Merry Christmas – It doesn’t have to be perfect

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In all the preparation for slick singing and powerful performances during the festive season in churches across the West, and in the pursuit of creating amazing decorations, presents and fine food, it struck me how laid back God’s plans were for the birth of the Saviour of the world, far off in the dusty Middle East.

Mary and Joseph weren’t informed in advance to not bother trying for a room at Bethlehem’s inns. No, God let them experience the frustration and  disappointment of being turned away, and watched them simply trust him for the safe arrival of the promised Messiah.

We don’t read anything about fear or anxiety gripping the young parents’ hearts; simply that they pressed on and were happy to accept whatever alternative arrangements the innkeeper could make for them. They didn’t complain about the provision they were offered; they focused on welcoming their baby and settling down for the night.

The coming of the King of Kings wasn’t orchestrated with much fanfare and hype. (Except for the chorus of angels when they made their announcement to the humble shepherds – and, even so, not everyone got to witness this wondrous display in the night sky.) The actual birth was a simple affair in a rustic setting, something that reflects the nature of our God. Jesus – God in human form – chose to dwell among regular people in  an average part of town. He could have been born in the finest palace. But God chose a manger in a basic spare room, most likely a barn.

This Christmas it’s good to remember that God’s not looking for perfection, but rather willingness to follow his calling and readiness to accept circumstances that might seem strange, whilst knowing that he’s got it all figured out. We don’t have to know what’s coming next or how everything will work out; that’s God’s job. We can find the Prince of Peace and experience supernatural calm when we focus our hearts and minds on him. Even when our plans go wrong and the perfect Christmas, or family, or life doesn’t materialize. Christ wants to meet us in our mess, in his time and in his way.  Are we ready to welcome him in the stillness, away from all the season’s noise?

You Can’t Buy Joy// FaithWalk

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(c) photocillin/ Flickr

At this time of year there’s a pressure from retailers and advertisers to persuade us that happiness can be bought. In all our frenzied gift buying and searching for the ideal thing or gadget, we take delight in knowing that the faces that we see unwrapping those gifts will reflect heightened happiness – that is, if we’ve chosen well! – on Christmas morning.

But joy is something beyond happiness. It cannot be bought, it cannot be faked – it’s a deeper, richer state of being than happiness. It doesn’t depend on what we have or on our circumstances; it doesn’t depend on where we live or our status in society. This doesn’t mean that we won’t experience problems or pain – but the promise found in the Bible is that “Tears may flow in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

Even when we’re dragged to the depths of despair and everything’s going wrong, joy wins. Paradoxically, joy can be an underlying state – the default setting for the Christian life that underpins our lives – even when, at times, it seems everything’s against us.

Westerners are often astounded by the joy on little kids’ faces on dusty village streets in poorer parts of Africa. They have so little, but their community and sense of fun reflects their inner joy.

Unlike happiness, which is often fickle or eludes us, joy keeps bouncing back. Much like oil which can’t be whisked or stirred away in water – joy can’t help but rise to the surface. At Christmastime we sing ‘Joy to the World’ because Christ has given us hope and given us meaning.

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Creative Commons – Justina Turpin

If Christ is in us and we have hope of his promises – joy bubbles to the surface, sending its rippling effects into the mundane or hopeless parts or life. It may not deplete all the bad stuff, but its presence is a tangible and noticeable force in the murky water of life.

The band Pentatonix, featured in the video below, have produced a brilliant, a capella rendition of that famous carol and enthused it with their own passion and energy. And joy is etched on their faces as they sing, even though they may not believe in the God who created them with smiles and shiny eyes to reflect His image and His glory. I’m sure that God who gave them lungs to breathe and voices to sing loves to hear everyone sing his praise, even if they don’t believe the words they’re singing.

While happiness is at the mercy of circumstances and dependent on feelings, joy is eternal. Even in the wealthy West, with all that we have and all the opportunities afforded us, we can still find ourselves unhappy.

