Monday, 24 December 2012

The Christmas Message

   Well, a very merry Christmas to you all my friends! As I look out onto the Welsh countryside, with low fog clouding the hills and a steady drizzle sitting over us, the traditional 'Christmas spirit' is not as overwhelming as in previous years. Instead, however, I'm actually truly excited about the 'truth' of Christmas. Yup, the 'Jesus' bit of it. Yes, really.

Tomorrow will, I'm sure, be fun. There's great TV planned (YES to the Downton Christmas special), of course I am excited by presents, the food, and simply being with my family will be so special. But without the whole Jesus bit of it, it's not much more than a slightly more special day.

          The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight

After a year actually pretty full of fears AND hopes, I can testify to this truth. Our hopes and our fears have always been so far beyond ourselves to solve. We can't solve our selfishness, our yearning for more to life than we see, our fear of death, our loneliness, our sorrows, or the way we have hurt others. These things are not within our control or our remit to fix. The only one who could.... was Him.

So yeah, Christmas is celebrating Jesus coming to earth as a baby. But let's not get too overly wrapped up in the cutesy baby, 'away in a manger' stylee. This is GOD in FLESH.

And isn't it beautiful, exciting, mind-blowing, that in the huge weakness and vulnerability that you and I may have experienced this year, this is how God chooses to come - weak, dependent, vulnerable. This IS good news for people like me. He came to those, like me, who were hopeless and in Himself brought hope that change is possible; restoration of relationships and redemption of brokenness is truly possible. 

What better news could there be on a drizzly Christmas eve, that once the paper and the trees have been disposed of for yet another year, and we have happily said goodbye to Slade's timeless reminder of all that is bad about the festive season, that Jesus came for people like us? He came not to bring us the warm fuzzy feeling, but to bring hope and change when the world is falling. I can't think of any better news.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

No, it's Not Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas

   Firstly, a disclaimer: I am very much not a Scrooge. I LOVE Christmas! I'm beginning to get excited about it and very much looking forward to heading home to the countryside for a proper break.


Surely I'm not the only one who thinks it is, at best, ridiculous, that some shops have been playing Christmas music already for two weeks?

I'm already tired of hearing the canned jingles of the same three Christmas songs repeated again and again, and am now convinced that such torture could turn Father Christmas himself into a Grinch.
I don't know how Sales Assistants cope.

Yes, I'm all for a bit of festive merriment, but c'mon: it's the frikkin' 5TH DECEMBER! We still have 20 whole days to go before we actually celebrate this. I don't want Christmas songs playing in every shop I walk into between now and then!

To be fair, I'm sick of Mariah's 'All I want for Christmas....' before we're five seconds in (the irony of playing this in a shop selling perfume, diamonds, jewellery and all the other things she wants is apparently lost on the shop management).
  I don't want to hear Chris Ree's 'Driving Home for Christmas' (which, by the way, I love) on the 5th December! The only people 'driving home for Christmas' today are students.
Or, people who are driving from here to Australia for Christmas. But other than them, my argument still stands.

I know it's a much bemoaned fact but playing Christmas songs - more than that, all the frivolities of Christmas, from the moment we hit December - are nothing short of ridiculous. I've been putting off getting the Christmas tree - if you get it on December 1st, surely it's well and truly dead by the time we're meant to take it down on January 6th? And a withering, brown Christmas tree can arguably be a metaphor for all the festivities: exciting, but very temporary and with insufficient substance to last the 2 months festive season.

Some people make such a big deal about it from mid-November that by the time the 25th rolls around we're even a little bored of Christmas. No wonder the moment Boxing Day is over people are hurrying to get the decorations packed away.

At times like this, when crazy Christmas shoppers on Oxford Street tempt me to chuck my shopping at the nearest stranger, yelling 'I GIVE UP!', I can be truly thankful that there is more to it to this.

Without, y'know, the whole True Meaning of Christmas thing, the whole fiasco just seems like a big excuse to spend money that we don't have on things we don't want, in the name of 'Family' and Bing Crosby ballads and 'feeling Christmassy'. Thank God that even if the turkey's frozen in the middle and your Amazon products don't arrive in time, there is ACTUALLY a reason for joy, love and all those other smushy words people use during the festive season.

