Engaging in worship across the spectrum of ages and stages

The journey into creating a Church community that is All-Age and All-Stage has been an option for me, brought about by a combination of factors.  And it is truly an option that I’ve embraced and run with for some time.   I know it is not possible for everyone, for a variety of reasons.   I’ve had a few conversations in the last few months that remind me of this – and the last thing I want to do is to make anyone feel that they’re worshipping in the wrong place, while being powerless to change anything structurally.    This blog then is not about the structure of becoming an all-age, all-stage Church, but about some of the background thinking which could be included within your existing worship structures to engage more fully across the age and stage spectrum.   It’s also for families or those who are travelling with children, be they your own children, your grandchildren, nieces or nephews or young friends and ways you can interact meaningfully about your faith as your journey.

It makes it sound like a ‘how to’ kind of blog, but it’s not.  There is no secret recipe and no ’Five steps to running a successful all-age, all-stage Church’.   This is the story of my travels and the travels of some of the adults and children travelling with me.   I hope you’ll get some ideas on engaging with others across the age and stage spectrum in corporate worship.  I’m always happy to converse with anyone wanting to incorporate this kind of thinking into their own settings.

Journey not destination 

I’ve loved the metaphor of travelling along a road for as long as I can remember.  The road moves us. It takes us between milestones, stopping points, places we call home or tourist attractions, places to stay for a while and sleep, eat, drink and live.  While we might retrospectively be able to identify our starting point and memorable milestones, we don’t shift between these places and times instantly.   We don’t get teleported like Dr Who in the Tardis or touch a portkey like Harry Potter.  In these examples the characters move in time and space to a different place.  The journey is instant and apart from a strange feeling of moving at speed, there is no meandering between one place to the next.

My view of our Christian faith is that there is much that happens in the journey between each milestone, significant event, profound revelation, new knowledge or lightbulb moment.  There is the journey to be undertaken.  The path of life is not smooth or boring.  It is full of all kinds of things; opportunities, celebrations, mistakes, problems, emotional hiccups, some turning back and false starts, joys, sorrows, challenges and general mish-mash of human experiences.  And here’s the great thing with being a follower of Jesus.  We don’t walk alone.  Jesus is our faithful walking companion, as we traverse the ups and downs of ordinary life.

At Avenues Church we view our gathering together as part of the journey not the destination itself.  We don’t ‘come to Church’ to sit still because we’ve arrived.  An Avenues event isn’t a destination.  Our gathering is about helping us move along on our own journey and in the journey we are on together.  And we recognise that not everyone is at the same place on their journey.  So when we meet together at Avenues it’s like we’re at some intersecting crossroads, where everyone’s own journeys meet and for a while we travel together.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group encouraging each other no matter where we’re individually located on our own journey and helping each other to carry on along the roads of our own faith journeys and our shared faith journey as a consequence.

Show not tell

When I was nine I decided that one day I would be a published author.  There are degrees of achieving anything.  I was first published as a children’s book author when I was 19 and even though I’ve been published several more times since then, I still don’t feel that I’ve written my great work!  My goal isn’t so much achieved as underway.  There’s always a story or two percolating away in my brain and on my computer. Every so often I get a peer review or seek some advice on my fiction writing.  The number one area that I know I personally always need to work on is the ‘showing’ not ‘telling’.  Thinking up a story idea is only the first step to writing a fiction work.  Once I’ve thought up the plot line and characters and written the outline for my book, the work is only at the beginning stages.  The next step is to ‘show’ the reader my story.

Showing something is not the same as telling.  To tell the contents of a story, you can list the facts, in the order in which they happened, you can tell your opinions and conclusions.  You can explain what the story was about or why something was or wasn’t included.  Telling a story is a very linear delivery.  But to show the contents of the story means you take your reader with you as you tell your story and it appears that they discover things as if you’re discovering them for the first time too.  Showing means that they will feel things, think about things, form opinions, make judgements, laugh and cry and want others to experience the story too.  It will seem to them that they are part of what is happening in the story.  They’ll enter into the experience, as if they are in the story with you and the characters and plot.  After they’ve closed the book, they’ll still be remembering what it felt like to read the story, and if it’s a well-written shown story they’ll be remembering it for a long time afterward. Showing a story is non-linear and you don’t have as much control over where the story goes.

At Avenues Church we have an emphasis on showing not telling. Telling is something many Churches tend to focus on in their worship services.  Showing is not always considered in worship preparation.  For one thing, it takes much longer to prepare.  To plan Avenues we have a bible passage and a key theme as a starting point.  From there we develop some clear ideas as to what key learnings we want to bring out in our worship experience.  You could compare these to sermon points in a traditional setting.   Once we have that as the basis of our planning for our gathering, we build around these key ideas ways we can ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’.  Because we’re interactive, we can use physical objects to help in showing a key idea.  Participants get to interact in an activity such as a science experiment to draw out the ‘show’ of the point.   In a sermon, a preacher will use a story or illustration to ‘show’ the point they’re trying to make.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group getting involved in stories and activities rather than words-based telling of the same point, connecting with real experiences and helping participants to engage, understand and remember as a consequence.

Process not product

For most crafters or artists or scientists or construction workers, the measure of success is in the finished product.  If you’re a builder and your job is to build a house, you don’t stop halfway and say you’ve finished.   If you’re an artist and you are creating a painting for an exhibition you don’t stop halfway and display your unfinished artwork as a completed exhibit.  If you’re a knitter and you’re making a beanie hat for your friend to wear in the snow you don’t hand them a half finished hat on some knitting needles and a ball of wool and expect that to keep their head warm.

One of the challenges of using hands-on activities, is that they inevitably have a start and finish.  A craft or science experiment has a logical flow from being a bunch of separate pieces of equipment to a completed product.   We use lots of activities in Avenues.  We draw, cut, glue, place, turn, twist, open, shut, build, paint, wipe, spray, tape, cover, staple, join, rip, bend, smell, taste, listen, see and touch.  (to name a few).   Unlike a builder building a house, or a painter exhibiting a finished piece of art, or a knitter giving away a warm hat, our focus is not on the finished product.  We aren’t making things for the things themselves.

At Avenues Church we’re about the process not the product.  Occasionally we’ll make something that exists for another use beyond our gathering, (such as a kite on Pentecost).   More often it’s the physical act of ‘doing’ that we focus on rather than the finished product.  Sometimes people when they see photos of our Church gatherings or hear stories or even watch from the side-lines, assume that we do ‘craft’ and that you have to be good at working with your hands.  But that’s not so.  Our emphasis is in the process of the doing, that in carrying out physical actions, we are engaging people actively.  As their bodies are involved in active participation, then we’re hopefully also engaging the mind.  The process is the important thing not the end product.   There’s no beginning skill level required.  If we have an activity that involves cutting with scissors, and one of our participants can’t use scissors, then someone else will do the cutting.  There’s no putting anyone on the spot for what they can or can’t achieve.  One of our traditional activities is ‘Drawing on the Tables’ where we set a topic near the start of our gathering and participants draw on newsprint covered tables.  The drawings are not for anyone to see other than the person drawing.  When we get visitors who are used to more traditional worship forms they’re always nervous and self-conscious about picking up a crayon.  But if they’re brave and give it a go, they’re often forthcoming on how surprised they are at how drawing helped channel their thinking.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group actively involved in the process of tasks, translating this to participants own faith life being a forever developing process as a consequence.

