The one about…the darkness.

There’s an awkward reality to our existence, one we’d rather ignore. It’s a reality that plagues us, a reality that we’re desperate to resolve, on that we long to rise above, or eradicate; a reality we don’t want to live with, one that we try numb or distract ourselves from. Yet no matter how religious we are, how much we drink, how busy we keep ourselves, how much we try to channel ourselves into all the right things in an attempt to find meaning and purpose, the reality exists. The reality is there, sometimes gently reminding us, sometimes brutally forcing itself upon us; the reality that life hurts, that pain and sadness exists, the reality that we’re not always happy. The reality that things do go wrong and that other people make mistakes, let us down and even die and the reality that we ourselves make mistakes, let ourselves down and one day too will face our final hour.

It is not easy living in the shadows of this truth, carrying on with life while the darkness hovers, never that far away. At times the darkness is overwhelming, at other times it lifts, at least for a while, although darkness still exists, just as when the sun rises over our land, in other lands it sets.

What if this reality, this darkness that we would love to eliminate, could instead be embraced? What if the shadows all have their place in this thing we know as life? What if there’s a deeper reality, one that says that the pain and sadness belong? What if true reality says that you don’t have to live only for the good times, that there’s more to our existence than happiness and laughter, a truth that tells us the testing times, the fear and the tears are OK too, that we don’t have to avoid them at all costs, because experiencing the whole range of human emotion is part of being fully alive.

What if the stories we read in the news, the political climate we live within, the everyday difficulties we face, are all part of it? What if what the darkness requires is not to be eradicated but to be decorated? What if we have misunderstood the darkness, seen it as something to be vanquished when instead our role in this world is to decorate it? What if to decorate it is to smile, to offer kindness, to be generous, patient, understanding; to listen and to share, to go the extra mile, to give of ourselves and to love.

What if this week, as the Christmas light decorate the darkness of the winter evenings, we choose to decorate the darkness of the world around us, within our immediate family, our community or in the wider world? What if we see this season as an opportunity to decorate the darkness within us, to allow the darkness to create even more opportunities for love and peace and joy to exist? What if in this practice of decoration at Christmas, we also find that we learn how to decorate the darkness at other times too? What if it teaches us that joy and peace can exist despite the circumstances we face not because of them, and that by embracing all emotions we find that they really are all part of this experience of being human and in time we learn to accept the darkness too, to allow it to be, but to always know that love shines brighter.

The one about…our Christmas story.

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 25th of December (or for some the 24th) has become such a big event. One day where everything has to be ready; food prepared, presents bought, gifts wrapped, cards sent, houses tidied, people invited…all for one day, all for the illusion of the perfect Christmas. Thing is, it is an illusion, it’s rarely perfect, despite the stories we hear and the adverts we see – oh and of course those Christmas movies which create the perfect dream.

The reality is more likely to be about a 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; or about 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 sombre 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.

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 the fabricated “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.

Jesus Christ was born during the time of, ‘Pax Romana’ – which stood for Roman Peace. A period which spanned approximately 200 years  and recorded as a time of peace. Yet Roman Peace was utterly consequential and incredibly brutal, all were required to bow to the Emperor, pledge  allegiance to the Crown, pay taxes and adhere to Roman rule which in turn allowed for the prospering of the elite in the Empire.

Imagine living with this, growing up with this kind of brutality. Into this reality a baby is born. Birth and new life represent 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 true love, unconditional 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. The 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, joy and peace 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 in the same way that Jesus Christ brought hope and peace into the world, our story can too.

The one about…a not so atrocious advent.

As the nation once again processes the atrocities of a terror attack on London bridge it’s hard to marry up the joy of Christmas with the realities of our world.

The Christmas preparations for those so horrendously affected are halted and this time of year will never hold the magic of the season in quite the same way again. Christmas, a time of love and peace, is tainted by sadness, anger and fear. The truth is that, whilst this attack is horrific, there are violent crimes committed everyday across our country and so many people are facing this Christmas having had to deal with scenarios most of us can’t even begin to imagine.

