Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Gift

At my most cynical, it's the shopping that saps me. I don't mind browsing, but choosing is agonising, and any time spent at the shops in December is uncomfortable. I care too much about buying the present that will delight.

We all sit around the pile of presents that dwarfs the tree. We've eaten chicken and ham and all the healthy vegetables, drowned in gravy. Now for the presents. The wrapping is torn off quickly and the excitement never quite satisfies. Are gifts a reminder that nothing in this world will ever fill our gaping hearts?

In the midst of Christmas spirit, giving is fun and the presents a ritual that brings us together. Advent is like a parade passing two warring factions in the middle of town. The howls of commercialism and my recriminations wave streamers on my left. The delight of enjoying good things and blessings from our maker shout from my right. There's no easy straw man here because we live in a world of things and expectations and people whose bread is bought by Christmas dollars. Take care with judging, I tell myself. My sister-in-law says I look tired, so I nod. I'm not sure if I am physically tired, but this moral mire drains me. Is this why Christmas fills me with both excitement and dread?

Family and giving and having my cooking on show lays me bare. I see my dependence on praise from others, my fear of disappointing, my pride. The gift I need is grace.

My daughter painted me a picture and my son found me a colourful tin at the op shop. No other gifts can compare in value, and I boast gently in them. Truly, I am blessed.

We cling to these Christmas rituals, don't we? Impressing each other with our hospitality or our generosity. Getting Christmas done earliest, being ready for it. I do it every year. And then I remember that we're celebrating a late arrival baby in a messy stable. How could we ever really be prepared?
It's such a time for love and acceptance. That it's OK when my roast potatoes are a bit cold and soggy. Or just plain underdone. That I didn't actually get you your favourite present, but you're glad to spend the afternoon with me. That your being unprepared or flustered or just tired is fine with me.
What about this gift? The capacity to sit amongst this mix of delight and expectation, impatience and weariness, with grace and patience. To let it be, without wishing it were something else, because God is here. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Gold

I look out at the soft buttered morning. The sun has her head on the pillow while she blinks into consciousness. I sneak out the door. The dogs don't bark, so nobody wakes and I can see across a thousand, thousand trees to the blue-streaked ridge.

I'm the only person alive and my feet crunch the gravel. This gold is the palest kind. The early morning misted sheen that caresses me awake and mingles perfectly with silence.

Later, it's more brazen and the shadows more defined. The morning is louder and the sun alert. Lustrous, hot gold.

There's endless permutations of light, all touched with gold. At the moment I love the early morning softness and the twilight orange-purple-gold. But I've flirted with different shades before.

We are built to long for light. To flourish in these golden rays. And at Christmas it's the gold that really matters. The emergence of light.

It's the summer solstice here in Australia, the day of longest gold. It's the longest visit we'll get this year, the time of greatest clarity. The northern hemisphere is buried in darkness and December 21 is the birth of light. But for us, we miss that tender link. Instead we are overcome with light in Advent and we glory in it. It is not so much an emergence as a flood, like the radiance of an army of angels in a midnight sky.

Some days it feels like this gold is ephemeral. Like it's just the background to a creaking, grumbling, churning world of darkness. To think the anxiety I have for my children is justified. To allow the obsession I have with myself to be acceptable. To give up hope for the hopeless. To go through the motions of caring.

It's so easy to think the light is pale, or fluctuating, because it's weak. That it's slowly drowning. But look again at the fading and surging, of days and seasons. Look at the remembering over and over again. I need to travel this path of emerging gold again and again. To let it burn in my core, so that I trust it's power, when the world says it's faded.

This gold is shining in the darkness. This light will not be overcome.

Linking with Amber and Emily.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


'We shall be celebrating no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastating humility into any human heart ready to receive him.'
J. B. Phillips, 1963.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Real family

Christmas is coming and everyone asks if I am looking forward to it. Whether I am ready. To be ready for Christmas, can mean so many things and I'm usually up late on Christmas Eve wrapping presents. So I don't think I'm ready. No.

I'm trying to prepare myself for the Christmas that is God coming to dwell among us. The Christmas of Immanuel and babies born in inconvenient places. A baby loved and longed for - by generations of God-followers. A baby in a feed trough and angels that bring joyful news. A God who gives all for his people. His stumbling, small-faithed people.

