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


Last night we had a wonderful Carols by Candlelight service. There are so many people to thank that it’s almost impossible to do so without risking leaving someone important out. So instead I am going to say a big ‘thank you’ to everyone involved – whether you were part of the congregation or choir, a musician or sound / video operator, a reader or speaker, a refreshment-server or setter-up-erer, a cleaner-up-afterwards-er or a candle-lighter, a welcomer or steward, a putting-the-words-on-the-latop-er or car park organiser, and so on.

Of course I have just done what I said I wouldn’t and have written a list of participants that risks leaving someone out. So, if your role is not listed above please forgive me and accept my gratitude to you for doing what you did. Having an attitude of gratitude is important, as is expressing thanks personally.

As a child I can remember what a chore I considered it to have to write ‘thank you’ letters after Christmas to the Grandparents, uncles and aunts and others who had been kind enough to give me a gift. I would put it off as long as possible, but eventually (usually under threat of sanction) I would write the letters. What I didn’t consider was the impact on those who received my handwritten letters, which I hope expressed genuine gratitude even if they were written under coercion.

Now I am acutely aware of how precious it is when someone says ‘thank you’ – verbally in person or over the phone, by email, in a letter (handwritten or typed), in a text, in a tweet, on Facebook and even in responses to these bloggages. There are so many different communication methods we can use to say ‘thank you’ and express appreciation that there’s not really a good excuse for us failing to do so.


One of the problems for those who have no Christian faith is that they run out of people to thank. If the Universe is an accident and not brought into being by the Designer then when we are blessed by events beyond human intervention to whom do you express gratitude? When a view takes your breath away, when good things happen, when a thought makes you smile, when you feel blessed, (to paraphrase the Ghostbusters) who you gonna thank?

Perhaps this Christ-mas you could thank the One who the heart of it all rather than a man in a red suit.

Be blessed, be a blessing

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.”