Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Welcoming

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell -
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.

 

Merry Christmas!  It's time to welcome a baby!

May your Christmas time be a time of welcoming others, and of receiving a welcome.

May your Christmas time be a time of welcoming Jesus, and of being welcomed by him.

And may those welcomes carry you through the year to come.

Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."
John 14:23 


Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Trusting


Do not be afraid.

Have you ever noticed that whenever an angel turns up in the Christmas story, just about the first thing they have to say is, "Do not be afraid"?

To Zechariah: "Do not be afraid, for your prayer is heard."

To Mary: "Do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God."

To Joseph: "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit."

To the shepherds: "Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news."

The approach of God to earth is a fearful and wonderful thing.  And whatever these angels looked like, they must not have been exactly reassuring in appearance.  But sometimes we make our own fears about meeting God.

Are you afraid he doesn't listen to you?
Are you afraid he won't be happy with you?
Are you afraid you are making the wrong decision?
Are you afraid he will tell you something you don't want to hear?

Then, as we are poised on the brink of Christmas, listen to the angels.
Do not be afraid.

Behold, a king will reign in righteousness,
    and princes will rule in justice.

And the effect of righteousness will be peace,
    and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust for ever.

Isaiah 32:1,17 

Monday, 23 December 2013

Experiencing

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
John 1:14,16 

And in these last few days, it becomes personal.  We have built up our sense of longing.  We have tried to prepare our hearts.  We have heard again the stories of those who were part of that first Christmas.  And now the Word is ready to dwell with us.  Are we ready to see his glory?  to receive grace?  to experience all that he has for us?

If you're like me, you may still be thinking, "no! I'm not ready!"  The Christmas cake only has marzipan on it, there's tons of people we never did send a Christmas card to, and the presents - well, they'll probably get wrapped by Christmas Eve.  And even after all this Advent blogging, I still feel  much more like a dusty old stable than a sparkling house.

But you know what?  Christmas Day will arrive on Wednesday regardless.  And if I spend it looking at all the things I never got done, I won't enjoy it at all.  But if I make the decision to fully experience the day - the family, friends, carols, presents - then I probably won't even remember those cute decorations I didn't get around to making.

And Jesus, fortunately, doesn't wait until we've got ourselves all cleaned up and perfect.  He plunges right in, dusty stable and all, and says, "Hey, I'm here now.  Just look at me, and I'll deal with all those things you thought you had to do."

So, ready or not, let's make the decision to experience Christmas, and to experience Christ.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Remembering






They say you never forget the birth of your first-born, don't they?  And how much more so when he is as special as mine.  Even now, fifty years later, I still take those moments out and sift through them like jewels.


The diamond clarity of that obedient yes, when the angel came.
The smouldering ruby of the long painful journey to Bethlehem.
The shepherds' words, like pearls of great price.
The shining gold of the wise men's precious gifts.

So much else has faded, but these will never grow dim.  I polish them bright in my memory every day.

And then I remember the agony of watching him crucified, that sword piercing my heart.  And the world breaking into a million glittering fragments when the women came running from the tomb, saying they had seen him - alive!  I have seen thousands professing his name, I have seen the persecutions his friends have undergone.  I have heard - wonderingly - reports of people naming themselves Christians in faraway countries I can hardly imagine.

And as I hold my jewels up, I see the light shining through, and illuminating the world.

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
Luke 2:19

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Searching

What stirred them to action, those wise men?
What tugged them away from work and home?
What compelled them to find the One this strange star signified?

We do not know.  We know only that they left.

Where did they travel, those wise men?
What dangers and disasters did they face?
Had they come that way before?

We do not know.  We know only that they arrived.

What brought them to Herod's palace, those wise men?
Had they asked at many houses?
Were they weary and discouraged?

We do not know.  We know only that they searched.

What did they know of the baby, those wise men?
Were they sure that he was God?
Were their lives forever changed?

We do not know.  We know only that they found.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Matthew 2:1-2

Friday, 20 December 2013

Heralding

If the angels are only singing to shepherds -
why bother with angels at all?
It's as if God says, "I could do it big,
but instead, I'm keeping it small.
I could send my Son to a palace -
but I'd rather he slept in a stall.
My heavenly hosts are at his command,
but it's Mary who comes to his call.
And only a few on that first holy night
are aware of his coming at all.

Now you think that it would have been clearer
if the whole world had been held in thrall
By earthquakes and fire, and thunderous noise,
and the blast of a trumpet's call.
There'll be such a time, I can promise you that,
when the earth to its knees will fall.
But for now, I send love, stealing down from above -
and for now, I'm keeping it small."

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."
Luke 2:8-10

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Dreaming

Well, I've never had a dream like that before, you know?  Most of mine are the usual kind of thing, with people and places all jumbled together, and it seems perfectly normal that you and Great-Aunt Sarah are riding flying donkeys to Assyria.  Until you wake up.  But this one was... different.

