As you read this in early December (probably) Christmas may seem to be the fixed point around which all moves for the next two months. Four weeks to prepare for it, and a month to recover from it. So let me first issue my usual pre-Christmas rant, and get it off my chest! There is a season of equal importance to Christmas that we are already inhabiting – it is Advent. Most decidedly NOT simply ‘getting ready for Christmas’, this is a season of contemplation and penitence that provides the start of the Christian liturgical year with the right tone of reflection and humility. Our commercialised Christmas, so vital, perhaps, for the finances of the retail industry, should not be allowed to rob us of the goodness provided when we let Advent be Advent, and so, Christmas be Christmas. So, take some time to step back from the hustle and bustle, and engage in some kind of retreat (even if it is a day when you do not shop, go on-line, or make Christmas goodies) and use the time for some much-needed spiritual astringency. In other words, letting the Spirit take a cold, hard look at our spiritual state and agreeing with the changes he requires. I sometimes wonder if even in the church (indeed, perhaps, especially, in the church) we avoid such spiritual reflection and examination by searching instead for the gods of enjoyment and excess rather than the one, true God, who wants so much more of us, and for us, than the cultural hedonism that seduces us with its shallow and short-lived fix.
But, this is the Christmas edition of Contact as well, so second, let me encourage you to turn something of the Christmas spirit on its head. At Christmas morning family Worship we often include that liturgical device called ‘what did Father Christmas bring you?’ This no doubt goes back to some early Christian source in the depths of Cappadocia or the desert communities of 5th century Syria – or perhaps just some desperate pastor a few years ago wanting to make some use of the children arriving in what looked like fancy dress, and grasping the latest toy or game! Anyway, it is lost in the mists of time. Now, it is always good to hear what has been received, but why not ask yourself the opposite question? What am I giving for Christmas? Yes, the presents for close relatives and friends, the Secret Santa for work colleagues, and offering on Christmas morning to Spurgeon’s Homes. But what else? What of yourself are you giving by way of the hospitality of the heart? What offering of prayer and praise will you make amidst all the festivities? Jesus was born in circumstances of near-poverty, far from home, and soon experienced being a refugee before settling down as a young boy, albeit the eldest, in his growing family sustained by a flourishing family business. Not a very propitious start in life for the Saviour of the World, eh? This was just the start of what he gave, and so it seems fitting to ask the same questions of ourselves. What shall I give, of myself and heart, to Christ and to others, as my worship of the One who lived his life giving himself away (the precise theological term is kenosis, meaning being ‘poured out’ for others.) Rejoice in what you receive, of course, but focus upon what you might give too.
This is also the New Year edition of Contact, so let me encourage you put Monday evenings from January in your diary as opportunities for prayer and renewal. Over the first three months of 2018 we are gathering those who want to pray, read Scripture and reflect upon their discipleship to join us for prayer and Bible Study for an hour or so. This is a call to join us. On four of those evenings, February 19th, 26th, March 19th and 26th, I will be delivering the CIA Lent Lectures here at ABC, so we shall be joined by other brothers and sisters from across the churches. My theme is “Let’s Wait and See”, four glances at Spirituality and Art, with some of the Western Monastic movements figuring large, as well as more contemporary Christian expressions. Praying with us for the preceding six weeks will get you firmly in the rhythm! With three of my poems to be published in the journal Theology next Spring, I am sure that poetry will also figure in those lectures, and perhaps even my own!
We anticipate that 2018 will be an extraordinary year for ABC, as we move out of our building for its refurbishment, and then, before the year is out, return to a wonderful new sanctuary better fitted for our worship of God, and more flexible for our mission to the world God loves. Those evenings of prayer are part of what we are putting in place so that as a people, and community of disciples of Jesus, we re-enter that building as renewed in spirit and faith as the building is re-furbished – our love as transparent as the new glass vestibule, and souls as cleansed as the newly-washed ceiling. Maybe, too, our hearts might be as soft as we hope the new chairs will be! Whichever way, let our motto for 2018 be ‘a revitalised people for a renewed building, and both for the glory of God.’ Amen.
Oh, and Happy Christmas!