Today is often called Blue Monday, the mid-point in January, the excesses of Christmas are now behind, but the long winter darkness stretches ahead. Today brought sunshine here to Sheffield, and I went mad and cleaned the car in preparation for a trip tomorrow, making sure I put the frost covers on the windshield this evening and setting my alarm in the morning, hopefully I will catch sunrise at the coast, hoping that the Spirit will meet me at the liminal edge of the seashore.
As I write this it is dark, I want to say again, this winter has felt long and hard, I could have made more of the sunshine today I guess, but I didn’t and I am not going to beat myself up for that now. Tomorrow may or may not bring a fresh possibility, I’ll be honest, I am not holding my breath, but am as I said yesterday, hopeful, not for specific answers, but for a way ahead, I may need to look further, I may not, but I need to take this step before I take further steps.
I guess Blue Monday is a reality for many, I confess to feeling it quite acutely, and saying so does help even as I sit preparing for a Bible Study, even as I have filled in the Circuit Plan, I have felt the liminality of it all, but then maybe life itself is often liminal…
1.relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2.occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold
Both definitions speak to me about where I am right now, making it really difficult to know exactly how to be fully engaged in anything other than simply being at a point of waiting, a process that currently feels very draining even though I have something to do. I listen to the news and it seems that so many people are in the same place, the question “so where do we stand?” comes up over and over again. The Government have reduced the time of self-isolation for Covid down to 5 days, and yet most people testing positive are still positive at that point, I feel the frustration of friends living with this predicament and the constant testing that goes with it.
Maybe then what we need to hear on Blue Monday is the invitation of Jesus; Come to me…
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out ……? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30
This morning I woke to sunshine, despite the fact that my Google device assured me that there was no sun shining! It definitely was shining! I wandered down stairs and got into my usual routine of cats, coffee, candles, the 3 C’s, note the cats come first or there will be a mutiny! While making my coffee I decided that rather than listening to the Pray as You Go App, that today I would listen to the morning service on Radio 4. I do that occasionally. ,y mind was partly on that and partly on the Covenant Service that I was going to lead.
After the prayers and hymns came the first reading; Isaiah 62: 1-5, I hadn’t even looked at the lectionary readings for this week, but my ears pricked up, I know, woof!) when I heard the first line read, I know it off by heart, it was a reading given to me as a promise many years ago, and one I return to, this morning it was particularly powerful for me to hear. Here it is:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. 2 The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. 5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
The images of bride and bridegroom had been problematic to read following my divorce, but today they came back to me with a different emphasis. The reminder that God will not give up, and has not given up on me was tangible! The verse that follows the passage verse 6 says this:
Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels; all day and all night they shall never be silent.
I am conscious of having those sentinels surrounding me, people who have encouraged me, prayed for me and have pledged to continue to do so, a different version says they shall take no rest, I know I have folk from all over praying for me, the US, Australia and New Zealand are included, I am so grateful for this! Who am I to be called a crown of beauty, a diadem in the hand of the Lord? Well both nobody and me, when I was first given this about 30 years ago I was in a low place, feeling dejected and worthless and with very little self esteem. Now I know that we don’t go around cherry picking nice passages, and I also know that it is written about Zion, a whole community, and that the land itself is being spoken of, it was spoken at a particular time and to and for a particular place. That said I received it as a word for me ( yes very charismatic I know), and I continue to believe that sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks in this way, and who am I to dismiss it!
I needed the reminder and the reminder came, I am not rejected, I have not been forsaken, there is something more and something different for me to do, I have more to give. Anyone who has read my previous recent posts will understand how wonderful it was for me to hear those words this morning. I have been very down upon myself, questioning my worth, questioning my calling, questioning the institution of the church. I still am in many ways, but today I saw hope, heard the promise afresh and am quietly and slowly responding.
We sang “And Can it be” as a part of our Covenant Service this morning, I love that hymn, and often rejoice in the line “my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed thee” , I can’t say that today the heaviness of the chains of the last few months has lifted, but it certainly shifted, and a certain lightness has come in its place. I am thankful today for the reminder- All will be well!
The photo below was posted by a friend of mine this morning, ,and I asked if I could use it, because in many ways it captures the essence of all that I have tried to express, light is breaking through, the journey onward is possible.
