Saturday, 31 December 2011

In search of a punchline

So, another year is nearly over.

Do the years go by in the blink of an eye for you, Lord? Being outside time, what does it look like to you? Do you see us rushing about like ants? Always unaware of how much time we have left. Still searching, hurrying, trying to fit in all the things we want to fit in before some unknown deadline...

What a year it's been. I don't know whether to do a review of the year, or to look forward expectantly to the next one, or just have a bit of a ramble about New Year's Eves past and present - I guess I'll end up doing all of them, being a fairly introspective, slightly obsessive sort of person, but one thing has become clear to me over the course of this turbulent year and I wanted to run it past you.

I feel as if at the end of the year there should be some sort of momentous conclusion, some punchline, but there isn't, is there? It just sort of goes on.

The way that time is broken up into years is only our construct, isn't it? For you, regarding us, your creations, the span of time that matters is our lifetime; and that's only because you know how long that is. We don't. I don't honestly know if this coming year will be my last on earth or whether I'll still be here wittering away in another three or four decades. Perish the thought, hey?

At the beginning of this year I told you very earnestly that I had a sense that it was going to be a significant year. You smiled indulgently. Most of the way through the year I was still thinking that there was a point to it - a lesson to learn, or something to do, something to understand.  Although I think that I was partly right in thinking that, because there have been a myriad of lessons and ideas to absorb this year - what has dawned on me is that there is no end to the ride until you decide that It's Over.

Just as today ends and tomorrow begins whether there are fireworks and Big Ben strikes or not, the journey doesn't end because the year does.

Yes, we mark out our time with dates, festivals, hinges in a year so that we can stop momentarily, maybe; so that we can pause and get our breath back. Maybe that's it. Maybe we need to build in some things to look forward to. Maybe we need to reflect.

New Year is all about reflecting, it seems to me. It always makes me look back on a year and look forward to the new one. This time last year I was full of excitement and anticipation. I 'knew' that something was afoot - I sensed that you had something in store for me but naively I thought that it was something to do with 2011 and vaguely I thought that the something would be complete by the end of the year.  Now, on 31 December, I can honestly say that I did know that something was afoot. I was right. Something was. You have a plan for me, and this year not only have I had the penny-dropping moment when I realised that it was so, but I have begun to take a couple of little tiny baby steps towards it, with your help. That might not sound like much of an achievement for a whole twelve-month period but, God, you know how momentous it's been for me!

So, yes, I am going to look back on my year and try to distil what I've learned from it. I'll do that because, as someone pointed out to me recently, I am a 'completer/finisher' or something like that and I am obsessed with details and I like things wrapped up. It has to be done properly. I will also look ahead to a completely new, as yet pristine year ahead and try to determine what of this year I want to take with me and what I'd like to leave behind in the smoke and debris of 2011.

What I want most to do, though, is learn how to pause more regularly. To stop and watch and listen and learn to hear you. To reflect on a daily basis (is that too ambitious?) - anyway, more often then just once a year.


I feel all smiley. Just thinking about the potential and the hope and the promise of going forward with you holding my hand and showing me where to go. This year has been hard but it's been wonderful and I want to go a bit further, please. You know what I'm capable of. Show me, so that I know too. Is that alright?

I want to praise you, Lord. For the snow and the blossom and for Easter and the sunshine and the seaside and the falling leaves and the Christmas story. For your constancy and ingenuity and beauty and mercy. I could go on and on.

Thankyou for the company we've had this evening. For fun and laughter and small children staying up beyond their bedtimes having had too much sugar. Thankyou for friendship and love and for the wonderful people you've arranged around me that teach me, inspire me, support me and care for me. It's a gift of such generosity and these people are so, so precious to me. Thankyou for my husband and a glass of champagne and a comfy sofa. I might not make it till midnight tonight but I will go to bed happy.

Thankyou for this year, Lord God. Thankyou that I survived it, that those I love are still around me and in pretty good health, and that you have never left my side; that you never, ever will. Thankyou for looking after me, for listening to me, for humouring me, for playing with me, for answering me, for loving me. For all the blessings that you've so generously given me. For all the glimpses and the revelations and the questions and the wonders.

Thankyou, my Father.

Here's to starting all over again, a bit further on, in a different place.


Friday, 30 December 2011

Time for the thank you letters

God, I've forgotten to water my poinsettia and it's looking more than a little droopy. I forgot last week as well but managed to get to it in time and it sort of perked up again, but this time the green leaves have taken umbrage and rolled up a bit so I wonder if it's past the point of no return. Lord, heal my poor neglected poinsettia. I hoped it would make it through to the new year. 

Sigh. This is the limbo period after Christmas, when visitors have gone, the presents are opened and the party food has been eaten. With the huge operation of Christmas over and all the excitement and noise gone. the space that has been taken up for the last few weeks by planning and organising and so on is free and this morning as I lay in bed I could feel unease lurking in the distance again. Vague worries and uncertainties just in the periphery looking opportunistically for a way in again. I'm fighting against it. 

Here's the thing. The presents have been largely assimilated into toiletry cabinets and toy boxes and bookshelves and jewellery boxes. One toy has been broken already and is waiting with other injured items for Gluing. The food mountain has gone - my bulging fridge is almost empty now; even the cling-filmed leftover plates are dwindling. The guests are back in their own houses and the Christmas music has been left off today because it doesn't feel festive any more. The washing machine is back in action (actually on it's sixth load already) and the bin men are back on their rounds with grim faces as they collect the permitted 'additional bags of seasonal refuse' that we have obediently 'placed neatly at the side of the bin'. Such is life

Festivities are over. The carols are finished and we've unwrapped our presents and eaten everything in our paths. I'm contemplating taking the decorations down - a job I never look forward to. It has all the mess and stress of getting them out and putting them up without the lovely warm sense of promise or anticipation. Sigh.

