The”to-do” list

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I’m sharing some old posts in the run up to Christmas. This was originally published on my first blog, Dappled things, December 2013.

It’s that time of year again and I’m at the mercy of the ‘to do’ list.

Bent low under the oppression of slave driven orders (that I wrote myself), crushed beneath the tyranny of a bitter regime, I’m on a fast track to glory where each rung of the ever onwards ladder of success is a pencil line through the next item, as I strain forwards to accomplish an ever growing list of ‘must do’ tasks. If the the ‘to do’ list is lying I’d like to call out the truth right now. My value and existence are not dependent on what I do, my value is dependent on who I am.

Before this ‘to do’ list lays claim to the whole holiday, I have an announcement to make. Before this calendar is completely full, like the draw under the bed and space on the bottom of the wardrobe, fit to burst with unwrapped gifts. Before the unwritten Christmas cards get up out of the box and wave farewell to the last day of posting and before the amount of home baked goods exceeds the space I have cleared in the deep freeze, I need to pause. For there will be errands to run, for hard-to-come-by herbs to season last minute sausage meat stuffing when Paxo just won’t do. There will be trips in the fading light of the year’s shortest day, into the copse at the back of my house for ivy and rose hips, when a shop bought wreath has failed to bring the Christmas we have dreamed of into the house and at midnight I will be cutting out a last minute quilt or pincushion for a friends who deserves something hand sewn, if I don’t stop myself now.

 

gifts

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This is a Christmas to be more and do less. A time to just be, because that is enough, because God is enough. Put the ‘to do’ list aside because there is something of Christmas that you can not buy and you can not bake. Take some time, slow down and breathe deep. Look around and give thanks. Laugh, smile, hug. Remember Jesus.

God sent His Son Jesus, in the likeness of a man, flesh, blood, skin, bone and beating heart. And unlike other men before Him and since, this man, this God-man did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. This man was not driven in the relentless pursuit of the recognitions and achievements that other men chase, but he took on a humble nature that harnessed the fullness of divine strength without ever taking the upper hand. He died on the cross and there, in a place of punishing shame and degradation, he initiated a miracle of redemption that defied all reasonable possibility. Finally he sealed the work in a breathtaking resurrection that changed the course of history and eternity forever, that changed the course of my history and eternity forever.

Therefore:

Be reconciled

We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5.20-21

Be transformed

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12.2

Be loved

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2.20

Be still

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Psalm 37.7

Be holy

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

Ephesians 1.4-6

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Spiritual dissonance

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Spiritual dissonance happens when we feel estranged from the responses we have been taught to make to God, and we grow separate from an authentic spirituality.

Loving God with all our heart, soul and mind creates an appetite for the authentic, and this is always the resting place of our desire to know Him more.

The gospels tell us to seek so that we will find and those who seek so often find themselves looking beyond their received traditions, teachings and practises to find more of God in something surprising outside of the well defined edges and corners of their current box.

Many seekers find that the words of others who are actively seeking God are a mirror and a map in their journey towards authenticity; a mirror because the words of others can reflect back a clear image of the things they already sensed, a map because they offer a route forwards, directions in the next step of the way.

Poetry is valuable in negotiating the deep and strange places of the soul because poetry uses a concentrated form of words to evoke and recreate experiences of the human heart that are often known and rarely spoken.

Advent brings out the best in poets. More so than Christmas. Christmas is over-burdened with meaning, most of it too sentimental to bear the weight of honest spiritual pursuit and the deep pain of the outside world. Spiritual dissonance at this time of year can be overwhelming and we must take all the help we can get to make a way amongst the clutter of the season.

In this poem by Rowan Williams, the imminent birth of Christ is under shadowed by a knowledge of the torture and suffering He will bear. The movement through the stanzas, leaf fall, to frost, to dark days and finally labour and child birth, does not flinch from the painful realities of our waiting for Christ and yet it capture the wonder and beauty of the whole creation’s relief when he is safely come.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.



He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.



He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.



He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

This poem is featured in a selection of poems for advent and epiphany, by Janet Morely, that I have reviewed in a previous post. 

Archbishop Rowan William’s poem was published in his first poetry collection, After Silent Centuries (Oxford, 1994), and is now available in the volume, The Poems of Rowan Williams. The poem was set to music by Peter Maxwell Davies in a collection of anthems in honour of the Queen’s diamond jubilee.

 

Books for Advent

Recommendations for advent reading.

Until recently I had not been part of a church that followed the liturgical calendar. Sometimes it actively opposed such remembrance, arguing that we should celebrate Christ’s birth, his death and resurrection, everyday, especially as there was no direction to make an occasion of these events in scripture. At other times the attitude was ambivalent. Not knowing quite what to do with the season, independent churches who found their identity in having broken away from the established churches, were unable to decide whether to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the celebrations or to keep a safe distance from the worldliness of it all.

Some time before I moved to a liturgical church I found that I was slipping into a rhythm of Bible reading and contemplation that followed the cycle of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, as easily as my heart and writing followed the seasons of the natural world. When my inner winter times seemed to go on forever I took comfort in Lenten practices that followed the pattern of the freshly emerging spring. When resurrection Sunday came, I celebrated more deeply than before. As the last leaves turned and fell in a splendour of autumn glory, mornings were cold but thought of Advent warmed my soul. The rhythms of the church year echoed the patterns of my own spiritual formation and gave me words to pray in the different seasons of life.

