You can take the Christianity out of the preacher but the preacher remains! And sometimes the preacher may discover that Jesus wasn't any kind of Christian either. Sometimes.
I've placed a few photos into all these words. They're of Christmases from my 1970s childhood. Here's the first.
Happy Christmas to you all.
Christmas is a time when Christians across the world, on December 25th or January 6th, celebrate the birth of Jesus who is called the Christ. Hymns of praise are sung about the birth of this child, born in difficult circumstances 2000 years ago. We all know the story. Actually, strike that sentence. It's a sad fact that many people grow up today not knowing the story. And that is a sadness. It truly is. Not because they should all be good little Christian boys and girls. But because it's a powerful story with much to teach us and because it's a part of the heritage and history of much of the world including the UK. Understanding our history and the forces and influences that have shaped our civilisation and culture is impossible without understanding the role the story of Jesus has played in getting us from there to here, and admittedly sometimes how it has been used to stand in the way of progress.
So this is Christmas. The birth of Jesus. Believed by some to be the saviour of the world. Believed by some to be the only real hope for our future as individuals and as a species. I used to believe that too. I have on this computer the notes I read from when I led what I think was my first church service at Trinity Baptist Church in Fleetwood, Lancashire. It was the Christmas service in 2000 and it took the form of a set of carols with readings and a short talk between each of them. It was kind of a festival of five lessons and carols with chunks of solidly evangelical and conservative preaching.
I said then that approaching God was "only possible because the eternal Son became flesh, being born in Bethlehem, growing as a man living among people." I spoke of light and said that "Jesus is light - he is the true light to a world in darkness. And he is the only true light. Nothing, and no one can bring light to the world unless Christ is present." Reading through my notes I spot a few of the things that led me to becoming a pretty damn good preacher.
At the time I found much comfort in those words and thought nothing strange about the exclusivity of the way I interpreted the words I found in the Bible. My doctrine and my God provided me with hope and meaning and something solid to walk upon. I thought I was being like the wise man Jesus is said to have talked of who built his house upon a rock.
Things have changed. I have changed. Posts in this blog have followed the process of change and I expect I will continue to post about changes.
One thing that hasn't changed is the calendar. On December 25th the Western church celebrates Christmas with those hymns and prayers and with great joy. On December 25th and the Western secular world celebrates Christmas with food, family and presents and the pressure to make everything perfect and lay on a good show. Not for any deep reason. Just because it's what people do. People look at you with shock and disbelief if you don't do the same. As if you are monstrous in some way or at least completely enigmatic.
I know the majority of people in this country don't celebrate the birth of Jesus anymore. That's fine. Personally I do believe, even still, that Jesus is at the centre of what Christmas is about.
Giving presents isn't a bad thing. At Christmas the story celebrates the giving of a saviour to the world. Giving presents is a sign of love. Sometimes a sign of duty too - but ideally of love. People have this thing now about "reciprocity". If someone gives you a gift you have to give them a gift. Of equal value. Or someone somewhere will grumble. The Christmas story tells us that reciprocity is impossible and not desired. Jesus was given and gave himself. And no gift we could ever return to him would match that gift. Christmas isn't about reciprocity. It's about love. It's about hope and it's about poor shepherds who celebrated fully even though they had nothing material to give.
Feasting isn't a bad thing. Christmas is, liturgically speaking, one of the great feasts. But a wise man said that feasting is meaningless unless there is fasting. Without the meaning behind the feasts of Christmas and Easter and without the preparation times of Advent and Lent what is the feast of Christmas? It's just an excuse for a bit of gluttony and a reason for people across the country to swear when they stand on a set of scales again after New Year.
Yes. Presents and feasting can be very good things. But without the meaning behind them they have lost much of what made them special. Sharing time with family and friends is a good thing too. The Christmas without Christ still has much that is good and I hope everyone reading this - if they celebrate Christmas at all - will find some enjoyment in it. I know that for some that's very difficult. Because the pressures and expectations of family can hurt. Because a lack of friendship can mean Christmas is the loneliest time of the year. Because of everything that people think Christmas SHOULD be.
Last December I was talking with a woman who said she works three jobs so that her family can have a good Christmas and have everything they want from it. Three jobs. She hardly sees her family in the year because of the three jobs. She hardly has time to rest. All so that Christmas can be big. Maybe her children would settle for a few less presents if they actually got to spend time with their mother throughout the year. Maybe. Is it just me or do others find that kind of lifestyle completely crazy?
Without Christ at the centre of Christmas things can go wrong like that. They don't have to of course. But they can. Christ was born in humility. Christmas points to celebration, to loving all people, to acceptance, to inclusiveness, even to having a wonderful feast. But it doesn't point to excess, greed, capitalism or consumerism.
