Don’t they know that Christmas is for Everyone?

In the run up to Christmas this year I visited two members of the Mill Grove family: both of whom are in their late seventies. One was terminally ill and in a hospice, the other had suffered a series of strokes that had left him partly paralysed down the right side of his body. They were contemporaries at Mill Grove, arriving at about the time I was born. So I see them as older brothers who have always been part of my life and extended family.

It was on a Sunday evening and we were alone in the hospice when the first confided in me that he was not religious, but that he would like me to pray for him. A few days later the second broke into tears as he asked me if I would take his funeral. I agreed, with the proviso that no one knew which of us would die first. And then we too prayed. Neither was religious in any conventional sense.

So as Christmas nears, how do we make sense of this apparent contradiction between secularity (the non-religious), and praying? One way is to see the request for prayer as part of “folk religion”, but that doesn’t really fit in these cases because they were asking me, a Christian minister to pray for them, and knew that I would pray within a Christian framework.
Perhaps we could come at this another way. There is a real problem with the term “religious” in that it is associated with buildings, forms of worship, professional clergy, and a whole cluster of assumptions. And for this reason I am keen to point out that I do not see myself as religious either. What’s more the founder of the Christian faith could hardly be called religious in any conventional sense! After all, some of the most heated and long-running clashes he had were with the religious leaders of his time. And his birth was announced to some very earthy characters: shepherds!

Already the children in the Mill Grove Pre-School are practising for the annual Nativity Play, and I expect that once again I will have the privilege of introducing it and praying. This is roughly what I will be saying. “In a moment the children will be re-enacting the Christmas story, with Mary and Joseph, a baby in a manger, innkeepers, shepherds, Wise Men, sheep, angels, a donkey among the cast. As families from which the children come, you represent a spread of cultures and religious backgrounds, and sadly somehow this story has become associated with one world religion. In the process its essence is in danger of being lost. So let’s listen to the children as if we were hearing the story for the first time, and let it speak to us regardless of where we come from and what our cultural and religious affiliations may be.”

Perhaps you can see what is going on. Once again there is a possibility of folk religion, but I think it goes deeper than this. The Christmas story is not a message for one section of society (or one religious group). It is good news for all people: it is about peace on earth. And if we get to the very heart of Christmas we have gone beyond religion and the religious to the point where we feel we can pray in the way that Jesus taught when he had begun his ministry thirty years after the first Christmas: “Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be Your Name, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in Heaven…” Isn’t this deliberately inclusive: open to all?

This is not something religious in the conventional sense (whatever its associations), but closer to the expression of a longing in every human heart. And it is not found by abandoning the Christian message and faith by embracing “the spiritual” and “spirituality”, but rather by going to its flesh and bones. And I think that is what connects my two older brothers (in the Mill Grove family) and the Pre-School. The brothers were taught a lot of Scriptures while living at Mill Grove, and one of them was from John’s Gospel “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” If that is not about good news for everyone, then words have lost their meaning.
So I am willing to pray in such situations: not on the assumption that all are church-goers or Christians, or religious, but because there is something deeper than religion that binds us all together. It comes down to relationships human and unseen.

Some would argue that secularism and humanism can be universally relevant and binding, and there are those who see these contemporary forms of consciousness as expressions of the Christian faith for the modern era. But there isn’t a place for prayer in either of these, and that is what I was asked to do. I did not use a prayer book or liturgy: what I prayed came from my heart and related to the specific situation in which I found myself. I was moved as I prayed.

And so it is that I want to wish every reader of this article in Children Webmag a very Happy Christmas. In doing so I am not intending to make a religious point, but a personal one. May the birth of Jesus be a cause of joy and celebration far beyond the bounds of the Christian religion, and countries associated with Christendom. All over the world there are people longing for genuine peace and justice, and when we pray for just peace, whether in individual lives (as in the case of my two brothers), or in communities and nations, that surely chimes with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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