Thursday, 22 January 2015

Two dates and a dash

I have this one life, and I like it.

I like being alive. I know how fortunate I am to live where I do, how I do, with the people I do, and have the freedom to do what I do. I know that many, many people don't have any of the things that I take for granted. I could have been born in a part of Africa where I had to walk miles for water, and when I found it, it was dirty. I could have been brought up in a place where life expectancy is so short that I'd have died before reaching the grand old age of forty-four. I might have been in Iraq, fleeing for my life because of my faith, or terrorised in Nigeria, or crushed, uneducated and oppressed just because I'm a woman in Iran or Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia.

I try to grasp these truths and respond with gratitude and humility and to make the most of the opportunities that I have.

I am an introspective kind of person; definitely an over-thinker on occasion. I find myself spending time mulling over things like this - looking around the world and wondering what sort of person I might be if I had been born in Gaza, or in China, or Afghanistan. Or if I'd been in Jerusalem around 33AD, or in Stalin's Russia, or a Jew in Nazi Germany. What would life have looked like? What would it have made me?

Perhaps that's a completely different thing.

I have been born now, into this world, in Derbyshire in the UK and I have the life that I have. I didn't have anything to do with it - I had no choice in where and when I came along.

What even to call it, the fact that I have been born with so many advantages in nutrition, healthcare, education, freedom?  To say that I'm fortunate is inadequate as 'luck' or 'fortune' have connotations of chance and randomness about them, and I believe that God put me here, now, and I know that He doesn't make mistakes. There's nothing accidental about my birth or the circumstances surrounding them. I am also unsure about 'blessing', as I know that God loves those children trekking miles for water, and He loves the people in the vast prisons of North Korea, and He loves them no less than He loves me. I find it hard to believe that the God I know would withhold treasure from one of His children while giving so richly to others. The sun shines on the righteous and unrighteous alike, as they say... and sometimes when I see the simple joy of the impoverished African church in comparison with the apathy and discontent of many Western Christians, I wonder who is more blessed?

Opportunities and so-called accidents of birth aside, I am alive. I have been given the gift of a life - but I don't know how long it will be.

I'm checking the time and the date on my watch, now, and I will never have this moment again. Pff. There, it's gone. And another, and another.

Someone said that life was just two dates and a dash. I want to make the most of that dash.


I get to choose how I spend this life that I have. I make a myriad of choices every day; some that shape my life in a tiny way:

 - Scrambled eggs, or an omelette?  This shirt or that one?

Some that have a more profound impact:

 - Should I commit myself to writing this book, even if it means saying no to other things?  I am out of breath after walking up the stairs; should I do something about that?

Some that affect people around me:

 - Should I offer my help?  Should I stand up for that person?

Some that might have consequences that I may never know about:

 - Can I be bothered to pray for him/her?  Shall I send that letter? 

Split second decisions that can have huge effects:

 - Shall I respond angrily, or calmly?  Shall I pass on that piece of gossip?

I spend my days, and once spent, I don't get them back. A morning spent on Facebook, idly refreshing the page to see what gems appear on my feed next, or a morning spent reading God's word and asking Him what He'd like to say to me. An online quiz entitled, 'Which Tyne & Wear Metro Station Are You?' versus a two way conversation with the Creator of the universe.  Why on earth would anyone opt for the former?

(I am Central Station, apparently. Always preoccupied and in a hurry but more relaxed at weekends. See? That was worth doing, wasn't it?)

I was given a beautiful silver pendant a few years ago with a quotation from Jane Austen's 'A Prayer for Sunday':
"Teach us ... that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes..."
The importance of every day. I've heard it said that what you do in an average day is what you do in an average week, or an average year. Today matters. This moment matters. I won't have another chance to do today better than I am doing it right now.

It's worth putting the Jane Austen quote in its context because she made this exact point:
"Father of Heaven! whose goodness has brought us in safety to the close of this day, dispose our hearts in fervent prayer. Another day is now gone, and added to those, for which we were before accountable. Teach us almighty father, to consider this solemn truth, as we should do, that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes, and earnestly strive to make a better use of what thy goodness may yet bestow on us, than we have done of the time past."
Amen to that. Better use indeed. I doubt whether God was overly impressed that I took two minutes to establish which Tyne & Wear Metro Station I am most like.

