The world’s a mess. So, did the Christmas angels get it wrong?

The classic nativity tells a lovely story but the reality was a lot messier. Perhaps the message of the angels sounded as preposterous then as now, given the state of the world. What can we make of it? This is my attempt.

“Joy to the world”, sang the angels that night;
“Peace to all men”. And the skies shone with light.
But whatever came of that heavenly pledge?
For just here and now life seems right on the edge.

Where was the peace when to Egypt they fled?
What joy could there be as the babies lay dead?
Slain by the word of a paranoid king;
Witnessed by those who had heard angels sing.

I wonder if stories of thousands of years,
Of people and families, their joy and their tears,
Are enough for the message we can’t get it right;
For nothing and everything causes a fight.

We’re faced with two choices: Is this all that’s there?
Is it just down to us to decide if we care?
To do what we can for world, family and friends
And accept when it’s over that that’s where it ends.

Or….did the angels sing?

Did they point to a hope that lies deep in our soul,
That everything matters; we’re part of a whole.
We’re held by a love that is vast and immense,
Even when what we’re going through doesn’t make sense.

If true joy and peace isn’t ours straightaway,
They gave heaven’s pledge that it will be one day.
Their song was a promise that broke through the fear,
Proclaiming to shepherds that God was so near.

So near at his birth, through his life and his death,
Sharing our suffering, until his last breath.
And then when he rose on that first Easter Day,
His body was new, all the pain gone away.

He promised He’s with us still, though we can’t see.
And through Him we glimpse how things one day will be.
A new world: creation, restored to its soul.
All brokenness banished; just perfect and whole.

Now it is messy, of that there’s no doubt.
Love and peace whisper: Hate has a shout.
But even in darkness, His hope can shine through,
Kindness and love can show faith to be true.

We might feel connections that can’t be explained;
Love that forgives, though impossibly strained,
Friendship persisting whatever the cost,
All echo His love for the broken and lost.

So join with the angels, and sing out their song,
Peace still eludes us but they were not wrong.
The hope of the world came to earth Christmas night.
He asks us to trust Him, and follow His light.”

 

I saw this picture at a market stall in Greece in 2017 which seemed to capture what I was trying to say. Apologies for not knowing the artist – if anyone does, please let me know!

 

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The meaning of Easter- in fuzzyfelt

The Christmas story has an easy sell – angels, a donkey, a baby, lambs and kings all make up an accessible story for children. (Never mind that the reality was family rejection, birth amidst squalor and social ostracism!) The challenge is making it more than a story.

But the Easter story struggles to get past the first hurdle. Cruelty, rejection, death don’t feature highly in many children’s plotlines, and even if you have explained the story, the question still hangs “But why did Jesus have to die?”

Faced with an array of small children, I struggled to find some way of capturing the totality, the completeness, the now and forever-ness of the cross and resurrection in a way that made relevant sense.

 

 

 

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On the story itself, I have always loved making Easter gardens. There is something about the beauty of using spring flowers and the fact that all the parts go back into the garden afterwards that really reflects the truth of the story. Here’s one we made a few years ago with pipe cleaner figures (they didn’t survive!) and a beautiful card made for the Easter gardens we made at a vineyard open day here.

 

 

 

 

 

Wishing everyone a very blessed and Happy Easter!

 

 

“Chasing after the wind”

Another post that came from a bedtime story. It is probably also on the line between profound truth and trite cliche. The image is in no way original – it appeared centuries ago in Psalm 1.

“A little tree grew on the edge of a copse on a hillside. From where it stood it could just a see the top of a small clump of trees on the other side of the hill.

There was always a breeze around the hillside. In springtime, it would whisk up the blossom from the rest of the copse and whirl their petals round to the little tree. And when the leaves came out, the wind brought the little tree the whispering of all the others branches.