I'm putting off the shopping because what do I really need to buy anyway?

Tonight we sang carols and Christmas songs. The curious blend of hymns to a child who brings grace and peace for all, and songs of a bearded, red-suited man who brings a list of naughty and nice and only rewards the good. No presents for me, then, Santa.

It is strange that we love Santa, the legalist, that he makes us cheer. And that we admonish our children with his gracelessness. Is it just that worldly push to measure and compare, to be able to be good enough ourselves? Does Santa speak to that part of us? Or is it that he demands so little of us? Nothing but a carrot and a glass of milk once a year.

We long for a jolly-faced man who visits with presents, out of the blue. Somehow Santa is a symbol of mystery and magic and the 'universe' blessing us. It is the love we long for, the belonging we seek. The comfortable lap of the one who lets us tweak his beard and nestle on his knee.

Again I come back to Romans 8. It's about belonging. To Christ and his father and finding real life and real family. This father lives in us. It's not just a visit each Christmas. It's God with me every day, hallowing my struggles and blessing my small joys with his presence. He's welcomed me into his family, with an embrace and the privelege of affectionately speaking his name.

This curious mix of awe and familiarity seems paradoxical. But it's real family.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children.
Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” 
Romans 8:14-15.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Cinnamon

I come from a line of aromatics.

My grandmother packed her shelves with tiny jars of dried fruit and nuts. She would lay out a plate of crisp, sliced vegetables with fresh molasses bread when I dropped in. She is here as I pull fresh loaves from my oven. She is next to me as I lather Pears transparent soap. Sawdust and enamel coat my childhood Saturday afternoons.

I watch my mother gradually develop the same papery skin and elegant jowls, the same slightly bowed shoulder set and the same row of tiny jars. Visiting is brushing past the gardenia near the gate and the welcome of a cool, dim hallway on a hot sun-bleached day. She can sense us coming and pours blackcurrant cordial for us all.

In the mirror, my hair has the same unruly corners. The same white streaks. The same droop to the edges of my green eyes. Something of each of us revisits in our daughters. And the sensory memories draw these women out as they course through my cortex.

The walk from my house to the top shops is two hundred metres up the hill. A gentle slope with a set of lights and too much litter. I walk past the fruit shop and the newsagent, skipping the chemist, too. I'm headed to Jacob's, where he and his wife line the walls with spices and huge bags of rice. Fresh made samosas are in the bain marie and Bengali DVDs are for hire. I'm almost out of ground coriander, and I turn the packet of star anise in my hand, wondering if I will brave that on our dinner table. The last packet I add to the pile is the cinnamon, atop the paprika and cummin, and I carry home a houseful of enticement.

The rolled cinnamon bark, like curls of decadent chocolate, waits in the darkness until I make something fit to bear its splendour. Cinnamon, the scent of waiting, the aroma of joy to come.

Linking with Amber's December Absractions.

A Broken Hallelujah

I am joining with Prodigal Magazine and SheLoves Magazine to explore A Broken Hallelujah.
There's a big link-up so go and check it out for lots of different takes on the theme.

She apologises. She can't come because of the funeral, and I nod, that's fine. Please don't worry. I ask a little more and she tells me of a young boy's death. She whispers 'suicide' not wanting to tempt, by saying it aloud. Perhaps if the word is swallowed, unspoken, it will not have happened.

Family draw around as his mother bears and breaks. She bears as a mother should never have to. To imagine the loss of a son is not enough, but it is all, at this moment. To carry a little of the pinching, endless discomfort of walking in her shoes. The complexity, the mystery, of bearing one another's burdens.

I feel it too, with my friend as her shoulders shrug and fall. 'What can I do?', says her helpless, uncomfortable expression. We are so like animals, who retreat to tend their wounds, because we do not quite know how to be broken in company. We are reluctant to be a bother, but it's being broken together that makes us family. That bonds us indelibly.

Judas hung himself, you know. Matthew said so. And he did it after the men who paid him washed their hands of him. "That's your responsibility" they said and would not accept the bribe back. The temple door slammed in his face.

So utterly alone. Left with his own failure. Unbearable. And he could not contemplate asking another to help him carry it. This is despair. To be so separated from community that no one can reach you to help.