It's not all about worthiness, though. I can't live a momentous life every minute. What am I doing right now?  I need to work and I need to play because that's how I was made. I cannot be 'on' all the time. It's about being aware, it seems to me. About being wise, not wasting, making good choices. Doing what I do for the glory of God, even if it's defrosting the freezer or watching my daughter swim. I can live my life in a thoughtful way, or I can fritter it away aimlessly.

I have been amazed and distressed in the last six months or so to hear that so many of my friends and acquaintances have been ill. I can think of ... eight people right around me now who are just beginning, in the middle of, or coming to an end of a course of chemotherapy for various cancers, along with a couple of people celebrating the end of such a chapter in their lives, and someone for whom the treatment did not work. I passed church this morning and noticed that it was set out for a funeral later today.

It doesn't last forever, this life of ours, and we don't know when that second date is.

She lived from this date - that date.

I want to make the most of that dash. It's my life.

At Christmas we had family staying with us for a few days and we ate, drank and laughed. On several occasions we laughed until we cried, and I have a few photos that can start me off again. Laughter is a wonderful, exhilarating, healing thing.  Late on Boxing Day the snow began to fall and the children dashed outside in excitement to roll about in it, throw it at each other and squeal with delight in the wonderland. I stayed inside for a while, thinking only of the difficulties and dangers of driving in the snow, the forecast that temperatures were dropping and the fallen snow would freeze and all the ominous implications. Then I realised that I was indoors feeling grumpy and they were outside shouting with joy.

I put my coat on and my boots and went to join them. Down the road the neighbours were out helping stranded motorists on the main road and we talked, pushed cars, scooped snow and we laughed.

Its all about choices. Little ones and big ones. Too often I only see the choice I didn't make in my rear view mirror.

People are dying in Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Africa. Bad things are happening to people who deserve it no more than I do. People are writing heartbreaking blog posts on how it feels to live when terminally ill - and their loved ones are adding the post-scripts.

When I hear of a ten year old girl strapped with explosives and sent into a crowd, or someone dying of Ebola, cut off from their family, or a friend diagnosed with a tumour, it hurts my heart. No man is an island, remember - we are all part of the main* - and pain and suffering affect us all. But for me, safe in my kitchen, coffee and the internet on hand, all the comforts that I am used to, what should I do?

I have to live life. I have a responsibility to.

I have to try in my limited, complacent western way to grasp what I have been given and make the most of it. Lose the apathy; don't let it slip away.

To laugh and weep and feel and learn and celebrate and sing and love and grieve and see and ask and listen and rest and give and receive and grow.

There's a time for each of these things and so much more.

Notice what there is to be noticed, write it down, because that's what I do.

A million stars on a cold, cold night, whorls of frost on top of the car, a rainbow, the feel of my daughter's hand in mine.

Greenfinches on the bird feeder, an aloe vera plant that gave birth to no less than thirteen smaller plants, a pigeon the size of a football weighing down a branch of the elderly apple tree.

The sunrise - another day that nobody promised me, to add to my collection.

Notice and give thanks. Don't let them just slip away.

Psalm 90:12 tells us that an awareness of the brevity of life makes one wise:
'Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.'
After this life, there is something much better. That must be a comfort for those whose time on earth is full of pain and suffering, and for me it puts things in perspective on the days when my troubles seem big and complicated, but we are here to live until we die. To have a rich life full of the things that we are given to enjoy.  I know that I cannot do all the things I'd love to do but I must cut my coat according to my cloth. I have what I need to live the life I am supposed to live.

I want to live my life, not just watch it passively as it slips away. Carpe diem, I think. While I'm alive - live.

I want to make the most of that dash.





* John Donne, Meditation XVII 'No man is an island...'









Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Easy like Sunday morning

One day I'd like to get to church on a Sunday and not get whiplash from the change in pace.

The other week I was doing one of the readings in church and so was meeting with others in the vestry just before the service to pray. I couldn't think of a thing to say, and I stood, mute and unfocused, managing the occasional 'Amen'.

The whirlwind of Sunday morning had one again left my head full of static, and it was going to take me longer than the distance between the main doors at the back of church and the vestry at the front to calm it down, and this was not an unfamiliar feeling. I usually arrive at church in that state.