The little tree would sigh to the wind: “I wish I grew in that clump of trees” she said. Their blossom is prettier, their branches sway together and more people come to sit in their shade.  “Yes”, said the wind. “Look at their petals I bring you; listen to their whispers. They are surely better and happier trees than you are. If only you were like them, then it would be your blossom that would dance with the others, and your whispers I would carry around the hill.” “I would so love that”, sighed the little tree.

One night, there was a storm. The rain flooded down the hillside and took with it some of the soil. In the morning the little tree found that all the swaying in the wind had wriggled one of its roots near the top of the soil. “Hurrah for the wind”, it thought. “It is helping me to get free.”  As it continued to bend and sway, the root came right up and the two on either side started to work their way out as well. The tree started to list to one side and the wind urged it on.

The next night there was another storm, and more of the soil was churned up. The little tree had really started to come away from the earth. It started to notice that its leaves  were fading  – the roots couldn’t draw up what they needed. The tree started to feel quite unwell. But the soil continued to move.

Later that day, the farmer who owned the hillside came up to inspect the damage. He went to the clump of trees first, and took down some of the intertwined branches muttering that there were “growing too close”. Then he came round the side of the hill where the little tree was.

“Little tree!”, he exclaimed, digging the roots back in again. “How will you ever grow fine blossom, strong branches and broad leaves, unless your roots are deep and strong? Don’t be swayed by the wind! It will only urge you on and on. Everything you need to flourish is right here; where I planted you. The wind is strong. When it whistles you must push your roots in more deeply or you will never be still long enough settle and grow.”

The storm had given the tree quite a shock. For a moment, it had felt what it was like to be really blown by the wind and feel its roots give way. And for a time afterwards, it still felt a bit unsteady. Every day it continued to feel the wind, even if it was just as a light breeze, taunting the tree with the sounds and smells from around the hillside. But the farmer kept coming back, securing the roots in a little more firmly each time. And over time, the tree learnt to brace itself against the wind, dig deep through its roots and draw up all the goodness it needed to blossom – just where it was.”

 

 

 

 

The Battle for the Brownie

I watched Incredibles 2 over the holidays. What a great film! And how amazing that they could so perfectly capture my toddler’s tantrums without ever having met her! My children might not have super powers but they certainly have different identities. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground, or average day. They are either brilliant or dreadful. This is not an original observation. We used to say that they both lived up to the curls in the middle of their foreheads, as the nursery rhyme goes.

So this poem was prompted by my 7 year old who, soon after starting Brownies, stormed into the house one evening declaring she couldn’t be a Brownie and announced she was a Frownie. And proceeded to be one all evening! I don’t think she’s the only one.

Brownie or Frownie?

I have just joined the Brownies: It’s all very cool
With the badges and toadstools and hoodies and all,
There’s Snowy and Brown Owl who tell us what’s what
And games where you all take a name from a hat.
I’m a Brownie, a Brownie, a Brownie, that’s me!
And it’s all going to be such a fun thing to be!

Now at Brownies we learned we should all lend a hand;
To do a good turn and to share the things round;
To think first of others before of ourselves
And to help out at home like we’re true little elves.
I’m a Brownie, a Brownie, a Brownie, that’s me!
What a perfectly lovely and good thing to be!

So I tried it at home when I cam back from school
But at teatime I felt not a Brownie at all.
Why should I do dishes instead of just play
After all, I’d been working at school all the day.
I’m a Brownie, a Brownie, a Brownie that’s me.
But it’s not always easy a Brownie to be.

So I stomped up the stairs and I went to my bed.
And d’you know what was running around in my head?
Am I really a Brownie if I stamp and shout?
Or is there a Frownie that needs letting out.
Am I Brownie or Frownie? A puzzle, that’s me
Cos I don’t always know which one I want to be.

When Frownie says “Yes” then the Brownie says “No”
But I can’t seem to stop when the Frownie says “Go!”
When Frownie’s in charge then it makes people sad
Then when I’m a Brownie I feel really bad.
I’m a Frownie, I guess I’m a Frownie that’s me.
But I’m really not sure it’s who I want to be.