Participation not performance

We’ve just seen the end of the 2016 Olympics.  This year it seemed to me that the media in our country were big on the idea that winning was everything.  “We’re not just going to the Olympics to participate,” seemed to be the standard catchphrase.  A performance of an athlete’s personal best was acceptable, but anything less was ‘participation’ and our media weren’t into giving any participation bouquets.  I guess in the age where supporting sports costs money, the media representing the taxpayer, want the results.  And the reality is that most high achieving athletes have their own personal goals which are most likely little different to this view.  Of course they’re not making all these sacrifices to simply participate, competition by its definition is about performance.  The winner takes all!   This is performance.

But not everyone is an Olympic athlete.  The adult who runs daily for fitness and enjoyment was once a school kid who loved running.  He never placed high enough to get a certificate, a medal or a place on the school cross-country team.   This doesn’t mean that he’s not a runner, that he’s not able to participate in the daily ritual of morning exercise.  There are no financial gains for him to run, nothing is required from him in running which would result in him receiving a reward from someone else. The rewards of running are personal to him.  He gets fit, he starts the day energised, he keeps his weight down, he has fun.  This is participation.

At Avenues Church we value participation.  Participation means everyone can be involved. It’s kind of a given in an action packed event, and it’s more obvious if someone doesn’t take part than if they do participate.  Participation means contributions come from wherever an individual is currently situated in their own life.  Which means we get what we get!  We get the profound muddled in with the confused, the ‘on message’ with the ‘off message’, the funny, the sad, the complex, the simple, the extremist, the minimalist…  and it all blends together.  For those leading, the challenge is to pull all the components, the personalities and the contributions together in a way that shows we value every contribution and value the contributor.  Sometimes people outside of Avenues worry that ‘God’s truth’ will not stand out, in such an environment, but we’ve found that there is an amazing way of the ‘good stuff’ filtering to the top.  It also generates a genuine opportunity to contribute in a safe environment.  We’ve found that to encourage participation encourages tolerance, grace, generosity, honesty, openness, kindness and courage.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group creating opportuntiies for participation in a safe, comfortable and encouraging environment and growing together and individually in our own faith as a consequence.

Question not answer

If you’ve ever encountered the questioning three-year old, you’ll know that not every question has an easy answer!  Some things are just too difficult.  Why is that three year olds know how to ask tough questions?  It seems sometimes like the older we get, the more conservative our questioning can become and at Avenues we like to revert back to those great questions we used to be braver at asking.

My own children as three year olds, were able to tie me in knots with their insatiable appetite of asking questions and finding out answers.  “How does the moon stay in the sky?  Where does the sun go at night time?  Why do people get old?  Who made God?  Where is heaven?  How does the rain know when to fall?   Why are there puddles?  How will I learn to drive?   Why do people have to go to sleep at night?  How do you build a wall?   How does the dehumidifier work?  What is a rainbow?  Why is broccoli the name for a vegetable?  Where does pink come from?  How do you make pink?  Before the days of Google, were the days of, “we’ll ask Grandad, we’ll get a book out from the library, we’ll go to the observatory, we’ll test it out…”.  These strategies could also be called; ask an expert, look it up in a book, go on a field trip, conduct an experiment.  The search to find answers was an exciting prospect.  In our case this hunger for questioning, simply resulted in more questions!  I know I’ve talked to tired parents of pre-schoolers who just want the questions to stop, and I can relate to that feeling, particularly remembering when Miss Three who has never slept well, would wander in to our room in the middle of the night with a particularly thorny question which she felt required an immediate answer before she’d go back to sleep.

Overall, the questions were celebrations of a quest that has become life-long to each of the children.  It’s great to have a question!  They are in very different fields of study, have a different emphasis on their expressions of faith, but they each have a thirst for finding out things.  And they know that sometimes the answer to a question, is another question and that just because you have a question, it doesn’t mean you get either a partial or complete answer.

At Avenues Church we see this translates into our faith too because we’ve used questions a lot and we don’t necessarily have an answer to them.   We ask questions, we encourage others to ask questions and sometimes we end with questions.  I’ve blogged before about our youngest daughter’s interactions with some clipboard carrying Christians who interviewed her and who were mind blown by the idea that having questions and doubts was something she viewed as a strengthening of her faith rather than an unravelling.  Our congregation intriguingly has frequently contained a mixture of high achieving academically qualified adults as well as pre-schoolers and adults or young people with learning difficulties.  And a question is still a question!  There is no room for embarrassment or awkwardness in an environment where everyone is encouraged to question. There’s also no need for an answer to be provided because sometimes some things are just too difficult to answer.  Occasionally we’ll get a churched Christian visitor used to a traditional setting with a sermon, and they can’t resist trying to wrap up a discussion for us when they think we’ve left it too open-ended.  They can’t cope with the open-ended, or pass up an opportunity to ‘tell the answer’.  Too often people get trapped by their own questions and instead of enriching their faith it boxes them in and makes them walk away.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group asking questions together and growing and expanding in faith as a consequence.

Well that’s a random Saturday’s attempt at a few things that work for our faith community.   May you be encouraged in your own faith adventures and doing and being church in your own time and space.

 

The Puppet Message

Meet Holly.  She’s a close friend of mine.  We first met in about 2002, when she joined our ministry team for our Avenues Church.  From the first moment I met Holly, her personality was evident. She’s strong-minded, feisty, feminist and opinionated.  We got Holly on board as a creative way of introducing things that sometimes needed words and explanation.  She fitted with our All-Age Worship and added to the visual atmosphere.  What we didn’t anticipate was the way that she’d be received.  Right from the start she was a winning addition to our team.  And the enthusiasm surprisingly, was not just from the children.  She added a bit of humour and colour and energy to our worship.  She also, through her stark honesty, curiosity and contradictory nature, helped us to focus our thinking and ask more questions in a setting where interaction was encouraged.  People interacted with her.  They argued with her and asked her questions.  They laughed with her and told her jokes and stories.  She provoked reaction.  And she was never short of something to say.

Of course, despite the arguments that Holly and I frequently have, Holly is always on message.  The message I want to convey.  While she might challenge what I say at times, she always comes around to agreeing with the point that I want to raise.  This is hardly surprising.  Even though Holly has her own personality, she’s a part of me.  Holly is a puppet.  The only person who controls Holly is me.  I am the one who ‘thinks’ her, I ‘voice’ her, I ‘act’ her.  She’s a version of me and my thinking.  It is impossible for her to be anything different.  Without me breathing life into her, she is just like a rag doll.

