Thursday, 27 December 2012

Postscript to Christmas

"All who heard the shepherds story where astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often." (Luke 2:18,19) NLT

A soft day. Swirls of mist are making their way up from the valley, painting over pieces of the landscape. Sounds are muted, a sense of rest slowly settles in. Frogs continue their melancholy song and there is a sweet hush over Inesi. My little man tiptoes over the carpet while his brother snores. I marvel at the moment - there hasn't been too many of these lately. Much excitement, happy chaos, laughter and the inevitable flaring of tempers have been the norm the last few days. There has not been much time for contemplating. The rustling of wrapping paper in trembling little hands has become a familiar sound and sight. Precious moments flow together into a reel of memories, to be replayed often over the days and weeks to come. I want to capture them, make them last longer, like the last delectable bite of our Christmas cheesecake.

Like an eternal child, I cannot help feeling a sense of expectancy over Christmas time. Try as I may, I cannot keep the bubbles down. The cold fact that cruelty and loneliness do not allow themselves to be put on hold, does sober me for moments. Then I catch a glimpse of the star atop our platted vine tree and my heart bounds like a calf let out to pasture... What saddens, is the loss of true meaning during this time, what gladdens is God's limitless grace that continues to flow, regardless of the "maddening crowds".

Let me capture a few "starbrite" moments. Christmas eve - amid preparations for the afternoon crib service I pull up at the supa market for a few last minute supplies. A friend's (Afrikaans) grandchild is introduced to me. "Dis Tannie Maria" my friend says. "O ek weet wie's jy" says the girl. "Jy's Liewe Jesus se Mamma!" (You are Jesus' mom). How could I deny it...

Later that afternoon, after the angry skies have thundered and lashed out a drama of flashes and sheets of water, I make my way to the chapel on the hill. For the duration of the service, I am to be the shy, teen aged virgin Mary. "Mary" has a chenille shawl draped around her supposedly "young" face, a dust coloured skirt sweeps over her leather sandals and a well-worn embroidered linen Punjabi top finishes the picture. Her toes are covered in mud, so also her finger tips, the result of having to manually engage her four wheel drive donkey en route. Gathered at the back of the chapel, she joins, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, the woman that represent the female lineage of Jesus. We move about like highly strung mares, tucking and pinning stray bits of hair and nerves into place. As I finally relate my story to the sea of faces before me, I have a momentary sense of the awe that must have washed over that young girl when the reality of her "condition" sank in. Carrying a child under your heart is overwhelming enough - let alone the long awaited Messiah! What a wonder, what a privilege... I leave with the glorious sound of Christmas carols in my heart - singing all the way home. The radiance of a late afternoon sun breaks through the clouds, with brief but breathtaking sparkle.

Back home, we share gifts by lamp light. Power failures are almost as frequent as the rains up here, we've learnt to live with them, work around them, and enjoy the enforced silence. The intimacy of giving and receiving, is a gift of itself. A glow slips through the window, settles around us, and the world outside grows strangely dim.

Christmas day arrives - we all huddle together under the blankets. The day breaks with rain pelting the sink roof over our heads. We read the ever beautiful account of the birth of the Messiah, and it is new again through our children's eyes. "Let the little children come to me" - our duty to raise them for the God who put them in our care, is a marvel, a joy and a responsibility which we are only able to carry out by His grace and with His guidance. And as they grow up in this broken world, it is a deep relief that we may place their names in His hands each day. This changes the fear of the unknown on their future paths, into the knowing that they belong to a loving Father, who will spread His wings over them, always.

Fare to share is packed into the muddy chariot and whisked off to a gracious neighbour's house. Hogsback hospitality is another marvel that weaves warm colours into the tapestry of our community. We spend the rest of the afternoon sampling the delights of a shared meal and good company. With deep sighs of content we sink into the couches amid all the furry inhabitants of the house. We close our eyes and let the soothing sound of the master of the house's "baby grand" wash over us. Even the children are hushed, and grace flows in a wonderfully familiar way, from heart to heart.

Back home we are met with darkness once again. Lamps are lit and tired little bodies slipped into their pyjamas. I hum a carol from my own childhood and soon we are all snoring to the sound of rain playing out its familiar symphony. Another "Silent Night" begins in the mountains. What perfect timing our Father has. After all the rush and flush of celebrating the most magical birthday of the year, He pushes the "mute" button and silences our world once again.

Later, with only the trio of deep breaths from my three beautiful guys audible, I kneel in front of the fire. In the depth of this silence I reach for what my heart knows to be true. We began before words, and we will end beyond them. We understand beyond words. To hear our Father speak we need more love, more silence, more deep listening, more deep giving. Then we can escape the vast ocean of words and be witnesses to a world which hungers for meaning. We will be understood beyond words when we allow the Spirit of God to speak, the truth of Christ to shine and the light of the Holy Spirit to direct. Follow Him - He knows where you're meant to go - He's been there already!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Beauty of Suffering

"For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows" (2 Corinthians 1:5)

The wind that shakes the barley. An Irish ballad hauntingly depicting a doomed young Wexford rebel who is about to sacrifice his relationship with his beloved, to throw himself into a cauldron of violence during the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. These rebels often carried barley or oats in their pockets as provisions for when on the march. This gave rise to the somber post-rebellion phenomenon of barley growing and marking the mass unmarked graves into which slain rebels were thrown. For the Irish, this symbolised the regenerative nature of their resistance to British rule. 

