A Prayer for Remembrance from the Church of England:
This morning I led an assembly on the theme of Ambition for one of our local junior schools:
Preparation and materials
I have a question for all of you sat here before me: what do you want to be when you grow up? Wait for responses or have a few members of the school primed to answer.
The question is one that you will all have been asked at some point by grandparents, aunts and uncles and probably your mum and dad. You may have even thought about the question yourself.
There may be many and various answers to the question and the answer may not remain the same throughout your life. For example, I wanted to be a farmer, then a lawyer, and next a teacher (insert your own here if you like). I have ended up as a youth worker, something I considered, but did not really pay that much attention to. And yet, here I am, in a job that I think suits me and one that I enjoy.
It might be that you want to be a footballer for a particular team (Southampton/Manchester United/local team), a pop star, a neuro-surgeon, astronaut, actor, lawyer, weather forecaster. Or maybe you want to do a seemingly unexciting but essential job like postal delivery, or train to be a nurse, or dare I say it, even a teacher. You may find that your thoughts and ideas change with age, with experience and when you have a clearer understanding of what your strengths and weaknesses are.
‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’
This was written by Paul nearly 2,000 years ago, but I believe that it really does have something to say to us today. Let’s break it down shall we and look at how we can apply this teaching to life in the twenty-first century and see if we can find something to use in our lives today.
Let’s think about the phrase ‘selfish ambition’ in the quote from Paul. This is in no way saying that ambition is wrong – it is right to be ambitious, to have goals, aims and dreams that you want to achieve. If those ambitions come out of having been selfish, however – that is, you have put yourself before everyone else, you have trodden on others to get what you want – then that’s not right. Let’s say, for example, that you really want the main part in the school play and you know your friend wants to go for it, too. You have a sneaking suspicion that she might be better than you, so you tell her the wrong dates for the audition. She misses out and you get the part.
Paul also talks about conceit. This is an interesting point because I am not entirely sure we use this word very much nowadays, at least I don’t hear it. We do often hear its synonyms, though: egotistical, self-centred, self-serving. In the play scenario, this might mean that you try out before your friend because you believe that you may be better than her.
Next, Paul says ‘in humility regard others as better than yourselves’. This is not saying that you should always put others first; it’s saying that if you have your own skills and talents, but you know that someone is better at something than you are, then you should take a back seat and allow that person to shine. So, returning to the school play, you should be truthful about the audition dates and let the best person get the part. It is about humility; about being humble and accepting that others have talents that we may not and our time to shine will come, just not necessarily at that particular moment.
By seeing the brilliance of others, we serve their interests, setting aside our selfishness. It is a matter of seeing that ‘what I want’ might not necessarily be what’s best for the greater good, for other people or in the long term.
What can you do in four minutes? You can hard-boil an egg. You can listen to a song. You can queue at a till in the supermarket. You can take a shower. You can answer a question that you’ve been set for your maths homework.
Four minutes isn’t a long period of time, but it also isn’t a particularly short period of time either. It can seem too long if you’re doing something that takes a lot of effort. It can seem too short if you need to complete a certain task within that time. For instance, a distance runner trying to break a record has to keep up his or her speed even when the body wants to give up, knowing that the seconds are relentlessly ticking away. Roger Bannister is an athlete who understood exactly what four minutes felt like.
For male athletes in the middle of the twentieth century, running a mile – four laps of an athletics track – in under four minutes became an obsession.
During the Second World War, two Swedish athletes – Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson – took advantage of their country’s neutrality to chip away at the world record. They brought it down from 4 minutes 6.4 seconds to 4 minutes 1.4 seconds, but they couldn’t break the magic 4-minute barrier.
For nine years that record remained unbroken. It was as if there was a psychological barrier. Some even believed it wasn’t physically possible. Different athletes attempted to break it. At least one claimed to have done so in a training session, but no one could manage it in a public race until Roger Bannister, with his friends Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, lined up at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on the windy evening of 6 May 1954.
Brasher led for the first two laps, reaching the halfway stage in 1 minute 58 seconds. Chataway then took over, with Bannister on his shoulder until, with half a lap to go, he sprinted into the lead, head rolling and arms waving in his signature running style, pounding down the finishing straight and through the tape before collapsing exhausted into the arms of his supporters.
The winning time was given as 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. The barrier had been broken!
For Roger Bannister, the four-minute mile was right for him. He was already the British record holder for both the mile and 1,500 metres. He knew he had the ability, he just needed to step up his training and find the right conditions for his attempt. Crucially, he also needed to put together the right team to help him achieve his ambition. In Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, he had that team. They led him through the early stages of the race, keeping the pace up, protecting him from the gusty wind. So it was that he became a world record breaker.
Personal bests happen when we take the same steps Roger Bannister took. First, we choose what we want to improve. It’s a good idea for it to be something in which we think we have some potential. It’s the right area of your life. It doesn’t have to be a school subject. It can be a relationship, a hobby, your personality, your knowledge, a skill. Next, you need to put some effort into what you want to achieve. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? Yet, any ambition is surely worth it. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. Finally, it’s often good to involve others, for their support, advice and company. They’ll also be there to congratulate you when you achieve your new personal best!
Sir Roger Bannister was asked if he considered running the four-minute mile to be his proudest achievement. His reply was, ‘No’. He valued his contribution as a neurologist to research on the human nervous system far more. It’s like that with personal bests, too. We achieve one, but there are always others we can aim for. Ambitions never end.
