This year, every time I have got up to speak at the various services, carol services, bible studies, advent and Christmas services, my reflections have come back to “What sort of gift?” What sort of gift do we receive at Christmas?

Time – There has been a gift of time. Time to reflect through advent, as to the coming of the king, time to reflect on what this means to us. Time to share with people, time to visit (less meetings!), time to catch up with home communions, and receive a wonderful welcome in people’s homes. Time to share with others, to celebrate together. Time to catch up with families and friends. Time to go back to Bristol and see our house. Now, there is even time between Christmas and New year to come away for a retreat.

Presence – There has been some time to be! Some moments just to be me for a while, to catch up with myself, without having to be something or someone for everyone else. But there has also been times to reflect on the presence of The Lord, some moments in the eyes of the children as we reflected on the light of the Christingle, or some puppets singing, some moments of being able to pray with those that wept as we lit candles for lost loved ones, some wonderful moments of community as we shared in bread and wine, and even in tea and mince pies.

Presents – There has also been some lovely presents given and received this christmas. Quite touching to hear of the presents given out by the Street Pastors, or those that remembered that one of our congregation received no gift last year, so made sure she got one this year. Practical presents, such as a set of new front tyres for my car, and a new battery for Caroline’s car! A sewing machine for Jessica so she can in her ethical mode sew her own clothes.

Service – In the run up to Christmas, I felt really blessed in being able to serve as a minister, to be able to lead others in a huge variety of worship, share in prayers, communion, carol services and even a sing-along-a-christmas with the tiny ones in the pre-school. It has also been a privilege to serve and share meals with the elderly in our community, and also spend time with the rough sleepers at the Night Shelter. I’d been too busy to go out with the Street Pastors in December, but i have kept them in mind, and prayed for them. I look forward to being able to serve with them again in the new year.

So in reflecting on gift, what did I come up with?

This Christmas, and indeed all christmases, all year, we celebrate receiving from God, a gift of Love, Hope, Joy, Light and salvation, and i have loved preaching on this from the first Sunday in Advent to Christmas Day.

I do hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, and I look forward to wishing you a Blessed New Year.

How terrible am I? Fully intended to keep writing a blog…..then a whole year goes by….never mind, let’s start again…

Here is our Christmas 2013 letter…..

Dear friends,

We are approaching our second Christmas in Essex, surrounded by Christmas Jumpers, fake tans and glittery nails.

Last Christmas we had a bit of a shock, we were getting ready to go off to Hockley, for Phillip to take the Christmas morning service, when we had a call from Theresa. She’d only had one present from Gordon, which was a Mickey Mouse, upon which he had written “Will you marry me?” As you can imagine she was quite excited, but not as excited as Jessica, who danced around the room in her onesie, singing, “My sister’s getting married, I’m going to be a bridesmaid.” The wedding is set for 5th April at Hanham in Bristol. Rev Andrew Prout is taking the service, so Phillip can be Father of the bride. Jessica indeed will be chief bridesmaid, and is organising the Hen do, and Caroline has been very busy making invites, orders of service etc. In the summer we went over with Theresa, and Gordon to visit Gordon’s parents in France, to get to know them, and we got on with them very well. We are very much looking forward to the wedding.

Theresa is still at Frenchay hospital and is doing well in her training to be a Health Care Practitioner. Theresa, Gordon and Dany the dog are happily living in our house in Bristol. Dany is still as energetic as ever.

Jessica returned from the Philippines after we wrote our letter last year, and has been pleased to hear from the family she was adopted by, that they are safe (following the recent typhoon). In January she got a job at the new Sainsbury’s that opened 9 doors up the road from us, and enjoyed working there till something else came along. At the end of May, she took up a post working as a Holiday Courier for Spring Harvest Holidays, in Le Pas Opton in the west of France. She had a wonderful time there, and made lots of friends. We picked Jessica up from the station on her return from France whilst we were at Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival in Cheltenham in August. She went straight to the Christian Aid tent, as she began a new role as an Intern. She is now living in Nottingham and working from the Loughborough office, speaking at churches and youth groups. In early October she spent 2 weeks in Columbia for Christian Aid. So if you need anyone to speak at any of your Church services, speak to Jessica, and she’ll find someone for you.

