The Ghosts of Christmas

It’s finally here! I thought it would never come! Christmas Eve! I’ve had a blast I really have, and I really feel like I can toss my “bah humbug” hat in the bin. I’ll never be one of those types who starts getting excited for Christmas in September, but for once, I feel like I’m free of all those things which keep me in a spirit of Christmas dread. Oh yes, it really has been a case of “The Taming of the Scrooge” here.

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I’ll be back in the New Year and won’t be mentioning the “C” word for at least 8 months…. I promise. Wishing you a “blue skies Christmas”….

Naomi 

Day 24 – A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide

All too often we get an unwanted visitor at Christmas – the Ghost of Christmas Past haunts our present day and has the power to tear it to pieces.

 Memories of….

  •  A lost loved one

  • A far away loved one

  • Love turned sour

  • Past mistakes

  • Past hurts

  • Past disappointments

 ….eat us up inside and cast a shadow over us, especially at Christmas.

 This Christmas is going to be the first without my mum-in-law who passed away in June.

This Christmas I’m going to be acutely aware of a big empty space inside me where I’d expected to feel a baby kicking, after we had a miscarriage in July.

 That hurts. It hurts so much, it takes my breath away sometimes.

 I don’t plan on sweeping that pain under the carpet. Equally I don’t plan on being so caught up in what might have been that I miss the present moment.

I believe in letting myself feel whatever I feel, and not feeling that I have to hide it so that others don’t feel uncomfortable. Life is not all about just putting a smile on your face and getting on with it. It’s a rich tapestry of love, loss, joy and pain. Of course, we all prefer to be on the mountain top all the time, but the fact is, life in all it’s fullness requires us to take the long journey and to experience the mountain tops, the valleys, the plateaux, the beautiful meadows and the dark forests.

I’m learning to embrace it all.

I remember one year, when I was in my early twenties, that I was so devastated by a long-term relationship break up which happened just a few days before Christmas day, that I couldn’t even eat my Christmas dinner. I tried to put a brave face on it, but my life had just fallen apart. I just felt sick and empty inside and I dampened the atmosphere everywhere I went.

Other times, I’ve let a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future come and take my eyes of the present. I’ve been so caught up with “what if’s” and worries that I’ve ruined it for myself sometimes. Wanting so badly for the future to turn out a certain way, worrying that everything will go wrong. Trying to control it all.

I don’t want my Christmas this year to be ruled by the ghosts of the past or ghosts of the future. I want to enjoy the present moment and be a blessing to others around me too.

I don’t think it’s enough to just focus on the present, to practise “mindfulness”. It’s a great thing to be able to do, but I believe there needs to be deep level healing if we want experience the present with peace and joy.

There is a ghost which has the power to do that. I’ve seen this ghost at work in my life and my husband’s life. And I’ve seen my marriage, once full of bitterness and tension, healed and given a fresh burst of life. Yes, there is a ghost who can walk into our past with healing power and write us a new future. A ghost who can help us to live in the present with joy and peace and wisdom….

 …The Holy Ghost.

You see, we focus on the birth of Jesus at Christmas, and I’m all for that, but we often forget that it was the Holy Ghost who “fathered” the baby in a miraculous, immaculate conception.

Don’t freak out on me. Please. Because if you can grasp this, you will find power to exorcise those ghosts of the past and the future. If you want to. Or just stop reading now and get back to “reality”. It’s your choice.

Here’s what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit – the modern translation of the Holy Ghost….

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Comforter, and he will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who leads into all truth. The world at large cannot receive him, for it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you do, for he lives with you now and some day shall be in you. No, I will not abandon you or leave you as orphans in the storm—I will come to you….

“I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Comforter instead of me — and by the Comforter I mean the Holy Spirit—he will teach you much, as well as remind you of everything I myself have told you. I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart! And the peace I give isn’t fragile like the peace the world gives. So don’t be troubled or afraid”.

When I lay awake half the night, bleeding and not knowing if I’d lost my baby or not, it was the most horrible place of “purgatory”. It felt like the night would go on forever, while I waited for my scan appointment. It was the same when we had to wait weeks to find out whether my mum-in-law had untreatable lung cancer, or just a bad cough.

