The one about…a brand new year!

The children must be getting older because for the first time in our married life Sid and I stayed up to see the New Year in! Usually the need for sleep far outweighs any desire to stay awake beyond 10pm. I don’t like feeling tired, I’m irritable, impatient and vacant and with seven of them who exhibit similar qualities to me when they’ve not had enough sleep it makes life interesting. Therefore it usually means that on New Year’s Eve we shoe-horn them off to bed at the usual time while Sid and I crawl into bed not long after, waking briefly when we hear fireworks at midnight, whilst murmuring happy new year before drifting back to sleep, hoping that noise outside will not wake the children.

This year however, with our five eldest, some friends and neighbours, take away Chinese, mulled wine and few other tipples, not forgetting the homemade mince pies, oh and an accompaniment of some of the best 80’s classics (but no fancy dress in sight!) we made it to the fireworks awake and sang our own garbled rendition of Auld Langsyne complete with usual tradition of standing in a circle holding crossed hands (a rather bizarre concept for some of the younger members of the party)! We met the new year with smiles and laughter. A great start to the new decade.

So now the new year is here and it brings with it a plethora of good intentions; exercise more, eat well, a good deed a day, less screen time, no alcohol (at least for a month), read more, shout less. All a heady mix of self-improvement and don’t get me wrong, I’m as keen as anyone to “be the best me” to give myself a fresh start, to be happier, more fulfilled, more who I am meant to be. But it got I’m thinking (of course I might just be tired, I tend to over think when I’m tired) but why do we make new year’s resolutions? What is it about being human that means we crave a fresh start? Why is it that we want to be a better version of ourselves? Surely its more than just the pursuit of happiness?

What if new year resolutions speak into some deep void within us, the haunting knowledge that there is a gap between who we are and who we could be? A seeming separation between where we are and where we want to be? It’s a gap that we endlessly try to fill with all sorts of things; drink, food, films, work, money, sex, fame, children, friends, church, golf, exercise, music; some good some not so good, some OK in moderation but none of them really fill the gap, so when new year comes, or that milestone birthday or a significant event we grasp at the opportunity for a fresh start, for a new beginning, a moment to be better because this time, maybe, it will all make sense. Yet it rarely does, within a matter of weeks we’re resorting to all to familiar behaviours, slightly disheartened, feeling a little more lost but still clinging to the hope of next time, next month, next year.

Yet, what if there is no gap? What if this urge for self-improvement is all a hoax, a cleverly crafted lie fed to us by a combination of the media, our culture, the story we’ve inherited and the worldview we live within? What if we already have all we need? What if, within us, maybe deep within our soul is the truth that we are enough, loved, whole, complete, and that we belong, that we are accepted and have an essential contribution to make to the world, just as we are? What if the challenge is to not fill the gap but to realise that there isn’t one? To realise that no matter who we are, or aren’t, what we have or don’t have, were all capable of love and we are all loved and that realisation negatives any perceived void. So this year, as we journey into the months ahead, maybe we’re invited to move from this moment into the next, discovering the awe in the ordinary, the magic in the mundane and the energy in the everyday knowing that love holds all things and that it all belongs.

The one about…light.

It’s incredible how a house becomes a home. Empty rooms, bare walls, a vacant unfurnished space, devoid of any real character takes on a personality and identity as it begins to fill with possessions and people. Our new house felt like home instantly, we all felt it (apart from the dog, but that’s another blog!)

It is perfect for us, size, space, layout, location, it all just works. It’s warm, it’s cosy and it’s light; the light floods in through the kitchen and through the patio doors to the lounge, an incredible contrast to the house we lived in before, tucked away, nestled in between other houses, a beautiful building but cold and dark in comparison to what we now have.

Light; it brightens the room, lifts the mood and warms the space. Light is a gift. I’ve noticed something else about light too though, it shows up every little detail, every spec of dust in the air, every crumb on the work surface and every little piece of dirt on the floor. Light exposes everything.

Many of the world religions celebrate light, the triumph of good over evil represented by the dominance of light over darkness, light is seen as that which shows us the way, whether as in the Hindu tradition of Diwali with Rama and Sita returning home, the celebration of light, or the concept of Jesus as the light of the world, showing the way to live. Light is what guides, what illuminates the path, light is good.
What if three’s far more to light than that? What if in the same way that sunlight shows everything, when we use the word light in relation to religion, it’s there to illuminate everything too, good and bad? What if that’s what Jesus really meant when he said he was the light of the world? What if that kind of light illuminates what we’d rather wasn’t seen, those character traits that we’re not so proud of; our lack of patience, the thought about others that we know we shouldn’t have, the corners we cut or those thoughts we have about ourselves; the self-doubt or unbelief? What if the role of religion is to illuminate all those things for what they are, expose the truth, call it out and call us to be more who we’re capable of being?