As advent begins, the festive joy and cheer that should be building is instead tinged with sorrow for those who have lost loved ones, as well as concern for the world we’re all living in, a stark reminder that Christmas isn’t all fun and festivity. Christmas can be an incredibly isolating and painful time for those who aren’t experiencing this season as they hoped; it can pose financial strain and emotional distress as the attempts to provide for loved ones in the way they would like causes tension. For others, the despair and distress when those we’d hoped to spend Christmas with can’t be with us, for whatever reason, means the celebrations are instead overridden by sadness and disappointment. As Mabel suggest, in her rather sombre Christmas song it can be the loneliest time of the year, and as she rightly points out “If I’m feeling lonely, I can’t be the only one drowning in my tears” and sadly I imagine that she’s right.*

There are no easy, glib answers to the realities of our world, especially at this time of year, but it does make me wonder if the need for advent is even more prevalent. The need to pause, to wait, to look ahead to what could be. The need to look forward in hopeful anticipation is perhaps stronger than ever. Our world is full of far too many truths that cause us pain, fear or worry but there is also much that can give us cause for celebration, joy and hope if we were to choose to see it.

The media, particularly social media, has called for a focus on the heroes of the London Bridge attack, those selfless people who put fear aside and stepped in to prevent more people being hurt. The challenge is a profound one, the challenge to choose where we put our focus, what we dwell on and where our thoughts rest. As advent begins, maybe it’s an opportunity to do just that, to choose to look for the good in our world. What if the next few weeks, in the midst of all the preparations and Christmas chaos we choose to have moments where we stop and wonder at what could be, to think about what Christmas represents, regardless of our religious convictions, or lack of! What if, as the Christmas music plays and the films are aired, we choose to see the goodness of humanity, the love, the generosity and the “ideal world” that Christmas would have us believe is possible?

What if Christmas really does offer a sign of hope and does serve as a symbol of ‘another way’, a better way of being in the world? What if the promise of peace that echoes through the Christmas story, the hope of unity in a world where all are welcomed and valued, become increasingly visible in the stories that are being played out in the world today? What if the events that were supposed to cause division at that first Christmas, as well as those circumstances occurring now, instead serve to bring people together and move the world on, towards that better way of being. Maybe by believing in the good of humanity, maybe by seeing the good in those around us and maybe by living out the good within ourselves we can offer love, joy and hope to this world and maybe the hate and the fear and the evil really can be defeated.

The one about…believing!

It’s Christmas! It really is!! The music, the lights, the tinsel; the presents wrapped, food bought, cards written, nativity plays done, stockings hung…and now the final details come together to create the magic we love to believe in, as we wait to see what unfolds.

We watched a movie about two siblings experiencing Christmas after the death of their dad; the girl trying desperately to hold onto the magic while her older brother gets in with the wrong crowd and becomes angry, distant and cold. That is until they meet Santa. The theme that underpins the whole movie is “belief” and at Christmas there is so much to believe in…cheeky little elves who choose a family to spend December with, flying reindeer and of course the jolly bearded man himself. Then there’s all the details; the reindeer eating carrots and glittered oats, Father Christmas nibbling mince pies and drinking the milk or whisky! There’s the questions of how he gets it all done in one night and of how he gets in, even if you have a chimney! The whole thing is encapsulated in awe, wonder and mystery!

The Christmas experience requires belief. Even if we don’t “believe” anymore it seems that somehow, in some mysterious way, we do believe; we believe in the love that’s shared, the joy and delight it brings or at the very least we believe in creating the magic for others. We believe in Christmas!

Children are good at believing all year; the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the God character, heaven and hell…they immerse themselves in believing! Yet as adults we’re often quick to dismiss those things as childhood fantasies or ideologies we outgrew. But what if believing isn’t some childish, immature craze that we grow out of but a skill, an art form, an ability we should hone, one that is fundamental to human flourishing!

In ‘The Christmas Chronicles’, Santa Claus declares that:

People need Christmas to remind themselves of how good they can be.

I see what he’s saying, and I’d never want to contradict the big man but what if we need Christmas not just to be reminded of how good we can be but to be reminded of how good life can be?

There’s something about choosing to believe in the good that enables us to overcome doubt and suspicion. At Christmas we seem to make that choice more readily. We all know that that the reality of life is often brutal and painful. There’s way too much sadness and hopelessness in our world. We read it in the news, we see it in our communities and we know it within ourselves. Yet the choice to believe allows us, even if only for brief moments, to dream; to hope; to live.