How?  I guess it had an air of... authority, you might say.  Did you ever have a dream where someone was commanding you to do something?  I can't say I have.  But in this one, there was an angel - and I knew right away he was an angel, like you do in dreams.  No, no wings, not that I recall.  But a kind of brightness around him, somehow.

And he told me - just straight out, in plain language - he told me, "Joseph, go ahead and take Mary as your wife.  She's telling the truth.  This child really is from the Holy Spirit, and it will be a boy, and you will call him Jesus."  Exactly what Mary's been saying all along.

And you know - well, I talked to you just yesterday, didn't I?  You know how convinced I was that divorce was the only way to go.  As quietly as possible, of course, but I just couldn't start a marriage knowing I was raising another man's kid.  And as first-born!  It'd play havoc with the inheritance.  Not to mention all the trust issues, and... no, I won't start that again, you've heard it all before.

Well, I woke up this morning perfectly convinced the other way.  The last thing I could do is divorce Mary now.  I know what you're going to say: "Because of a dream?"  But that's what I've been trying to explain.  It all made perfect sense in the dream, and it still makes perfect sense now I'm awake.  This is what I'm being told to do.

No, I know I haven't had any real answers to my questions.  Except - I have, haven't I?  If what Mary and this angel said is true, that changes everything.

Yes, that changes... everything.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.
Matthew 1:18-20a

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Proclaiming

"Yea and verily, I proclaim unto thee...

Oh, hang on, what century is it on Earth these days?  The 21st?

Dang it, I forgot the iPhone.  Can you understand me if I don't use Twitter?

OK, let's try this again.  Ummm...

Hey, right, you're something special, y'know?  And the Big Man is, like, right here with you?

Nononono, don't cry!  What did I say wrong?  I haven't even got to the difficult bit yet.  Seriously.  Here, have a tissue and pull yourself together.

OK, now God's really happy with you, got it?  Hold that thought.  And behold... no, sorry, sorry...

And, like, you're gonna have a baby, right?  Yeah, hang onto that tissue, I've got another one if you need it.

Yup, a baby.  Little boy.  He's gonna be awesome, trust me on that.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High... oh, don't worry, I'll send you a Facebook message with all that later.

No, I know you haven't been sleeping around.  Did I say you had?  This is, like, a proper God thing, right?  Holy Spirit and all that.  Slightly outside the scope of those Personal Social Sexual Hygiene Lifeskills Education lessons or whatever they call them these days.  Citizenship, is it?  Well, that's shorter, I suppose.

Anyhow, my point is, this is more Personal Supernatural Holiness Education, right?  This kid is, like, actually the Son of God.  No messing.

And that cousin of your mum's?  The one who always thought she couldn't have kids?  Yeah, she's preggers, too.  Maybe you two could chat.

There's a good girl.  I knew you'd come around to the idea.  One more tissue?  All right, I've gotta fly, then.  Text me if you need to, 'K?  Byeeee!"

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!”
Luke 1:26-28

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Imagining


One small light, shining in the darkness.
One small baby, born to one anonymous couple.
One light becomes two.  The darkness fades a little more.
The angels sing.  The shepherds come.
Two lights become four.  The brightness reaches a little further.
In the East, the wise men see a star.
Four lights become eight.  The intensity begins to grow.
The baby becomes a boy.  The boy increases in wisdom.
Eight lights become sixteen.
Now the boy is a man, and hundreds hang on his words.
Sixteen lights become thirty-two.
The light has come to the attention of the authorities, and the man hangs on a cross.
Thirty-two lights become sixty-four.
The city is rocked by news of a miracle - a man raised from the dead.
Sixty-four lights become one hundred and twenty-eight.
The news spreads.  People are changed.
One hundred and twenty-eight becomes two hundred and fifty-six.
Two hundred and fifty-six becomes... becomes... becomes...

How many lights can you imagine?

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will be seen upon you. 

And nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your rising.

 Isaiah 60:1-3

Monday, 16 December 2013

Foretelling

Voices...

A clamour of voices, echoing down through the centuries.
I hear them -
some gentle as the call of a dove, some resounding like the blast of a trumpet -
all as familiar to me as my own.

What do they say?
They speak of peace, of hope, of reconciliation...
of violence and suffering...
of power and mercy.

"A man of sorrows" says one
and "my beloved son" says another.
"A day of judgement" yet "the comfort of Israel".
One cries, "Behold your King!"
another whispers, "the servant of all".

They will not let me go, these voices.
The one of whom they speak is coming soon - I know it, I feel it.
His footsteps are on the way, his time is near at hand.

