Sunday, 30 December 2012

The other side of the bongs

Morning, God.

So, Christmas is over and the New Year is lurking perilously close, just out of sight but definitely there.  Waiting. The conveyor belt that is life is carrying me helplessly nearer the end of this old year and towards the yawning opening that is the New one and there's nothing I can do to stop it. Hence 'helplessly'. Nice bit of redundancy there. 

This is an anxious time of year for me, as you might have gathered. You know me inside and out, Lord God, and so nobody will be more aware than you that my discomfort levels rise round about now. 

I have always thought that the New Year has such potential, but in my experience it rarely lives up to it. I have spent many years trying to find the perfect way to spend New Year and as the 31st bong-bong-bongs into the 1st with Big Ben's chimes it has found me in a variety of places. I have been in pubs counting down the 10-9-8 with a few hundred other inebriated individuals looking for fun and company; I've been on London Bridge for the Millennium celebrations packed tightly together with a few million other cold and squashed people looking at the fireworks reflected in the Thames and the flashing blue lights of an ambulance as it tried in vain to reach a man whose heart chose the worst time ever to stop. 

I've been at parties with paper hats and party poppers poised for explosion as Big Ben chimes the big chime, and I've been on the sofa with one other precious person and a glass of champagne watching celebs act silly on the telly. I've even tried going to bed at ten and sleeping through it more than once. I've found that this particular course of action actually has the most positive effect on mood on 1 January. It may be that it's to be recommended, but then it's a shame to miss it if New Year has such potential, isn't it?

The best one? I was once in Antarctica sitting on the deck of a ship on honeymoon with my husband (who else?) and we sat, party clothes bundled up underneath huge puffy jackets, hair squished under woolly hats and hands buried in pockets. We were the only ones outside as a party went on below. The icebergs loomed pale in the light from the windows and the only sound was the wind. The sea was inky black, the sky inkier still, with more stars than I've ever seen. The milky way was there in all it's cloudy glory and the stars of the southern hemisphere fascinated my amateur astronomer husband used to different sky.  Fireworks forbidden because of pollution, as the year turned into the next one, the Captain sounded the ship's horn - a long, melancholy wail that must have made the penguins jump. It was moving. That was probably the best way to see in the New Year that I've tried. 

But whatever I do, the moment passes and there's what to do next. The old year has gone and the reality is that it's the middle of the night - a night like any other - and the next day is inevitably an anti-climax. It's  now January, still winter, still cold/wet/windy/bleak/dank and there seems nothing to look forward to. The festive season is well and truly over and the decorations look out of place. 

What, then? 

Why does the New Year depress me and make me anxious? I think it's about letting go. As one year rolls into the next, I have to let go what's past. 

I'm not very good at this, am I? 

As the sort of woman who replays every significant (and, often, insignificant) conversation in her mind for hours afterwards wishing she'd said it differently and wondering what the other person thinks, letting a whole year slip from my hands is hard. I can no longer control what's past; not that I ever could. It was an illusion, the control, I think I knew that - but somehow allowing a sneaking suspicion in there is not the same as an official 'What's done cannot be undone,' in the ominous words of Lady Macbeth.

For me, with a tendency to live too much in the past, New Year feels like the loss of something. A familiar year. Better the devil you know (Ahem. Sorry). The outgoing year feels like a battered old comfy sofa and I sort of want to stay sprawled on it rather than get up and walk through that dazzlingly bright doorway to who knows where.

I tend to favour licking the wounds of the outgoing year than looking forward to the new one. A new year is full of possibility, yes; but if your glass is half empty instead of half full then it's also full of hurdles and challenges and difficulties. It's a scary blank page, a white space. Unsullied. Perfect in it's untouchedness. And I'm about to stumble all over it and mess it up.

See? I've just splurged out all my New Year Angst. I'm needing help to get past this, Lord, because it's going to happen whether I'm all ready for it or not. That conveyor belt that I'm riding has no manual override. Well, there is, but only you can reach the button. 

