give

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Over the Christmas holidays, our extended family gathered for the first time in four years.  The arrangements weren’t simple; including accommodation for 16 people and international flights and the ages in the group ranging from 5 to 75.  One of my siblings (who is very organized) produced a shared ‘Google Doc’ months ahead of the gathering listing possible meals we could cook, activities we could do together and trying to pinpoint individual preferences.

 

However, a couple of days before we got together, my other sibling sent a message saying that planning too much in advance took away from the fun and spontaneity of being on holiday- we should just figure things out as we went along.  They were both right (in a way) but it showed how different our approaches to life and the way we do things in our own families can be, despite our shared DNA.  (And it all turned out OK – we had a great time.)

 

I’m writing on the eve of a significant birthday, the kind of number that makes me look back at choices I’ve made and the distance I’ve travelled.  It’s also the kind of number that challenges me, like the question in Mary Oliver’s poem ‘The Summer Day’:

‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’

 

Perhaps this is part of my midlife crisis but I’ve had some thoughts this week about what God is like.  I’ve remembered that Jesus offers the world self-giving love, emptying himself to live among us, pouring out his love to the point of death.  God sacrificially gives the greatest thing that God can give.

 

That’s extraordinary enough in it’s own right, but a little line from the song ‘Reckless Love’ caught my attention this weekend:  ‘still you give yourself away’.  It’s one thing to marvel about sacrifices made in the past, but this is talking about God giving himself away in the present tense.  It’s talking about vulnerable, costly love that God continues to have for us.

 

Not to be too morbid about it but I wonder if it hints at the call for the next stage in life’s journey:  giving myself away.  What if I could aspire to live in a way that was less about counting the cost and more about sharing all that I have with the world?

 

Life is unpredictable and although we may be great at planning or spontaneous, there’s no way of knowing what comes next.  What doesn’t change is the love that is offered from God’s own self and the chance to reach out a hand and see where the adventure leads next.

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pickle

How can you be married to someone for 19 ½ years and not know that they hate Branston Pickle?  Of course I knew it wasn’t his favourite, that he preferred his mum’s homemade pickle or maybe organic chutneys containing local fruit and vegetables.  But hate? Such a strong word for an unassuming classic.

 

To be honest, it wasn’t just the shock revelation about condiments that rocked my world, it was the use of the word ’hate’.  Anyone who knows him would say that it isn’t a word you would expect him to say.  (And while we are on the subject, he also hates twice-toasted toast.  Now you know.)  You can spend a lot of time with nice people before you know what they are simply tolerating.

 

If you were ever at our house at a mealtime, you might assume that Phil also loves to do the washing up.  He is often the first to the sink and sees the job through to the end.  However, if you did come to that conclusion, you would be wrong.  He feels the same way about washing dishes that most of the rest of us do.  But he does them because he loves us. (At least I know that much.)

 

It’s easy to take things at face value, to think we know something or someone.  He might have gone on eating cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches politely for even more years without saying anything.  The family could wrongly have assumed he had a love of suds.

 

It’s hard sometimes, too, to feel anything fresh about Christmas. We know that story.  We’ve sung those carols.  There’s nothing new here.

 

Except that there can be if we give time to go there.  There is lots to wonder about.  This year the new question that occurred to me was, ‘ did Mary to go with Joseph to Bethlehem to register in the census because it was legally compulsory for her too – or did they decide to do that?’

 

Or a familiar Christmas carol has suddenly made sense. I realised in a carol service last week that the words of ‘Long Ago Prophets Knew’ make us imagine that we are right there in the stable, in the middle of labour, waiting for the baby to be born- celebrating even before the birth has happened.  Though I’ve sung it many times, it became powerfully new and different. (Lyrics here, tune here, if you are interested.)

 

In an attempt to see Christmas from a different angle, we’ve been looking with a group of students at some of the songs that pop up around the Christmas story in the book of Luke.  I’ve been struck again in our conversations that these are not easy or safe words, but are passionate and political and world-changing.  This is a moment like no other.

