is Christmas over?

Christmas is an amazing season isn’t it? A whole church calendar month is taken up with retelling the narrative from what amounts to just a handful of verses from the Old Testament and a handful of chapters from the New Testament. Yet there is always something new in the narrative to captivate, challenge and provoke us no matter how long we have been a Christian. If you strip away the tinsel, baubles, presents and fat beardy blokes in red suits we are left with an astonishingly complex series of events.

It’s a narrative that begins with a pregnant nation and a pregnant teenager, leads us to a bewildered fiancé, changes scene due to a politically-motivated relocation, peaks with a birth in squalid conditions, involves rough and ready strangers poking their noses in uninvited (reminding us that Jesus is for the rough sleepers as much as the wealthy)… and it’s the story of God with Us. It’s the story of God breaking all of the theological rules because he loves us all.

But we’re past Christmas now. It has been taken down, packed away and assimilated into our churches in the same way that we assimilate that new pair of socks from Aunt Doris into our wardrobe – comfy and familiar, so why am I going on about it still? Well, I am left uneasy with that shift, especially in a lot of free churches. Because we may well have missed out significant parts of the narrative that are as much ‘Scripture’ as any other.

My wife often comments that she has rarely heard a sermon on the significance of the faithful, prayerful expectation of the elderly Simeon and Anna. And I have rarely heard (and even more rarely preached) a sermon on Herod that culminates in the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. He makes a cameo appearance as the pantomime villain in the nativity story – a signpost for the wise men (back to them in a moment) but it’s not easy to think about infanticide on the scale that he ordered. And of course it led to Jesus being a refugee, a ‘migrant’ (asylum seeker?). (Would he have ended up in a rubber boat trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety today, perhaps even ending up in Calais?)

And there are those pesky wise men. Pedants (me included) remind us that there was an indeterminate number of them, albeit three gifts. But they were astrologers, they were foreigners, and (heaven forbid) they may even have been magicians (‘magi’ is the root of the word). They were guided by some sort of celestial phenomenon and play a pivotal role in the narrative by reminding us that Jesus was not just for the Jews. Yet their meddling led them to alert Herod to Jesus’ birth and quite possibly led to the toddler-bloodbath. What good did their worship gifts of gold, incense and myrrh do the bereft parents?

All of this reminds me that to try to create a neat, tidy, sanitised gospel is impossible because God in not neat, tidy and sanitised. He is God with us in the midst of mess and carnage. He is God with us in emotional trauma. He is God with us in confusion. He is God with us when we feel on the outside. He refuses to be limited by human expectations or theology. We can attempt to describe him but he’s always going to surprise us by being beyond our imagination.

We often talk about ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ because we don’t want to be constrained by tradition and expectation. And I warm to that. But paradoxically I want to confine my thinking this year. This year I want to think inside the manger. Who knows where that will take me?

Jesus is missing

I hope that you are well and in good heart as you navigate through the maelstrom of Christmas events. I hope and pray that in the midst of it all you are finding Jesus… which leads me neatly to my theme:

Have you seen this news story on the BBC news website? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-46599641?utm_source=Daily+Media+Digest&utm_campaign=4223aabbb0-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_12_03_10_54_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_296e14724b-4223aabbb0-248620461&fbclid=IwAR2rgNGteYRlZ7vzkbhmnrM9m5nmIiM_DpmnUvHr-G9YkvdRYbzk_ooqC_w  

If you don’t have time to read it, the short version is that someone has taken the baby Jesus from a church nativity scene in St Annes, Lancashire. It’s not clear whether it’s malicious, pranksters or even a child who wanted to take care of the baby however in the article there are a couple of fascinating sentences: The first is from the priest, Revd Scargill who ‘said he had tried to order a replacement Jesus but it was out of stock.’ Imagine that, Jesus is out of stock at Christmas! (There’s a line for your Christmas day sermon).

But for many of us he can be out of stock, can’t he? I am not just talking about the people who don’t know him, who walk past churches every day unaware of the good news within. I am also referring to the way that for all of us we can all ‘run out of Jesus’ – even Ministers. It happens particularly when we are busy and we find that we lose touch with him. Our faith dims a bit (it’s so gradual we don’t always notice the process) and slowly but surely we find that we are ministering more in our own strength than in the power of the Spirit. Of course we are good at covering it up so that our people won’t notice, but we do notice after a while. We feel a little empty, or as if the shine has been taken off and spiritual fruit starts to wither and we respond to people with less grace, joy, patience and so on. That leads me to the second sentence.