I’ve been pondering lately about the way I hear people sometimes talk about Jesus.  Some people say they’re a Christian and then state their personal view on all the things that Jesus would and wouldn’t agree with.  They challenge individuals, they hurt and damage and cause unhappiness, they create rules and put up fences – all in the name of Jesus.  The things they say, don’t tally up with my view of Jesus at all. They sound to me like they are treating Jesus like their puppet.  His message becomes what they want it to be and his voice becomes theirs and not his own.  But Jesus is not like Holly.  He’s not a puppet.  And for any human to choose to be a mouthpiece for the person of Jesus is a brave and risky thing to do.

Of course anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus, a Christian, does become a mouthpiece for the person of Jesus. Whether they intend to or not, want to or not, inevitably others around them will immediately view them as such.  The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to take this responsibility seriously.   How can we really know Jesus?  How can we dare to act as if we know Jesus so closely it is as if we are actually Jesus himself?  How can we actually be qualified to be the mouthpiece of Jesus Christ?  What does this actually mean for us?  What does it mean for Jesus?

This is where the concept of ‘follower’ can make us breathe a sigh of relief.  If we call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ, then we acknowledge that we are on a journey following him.  We’re a ‘follower of Jesus’.  We’re not Jesus himself.  We’re on a journey toward Jesus, with Jesus and in Jesus.  We’re following Jesus, moving towards him, being guided and supported and even carried by him, understanding him more and more as time passes.  He’s in our sight, he’s urging us on, he’s guiding us, letting us rest against him, sustaining us, rejuvenating us. The journey is always changing. When we want to be on it, it is never truly stopped. And the joy of being a follower of Jesus is found in the journey itself.  We’re not at the destination yet, we’re on the road towards it.

This is why groups of followers gather together to talk about Jesus, to share food and conversation, struggles and joys, to sing their praises to Jesus for the journey and to pray for their own needs and the needs of others around them.  This is why followers of Jesus read the Bible over and over again and talk about what they’ve discovered about the person of Jesus in the pages of the gospels.  This is why followers of Jesus after reading about his teachings, his miracles, his stories, look outward beyond themselves, to others around them, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, protecting the refugee, supporting the oppressed, advocating for the marginalised, healing the sick, grieving with the dying, crying with the ostracised. This is why followers of Jesus increasingly value the characteristics of grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, humility, kindness to name a few and incorporate these characteristics into their lives.  This is why followers of Jesus look eagerly for Jesus at work around them in God’s creation and actively engage in being part of that work and bringing it to fruitfulness.  This is why followers joining together share a memory meal of Jesus Christ.  This is why followers of Jesus see potential in the journey.

If we call ourselves followers of Jesus we need to be people of faith who constantly strive to understand Jesus’ message and allow ourselves to be internally changed by Jesus.  To keep travelling the Christian faith journey, constantly growing and changing and evolving in understanding.  To view our faith as a work in progress, a moving forward work in progress, a frail, human, underwhelming attempt to understand and reflect Jesus to others who may or may not be on the journey too.

And when we open our mouths to say words that represent Jesus, we need to be ever so aware that Jesus is not our puppet.

Unless you are like a child

Andrew and I lead Avenues Church, an all-age, all-stage worshipping community.  We’ve long since passed any need to justify this venture or prove anything to anyone.  Avenues works for the people who come.  It brings meaningful interaction into our participants’ lives and faith journey.  Invariably, when people hear ‘all-age’ they translate this to it being a children’s church and when people hear ‘all-stage’ they often translate this to being age-based.  If you’re young you’re at an earlier stage, the older you get the further up the stage stairway you progress.    That’s not quite how we see it and how we’ve experienced it in the last fourteen years with our Avenues church and prior to that when we were exploring all-age worship within the context of a regular worship service.

People come to our Avenues Church from all walks of life.  They have had different experiences, different upbringings, different faith experiences and they are all ages.   Together we journey, and try to create a place where no matter what stage of faith you are at, you are welcome to join us on the journey.   The structure created by our education system of age-based learning, and duplicated across most mainstream churches, is not engaged here.  It’s all mixed up.   It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your faith.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, there’s no expectation that by a certain age you will be at a certain level and therefore ready to process a newer, harder faith concept.  No, it’s a full-on free for all!  It’s ‘come as you are’ church.

Sometimes when someone who is involved in a mainstream style church hears about Avenues they assume that it is a church especially for children. What can appear to make it a children’s church is that we are tactile.  We call our worship, “Discovery Worship” and it is hands on, colourful, interactive and fast moving.  This means while children can fit in with ease, it is also welcoming for adults with short attention spans, adults who struggle to learn by reading or listening, adults with no prior experience of the Christian faith, adults who have English as a second language, or have learning difficulties and so on.  What can be surprising to people when they ask, is that we also have highly educated people in our Avenues Church.  Right from the beginning we’ve had well qualified academics and professionals join us in our journey.  Perhaps from their own lives they know that just because an idea is presented simply, it does not make it a simple idea.

We don’t exist just to appeal to children.  If we didn’t have children attend, we’d still carry on the same way with our worship.  But I think our regular worshippers would agree that something would be missing if we didn’t have children on a regular basis.  The involvement of children just makes it so much more real, simpler, more challenging and more inspiring.

Here’s just a handful of reasons why I like to worship with all-ages together and have the wonder of a child’s voice in our worship experience.

Inquisitive – the art of asking a good question  

I’ve observed that something happens to our questioning ability the older we get.  Instead of focussing on a good question, we tend to focus on finding the right answer.  Perhaps this is why we appeal to academics as well as children.  Children are brilliant at asking questions and academics have learned that the more you find out about something, the more it shows you what you don’t know.  Children can cut right to the heart of things.  They pull no punches, and they persist.  “Where does God live?”, “Who made God?”, “Why did Jesus have to die?”, “What happens when we die?”…. are typical four year old questions, and any parent or grandparent who has experienced a full-on question asking pre-schooler will know that more often than not, these kind of questions can leave you flummoxed and embarrassed with your own inability to provide adequate answers.  Jesus disciples were great at asking questions, and you can hear Jesus gently guiding them, often by a return question.  Asking questions is a wonderful part of faith journeying because it moves us forward to seeking more.

Mystery and wonder– the art of appreciating something bigger than our understanding

There is a point somewhere in our faith stages where we appreciate the question to which we just can’t get answer.  That there is some mysterious explanation beyond our human understanding is in itself an answer.  Children have a sense of mystery and wonder.  Have you ever watched a child, out of bed as a special treat, on a dark night looking at the stars?  Their sense of mystery, wonder and delight at what they see is inspiring.  Children don’t have to know all the details about why and how and when and who… to appreciate that there is something going on that is bigger than their understanding.  A sense of mystery and wonder is a delightful part of faith journeying because it moves us forward to seeking more.

