Feeling Christmassy – Advent readings

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For the past 7 years I have written daily Advent readings for our church. For me the process of writing them always reminds me how Christmas is the written on every page of the Bible. It has been more than 10 years now since I had a Northern Hemisphere cold Christmas so these notes for me and getting them finished, rather than the drop in temperature and the shrinking daylight, are now my trigger that Christmas is fast approaching.

I’ll post them daily on my Facebook page and also the Church page, but if you are itching for your own copy you can download this year’s notes here

Advent 2015

I hope that they help you feel Christmassy this year.

 

Funeral Teas and picnics in enemy territory – the theology of comfort

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A silly Facebook conversation sparked by the shocking revelation that most Americans don’t know what a sausage roll is has had me thinking about church funeral teas. (I know, my mind is a funny place to live!!) It got me to thinking that everyplace I have lived in has marked the passing of a loved one with gathering together around food. The food changes from country to country, but the tradition of bringing food to the bereaved and sharing a plate together is the same. I remember in Ireland after my mum’s passing being loved by plateful of scones and traybakes (for those who don’t know what a traybake is you really need to visit Northern Ireland but there is one recipe in photo above). This happened both at the house and at the church after the service – no one went home without having shared a cup of tea and a bite to eat. In Malawi I have sat around shared plates of nsima and stew. In South Africa I shared tea with samosas and milk tart amongst other yummy sweet thing. There is comfort in eating together and bringing food to share is a tangible way of showing our care.

God says He brings us that same comfort in Psalm 23

Psalm 23.4-6 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil;my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Now, I’m not someone who easily loses her appetite, but for many people eating whilst stressed, in trouble or grieving eating can be hard. But God says to us that even amongst your enemies, the place where you are most afraid and scared I’ll set up a picnic for you. He says in tough times when you don’t know where to turn – sit down and eat with me.

He did the same with the disciples when they were running scared after’s Jesus’ crucifixion:

John 21.12 -13 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

So I figure that when we bring someone in trouble or sorrow a plateful of something yummy to share it is a God-image way of saying: I love you, I care for you. Of saying that things look bad, but let’s take a breather and have a cup of tea together.

The next time that I feel overwhelmed by what is around me I plan to take the same strategy – sit down, take a deep breath, make a cup of tea and have a chat with my heavenly father who lays on picnics in enemy territory.

Traditions, two legged hyenas and e-Bay

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I’ve been thinking about traditions – what to pass on to our kids and what not to. How do you make those decisions? I had not fully decided what to do about the ‘Father Christmas issue’ but it seems that daycare has decided that partially for us – there is no escape from Father Christmas. So we have focused on the idea that Father Christmas gives us presents to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, we will work on the rest later.

Our engagement was another event full of potential traditions. Yes, hubby did ask my Dad. But also we had an engagement ceremony in Malawi. Friends acted as family for me there (after all friends are family too). His family came to my family to ask for their girl. Gifts were given to show that they could support me – cloth to make clothes for me, cookware so I could cook for their boy and a huge panga (knife) so that my uncle could protect me from hyenas (the 2 legged kind aka other men!). When it came to the money that is where tradition went out the window though. My hubby is Chewa and they don’t do a full on bride price like some African tribes do, but they do pay a small amount from one uncle to another for the hassle of talking. Over the years this amount has grown and my uncle for the day, a local pastor friend, often lamented how young people were put of Christian weddings due to the costs so he decided to break with tradition and make our engagement an example. In the end he said that we are Christians so we don’t demand lots of money – instead he accepted 500 Kwacha – not enough to even buy a chicken. My brother commented afterwards he was sure he could have gotten more for me on e-Bay! But it taught me a lesson about tradition and when to drop them.

Traditions are fine, unless they stop you obeying God or prevent someone else obeying God. My friend was seeing again and again young people living together but never getting married because a tradition was preventing them – the wedding expectations and costs were getting to high, when in fact the whole idea is simply a vow taken together before God.

Colossians 2.6-8 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him,7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught,and overflowing with thankfulness. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

So as I deal with issues like the tooth fairy (or mouse) and Father Christmas I have to ask myself is there anything about this that prevents my family or I following God. The answer may not be straight forward and may look different in our multicultural home than in others, but at the root is does this honour God.

May my traditions be rooted in You, Christ, and what ever is not, may You give me the courage to break or weed out.

Root Canals & Guinea Fowls

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For the past few weeks I was in denial that my tooth had cracked and I was in pain. The kids were sick, the dentist fees to much, but eventually I could not bear it any longer and visited the dentist. Now I am halfway through a root canal treatment (Ekk for pain & for wallet!). But that first night after the initial treatment was bliss – no pain. How wonderful. Yet last night I realized that I had a dull ache again – how come? I forgot to take my antibiotics at lunchtime and I also left them at work – I had missed two doses. This morning I observed the sticker on my medicine: (Finish the Course). So now a few hours later having taken my medicine I am pain free again.

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Previously I have compared my daughter to a Guinea Fowl – she gets easily distracted and changes course often. If you send her to her room to find shoes you will find her playing with a toy that go her attention while on the way to her shoes. I think I am pretty much the same – sticking to the same course can be tricky.

Proverbs 15.21 Folly delights a man who lacks judgment, but a man of understanding keeps a straight course.

