The Curse of the Christmas Tree

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at our Scout Carol service 2012, which I  followed as a rough outline. To set the scene, I had kicked off with a bit of banter about who had had their tree up the longest and whose would be up the latest.

Each year many of us will buy a Christmas tree and then we’ll set about decorating it . For some of us it might even be quite an occasion, the sort of thing the whole family gets involved in. We’ll break out the baubles, maybe a star or an angel, a bit of tinsel, Dad’ll be getting more and more wound up as he tries to unravel the lights, and then you’ve got to make sure that all the decorations are spread out evenly so it looks just right.

And you’ve got to decorate it haven’t you, because if you didn’t do anything to it, it wouldn’t look very attractive at all would it? Because it’s a Christmas tree! A Christmas tree has been wrenched up and torn from it’s natural environment and so it’s not got any roots. It’s not going to be getting any nutrients and things like that, it’s probably not going to get much sunlight and so it’s never going to blossom or produce any fruit. How can it? There’s no real life in it. It’s as good as dead and it’s not got long before it’s going to start rotting away. My wife always says not to get a tree too early otherwise it might have dropped all it’s needles and gone brown by Christmas and then all the decorations in the world won’t be able to hide the fact that the tree is dead. And no-one wants a brown decaying tree littering up the living room, no matter how many lights, baubles or bits of tinsel it’s got on it. A Christmas tree is by it’s very nature heading for the rubbish dump, good for nothing more than wood for the fire. It’s not something that’s going to be worth keeping in the long run.

Incredibly, when you read how the Bible describes us, it says that we’re basically just like Christmas trees. The Bible makes the analogy between people and trees saying that “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.(Luke 3:9)”. That shows us that what God wants from us is for us to produce good fruit, to live a life of obedience to him. But just like the Christmas tree we’ve been wrenched from our natural environment. Because of our sinfulness we’re all cut off from God, the source of real life. The Bible goes as far as describing us as spiritually dead. We might walk around and breathe the air but spiritually we’re dead, we’ve got no life in us. So if there’s no life in us, how can we produce the kind of fruit God wants? We’re like the Christmas tree, we just don’t have the means too.

Now sure we might try and be good, we might dress ourselves up in fancy decorations and good deeds and hope that God will think we’re good enough, but of course those things will never be good enough. Our incomplete, broken half attempts at obedience pale into insignificance next to the kind of obedience God really wants from us. They’re just like christmas decorations, they’re not real fruit.

And do we really think that that’ll be good enough? That’s like turning up in heaven and presenting God with bucket of baubles when he actually wanted real fruit. What an insult that’d be to God.You see, we can’t produce the fruit God requires from us, we can’t live the way God wants us to. We just don’t have the ability.

So like the christmas tree we’re heading for the rubbish dump, waiting to be thrown into the fire. All the half hearted obedience in the world can’t hide the fact that we’re spiritually dead and God doesn’t want to keep around a decaying corpse, no matter how many good deeds we might be clothed in. We’re not worth keeping, we’re worthless.

So this doesn’t sound like a very merry christmas does it? And if God had done nothing about it then we’d all be heading for the rubbish dump. But at Christmas time we remember how the God the Father sent God the Son, Jesus, to earth as a baby. God became man and stepped down to live among us.

And Jesus produced real fruit. He always lived a in complete obedience to the Father. Never once did the way he lived fall short of the standard God required. Never once did he bring God any baubles. He was in perfect relationship with the Father, spiritually alive, which meant he was able to produce the good fruit that the Father desired, in the same way that a tree that is rooted and nourished will produce fruit of it’s own too. So Jesus wasn’t heading for the rubbish dump. He was a keeper in the Father’s eyes.

But how does this help us? So far it just looks like Jesus is in a very good position and we’re in a very bad one. But you see, Jesus didn’t become a man just for the sake of it, to see what it would be like, or to try a new experience. No; Jesus’ sole purpose in coming to earth was to save us, to save you and me, to save this bunch of decaying Christmas trees, to replant us so we could be fruitful again.