I read a post the other day about the meaning of Christmas and the "war on Christmas." Some Christians of a particular variety will tell you that a war is being waged on Christmas as Christ is removed from it. They will point to the evil atheists and the fallen secular society and rail against the secular Christmas. This article points to a much greater war on Christmas - one being fought by many of those same Christians. It's food for thought whether or not you believe the story. Here it is. At the very least you'll learn why the British banned the reciting of Mary's song of praise we call the Magnificat, the song she sang after being told she would bear a son. And you'll learn why that song is such a call to justice and social action. It's food for thought for me at least and I hope that somehow 2017 will see me follow that call better.
As for me, this Christmas is different. I converted to Christianity in 1990 and have been a regular church goer ever since. I've been a part of lots of different churches and denominations in the places that I've lived and Christ was very definitely the centre of my life. Or possibly not. Maybe church was, doctrine was and forms of prayer were. Maybe something I thought of as Christ was at the centre. But maybe that wasn't Christ at all? Maybe I missed Jesus. At least partly.
Yes, this Christmas is very different for me. I gave up church for Lent. And I have continued to give it up. Since Lent I have attended two or three church services, one meditation at a church, several meetings of a "not church" whose people look to Jesus, and some Quaker worship. This Christmas I am not a church goer. And I do not call myself a Christian. I haven't yet followed Bertrand Russell and written a book called "Why I am not a Christian." Perhaps my reasons would be very different to his.
I'm not a Christian. I don't believe in the literal truth of much of the Jesus story found in the Bible. And I don't believe all the doctrines and dogmas that religious men (almost always men not women) have piled onto those stories and engraved in stones more solid than those God supposedly wrote the Ten Commandments on. And yet ... There's still this Jesus. I still read some people who place Jesus at the centre of their lives and I love what they write and respect the faith they have. It has to be said that they're not exactly of the Calvinist persuasion. The Jesus people I like won't tell me I am doomed in some way because of being inherently sinful. They won't tell me that their religion is the only hope for this world. They won't tell me I'm a transgender abomination. They won't tell me that Jesus would increase nuclear weapon stocks and demonise asylum seekers. The Jesus people I like are progressive ones, people seeking the way of love, seeking that inclusiveness. Some of them don't even believe in God.
Who knows, perhaps one day I'll be able to return to Jesus and the story, interpreting the whole thing in a way far removed from the traditions of men that I so fervently believed. This year it's been too painful. I crucified myself on the cross of Christianity for all those years. So many versions of Christianity wounded me deeply. And because I believed I was deserving of Hell - and a transgender abomination to boot - I found versions that wounded me more. It was only after moving to Newcastle that I began to find a path out of all that.
This Christmas feels pretty strange because I am not a Christian. I hardly know what to do.
But it feels wonderful too because I am not a Christian. I am more free than I have ever been in my life.
This Christmas Christ is not at the centre of my life. Or maybe Christ is. Maybe I'll find that out in 2017. The true Christ - anointing of Spirit, passion, fire, beauty, love, freedom, generosity, openness, and everything else the word can be. And Jesus too - a far more radical Jesus than the one who came to save us from our sins and from eternal judgement. Maybe that Jesus will still be a part of my life and like some of the people I read I will walk with Jesus while not being a Christian.
An extra photo I found in another folder.
Here I am with my toys on my first Christmas day.
Whatever you believe, however you celebrate or don't celebrate I wish you a happy Christmas and leave you with a hope that the Christ anointing will affect your life in 2017 and you will discover more of the Christ Spirit that already exists in you.
That's not a call to conversion to a creed or even to a person. It's a call to realise your self. A call to find your own wonder, your strength, your beauty, your passion, and to grow in the God which is everything we call love and light, creating that God and dwelling in God by choosing to walk in that love and light.
Yep. My God is not a being, not a person living in the sky. I am not a theist. But I am not an atheist either. I'm not quite sure what I am. And I believe that statement is where freedom dwells. Because in that statement is possibility and the embracing of a greater wonder than I ever could have found before.
Live in Wonder.
Live in Love.
And if you're feasting, enjoy yourself.
Here I am, behind my dad in 1980. On the left side are my mum and my brother. You can tell that it's 1980. The 70s had finished and our 70s wallpaper had finished with them. We feasted well. Roast turkey, home made yorkshire puddings - my mum did the best yorkshire puddings of course - roast potatoes made in the specific potato roasting dish that continued to be use until my mum's death - and vegetables. Although if you were to look closely you would spot a total lack of vegetables on my plate. And then there would have been a dessert of some kind. Some years we even had a Christmas pudding and I know my dad set fire to it on one occasion.
If you can feast as well as we did and with as little pressure as we had to be perfect then you're doing very well.