Painful Christmas

Painful Christmas

Inevitably at some point during the celebrations each year we'd take a few minutes to remember those who are feeling sad at Christmas; particularly those in broken families or the bereaved. Anyone on their own at Christmas was always welcome a place at our table.

For me, the run up to Christmas this year has been full of well-intentioned people - friends, neighbours, aunts and a solicitor - reminding me with sympathetic head tilts, that this Christmas is "going to be a difficult and painful one". Well fair enough, that statement is likely to be true; it's my first Christmas without my parents - both of whom have now died of cancer in their late 50s - the house is lonely and the family is halved.

But you don't have to look too deep to see others in pain. All around us are people trying to mask depression, anxiety, stress, sadness or loneliness with a fake smile, santa hat or Christmas glitter. What is it about 'Christmas cheer' that makes us feel under obligation to go through this? Is it ok to acknowledge sadness at Christmas? I think so. But the good news is that the story doesn't stop here.

We know that life is not a perfect picture postcard, that the Bethlehem scene where all seems idyllic is not quite the truth - a stress birth, a manky stable, threat of death from Herod etc. Jesus foreknew that his death was going to be a very painful thing. Knowing he and others would face great pain didn't mean he walked away. He embraced it, knowing that through the greatest pain comes the greatest forgiveness, love and indeed the hope of the whole world.

So, I'm not going to pretend that all is jolly just because Mariah, the Queen or a Christmas film is on and the tinsel is up. I know that true joy is only found in Emmanuel, God with us as a human, and it is available freely. Jesus came to a world in pain and understands our pain and the mess of humanity and meets us in it. The true wonder of Christmas.

 

Choosing to believe

Choosing to believe

It's been a hard year for aid workers, as we've seen colleagues taken hostage or killed in the Middle East. Every time it happens, it feels as though we have lost one of our own even if we don't know them personally.

And those of us who have worked on the Syria Border or in Iraq, as I have this year, know the almost unbearable tension of living with the deep concern of our families and the compelling urge to help those in one of the world's most appalling conflicts.

But the reality that, right this minute, people are being raped, tortured, beheaded, persecuted, imprisoned and sold as slaves is only part of the story. It is of course a reason that we continue to go as close as we can to the world's hardest places, and why we continue to live with the grief that we can't quite reach the people caught up in those imaginable horrors.

On its own, though, it isn't enough.

Because, as we remember at this time of year, we are also motivated by the stubborn and persistent belief that things can - and one day will - be better.

If faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1), then this year has been a true test of faith for many of us. There has been so much that we have wanted in order to assist the world's poorest people, and so much that we have not been able to see.

But we have a hope, and his name is Jesus.

This year, above almost all years in living memory, we choose to believe that the story God is telling, through the whole of history and into eternity, in every country around the world, is taking us towards something that is better. And that we are characters in his stupendous plot, in a chapter that will, eventually, make sense.

Katie Harrison from Tearfund

Christmas Time

Christmas Time

Download the video here: http://www.uccf.org.uk/student/christmas-time.htm Christmas time, mistletoe and wine, and out of respect, to the politically correct; children singing 'seasonally appropriate' rhymes. "I'm pretty disappointed Christmas doesn't mean what it used to" said the guy with the Starbuck's gingerbread latte and reindeer-edition Bluetooth. In this short animated film, Urban poet, Rael James Mason, explores what Christmas is all about. This video is ideal for use in a university Christian Union or church based carol service in order to help people think through the message of Christmas. 

What Christmas means to me

What Christmas means to me

This Christmas I will be thinking about the story of the appearance in Palestine 2,000 years ago of a child whose situation then speaks to ours today, and is indicative of how the good news of God's love bringing peace and goodwill to mankind can be heralded and lived in the face of adversity.

In what we call the Incarnation, God chose to indwell the 'divine self' within fragile humanity. The eternal (logos) Word became one of and with us in Jesus. As a baby, Jesus though God in human flesh: had to be taken into exile for safety; was not believed in by his own family; was denied by one friend who had pledged loyalty; was betrayed with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver; was falsely accused and wrongly convicted of (ironically) blasphemy; was crucified at the tender age of 33; was buried in a borrowed tomb.

And yet rose triumphantly from the dead after three days. However while Jesus lived on earth he performed miracles, trained and commissioned the apostles, and started a movement that in spite of many rumours of its demise continues to grow 2,000 years later committed to spreading Jesus's simple but profound message of redemptions: love, peace, goodwill and flourishing to all humankind. So as we in the materially comfortable Western world celebrate Christmas 2014 with all the trappings of our affluence, may we remember the vulnerable, the disowned, the denied, the betrayed, the falsely accused and wrongly convicted, those whose lives are threatened and those whose lives have been taken.