You see, when Jesus died on the cross he swapped places with you and me. He took our bucket of baubles and presented it to His Father as if they were his and he was deemed to not be good enough. And so rather than you or I being thrown on the rubbish dump with all our pathetic baubles, Jesus was thrown on the rubbish dump instead. He willingly faced the consequences of being spiritually dead and fruitless, he took the punishment for our insult to God, so that we didn’t have to.

But more than that, Jesus didn’t just take our pathetic bucket of baubles but he gave us his own bowl of fruit. He gave us the fruit of a life lived in perfect obedience to God so that rather than coming to God with only our half hearted attempts at being good to show for ourselves, we can come to God with exactly what is pleasing to him.

But we only get the benefits of what Jesus has done for us if we believe in what he did, if we put our trust in him. The bible says “ I am right with God, not because I followed the law (so not because I was able to be obedient enough), but because I believed in Christ. God uses my faith to make me right with him,“ (Philippians 3:9) and “you have been saved by grace through believing. You did not save yourselves; it was a gift from God. It was not the result of your own efforts” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We are saved by our faith in Jesus, not our own efforts. Our own efforts are rubbish. But when we put our faith in Jesus, he exchanges his fruit for our decorations so that when God looks at us, he sees the fruit of a life lived in obedience to him. And so God says “that person shouldn’t go to the rubbish dump, they’re a keeper.” We get brought into a relationship with God through Jesus and we get to enjoy the same relationship with the Father that Jesus enjoys, a relationship in which we can call God our Father and that will last through into eternity.

But following Jesus doesn’t just bring some future blessing because Jesus says “If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit.” (John 15:5). You see, when we trust Jesus we’re made spiritually alive, and the Holy Spirit can begin to be at work in us to make us produce fruit and begin to live in obedience to the Father. Our whole life will be changed.

And just think, this all started with a small child, a baby boy, Jesus Christ, born on that first Christmas morning over 2000 years ago. Maybe this Christmas, you’ll let Jesus bring you alive and make you fruitful.

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Wham, Viagra & Leaders!

The last few days have a been a daze of busyness.

Sundays are generally a bit manic anyway but last Sunday was just crazy. My plan was to get up at 8am as I had some work to do before church. I knew I really needed to be up then to get some stuff done for later in the day and if it didn’t get done then, then it never would… So I got up at 9am. Good start.

So I spent the time before church planning the Scout Carol service I was leading later in the afternoon. Luckily, it came together quite quickly. The scouts had planned the outline of the service with some input from myself, so it was really just down to me to do the up front stuff and tie each section together seamlessly. Once that was in the bag it was just a matter of running through my talk a few more times so I could be sure I knew what I was doing.

Time for church. I got there at about 10.30am to open up and get ready for our 11-14’s arriving. I didn’t have to lead that morning which was a weight off so it was just a matter of crowd control and chipping in when needed. When others are leading I don’t like to chip in too much. I’ve generally got a competent bunch of leaders who know what they’re talking about so I’m happy to let them get on with it. There’s time for discussion in small groups at the end anyway so I can always steer things back on track if I feel an issue hasn’t really been done justice. It’s a rare occurence though.

Church finished at 12pm and we managed to scoot off pretty quickly (well comparatively). Just had time for a quick bite at home before I was back at the church for 1.30pm to make sure the Scouts had what they needed and everyone knew how to use a microphone etc. The service kicked off at 2.30pm and went surprisingly smoothly and I did my best to make light of a few small issues like song verses missing from the powerpoint and people all seeming to know very slightly different tunes to some songs. My talk went well too, despite my horrific use of a Wham related joke (it got a groan and everything) and a reference to viagra! It’s not what you think.