Whoever said, 'Easy like Sunday morning,' clearly didn't have children to get to church. My two require endless nagging to get them dressed, brushed and in their coats and shoes round about the right time to leave. We're inevitably just stumbling out of the front door five minutes before the service is about to start, with the church a ten minute walk away. On the day when I'm reading, or doing the prayers, it has been known for me to form an advance party to scuttle down the road ahead of my husband who undertakes to herd the children there when the missing shoe has been located, or the correct toy selected to accompany them. Sometimes when I appear from the vestry in my state of calm serenity (ahem), they're there sitting buffed and alert in church (haha) and other times they appear, grim-faced and pale during the first hymn.

It's not only the children that make Sunday mornings so fraught, however. Some of it may be down to my keenness to extract any last moments in bed on the only day free from school runs or (now) early morning swimming training, and I always underestimate how long things are going to take to get ready.

So much for the practical things, and I'm sure we're not unique - but the real chaos is going on in my head, and that's the thing that perplexes me the most.

I come into church, and it feels different. Whether it should or not is another debate, but I find that eventually, after I've calmed down and soaked up the atmosphere, listened to the liturgy, sung some worship songs, closed my eyes to pray, heard God's word read aloud.... I am in a different place from where I was when I shrugged off my coat and sat down, out of breath. I have slowed; refocused. I am outside myself, for once, and my eyes are on Him.

It feels so much better.

I want there to be less of a difference between that feeling that the breathless avalanche that is my arrival at church. I want there to be less of a difference between one state and the other - my outside church state of mind and my in-church state of mind.

I don't want my head to be so full of things that to slow down and seek God is such a stark contrast from my normal way of being.

I want Him to seep into my normal, everyday consciousness more and more. I know that family life and circumstances are always going to raise the likelihood that the trip down the road on a Sunday morning might be more hairy and exhilarating than serene, but taking that into account, I would love there to be less of a contrast between the spiritual and the secular. Let's face it, it's me that makes the distinction in the first place, isn't it? God doesn't think that I should be in one frame of mind for an hour and a half on a Sunday morning and a different one all week, does He? It's not as if school runs and supermarket shops and sitting at the poolside are beneath Him and He's only interested in me between 11am and 12.20pm on a Sunday.

I am not generally someone who compartmentalises things. I know people who have one pigeonhole for family stuff, one for relationships, friends, work, health etc., but I am not like this. My life has always been more like a sandwich - my children are one layer, my marriage another, work and health and so on the other layers - if one of them is bad, the whole thing tastes wrong. One part will infect all the others and so if all is not well in an area of my life, the whole of me is upset.

I think this is why I am uncomfortable with the feeling that sometimes I put worshipping God in a compartment only to be accessed on Sundays. Because I've done this, the rest of my life has to be awkwardly contained in the same framework and it just won't do it. So the other jumbled-up compartments labelled 'The Rest Of My Life' all swish about and froth up and overflow all on top of the 'Sunday morning' compartment and it gets swamped. And then in the vestry I find that I am waiting for 'Life' to drain away so that I can find God.

Perhaps it's not always like this. I suspect there have been times when my Life Sandwich is liberally spread throughout with spirituality and the whole thing is much richer and tastier and more satisfying because of it. Every bite has God in it.

Maybe I've just lost that at the moment; after all, Christmas is a huge and ironic distraction from one's spiritual life, isn't it? I find that I am all on to focus on the nativity advent calendar with the children once a day in the maelstrom of preparations and purchases in December. I missed the Carol Service this year, my annual advent devotional got pushed out as life got too busy and no sooner were the Christmas festivities over than I succumbed to a chest infection and sort of opted out of everything for the next week, which meant that my usual New Year musings and preparations were somewhat truncated.

That's probably not a bad thing. I over-think most things.

So, here I am in January and I am feeling a little out of sorts. Breathless from the speed with which I've found myself in another New Year and a bit reluctant to embrace it as I liked the old one.  Head spinning a little, trying to find something to focus on that isn't moving, something that will stay the same even when everything else is constantly shifting shape.

That'll be you, then, God.

Spread through my sandwich, will you?  I'm inviting you in - access all areas. Be the main filling, be the crusts, the salad, the pickle, the condiments, the mayonnaise on the side of the plate. Overflow and affect everything.

