CHRISTMAS – ARE WE IN DANGER OF MISSING THE POINT?

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There’s nothing quite like a traditional British Christmas! The hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping; the writing of cards and the exchange of presents; the decoration of houses both inside and out, and the turning on of lights on the Christmas tree. Christmas is a time for rest and relaxation, family get-togethers and stories of childhood. A time for mulled wine, cake and mince pies besides a real open fire. It’s a time to fondly remember those who are no longer with us and make plans for all we shall see in the new year. It’s a time to ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘peace and good will to all men’ and dream of snow, Rudolf, robins and Father Christmas. And – O yes – there’s church for those who want it!

Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of the things listed above – but if Christmas really is, just about rest and relaxation and time spent with families – then are we as individuals (and indeed as a nation), in danger of missing the point? It would certainly seem so if the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent conversations are anything to go by. The Telegraph has printed a story where Justin Welby notes that there is a fundamental lack of ‘religious literacy’ in Government circles about those who are religious. They want the church to back them when it comes to promoting basic “British Values” but fail to appreciate that many of these values stem from our Christian religious heritage. In their efforts to understand religious extremism (mainly Islamic) they fail to understand that Christians are also motivated ‘first and foremost’ by their Christian faith and are desperately playing ‘catch up’ when it comes to appreciating the differences between these two religions and others.

So like government, have we all tended to take our ‘Christian Heritage’ for granted, so much so, that like music in a shopping mall it just becomes background noise and largely filtered out? So, in a world which is desperately crying out for peace, have we largely forgotten the ‘Prince of Peace’? Have we forgotten the real meaning of Christmas? I hope not! Christmas is about a loving God, who so loved the world that despite its shortcomings he literally steps into it. Christmas is about a young man who was both at one with his humanity but also his divinity. Christmas is not just about a baby that was born in Bethlehem but the man who died in Jerusalem and rose again. Christmas is all about the one who died for our sins so that we might be forgiven of them. Christmas is all about the start of a process where a loving God puts things right through the power of the resurrection – including us. Christmas is therefore fundamentally a celebration for all about a God who loves us.

So on Christmas Day, we could be left with a lot of empty parcels, that we may or may not, appreciate on Boxing Day, but the significance of Christmas for Christians is that in Jesus Christ every day is Christmas Day and worth celebrating. That’s the point of Christmas!

So may I wish you all a very happy Christmas and warmly invite you to celebrate it with us. God bless you all.


‘The angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born… he is Christ the Lord”.’ Luke 2.10-11


 

NO GREATER LOVE THAN THIS …..

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“Some of us remembered that sunny last evening in June, when we had assembled with such high hopes in the trenches, the day before the Somme offensive began. How we had jested and joked, even collecting pieces of chalk wherewith to label as our trophies the guns we were so sure of taking! Some of us too, remembered the next night, when, with every officer but one a casualty, and our dead hanging thick on the German wire, we had been withdrawn, sweating and shaking and shattered. It took us three months to recover from that blow.” November 1916

These words are taken from Twelve Days on the Somme by Sidney Rogerson, and although they make uncomfortable reading, I think it’s right, upon this 100th anniversary, that we should be reminded of what life was actually like for those soldiers who endured that particular conflict.

The first war, was of course described as ‘The Great War’, the war to end all wars and with 20, 000 British troops dying on the first day of that particular battle, we can see why many thought that they had already paid a sufficiently high price to ensure the nation’s peace and trusted that surely, the world wouldn’t fall into such a sad and terrible situation again – and yet as we all know barely 30 years later the Second World war was upon us, and there have been various other conflicts since.