Honesty – the art of being frank with ourselves, with others and with God.

Children have an honesty that can be breath taking.   They haven’t yet learned all the social etiquette and rules about what should or shouldn’t be voiced.  They see things through a simpler lens than the lens through which an adult views the world.   An adult’s world has had far more experiences and voices.  While the wisdom and knowledge gained may help make a better, informed decision about appropriate action, a child’s view can often provide great clarity on the presenting issue.   A typical example is when children are hearing about poverty in two-thirds world countries.  Their response will often be starkly honest.  “There shouldn’t be hungry people. Can I give them some of my food?” says the child.  They’re disturbed that hunger should exist and see the fixing of it as a simple act of provision.  A sense of honesty is a refreshing part of our faith journeying because it moves us forward to be more genuinely honest with ourselves, with each other and with God.

Power – the art of destructing our stereotypical structures and giving voice to the powerless

It is almost impossible to have any people orientated system that does not have power.  It’s a natural way in which we organise ourselves.   Whether the power is in individuals or by committee, whether it’s in the local church, or in the group of churches, power is inevitable.  Giving a voice to the powerless is structurally challenging.  When I’ve talked to other pastors I can hear the struggle they are under in leading their church.  The idea that a child could contribute something of more value than a theologically qualified professional is not a popular thought.  On more than one occasion we’ve had an adult visiting Avenues who has some theological training.  When a child offers something that us Avenues regulars might view as a valuable contribution itself, our visiting adult wants to chip in to round it off, to clarify, to add some additional words.  A sense of lack of power is a significant part of our faith journeying because it allows us to see God at work in each other.

Generosity – the art of giving from your best

We seem to unlearn giving as we get older.   A baby will take their soggy biscuit out of their mouth to share with their mother, a toddler will give hugs to complete strangers, a pre-schooler will spontaneously pick a bunch of weeds to give to someone they like, a five or six year old will draw picture after picture and give these away to everyone around them.  The more we know about life, the more our generosity shrivels to be given from our excess, not from our all.  Children haven’t learned this yet, so whether in physical acts such as hugs or giving drawings or cards, or verbally by giving words that come straight from the heart, a child leads us to God’s heart and generosity.  In our worship, a child will often say out loud their generous feelings or response to a situation that makes the rest of us nod and take note.  A sense of generosity is a significant part of our faith journey because it allows us to interact with the people whom God loves.

Sorry – the art of confession for wrongs

Children learn right from wrong fairly early on in life.   A toddler who has just learned the word, “No” will be reduced to tears on hearing it.  When a child does something that they know is wrong they project their guilt and their need to be forgiven, getting very upset over their ‘wrong’.  Children have an enormous capacity for feeling sorry and an enormous capacity to forgive.  You have only to watch pre-schoolers playing in the sand to see this in action.  Watch the child get in a fight in the sand pit over sharing a toy with another child, they will be enemies one moment, then with some intervention, and a chance to say sorry, they’re friends the next moment.  At Avenues we often have confession prayers which are typically interactive.  The practice of confession is freeing and liberating and sadly often overlooked in our ‘smug goodness of being a Christian. We all do things wrong, whether deliberately or inadvertently.  So at Avenues we might be thinking out loud some examples that a child can relate to, such as “Was there anyone you said something horrible to this week?”  While it will likely relate to children who’ve been playing with other children, we find ourselves challenged. Did we offend someone this week?  Such wrongs can seem small and simple, but they are very real and they are blocking our way to be more like Jesus.  A sense of saying sorry is a significant part of our faith journey to become more like Jesus.

This is just a handful of thoughts that I’ve had over the last week about why I love to worship with children as an integral part of our worshipping faith community.  It’s almost selfish actually!  I’m trying to decide if I get more from the children than I give to them?  Life is a journey and faith is a journey.   For myself, my faith is strengthened by the presence of children and if that means I become like a child mysef….  well hey, that can’t be bad, it’s what Jesus told us to be!

About this time the disciples came to Jesus and asked him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called a child over and had the child stand near him. Then he said:  I promise you this. If you don’t change and become like a child, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. But if you are as humble as this child, you are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And when you welcome one of these children because of me, you welcome me. Matthew 18:1-5Contemporary English Version (CEV)

The language of a common meal

My friend Sylwia and I do not have a shared spoken language.  She has two languages, I have one… and between us we have three.  Not exactly a straightforward start to a friendship.  But here’s the thing…  we have shared food together.  There is something special about eating food with others.    We met  Sylwia for the first time across a table from each other and a couple of hours later Sylwia was entertaining Andrew and I in her home in Dresden, Germany, with more food!  We would never have met if it hadn’t been for a particular set of circumstances in our own century and because of the connection between the stories of other people in a different century and of a different culture to each of our own.   A complex recipe of religion, culture, academic study and being in the right place at the right time.

Sylwia is a very special person to us. Who could have guessed on the day in which we met, that less than 24 hours later I would be in hospital fighting for my life?  On that first day and in the days and weeks that followed, while we were still in Germany, Sylwia took us both into her heart and Andrew into her home and her family.  With our large and loving extended family hundreds of miles away, we were alone.  Sylwia was my mother, my sister and my friend.  A bond has been formed that is beyond words, so the fact we don’t have shared words to use probably doesn’t matter much!

Caroline and SylwiaIn person our communication has been conducted in gestures, smiles, laughs and the odd experimental word in one of our own languages.  Via the Internet we continue to communicate regularly in a way that is a constant wonder to me.  We actually manage to keep up to date with the news by the means of all kinds of things (in written form with the help of electronic apps and translators, and in spoken form with the help of Claudia who translates between English and German and Polish for us, and in visual form –  because a photo tells a thousand words!)

So where words fail we do have that first language that we did share… the food of an ordinary lunch across a table.  I’ve always been keen on the idea of sharing food as part of our gathered together worshipping community.  At our Avenues Church we always have food as part of our gathering.  As a child I grew up in a family with a round dining table, and an approach to dining that meant there was always room for one more person.  Around our family dinner table we caught up on the things that were happening in each other’s lives.  We debated, we encouraged, we argued, we shared, we ate, we challenged each other, we welcomed others and we grew.