There is a song by Tenth Avenue North with the title Worn, some of the lyrics include these:
I’m Tired I’m worn My heart is heavy From the work it takes To keep on breathing I’ve made mistakes I’ve let my hope fail My soul feels crushed By the weight of this world
And I know that you can give me rest So I cry out with all that I have left
Let me see redemption win Let me know the struggle ends That you can mend a heart That’s frail and torn I wanna know a song can rise From the ashes of a broken life And all that’s dead inside can be reborn Cause I’m worn
I love this song because it is so real, it is real, it cries out from a tired worn place, and yet it cries out for hope! Essentially it say I know redemption will win, I want to see it, I know the struggle will end, I long to see it, but right now I am so tired and so worn that I can’t, so I am reaching up, I am reaching out. It is a hard place to be and a hard place to admit to being in. So often we are asked to tell good news stories, to cry out “Best of all is God is with us”, and to soldier on, stories of struggle are often only welcome once the struggle is over and the new life has come, the cry of see, I have overcome, by the grace of God I have prevailed are welcomed and applauded.
But, what if we are lost in the mists of confusion, the disorientation of the fog of being unable to see? As I write this I can see almost nothing through my window, the views that usually welcome me are hidden behind a lingering mist, I can make out a few edges, but they are uncertain and even eerie. For me at the moment life feels very much like that, I am walking with uncertainty, and it is easy to grasp at any glimmers of hope. I am however wary of doing so lest they prove to be insubstantial and don’t hold the hope that was promised. So I am trying to wait, waiting in the mists and the fog, and that is hard, but of course I am not alone.
I am not alone, I am thankful for the many people who have been praying for me, and are continuing to do so. Thankful for a friend who sent flowers and a colleague whose affirming note arrived this morning. I am grateful for the stories of those who have sat in the mists and fogs before me, it is not their stories of coming through that inspire me most, but their stories of being met by God in the depths, I think of the exhausted Elijah instructed by God to go to places of rest where he and others will find themselves cared for. I think of the words of Psalm 139, of the God who meets us in the depths.
This time of pandemic has been wearing for many of us, and I must admit that I didn’t take up baking sourdough bread, nor did I begin jogging, like many I have been cut of from friends and family for extended lengths of time, and hopes have risen and been dashed. There have been times of celebration, but I am sure I am not alone in finding it to be one long slog. Other changes have come into my personal and working life bringing their own challenges and fogs. So I guess I am being real, I am saying here I am tired and worn, looking for hope, looking for the way forward, looking for what I know is there, but cannot yet see. Right now I am not quite ready to receive assurances of the God who works all things together for good, even though I believe that to be true, I am at a point where tears are my food, a point of disorientation and questioning and I need to be able to say that, I need the gift of lament before I can begin to move on, for if I am unable to lament then the moving forward will be brittle and false. I need hope, but need it to spring from a place of reality, To quote another Tenth Avenue North song, Healing begins:
So you thought you had to keep this up All the work that you do So we think that you’re good And you can’t believe it’s not enough All the walls you built up Are just glass on the outside
So let ’em fall down There’s freedom waiting in the sound When you let your walls fall to the ground We’re here now
This is where the healing begins, oh This is where the healing starts When you come to where you’re broken within The light meets the dark The light meets the dark
It is so easy to keep on going, to keep stumbling through life, to hope that somehow we can fake it ’til me make it, but I think that is rarely true, we may be able to fake it ’til we break, but that doesn’t help anyone, and usually ends in disaster. It seems to me that it is better to be real with ourselves before God, to own the season we are in and to hold ourselves there until the Spirit stirs. I look up with hope now as a shaft of light breaks through the fog beyond my window. Hope will come and may lead me in an unexpected direction.
I have written two letters in the past week, letters that took quite a bit of crafting, letters that acknowledged an ending that I have known has been coming for a few months, but could only now be fully communicated. In short I will be ending my ministry here in Sheffield Circuit this summer. In my letters I said that this decision had not been easy, and had been made following much prayer, many conversations and not a few tears. This is true, sometimes endings, even when they are right can be very hard, and can come in unexpected ways.
I know that there are people who feel I have made the wrong decision, and there are others who support me, I am most grateful for the huge support I have had, especially from those who might rightly feel that I have let them down, this has helped me enormously.
Change can be difficult, I suspect it is difficult, because most of us want to feel settled and secure somewhere, or at least to have a firm place to stand, when that place shifts of cracks we feel it keenly. Like many for me the pandemic has really shifted things, it may be that those places that I have felt have been secure and certain were not what I imagined, or simply that everything moved and flexed making that change inevitable.