When you reflect on the notion that this all came from God choosing to come to earth Himself, to save us from pain, sorrow, but primarily from ourselves and our mess, whether there's a Kindle for me under the tree isn't all that important. The beautiful permanence of this sharply contrasts with the paper hats which will be crumpled by the end of dinner and the tree which will sit outside sadly withering away.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Going Back and Looking Forward

Last week I got my official letter confirming that I've passed my probation period at work. PRAISE GOD! Before I moved to London, I was weirdly detached and calm about the move: yes it was scary, but ultimately two things could happen: "Either I will be fine, or it'll be awful and I'll have to move back home'. Looks like (for the present at least), it is the former, and that really is purely by God's grace. I'm no longer a 'newbie'; and its strange that London is becoming day-to-day for me. It's bizarre to think that when I arrived at my job three months ago, London was enjoying the Indian summer and the 2012 games; I complained about the heat on the trains and watched Usain Bolt triumph sitting in the evening sunshine on Blackheath.

I've spent the past few weekends travelling back to Birmingham for birthday parties and hen parties. 'Going back' is always interesting: I felt overwhelmed and emotional as I glimpsed the university's clock tower from the train; and it was beautiful time spent catching up with my friends.

The memories aren't wholly great, though, and I haven't been away for long enough to forget the sometimes very bleak times of the past year. I can go back, and remember; and rejoice that God pulled me (very much kicking and screaming) from a place I'd been so happy, in order to move me on to a fresh place, with dozens of new challenges but also new chances for recovery, joy and development. He's been so incredibly faithful.

However, a little voice accompanied me as I walked around the familiar streets I still regard 'home', which possess so many sweet (and some rather more bitter) memories. The voice says: how long? How long will you be peaceful, plateau-ed, strong, 'well', in your new place? Yes, things aren't always amazing but I'm managing, I'm coping. This is, though, at least partly a survival technique: I'm in a new place with a job to do and rent to pay. I can't get too comfortable- I can't allow the fear to take over. I suppress the thought, how long before I properly get used to things and my fear rears its head? How many more times will I have to move and throw myself into new scary challenges just to ward off my anxieties a few more years?

Whilst this concern should not be ignored, I have to once again refer back to my previous post on surrender. I can't know the future and I can't actually control it. I'm very much in my Father's hands. This doesn't make me a robotic, fatalistic automaton, incapable of decisions or free will; it just reminds me that I am actually not independently in control. And again, this isn't a cause for fear but for joy, as the One who is, is so incredibly powerful and loving. Who knows what the future holds for me? All I know is that things are okay at the moment.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Surrendering Plans

      A new friend recently asked me to describe my perfect day, five years' from now. I hope it's a good thing that it took me ages to decide on, because really, I've no idea and on the whole I don't massively care. Last year in so many ways showed me what is important and what isn't worth worrying about (FYI - hope = important, tattoos = not worth worrying about - hence the 'hope' tattoo). Yes, I do still cling onto the idols of comfort and health and happiness, and trust that God will refine me - (although, let's be honest, that's not often massive 'fun'), so that I can truly say I only need Him.
    But, that aside - it's quite liberating to not be bound by my own Five Year Plan. It is, I suppose, part of what I'm sloo-oo-oo-wly trying to get into my head about Surrender. Like, real surrender. Like singing "I surrender all", and actually truly meaning it and, what's more, seeking to live it after the Sunday service has finished. Obviously, no one likes surrendering. We could also call it 'relinquishing control' which , as Monica from Friends points out, "is just a fancy word for 'lose'".

   And I'm not writing this blog because I am any kind of expert at surrender - I'm so, so not. OCD plus general control-freak personality means I like to plan my day, have  a routine, and Know Where I Am Headed. And yet for so many people of my age, this is the most uncertain times we've faced. 