The opportunity of sharing food together, as a part of our Christian journey is not new.  Jesus’ ministry begins at a feast.  He turns water into wine at a wedding feast.  The gospels record numerous other meals including the feeding of enormous crowds with a boy’s humble lunch, and smaller events like Jesus catching up with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.   Then there is that significant last meal shared with his closest friends and followers, his disciples.  Who would have guessed after the last supper that the pattern of this meal would be repeated across centuries, across countries, across cultures?

annabelenglishannabelpolish.jpgWhile I was in hospital in Germany I was trying to think of a way that we could thank Sylwia and her family.  What is the perfect gift that money does not buy?   I wanted to find a gift that said ‘New Zealand’ and ‘grateful thanks’.  I remembered that Annabel Langbein, Kiwi successful cook, cookbook writer and businesswoman had been to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the year New Zealand was guest country, and I was pretty sure her book, “The Free-Range Cook” (which I owned in English) had been translated into German.  It was a start – a way to signal to Sylwia in a language that she spoke, the ‘language of cooking food’, to tell her that we were grateful and thankful to God that she had been there, at that time, in our lives.  With the help of my tablet, I found that not only had Annabel Langbein’s  book been translated into German, it was also available in Polish.  Polish is Sylwia’s mother-tongue!  From what I already knew of Sylwia, I knew she’d love the ‘grow your own’, ‘feed everyone’, ‘simple food’, feel to Annabel’s approach.

It took some weeks longer before I actually managed to navigate my way through the possibilities of ordering a book in the polish language and getting it to Sylwia, but finally it arrived to its destination.

So now we speak a new shared communication language.  The language of ‘Annabel Langbein’ or maybe it is the ‘language of a common meal’ – across countries and time.  Our regular skype conversations are conducted with our recipe books at hand, and page numbers to explain and show what we made last.   It’s kind of like hospitality or the sharing of a common meal in the virtual world!

Chilli Jam.jpg

Last week at my work we had an international week.  I was on bringing food on the ‘German’ day.  a nod to my Polish-German friends that God had sent my way?   Thanks to google translator I was able to ask for and receive a recipe for ‘the best apple pie in the world’ – ‘Szarlotka’. It is such a great feeling to send a ‘help’ message across to the other side of the world and get a message straight back with recipe as well as further instructions on the tricks to make it even better!

Szarlotka

Simple entertaining as a daily part of life has been given a back seat in our culture today.  While the café and restaurant culture has grown in NZ, and the age of the dinner party or the more relaxed, but still elaborate barbeque are typical hospitality events, the regular and simple act of dropping in to a friend for a cuppa, a biscuit and a chat is less frequent.   Of necessity, our busy lives move even catching up for a coffee and a chat to the side-lines of daily life.  They become scheduled activities, events in their own right, booked into our jam-packed calendars between other busy activities.  They have to be arranged, rather than just happen.  We still drink our coffee, we just do it on our own, sandwiching it between our own busy activities.  We stand in queues, buy it in paper cups, drink it in our cars, on our own, in the traffic, listening to the radio, on the way to work.  Even ordinary daily family dinners are disrupted and staggered events, with nights where there is sports practice for one person, a meeting or other evening activity for someone else, another person being home late from work while someone else is watching the news on tv for homework. Our time is sliced, diced and cut up into tiny portions, and having the space in our programme to leisurely share food together is treated as a luxury.

Sylwias pg 67What would happen if we could find a way to strip all the frills and fancies of entertaining back, to just be ourselves, to keep things simple and uncluttered, casual and relaxed, to make the focus of the shared meal about ‘breaking bread together’, about the act of eating and drinking and talking together and about creating a common experience?   If we recognised the language of the common meal to be about something else happening as well as food, to see it has a God-given opportunity to make connection, meeting each other’s needs, sharing each other’s burdens and joys?   I think this might be an important part of living out our Christian life and faith.   And I think that it can be the start of some amazing opportunities to share God’s love with others.  It might be a way of listening to the voice of God, of receiving and giving, of bonding with each other and with Jesus Christ… something like communion.

(Photo credits: my Szarlotka, Sylwia & I, Annabel Langbein’s books in Polish & English, ‘my page 128’ and Sylwia’s page 67)

Farm Fresh Organic Eggs and the Still Small Voice of God

‘If you could choose only one food, what food would you choose to not live without?’  That seemingly lightweight question that people ask sometimes for fun… and for most of my life, ‘chocolate’ would have been the first word on my lips, but with my recent health challenges, I’ve had to radically rethink my answer.

Since last November my diet has been lacking in variety.  Amongst a few other things, I’ve been eating eggs! I’ve always liked eggs, but I would never have thought them to be my ‘can’t live without food’.  How things change.  Currently they truly are a super food to me!

I’ve become obsessive about them, and very particular!  They have to be fresh and they have to be free range.  It’s all about nuances and subtle differences – I mean we’ve never stocked our pantry with reject eggs!  But as eggs make up at least one of my daily meals I’ve become a fussy egg connoisseur.  Does such a thing exist?  You hear of wine connoisseurs, but eggs???

I had such a special gift a couple of weeks ago.   Andrew was leading a church service at the country church in his parish and they had a harvest festival.  When he came home with six eggs, freshly laid that morning I was extremely elated, causing a lot of laughter in our household as I made it clear to the family (and a guest we had staying), that the eggs were mine only so hands-off everyone!!

It set me to thinking that by simplifying my diet and focussing on eggs, I have been able to notice the subtleties of eggs so much.  Whether it’s, the way the egg poaches, the size or softness of the yolk, the colour of the yolk, the flavour when I eat it – I notice it all now.

I can hear my children groaning, “Here comes Mum with another metaphor!”  So I will not disappoint them!  Yep, I can see a metaphor for our own God journeys.   In this case, I was thinking how my new found appreciation of the subtleties and nuances in different eggs, is a bit like our conversations with God.   When we’re surrounded by a cacophony of noises, hearing God’s voice in our lives is hard work.  When we’re only talking to God occasionally on a, ‘I need something from you now God’ way, it’s almost impossible to know what is God’s voice and what is our own voice reverberating in our heads with our hopes and dreams.

My Aunty Ada was a distant cousin on my mother’s side.  When I was a teenager she used to visit us to stay sometimes.  Having an elderly guest in a house full of energy and the teenage activity of me and my three brothers might sound like a problem, but Aunty Ada was a welcome guest.  She was a very little lady with twinkling mischievous eyes, a sense of humour and a wicked laugh.  She was also a ‘rebellious nun’ (her words).   By rebellious I think what she meant was that she didn’t like being obedient within the institution of the church if it didn’t make sense to her and she as always looking at ways to challenge things.  It wasn’t that she was rebellious against God.  Having lived a very secluded life, she was amazingly knowing, intelligent and insightful about people. The power of prayer was strong in Aunty Ada. She prayed about everything and when she talked about God she sounded like her entire everyday life was one long conversation with God.   She always wanted fresh things to pray about and to know that she was praying for you was an extremely good feeling.  She was one of those rare souls who really ‘walked with God’ and her answers to prayer were amazing and breathtakingly spot on, time after time.

