Fear not

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” Luke 2:10

Over and against the dark, anxiety, problems too big to carry and crumbling hopes, perhaps this is the call of Christmas. The first Christmas was not a moment for the faint of heart, there were visions, angels, social scandal and political upheaval. The wounds of dashed familial dreams were rubbed with salt – Elizabeth long barren and Mary an unwed mother. The national and geographical skies of Israel were heavy with unrest; God’s special people felt forgotten and abused. The stakes were high and there was much to be afraid of.  It should perhaps be unsurprising then that early in the story Zechariah (Luke 1:13), Mary (Luke 1:30) and Joseph (Matt 1:20) are each called to put away fear.

A quick word search shows that they stand in a long line of those called by God not to fear. Abraham to Revelation, the story of God’s people is the story of hearing those words; do not be afraid. And the reason, the follow up statement, the ‘why’? It begins with God Himself, His character and inclination toward them. They don’t need to be afraid because they have a God who promises to fight for His people (Deuteronomy 3:22) and deliver them (Exodus 14:13). A God who promises never to leave His people (Deuteronomy 31:6) and who promises to do good to them (Zechariah 8:15). He will be their shield and reward (Genesis 15:1). He will hear the cries of even the small and weak (Genesis 21:17). They do not need to fear great battles, great nations, doubt or discouragement because there is no other God besides their God (Isaiah 44:8) and He has determined to help them (Isaiah 41:14).

And the most incredible ‘help’ came one Holy Night in an unexpected way, a tiny baby, “a thrill of hope” in a desperate situation. The wonder of birth and new life bringing so much potential into the world. The angels herald the good news and again, call the shepherds from darkness and fear into something new that God is doing, great joy for all. At last, God among us. At last, face-to-face yet we live. At last, reconciled. At last, peace and rest.

This Christmas I am trying to let joy unseat fear. 1 John 4:18 tells us that “perfect love drives out fear” and Jesus came to demonstrate God’s perfect love for us, bringing peace for troubled hearts (John 14:27). Jesus Himself acknowledges that “in this world [we] will have trouble” but calls us to “take heart! [because] I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The One who is First and Last (Revelation 1:17) calls us to lay down our fear and rather to look to Him, the conduit of cosmic Love, Joy and Peace. Yes, Advent calls us to wait, but to wait with confidence knowing that “the hopes and fears of all the years” have indeed been met in the One who came and overcame, and “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4 ESV).

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What if it is all gift?

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I love gifts. I love giving them and I love receiving them. ‘Gifts’ are one of my top ‘love languages’. Unnecessary, they are given in love to bring delight, to show favour. They are usually above and beyond what we need or deserve, given ‘just because’.

Just recently I have been thinking about the idea that God chose to create, not because He had to, but because He wanted to. He made a beautiful world, affirming its goodness over and over again. Then He made us, and gave it to us to live in, to enjoy with Him. While I do not want to overlook the pain and brokenness that entered our human existence through our collective turning from God, I think that, this side of the cross, we are perhaps even in a better position to understand our lives as gift.

The story began as gift and ends as gift, John tells us that “Out of His fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given” (John 1:16). God chose to create, He chose to call Abraham, He chose rescue Israel, He chose to send Jesus. And He chooses to work in us, inviting us into fullness of life (John 10:10). What if we lived into this? What if our lives were a place where we received “Every good and perfect gift [as] from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 ‘is’ to ‘as’ – my editorial change)?

Sometimes there will be a painful tension here, I realise that. The brokenness of life ‘under the sun’ (a la Ecclesiastes) is real, so real in fact that God dealt with it fully and finally in Jesus. He knows and deeply feels our hurts, showing us by giving us Himself.

The problem of pain aside (while still wanting to acknowledge its weight), receiving a gift well actually forces our focus to shift. It involves humility, gratitude and it usually results in joy. Hands out, we open ourselves to the giver. Thanks on our lips, we slow down, stilling ourself to appreciate the moment. Delight bubbles up, not just in the gift, lovely as it maybe, but in the way it points us to the one who has given it. In recognition of their kindness toward us, their care for us.

If we received our times and our days like this, if I received my times and my days like this, I think, perhaps I might be on the right track. Because He is my Father and He does indeed give good gifts (Matthew 7:11). I think that there is a lightness to be found here, a joy God is calling us into. Grace upon grace, gift upon gift. Like a child eager for Christmas morning or their birthday, I want to try and live in anticipation of His readiness to gift – I do love presents, after all! What if our everyday-walking-around-lives were shaped by the joy of Love demonstrated in gifts given and received?