A friend has just sent me a verse from the Bible. 
'Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him.'
Jeremiah 17:7
And that's it, really, isn't it?  I trust you. I trust you to lead me into the New Year and I trust you that there is nothing waiting the other side of those bongbongbongs that we can't handle together. There's nothing there that you haven't seen already and there's nothing there that will surprise or shock you, even if it frightens the pants off me.

My confidence is in you, not in me. On my own I rush things, I speak too soon and too much, I make mistakes, I break promises, I don't do what I should do and I do what I shouldn't. When my confidence is in me, I come unstuck. This coming year - I will trust in you.

This year I want to go where you want me to go. I want to put one foot in front of the other in the full knowledge that your footsteps are there already and there is no safer way to go than when I'm matching my stride with yours. There's no other certain way of getting where you want me to go.

Lord, the last few years have begun with a wonderful sense of anticipation and you haven't let me down. The anticipation is still there, but this year I feel a bit different; there's a scoop of trepidation too. I don't feel as if I'm leaping into the new year with much enthusiasm even though I have a strong sense that you're taking me somewhere. Part of me is excited but I'm a little wary as well. There seems so much to do. So many mountains to climb. Such a long way to go.

The dreams I have, even the ones that I am convinced that you've blessed, they seem so far away.

This morning in Sarah Young's 'Jesus Calling' I read:
'Enjoy the adventure of finding yourself through losing yourself in Me.'*
I read this and for the first time the New Year felt a little less scary. I do have plans and hopes and dreams and ambitions and I know that you know what they are because you planted them in my heart. I know that your timing is better than mine even when I'm annoyed with you for not getting me there fast enough. I know that nothing is achieved without commitment and hard work and that nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. I know all those things. I believe that you'll take me a step closer this coming year.

But maybe the destination is not as important as the journey. The last few years it's seemed to me that you and I have been on a warp-drive trip together; you've been teaching me so much that at times my head has spun.  I know that you have more in store. I know that before I get where you want me to go, or do what you want me to do, you want me to be the person you want me to be.

So maybe the destination is not as important as the journey. At least not right now. Perhaps I can limp over the threshold of the new year holding onto your arm and leaning into you. Maybe I can fix my eyes on you so that your glory shows me the way and lights up the dark places on the way and shows me the potholes so I don't come crashing down. If the new year is a blank page then perhaps with you by my side you will give me the words to write on it.

I like the sound of an adventure if you are coming with me. I like the sound of finding myself - the me you created me to be. I like the sound of losing myself in you. In being so close to you that you rub off on me. So close that I can reflect your light to a world that has too many shadows. I like the sound of inhabiting you, and you in me. Yes please, Lord God. I want all you have of that.

Whatever I do on New Year's Eve, there's no way of carrying over the fireworks at midnight to the pale morning of New Year's Day.

I'm wondering if starting a new year with quietness and deliberation and a confidence in something unshakeable is better than with a bang and a grand gesture and a flurry of dynamic resolutions.

So what if the new year is the end of something?

You're helping me to see the beginning of something too. A fresh start - because you're the God of fresh starts. Help me to take off the fear and hang it up this side of the threshold, before I deliberately step through.

We're off on an adventure, you and me, aren't we?

Maybe the New Year is full of potential after all.

* Jesus Calling by Sarah Young, 2007 Integrity Publishers.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

As poor as it's possible to be

Happy Birthday, my friend. 

I've been thinking about you today. Yes, in church this morning, with 'Hark, the Herald Angels Sing' and 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', and yes, when the vicar gave us his talk about brussel sprouts and you, and yes, when the Queen gave her speech which, thankyou my God, spoke of service and inspiration and giving our hearts to you this Christmas.

But also, when I saw the little crib in church. It's been there for a whole run of Christmas services with what appears to be an elderly Tiny Tears doll wrapped up inside, but today it spoke to me. Again.

I was born in poverty, too.

Not the sort of poverty that speaks of cold and deprivation; oh no. I have, all my life, been warm and looked after and well fed (just look at me) and I had my own Tiny Tears and all the accessories. No, not that sort of poverty.