Time for Reflection
So, maybe today, try not putting yourself first. This might be as simple as holding the door open for someone else or taking the time to listen to a friend who always listens to you or helping out at home rather than leaving everything for your mum and dad to do.
Let’s also think about how we can try to see our place in the grand scheme of things, taking everyone and their talents and needs into account rather than putting ourselves first.
This afternoon I did an assembly in one of our local Infant school’s on the theme of names:
Preparation and materials
- You will need some name trays or labels from the new Reception class. If possible, choose children who have the same first name as someone else in the school.
- Have available a class register from an older class.
- You will also need a reader for the Bible passage, 1 Samuel 3.4-10 (Good News Translation).
- Toothpaste, spoon and knife.
Welcome everyone back to school after the summer break.
Explain that many new pupils have joined the school in Reception and that others have moved home and schools over the summer. Welcome the new children in particular and say that everyone hopes they will all soon settle happily into the school family.
Introduce a few of the new Reception children. Show a name tray or label and ask the child to identify him or herself. Welcome the child by saying what a lovely name he or she has and ask if anyone else in the school has the same name. Ask those children to stand at the front so that the children who have the same name are standing together.
Show a class register from a more senior class and explain to the new children that their teacher will often call out the names in the register to check whether the children are at school that day. Demonstrate by asking the children in the older class to respond as their names are called out.
Ask the new children if they have learnt the names of all the children in their class yet. Now ask all the children if any of them have found that the teachers haven’t yet worked out who they are. Ask if anyone has been called by the wrong name. Point out that this can sometimes be funny, and sometimes a bit annoying.
Share with the children a brief anecdote from your own childhood, illustrating the anxiety of a new school. Ask if anyone was feeling anxious about the new term, their new teachers or new classes. Explain that often the teachers are also feeling anxious about their new classes and trying to learn all the names!
Tell them that although you know quite a lot of their names it will take you some time to get to know the names of all the new children. Ask the children about their own names. Does everyone have a middle name? Does anyone have more than three names? Try to include a variety of names from different countries and cultures, reflecting the diversity of the school.
Explain that Christians believe that God also knows each child’s name. There is a story in the Bible about a child called Samuel whom God calls by name. Ask if any children in the school are called Samuel. In the Bible story, Samuel was very young when he found out that God knew his name.
Samuel lived with a man called Eli and he worked in the temple of God. Samuel had furniture, lamp stands and plates to polish and errands to run for Eli. It was Samuel’s job to make sure that the lamps didn’t go out before the sun came up. In the morning, it was his job to open the doors wide and let the daylight in. Samuel worked very hard.
As Samuel got older, he began to get to know God for himself, just like you are doing. One night, after Eli and Samuel had gone to bed, something unusual happened. All of a sudden, Samuel woke up. Someone was calling his name.
Ask the reader to read the Bible passage, 1 Samuel 3.4-10.
Ask the children to join in by speaking Eli’s words, ‘No, I didn’t call you. Go back to bed,’ every time you nod your head. When the reader has finished reading the Bible passage, continue the story.
From that time on, Samuel knew that God wanted to speak to him and he always listened. God blessed Samuel and when he grew up, Samuel became a priest like Eli and also a great prophet. God knew Samuel from the moment he was born. God knew Samuel’s name and he spoke to him.
Christians believe that God knows our names and wants to speak to us, too. God wants to tell us his wonderful story and he wants us to learn to follow him just like Samuel did.
Show the Mr Men books to the children and enthuse about them – their names are special because they tell us what kind of characters they are. For example, you could ask, ‘Why is this character’s name Mr Jelly?’ and seek the answer that it’s because he’s scared of everything.
Sometimes, God chooses to change someone’s name, for example, Saul became Paul after his experience on the road to Damascus when he saw the risen Jesus. And Jesus changed Simon’s name to ‘Peter’, which means ‘Rock’.
In Bible times, people thought very carefully when they named their babies, and every name had a meaning. The name ‘Jesus’ was chosen by God himself. It was announced by the angel, who also gave the reason for the name: ‘for he will save his people from their sins’ (the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘the Lord saves’).
Jesus has quite a few other names and titles: Christians call him, Son of God, Christ, Messiah, Lord, Emmanuel, to name but a few. These all tell us something about his nature and his importance to Christians.
Even God has a number of different names. He is called by different names in the Bible (Yahweh, Lord, Father, for example). These names mean different things to different people and show us something of the nature of who He is.
Names are special and we should be careful how we use them. We should not be unkind about names, or make fun of people’s names, or give people cruel nicknames. Ask the children, have they ever done things that they knew were wrong but just couldn’t quite stop themselves? Give some examples, such as joining in with name calling, or being silly in class just because everyone else is doing it.
Say that you’re a bit like this with a new tube of toothpaste. You were always told by your mum, ‘Squeeze it from the bottom’, but it’s such a temptation to squeeze it in the middle and watch the toothpaste ooze out like a long worm. Then ‘accidentally’ squeeze the tube. Realize with horror what you’ve done! Oh no! What am I going to do? How can I get it back?
Begin to take suggestions and invite some of the children to have a go at putting it back in. Have a few things ready to assist – e.g. knife, spoon, etc. – plus tissues or wipes!
Realize that it’s a hopeless task – once it’s out, it can’t be put back in easily. The damage is done. Compare this with the idea of saying things we know we shouldn’t – upsetting or rude things. Once the words are out we can’t put them back in. We can try to mend things afterwards but it would be so much better if we thought before we spoke or acted. Before we let the words squeeze out – we should THINK!