When I read the accounts of the early church I find some comfort, the book of Acts is in many ways an account of a people on the move, coming together and moving apart, responding to the Spirit willingly at times, and at other times rifts and schisms are created in relationships, events and sometimes through natural disasters! Teams join and split, and disagreements rise. Through all of this the gospel holds, the message of Jesus is preached and the kingdom of God grows, people are called, equipped and released. It seems that even our best efforts to get in our own way can be used by the Spirit who is endlessly creative and able to restore and heal us.
So, I am leaving Sheffield, I have found the last couple of years very hard, particularly lockdowns which highlighted the loneliness and isolation that I had felt in some senses but been able to deal with, in the busyness of life pre-pandemic. My priorities were changing, and along with those priorities the shape of the place that I had felt called to also began to shift and change. My first instinct was to hide from it, my second to fight it, and finally came both the acceptance and the beginnings of the ability to embrace it, I am in some senses still working through all of those.
The lightbulb moment came in a meeting where it came to me that I was being gently but firmly being thrown out of a nest where I no longer belonged to fly elsewhere, and all the while God has been with me, both in the loneliness of lockdown and through the changes as they have occurred, when I have struggled to see. Psalm 23 comes to mind, the shepherd who walks with us through the darkest valley, as does the footprints prayer, which I used to find annoying in its simplicity, I have been carried even when I haven’t acknowledged it.
I firmly believe in the God who goes before us and makes a way for us, over and over again, the words of our Methodist Baptism Service “All this for you, before you could know anything of it”, that statement of prevenient grace, echo in my heart and mind. All will be well, and through changes and challenges, I will be changed. So I am choosing life, whatever that may be ahead of me, and right now I do not know, but there is one who does.
Lord, teach us to pray, this seemingly simple request from the disciples to Jesus reveals to us just how difficult we find prayer. Prayer would not have been alien to them, they would have attended the synagogue, they would have been taught to pray, but still they ask, their observations of Jesus prayer practices stirred a need within them and they wanted to learn. Jesus gives them what we now call the Lord’s prayer as a pattern, I am pretty sure he did not mean that we should simply repeat it by rote, and I am pretty sure that, that kind of thinking is what leaves many of us struggling. How do we pray, when do we pray?
Last week I re-watched one of my favourite films “Shadowlands” in which Anthony Hopkins plays C.S.Lewis, it is taken from the book by Brian Sibley of the same title, through it the story of C.S.Lewis and Joy Davidman is told. Lewis and Davidman have a unique love story, and a part of it centres upon her terminal cancer diagnosis, when asked by a fellow Oxford Don why he prays Lewis responds that it simply flows out of him, and adds after some questioning that prayer does not change God it changes him. This picture of deep relational dependence is perhaps what Jesus disciples were asking about, watching Jesus withdraw to pray day after day may well have intrigued them. Returning to the film/ book, Lewis used the term shadowlands in his Narnia books, to suggest that what we currently see is a shadow of the reality of the Kingdom of God that is so much more, which brings to mind images of the transfiguration and the description of Moses ascending the mountain and having to veil his face after being in God’s presence, as the radiance terrified those looking at him!
Yesterday I asked for specific prayer for a desire without giving details and I am grateful to those who responded and are praying for me. I also spoke to a friend who had, had prayer foisted upon him unsolicited by someone who had had a “word from the Lord”. We must be careful when we pray, offer and ask for prayer. I am grateful for wise friends who did not demand details from me but were happy to offer to pray anyway. Like my friend however, I have had prayer foisted upon me, when my son was in intensive care there were those who felt this showed my lack of faith, I have met the same when I have openly talked about suffering from depression, the line real Christians should never be depressed, and the assumption that there must be underlying sin hindering me is depressing in itself. I remember at that time listening to the Taizé Chant Within our Darkest night over and over again, it became the prayer that flowed out of me, a confession of faith in a time of darkness.
The difference between my request and my friends experience is perhaps key here, to ask for prayer is an expression of need, and maybe a prayer in itself, to have someone pray for you without it being requested is tantamount to abuse. Another conversation with another friend this morning also got me thinking, asking what prayer is, and feeling that we don’t really know but somehow need to enter into the mystery of it seem to go hand in hand. When we pray together in prayer groups and in churches and other gatherings maybe we need to be mindful of this. There are so many books written on how to pray, so many models given, some of which seem to me to border on magic spells that we need to get right before God will answer, and of course that doesn’t seem to be the experience of Lewis, Moses or even Jesus (think of Gethsemane).