In the article there are quotes from different people. The priest speaks of forgiveness for those who return Jesus. But on the church Facebook group one lady ‘called the culprit “low life scum”’. I’m not sure which of the fruit of the Spirit is being shown there.

I do hope they find Jesus (a smaller replacement has been offered). And more than that I hope and pray that all of us find him again this year in the familiar carols, readings, services, lunches, Christingles, nativity plays and the time we spend with those we love.

marking your card(s)

Earlier this week I was a bit flummoxed by the arrival of a Christmas card in the post. No, there’s nothing unusual about Christmas cards being delivered through the UK postal system. What flummoxed me was that I did not recognise one of the names on the card and the other signature was illegible so it didn’t give any clues.

I checked the postmark on the envelope and that gave me a geographical clue that has not helped at all. I am fairly sure that the card was not sent in error as it was addressed to me by name, as was the envelope. It’s frustrating because I don’t know who to thank if I see them.

But it did get me thinking about why we send Christmas cards. What’s the motivation? I have a few ideas about this. The first is that I think there are two main categories of cards – some are sent because of obligation and some are sent by choice:

Obligation – some cards are sent to people because we feel we ought to send them a card because of their role (eg business colleagues) or familial relationship with us. That does NOT mean we send the card grudgingly, but we do send it relatively automatically. These people will always be on our Christmas card list.

Choice – we send some cards to people because we have made an active decision to send them a card. We want to keep in touch with these people (even if it is just once a year) because we value them. These people would not receive a card because of their role or familial relationship with us, but even though it’s a value judgement as to whether we send a card to them we can’t deduce that they are more important if they are on this list.

So now some of you who receive a Christmas card from us will be trying to work out which category you fall into. Actually it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a card is sent. But what is the motivation behind cards received? I think it be any, some or all of these:

Keeping in touch – there are some people we don’t really hear from at any other time in the year. Our relationship is limited to the exchange of a printed piece of cardboard in December. But it is important to keep in touch with these people. We would be sad to lose touch completely. And sometimes we write things in the cards like, “We really ought to get together next year…” to express that desire, and on rare occasions we actually get around to it and it’s great.

Sharing news – there has been a noticeable drop-0ff in the number of cards we receive that have a letter in them that tells us what the sender (and their family) have been up to in the past year, and perhaps plans for the coming year. We enjoy reading these letters and try not to compare their year enviously with ours, particularly when they tell us about the six week holiday in the luxury resort in Hawaii.

Assurance of affection – some people with whom we are frequent contact send a card because they value that friendship / relationship. They send a card to confirm that the relationship is still valuable to them, and we return the compliment because we want to do the same. It can be awkward when someone sends a card for this reason and one is not reciprocated. It may be that the ‘replyer’ may not feel the same, or it may be that their card sending lacked efficiency. Sadly silence does not communicate the reason. There are always people with whom I have this imbalance and it’s usually me who fails to send, almost always because of the latter reason.

Expectation – this is almost always a card sent from the first of the two main categories. Not to send a card to these people may be considered rude or thoughtless. 

Charity – this is something I have seen growing where people post online that they are not sending cards this year but will be making a charity donation on behalf of all of their friends. I am attracted to this because it avoids some awkwardness and blesses others but it has the danger of the notice not being seen and people wondering whether you still care.

It’s complicated isn’t it? But I am reassuring myself with a couple of reflections:

There are very few people who will hold a grudge if I have forgotten to send them a card. This is not an excuse for failing to send one that you want to / intend to send but can make you feel better when your eye keeps getting drawn to that card on the mantelpiece and you know it’s too late to send it now.

A phone call or electronic communication is almost as good. If I have forgotten I can still call, text, message, send social media messages, and so on.

Behind the Christmas story we find all of these things: God sent his son into the world because of the relationship he has with us as our creator (obligation) and because he wants that relationship to be better (choice). The Incarnation (God with us) is his way of keeping in touch with us (and some of us manage it once a year at a Carol Service) – he would love to meet up with us next year. In the Christmas message he shares the good news of peace, hope, joy and love – there’s no need to be envious, he offers the same to all of us. He wants to assure us of his affection for us – not just ‘thinking of you’ but a passion and enthusiasm for you that will not give up even if you don’t reply. And he promised he’d do it, creating an expectation that we find fulfilled in Jesus. God’s desire is to bless all of humanity, with no exceptions, although his method of communication to us all risks his message not being heard and some people may wonder if he cares. 