Time for reflection
To become a good listener like Samuel, we need to learn to be quiet and still. Let’s be very still for a few moments. What can we hear inside? What can we hear outside?
Think for a moment about your own name. Say it silently in your head. Does it have a special meaning? Are you named after someone in your family? Do your family and friends have a shortened version of your name they like to call you by?
Dear God, thank you for a new school year. Thank you for everyone in our school family, from the youngest to the oldest. Thank you that you know our names and they were specially chosen for us. Thank you that we are each very, very special to you. Help us to learn more about you so that we can follow you like Samuel did. Amen.
Here’s an assembly I did this morning in our local junior school on the theme of the Olympics and friendship. Here’s the PowerPoint if it’s useful.
I have loved watching the Olympics. One of the most famous moments was this in the heats of the 5,000m.
Runners Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin may not have won their 5,000 meter heat in the Rio Olympics, but their attitudes are gold-medal caliber.
Hamblin, who is representing New Zealand in this summer’s games, tripped on the packed track partly through the race, taking American D’Agostino down with her.
After the fall, a a clearly discouraged Hamblin lay motionless on the ground for several seconds. Get ready to cry, though: D’Agostino instantly helped Hamblin get to her feet.
“This is the Olympic Games. We have to finish this,” D’Agostino reportedly said. And finish the race they did. Fortunately, the Olympic dream wasn’t over for either runner. Because they were tripped, both were allowed to run in the final later in the week. But talk about Olympic spirit.
The International Fair Play Committee (CIFP) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) presented D’Agostino and Hamblin with the Fair Play award, for their acts of selflessness and exemplary sportsmanship. The Olympic award recognizes the values of excellence, friendship, and respect in an athlete and both runners exhibited those values as they helped each other to the finish line.
An International Olympic Committee statement read : “The D’Agostino and Hamblin story is one of humanity and sacrifice which has already captured the hearts of people across the globe.”
Then there was the example this week of brothers Jonny & Alistair Brownlee at the World Triathlon Series. Video capturing Alistair coming to the aid of Jonny has gone viral and led to enormous praise for the elder Brownlee, a two-time Olympic champion who sacrificed his own chances of victory to help his sibling.
Let me share one last beautiful story of two Olympic athletes from Japan who knew exactly how to share with each other.
At the 1936 Berlin Games, Japanese pole vaulters Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe tied for second place. They were offered the opportunity to compete against each other for the silver medal, but because they were friends and respected each other so much they said they didn’t want to. In order to keep the Olympic rules, Oe agreed to take the bronze medal while Nishida took the silver.
When they returned to Japan, the other people in their team decided to do something different. A jeweller cut their two medals in half and put them back together, making two half-silver, half-bronze medals called ‘Medals of Friendship’.
The Bible contains a famous quote about friendship. It comes from the book called Ecclesiastes: ‘Two are better than one, because if one falls over the other one will pick him up.’
Ask the children what they think this verse means, and then allow them a few moments of reflection to think about how they can ‘pick up’ other people.
Time for reflection
Think about the words from the Bible and the words from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
‘Two are better than one, because if one falls over the other one will pick him up.’
‘The only way to have a friend is to be one.’
Think of a time when someone has been a true friend to you. Maybe you’ve been lonely or sad and someone has looked after you. Maybe you have been stuck with work and someone has helped. Think about opportunities that you may have to be a good friend to someone. Decide to be a good friend today.
Dear God, thank you for our friends. Thank you for the fun we can have with them and the happy times we spend together. Please help me to be a good friend. Please help me not to be selfish but to think always of other people and their needs. Amen.
This morning I did an assembly at our local SEN arts college on the theme of Pentecost and ideas:
Where do good ideas come from?
Willis Carrier, the inventor of air conditioning, claims to have thought of the concept as he waited for a train on a foggy night in 1902. It suddenly came to him that there was a relationship between temperature, humidity and the dewpoint (the point at which moist air becomes saturated and forms dew). Out of this moment of inspiration he developed the air conditioner.
Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and inventor, is said to have discovered his famous principle of buoyancy while having a bath. In a moment of inspiration he realized that there was a correlation between his body in the bath and the water that surrounded it.
JK Rowling couldn’t tell you where her ideas for Harry Potter came from. She has no idea how her imagination worked so successfully to create such a popular series of novels.
Ideas pop up at the most unusual times, often when they are least expected and from a source that’s impossible to identify. Some people talk of the power of the imagination, others of inspiration, literally ‘breathing in’ ideas.
Psychologists refer to the banks of memories we all acquire and the way these gradually interlock to produce an apparently new piece of understanding.
However, no one can clearly identify the source of good ideas.
This Sunday, Christians celebrate the festival of Pentecost. It’s the time when they remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the first Christian believers. It was a dramatic event.
Read Acts 2:1-4
When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
Gale force winds were involved, and flickering flames of fire. Most remarkable of all was the fact that as a result ordinary men and women began to do extraordinary things, such as speak in languages they’d never learned, share their money and personal possessions with one another and bring healing to those in the community who were ill.
Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s presence inside us, that which distinguishes us from all other animals, our creative spark, if you like.
The Bible narrative shows that the Spirit has always been at work, from the creation, through the history of the Israelite nation to the events of the life of Jesus and the early church.
In the Bible the Holy Spirit is often portrayed by means of symbols: these include wind, flames, breath and the form of a dove. Usually when the Holy Spirit appears it’s to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things. That would be part of the answer a Christian believer would give to my original question: Where do good ideas come from?
Christians believe that God shows himself to us in three ways: God the Father and Creator, Jesus who is God in human form and, finally, the Holy Spirit, the power of God active in the life of every human being.