The wonderful thing about joy is that it’s not about us; it’s about the person of Christ and it’s about our hope and our future – things that can never be taken away from us. Happiness is about me and how I feel, or whether others are making me happy; joy is found in Someone else whose feelings towards me don’t fluctuate.

This Christmas, Christians everywhere pause from all their shopping, parties and rushing about to focus on the One who came to bring peace, hope and joy. And that makes the greatest difference throughout the year, not just during the festive season.

Interactions and Integrity – Hitting the Right Notes// FaithWalk

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I sing and play guitar (Takamine G Series, wine red) in a worship band at church. I’m up the front on a regular basis, looking worshipful and maybe perceived as one of the chosen few spiritual ones to handle a mic. I’d happily not be at the front (actually, the centre, at my place of worship – as we meet in a lecture theatre), but leaders don’t like the thought of guitarists or singers standing fourth row from the back or singing at the sidelines, which might well be my preference.

I’m also far from super spiritual, acutely aware of my shortcomings (impatience, self-centredness, negativity to name a few) whilst realising the responsibility of maintaining a heart that is intent on worshipping Christ and not focused on looking and sounding good. (Though playing badly through lack of practice is verging on unforgivable!)

My daily life, as for most, is filled with little interactions with a cross section of people in varied places… From chatting with my family round the dinner table, to petty talk with a cashier at the supermarket, to interactions with delivery guys or other people who come to the door. We all interact with those we know well and those we don’t know at all throughout the week. Neighbours. Parking attendants. Doctors or nurses. Teachers. Colleagues. Baristas.

And in those (often) insignificant moments there lurks something absolutely significant: As Christians, we represent Christ – and that either shines through to the people we meet, or it doesn’t. At worst, our flawed characteristics shine through (anger, jealousy, impatience).  And those attributes may be how we are remembered.

Shortly after a negative interaction with someone, in which I’ve shown little grace or displayed annoyance or impatience, I’ve almost immediately regretted my behaviour. It’s possible to apologise, but sometimes it’s too late. You’re already home unpacking the shopping when you wince over the way you huffed over the person in front of you in the queue who took forever.

That person who may have recently been issued with divorce papers. Or who just received a diagnosis of cancer. Or whose job is at risk of being axed.

The same person who could possibly show up at church next Sunday and recall the way you looked at them with disdain while you’re belting out… ‘I am a child of God’.

Yes, no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. But I’ve found it helpful in my engagement and interactions with others, to keep in mind that the person serving me at the petrol station or cafe could move in across the street from me or turn up at church next Sunday. Will I aim for integrity in the daily minor interactions I face, will I represent the living Christ in me, or will I stomp through the day, caught up in the things I need to get done, unaware of my curt or impatient responses?

A smile or a helping hand or a kind word don’t cost anything, but they can mean a great deal to someone who is struggling or lonely.

It’s easy to think that the little things don’t matter but the little things often resound loudly to others. If just one string on my guitar is out of tune, it affects the whole sound of the other five strings when a chord is played. In the same way, I may display Christian attitudes and a heart for God most of the time but when my character becomes even a little out of tune with Gospel living, the song my life plays no longer sounds right, it’s out of tune with God and it may even drown out the positive parts.

I long to grow in integrity, patience and humility. I hope to reflect Christ. And the more I spend time in his presence, the more that becomes second nature. But it’s a constant fight to push back the old, inner self and let Christ be present in both the big and small aspects of life, day by day, moment by moment. We all need encouragement and grace to allow ourselves to be fine-tuned into a person of integrity, someone who can’t help resounding love, peace, patience – the fruits of a Spirit-filled life.

7/7 (In Less than 24 Hours) – A Poem

Writelight* Shedding light through words

On the anniversary of the London 7/7 bombings I’ve decided to post a poem which I wrote shortly after that fateful day, seven (eta: now 10) years ago. Thanks to Gillan Scott over at God and Politics UK who has also featured it on his (former) site. [Gillan can now be found over at archbishopcranmer.com]

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From elation to deflation
in less than twenty-four hours
From euphoria and applause
on the streets of London,
to sudden, forceful pause
across the transportation network.

