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…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…demons.

The ‘Good Place’, the ultimate afterlife destination, a heaven like utopia for the elite of humanity, an eternal paradise for those that are good enough or so you’d think…but things aren’t always as they seem and the Good Place is actually an experimental neighbourhood designed specifically for four particular human beings as part of an exploration into alternative torture; hosted by a demonic architect called Michael, the four humans are tortured; not with the more traditional fire and brimstones but instead simply by being, well, human.
It’s another one of those Netflix shows that sounds a little far-fetched and it probably is, the ‘frozen yoghurt in heaven’ concept clearly suggesting that the plot is not rooted in any kind of reality! Yet what if there’s more truth to be found in the ideas it does present, what if the theories it conceptualises are not as far from reality as we might think.
We all hold some thoughts about the afterlife; so whether we dismiss it completely, opting for a huge void of nothingness, or whether we calm our existential fears with thoughts of angels, harps and clouds (or a range of options in between) it’s a subject that we have no definitive answer to no matter how strong our religious (or non-religious) convictions are.
Heaven and hell; literal places we descend or ascend to when our time on earth is over or a metaphorical allegory (is that even a thing?) providing meaning to that which we can’t explain? Angels, demons, an omnipotent judge like character? It sounds the stuff of fiction and fable, more at place in a Phillip Pullman novel or as a plot in Good Omens; but what if demons are more common than we think?
Life isn’t always easy and even when it’s going well, we can battle some pretty tough thoughts in our mind. Those “demons” that taunt us about how we don’t deserve to be happy, who whisper horror over that new lump or bump that’s appeared or the way that mole has changed; demons that talk you into one more drink because really, what’s the harm? Demons that make you doubt anyone really likes you, that you were only invited because they were being polite and it probably would be best to send that text to say you’re not going to make it because you don’t want to spend the whole evening feeling like you don’t belong. Demons that torment you with all the bad decisions you’ve made whilst trying to parent that child, that tell you the reason she does that is because of what you did. Demons that tease you about your ideas for that presentation, that suggest its not good enough and that you won’t get the promotion so it’s best to give up now. Demons that laugh at your attempt at a costume for your child, reminding you of your own childhood humiliation at school plays and mufti days. Demons that haunt you with and uneasy paranoia about who you are and what you’re capable of. Demons that go out of their way to show you how you’ve failed, that remind you you’re not the wife, mother, daughter, friend, sister (or husband, father, son, brother) or maybe just not the person that you would like to be.
Demons can take all shapes and sizes and they can creep up on us out of nowhere, just chipping away at our confidence, at our self-worth, at our belief that we are enough and that we are doing OK.
Shawn from the ‘Good Place’ bad place might well just be a cleverly characterised attempt at mimicking Lucifer, the bad place might host some weird and wonderfully designed demons and it might all seem a little too far from the truth but what if there is something in the way humans are used to torture themselves that is quite close to the truth? What if we do actually create our own hell in the thoughts we believe and the way we respond, not only on a personal level but on a national and international level too? What if the concept of hell isn’t something reserved for the afterlife but a very present phenomenon right now? What if all this suggests that if we can create our own hell maybe creating heaven on earth isn’t as impossible as we think.