What came as a shock to the early Church was the fact that the Holy Spirit was so utterly unpredictable: a deafening noise, a fire that didn’t burn and a compulsion to speak out loud in words that they’d never been taught. They were overwhelmed by the experience. It defied all their expectations. It didn’t conform to anything they’d ever met before. And this experience was the driving force that resulted in the creation of a religious movement that spread throughout the Roman Empire and exists worldwide today.
Do you ever get moments of inspiration? Maybe it’s an idea for a story or a piece of artwork. Maybe it’s the solution to a problem that’s been puzzling you for ages. It could be a wild and wacky idea for a project or a vision of what might happen in an ideal world. Both Jews and Christians believe that it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit that makes us human.
The Spirit is right there in the Creation story, powering all that comes into being. Jews and Christians believe the Spirit is the driving force that encourages us to explore and learn in every aspect of life: sport, art, science, education, relationships, whatever we’re involved in. The Spirit is the source of our inspiration.
Christians believe that God wanted his believers never to be alone again, so he sent the Holy Spirit to live with each of his followers. The followers of Jesus needed to be re-energized; they needed to know that they were not alone in their walk through life. They wanted help, guidance and assurance so that they could cope with whatever life threw at them.
Our lives are not guaranteed to be easy. We will all face loss, rejection and sadness at times. However, we are not alone in our journey, whether you believe in a God or a higher being, or simply draw from your own inner strength, you will be able to cope with whatever life throws at you. We are surrounded by family, friends and teachers, and these people are all available to encourage us to persevere and succeed in life. There is no point hiding away in an upper room.
Just as the reaction to the Holy Spirit was mixed 2,000 years ago, with people choosing to interpret the events differently, people today can come to their own conclusions as to what really happened and how it could affect us now. What source of inspiration do you have to help you through your life?
The Spirit is in you and is in me because we’re part of the human race. This is what the Bible means when it says that God created us in his image. Some Christians believe that it’s because of the presence of God in each of us that we’re alive at all. (The Bible uses the same word for Spirit and for breath.)
When we take leaps of imagination, and show new levels of creativity or invention, it’s as if we’re acting a little like God. All of us.
But the Pentecost festival is about Christians believing that even more is possible. Pentecost shows God taking to new levels the creativity, imagination and action of those who believe in Jesus Christ.
Time for reflection
The word ‘inspiration’ means ‘to breathe in’. That’s why the image of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God is so helpful. In times when we need a little extra, it’s as easy as breathing in.
Maybe sometimes our prayers need fewer words and more being silent and allowing God’s breath to breathe into us.
Dear Lord, thank you for the gift of your creative Holy Spirit to each of us. When we are searching for inspiration in any aspect of our life, may we take a deep breath and turn to you. Amen.
This was the assembly I gave this morning at one of our local Junior schools, on the theme of tolerance:
The past few hundred years have been marked by ethnic and racial conflict, as the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide and the ongoing war in Syria demonstrate. There have also been individuals who have stood above the hatred and violence, however, and called for peace and cooperation. One of the most famous fighters for peace was Rev. Dr Martin Luther King.
Can you imagine a time when black people were only allowed to sit on certain seats at the back of a bus? When black people were not allowed to vote in elections? Can you imagine a town where black and white children had to attend separate schools? Where black and white young people were separated at dances by a line down the middle of the room?
Sixty years ago, in the southern states in America, this was how it was. Let’s hear about three ordinary people who had the courage to speak out.
An ordinary clergyman, with a minister for a father and a teacher for a mother, organized peaceful protests and boycotts against discrimination. Here was an ordinary black man who spoke out against the injustice that he saw. This ordinary black man delivered extraordinary speeches with memorable lines like ‘I have a dream that one day down in Alabama … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.’
This man was Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1964, assassinated in 1968, at just 39 years old.
In the town of Montgomery, like most places in the deep south, buses were segregated. On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks left Montgomery Fair, the department store where she worked, and got on the same bus as she did every night. As always, she sat in the ‘black section’ at the back of the bus. However, when the bus became full, the driver instructed Rosa to give up her seat to a white person. When she refused, she was arrested by the police.
In protest against bus segregation, it was decided that from 5 December, black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. For 382 days, the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration.
An ordinary woman showed extraordinary courage. This ordinary woman became known as the ‘Mother of the Civil Rights Movement’.
On 28 August 1963, two to three hundred thousand Americans converged on Washington DC. This was the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’. The organizers had many aims, but what unified the march was a call for greater freedoms for African-Americans. The date chosen for the march fell on the one-hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the United States of America. Racial inequality was still rampant, however, and African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens in many states.
President Kennedy was attempting to pass the Civil Rights Act at the time, which would provide greater freedoms for African-Americans. While many marched as a show of support for the President, others marched to criticize the Act for not going far enough.
Dr King was tasked with giving the final speech and he captured both the anger and the optimism of the march. ‘America has given the Negro people a bad cheque’, he said, referring to the centuries of slavery and racial injustice, but ‘we’ve come to cash this cheque’ by marching together. The civil rights leaders had come together to the nation’s capital to demand a fair deal for all.
Yet it is the ‘I have a dream . . .’ segment of his speech that has passed into history. Dr King called not for acts of revenge against oppressors but understanding and cooperation. The most famous line of the speech – ‘I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!’ – carries a promise of peace, reconciliation and an end to racial conflict.
