My youngest great nephew will be two years old just before Christmas. It seems no time at all since he was born! I had the pleasure and privilege of christening both my great nephew and his brother, and both services were very special occasions and a great pleasure to be part of. Members of the extended family had travelled from all over the country to be at the services and I met up with people who I hadn’t seen for a number of years. The birth of a new child is always special and it so often brings people together.
After my youngest great nephews christening my nephew and his wife talked about their hopes and dreams for the future and for the promise of a new young life. A new life with boundless opportunities and possibilities.
Christmastime brings people together as families gather to celebrate the special season, though for many that celebration will involve no thought for the special baby born at the first Christmas, or for the hope which he brings to our troubled world. And yet that baby born so many years in Bethlehem carried the hopes and dreams of all generations on his tiny shoulders. In that manger at Bethlehem lay a fragile baby born to a life with boundless opportunities and possibilities, a tiny baby born to be the prince of peace and to die on a cross out of love for you and me, a baby born to bring all people together. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” (John 12:32).
Christmastime many of us will sing these familiar words:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
What are your hopes and dreams for Christmas this year? Will you celebrate with your family but forget the greatest baby of all time or will you make room for him and let him help you to fulfil your hopes and dreams?
As you celebrate Christmas remember that Christ came to us at the first Christmas so that our lives can have true meaning here, today in 2018, that he came to draw you and me and all people to him and that only through him can our deepest hopes and dreams be fully realised.
Have a blessed Christmas and a peaceful New Year
I’ve always been interested in musical theatre and thought that I knew my musicals quite well, so I was particularly intrigued by the question “which is the longest running musical of all time?” I guessed that it could be ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Cats’ or even ‘The Sound of Music’, but the answer surprised me and was none of these. Between 1960 and 2017 ‘The Fantasticks’ clocked up an incredible run of 21552 performances in New York and yet most people know little about it. Many people, however, are familiar with the opening song – “Try to remember” with its haunting melody.
At this time of year, and especially this year as we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the end of The Great War, as a nation we will ‘try to remember’.
My earliest memory is from when I was almost three years old in the late 1950’s, almost sixty years ago but still forty years after the end of the Great War. The oldest member of one of my congregations will be a hundred years old next year and her memory stretches back much further than mine, but even she was born after the Great War. The truth is that the Great War is almost beyond living memory, but we here in 2018 are still called to ‘try to remember’, and to keep that memory alive to make sure that nothing like that conflict ever happens again.
Much has changed in the last hundred years – motor cars, jet aircraft, television, world travel, computers, social media to name but a few and the world is a much smaller place than it was in 1918, but one thing has sadly not changed. There are still conflicts in the world. There have only been two years since 1945 when no British service personnel have lost their lives in conflict. The threat of terrorism is greater than ever. The way of the world seems to be the way of violence.
God’s way could not be more different. “Come, see the works of the Lord. He makes wars to cease throughout the earth; He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; He burns the shields in the fire.” (Psalm 46:8-9). “He will judge between the nations and arbitrate for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer take up the sword against nation, nor train anymore for war.” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3) “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:14) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) “He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” (Ephesians 2:17)
As we commemorate the events of that momentous day in 1918 we are called to ‘try to remember’ and to keep alive the memory of events which are beyond living memory with respect and gratitude, but that is not all.
The last line of that song from ‘The Fantasticks’ says “try to remember, and if you remember then follow, follow, follow”. We are called to remember, but we are also called to follow in God’s way. To pray for peace, to actively strive for peace, to seek reconciliation between nations and between all people and God. And only if we do that will we be true to all that we seek to remember.
Will you ‘try to remember’ with me? Will you seek to follow with me?
What a summer we’ve had this year. With sunshine and unusually warm temperatures from the beginning of May right through until almost the end of August the weathermen told us that that we had one of the two hottest summers on record, tying with the summer of 1976 in terms of the hot dry weather. Quite a contrast to the arctic weather and the “beast from the east” which we suffered throughout the winter!
By August Bank Holiday weekend the weather could not have been more different. Cold, wet and windy and talk of central heating being turned back on. Autumn had well and truly arrived and ‘normal service’ was resumed!
Rather than the gradual change that we’re used to in this country the seasons seem to have changed very suddenly this year.
God can often be working slowly in our lives over many years, but he can also act suddenly and bring about a complete change. When a group of fishermen encountered Jesus on the shores of Lake Galilee they immediately left everything and followed him “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”(Mark 1:16-18). Saul encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road and his life was changed in an instant. Saul became the apostle Paul and his life would never be the same again (Acts 9:1-6). In 1738 John Wesley went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street and there his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ in an instant and he was changed for ever. Whatever barriers we put up God can break them down in an instant and change our lives completely as we discover the depth of his love for us.