We haven’t seen so much of the girls this year, but Theresa was able to join us at Greenbelt for a day. We all had a lovely weekend in Nottingham in October. We were due to take the caravan, but that was the weekend of the “big storm”, so we chickened out and found a cheap hotel. (Of course we had to find one that took Dogs. The manager of the hotel had a dog too, so on one afternoon, we had 2 dogs chasing round the hotel lounge like mad things). Phillip was indulged as we spent the day at the Tramway museum at Crich.

Caroline is being very greedy, in that she now has 3 jobs, all part time. In January she started as a relief librarian, and since they have opened the new forum library, she can find herself being at work up to 10pm at night! She is still working 1.5 days in St Andrews school. In October she began work as a Church Administrator for her friend Den in Cheshire, which may seem a bit distant, but in these days of cloud working, seems to work well. Caroline sings in a Choir that is performing at one of Phillip’s churches on Friday, and has had a number of successful concerts throughout the year. Caroline also does their website, and all their programmes (on Phillip’s copier!). She is still enjoying her Photography and has had a “Highly Commended”, and a “2nd Place” in the digital competition. This year, she has had a keyboard as an early Christmas present, and is beginning to learn again.

Phillip has been quite busy, and is now 15 months into his ministry at Rayleigh and Hockley Methodist Churches. In that time, he’s introduced them to Messy Church, Café Style Worship, Puppets, Stalls at the Christmas Lights, Vision day, a 5 year plan, and a few other things. His churches are exhausted! At the Carol Service the Beverly Sisters sang Little Donkey; well the puppet Beverly Sisters did. Phillip has wound up his Engineering Consultancy and has completed his theological studies; and in September was awarded a Bachelor Of Arts with Honours in Theology For Christian Ministry And Mission Upper Second Class from Winchester University. Caroline was present when Phillip Graduated at the ceremony held in Salisbury Methodist Church. Phillip is now on his second year of what the Methodist Church call “probation” (sort of on the job training, as decreed by Mr Wesley), and is due to be ordained on June 29th in Birmingham. He has also launched a monthly Worship Academy for the circuit. Phillip has also had an early Christmas present in the form of an Electro Acoustic Guitar. He is hoping to play for worship.

Since moving, we find we spend more time together, and often manage to coincide our days off. We’ve gone into London, Houses of Parliament, Chatham Docks, Duxford. We’ve also spent some time with Den in Cheshire after Easter, and we popped up to see Jonathan Pye in Kendal. In May, Phillip celebrated his 50th Birthday, and both churches were involved in a deceit which ended with over 50 people in the manse for a Birthday celebration. We also had a lovely weekend away paid for by the family, when we also went to the Bletchley Park Code Breaking place, and Caroline had an “exciting” time at the Museum of Computing (Not!). If Phillip lived closer he would love to volunteer there. What was worrying was how many exhibits he recognised. In the summer we also had a lovely holiday in the Lake District (via a very expensive new clutch for the car. Caroline said it was an interesting experience being towed with a caravan on the back). We were able to meet up with Andrew and Julie, who were also staying up there at the time. We were able to do another guided walk, which we very much enjoy. Next year, we will be celebrating our 25th Wedding Anniversary, and we are looking forward to a few days in Barcelona and a week near the Fjords in Norway. We will be going to Greenbelt in August, hope to see some of you there!

We wish you all a Merry Christmas, and every blessing for a Happy New Year. Phillip & Caroline

Here is my output to the Christmas letters for Rayleigh and Hockley/Hawkwell Methodist church magazines…..

No room at the Inn

As we approach Christmas and keep in mind our theme of journeying towards the kingdom, my mind is drawn to the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

I think it is easy for us to get caught up in the fairytale story of Christmas, of donkeys, inn-keepers and stables, and forget the two real people caught up in the biblical Christmas narrative.

A few years ago I was struck by the stark re-telling of the story on the BBC written by the same authors who write for Eastenders. Mary and Joseph we saw as young people caught up in the shame of Mary being an unmarried expectant mother. There was no room for them, as they were not welcome due to the shame they had put their family in. We saw a frightened young couple trying to find a space for Mary’s baby to be born.

