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).

used to disappointment

A long time ago I was at a conference and started chatting with someone I hadn’t met before. We asked each other about our interests and I let slip that I support Ipswich Town Football Club. Without missing a beat my companion said, “Oh, you must be used to disappointment.”

And yes… there have been many disappointments in the 40 years since I started supporting them. (There have been a few highs too). Supporting a club like Ipswich is nothing like supporting a team like Arsenal or Manchester United. Last year that had what was termed a bad season. I think most Ipswich Town fans would love a bad season like that!

This morning I am pondering afresh that sentence from my companion at that conference: ‘You must be used to disappointment.’ I don’t know if we ever get used to disappointment. By definition it is a sense of sadness or regret when what we were hoping for or expecting didn’t happen. If we are not expecting it to happen we won’t be disappointed. I think that’s how pessimism starts. But getting used to disappointment is not a semantic exercise, it’s a painful experience.

Disappointment is a melancholy word. In it we hear the faint echoes of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions. It leaves a taste of bitter traces of emptiness and maybe even hurt. We experience the pit-of-the-stomach falling emotions and distressed hopefulness.

Each disappointment that we experience costs us: we pay a penalty charge of sorrow; a little bit of our optimism is taxed; and time and energy that we have invested feels wasted. Sometimes we carry deep disappointment with us as a wound in our soul that can be opened up afresh when we least expect it.

So what can we do? Very few of us are hyper-optimists who can see a silver lining in every cloud. (And it seems to me that being such a person must be emotionally draining as well – being so upbeat must be difficult). I think this is where community helps. We are created to be social beings. We have the ability to communicate with others.

Simply being with someone can communicate care and concern.

Hugs communicate that they are not alone.

Listening well can be a real blessing to someone who simply needs to unload how they are feeling.

Reflecting back to someone what they have said can help them to interpret and own what they are feeling.

And if we can’t be present physically don’t underestimate the value of a card, email, text message, phone call…

These are just a few examples of how we can communicate what someone really needs at times of disappointment: unconditional love. Whatever has happened has not changed the fact that we love them. It’s what God offers us when we feel disappointed in ourselves.

I don’t think we ever get used to disappointment, but we can be used to help other people cope with it.

Be blessed, be a blessing


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