Christmas presence

As Christmas day gallops gleefully towards us I thought it may be time for a more serious reflection than some of the fluffy frivolity of recent days. So here goes…

The ten best things of this Christmas so far (in no particular order):

Hosting carol services and nativity plays for a local school on our premises – lovely to see our buildings being used by the wider community. I especially loved the bit in one of the plays where a vicar (modelled on me?) welcomed people to our church on Christmas day and reminded them that the church was open for the rest of the year too. It was lovely to be invited to (and to attend) a carol service at another local school with whom we have links too, and to organise the Essex University Carol Service.

Shopping for presents – it’s a season for giving after all. It’s all right when people ask you for particular things, but there is something extra special about buying something for those you love that will be a surprise for them. (The only danger is that I get more excited about it than they will on receiving the gifts!)

Get In The Picture – we have got involved in this in a different way this year and hundreds of people have participated and had their photos taken in our ‘end of the pier nativity’. It’s been brilliant fun and I hope has helped people realise that the Christmas story can be enjoyed by everyone, and that there is a place for everyone in Jesus’ story. It has also provided us with the image for our church Christmas card. I am very grateful to everyone who has helped with this.

Carols by Candlelight – a wonderful service of carols and Bible readings. Our choir did themselves proud, the musicians were wonderful, the soloists were brilliant, the readers were great, the candles were atmospheric (if electrical), there were lots of visitors and there was a very special feeling about the service. It flew by (which I think is a good sign). If you want to hear my brief message (perhaps the shortest ever by me) it’s here (Jesus’ family tree).

The Nativity service – our children and young people had worked as hard (or harder) than anyone this Christmas and prepared a service that was special in its simplicity, fun and engaging, thought-provoking and powerful, joyful and triumphant. The highlight (as I have said before) was the acting as Mary encountered the angel – surprise personified!

Christmas lunches – so far I have had three. All were very different. There was a lunch for the older folk associated with our church, in which children from a local school came and sang some Christmas songs. There was a lunch for those who come to our Open Door ministry, including some homeless friends. And there was a lunch for over 100 of our church family after the nativity service. I have been immensely impressed by the skill of our caterers, the service of many people, the fellowship and friendship, and reminded of the importance of eating together. Highlight in this category was when I asked the Open Door friends to join in singing some carols along with recordings. We sang the first two verses of ‘O come all ye faithful’, I gave a short talk and could see that when I announced another song quite a few people were looking fed up. They changed their tune (literally) when they heard the opening bars of ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ by Slade!

Giving Christmas cards to the shops around us. We are very much a town centre church: surrounded by shops. I took copies of our Christmas card (see above) to all of the retailers in Eld Lane (the street on which we are located). It was great seeing the surprise on the faces of those who received the cards and my Christmas greeting. It was even lovelier seeing some of them having stuck the card up on display later in the day.

Anonymous gifts – not so much a secret santa, but I have been able to facilitate giving a couple of generous anonymous financial gifts from a couple of people in our church to others in order to bless them at Christmas – no ‘bah humbug’ here!

Christmas talks – I reckon I have prepared at least eight different Christmas-themed talks / sermons this year so far. Because they are all different it has enabled me to receive a wonderfully eclectic experience of the Christmas narrative this year. My encounters with the baby in the manger have been varied and have inspired me (if nobody else!).

Silent nights – there have been some beautifully peaceful moments when I have been in our church on my own after everyone else has left and I have experienced a mixture of a sense of well-being that the events went well, peace and calm after the activity, but mainly simply a sense of God’s presence and joy – which is what Christmas is all about!

And it’s not even Christmas day yet!!!!

Christmas has officially started

Even though I say so myself, last night’s Carols by Candlelight was brilliant! The church was pretty full, the choir sang beautifully, the readers read wonderfully, the technical side of things worked seamlessly, the refreshments afterwards (with Get in The Picture too) were excellent (hall packed) and we all left with a wonderfully warm, Christmassy glow. For me it was the moment when Christmas really started. It was fantastic!