Waiting, waiting, and more agonising waiting.

As I lay awake, I felt my mind go to a verse in the Bible, as if the Holy Spirit was guiding me and comforting me.

It wasn’t a verse I wanted to hear. It wasn’t a verse I would have chosen if I was trying to imagine a verse of comfort for myself.

“Even though the fig trees are all destroyed, and there is neither blossom left nor fruit; though the olive crops all fail, and the fields lie barren; even if the flocks die in the fields and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will be happy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; he will give me the speed of a deer and bring me safely over the mountains.”

And yet I knew, at that very moment, that it was the best thing I could read. I’d wanted the Holy Spirit to tell me that everything was going to be alright. But instead, what I learned was that the worst thing I can ever do is to depend on a circumstance, person or thing for my peace and joy. If I do that, then I will spend my entire life haunted by the ghosts of the past and the ghosts of the future, bouncing between worry and anxiety for the things and people I might lose, and an ache for those things and people I have indeed lost.

Jesus offers complete peace and joy regardless of circumstance. That means that if I’m in the trenches, he’s there. If I’m on cloud nine, he’s there. He’s not going anywhere. He will always be with me:

 “Yes, he alone is my Rock, my rescuer, defense, and fortress—why then should I be tense with fear when troubles come?”

Jesus was a man of sorrows and also great joy and peace. He wept for his dead friend Lazarus, even though he knew he was about to bring him back to life. It’s not only possible to experience the full range of joy and sorrow and everything in between, I believe it’s the only way to experience a full, true life. It’s okay to laugh and feel deep sorrow at the same time. It’s ok to feel sorrow and yet a deep sense of joy, simultaneously. I wrote more about this in my blog post “Leave me alone world“.

I’m not a great fan of campaigning to keep the Christ in Christmas. That’s because, for those who aren’t interested in Jesus, why would I want them to celebrate his birth? It’s just an empty gesture. If you want to, make Christ the centre of your Christmas. If you don’t, don’t.

As for me, Christ is the centre of my life. He’s the centre of everything I do. I don’t know how to live without him, now that I’ve tasted life with him. Christ isn’t just the centre of my Christmas, he’s the centre of my day, my night, my ups and my downs. Whether I’m partying or falling apart, I’ve got him to go to, to love and to be loved by.

God doesn’t ever promise that life will be a bed of roses. He offers something better. He promises to be there in the thick of it with us. He promises to bring beauty out of ashes, joy after sorrow, healing to the wounded, comfort to the hurting, wisdom to the clueless.

And so, may your Christmas be filled with joy, peace, contentment, and love, no matter what your past, present or future was, is, or will be.

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”…this Christmas and forever-more.

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Bible references:

– John 14

-Habbakuk 3.17-19

– Psalm 62.6

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Why “Why” is a wonderful word which works wonders

Day 21 – A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide.

We humans seem to really get hooked on traditions, rituals and ceremonies.

We just can’t seem to get enough of it all.

I guess it’s about bringing some sort of meaning and structure to our lives. Repetition is comforting isn’t it? It connects our present with our past and with our future. It’s something dependable and safe. It’s an attempt to feed the soul… to satisfy our unquenchable hunger for meaning, purpose, connection, belonging, hope.

It’s a heavy anchor of certainty in a sea of change.

Sometimes, we don’t realise when what we are doing has lost its meaning. We carry on doing the same old thing time and again. We do it that way because that’s the way it’s always been done. The tradition becomes a solid rock in a constantly changing world. The tradition may have been created in the first place to be like a protective shell – protecting and preserving something precious, or something useful.

But now it’s like an empty shell. Whatever it was protecting inside has long since disappeared.

We often create our own family rituals and traditions at Christmas don’t we? The traditional dinner, the tree, the mulled wine and mince pies, the same old Christmas songs album, the same order of events to the day.

I once heard a story about how the instructions for cooking the Christmas turkey were handed down through the generations, from daughter to daughter.  The main rule to be followed was :

 “Always cut off the end of the bird”.

Every year, for 75 years, this rule had been obediently, unquestioningly followed. That is until one day, the youngest, newly instructed daughter got curious. She contacted her great-grandmother and asked her:

“Why do we have to cut the end off of the Christmas turkey great-grandmother?”