  Surrender should be, as I said in my last post, knowing that the One who holds my future is also the One who holds the stars in their place. Sometimes, surrender may be as basic as recognising that I'm not God; and that God is not a malevolent puppeteer out to ruin my life. He is, however, in control; maybe surrender is accepting that we aren't.

Eurgh, what a horrible thought! (Because obviously, when I am 'in control' everything in life goes swimmingly). HA.

   My 'surrendering' to God means saying it's okay if I lose my job, or if I never get married. Our twisted mindsets can make us decide that with the fear of losing this stuff, it's safer to take our lives in our own hands.

    My friends and wider Facebook community (on the whole) appear to be getting engaged so rapidly that I will soon be able to count my single friends on two hands. This is wonderful, but can make me feel slightly unfashionable in the current trend. Control Freak Thea's brain tells me, if I don't take things into my own hands - take 'control' - I'll be 'Left on the Shelf'.

    The other part - the Still, Small Voice - not only reminds me how futile it is to try to manipulate God's plans whilst claiming surrender - but reminds me of the Faithful Father I have. A Father who is compassionate, who sees my hopes and dreams and doesn't laugh at them (well, except maybe that one about the Volkswagen Beetle).

    And no, that doesn't mean I'll enjoy perfect health, or get married, or own my own home. It does mean, however, that I have already received the most precious gift, the answer to all my hopes and dreams, who will forever satisfy. This one - "who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all" (Romans 8:32) - He's the One who watches my steps and guides my path. And in uncertainty, fear and the absence of a Five-Year plan, surrender suddenly seems like a beautiful option.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Autumn Routines

It’s a wonder how quickly randomness turns to routine, even faster than the leaves turning orange and brown and the sunshine bowing out for another year.

Even since my last post, things seem to have moved on rather a lot. I’m ‘settled’, I think it’s safe to say, although how long it will take to be truly settled, and how one measures that, may be rather harder to ascertain  But I do feel settled and happy; London’s an amazing city and I love that I have so much more to explore yet. 

My own Bridget Jones comparisons haven’t stopped - I’ve made a number of stuff-ups at work, and although my skirts are considerably longer and I’m not yet overweight, I am heading that way. Healthy-eating rears its head for the occasional lunchbreak before being silenced by chocolate cravings on a Tuesday afternoon.

I still don’t know where I’m going, where life is heading, and still, that’s okay. I know it’s being guided by the One who holds the sun and the stars in place- what an incredible thought. I have to remind myself of that all the time; that I’m right here doing what I’m doing for a reason, whether I know what it is or not.

And so, this is the pattern that each day takes- attempting to live it for God’s glory, praying that He will make beautiful things from my mistakes, clumsiness and weak efforts. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Walking in the Dark

Sometimes being here feels wonderful and exciting and I can’t believe God’s blessing in bringing me to this place and blessing me with a job. Other times, like today, I wonder what on earth I’m doing here. God, why did you bring me here? Why did you take me out of the place I knew, from the people I loved, to set up camp in this random place where transport never stops and the orange smog never clears? And why bring me to something I clearly can’t do, with challenges beyond my reach, struggling out of my depth? What’s wrong with me being in on Your plans?
The wisdom of my incredible mother took me to Exodus, where it didn’t take a lot of reading or praying to see myself reflected page after page in the fearful, cynical Israelites. They change their mind more often than the British weather. One minute they’re praising God for getting them out of Egypt; the next they’re challenging His decision to ever get them out in the first place. So it is with me. I prayed for a job and a new direction. God gave me a job and a new location. I told him I couldn’t do it. He gave me a friend to take the step with me. He gave me incredible family and friends. He provided lovely people at a good church. He heard my friend’s prayer and put not one but two Christians in the place I work. He answered every fear of the last weeks. And yet after one yucky day, I hear myself say to God, ‘What were you doing bringing me here?’ And turning on myself to say ‘Why did you ever think you could make it?’ Just like the Israelites, I spent last year moaning to God that I didn’t have a job and didn’t know what to do and needed Him to make radical changes in my life. Now that I have a job and a new direction, all I can do is moan at God that He took me from a place I was apparently so happy in and put me in a job I find challenging.
The interesting thing about the exodus from Egypt is that even though the Israelites cry out to God for freedom, they have no way of attaining it; and the minute they get a taste of it, they’d rather go back to the known, even if that means turning their back on freedom.
I totally get this. Even if the present state is mediocre or paralysing or ridden with anxiety or holds you hostage- it’s a much safer option than flying into the unknown, even on the promise of your God. Or so I would see it. Surely, however, we’re  most safe when we are relying fully on God and where He wants to place us, even if it feels more risky than our own known prisons. This reminds me of my favourite lyrics, potentially ever, from Brooke Fraser’s ‘C.S Lewis Song’:

-          “‘cos my comfort would prefer for me to be numb / than enjoy the impending birth of who I was born to become”

My comfort is a lot better off knowing exactly what restrictions, strongholds and barriers surround my own life. I’ve got used to living with them. It’s far more frightening to trust God and believe that He is the one who can bring us into more freedom.

Similarly, this move means growing pains and effort and tiredness and emotion; a lot more bother than I would have had if I’d stayed where I was. Instead of complaining that God has brought me out here to sink, or thinking that God won’t be bothered with me now that I’m not involved in full-time Christian ministry, I have a choice, a leap in the dark. I can choose to believe that He’s brought me here and, just as with the Israelites, He will graciously hear my unfounded complaints and choose to bless me despite them.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Starting Out: Lessons from Bridget Jones

    So I knew this would all be hard, but I don’t think I realised how much or in what ways. Pretty good day at the office trundles along and is punctuated by a freak-out and then growing realisation that I am spending my evening doing precisely zilch, with precisely no one. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, but when I try to think back to the last time I purposefully spent an evening on my own, I begin to wonder if it was when I was in the womb. (Even then I was as close to my mum as physically possible). As I moved down to the city I jokingly compared myself to Bridget Jones (not the first time the connection’s been made... concerning). And as I look into my fridge which will soon be empty, my mind wanders to the part of the film where Bridget contemplates her future being found by a neighbour two weeks later, half-eaten by Alsatians. Well, I guess that’s one possibility. Although not sure how the Alsatians would get in.

 I could resort to Bridget’s other coping techniques- joining a gym and starting an intense exercise regime (yeah, right); eating my weight in Ben and Jerry’s (pretty tempting right now); or drinking a lot of vodka (less tempting).

New coping strategies include:
-          Taking extended commutes home and subsequently exploring the wider South East London area. I’m already getting quite good at this as I’ve managed to get on the wrong train twice, despite many year’s experience of getting on and off trains (let’s face it, it’s not exactly difficult). Note to self: check departure boards more closely. Or, choose more interesting places to accidentally go to.

-          Blaring music very loudly through my flat and dancing. If I close my eyes, it will almost be like being in a club. Almost.

-          Picking up a new hobby. Actually, I have borrowed a short CD Course in speaking Greek from my local library. (Oh gosh, could I sound any more like a middle-aged man?) So I guess I’ll scrub up my language skills. Ka-ta-la-ven-eh-day.

-          Making friends with strangers on the tube. Just today, I stood on at least two people’s feet on my way to work. That’s gotta count for something, surely. All I need to do is get names, numbers, email addresses and I could make friends with all sorts of randoms across the city.

Or I could just come to terms with the fact that moving somewhere you don’t know many people and effectively living on my own for the next month whilst flatmate is away is going to be a bit tough at times, especially for an Extreme Extrovert and Needy Person like myself.

To be fair, if I’m following in the footsteps of Bridget Jones, it’s not long before Colin Firth’s about to invite himself over and then fight with Hugh Grant in a Greek restaurant (see, told you the language lessons would come in handy). I doubt it’ll be quiet for long.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

"Just a small-town girl..."

Today is two weeks and five days since I moved to the big smoke. Everything is still very fresh, new, sometimes overwhelming and often alien. 

Yet my eyes are also very slowly adjusting to my new surroundings and new patterns of life. Wake at 6:30am, join the other billion people commuting into our capital, rushing and pushing for the tube. Running down the tube station escalators. I no longer have the time to stand on the right and wait to be taken to my destination. There is not enough time.