Peace, please.





Thursday, 8 January 2015

Holding my breath

I have been swimming for almost a year, now. Well, I've been swimming since I was about eight, off and on, after a fashion, but my latest adventure in the pool has been going for round about twelve months.

About a year ago I watched my eldest daughter train with her swimming squad and, chin on my hand, I thought to myself, 'I'd have loved to do this when I was Lizzie's age.' And a small but brightly shining bullet of an idea was born.

I knew that there was a swimming squad for grown-ups, and that this squad split in two; they're called  Competitive Masters and Fitness Masters. In typical me-style it took me a week or two to ask the coach for advice - I sidled up to him as Lizzie was clambering out of the pool one day and asked nonchalantly exactly how fit did one have to be to come to the Fitness Masters?  He was encouraging, and so it took me a week or two more to find a swimsuit and turn up.

That first session was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, I think, and I'm just talking about the long walk from the changing rooms to the far end of the pool. No matter how you dress it up, I was a fat, unfit middle-aged woman and most of the other swimmers were lithe and fit; even the ones older than me the kind of lifelong athletes who've never let their bodies get as wildly out of shape as I have.

If it hadn't been for one lady I saw in the changing rooms who walked with me and told me I'd be fine, I might have sat in a cubicle pretending I wasn't there and gone home again. Ironically, that lady doesn't come any more.

It was that hard, and it didn't get easier for a long, long time.

There were days when I lay awake worrying about the next session, days when I just couldn't face it and cried off, feeling a failure. There were days when the swimming was so hard that I thought I'd either faint or be sick, and there were days when I was hopelessly out of my depth and had to sit one or two lengths out. There were also days when I came away feeling an immense sense of achievement, when I drove home exhilarated and triumphant, when I thought that despite everything, I am going to do this.

Highs and lows. A monumental low when Lizzie's squad changed times and my session was straight after theirs; I had no choice but to come out to the Swim Club Mums that I climb into my own cossie and have a go twice a week. I had so dreaded anyone knowing about me; it had been my secret. The night before that first session at the new time I couldn't sleep for worry. I dreamed that God would take care of it, and He did. Not by changing the fabric of the building so that nobody could see me, sadly, because see me they did.

They saw me and they were amazed. Some of them were impressed and encouraging, and a couple of them weren't. Reactions ranged from mild hostility to a little snigger at my expense. I felt exposed and vulnerable; the worst had happened and yet.... I was still alive. I turned up the next time, and the next, and the world, strangely, didn't end.

These days I refer to swimming occasionally in conversation with these same Swim Club Mums - even those who were a little scathing. I've even started going for an occasional gentle swim with another Mum who wants to be more in shape and a number of them have asked me about it, saying that they wish they could do something like it too. I wave to them from the poolside these days, instead of hugging the wall like Spiderman in the hope I might get there unnoticed, and although I still drape my towel round me, I feel less desperate about dropping it and diving in than I used to. I don't care if they see me in a swim cap and goggles, and if I look like a raccoon afterwards, then so what? Everyone does.

Just before Christmas I went out for a meal with some of the other Masters Swimmers. My husband came too, and we had a lovely night. They are a really nice bunch of people. Former competitive athletes, open water swimmers, a cross-channel swimmer, people like me who wanted to get in shape, people who come for the companionship and the laughs as well as the cardiovascular workout.

They are very special people who have not the remotest idea of the huge and important part they have played in my life. If you've never been consumed by self-loathing, if you've never been crippled by body image and acute self-consciousness I don't think you can begin to imagine the feeling when you start to find a way out from under those things; a glimpse that things might one day be different.

It's still a bit hard to motivate myself to get to swimming; especially on these dark, cold nights when bed beckons instead of a cold pool, but more often than not I go twice a week and I am seeing changes in myself.

Physically, I've lost a little weight, but not as much as I need to. It's a slow process, and I'm sure that I need to make more changes in my diet as well. I am changing shape, however, and I feel happier in my clothes, even though they're pretty much the same size.

My muscles are more developed, and my heart and lungs are much healthier, even though once again, there's a long way to go. I don't get as out of breath, I can swim for longer without a rest, and the rests are shorter. This is huge progress.