Those two examples are completely true. This one is not. It is taken from the 2007 hit movie Hairspray. It’s Baltimore, 1962, and Tracy Turnblad, an ordinary young girl, is obsessed with the Corny Collins Show. Tracy auditions for the show and gets to appear – a dream come true! However, she becomes aware of the way that her black dancer friends are being treated and realizes that she has to do something. As she tells her father, ‘I think I’ve kind of been in a bubble … thinking that fairness was gonna just happen. It’s not. People like me are gonna have to get up off their fathers’ laps and go out and fight for it.’ This ordinary young girl brings about an extraordinary integration.
This, too, was the power of Mahatma Gandhi – the humble little man in peasant’s clothes who, armed only with the weapons of love, peace and justice, brought the mighty British Empire to its knees. Gandhi believed passionately that if his cause was a just one he would win – no matter how powerful the forces against him. He famously said: ‘Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.’ Gandhi was ‘one man come in the name of love’.
At the heart of the Christian faith there is also ‘one man come in the name of love’. Jesus enters Jerusalem knowing that it is there that he will come into conflict with the might of the Roman Empire and face the fury of the Jewish religious establishment. And so he comes armed – armed with the weapons of love, forgiveness and peace – and he comes riding the humble donkey.
Into a world of division and barbarism and violence – a world, in other words, not unlike our own – comes the Prince of Peace, whose power lies not in military might but in selfless love. And here’s the thing: his kingdom, established by the power of love, rather than bullets, has lasted far longer and been far more influential than the kingdom of any military conqueror?
Time for reflection
What are you and I prepared to do in the name of love?
Do we have even a fraction of the courage of the Tank Man
or Rosa Parks
or Martin Luther King
Can we walk with Jesus on the way of the cross?
In the face of a world of greed, violence and oppression;
here at school in the face of the bully and the aggressor
or in the face of those who simply do not care –
what will you and I do in the name of love?
give us vision that we may see a better world,
and give us courage that we may act to make it happen.
This is my favourite Christmas talk – Chocolate Sprouts – I’ve used this in assemblies, carol services, across the age ranges.
- Boil the Brussels Sprouts (make sure they’re not too soft) and stick them in the fridge overnight.
- Next morning, melt the chocolate and dip the sprouts in so that they look like truffles. Let them set on a baking tray, then put them in small cake cases and sprinkle them with cocoa powder.
At the start of the talk, announce that you love Christmas so much, that you want to share it with everybody, and that what you have with you is something that will always remind them of Christmas day – delicious truffles!
Ask for a couple of volunteers to see if they can emulate Christmas day, by eating as many truffles as they can in 1 minute. Build up the expectation and emphasise the need for speed in the challenge.
Once the young people start eating the ‘truffles’, they’ll realise that there’s something not quite right and their facial expressions will change from ones of sheer delight, to ones of outright disgust a they discover the sprouts. (You may want to have a plastic bag handy at this point!)
OK, so it’s a bit revolting, but here’s the point.
Ask the young people who loves chocolate, and also, who loves sprouts.
Say that Christmas, for most of us is a time of celebration, indulgence and happiness. We love the ‘niceness’ of the Christmas season. It’s a bit like chocolate!
Go on to say that for many people, Christmas is not an easy time. For some it’s a time of loneliness, homelessness and struggle. For many people, Christmas is like our experience of sprouts – something to struggle through.
You could mention the first Christmas as an example. Mary was blessed with the news that she was to be the mother of God’s son, but probably struggled with knowing that her life could be in danger because of her pregnancy. A classic Eastenders storyline!
Challenge the young people to consider how they spend Christmas – to be grateful for the Christmas they have, and to be mindful of those who will struggle through Christmas.
May our lives and our prayers be like lights shining in dark places. And may the blessing of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – fill our hearts and homes with light this Christmas and in the new year to come. Amen.
Here’s a copy of the assembly I did last year at our local special secondary school:
Take a look at the screens:
[youtube id=”QXgH8ZIz9jQ” width=”580″ height=”337″]
Christmas in a Nutshell is that God showed up in our neighbourhood so we would know who the eternal God is and what he’s really like.
There are two types of people – those who love Christmas and those who struggle with Christmas. This year we’re in a credit crunch Christmas.
The word I think that sums up Christmas is “Favour”.
Sometimes when Christmas comes we don’t feel favoured at all. We see how everyone else is doing and they have their perfect family, but our family needs a UN resolution to get everyone in the same room, we don’t feel favoured. In some families they use a dainty silver bell to bring everyone to the dining table, but your family uses the usual method of the smoke alarm, you don’t feel favoured.
Some people in order to have a quiet and peaceful experience put the kids on a different table. You would have to put them on a different table, in a different room, in a different house, ideally in a different town! People buy their turkeys from a Bernard Matthews farm, you buy yours from some discount warehouse, it looks like a dinosaur, takes 6 weeks to defrost, and you end up putting it in the tumble dryer as a last ditch attempt to defrost it – you don’t feel favoured. You left it too late to get the tree and you end up with the one that is two foot high and about forty feet wide. Or even worse it is a very, very small and says the words “air freshener” on it! You don’t feel favoured.
The Bible says wherever you are at, however you feel about it, the truth of Christmas is that we are favoured.
In Luke 1 the word favour means “God’s grace”, grace literally means a free gift you didn’t deserve. The angel says to Mary “you are highly favoured”. As a youngster I was a choir boy and we used to sing the song Gloria, and the refrain is “Most highly favoured lady” but we would always sing “Most highly flavoured gravy”. But the angel says Mary you are highly favoured.