I have made a request, I may or may not have my prayer answered in the way that I want it, but I do believe that God will somehow work through it, and in that I am already being changed, so I will continue to pray.
This morning I have been pondering the Methodist Covenant Prayer, it is a part of our Methodist discipline to hold a special service each year to reaffirm promises, to be reminded of God’s constant and abiding covenant with us, and to claim it once again. In some churches this takes place in September, which is the start of the Methodist year, but in many it takes place in the New Year, my diary currently has 4 Covenant Services in it. The central part of the service is the Covenant Prayer, which is as follows:
I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’
It is not the easiest or most comfortable of prayers, but it is certainly powerful, and I have to be honest I am not sure that I want to say it this year, because I don’t want to be laid aside, put to suffering or to experience being empty, or frankly any of the other less comfortable parts of the prayer.
So, I’ve been asking myself some questions: Do I want to yield everything to God’s pleasure and disposal, do I want to reaffirm these promises this year? I am a Minister, and a part of my role is to lead these services, so how, holding these questions do I do so with honesty and integrity? I could slip on a mask and take on a role, hiding behind the dog collar, but I don’t feel that, that is a good or healthy option.
I know some members who won’t come to church on Covenant Sunday because they don’t want to say this prayer, just in case God takes them at their word and puts them to suffering! That in turn begs the question about our image of the God we worship. So I have to reflect back over this last year, it has not been an enjoyable one, and I have been laid aside and experienced some suffering, but I don’t lay these at the feet of the Almighty and claim that they brought these things into my life, they happened, life happens, and life has ups and downs. I have experienced downs this last year. I am not going to sugar coat things, and through those downs I have grappled with my relationship with God, asking myself questions about their nature and being, I have struggled to read, and struggled to pray, sometimes the intention of praying, the lighting of a candle, or simply sitting quietly has had to be enough. I have experienced bouts of depression, questioned my calling and questioned myself, in some ways this is prayer, and I don’t have ready answers, or reports of unexpected blessings. But, I have not been alone.
I have not been alone, I have been surrounded by prayerful people, people who have prayed when I couldn’t, by encouragers who have affirmed me when I have been low, and people who have carefully supported me, sometimes daring to ask difficult questions.
New Year of course is a time when we do take stock, some make resolutions, quite often these are about self-improvement and/or fitness. I have done it, I have declared that I am going to loose weight, that I am going to walk more, read more, do more, sometimes I have achieved these things and sometimes I have given up ( didn’t really want to learn to run anyway). Covenant offers a chance to take stock too, to return to the traditional readings, reminders of the faithful love of God, and how we are invited to enter into that, here are some of the options:
Deuteronomy 29: 10-15
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Romans 12: 1-2
John 15: 1-10
I would normally include them all, and they are, taken slowly and prayerfully a sermon in themselves, no need for me to add anything, they are all reminders and invitations. The plea in Romans 12, to offer yourselves to God comes with an urging to be transformed, not that we have to self help transform ourselves, but through a covenant relationship the divine will flow into our lives bringing about transformation for our own good.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for me over the last year has been having to look again at some of my priorities and values, if I hadn’t been laid aside I wouldn’t have had the time and space to do so, other changes to my life and work have caused me to ask similar questions, let me be employed for you, what does that mean?
It is so easy to want to cling to the familiar, even the unhelpful, and unhealthy if familiar can seem more comfortable than a change especially a dramatic one, or one that requires great effort. I will be saying/ making the covenant prayer though, however uncomfortable it makes me feel, because I have to acknowledge that this is not about me, we say it as a community, and I trust the communities of support I have around me, it doesn’t require me to pass a test, simply to exercise faith and trust, and to acknowledge that the work is not mine but a holy work, into which the Creator, and Sustainer of all things invites me into, and the truth is I am held within creation whether I choose to participate or not.
By participating I look for Godly values where my own fall short, I may be called to speak truth to power, and would be surprised if I were not, I open myself up to the possibilities of divine transformation which will bring out the best in me! This of course means that there is a best in me. I wonder sometimes when we come to make a prayer like this, I see it as an actual participatory act rather than a repetition, whether we need to turn our theology around again, whether images of an angry God slip into our heads, the idea that we will be laid low, brought down, and suffer, and that somehow God will take pleasure in that- enter stage left the God with a scowl, a long beard and a handful of thunder bolts! But time and time again I assert that this is not the God I worship, neither is it the God that I preach!