Christmas reminds us that in the midst of adversity miracles happen, seeds are sown that will bear fruit in years to come, and Jesus' message of peace for all still rings out. In the end good overcomes evil, the dead are resurrected, against the odds the vulnerable baby survives to rule the world. Merry Christmas!

Bishop Joe Aldred is a broadcaster, ecumenist and speaker and is responsible for Pentecostal and multicultural relations at Churches Together in England

Stripping away the trappings

Stripping away the trappings

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, more mega Christmas adverts this year than ever. Is it any wonder that negative conversations about the commercialisation of the season abound? Yet many of us enjoy looking at the Christmas lights in the town; and I find myself becoming increasingly excited as decorative lights appear in neighbours' windows day by day in the new housing area where we live and more. Today our own Christmas tree went up! These mixed feelings about the trappings of Christmas have set me thinking about my personal reactions

to Christmas through the years, including my years in ministry, and where Jesus Christ has been - or not!

Christmas has always felt a special time of year from childhood. Family folklore included the story of a maiden aunt queuing for hours in post-war Coventry to buy a small doll's pram for me at a time when such toys were scarce. I benefitted from the still commonly held view that 'Christmas is for children'. It was only in becoming a follower of Jesus in my 20s, along with my husband, that our own young child also learnt that the greatest gift came as an infant that first Christmas.

 

Looking back on years of Christmas ministry makes me feel exhausted! There were numerous special services, visiting, social action projects, along with producing Christmas food for three generations in the house, but I would not have missed a moment! God's invitation to celebrate Jesus' birth was indeed to everyone!

Now in retirement, with less activity, and no grandchildren, how do I approach Christmas? There is pleasure that the ageing Simeon and Anna were included in the story! There is great joy in telling the nativity story in the local primary school. Stripping away some earlier seasonal trappings is like walking backwards towards a more simple Christmas, still rejoicing in the profound truth of God coming to earth to give hope to the people He loves.

Kathryn Morgan is a retired Baptist minister and a trustee of the Christian Enquiry Agency

A Hollywood kiss

A Hollywood kiss

Ever dreamed of a kiss from your favourite Hollywood star? Back in 1987 a behavioural economist, George Loewenstein, conducted a study where participants were asked how much they'd pay for such an opportunity.

Fascinatingly, people paid more - not to get the kiss immediately - but to receive it in the future. They wanted the chance to wait, to anticipate: three days being the optimum time they wanted to do that.

Turns out hope for the future can vastly increase our well-being in the present. I'm watching this before my eyes, as my two children, aged three and two, eagerly mooch among the exciting array of wrapped items under a tree in our home. They know something good is coming and their joy is verging on uncontrollable.

I tend to wait very differently: irritated in the supermarket queue, growling while in traffic, aching for that resolution to come. Too often I focus more on what I don't have right now than what's coming in the future.

Advent is, in part, a season for waiting. If I brood on the darkness in my world, thunderclouds swiftly gather about my head. If, instead, I meditate on something better, then joy, peace and hope can be mine despite the challenges I face. So let me leave you with something to ponder, a flicker of candlelight in the gloom that might leave you more expectant this Christmas.

"But when this priest (Jesus) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins (his death), he sat down at the right hand of God and since that time waits for his enemies to be made his footstool."

Jesus is waiting with you: for the moment those enemies of sickness, death, sin and evil are destroyed forever. And the reason we can be confident it'll happen, is that after that death on a cross it transpired three days was just the right amount of time to wait too. After night comes morning; after winter comes spring; after death comes resurrection.

That's something worth waiting for.

Andy Tilsley is a leader at Christchurch London

Christmas: pondering and responding

Christmas: pondering and responding

In Luke 2, we see a variety of responses to the birth of Jesus. Simeon takes Jesus in his hands and praises God, the prophet Anna thanks God and speaks about the child "to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem". Earlier in this chapter the shepherds respond by "spreading the word" about what they have been told about Jesus. Interesting is Mary's response: "But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."

As we draw closer to Christmas, what will our response be to the birth of Jesus? Christmas is an immensely busy time as we prepare for the festivities and try to meet work deadlines. Like Martha we can all too easily find ourselves becoming distracted.