It feels like it's all over. We plan it all and enjoy it all but no matter how we try to savour it, it all slips away. Just like the food in the fridge, it all has a use-by date. We drain the last drops and we recycle the paper and we cast about for something to replace the Christmassy feeling. Every year I find this period a bit flat and when it's pouring with rain and cold and blustery and dark outdoors it doesn't do anything to lift the spirits.

It's a good job that you don't need tinsel and fairy lights surrounding you to be real.

The only thing that doesn't slip away out of our grasp is you. The only eternal, unchanging, everlasting, fundamentally permanent thing is you. All the joys that we can create here at Christmas are things that evaporate or run out or simply time-out. All the gifts are inconsequential apart from the baby in the manger.

I had some wonderful presents this year. I am far too interested in 'stuff' I suppose; I never feel that I am difficult to buy presents for because, I'm embarrassed to say, that there are always plenty of things that I want. This year I think people were particularly perceptive and many of my gifts were absolutely delightful. I am grateful for the thought that people put in and I'm grateful for the money and time they put in to choosing and buying things for me. 

But... I am aware that even beautiful jewellery will tarnish and the loveliest of wine will be drunk and electrical gadgets will become obsolete and clothes will wear and fade. Chocolates will disappear (miraculously - with two small girls in the house it's getting worse than ever - you can't put a chocolate down for five minutes unattended and expect it to be there when you get back) and even my old favourite books will be read and shelved and forgotten.

The only gift I have ever been given that I will always have is the gift that you gave me. 

Jesus Christ. Born into obscurity two thousand years ago because mankind needed a rescue package. Born because you love us more than anything. Born because you love us so much that the price of your only Son wasn't too high a price to pay to bring us home. 

There's a gift. It didn't come wrapped up in sparkly paper and it didn't look much like your average Christmas present but it was the most dramatic, extravagant, inspirational, wonderful, generous gift there could be. 

I'm going to get round to 'thank you' letters soon, Father. I have people all over the country to write to so that they know how pleased we are with the presents they sent. I can usually get them done without much hassle, but there's one thank you letter that I've no idea how to write.

I can't even begin to say thank you for what you have done for me; I can't put it into words that would be anywhere close to adequate. 

Let my life be a thank you letter instead. 

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Family, fun, food and festivities. And turkey.

Thankyou, God.

What a lovely Christmas it's been. A few wonderful smiley days full of family, food and fun and it's been noisy and tiring and very happy.  I didn't want it to end. 

Christmas this year had all the components that make an occasion memorable. We were up early but not frighteningly early on Christmas day and the children opened their stockings and we saw the beautiful sunrise that was a special present from you. We played Christmas music and had breakfast and went to church and we celebrated the baby born in a stable in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. We lifted our Happy Birthday to you in carols and songs and prayers and fantastic organ music.

Christmas dinner made the table groan; Kevin the Turkey did us proud - a feast indeed. We set fire to the cognac on the Christmas pudding and pulled crackers and wore party hats and the children argued over the little plastic presents (Katy was most put out that her cracker present was a set of screwdrivers. She eventually negotiated a swap with Grandma who had a plastic gonk on a spring. I'm not sure that Grandma was particularly thrilled with the set of screwdrivers but she put a brave face on it). 

Presents, games, drinks, twinkly Christmas tree lights, laughter and thanks and smiles and mountains of wrapping paper. It was a wonderful day and I know how blessed we are. I know how much we have when so many have so little. I'm very, very grateful.

What I've loved most about this Christmas was that we had fun. We were all together and we played games and laughed and we enjoyed ourselves. I like that it was about people. I like it that you were here amongst us. Not everyone sitting round the table invited you but I did, and you came for me and I appreciate it. I know so many people would have been sitting round similar tables in dining rooms all over our country and I know that we were blessed to get on so well with each other, to have so much fun and to enjoy each other's company as we did. I have a great family. 

I've loved watching the children's faces as they opened presents and I'm thankful that they actually seemed to be excited with each one rather than shredding the wrappings and then dropping the gift to ask for another as we've had on occasion, to my embarrassment. We've spent time setting up racing tracks for matchbox cars (just like we did when I was small - some things never change!) and I've loved watching Elizabeth carry her doll round and feed it with the toy bottle with a special kind of tenderness. A fleeting sort of tenderness, granted, as she then dropped the doll on it's head when she saw that another game was being set up.

It's been lovely. I wish our family lived closer to us so that we could see them more often, but then perhaps it wouldn't be so special. Thankyou for the way that the children are getting on better and better as they grow up a bit. Elizabeth is in awe of her nine year old cousin and it's been a great way of getting her to try new items on her plate at mealtimes - if he likes it, then the chances are that Lizzie will too! The children have been tired out at bedtime, slept well and not been up too early in the mornings.

Thankyou, Father, for the many many blessings this Christmas. Thankyou for all of it, from the stockings and the sunrise to the fun and laughter. For family and good health and plenty to eat and the excitement and joy of the children. It hasn't gone unnoticed that you gave us so much to enjoy.


Sunday, 25 December 2011

Happy Birthday Jesus!

Happy Birthday Jesus!

It's Christmas Day. 

Is it Christmas Day in Heaven? I suppose probably not - it seems likely to me that up there you all know exactly when Jesus was born and we only guess, or celebrate it now because we bagged a pagan festival or something. I know that many non-believers point out that your Son probably wasn't born on 25 December, more like February or something? So do you look down indulgently on our Christmas trees and gifts and carols and the like and marvel at how far off we are from the way it was? 