There is plenty of time to work, though, and this isn’t a bad thing. In just two weeks, I know so much more than before. I’m also blissfully ignorant of all the things I don’t know, and that’s comfortable. 

I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the commute. Mornings are reasonably peaceful; it’s too early to make too much noise or fuss, so the commuter rush happens with a minimum of talk as people let the cobwebs clear from their heads. But the afternoon commute- it’s mad. Around 5:15pm each day I laugh at myself, for choosing to move to the busiest city in the country at the busiest time of the year and doubly busy due to the Olympics. I have a little conversation in my head as I join the jam of bodies escaping Enbankment tube station- “it’s a good thing I don’t get anxious in big crowds, or this would be really stressful....”. 

I thought I liked the buzz of cities, but I can see why people want to escape. There are just so many people. And relatively little space. Maybe deep at the root of me is a girl who secretly liked the peaceful countryside. Or maybe I’m just experiencing the normal grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side feelings. I actually miss the city of Birmingham, instead of just the people.

Will this become home?

On the train between Waterloo East and Charing Cross, I try to disguise my excitement and wonder at travelling over the Thames with perfect views of the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye. These are just normal everyday occurrences, apparently. But I don’t want them to be everyday or mundane. These things are amazing, whether you’ve been in London for 20 minutes or 20 years. I don’t want to lose the wonder over them. This is exciting.

It took about half a day, however, for the novelty of travelling on the Underground to wear off. Commuter crowds at the end of the day plus unusual heats and insufferable stuffyness soon take the thrill out of it.

Evenings in the new flat have been spent cooking up good meals, sitting out on the balcony in the warm nights and spying on our neighbours. Judging their lifestyles and watching their habits. Our new neighbours have been easily identified. There’s the guy opposite who seems to spend a lot of time blaring reggae music from his flat whilst sunbathing topless on the balcony; the woman in the adjacent flat who smokes and whose TV we can watch from our window. There’s a multitude of kids who seem to have overtaken the area and spend the long summer holidays rollerskating, cycling, and shouting to each other. We watch them from our balcony and do some pop psychology, analysing the group dynamics.

As a teenager, I always loved London. So busy, so diverse and vibrant, so different to the small town I spent my adolescent years in. Then, I made plans. I’ll go to uni, then move to London and get a job there. The closer the future came, the more vague and blurry it became, and my dreams of moving to the city were left behind and replaced by more realistic and potentially far ‘safer’ options of staying put in a place I knew. Then a few months ago, from out of nowhere I was accepting a job in the capital and making plans to move there. It was no longer some big plan I’d made up myself. This was all happening to me. I was being carried along by plans and structures and proposals that seemed to happen around me, allowing myself to be swept along by them.
London and all that came with it happened to me.
Even now, having ‘settled’, everything ahead seems incredibly blurred and fuzzy. Who knows what happens next? Where will I be in six months, a year, two year’s time? For the first time in my life, I have no way of knowing or predicting where or how I will be in the time to come. I could be living in a mansion on Mayfair, or back at my parent’s home in Wales, or (hopefully) some nice comfortable middle in between.

For a self-confessed Control Freak, this is a bizarre sensation.

I guess I’ve ‘known’ I wasn’t in control of my own life for as long as I’ve known the one who is; but I think we all do a pretty good job of pretending like we do. And yes, I can maintain a few of these ‘grips’: I can choose to go to work each day and stay there and travel home. But in terms of anything more long-term than that, I’m discovering how not in control I am. I could lose my job or have to leave it. I could end up happy or wracked with fear. I could settle down or ‘find myself’, become a ukulele virtuoso or a party girl or discover a love for Nietzsche (although that’s unlikely). 

And somehow, at the moment, I’m okay with not knowing. For the first time I understand what all those people who said, “oooh, isn’t exciting not knowing what’ll happen next- what an adventure!” were on about. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still rather know. But not knowing right now is okay. I can bask in the freshness and newness of it all, the naivety and ignorance and wonder of it all, for a little longer. There’ll always be the 6:30 alarm to shake me out of it.