 

What are you longing for this Christmas?  We all have different ways of approaching and celebrating this season, but I’ll share links to the passages below in case you would like to find a few moments to use them to go deeper, discover something that speaks to you and maybe experience new hope and new joy and new love this Christmas (whether or not it is blessed with Branston Pickle).

Luke 1. 46-55 

Luke 1. 68-79 

Luke 2. 29-32 

cry

 

IMG_7674When I meet Christians from different countries, I’m curious about the ways they express their faith in their own countries.  What does it feel like to follow Jesus in Mexico or Pakistan?

 

We can’t help but be cultural beings, but I have to confess that sometimes I feel a bit trapped by the ways my culture tends to expresses faith. There is a much wider world of experiencing God’s love in Jesus, than my tiny bit of the planet normally acknowledges.

 

A British student with Nigerian heritage recently told me that her mother stopped wearing earrings when she became a Christian because she felt that God was saying to her that they were a symbol of slavery, not of freedom.  This was something I had never considered before and I was challenged by it.

 

I felt that I had to pay attention when two people in separate conversations and from totally different parts of the world, said the same thing to me recently.  I happened to ask both a Methodist academic from Fiji and a Methodist pastor from Korea if people in their churches worshipped any differently than we do in the UK.  I think I was probably expecting them to say something about music or the way they organised their communities so I was a bit surprised by what they did say:

 

‘We cry when we pray.’

 

That’s it. That was the first difference that came to them.

 

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Why don’t we cry when we pray?  There is certainly a lot that we could cry about; war in Yemen, the hopeless situation of refugees, the victims of injustice, the politics of fear all around us; not to mention our own sorrows and heartaches.

 

I have sometimes found myself in tears praying at home or in church; the music or words or prayer sometimes unlock things that I have been unknowingly trying to hold back, but it doesn’t happen very often.

 

I suspect that if we somehow made a habit of crying in church a lot of people would run away, terrified.  In fact I have met people who didn’t want to return to services where people have been crying, it was that scary for them.

 

But I wonder if we are blocking off a normal human expression of longing, of pain, of regret that are actually a part of a life of following Jesus, alongside the joy and the peace?  I wonder what new things would be opened up for us if we were willing to be vulnerable in this way?  Tears might be messy but I wonder if an expression of glib optimism is equally off-putting, and ultimately unhelpful for the bumpy road of life?

 

Strange though it sounds, Jesus said that we are blessed when we mourn.  Perhaps it is because that when we cry, we are becoming like him and our hearts are enabled to grow when our defences are down.

 

 

 

cross

 

I love my job for lots of reasons but one of them is that I get to meet people from all around the world.  A few weeks ago I met a student from Mexico who broadened my understanding of the Day of the Dead.

Diego spoke very movingly of what the holiday meant to him and how sorry he was to be so far from home at this time of year.  (I have to admit that my previous understanding probably was limited to a Disney-Pixar ‘Coco’ level.)  He explained the complex origins of the celebration and the way most people understand it now.

What struck me was the way tangible displays of love are evoked:  preparing deceased relatives’ favourite foods, taking out their photos and taking time to share memories.  It’s a time of gratitude and connection and love.

Autumn is generally a time of year when people are more willing to think about death, maybe because of the cues in nature all around us and remembering those who have died in war.  But most of the year we would do anything to avoid the topic.

The cross is an awkward reminder that following Jesus includes not always taking the easy path, but that we are called to deny ourselves and to give up our lives- not for a cause, but out of love.  It would be ridiculous to choose to suffer for any other reason but love, and this is the reason that Jesus chose to face death – out of love for his father and love for us.

This last 18 months or so I have been part of a team bringing a new vision to life. Chapel House is a new Christian community house for 8 University students who have promised to pray together, serve together and share meals together for the next year.

It is an extraordinary, diverse, and brave group of people who have embarked on this year-long adventure together.  They are working out for themselves how together they can be open to God, open to each other and open to the world and the signs are good that this might be a life-changing experience for them.