Now at Brownies we learn we don’t do things alone
And I know that the Frownie won’t go on it’s own
It might need a cuddle, to chase it away,
And help win the battle for Brownie to stay.
If it’s Brownie or Frownie, it’s Brownie for me
But I need you to love me, whichever you see!

 

 

 

 

 

A Christmas letter….of sorts

Christmas letters can be like facebook: You see the photos; read the update and feel different reactions. For some, you enjoy the connection with someone you haven’t seen for a while and its good to know what they are doing. With others you wonder what lies behind the idyllic family pictures. And with a few you know the inside track; perhaps you helped mop up the tears on the holiday, or helped agonise over a decision that, from reading the letter, you would think was all straightforward.

We tell ourselves and our children that who we are is more important than what we do; that success and status count less than people and relationships; and that it’s ok to go through hard times. But we still live in a society that prizes wealth, activity and institutional position; that rewards things that get you noticed and ‘liked’. It’s rare to hear much discussion in the media of what builds ‘character’, or what it means to live a good life. I feel that without that grounding we seem to be in a bit of a tailspin about what our lives are for, and its reflected in the national state of our mental health. So, in a world where ‘”Its time to talk”, perhaps it’s time to be more honest with ourselves and our friends about how our experiences of the last year have really felt.

This post is my Christmas letter…of sorts. It’s a bit circumspect as this is a public blog. And I appreciate that the line between authenticity and self-indulgence is an easy one to cross. You can be the judge.

“Our greatest achievement this year has been an improvement in our family’s ability to kick about at home; to understand what each of us needs in terms of space, activity and downtime, and to be generous about allowing it for each other. It doesn’t always work, but it is getting better. One day, we may even be on time for church.

My daughters (7 and 2), have become much better at playing together: Dens, camping, lions, princesses etc. Normally they want to include each other. Normally they are happy with half of my lap each, and sometimes they interact beautifully and make each other giggle. Other times they yell and scream at each other. I find it astonishing how quickly, particularly in the holidays, my overwhelming sense can go from “this is fine, why don’t I home school, what’s the problem?” to “If I see my child do anything or hear them say anything. Anything at all, I think I will scream”. The most useful phrase we’ve found as a family is “I’m sorry. And sorry means I will try not to do it again” and the most helpful thing I’ve seen is a lecture by Jennifer Kolari on CALM parenting. It’s long but I’d thoroughly recommend it.

My eldest daughter is learning to control her feelings better and is less prone to tantrums. She managed the discipline to finish a story and enter it into a competition and then manage the inevitable disappointment of not winning. But she is still writing stories. She keeps me on my toes when her toys act them out “Mummy, I don’t mean to be rude but are you paying attention to your cue” and her expectation is that Father Christmas, who is magic and can do anything, will be able to bring her a doll, complete with clothes, cot and teddy; not for her, but for her toy panda. She is mocked at school for being small and whilst it makes her reluctant to go, she is being fairly resilient.

My toddler is trying to rule the roost as toddlers do. She knows her mind: “Mummy nuff swim. Ice cream now please”. I am not allowed to hum, for fear of being told “Mummy, open your mouth; sing nicely”. If she wants a book read once, she will want it 20 times in the next few days. She is often very pleased with herself; her most frequent phrase is “I’m doing really well” or recently “I’m doing brilliantly”. Woe betide your breakfast if you come and stay – she will stand next to your chair ready with her spoon to dig in. That is, when she isn’t suffering from a winter illness that seems to have been constant. After a few nights of shouting (by her) for an hour in the middle of the night, I confess I struggle to maintain family calm.