Christmas approaches and we rekindle traditions within our own homes, the right date for putting up the tree, recipes we only make at this time of year, trips out to the German markets or to the theatre, a fire in the hearth every night, movies and good books. The tender meanings of incarnation in a broken world are enlivened for us in carol singing and lectionary readings. Counting down to the shortest day of the year we can make time for  extra reading, something devotional or if we are already widely read in devotional works, something more theologically challenging.

The books I am reviewing today are written for advent and offer three different approaches to devotional writing but there common goal is to help us connect more authentically with Christ, the heart of our Christmas faith.

Janet Morely, Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany.

haphazar

This seasonally decorated book offers 37 poems on advent themes, a commentary on each and a question to guide our thoughts and prayers. Morley uses each poem as a stimulus to examine themes of fears and expectations, darkness and light, annunciation, patience, death and hope of resurrection. I have have especially appreciated how her comments on the poem open up the layers of meaning without forcibly dictating the message. The questions at the end of each chapter have been a prompt for my journal notes and help me connect what I have read with how I will respond.

Extract from a chapter one Emily Dickinson’s poem, We grow accustomed to the dark,

“An important dimension of advent is that it moves through a time when the world is becoming increasingly dark. Days are shorter, nights start sooner, and the quality of light is often dulled by poor weather. There is no avoiding having to live quite a large proportion of our waking life during hours of darkness, and for some people this is a physical reality that leads to gloom or even depression … Have you ever experienced the sense of being totally in the dark, either in your prayer life or in life decisions generally? Was it possible for you to risk keeping going in that darkness?”

 

Ann Voskamp, The Greatest Gift

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The Tree of Jesse is a symbol from Medieval art representing the ancestors of Christ as presented in the gospel geneologies. The Jesse tree is named from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Voskamp’s book traces the redemptive connections between characters in the Old Testament, Messianic prophesies, and significant events leading up to the birth of Jesus. Those who are familiar with Voskamp’s writing will notice the predominance of her own familiar theme: the overwhelming power of God’s grace to heal the most damaged soul.

An extract from The Greatest Gift, a reflection on Matthew 1

“God can’t stay away. This is the love story that has been coming for you since the beginning. The God. Who walked with us in the garden in the cool of the evening, before the fall shattered our closeness with him, is the God who came after his people in the pillar of cloud, of fire, because he couldn’t bear to let his people wander alone. He is the God who came to grieving job as a whirl wind, a tornado, a hurricane, who covenanted to Abraham as a smoking furnace, who wildly pitched his tent with the holy of holies so somehow, in all the Shekinah glory, he could get close enough to live amid his people.”

 

Paula Gooder, The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent

gooder

This advent book by Bible Society theologian, Paula Gooder is the most theological orientated of the three book. It involves no scholarly exegesis, but the writing reflects Gooder’s stated intent of bringing the bennefits of modern Biblical Studies to a wider audience of Christian readers. The book has four main chapters, one for each week of advent and they examine stories of waiting in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary. There is an introductory chapter of waiting as a Chrsitan virtue that deals splendidly with the idea of time in Biblical thought.

An extract from the final chapter of, The Meaning is in the Waiting

“Mary’s song of praise, when it comes, is one of the most powerful in the Bible: the idea of reversal (the powerful being made low and the lowly being lifted up), the poetry, and the sheer joy of the song, have made sure that it has remained one of the churches’ favourite expressions of praise for many centuries … Luke portrays Mary as the first poetic theologian of the New Testament : she sees the event of the world around her, makes connections between them, draws deeply on her religious roots and pours this out in a beautiful hymn of praise.”

Burning bushes

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On my street, there were two trees ablaze with red leafed flames, a Pentecostal anointing in an age of faltering belief.

It’s a blessing to the eyes.

Weeks later I pass this place and the flames glow hot, but the tree is not burnt up. Today they kindle yellow across the dull sky of this more than lovely autumn.

On the ground leaves fallen, smoulder like ash in yesterday’s hearth. The sun burns low, casting gold amongst the thinning hedges and piles of leaves.

Hearing the audible voice of God is rare. In our sceptical age, believing the testimony of those who do is rarer still, but there are burning bushes on every street corner, and ordinary folk who are sure they have heard God speak.

Moses lived the strangest kind of orphaned life. Separated at birth from his Hebrew family and raised in the Pharaoh’s place, he fled leaving matters undone to make an uncertain home for himself, far from the life he had been given. Alone in the desert place, tending another man’s flocks, his eye was drawn to the strangest sight.

A bush flickering hot with flames.

It burned but it was not consumed.

The bush was on fire but it did not burn up and Moses was listening and watching more carefully than before. “I will go over and see this strange sight” he said. The Exodus account tells us that when God saw that Moses had gone over to look – then he spoke to him, calling his name from out of the burning bush, causing him to remove his shoes and hide his face.

The nights are drawing in, calling us home, out of the cold, this creeping stain of darkness, split like ink, daylight saving and so much less light for us to see by. Yet, there are burning bushes on street corners and when God saw us go to look, then he spoke.

How can we not compare the seasons of our calendar to the seasons of the soul? How can we not take comfort in the brilliance of autumn glory as winter falls around us? Why would we not scan our horizon and watch to see a burning bush and hear the voice of God?

It makes for the breaking of a heart, to feel alone in this world, to fear that God is silent, that he does not care for us. And it is truely the condition of being human that we know this loss. But we were made to face this and to grapple with it. There is a clear sighted envisioning beyond our doubt and fear which is why we wrap up warm and go out into the cold, looking for a burning bush in a near-winter landscape.

It will turn the eye, and then the soul,  back towards the blessings of God.