Almost by accident, this project was launched with a poignant moment.  We had in our home a very large hand-carved cross (more of that story here) that we wanted to transport to the new community house.  I could find no vehicle long enough to carry it the couple of miles it needed to travel. So the first thing the community did was carry it themselves, through the streets of Bath.

They have chosen this life, this carrying-of-the cross, out of love.  They want to grow in understanding what it means to share lives together.  If the community is a success, they will discover new things about themselves and also how hard it can be to sometimes give up their own preferences for the sake of others.  But by really engaging in this shared orientation of their lives, I believe the world can be changed and new life will rise.

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lock

 

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference in Oxford that took place next to the canal.  I walked past the nearby lock a few times each day, coming and going, sometimes stopping to watch as a boat passed through.

 

I took a few photos but I wish I’d recorded the sound of the sluice gates closing and the water rushing in, like filling up a giant boaty bathtub.  Thanks to YouTube, I found a video that captures the action (but not the sound) here.  

 

More than just being fascinated by it, I felt the lock somehow had a message for me, but I wasn’t sure what it was.

 

I remembered that there was a story in the news during the summer about a stretch of the Avon and Kennet canal near us that was completely drained because the people who were passing through were in a hurry and left all the lock gates open. A big section of the canal was completely drained leaving lots of boats stranded in the mud.  The people who did it moved on without realizing the damage they’d caused.

 

I’m a big fan of forgiveness; feel moved by stories about forgiveness. I love that the heart of the gospel is all about forgiveness, but that doesn’t make my own forgiving easy or automatic.

 

The general advice is that it takes time.  Some people say that writing down the thing that has caused hurt will help you to move on.  I’ve tried sitting in prayer with my hands open as a gesture of handing it over to God, but still found myself with resentful thoughts creeping in.

 

I think the lock was speaking to me about forgiveness.   I realised that even my most prayerful efforts can still focus on the other person, wishing that they would say sorry or change or at least notice the damage that they have caused so that I will be able to respond with grace. I’m not saying this is a bad thing to want.  However, when it doesn’t happen, when they don’t apologise or even notice, it leaves me with the ugly burden of unforgiveness, the heavy weight of something not resolved.

 

Somehow I needed reminding this summer that in order to move on, my own heart needed to change. Not all situations are the same and mine isn’t serious, but in this case, I know now it wasn’t really about the other person, it was about my response. Other people may not change but I can choose to let God change me.

 

Someone prayed for me at the conference and something shifted.  It changed my prayer into a desire to be able to respond in love, regardless of the other person.  It had the effect of shutting the sluice gates so that a new perspective could come flooding in. I’m not suggesting it will be all smooth sailing, but for the moment, I’m thankful that the river ahead seems smooth and I don’t feel tethered to what was holding me back.

 

 

 

 

cédez le passage

cedez le passage

We know very little French so going to France this summer was a bit of an ambitious holiday plan for us.  What motivated us was the thought that we might successfully put our 15 year old in the position of having to speak a bit of the language just to help us survive.

 

Never having driven in France before we were taking careful notice of road signs and this one soon became my favourite:  ‘CÉDEZ LE PASSAGE’.  Maybe I was a little bit in love with the country, but I thought that only the French would express this road instruction so elegantly.  In the UK our ‘GIVE WAY’ sounds much more direct, not to mention ‘YIELD’ in the US, which seems far more commanding.

 

As I thought about it, I wondered what life would be like if this was a mantra instead of just a road sign.  The boys and I had another week’s holiday back in the UK while Phil was at a conference and I decided to see what would happen if I took a more ‘cédez le passage’ approach to parenting for a few days.  Instead of insisting on what I wanted to do, or what I thought the boys would want to do, I tried to give way to their choices.  Let me tell you this was no small sacrifice.  We ended up playing Monopoly 8 times.   We spent a lot more time throwing Frisbees or kicking footballs than I found interesting and we watched ALL of the Ice Age films; but we had a great time together.

