Friday, 31 December 2010
It is our Final Friday - week Five of Five Festive Fridays.
With Christmas Day past and New Year looming, it stops feeling quite so festive, but this week we are looking at the witnesses to Christ's birth: the shepherds and the wise men.
Shepherds (incongruously watching sheep in the fields, in the bleak mid-winter ... some bits of the story really don't add up with our assigned date of 25 December for the birthday) were lowly, poor people in the society of their time.
The wise men had travelled from afar, come by the signs in the stars, wealthy and respectable enough to be given audience with King Herod. What a peculiar mix of people to witness the birth of God's son.
The shepherds went home rejoicing.
The kings went home by a different route, avoiding Herod. Mary, Joseph & Jesus escaped to Egypt, before Herod unleashed his infanticide on Bethlehem.
I was thinking the other day of how awful events can taint so many lives. Take for example the recent story of Jo Yeates, missing for eight days before her body was found on Christmas Day. My sympathies go out to her family and boyfriend, worrying for days and only brought closure on what should be the most joyful day of the year. But I also thought about the couple walking their dog who found the body. Likewise, their day of peace and joy was shattered.
At the moment I am in the middle of the most escapist book (hoping for enough peace from the children to finish it this afternoon). There has been a lot of (fictional) death: shootings, explosions and wild escapes. I can tell there will be more blood and grief before the book ends! Anyone who might vaguely be a witness to the crime is on a hit list, as are their family, the police, the courts, judge and jury.
No-one can tell when they will be a witness to a major event. Sometimes we witness important events, such as car crashes or arguments. But every day we witness minor events, events that have no meaning at all to anyone but ourselves. We notice the grey hair in amongst the brown. We see our children sit, crawl, walk. We note the time that they beat us at a game without any assistance, and when we have tried really hard to beat them. We know when we are beaten, when the homework is more difficult than any that we remember. We watch our parents become more frail, need a stick more often, require glasses all the time.
We witness the passage of time in ourselves and in others. Now that Christmas is over, we witness the passage of Jesus life as he goes to his inevitable death on the cross. And after all, given that some supermarkets are already putting Easter Eggs on their shelves, shouldn't we begin to think about that sacrifice now?
Truth of our life,
You tell us God is good;
Prove it is true,
Got to your cross of wood.
From 'Born in the night' by Geoffrey Ainger
Friday, 24 December 2010
Here is my fourth Festive Friday, taking a look at a contemporary issue in line with a traditional advent or Christmas theme.
Today is the turn of Mary. She endured a long journey to Bethlehem whilst nine months pregnant, suffered the ignominy of not being able to get a room in an inn and ended up giving birth in a dirty, smelly stable.
It was a far cry from the process that resulted in my two children. Despite my father's desire to have them born in Yorkshire, both arrived in London just a short journey from home. There was little problem about space in the hospital; in fact, the lack of space in the ward for my daughter gave us an 'upgrade' in that we stayed in a room of our own. The hospitals were clean and efficient both times. My eldest was induced, with all the technology whirring around me that our modern maternity units can provide. My daughter came of her own accord, with comparative speed.
Of course, not all women are as lucky as me. As I have got to know single mothers I am in awe of their ability to keep going. I find it difficult enough myself at times, and I have a fantastic husband with whom to share the duties (and the pleasures). Particularly in those early days, when up feeding repeatedly during the night, having someone as support was invaluable. As I said, I have total respect for those who bring children up on their own.
This Christmas I have spent much time thinking about Mary and Joseph and their long journey to Bethlehem, only to find there was no room for them. Could the same happen again? No room at the Inn? I fear it could. So many people are sleeping out on the streets of our towns and cities even in this freezing weather. Asylum seekers still arrive into the UK every day, looking for somewhere to stay - and often turned away. I used to do some voluntary work for a homeless charity in London and was frequently humbled by the way my co-workers could support and care for the clients. And in Newcastle I was taught about the procedure for dealing with immigrants: how they are given a number, not a name, and how they can fall through the system to have nothing unless charities step in. The journey may be long and arduous but there is no guarantee of comfort at the end.