How wonderful to have all the answers.

Or maybe you do join in the celebrations just because we on earth who love you are celebrating. We have trees with beautiful lights, we have presents, we have a feast and pull crackers and we raise a glass. Or three.  Some of us are going to church today to wish you a happy birthday properly and to say thank you for the amazing thing that you did. To give up all that you had up there in Heaven to come and join in the mess and chaos down here for a while. And for what? Look what we did to you... you were born to die.  But that's not the part of the story we're concerned with today.

Today we look inside the stable in Bethlehem many years ago and we marvel at the tiny baby born humbly among livestock to a poor young girl and her bewildered fiancé. A tiny newborn baby who was God and man at the same time. Born the usual way but fathered by the Holy Spirit. Destined to grow up in a small town, learn a trade, live a relatively short life in comparative obscurity but to make an impact on the world that has not been seen before or since. One small baby who came into the world without fanfare or drumroll, his destiny to save mankind. That's quite a lot to lay on a newborn baby boy.

'For unto us a child is born
to us a son is given
and the government will be on his shoulders.
He will be called 
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.'

Isaiah 9:6 NIV

You gave us your precious Son. Not because we deserved such a visitation but rather because we didn't. He took the weight of the world on his shoulders to put things right between me and you. Mighty God - a tiny baby lying in a stable in a small inconsequential town in the middle of the night two thousand years ago.

God with us. God with Mary two thousand years ago. Shepherds saw angels and came to see the baby. Wise men traveled a long, long way, because they saw something in the sky that compelled them to come and see. Just as then, we can't see anything special at all without you showing it to us. We can't see your glory unless you reveal it to us. Just as people walked past Mary and Joseph's stable on that first Christmas evening, concerned with other things, we so often walk past you, oblivious.

Lord thank you for the amazing generosity of that first Christmas gift. Thankyou that you understood what it would take to draw us back to yourself; that you had to come in person because there was no other way. Thankyou that you reached out to us with such warmth and understanding. You sent your beloved Son as a tiny, defenceless baby. You put a star in the sky as a sign that all Creation was coming together in one place. You spoke to humble shepherds because you were coming among the humble and lowly. You were born in poverty and yet you are the King of kings.

Today the sunrise was spectacular. It was pink and red and orange and yellow and all the colours in between. It was beautiful. I'm told that the sunset was exceptional too, though I missed it. I was helping assemble a basket for Elizabeth's new baby doll which is her favourite present. It has a bottle and a dummy and a little outfit and it sucks its thumb and everything. She is displaying a little maternal streak that I never knew was there... but I digress.

The sunrise. Since it's the middle of winter the crack of dawn wasn't exactly at the crack of dawn, if you see what I mean, so we all assembled outside in the garden in various states of pyjama and dressing gown to watch the wonderful sky. It was a gift from you, Lord, and I didn't miss it this time. The sunset too - you put on a show today; you did something special.

You know that question about celebrating in Heaven? I reckon you did, today, and the sheer extravagant exuberant beauty spilled over so that we could see it from down here.

There aren't sufficient words to say thank you, Father God.

Happy Christmas!

Welcome to the world, baby Jesus. I bet the party in Heaven is going well.



Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A pause in preparations

God, This is not going to have a Christmas theme. 

It's a pause in the endless stream of festive preparations because I've just had a thought.  

It's on the subject of worry, and not worrying, and things being out of my control. As you know, this is s subject very close to my heart. 

The other day we had some friends coming to visit and I wanted everything to be perfect as we hadn't seen them for a long time. I had a lengthy list of things to do that had to be fitted into the usual tight programme of things that need doing and as the date of the visit got closer it became apparent that the house was not going to be particularly tidy, or particularly well-dusted for that matter. I got tired and dispirited as my perfectionist nature kicked in with a vengeance, and then I got to the point where I thought, 'Oh bother it.' (or words to that effect) and decided that I wasn't going to worry about details any more. If the house wasn't immaculate (and whose is, with two small children and an under-developed sense of house-pride?) then it didn't matter all that much. 
Hard to dust, these decs.

As it turned out, it didn't matter all that much. Of course, as they left the conversation subject matter in the car down the motorway might have been about nothing else but the dust on the DVD player or the smudges of soap in the downstairs cloakroom sink after Katy went on a squirting-spree, but as far as I know, it wasn't.  And we've spoken to them since so I know that no-one contracted any sort of dire bug or infectious complaint as a result of an unsterile environment. 

It was just nice to see them. And they us, I assume. 

This is a silly example. But the thing is - there are times when I find that I can shelve an anxiety. I sort of give up on it. It times out. 

Going away, for instance. It's just occurred to me that sometimes when I go on holiday, or after a deadline has passed and I realise I can't change things, I stop worrying about them.  I remember more than once being on a plane or a ship going somewhere on holiday and talking about an anxious situation at home and because I was going to be miles away and couldn't get back easily or quickly I concluded that there was no point in worrying because I was incapable of remedying the situation. 

And I didn't worry.

Of course, as you probably remember, that situation (like so many) was one that I never did have any control over; my feeling that I did was an illusion, no matter what country I was in. I never could have done anything about it so to relinquish a control I never had was just common sense. Just a shame I didn't do it earlier. 

It might sound stupid for this to be a revelation to me but it's just occurred to me how wonderful it would be if I could do this all the time, without the need for airline or cruise tickets or indeed reaching the end of my tether. How much more efficient and emotional energy-saving if I could skip to the end bit.