When I was born, the birth that I'm talking about, I was as poor as it's possible to be in every way that matters. I had nothing, and the day I realised that was the day that I was born. That should be my birthday, really; that was when life began for real. I realised the lack - the void. The gut-wrenching poverty. The absence. The emptiness. The need.

For me, I didn't have to live with that feeling of poverty too long, for no sooner had I realised that I did not have the only thing that mattered, that I longed for it, asked for it - then it was given to me. You are endlessly generous like that.

How much more awful for those who know, and feel the desperation but don't know where to come to find it, this the new birth. It must break your heart, Father God.

That day you stripped everything away from me to reveal what actually mattered. I had nothing, and my birth in poverty was yet an elevation for me. For you - you had everything, Everything, and you chose to lay it aside to come to this place of filth and cold and hurt to be close to us. You laid aside your majesty indeed, and chose the sweat and smells and roughness of humanity.

You were rich, and you became poor. I was poor, and you gave me riches.

You and I, reborn - humble, vulnerable nakedness. For you, the vastness of Almighty God, shrunk to inhabit a tiny kicking, feeding baby. For me, the smallness and pettiness of a created being expansively given another chance by the grace of the One who reached down and lifted up my chin so that He could look into my eyes with love.

I am a baby as you were. I have all that I need only because you provide it. Mary fed you, cleaned you, dressed you, sang to you and loved you into childhood, adulthood, to execution and beyond. I live because you sustain me. Everything that I have comes from you. If you forgot about me for one second I am sure that I would cease to be. I am hopelessly dependent.

I am uncomfortable in my manger of hay; it prickles. I'd like it to be more comfy. Sometimes I don't feel at home because you have given me that longing for my eternal home, and yet you, you lived among us naturally, freely, as if you never felt homesick for the heaven that you had left behind to come here to us. I sense the Somewhere Else, sometimes; me, insensitive and short-sighted as I am, and yet the King of Glory walked purposefully away from that place; you chose to become small. The limitless in a limited body. The transcendental made finite.

I am lifted gently out of the dirt to be called a Child of God. A crown has been placed on my head and a robe around my shoulders even though there is no way that I can prove myself worthy. I live honoured as your daughter, heir to a wonderful place in your Kingdom. You, the very Son of God, fought your way down the birth canal of a peasant girl and landed in straw, surrounded by livestock. With the hands that arranged the stars in the heavens and created the animals and the birds you'd have brushed against the roughness and splinters of an animal's feeding trough. With your first breaths you would have inhaled the odour of cattle. Me, I'm used to the stench of life down here - it seems normal to me, but to you, it must have been strange indeed. You came from a place of peace, beauty, power and honour and put yourself in the hands of two poor, bewildered kids, far from home, who had only the faintest idea of the magnitude of what was happening.

My rebirth opens up miraculous doors of wonder and possibility; you became confined in a tiny, frail body, kicking and wailing, feeding and sleeping.

You were born so that I could be born again.

And I've realised by staring at that roughly-made trough-cradle, that it is when I stand with nothing, without anything at all, just me as you made me, unable to conceal a single thing, a single part of me - that's when I am most blessed. I am a new creation.

You had it all, just as you have once again; you turned your back on your glory to become one of us.

You were exalted, and you became weak. I am weak, and you raise me up. I can't get my head around it. You know what it feels like to be poor, to be vulnerable, to be human.

Lord Jesus, baby Jesus, King of Kings, Redeemer, Saviour.

Thankyou. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Happy Birthday.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Away in a manger

Hello, God.

Is it Spring soon?  In the last week we've had subzero temperatures, heavy frost, treacherous ice, torrential rain and high winds. Today is dank and dreary. Spirits are in need of a lift, please. 

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 this 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, choreographed manfully by hardworking Sunday school leaders. 

So simple. My two girls were angels (again! Got great value out of that angel costume. I reckon it's been used at four nursery nativities, four church ones, one at school and a couple of parties, and is only slightly unravelled in the wing department). They sat looking somewhat bemused and largely unsmiling 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. Well, a bit. 