Great-grandmother chuckled…

“Why, it’s quite simple my dear. We couldn’t fit it in our tiny oven in those days. You don’t need to do that now do you? Not with your nice big modern oven?”

All those years, and they’d been following instructions that were completely pointless, in the name of tradition. Until one person chose to say one very important word: “Why?”

My mother tells me that as a child, “why” was my favourite word, I suppose like many children. The incessant stream of “why’s” bombarded towards my poor mother was almost enough to shut her brain down entirely.

I’m 37 and I haven’t changed a bit. Well, except for the fact that I’m not usually asking my mother “why” but asking myself instead.

I question everything.

  • Why do we do that?

  • Is there a point to that?

  • How is that still relevant?

  • What are we doing that for?

It’s like I have a “bullshit detector” that sniffs out meaningless practices and outdated rules. I often end up smashing the useless empty shell of ritual that I’ve become trapped inside, and then look for a brand new one that suits better.

It’s not that I’m against rules and traditions, rituals, practices and ceremonies. I think they have their place. I’m all for structure and order and rhyme and reason.

But to have the rhyme without the reason? It’s just not logical, Captain.

Rules that are relevant and serve to benefit us? I’m a big fan of those. The ten commandments in the Bible are timeless rules which are still as relevant to my life today as they were thousands of years ago.

But rules for the sake of rules? Well, there goes my bullshit detector again. I’ve nothing against them, as long as they are a means to an end, rather than just the end…..it mustn’t spell the end of the story, the end of debate, the end of reason. Keep traditions, practices and rules where they belong, as the means, and not the meaning.

Now, if there was a trend-bucker, a tradition-breaker, a ritual buster, it was good old meek and mild Jesus. He warned the religious people of the day against getting stuck in the tradition rut, saying : “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

Jesus challenged empty religious practices, he challenged rules for the sake of rules and he exposed those who loved tradition more than they loved God and people.

The religious people around Jesus constantly criticised him for it, to the point of plotting to kill him, such was their passion for rules and tradition.

Have a read of what he had to say about unquestioning adherence to rules and traditions:

Another time, on a Sabbath day as Jesus and his disciples were walking through the fields, the disciples were breaking off heads of wheat and eating the grain. Some of the Jewish religious leaders said to Jesus, “They shouldn’t be doing that! It’s against our laws to work by harvesting grain on the Sabbath.” But Jesus replied, “Didn’t you ever hear about the time King David and his companions were hungry, and he went into the house of God…..and they ate the special bread only priests were allowed to eat? That was against the law too. But the Sabbath was made to benefit man, and not man to benefit the Sabbath”.

Then as if to prove his point, he went and healed a man’s deformed hand right in front of them, on the Sabbath – the day of rest! How could he?!

One word of warning though, before you go and declare – “Scrap the Christmas dinner, the crackers and the presents – it’s all pointless!” We can be in danger of scrapping tradition for the sake of it too. Sometimes, in the name of “non-conformism” we can get so obsessed with not being tied to a ritual or routine that we go out of our way to smash it unnecessarily. “Not conforming” becomes the goal, rather than part of the process of asking “why?“.

Just remember that right at the very kernel of the shell is supposed to be love.

Does Aunty Joan always have to have Christmas dinner at 1pm and watch the Queen’s speech at 3, but Aunty Pat wants to eat at 12 and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” instead, and everyone else just wants to eat at 2pm and then go down the pub? Well then, we have a problem. I don’t know the solution, but I do know that we have to lovingly consider preferences and the importance of rituals to others around us.

Sometimes, adhering to a tradition is simply this – it’s an act of love. It’s saying “this is important to you, and so it’s important to me”. But if preferences within the family conflict, it’s important to be lovingly open to compromise and communication. More about that in the next few days….

Thought for the day:

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, there were many practices that were no longer necessary. Many of the old rituals had been put in place there because of the huge rift between man and God. No-one but the High Priest could go into the “inner sanctuary” in the temple, the most Holy place, and be in the presence of God, because of that rather old fashioned word – “sin”. How could fallen, imperfect man approach a Holy God? There had to be all manner of animal sacrifices and rituals to observe before coming into this most Holy of places.