Think of a 14 year old, illiterate peasant girl, scrambling around in the dirt in a small insignificant village in the Roman Empire. Mary was someone who was at the bottom of the social ladder, someone who hadn’t done anything special with their life. But the whole point of grace is that it is not deserved. Grace is what God gives you just because! The angel says to Mary she is highly favoured, highly covered in God’s grace.
The Bible says you are favoured, which means his grace is looking for you, searching you out. Mary simply responded to it.
But Luke 2 brings us a second type of favour, not simply God’s grace but God’s delight. When the angel speaks to the shepherds he says ““Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” There is a universal message. “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” No one is excluded from this, you don’t have to earn it, to achieve it, but instead you just get it. The word favour literally means the pleasure and delight of God. It can also be used to say God’s longing, God’s satisfaction.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel if I could meet God that he wouldn’t be very happy with us, he’d be disapproving of us. If you give your life to God it can feel like you are limited, you have to be smart and serious, carry a big bible, drink milk from a Christian cow, your life becomes difficult and hard. But the Bible says that isn’t the case at all, the Bible says God is pleased with you. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t done anything, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t given him a second thought, he is absolutely delighted with you.
He chooses to send the message to shepherds. We might have quite a cute image of shepherds, but the reality at that time was that they were the underclass of Jewish society, they were considered unclean, they were regarded with cynicism, scepticism and distrust. Shepherds roamed around, they had no respect for other peoples land, they would just bring their sheep anywhere they fancied, they were a law unto themselves.
The angel says, shepherds listen you are favoured. The shepherds were confused because they were the punch bag of society. Some of us are trying so hard to push ourselves, to validate our identity, we are trying to find it in the toys, the money, school, work – but listen you don’t need to and can’t do anything to make God pleased with you – it is not possible. God is absolutely taken with you, he adores you.
At Christmas time heaven and earth are fused together, that God himself comes down from heaven to our earth. That is what is so wonderful. That God’s opinion of you is so great, so passionate, that he wants to be with you, he don’t just want to be like the old uncle in heaven who visits once a year and embarrasses people, but he wants to be right there with you, God there with us, Emmanuel, living in flesh, as we’re favoured.
God knows that we mess up, that we make mistakes, that we live regrets, but he says if I could tell you one thing, if I could shout it from the heavens with a whole host of angels it would be this: “I am well pleased with you, I am delighted with you, I am captivated by you and I have come all this way because I want to know you, I want you to be brought into relationship with me – I was meant for you and you were meant for me.”
Here’s my assembly from this morning for KS1 and KS2 pupils on the theme of Freedom:
Prepare the following statements on separate cards in writing that is large enough for everyone to see. They fall into three categories:
- I like chocolate.
- Everyone should own a dog.
- Pink is the best colour.
- No one should be allowed to drive on Thursdays.
- All cars should have a free yearly safety test.
- Any form of hunting or shooting for sport should be banned.
- Train travel should be cheaper.
- We should all do more exercise.
- There is no God but Allah (Islam).
- Love your neighbour as yourself (Christianity).
- The Lord is your God (Judaism).
- A person becomes perfect by leading an unselfish life (Buddhism).
You will also need a card or image for the word ‘Opinions’, a whiteboard or flipchart and six candles with matches or other means of lighting them. Bed sheets to divide the assembly hall
Hold up the ‘Opinions’ card or show the image of it and ask what it means. Record the children’s ideas on the whiteboard or flipchart.
Discuss the idea that all opinions are important. Is that true? What would be the outcome if everyone acted as if they were? Should everyone agree with everyone else to encourage peace and harmony? What would life be like if that were the case?
Show the ‘A’ group of opinions, one by one. Ask the children to consider how important they are and whether or not they affect people’s lives for those who believe them. Could they be enforced, so that they became everybody’s views?
Consider the ‘B’ group of opinions in the same way. Are these different kinds of views? Why? These opinions might have a more significant effect than the ‘A’ group of opinions if they were enforced? They are certainly more sensible and may be more acceptable. What do you think?
The ‘C’ group of opinions is another set of important opinions. They are at the centre of many people’s lives and allow them to have a sense of belonging and value.
Write the following final set of words while everyone is watching:
Explain that these can only be achieved when there is freedom of expression, the freedom to hold beliefs (not harmful to others) that are important to groups or individuals and talk about those beliefs without fear of punishment or discrimination.
Caring and democratic societies like our own ensure this is so by having laws that protect people’s rights. The Human Rights Act is such a law. Not all countries or societies are so lucky and, in many cases, people are imprisoned, hurt or killed because they express their opinions or beliefs.
25 years ago, the people of Berlin, the capital of Germany, regained freedoms denied to them by the building of a wall. To help everyone understand some of the problems of that time, you have decided to divide the school. Direct that a gap is formed down the centre of the assembly, separating classes in half. Enlist the help of teachers and older pupils to ‘build a wall’ using the sheets. Screen the two halves from each other.
How does the division feel? Explore the feelings of uncertainty and discomfort that may arise. What is going on? Who is on the other side of the wall?
Explain that, after the Second World War, Germany was divided into two parts and the city of Berlin was also split into East and West Sections. East and West had very different systems of government, and there was deep mistrust and suspicion between them. In August 1961, the citizens woke to street crossing points blocked by barriers and barbed wire. The authorities in the East had decided to stop people crossing to other parts of the city. Later, a high concrete wall was built. It was protected with barbed wire and watched by armed guards. Invite everyone to imagine how the citizens of Berlin must have felt.