I am swimming better. I can swim 200m backstroke with a cup of water balanced on my forehead and it doesn't fall off (yes, really, we do that). My technique for front crawl is sleeker and faster than before, and I can swim 25m in eighteen and a half seconds. This is not particularly fast, (my nine-year old daughter can do it in less than that) but for me it's warp speed. I can swim a length under water and 50m on four breaths. My breaststroke has been taken apart and put back together again and it's loads better than it was, but the piece de resistance is that I can now, finally, swim a slow, clunky, unwieldy sort of butterfly after a year of looking as if I needed someone to throw me a lifebelt.

The fact that I can be forty-four years old, and still learn these things from someone who is willing to teach me with patience and good humour, among people who are warm, welcoming and encouraging amazes me. Who knew that such things happened?

However, I think the biggest change hasn't been physical at all. It's been emotional on the deepest level - I'd go so far as to say that it has changed my life. I'm not over-dramatising. People who know me well have said that I've changed enormously.

Take this for an example:

The last session before Christmas, I walked onto the poolside to find the coach waiting for us with a camera. The Competitive Masters squad had met with considerable success at a recent meet (medals, British and European records!) and the club had asked for a photo for the website, or possibly for a local paper. I hung back, since I was not among those competing, but he was adamant that he wanted the whole squad in the picture. Can you imagine how I might have reacted a year ago to the idea that anyone would try to take a photograph of me in my swimsuit, alongside these people with firm thighs, sporty bodies and medals hanging round their necks? Seriously?!

I can; I remember it well. All I can say is that I made sure I was on the back row (people in front of me) and I grinned broadly, swimsuit, no make up, hair that needed washing, eyes slightly out of focus as I'd taken out my contact lenses.  Say cheese.... click. I even forgot to hold my breath.

So that's why I have an affection for 2014. Things about me are only subtly different at a glance, but inside everything has changed. Early last year I was worrying aloud to a friend about the idea of joining the swimming and saying how hard it was, how awful it was, and she asked me why I was contemplating doing it at all. I said that it seemed right; it seemed as if God was in it.

Oh, how He has was; He has been. He is. He's been in the water right alongside me, and he didn't let me sink.

I am so grateful.

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year: raising my game

Everywhere I look there are people setting goals, making resolutions and girding their loins as, inexorably, the New Year rolls in once more. The New Year's apathy of the old familiar days where the mood came down with the Christmas decorations doesn't seem to prevail any more; there is purpose and determination and energetic insight right, left and centre.

I've been asked a couple of times what the New Year looks like for me. What does 2015 have in store?

Well. On one level, I wish I knew. As usual, the New Year stretches ahead of me like a blank page, pristine in its unsullied whiteness, waiting for my footprints, scufflings and scribblings. I have hopes and dreams and fears and expectations, but ultimately there is only One person who has already familiar with this year and all the others and knows how the plot unfolds, and it's not His way to give too many clues. I have a tendency to want to know things up front so that I can prepare myself, but even that's all a bit of a fallacy; a grappling for control over things that are in nobody's control but His. But - He has never let me down.

Last year was a vintage year for me - one that I'll remember as a Great Year. Not easy by any means, but I have changed more profoundly in the last twelve months, I think, than in any similar period in the whole of the rest of my life. I have done things that I never would have had the courage to have done because I have chosen to trust that God will never let me down; and He didn't. I have asked Him to make changes in me that I have, all my life, been unable to make in myself, and then trusted Him to do it, and He has begun a process that is making a fundamental difference to who I am.

I didn't see any of it coming. This time last year I was doing the 'blank page' bit and bemoaning that I couldn't see what was ahead and God smiled and said, 'All in good time,' and so I am learning, slowly, that it's better that I don't know. Things unfold in their own time - His - and He knows what I can handle and when.

So, I don't have the first idea of what might happen this year, and for that it turns out that I'm grateful.

However, I can see a couple of things coming in my direction this new year; thundering ominously toward me like oncoming trains.

My eldest daughter, Elizabeth, is a talented swimmer. She dives in, starts swimming, and quite often gets to the other end of the pool a way ahead of everyone else. She loves being in the water and in training can often be found doing a somersault in the middle of a lap just because she's happy. We have had a fantastic year watching her begin her transformation from swimming lessons to competitive swimming and the inevitable has happened a little earlier than we anticipated.