And yet, in Luke 2 we have a wonderful model of how we might choose to respond to the birth of Jesus this Christmas. Like Simeon and the prophet Anna we can dedicate the coming days to praise and thanksgiving. Like Mary we can take time out to meditate, allowing the significance of Jesus' birth to speak to us afresh. And like the shepherds we can share the amazing gift of life for those who turn to Jesus, thinking how to communicate with people of all faiths and none in our society.

The great evangelist George Whitefield was a man who deeply appreciated the birth of Jesus. Whitefield once said:

"You blame me for weeping....but how can I help it when you will not weep for yourselves although your immortal souls are on the verge of destruction, and for aught I know, you are hearing your last sermon and may never more have another opportunity to have Christ offered to you?"

This Christmas let us think how we will choose to respond to the birth of Jesus.

Manoj Raithatha is an entrepreneur and leads the South Asian Forum of the Evangelical Alliance

 

Walking Backwards to Christmas

Walking Backwards to Christmas

Most stories start with someone's decision to do something and then several actions and reactions later we come to a conclusion. Telling a story backwards means that the motivation becomes the conclusion. Hence, my new book, Walking Backwards to Christmas, tells the nativity story in reverse and makes Mary's decision to say yes to the angel the climax of the story; though I actually reach back even further to the prophesies of Isaiah and to Moses' mysterious encounter with a burning bush and a revelation of God's purpose and name.

Telling the story this way helps us discover and examine our own motivations, and also to see the relevance of the Christmas story to our own lives and to today's world. I tell it as a series of first person narratives. So we really get under the skin of the characters in the story. A few things are striking. Women take the most prominent place. There is darkness as well as light. There is horror as well as joy. This is not an easy story. God is born into a very turbulent world. People respond differently. Mary says yes. Herod says no. And a great many mothers of many slaughtered children say why. Joseph only has a dream to go on. Shepherds are caught up in the cosmic drama of salvation; and stargazers from the east learn to mistrust their maps. And everyone has to ask: Who is this child, this light come into the world?

The Christmas story is the one bit of the Bible most people know - or think they know. Telling it backwards and in the first person gives a fresh perspective and makes the known unusual, the familiar fresh.

No purchase necessary

No purchase necessary

"Win Christmas!" said the title of the email from my local radio station. I didn't even open the email - I knew what they meant. I guess there'd be a competition to win some money to spend on presents, perhaps a turkey and a Christmas tree, and if you're really unlucky, the station's DJs might come round and carol-sing at your doorstep, recording the entire process.

Of course the actual grand prize of Christmas was packed and gift-wrapped in a manger 2,000 years ago. Since then, everything else is window-dressing. I'm sure the on-air contest was a generous one, but the real contest isn't one played out on a radio station, but played out between radio stations, and TV stations, and adverts, and shop windows: who can be the most Christmassy? Whose Christmas give-aways are the biggest? Whose festivities are the most festive, who's got the biggest turkey, who's got the best celebs wishing the rest of us 'Happy Christmas'?

Culture is cyclical though. The trend was for TV commercials to 'go large' on Christmas - with celebrities decking the halls with boughs and boughs of holly. So that's when companies like John Lewis reinvented themselves by going small at Christmas. So the favourite festive ads are now relatively sedate, with a gentle acoustic soundtrack and a lovely story about a bear or a penguin or a snowman meeting a snowwoman.

Christmas-with-all-the-trimmings has become trimmed-back-Christmas. The trend of Christmas trees, for example, is now for the simplistic, rather than the over-decorated. Christmas hits today lean towards straightforward singer-songwriters, rather than the overblown throw-everything-at-the-wall anthems of yore from Wizzard and Slade. John Lewis knows we don't want a dozen Santa-suited soap stars can-canning - we want a simple tale of love, even if it is about a computer-generated penguin.

Yet strip it back even further and you'll find the simplest Christmas of all - a baby born homeless to a refugee family: no fanfare, no soundtrack, not even a Christmas lunch. While I'm pulling crackers and unwrapping prezzies, I'll be thinking back to that first Noël, the foundation of all that's followed.

"Win Christmas"? We've all already won it, no purchase necessary, see Bible for details.

Paul Kerensa is a comedian and also a scriptwriter for Not Going Out, Miranda, and various other shows.

 

What Christmas means to me

What Christmas means to me

When I was younger, Christmas was always my favourite time of year. My family aren't Christians so we didn't do church - but we did do Father Christmas, presents, stockings, snowmen and all the trimmings. I loved it. There was just one catch - trying to be good enough for Santa.

"He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake."