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 oil (what exactly was that for? I don't think I ever knowingly used baby oil and yet I must have been given a dozen bottles, some of which I still have), 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. An eternal door opened up wide, light flooded out and heaven and earth saw each other clearly for the first time. 

The world changed beyond imagination 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 new story was beginning.

Edited and reposted from December 2011. They were angels again this year, they were still bewildered, it still moved me to a little tear, and the PA played up just the same. Thankyou, Lord. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Running to stand still

God, I'm not having a good day.

There are days when I sit here and you and I just chat and it's the easiest thing in the world. I love those days; and to be honest most days are like that. I turn up and there you are waiting for me, as you always are, and we do our thing. I'm full of angst or anxiety or curiosity and you indulge me. I like it when it's like that. Easy.

And then there are days like today, where I can't find you and the words aren't there. I'm not quite sure what to say and I can't hear you either. I don't know where to start, I can't find any words or any ideas, and as a result I back away and go and do something else, but nothing goes right. My whole day is askew; nothing is as good without you.

I read something the other day that hit home. Rick Warren was talking about perfectionism.
'...perfectionism - the feeling that I must be flawless, that I must be perfect, that I must please everybody, that I always have to do more...'
Hello. My name is Helen and I am a perfectionist.

I have a problem with perfectionism.

Everything has to be just right, and life isn't just right. Life doesn't work like that (especially not with two small children and a pathological dislike for housework - yes, perfectionism and slovenliness can co-exist). I am in a constant state of dissatisfaction. It's an uncomfortable place to be.

It doesn't really matter what I'm doing, whether I'm planning a day out or a dinner party, being a mummy or buttering a piece of toast right to the edges. It needs to be right. Anything less than right is wrong.  I constantly fail to live up to my own expectations even though I know that they're unrealistic ones. I know that they're unrealistic, but knowing it somehow doesn't help.

It's like having grit under my contact lens. A constant irritation.

A feeling of never being quite good enough, not quite getting it right, not quite being enough. I would so, so love to be one of those people who can give something their best shot, appraise it and find it good enough. Not to matter that it isn't perfect, but it'll do.

'It'll do,' is something that I struggle to say, and even if I do say it I rarely believe it. How much easier life would be if I didn't have to work so hard at getting everything right. 

Rick Warren pointed this out to me (as if I needed it pointing out):
'If you're an average person, you have three things on your daily 'To Do' list. You get one of them done, you leave one of them unfinished, and the third thing you just forget about. You go home and put your feet up at night and feel good about yourself. 
'If you're a perfectionist, you have 29 things on your daily 'To Do' list. You finish 28 of them and you go home and feel like a failure.'
(Rick Warren, 'The Purpose Driven Connection' daily email devotional) 

This might sound humorous but that's exactly how I function, Lord. You made me, you know what goes on in my head. Which innocuous little strand of my personality got all exaggerated to make me this way? Why?

I've had to stop making 'To Do' lists. I had an app on my phone and it had so many things on it that it frightened me. For every thing I ticked off, half a dozen things were added, and then, believe it or not, I started adding things that I'd done, just so that I could tick them off and the list would be complete. Obsessive and oppressive. It felt as if I was constantly failing. Always getting it wrong.

Running to stand still.

The problem is that just because the To Do list is no longer on my phone, or on paper, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. I sort of hold it in my head, and try to squash it down when it lurks threateningly at night. Perish the thought that I should miss something. 

This perfectionism spreads to all areas of my life. It saps my confidence, even in things that I know that I'm good at; being good at something doesn't seem to help much. I'm always worried about not being good enough, not spot on. Worrying about what people think; having to be perfect so that there'll be no room for criticism. My life is full of 'I should...' and 'I must...' or 'I'd better....' Maybe it's all wrapped up in people-pleasing and the need to be accepted, acceptable; a pathological  fear of failure and rejection. Better not to have a go at all than fail.

How much easier would life be for the people round me if I were less of a martyr to my perfectionism? If it didn't matter quite so much if the picture was hung on the wall exactly exactly where I perceive that  it should be? If the craft activity mess on the kitchen table were not cleaned up immediately? If I didn't hiss in my daughters' ears with irritation when they get too boisterous in church?