I believe that the created universe was an act of love, a physical manifestation of the power of love, and that we are called to be co-creators in it, and yes there are some horrors in our world, but we can work together to bring about good, to effect real change and to share the love that we are created for. Deep within we are all good, we are all loved, we are unique expressions of the divine, and if love would not step back from the cross for me, then surely I can confidently place myself into the nail scarred hands of Christ, knowing that nothing I suffer is insignificant to him.
I am no longer my own, I have never really been my own, I am a part of something greater, of something wonderful, and so are you, so is this world, the universe and all that we do and don’t understand. If I shudder about being whole hearted I offer what I have and it will be received, and transformed until my heart is whole again. Romans 12 in the Message Version says this:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
If I am honest I don’t really want to look back over the year 2021, even though it did bring much joy, especially with a family wedding, and the birth of a lovely new grandson Nicholas, who entertained everyone over Christmas with his newfound ability to blow bubbles! It has however been a tough year for me personally, but I am aware, as we enter into the second year of a pandemic that these days have been tough for so many for various reasons. I haven’t written a Christmas letter for a number of years now, mostly because the demand seems to be for cheeriness and good news all around, also because my children now have their own families and can tell their own news as they wish to. Stories about my adventures with the cats may become a bit wearisome.
I do have news of course, I have spent a fair amount of the year of sick following two hospital admissions, and am currently on a waiting list for surgery along with many, many others, and likely to be so for longer as the pandemic continues, that said it comes with a silver lining as I have been well now for months, so the question is, do I still need surgery?
In other news, once again this has been a year of very little travelling again, my treasured trips to see friends in Norfolk haven’t happened again, I wonder if I still know the way ( that is not in doubt!). I have moved house, settling in arranging books and hanging pictures didn’t take long, but there may be more change to come, that will be for another post.
Like many people I feel that my world has shrunk in many ways, particularly physically, I wish I could say the same for my waistline, and yet in other ways it has grown, I have had the freedom to do more reading and reflecting, asking myself and of God the questions of St Francis over and over again. Those questions being “who are you O Lord, and who am I? It seems to me that the God I worship and serve is bigger and more compassionate than my first encounters with them ( yes I used them so as not to restrict he/she). God whose nature is love is just that, and their ongoing challenge to me is to choose to walk in that expansiveness, to know that divine love called me into being as a part of the calling of the whole of creation in which I have a unique place as a part of the whole. As Rumi is quoted: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”
The questions though don’t end, and sometimes challenging times show us the best and worst of ourselves, and I can say for certain that this year I have seen both of those, sometimes a little too upfront and personal for comfort!
Perhaps one of the most significant milestones for many in Methodism this year for the Methodist Church in Great Britain’s choice to allow same sex marriage to take place in its buildings. I have long been a supporter of this, and having told my own story over the last few years, it may be easy to see why. That said I have stated twice today, that all of this is about much more than marriage, it is about dealing with homophobic and transphobic attitudes that still exist within the institutional church. I am going to say it out loud, but while the ability to marry a same sex partner is wonderful, it is not the whole story, the whole story means embracing the whole of humanity just as it is, fearfully and wonderfully made.
Other milestones have been reached in the outcry of the killings members of the black community, both in the USA and here in England, and then the outcry that followed after the murders of several women, the resulting protests and vigils have been criticised by some, but the world is changing because of them, as we become more aware of one another’s full humanity regardless of the colour of our skin, gender or sexuality.
But, the world remains inhumane, reports from Afghanistan have been sobering, the drowning of refugees who are simply searching for a better life have been heart-breaking, and the truth that pandemic or no pandemic we are at times fixated on seeing some as other, or a burden, or simply as beyond the pale.
In the last few days, tributes have flowed from all over the world following the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he has been quoted so often with great outpourings of love and affection. The one that is sticking with me comes from former Archbishop Rowan Williams, who says this:
“I have a theory, which I started elaborating after I had met Archbishop Desmond Tutu a few times, that there are two different types of egotists in the world. There are egotists that are so in love with themselves, that they have no room for anybody else, and there are egotists who are so in love with themselves that they make it possible for everybody to be in love with themselves…. they are at home in their own skin….. they have learned in some sense the joy that God takes in them…”
Williams goes on to say that he would like to be like that, to learn to love himself, not for his won sake, but in order to somehow draw others into the love and joy that he sees Desmond Tutu sharing. Of course Tutu’s love for himself was shown in a deep love for others, and gave him a compassionate and powerful voice, speaking truth to power, demanding justice, and doing so lovingly and engagingly! Maybe our greatest tribute would be to learn from him, and to try to love ourselves in such a way that we include all.