Designate one half of the assembly as ‘East’ and the other as ‘West’. Invite the children to enter into further role-play. State that those in the ‘East’ will not be allowed to use the playground. New classes will have to be formed. Those in the East will not be permitted to join after-school or lunchtime clubs and they will not be allowed representatives on the School Council. Those in the West will also be grouped into new classes. Otherwise, for them, school will carry on as normal. They are free to use the playground and to take part in clubs and to elect members of the School Council. Sometimes they might ask permission to visit a classroom belonging to a group from the East – but under no circumstances will anyone from the East be allowed to visit the West. Neither is a visit from East to West guaranteed – you will have to apply and may be refused permission. Any person who breaks this rule will be punished!
Reassure the children that this is ‘make-believe’, but invite them to reflect on how they would feel should such directions be given. How would each group respond? Explore how a dividing wall would affect friendships, family relationships and day-to-day life.
Reflect that the Berlin Wall separated friends and families. Some were unable to travel to their usual places of work. Those living in East Berlin were not allowed the choices and freedoms enjoyed by those in the West. Protest was not permitted, and anyone who tried to escape across the wall was shot. Above all, those in the East were not allowed to elect (choose) their leaders or to express their views freely and openly.
For years, the wall divided the city. No one was sure whether, or how, anything could change. But eventually it became possible for a few in the East to say: ‘Down with the wall!’ (Invite individuals to repeat the phrase . . .) And soon other voices joined in the protest. Eventually, large crowds gathered in the streets, all shouting: ‘Down with the wall!’ (Invite a growing number in the East to participate.) It was a dangerous thing to do. No one knew how the authorities would react – perhaps with anger and violence. People climbed upon the wall and hammered at it with sledgehammers and chisels – the crowds cheered. Then, on 9 November 1989, the wall ‘fell’. (Instruct helpers to drop the dividing screen.) Checkpoints in the wall were opened for those in the East to go through to the West! Thousands of people celebrated late into the night. They danced, joined hands, and hugged each other with joy! After almost 30 years, East and West were reunited. Bulldozers were soon continuing the demolition work that had been started with hammers and chisels! A new chapter of history had begun!
How does everyone feel now that they are reunited? Reflect that the story of the Berlin Wall helps us to think about some of the freedoms that we take for granted. As Remembrance Day approaches, it reminds us of the importance of working together for peace and unity.
Time for reflection
You or one or more of the children now light a candle for each of the six aspects of freedom of expression listed in the ‘Assembly’, Step 6, saying, in turn, ‘This light is the light of respect.’, ‘This light is the light of tolerance.’ and so on.
From the Christian tradition, a letter of St Paul says:
‘He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance.’
(Ephesians 2.14, The Message – Eugene H. Peterson)
Give the children time to reflect on their feelings during this assembly. Remind them that the wall was in place for 27 years – that’s longer than some of the teachers have been alive. Since the wall came down, life in Germany has changed for everyone, both from the East and the West. Reflect for a few moments that the cost of freedom is sometimes not anticipated or fully understood.
God of all humanity, often people are separated by ambition and greed, anger and fear, arrogance and pride. Help us to break down walls of division and misunderstanding and to celebrate that we belong together, citizens of one world. Amen.
Yesterday I did an Easter assembly at our local Infant school focussed on different foods:
To explain the ‘surprise’ of the Easter story and encourage openness to being surprised.
Preparation and Materials
- You will need some hot cross buns, a large Easter egg, an empty packet of fish fingers and four eggs – two fresh and two hard-boiled (don’t forget to mark them so you can tell which is which!).
- Bible reading: John 21:1–14 – I used a Bob Hartman story version. You could ask a child to read this.
- A large bowl to break the fresh eggs into.
- A damp cloth to clean up any mess!
- Apron (optional depending on how messy you’re prepared to get – don’t wear your best clothes!).
Explain that this morning you have with you some different types of Easter food. Get the children to consider quietly what food they think you have brought.
Bring out the hot cross buns. Explain that buns like these have been eaten for hundreds of years, and were particularly popular during holidays like Christmas and Easter. The cross marked on them is a reminder of Jesus’ death on a cross, so eventually they became associated with Good Friday.
Bring out the big Easter egg. Talk about how much we all enjoy eating chocolate at Easter. Explain that in the past, eggs were considered a luxury food, so during Lent people used to give up eating them. (Remind the children, particularly if you have spoken to them about this during Lent, that on Shrove Tuesday eggs would have been used up in the pancakes.) Eggs also remind us of new life, and spring. Some people also say that the inside of a chocolate egg reminds us of Jesus’ empty tomb.
Ask if anyone expects to receive (or has already received) any eggs this Easter? Ask if anyone knows why eggs have come to be associated with Easter? Then say you want to use some eggs to demonstrate something about the story of Easter. Put on your apron if you have one.
Pick up the fresh eggs and make a show of ‘accidentally’ breaking them in your hand (be prepared for the egg to go everywhere, which will add to the effect). Hopefully the children will laugh, at which point say, ‘If you think that’s funny, you do better – catch!’ and throw one of the hard-boiled eggs to one of the older children. For added fun you can throw another before the children have time to register that they are hard-boiled. (The usual health and safety warnings apply here: throw low and gently and preferably to a good catcher if you know one.)
Explain that you threw the eggs to demonstrate something about the Easter story. The Easter story is all about the unexpected, about a surprise.
Read or tell the story of how the women, Jesus’ friends, went to the tomb and found it open and empty. They were shocked and surprised to find the body not there.