There are so many situations in my life that are out of my control; but it doesn't stop me from spending ages worrying about them and turning them over in my mind and discussing them with friends and yet - and yet - when I eventually, finally, at long last reach the conclusion that there's nothing I can do, I can leave them alone. In fact, you are the only one who has control; the only one who CAN do something, and so I should leave them with you in the first place.

I can't help it, so leave it with the one who can help it. How come I can do this when I'm miles away but not when I'm right here? How come I can get a decent sense of perspective about trivia like the necessity for a perfectly spotless house when I'm stressed and tired and end-of-tetherish and not save myself the worry? 

Remember in May this year when I'd just been referred to the breast clinic with a worrying breast lump?  I thought I had cancer.  I was so sure that I couldn't possibly enjoy the planned weekend at the seaside for my Mum's 80th birthday - but I did. With your help, certainly, but an impossible situation was made possible. I thought with anxiety like that hanging over me there was no way I could relax and skim stones and laugh and play and celebrate but I did. On the way back as I drove closer to home and appointments and Katy's surgery and everything I felt things closing in on me, but for a few days you helped me push them away. It was nothing short of a miracle.  (Music in the waves)

In fact I think that's what it was. You took the weight of it from me. 

You are faithful indeed. You understand my little quirks and you know how I think. I am quite sure that you want me to worry less and enjoy life more. It's been on my mind all year and I want to get to grips with it a little more. 

So, help me. When there's nothing I can do, help me do nothing - including worry. That's a new year resolution and a half. 

Monday, 19 December 2011

Away in a manger

Hello, God. It's Monday. 

Do Mondays come round more than once a week? Because it sometimes feels like it to me. Bryan's taxi to the station was late this morning causing more than a little panic about missed trains; I had to wake the children up (which, as you know, I consider to be against nature - several years of my life have been spent trying to get them to go to sleep so to reverse the process seems incomprehensible to me) and then we had to teeter our way round to school as the pavements were treacherously icy and the girls and I held each other up until we got to the safety of the school. Then I minced my way back again with much clutching at walls and garden fences.  Phew. 

Is it Spring soon? 

I know, I'm not going to spend the next few months complaining about begin cold and unstable (on my feet, I mean) until the first green shoots show their faces. I'm not, really. 

Well, it's the shortest day soon so a small celebration is in order, don't you think? Not that I'm ungrateful for wintry days where it's so cold that my chin gets left behind and I can't stay upright. No, not at all. 

Not much, anyway. 

I've had a good weekend, thank you. Church on Sunday morning was good; our little nativity, under-rehearsed and beset with dodgy microphones and howling PA but lovely and touching and heartwarming as always. The Christmas story, told with a tableau of small children, bible story read by older ones and all of it choreographed manfully by hardworking Sunday school leaders. 

So simple. My two girls were angels and sat looking somewhat bemused on a bench at the back of the tableau but their Mum and Dad were proud of them nonetheless.  Of all the congregation only we know how incongruous a pair of halos are on my daughters! Only joking.

The Christmas story is so familiar, isn't it? I mean familiar to us. I can't count the number of nativities I've seen or been involved in or heard about in church, in schools and in playgroups and nurseries.  The shops are full of costumes - Mary, Joseph (usually interchangeable with the shepherds), Wise men, even stars, cows, donkeys and camels. Many a doll or new baby have played the title role and little girls always want to be Mary and sit looking suitably serene. 

The two smallest,
most bemused angels are my daughters.
So familiar that I send Christmas cards with a nativity scene on (if I can find them in the shops among the snow-scenes and robins and Santas). All the plays and tableaux and advent calendars and so on just wash over me because I'm so used to them, and then one day there's something that stops me in my tracks. This weekend it was the home-made manger on the stage in church with a bundle of hay in it and an elderly Tiny Tears doll. 

I have no idea how accurate a representation of the Holy Manger this one was, but it's roughness and simplicity and unsuitability for a real baby struck me as something new.

When my girls were born I had all the stuff that you need when you're going to have a baby. I had a small wardrobe full of tiny clothes (mostly in yellow and white as we didn't know if we'd need pink or blue), nappies, wipes, baby lotion (what exactly was that for? I don't think I ever knowingly used baby lotion and yet I must have been given a dozen bottles), muslin squares, toys, mobiles, baby type sleeping bags and the softest of soft blankets. And that brings me to the cot. 

Our cot was pale wood, varnished with a clear lacquer that was considered safe and suitable for babies, with a plastic protective bit over the top to stop the remote possibility of splinters where tiny gums might gnaw as teeth emerge. The side lowered in a convenient way so that no discomfort was caused to my back as I bent to pick up the baby. The cot had a sprung mattress with a chemical-free waterproof fabric coating and then a couple of warm, brushed cotton fitted sheets to make it snug and comfy. 

When I was kitting out our nursery cot bumpers were not considered the thing to have for health and safety reasons but I know many people then and now position soft and pretty padding all round the cot so that baby won't bump his head and is even cosier. My baby was swaddled in the softest of baby blankets for a few months and then when a little older she slept in a custom made sleeping bag. I monitored the room temperature carefully and adjusted her tiny, well-fitting sleep suits and vests accordingly. A jungle animals mobile in pastel colours dangled over her cot and when we wound it up it played a soporific little tune (that was never particularly successful in inducing sleep but nonetheless sounded nice). Stuffed toys were arranged all around the perimeter of the cot and the room was tastefully decorated with 'Elizabeth Lucy' and two years later 'Katherine Emily' on the walls, a chest of drawers just for her things and changing mats and accessories all co-ordinated. We had everything.

