”

The doctor gives Debbie a good examination, then turns to the mother and says, “Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your Debbie is pregnant – about 4 months, would be my guess.”

The mother says, “Pregnant?! She can’t be, she has never ever been left alone with a man! Have you, Debbie?”

Debbie says, “No mother! I’ve never even kissed a man!”

The doctor walked over to the window and just stares out it. About five minutes pass and finally the mother says, “Is there something wrong out there doctor?”

The doctor replies, “No, not really, it’s just that the last time anything like this happened, a star appeared in the east and three wise men came over the hill. I don’t want to miss it this time!”

silent morning

Yesterday evening we had a wonderful Carols by Candlelight service. Everything went well, we had a full church, with many guests. It was wonderful.

I was invited back to some friends’ house afterwards and while there I noticed that my voice was starting to sound a bit odder than usual. When I got home I had dropped a couple of octaves (no idea where they went, I didn’t see them go) and was a bit squeaky-voiced. My throat was starting to hurt.

This morning I woke up to an unusual-sounding voice and my throat still hurts. I only have one more Christmas service to do, tomorrow morning’s celebration, but I need to have a voice for that service.

So today I am mostly being silent, and I am drinking plenty of fluids and taking appropriate medication.

It’s all rather inconvenient.

And it gets even more inconvenient when you remember that I like to use a computer voice recognition program to prepare my sermons. Aside from the stress on my voice, the program simply does not recognise me. It is a design flaw, in my opinion. There should be a setting to allow for squeaky sore-throat based voice transformations.

The little bug that is causing this inconvenience and pain is one of the tiniest organisms on this planet. Yet it has the ability to disrupt my life and defeat technology because of the effect of its activity in my throat. It’s often the little things that we might consider insignificant that end up being very significant.

This is a cue for me to cheat a bit and post last night’s talk here. It saves my voice, it fits with the idea of what we consider insignificant, and it means I have more time to prepare the other bits and pieces I need to do today.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Apparently insignificant events can take on an importance far beyond that which we expect. Recently I watched Apollo 13 again: the dramatic film that tells the astonishing story of how the astronauts on the Apollo 13 lunar mission were able to return to Earth following an explosion that crippled their spacecraft.

Apollo 13’s life-and-death drama began five years earlier with a simple design change to the Apollo spacecraft. The manufacturer of a thermostat for an oxygen cooling tank had not been told of the design change. That was the first link in the chain of a series of apparently insignificant events which, when added together, almost led to a catastrophe. When you think about all that is involved in sending a rocket to the moon a thermostat in an oxygen cooling tank does not seem very significant at all.

Right at the beginning of Luke 2 we read some apparently insignificant words: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” It doesn’t seem significant but Luke is giving us this detail because he wants us to compare Jesus with Caesar Augustus.

Caesar Augustus is credited as the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Under his guidance the Empire expanded rapidly and alongside military conquests a new era of peace and prosperity began. All that we think of about the Roman Empire being unstoppable and magnificent, all the things that the Romans ever did for us, were initiated or came to fruition under Caesar Augustus.
‘Augustus’ means “exalted one” and ‘Caesar’ means “ruler”. The name Caesar Augustus was taken by the Emperor to show the world his status and magnificence. He was the absolute ruler of the Roman Empire, albeit through the Senate. When Caesar Augustus told you to jump you jumped, and if possible you only came back down to the ground when he gave you permission.

So a child apparently conceived out of wedlock, to peasant parents, in squalid surroundings, in an insignificant town, in one of the more rebellious regions of the Roman Empire would not have even registered (other than presumably being registered in the census). It was apparently insignificant. Yet 2000 years later Caesar Augustus is merely a footnote in the story of Jesus. Caesar Augustus simply becomes the reason why Jesus was born in Bethlehem when he issued the census declaration. Jesus, on the other hand, has become one of the most significant people ever to have lived on this planet. Our history is dated from his birth.

What was it about Jesus that transformed the order of things in this way? It wasn’t the Angels, the shepherds, the star, the wise men or any of the other visitors to the stable. The answer is found in the words of the Angel to the shepherds on the hillside: “a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” This was no ordinary person.

The records of his life show someone of remarkable perception and wisdom; someone who demonstrated compassion and grace; someone who sought to empower others rather than seize power himself. He claimed that his death would not simply mark the tragic end of his ministry but would be the means by which all human beings can be reconciled to God. And the most accurate historical records of the day tell us that three days after he had been crucified he was raised to life – vindicating all that he said and did and confirming his identity as God’s son.

I like to leave you with a couple of questions to consider. What are the things in your life that, like Caesar Augustus, you consider to be most important?

What do you think about the Christmas story: is it just a quaint story to be considered at carol services once a year but otherwise is insignificant?

Those things you consider to be most significant may end up being a footnote in your life compared to Jesus.

clergy carol, verse 3

Spending time in preparation
Fa la la la la la la la.
Searching for the inspiration
Fa la la la la la la la.
Reading books and praying hard
Fa la la la la la la la.
‘Til services are all prepared
Fa la la la la la la laaaa.
 
Time is passing far too quickly
Fa la la la la la la la.
Deadlines looming, feeling sickly
Fa la la la la la la la.
Can’t I use last year’s sermon?
Fa la la la la la la la.
None recall it that’s for certain
Fa la la la la la la la.
 
How do I include all carols?
Fa la la la la la la la.
Miss one out at my peril
Fa la la la la la la la.
Everyone has a favourite
Fa la la la la la la la.
Hearty singing helps them savour it
Fa la la la la la la la.
 
(Well, you find a rhyme for “favourite”!)

the clergy carol, verse two

Spending time in preparation
Fa la la la la la la la.
Searching for the inspiration
Fa la la la la la la la.
Reading books and praying hard
Fa la la la la la la la.
‘Til services are all prepared
Fa la la la la la la laaaa.
 

Time is passing far too quickly
Fa la la la la la la la.
Deadlines looming, feeling sickly
Fa la la la la la la la.
Can’t I use last year’s sermon?
Fa la la la la la la la.
None recall it that’s for certain
Fa la la la la la la la.
 

Verse three to follow tomorrow