Of course, the knowledge that my need to get it right affects the people I love doesn't make things any easier to handle; much, much worse. Indeed, the other day my daughter Katy gave up on a beautiful drawing she'd been labouring over for hours because she'd tried to write a loving message on it and made a mistake with her spelling. She's five. She wouldn't be persuaded to make it right; she said, 'No, Mummy, now it's ruined.'


I am better than I was. Honestly, I am.

Stop that thing with the raised eyebrows, will you?

Take the Christmas Tree, for example. Years ago, in the Time Before Children, my Christmas Tree was a work of art. Colour co-ordinated, with tasteful white sparkly lights and garlands evenly spaced. Look at it now. A riot of lopsided colour with preschool decorations dangling precariously and hardly any of them above two thirds of the way up as that's as far as the children could reach. Multicoloured lights all over the place. And yet I don't mind.

Really, I don't. Maybe there's hope.

That nativity scene - the one made out of tin foil and cotton wool, (yes, that's a nativity scene, there's you in there) - that is more precious to me than the crystal bauble and a host of grown up and tasteful white lights. There's a reindeer's head made out of pre-school handprints that comes out every Christmas, even though he's a bit bent these days.

The reindeer makes me smile.

But today everything is getting me down. Help me with this, will you, Lord.

You've forgiven me for everything that's bad in my life. You've forgiven me for some terrible things that I've done and you have forgotten it all. You look at me and you don't see the rubbish, you see one of your children who loves you and who is completely spotlessly clean. If you've forgiven me for all my mistakes, why can't I?

How come I beat myself up about things so much?

Yesterday Elizabeth was off school. She had been poorly on Sunday and so Monday was her getting better day. This morning I chivvied her into her uniform until she sat down and cried. It's her Christmas party later and I thought she was just nervous about going back to school, and needed some determined encouragement but by ten o'clock she'd been sick again and it was clear that she was still poorly and best at home. I would have sent her to school. What sort of a Mummy misreads the signs from a little pale-faced seven year old like that?

So today I'm sharing sofa time with a small poorly person again. Jobs are piling up around me and I'm feeling stressed and overwhelmed when I know that I should just be focusing on my little girl who needs her Mummy to be relaxed and reassuring.

I need to work down the mental 'To Do' list.
I need to sit with my little girl and watch some kids' telly.

I need to get ready for Christmas - presents to post that haven't even been bought yet.
I need to read her stories and do more jigsaws.

I need to get things done.
I need to chill out.

I need you.

I am not very good at this.
I know that I've got to want to change, and I do. I've had enough of this.

Lord, help me be less of a Martha and more of a Mary. I talk a good talk about stillness and waiting and just being but I find it hard to get my priorities in order. Help me to sort out what's important and what's not important. What's real and what's trivia.

Lord, our sofa is big enough for three. Come and sit with us and let your peace be enough for all of us. Help me see this time less as precious time wasted and more as precious time with my baby girl. Help me focus not on what I'm not doing, but on what I am.

Life is like this; it doesn't always go smoothly. It's not perfect; not by a long chalk, and I can't make it so. I'm running after something that can never be. If I got to the bottom of the bottomless To Do list what would I find? Somehow I suspect that it would still not be a well of peace and satisfaction.

Help me to stop running for a while.You love me just as I am. I don't have to get it right all the time.

Help me to stop the 'I need to, I've got to, I must...' and stop striving so much.

Help me delete the 'To Do' app in my head. To climb off the hamster wheel.

I'm tired of running.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Waiting for you (again)

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 amwaiting. 

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, 7 December 2012

Stoicism and icebergs

Morning, Lord God.

I'm thinking that it's a long time since I said thankyou. I soak up blessings each day as if they are my due and focus on the grumbles and complaints. I think I've been doing a lot of that this week. It seems to have been a hard week, though nothing truly disastrous has happened....