That was how my child came into the world. 
No crib for a bed

Yours was born in a stable and slept wrapped in a cloth on top of a bundle of uncomfortable straw in an unhygienic feeding trough for animals, in a cold, grubby and draughty stable, surrounded by smelly cows and sheep. 


Now, my daughters are very special to me, and to a few other people too, but they are distinctly human. They may be children of God in one sense, but not the actual, factual sense. Your son was born into circumstances that were beyond normal - he was positively poor. I imagine that even in those Biblical times not many children were born in a stable. When I was small I used to sing, 'no crib for a bed' and think that the word 'crib' meant money in the olden days and Mary and Joseph didn't have any cash for a decent bed. Well, the idea has merit, I think, but it isn't quite what it means. You didn't have any of the home comforts, did you, Lord?

The Son of God came to earth in such a way. I've heard the nativity story over and over and yet the little wooden manger in our church play brought home to me the truth of it. You certainly did lay aside your majesty. The King of Kings, the Lord of all Creation, tiny and vulnerable and human. 'No crying he makes'? - I bet you did cry. You must have been prickled by the hay even if you were OK about the cows peering at you and wondering where their dinner was. I bet Mary had a nightmare trying to settle you sometimes. 

And then there's Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, giving birth in such a cold, uncomfortable, inappropriate place for something so personal, so difficult, so scary, so momentous. It's a Big Thing when a woman has her first baby - how much more when the mother is a virgin, no more than a child herself and the baby the Son Of the Most High?  Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus' birth was any different from any other birth - it was probably painful and messy and risky and undignified, and to do it without any health and safety advice or gas and air or glucose tablets or towels and hot water, or the benefit of a midwife and a bath and a comfy bed, or even your own Mum - this was basic, wasn't it. 

You wanted it that way. I cannot fathom it, other than that you wanted to demonstrate that you were fully, fully human. You came to us without any of the benefits of the world and with no advantage. You related to the lowest, poorest, most unsophisticated. You were really one of us.

Lord, it amazes me. So much does. So much that I take for granted then my eyes open for a moment and I see something and it amazes me. You showed me. You made the earth and everything in it. You understand all that there is to understand. You are there outside time, looking back on history and forward to the end of the story; you are the beginning and the end and you are the Almighty God, and you arrived on earth in such a simple, understated way that many, many might have missed it. 

I don't want to miss it, Lord. I want to see and understand and marvel. God become man. A tiny baby in a stable more than two thousand years ago, born to a young girl and a simple carpenter without fanfare or news flash. 

The world changed on that day; history hinged, and yet most of the population of the world went about their business without any inkling. Without sensing the shift. 

Without understanding that nothing would be the same again.

The angels, however - I bet it was a different story. 

 'Sing, choirs of angels
Sing in exultation
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above
Glory to God in the highest
Oh come, let us adore him
Christ, the Lord'

Amen.  God with us. The story was beginning.

Friday, 16 December 2011

If you think you're not important...

So I'm getting close to the end of this year and I don't have all the answers to the questions I asked in January. In fact I asked them over and over intermittently all year, but I'm still quite a way from knowing what's what.

But that's ok.

I have some ideas. I have learned so much this year and I am definitely in a different place from when I started out nearly a year ago. It's been a roller coaster ride indeed.

I went to see the girls' nativity play yesterday. It was lovely. A really ambitious play involving every member of the school in costume of some sort, lots of songs, narration, speaking parts, dancing and choreography. My Katy shone brightly as a candle; she took the role very seriously indeed and the earnest look on her face as she sang was wonderful. Elizabeth sat on a bench with the other narrators with her legs elegantly crossed and a faraway look on her face - so faraway that she needed a prompt when it was her turn to scramble up onto the bench and announce the arrival of Jesus. Despite this inauspicious beginning the show went on and she was loud and clear. They both sang and danced the stable hoedown with the rest of the company and it was a bit of a tearjerker and no mistake. I was very proud.

Bearing in mind that the youngest of the children are only just four and the oldest just seven years old it was a masterpiece. so much work had gone into it and the audience were more than appreciative. We were positively doting.  There were some truly priceless moments - among them when a rogue ponytail knocked Katy's candle flame hat off her head and she rounded on the culprit with a mutinous expression and bared teeth; when a tiny but very energetic angel's skirts fell down mid-dance and when Mary carelessly dropped the newborn baby Jesus into the manger being just a few. It was lovely.

One song stood out for me. They were all lovely - the stable hoedown, following the star, the prickly hay song - but the best was a song called, 'If you think you're not important'.

If you think you're not important
All the little things you do
Just remember God above
Is very proud of you.

(Out of the Ark Ltd)

I talked about this with my girls at bedtime because they were so very tired at bedtime last night and Elizabeth especially was full of anxiety. She said she didn't feel special and tears rolled down her face. We talked about this song (and she corrected my memory of the lyrics) and it was easy to reassure her that she was indeed special. How special are my daughters? They are beautiful and interesting and clever and funny and touching and inspirational and witty... and so much else before we even touch on frustrating or tiring or any of those less positive words.

I can sit on the edge of their beds at night and reassure them with absolute confidence that they are special and unique and precious and wonderful. I will keep on doing it because I long for them to believe it. It will make such a difference in their lives as they grow up if they get a glimpse of how you see them, Lord. Not the mean girl in the playground who will be their friend on a Monday but not on Tuesday. Not the teacher who assesses their academic ability. Not the person who gives out the medals at the swimming gala. The God of the Universe who made each of them with care and love and doesn't make mistakes.

It's just hard to believe that about me, sometimes.