Eileen was also a little old lady, married to an energetic and extrovert Irishman.  With rosy pink cheeks and a warm smile, she was the quiet one.  Her husband, a church elder, was active and busy both in local church life and in para-church organisations.  He never sat still, and wherever he went, Eileen went with him, quietly supporting him in all that he undertook.  While her husband was often in upfront roles, including leading worship on a regular basis, where we were treated to upbeat rousing hymns sung with gusto and energy, Eileen was always the unassuming and quiet one.  But Eileen was neither invisible nor overlooked.  When Eileen spoke, people listened.  Because Eileen heard from God.  Often.  Sometimes Eileen would say, “I believe the Lord is saying…” and there would be a collective intake of breath, the hairs on the back of the neck prickling sensation around the congregation.  Eileen’s words from God were so carefully given, and so amazingly spot on.  She was also a woman who ‘walked with God’.

It is interesting how often in the scriptures we see God talking in the stillness and silence.  I loved the story of Samuel as a child and young teen.  The idea that God was calling out to Samuel in the middle of the night and eventually Samuel responds, ‘Speak Lord!  Your servant is listening.’ (You can read it in 1 Samuel 3 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+3&version=GNT ) God spoke to Samuel and Samuel listened to God.

I do believe that God can speak to any of us, but I also know that life is noisy and finding time to listen to God is all too easy to reduce to the times when we want something from God.   We fill our days with a multitude of voices, and it can be hard to hear God’s voice amongst the competing noise.   It’s not that we don’t want to hear God, or even that we can’t hear God.  But in the same way as my change in eating habits has made me an egg connoisseur, hearing God’s voice requires regular prayer and times of silence when we stop to listen.

This is of course why retreat centres and health spas exist.  People need to take time out of their busy lives and their ordinary routines and stop.  Stop, relax and be refreshed.  Stop and reflect.  Stop and be.  Stop and think.  Stop and pray.   Hearing God’s voice is available to all of us.  But we have to be ready to listen.  We have to find the time and the space, and (just like noticing the subtleties and nuances of eggs) the more we do it, the more we hear from God.  I love this paraphrase from The Message of Psalm 46:8 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+46:8&version=MSG

Many Christians past and present have made a regular pattern of prayer in the early morning or in the dark evening.  There is something about the half-light or night light that makes it easier to be soothed and relaxed.   Some people like to walk and pray, or sit in a peaceful spot, or kneel to pray. Others like to pray before they fall asleep at night or when they first awake in the morning.  Whatever it is, having a pattern of prayer and listening to God, means whatever comes, good or bad, in the journey of our lives, we have the time and space as well as the practise of praying and listening about everything that is going on in our lives and in the lives of people near and far around us.   When God speaks we are not only ready to listen, we also hear the subtleties and the nuances.

We live in busy and noisy times, but God is not too busy to listen to us, ever!  While simplifying our lives might not be possible, maybe it is possible to simplify a portion of time in the regular routine of our days and focus on prayer.   A regular routine of speaking and listening to God, through the good, the bad and the average days of our ordinary lives.  And expect to hear the still small voice of God!

(Photo credit: my perfect breakfast)

My Lent Bucket List

I’ve been thinking about death a bit recently.  It’s not a morbid preoccupation, or a sudden interest in ‘dark things’ but more of a close realisation of the natural process that affects us all from birth through to death.  Death feels nearer than it did before.  I guess it’s a pretty normal reaction for someone who’s just had a near death experience. (see my previous blog entry and there’s more in this one too.)   Also this week has been one of those weeks where I’ve had news of a baby cousin born in Argentina and a very close and dear friend of my parents dying, a work colleague’s brother dying, as well as the daughter of a friend of ours who we’ve known since she was a baby, getting engaged to be married… and it’s all a reminder of the circle of life to which we all, everyone one of us are on, whether for a short or long time.

“From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round”
- The Circle of Life - Music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice

A couple of years back I went to a seminar for women in business and one of the activities we did was to create a list of 50 goals or things we wanted to achieve in the short, medium and long term.  I like lists.  I’m one of those ridiculous people who makes a list so I can get the satisfaction of crossing things off… and yes even more ridiculous that if I want to be able to cross a lot of things off, I’ll even put on some things I’ve just done so I get that satisfaction!!!  Anyway, this 50 goals list was my first attempt at something like a ‘Bucket List’ and was actually a bit of fun, particularly being able to cross off some of the things on the list in the last couple of years, from starting Kereru Publishing to buying a pair of turquoise shoes!  It is quite the trendy thing these days to refer to a ‘bucket list,’ and particularly in the age of social media, we are able to show off our experiences to our friends around the globe as we seek new and exciting adventures.  The concept of a bucket list has been linked to death because these bucket lists include “X number of things I want to do before I die.”

Last year when Andrew and I were on a tour of Schwenkfeld things in Germany, and I was not feeling so great, I went to the local hospital in Pirna, near Dresden, to see a doctor, it being the only place to find a Doctor on a Sunday morning!   I arrived thinking that I had some kind of tummy bug or something equally minor.  Three hours later, it was a shock to be told they were keeping me in their hospital as I had to have emergency bowel surgery.   When I asked if I could go home to New Zealand, the doctor just looked at me, and said very quietly, “How long is the plane flight back to NZ?”

“About 24 hours flying time,” I replied.

“You don’t actually have that long,” he answered, “We’re going to delay the surgery until first thing tomorrow morning as the chief surgeon wants to do it herself.  It’s a case of getting the right person and the right time. But you need the surgery immediately.”

Then he proceeded to tell me the significant risks of the surgery with the best English he could use.

It was pretty good English.  It was good enough for me to know that things were not going so well for me.  I hadn’t planned to die any time soon.  It wasn’t on my radar.  But for the remaining hours of that day Andrew and I sat together and I thought about my life to date and I thought about the possibility of death.   The very hardest thing of all was being away from my people.  I missed terribly my loved ones at home, and although we spoke on the phone to my parents and kids, a phone call seemed so remote, and I didn’t get to speak to all my people, having, neither the time or the energy.  Through the night I was in such pain, which maybe helped me, in that the thought of death didn’t frighten me.  If it was my time, I was ready.  I was at peace.  God felt very near to me.

After a teary goodbye to Andrew, and a promise from him that he’d be there when I woke up, they wheeled me to theatre and somewhere on the way I went to sleep…  and while it felt like second, over 24 hours later woke to the sound of voices in a foreign language, calling my name.  It felt like they were pulling me towards them. I didn’t recognise any of the voices.

“Where’s Andrew?”  I asked, foggy headed.

“He’s not here.”

So I knew in that moment, that I had died.  I’d gone to the wrong place, I wasn’t alive, because Andrew wasn’t there waiting for me.

This created a further flurry of voices, and then a whole string of sentences in an accented English voice,  “It is Tuesday morning.  We made him go home.  He is with your friends in Dresden.  He will be here soon.”

I wasn’t in the wrong place.  I wasn’t dead.  I was alive.  And yet I could not believe it. The thrill of knowing I was alive was dizzyingly wonderful.