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We are mindful of the fact that Jesus said “Greater love has no one, than he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13) and its significance for those who have died in conflict defending their country and way of life is obvious. Yet we need to remember that the context of this verse is not war, death or pain – but love, for it immediately follows the command ‘to love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15.12). Military people know the importance of following commands and this is an important one for us all, for we must never allow anger, hatred or pain to define us as human beings. For if we do, then we have allowed these sentiments to rob us of a precious part of our humanity. ‘Loving God and our neighbours as ourselves’ doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for what we know to be right or make sacrifices, but we do so precisely because we wish to preserve all that is right, decent and honourable. This sometimes means that we have to lift ourselves above a basic ‘tit-for-tat’ mentality (which may be no more than a basic desire for revenge) and strive to reach those higher standards and ideals that we cherish and wish all people to live by. The men who died upon the Somme and other such conflicts, ultimately did so because although they hated war, they were striving to preserve our way of life, freedom and peace. They were fighting for something greater than themselves. To this extent, their selfless act echoes the one made by Jesus when he died upon the cross, the one dying for the many, but achieving in his case for each one of us, the forgiveness of sins and salvation. It certainly wasn’t anger, fear or hatred which drove him to the cross but love, which is why we remember him and all those who have died in a similar selfless fashion with the greatest of respect, praise and gratitude. ‘The Great War’ may not have been the war to end all wars, but we value and respect all those whose efforts tried to make it so. Please join us this Remembrance Sunday as together we commemorate all those who have laid down their lives for us.

 


“Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15.13


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THE PARALYMPICS, ‘THE LAST LEG’ AND THE FREEDOM TO BE OURSELVES

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Bethany Firth – Celebrates having won three gold medals and a silver in the S14 classification at Rio 2016

What a joy the Paralympics have been! The Olympics were glorious, but the Paralympics have been truly stunning and inspirational. Athletes that many of us only first heard about at London 2012 have now become household names – Hannah Cockcroft, Jonnie Peacock, Ellie Simmonds, Dame Sarah Storey and Richard Whitehead have all lived up to their billing at Rio 2016 and deserve the much heralded superlative of ‘superhumans’. At the time of writing the medal tally for Team GB in Rio has surpassed that of London 2012 and a whole new bunch of athletes have been introduced to the world.  The high-lights programme with Claire Balding combined with the comedy and sense of fun that comes withThe Last Legteam (Adam Hills, Josh Widecombe and Alex Brooker) have helped us all, without being patronizing or sentimental, to look beyond the disability and see the athletes for the people they really are. This doesn’t trivialise the tragedy and trauma that some people experience but celebrates their strength of character, the human spirit and their various accomplishments in the light of it.

However, it was the theme tune of The Last Leg permeating the sport which really caught my attention. This rap song called ‘Harder than You Think’ performed by the hip hop group Public Enemy contains the phrase ‘thank you for letting us be ourselves’ and it got me thinking. Every parent tries to encourage their child to be independent, to learn to think for themselves, stand up for themselves and be creative rather than to simply ‘go with the flow’ or be negatively influenced by others. We hate it when people try to coerce us into being something that we are not, either by steering us down a certain path or restricting our choice or freedom of expression. We resent being ‘put in a box’ and told that we can’t do something when we think we can. Essentially what we hate is any attempt to manipulate us or restrict our freedom to be ourselves. Although parents can (and should) offer advice and guidance, the willingness to let your child be free, to find their own way and lead their own lives is really an act of love – but it’s risky, because with freedom of choice comes the possibility of making mistakes.

Sadly, the world in which we live isn’t perfect, because alongside the many joys of life are sadness and sorrow as people behave badly and make mistakes. The Christian perspective is one that says that although God initially made the world perfect, he also graciously and kindly gave us human beings the freedom of thought, expression and choice; he gave us the freedom to be ourselves because that was the loving thing to do. God no doubt saw the future and understood the risks but he willingly gave us the freedom to be ourselves precisely because he isn’t a dictator and neither are we his mindless slaves or robots. The incredible thing is that despite our many failings and mistakes, God still loves us and right from the start had a plan to put things right, and that plan – was Jesus! God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son to death upon the cross, so that by that terrible process, we might be forgiven of our sins and spared the consequences of our actions. This shows just how deeply God loves us and the true extent to which he is willing to go in order that we might have the freedom to be ourselves. So whatever challenges in life we personally face, let us like our inspirational Paralympians, be ourselves to the best of our ability.


“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3.16


THE OLYMPIC STORY BEHIND CHRIST THE REDEEMER!