But when Jesus died on the cross, we are told that “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”

This was a new era.

Jesus had basically opened the way for man to connect openly with God. He’d volunteered himself to be the once-for-all-time sacrifice, on the cross, to deal with that rift between God and mankind.

This means that we have no need to go via a high priest to get to God. We have no need to observe rituals and practices which were only meant to be there before Jesus came and sorted it all out. He came so that we could have freedom and life, not be slaves to outdated rituals. Jesus is the new “High Priest” – the way through to the presence of God.

We can read in the bible that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need”

He said he was the “way to the Father”, the “truth” and the “life”. He said:

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Hmmm, you can understand why a few people might have got a little tetchy hearing him make such bold claims about himself. Many people still do. But ultimately, either we say he was right, or we say he was wrong…. there isn’t really an opportunity to sit on the fence on that one and just call him “good”.

My point is, that Jesus came and ushered in a whole new era. He wanted people to leave behind their old “slaves to the law” ways, and to embrace the freedom he offered.

He wasn’t saying “do what you like”, he was saying “get to the heart of why those rules are there. Think about it, and let love be your guide”. We are given the following rule of thumb as our yardstick:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

 Listen to what Jesus said about the futility of hanging onto useless rituals of the past:

 “No-one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” 

 I can’t help but feel that too many of us still hold onto things which belong in the past. All too often, the baby in the manger gets boxed in and swaddled too tightly to be able to be the wild, living, breathing force of change in our lives he was born to be.

Task for today:

At Christmas, I want, more than anything, to celebrate the freedom that the birth of Jesus brings to me. I want to do that by observing traditions that express that freedom, rather than ones which confine it.

Today, I’m going to ask myself two hard but much needed questions about the plans I have for celebrating Christmas:

 “Why?”

 and

“Where is the love?”

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Bible references:

Mark 7.8

Mark 2

Mark 3

Matt 9.16-17

Hebrews 4:15-16

John 10.8-10

John 14.6

The Elephant in the room.

Day 15 – A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide

There will be many who can’t afford to give gifts to loved ones at Christmas. For them, giving their heart is the most precious, beautiful thing they can do. And then there are the millionaires, who can afford to give lavish, expensive gifts. Heck, they’re even expected to do so. Can you imagine the pressure? Those people have to work especially hard to give a gift rich in love. Because it’s not so much about the money, it’s about the thought and time and love that went into it.

Take the “wise men” from the nativity story. Boy, were they rich!

Imagine…. the Son of God has been born and they want to pay him a visit. They’re all ready to leave and one of them hollers –

“Hold your camels! What about a gift….?” They all look at one another, completely stumped…what does a rich man give to the newborn Son of God?

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Picture this, in “Naomi’s Alternative Nativity in Rock” script, Act I, Scene 3:

Wise man 1 – “Well isn’t it obvious? Pure gold of course. It shows how stinking rich we are and looks good all wrapped up. It’ll certainly make an impression on the parents. A bit heavy, but that’s what camels are for. Agreed?”

Wise man 2 – “Hmmm, yes, that’s a good choice, but we ought to bring a little touch of the Eastern aroma to tickle his senses… you know, a little local indigenous fare. It’s the done thing really. But it needs to be something that’ll travel well over hundreds of miles in the blistering heat. I know, how about a little frankincense and myrrh?

Wise man 3 – “Make’s frankin-sense to me. Geddit? Guys…?” 

Cue tumbleweed, eye rolling from Wise Man 1 and Wise Man 2, and shaking of head from camel.

Ok, I’m messing with you, I’m sure they were a bit more organised and serious than that, they were incredibly wise men after all.

Actually what they bought really was very thoughtful and insightful.

The wise men weren’t just loading their camels with stuff that might make them look kind and good and rich. They were giving practical, thoughtful presents that said an awful lot about what they believed about the baby Jesus, and how they felt about him. They had the means to bring lavish, extravagant gifts. But the point is, they didn’t just bring any old expensive treasure, their gifts contained an underlying, unspoken message that is from the heart.

Firstly, each gift was highly practical for the baby’s parents.

