Today I am getting things done. I have a pile of paperwork next to me that just gets straightened up from time to time and rarely gets sorted until deadlines are looming and I have a bit of a panic. Amid the filing and the reminders and the scraps of paper with incomprehensible scribbles on (that were so important at the time) I found some important things. I have sent Christmas cards to a few people via Christian Solidarity Worldwide who are imprisoned or persecuted for their faith.
I like the idea that somewhere in a prison a long way away someone might open an envelope from me and realise that they are not forgotten. That someone is thinking about them and praying for them even as they sit alone and wonder what the future holds. Lord, I read about these people who have such faith, such courage. They stand up for you when it might well cost them all they have; certainly it has cost these two men in Vietnam their freedom and their home - they are separated from their wives and children and they endure beatings and the constant threat of worse.
Would I be so brave? I don't know. Here I am in my comfortable home, writing Christmas cards and saying a prayer and it all seems so small in comparison. Lord, keep them safe. Give them hope. Bless them in ways that transcend their captivity.
Another lady in Cuba marches alongside the ladies who have had relatives who disappeared because of their beliefs. She was not personally affected but she believes that as a Christian she should stand for what is right. In exchange for her integrity and courage she has been ostracised, threatened and beaten, her house vandalised. Still she stands with her sisters and asks for justice.
Wow. I find life difficult sometimes and I moan incessantly but what have I really to complain about? I need to remember people like these who know about fear and hardship.
I've written a letter to the little girl that we sponsor as well. Her name is Karen and she lives in El Salvador. She doesn't have much but in a photo we have she is smiling broadly. My daughters have made pictures for her and so I've sent those as well as a photo of us. Katy has something that looks suspiciously like chocolate all round her mouth but it was the only photo I could find with the four of us on it. I suppose Karen won't mind a dirty face. Isn't it amazing that we can connect from across the world? This little girl is five years old and is very, very poor. She lives in a hut with mud floors and she works as well as going to a little school in the afternoons. She tells me that at school she can play with a doll. That doesn't sound as if she has many toys - not like my girls who have so much already and are excitedly discussing what riches Christmas might bring. Little Karen has responsibility that belies her years, few things to play with, no room of her own, not enough to eat some days and no idea at all of the sort of life that my children live.
How can I get this across to my girls? When we look at the pictures of Karen and we discuss what she might do for toys they are mystified and change the subject. They don't understand because they are so young and have so little experience and idea of the size of the world and the diversity of lifestyles. I tell them things but they find it hard to understand and I want them to grow up understanding how blessed they are and understanding the privilege of the choices that they have and the opportunities they are presented with. It drives me mad when they break toys and discard them without a second thought, when they won't share, when they want more when they already have more than enough.
I know that I'm to blame when they don't appreciate their things; I am quite sure that every parent wants to give gifts to their children and see their faces light up and I've done it far too often. I love Christmas morning when they open their stockings. Stockings are small, and full of small treasures. A packet of tissues. A pencil. A satsuma. It's Christmas afternoon that makes me a bit anxious when they open the presents from all the family and people are so generous and the gifts pile high. For the last two years I've spirited away armfuls of presents as it was an embarrassment of riches.
What a thing to worry about. I don't suppose the two Vietnamese pastors in jail whose families are struggling at home without them worry about spoiling the children this Christmas. I don't suppose Karen's parents in El Salvador are concerned that she might take her non-existent toys for granted. I bet they would love to give her piles of presents. I bet she'd be delighted with anything. I bet the mothers whose malnourished babies are dying in Africa aren't worried that they won't appreciate the things that they have. It makes me feel ashamed.
Forgive me, Lord, for all the times that I shower my children with unnecessary things that don't do them any good and just bring short-lived joy. Forgive me, Lord, for the times that I don't show them how blessed we are and make sure that they understand. Forgive me, Lord, for the times when we turn our backs on people we could help and look inwards to our own comfort instead.
Thankyou for all the blessings of our life here. Help us to appreciate them instead of taking them for granted and wanting more, and I mean me as well as the children. We're all as bad. With Christmas approaching help me bear in mind the things that are important and don't let me bury it all underneath a mountain of wrapping paper.
And may those pastors in Vietnam, the lady in Cuba and my little girl in El Salvador know how proud you are of them. May they experience you in a real way this Christmas - and for that they don't need money or wrapping paper or even freedom.
Now there's a thought.