So as we welcome Jesus this Christmas into our hygienic houses and warm homes, let us not forget that he actually came to a poor family with nowhere to stay, to a smelly stable surrounded by cows and sheep, to a young girl who probably was scared silly. Mary, who had motherhood unexpectedly thrust upon her (as well as Shepherds and Wise Men), was like every mother I have ever known and 'treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.' [Luke 2.19]
Have a very Happy Christmas!
Wednesday, 22 December 2010
Today my eldest baby is ten years old. Happy Birthday, my wonderful child. I can hardly believe it is truly ten years since those long hours at the hospital, the time has passed so quickly. I have enjoyed every second. Well, if you excuse the chicken pox, malaria, sicknesses, tantrums, pooey nappies and whining. Almost every second.
In honour of the momentous occasion, here are ten things in celebration of his life.
- At birth, the first thing he did was bite the paediatrician's finger (not his father!)
- He loves his teddy. And his little sister, but probably in that order.
- He could read before he went to school, and has never struggled academically since.
- Every time we have moved house he has been very brave and managed to make friends easily.
- He is immensely patient with his sister. And his mother, come to think of it.
- He doesn't give up ... particularly if it involves a game or activity on the Wii or DS ...
- His hair is beginning to make him look like Dougal from The Magic Roundabout (but he loves it).
- This year he was assessed as 'gifted and talented' at sport! (Seriously questioning his parenthood now!)
- He is very funny, and is learning to tolerate his parents' teasing of him.
- He resents having his birthday on one of the shortest days of the year. (I anticipate him emigrating to the southern hemisphere as soon as he gets the chance!)
Overall, he is a most beautiful, loving child and I am delighted to know him, and even more proud to say that he is My Son.
Happy 10th Birthday. Next present when you hit three digits?!
Friday, 17 December 2010
Welcome to week 3 of Five Festive Fridays, taking a look at a contemporary issue in relation to the traditional Advent/Christmas Themes.
This week it is the turn of the Angels.
I have grown up with a slight resentment of Angels. I had blonde hair and blue eyes: I was always (yes, always) an Angel in the Nativity. Even aged eleven or twelve, I had to dress in a big white sheet with tinsel on my head. Never - not ever, not even once - was I Mary. I wasn't a shepherd or even a sheep. I was an Angel.
I'd love to say it was a reflection of my angelic personality, but I'm afraid a few would disagree with that.
Yet they are an important part of the Christmas story. Gabriel appeared to Zachariah (who I mentioned last week) and to Mary, and then a whole throng of angels sang to the shepherds. Clearly they were arresting: a sight to behold (although I can categorically state that there is no mention of tinsel in the bible).
Angels are God's messengers, the Royal Mail of biblical times. Today's messengers don't seem to have the same accuracy or style. If the postman arrived at the front door, glowing like the Ready Brek ads from head to foot and singing ... well, to be honest, I'd slam the door shut and call the police. Or the medics. But you can't deny the flair and panache of such delivery.
The playground gossip is about delayed deliveries. Like my friends, I have had problems with a couple of deliveries from Amazon. Despite the website stating that my goods are 'with the local deliverer' and despite living in a part of the country that has largely escaped the awful weather, it appears they are unable to convey my parcels on time. My order was supposed to arrive last week.
Perhaps I've been lucky, but for me this is the first time that they haven't delivered within the timescale they've stated. Should I be panicking? Should I rush out and re-buy the presents? Given the forecast for more snow, ice and general winter disruption this weekend, should I just give up now?
Yet I have received an email where they ask me to 'kindly wait' and ask for 'my continued patience', and imply that it will definitely be with me by 20 December. Christmas is going to be a little bare if it doesn't! What I like about the biblical story is that the angel said, "Do not be afraid." Amazon are trying to tell me the same thing, but are couching it in soft language - and allowing themselves some get-out clauses, some extra space for error.
Despite the angels' appearance (sudden, brilliant, Godly) they were bringing good news - peace, joy, hope, babies.
