What is your favourite Christmas Carol, I wonder. I prefer the quieter ones myself, such as O Come O Come Emmanuel, and Silent Night. It wasn't until a few days ago, listening to Classic FM as I drove to work, that I really heard the words of O Little Town of Bethlehem. There are two lyrics in particular that I'd like to share with you.
Firstly, "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” stands out after the year that we have had. So much hope and fear in just the space of 12 months. Hope of better days to come, hope to see friends and family again, hope to hug, hope for a vaccine, hope for numbers of cases to drop, hope in the government. Fear of job losses, fear of losing loved ones, fear of loneliness and isolation, fear of the affects in relationships and mental health, financial fears, existential fears, even. Looking with a wider perspective than just this year, looking generally at our lives, yours and mine, and universally too. We hope for peace; peace of mind, peaceful lives, world peace. When anxiety takes hold, we fear the little things, as well as huge ‘what ifs’. When real fear kicks in, it needs to be met with real peace. This hope is met in Jesus, as the “prince of Peace”.
We hope to have enough; enough money, enough food, enough work, enough friends. We hope to be enough. We fear that won’t. This hope of enough was met in Jesus. In Matthew He speaks about worry, saying to look at the birds of the air. They don’t worry about food, they don’t sow or reap, or store away in barns. Jesus asks, “are you not more valuable to God, than the birds?” Jesus says “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:25-34) This hope to have enough, this fear that we won’t, is met in Jesus.
We have a hope to be loved. We have a fear that we are not. This is met in Jesus when He made the biggest sacrifice of all, laying down his life to save us. That cross He carried was mine too, that cross He carried was yours. The crown of thorns He wore for us. There’s a quote that says, “I asked Jesus, how much do you love me? And he stretched out his arms, and died. Our hope to be loved is met in Jesus.
But on this night in Bethlehem ‘one of the small clans of Judah’, as Micah had prophesied hundreds of years before, all our hopes and fears are met. Hopes are met with fulfilment, and fears are crushed.
The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.
'The second lyric that stands out to me is “come to us, abide with us, O Lord Emmanuel”. Emmanuel means God with us, but this lyric is more than saying the same thing three times. It’s not “be with us, be with us, O Lord of the God who is with us”. 'Come', 'abide', and 'with' are three different things.
Come is a movement, it’s to go from one place to another. If I say to you, “come here”, you don’t just turn your head to listen, you intentionally and purposefully move to me. In Matthew 7:7, Jesus says, ‘ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you”. We ask God to come, and He will come. But I think there’s also something we need to do too, sometimes we need to make intentional and purposeful movement. There’s an analogy I love, and it goes like this…
If you’re at a theme park and you’re looking at a map, you find the ride that you want to go on. But it’s no use knowing where the ride is, if you don’t know where you are in relation to it. You need to find the red pin that says “you are here”. Where are you in relation to God? If God is near, where are you? God will come to you. But you can also come to Him.
Abide with us, is different too. Abide is a much stronger word, again I think it is intentional and purposeful, but instead it’s not a movement like ‘to come’ is. It means to be stable and fixed, to be so close in relationship that it’s like you are one. Jesus says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me”
And finally, Emmanuel, God with us. I think Emmanuel sort of encapsulates it all. Come, intentionally and purposefully come closer. Abide; stay close, become in relationship. With, let’s go onwards together.
There’s this great blessing that I love, often prayed at Christmas time:
“May you be filled with the wonder of Mary, the obedience of Joseph, the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the determination of the Magi, and the peace of the Christ child”
Maybe you've heard it already this advent, or maybe it is new to you. I'd like to journey and see what each characteristic means for us.
“.....Filled with the wonder of Mary…”
I wonder what words you would use to describe Mary, and whether ‘wonder’ would be in your list.
In Luke 1:46-56, Mary has been to see Elizabeth, whose baby jumped for joy when greeted by Mary, and now she’s singing a song of wonder at God’s goodness and faithfulness.
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me--
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
When we discuss how Mary must have felt, we often choose words like scared, worried, confused. We sometimes forget that here, after visiting Elizabeth, Mary sang a song of praise and wonder.
