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I'm in Devon on a Christmas tree farm as the Christian owners
prepare for their busiest time of year,
and they've even got reindeer!
Welcome to Songs Of Praise.
This week, I follow the journey of a Christmas tree
-from the forest to the local church... CHILDREN:
It's a real privilege that one of our trees should take centre stage
in the middle of our community at this time of year.
..a church leader dealing with serious illness
during the season of Advent...
I have a joy, through knowing Christ, that is not impacted,
is not wrecked, by the circumstances of my life.
..and why JB Gill is giving blood this Christmas.
Our music this week comes from right across the UK,
and we begin in Manchester with a carol written for the Advent season.
And for a real treat, it's accompanied by a full orchestra.
Here in Devon,
it's the busiest time of year for Christian farmers Helen and
Lester Bowker and their team as they prepare Christmas trees
for delivery to homes and communities.
Lester, how many trees do you have here?
-About 40,000 spread over two sites.
-Wow! How much land is that?
It's about 25 acres.
I know you also have reindeer here, which is so charming.
Where do they fit into the picture?
Well, we went to a farm in Wales in 2008 and saw them,
and they were just so magical that we fell in love with them
and decided that we would have them for the Christmas business,
and we felt we probably could learn the expertise that was
required to look after them.
So definitely the star of the show.
Helen and Lester believe they were guided by God to take on this farm.
One of our relatives offered us the 25 acres and, at the time, we were
both not local to here, we were in Dorset, and had both well-paid jobs.
And it was quite a dilemma
because you can't easily make a living off of 25 acres.
So how did you approach this dilemma?
We did go back and pray about it quite a lot, didn't we?
We did, and then we got a phone call.
It was offering us work in the West Country.
And that seemed to me
a divine coincidence or the confirmation
we were looking for, that this was the direction
we should be taking, however mad it seemed at the time.
No, this one!
Today, Helen and Lester are giving me
the honour of selecting the tree being donated to their church.
What is the meaning of Christmas for you two?
It's all about rebirth and starting again, isn't it?
It's always a time of wonder as well for us.
It's a time of excitement, I suppose, as well, isn't it?
Jesus and everything that he then went on to do and his promises
to us is just the rock, really, on which we now try and base our life.
Later on, we'll see the tree given pride of place in Helen
and Lester's village church.
Our next piece of music reflects our Advent theme -
the modern hymn Christ Be Our Light.
With Christmas just around the corner, if you're anything like me,
you'll be starting to wonder about gifts for family and friends.
Well, in London, a choir has been set up with the hope of inspiring us
all to give a very different present through becoming a blood donor.
The campaign is inspired by the organisation behind the MOBO Awards.
JB Gill has been finding out more.
I've been lucky enough to win five MOBOs with my band, JLS.
But, as well as the prestigious award ceremony,
the MOBOs run important social campaigns.
This year, they're encouraging people to give blood.
I'm doing my bit. I'm about to give blood for the first time.
-How does that feel?
-It's all right.
-Yeah, it's not too bad, is it?
The campaign was a joint partnership between NHS Blood & Transplant
and MOBO, and the idea is we're trying to encourage
more younger people to register and donate blood,
in particular from the black and Asian communities.
There we go. That's going fine.
-If you get any pain, just let me know.
-I will do.
There's a crucial need.
We need to encourage 40,000 people over the next three years,
and we want to use the power of music,
which inspires young people in particular,
to kind of get them engaged, get them involved
and use this to get that crucial message out there.
# I'll rise up... #
And so, to raise awareness,
MOBO and NHS are creating a choir to spread the word.
It's called the B Positive Choir.
# And I'll do it 1,000 times again... #
Being in this season of Advent,
and everybody's thinking about giving and sharing
and the wonderful gift of Jesus Christ, the gift that we can
give is the gift of lifeblood that others really do need.
I had a kidney transplant four months ago and, throughout
the whole time on dialysis, I needed a lot of transfusions.
I needed transfusions just to get up and walk around the house.
Faith is one of the things that gets me through my illness,
my belief in God.
I love gospel music, so for me, being able to be a part of this and
enjoy something compassionate about it at the same time, it's fantastic.
