Words are not enough

Words are not enough

I don't know about you, but we do Christmas big time in our household. Over the years, as our children have grown up, many traditions and rituals have emerged as part of the 'Clifford Christmas'.

One of these traditions as our children become adults is the production of a 'Christmas wish-list' where each member of the family gives some indication of gifts they would like to receive.

Some have complained that this takes away the element of surprise, however for others it has taken away the painful process of wondering what on earth they should buy or perhaps the even more painful question: what on earth am I going to do with these snowman socks?

So it was on one particular Christmas day that I began the process of handing out the presents which had been stashed under the Christmas tree.

It is my job to hand them out with suitable gaps allowed for the opening of the gift and expressions of delight and of course thanks.

One large rectangular box had my name on it from Ann (my wife). I opened it with expectation and discovered one of those 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzles of which 90 per cent was sky. I made all the right noises and moved on to pass out more gifts.

It was later in the day beside the kitchen sink (I say that not to impress you but because I was doing the washing up), I said to Ann: "Darling your present - 10,000 pieces, 90 per cent sky, where did you get that idea? Have you ever seen me do a jigsaw? Do I look like a person who does jigsaws?" (I should point out that obviously there's nothing wrong with doing jigsaws, I've just never seen myself as one of those people).

There was a long silence before Ann replied, perhaps a little defensively: "It was on your Christmas list."

Again a long silence came before I explained it was more of a Black & Decker version that I was hoping for.

As I'm sure you can imagine, this story has been told many times and I am always struck by the fact of how easy it is for words alone to let us down. The amazing truth of the Christmas story is this: that God knew that words were not enough. The Christian faith is not founded upon a book full of words - however wonderful the Bible is - but has its very foundation in God Himself making His home with us, "dwelling" among us.

The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrates God's love for people, and His determination to sort out the mess our rebellion has made of His creation.

This problem with words provides a challenge to us. As we consider ways to communicate the good news, the words of Jesus echo in our ears: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you will love one another." Words alone won't do it, there has to be more.

Steve Clifford is general director of the Evangelical Alliance

Enough already

Enough already

In the shops last week, the same old feelings began to stir: child-like Christmas excitement mixed with - and here's the irony about 'advent' - a sense of inadequacy that arises only at this time of year. I'd popped out to get a few gift ideas, but immediately felt paralysed by choice and pressured by price. And what I returned with was the idea that I can't provide the magic and sparkle for my family.

So I was grateful for the line that popped into my head from the poet Wendell Berry: "What we need is here."

Berry is someone who helps us to see what was already ours from the beginning. It's a contemplative discipline - to see, and be glad - which hopefully helps us to resist the pressure of consumer temptation and (more positively) to demonstrate an appreciative advent alternative. A spark of light!

"We pray," he writes, "not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here."

"When you let go of trying to get more of what you don't really need," writes Lynne Twist in her book The Soul of Money, "it frees up oceans of energy to make a difference with what you have. [And] when you make a difference with what you have," she says, "it expands."

In a way, then, we need nothing more... than to realise what we have. Which includes Immanuel, God with us, here. Enough, already. More than enough.

Brian Draper is a writer and speaker.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

I get unbelievably excited about Christmas. I always have done. As a boy, I started the countdown in October, ticking off the days until Christmas, and sometimes scoring off a day in advance, just to try and hurry things along. It's not just the food, cards, presents, stockings, decorations, carols and spending time with friends and family that I enjoy. The anticipation of Christmas is what I love most.

One of my earliest memories is as a three-year-old, tumbling into my parents' bed with my older brother, and opening our stockings. The prospect of our own two small boys delving into their stockings and unwrapping their gifts makes me even more excited. Ruth and I got married at Christmas. It was a perfect winter day and we processed out to O Come All Ye Faithful. The trumpet descant was superb.

The wonder of Christmas was never limited to the 'temporal gifts' of the season (as fun as these are), but a profound sense that, to use CS Lewis's phrase in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, a deeper magic was at work. Something big was happening.