Maybe today is the day when God will change your life in an instant, or maybe today is the day when you will realise that God has been working slowly in your life for many years and in that instant you will know the change that he can bring as you enter into a deeper relationship with him. Just as suddenly as Summer turned to Autumn this year God can turn your life around if you will recognise him. Are you ready to let God change you?
Bill Shankley famously said that “football is not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that.” For many people the football team is at the heart of their community and visits to football matches are a way of life. Sometimes things go well and at other times the team let their supporters down, but win or lose the fans still talk enthusiastically about their team on a Monday morning. There is a feeling that the world is looking for heroes, and to many those heroes are found on the football field.
Christians in our communities faithfully attend Church week after week and for many their faith is a way of life and the Church or Chapel is at the heart of their community, and yet how often do we hear Christians talking about their faith on a Monday morning? Why is it that it is OK to talk about football, but we are so often reluctant to share our faith with others? Why do we not get as excited about our faith as the fans do about football?
In the early church things could not have been more different. From the day of Pentecost onwards the believers were excited about the good news and took every opportunity to share their faith with as many people as possible. Peter and John told the Sanhedrin “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20). Saint Paul said “For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16), “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). So why is it that Christians today have lost that excitement and are almost scared to share their faith with those around them?
The message which we have is every bit as exciting as the best premiership football match. In Jesus Christ we have a hero who is the same yesterday, today and forever. A hero who will never let us down. With Christ we are always on the winning team.
Isn’t it time to share that really good news with the people around us. To let people know the excitement of being on Jesus’ team. To offer them a hero who will not fall out of favour and hang up his boots in just a few years, but will be there for them always. To ‘Gossip for God;’ wherever we are and on every day of the week, not just on a Sunday. Because one thing is certain – knowing Jesus Christ is not just a matter of life and death – it’s far more important than that, and in him we have the secret of a truly fulfilling life both here and in eternity.
When I first moved to North Staffordshire I had no idea what ‘lobby’ and ‘oatcakes’ were and certainly not what they tasted like. People were telling me how good they were – but I had no idea what an oatcake even looked like! They told me that oatcakes were really good, especially with cheese and bacon (which intrigued me) and I was unsure what to expect when I was told that the harvest lunch was a ‘faith lobby’. It was only when I had that first bowl of lobby and then my first oatcakes at a church breakfast that I discovered what lobby and oatcakes were really like – and how much I enjoyed them! However much people told me I had to taste for myself to really know how good they were. I’ve eaten lots of lobby and oatcakes since!
When I lived in Lincolnshire the local Agricultural Show was one of the highlights of the year with arena displays, vintage cars, agricultural vehicles, a parade, stalls and sideshows and competitions for things as diverse as painting, knitting, jams and sausage rolls and I remember some people talking one year about the things that they were going to enter into the various classes in that year’s show. It was all quite competitive and local people took great pride in producing the best cakes or jams. That reminded me of the ‘Murder Mystery’ play which we produced earlier in the year where the vicar was murdered because he chose someone else’s cakes as the best. No wonder I avoid being the judge!
Talking about the food sections in the show someone once asked if the judges tasted all of the scones, sausage rolls, jams and chutneys and they were assured that every single item was tasted and that only by tasting them could the judges decide how good they were. The judges have to experience the full flavour of each entry for themselves.
People can tell us all about God and how wonderful he is, but it is only when we experience his love for ourselves, when we let him into our lives that we can fully know the truth of how wonderful God really is and find out about everything that he has in store for us. However much people tell us we can never really truly know God until we encounter him for ourselves. The psalmist says “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (psalm 34:8). It’s not enough to just know about God. We have to experience the fullness of God for ourselves.
So are you ready to taste and see just how good God is, and how much he loves you? Are you ready to experience the full wonder of God for yourself?
One of the best known movie themes of all times is the “dambusters march” which was written by Eric Coates (no relative of mine!) for the film of the same name.
2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the night in 1943 when nineteen aircraft took off from RAF Scampton to attack dams in the Ruhr valley in Germany and the legend which was the “dambusters” was born. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to face danger of that kind, but on that night 130 young men were prepared to risk their lives in the cause of freedom, and the rest is history.