For me, I have had a bit of time at home to read, pray and write. Without that time in the school holidays, I recognise I get irritable and lose perspective.  I have to accept there is always less time than I would like and my first free morning is normally spent sleeping (I appreciate that’s a luxury but it still seems the best investment in building resilience!). With regard to the blog, I don’t check thefigures or dwell on it as furiously as I used to. With each post I still go through a cycle of getting the idea, thinking it’s brilliant, start to write it down and realise it’s much more challenging, and then rushing to get it finished, panicking no one will read it and then moving on. I keep reminding myself that I don’t want it to take off as a thing but it’s a useful way to see reactions to particular ideas.

The playgroup that meets here each week gives me great joy. I aim for it to be an amalgam of all the best aspects of the different groups I went to in the UK and after a year, it is starting to feel like a real community. Almost the best moment was last week when I needed to take some time out with my toddler – and everything carried on regardless. As my friends remind me when they come to visit, our house and my life here feels a world away from the part-time London commute I will return to, and I am quite apprehensive about that. But for now, it’s good to use the space and time.

In the summer, my husband and I went away to celebrate my 40th birthday which proved he was more than capable of romantic gestures. We are getting better with each other about trying to be kind, rather than right. I am managing to anticipate stress points better, and recognise what I am likely to feel. However, I don’t always manage to manage what I feel in the stress points. That’s one of the challenges for 2019.”

So that reflects some of my preoccupations for 2018. Perhaps it is as smug in a different way: Perhaps it still conceals as much as it reveals. Frankly, Christmas leters are a declining breed. But even if not through this medium I do think we should be prepared to talk as much and as concretely about what we say really matters as about any external achievement.

Finally, I wanted to appreciate anyone who has taken the time to read any of my posts in 2018 and I wish everyone a very joyful Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

 

 

The church and climate change

I have been wondering about why, despite the facts, are we not seeing a strong, distinctively Christian response to climate change? Perhaps our sense is that that the problem is so vast and so intractable, we acknowledge it is important, but focus our limited time and energy on where we see more of a connection between what we do and the outcome. Christians are not alone in that. It feels like much of the rest of the world is doing the same. So here are some thoughts about how we might think about it differently. I am not claiming anything original or definitive. I am sure there is lots out there.

My growing feeling is that every year we don’t act, we not only exacerbate the physical problems but I think we also miss the point. We can’t pursue our individual relationship with God without reference to the bigger picture. God’s heart and vision is for the whole world to be redeemed and restored. His Kingdom is where all people live in harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbour and with creation (credit to Tearfund for the four relationships). In our broken world, our job be part of his work to bring about wholeness in ALL of these relationships, and all of them are interdependent. If we are not in harmony with our neighbour or creation, we can’t be at peace with God. When we share the ‘peace’ before taking communion, we symbolise that we know our relationship with our neighbour is important. But, in a reflection of our society and culture, the church along with everyone else, has taken creation for granted and it has not been a big part of the story. Now we are being given a wake-up call.

At it’s heart, climate change is a symptom of the broken relationship between people and creation. It has resulted from an arrogance that says we don’t need the natural world other than for our own exploitation; we can insulate ourselves from the seasons, consume only according to our taste and convenience, engage with wildlife only as a tourist, and experience distance only as a change in time zone. Climate change proves that to be the biggest lie of our time, as our children and their children’s generations will find out to their cost. In contrast, the Biblical picture of our relationship with creation is one of wise stewardship, of awe and reverence towards the way in which God’s power, majesty and creativity are displayed. (This is a much bigger theme in it’s own right and is well described in Tearfunds “The Restorative Economy” report from 2015.)

Not only does our arrogance towards creation have a catastrophic effect on the natural world, it also breaks our relationships with our neighbours. Air pollution, rising sea levels, changing rainfall, desertification, water scarcity are all problems from which we in the UK are relatively protected but are proving life and death issues for our neighbours in poorer countries. Ruth Valerio argues passionately in ‘Just Living’ that we cannot claim to love our neighbour whilst living unsustainably. In the past we might have been less aware of the consequences. Now we cannot pretend to be anything other than wilfully blind to them.