Once in Royal David's City still brings me out in goose bumps. The sights, sounds and smells of Christmas were all signs, shadows or perhaps echoes, of something even better. God was on the move. It wasn't only that God was at work in the original Christmas story (at just the right time, according to Paul in his letter to the Romans (5:6)) but also active in our celebration of it. This sense was not simply, or even principally, cognitive. To quote The Troggs: "I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes."

Of course, the excitement about Christmas is something that is highlighted by the gospels. Take Luke's gospel as one example. In response to the announcement of the angels that "a Saviour has been born to you", the shepherds can't wait to go to Bethlehem and "see this thing that has happened" (2:15). When they had seen Jesus, they spread the word and all who heard it were amazed (2:17).

And so, as we journey through advent, I am increasingly excited about Christmas. About the trappings, of course, but also by the tingling sense that God is on the move and, through the event of Christmas and its retelling, putting the world to rights.

Paul Woolley is executive director of charity at the Bible Society

Filling in the gaps at Christmas...

Filling in the gaps at Christmas...

Christmas is such a season of extremes. It's meant to be the happiest of times but, for some, it's the saddest of times. As William Blake says in Auguries of Innocence: "Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine."

Everyone wants Christmas to be a time for family and home but the reality is that Christmas can be a massive reminder that all is not what it should be.

Some of my own most joyful Christmas memories come from the life of a local church and its people 'filling in the gaps' in all sorts of ways. This meant being a family and providing 'home' - not only for those in the church family but for the wider community as well.

I served as vicar at St Mark's, Haydock, for 20 years and our two morning services on Christmas Day would be packed out with every conceivable expression of family you can think of.

This always provided opportunity for a really fun time; including the children coming up to the front to talk to us about what they'd got while the vicar played with the presents and flew their toy aeroplanes across the congregation. That sort of thing!

We structured it so that worship at these services was also a great gift for the older people who either didn't have families or who weren't with their families for one reason or another.

It took a few years of trying different types of service and event on Christmas Eve before we finally hit on the thing that was right for our community. Around teatime on 24th, we'd have carols around the tree - the time when many parents were really weary trying to keep their children entertained! There wasn't an 'official' community centre where we were in Haydock so our vision was to turn the church into one. For the teatime service, we'd take all of the chairs out and it would be standing room only with many others outside around the tree. It felt like the whole community was there and we'd give out around 1,000 turkey rolls.

Another massive task was to take Holy Communion out to the elderly and lonely in our area but that was so important in bringing Christmas into unexpected and forgotten places. Again it makes me think of the joy and woe of this time of year; we looked to communicate Christmas joy in an appropriate way to the people who were sometimes filled with woe because of their own situation. In a way, this became a thermometer for the spiritual temperature of the church and who we were in Christ.

I pray for all those Christians looking to 'fill in the gap' this Christmas and may God help us to remember again that joy and woe are woven fine...

Phil Potter is director of Pioneer Ministry for the Diocese of Liverpool. He will become Archbishops' Missioner and leader of the national Fresh Expressions team in April 2014.

Unhampered giving this Christmas

Unhampered giving this Christmas

Having young children, I often find myself getting caught up in the commercial aspect of Christmas; attending pantomimes, shopping for extended wish-lists and eating mountains of rich food. I am certainly not against enjoying the 'festive spirit' but on reflection I can see that the significance and wonder of the Christmas story can very easily be sidelined when one slips into the consumerist lifestyle.

This year I deliberately chose to prayerfully reflect on the birth of Jesus and what struck me over and over again is just how much God is a Father who 'gives'. Of course, in the birth of Jesus we see a God who gives Himself for the sake of humanity so that we might have life.

But fast track to the rest of Jesus's life and we see that the 'giving' character of God is continually present; be it in teaching, healing, discipling or listening to others. Wherever he went, Jesus was swamped by crowds in search of wisdom and healing. And even in the face of fatigue Jesus did not refuse their requests.

From the outset God comes to give. In Luke 2:11 the angel of the Lord says: "Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you." The angel proclaims that this good news will "cause great joy for all the people" and yet we know for God this is to be the sacrifice of all sacrifices for it will end up at the Cross.