I don’t remember a lot of the details of those first few days in Intensive Care.  I just remember being so glad to be alive, and see Andrew again, and to know that I would be able to go home and see my family.   And all I wanted to do, was to ‘be’.   I wanted to be a better person, a kinder, gentler, wiser one, less thoughtless with my words, more generous with my actions, I wanted to show the world that love exists and so does hope and peace and grace.   With no words to help me, and a body that had completely let me down, rendering me totally at the mercy of the hospital staff, the only thing I could think to do was to smile.  And so I smiled.  As much as I could.  It wasn’t hard.  I was very happy.  But apparently it was unusual!  I was alive and it was like I had been handed a fresh start.

It’s funny, because these thoughts consumed me initially, and it wasn’t until I was out of Intensive Care that I started to think about the things that I’d left unfinished that I’d now get a chance to finish.  A ‘review of my bucket list’.  And sure there were plenty of things that I wanted to do again, projects I wanted to finish, places I wanted to visit, things I wanted to learn, but in those heady days of being alive again, all those things didn’t matter so much.  I always have several creative projects on the go at any one time.  A half-finished painting, an incomplete manuscript (or several), a quilt (or two), sewing projects, (aplenty) excel spreadsheet documents and so on.  One day, I’m really going to die.  And I know that I’m going to more than likely leave behind a list of things that I didn’t get to finish, didn’t get to do, didn’t get to try, didn’t get to accomplish.  It is, I realise, a reality of life.

Even now, almost five months later, with my health getting gradually better, I still feel that the things that are on those lists don’t matter so much to me as just ‘being’.  I still want to do them but I don’t need to do them.  And this is where I think my faith and belief in a life after death helps.   Because I don’t think this life is the end.  Things I don’t get to finish in this life, maybe I’ll do in the next life.   I love the images and ideas C.S.Lewis plays with in many of his books, the idea that this life is a shadow of the life yet to come.   In his Narnia books, partly allegorical with the Christian story, with Aslan the Lion being a Christ figure, my favourite character is the little mouse, Reepicheep.  In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Reepicheep who is a brave, adventurous mouse, when faced with the prospect of going on a journey from which he knows he will never return, is eager and willing.  At the edge of the world, where the water is sweet and filling,  and there is more light than has ever been seen before, is the bright land called Aslan’s Country.  “Whatever it is, won’t it be worth anything just to have looked for one moment beyond the edge of the world?”  Reepicheep – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

The season of Lent is a time when Christians throughout history, focus on being more like Christ.  In some traditions the practice of going without something for the 40 days leading to the events of the Easter weekend, becomes a daily physical reminder of this discipline to pray, to think about Christ, to be like Christ.  The ’40 days’ of Lent has been picked up by many Christian people in promoting 40 days of disciplines not related to the Easter story and not necessarily practised through Lent, but practised to be better people and more like Christ.  (40 Days of Purpose, 40 Days of Prayer, The Love Dare, 40 Days in the Word… and so on.)    Andrew and I for several years wrote material for the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society.  The appeal was called, ‘Self Denial’ and picked up the idea of denying yourself something and using the resource (time, energy, money, goods etc) to give to those less fortunate in our world and those working to make a difference in the different countries where NZBMS worked.  The NZ Baptist churches could use the material at any timeframe that they liked, according to their own church year plans.  Some churches liked to link the annual Self Denial appeal to Lent, where it fitted neatly with the idea of denying yourself something throughout Lent.

I was thinking about those Self Denial appeals the other day.  Our younger children experienced these appeals through most of their early childhood and primary school years. They laugh about it now, but they used to look forward to Self Denial every year almost as much as they looked forward to Christmas.  And they love Christmas!  Because we’d written the Self Denial material, we packed our church services with plenty of creative things that made it all challenging and inspiring as well as fun.  We liked to hold our Self Denial season away from Easter, as we liked the chance to make the most of both.  I still am constantly intrigued about the joy our kids found in focussing on the needs of others through these times.  In fact, when I think of the people I know who are truly happy, they are people who give generously to others.  Giving makes them happy and fulfilled.

It is why the ’50 Things to Do Before I Die – Bucket List’ doesn’t quite cut it for me as a ‘before I die’ list.  I’m quite happy to have a list of goals and ideas and dreams to keep me moving through this life. I like to be active and creative and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.  And I like to make plans.  And I need to do some of these things to relax.  But these are not the imperative goals that I know are necessary to be more like Christ.   They’re more just ‘nice things to do’.  Frank Sinatra’s, “I Did It My Way,” has an emotive, beautiful and powerful tune… but the lyrics are the exact opposite of how I want to end my life or how I want to be remembered.

 “And now, the end is near;
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I'll say it clear,
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain.
I've lived a life that's full.
I've traveled each and ev'ry highway;
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.
….
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels;
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows -
And did it my way!”
- Music "Comme d'habitude" Claude François & Jacques Revaux, Lyrics Paul Anka”'

A few years ago we went to a children’s performance show where the storyline revolved around a girl who had just found out she was dying and wanted to do all kinds of things before she died.  It was a little jarring in parts, because it didn’t take into account, if she was dying there would be medical issues, and pain, and grief.  But it did bring up a topic that is a hot topic for most people, the things that I want to ‘do’ before I die.   The movie, “The Bucket List” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicolson is based on the same concept.  It had some thought provoking moments, but overall the same problem… does it really matter if we get to do all these things for ourselves before we die?

What if we lived our lives so that others’ lives were touched and improved? What if the legacy we leave helps other people in their lives? What if we don’t get to do all the things we’ve dreamed and planned for ourselves, but what we did do, was stop a child from starving, was provide hope to someone who was hopeless, loved someone who was unlovable.  These things would be worth doing before we died.

So all of this is heading towards my thinking about my problem with a Bucket List as being a complete list of I want to achieve before I die.  Unless I write my list in such a way that it’s not all about my wants and desires, a bucket list is essentially selfish. So I thought what better time this Lent season than to keep a Lenten Bucket List.  I’m going to focus on giving and being a better person, I want to focus on being more like Jesus Christ and be more like he wants me to be.   But instead of making a list to tick off, I’m going to put a bucket next to my bed and every day I’m going to put a note into my bucket.  At least one thing every day that I’ve done to be more like Jesus, one thing that I’ve given away or one thing I’ve been.  I guess I could make a list of some ideas of things I could do, but I thought this Lent I would let God guide me towards the needs of people around me.

Of course, I could do this all the time, not just for Lent, and I don’t really need to put things into a bucket to make them actually happen, but the physical act of writing something down and putting it in my bucket and the opportunity to practise a discipline through the Lenten season, seems a good way to follow Christ this year.  Because this year, more than any year I can remmeber, I am feeling very glad to be alive and I’m feeling like I’ve got a second chance at making my life make a difference.