I've got a cold. Now, perish the thought that anyone would suggest that I've been anything less than stoic, because when my husband has a cold I am quick to identify 'man-flu' or worse, a touch of 'manthrax' and pass him the paracetamol without shovelfuls of sympathy.When it's my turn to be afflicted, as it has been this last week, all that needs to be said is that I suffer in silence. I am sure that for those around me, the only evidence of a desperately serious head-cold has been the proximity of a box of tissues. Nobody would have noticed, I'm sure...


Just clearing my (slightly sore) throat. 

So, I admit that I've been less than my usual sunny self this week. 

Since my headache is resulting in some difficulty in stringing together coherent sentences, I'm going to go for the automated bullet-point format, if it's all the same to you, Lord God. Got to save my limited energy for the coughing and sneezing, you understand.
  • Thankyou for a bright sunny day where the sky is blue and the air crisp. Not so crisp that I had to scrape the car windscreen, though. Just the right level of crispness. Thankyou.
  • For coffee and a toasted teacake with a young friend of mine preparing to go to University next year. She's an inspiration to me. 
  • For coffee and toasted teacakes. What's the received wisdom? 'Feed a cold and starve a fever?'
  • For the hospital appointment with Katy a few days ago in which we arrived late but found the clinic too was running late. Where I dropped off Katy with Daddy and fought my control freak instincts to risk not being there at the appointment as I went off to park the car, only to find that they were still waiting when I got there. Might sound like not much, but for me that was a huge and compassionate answer to prayer.
  • For the wonderful fact that the lumps on Katy's neck * are smaller. The doctors don't know why they came, or why they're going, but two have disappeared and the largest one is shrinking. Thankyou thankyou thankyou. I can't thank you enough that we're not having a repeat of last year's nightmare.
  • For Katy, who really could teach me what stoic means.
  • For family members who are always there, no matter what mood I'm in.
  • For paracetamol and decongestants. Did I mention I've had a bit of a cold?
  • For Christmas plays at primary schools. Yesterday was Katy's dress rehearsal and I had to shoe-horn her into her angel costume on arrival at school. She was greeting her classmates and admiring the new decorations and I kept hissing, 'Katy! Concentrate! Put your foot in here!' and 'Stop messing around! Will you take off your other trainer before you try to put on your tights!' and then she was transformed into a little white and gold angel and my tune changed. 'Oh, my little love. Come and give me a hug.'
  • Thankyou for little throwaway lines such as, 'Mummy, how come I'm always at the back of the queue when they're handing out haloes?'
  • For warm beds, squishy pillows, warmed wheaties and bedside lamps for early nights with books when the rain is raining and the wind is blowing.
  • For friends who text encouragement and support just when I'm overwhelmed and discouraged.
  • For music that lifts the spirits when the spirits need lifting.
  • For your Spirit that picks me up and carries me whenever I let him. It's just that sometimes I push him away in order to have a good wallow. I don't know why; it makes no sense at all. Thankyou that you are always still there when I come to my senses.
That's the tip of the iceberg of thankyous. The other nine-tenths, or eight-ninths or whatever - the larger bit - is pretty much entirely made up of you. 

Christmas is coming and I am realising what a huge thing it is that you did. Christmas trees are nice and pretty and presents are nice and the food is wonderful, but the truth of Christmas is that you sent your Son as a tiny, vulnerable baby, born with every disadvantage, when he should have entered the world in a blaze of glory and fanfare. You knew the end from the beginning; did you weep as you saw him laid in a trough with straw around him? Did you wonder what it was that you'd started? 

A tiny baby boy. Bewildered parents. Harassed innkeepers. Displaced cows. Confused shepherds and amazed astronomers. An oblivious world.

How blessed am I that I know something of the meaning of that first Christmas? That I have the chance to look beyond the fairy lights and the wrapping paper and receive the biggest and best present that anyone has ever given?

This Advent, as I'm waiting for your birthday, Lord, tip my iceberg upside down, will you? Show me what really matters. 

You sent your Son to save me.

Thankyou for that.

*The story so far:

My anxious heart (4 April 2011)

My brave girl (4 June 2011)

Needing my friend (23 June 2011)

Microscopic but annoying (14 July 2011)

My brave girl II (19 August 2011)

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Getting a word in edgeways

Afternoon, God.