And I?  They speak of me too.  I am to be the last.
"A voice crying in the wilderness" - that is my task.
As I am foretold, so I foretell.  I gather all these voices into one:

"Prepare ye the way of the Lord!"

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”
Matthew 3:1-3

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Rejoicing



Many years ago, my Aunt Marion made me this key fob.  It's a bit battered and scuffed now from spending so long scraping up against my keys, but I still like it.  O gaudete! means Oh be joyful! in Latin, which is a nice reminder every time I unlock my front door.  (Pronunciation, by the way, is GOW-to-rhyme-with-cow-DEY-TEY or so I am given to understand, my Latin scholarship extending about as far as et cetera and anno domini.)

The point of all this being that today, in the church calendar, is Gaudete Sunday.  All over the world, churches will be lighting a rose-coloured Advent candle instead of the usual purple, and worshippers will be greeted with the words, "Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again I will say it, Rejoice!"

We are just over halfway through Advent, and the tone is starting to change.  After slogging through two weeks of words which are basically synonyms for preparing and expecting, I finally get to shift focus to words like imagining, proclaiming and experiencing.  Christmas is drawing closer; the fulfilment of the prophecies is near.  The discipline of sober preparation is starting to give way to the joyful remembrance of God's coming to Earth.  We are not only watching for Jesus' return; we are celebrating that he has come already and is with us always.  So today: Gaudete!  Be joyful!


Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
    break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
    and will have compassion on his afflicted.

Isaiah 49:13
xx

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Watching

Watchman

Vacancy for a motivated and responsible individual to keep watch for the Lord's return.  Immediate start; duration unknown.  Remuneration will be discussed on application but is expected to include eternal reward.

The ideal candidate will have previous experience of divine-human interactions and a proven track record of staying awake on the job. A good singing voice is desirable but not required.  Training will be given in God-recognition as needed.  A head for heights is essential, as daily shifts will be undertaken on a high watchtower.

Duties include watching and listening for any signs of the Anointed One, relaying words from God to others as appropriate, and compiling accurate reports of any supernatural occurrences observed during your shift.  Should the return of the Lord take place, a joyful song is mandatory, although tunefulness will depend entirely on the candidate's musical ability.

All interested candidates should apply online with CV and cover letter stating relevant experience.  Applicants must hold a current Watchman Guild Licence and undergo a background security check.  Appointments will be made after angelic review, and successful applicants will be notified in due course.

I will take my stand at my watchpost
    and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
    and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Habakkuk 2:1 


How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
    who publishes salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
    together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.

Isaiah 52:7-8

Friday, 13 December 2013

Yearning

that gentle awkward yearning I feel, just to touch your face
Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy

Look!  The stable is silent now.
The shepherds have returned to the still moonlit fields.
The angels have laid down their trumpets and hushed their song.
Only the stable remains, a dark silhouette in the quiet night.

Creep up to the door.  A slice of silver moonlight breaks the gloom inside.
There they are.
Mary, her sleeping form curled protectively around her precious baby.
Joseph, exhausted by the burden of caring for his new family.
And Jesus.  So small and helpless a bundle.

Look! One soft pink hand has escaped from his swaddling, tiny fingers curled tight.
See how long and dark his eyelashes are.
If I touch his cheek, will I wake him?
Will he know I am here?
Will his power change me?
Can I?  May I?

Lean down.  One outstretched finger brushes that soft baby skin.
Gently.  As delicate as a butterfly landing.
Blue eyes open sleepily.  And as I look...
I am looking at the Creator of the universe.

My soul longs for your salvation;
    I hope in your word.

My eyes long for your promise;
    I ask, “When will you comfort me?”

 Psalm 119:81-82

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Travailing

Travailing.  Labouring.  Groaning in the pains of childbirth.  

Whatever you call it, it means long hard work.  Patient, painful persistence.  For much of history, one of the most dangerous activities a woman could undertake.  And still, in our civilised Western world,  one of the more unpredictable and undignified things we are likely to do.

At Christmas, we remember the travail of one woman.  Mary.  How her labour brought forth the Saviour, the long-expected Messiah, and thereby changed the world.

But not completely.  Because Advent is also a looking forward to Jesus' coming again.  And this time we all have a labour to undertake.  Somehow, in some way, the whole of creation is pushing and striving its way towards a new beginning.  And we ourselves are involved.

The Christmas story has given us a taste of what to expect - an inkling of the struggle required, a glimpse of the glory attained.  Each Advent, we look backwards, to remember, and we look forwards, to the goal.   And we find hope to continue with our travail.


 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:22-23

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Waiting

"Mum, can I have a drink please?"
"Just give me a minute to finish this; then I'll get you one."
"Mum, can I have a drink please?"
"Mum, can I have a drink please?"
 "What did I just say?  Yes, when I've finished doing what I'm doing."
"Mum, can I have a drink please?"
"Mum, can I have a drink please?"
"I heard you the first five times, OK?  Ten more seconds."
"Mum, can I have a drink please?"
"Mum, can I have a drink please?"
"Mum, I want a driiiiink!  Nooooowwwww!"