What if, when we believe, the world becomes alive with possibilities? Some of the things we believed in as children we know to be from a world of fantasty yet what if to dismiss all of it leaves us sceptical, suspicious and somewhat sad. What if to loose that sense of mystery and magic means we loose our ability to see beyond what ‘is’ into what ‘could be’? What if so often we parcel up all thoughts of soul and spirit, of awe and wonder and put them away with the Christmas decorations as though they are only allowed to dance when Santa and his elves make an appearance?

What if as we shift our focus towards that baby born as a refugee, living his first years with a very real threat of death we see within his unfolding story a way of life that brought reconciliation, restoration, hope and love? What if we believe that the birth of that baby, at the very least, is symbolic of life, new beginnings and new possibilities?

What if Christmas is God’s way of saying “I believe in humanity”?What if at Christmas we hear the universe whisper “I believe in you”? What if knowing someone or something believes in us changes everything? What if Christmas is a reminder to us of how life could be if we believed in the mystery, and the magic; in love, in the goodness of others and in ourselves? What if believing in ourselves and others is how we’re then inspired to bring light to the world?

The one about…Christmas light!

There are lights everywhere, hanging from houses, entwined into trees, projected onto walls, glowing as the outlines of reindeers and sleighs; all so good because it’s dark out there! It’s dark when I walk the dog. It’s only just light when the children leave for school. Every morning our two year old wakes up and with his head tilted and an inquisitive look on his face says, “It morning? Dark gone?”

We don’t like to linger in the darkness; we’re often quite desperate to find the light. Human beings are actually quite good at light! Bonfire night is all fire and fireworks, at Halloween we light pumpkin carved lanterns, during advent we light candles, and now our streets are glowing with Christmas lights! It’s almost as though in the darkness of winter we jump from one light-filled celebration to the next as we attempt to live in light.

Darkness can take many forms, it’s there in the natural cycle of day and night, it can also be there like a cloud that hangs over us; an experience that leaves us feeling hopeless; an event that rocks the very core of our being or simply days/weeks/months of life just being tough. We talk about dark places, those spaces that are eerie, that make us feel uneasy. We talk about living in dark times; local, national and international events occur that make us realise our world isn’t all brightness and light!

Darkness can take us by surprise, darkness can seem endless, darkness can lead to despair. Darkness is real. It’s no wonder we like light, it’s no wonder we create occasions to pin our hopes on and get us through dark times; the next weekend, the next holiday, or the next event become the lights that we stumble towards as we try to avoid the darkness in our world, or in our lives.

Yet there’s wisdom to be found in the darkness. Wisdom shows us the glimmer of light, a star that shines as a spark of hope. Yet our problem often isn’t the darkness, it’s more that we don’t stop in the darkness to find our way. We don’t stop to take in the lights that are shining, to look at what they show us or where they point, we too often just stumble from one to another without any real sense of direction.

Our four year old was a sheep in his school nativity play, lost in the dark because of a star that couldn’t shine! The plot is described as:

The big star has to show the way to the stable where a special baby has been born – but he just can’t shine. How will the shepherds and kings find their way if they cannot follow the star?

Fortunately, all the other stars lead the big star to the stable where he sees Mary, Joseph and the beautiful baby. He realises that Jesus loves all the stars, angels and people of the world and this love gives the big star the strength to shine again.

For some Jesus is the light. The bible describes him as ‘the Light of the world’. For others that light is perhaps more simply described as love. What if, whatever language we use to describe that light, we need that brighter light so that we don’t live life just stumbling from one thing to the next without any real sense of direction?

What if this Christmas as the stars shine, the lights twinkle and the candles flicker, we take time to stop and think about the direction our lives are going? What if we stop to think about the bigger light that guides our way? Because what if there actually is a brighter light, a true light that illuminates the bigger picture of our lives? A light that influences the way we think and act?

A true light will show the way, disperse the fear, expose the lies and reveal the truth. Maybe there’s something important about the light we choose to follow! What if we’re inspired by that light to shine in the darkness too, to bring hope and help show the way. What if, with enough of us shining, the whole world becomes a brighter place and we can all wake up saying “It morning? Dark gone?”

The one about…the elf that helps!

We have an elf, he’s called Elfie! He helps! He arrived on December 1st with seven advent calendars and a note that read:

My Dear Children,

It is with great delight that I send Elfie to your house to help you prepare for the arrival of Father Christmas. Elves are known for being highly mischievous and causing all sorts of pre-Christmas chaos. HOWEVER, Elfie is a special elf and chooses to only do that which is good, helpful and kind.

