The one about…after Christmas.

What do you do when it’s all over? When everything you’ve prepared for, shopped for, anticipated, dreamt about and looked forward to is all done and all that’s left is crumpled paper, cold potatoes and that feeling that you might have over indulged just a little?

Do you sit back and smile, replaying the best moments in your mind? Do you breathe a sigh of relief because it all came together? Do you look ahead to the new year with anticipation wondering what new adventures await, or with a slight sense of dread, a little unsure of how it’s going to be? Do you drink a little bit more in the hope it will stave off reality for a little longer? Do you stare blankly at the TV trying to ignore all those things you have to face up to in the coming weeks? Or do you just simply enjoy the moment?

This time between Christmas and New Year, known apparently as Twixtmas or the Crimbo Limbo, invites us into a time between, it offers an opportunity to reminisce of Christmas past, to smile, laugh or cry about what was and to relive the year gone by. It also invites us to plan ahead, to discuss resolutions for the New Year, to dream of what we hope to do and the plans we hope will take shape.

Or maybe this week between invites us into a time of waiting, a lull before the storm. For some, this week is a gentle easing back into the familiar rhythms of life, for others it’s a more brutal return to reality as the alarm sounds before the sunrises and a bleary eyed drive to work is embarked upon. Either way reality has to return. The email has to be sent. The phone calls has to be made. The PE kit has to be packed. The uniform has to be ironed. The food has to be ordered. The dog has to be walked. The bathroom has to be cleaned.

It can feel as though the return to reality is quite overwhelming but what if reality never actually left. What if the build up to Christmas, full of anticipation, hope and wonder, is reality? What if Christmas Eve, as we fall asleep caught up in the magic, minds brimming with possibilities and potential is reality? What if Christmas Day with family, food and all the festivities is reality? What if that rather sad, ‘was that it’ kind of feeling that murmurs within as Christmas Day draws to a close is also reality? What if the simplicity of Boxing Day, where the pace slows and as my mum says “nothing normal happens” is reality too? What if the crazy New Year’s Eve or the quiet one, the surreal dawning of a new day and a new year rolled into one (which happens every day of we choose to see it) is reality as well?

There’s so much said about living in the now, about being present in the moment and appreciating the reality that is. There is something about seeing ‘reality’ as the moment we are currently in, for me, writing this, sat on the sofa at my in-laws while the children play and my brother-in-law cooks food, this is reality, it’s my reality right now but all my ‘right now’s’ make up my story, my reality, just as all your moments of reality make up your story too. ‘Now’ is essential, however we’re still shaped by our past, it has made us who we are and it should be celebrated and we also need the hope that the future offers us, the gift of looking forwards, of dreaming, hoping, planning; both past and future feeding into ‘right now’ and shaping who we are and the decisions we make.

So as we live these days before the new year dawns may we know what it is to embrace right now, may we enjoy life at a different pace, caught up in those twelve days and the peace that they offer. May we see every moment as reality and live it, not dreading the return of reality nor waiting for the next opportunity to escape it. May we know what it is to embrace where we’ve come from and find that looking ahead fills us with hope, and then as the new year comes, may we live each day, embracing reality, living our story, fully alive.

The one about…a Christmas that belongs!

It’s nearly here, Christmas, the “day” we’ve all been preparing for, the reason the decorations are up, the presents are purchased and the food is prepared. Life and time seem to gather pace as Christmas approaches and opportunities to stop and reflect are somewhat rare. I guess that’s one of the privileges of finding time to write, or of taking carol services and hosting crazy Christmas gatherings; they all offer opportunities to think about what and why we celebrate. As Sid and I have talked and prepared and shared thoughts this year we’ve reflected a lot on Christmas and so this blog is a summing up of the blogs, talks and thoughts that we’ve pondered together.

It seems that there are five Christmas stories…

Firstly, the perfect Christmas; the one created by the movies and the music, the one where families get together and everyone gets along, where lovers meet under the mistletoe (whilst listening to Michael Bublé) and spend forever together, the one where there’s food in abundance and the mulled wine doesn’t stop flowing. The one we all want to exist, the one we strive for every year, in the hope that this year will actually be all we’ve ever dreamt of.

Then secondly, there’s the real Christmas, the one where the children fall ill or fall out, where words are said that shouldn’t have been, where the wrong present is bought or where presents can’t quite be afforded and the usual trimmings are somewhat lacking. The Christmas where those you want to spend it with can’t be there and the one person who promised you everything delivers nothing. The Christmas that is not quite the one imagined, tinged with a little sadness and hidden by a smile that prevents anyone from really knowing the truth, that this isn’t really what was hoped for. The Christmas that’s mediocre, mundane or maybe just ordinary.

Then there’s baby Jesus, the “Christmas Story”, the one that’s rolled out in nativity plays across the land, often with a unique angle, like dinosaurs in the stable, a disorganised angel or the story told from the insects point of view (yes, I’ve been to them all and I’ve even watched Jack Whitehall’s nativity musical “Emu”!) The nativity story is one that we love to hear, the infant Jesus, the perfect baby, a baby that didn’t even cry, or so the carols would have us believe. The reality somewhat different though, a little more like the contrast between the perfect and the real Christmas we experience today.

The fourth Christmas story, the real Jesus story is about a baby born to a young Jewish couple, out of wed-lock, rejected and out-lawed by their friends and family, disgraced and unwelcome; why do we think there was no room at the inn? A birth story coupled with the harsh reality of an unsettled world, a land of enforced peace, citizens required to bow to the Emperor, pledge allegiance, pay taxes and adhere to Roman rule or face torture, slavery or death. A time of fear, of uncertainty and decreasing hope. Yet a baby is born, a baby that brings love, hope and peace. That’s the Jesus story.

Collectively, these Christmas stories tell us something. They tell us about another version of Christmas, the true story, the story that tells us that all our realities, with their aches and pains, the awkward moments or feelings that we don’t quite like, all do belong. Of course we would rather they didn’t and we’d rather that no one suffered or struggled or wrestled with inner demons but they do, we all do.

Jesus was born into a broken world, he shared light, he decorated the darkness with his message of hope. Eventually, he was put to death by the people he came to love, his revolutionary manifesto for the Kingdom of God didn’t lead to worldwide institutional change but it did lead to a new understanding of life and love, and it still does offer a new way of being in the world. A way that’s different to the way those in power and authority often exemplify, a way we can all choose no matter who we are, how influential we are or how much we have.

So, in light of all these stories, may you know that the reality of your Christmas, however happy or however sad, is actually a truly beautiful one, because it is the only truly authentic one. As you laugh or cry this Christmas, may you be full of hope despite the shadows of fear. May you allow it all to belong and may you know an unconditional, extravagant love, and dare to believe that there was something special about that baby who came to bring love, hope and peace to life. May you know the magic within the mundane, as you peel potatoes, wrap presents or tidy the house; may you have a chance to glimpse at the awe in the ordinary, discover the mystery in the mediocre and may you find a moment to be still and consider the gift that it is to be alive.

Happy Christmas!

 

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?”