No, patient waiting is most definitely not a natural human attribute!  Most of us gradually learn to control our toddler tendencies to kick and scream if something hasn't arrived by the time we finish our sentence, but we still aren't often that good at waiting.  Especially if we don't know why there's a delay, can't see why there has to be a delay, and have three other places to be by five o'clock and really, this was the last thing we needed on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.  Don't they know how important our time is???

But, hard as waiting is for us, I think we all recognise that it's a valuable thing to learn.  Sure, I'm a fallible mother.  Sometimes I keep my kid waiting just because I can't be bothered to get off the sofa.  But on my better days...

I want him to learn that other people have needs and desires that are just as important as his own.  So I finish what I need to do before attending to what he wants.

I want him to learn not to be selfish and demanding.  So I don't jump to fulfil his every whim at the first time of asking.

I want him to learn patience and self-control.  So he gets to eat dinner when everyone's ready to eat, not just when he's ready.

And I want him to learn that sometimes, waiting makes a moment even more special.  So that pile of presents is staying tantalisingly under the tree until Christmas Day.

It will be said on that day,
    “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
    This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Isaiah 25:9

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Seeking

Lonely Hearts Ads

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for intimate relationship and sense of peace.  Understanding of the human condition vital; virgin birth a definite plus.  Also looking for ability to answer prayers, trustworthiness, and divine sense of humour.  Apply P.O. Box 60192.

God seeking Human
for trusting and committed relationship.  Must have open heart and be willing to take risks.  Brokenness not necessarily a problem but pride is a deal-breaker.  Get in touch soon.  Apply P.O. Box 60783.


Human seeking God
Look, God, are you really there any more?  Sometimes I feel like I'm trying and trying at this relationship thing and there just ain't nothing happening.  Give me a call, OK?  I'd really like to be close again but I don't know how to make it work.  All I need is one little signal from you.  That's it.  Just one.

God seeking Human
I love you.  I miss you.  You don't seem to have much time for me these days, and when we do talk it's just a list of demands.  I came to Earth.  I am closer than you know.  I will be back again.  Remember all we had together, and give me another chance.  It is Christmas, after all.

You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
    “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”

Psalm 27:8

Monday, 9 December 2013

Looking

Doctor Luke.  Do come in.

Yes, I'm Simeon's youngest son, John, although he's been dead and gone these thirty years, God rest his soul.  I certainly wasn't expecting someone to be interviewing me about him at this late date!  Take a seat, do.  Now, what was it you wanted to know?

Oh yes, he was always very religious, especially in his later years.  Bit over the top, if you ask me.  I mean, I'll attend synagogue and hear the prayers like any good Jew, but he was into all that hand-waving, psalm-chanting, messages-from-God type stuff.  "I'm looking for the consolation of Israel," he'd say - whatever that meant.  God knows Israel could do with a bit of consolation, what with all these bloody Romans - 'scuse my Samaritan - but I don't expect to see it in my lifetime.

That reminds me, you know, of the other weird notion he had.  He'd picked up this idea that he wouldn't die until he'd seen the true Messiah.  With all those nutjobs proclaiming themselves Messiah every five minutes, back then!  Dunno how he thought he'd recognise the true one.

But there was that one funny incident.  I used to look in on him most days - his eyesight wasn't so good by then and he'd had a fall or two.  Well, I went over that day and they told me he'd gone to the Temple, which wasn't so unusual.  He had some good friends there.  So I thought I'd wander over and see him.  Temple's not really my kind of place, but anyway.  Usual kind of crush with people selling sacrifices and changing money and all that rigmarole, and I'd just managed to find my way over to Dad.

Suddenly he's yelling, "John! John! I see him!"  Well, I told you he was half-blind, didn't I?  I thought he'd lost it at last.  But he's hitching up his robes and practically running over to this country couple who were waiting to present their little boy to the Lord.  By the time I caught up he was gabbling away about revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Israel, and calling blessing down on them.  "My eyes have seen your salvation," he kept saying.  What they made of it God only knows.  I tried to pull him away, but he wouldn't stop talking.  He told this poor lady a sword was going to pierce through her soul, as I recall.  I ask you, what kind of thing is that to say to a new mother?

Oh, you've tracked her down too?  She'd probably remember what Dad said better than I did.  Hope it didn't scar her for life.

Crucified?  Well, that is a bad job.  Nothing worse than seeing your kid turn out a criminal.  Guess old Dad was right about that sword through the soul comment, then, hey?

Yes, I'm sure he said he was innocent.  I was a lawyer for thirty years, you know.  They'll say anything.