My medicine has reminded me again of the need for consistency and sticking to a straight course – a long obedience in the same direction. But going off course I ended up in pain that was not necessary. Distractions, sin habits, can through us off course, especially when we lose focus of Jesus and the life he has called us to.

Hebrews 12.1-2 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Lord, help me keep on course for you and minimize my distractions – the often end in needless pain.

The dance of the mundane.

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It is been a funny few weeks with lots of ups and downs. My Dad came to stay which is always fun and hubby loved having a rugby buddy, but the kids and I have been sick, which is down down down. I also have had horrible tooth ache – really down down down. I now have the joy of paying for a root canal!!! Each month it feels like you are treading water just to keep you head afloat and then zap a doctor’s bill, a dentist’s bill, a visa renewal & ekk down down down.

Yet in the same few weeks we have enjoyed family visits, my twins have been hilarious (you cannot say anything to convince my 3 year old that her little brother of 6 months is not her twin!!) and I have finally booked a visit home! So while there is much down down, there is plenty of up up too. In fact often feels each month is two steps forward and two steps back. But rather than focus on the up and down I have decided that this is the dance of life.

Jeremiah 31. 11-13 For the LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.12 They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD– the grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more. 13 Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

So this week with root canal and all if you see me doing a funny backwards forwards dance just know I am celebrating the dance of the mundane – an ordinary life that is full of ups and downs, but with joy mixed in.

Cultivating Beautiful Weeds

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I’m not the world’s best gardener – in fact anything that grows in our garden really has to have its own will to survive. We do have a veggie patch, which I like to call the ‘Garden of Neglect’. In an old shoe display case we grow spinach, peas and tomatoes – well we do as long as the rain waters them! One thing I am quite good at growing are weeds – look at this beautiful example:

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Obviously this weed has been given free reign & rain for most of the Cape Town’s winter and has become a beautiful flower. I always heard that a weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place.

a valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop. any undesirable or troublesome plant, especially one that grows profusely where it is not wanted

The problem with my beautiful weed is that it will eventually do damage to our wall and drive way. It looks beautiful and harmless, but eventually it will not be. Why have I not taken it out? Two reasons – honestly I’m lazy when it comes to weeding and I think it is rather beautiful!

There in lies the problem – I think it is the same in my life when it comes to weeding out bad habits and sins. I get lazy, change is too much hard work and if I am honest sin feels good (maybe not now – that is part of the damage that comes later – guilt, shame, separation from God). Jesus suggested a very radical solution for sin weeds and bad habits – serious gardening:

Matthew 5: 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

I am guilty of not taking sin in my life seriously, of being lazy and being comfortable with my beautiful flowering weeds. The damage comes later – the roots go too deep, causing cracks in relationships and it becomes more and more difficult to get rid of the sin weed. The only solution is to cut out the weed – it is dirty, hard work – not fun, and not easy. But God offers us help:

1 Corinthians 10.13  No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it

God takes sin seriously as it is so damaging to us and our relationships – the good news is that He also takes forgiveness and reconciliation seriously too.

Lord, help me to be radical in dealing with sin weeds in my own life. Help me to weed out bad habits before they become flowers that I have grown too found of and whose roots go too deep.

Suicide Prevention Day and Missing Mum – Part 2 aka I’m okay

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Wow – I was a bit taken aback by the response to my last post about Mum’s suicide. Thank you for all the love and kind comments. I feel I needed to add one more thing. Although mum’s death sucks (see I’m still trying to get that term adopted by theologians!), I am okay. At the time it felt like the world was going to end – I think Auden summed that feeling up well

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come…..

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

H. Auden

But the clocks didn’t stop and life carried on.

(For some people a suicide of a loved one can trigger more suicides within their community – it seems a weird thing to say or describe but once you know someone who committed suicide it becomes an option that maybe wasn’t there before – if that is how you feel speak up (Samaritans are here if you don’t have anyone you feel you can speak to))

You see God has a way of working with broken hearts – He doesn’t leave us that way.

Isaiah 61. 1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. 

Yes, I miss mum, she has missed out on so many ‘big’ events in my life and so much of the little stuff. But life has carried on and good things have happened. How did it happen? Well I know they say that times heals wounds, but honestly it is more like God and His people do. The care and love that I have received from my church in Cape Town and my church at home in Belfast has been amazing. The friends and family who just stood on our doorstep in tears of sadness and shock have become people who enjoy sharing fond memories of mum and who comment when they see her personality in me. God takes what is broken and, if we let Him, heals it. I love the picture that He binds up the broken hearted – He doesn’t magic it back together – there may still be cracks and scars. It is not the same without Mum, but that is okay.

So if you are going through a loss, by suicide or by any other means, know that life does carry on and that is okay. Don’t feel guilty about it. Let God’s people come around you – yes they don’t know what to say to make you feel better, yes they may say the wrong thing sometimes (this didn’t happen to me, but I have heard many shockers!!), but more often than not they are also broken hurt people too trying to muddle their way through. Muddle together.

And what is the result? God says He will make us into Oaks of Righteousness, that He will use us for rebuilding other people who have been broken. Oaks are wonderful trees – tall and strong with very hard wood, with roots that shoot out deep looking for water in dry times. They live long and grow in many conditions.

I’m glad that God can turn what has broken my heart into something that can bring Him glory and help others in their hurt. I’ll gladly be an Oak seedling for Him. Yes, Mum’s death still sucks, but I am okay.