Darkness and light both have their place, and sometimes it’s easier to live in the darkness, hiding ourselves away from the realities that we know light would expose. Maybe living in a dualistic world where we have good or bad, light or dark, those who are in or those who are out, isn’t actually healthy for us, maybe a subtle shift in understanding from ‘or’ to ‘and’ would help us see that it all belongs, that there are far more shades of grey in all these areas than the stark contrasts we often box others and ourselves into. Maybe instead of attempting to defeat the darkness we need embrace it and decorate it.

What if to spend time in the light is to make peace with the not so perfect parts of who we are, to accept that it does all belong, to accept that there are elements of our character which aren’t perfect and could be better, aspects that we know we’d like to work on but that we recognise might take a lifetime? What if to spend time in the light, however we do that*, connects us with the way of love, with a higher force or power, something more…what if that in turn connects us more deeply with ourselves, with our soul?

As we get closer to Christmas, as even more lights shine, and we’re reminded of that baby who came as a light to the world; what if we chose to stop, to look at the lights and be reminded that who we are is OK? What if we allow the innocence of that baby to contrast with those characteristics and quirks that we’re not so proud of and allow love to do it’s thing? What if as the light shines on the whole of who we are, we say yes to that love and embrace every detail of ourselves, allowing love and light to show us how we could be yet also learning that to accept ourselves as we are is the only starting point for real growth.
*a walk in the wood, a quiet space at home, church, coffee with a friend, music, art, film, a good book…maybe time in the light is different for everyone!

The one about…asking Jesus that question?

Me: Jesus, hi, thanks for agreeing to do this. I’ve just got a couple of questions. I’m not used to doing the interview, it’s usually Sid so if it’s ok with you we’ll just get on with it! Tell me, who are you and why are you here?

Jesus: Hi, yes, love that you wanted me to do this, it’s a good question, something many people have tried to answer. Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

Me (slightly flustered): erm, some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Your mate Peter said ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ But I was actually hoping for your answer.

Jesus (smiling serenely): I know, but what about you? Who do you say I am?”

Me (even more flustered): Er, God? Well, God in human form. The manifestation of love? The embodiment of mystery? Tangible spirit? Corporeal reality? Life? But your answer would be helpful. You know you should have been a politician, your ability to avoid the actual answer to a question is like some divine gift. Anyway, we’ve lost focus slightly…so, who are you?

Jesus (laughing): Ok, I’m the Light, the bread, the door, the way, the truth, the life; I’m the resurrection, the vine, the good shepherd. I’m life.

Me: right, yep, great; that’s quite a list. Tell me, why are you here?

Jesus: I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they have ever dreamed of.

Me: that’s interesting. You claim to be ‘bread’ as well as be here to provide; to be ‘the door’ or ‘the light’ or ‘the way’ and be here to show the way; to be ‘truth’ and to tell the truth; to be ‘the resurrection and the life’ and be here to bring life? It seems that your identity and purpose are inextricably linked. Which raises the question of whether the two questions can actually be asked separately. What if who we are is also why we’re here? What if we’re here to be who we are? What do you think?

Jesus: I think I fancy fish for tea, you up for a picnic on the beach? Talking of fish, did you watch the documentary on BBC2 about the four families who tried out being fisherman, I’m not sure but I think it was the BBC’s attempt at Love Island?

As it happens I did catch the end of a couple of episodes of that documentary. I didn’t watch the whole series (seems I never do!), but I was reminded that life at the turn of the century was hard. They worked just to survive, there was no making a little extra so that they could enjoy a night away or take the kids to a theme park. Life back then was simply about survival. Answering the question who are you and why are you here would have been almost nonsensical, they were fishermen and they were here to be fishermen.

The same reality stands true today in many cultures across our world. There are people who don’t have the luxury of wondering why they’re here, their lives too immersed in producing food for themselves and their families, providng shelter and sustaining life. They find identity in their purpose and their purpose is their identity. Their purpose is to live.