Well, I heard some rumour about a guy being raised from the dead, but naturally I didn't pay much attention.  You don't really believe it, do you?  And you reckon it's that same baby?  So that's what these questions are all about.  I see.

My dad?  Well, it's funny now you mention it.  After that Temple incident I told you about, he had a heart attack and died the very next day.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ.
Luke 2:25-26

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Preparing

Graham and I have a small difference of opinion when it comes to cleaning for visitors.  He thinks I have perfectionist tendencies.  I think I'm doing the bare minimum.  After all, I have to at least pick up all the toys and clean up that pile of crumbs that keeps appearing under Toby's dining chair, don't I?  And while I've got the vacuum cleaner out, the living room and hall always need doing.  And there's no way our guests want to see all that dirty washing up, so I'll just do that.  And wipe all the counters.  And file all those pieces of paper that have been sitting there for weeks.  And... what?  Perfectionist?  Me?

Of course, this may be one of those male/female divides.  Most of my female friends regard having guests over as an opportunity to make the house look reasonable for at least a few hours.  Because all that clutter just builds up.  A pile of paper there, a stack of laundry waiting to be put away, those odds and ends that need a home, the screwdriver that's mysteriously still on the coffee table three weeks after you used it.  And you don't really notice until you realise that someone else is going to see it.

Our hearts and souls tend to get equally cluttered up.  A bad habit here, a bit of time wasting there.  Nothing really wrong, and it all slips in so gradually that you don't really notice it.  Then something happens to make you look around with fresh eyes.  Suddenly you see the thick dust over parts that used to be shiny, the heaps of rubbish gathering in the corners.  And you do the mental equivalent of yelling, "This place is a tip!" and dashing for a broom.

Christmas, you know, is a time for visitors.  How's your house looking?

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord."
Malachi 3:1-3

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Thirsting



When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them;
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them. 

I will open rivers on the bare heights,
    and fountains in the midst of the valleys.
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
    and the dry land springs of water.

Isaiah 41:17-18

Friday, 6 December 2013

Anticipating

Come, my beloved,
    let us go out into the fields
    and lodge in the villages; 

 let us go out early to the vineyards
    and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
    and the pomegranates are in bloom.

 Song of Songs 7:11-12 

The Bible passage comes first today, because it sets that tone of anticipation so well.  Let's go see!  Are there buds yet?  Are the flowers starting to open?  Is anything in full bloom?



I love the anticipation of spring flowers.  First the dainty bobbing snowdrops, then the rainbow spikes of crocuses and the golden trumpets of daffodils.  Then the trees get in on the act.  The ornamental cherry with its over-exuberance of pink fluffy blossom is my favourite, and the waxy white magnolia which lasts for too short a time.  Every year the same pattern, and every year something new to look forward to.


Anticipation increases the pleasure of the thing itself, doesn't it?  Graham has done most of the planning for the past few holidays we have been on, and I have anticipated them just enough to scramble the appropriate quantity of clean clothes into a suitcase!  But I know I've missed out by not getting a picture of the place in advance.  Where's our hotel?  Which beach should we go to?  How do we get to that attraction?  What's the history?  All these things come together and you start to get excited about actually seeing them in reality.  Otherwise, the trip creeps up on you and you find yourself on the plane, asking your husband, "So where is this place again?'

Or, you know, you can just turn up and start digging.

And that so easily happens with Christmas.  Suddenly it's Christmas Eve.  "What's this Christmas thing about again?"  

Advent is the tailor-made way to build anticipation.  We open a door every day on our Advent calendars.  We burn a numbered candle down, or watch as another candle in the wreath is lit every Sunday.  We start to sing the carols, read the stories.  Like the spring flowers, the pattern is the same every year, but each time something different.  Like the holiday planning, we gain a feel for the geography and history, and long to see the reality.  And when Christmas arrives, we know what it's about.  We're ready.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Expecting


Yes, I am, very definitely now, an expectant mother.

Expecting what?  It's such a neutral word; no clue in it whether the expectation is of good or bad.

Expecting the joy of welcoming a new life to the world.
Expecting sleepless nights and dirty nappies.
Expecting toothless grins and tiny toes.
Expecting life to change all over again.

Yes, there's a lot to expect with a new baby.  And when you're pregnant at this time of year, you can't help but think of Mary.  What did she expect?

Did she expect angel choirs... or grubby shepherds?
Did she expect costly gifts... or a bed of straw?
Did she expect a perfect haloed baby... or one like any other?
Did she expect the world to change... or take no notice?

And then, as we look forward to Christmas once again, what do we expect?

Do we expect the joy of celebration... or the pain of loss?
Do we expect good food and expensive presents... or the credit card bill?
Do we expect God with us... or a holly jolly Christmas?
Do we expect our lives to change all over again?

"Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant."
Luke 1:45-48 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Desiring

The thing itself: that hidden part
That sings through life and love and art;
That sparkles in the candle's glow,
That pulses in the ocean's flow.
Our highest dreams and longings dark
Point to the yearnings of our heart.
But we can only see in part
The light that our desires show:
The thing itself.

For we look to a country far,
An unheard song, an unshone star.
It seems the wait is hard and slow,
But one day soon these things we'll know
If we will only set our heart
On God himself.

With thanks to C.S. Lewis' sermon, The Weight of Glory, for providing the inspiration that was so sorely lacking for this post.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength[a] of my heart and my portion for ever.

Psalm 73:25-26

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Hoping

The other day I picked Toby up from preschool, and one of the teachers said, "Toby went on the big toilet twice today!"


Now, you may not fully appreciate the significance of this.  Believe me, if you had been lugging a potty around in a plastic bag every single place you went for the last eight months, you also would have been dancing all the way home.  For all those months: complete resistance.

And then, all of a sudden, he uses a toilet like there has never been a problem.

When we moved back to England last December, Toby reacted to the loss of Texas warmth by refusing to wear a coat.  At all.  This was a winter when we were still having snow in March, and our kid was shivering in two layers of jumpers because that was the most we could get on him.

And then, all of a sudden: "Jacket on, Toby?" "OK".

The "I want" stage started quite some time ago, and continued until we seemed to have been repeating, "I would like... please" fifty times a day since approximately 1992.

And then, all of a sudden... oh wait, we're not quite there on that one yet.  But we live in hope.

Life quite often gives you a sudden change when you had all but given up hope, and resigned yourself to the the situation continuing indefinitely.  But toddlers take the sudden switch-around to a whole new level.  As soon as one issue resolves itself, you're on to the next one, but at least as the successes build up, so does your hope that yes, this too is just a phase.  Why this is the moment and not three months ago, we may never know, but we're thankful that the moment has come at last.

For hundreds of years the Jews had been expecting a Messiah - a Saviour, someone to make a difference.  The wars, oppression, famines and taxes had continued... and continued... and continued.  But still that spark of hope was there.

And then, all of a sudden...

And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
    even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
 Romans 15:12-13

Monday, 2 December 2013

Longing

Looking in at a lamplit room.

Breathing the crisp smoky air of an autumn day.

Needing someone to hug you.

Wondering when it will get better.

Hearing the first few notes of Serenade for Strings.

Wishing you knew how to help the person you love.

Gazing at a fire burning low.

Lifting your eyes to a Cross.


O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save?

Habakkuk 1:2 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Focusing

See that?  That's the end of your nose.  And maybe just a short space in front of it.  Pretty easy to focus on that, isn't it?  That's the

Get up, get dressed,
Why am I already stressed?
Where's your trainers?  Where's my keys?
Not "I want, I want!"  Say please!
Now your coat's on front to back - 
No, you may not have a snack.
Out the door, we're running late.
Look, a car! A dog! A gate!
Now who was it I had to see?
Do you really need a wee?
One day I'll make this house pristine.
Right now I don't have time to clean.
What's for dinner?  I don't know..
OK, off to bed you go!
Story, pajamas, lights out, sleep.
Collapse in an exhausted heap. 

of everyday life.

Now turn that focus wheel... out... out... out...

Past Immediate Concerns...
Past Worries About Family...
Past Where Is My Life Going To...
Past News of Importance I Should Have An Opinion About...

See that?   That's a star... so far away that the light has taken hundreds of years to reach your eye.  

Watch it.  Maybe it will come closer.  

Maybe it will lead you...

Focus.


When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 

 what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?

Psalm 8:3-4 


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Advent writing

If I put it on here it commits me to actually doing it, doesn't it?  OK then.

Deep breath

At the risk of making my blog look like a thesaurus, I have come up with a word for each day of Advent, and the plan is to write something every day to go with that word.  I'm hoping not to go too Thought-for-the-day-ish, with a neat little moral wrapped up in sparkly paper, but if I can come up with something that makes me think, and maybe hits the spot for a few other people, I'll consider it a job well done.  And if not, well, it's only 25 days and you can all come back after Christmas!

Lent and Advent are the two big periods of preparation in the Church calendar, for Easter and Christmas respectively.  Their value for me right now is that they are nicely delineated chunks of time.  I may not be able to keep up something new indefinitely, but surely I can manage it for less than a month, right?  And that month might just be enough to change me a little bit for the better.

This time, I have found myself missing that process of thinking, and of arranging words to express those thoughts.  Blog writing has been pushed to one side by an avalanche of boxes to unpack, followed by a deluge of "What should I do now?" from an attention-craving toddler.  Not to mention another small person who will be shortly muscling his way into the world and demanding even more time.  If I want to claw back any thinking time, now is probably the month to do it. And since this is the month designated by the church for centuries as one to pause and realise the sheer wonder of God coming to earth: why not make the most of it?