# All together, let's rise up... #
B Positive is the name of the choir,
and that's not only a rare blood type,
but it's also about having that positive thinking, that powerful
mind-set can help kind of change your life in many different ways.
-It's not painful?
-No, it's not painful.
It's actually...well, relatively therapeutic.
Some people feel better, like they're regenerating themselves.
Some people do feel better afterwards.
Well, I'm regenerating myself and somebody else.
What better gift to give at Christmas?
# Oh, oh, oh, oh
# Rise up! #
What a nice reason to put a choir together.
Perhaps many more will give blood as a result.
Our next piece of music is by Christian writer Matt Redman,
who's been inspired to link the Christmas story with
the redeeming work of Christ on the cross in his song called How Far.
# In Nazareth of Galilee
# An angel speaks the sacred words
# Mary, you will be with child
# The miracle of virgin birth
# Joseph heeds the angel sign
# And takes her as his promised wife
# Now through the night they journey on
# How far is it to Bethlehem?
# Wise men plan their course ahead
# Searching for the promised king
# Now from the east a guiding star
# How far is it to Bethlehem?
# How far
# How far
# To the place
# Where hope was born?
# How far they went to Bethlehem
# How far you went for Calvary
# No greater grace was ever known
# No greater love was ever seen
# We set our hearts on pilgrimage
# We're caught up in your story too
# From Bethlehem to Calvary
# Our hearts will always follow you
# How far
# How far
# Saviour, lead us to your heart
# How far
# How far
# Jesus, lead us to your heart. #
The season of Advent has many traditions associated with it,
including, of course, the lighting of Advent candles.
The Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin explains what they symbolise.
We light the first candle on the first Sunday of Advent
as a reminder of the Patriarchs - the men and women of old.
They were courageous and they were faithful.
The second candle is a reminder of the Prophets.
They received the message from God, and they were going to give it
to the people, whether the people wanted to hear it or not!
On the third Sunday of Advent, that candle is a reminder of John
the Baptist - the forerunner of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
On the fourth Sunday, Mary, the mother of Jesus.
She made the incarnation - God becoming man
and dwelling in our midst - possible.
The fifth candle we light because Christmas is now here,
and so we light it to represent Jesus Christ in our midst.
The incarnation is now a reality.
The season of Advent is all about looking forward to
the coming of Christ.
It's a time of joy and expectation but, for many,
it's also a poignant moment to reflect.
For the last 14 years,
the Reverend Andrew Gardiner has been the Minister of Hope Baptist Church in Plymouth,
and the church's growth has been a success story.
But 18 months ago, Andrew found out that he had cancer
and that it was spreading.
I was shocked beyond belief, really, to be told that I'd got cancer
because I didn't really feel that unwell.
So it was a huge, devastating blow.
I've had further treatments - two courses of chemotherapy,
and neither of those have been effective in dealing with
the tumours in my liver.
While he was in hospital, Andrew sensed he was receiving
some divine inspiration in the form of lyrics to a new song.
I was quite scared, really.
I didn't know what was going on and I wasn't feeling good at all.
And suddenly, these words came to me,
and they were the beginning of the song that I wrote.
Friends and family rallied round and turned Andrew's lyrics into
a video, which has now had thousands of views online around the world.
# For now I know
# His word is true
# And I am more
# Than my work or what I do... #
Despite my circumstances, God has used the cancer in order to give me
an opportunity to share my faith in Christ and to declare who Jesus is.
And so that's been a tremendously powerful thing -
that I can still be used by God in that way.
In the run-up to Christmas, Andrew's family are gathering
together as often as they can.
The other remarkable thing is joy in God,
and that is very different from happiness.
I am far from happy, my wife
and children are far from happy with the situation that we find
ourselves in, but that is different from joy in God - that I have a joy
that is in my heart and soul through knowing him that is
not impacted, is not wrecked, by the circumstances of my life.
# Joy to the world!
# The Lord... #
Andrew has had to take the decision to stand down as the church's full-time minister,
but his positivity continues to inspire family and friends.
We love Andrew as a congregation and we are deeply,
deeply moved by what's happening.
We are praying that God will lead him through this
and that we can have him for as long as is possible to have him.
