FROM THE MINISTER
I was once sitting in a church vestry, about to go and start an Advent service.
Some of the children passed by my open door and I asked one (in the fatuous way we sometimes interview small children), ‘are you looking forward to Christmas?’ ‘No’, she said and passed on into the worship space.
I have never forgotten that single-word answer and what I later learned of the unsettled home-life that lay behind it. Nor is that girl alone. A lot of people approach Christmas with, to say the least, mixed feelings about being summoned to rejoice.
Each year the Christmas Day lunch in our hall attracts more volunteers than are really needed. Although that says a lot for people’s goodness of heart, it might also suggest that some struggle to find a thread of meaning through this most luminous and wondrous of Christian festivals. Helping someone else somehow fills the gap.
Perhaps it is partly that we find it difficult really to celebrate a feast, because compared with most people in most times every single day of the year is a feast for us.
‘There is only so much bread and margarine someone can eat’, wrote Robert Tressell in 1910 in his novel about struggling house painters quietly starving to death in Hastings (R. Tresell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists). I wonder how many of the Great War soldiers we commemorated last month joined up partly because the Army promised to feed, clothe, house and pay them in winter and summer alike?
However, we are what we are. The parts of Christmas that do speak to us (including my absolute favourite moment of placing fairy lights on a tree and seeing if they work) are not really about possessing or consuming much or little.
All of Christmas is surely to do with re-entering the mystery of the Nativity and Epiphany of Jesus.
We give gifts because that is what the wise men did, we decorate our houses (as Martin Luther taught) to celebrate the Light of the World in the darkest part of the winter. And we sing carols, not just for what they say, but because the act of singing places us in the company of the angels who sang across the night sky and the shepherds who were stunned to hear their joyful tidings.
‘Glory to God in the highest!’ So what does it matter if you are secretly bored with turkey, or are receiving with hastily framed words of gratitude exactly the same ultramarine scarf you received last year, or it rains on Christmas morning when (as we all know) it is supposed to snow, or someone forgot to steam the pudding and your Christmas dessert is only a second-hand satsuma.
We are part of something that God-with-us is doing in the world, once for all in the birth of Jesus – but every year a-fresh in his rebirth in our hearts.
So what’s not to like?
FROM THE MINISTER
One centimetre doesn’t sound very much. For those who went to school before 1967 it’s just over a third of an inch.
But in 2010 a ground-movement of just one centimetre caused the deaths of three hundred thousand people in Haiti. One million people were rendered homeless by an earthquake and the country was plagued by broken infrastructure, armed gangs and, ten months later, an outbreak of cholera.
One of the agencies bringing aid and support was Oxfam, who were already working in Haiti. Despite the destruction of their warehouse and the loss of most of their supplies they sprang into action straight away. Following best practice they employed local people wherever possible in building temporary homes, digging latrines and providing clean water. In the first year they helped half a million people.
Only recently have we learned rather unsavoury things about some of Oxfam’s staff at that time. It turns out they were far from saintly in their behaviour and it all leaves a nasty taste in the mouth to those who have supported them, Save the Children and some other relief organisations.
No doubt we are in for quite a lot of heart-searching about the behaviour and ethics of our leading charities. No doubt this is a good thing. But I wonder what else we should say about this as people of faith.
First, we should not be surprised
This is after all a fallen world and people can achieve many things while remaining selfish and immoral. ‘Put not your trust in princes’ says
Psalm 146 to a people tempted by the promise of strong leadership. Well, we know how that dream usually turns out, from Zimbabwe to Cambodia to Chile to the Soviet Union.
‘It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man’ (Psalm 118). So we should not make the mistake of claiming all the virtues for charitable bodies who inevitably have their own thirst for market share and personal advancement.
Second, we should not be judgmental
How quickly politicians and celebrities have abandoned Oxfam now that its imperfections have been revealed!
I have the horrible feeling that their support was more about putting themselves in a good light than being truly committed to the people Oxfam strives to help. Churches should be good critical supporters of charities – calling them to account when needed, but being faithful in our friendship.
“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not accompany us.” “Do not stop him, Jesus replied, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9: 49, 50).
Third, we should be true to ourselves
To be part of a church is not just to have joined a religious charity, although we are pleased to have charitable status when the State wishes to grant it to us. To be part of a church is a far different and much deeper thing. It is to be in holy fellowship with Jesus and with one another.
So I am glad that ‘our’ charity at present is another Christian church, the Citadel Reformed Church in Târgu Mureș, Romania.
Please pray for Pastor György , and his new co-minister Tunde. Among their concerns at present are older members on very low pensions (much lower than the basic pension in UK) and people needing medicines they cannot afford. Gyorgy says that they are also able at the moment to donate medicines to anyone who needs them, whether or not they are associated with the church, which is a great blessing. He writes, ‘we are grateful to you and the Congregational Church at Market Harborough for offering your support and partnership’.