Ambivalent Consumer

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Sometimes I feel it when I am talking with a sensitive friend, sometimes when I am having a fragile moment myself. The uneasy recognition that each one of us, as complex physical, emotional and spiritual beings, exists in time and space. That by nature of our existence we use up time (as well as other resources) and take up space. In one of my favourite musicals, Sussical, the Who’s from Whoville sing out “We are here, we are here, we are here” to let the creatures in the large world know that they are real. For some of us the tension between this necessary cry of existence and deep reticence in acknowledging our very stuff-ness (and therefore stuff-dependance) can begin to break us.

There is a reconciliation I find myself fighting for on several fronts.

In moments of fear and mis-placed disgust, I long to be smaller, to take up less space, to find more room in my clothes. In corresponding moments of dogged self-talk I begin my schpeil; my body houses my bones, muscles and organs – growth and maintenance is heavily dependant on my genetic code. Isolated, no particular section of me is wildly photogenic or smooth or blemish free. But together, I am a human being, a creature, a body-and-soul matrix with real biological systems that process real organic molecules, animated by solar energy and the very breath of God. Discussions about fasting aside, regular food is necessary for my ongoing survival. Fats, carbohydrates and proteins – all necessary to keep me enlivened, alive. Sometimes I do wish that the whole could be smaller, that there was less of me, that I took up less room. I know that there is much that could be said on the topic. But, in truth, I do not want to be a small person or live a small life. All that remains is to live out of the body I’ve been given; thankful and ready to use it for joy.

Not only do I take up space myself (more than I would like when pressed for the uncomfortable truth), but my stuff does too. My very physicality (yours too) demands food (fairly regularly, ask my husband just how civilised I can be prior to dinner), water, air, clothes, some place safe to rest in, to live in, tools to do my work, toys to share in play. The list goes on. For most of us, where these things can be enhanced with beauty, they seem to answer our needs even more truly. The somewhat obvious and, at times disconcerting reality, is that providing for these very real and tangible cries requires considerable time and money.

In a weak moment we despair at the grocery bill, regret the rent, mourn the price of a new skirt – no matter how thoughtfully the shopping list was put together, how economically our decisions about where to live were made or how careful the purchase of an attractive, up-cycled charity-shop outfit for work was. In this frame of mind, justifying the occasional ‘this-is-beautiful-and-I-really-love-it-purchase’ can be even more difficult. Add to these daily reminders of your reliance on stuff, physical things, the double ups that come from moving to a new place – having left old things behind because moving ‘stuff’ costs. Packing stuff in and out of moving boxes and suitcases has become a recent but reoccurring theme of my life. While previously my stable geography meant that my collection of stuff moved only small distances and made itself less known, now no longer.  As the distances became longer and the cost higher, moving stuff became a more difficult issue for me. Deciding what to take and what to leave when moving away is difficult enough without adding the now-near-existential-regret-come-fear of mine – if I leave it behind I’ll need to buy a new one when I get there!

This summer ‘stuff’ weighed me down; an overseas move, study of Creation care and environmental brokeness followed with further international travel meant (a lot of) real luggage toting. It also meant grappling with my unwieldy emotional baggage. I do not in anyway find myself facing Fall all the ends tied up neat and tidy, but I have had to try and lay the issue down for a spell. It was getting too heavy for me.

We took this course together, Asher and I, in the summer. A course about ‘stuff’. Natural ‘stuff’ and human-made ‘stuff’. Creation in its outstanding diversity and the complex labyrinth of human production, technology and objects. We wondered how to negotiate the two realms, we read scripture and other wise writers. We worried about human failings in ecology. We rowed boats and explored marine environments. We sang and prayed together. We shared bread and wine and remembered the One who’s body was broken because of our destruction. And I think that is where the answers begin.

Our God made and loves this physical world. He made the ‘stuff’! The epitome of a good designer, He made the world both useful and beautiful. He made us as part of His creation to love and appreciate it, to use and work within it, and, as Schmeman would say, to offer it back to Him in praise and worship. God is not only just okay with a real, physical creation, He wanted it that way. He even sent His Son to become part of it. Incredible. God made flesh, bone, body. He knows what it feels to live in skin. His death and (bodily) resurrection answers so many questions, articulated and otherwise, but for my purposes here today, it at least says that our messy, uncomfortable, physical lives, our stuff, our home planet, all matter to Him deeply. He took on the great joy and incredible brokenness of life under the sun – and then some – because He loves His creation. His double affirmation of the ‘stuff’ of this world comes in the way He asks us to remember why He came, bread and wine are to be our mnemonics. We remember God dwelling among us as we eat a meal, a meal that speaks of sacrifice, life given for life and welcome.  Grapes, yeast, wheat, water. The very ‘stuff of life’ tells us the story of heaven meeting earth and welcoming her home, over and over, as often as we drink it.