There are parts of the world today where being a Christian is a dangerous thing. Where people risk their lives every day for no other reason than their belief in Jesus Christ and his love for them, facing imprisonment, torture and in some cases death for their Christian faith. And yet it is in those places where the Christian faith is often at its most dynamic, growing often at an amazing rate. The Holy Spirit which was poured out at the first Pentecost is giving untold power to the persecuted church throughout the world.
Jesus warned his disciples to expect persecution (Luke 21:12) saying within the beatitudes that “blessed are those that are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10). The early church suffered massive persecution and yet Saint Paul said that “I am content with hardships, persecutions and difficulties for Christ’s sake” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Danger and risk can be expected by those who follow the path of Jesus Christ. Being a Christian can be a very risky business.
But what about those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a country where it is relatively easy to be a Christian, where we are not openly persecuted for our faith? Are we content with our comfortable religion, going through life without our faith giving us any real challenge, secure in our Sunday Morning Christianity? Or are we too prepared to face risks for Jesus Christ? Are we prepared to put our heads up above the parapet and speak out for justice and peace in the name of Jesus, even if that brings with it the risk of unpopularity? Are we prepared to go outside our comfort zone and let Jesus take us into a risky place where our faith can grow, where the Holy Spirit can really start to give us untold power to live our lives for Christ? Are we prepared to let him break down the dams of complacency, comfort and routine in our Christian lives?
Being a true follower of Christ makes us all “dambusters”. Called and challenged to take real risks for Jesus, to face danger for him and to let him break down the barriers in our lives that separate us from a fuller relationship with him.
As I write this letter it looks like spring has finally arrived, with blossoms on the trees and gardens alive with colour which we haven’t seen for many months. The earth which seemed barren only a couple of weeks ago is at last teeming with a new life which is full of hopes and possibilities. Nature had been waiting for the right time to come back to life.
It seems to me that our seasons are becoming a bit like railway timetables in the days of British Rail – everything running late! After a winter which seemed to last for ever spring has finally arrived at least a month later than usual. In the news the other day farmers were saying that their crops are at least four weeks behind where they would normally be at this time of year. Nothing seems to be happening at what we might normally think of as “the right time”.
Whilst things may not happen at what we think is “the right time” the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:3). God’s timing is always perfect. He is never “running late”. Writing to the Galatians Saint Paul said that “When the time was right, God sent his Son ... so that we could become God’s children.” (Galatians 4:4-5). What an amazing God and what an amazing gift!
God offers us all the chance to be his children and to receive a new life which is full of hopes and possibilities. This month we shall be celebrating Pentecost and remembering how God sent the gift of the Holy Spirit to the early believers, a gift which filled them all with new life and new possibilities – and a gift which he offers to all who believe in him today. “For God says, ‘At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you.’ Indeed, the ‘right time’ is now. Today is the day of salvation ’” (2 Cor 6:2). Are you running late, still waiting for the right time to receive God’s gifts? If so then maybe the right time is now. Maybe the time is right for YOU to receive that new life, to become a child of God and be filled with his Holy Spirit.
This year we have been studying a Lent course based on Disney’s “The Lion King” and considering some of the themes which come out of this classic animated film. Themes such as temptation, deception, hopes and shattered dreams, fear and loss and love. In addition there are themes of loyalty, friendship, responsibility, restoration and the triumph of good over evil which we have not had time to explore (perhaps the basis for “Lion King part 2”?). One of the most telling moments in the film is when Simba looks up in despair and cries out “you said you’d always be there for me – but you’re not” echoing the cry of Jesus from the cross. It has been a challenging but very rewarding Lent journey together.
The Lion King is one of many popular Disney films which have been adapted for the theatre and when I went to see the show I was fascinated to see how the whole scene came to life on stage with some very clever costumes, models and puppetry.
One of the highlights of the last couple of years for me has been the pantomimes which we have performed at Christmastime (to great critical acclaim?). A thoroughly enjoyable evening with lots of old jokes, a dame, ugly sisters, a smattering of custard pies and cries of “he’s behind you!”
Some years ago I saw a pantomime based on another Disney classic – “Beauty and the Beast”. Knowing the popularity of the Disney film I was fascinated to see how this might translate from the big screen to the small stage and was very impressed with the retelling of the story of love conquering all the odds (despite the best efforts of the evil witch!)
The thing that sticks with me most is the line which was spoken several times during the pantomime and repeated at the very end by the Beast. “It doesn’t matter how you look – what counts is what’s inside.” In an age obsessed with celebrity and appearance, where everyone is expected to be the perfect weight and size and to wear only the most fashionable clothes and where our children are looked down on by their peers if they don’t have the latest designer trainers, or an eyepad or tablet (both of which I would expect to find in the first aid kit) I think that this is a message to us all. None of these things really matter. What matters is who we are on the inside.