Such is the immensity of God's giving that He focuses His eternal, limitless self on us. Jesus came into the world for us, lived a life in service of us, and went to his death for the sake of us. It is difficult to comprehend a God who made the heavens and earth and everything in it, giving on such a scale. It all seems so illogical but then that is the nature of God and His overwhelming generous grace.

With all this resonating, my wife and I have decided not to buy each other presents this year but instead give the money we would have spent on each other to Operation Rudolph, an initiative run by Christians across Watford that will make 500 hampers for families facing a difficult Christmas.

Please don't be fooled into thinking we are always like this. This is just the start for us. It is not a lot compared to what Christ gave for us but we hope we are able to grow in living lives that are not for us but for others. That is our prayer this Christmas.

Manoj Raithatha is national co-ordinator of the South Asian Forum

Christmas celebration and revolution

Christmas celebration and revolution

A few Christmases ago, one of my 'not yet' Christian friends invited me to spend some time with him and his wife over the 'festive season'.

He proceeded to tell me just how much they loved Christmas and how they took time to fully enter into the 'spirit' of the season.

"Christmas," he told me, "is all about decorating the big Christmas tree together: presents, parties, tinsel, food and the whole Father Christmas thing. We love spending time with special friends and family and eating Christmas pudding."

At this point he stopped talking, looked at me earnestly and suddenly blurted out: "Of course, it's also about the baby Jesus!" We still laugh about the moment that he remembered he was speaking to a Christian minister.

As much as I love the story of 'the baby Jesus', Christmas means much more to me than this. The incarnation reminds me that 2,000 years ago, a mind-blowing event occurred in human history: God stepped into helpless human flesh.

The implications of this one 'simple' event are numerous. However, one that resonates with me in particular (apart from the excuse to throw a party), is that it provides an annual, fixed reminder that it is possible to choose powerlessness (something that only the powerful can do).

When we each identify where/how we are powerful in relation to others and act (at least for a moment), to 'equalise' our circumstances, we 'celebrate' the incarnation in a very distinct way.

For many of my 25 years as a local church pastor, I often spent much of Christmas with people for whom Christmas day was a day like any other. No glitter, no gifts and no parties, just continuing hardship, uncertainty and pervasive inequality. I wasn't simply seeking to share resources, companionship and time; this was also an opportunity for my church members and I to make different decisions about how we spent our time and money.

Someone asked me just recently: "What should I buy for 'someone who has everything'?" I responded: "Why not 'buy' them into a child/village sponsorship scheme for a year?"

Contrary to what many have come to expect, Christmas is a reminder that in giving, we aim not to escape reality but to face it, especially where there is difficulty, failure, trouble, hardship and fear. As we do so, we are reminded that there is someone who is greater than our reality itself. Similarly, there is no situation or circumstance being faced in the world today that God through Jesus Christ cannot respond to. Indeed, there is no depth of human need, pain or distress that He hasn't entered into and overcome.

In the same way that God has shared our humanity and experiences, we can choose to do the same for others. For me Christmas is a time to reconnect and re-engage with the God who grounds timeless truth in concrete acts of celebration and revolution.

Kate Coleman is the founding director of Next Leadership and chair of the Evangelical Alliance Council

So here it is.

So here it is.

Ah, Christmas. Jack Frost roasting on an open fire... Rudolf nipping at your toes... Yuletide carols being slain by a choir... And kids dressed up like Aled Jones...

It can get confusing. 'What can be more Christmassy than receiving a letter from Santa?!' screamed one newspaper advertisement. 'Christmas isn't Christmas without a John Lewis advert,' I overheard on a train. 'We have two Santas in our Nativity crib scene,' I heard a child boast. When you have two-thirds as many Santas as wise men, you know your Christmas has got busy.