 

I’m not suggesting that this would be a good parenting style most of the time, especially when homework or jobs need to be done or timetables need to be kept, but it was a nice change for a few days.  Would it be sustainable as a way of life?

 

As the phrase continued to stay with me, I realised that the road sign only works if everyone follows it.  If a car stopped in order to yield to every car that was coming, there would be a lot of annoyed drivers in the queue behind.  It’s about mutual courtesy and cooperation and community.

 

Which is a bit like the way Christians describe the dance of the Trinity.  The Father yields to the Son and the Son yields to the Spirit and the Spirit yields to the Father in a dance of love in which we are invited to join. This is the vision of God’s kingdom, everyone giving way in love.

 

So yes, maybe I am called to ‘cédez le passage’ but it is to both give way to love as well as allowing love to give way to me.   (But not necessarily to yield to playing more Monopoly. Please.)

… the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.

James 3.17

so will I

We’ve had lots of guests and visitors in recent weeks (not all shown here). Although having people round for a meal or to stay often involves some extra work, it honestly has been a time of blessing for us.  Whether catching up with friends that we haven’t seen for a short while or a very long time, or even getting to know people that we didn’t know well before, being a host is a privilege and if there was such a thing as a ‘grace ledger’ it would show that we received more than we gave in recent weeks.

 

In the midst of all of this, I had a serious-ish concern about my health (which is now OK) that I tried to not worry about.  On the day of my doctor’s appointment I read these lines in my morning prayer/mediation time:

 

…the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.

(2 Corinthians 1)

 

Later, as I left the appointment, even more worried than I had been when I went in, I ran into someone who offered me such kindness you would have thought that she knew what I was going through.  She didn’t. And later that day, I encountered God’s kindness again through people that I met.  They were offering God’s consolation to me.

 

A few days later someone I knew was really struggling shared some of their pain with me.  I tried to remember to hold him in prayer. When I saw him a week later, he told me that a total stranger had given him a note that encouraged him and, not only that, but a particular Bible verse kept coming up in ways that suggested to him that God knew about him and cared.

 

The mystery of a God who consoles, who bothers to show us kindness in personal ways and who longs for us to share that with others has been with me these last few weeks, and not least in the blessings of our various guests.

 

One powerful memory I have is of a 13 year old guest playing our piano and singing the song So Will I.  I’d never heard it before but the strength of it has stayed with me.  (I wish you could hear her singing it, but here’s another version if you’re interested.)   If the creator of everything cares about each one of us, so will I.  If the God of the universe offers consolation through our friends and through strangers, so will I. If God offers love as both guest and host, so will I.

God of creation
There at the start
Before the beginning of time
With no point of reference
You spoke to the dark
And fleshed out the wonder of light

And as You speak
A hundred billion galaxies are born
In the vapor of Your breath the planets form
If the stars were made to worship so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You’ve made
Every burning star
A signal fire of grace
If creation sings Your praises so will I

God of Your promise
You don’t speak in vain
No syllable empty or void
For once You have spoken
All nature and science
Follow the sound of Your voice

And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You say
Every painted sky
A canvas of Your grace
If creation still obeys You so will I
So will I
So will I

If the stars were made to worship so will I
If the mountains bow in reverence so will I
If the oceans roar Your greatness so will I
For if everything exists to lift You high so will I
If the wind goes where You send it so will I
If the rocks cry out in silence so will I
If the sum of all our praises still falls shy
Then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times

God of salvation
You chased down my heart
Through all of my failure and pride
On a hill You created
The light of the world
Abandoned in darkness to die

And as You speak
A hundred billion failures disappear
Where You lost Your life so I could find it here
If You left the grave behind You so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You’ve done
Every part designed in a work of art called love
If You gladly chose surrender so will I
I can see Your heart
Eight billion different ways
Every precious one
A child You died to save
If You gave Your life to love them so will I

Like You would again a hundred billion times
But what measure could amount to Your desire
You’re the One who never leaves the one behind

Joel Houston / Benjamin Hastings / Michael Fatkin