We are the Advent people

“Best. Christmas. Ever”.

So ran a supermarket advertising campaign last year.

Every year on Christmas afternoon, I feel a bit deflated. Yes, it’s probably 99% tiredness after the energy and emotion poured into Christmas in the parish. But there is also a part of me, every year, that thinks “Is this it?”

Is this it?

For all the hype and the build up and the long hours spent wrapping presents and preparing food and looking forward to – Christmas feels a little bit like ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. Have I ever enjoyed the elusive “Best. Christmas. Ever”? No.

The church makes a big deal of Advent – a time of waiting and preparation. What we don’t do quite so well is remind ourselves that, for all our preparations, Christmas Day actually isn’t it. However patient our waiting, however sincere our choruses of “O Come O Come”, if our focus is on how the big day works out, then our waiting will feel frustrated.

One of my favourite quotes is from John Paul II:

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people, and hallelujah is our song.

Through Advent this year, something within me has wanted to turn this inside out a little:

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on.

Watchful, faithful, active waiting.

We are called, as God’s people, to watch for signs of the Divine Kingdom: to look for glimmers of hope and light and life and love – and to bring these glimmers out of darkness and let them shine brightly.

We are called, as God’s people, to stay faithful: to hold on to God’s promises, no matter how unfaithful we feel we may be, and to have confidence to begin again, and again.

We are called, as God’s people, to be active in our waiting. When we see places and meet people who are in desperate need of justice and compassion, our watchful waiting must become active: we are called to be agents of change and justice in the unfairness of life around us.

We are called. And we are called together. As one. As the Advent people.

I know I will feel a sense of deflation this year, as Christmas Day passes as fast as any other day, as the preparations cease and as my Advent busyness is replaced by Boxing Day emptiness. It’s ok to feel deflated.

But I hope I might remember, too, that one day was never going to fulfill the emptiness within me: the yearning for something more, something better.

The hope and joy shaped holes with me will never be filled by Christmas Day. Not even the “Best. Christmas. Ever.”

Filling these gaps takes longer. But they are being filled, ever so slowly, by the hope of a promise.

The promise of a God who is still at work to redeem this world, and who invites us to join in.

The promise of a homecoming that we are yet to make.

And the promise of a life, which begins now and never ends, in which we will find peace, and love, and wellbeing.

If Christmas 2017 was your “best Christmas ever”, then my commiserations for this year and every year following. But I believe – and I dare to hope – that for all of us, the best is yet to come.

And in the meantime:

We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on!

 

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Dark Spaces: An Advent Calendar

I’m trying something a bit different this year. For every day of Advent I’ll be sharing a short reflection over on a new blog: Dark Spaces.

Dark Spaces is a way of shining light into the shadows of the past year. Some of the shadows are there to cover things we would rather turn away from: painful moments or bad memories. Some are there simply because we’ve not had the time to devote to them. They wait, forgotten but still there, to be discovered by our attentiveness. 

Advent is the beginning of the Christian year: a celebration of the dawn and a time for stillness and reflection. Sitting still in Advent is like sitting in the quiet of the early morning: looking back, looking ahead, and holding everything in quiet meditation. 

The reflections won’t be shared through this blog, so if you’d like to follow them then bookmark or follow Dark Spaces, and perhaps I’ll see you there. 

Buffers and safety nets: managing busyness

The bigger your empire grows, the more you have to look after your hinterland.
Ed Balls, quoting advice from Denis Healey.

Advent is a busy time in this house. We are two clergy with two churches and two children. Every year it challenges our discipline of remaining unbusy and resisting a culture of overwork. Every year we become busy and we overwork. We reach Christmas Day feeling grumpy, tired and ill. And every year we look back and feel like perhaps we missed out on the prayerful preparation that the four weeks of Advent are set aside for.

But this is never failure.

As I look back, I can see that each year, we have developed a little bit more awareness. We have learned more about managing our time better. We have become slicker at preparation and invested more time in people – and ourselves. We have realised that perfection is out and “good enough” is in. We have scaled down our expectations, and taken pressure off ourselves. We are learning.

In his memoirs, Ex-politician Ed Balls writes insightfully about balancing leadership and life. Those who watched his recent performances on Strictly Come Dancing will have seen a man full of energy and vitality: someone whose world is bigger than his work.

For Ed, his growing “empire” was his career, as he became a political adviser, then an MP, then a cabinet minister, and then shadow chancellor. His “hinterland” was the hobbies he nurtured to keep him sane: sport, music, family and friends. He speaks powerfully of Denis Healey’s influence on his own work/life balance, and the importance of being a multi-dimensional leader with a life beyond politics.

It’s not so different for anyone else.

For clergy in local churches, the empire grows each Advent as we take on extra work, meet extra people, hold extra services and keep friends and family (of all shapes and sizes) entertained. In these moments, perhaps our hinterland gets neglected. Perhaps we don’t have a hinterland to start with.

And this isn’t just a problem for clergy. I suspect most of us feel the pressure of Christmas mounting through Advent. I suspect we all know the rising guilt of failing – yet again – to create the perfect Christmas, as we reach the day itself feeling tired, ill, grumpy.

The lesson in our house this Advent has been simple, but profound. I hope it will transform the way we work well into next year, so that by Advent 2017 it has become habit. Our lesson is this: buffers and safety nets.

Buffers are stoppers. They make us pause, reflect and turn 20161218_172747around if necessary.
Safety nets are there to catch us when we fall.