We just really want to stand with Andrew.
He's got a very real faith, so we're not concerned about where
he's going, but we are concerned about what he's going through.
If God hadn't worked powerfully in my life
then we wouldn't be here this evening.
We're just going to treat this like any other Christmas.
It's going to be special, as always.
Yeah, we'll just treasure it like we always do.
They say that however dark a room is that the striking of a match
or the lighting of a candle transforms that darkness.
Reaching out to God and him coming to me through prayer,
that has transformed the darkness.
I've known his light at work in my life.
Earlier, we met Christmas tree farmers
Helen and Lester Bowker here in Devon.
They gave me the job of selecting the tree
to give to their local church.
It'll have pride of place in St Mary's in the village of Whimple.
I'm helping the Sunday school to get it decorated.
-Three, two, one... Hooray!
In the spirit of Christmas,
we're also packing gifts into shoe boxes for families
in Europe, Africa and Asia who'd otherwise receive no presents.
So I'm putting in gloves and a hat,
because sometimes it can get really cold.
I've got toothbrushes, some sweeties.
Because children around the world, they don't have a lot of things.
That we give things to them, we're, like, all the same.
I think a child might quite like...
Sara Artingstall from the charity Samaritan's Purse UK
organises the collection of the shoe boxes.
We're talking 12 million boxes worldwide.
850,000 boxes from the UK.
So, regardless of the size of it,
it's each individual box goes to an individual child.
When they receive these gifts, it's such a powerful thing
and such a joyful thing.
You know, at Christmas, God gave us
the greatest gift that we could have received.
I just think that sometimes people feel like,
"What can I do to help other people?"
But we can know that we've brought some joy somewhere with some of the
gifts that we've distributed that have been so generously donated
by so many people.
And so a tree nurtured and grown on Helen and Lester's farm is now
being used to help bring Christmas joy in their village and beyond.
It's a real privilege that one of our trees should take centre
stage in the middle of our community at this time of the year.
I hope evermore numbers of people will hear
and understand the true meaning of Christmas.
# This is the truth sent from above
# The truth of God The God of love
# Therefore don't turn me from your door
# But hearken all
# Both rich and poor
# The first thing that I will relate
# That God at first did man create
# The next thing which to you I'll tell
# Woman was made with him to dwell
# Then after that
# 'Twas God's own choice
# To place them both in Paradise
# There to remain from evil free
# Except they ate of such a tree
# And at this season of the year
# Our blest Redeemer did appear
# And He did live and here did preach
# And many thousands He did teach
# God grant to all within this place
# True saving faith, that special grace
# Which to His people doth belong
# And thus I close my Christmas song. #
Well, that's almost it from our Advent journey.
Next week, we'll be exploring Winchester's Christmas Market.
And Sean Fletcher will be introducing a feast
of Christmas carols, including the favourites
of our very own Songs Of Praise presenters.
And in case you need any more encouragement
to get into the Christmas mood,
we end this week with a beautiful carol
which goes right to the heart of the Christian faith.
Josie d'Arby celebrates Advent by following the journey of a Christmas tree from a Devon forest to a village church, while its farmers share their own deeply held Christian faith. In Plymouth, a church minister with cancer describes how God is helping him look forward to Christmas. JB Gill meets B Positive, a new choir founded by the MOBO Awards and the NHS to encourage people from all different backgrounds to give blood, and he donates his own for the first time.
Songwriter Matt Redman performs a Christmas song - How Far, while the Hereford Cathedral Choristers sing The Truth from Above. Plus there are hymns and carols both old and new, including Hills of the North Rejoice, Christ Be Our Light, O Come O Come Emmanuel, Here I Am to Worship and The First Nowell.
Hills of the North Rejoice led by BBC Philharmonic with Huddersfield Choral Society Christ Be Our Light sung in St Patrick's Church, Dungannon How Far, written and performed by Matt Redman O Come O Come Emmanuel sung in Hereford Cathedral Here I Am to Worship led by Noel Robinson at Church of Christ the Cornerstone, Milton Keynes This Is the Truth Sent from Above performed by Hereford Cathedral Choristers The First Nowell sung in Romsey Abbey.