There are so many good things in life that we are afraid of. Babies is a prime example: despite the joy of finding myself pregnant, I did wonder what on earth I'd let myself in for. I still wonder that, ten years on! A new house; a new job; a new relationship: all can be exceedingly good things, yet fill us with fear and trepidation. It is that endless 'what if...' question. What if I'm not good enough? What if he's on the rebound? What if there is dry rot throughout? What if nobody likes me?
Yet the angel said, "Do not be afraid."
If it is good news ... and I sincerely hope that it is good news for you this Christmas ... then enjoy it. Sing and celebrate with the angels.
Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above:
'Glory to God
In the highest'.
From 'O Come, All Ye Faithful'; 18th Century hymn
Friday, 10 December 2010
Here is the second in my series of Festive Fridays, when I take a contemporary twist on a major Advent or Christmas theme in the church.
Today is the turn of John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, who was born to Zachariah and Elizabeth. Of course, being sane and human, Zach didn't believe the angel who told him that his barren wife would conceive. He suffered 9 months of being struck dumb for that disbelief, and I've always felt rather sorry for him in the circumstances.
Still, John's job was to make way for Jesus. And he is known as 'the Baptist' for being the one who baptised Jesus in the River Jordan when adult. So today I thought I'd look at the value of water.
There haven't been many periods in my life when I have not had access to water. Here in the UK we have an excellent water system so that we have fresh, drinkable water piped to virtually every house in the land. Really we don't appreciate just how valuable that is.
In Zambia we also had constant water supply. Most of Zambia's electricity is powered by hydroelectric dams - the most famous being Kariba Dam, but there is also one at the Victoria Falls and several in the North and West of the country. Despite a seasonality that has no rain at all April - October, then a rainy season November - March, there is enough water in the River Zambezi to power the country most of the time.
There is also enough water, pumped from miles away to the capital city Lusaka. Being wary foreigners, we filtered all our water, but it was still of good quality. I recognised that I had to stop worrying when I saw my children drink the bathwater - as any toddler will - and survive.
We only ever had one serious problem with water. My understanding was that they were servicing one of the pumps, which meant that the water pressure in our area of Lusaka dropped for a couple of months. Over the course of a couple of weeks one August it dropped so that we only had water flowing from the taps at about 6am, then maybe a little late at night. Having our own private borehole would have solved this problem, but we didn't.
But humans are resourceful, particularly when it comes to survival. It meant an earlier start, filling as many large bottles with water as we could. It meant doing all the washing up at once. It meant going to the toilet in succession, and then flushing (well, pouring a bucket of water down) after the last visit. It meant not watering the garden. It meant bucket baths and cold washes. It meant thinking about our water usage: how much and when.
It was a salutary lesson.
Many in our world walk for miles each day to get water. What they collect is often not clean - certainly not as clean as we in the wealthy West would deem acceptable to drink. And they survive on the few litres that they are able to carry for all their food, drink, cooking, cleaning and washing needs. Organisations such as Water Aid do marvellous work to get water pumps into rural villages, clean sanitation and toilet facilities. Have a look at this page to see what they are doing in Zambia, in particular.
Of course, water can also be destructive. This year, we should think in particular of Haiti: following on from the devastating earthquake it is now suffering from a cholera epidemic, a water-borne disease that can quickly kill. They remain under threat throughout the 'hurricane season', when the makeshift tents and houses could be blown or washed away. Water: that life-giving source, also the bearer of disease and destruction.
Water is necessary for life. This Christmas, let's take a little time to be grateful for a commodity that we often take for granted, but which many people struggle to obtain on a daily basis.
And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time.
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life.
Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?
Monday, 6 December 2010
It follows one solid night's sleep, and a previous four nights with similar rude and irrationally early awakenings.
It isn't very dark in our bedroom: the streetlamp casts a glow which reflects off the snow giving a general feeling of light. That doesn't help with getting back to sleep.
But now I've discovered the benefit to being awake. The Ashes Test Match. Clearly this won't work the-night-after-next, when the Adelaide match is finished, but it is an excellent way to use up time (and yes, some would say, to fall asleep again...)