  • It’s quite possible that the gold came in very handy when Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt to bring the baby into a place of relative safety, because Herod wanted him dead.

  • Frankincense and myrrh were widely valued for medicinal purposes, as well as for their ability to make people smell nice if they couldn’t wash. Always a good thing eh? Especially if you can’t find time to take a shower because you’re running away from a nasty Herod who wants to kill your baby.

On a less practical, but more relational note, each of the three gifts were an expression about who they believed this baby was. Yes, I dug around a bit and discovered that gold, frankincense and myrrh say quite a lot indeed about this tiny baby’s significance….

At that time, it was apparently good manners that if you were visiting a royal in a foreign country, you brought a gift of gold. We know that the wise men regarded Jesus as royalty because it was recorded in the Gospel of Matthew that they asked for the “king of the Jews” when they arrived in Jerusalem looking for the baby Jesus.

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Putting one and one together, I’d say the wise men wanted to give a gift fit for a king. A gift of gold, the most precious of metals, would have made the statement that this royal babe was worthy of the most valuable thing they could offer.

So, that’s the gold, but what about the frankincense eh?

Frankincense is a beautifully fragrant resin when burned, often used during worship, as a symbol of the holiness of God.  It’s interesting that, even though these men from the East were of a completely different culture, and maybe had a background of worshipping other gods, we read that they said “we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him“.

And so the underlying message I see in this gift is their recognition of Jesus’ divine status. I see their worship of the Christ, in whom “there is all of God in a human body” .

The most bizarre of the three gifts was the myrrh. This spice was traditionally used for embalming dead bodies, because it was a perfume, and worked very well to mask the smell of decay. It was also used as a painkiller when mixed with wine and consumed as a drink.

Soooo, they arrive with a narcotic substance you’d normally find in an undertaker’s cabinet, and give it to the newborn, who was very much alive and kicking. Bizarre indeed.

Not good manners really is it? Especially when bringing said weird gift to a baby believed to be divine and royal. But there must have been a reason.

Incidentally, 30 odd years later, when dying on the cross, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh, but he didn’t take it.

And then when he’d died, his body was wrapped in a cloth saturated with embalming ointment made from er…. oh, that’s weird…..myrrh and aloes.

I think that myrrh was probably the wisest choice of all the wise men’s gifts, because it represented the true purpose for this royal babe’s 33 year visit to earth. To suffer and die.

Ooh, sorry, I don’t know what happened there, things got a bit, well, morbid, didn’t they? Rather serious. A little bit uncomfortable when we’re talking about a lovely newborn baby. But there it is, the elephant in the room. The dark twist in the story lingering backstage ready to shatter the illusion.

Ahem, moving swiftly on….it’s time for the Thought and Task for the day:

Thought for today:

So, what’s the moral of the story? Well, in a nutshell, by taking a look at the possible significance behind the wise men’s gift-giving, I have found a way to sculpt a new approach to gift-giving which I think has more meaning than my old attitude.

This year I’m going to try to give gifts to the special people in my life which are:

  • Practical – they can make use of it

  • Relational – it says something about who that special person is

  • It has my own character, culture, or personality stamped on them

And there we have it. It won’t always be possible. But it’s a helpful guide to have when choosing a gift, I think.

But what about a gift for the most special one in my life? Ah, yes, back to the elephant in the room. (Or the lamb, as it were….)

So, I’ve accepted Jesus’ gift to me. I did that a long time ago. And I’ve gotta be honest, it’s a cliché, but it really is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s like one of those magic boxes you hear about in fairy-tales – it doesn’t matter how many times you reach inside, there’s always more treasure to be found, more wonders to behold.

Sadly, all too often, we will take the gift, but then leave it on the shelf. Too many of us do that and we are short-changing ourselves. We want to be independent of our loving Father. We act like a toddler struggling to button up her coat, refusing help and declaring “I do it myself”.

Task for today:

Surely I have to give Jesus a gift back don’t I? Well, yes, I think I do. Firstly though, just to clarify, no, I don’t have to do him a load of favours. I don’t have to buy him gold or smelly spices.

Here’s what I’m going to give Jesus this Christmas…

  • I’ll give him my heavy load of cares and worries.