In a usual week, by accident rather than design, we have breathing space. Time to catch up with each other, and other colleagues and friends. We have time to tinker with a sermon, read a chapter of a book, respond to a pastoral crisis, make a decent cup of coffee, and take the kids to the park for an hour.

This availability is our hinterland, our buffer, our safety net. And in busy times, as the diary fills up and every waking minute is used, we lose them. Busyness becomes dangerous as the buffer is no longer there to make us pause, and the safety net is no longer there to break a fall.

We don’t notice until we have a small problem. A poorly parishioner, a family argument or a broken printer. And then we need the buffer of time, and the buffer has gone. A small problem becomes stressful, drawn out and more difficult to resolve. We tire, we fall, we crash.

So, I say this to myself, and to anyone else who has felt the pressures of life lately. It’s become a mantra in our house this month: Get to know your buffers. Rig up your safety nets. Don’t neglect your hinterland. And when things get busy as your empire grows, defend them fiercely and cling to them at all costs. Without them, we become one-dimensional and wrung out. With them, we become people who have time, energy and joy that flows beyond ourselves and transforms those around us.

Safety nets and buffers: the best gifts you can give yourself this Christmastime.

Broken Biscuits

Disappointment: we’ve all met it.

A failed job interview.
A friend who lets us down.
A diagnosis.

A test we didn’t pass.
A holiday that didn’t meet expectations.
A financial hit.

A God who doesn’t sort it.

I think of it as broken biscuit syndrome

My four year old loves his mid-morning biscuit.
He looks forward to it, plans it, asks for it.
At the right time, I relent, and we go to the cupboard.
This is the moment he’s savoured; the moment he can choose the biscuit he’s dreamed of all morning.
We open the box.
Disaster and disappointment: all the biscuits are broken.
Not one is whole, round and perfect.
His dream is shattered.
Two halves will not do.
The shadow of disappointment crosses his face, and he wrestles with the reality that his hopes will not be realised exactly as he had thought.

20161205_153823Broken biscuits.
A silly thing to get upset about, but not when you’re four years old.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3

I wonder if John the Baptist was suffering from broken biscuit syndrome?
He gave everything for this cause.
He held nothing back: the vitriol, the frustration, the passionate anger of light clashing with darkness.
It landed him in prison: this wild lover of the outdoors confined to a cell.

In his question is lament, sadness, disappointment.
Are you really the Messiah?
Why aren’t you more like me?

For John, maybe Jesus was a broken biscuit.
Not what he had hoped for, nor what he expected.

When we feel disappointed with God we are in good company.
In fact, it’s inevitable for all of us who imagine God in our own image.
(And how else are we to imagine God?)
As we project our own hopes, personality, agenda and expectations onto God, God will always disappoint.

Encouragement for John comes as his disciples are walking away:

 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’. Matthew 11:7-11

Did they hear Jesus affirm John?
Did they hear the overwhelming kindness of that white lie?
(And did you spot it?)
Did they hear?
Did they hear?
Did John?

When we feel that God is a broken biscuit, how can we hear this affirmation?
Perhaps it is just out of earshot.
Or perhaps our ears are closed to it.
Perhaps we might need to let go of what we cling to for security, turn and look disappointment in the face, and journey through it to find God reaching out to us from within and beyond.
Or perhaps the message never reaches us.

There will always be broken biscuits.
There will always be disappointments.
But one day we will see our most punishing failures and setbacks for what they are: crumbs on the floor of Heaven’s banqueting house.

Give yourself a break: A reflection for Advent

Advent begins this week, and all around are the dawning signs of Christmas. Lights and trees go up, cards are written and greetings sent, presents are wrapped and parties are planned. 

I used to think it was important to resist this creep of Christmas for as long as possible, reserving Advent as a time of preparation for the celebration to come. But I reached Christmas Day feeling a little like I had missed the party.

There is a paradox. The Church prepares to celebrate the arrival of God in the most fragile of wrappings, while around us the world unwraps that gift before the big day. Some of us worry that the timing is all wrong. 

But the gift is still the same. 

If our pious preparation causes us to resist the celebrations around us, we miss out on some of the joy. Is this any better than being seduced by the frenzied consumerism of Christmas that is equally as likely to lead us to miss the point? 

The reflection below is an attempt to encourage you – and me – to welcome the best of both. To prepare once again to receive God, and to create space and stillness in the coming weeks for that. But also to embrace the celebrations that are beginning around us as they happen – however premature we feel they are – as the world receives its greatest gift: the one who once a year warms our hearts and joins us in one voice of Christmas song.

This Advent – give yourself a break.

20161124_140652.jpg

Give yourself a break:
Permission to pause
And carve out a space
Where you alone can rest
And rediscover small voices
Hushed by the frenzied pace of life.

Give yourself a break:
Just one moment in a day
To waste time away, and
Notice
Your stillness working to make straight
The tangled paths to your heart.

Give yourself a break:
Time to soak in pools of reassurance, as
Sacred Anticipation
Meets
Joyous Festivity
And the long-awaited celebration swells around you
In flushed faces and shimmering trees.

Give yourself a break:
And hear the ancient promises
As Redemption’s stories are reimagined and retold
Through gifts exchanged and carols sung
And your emptiness is filled
With the hope and joy of a promised child, who
For just a moment,
Becomes the centre of our gaze.