Elfie wants you all to enjoy Christmas and although it is unlikely that he’ll spend Christmas Day with you he’s very excited to be with you for advent and to enjoy all that this season offers. To be fair you wouldn’t want him there on Christmas Day as he eats all the sprouts (he thinks that’s the most helpful thing to do as it saves you having to eat them) they give him very bad wind and elf wind REALLY SMELLS!

So enjoy having your little friend to play and remember to also do that which is good, helpful and kind – the elf way is the best way!

Have a very happy advent,

Yours,

Pepper Minstix

Acting Head Elf

So far Elfie has moved the toys to make way for the Christmas tree, dusted the bookcase, swept the floor, cleaned the loo, tried to hang the washing, sorted out the felt tip pens that work from those that don’t, tidied the bookshelf and walked the dog. All because Elfie only does that which is good, helpful and kind!

What’s most interesting about this elf is the way his behaviour is influencing the children’s behaviour! Our seven year old put a box of toys away because “that’s what the elf would do”! She also filled in her “Elf book” finishing the sentence “my elf also likes…” with the word “HELPING!” Our four year old sat with the elf and told him “I’m helping you with your writing” and then encouraged the said elf by saying “well done Elf, you did it!” It does seem that one little elf is having a positive impact on the family!

I read somewhere that ‘the big thing is the accumulation of all the small things’. It reminded me of that phone company tag line “you’re every one to one you’ve ever had”!

The problem is that we live in a world that doesn’t value the small things, a culture that doesn’t recognise the importance of the mundane.

Our culture is very much into event. We celebrated Halloween, closely followed by bonfire night; then the more solemn occasion of remembrance day and now all energies are fully focused on advent, Christmas and New Year. All in less than eight weeks! By the time we’ve thrown in a few birthdays, Valentine’s Day, mothering Sunday and fathers day, oh and Easter we’ll have moved pretty seamlessly from one event to another and before we know it summer will be over and the fireworks will start again!

Somewhere in the midst all of that life goes on. The small things have to take place; the email has to be sent, the washing has to be hung, the beds have to be changed, the dog has to be walked, the dinner has to be cooked, the cake has to be baked, the paperwork has to be signed, the mundane things have to take place. It’s easy to look at other people’s lives and forget they live with the mundane too. It’s even easier to read a book like the bible and forget that the great characters lived through the small things as well as making their notable contributions to life: Jonah and the Whale or Jonah, Daniel in the Lions Den, Moses and the burning bush, Joseph and that technicolor dream coat; they all had days, weeks, years where nothing…much…happened.

It’s especially easy at Christmas to forget the gritty reality of the mundane; sleepless nights, changing nappies, endless feeding, entertaining guests when you’re exhausted! Jesus was a real baby! It’s easy to overlook Jesus childhood and teenage years; we don’t often think of him as a twenty something. Jesus lived the small things, the normal; he played, he studied, he did chores, he went to the temple, he may have even mastered his fathers trade. He ate, walked, slept; the big thing he did was the accumulation of all the small things. Even in the three years of his life recorded in the bible the mundane is often ommitted but the everyday, routine chores must of been carried out, most likely in a way that complimented the bigger story he was living.

Why is this relevant? Christmas will come, there will be food, family and friends. There will be presents and parties. The celebrations for most will continue through until New Year but then for most of us they will end, we’ll all be left wondering where Christmas went whilst facing the cold realities of January and February! Maybe that sounds a little bleak, the New Year is an opportunity for fresh starts and positive thinking but within that there is often some adjusting necessary to enable us to embrace “normality”. What if the challenge is to have integrity during those more mundane days, to see the small things we do each day as an opportunity to shape who we are? What if every one to one encounter shapes those involved? What if we accept that it’s not healthy to live for the next event, and instead of filling our time with plans for ‘the next big thing’ we take time to think about how we do the small things?

What if we also choose to stop once in a while and acknowledge the gift of the mundane? What if the normal, sometimes dull, maybe boring, really is a gift? What if that’s where we get to discover who we really are and find that the bigger picture, the one the world sees, is the accumulation of all those smaller moments that have taken place?

What if the appearance of one little elf really can inspire us to celebrate the whole of life and live it in a way that inspires others! As for why we were sent a good elf, some things remain a mystery!

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!