That's not a promise; it's a threat. But no matter how hard I tried, goodness was beyond my reach. Half an hour of kindness and I'd be overwhelmed by the urge to do something bad - like punch my little brother or eat all the advent chocolates and blame him.

Since that time, some things have changed and some have stayed the same. My brother's too big to punch - and I left Santa behind along with Barbie's Dream Castle. My heart's still selfish, but I've given up on being "good" - in my own strength at least.

Instead of Santa, I've got a Father who gives, but asks for nothing in return. The kind of God who holds nothing back - not even Himself.

more beautiful than Harrods gift-wrap

more satisfying than the richest Christmas dinner

more comforting than Downton Abbey

more loving than the closest family unit

calmer than Gandalf

kinder than a billion Santas

brighter than Stephen Fry

more reliable than the Queen's speech

sweeter than a clementine

more joyful than a child's first Christmas

more truthful than an in-law's tongue

more welcoming than the warmest hearth.

Jesus.

Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Emma Scrivener is an award winning blogger who can usually be found at http://emmascrivener.net/

 

#TommyTheTiger - Video

#TommyTheTiger - Video

Watch the new St Thomas Christmas advert with Tommy The Tiger. - See more at: http://www.christmasstarts.com/blog2014.php?bid=1#sthash.RbAnY8Rg.dpuf

Christmas: does it really have to be all about the presents?

Christmas: does it really have to be all about the presents?

Two years ago, I announced to my family that I no longer wanted them to buy Christmas presents for me.

Honestly, I didn't think it'd be that big a deal.

Just for the record, I LOVE Christmas. From selecting a tree - still growing - from the field of a local farm, to carol singing, to the switching on of the lights in our little village pub. I love it all. I love the magic of the advent season and how the glow of twinkling Christmas tree lights transforms those still-dark early mornings when I sit down with my Bible and grab a quiet moment before the day begins. And I love the whirlwind of parties and celebrations and having a house packed to the rafters with family and food and laughter.

But a couple of years ago, I started to realise that there was something about Christmas that I really didn't love. It crept up on me slow. A gentle discontent and faint unease with the growing pile of presents around the tree. And in the panting aftermath of frenzied present unwrapping one year, something settled upon me. An empty, hollow feeling of.. disappointment. Something was missing.

It took me a while to struggle with it. Perhaps it was having children of my own that focussed my mind. They were bombarded with activities at school and adverts on the TV and Santa appearing here, there, and in more places than were conceivable possible for one man and his elves. It suddenly felt like an uphill battle to remind them - and ourselves - what was actually important at Christmas. Was it Christ or was it Santa? Was it the presents or the birth of our Saviour? Did I want Christmas to revolve around present lists and I want, I want, I want?

I began to feel less and less comfortable with the noisy clanging materialism that often surrounds Christmas here in the Western world and drowns out - for me anyway - the quiet whisper of God's grace that was the Messiah's birth. So I made a decision. My gift to God at Christmas would be to not receive gifts myself. After all, it isn't my birthday we're celebrating, its Christ's. It allows me to focus on God more during this special season. To hear him better. To remember the real miracle and majesty of what he did for us when He came to earth as a tiny, helpless baby. It's a discipline of putting Him first and me second. Not out of piety or guilt, but as a small gift from me to Him. And if it helps to set an example for our children, that Christmas isn't all about us and what we receive, then that's great too.

Responses have ranged wildly. Some have embraced it with open arms. It's been a great opportunity to get out of the rut of exchanging gifts with some people out of courtesy or habit. And lessening the exchange of unneeded - and often unwanted - gifts that we then feel an obligation to reciprocate, can only be a good thing for our wallets and the environment, right?

But it's been harder with those that I am close to, and that I didn't expect. With two young children and a wider family whose love language is definitely present-buying, this has been a tricky journey that has sometimes made me feel like an out-and-out social pariah.

I have found navigating that sticky path between staying true to what we feel to be right - teaching our children that Christmas is not all about Santa and gifts and how much we get - and not becoming so much of a bah-humbug that we spoil it for those around us, can be hard. And here I have learnt not to be so rigid as to offend. My girls can't bear the thought of Mummy not having anything to open and so I usually put a few books on my Amazon wishlist for them to choose one from. From others, if I have to, I try to think of one small thing I'd really like, or an experience they could pay for rather than more stuff. One year, my lovely husband gave me a little box with a roll of money in it, beautifully tied with a ribbon and a note that said "For you to give away". He gets it.

But the best present? I have re-discovered the true joy of the Advent season. And that? That's Priceless.