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What a wonderful Olympics it has been! After months of worry and uncertainly about the Stadium, the Zika virus and political unrest, Rio 2016 has been a great success. Certainly from a British point of view there has been a lot to cheer about – not only have the women’s eight matched the men with gold medals in the rowing for the first time ever, but Max Whitlock has become Team GB’s first ever gymnastics champion (twice!); Justin Rose became the first man to win the golf at the Olympics since it was last played in 1904 and Andy Murray put us all through the mill as he successfully defended his tennis title first won at London 2012. At this time of writing, the athletics is well underway and Team GB find themselves, somewhat surprisingly second on the medal table in front of China – but will it last? But of course, the tales of inspirational human endeavour aren’t simply tied to those who’ve come away with a medal but to all those who have done their best to be ‘the best they can be’ despite the odds (who can forget the efforts made by the Refugees Team, competing under the Olympic flag) and all such athletes should be proud. However, the sporting arena is not the only source of wonder and appreciation – the Brazilians have been commended for their warm welcome, hospitality and sense of fun, along with their beautiful country, ranging from the beautiful Copacabana beach at Rio to the magnificent statue of ‘Christ the Redeemer’ looking down upon the city from the Corcovado Mountain.

Although the statute isn’t the largest statue of Jesus to be found in the world it is considered to be an ‘art-deco’ masterpiece and is hugely iconic of Rio de Janeiro and symbolic of Brazil’s Catholic Christian heritage. The statue is 98 feet tall (not including it’s 26-foot-tall pedestal) and weighs 635 tonnes. There were several designs initially proposed but the familiar statue we recognise today with its open arms (measuring 92 feet wide) was specifically chosen to represent the love of Christ for the world who will warmly welcome and embrace all who come to him. The statue was originally built in 1922 and took 9 years to complete, and was officially declared one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ on 7th July 2007.

This wonderful statue of Jesus is of course called ‘Christ the Redeemer’ but why and what is so special about redemption? Well, redemption literally means ‘buying back’ and was often used in the ancient world of slaves buying their freedom or having it bought for them. One of the greatest acts of redemption in the Bible (and which has coloured the way this word is used ever since) was when God bought his people out of slavery in Egypt to give them freedom in the promised land. The problem was, that over the years the people found themselves repeatedly bound as slaves by successive regimes and therefore in need of a ‘new redemption’. The early Christians understood this in the most radical of ways, they saw it as pointing to the poverty of their own human condition, they were constantly ‘in slavery to death and sin’. What they needed was a redeemer! Someone who would be able to pay the price for their sin and lead them to freedom and new life. That person was Jesus! His self-giving, sacrificial death upon the cross was truly Olympic in its magnitude, the most dramatic, inspiring and generous gift of God’s love the world had ever seen. His death was the price paid for our ‘redemption’, the innocent dying for the guilty, but of course the Gospel story doesn’t conclude with Christ’s death but his resurrection! His rising from the grave was the first sign, evidence and promise of future hope and life everlasting. A precious gift warmly and freely given to anyone who wishes to receive it and puts their faith and trust in Jesus as their personal Lord, Saviour and Redeemer. The Olympics may be glorious; the games have been thankfully largely harmonious, and the athletic achievements truly inspirational – but the story behind the Christ the Redeemer statue is even more so and gives us all the chance of reaching our full potential and ‘being better than we can be despite the odds’.


We are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3.24


 

POLITICS, LEADERSHIP AND AUTHORITY – WHAT A RESPONSIBILITY!

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They say ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but it’s taken seven long years for the Chilcot Report to be published. The Inquiry into the Iraq war may have been announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 15th June 2009 but the final report published on the 6th July 2016 with its ‘damming conclusions’ about the ‘decision to go to war’ and upon what basis the nation did so, immediately shone a light, once again, upon his predecessor, Tony Blair. The media were waiting with eager anticipation as to what he would say – and whether he would apologise for the deaths of 179 British Servicemen and many others killed during the conflict.