So that wrapped up at 3.30pm followed by drinks and nibbles before at 4pm I had band practice with the youth. We’ve just started planning an evangelistic music cafe for the end of February and this was our first rehearsal. Songs on the agenda were Run by Snow Patrol and Don’t Stop Believing by Journey. Glee has a lot to answer for! Bit of a shaky start but in fairness we’d only decided on the songs the day before so none of us were really on top of it. I’m confident it’s gonna come together though. Some of the musicians have really got behind the idea and have been manicly sending facebook messages back and forth this week. I’m glad they’ve taken some ownership of the event and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. Just gotta hope people will be as enthusiastic about inviting friends along.

So that finishes at 6pm. Cue the arrival of the evening service music group who immediately co-opt me into the group to play drums. No problems there, it happens most weeks. But I was supposed to be doing the prayers at the 6.30pm and I still hadn’t written them. Weeell, I had made a start but I hadn’t finished, so I have admit that I actually wrote them during the service. Not great, but they came together. I just did bullet points and made them up as I went along. I don’t like writing out prayers as I just find it feels a bit unnatural and false, which is probably why I find “the prayers” part of a lot of services rather uninspiring.

Service finishes at 7.50pm just in time for our 14-18’s group at 8pm. Thankfully our Curate was our guest speaker that night so I could kind of relax. And he did a great session about Jesus’ views on adultery. He didn’t pull any punches but I think he was right not to. I also think it worked in our favour that someone from outside the regular leadership came in to do the “sex” talk. But it was a great session and I’m sure it touched upon some real issues for people.

By the time we were done, we’d run over time and it was 9.45pm.  Got home and of course, we had to watch the X Factor final. So that took us up to about 12:40am. My bed has never looked so good.

Today and yesterday have been taken up with drafting a document which lays out roles and expectations for leaders involved in our youth ministry. Lately I’ve felt that it is important to make it clear to my leaders and potential leaders exactly what youth work involves and actually what a huge commitment it is. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but there have been one or two incidents where I’ve felt that leaders haven’t really lived up to what I would expect of them in their role, things I would have taken for granted.

www.weloveouryouthworker.org.uk has some good outlines for volunteer agreements which I was able to draw upon. The idea of having an agreement might seem quite formal, but the idea isn’t that it’s a binding contract, rather people know exactly what is expected of them and what they can expect from me in terms of supervision. I hope that by having this clearly laid out, not only will it help people to stay on the ball so to speak but it will also deter some of those who are interested in helping with the youthwork but who realistically can’t give the commitment required.

I’m aware that this could possibly be me shooting myself in the foot, as if anything, I’m desperate for new leaders. Telling people that I expect two nights out of there week (sometimes three), commitment to weekends away, the possibility of doing one2ones, as well as attending church regularly and maintaining their own walk with Jesus amongst other things, seems like a lot to ask. But isn’t that really the kind of commitment we should be looking for in our leadership? I want the right people; people who will be committed and have the time and inclination to really do a deep work in some of these kids, not just see it as a bit of a laugh. My curate has told me at least twice in the last week that he thinks the youth ministry is the most important ministry in the church, as well as being the most time consuming. No pressure then! But that’s why I need the right people. A good, solid team of people who’ll be in it for the long term. It’s just a bit worrying that in a church of over 700 people, I’m struggling to find 1 person to be involved. I’m sure God knows what he’s doing though. If he could perhaps let me in on some of the plan though that would be much appreciated.

Challenges and Opportunities

Once a year I do a  short talk at the carol service of a local special needs school, which is held in our church building. It’s a fun service, if not a little crazy and this was my second time doing it. The children range from primary school age all the way through to 6th form and all suffer from various forms of learning difficulties and physical disabilities. Some children’s conditions are very severe, others wouldn’t look out of place in an ordinary classroom. And it’s that which really makes it such a difficult talk to do.