I've used the Creighton University online resources a few times for Lent, and their Advent site looks just as useful and inspiring.  Go have a look if you're interested in any daily readings, prayers, or general tips on how to have a more thoughtful Advent.

So, Advent starts on Sunday and I think I have a bit of writing to do before then.  Watch this space!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Toby's Third Birthday

We've moved house!  Just in case you were wondering why I hadn't blogged for over a month.  I can assure you that nothing hugely exciting has happened in the intervening period; we have mostly been putting things into boxes and taking them out again, and wandering vaguely round the new house trying to work out where to put it all.  The new place is substantially bigger than the rented house we were squashed into for 9 months, though, so we are appreciating the space.  Now it's at least halfway towards being a home, and a certain small person has a big birthday tomorrow (do you realise how many toys are marked "Unsuitable for children under 36 months"?  It's like the legal drinking age for toddlers!) we had to... make a cake and throw a party!

When we asked Toby what he wanted for his birthday, his one stipulation was "a birthday chocolate cake".  Further enquiry confirmed that it had to have Smarties on it.  When your mum used to be a professional cake decorator, I'm afraid it gets a little more elaborate than that.


I based it on this Hickory Dickory Dock cake from a book called 50 Children's Party Cakes, because Toby is always asking what the time is.


The design is pretty simple, just a round cake and a square cake.  Cut the two bottom corners off of the square (mmm, offcuts!) and a semi-circle from the top so that it fits snugly onto the round cake.  I substituted chocolate buttercream for the brown fondant, because it just tastes better, and surrounded the clock face and pendulum window with plenty of Smarties.  And of course, it had to say 3 o'clock.

With the food before the party
Opening a birthday card (it sings!)

Opening presents (with assistance)

We made the party a combined housewarming and birthday party, and used it as an excuse to get to know our new neighbours a little better, as well as (mostly) Derby friends and some family.  It turned into a surprisingly large number of people considering we haven't even been here a year yet!  We were really overwhelmed by how many friends came, and brought such generous presents.  Toby very quickly learned that the doorbell ringing meant something else to unwrap, and went running to greet each new arrival!  He's old enough now to get excited about the whole thing, and had a great time.  He loved having lots of people around; enthusiastically sang Happy Birthday to himself along with everyone else; blew out the candles very professionally; and was finally rewarded with a piece of birthday chocolate cake.

Incompetent lighting of matches (it took me three goes to get one to strike!)
Blowing out the candles
I did it!
It tastes as good as it looks!
P.S. The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed the complimentary bump photo in the above selection.  For those that don't know, we are expecting a little brother for Toby in February!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Cooking with fire

Everyone has been remarking on what a good summer Britain has enjoyed this year.  A stark contrast to last year, when, apparently, it rained non-stop apart from about three nice days.  If it had done that this year I think we would actually have been on a plane back to Texas by now!  As it was, we got to enjoy an English summer at its best - and that includes seizing the opportunity to eat outdoors.

At least one of my Texan friends had never heard of a disposable barbeque (which of course would be called a grill over there).  In general Americans are masters of disposable everything, so this may be surprising.  But no park there is complete without a couple of grills and a picnic bench, so I guess if you have somehow failed to purchase a gigantic three-canister supercharged gas grill - or indeed installed an entire outdoor kitchen in your back yard - this is what you resort to.  As we did on several occasions.

But anyway, back on this side of the pond, our outdoor cooking experience involved a little foil tray containing quick-light charcoal and a metal mesh, which really did the job surprisingly well.  It also usually involved Graham coming home from work and saying, "Let's have a barbeque!" so I became an expert at 10-minute barbeque food preparation.

First time: Calke Abbey; perfect weather; lamb chops with garlic and spinach pilaf, which is what we were going to have for dinner anyway; the somewhat elegant food only marred by forgetting an extra plate, so the lamb chops were served on a cardboard box; water fight to finish.

Toby getting smoked

Beautiful presentation
(We have a great video of Toby chasing me around with a squirty water bottle, but Blogger is being fussy about uploading it.  Maybe later.)

Lamb chops with garlic and spinach pilaf (The Sainsbury's Magazine Cookbook)

1 whole garlic head, split into cloves
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp each ground cumin and ground coriander
pinch of chilli powder
1 cup basmati rice
2 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock (broth)
1 bay leaf
3 medium tomatoes, deseeded and roughly chopped
200g young-leaf spinach
handful of fresh parsley, chopped
4 lamb loin chops

Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the unpeeled garlic cloves.  Boil for 3-4 minutes, then drain and rinse in cold water.  Peel.