Outside my window, the wind gently shakes the tips of the Silver Birches. In the silence I can hear a fly throwing itself repeatedly against the window pane. Trapped. The futility of his efforts moves me to get up to open the window. Freedom for the fly, sweet mountain breezes for me. My thoughts are guided to another man who sacrificed more than his life for more than a rebellion. The regenerative nature of this act was a gift to mankind, but then there was the question of suffering...

We have become so accustomed with images of the suffering Christ, the crown of thorns embedded on his head, slumped forward on a blood-streaked chest. Like a lamb to the slaughter, he showed no resistance, called no defence, knowing full well the content of the bitter cup that could not pass him by. Pictures and films have made his physical suffering sensational, moving us only like a front page shot of the aftermath of an earthly tragedy would.

Quite some time ago a young boy we know asked his mother why Jesus had to suffer so much, why was it all so awful, so messy and cruel? How does one explain this that even a child can understand? It seemed a challenge at the time, but as with everything else, the Word of God provides ALL our answers. At the heart of His suffering lies a surprising beauty, which I hope will leave you breathless, as it did me.

When Christ came to our world, it was as a crying infant. Born of a humble woman, through pain, into a broken world, as we all are. When he grew up, it was as a young boy who got dirty at play. Set apart from the beginning, but going through the challenges of growing up, as we all have to. When he spoke the truth about his Father and ultimately about himself, it was resisted to the point of persecution. As we will experience when we speak up for what we believe, boldly enough to shake the core of deception in this world. When he grieved it was with salty tears, when he faced hunger and pain he was moved to compassion. He was tempted, taunted and ultimately convicted (without sin or fault) to hang on a cross. Every human condition, pain, rejection and brokenness is known to him - not as a god removed, but as God that became man in every sense of the word. When we hurt, he not only cares, he knows exactly how it feels. Only He is able to take our desperate pleas up to his Father's throne and plead on our behalf.

That's not the end of the good news. When we step off this mortal coil, it is not into an abyss, into darkness. Jesus has been there for us already. We step with Him, through Him, into glory, to spend eternity with our real Father, Abba, El Shaddai. Breathless? I hope to remain wonder-struck by this truth, so that when the sufferings of Christ flow over into my life, the comfort can also overflow. This comfort is not a soft pillow to lay back against when the going gets tough, it is the everlasting, undeniable victory through Christ, ours to have and to hold, beyond death do us part.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

What I Have I Give You

"I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is, and who was and who is to come, the Almighty" (Rev 1:8)

"Sizzle"... When my mind brought up this word, I immediately saw images of mirages on a hot desert plane. Cicadas singing in the blistering sun. Hot beaches baking in a blinding white light. (No, not sausages in a pan...) It is not quite sizzling yet, but the sun is out, and there is a merry cricket-choir singing somewhere. Two small golden heads bend over the dandelions in the distance, then a whoop of delight is carried up to me when the seeds are blown up and away by the wind. I never thought I would come to love the sight of washing on a line - but this means there is sunshine, so to my gray-weary eyes they are banners of joy... The breeze blows a message of renewal through my window, my heart lifts, then sinks, then soars, then falters. If you are prone to emotional roller-coaster rides (as I am at times), this is big-dipper time! From soaring on wings with eagles, to an abyss of weltschmerz *, back to running with wild horses in the span of a single rotation around the sun. "Silly season" is an under-statement, but it needn't be, and I guess I am about (to attempt) to tell you why...

* (The modern meaning of Weltschmerz in the German language is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realising that someone's own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and (physical and social) circumstances).

For me this is a time of sharing, feeling awestruck, being generous, but I am overwhelmed by my own incapacity of being all I am called to be at the same time. Then I read the account of Peter and John and the lame beggar at the temple gate called "Beautiful". (This was the first miracle recorded in the book of Acts after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost).

Picture this: A guy who has been carried around his whole life, placed at the same spot each day asking for handouts, suddenly has two men asking him to "Look at us" (Acts 3:4) Probably quite used to people avoiding eye-contact, he looks up, expecting to hear the sound of coins dropping in his lap. Instead Peter says: "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you... A moment of expectation. Then Peter says: "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, WALK"! The miracle follows, his ankles grow strong, his feet straighten, he wobbles a moment and, off he goes! BUT, then he turns back... What has just happened here - a lame man walks! For a month or two he will be overwhelmed by the miracle of movement, but then the mundane may set in again and he could just be walking beggar. 