The pros and cons of such a debate are far too long and complex for me to consider here, but they do raise some interesting questions about power, leadership and authority, and raise the conundrum of what do we do when the people that we vote into government (often with large popular majorities), do things that we rather wish they didn’t? Frequently the cry is for firm leadership – but what happens when our leaders firmly direct us in the wrong direction? Understandably many people will have a view on Tony Blair, and hindsight as they say is a wonderful (and occasionally cruel) thing, but perhaps it should be noted that despite his many failings Chilcot does not say that Tony Blair wilfully deceived Parliament, rather that he honestly believed the flawed intelligence that had been given to him, and despite many people marching in protest against the war, polls showed that at the time, public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of military action. All of which goes to show how easy it is for us a nation to be led up the garden path, unless we ensure that all the appropriate checks and balances are in place. This is all salient, because once again we find ourselves as a nation at a crossroads, and once again ‘firm leadership’ is called for as the Conservative Party elects a new leader and Prime Minister. In homage to Margaret Thatcher, Teresa May and Andrea Leadsom are already being touted as the new ‘iron maidens’ for our generation but they will need to be careful that in their desire to provide firm and positive leadership in the light of the nation’s decision to leave the EU, that they do so collegiately and with the full support of their cabinet, colleagues and party members or else they too in future years could find the swathe of public opinion against them. Firm leadership is not always about getting one’s own way, but taking sound advice and acting in the best interest of others.

It’s interesting that there is a sober lesson to be the learnt from the pages of the Bible, because at one point the people of Israel were so unhappy with their current system of leadership, that instead of the historic train of prophets ruling over them, they demanded a king so that they might be like all the “other nations” having a king to govern them and go out before them and fight their battles (1 Samuel 8). The prophet Samuel saw this as a rejection of God’s voice and authority administered via the prophets and warned them about all the disadvantages of having a king and the possible corruption that came with it, but the people wouldn’t listen. So Samuel prayed to God about it who graciously let the people have their way. The lesson is that sometimes God grants us the very thing that we wish for, but then not only do we have to take responsibility for our actions but we sometimes also have to live with the consequences.


And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with your God. Micah 6.8


EU REFERENDUM – SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?

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In the light of the EU referendum on the 23rd June, “The Clash’s” 1982 song Should I Stay or Should I Go (complete with backing vocals in Spanish) seems to sum up the mood of the moment as people struggle to decide which way they will vote ( ‘this indecision’s bugging me’ – esta indecision me molesta ). How do we decide? The problem is, of course, that a good case can be made either way. Most people would consider the ‘Common Market’ to be a good thing and initially thought that this was what they were joining, but over the years the EU has changed beyond recognition, becoming a vast bureaucratic machine (some would say empire) that has power and influence over most aspects of common life, from weights and measures, to rights of employees, to the environment. Over time, the size of the EU has also changed from the original six nations in 1957, to nine in 1973 when the United Kingdom joined, to the current twenty-eight, with other nations such as Turkey wanting to join at some point in the future. Many of the benefits have been considerable; cheaper products; greater choice and opportunity; stronger ties with European partners leading to a greater sense of mutual understanding, co-operation, stability, security and peace. The economic, corporate and personal opportunities have also been immense with the free movement of individuals across the continent seeking work and a better way of life.

Equally, as ‘the club’ grows bigger the disadvantages have become more apparent (and some would say irritating). Britain’s influence isn’t what it once was as it tries to negotiate with 27 other partners. The ‘one size fits all’ approach of Brussels doesn’t always seem to make allowance for exceptional or national circumstances, resulting in a perceived lack of sovereignty and a reduced ability to determine one’s own future (or even manage one’s own borders).

So, what IS the answer? Well, in some ways it’s hard to see ‘the wood for the trees’ as nobody really knows what life would be like if Brexit occurred. There are naturally a lot of fear stories and some things said which simply don’t appear to be logical. Why, for instance should our security arrangements be changed, because we decide to make the political and commercial decision to withdraw from EU? Collaborative working in this area seems only natural and no one is seriously suggesting otherwise.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson might be clashing with one another but in reality it seems to me that we have two choices! We either stick with the tried and trusted with all its imperfections and try to reform things for the better from within the EU, recognising the value of international co-operation – or we say that the EU is impossible to reform and has become simply too big for its own good, weighed down with its own bureaucracy hindering the creative talent, and well-being of individual nations such as ours. It’s a big decision and a difficult choice but it’s still our choice, and so I would like to urge you to do your best and think around the issues, be bold, courageous and use your democratic freedom to the best effect and vote. Vote not just for yourself or for what will benefit you in the short term, but vote for your children, grandchildren and their children, vote for future generations – what will give them the best chance of living in peace and prosperity? Vote for the nation!


“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29.11