Tonight, as I sit down to write this message for our December magazine; I have just come from a circuit meeting. I’ve heard the story of the first 2 Saturday nights of our Night Shelter at Chalkwell Park, and was shocked to hear that one of the guests was a homeless young girl who is 3 months pregnant. A real reminder of our Christmas narrative, another homeless journeying pregnant expectant mother, for whom there has not been a welcome.

When the Angel visited Mary, she was told that God had chosen her to bear the son of God (Luke 1)

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’

Mary accepts her role and sets out on her journey praising God and saying:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

As we think of the Journey that Mary and Joseph took over 2000 years ago, we need also to think of the holy land this Christmas. Again the BBC programme “The Nativity” reminded us that Mary and Joseph were travelling through an occupied land, and that the occupying Roman soldiers were not famed for their kindness and compassion. Mary and Joseph would now not be able to take that journey, as they would not get through the checkpoints or the separation wall to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I must admit, having visited Bethlehem, and having seen the wall, having had guns pointed at me at the checkpoints, I do not feel I can sing “O little town of Bethlehem”, as the line “How still we see thee lie”, does not ring true today. The wall, the checkpoints, make it feel, as if there is no welcome, no room in the Inn for those Christians and Muslims who wish to remain in their indigenous home.

As we approach this Christmas, as we journey through advent, let’s go on that journey with Mary. As we set off, we must realise that this journey is not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be comfortable. As we journey with her, let’s seek to discern and accept what God is calling us to do, where he is calling us to go, and then when we get there rejoice in our saviour as he comes afresh to us this Christmas.

We are hoping for there to be an opportunity for people to enter into this journey, and host Mary and Joseph for a night as we run up to Christmas. What we will be asking people to do, is receive Mary & Joseph brought to them early evening one day, and look after them overnight, and then on the evening of the next day, take them on to their next host family. When you hand them over, please take a moment to pray the prayer that comes with them, and provide a cup of tea, a cake, a glass of something for those who bring them. (Don’t worry about beds, or food, Mary and Joseph will be quite comfortable on your mantelpiece or side board overnight).

Caroline, Jessica and myself would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy and Blessed New Year.

Back in November, I went up to the big smoke for a seminar on “Fresh Expressions – what next”, or something like that.

It was the day after the vote for women bishops in the CofE, and I did not realise that the Archbishop was speaking. There was a huge sympathetic round of applause when he got up to speak, and he spoke very well. His message was very simple but quite profound. He kept reminding us that we need to move the church on, move forward, and try different ways for people to meet Jesus.

The thing that impressed me the most, was the simplicity of his explanation of redemption, repentance, and salvation – he said it was like someone looking away, and Jesus gently tapping them on the shoulder and saying, turn around, you are looking in the wrong direction, turn around trust me. When we stop looking in the wrong direction, and start looking at Jesus, start trusting him, and following him – that is redemption, repentance, and salvation.

I’m not sure if we ever got to answering the question where do we go now with Fresh Expressions – perhaps it’s just – keep doing them….!

At the end of October we managed a week away in the Caravan. (Sorry Caroline took all the photos, so there is none with her in them!)

I think this was one of the laziest holidays we’ve ever had. It was quite a cold and wet week, so there were days that we did not even leave the caravan. We re-discovered reading and slobbing out in front of the television. (Yes we have a TV, DVD player and heating in our caravan!)

We did manage though to get out some of the days, and meet up with some friends who have a cottage nearby.

The photo of me is on Blakeney beach where we stopped for our picnic lunch, even though the sun was shining it was mightily cold, and Caroline was busy taking hundreds of photos of small seagulls. We made it to Wells next the sea, Happisburgh Lighthouse, and had a lovely lunch out. We kept looking for fish and chips and Cromer crab, but maybe next time.

On the Sunday we sneaked discretely into West Runton Methodist church for the morning service, without letting them know who we were. After lunch and the thought of another night in the cold (we don’t like having the heating on in the ‘van when we are sleeping), we came home.