Jesus always looked beyond outward appearances to how people were on the inside criticising the rich and powerful and the religious leaders of his day and associating with people regarded as the outcasts of society, looking for the good on the inside. Speaking to the Pharisees Jesus said “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men but God knows your heart. What is highly valued among men is of no value in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar it is Lazarus, not the rich man who finds favour in God’s sight. Jesus said that “the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart” (Luke 6:45). It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
So how good are we at looking beyond outward appearances and seeing what people are really like on the inside? Perhaps we need to take note of the message from Beauty and the Beast and not just judge people by the standards of our materialistic society. And who knows – we might be surprised at what we find. “It doesn’t matter how you look – what counts is what’s inside.”
As we enter March we find ourselves in the middle of Lent and looking forward to the celebration of Easter at the end of the month, with Holy Week falling in the last full week of March and the joy of resurrection and new life on Easter Day being celebrated on April 1st (who says that God hasn’t got a sense of humour!).
For many people Lent is a period where nothing particular seems to happen. No more than a pause between Pancake Day and the chance for another feast at Easter. A period when the biggest decision is how many Easter Eggs to buy before they disappear off the supermarket shelves.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. To Christians Lent is one of the most significant times of the year. It is a time to share the desert experience with Jesus. A time for prayerful self-examination. A time to reflect on how we deal with the things which tempt us, as we remember how Jesus was tempted in the desert but resisted the power of the Devil. A time of preparing ourselves to experience the pain of the cross and the joy of resurrection. A time for saying ‘sorry’ for those things which we know are wrong in our lives. And only if we genuinely do those things can we fully experience the joy of Easter.
For a number of years I attended a Christian celebration called “Easter People” where we celebrated together all that it meant to know the risen Christ. To be “Easter People” in today’s world. It was a very joyous time.
But if we want to truly be good “Easter People” then we have to be prepared to be good “Lent People” too. And then we can really experience the true joy of the Easter season, which is about so much more than Easter Eggs.
Easter Day this year may be celebrated on “April Fool’s Day”, but the real ‘April Fools’ are those who won’t know the joy of resurrection or the true challenges of Lent.
Don’t let Lent pass you by this year. Take time to pray, to examine yourself, to say “sorry” to God. Be a good “Lent Person”, and then you’ll be really ready to be an “Easter Person” too.
A few weeks ago, in early December, winter arrived with a vengeance with icy winds and snow falling and lying for seemingly endless periods as temperatures struggled to get above freezing. When the snows came on Sunday December 10th I ended up putting on waterproofs and boots and hiking in a blizzard from Meir Park to Blythe Bridge to take the morning service. I was pleased to find that I wasn’t the only one daft enough to go out in such weather and we ended up having a really good service! Sadly other events and services had to be cancelled or postponed and the backlog of services meant that I ended up with three carol services and an advent service on December 17th when the roads and pavements were a bit clearer. I was well carolled out by the end of that day!
If you've been watching "Call the Midwife" you will have been reminded of the winter of 1963 when the freeze came after Christmas and Britain shivered in freezing temperatures for three months. For me as a child it was a very exciting time as the ice slide across the school playground became smoother and smoother making it even more fun to slide on. I don’t think health and safety would allow that these days!
The psalmist seems to be familiar with our arctic winters:
“Praise the Lord O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!
He gives a command to the earth, and what he says is quickly done.
He spreads snow like a blanket and scatters frost like dust.
He sends hail like gravel; no one can endure the cold he sends!” (Psalm 147:12, 15-17)
I'm sure that the psalmist was shivering too!
Looking out of the manse windows during the snowfall the patterns of the snow on the lawn, the bushes and the trees were fascinating, reaching all parts of the garden transforming them into Christmas Card images and creating beauty wherever the snow lay.
The prophet Isaiah sees the beauty that the snow can create:
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return to it without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:10-12)
Even in the depths of winter I am reminded of the awesome power of God’s word to reach and rest on all people and all places, transforming people and situations and creating beauty out of whatever it touches.
Maybe the winter snows are not all bad news but can be an exciting time in which God can speak to us in new ways. God’s word is speaking to each one of us again this wintertime and if we listen and respond to him then we too will “go out in joy and be led forth in peace”.
Read God’s word, look for him, listen to him and this could indeed be a very exciting time for you too.
- Pickford Place
- ST3 7DX