This is not a full discussion of the spiritual importance of ‘stuff’, but for me, weary from the compromise of trying to do right within a broken system, arms heavy from carrying my ‘stuff’, I’m glad to sit down at the table. Eyes forced to the Head, praise and thankfulness the only right response to the Giver of all good gifts. Will you sit by me?

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:4-8

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963.

The Story and a beginning

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In honour of making it to the end of first week of Regent I thought I would share this song. Asher and I wrote it together at Compass Conference (now Venn Summer Conference) as a reflection on the week’s teaching – hopefully it will continue to be the first of many (see this other post) with him as composer and me as lyricist – it is a fun combination! Anyhow, he rewrote the lyrics of an older song as a demonstration of his evolving understanding of God’s story, told in the Bible. That unfolding Story is held in high esteem at Regent – one of the reasons why I am particularly thrilled to be here. Anyhow maybe you’ll enjoy it too!

Here is what he said about it;

This song is a re-write of a piece I wrote in ’09 (I think). My wife re-wrote the lyrics last year at Compass Summer Conference (www.venn.org.nz). We had been reflecting on the Creation, Fall, Redemption Story of the Bible and decided to try and put that into a form we could present at the creative presentation night. I felt like I had grown since I wrote the song and wanted to revise my thoughts about how God has not created me to endure this life and then get out of here but to try and be a part of building his kingdom and then looking forward to his coming when he will come and dwell with us:

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev 21:1-4

Originally the song was called ‘Heaven is Home’ but Compass was the culmination of me realising that our deepest rest is in God himself and we look forward to his final ‘Mend of the World’. Heaven is when we will finally be with Christ and I look forward to that day.

– Asher

Heaven’s Coming Home

Good morning,
Creations waiting for a word
Skies and seas and rocks and birds
Beauty spoken seen and heard

My darlings,
Welcome to this world its time
To rule this place dear child of mine
Bless, tend, keep and be a sign

Oh, Creation is His throne,
Full of Love He’s shown,
Made to be our home
Made to be our home

Where are you?
Covered now we feel ashamed
Creation feels the weight of pain
What once was joyful now is strained

Lost
Wandering through this desert land,
Everything I taste is bland,
Dare we hope there is a plan?

Oh, we’re longing for a home,
A place to cease our roam,
Are we left alone?
Are we left alone?

He came,
Though He was not recognised,
To fix the broken, shame the wise,
Free the captives, open eyes.

Dying,
Heavens precious only Son,
For the broken, distant ones,
The sacrifice at last was done.

Oh, ascended to the Throne,
Our Father can be known
An invitation home,
An invitation home.

Don’t worry,
Restoration is to come,
Transformation will be done,
Blessing, wholeness, for gathered ones.

At last,
Redemptions story will be told,
Rest and peace as was foretold
Creation once more shot with gold.

Oh, Creation is His throne,
Never on our own,
Heavens coming home,
Heavens coming home

On Sarah and sharing

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The timing is not really outstandingly special or meaningful. The sermon was given on Mother’s Day, and this past Sunday we celebrated Father’s day, so maybe there is something in that. Sarah Bessey wrote a very encouraging post on women preaching the following week and now, like her, I live in BC too, so maybe there is something in that. I have just begun another season of formal study, of seeking knowledge, truth and freedom for myself (and hopefully others!), that probably also has a bit to do with it.

Mostly though I just wanted to share one of the places I have tried to articulate something important to me clearly. It is not a blog post, it is a sermon. It was a huge honour to be asked, to be given a chance to ‘have a go’. It delighted me to weave the themes of God, love, parenting, mums, women, Jesus and applied wisdom together. It was an enourmous asset to have the greats of Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey and Nerida Peart to lean on and learn from. It was a huge honour to have representatives of three generations of women from both sides of my family at church to listen. It’s here if you are interested.

Going ‘home’?

It is tricky now, when I talk about going home. Actually, it is not really tricky, it is just that there is no longer only one ‘home’ – so questions of home are little fraught with complexity and the faintest hint of grief. Once upon a time it was easy – a simple answer to a simple question; “where do you live?”, “Oh, 30 Annangrove”. But not any more. And really, that is okay. In fact, in many ways it is more than okay, it is a very good thing.

It is a pretty blessed thing to belong in more than one place. To have people – family, friends – precious people to love you in more than one town. I am truly rich in this way.

I do fear the difficulties and disadvantages of not always being able to be present with those far away.
I do not enjoy the goodbyes that are a regular and permanent part of life.
I do know that my changing of location from here to there (and back again) remind me that life is always changing (a truth I would perhaps ignore with more success if I did not have to move).
In the thick of the coming and going it is having faith in One who does not change that steadies me.

And so, I am trying to be grateful for the changes (many of which have been very wonderful) – grateful for here, now, and thankful that (over) there they still love me very much.