Be blessed, be a blessing (and please don’t be too upset if you don’t get a card from me!)

Christmas disappointment

It’s week two of Advent. Traditionally we look at the Old Testament prophecies that look forward to the coming of the Messiah. It never ceases to amaze me how Jesus’ contemporaries were looking for a ‘knight in shining armour’ Messiah rather than a suffering servant given that they had the same prophecies that we do. Somehow they managed to spin things in such a way that they could ignore the difficult and awkward passages and focus on the ones that they liked – perhaps they called the ones they didn’t like “fake prophecies”.

Of course we’d never do that, would we? This Christmas we’ll all be referring to the slaughter of the innocents in our nativity plays and emphasising the ‘sword piercing your soul’ heart-rending aspects of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary in our 9 Lessons and Carols won’t we?

I can still remember one of the comments made to me in sermon class at Spurgeon’s College*. It’s not because it was a really traumatic experience, but because it was profound. I had preached from Genesis 22 on God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and had spoken about Abraham’s faith, God’s honouring of that faith and the prophetic nature of the Lord providing a lamb for the burnt offering. One of the lecturers pointed out that I had ignored the darker side of the narrative and (to paraphrase him) made a profoundly macabre passage into one that was all light and fluffy! How would it have felt to be Abraham and be told that he had to sacrifice his son? Never mind that he was the miracle baby through whom the prophecy would be fulfilled, it was his son whom he loved!!

I took that on board. In my first church as one of a team of Ministers we took a risk one Christmas Day by taking the theme of ‘Disappointment’. We messed around with giving each other disappointing presents (“Have you got the receipt?”); explored the disappointment of God’s people expecting a warrior king and getting a baby in a cattle feeding trough; and then finished by talking about how Christmas can be a time of disappointment for some people – marked by loneliness, sadness, painful memories and a sense of being left out by all of the frivolous festivities. We pointed out how in the midst of the joy and wonder of the nativity narrative there were people walking in darkness, there was the inexpressible trauma of mothers weeping for children ripped from their arms, and even Mary and Joseph experienced rejection, loneliness and had to flee for their lives as refugees. And while we spoke of the great light, of the one who weeps with those who weep, and of the place for all in the cold, dark stable we got quite a lot of criticism from people for whom that was too sombre a message for a Christmas Day service. But I will never forget the warmth, length and strength of the hugs I received from people who with tear-stained faces needed no words to express that by exploring the darker side of Christmas we had enabled them to feel included and ministered to. It was worth it.

This Advent may you experience Immanuel’s light in dark places, his consoling embrace in abandonment, and his presence in loneliness.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Sermon class was the occasion when a student preached in front of the whole College and then everyone decamped to a lecture room where it was analysed (not always positively).

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!

Christmas present

As I am recycling at the moment (eg Nora the Noisy Angel) I thought I would recycle a ‘thought for the week’ I sent to the Ministers in the Eastern Baptist Association this week.

giftI had a clever mailing from a well-known Swedish furniture store come through my letter box last week. On the front it said, “Christmas is all about the present.” I groaned inwardly and decided not to open it because it was so far from what Christmas is all about. I was about to recycle it but curiosity got the better of me and I opened it. The text inside reads, “It’s the present (not the presents) that counts. And those moments with loved ones are the best of all…”

“That’s clever,” I thought to myself, “I wonder if I can include that in a Christmas message?” And then I started to reflect on whether it really is all about the present:

Advent is a season of time-travel. We travel back in time to the period before BC became AD and anticipate Jesus’ arrival. We empathise with the longing of his people for God to act. We hope and pray for a better future. We lament. We ache. We wait.

Christmas Carol Services and Nativity Plays are wonderfully nostalgic (which is why they are attended by the regular ‘once a year at Christmas’ part of our church family). They are a familiar touching place with the Unchangeable Story (which we soon discover if we dare to change things too radically). Of course they can also be incredibly poignant and painful for those who are reminded of past loss. In these moments the past is triggering our emotional response to the present.

And yet, in the midst of it, is the small voice of a child crying in a cattle feeding trough reminding us that this is the season of God, the eternal One, with us – Immanuel . In the present.

Christmas really is all about the present, God present with us.

Be blessed, be a blessing