Maybe its not a luxury to wonder why we’re here. What if we were healthier mentally and spiritually when our purpose was simply to be alive. What if our “developed world” with celebrity culture, rich lists and our desire for more success, wealth and notoriety means we find ourselves losing sight of who we are, becoming caught up in unhealthy notions of who we could be, which stop us being fully present now? What if the leisure time we think we deserve, the ‘little extras’ we believe we earn actually detract from our abilty to know who we are and stifle our ability to genuinely share life with others?

What if knowing who we are could negate the need for comparison or competition? What if knowing our identity and our purpose enabled us to live from a place where we could celebrate the success of others more readily and smile at their joy? Maybe if all of us were able to know who we are and focus on living right now we’d find that community could flourish. We’d find a reliance, a generosity and a genuine need for each other that was far from superficial.

What if the reason we’re here is to simply be who we are? What if we fully understood that we are unique, that no one else can bring what we bring to our families, friends, communities or the world? What if we are here to be fully alive, to truly live, to share ourselves as a good gift to the world? What if it is as simple as that?

Me: Jesus, just one more thing, the being life and bringing life, that’s quite a mind blowing concept!

Jesus: you know Christ isn’t actually my surname?

Me: 🤔

 

The one about…a not so perfect Christmas!

Everyone’s talking about it, the shops are fully stocked, the music is playing, the trees are decorated, the lights are twinkling; people are busy planning, shopping, baking, dreaming and now the calendars are counting down. The world (or that’s what we’re led to believe) is getting ready for the big day! The Big Day! That’s the phrase I read in a local publication and that’s when I realised I have a problem with Christmas!

The 25th of December (or for some the 24th) has become such a big event, the “Big Day”! One day where everything has to be ready; food prepared, presents bought, gifts wrapped, cards sent, house tidied, people invited…all for one day, all for the illusion of the perfect Christmas!

Thing is it’s rarely perfect, despite the stories we hear and the adverts we see. There’s the child who changed their mind on 23rd December about what they wanted from Father Christmas, leaving the parents dreading the look of disappointment on Christmas morning; there’s the mum who’s had to go into work so now Christmas dinner will be at 7pm rather than 1pm and it feels like the usual traditions are in question; there’s the somber reality of the first Christmas without that loved one, leaving a hole way too huge, along with the return of the tears you thought you’d just got control of; there’s the dad trying to put a brave face on the fact he hasn’t got the kids until Boxing Day because they’re with their mum this year; there’s the newlyweds who can’t work out who they should spend Christmas with because either way one set of in-laws will be disappointed; there’s the widow down the road who’ll eat alone like any other day except for some reason Christmas Day feels even more lonely…like I say, it’s rarely perfect.

I guess part of the challenge is to stop seeing it as one ‘Big Day’, and instead to embrace the season of Christmas. It’s not easy when our chocolate calendars count us down, we measure the month by how many sleeps there are to go, and Facebook reminds us of how many shopping days we have left. It’s almost counter cultural to do Christmas differently!

What if we were able to hold it all far more lightly though, to see Christmas as a season rather than a day and to make more space for the tears and disappointment in the midst of the laughter and the song! Christmas is truly beautiful, it is a reminder of hope but it’s also often a reminder of reality!

The first Christmas was real, not all new baby delight, it was a young Jewish couple, in violation of acceptable social conduct, giving birth to a Jewish baby in a land oppressed by a cruel regime that saw many of their fellow Jews being massacred for not adhering to Roman rule. It was a time of fear, of uncertainty and of decreasing hope that life would ever be OK again. These were real people, in a real place, in real time, facing the very real prospect of invasion, torture or death.

“Life under the Romans was unbearably brutal. Not only did Rome demand oppressively high taxes, they harshly suppressed every whiff of opposition.

In Sepphoris, for instance, just three miles from Nazareth, the Romans quelled a rebellion by burning the city to the ground and then selling its survivors into slavery. This happened in 4BC, around the time if Jesus birth…”

From a book called ‘Sitting at the feet of Rabbi Jesus’ by Spangler and Tverberg.

Imagine living with this, growing up with this kind of brutality. Into this reality a baby is born. Birth, new life, represents hope, future, possibilities and this baby would grow up to create a new story in the world, or maybe more accurately to tell the true story of the world. He would tell a story that spoke love into the very depth of people’s beings, that spoke the hope of a different way into the systems that had been established, a story that spoke peace into a nation that had never experienced true peace, a baby that brought joy and celebration into a land that had very little to celebrate. A baby that would present the very real presence of a new Kingdom, a new way and ultimately a new King.