Someone asked me last night when the last time was that I asked you how you were feeling.

Have I ever asked you how you were feeling?  Ever said, 'What's on your mind?'

I am so full of words that I fill our space, don't I? Every time, I fill our space with taptaptap and yapyapyap and you don't get a word in edgeways. This place that I come to be with you - it may be filled with you, because you are everything, but it's me that provides the soundtrack.

It made me stop in my tracks, the idea that I should ask you how you were. I have no idea why the idea should take me by surprise, exactly, since I know full well that you are a sentient being who loves, hates, sings with joy and weeps with sadness; it says so in the Bible. I know that you care. I know that you interact; I know that you speak. I don't have to fill every gap with Me. I'm just good at it.

It's no wonder that when you want my attention you use song lyrics, or someone else's words, or a sermon, or a book, because those are the times when I'm listening, rather than talking, filling the space with noise. I wonder if, given the chance, you'd use the silence.

 What would you say, if I asked you how you were? Would you smile and say, 'Fine, thanks'? Then I'd go back to talking about me?

Would you say, 'Well, since you asked...' and tell me how the world grieves you, embarrasses you, hurts you? Would you lay your heart next to mine for a brief moment so that I might see what you see, and understand the urgency?

Would you just let me sit for a while and fill me with peace?

It's odd, really. If a friend came round for a chat, one or other of us would start the conversation off by asking how things were, and at some point the other would definitely get a turn, but not so with you. I'm sorry that I don't extend you the same courtesy.

I come at you with a list of woes and hopes and anxieties and regrets and sometimes I might remember to insert a bit of confession or praise... but rarely do I leave you an opening. I know that you don't need anything from me - it's not as if you need to unburden yourself as I do, but you never stop listening to me. You listen and you listen and you never lose patience with me. What sort of friendship never asks in return, never wants to know?

What would you tell me, if I listened to you?

I'm not very good at listening. I think I'm getting better at noticing, and so you, ever gracious, show me things. I'm getting better at laying down my worries in front of you and you are infinitely compassionate and you take care of them. But I forget to ask about you.

I'd love to know how you are. I'd love to know what you have on your heart.

Or at least I think I would. Something deep within me felt a bit uneasy as I said that. Blimey, what might  you lay on me if I asked you what was on your mind, and you took me at your word? What would I do if you gave me the tiniest glimpse of the heart of Almighty God about something?

There are any number of things that you might say to me, if I asked you. You might show me the depth of your grief at the state we're in. You might fill me with your frustration that we live in a world that allows people to starve while we order Christmas turkeys that won't fit in the fridge. You might give me a burden for the lost or homeless or persecuted. I'm a bit nervous about burdens. I might never be the same again.

If my daughter slid onto the stool next to me right now and asked me, 'Mummy, how are you?' what would I say?

'Well, darling, apart from being tired and full of cold, I'm disappointed with the way you said you wanted baked beans tonight and then left them all on your plate. I don't like the way you stamp when you don't get your own way, and you're not working hard enough at your handwriting. And your room is a terrible mess, do I have to keep on telling you and telling you?'

Hardly. So why do I assume that you'd lay something awful on me?

You're not in the business of guilt. You know how fragile I am, and you don't bear a grudge. You would never crush me like that; you love me too much. If one of my daughters came to me that way I'd pull her close to me and I'd say, 'Thankyou for asking. I'm happy that you're here next to me.'

Or possibly right now I wouldn't, because I've been working hard at putting them to bed, but you know what I mean.

You might sit companionably by my side and tell me that you're pleased. Pleased with my baby steps in the right direction and that little bright bit of my heart that does, genuinely and honestly, does want to make you happy. You might overlook the great hulking dark portions that are selfish and mean and bitter and you might stick a 'Great Work!' sticker on my chest to reinforce the good things.

You might share something of your dreams with me. The Plan. Your vision. You might blow my mind with possibilities. I might be so inspired that it changes my life direction. You might reveal something to me that I need to share with other people. You might trust me with a message to pass on.