And the paradox of desolation is that, in the midst of the deepest need for community, the desolate one feels an ocean away from everyone. How do we reach them? And how do we recognise who is desolate? There is no simple answer for recognising risk and who is really despairing. Psychiatrists struggle to predict suicide risk, and despairing people do not want to cause us inconvenience, so they do not let us see their struggle.

Our sensibilities make some subjects harder to talk about and I think that despair and suicide are difficult topics to raise. I think we would learn more grace if we could allow more despair to be acknowledged. If we could listen to more struggle and allow our community to help us carry burdens. Sometimes soldiering on and covering up struggle teaches others that despair and brokenness are not acceptable.

There is one broken hallelujah we could look to. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, asks his friends to pray with him because he is sorrowing to the point of death. He does not hide his despair or withdraw from support. He is hungry for it in his time of need.

And I'm preaching this one to myself.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


I am trouble and strife.

I am Sarah. I am Hagar.
I am Rachel and Leah.
I am Bathsheba. I am Ruth.

I am stumbling.
Short-sighted and slow-witted.

I am wielded. I am poured.
Tapped and driven.
A formation tool.
My blemishes smooth away your corners.

My lateness is making you patient.
My forgetfulness is making you flexible.
My need is making you self controlled.
My hasty tongue thickens your sensitivity.

Tonight I long for distance.
My closeness makes for more bruises in you.
Tonight I long for proximity.
Your closeness comforts me.

I wrote this a few months ago, after seeing the pain I cause my husband. It burned me that he understood the pain and hard work of marriage. Through being married to me.

Again and again I realise that perfection, goodness, praiseworthiness is out of reach. That I long to be the one who excels, with ease and with pride. That if I succeeded at this I just might be insufferable. And that I make others suffer already.

And then I know (with a whole-body, whole-heart, deeply-relieved knowing) perfection is not mine to grasp. That we share need, my husband and I, because we let each other down. That we also share the intimacy of failing each other and it being OK. That I am his trouble and strife as well as his joy. That we clumsily love the other to show a tiny glimpse of God's perfect covenant love for each of us.

Tomorrow is our 14th anniversary. I'm not a sentimental blogger, but these years have been slowly teaching me the science and art of being known and what covenant love is. Truly I say, marriage is shaping me. Making me.

A curtain hides glory, truth and faithful love from us. My husband has lifted the bottom corner, beckoned me over and shared a peek with me.


The Ornament

Santa chastises a wooden angel. He is held in one hand and the angel in the other. They tip and rock, back and forth in small hands, talking at each other. Who will stop and listen? Later, the pair are driven in a truck, right across the lounge room, parked next to the bookshelf. They lie awkwardly on their backs, staring at the ceiling.

The laden tree is a cast of characters for a three year old's imagined dramas. They migrate down from their perches, clutched in tiny fingers, and come to life.

It was hot the day we pulled Christmas out of hibernation and I was grumpy. Concentrating on untangling was an excuse to say little. A martyred attempt to stop myself from smothering the Christmas cheer. Twining tinsel round the bunk bed ladders was mindful, too, and I let myself get a little infected by the spirit. Just a little.

The children, the angels, the tiny gruff santa were Christmas. And I can resent Christmas. It's insistence, it's relentlessness, it's demands for peace and goodwill, and family and giving. I am selfish and ornamental and I hang from the tree of life with rigid thrust-out arms, a painted on halo and bizarre green hair. I am stubbornly stuck with the same smile on my face, year after year, as I am taken out of the box, dusted off and suspended by the string in my head.

The children, the angels, the tiny gruff santa are the today of a two thousand year old story. The flesh of a God who refused to leave us alone. The ornaments that remind us of a squalling child in a dirty barn, and the inconvenience of life. The ephemeral enticement of selfishness.

Christmas decorations at the shops are just window dressing, but these ornaments are part of the family, joining us again and again. They've been battered and broken by the laying out, the imaginary play and the packing up. They are family. They know last year's secrets and they've heard our prayers as we whisper them each evening in December. They witness to the miracle of Christmas. They've seen grace enter into my stubborn, grumpy heart. Year after year.

Amber has suggested writing on a concrete word - using it to flesh out the abstract. The Abstractions in December begin with The Ornament.