A song by Bethel repeats, “may we never loose our wonder, wide eyed and mystified, may we be just like a child, starring at the beauty of our king. May we never loose our wonder”
What does it look like to have wonder at Christmas time?
“....filled with the obedience of Joseph....”
Joseph was obedient and followed what the angel had told him. Staying with Mary and trusting in God put Joseph (and Mary) at risk. Joseph could have ran away and said he would have nothing to do with this… although knowing what happened to Jonah, that probably wouldn’t have gone down well either! Instead, Joseph trusts in God, for God is faithful to His promises. Joseph accepts that he has been chosen, and journeys in obedience.
What does it look like for you to be obedient to God? Perhaps for you too, it is saying 'yes' to God and going on a journey, or perhaps it's staying in a place God has called you to be in. Maybe God has called you to love a difficult person, or give to a charity.
“...filled with the joy of angels”
Think of a time that you told someone some good news; remember how joyful that was!
Imagine the joy the angels must have felt, being the ones to share this exciting news with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. Perhaps that is why they were so loud and excited about their message, they knew that God was going to come down to earth as a baby, perform incredible miracles and would save the world of their sins!
What does it look like for you to be joyful?
“....filled with the eagerness of the shepherds”.
Isn’t it incredible that God chose shepherds to be some of the first people to hear the news that the Saviour of the world would be born; no wonder they were eager! This baby, that hundred of years ago before, Isaiah had said would be a ruler, Mighty God, Prince of Peace. The shepherds eagerly journeyed to see this mighty, royal, king baby.
What does it look like for you to be eager this Christmas? Not just eager for the presents under the tree, but eager for the presence of Jesus.
“... filled with the determination of the Magi”.
It’s not known how far exactly the Magi travelled. Some scholars say a few hundred, whilst others estimate it’s a few thousand! Either way, it takes some determination to travel any amount of distance to follow the star and see the Messiah. I guess that’s where their determination came from; knowing that at the end of their journey they would see the Saviour of the World. Their determination was pushed by trust and by hope.
What does it look like for you to have determination?
“....filled with the peace of the Christ child”
In Isaiah, it was prophesied that Jesus would be Prince of Peace. Peace crushes fears and anxiety, peace has the power to settle restlessness and stormy weather.
What does it look like for you to have peace this Christmas?
This Christmas, “May you be filled with the wonder of Mary, the obedience of Joseph, the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the determination of the Magi, and the peace of the Christ child”
This week is anti-bullying week. Like many other issues, it isn’t enough to just be ‘anti-bullying’ anymore. It isn’t enough to have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy that nobody has ever seen, let alone follows. It’s not enough to shake off name-calling as a bit casual teasing; banter, something everyone experiences and therefore isn’t different but insignificant and unimportant. It isn’t enough to just wear odd socks, as lovely as that is. Instead we need to be educating, we need to be proactive, intentional, having real conversations about what isn’t acceptable behaviour, calling that out, and doing something about it.
Last year it was reported that a fifth of young people in the UK had been the victims of bullying in the last twelve months. Three out of four people who were bullied said it affected their mental health and nearly half became depressed as a result.
I think that there’s an idea that children and young people will put up with whatever is thrown at them and take it as if it’s banter. But actually, what I think happens, is children and young people will take the bullying as if it’s banter, but they’ll wrap the words and actions around themselves like a blanket and it’ll change how they see themselves, perhaps leading to depression, anxiety, and risky behaviour. Bullying isn't just about the immediate, it's about what it can go on to cause.
There’s also an idea that bullying is just something that children experience, yet YouGov found that 15% workers have experienced bullying in the past three years, more than half of them did not report it to the firm. Alternatively, you only have to scroll through Twitter during 'I’m A Celebrity' to see countless nasty comments.
This week, of all weeks, I returned to a school where I experienced many years of being bullied. I came full circle, returning as an adult to co-lead a lunch-club. I felt a sense of power and inner-strength, that I managed to return, wearing a ‘visitor’ lanyard around my neck, being treated like a teacher.
As a student, I had names thrown at me, and I began to believe them myself. I had a knife pointed at me when I was fourteen years old, told “you’re lucky the teacher is coming back otherwise there would be a bloodbath”. I would be completely ignored as if I didn’t exist, paper and class equipment not passed to me; behaviour that just looks like silly teasing, and because it was treated that way, I saw it all that way too. It took session after session of counselling for me to realise that wasn’t okay, and that it was traumatic.
