Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Creating a Christ-Centred Christmas

I am sure I have mentioned before how much I love advent. For me, there is something so special in taking time to really reflect on what the birth of Christ meant, both for the whole world but also for me as an individual. Since having children, I have loved being able to create family traditions and memories, and to open our home to those who may not have known these things before.

But somehow this year I feel unsettled. I think part of it is simply that we are getting to the end of a busy year, and there have been plenty of targets and deadlines to aim for, and not much opportunity for rest. But some of it is also this funny feeling I get from time to time - a kind of longing for 'home', but realising that the 'home' I long for is not to be found in this world. Occasionally I can think that I am missing the country of my birth, missing the crisp cold mornings and evenings by the fire drinking mulled wine with good friends (probably the best Christmas memories I have!). But even if I were to get on a plane and do exactly that, I know that it would likely fall short of the longing I describe. It is something I have written about quite a few times before (for example here, when I felt a lot like I do today, here when reflecting on leaving one 'home' for another; here, when reflecting on how grief and loss can make this world feel somehow unreal).

As always, I am thankful for times when I feel unrest, because it always drives me consider what God is teaching me. I often pray, as in Psalm 139, that He would 'search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offence in my way, and lead me in the way everlasting' - am I uneasy because of a lack of faith, or because I am walking in a way that is displeasing to God? These are questions we should all ask ourselves regularly! I have recently been reflecting on how Christians these days (in general, and I know there are likely many exceptions...) don't treat holiness and purity with the same seriousness as Christians of a bygone era. For example, reading the 70 resolutions of Jonathan Edwards, I am very challenged. I remember thinking quite a lot about this when the children were younger, considering how we teach them that God requires us to 'be holy for I am holy', without that slipping into legalistic lists and rules.

I digress a little. But I am thankful that God reminds me to search my heart and bring everything to Him.

I am also reminded of the amazing family that I have been given in God. I remember one day my son, who was six at the time, drawing a picture of a castle with 19 flags on top (and the flags were all very accurately drawn, for the 19 countries where he had friends). I remember explaining to him that this was a great blessing, to have so many people from different tribes, tongues, nations, colours and cultures having a role in his life. (The flipside being that we have so many friends that we do not see often, and indeed may never see again before heaven, and that can bring sadness). There was once a time when I really did not feel I had a family, living with strangers at the age of 15. I can only feel overwhelming thankfulness for all God has provided for me and my growing family. I can thank God that He can turn a situation around entirely, mourning into dancing, doing more than I would ever have believed possible.

But even in that thanksgiving, even in the certainty of faith, there can still be a sense of loss. As every year goes past, somebody I know goes through a time of real testing. Serious illnesses and death. Out of the blue accidents leading to death or disability. A sudden change in circumstances and a person can feel as though the carpet has been pulled out from under their feet and life will never be the same again. These things are simply sad. I think about how Jesus responded when He heard that His friend Lazarus had died (see John Chapter 11 for the full story). Jesus knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead and that God would be greatly glorified. Yet, when He heard the news, 'Jesus wept'. Why? Why would He do that when He knew that the death was temporary and served a far greater purpose? Because Jesus was also fully man, and because grief and loss are painful. He was not just crying out of empathy for Martha and Mary, but out of a sense of personal loss too. I find it helpful to remember that - that sorrow and faith are not opposites. Again, this is something I write about reasonably often, but perhaps as another year ends and we enter a time of 'celebrations', I feel more aware of those around me who have known loss.

This too is good. We need to remember how broken and lost we are to really appreciate why Christ had to come. I sometimes wonder, if life were 'comfortable', and if I were part of a large, 'close' family who made me feel very loved, whether I would take my eyes off the things that matter most of all. The Apostle Paul talked about his 'thorn in the flesh' for which he was thankful because it made him realise that 'Christ's power is made perfect in weakness'. For me, the feeling of unease can be a bit like a thorn - something which I wish wasn't there, but actually when I think about it for more than a few minutes, for which I am thankful.

So, as advent continues, and the children work on their Jesse tree tasks and practice their carols, as we bake (whenever there is sufficient electricity) and prepare to open our home to many friends over the next week, I pray that I can help everybody who visits to leave feeling encouraged in Christ. I pray that even when the home is busy, that I can hear the person who needs to talk, or the person who finds celebrating difficult this year because they miss somebody so much. I pray I can challenge the person who has become to comfortable in this world, and the ones who are chasing after worldly dreams. I pray that from my own weakness, I can be like 'treasure in jars of clay' (2 Corinthians 4:7) and show others the light and glory of the God we are celebrating.