To holidays at home! Enjoy these pictures taken during the April holidays and shared in anticipation of winter holidays ‘home’ too!

(or at least, they would have been in anticipation had I been a little more organised before the holidays!)

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Storied food

I’ve been pondering one of the reasons that I think food is so important recently, it has been bubbling away in the back of my mind while I continue my studies at uni and my teaching (and my cooking at home!). The last few weeks at uni have been on the way that food and religion intersect. As I have mentioned before, I have been completely fascinated by the readings we have been given that link religion and food, finding a recent one from Ken Albala in his Food in Early modern Europe really enlightening. What he was able to do was discuss the evolution of the food habits associated with the practice of Christianity, relating these to historical events and social changes. Below are a few points he made that I have commended on.

The command by Jesus to repeat the “taking of bread and wine” as He did at the Last Supper saw the belief of transubstantiation emerge – as it was perceived that “the[er was the] real presence of Christ in the bead and wine” consumed. “By consuming the body of Christ, it was believed that the communicant would gain merit and would be infused with grace …” (Albala 2003, 194).
As a Protestant Christian, I love some of these ideas but don’t understand them the same way that perhaps my Catholic friends would. Jesus gave us these physical symbols as reminders that He is (and will remain) present with us and that we can be filled and satisfied with His grace. We don’t need to gain His favour, His arms stretched wide on the cross were enough to prove that He loves us despite of our significant lack of merit!

He speaks of “other sacraments, or holy rituals, which signaled passages in life from one state of being to another. Baptism initiated the infant into the community of believers … Marriage officially recognised passage from single status to that of inseparably bonded …  [even to] extreme unction, the last rites of the dead. Surrounding each of these important life events, there was naturally a celebratory feast” (Albala 2003, 194).
I continue to wonder about celebrations. Do we celebrate specifically and regularly with deep reverence and thankfulness for different life stages – all gifts from a good God who can bring glories in the beautiful and fragile? How would our mindsets need to change so we could do this?

With the reference to the precursor to holidays – ‘holi-days’ (Albala 2003, 194) … I ponder what it means to set aside, appropriately recognise and celebrate regular (weekly, monthly, even annually) days that are set apart, sacred, special. To offer these times especially to God, while also sharing them with our family and communities. What discussions need to happen so that we celebrate well, marking the days, the seasons and the years? Historically, the church has marked these with both fasting and feasting; Lent and Advent, Easter and Christmas … what stories could our eating tell as we gather to remember?

Albala also notices the split between the Catholic and Protestant behaviours to do with food; the Catholic tradition seemed a little prone to extremes – on one hand valuing good food and wine, while other believers lived lives of extreme asceticism. The Reformers’ ideas about food mirrored their theology in other areas; “the gospel gives us complete freedom in everything” so just as the “early Christian’s had no food prohibitions at all”, personal spiritual exercises to do with fasting and feasting were up to the discretion of the believer (Albala 2003, 200). At sometimes, the diligence of a saved life has made for a bland existence, and unfortunately the so-called ‘Protestant work ethic’ has even worked its way into our eating habits. This article from the Guardian online shows the way a Catholic heritage that reveled in the goodness of food has is benefits!

“In the US the dominant conception of food is nutritional,” Fischler explains. “Feeding oneself is above all a matter of making rational decisions to satisfy bodily needs. In contrast the French have a culinary conception of food, putting the emphasis on flavour and pleasure. In our surveys we asked French and American people to say what they associated with various words. When we suggested ‘chocolate cake’, the Americans thought of ‘guilt’, the French, ‘birthdays’.” (Chemin, 2004)

… and here in Australia, we tend to be more like our friends in the States than those in France – we have lost our ability to revel in gratitude and without greed, one thing I look forward to in Eternity – feasting without the dark side that so often accompanies our eating now. The misplaced hunger, the worry about weight, kilojules, scales, empty stomachs in other areas, the ethics of the production of the food, the echoing emptiness that follows a meal which whispers of a deeper need.

And finally, Albala, like so many other authors, insists that “eating the bread [at the Lord’s table] is still an important ritual” (2003, 201) but that, for Protestants, it is nuanced differentently than the Eucharist celebrated by their Catholic cousins. Oh man, it so is still important. Somehow the bread calls ‘deep unto deep’ and it makes me long to grow into a deeper longing for communion in every way that the Lord’s Supper offers; with my God, with my faith community, with the historical church. I long to practice it with big, nourishing pieces of bread and big nourishing bits of theology that fill me and help me to look ‘onwards and upwards’ to where this meal leads.

Anyhow. A few thoughts about the way that religious practice and food practices have been woven together to tell stories at different times through the ages. We are still telling these stories, some we are repeating, others we have developed, and there is still room to tell new stories, or old ones in new ways.