NO. Peter goes on. In front of an astonished crowd, he shares the true gift. Of how the Author, originator of Life, (John 1:1 "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. HE -Jesus- was with God in the beginning"), was killed. BUT God raised him from the dead. So that this lame man (and the entire world with him) may receive a rebirth in Christ into an eternity with God. What struck me once again, is the value of a human soul - placed above silver or gold, physical wellness, emotional wholeness, even spiritual awareness. What is the greatest gift I have to share? Apart from grace, kindness, compassion, care - above all, I know the truth. This should compel me to be moved by the brokenness of the world, the futility of lost souls trying to find the truth in all the wrong places. To be a witness in whichever way He calls me to be. And ultimately; with his guidance, to have the courage and conviction to speak it into their hearts.

So, now that he could walk, and had no other option but to believe, what else did he need to do? Peter says in verse 19: "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord". Then in verse 21 he says of Jesus: "He must remain in heaven, until the time comes for God to restore everything as he promised long ago..."

What this means for us, is that the sooner we, not only turn from our own sins, but help others to turn back to God, who has placed His Spirit in all people, the sooner our Saviour will be able to return, to hail in the millennium of peace. Now wouldn't that be something!

So as I mentally tick off my list of Christmas gifts, preparations and all the sweet madness that goes with this time of year, it is SO good to remember what to place on the top of this list. The greatest Gift ever given has become the greatest gift that we could ever share. I feel rich beyond words, the wealth of my heart overflows into yours and hopefully all those that you will encounter during this time. The end may be near, the birth-pangs sharp and fierce, but the hope of renewal is real, glorious and eternal.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Yaweh Yireh

"I am making a way in the desert, and streams in the wasteland" (Isaiah 43:19)

Put a ladybug and rain in the same photo and I'll be a happy fangirl! :3

Rain and more rain. The earth can't soak it up fast enough, the joyous song of rain on a tin roof has become a melancholy refrain. Mud sucks at our gumboots,  tyre tracks become waterlogged gouges and potholes - miry little wells. When a stray ray of sunshine finally breaks through the grayness, doors and windows are thrown open wide. We scuttle around like busy ants, filling washing lines and tugging determinedly at the thriving weeds. Even the frogs are silent... But the gardens and fields are green and lush, every particle of dust has settled, and skin and hair is refreshed and soft. End-year mania is a far-away reality and I sigh a grateful sigh for being able to escape it all.

Strolling (and slipping) down the path of a friend's garden, my senses are overwhelmed by masses of roses, flaunting their beauty and heady fragrance. These are flanked by neat rows of fruit-trees, their delights ripening, still dripping from the morning's shower. I inhale the scent of wet leaves, mock orange, then more roses. Nature decorating our village like no bells or blinking lights could ever do.

Inside, we encircle the table, Hogsback sisters celebrating a year of learning and loving together. I am reminded of a tree full of Mynah birds, but then these woman are birds of a different feather, each one, delightfully different and real. The mountains have tested and moulded us, deeper knowledge of His Word anchored us to the Rock of all ages. Iron may sharpen iron, but woman nurture and support with gentle strength, like ears of wheat bending together in the wind.

This year, we came to "know" the woman of the Bible. Some we adored, admired. A few are loathesome, sentinals of warning. We all found someone to relate to, be inspired by. I saw once again, how God can rewrite the text of your life when you open the book of your heart to his eyes (Ps. 18:24 The Message). This is not a fable written on dusty pages, it is alive and breathing and more relevant now than it has ever been. How many times do we see fortunes reversed, episodes that seem doomed to end in disaster take a dramatic turn. A nation threatened to be annialiated, saved!  Maidens, orphans, widows, prostitutes, all are included in his plan. And so are you and me. Never has one "book" been the centre of so much controversy, criticism, and scrutiny. Yet any guru with a grand theory that sounds sweet to starved ears, is published, read and revered without too much effort.

Is it because the Bible reveals not only the God of love, but also a just God? Not only an adoring Father, but a father of discipline, a jealous God that asks his bride to be faithful to him. The same God that gave a not-so-young Sarah a beautiful boy named Isaac, tested his father Abraham by asking Him to tie his only son to an altar as an offering. On the way up to the mountain, noticing that his Dad only had wood and means for fire with him, he asked: "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?". Abraham's heart probably tore apart when he answered: "God himself will provide the lamb..." And as he lifted his knife, his hand trembling in mid-air, an angel spoke the sweetest words: "do not lay a hand on the boy". What seems like a cruel trick, was not only the toughest test of faith, but an example of, regardless of how big the price seems at the time, Yaweh Yireh - The Lord will provide. He provided the lamb, not only then but ultimately through His only Son - so that he may look at us and say: Do not lay a hand on my children...

When a cruel twist of circumstance threatened to take what was most dear to me, He provided. Not only an outcome, a reversal of fortune, but a life in abundance growing more abundant each day.

Forget the former things; do not dwell in the past
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up
Do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
And streams in the wasteland
The wild animals honour me,
The jackals and the owls.
For I provide water in the desert
And streams in the wasteland...
                                (Isaiah 43:18-20)