Stillness in the city,
but for the sirens, the screams.
From gasps of delight
to gasps of horror,
From cheerful celebrations
to serene silence.

Lives cruelly snatched away.
Hearts leapt on Wednesday,
sank on Thursday –
Hope sapping from the heart of London
and the heart of man.
But our hope is in you, sovereign Lord

As the nations rage
our hearts remain steadfast in You.
Eight…

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The Art of Apologising – One of the Best Things My Mother Taught Me

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I could list numerous methods of parenting my mother displayed that were ineffective or regrettable – from nagging about how skinny I was (or, how fat, these days), to moaning about whether I’d been taking vitamins at the slight occurrence of a sniffle. Yet there’s one experience that my mum instigated which has had a profound effect on me as an adult. And it’s in the area of apologising.

I was generally quite a bright and able child at school. Termly reports that came home were mostly pleasing in regard to my effort and progress. My parents had nothing to worry about.

That is, until my year 9 report (the Upper Fourth, back then) – when my form teacher made a scathing comment about my (teenage) tendency to be rude. Yikes, I hadn’t realised that she’d noticed my disdain of her. She was, after all, an unpopular PE teacher – which in a Girls’ Grammar like mine meant that we considered her the lowest of the low, and quite undeserving of our respect. In addition to that, I just didn’t like her. She looked funny and was annoying. She wore unfashionable sporty gear. I certainly wasn’t going to go out of my way to be pleasant to her. In fact, I rather revelled in ignoring her at times and doling out sarky or sulky responses now and again.

My mum was not impressed. She demanded that I apologise first thing the next day. Apologise! To her! I was mortified. I really didn’t feel any remorse, so why should I apologise? Mum threatened some sort of sanction unless I did. (I can’t remember what it was, but it was probably something like being grounded until further notice.)

And so, next morning after registration, as everyone was heading out of class to their lessons, I approached Miss Maddison, feeling totally sheepish and silly. I looked at her briefly in the eye, before mumbling an apology for my rudeness, whilst staring down at my feet. I’m not easily embarrassed but I could feel my face turning red and my heart beating wildly. The teacher acknowledged my apology and I made a hasty exit. It was all over within a few seconds, and wasn’t nearly as bad an experience as I thought it might be.

I wasn’t rude to her again, and actually started to develop some empathy and see things from her perspective for a change. I realised how awful it must be to be in charge of such a snobby bunch of self-absorbed teenage girls.

Since then, this acquired life skill, in which I overcome embarrassment in order to apologise for my behaviour or words, has served me well. You see, I am not always measured in my responses or thoughtful in my reactions – particularly after a sleepless night or stress from children or other outside influences. There are times when I snap, am rude or am unable to contain my displeasure. Just minutes after such encounters, I start to find myself deeply regretting my reaction and wonder what on earth got into me. I know that the only way I’ll ever be able to maintain future contact or relationship with the other party concerned will be for me to apologise. It’s a terrifying prospect – yet wholly necessary, and ever so liberating.

Just a short moment of humility, and the apology is usually accepted, and the wronged person hopefully begins to see me as a flawed, yet decent individual, rather than an absolute, pig headed idiot. I’m loathe to admit that the opportunities that led to apologies in such manner have arisen in a variety of settings, concerning dealings with different types of people – from a stall holder at a market place, to a church leader after a critical comment about kidswork, to my son’s primary headteacher during a meeting regarding a negative incident. Each of these situations could have been avoided entirely, if I had only stopped to think before I opened my mouth; alas, I didn’t. But, each time, I knew that if I wanted to restore any remnant of positive interaction with those people in future, it would depend on me apologising.

And for that, dear mum, I’m thankful that you taught me the importance of an apology. You also demonstrated the importance of apologising for your flaws when you over-reacted at home or responded in anger. If I am also able to instil in my children the value of saying sorry when they really don’t feel like it, I will have succeeded in some small way as a parent.