Say that we have all been expecting Easter (we may have been looking at eggs in the shops). But the first Christians were not expecting Easter at all. They didn’t expect to see Jesus again. Ask the children to imagine that they were friends of Jesus.
Jesus was their friend, they loved him. Then they saw him get into trouble with the Roman authorities, and they saw him die. They were so sad that they cried and cried. They thought he had left them for ever. After a couple of days they decided to go to visit his grave. But the tomb was empty! What a huge, amazing, exciting surprise! More surprising and exciting than 100 Easter eggs, or 100 eggs thrown about in an assembly!
The last Easter food you have brought is … fish fingers! Bring out the empty fish finger packet. A strange choice – do we normally eat fish fingers on Easter Day?
No, but we do hear a lot about fish in the stories about Jesus, and one famous story about fish tells of something that happened after Jesus came back to life.
Read, or paraphrase, John 21.1–14. Jesus appeared to his disciples and cooked them a breakfast of fish on a barbecue. This was the third time he appeared to his friends after he had died. They were so excited that he was alive again.
End by talking about how at Easter, Jesus died and came back to life. Christians believe that Jesus is with us now as our friend, even though we can’t see him.
Explain that the Easter story shows us how when things seem at their worst, when everything has gone wrong, we can often find signs of new life and new hope – if we are open to being surprised.
Time for reflection
Close your eyes and think of a time when you were unhappy…
Remember what got you through that time…
If there is anything troubling you at the moment try to think of a way forward…
Think of a place where you may find new life and hope…
And think how you could bring new life and hope to someone else who is in need…
Loving God, give us open hearts and minds to be surprised by new life and new hope. Help us to bring Easter joy to others, especially to those who are sad or in need. Amen.
Here’s my favourite assembly that I do each year – feel free to use and adapt:
PREPARATION: One egg, towel, plastic sheeting/black sacks, a large chocolate Easter egg. You also need a willing teacher who is prepared to look like they will have an egg cracked on their head – the more senior or precious they are about their hair the better!
This assembly works best when done by two people, where one of you is prepared to be the volunteer who does actually have an egg cracked on their head. It can be done as a one-person assembly but you will need another teacher or trusted pupil to crack the egg on your head at the end.
If possible as the pupils are coming into assembly give a class worth of pupils a piece of paper with the question “What is love?” on it, and pens or pencils to scribble down their thoughts.
Welcome the students and explain that this assembly will be exploring the idea of love at Easter. Ask: ‘I wonder if anyone can tell me what love is?’ Field the various responses and if you have given out the question to a class prior to the assembly share some of their answers.
Say, sometimes love is giving up something so that you can help someone else. For example, you may give up watching a TV programme so you can help your mum with the housework or dinner, to show her you love her. Or, you give some of your time and effort to raise money for people less fortunate than yourself because you care for them, for example with Comic Relief Red Nose Day.
Now, this kind of giving we call sacrifice which means ‘giving up something valuable for something else that’s really important.’
Now to explain a bit more about sacrifice we’ve got a little quiz with a big Easter egg as a prize for the winner and a nasty forfeit for the loser. The winner gets a lovely chocolate egg, while the loser will get an egg on their head – they will get egged!
Don’t use pupils for this, but instead prepare a teacher and another adult volunteer to be your partners in crime.
Ask them three questions each, easy ones to your volunteer – they of course get the questions right. The teacher is given the impossibly difficult questions – they of course get the answers wrong!
For the volunteer
- What are Easter eggs made of? Chocolate
- What colour is chocolate? Brown
- What day of the week is Easter Sunday on? Sunday
- When was the first mass produced Easter egg made? 1873
- What is the volunteer’s favourite kind of chocolate?
- What was the date of Easter Sunday in the 2000? 23rd April
(Ask questions alternatively)
As the questioning progresses it is likely that the students will get quite noisy as they see that one of their teachers will get egged. It is important that you ensure that they are listening.
At the end, say you are going to egg the teacher as they clearly got all their questions wrong. Make a big thing of giving the large Easter egg to your volunteer and then standing the teacher on the plastic sheeting/black sacks and getting ready to egg them. Encourage the assembly to count down from three for you to break the egg on the teacher’s head.
As you go to bring the egg down on their head your volunteer moves the teacher out of the way and steps in to take the egging in the teacher’s place. You carry on oblivious and break the egg on your volunteer’s head.
Once this has happened thank the teacher, and give them the large Easter egg, and allow your volunteer to go and get cleaned up.
Explain that sacrifice is a really important part of love. And (name the egged person) suffered a little there, they gave up their nice hairdo so your teacher didn’t have to take the punishment for getting all those questions wrong.
Now it’s easy to say you love someone, it’s easy to give someone a hug, and hugging is a part of showing someone you love him or her. But are we prepared to suffer to help others?
We’re coming up to Easter, a time when Christians remember the death of Jesus and celebrate His resurrection.
Just as, name your egged volunteer, stepped in to take the punishment for the wrong answers from your teacher, we believe that Jesus stepped in and was crucified to take the punishment for all the wrong we do, so that if we chose to follow Him we can be forgiven and one day have eternal life with him.
There is a verse in the Bible that says: For God loved the world so much that he gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him may not be lost but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Christians believe that this was the greatest sacrifice anyone has ever made, to lay down his life for the whole world.
You will hopefully never be in the place of having to give up your life for someone, but maybe you might think about some sacrifices you could make, to show someone you care or love them.
And when eating your chocolate Easter eggs, perhaps you might remember the Christian message behind Easter, that of Jesus giving up His life for us all.