My scheme now is to creep out of bed (don't want to disturb husband who actually has to save children's lives at work in the morning!) and to check the score on the BBC website. Then I turn down the sound on the computer and switch on the TMS commentary. I then gradually increase the volume again until it is just audible ... and then a bit more to be able to be heard from the bed (about 4m away, with door open). Then I can snuggle back into bed and hear England (a) pile on the runs or (b) take crucial wickets.
I'm not sure this really helps come 6.30am when the alarm goes off, but for those awful moments in the middle of the night when sleep eludes me I get great joy from the TMS commentators ... particularly when the Australians are struggling to think of anything positive to say about their own team!
And in the morning I can bounce into my son's bedroom, full of beans, calling on him to wake up, get up, time for breakfast, got to go to school (all said in one breath with Mary Poppins -like enthusiasm) and then cheer him up with the end of play score. Oddly enough he never seems quite so happy about hearing it at that point.
Still, at least at the moment the news tends to be good for us England supporters. What on earth will we do when Australia get their mojo back? I might have to resort to sleeping again!
Friday, 3 December 2010
I thought I'd write my own little Christmas series, covering Five Festive Fridays (really because four or six wouldn't alliterate), giving a contemporary twist to major Advent or Christmas themes in the church.
First up is Prophets. Or perhaps 'are Prophets', given there were many of them. Already my Festive Friday is confused by English grammar.
Anyway, what are prophets and who are our prophets today?
My dictionary tells me they are someone who interprets or passes on the will of a deity; somebody who foretells the future; somebody who advocates a cause or idea; or somebody considered to be an inspired leader or teacher. [Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation.]
The common (secular) definition is that of telling the future, like soothsayers of old. When the prediction is right, the prophet is hailed and exalted; when it is wrong, they are slammed.
Much like weathermen. They try to foretell the future and are largely ignored if they get it right, but incidents like Michael Fish's famous dismissal of an impending hurricane are banded about as examples of their uselessness. And even if they get it right, knowing that there is more snow, more ice, more freezing temperatures (with Siberian wind-chill factor thrown in) doesn't win weather-forecasters friends.
My son has a tendency to add 'of doom' (much in the style of Private Frazer from Dad's Army) to any noun that passes his lips.
'It's the DS of dooooom!'
'Are watching Strictly ... of doooooom?'
'Ah, but these are carrots of doooooooom...'
'Prophets of doom' is a phrase that is often banded about. I wonder if we pay most attention to the doom-mongers, rather than those that promise hope and joy and peace. I, for one, am much more inclined to go with those who say, 'It's only Day 1: see what it is like when England bat...' than with those who are already celebrating our Ashes victory!
Then again, yesterday England lost out on its bid to host the World Cup in 2018. And lost badly, by all accounts. Much has been hyped up in our media about it during the last few days, with great and growing confidence of winning. The Panorama programme on Monday, alleging bribery and corruption within FIFA, was feared to affect our vote; the violence at the Birmingham/Aston Villa match on Wednesday was possibly a more serious setback. Yet still our Press said that the bid was good, the presentation was excellent, if we could get past the first round we had a good chance.
Of course, we didn't get past the first round. And with it went the dreams of many, many people.
Were the press wise to build up our hopes? Or to waste our time on a triviality? After all, there are hundreds dying from AIDS each day, and World Aids Day this week was nowhere near so prominently marked. Are the Press (TV and print versions) our modern day prophets?
Or maybe it is the Bookmakers. After all, their clever calculations and statistics are able to put a price on the probability of something happening. Although I gather they lost out badly on the November announcement of the Royal Engagement (William & Kate). They are in the business to make money - and usually do! - so are they better prophets of what is to come and when?
In truth, none of us have crystal balls, which is why it is so amazing that there were prophets in the Old Testament who foresaw the birth of Christ. They also predicted his death. But the reason for celebrating Christmas, for having a Festive Friday - or any other Festive day - is to wonder at the birth of that baby boy.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.