Breathe out, focus.

Here I am, coming up for air (read the last post if you don’t understand why) and relieved that today is the last day of the school year. From tomorrow, no more routines, no more deadlines, no more school lunches to make and shop for, no more getting kids out ready for school ‘til early 2015. Congratulations to all parents for making it to the end of term. I salute you.

All this time off (for the kids at least) sounds great. And for me it is too, at least for the first couple of days. Before the kids start to fight and the house collapses into a chaos of abandoned clothes, toys, crockery and lolly wrappers. At this stage even I begin to crave order. Understanding dawns about parents who schedule their kids’ holidays as tightly as term time. I’m torn between admiration for them and sympathy for their children, knowing that I would have hated to have to go anywhere or do anything much in my summer holidays.

Those were different times. My parents, like many, simply didn’t think that way. The only commitment I had was a Christian youth camp which ate up a week of real time, two weeks of anticipation and at least another fortnight of coming down again. Happy days. At least one of my tribe will be going to a similar camp again this year, and is there in spirit already. Apart from that, a weekly date in a park with some other harassed mums is probably the most planning I’ll achieve.

We haven’t really thought much in our family about how to do this Christmas. Last year was one of the best for me since I was a little girl. I had been worrying about my parents’ first Christmas since my brother’s death and toying with the idea of going back to the UK to be with them. With a week to go I finally broached the subject with Mum. They had made plans to go away. (Very sensible of them. And they had a great time, btw.) Relief lifted me instantly. We had a quiet day at home and then went to the beach for the late afternoon sun. It was glorious. Beautiful.

That Christmas spoiled me. Now I want the same again. I want the peace that came from the inside out and had nothing to do with how amazing, or big, lunch was, or how fantastic the presents were. It was a peace more poignant somehow after a difficult year. We need that this time around, after another loss. We need the peace that is beyond understanding, peace that is for me an almost physical sensation of relief and wellbeing. The angels in the Christmas story proclaim peace on earth and goodwill towards men. I find I need to cut through the false gaiety of this season to get to anything like that.

Doing the nativity play this year has helped. Having to focus on the story made me, well, focus on the story. Not on what I disapprove of or think is too commercialised and shallow. Not on how spiritual I am failing to be in imparting to my children what this time is really about. Not on what gifts would delight them without spoiling them. None of that. It made me focus on the story. Jesus’ birth in such basic and precarious conditions, moved me again, touched my heart again. It made me think more about those who live under the threat of oppression, with no home to go to. It made me think of the poor, the vulnerable. The director picked a great Third Day song which told the story from the nativity all the way to the resurrection. Despite my ridiculous dreams of the night before, no one forgot anything, the dancing angels managed not to collide and the set remained in place throughout. They’ve even asked us to do it again.

You may not have had a nativity to plan, but unless you live in a cave you’ve probably seen your fair share of Christmas tat by now, from gift catalogues to food porn convincing you that your festivities need some or other special recipe or product to really make it special. I invite you to simply focus on the story as I did and see what happens. What happened to me was that instead of being very grudging about the whole thing, I find I am excited to celebrate the greatest event in human history and I’m actually looking forward to Christmas. Quite a novelty.

Prodigal Father 2/2

In the last post I retold the story of the prodigal son, told by Jesus in the gospel of Luke in the New Testament. I ended with a question about how to live in the light of the love shown by the father in that tale. How to live believing in a God like the father who, in this story, loves so extravagantly the child who has behaved so badly. Whichever brother we may identify with, it’s a big ask. Once the party is over, little brother has to find his place in the household. And big brother has to adjust to sharing the nest again.  The father’s feelings towards both of them are now clear and public. In telling this story Jesus describes a God who is not only willing to forgive us when we wander off, but eager to celebrate our return. A father who is not too high and mighty to pick up his robe and run towards his son when he sees him approaching.

The younger brother may have physically separated himself from his father and all that he represented, but there is an enormous emotional gulf between the older brother and the father. Whichever one we find ourselves relating to, the fact is that the father here loves both equally, has all his resources equally available to both.  At the end of the story, the one who is furthest away from the household is not the one who left but the one who stayed behind, dutifully serving his time until his father’s death would release his inheritance. Living like a hired hand rather than a son.

 Perhaps the premise of this story bears no relation to your experience of father, of home. It is a little foreign to most of us. But the father portrayed here represents an ideal we could all at some level recognise. A father who will love us no matter what we do or say, and display that love publicly, who will accept us and find a place for us and celebrate us and be delighted in the very fact of our existence. Who wouldn’t want that kind of father?

If you’re wondering why I keep harping on this story, it’s because it is a key story which describes how God presents himself in relation to us. It is as a benevolent parent whose fundamental attitude towards us is positive.  There is no big stick in sight (though perhaps big brother might have wanted one…!) and no hint of retribution down the line. Jesus Christ made some wild claims for a man of his culture and time, one of which was to know God as intimately as a son knows his father. To be the son of God in a unique way which I don’t claim to understand and will not attempt to unpack here. If it really is true that God is like this, then I have to make sure I tell someone. If I believe it, that is. Which I do. That’s why I’m telling you.