She's been promoted to the next squad. This is brilliant!  Her hard work, commitment and talent have been recognised and it is indeed time for a new challenge as her current squad had little left to offer her. Time to move on. Time to raise her game.

And mine.

Time to move on to a much more rigorous training schedule that involves five sessions of swimming a week plus land-training, plus travelling to different pools to train, plus weekend galas, to say nothing of the hours spent rinsing swimsuits, drying towels and producing bananas and muesli bars from handbags and glove compartments.

The piece de resistance? Two of these sessions (mercifully only two - the next squad up has five of these) are scheduled for 5.30am. AM meaning 'in the morning'. Five o'clock. Oh-five-hundred hours.

Most people grimace when I tell them this, but I have met nobody who has reacted with the same unbridled panic that I did on first hearing that this was imminent.

There is nobody in the world who likes their sleep more than I do. Nobody. Not a soul. So, I think it is with some amusement that God has put me in this position, and I think I know why.

I am afraid of not getting enough sleep. 

I never used to be; back in the pre-children days I was like anyone else in that occasionally I had a late night, went to work the next day and the world didn't end. I got tired, I carried on, I had an early night, it was all ok. But then I had a baby and found that first year as a mother so, so difficult.

I don't know why exactly - probably many reasons. Elizabeth was a baby who wanted to be held constantly, not the self-sufficient kind that could be placed in a cot to gurgle contentedly.  I was freshly bereaved (my Dad died the week before she was born) and deeply depressed; I am the kind of person to make heavy weather of everything... all these things and the completely normal new baby stuff make tiredness inevitable - but I reached a level of exhaustion that I hadn't dreamed of in my wildest nightmares.

I don't make any claims to being the only person in the world ever to have been tired, and it slowly improved a little only to happen again when Katy was born. Crippling exhaustion that took control of me and made the world a hostile place and me incapable of functioning properly in it. Now that the girls are nine and seven respectively I have a deeply held conviction that I am in possession of a ten-year sleep deficit that may not be corrected until the kids have left home.

Joking apart, I live in fear of ever getting that tired again.

So does my husband, and by that I mean that he lives in fear of me ever getting that tired again. I was horrible to live with, and even now, if I'm in need of sleep, he is careful to give me opportunities to nap rather than turn into the miserable, brittle, despairing, snarling woman that I can be when I've had insufficient sleep.

I was mulling this over with a friend a few months ago and I concluded in hushed tones (so that God wouldn't hear) that there was a chance that I had put sleep in such a position of importance in my life that  I'd elevated it to the status of god.

I'd made a god of sleep. Oh, shush.

So here I am, mother of a nine-year-old who wants to be a swimmer, and so I need to get her to the pool at silly o'clock twice a week. Do I think God heard that conversation?

God, are you smiling? Are you planning something?  Last year, with your help, I conquered several lifelong fears. Is this next on the agenda?

I'm really not looking forward to it, but I can see that from your point of view, it's necessary.

I'd love to be unafraid of being tired. Seriously, it has a hold over me, the fear of insufficient sleep. I lie awake sometimes watching the clock and worrying that there are not enough hours left before morning and there's no chance of tomorrow being a Good Day; it's already too late. There are things that I don't do because it would mean a late night or an early morning. Sleep isn't just something necessary that happens at the end of the day; I spend far too much time thinking about it, planning it, and probably too much time doing it, though it rarely feels like it.

Tomorrow morning, I'll be climbing out of bed at 5am to wake my slumbering nine-year old, cajole her to eat a banana and a muesli bar while being unable to stomach anything myself, drag my hands through my hair before scraping ice from the windscreen to get her on the poolside for 5.20am to do her thing with her team-mates. 5am holds no fear for her - indeed she's beside herself with excitement and can't wait to start the new programme.

The cafe isn't open until 8am so I'll have to take my own coffee.

We said that as long as she's enjoying herself, win or lose, we'd get her where she needs to be, when she needs to be there.

She needs to be there early.

So, that's one of the things that this year holds.

Last year I trusted God and He did amazing things. I'm still trusting Him.