Heat the oil in a large pan.  Add spices, stir and fry for one minute, then add rice.  Pour in stock, and add garlic, bay leaf, tomatoes and seasoning.  Cover, bring to the boil, reduce heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes.  Stir in spinach and parsley and cook until wilted.

Brush lamb chops with oil and season.  Grill or griddle until done.

Second time: Kedleston Hall (can you tell we're National Trust members?); somewhat damp and the charcoal was somewhat damp too, but we got it burning in the end; nice big burgers; frozen fish in foil with a splash of lemon juice, olive oil and herbs (prep time two minutes flat); the best barbequed potatoes; Toby attempting to kill us with a frisbee.

Acting as bellows to persuade the reluctant flames to get going

Well, I'll just eat dry bread then.

Fish in foil, burgers and potatoes cooking

Frisbeeeee!!!

The Best Barbequed Potatoes

These are basically roasted potatoes, only done on a grill, but I'm giving you the recipe because they were really good.

Wash plenty of potatoes (you will eat more than you think!) and nuke in microwave until just done.  If you have time, leave to cool a bit so you don't burn your fingers, then cut into chunks.  Throw into a ziplock bag or plastic tub with a good slug of oil, salt, pepper and whatever other seasonings you might fancy, and shake well to mix.  Put on hot grill and turn regularly so that all the sides get nice and brown and crispy.
  
Third time: Back to Calke Abbey; burgers, grilled veggies and rather delicious pulled pork from our generous American neighbour; Toby helped to cook; saw a couple more tiny frogs like the one by the lime kilns.
 
Putting a tomato on the bbq


Grilled peppers, too

Stirring the pulled pork

I've no idea what recipe the pulled pork was cooked to, nor have I ever made it, but this one sounds good and involves a barbeque. BBQ pulled pork sandwich 

Fourth time: Calke Abbey is emerging as a clear favourite; MARSHMALLOWS! and strawberries; and sausages, and fried onions because I actually had advance notice this time, and more delicious potatoes, and tomatoes.
 
They're hot!


Healthy, look - 2 strawberries to 1 marshmallow!

Working off some sugar

S'mores

If marshmallows and strawberries on a skewer aren't quite decadent enough for you, try s'mores.  I haven't found an American yet who doesn't know how to make them, so here is the British version.

Packet of marshmallows
Packet of chocolate digestives

Put marshmallow on stick and toast over hot embers until nice and soft.  Place one chocolate digestive on each side of the marshmallow, chocolate side in, and slide off the stick, so you end up with a biscuit and marshmallow sandwich.  Eat stickily.  Repeat until the embers have gone cold and you feel sick.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Ticknall: Tunnels and more

Those first few years of your child's life, you take a pushchair everywhere, and it starts to seem impossible that they'll ever walk more than six steps, at any pace faster than a snail's crawl, in any direction resembling the one you wish to go in.  You look longingly at little paths snaking through woodland or striking up through grassy fields, and stick solidly to flat tarmac surfaces instead.  And then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, they become mobile!  You throw caution to the wind and venture out without a pushchair, and you don't end up carrying toddler and all his stuff for three-quarters of the journey.  Life has new and exciting horizons!

Of course it helps if you still don't expect to get too far, and you have somewhere interesting to go.  A recent walk near the local village of Ticknall had pretty much everything a kid could want - and adults too!  We parked in the village car park, set off and promptly bumped into an old tramway, complete with dark and spooky tunnel.  Who can resist walking through a tunnel?





A little further on, we arrived at the tramway's original starting point: lime kilns used for baking the limestone quarried here, which was then carried down to the canal at Ashby.  They were beautifully overgrown with bright waving grass, spikes of colourful flowers, and - excitingly - a tangle of wild raspberries.  Who can resist free fruit on a walk?






We ducked inside one of the cave-like kilns, where Toby threw pebbles into the water to hear the hollow splash.  We spotted bees and butterflies and even a teeny tiny frog.





After years in Texas, summer in England feels like living in a rainforest.  I'd forgotten just how much vegetation springs up and grows and shoots and tangles and reaches and opens out and creates a whole profusion of green and gold and grey.  I'd forgotten how long wet grass soaks you up to your knees, and how you need a stick sometimes to fight your way between waving walls of brambles and nettles.  I'd forgotten how the sunlight sifts through leaves and settles in patches on the forest floor, and the glorious smell you get when it's just rained and everything is warm and damp.




And I'm just about making myself homesick even though I'm here, which is quite an achievement, so I shall stop waxing poetic and finish off the walk.  Oh yes, the curious cows.  They followed us all the way across the field and then gathered around the gate.  I don't think anyone had read them the sign.




And we finished up at the village shop for a well-deserved ice lolly.  Who can resist ice cream at the end of a walk?