And our broken relationship with creation also affects our relationship with ourselves. Not only are we dependent on the natural world for our life support systems as a species, but also our personal wellbeing is profoundly affected by our relationship with nature. It seems like a statment of the totally obvious, that we feel better in ourselves when we experience the natural world. But yet, our society seems to be doing its best to live counter-productively. Even the way we talk of it as ‘the environment’ posits the natural world as something separate rather than something integrated.

So if our broken relationship with creation destroys the natural world, hurts our neighbour and undermines our personal wellbeing it is of core relevance to our relationships with God, not an optional additional ‘issue’ or ‘outreach’, for Christians with a particular interest. God cares passionately about it and so should we. There shouldn’t need to be EcoChurch, we should just have Church.

So then the question is what next? If it’s core to our faith, it can’t be a question of adopt ‘meatless mondays’, tick that box and move on. Like giving financially, it’s not something we should do out of guilt. Our passion to see the wholeness and harmony of God’s Kingdom on earth needs to change our worldview and how we make decisions, how we spend our time, what we buy, what we mean by living, sacrificially. There is plenty of advice out there on how to live more sustainably or call for broader change. What’s lacking is not the ‘how’ or the ‘what’, it’s the impetus to do it. Yes it will be inconvenient and counter cultural, so we wont do it unless we get inside the way God sees it. And we didn’t sign up for an easy life, right?

As a post-script,  I can’t have been the only Christian to have watched Amazing Grace in 2006 and wondered what was the equivalent struggle in our age to anti-slavery in the 19th century; where passionate advocacy and commitment by Christians, as a result of their faith, could make a real impact in rectifying a deep wrong. Surely there is no systemic injustice underpinning our economy and society that is more pressing and more fundamental for our generation than climate change.

 

 

 

 

 

Beanbag Parenting

Recently, I have felt like a beanbag for my children. The shape I am in doesn’t matter; what matters is that I can make them comfortable and provide support, regardless of how angular their elbows or how heavily they are feeling the weight of the world. You don’t think about beanbags. You just need them to be there so you can throw yourself on them.

As well as being a constant assault on the senses, I have always thought that children live by the law “I am awake, therefore I make mess, need feeding and create laundry”. Which is why, whilst Inuit famously have 19 words for snow, mothers should have at least 19 different words for exhaustion. But, whilst it’s immensely frustrating, having your incessant, daily provision for their needs so utterly taken for granted is in some ways a privilege.

They can’t live their lives on the beanbag – growing older needs to bring with it a greater recognition of the mechanics of life. And you can’t let them take you for granted forever.

I started to try and express this in a poem. Then I realised that mothers weren’t the first to feel this way…

My Child

Your children do not see you are the ground beneath their feet.
Their window on the world, they look through you to those they meet.
They notice your provision only when it might fall short,
And thrash out all their feelings without giving yours a thought.

But underneath their feet is where you catch them when they fall,
They see life with their minds framed by your worldview on it all.
They carry something with them of your forethought every hour,
And your secure embrace is what they need to grow and flower.

‘My Child, let my Divine love be the rock on which you stand,
Your needs are met through all that was created by My hand.
There’s nothing you can say or do to lessen My embrace.
The love you bear your children is an echo of My grace.

So be their rock and comfort, be their guide and compass too,
And lead them daily in My love, and you will point them true.’

 

 

 

The reason that I sing….

I confess I’m struggling with what I’m writing at the moment, so here’s one I wrote previously – for the 5th Anniversary concert of Godalming Community Gospel Choir in 2016. I miss the singing and the choir friends!

What is my story? The reason that I sing?

I sing because the beauty of this world, the love and kindness I experience and see around me, the joy of living, calls forth a celebration that can only be expressed in song.
This is my story, it is the reason that I sing.

I sing because the brokenness I see, the agony of disease, fears and anxiety  that cripples those I love, the gruelling cruelty of which we know, calls forth a cry, a lament, that only music can express.
This is my story, it is the reason that I sing.