Saturday, 20 December 2014

Poverty and riches

I saw a little crib in a Nativity tableau the other day. There are a multitude out there, with Mary serene in a spotless blue dress, Joseph indistinguishable from the shepherds, three wise men, several months too early and an elderly Tiny Tears doll swaddled in a crochet blanket, all squashed into a cosy-looking stable. It made me think.

I was born in poverty, too.

Not the sort of poverty that speaks of cold and deprivation; oh no. I have, all my life, been warm and looked after and well fed (just look at me) and I had my own Tiny Tears and all the accessories. No, not that sort of poverty.

When I was born, the birth that I'm talking about, I was as poor as it's possible to be in every way that matters. I had nothing, and the day I realised that was the day that I was born.

That should be my birthday, really; that was when life began for real. I realised the lack - the void. The gut-wrenching poverty. The absence. The emptiness. The need.

For me, I didn't have to live with that feeling of poverty too long, for no sooner had I realised that I did not have the only thing that mattered, that I longed for it, asked for it - then it was given to me.
You are endlessly generous like that.

How much more awful for those who feel that desperation but don't know where to come to find it, this new birth. It must break your heart, Father God.

That day you stripped everything away from me to reveal what actually mattered. I had nothing, and my birth in poverty was yet an elevation for me, for the Creator of the world had business with me. With me. To touch me with the revelation of my need - the moment I understood and my soul reached for you was the moment that the floodgates of blessing from Heaven opened and I became rich.

I look at you, baby boy in an MDF manger, and I realise you knew poverty too.

For you - you had everything, Everything, and you chose to lay it aside to come to this place of filth and cold and hurt to be close to us. You laid aside your majesty, as the song goes, and chose the sweat and smells and roughness of humanity.

You were rich, and you became poor. I was poor, and you gave me riches.

You and I, reborn - humble, vulnerable nakedness. For you, the vastness of Almighty God, shrunk to inhabit a tiny kicking, crying, feeding baby. For me, the smallness and pettiness of a created being expansively given another chance by the grace of the One who reached down and lifted up my chin so that He could look into my eyes with love.

I am a baby as you were. I have all that I need only because you provide it. Mary fed you, cleaned you, dressed you, sang to you and loved you into childhood, adulthood, to execution and beyond. I live because you sustain me. Everything that I have comes from you. If you forgot about me for one second I am sure that I would cease to be. I am hopelessly dependent.

I am uncomfortable in my manger of hay; it prickles. I'd like it to be more comfy. Sometimes don't feel at home because you have given me that longing for my eternal home, and yet you, you lived among us naturally, freely, as if you never felt homesick for the heaven that you had left behind to come here to us.

I sense the Somewhere Else, sometimes; me, insensitive and short-sighted as I am, and yet the King of Glory walked purposefully away from that place; you chose to become small. The limitless in a limited body. The transcendental made finite.

I am lifted gently out of the dirt to be called a Child of God. A crown has been placed on my head and a robe around my shoulders even though there I am hopelessly unworthy.

I live honoured as your daughter, heir to a wonderful place in your Kingdom. You, the very Son of God, fought your way down the birth canal of a peasant girl and landed in straw, surrounded by livestock. With the hands that arranged the stars in the heavens and created the animals and the birds you'd have brushed against the roughness and splinters of an animal's feeding trough. With your first breaths you would have inhaled the odour of cattle. Me, I'm used to the stench of life down here - it seems normal to me, but to you, it must have been strange indeed. You came from a place of peace, beauty, power and honour and put yourself in the hands of two poor, bewildered kids, far from home, who had only the faintest inkling of the magnitude of what was happening.

My rebirth opens up miraculous doors of wonder and possibility; you became confined in a tiny, frail body, kicking and wailing, feeding and sleeping.

You were born so that I could be born again.

And I've realised by staring at that roughly-made trough-cradle, that it is when I stand with nothing, without anything at all, just me as you made me, unable to conceal a single thing, a single part of me - that's when I am most blessed. I am a new creation.

You had it all, just as you have once again; you turned your back on your glory to become one of us.

You were exalted, and you became weak. I am weak, and you raise me up. I can't get my head around it. You know what it feels like to be poor, to be vulnerable, to be human.

Lord Jesus, baby Jesus, King of Kings, Redeemer, Saviour.

Thankyou.

Happy Birthday.








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