It's a big question, I'm thinking. If I ask you how you are feeling, do I want to know?

You would adjust your answer to fit, wouldn't you? Just as my husband doesn't go on about thermonuclear physics when our five year old asks why the sun is warm, You're not going to overwhelm me. You know how small and weak I am, and you love me just the same.

I am your child, and you are my Father. I want you to be happy. I want you to know that I care. If you want to talk to me, I want to listen. Or if you want to share a little bit of silence, then I'd like to learn how to do that too.

You are El Roi. You see me.

Lord God, how are you?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Children of God

Hey, God. Listen to this:
'But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.'
John 1:12
You said, '...the right to become children of God' didn't you?

A while ago I was watching my littlest daughter Katy as she made her way into a party she was going to. We were a bit late (as always) and so the room was already full of boisterous five year olds when she went in. There were half a dozen grown ups there as well, and I felt quite awkward making conversation for the short time it took Katy to take off her coat and shoes and locate the birthday girl to offer her the slightly dog-eared gift that had been enthusiastically cradled all the way there. I was happy to kiss her goodbye and retreat to the safety of the car for an hour or so until it was pick up time.

Katy, on the other hand, skipped into the room with confidence despite the fact that a game was already underway and the children were in two teams.

How intimidating would that be for me? Oh dear, whose team to join?  Will they want me? Will I upset the numbers? Maybe I'd better sit this one out. What if I'm not welcome... Nope, none of that. She beamed from ear to ear and she made herself at home straight away.

It didn't cross her mind that she should be cautious or anxious; she just bustled on in and made herself at home. She felt secure. She just accepted that she had a right to be there. She felt safe and accepted and she was comfortable in her belonging.

Every night after school Katy throws her shoes off in the hallway and marches off to demand a snack. She is home.

The other day her big sister was off school (because the day before she was sick on the Deputy Head - but that's another story) and they missed each other badly. All day Lizzie was asking, 'When will Katy be home?' and when she arrived back Kate dived through into the kitchen shouting, 'Lizzie, I'm home! Everything's alright - I'm here!

She is so sure of her welcome. And not just at home, where you'd expect it.

I've seen her do it over and over again. When joining the rest of the group at swimming lessons, or in gymnastic class or with her schoolmates, a classroom situation which could easily be so fraught with angst. For example, a few months ago Katy was off school for a hospital appointment and she missed a day at school. On her return the following morning she took her seat at the table announcing in a loud voice, 'I'm back, everyone. Have you missed me?'

I am in awe of such simple confidence. Long, long may it last. I could never bring myself to ask such a question for fear of the possible answer. Katy has such security in her membership, her equality, her personal value - her right to be there - that she exudes contentedness and enjoyment of her surroundings and people respond warmly to it. She is pleased to be there.

And it made me think.

'But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.'

That's me. I believe, I accept. I therefore have the right to be a child of yours.

I am a child of the living God. I can approach you ('Bold, I approach, th'eternal throne...da dah, da da da...' and so on) and I can say, 'Hello Daddy, here I am!'. I don't have to sidle in the room, or creep, or cringe. I'm not there under sufferance, or just visiting, or by some loophole. I am loved and wanted and encouraged to come in and make myself at home.

I am allowed to approach. I am a member. I am accepted.

I am welcome.

I have the right to be your daughter. Not because of anything I did; far from it. But whatever the terrible and amazing equation, I have the right. You gave it to me, because you want me in the family.

This is my fundamental identity; I might be a wife and a mother and a daughter and a sister and a friend and a...a...whatever else I might be, but most significant is that I am a child of God. This is Who I Am.
That's a membership that beats all others. I need not be intimidated at the school gates, or in a roomful of strangers, or at the grown-up equivalent of the fifth birthday party. My Dad is indeed bigger than their dads.

Chin up, then.

I belong with you. Yes, I am here, for now, because this is where you want me, but I truly belong elsewhere.

My home is with my Father, and my family, and one day when it's time I'll be going home, where I am sure of a welcome like no other.

I will kick off my shoes and walk boldly into that house and I'll find my snack.


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