I reckon as holidays go, it's got about 15 too many 'things'. I can cope with a festival honouring a baby's birth via cards, crackers, a tree, and maybe a song about a reindeer. But as the centuries pass, we're adding more and more to our list of what Christmas isn't Christmas without. Mistletoe? Got to have mistletoe. Holly? Ivy? Alright, chuck those in too. Mulled wine? Mince pies? Yeah. Christmas pud, turkey, Ferrero Rocher? Round-robin letters, robins for that matter, panto, Slade, sprouts, The Nutcracker, The Grinch, the BBC2 Christmas horror film, the BBC1 Reith lectures, the Channel 5 Britain's Strongest Man contest, Noel Edmonds in a jumper, a weatherman on a roof, a sitcom episode that's 15 minutes longer than it should be, the Queen walking to church, the Queen at 3:04pm pretending to smile. Can you imagine Christmas without all of these things? It sometimes feels like if even one element was missing, we'd all be tutting on Boxing Day: 'It just didn't feel like Christmas.'

Lately I've tried trimming this list. Not as a 'bah humbug' (oh that's another one - The Muppet Christmas Carol. Actually that can stay...), nor as a puritanical holier-than-thou ('My Christmas is purer than yours - we just sit in front of a candle for a day humming Silent Night'). I'm just thinking if you picked your favourite five from that list, just focussing on them, wouldn't that be a great day? A nice straightforward celebration of that babe in a barn, born to save? We can still celebrate the Christian Christmas with some secular elements. Just be picky.

The last few Christmases, we've taken to performing readings - a bit of Dickens, or a nice poem. We take it in turns. It's fun. We've reined in presents to one small thing each that we think they'll love, rather than crazy amounts that no one knows where to put. We don't go crazy on Santa but we do go mad for Rat Pack Christmas songs.

You needn't feel the pressure to tick every Christmas box if you don't want to. You also shouldn't feel bad about doing the non-Christian Christmas things you like, like stockings and The Pogues. Christmas is a celebration. Invite as many people and things as you feel you can cope with. Just remember: don't invite so many guests that you can't find the birthday boy.

Paul Kerensa is a comedian and sitcom writer

Friends in low places

Friends in low places

The Christmas story is such a good example of God's preference for the weak things of this world, the lowly and the despised things - and the things that are not. Choosing a teenage girl to start a revolution. A stable and a few shepherds to stage the event.

The birth account reminds me that God's grand redemption plan starts in the way it continues - in surrendered hearts. Engaging friends in low places, so to speak, and opening up a new future.

History is no longer written by the victors. Mary's song, one of the most beautiful hymns resonating through time, is the written proof. Her poetic outburst echoes ancient prophetic promises that give her a lens for the present and future in the light of God's desire to make all things new. The kind of God she is praying to is the One who lifts the lowly, chooses the humble and fills the hungry with good things. The One who sees her.

Centuries later, the slaves sing their spirituals - subversive emancipation songs about their hope for deliverance. Hope rooted in the faith that He will overcome. Centuries later, writing from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer helps us to see the great events in history "from beneath - from the viewpoint of the useless, the suspect, the abused, the powerless, the oppressed, the despised". The most beautiful lyrical and theological reflections uttered by the despised. History written by the lowly.

Decades later, it anchors my faith. It cleanses my lens when it gets blurred. For, at times, history seems to be written by the powerful. The future seems annulled for the weak. Yet, when I listen to Mary's song I hear her joy that God is mindful of the humble. When I hum the spirituals my faith is strengthened for He has done mighty things. When I read Bonhoeffer I detect riches stored in secret places and treasures in the hidden. He has scattered the proud and brought down rulers.

When we provide night shelter for the destitute in Manchester, He extends mercy to the lowly. Each year, Christmas reminds me of the subversive way God exercises power. This child born to us - this Son given to us - is a lavish gift of the incomparable riches of God's grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).

Jesus faithfully fulfills Mary's song. The apostle Paul insightfully sketches how the line of the new humanity that started in Christ continues to profoundly shape us: God knew what He was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son (Romans 8:29).

The revolution won't be televised. It's taking place under the radar in ordinary people living extraordinary lives, shaped by grace and full of mercy, in surrender to Him. It's called worship. To me the Christmas story is historically beautiful and ongoingly relevant.