  • I’ll give him all the messes I’ve made.

  • I’m gonna give him all my pain, guilt, weariness and sorrow.

  • I’ll be wrapping up all my hurts and disappointments and handing them over to him.

He’ll love that. I know, it’s not very practical for him. What does he want all that stuff for? Well, he’s not going to be recycling that stuff next Christmas, I know that. He knows exactly what to do with it all.

But it certainly says something about who I believe he is, and it says something about me.

It says that I trust him with my deepest, darkest secrets because he is strong and true and faithful and trustworthy. It says that he loves me for who I am, no matter what. It says that I trust him enough to let go of all that stuff.

But I don’t think that’s enough. I want to give him more.

I want to tell him what he means to me. I want to express how much I love him. I want to just give my time, my thanks, my worship, my love.

I want to give him my heart.

And that is a beautiful, life-changing, scary, fulfilling, magical, daunting, non-conformist, risky-but-worth-it, costly gift to give.

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PS: Rock artwork mostly done by husband Jason, after I failed one too many times, nearly ran out of rocks (which my poor family and I had had to search for on a cold, dark beach one recent Saturday night, to throw together a last minute Sunday School plan) and broke down in frustration.  The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I painted the faces on, around 1am. Mary’s expression was so utterly hilarious that  we lost all control in hysterical laughter before painting over it in gold and trying again. Art is just not my thing.

Bible references:

Matthew Chapter 2 (the story of the wise men).

Colossians 2.9 Living Bible

Mark 15.22-23

John 19.39-40

A Tale of Two Sisters

Day 7 – A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide.

Let me ask you a question. Have you ever been to someone’s house for Christmas, and they were so engrossed by your dynamic presence, they didn’t bother to make you a meal? If so, how did you feel? Flattered? Or sorely neglected and hungry?

One more question… Have you ever been invited to someone’s house for Christmas, and they spent the whole time in the kitchen, cooking up a lavish feast for you to enjoy? And then, when it was time to sit up to the table, they were so stressed out and exhausted they could barely be bothered to eat, let alone talk to you?

Ok, I lied. There’s one more question (I really mean it this time)… Although you might not be able to answer “yes” to either of the above, which scenario do you think is better?

I’ve gotta be honest, I hate being hungry, but I hate being in a house with a stressed cook even more (especially when I am the cook, I’m a nightmare).

There’s a proverb in the Bible that says “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife”.

There can be plenty of feasting and family strife at Christmas can’t there?

  • Who’s not helping in the kitchen?

  • Who forgot to take the turkey out the freezer?

  • Whose toy is better than whose?

  • Who cooks the best sprouts?

  • Who let the rabbit near the Christmas tree lights?

  • Who bought their wife a diet book for Christmas?

We try to gloss over it with feasting, but it continues to simmer.

Even before Christmas was a thing, Jesus’ arrival was the subject of domestic disagreements. Take two sisters-in-strife, Martha and Mary, who opened their home to Jesus while he was in town. Immediately Martha cracked on with the cooking, putting together a lavish meal. After all, their guest was no other than the Son of God. You’d have to make an effort wouldn’t you really? You’d probably wish you’d known sooner, so you could’ve prepared a banquet.

Martha knew how to look after a special guest. She wasn’t gonna be handing him any dry crust that’s for sure.

Feeling the heat in the kitchen, and unable to cope doing the preparations on her own, she started to silently seethe with anger at her lazy sister. Why did Mary think she could get away with sitting on her backside? So unfair.

Meanwhile, Mary was oblivious to any idea that Jesus might need to be fed, along with all the others who had invited themselves in to hear what he had to say. She was sitting right at his feet, drinking in his every word. Why would she want to be in the kitchen and miss these nuggets of wisdom falling from the mouth of the Lord himself?

Well, Martha couldn’t keep her mouth shut any longer. She came storming out of the kitchen, and asked their esteemed guest the question: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Enter stage right – STRIFE & STRESS.