Will definitely go up there again, but not until it warms up!

I’ve just had a lovely day with the College of Preachers at Methodist Central Hall.

Speakers included Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, Malcolm Guite, Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, and Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James, Piccadilly.

 

 

Bishop Steven, urged us to not to listen to those that say that in the modern age concentration span is only a few minutes, and reminded that Stand Up Comedians can hold an audience for up to 2 hours without a single visual aid. Comedians tell stories, and show you how absurd life is, and people laugh. As preachers we need to tell stories, and show people how beautiful and mysterious life is, we do this so people can worship. Steven reminded us that someone else was quite famous in telling stories.

Malcolm Guite reminded us, we need to use our poetic imagination, to get anwhere near to loving God with all our minds and all our hearts. He went on to show us how we could use poems in our preaching, such as “The Rain Stick” by Seamus Heaney, or Prayer by George Herbert

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.

Lucy Winkett talked about keeping our preaching fresh. By this she meant that it should be like the living water that Jesus offered the woman at the well, that always quenches the thirst. We need to recognise the thirst and feed it with the water and breathe of life. Remember Jesus saying “come to me all you who are hungry”. She offered that we should be “expressing the eternal through everyday stories”.While keeping it fresh, we should avoid the clichés in the bible stories, and try to see the stories from the perspectives of others in the stories. What we need to be interested in is “God’s relationship with the congregation – remember that God Loves You, and cannot bear to be parted from you.” Lucy continued to tell us to “Speak Human – avoid clichés, jargon, churchy talk, speak in plain English. Adopt the Phyllis Trebble model of Bible study, we grasp the bible firmly and shout at it, “what do you have to say to us” as if we were wrestling with the angel. But don’t be surprised if we come away with our hip broken! Speak with passion and enthusiasm “come look at this, I can’t believe what I’ve read, come let’s look at this together” – there is an irresistible invitation to live and be fulfilled. Preaching should be a collective act of cultivating wisdom.

In his closing remarks Bishop Steven left us with a few thoughts –

  1. For each of us as Preachers – Where is our place of replenishment? (We should have a thirsting heart).
  2. Do we need to re-negotiate the Sunday Contract – there appears to be a contract for a 1hr service on a Sunday morning, and we are failing now to get congregations back for a second 1hr in the evening. What would church look like if we changed the contract to 1.5 or 2hrs, maybe even only once a month, how much more learning and teaching we could do.
  3. Review what you do? Is your preaching stuck in a rut? If we want to change the way we preach, then perhaps we need to change how we prepare.

A good day, perhaps I need to attend more……..


 

On Saturday, after the Coffee Morning at Rayleigh, we thought we’d better get some fresh air, so we put waterproofs and our walking boots and set off for Hadleigh Country Park and the castle.

Hadleigh you will remember was the location for the Mountain Biking from the Olympics. The farm that it was built on is owned by the Salvation Army, and was land purchased by William Booth in his plan to bring young men out of the slums of London to train them to become farmers. The site is now used to train people with learning difficulties.

(It does make me think, why can’t we as Methodists have some imagination for re-using our buildings and facilities, for the good of the Kingdom, instead of selling off our assets cheaply).

The Mountain Biking track is currently closed off, it needs fencing in and other safety features before opening to the public. (Hopefully they will put some road infrastructure in as well; otherwise it will be quite difficult to get to.

The country park is huge and it was a 45 minute walk to the castle. Even on a dull autumn day, the views were spectacular.

 

The castle dates from 1200s but was not built on stable land, and so was out of use by the end of the 1200s.

Following our long walk we had a lovely lunch at the Salvation Army Tea Rooms in Hadleigh. http://www.hadleighfarm.org.uk/visit-us/tea-room

It was a wonderful time of refreshment to walk in the countryside. More walking soon as we’ve got a week away in the Caravan to Cromer in East Anglia.

We’ve spoken to Jessica a number of times, and what made me laugh (bearing in mind how much she hates going away in the caravan!) she wants us to go to the Lake District for a holiday so she can do some walking in the English Countryside. Perhaps we can take, Theresa, Gordon and the dog too.