The teacher in charge said I should aim it at about the level of a 6 year old. This is tough for me anyway. Normally, I work with 11-18’s and so never really do any work with younger children. If I do, I always find it tough, as that age really isn’t my gifting (I certainly don’t have much patience with them). So was already on the back-foot. Couple this with the fact that I don’t have any experience of working with children with learning difficulties or disability and you can probably understand why it was so daunting for me. It also didn’t help that this year the school had told me I would only need to attend but then I found out a few days ago that wires had been crossed somewhere and actually I would be need to do something. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not the fact that the kids have problems that bothers me. I’d been briefed beforehand that some kids would just scream and cry throughout, try and make a run for it and such like but that the best thing to do is just let the teachers and carers sort it out and to crack on as if nothing was happening. That was fine. It was the message I struggled with.

I’d planned to show a short video of the nativity that I would narrate and then explain how Jesus had come to rescue us from all the wrong things we had done and why that’s so brilliant. But as the service started I panicked and changed direction. I know this might sound wrong, but I cut out everything to do with us being bad – so the sin effectively. Now I wouldn’t normally do that under any circumstance because our sinfulness and need for rescue is just absolutely central to the gospel message. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell these kids they were sinners because there were children in the room who clearly had no control over the way they behave. Of course, I know they are sinners, we all are and it’s not just our behaviour that can be sinful. But I just couldn’t do it. There were kids in those rooms in wheelchairs, barely conscious and drooling, and that’s who they are, 24/7. There they were with their parents and families and I just felt like I couldn’t get up and basically say they had all gone against God and that’s why they needed Jesus.

So I bottled it and went for something about Jesus being the greatest gift because he never wears out and breaks but will last forever. If we trust in him then we will have eternal life with him in heaven and that basically Jesus loves them. I will quite happily stand up and say that as talks go, it was a low.

But I want to do next year, hopefully with more notice and with more time to think through how to share the gospel with these children. If anything, it made me question my academic, intellectualised, middle class faith. None of those children are ever going to wrestle with Anselm’s theory of atonement, or Luther’s thought on justification by faith alone, but Jesus came to die for them and so in some way, it must be possible for even the most severely disabled to child to put their faith in Jesus. A real childlike faith. Pretty humbling for us middle class educated types talking about whether people have quite “got it” yet.

On the flip side of that today, I had a good chat with my line manager about involvement in our local secondary school. I generally get in a few times a year for a couple of assemblies and am occasionally asked to come and be questioned about the churches view of one topic or another. And I love those classroom sessions. Sure the kids are a bit more rowdy than at church but some of them ask far better questions than my churched kids. It’s a brilliant opportunity to tell the gospel to kids who really haven’t heard it before. Problem is that those sessions are few and far between and I really want to become a heavier presence in the school. So next week I have meeting with the head of R.S. to discuss what I could do. Anyone got any ideas? At the moment I’m pretty much stuck with just asking to get in more regularly. Thoughts would be appreciated.

We also had a good chat about the CU at the school. Basically, there isn’t one. Most of the young people from my youth group go further afield to school and so we have relatively few contacts with youngsters in our local school and those that we do are, well perhaps not the most committed of Christians. They’re mostly still at the stage of not wanting to let their friends know they’re Christian, let alone spend one lunch break a week at a Christian group. How have other people got CU’s off the ground? Is a CU even the way forward? My line manager and I think we need to use the Christian teachers we know there. They will have far more freedom and sway to advertise things and get things done. I’ve got a few on my radar and so I think the next step is to approach them and go from there. The encouraging thing is that as there is currently nothing really happening, I’ve got nothing to lose. I can try various things and see what happens.  Like I said, if anyone with schools work experience is reading this, please chuck some ideas this way as I will happily take them, CU related or not. There’s over 1000 kids in that school and most haven’t heard the gospel so we’ve got to do something.

So it looks like I’ve got a big task ahead but it’s one I’m looking forward to.  I find getting the gospel to un-reached people really exciting and exhilarating and I’ve tended to find that it’s when I step out and take risks for God that I see him do really amazing things. Something to be praying for methinks.