M and MRight now, it doesn’t matter how delicious the meal she serves is, the atmosphere is thickened with animosity and it’s not gonna disperse by dinner time. Everyone will smile and say “Thank you, that was delicious Martha!”, but they will be leaving with a bitter taste in their mouths that they will never forget. So, how did Jesus respond? Did he say “Ladies, ladies… work together now, come on, play fair. This is a special time, can’t you just get along?”? Well, no. As usual he said something a little more unpredictable…. “Martha, Martha….you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her”.

I can imagine him saying – “look, I probably won’t be with you for long. My days are numbered, and then you’ll look back on when I came to stay and you won’t remember a word I said. And you’ll regret it for the rest of your days.”

It’s important to take care of our loved ones and our guests, to feed them, to make them feel special. But really, it’s not the main thing. I realise that food plays a unique role in special occasions. I can’t imagine planning a celebration without it. Eating is something we all do, and it’s a wonderful thing to share a meal. It invites connection (as long as we all like what’s on offer!). But it’s not guaranteed to bring people together. It can’t smooth over the cracks in our relationships. And if we don’t actually have time to connect because we’ve been too busy planning the “perfect” meal, it’s just functional food. It might fill our bellies, but it won’t satisfy our need for meaningful connection with the people around us.

I don’t think I need to throw the baby out with the bath water and just forget the trimmings altogether, in the name of spending time with loved ones. I just need to reign in the perfectionism. Nice as it would be to be a domestic goddess, it’s more sensible to aim for simplicity, so that I can save time and energy for what’s truly important – the matters of the heart.

Thought for today

Although there are many levels of meaning to this story, I think the most relevant message to me today is this…

Jesus is reminding his hosts that he wants to really connect with them in person. As much as he likes to see us nurturing others by making sure they are fed and warm, what he values the most is our presence.

Imagine that – A friend who is saying “come spend time with me, hang out with me, listen to me, talk to me. Even if it means you don’t do anything for me”. Imagine that that person is God in human form. I don’t know about you but, well, that just blows my mind. It’s almost too unbelievable to be believed.

But I believe it.

Task for today

It’s all too easy to get caught up in doing stuff, and no more so than at Christmas-time. Whether that’s helping others out, or fulfilling family, community and church commitments, or just doing stuff I want to do. Sometimes I enjoy using my God-given gifts a little too much and I just take on too big a project. A project like, let’s just say, erm, 24 blog posts in a row by Christmas Eve. That’s quite a big commitment. I might love doing it, but it becomes an empty gesture if I just haven’t got time to sit at Jesus’ feet and just be with him for a while.

I keep finding myself back in Martha’s shoes. And they don’t really fit me. So with that in mind, today’s task is to find my inner Mary again. I think it might take me a few days.

I’m going to knock my perfectionism on the head and give myself three days to renew my spirit, and get back to the feet of Jesus. I’m gonna just make some time, amidst the Christmas madness, to sit with him. Talk to him, listen to him, love him, marvel at him, enjoy him. I believe he’s waiting for me to get off the treadmill, so he can lavish me with some TLC.

Over the next few days I will be re-posting all the steps from the last 7 days.

See you on Thursday – Day 11!

PS – did you notice any mistakes in yesterday’s post on perfectionism? It took all of my strength not to feed my perfectionist streak and go back and correct them. But now my will is breaking. I’m going in to make those corrections, so it’s nice and perfect….

Bible extracts taken from:

Proverbs 17.1

Luke 10.40-41

Perfecting the art of being imperffect

Day 6 – A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide.

I reckon the most relaxed, unstressed people around are those who don’t try to do everything perfectly. They keep all those plates spinning because they do a “good enough” job at the things that need to be done, so that they have time to excel at the things that really matter.

These are the peope who can vacuum and mop just a section of a room, rather than the whole floor, because they know that some cleaning is better than none at all. They also know that seeing a small area looking shiny will help keep them motivated to come back and do some more when they have a spare few minutes.

Just to clarify, I am not one of those people.

Although I keep it on a tight leash these days, perfectionism is a part of my nature, and it’s always threatening to bare it’s sharp teeth. I’m what my husband calls a “visionary”, which means I often get really carried away with the creative process, dreaming up grand schemes and big ideas. He usually has to be the one to say “honey, I just don’t think it’s gonna work, it’s just not realistic” (I hate that word). He’s usually right. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to access my own inner realist, because I’ve had to. And I’m learning to half mop the floor if that’s all I’ve got time for, and walk out the door feeling content. I’m becoming a “floor half clean” rather than a “floor half dirty” kind of person.