I remember when I was at school one of the nuns once told us that 'God made us and he doesn't make trash.'  I didn't really follow for two reasons - one because it came out of the blue, no context, and was delivered without any warmth or real belief, and the other because this same lady was known for her sharp tongue, her shouting and her impatient attitude. If she was trying to tell us that we were special (and I think she was - it must have been on the syllabus somewhere) then it wasn't a lesson that hit home.

But we are. I can tell the kids that over and over again but it's only this year that I've started to believe it about me.

'Just remember God above 
is very proud of you.'

I thought of this again today when I opened my email from Rick Warren (The Daily Hope) and today he was saying that each of us has a unique job to do.

'Think you're too ordinary? You are the one God wants to use.'

I have learned this year that even if I don't have the answers, you can use me. I know that you are shaping me into a different, better version of me; not a different person because you made me this way for a reason, but an upgrade. A me that's better able to do the job that you want me to do.

'If God created you for a mission, why would you think you are too ordinary to fulfil it?'

Why indeed? Do I know better than you? You don't make mistakes.

Maybe there's something specific you want me to do, Lord, or maybe you just want me to be me, here, now, in the place that you've put me, with my family, my friends, my church, my neighbours, the mums at the school gates, the people who visit the church coffee shop, the people in the supermarket and so on. I don't know. I do know that I'll carry on learning how to listen to you, how to see you around me and writing down what I see and hear and all the ways I'm learning. Even if it takes me the rest of my life I want to carry on.

Like the wise men. Following a star to the baby Jesus. It was a long, long way (and on Thursday at school Melchior took a wrong turn by the serving hatch and ended up with his camel among the candles) but it was worth the journey.

Look what wonder was at the end of it.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

You're beautiful

Hello, God.

It's getting busy now; all the Christmas things. Tomorrow we've got people coming to visit and I am a blur as I seek to get all the housework done that I put off on a day to day basis. A fairly grumpy blur, if the truth be known, as I don't like dusting, cleaning, vacuuming, tidying. It wouldn't be half such an onerous job if I did a little bit more a little more often but hey. There's always something better to do. 

In amid the list making, rushing about and planning of the last few days you have sent me some little gems, Lord.  A few things recently that have made me smile; even brought tears to my eye. Things that have comforted, encouraged, inspired. Gifts from you.  

I have so much to be thankful for.

On Friday I went to a wedding. I love weddings at the best of times but this was special. It didn't matter one bit that outside the weather was freezing and sleet was pelting down sideways.  Our lovely church was full, the flowers were so pretty, it was beautifully organised, the music lovely, the singing raised the roof. The bride looked gorgeous, the vows were heartfelt and emotional and the pride and love on the groom's face as he walked down the aisle with his new wife on his arm made my eyes fill up all over again. All those things were lovely but the most overwhelming thing was that you were there. You, who enjoyed a good wedding enough to turn water into wine, of course you'd be there. The two young people getting married know you and love you and made sure that you were invited. Not that you wouldn't have turned up anyway, because you love them - but you filled the place. The wedding was an offering to you and it felt to me as if you were smiling with pleasure and raining down blessings. 

Relatives and friends and many of our church were there and it felt as if the bride and groom were held tightly in the love of their family. It was just lovely. Lovely is too boring a word. 

And something else happened for me. The final hymn was a song I'd never heard before and it blew me away. You really spoke to me through it. It has a wonderful melody line which has been in my mind constantly since then, and the words are so powerful.

You're Beautiful: Phil Wickham (2007)

I see your face in every sunrise
The colours of the morning are inside your eyes
The world awakens to the light of the day
I look up to the sky and say
You're beautiful.

Lord God, this year I have learned so much. So much about myself, so much about you. I have learned that you are all around me and I just need eyes to see. This song reminded me straight away about the times I saw the sun rise on holiday this year on the east coast and the way that the light changed moment by moment, from glory to glory. (Finding a spacious place).

I saw you in the sunrise just as the writer of this song did. I look at the majesty and subtlety and wonder of the sun emerging over the sea and I am looking into the eyes of the Lord. My God, you're beautiful. 

I see your power in the moonlit night
Where planets are in motion and galaxies are bright
We are amazed at the light of the stars
It's all proclaiming who you are
You're beautiful.
I saw that too. 

I lay on my back with Bryan on the same holiday and we saw the Milky Way in a clear and unpolluted night sky and I was amazed indeed. (The skies proclaim your handiwork.) There were more stars than I've ever seen. You put every one of them there and it was breathtaking. Awe-inspiringly beautiful. This song was meant for me, wasn't it?

I see you there hanging on a tree
You bled and then you died and then you rose again for me
Now you are sitting on your heavenly throne
And soon we will be coming home
You're beautiful.

Lord at Easter I was struck in a new way with the enormity of what you did for me. It was very powerful and it knocked me for six. (The weight of the world) and (How marvellous, how wonderful). I was amazed at what I saw for the first time about what you did. For me. For me. You didn't have to but you did, because you loved me. I sat here at my computer and I tried desperately to make words describe what you were doing in my heart pretty much as I am now, and failed, I suppose, pretty much as I am now, because it's too big a thing. It's too hard to express it adequately when God says something to you. When the Lord of creation tells you that he died for you because he loves you so much there aren't words for it. 

And then came the last verse of Phil Wickham's beautiful song and I choked up again.

When we arrive at eternity's shore
Where death is just a memory and tears are no more
We'll enter in as the wedding bells ring
Your bride will come together and we'll sing
You're beautiful.