Marijke Hoek is co-editor of Carnival Kingdom and Micah's Challenge

Let's make Christmas less special

Let's make Christmas less special

Christmas is surprisingly lovely, all things considered. I mean, in spite of its cultural origins in a relatively unhinged pagan festival and its religious origins in a story that involves infant genocide and unsanitary birth conditions, our experience of it is really, very sweet. Special. No day of the year is like Christmas. Children hover on the verge of detonation with sheer excitement and wonder in the run-up to it. Adults lavish generosity on friends and family and strangers and pets in a way that makes the rest of the year stop, grab them by the collar and demand, 'who are you, and what have you done with Bob?'

It's lovely. Like I said: special.

But it's not all shiny and beautiful like the nose of a non-scriptural reindeer. At Christmas we suspend our moral values. Don't argue. You know it's true. We overeat, we over-imbibe, we overspend and over-consume, and we don't call it gluttony, greed or poor stewardship. We call it special. 'Cos it's Christmas. We elevate our families and personal traditions to the level of religion and justify it by appeals to 'Christmas is a special time for family'.

I wish Christmas was a little less special.

Even the genuinely lovely side of Christmas is undermined by its specialness. Volunteers and donors clog up soup kitchens and charities for the poor around Christmas in a way that sometimes makes their contribution unusable or at least surplus to actual needs. We do something about it. Why? Because it's Christmas. Christmas is special. We care about people with nothing at Christmas. And I can't help but wonder whether, if Christmas were less special, less unusual, we might care the rest of the year.

There are people we only see at Christmas. You know the ones. In your mind they can only be pictured in festive reindeer jumpers. If Christmas were less special - if every day had a drop or two of yuletide spirit - would we invite the lonely round for dinner, recognising that being alone any day is almost as sad as being alone one day in December? Maybe not. Maybe Christmas just gives us an excuse to do kind things for people. But if that's true, I think it may also be the case that it gives us an excuse to do far less the rest of the year. At the times it's not special.

We need special days, high seasons and holy days. We can't live every day like it's Christmas. But it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if we shook the calendar like a snow globe and let some of the specialness of Christmas spread to the rest of the year.

Jonty Langley is an award-winning columnist and writes regularly for Christianity magazine

Incarnation: an over-the-top response

Incarnation: an over-the-top response

I absolutely love Christmas. Seriously I do. I even love the tacky, overpriced, commercialised bits of it that people tell me I'm supposed to hate. It's the potential for generosity in it all that I love. Why? I'll give you an example. I pushed the boat out a bit last Christmas and gave my mother a mobile phone. Her face was a treat - so excited! I phoned up on Boxing Day to find out how she was getting on.

There was no reply at all from the mobile phone, so I resorted to the land line. My father picked up the phone, and I asked how she was managing with the charging, and the texting, and the directory, and the messages, and the entering of the phone numbers, and the voicemail, and the .

I could tell from my father's silence that it wasn't going as smoothly as I'd hoped. "Well," he said. "It's a bit of a struggle to understand."

I was slightly frustrated, because I'd spent a long time going through it. "Pass the phone over to her," I said. "I'll give her some more instructions."

I could hear him hesitating.

"It's OK," I said. "Just give her the message."

He went away and came back a moment later. He said: "Well, she says that in all honesty she doesn't want better instructions or more messages. If she's going to understand the wretched thing, what she really needs is her son to visit in person."

That is why Jesus came to earth. If we are going to understand how to live and how to be at one with God, God could have sent better instructions and more messages for a million years. But it wouldn't have achieved what was needed. So the Son visited in person. A human amongst humans. God amongst those who desperately need God. Jesus.

It's an extraordinary thought! God looked at his own earth, ruined by wrongdoing and failure, and lamented, 'What can be done?' But from the depths of time eternal Jesus Christ (or as the Bible refers to him, the Son of God) has always known what has to be done. So he slips on a pair of Levi jeans, he reaches for a Marks & Spencer sweater, he slaps on some aftershave (or whatever the equivalent was 2,000 years ago). And he says, 'OK, I'll go!'

And there he is. Walking along the high street. Among us.

All that tackiness? All that commercialism? I know it's not ideal. It's over-the-top.

But if what Christians believe is true - that Jesus Christ was God on earth - then it is so phenomenal that only an over-the-top response seems good enough.