The apostle Paul wrote “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want”.

Well, as for me, I have learned (the hard way) the secret of being content, whether in chaos or in order, whether I’ve crossed off the whole list or whether I did none of it, whether I vaccumed the whole house or just the one small patch of floor that wasn’t covered in mess.

So what’s changed?

Well, trying to be perfect didn’t work out so well. I just ended up utterly miserable and feeling like a failure. So I eventually learned to enjoy not being perfect. After all, who likes the person who can do everything effortlessly and brilliantly? Aren’t they just incredibly annoying? Why do we aspire to be like that person if we can’t stand to be around them?

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Ironically, the mythical person who is good at everything, looks great and seems to have it all together is completely flawed in one area:

They can’t relate to the rest of us mortals. And so they are in danger of one of the biggest stumbling blocks there is – getting proud and judgemental. And that’s just an ugly way to be. The same principle applies to those who think they have it all together and are never wrong too.

I could spend all my time planning and creating a perfect Christmas, complete with a beautifully decorated home, great gifts, exquisite home-made food, and all the “trimmings”. Those things are wonderful. But they are just the wrapping. What’s the point of beautiful wrapping without a beautiful gift inside?

To receive an unwrapped gift is still a wonderful thing, even though unwrapping it would have made the experience feel more complete and special. But no-one wants a beautifully-wrapped empty box. Better not to bother with the wrapping at all if that’s the case. Who wants to be invited to a beautifully decorated home with delicious food and amazing presents, if the people are stressed out, fed up, exhausted and irritable?

So if the trimmings, traditions, food, presents and the like are the Christmas “wrapping”, what is the actual “gift” then? What should be at the heart of Christmas?

You think I’m going to say, “the baby Jesus”, I’ll bet. Isn’t that what a Christian should say? Maybe, but I think, sadly, celebrating the birth of Jesus can sometimes become an empty gesture, if we don’t value what matters to him the most – the matters of the heart.

These are the things Jesus did – He showed love to the “unlovable”, the ones who constantly messed up. He had patience with those who let him down, he was at peace amongst absolute chaos, gave to those who couldn’t give back, and showed humility and grace. Does that sound too difficult? Too perfect? Maybe. Only Jesus could manage that right?

So what’s the point in trying then, if we will inevitably mess up? Ah, but didn’t I just say that messing up is actually the key to keeping us grounded and humble, and able to connect with other mortals? So then try and fail, and try and succeed, and then fail some more, and then succeed some more. Take a risk, get messy.

Just a step in that direction is better than sitting around saying “that’s impossible so I’m not even gonna bother trying”. It’s like me mopping a small section of the kitchen floor. It’s not much, but it’s a step in the right direction, and that tiny bit of shiny floor looks so lovely, it might even spur me on to do some more tomorrow and before I know it, the whole kitchen floor is sparkling (for 5 minutes, and then I need to start again…)

So, at the heart of Christmas I want love, joy, peace, humility, grace and kindness to be in my heart. If I could wrap it with lovely food, presents and trimmings, that would almost be perfect. But if I can’t do both, I think my loved ones would opt to take the gift unwrapped, rather than an empty, but beautiful box.

Thought for today:

The apostle Paul, wrote about some sort of “weakness” of his (though he doesn’t say what it is). He begged God to take it away….

“But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” 

If we can’t allow ourselves to make mistakes, to make a mess of things, to be wrong, to show our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses, then we our robbing ourselves of joy, of connection with others and spiritual growth. For me, I find the more I struggle and mess up, the closer I get to God (who is perfect) as I keep having to lean on him for help. And that feels good.

Task for Today:

Today, I want to ask God to give me all I need to show unconditional love, patience and grace, even to those who are being a bit “unlovable”, this Christmas, because I really can’t do it in my own strength. Then, I want to ask him for help to make sure I don’t neglect to give the gift because I’m too focussed on the wrapping.

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Quotes taken from The Bible:

Philipians 4.12 and Corinthians 12.9