I sing to the One who uniquely holds together the joy and the sorrow, who is the source of all life and love, and yet who only holds the restoration of the brokenness and the healing for the pain. And I sing to him from the heart, for I have known a despair that only His everlasting arms could hold and been restored to a fuller life by His divine Grace.
This is my story, it is the Gospel that I sing.

I sing because the words we sing are the truths on which I base my being, and each time I sing them, I hear them afresh and engrave them ever deeper on my heart.
This is my story, it is the Gospel that I sing.

And through the choir my story joins that of others – all experiencing the same truth in different ways. And as we blend our stories and our friendships we reflect the truth that we were all made to live for more than ourselves – to lift our voices, as our lives, as part of a greater whole.
This is our story, it is the reason that we sing.

And as we sing we become part of the story of those who listen. Our hope is that through the music of joy and sorrow, of struggle and triumph, that hearts may be touched by a glimpse of joy, a sense of peace, something that lifts the soul and gives new strength to carry on.

This is our story, it is the reason we must sing.

When you were a star in the sky….

As any selection of toddler stories will reveal, there is a fine line between a simple rendition of a profound truth, and sentimental twaddle. This is the story I gave Sophie on her birthday. You can be the judge of which side of the line it falls for you.

When you were a star in the sky!

“Have you ever heard anyone say something that happened before you were born was “when you were a star in the sky”?
This is a story about that time.

Once there was a little star who loved to shine in the night sky and look down at all the people on the earth. In the daytime you couldn’t see her because she would draw near the sun and watch where his reflection sparkled and shone.

One day, she noticed that some of the stars that had been near her weren’t there anymore. An angel explained that they had gone to the earth to spend their time as people, and it would soon be time for her to go and join them.

The little star felt sad. She loved being in the sky near the sun and being able to look down on the earth, but she didn’t understand it. It seemed very messy and confusing. How would she manage?

The angel explained that every star that went to earth carried within them a little piece of the sun. “Don’t be afraid, little star” said her friend. “You will never be alone, the sun will continue to shine inside you. And when we can see the sun shining, we will see you and know that you still belong to us”.
“How can I do that?” asked the little star.
“Every time you are kind, even when someone is mean. Every time you share something, even when you don’t want to. Every time you treasure and care for another living creature, even when it’s easier not to, the sun in you will shine out, and the earth will become a brighter, more lovely place because you are in it”.

The little star felt a bit daunted by this for she knew that sometimes the reflections of the sun seemed everywhere, but sometimes and in some places, the sparkles were few and far between. But she was comforted again by the angel. “It won’t always be easy. But remember, you are never alone. The sun will be within you.”

And so the little star came to earth.

She was born on the 23rd June.

And her name was Sophie.”

Still…I am

This is for anyone who feels that old age or illness have robbed them of their loved ones. I dont think anything can take away that spark of uniqueness that makes a person who they are, but it can be very hard to keep hold of when faced by someone so different. Although its written in the wrong voice, it is sort of for my Grandma.

I Am

Perhaps you knew the child who played;
carefree, seeking to explore, to please and be pleased.
I am still that child.

Perhaps you knew the youth who dreamed;
kicked stones, ran races, willed the world to spin around his axis:
I am still that youth.

Perhaps you knew the colleague who strived;
worked hard to impress, knew his stuff, got along with the others:
I am still that colleague.

Perhaps you knew the man who loved,
first his childhood family, then his own;
cradling his children, watching them play, providing, caring:
I am still that man.

Perhaps you knew the neighbour who greeted,
smiled, passed the time of day,
hosted and was hosted, saw the seasons pass and greeted still:
I am still that neighbour.

Perhaps you knew the friend who shared;
maybe pastimes, walked together, drank, ate, put the world to rights:
I am still that friend.

Still within me is the person you knew, and who, by knowing, you helped shape.
I appear different now.
I hope my instincts to you are kind.
Forgive me when they are not.

But the child, youth, colleague, father, friend, neighbour……whatever has been and whatever happens now….

Still,

I am.