Peter Graystone is co-ordinator of the Christian Enquiry Agency

My 38th Christmas

My 38th Christmas

I've had 37 of them so am beginning to count myself as a bit of an expert. I'm not a purist, like my friend Bri who won't even think about getting an egg-nogg latte until he's opened day one on his advent calendar. But I do love it. All of it. And once Bonfire Night is out of the way, I get the decorations down and Christmas preparations begin.

But I'm not really into having a 'normal' Christmas, if there is such a thing. To be honest, I can think of nothing worse than staying in all day on Christmas, eating, sleeping and watching James Bond re-runs. My top three Christmas Days to date have involved playing pool with a homeless teenager and her pit-bull (he wasn't very good at it), ripping open presents on Christmas Eve (shock horror!) with international students and eating mince pies with deportees at Heathrow detention centre.

But all that's about to change.

This year for my 38th Christmas, I'm about to stay home for the first time in years. This year it's up to me to create the magic for my own daughter who came into our lives last January.

The question is: what do I do about the big bearded guy? Not my husband, the other one. I love Father Christmas. He's the stuff that children's dreams are made of, but in my home he was quickly overshadowed by the small vulnerable guy. The one in the corner of a friend's lean-to, sleeping among the animals, son of an unmarried teenager. Not very Christmassy, I hear you cry!

But that's just it. Growing up in a family that experienced its fair share of financial struggles, a stranger that pops into your life once a year with a gift that satisfies until Boxing Day afternoon can never compare to a newborn God-child, whose gift of love keeps on giving. Father Christmas has his place, but on his own, he just doesn't scream 'it's Chriiiiiiistmaaaaaaas!'

Don't get me wrong. I'm still going to take my daughter to see the lights and push her around a grotto. I'm going to help her put out a carrot for Rudolf and sherry for Santa. I'm going to give her the biggest stocking I can hang on her cot without it becoming a health and safety hazard! But I'm not going to wrap her up in the idea that the best Christmas can offer her is a Peppa Pig scooter. As she grows, I'm not going to deny her the chance to find her place in the greatest Christmas story ever told.

I dream about my daughter waking up on this and future Christmas mornings (hopefully after 6am!), and knowing, even before she opens her eyes, that the best gift is already hers in abundance.

Love.

The endless love of the Saviour whose cries that first Christmas woke the world up to the reality that if God would become a baby, born into poor circumstances and destined for suffering, what else would he do for us?

Christmas does start with Christ, and at the moment my little girl is still unaware of any of this. Right now, she's into Peppa Pig and I'm saving up to get her that scooter. But my prayer for my 38th Christmas Day, my daughter's third and your [fill in the gaps] is that we all discover a story that has the power to change everything forever.

Rachel Gardner is the director of Romance Academy and president-elect of the Girls' Brigade.

Silent Night

Silent Night

Christmas shopping, the Christmas tree; that last-minute dash to buy the present for the other person who just gave you a £2 gift from the local petrol station; the parties and turkey, and interminable series of social gatherings which lead you unconsciously into the New Year.

I don't think so!

I'm afraid our kids find me the biggest Christmas bore. Last year the Christmas tree was our only concession, but they weren't impressed by the fact that it was drawing on an A4 sheet suspended over the main doorway. At least they got the joke.

We're not Scrooges. Christmas is definitely a time to share and bless others and in recent years a part of our Christmas schedule was a stint with Crisis at Christmas providing food and shelter for alcoholics and the homeless.

But there must have been a time that first Christmas when Mary and Joseph stopped. With the crazy overland trek to Bethlehem, the house-hunting which ended in a stable, the confused and disapproving parents and in-laws, the well-wishers and the rest, it would have been a roller-coaster time. But there must have been that moment of peace and silence when they finally got a chance to stop and to let a moment of peace wash over them.

It's a moment I want to inhabit with them and I still hanker after that moment of peace.

Even as a child in 1960s England I used to feel it very powerfully in the hush of a pre-commercialised Christmas when everything and everyone stopped and the world paused to catch its breath. It never feels like escapism. Just stillness.

And whenever I sing Silent Night I feel I have walked into the true spirit of Christmas.

Joel Edwards is international director of Micah Challenge