This king began life on planet earth as a refugee seeking shelter but would later be the one who would welcome the outcasts in. His story shows that there is hope and joy to be found in the unlikeliest of stories.

Our story is part of that story too, and despite the seeming setbacks, the disappointments, the confusion and the fear, despite the unlikely characters that play their parts, the story keeps unfolding, sometimes fun, sometimes sad, sometimes uncertain but always moving forward, always brimming with possibilities and promise.

So as schools and playgroups perform their nativity plays, as the carols are sung and the cards with all the smiling characters are sent, as the movies are watched, the drinks drunk and way too much food is eaten, what if we remember that Christmas is more than just one big day? What if we make the most of every day this season, find every opportunity we can to share with others, to welcome friends and family, to give to someone else, to remember and reflect? What if we choose to see this as more than just a story of a baby in a crib but to see it as our story, because our story can bring hope to the world too!

The one about…mess!

Our four year old has discovered that conkers aren’t acorns, and it’s safe to say that acorns have blown his mind, especially the ones that still have their little hats on! The flip side to this is that the boys and I have spent our non-school hours searching for oak trees which are surprisingly rare in our part of Peterborough!! Upon discovering the said ‘rare tree’ we have then sifted through piles of leaves and twigs and conkers and dirt and stones and feathers and those things you throw in the air that spin like helicopter blades (I feel like I should know the proper name for them) in the hope that we’d find an acorn in a hat. We’ve picked up some rather rotten looking offerings which most definitely haven’t just fallen this autumn, infact I’m not sure some of them were even last year’s debris! It was in this beautifully simple activity that I realised the world is a mess and that somehow that’s important.

There was nothing neat or tidy or organised about the ground beneath the trees it was just a mess. The more I thought about it the more it made sense; nature is messy, with its mud and dirt and berries and all those bits that stick to your clothes or shoes…animals are messy, we have a dog that frequently trails muddy paw prints around the house and doesn’t appear to care! Then there’s birth, that’s messy, not to mention the follow on job of raising children, who by nature, are messy! The thing is we so often try to control, reduce or remove the mess. We invest so much energy in being tidy, neat and ordered. We teach our children to hang clothes up, to put toys away, to wipe their feet, to eat and drink without spilling their food, all of which seemingly goes against what they would naturally do! We spend hours cleaning and tidying or we pay someone else to do it; we constantly fight the mess. Hair needs to be brushed, grass needs to be cut, trees have to be trimmed, we’re fighting a force that naturally leans more towards mess than it does neat or tidy! Then it hit me, the trees aren’t stressed! They’re not trying to dominate or control or compete or be something else, they’re just there, being trees, in all their extravagant messiness!

Ok so I’m not writing a manifesto for messiness. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t tidy or clean but what if there’s something deeply freeing about accepting messiness, about not fighting it…and I don’t just mean the physical dirt and mess!

There’s something about living with or around other human beings that is messy; plans don’t always work out, others don’t always do things the way we’d like. Jobs are lost, people move away, friends fall out, loved ones die, there’s illness and worry, all of these things intermingle with love and laughter and celebration and the school run or the commute or the gym or all the other more mundane routines we have. Life…Is…Messy. The more we try to control, and organise and plan the more our stress levels increase because some of the mess we just can’t control.

I think that’s what I connect with so much in the Jesus story. Jesus didn’t avoid the mess, he cried when people died, he shared food with those no one else would, he befriended women who other men only used for one thing; he got tired, he needed head space, he partied, he had breakfast on the beach (sand is always messy!!) he made friends and lost friends, he had friends let him down and misunderstand him. Life, as Jesus knew it, was messy! The way of Jesus didn’t reduce or remove the mess, it embraced it. The way of Jesus didn’t give neat answers to the big questions it more often than not just exposed the question behind the question and left everyone even more confused!

The reality is that there’s so much that doesn’t fit neatly into a box, so much to life that can’t be explained, yet we constantly want answers, we want things to make sense, to be neat and tidy, maybe even perfect, but what if that’s not realistic or even helpful. What of some things aren’t meant to be easily explained?

What if, instead of a neat explanation, nature (along with the Jesus story) offers us a rhythm, a pattern, or a blueprint for life; a way of seeing the world in all its mess. What if we’re shown that there are seasons, that nothing is static, that we are always being drawn onwards into something new, even if there is still evidence of the old and we have to learn to live with the scars. What if there’s beauty in the mess, what if it’s OK for those tears to still fall and for that person still to be missed? What if it’s OK to have moments where we still yearn for what was and wish we could return? What if its OK to feel those twinges of sadness, regret, even despair, to acknowledge them and yet still move forward? What if it’s OK not to have it all together? What if we stop striving for perfection, stop thinking that there shouldn’t be pain and that all hurt should be healed? What if we just accept that there is mess? What if we take time to appreciate the mess of the world around us and see the mess within the stories of the bible? What if we celebrate, rather than constantly try to fix, the mess that is within our own story and in doing so realise that it’s OK to be messy!