So, I say to myself as I look back, through it all you were held in love and grace by God, all will be well…
And as I look forward I say, through it all you will be held in the love and grace of God, all will be well…
How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.
Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.
It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.
It’s in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This down payment from God is the first instalment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life. Ephesians 1: 3-14
Or maybe my title should be, not getting into the Christmas spirit, but then I’d have to be one to admit that I struggle with this every year. I am not particularly a party person, I find large gatherings exhausting. But this year has brought with it another layer of my seasonal need to hibernate, my personal circumstances mean that I am not in a particularly festive mood, but add to that the continuing pandemic, who this time last year would have thought that we would be in a similar place this year, with a new variant causing concern and everything still uncertain. I guess that experts and history have pointed to that possibility, but I have never lived through a pandemic before and have no way of telling how the constant underlying anxiety of it will continue to affect me, and so many others.
I want to applaud those who seem able to get on with life, who have celebrated the lifting of restrictions, and returned to a greater normality than I have, I want to applaud them, but in some ways they terrify me. I am also acutely aware of others whose worlds have shrunk much more than mine, those who remain clinically vulnerable and need to continue to be very careful, and remember of course that those folk aren’t all elderly, young people have lost vibrant social lives. Many have lost loved ones. There is much to grieve and mourn over. There is much to lament.
There is much to grieve, to mourn, and there is much to lament, there is real exhaustion too for many, those who have given out so much, we need only to look to medics and healthcare workers to see all that they have given, add to that list teachers and any involved in education, shop workers, delivery drivers, public health officials, but the list could go on and on. Parents who never know whether their children will be at school or at home, the demands to return to the office balanced with family needs. Families separated from loved ones for extended periods, plans changed at the last minute again, and again. Those of us who a minsters, pastors, and lay workers in the church are also exhausted amidst constantly changing constraints and regulations, expectations of being upbeat, and differing demands from our church communities we also have to hold ourselves.
Last weekend I went out to two Christmas events at the churches I serve, I found them both to be meaningful, and even described myself as feeling a bit more festive (steady now), and I was, but in a muted way if that makes any sense. I am now preparing for my Christmas Day service, and I know I will enjoy it, but I am still not particularly in a celebratory mood. So, I ask myself the question, do I need to be?
I look back to that first Christmas, and leaving aside my usual reminders that no donkey is mentioned in scripture, nor is it likely that Jesus was born on the 25th December, that there was no stable in the sense that we understand it, oh and the Magi didn’t arrive with the Shepherds, all of the things people enjoy me saying, I wonder what it was like. Mary must have been exhausted by the journey, however she got there, Joseph to, and then the anxiety of finding the houses packed, maybe the stable ( likely to be under the house of a relative) was the best place to give birth that night. Then of course there is the whole back story, angel visitations, so many questions, who was this child who was to be born to this ordinary yet extraordinary couple. We must remember they weren’t the only ones on the road for the census, and everyone had a back story, but this is the story that we tell with various embellishments again and again.
This story, the story of God with us, is more powerful than the pandemic, this enfleshed God story breaks through again, not with cheer and frivolity, but with a quieter celebration of life itself, in all of its terror and glory, the hope of a new-born, born for those whose hope is worn thin for whatever reason, born to those who grieve, who struggle, who despair, to those who want to have a party, and to those who don’t. God enfleshed knows suffering, bears our griefs and carries our sorrows, where do you need to meet him today, what are the griefs and sorrows you need him to bear?
For me, this year the Christmas spirit is not about celebrating, well not in the usual way, but a bit quieter, more reflective, and quite solitary, but please don’t feel sorry for me, it is what I am choosing, because it is what I need. This Christmas-time Lord, take a corner of my heart and steal in, be born again in me and through me, gently, as I turn to life anew.
New life begins in the dark, whether it is a seed in the ground, a babe in the womb or Jesus in the tomb- new life begins in the dark (paraphrasing Barbara Brown Taylor)
Of course, if you are looking forward to gatherings and much festivity, please don’t take this as a criticism, enjoy your Christmas, many blessings.