I think this is the song of my year, Lord. It sums up so much of what I've thought and felt. It's been a special time for me. You've given me the odd glimpse of the hope I have in the last few months and although I'm just a small child with such an incredible long way to go you've been gracious enough to encourage me with tiny glimpses of the promise that I have in you. (The place where beauty comes from). Lord God, I've said it before; I give you so little and you give me so much back. 

I find this last verse spine tingling. You have grown in my heart this year a real longing to know you. To notice you and to see you and hear you and experience you and reflect you and tell people about you. This little thing that's growing - it's small and incomplete and faulty and quite often gets drowned out by much less lofty desires but you've planted a seed and I am stooped over it, protectively, trying to give it water and light and help it to grow into something. I want it to, honestly.  

A little devotional reading on my iPhone the other night told me of an alpine plant that has a tiny, tiny flower, yet three feet of root to anchor it into shallow soil and reach between rocks to make it safe from strong winds and erosion and yet supply it with the nutrients it needs to survive and bloom. Lord, make me like that plant. Sometimes I can find rich, hearty soil but sometimes I find myself without any depth to reach into. Sometimes I find that I'm blowing in the wind and in danger of becoming uprooted but I'm hanging on. Give me three feet of root, Father God, even when beneath me is just rock. Even if my flower is minuscule, help me to blossom and show the beauty you've given me even if no-one is around to see. 

My devotional goes on to say that meditating on your word, and learning to appreciate your presence in the world around us is how we can put down longer and firmer roots. To anchor ourselves in you. 

I have such a long way to go, Lord, but you've been showing me all this, this year, haven't you? (The sacred that surrounds us). I hear songs like 'You're beautiful' and I read about meditation and opening my eyes to see you and hear you around me and I have come to recognise that I can see you. I so often shut you out because my vision is narrow and selfish but I can, when you help me, take a long look at the wonder of you. 

Lord what a loving God you are. You made me how I am and you know how much I like symmetry; how much I like things to be complete and orderly. You know how bad I am at listening to you and yet you've placed in my heart a little spark of something that delights me and leads me closer to you. You've sent me so many little gems this year; so many new ideas and glimpses and you've been patient enough to reinforce each one and send me reminders in so many ways. In books, in devotionals, through friends, sermons and the things I find around me. You've made connections where there were none and have fed and watered the little seed that you planted.

It is just wonderful, Father. 'You're Beautiful' doesn't begin to cover it, but I offer you what I can. What I have. Thankyou. 

Just as the young couple on Friday left the church to start their life together, I feel I've set out on a journey with you this year. I've taken some steps and it feels as if this trip could last a lifetime. I have no idea how long that might be, but I'm limbering up for the next leg of the journey. 

I love it. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Waiting for you

Evening, Father God.

I'm feeling quite tired tonight and more than a little squinty so I'm going off to bed very shortly. I wanted to check in with you, though, because it's been a while and I've missed you. 

So Advent is about waiting. To remember the way that the Hebrews waited for their Messiah, and because we're waiting, too. We're waiting for Christmas, true enough, but we're waiting for our Messiah as well. Waiting for the day that you come back. 

It's about coming - anticipation. About expectancy. About knowing, hoping, the 'I can't wait'-ness. In some ways it seems to me that the children have got it right - each day they ask me how many days before Christmas. They're counting it down on the Advent calendar (I'm not sure we're doing it in order; so far we've got one angel, one shepherd, one of the three Wise men and some livestock. Hmm) and they're counting down the weeks, days, hours and minutes until it's Christmas day. Now that the Christmas tree is up, the tinsel and the decorations and I have my Christmas Mug and Christmas Woolly Slippers, it must be nearly here. They can't wait. 

I like the idea that Advent should be more reflective. Like Lent; a time of thoughtfulness and meditation. Preparing for the arrival of the king. Preparation. Incremental readiness. Getting myself right - or at any rate as right as I can manage. I like the slow-down-and-get-ready idea. 

So why do I find myself doing exactly the reverse? Picking up the pace and galloping headlong into Christmas? Looking at my calendar the next few weeks are a chaotic melange of Christmas plays (the children) parties (the children) events to go to and shopping trips to be organised. Thankyou for the Internet, that's all I can say. I am busy and preoccupied with lists.  Clearly I've bought into the Western twenty-first century Festive season. You know, the one where we spend a fortune and wish each other a politically correct Happy Holidays instead of Happy Christmas.

It's hard to wait. Impossible for a small child; Elizabeth came home from school today with her Christingle and ate it. Ate the dried fruit and the marshmallow pieces and then dismantled it and ate the orange. We did manage a quick photo of the candle before it was left on one side; it had to be a close up because rest of the Christingle disappeared while I took the lens cap off.

It's hard for a child but it's hard for a grown up too. We find so much to fill the time. We forget that there's anything but the present (ha ha, no pun intended) and we take no notice of the future, so wrapped up are we (ha ha again). I rush and plan and I make lists and the days are ticking away. I'm losing my opportunity for reflection.  

The kitchen is littered with decoration boxes to be returned to the loft, presents to wrap, wrapped presents, cards to be written, cards to be hung on the card holders (when I get round to putting them up) shopping that's waiting for the arrival of our Christmas visitors, and packages waiting to be addressed and posted. All very thoughtful and reflective, I don't think. I am a blur.

I read another blog earlier on and the lady who wrote it has found time to make stunning Advent wreaths and design a mantelpiece decoration with baubles and crepe paper. It looks lovely. I haven't found time in the last few days to replace some missing curtain hooks in the living room. I think maybe she's got it right. Or perhaps she's just more organised than I am. 

Tell you what, Lord.