Jane and I do not quite see eye-to-eye on Christmas presents. Jane likes to know that any gift given by her or to her will be useful. So she goes to a lot of trouble to find out what people would really like and also tells me what she would like herself: ‘Can you get this please and call it my Christmas present?’
In contrast I don’t mind what I have as long as it is a surprise. I love picking up a wrapped parcel, shaking it to see if it rattles, feeling its shape and weight and still having no idea what is inside.
In a similar way, I like giving presents that were not on anyone’s Christmas list and not what they were expecting. In truth I am still a bit of a child and have to admit that I just like surprises.
It is a bit difficult to be surprised by Christmas itself, though, isn’t it? For a start we know it is coming. I don’t think Nonconformist churches like ours used to take much notice of Advent but now we do. In various ways we take a lot of care to prepare spiritually for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
We have special services. We count down, or rather up, to Christmas by lighting an additional candle each week. Conscientious worship leaders try to avoid singing Christmas carols too early. We want this time of preparation, heart-searching and sharing in the longings of suffering people in every time and place to have its full value.
We also keep in mind that Mary and Joseph had their own time of waiting, readjusting, expectation and anxiety as Mary’s baby grew within her. And before them the prophets had for centuries foreseen and hoped for the moment when it could truly be said, ‘God has visited His people today’ (Luke 7:16).
All in all, we take care not to be surprised by Christmas, but instead to be ready to welcome Jesus.
More routinely everyone in some way or another is carefully planning their Christmas Day. We want to know that everything will go well and everyone has a good time. In one of the Just William stories by Richmal Crompton, William’s well-meaning but disastrous attempts to practise seasonal charity result in his family and their guests sharing a Christmas dinner which consists of … a tin of sardines. Even those who like Yuletide surprises don’t really want a surprise like that!
And yet despite all the expectation and longing that led to the coming of Jesus, everything about that coming was in truth a surprise. Mary’s first words in the Bible are, ’How can this be?’ (Luke 1:34) and the shocks keep coming.
If we have one prayer for ourselves, let it be that out of all this careful planning and familiarity, something fresh and astonishing of God might come to us this Christmas:
- that we see a truth that we thought we had always known but had never ‘sunk in’ before;
- that we find something filled in our inner self by God that we never even realised was empty;
- that we find something mended in our hearts that we thought was broken for ever.
Any one of these would be a real Christmas surprise, even if it is not festively wrapped and cannot be shaken to see if it rattles.
God bless us, every one,
We have been pleased and grateful to have a new front door at the Manse. With its shiny brass fittings it is very handsome. Better still, it carries out the two main functions of a door (to open and to close) perfectly!
Our watchword this year is: ‘Pray that God may open to us a door for the word’ (Colossians 4:3).
We are following this theme on the first Sunday of each month and also spending a day on retreat to go into it more deeply.
So back to our actual door. When the fitter came to measure things, he brought a catalogue and asked us to choose a style of textured glass for the glazed part. You know the kind of thing. The glass lets the light through, but for the sake of privacy it obscures and distorts the actual shapes it is possible to see.
I see a connection with our watchword straight away. One of God’s gifts is to help us see things clearly and without distortion. In the best known passage from St Paul’s letters, he longs to be gathered up into this perfect experience. ‘Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’. (1 Corinthians 13: 12).
If I really want to know whether the rain has stopped and sense for myself the lovely smell of the wet garden and see the beauty of the climbing rose and feel the cool perfection of its petals, or indeed see who it who has come to visit me and speak with them directly, it is no good my peering ‘through a glass darkly’, I have to unlock the door and open it.
So our watchword can prompt us to pray that God will open ‘to us’ whatever door that is needed for us not only to see better or further or deeper into His truth, but to see without distortion.
Near the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, a wise wizard tries to persuade the hobbit Bilbo to pass his precious ring on to another. Because the ring has already eaten into Bilbo’s soul, he responds with fear and anger to his old friend. In the end Gandalf shouts, ‘I am not trying to rob you!’ and then more gently, ‘I am trying to help you’.
Individuals and whole churches can miss God’s gentle leading unless again and again the door is re-opened between us and our living Lord.
Otherwise we tend to get things distorted and out of proportion. We turn what was right for a certain time and place into a rigid rule, or alternatively slip into selfish or convenient compromises when we are called to stand firm.
It is part of our human weakness to prefer the ‘dark glass’ to the open door and the crisis of a face-to-face meeting with Christ.
Mr Trump is fond of describing critical press coverage of himself or his entourage as ‘fake news’. But actually we all have our ‘fake news’ – things we choose to believe that are not actually the case.
So let us do this year what the watchword says: pray for that open door and the revelation of new truth for our life together as a church.
‘Pray that God may open to us a door for the word’.
Yours in God’s love,
‘Image: ClipartOfcom, ID … 566’
REPLANTED BY GOD
Do you feel settled where you are? What if everything changed?
Not long ago my wife and I wanted (literally) to put down some roots in our home in Manchester. So we bought three miniature apple trees and planted them in our small back garden.