So this anti-bullying week, lets educate ourselves and check our own behaviours. Let’s be proactive, not taking it as a bit of banter, but as bullying.
Are you in a position where you can write a behavioural policy for your context, share it with those you work with, and follow through with it?
Are you in a position where you can stand up for someone who may be experiencing bullying, remind them of their true worth?
Let’s have real conversations about what isn’t acceptable behaviour. Let’s call out words and actions that aren’t okay, in our youth groups, in the classroom, at home, and online.
If you’re being bullied, report it, and don’t stop reporting it until something changes. You are so much more than the words being thrown at you, and the actions being done to you.
In-blog links and further reading:
Jesus had twelve friends, three of whom were especially close. They served each other
and the communities around them, they learnt together, grew together, journeyed,
worked, ate, and prayed together.
In the book of Ruth, Naomi has lost her husband and two sons in the space of ten
years. She’s hurting and mourning when her daughter-in-law and friend, Ruth, says “where you go, I will go, where you stay, I will stay” (1:16)
Paul and Timothy set an example of a different kind of friendship, as Paul mentors Timothy. Their friendship is for a season, until Paul sends Timothy out.
There are many examples of friendships in the Bible, so if it’s such a clear theme throughout, and if it was an example so strongly set by Jesus, perhaps it’s something we should intentionally mirror in our lives. “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We should be people who stick by each other and journey together. We should be people who mourn as well as celebrate with each other, people who teach and serve one another, even if only for a season.
the beginning of Spring, and the beginning of autumn
The view outside my bedroom, kitchen and lounge windows isn't generally the view most house-hunters desire, as it’s a red brick, multi-storey carpark. If I look closely through the gaps, I can occasionally see trains going past in the distance. Through another gap, I can see a small corner of the city’s golden coloured, hive-like library. Every so often, I make awkward eye contact with maintenance, security and cleaning staff through the windows, and from time-to-time, I get concerned that I can see someone on the roof, and then I remember that it's just the top level of parking spaces.
I sometimes think how beautiful it would be if I could see a clearer picture of what stands behind the ugly car park, if it was knocked down; the train carriages whizzing past, the library in all its shining glory, the river. But in April I realised the beauty of what stands in front of the brick building, as green leaves began to grow on the trees in front. I loved watching the leaves turn greener and greener as spring turned into summer. In such an uncertain time as was lockdown, it reminded me of the certainty of the seasons.
And here we are now in October. We still find ourselves in an uncertain time; not knowing what the next few months will hold. No doubt you too will have plans changed and cancelled, whilst other events do go ahead but more last-minute than usual, because we’re just not sure how to plan for something weeks in advance anymore.
But the leaves still turn brown and fall, turning crunchy or damp beneath our feet.
The conkers still drop in their spiky shells, and get collected by children (…. And adults too!)
Different animals and creatures come out, whilst others go into hibernation.
Creation is a constant through this uncertain time; the seasons changing is something we can be sure of, because God is still at work.
Take a look outside now. What do you see? Trees, leaves? The sky, clouds? Birds? Do you see a river, a lake, or the sea? Hills, or mountains? All singing the praises of their maker (Psalm 148 ) Whatever you see, may it remind you that God is at work, that God is near, and that God is a constant.
Over the summer, I’ve been reminded of the wonder of play, something I may not have if it weren’t for the lockdown.
I’ve pieced together train tracks for my two-year-old cousin. We’ve sat on the floor, pushing the little wooden trains around the loop, under the tunnel, over the bridge, making “ch ch ch ch” noises as we go.
I’ve swung on rope swings over a little stream with my three older cousins. We’ve laughed as we twisted and spun, and we discussed tactics to get the best run-up, and therefore speed over the stream.
At a socially distanced youth picnic, I played silly games with the young people, such as one that involved us acting like eggs, chickens and dinosaurs in a rock-paper-scissors type tournament. I watched as they played hide and seek, they climbed trees, crawled into bushes, swung on rope swings. We wandered about the big playing field in the chilly wind searching for leaves, flowers, seeds and sticks… or massive branches in some cases!