The morning service was pretty awesome too. This was led by our children and young people, who showed wonderful talents, confidence and faith in what they shared with us. Brilliant! My favourite moment in the service was the acting by Daisy as Mary in the nativity (by ages 3-5) when the angel appeared to her. Daisy was surprise personified! I loved it!

For all of the different, innovative, exciting, clever, fun ways that we can conceive and use to communicate the truth about Christmas it seems that the best are the traditional ones – simply telling it as it is through nativities and carol services and letting the good news speak for itself.

I get very excited about new mission opportunities. But I need to make sure that I am not always rushing to the new and neglecting what God wants to do through what is already happening. He is at work through all of the different activities that take place on our premises, and he is at work in the lives of each one of us among the people he has called us to serve in the workplace, the home, the neighbourhood, the wider community. He may not be asking us to do something new and spectacular… he may be asking us to use his age old method of us being free samples of Jesus for those around us.

A joke for all those using air travel at Christmas:

It was a few days before Christmas. The trip went reasonably well, and he was ready to go back home. The airport on the other end had turned a tacky red and green, and loudspeakers blared annoying elevator renditions of cherished Christmas carols.

Being someone who took Christmas very seriously, and being slightly tired, he was not in a particularly good mood. (Almost a scrooge) Going to check in his luggage at the airport he saw some mistletoe hanging at the check in desk. Not real mistletoe, but very cheap plastic with red paint on some of the rounder parts and green paint on some of the flatter and pointer parts, that could be taken for mistletoe only in a very Picasso sort of way.

With a considerable degree of irritation and nowhere else to vent it, he said to the attendant, “Even if we were married, I would not want to kiss you under such a ghastly mockery of mistletoe.”

“Sir, look more closely at where the mistletoe is.”

“Ok, I see that it’s above the luggage scale which is the place you’d have to step forward for a kiss.”

“That’s not why it’s there.”

“Ok, I give up. Why is it there?”

“It’s there so you can kiss your luggage good-bye.”

top ten tips for Christmas

In reverse order:

10. Don’t start too early. It’s difficult to maintain the excitement for months on end. If the month doesn’t have a ‘d’ in it, perhaps it’s too soon.

9. Enjoy advent. Advent does not mean ‘chocolate’ (answer given in a recent assembly!!) but is the season of preparation, anticipation and listening.

8. Invite the shepherds. I love the fact that God announced the most important and significant birth in human history to people who were on the margins of society and invited them to join in the celebrations. Who are the shepherds in your town / church / community?

7. Recycle. There’s an astonishing amount of waste generated by Christmas, and we can help by recycling as much of it as possible. My Grandma and her sister were doing this decades ago. They used to send each other the Christmas cards they received from the other one the previous year – the same cards got sent MANY times over!

6. Don’t leave it to the last minute. Last minute shopping is likely to lead to disappointment – either by the one shopping or the ones receiving. Very few quality gifts can be bought at 24 hour petrol stations on Christmas Eve.

5. Seek out the joy. Christmas is a season that for some is tainted with sadness and sorrow. But joy can still be found if we look for it in unexpected places… stables, carol services, unexpected invitations, hugs…

4. Sing your lungs out. Carol Services only happen at this time of year, which is understandable, so don’t hold back anything as you sing.

3. Lower your expectations. There’s no such thing as the perfect Christmas, so relax a little and remember that the first one was chaotic and yet it worked out rather wonderfully.

2. Cultivate some traditions. The children in a family I know found that their father had not worn the shirt they gave him for Christmas. So they wrapped it up and gave it to him again. And again. And again. It has even appeared stuffed in the turkey and in a bowl of jelly! How about the tradition of going to church on Christmas Day? And remember that church is open the rest of the year too!

And now, the moment you have been waiting for. The top tip for Christmas. The one thing that you can do or say that will make Christmas even more special. [I may be building this up too much].

1. Relax.