Maybe in doing that we’ll begin to realise that it all belongs. That in embracing all that is we’ll find a richer depth to life. Maybe we’ll learn to smile more, to take a breath and simply know it’s OK, not perfect but good enough and maybe in doing that we’ll learn to live more at peace with others, our world and ourselves!

The one about…celebration!

There’s something so quintessentially English about a village show and the annual event in our village is no exception. The whole community is represented with vegetables grown, pictures drawn, stories written, paper planes thrown, beer brewed, cakes baked, photos taken, fruit picked, wine fermented, flowers arranged, tea poured and paintings erm…painted(?!?)… it’s a celebration of creativity as members of the community bring their entries and place them on display! I guess there’s some element of competition and comparison as all the entries are judged and rosettes and trophies are awarded but it’s all in good humour as the scope of creativity within the village is realised! It’s quite humbling!

It was a weekend of celebration for our family at the end of August as we also had the delight of attending my brothers wedding. The intimate gathering of family and close friends participated in a moment of genuine beauty as my brother and his bride made their vows and exchanged rings, all with their two year old daughter swinging from their hands. It was as if my nieces innocent playful engagement brought a kind of spontaneous energy to the ceremony and enabled everyone to really relax and simply be present too. That moment was a celebration of love and of family, which continued throughout the day and into the night!

Celebration is woven into the fabric of our humanity. We see it across the world as ‘holidays’ are celebrated, anniversaries remembered, rituals performed, and festivals and feast days are observed; every culture creating its own, often unique, ways to celebrate. The Jewish culture is no different. The biblical texts reference seven Jewish festivals;

Beginning in the spring, the seven Jewish feasts are Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jewish feasts are closely related to Israel’s spring and fall harvests and agricultural seasons. They were to remind the Israelites each year of God’s ongoing protection and provision.

These celebrations were regular reminders for the Jews of who they were, where they’d come from, and some argue, a pointer to where they were going.

Celebration offers a way of remembering, of acknowledging all that is and has been, a way of giving thanks and of showing gratitude. Celebration invites others in, it places us within a larger story, gives us a history, as well as setting a path for the future. In the biblical text celebration is often commanded, as if the people needed permission or reminding:

“This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.

The king gave this order to all the people: “Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.”

Sometimes celebration is spontaneous but there are also times when we celebrate through ritual or because it’s the right thing to do. There are even times when we have to choose to celebrate despite our feelings, not because of them. All celebrations have their place because there’s something about finding ourselves in a bigger story that seems important to our own story. The root of the word celebration grounds it in community, a ritual or a rite ‘frequented in great numbers’. Celebration is never in isolation.

This idea of a bigger narrative, something which helps to make sense of our world might be why so many people return to church, or temple or perform some element of ritual to mark the important occasions in life. I chatted to a friend who said he felt hypocritical having a wedding in church because he didn’t regularly attend. While I kind of understand what he was saying, there is something about love and marriage that, for so many people, commands reverence and respect, and inspires a desire to honour that love within a bigger story. If church offers a sense of history, of connection to something bigger; something other or to a something or someone that holds their love, then that’s not hypocrisy, that’s a genuine search for meaning. It’s the same with celebrating the gift of a child, there’s something humbling about placing new life within the bigger story of family and human history, maybe eternal history, it’s also something to do with gratitude and wonder, an expression of thankfulness to ‘something other’ that requires celebration.

So, for many a new season begins, as children return to school, as students leave for university or as new apprenticeships or jobs are started, as summer is left behind, this new season invites celebration. For some it’s tinged with sadness or fear, for others excitement and anticipation… but there is cause for celebration as we remember what’s been, are grateful for what is and look to all that’s ahead. As we journey onwards, let’s not be afraid to celebrate, whether it’s the more solemn celebration of a life gone but lived or an energy injected celebration of another year on planet earth or simply the joyful recognition of a brand new day (a little like the cockerel in the Peter Rabbit film), let’s look to create our own moments of celebration and in doing so find ourselves part of a story so much bigger than just our own.