Light in the Darkness

Our family is using the 25 Stockings book each night at the dinner table.  As well as three versions of homemade ’25 Stockings’ hanging across the room, our 19 year old daughter bought an Advent candle this year. It’s one of those candles with incremental marks down it from 1 – 25.  So each night when we are all together we light the candle as we eat our dinner.  This requires very careful watching because although the candle starts off burning slowly, all of a sudden the wax drips down the side and the mark is reached for the day and it’s time to blow out the candle.

Once we’ve finished eating we read the bible passage. Because our children have always had this experience (I started writing the book when I was 19!) they love the three questions so we have to include that, and then we usually read the reflection and the prayer.

A couple of nights ago we also did the Discussion Time talking about darkness and times when we’ve been in the dark and turned on a light and how this makes a difference and of course how this relates to the metaphor of God’s love.  We had a satisfying conversation about light and darkness and times we’ve each felt God’s presence.   It was nice sitting there in front of a candle and talking about the impact of light that a single candle creates in a darkened room.

Last night I wasn’t feeling so good and although I went to bed early, I was up and down all night.  At first the rest of the family were still all up so while my room was in darkness, the rest of the house was a blaze of light.  By about midnight, 17’s door was shut and I figured he had turned in for the night. But sometime after 1, when I was up again and the rest of the house was this time in darkness too, I reasonably thought everyone else had now gone to bed.  But… around 17’s closed door was a silhouette of light.  (Not that, there was anything wrong with him still being up – he is on holiday)

I was pondering the idea that I had only seen the light around his door because the rest of the house was in darkness.  It was kind of the opposite thinking of our earlier discussion talking about darkness and the difference that happens when a candle is lit.  (Okay, I know it sounds like the same thing but bear with me.)  The light had been on all the time, but I only saw that it was on when the rest of the house changed from light to dark.

So maybe sometimes the metaphor is that we can be like a light in the darkness for others just like a candle lighting up the darkness.  And maybe other times we are part of a larger group of lights, indistinguishable as individuals until we are separated and stand as a solitary light in darkness.

I’ve really liked the metaphor as a follower of Jesus, of being a light in the darkness, or being salt adding flavour to the world.  But I also think there is a balance and when we are being ‘light’ we carry on being true to our call to follow Jesus and be light to the world, by both gathering with a larger group of other ‘lights’ and also living, working and spending time on our own with others who are not followers of Jesus, and therefore hopefully bringing light to their darkness.

It’s a balance that is a struggle and maybe always changing.  There is something wonderful and refreshing for followers to spend large amounts of time with other followers of Jesus.  And maybe at different times in our lives we need this fellowship more than other times.   But if we spend all of our time with our friends from our church groups, then how much is our light shining noticeably to others?  And if we spend too much time with others who are not followers of Jesus, are we in danger of our light ‘battery’ running out or our candle burning until the flame is extinguished.

Anyway, that was my middle of the night musing… instead of sleeping!  Just thought I’d share it.

Golden days of Autumn

It’s officially autumn in New Zealand and this year it is unseasonably cold!  Well that seems to be the way of the world these days – unpredictability of weather!  But this blog entry isn’t about climate change or weather patterns.   I was just thinking the other day that I find myself looking forward to Autumn (a little bit).  Now that might not seem strange, but it doesn’t seem that many years ago when I didn’t like autumn.  It signaled the start of the cold part of the year, a time of short days when the waking day begins in the darkness and night closes in during the early evening, a time of extra layers of clothes, wet socks from walking in the rain, runny noses and condensation on the windows.

I think I’ve always been a summer person.  I love the beach, the warmth and the light.  I love juicy stone fruit and long lazy days.  I love walking barefoot, the smell of citronella and sunblock and wearing sunhats.  I love gardens full of colour and the sound of cicadas and insects.  I love lying under a leafy tree and reading a good book…. yes Summer is my season!  And because spring precedes summer and proclaims it’s arrival, I love spring too.  Spring with its new life and its promises of good things to come, with the brilliant green of new leaves, and the buds of pink blossoms, the days beginning to stretch and the shedding of winter blankets.    And coming into third place, I kind of like winter too, the chance to hibernate and curl up in front of a warm fire, with a good movie and a glass of mulled wine,  I always feel like knitting in winter, a hobby that keeps me connected to the rich heritage of times passed as I practice the hobby of my grandmothers and my mother in law.  And I love puddle walks and rain dances, especially with a child or two in tow, going out in the rain with an umbrella and gumboots and a willngness to get well and truly wet.  And winter seems so much closer to Spring with its new lambs and daffodils and wearing pink.

It’s just autumn that’s always been my least favourite season.  So I’m kind of wondering why I suddenly find myself looking forward to autumn.  Is it because I live under a magnificent, old and large oak tree (which for personal reasons is very dear to me – watch this blog for more oak tree stories), which showers our roof with a barrage of acorns in firecracker sounds that are somehow soothing?  Is it because I now have a garden that has berries which fruit in autumn and there’s something special about eating things you’ve grown yourself?  Is it because we had a road trip holiday five years ago (okay if you’ve read my earlier blogs you’ll know I like road trips and metaphors and when they connect together you might see a general theme emerging here 🙂 ) through the eastern side of Canada and the USA and drove miles and miles never getting sick of the brilliantly coloured trees? (Our native trees are evergreen so we don’t get the same multicoloured autumns in NZ)

I’m not sure when or why I decided that I was looking forward to autumn, and this is clearly more of a ramble than an orderly and coherent entry. This isn’t the first year I’ve felt this way but it still strikes me as contrary to my younger self experience.  So, I was wondering if it is because I’ve reached a stage of life and faith where I know that there is good in every part of the journey from beginning to end, that there are good things to be found along the path as we walk and that some of the best experiences happen in the hard and difficult times? That for every new idea (Spring) there is a seasoned voice of experience (Autumn) pointing an opportunity, full of fruit, mature and complex in flavour and ripe for picking.  There is something about listening to the voices of people who have already travelled the faith journey, who have had their times of hardship, of desperately holding on to faith to see them through, who can talk of the cycle of days and years when God seems close and all is rosy and wonderful and other times when the darkness settles early and it’s hard to find the light.  When autumn heralds a bleak winter ahead, it is hard to feel happy and optimistic.  Yet, it is in the hardest and most difficult times of our lives that we turn to God.

And maybe that is why I’ve come to like Autumn.  Because as a metaphor it was and is, easy for me to be happy in Spring and Summer when all is so fresh, hopeful and wonderful, but when I reflect on the days of autumn and winter – these have been the times when God has been close.  Times when I’ve needed to know that I’m not walking alone. That in the darkness and bleakness there is a closeness that is comforting and rallying.  And somehow it seems right that we need all four of the seasons to appreciate the fullness and complexity of our living and walking faith journey.  If every day was spring, how would we ever experience and find the fruit of autumn?

(Photo credit:  the colours of ‘fall’  driving in Quebec Province, Canada 2009)