This picnic was the first time I had seen the young people face-to-face since March. However, I had seen most of them most weeks over Zoom. We played Jackbox Games - a program I really recommend looking into - which are a pack of online games. I run the program using Steam on my laptop and then I screen-share over Zoom. The young people, using a different device to the one they’re running Zoom on, log into Jackbox using a unique and private room code. Then we play! A favourite was 'Quiplash', which is where Jackbox gives two players a statement that needs completing, such as “the difference between grade A and grade B beef. Then the individual players type in a funny answer. Once both the answers are in, they are put up on the screen for all to see, but nobody knows who wrote each ‘quip’. All players then vote for the best one. These times playing together was always full of laughter; it was such a joy.
Last Sunday, my family gathered around the lounge table to play board games together. Competing to score points, make our way around the board, hushed discussions as we worked in teams. At one point during Tiki Topple, my younger brother used a card that removed one of the pieces I needed to win, and in a mix of frustration and excitement, I slammed my hand on the table, shouting, “no-o-o-o!”
Finally, earlier this week I caved in and bought a Nintendo Switch Lite. I wanted one since the beginning of lockdown in March, but I couldn’t justify spending that much money. However, whilst scrolling the Facebook Marketplace, I found a barely used yellow console and Animal Crossing game for a much lower price. I haven’t had a console since I was about ten years old, and I’ve really enjoyed catching bugs, shaking trees for pears, making friends on the island, and searching for materials to make flimsy tools. I’ve loved that there’s no winning or loosing, there’s no time-limit on achieving tasks, there are no set rules.
As the summer turns to autumn, I’m looking forward to building blanket forts in my lounge; snug with an abundance of blankets and duvets as I watch favourites like Notting Hill and Love Actually.
I think that creativity and play is illustrated through the story of creation. I like the idea of God playing around with colours and textures as He creates waves in the sea, and places clouds in the sky. “Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola give us the image of God playing in the dirt, making mud pies”.
In the book of Matthew, children are brought to Jesus so that He could pray for them, but the disciples “shooed them off”, as the Message Version puts it. Jesus replied, “let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:13-14, NIV)
Jesus invites us to be more like the little children, the simplicity, the innocents, the love and openness they give Jesus when others are trying to twist his words and question him. Jesus invites us to be more childlike.
I invite you, over the next few weeks, to have jump about, to find a rope swing, to laugh, to explore, to wonder, and to play.
Familiarity can be comforting.
I had a short break in my hometown earlier this week, pictured above, and the familiarity gave me the peace and rest that I needed. Although I haven’t lived there for fifteen years, I know it well from visiting frequently. The rolling hills that in some high places you can see the sea from, the 'Embracing the Sea' statue and The Beach Parlour on the seafront, the pastel coloured houses, the high street, the church that I was dedicated in. It’s familiar and I’m drawn to it.
Friends is my favourite TV show, and I’ve been watching it since I was twelve. I know exactly what is going to happen, to the point where I know most of the scripts. I enjoy doing BuzzFeed quiz’, because the show is so familiar to me, I can get most, if not all, the answers right. To be honest, I don’t think the acting is spectacular, and some of the storylines and punchlines are now problematic in 2020. However, I will still continue to watch it on repeat because the familiarity is comforting. In the early hours of the morning when I can’t sleep, sometimes I switch on Friends. It’s easy to watch, its familiarity is comforting.
I wonder what is a comforting familiarity for you. Perhaps it’s a place or a TV show, maybe it’s a person, or even a piece of clothing.
When we are struggling, we’re anxious, overwhelmed, exhausted, or even just plodding on, I think that The Bible can bring a comforting familiarity. I’m often encouraging my young people to find Bible verses to use like mottos, to repeat over and over until they become familiar and become comforting in a storm. Perhaps that is The Lord’s Prayer; repeating these familiar words when we have no other words to pray, when we rise in the morning and sleep again in the evening. Or perhaps it’s Psalm 23, repeating it until it becomes familiar, and the themes of rescue, companionship and protection become comforting.