Then unexpectedly our lives changed – and we were called to start a new ministry here in Leicestershire.
As well as moving ourselves and a ludicrous amount of belongings we also had to dig up these young trees and transport them on the hottest day of the summer. As soon as possible we replanted them, but would they ever recover?
And of course a deeper question for us was whether we ourselves would recover and flourish.
Isaiah 61 speaks of ‘a planting of the Lord’ (verse 3) not of those who are already comfortable but of those who have been in some way displaced. They are words of promise for any believer who is catapulted into change, whether by bereavement or redundancy or loss of health, or more positively by any fresh opportunity or new relationship.
God is able to replant us and make us flourish ‘to display his glory’, as Isaiah goes on to say.
So after 18 months, how are our three trees doing? The answer is that one is still biding its time, neither dying nor fruitful, but the other two were full of blossom and have cropped well.
And maybe the same is true of us as well. No change comes without cost or difficulty, but in time it is amazing how fruitful God’s replanting of our lives can be.
‘At Christmas, the world seems to be full of other people’s prams and push-chairs’. A couple who had been trying unsuccessfully for a baby told me this once – and it has stuck.
If we set aside for the moment the ever-more-ridiculous commercial Christmas, for many of us family ties are a big part of the reason for the season.
So I am glad that this year a petition started by Ian Lapworth has attracted so much support. It says simply that – with the exception of small convenience stores – shops should be closed on Boxing Day. The reasons given are these:
‘Whilst not everyone may see Christmas as a religious holiday, it should be respected as such, and retail workers (who work so hard on the run-up to the big day) given some decent family time to relax and enjoy the festivities like everyone else. … Let’s get back to the way it was. Forget making money for one day, let’s concentrate on making more memories with the ones we love.’
I hope the petition is successful, that we see the back of Boxing Day sales and that there are even more initiatives to help people go from ‘living to shop’ towards shopping to live.
But that still does not help the couple I mentioned at the beginning. Precisely because Christmas is a time for family gatherings and the celebration of love, those who are lonely or bereaved or (as in my friends’ case) painfully unfulfilled, can feel excluded. As those with much to celebrate draw their curtains to shut out the winter darkness, these others can feel shut out too.
Yet when we look at the story of Jesus’ birth, we find that it is those whose lives are incomplete who find most joy at his coming. The shepherds are shut out of the warmth and comfort of home by their very occupation. But it is precisely because these men are out in the darkness that they are first to see the angel host and first to ‘hear the news they bring’.
Again, the very circumstances that lead to Mary placing her new baby in the animals’ feeding trough speak of God’s coming among the poor and displaced and vulnerable.
So of course it is good to celebrate all the bonds of love and friendship at Christmas. (And to have time to do it, thank you Mr Lapworth.) But if you are reading this and feeling you are rather short on friends, or are missing someone you have loved, or have just not been having a particularly good year, then assuredly Christmas is for you most of all.
Christians believe that in Jesus God showed us what He is really like. So part of what He is really like is a new-born baby, who could be perfectly at home among people shut out of an inn and with nothing to offer but their love and adoration.
Let us ensure that we all include one another in our carolling and Christmas praise; and also in our more homely celebrations of crackers and puddings and turkeys … or wholesome vegetarian alternatives.
‘For it’s Christmas time,
When we travel far and near.
May God bless you and send you
A happy New Year.’
AN EASTER EQUATION
It is difficult to keep a conspiracy under wraps, we learned recently. A study by the physicist David Grimes examined how long conspiracies can ‘survive’ before the truth is revealed.
Dr Grimes devised an equation which applies two factors – the number of conspirators and the passage of time – to produce an estimate of the probability of a conspiracy being blown.
No doubt someone has tried to apply this theory to the Easter story. Suppose for a moment that Jesus did not rise from the dead. How likely is it that every one of those who claimed to be witnesses to the resurrection (‘more than five hundred brothers and sisters’, according to St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:6) would keep such a colossal lie to themselves? ‘Virtually impossible’ says Dr Grimes’ equation.
Also, given the ferocious hostility of the religious authorities to the first Christians, what easier than for them to produce Jesus’ body in order to disprove this wild belief in a risen Lord and thus save themselves endless trouble?
Finally, as has often been argued, very few people would go rejoicing to their deaths even for the sake of truth, so it is very difficult to believe that the friends of Jesus who became martyrs would have been willing to suffer and die for what they knew was a lie.
However, our response to Good Friday and Easter can, of course, never be governed by an equation. The Quakers speak of ‘convincement’. I should say that either you are convinced that Jesus’ death uniquely demonstrates the sacrificial nature of God’s love for us and his resurrection God’s triumph over evil and death or you are not.
If you are not, then there are still Easter eggs and bunnies and the coming of Spring to enjoy. If you are, then these joyful words are for you:
Good Christians all, rejoice and sing,
Now is the triumph of our King,
To all the world glad news we bring:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!