My Mum bought me a little poinsettia the other day. She put it on the windowsill in my kitchen and waited for me to see it. I'd been in about a quarter of an hour before I noticed it. It was a lovely surprise, particularly when the sun shone from behind it. The lovely red leaves glowed, but what was particularly arresting was the way the green leaves looked when the sunlight lit them from beneath. Each darker green vein stood out, delicate, intricate. The tiny berries in the centre of each cluster of leaves shone. It stopped me in my tracks. I went over to it and touched it's leaves and turned it this way and that and then took photos. Beautiful. More beautiful than any of the decorations that came out of the boxes in the loft. 

It's a gorgeous plant. I've just got to work out how to keep it alive at least until the festive season is over. On the other window sill my stunning faithful cyclamen is nodding across to the newcomer with a slightly smug smile. He's been here since September, after all, and is still going strong. 

Well, the decorations are up and the house looks festive. The cupboard is filling with treats that will take some working off come January. The children are bursting with pride having learned new songs for the Christmas play which is next week. The advent calendar is developing into a Nativity scene, even if it's a little bit unorthodox in its storytelling. Presents will be bought (eventually), cards written (probably), extra beds made up, cakes baked and carols sung - but it's all trivia, because you know what? (of course you do.) 

The Light of the World has come. 

He came more than two thousand years ago and only a few people realised it was Him. He lay as a tiny baby in a scratchy, smelly trough of hay and the whole world, except a few people, didn't notice that things had changed forever. 

Elizabeth waited until her old age to bear a child. Mary waited for it to happen to her as the angel had said. Joseph did as he was told and waited. John the Baptist waited for One to come who was greater than he. The Hebrews waited for their Messiah. Jesus waited until the time was right to start his ministry. We are waiting for you to come again. We are waiting for Christmas. 

'Wait for the Lord. Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.'
Psalm 27:14 NIV

So amid all the bustle of Christmas and the commercialism and the overdoing of everything I am waiting. 

Yes, I'm waiting for the bits and pieces that make up our celebrations but I am waiting for you. 

I'm waiting for Christmas morning when I can whisper 'Happy Birthday' to you, Lord Jesus. 

I'm waiting to greet my church family and sing carols and wish the people that mean so much to me a Happy Christmas. 

I'm waiting for anything that you want to teach me as I count down the days. Just help me stop dashing every so often to see the sunlight in the poinsettia leaves. To see the tinsel glittering and the lopsided lovingly home-made angels on the Christmas tree. 

To see candlelight in the darkness and know that it's you. 

The Light of the World has come. 

Friday, 2 December 2011

Choirs and candles

Afternoon, God.

I'm waiting for my girls to come back from school. Today they were going to have a rehearsal for the Christmas Play and they were very excited this morning. Both of them were happy with their allocated part this year (which makes a change; last year at nursery Katy was somewhat disappointed to be an angel again and I never owned up that I requested that part for her so that I could get a bit more wear out of the angel costume, which has done (if I remember rightly) three nursery nativities and two at church. How satisfying it is to get good use out of a supermarket dressing up outfit. I felt rather smug. 

Anyway, this year Elizabeth is a narrator, and she is also in the choir, so she can wear her jeans and a T shirt and doesn't have to dress up. This is good news as she didn't want to dress up. She's quite self-conscious these days, poor love, and no longer likes dressing up and exhibitionist type things, though she was longing to be a part of things. I think she was actually afraid that she might have to have green face paint on as her class did last year when the theme was 'Christmas With The Aliens' but this year it's 'The Christmas Hoe-down' or something like that so perhaps the green face and deely boppers weren't on the agenda anyway. Still, she was happy to be a reader. Only the best readers get to read something in the Christmas play. (Bit of maternal pride there. Sorry.)

In this year's school play Katy is going to be a candle. Yes, a candle. She chose to be a candle, but to be fair the choice was only a candle or a snowflake. It seems that she decided that it would be nicer to be a candle than a snowflake. Both candles and snowflakes get to do a dance, and I can't wait for the candle dance. Apparently she is going to be dressed in black with a cardboard flame on her head. I thought candles might be white but then maybe they'd be confused with the snowflakes. Big sister is a smudge scathing about the reception class candle business but Katy is undeterred and most enthusiastic.

They were both delighted to be involved in the play and they're practicing like mad. Elizabeth has her reading nailed now and keeps trying it out in funny voices. Katy is getting deeply into character and does mystical dances that can't possibly be candle related but I might be wrong. Both of them are often to be found in the house singing Christmas songs and I love to hear them sing. It doesn't matter one bit to me if they're in tune or not; I love to hear their little voices. Especially when they're singing something like 'Away In a Manger', which is one of my favourite Christmas carols. I'm particularly looking forward to the finale 'Yeee-haa!' at the end of the hoe-down bit. My two collapse in giggles at the end of that. 

This will be the only year that they're both at this school together. In a few more years they'll meet up again at Junior School, but I don't know what sort of Christmas play they do there. This will be a proper whole school event where classes do something individual to tell the story and then come all together for the nativity bit and carols at the end. I get to crane my neck with lots of other proud parents to see both my girls in different places (they're both tall so they're always at the back, whatever they do) and I can't wait. I just love the innocence of it, and the effort, and the pride, and the care that goes into it. They're so small.  It usually makes me cry. 

I love that they're learning so much, that they are growing in confidence and that they have such pride in showing their school off at times like this. My beautiful Lizzie reading her bit about the birth of Jesus and standing tall and beautiful in the choir. Katy, my little light with a flame on her head and this mysterious candle dance. Both of them growing up. 

I'm off to fetch them from school now and hear all about it. 

Thursday, 1 December 2011


Morning, Lord

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. 

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