I encourage you to find a verse or a passage that you can repeat over the next week until it becomes so familiar to you, and brings you comfort.
I’ve struggled with blogging this year, as you may have guessed by the decreased number of posts recently. I wrote in my previous post that creativity has looked different during lockdown. I’ve been painting, making friend’s birthday presents, sewing, writing essays and youth work resources. However, when it comes to blogging, either my mind goes blank, or self-doubt creeps in. Either I can’t think of any reflections to write, or there aren’t any experiences that are ready or appropriate to be publicly shared. The equally miserable alternative is that I compare my blog and ability to those who have won awards, get lots of views have more qualifications and experience than I do. The fact that the blog hasn’t grown in the way that I hoped has taken its toll. I think that people aren’t as interested in what I have to say, or that other bloggers say it so much better. Around March/April time, I was reflecting on how vulnerable using Zoom is, and in the following days, before I had properly processed my thoughts and organised them into a blog post, I read four blogs and articles, articulately sharing exactly what I had thought…. But better.
A couple of people in the last week have mentioned that I haven’t blogged in a while, which has begun to rewrite this ‘what’s the point’ narrative in my head. So, now seven months into the year, I think it’s time to have another go at this. I have a few ideas for some more regular posts, one of which is about the previously issue of how vulnerable using Zoom is, as well as some resources, devotions and thoughts.
I haven’t blogged very much in the last few months, and the posts I've shared haven’t had the same style. Before lockdown was even on the cards, 2020 had been a difficult time personally. I was experiencing things that weren’t appropriate to share on a public platform. In fact, so much was happening that I couldn’t form it into anything tangible, consumable, real; not a blog post, not a painting, not even a page in my journal. Writing is a hobby, but I also feel it’s something God has given me. Writing is part of my identity, how I see myself, and I think people who know me see that too. So when I stopped writing, it felt like I was losing a bit of me, like my identity was shifting. Only on reflection I see that I was still creating things — essays and youth resources — but that was all my brain could put together at that time. There’s a time for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), and this season wasn’t a time for creating my usual style of writing.
And then lockdown happened.
I’m sure that in the last six weeks, you’ve seen many posts affirming how okay it is that productivity looks different at the moment. If you needed more of that, I’m about to affirm it even further.
The thing that is often overlooked is that we are all still carrying the struggles of pre-lockdown; they didn’t magically disappear when the announcement arrived. Personal difficulties are still bubbling under the surface of this new struggle that the whole world is dealing with. Whether it’s a small niggle that can be pushed to one side, or whether it’s a mountain of ferocious niggles, we all have things that we were dealing with before the pandemic. Before homeschooling, before self-isolation, before a life-threatening virus. It’s no wonder productivity, creativity, work, priorities, the way we do life, looks a little different at the moment.
I’ve hesitated posting this. I’ve thought ‘what’s the point? Who cares? Most of this stuff has been said before’. But maybe that’s what creating art, in any form, is. Maybe it’s about expression of experiences, observations, even make-beliefs. There’s no first-dibs system of creating. If an expression has already been formed into something, you’re allowed to form it into something of your own. Even if an expression has been formed into something before, and you’re just saying it louder for the people at the back, you’re just adding an ‘amen’ to add weight to the conversation, it’s no less art, it’s no less valid.
Whilst the anxious worrier cries and panics
The small whisper of optimism speaks up
Take it one day at a time
Treat yourself like a friend
Set a new rhythm of life,
for this is temporary.
Weave your days with intentionality
Becoming aware of what is worth your energy
And what will drain you
Dust off the book you said you’d read when you have more time
Create a zen space
immerse yourself in the story
walk with the characters
Feel their joy, feel their pain
shut out the world.
Bend and stretch
Skip and jump
Run and walk
Breathe in the air
Thank the body that is your house, your home
Meditate and pray
Create community in new ways
‘Knocking on the doors’ of those you love
Listen and be there
Effort is a reflection of interest
For when we are released
When surrealism is no longer our reality
perhaps we will all be more peaceful
Filled with gratitude for the things we lost
How blessed and beautiful will your first hug be
Returning to the arms of the Comforters
Gatherings will be full of joy and laughter
Even the tedious meetings will be light-giving
Together we will be again
But until then…