I tell myself it is worth the trouble

This year we are attempting to do some Lent devotions as a family when possible. It is a somewhat stumbling effort, but the kids do seem to like it and even our three-year-old is getting the idea, or at least he likes the candles!

For us the best time to do a ‘God talk’ in this format is immediately after dinner while everyone is still at the table and the kids have not yet switched into jungle hour mode (totally hyped, loud, disobedient and cranky). Some evenings the meal doesn’t end neatly however, and bringing everyone back to the table and settled becomes quite a challenge.

To plan my devotions I use the reliable and scientifically proven organisational approach called last minute rush. In this case flicking through the gospels in my Bible looking for a Jesus story that isn’t too long, can be explained to a six-year-old and I haven’t used in the last couple of weeks. Tonight my background accompaniment was middle child having a melt-down over a lost homework book, with boisterous boy playing melody and strains of tired ten-year-old on strings.

Then I couldn’t get the first candle to light (the one in the photo – can you see why?) and little boy decided  he needed to help me. He was most indignant when I refused to give him a lit match! He was correct in assuming I needed help.

By the time I said ‘amen’ we had everyone together around the table.

Our carefully chosen (ahem!) passage for this evening was Matthew 21:18-22, leading to discussions of how large a splash mountains would make on landing in the sea, the meanness of Jesus in killing a fig tree, and how cool it is that God can make impossible stuff happen.

With a young family and me doing shift work, our attempts at devotions are erratic at best. Yet even when it seems the kids are not paying any attention and we are all tired, I convince myself it is worth the hassle. I just pray my children find good churches when they are older with pastors who can straighten out their bizzare theology!

In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
(Matthew 21:18-22 ESV)

Bowed in gratitude this Lent

Until now I have never really celebrated Lent. I have been a Christian for over 20 years but the richness of this season has been unknown to me.

In recent years the desire to cultivate meaningful family traditions for my children has led to learning more about the seasons of the Church calendar and looking for ways to incorporate these into our family life.

As we walk stumblingly through Lent and I focus my heart on this season of preparation I am seeing deeper into the promises and anticipation of the redeeming work of Christ. His grace of accepting, cleansing and purifying me shines greater as the cross looms ever nearer.

I am also learning gratitude and thanksgiving is at the heart of this season:

In the season of Lent, the Church encourages us to “master our sinfulness and conquer our pride,” but we are to do this within the context of thankfulness. The deeper appreciation for what God has accomplished in Christ, the greater our gratitude. The sacrifices we make are simple ways of expressing thankfulness. God only asks us to accept his love in Christ Jesus. (The Little Way of Lent, Father Gary Caster)

Marching into Lent with candle in hand

I did not grow up in a Christian home. The number of times I went inside a church as a child can be counted on one hand and although my Mum did make some early attempts to teach my older sister and I some of her Catholic faith that didn’t last long.

I became a Christian when 18 years old, single, with no kids. My first child changed my life when I was 32 and had already spent over a dozen years as an adult learning about God. Also, none of the churches I have been a member of use a liturgical calendar so there are elements of church traditions I know very little about.

So while I understand how important it is to teach my children about God and model faith to them, I have very little idea how to make it happen in practise. My wife and I are slowly gathering various ideas which we try out, adapt and use as the basis of faith-filled family traditions. Fortunately with young children it only takes several repetitions for them to gain an expectation for such stumbling traditions to continue.

With this in mind I ordered one of Caleb Voskamp’s Advent to Lent wreaths in October last year, unfortunately too late for it to arrive before Christmas. After a 12 week journey across the Pacific ocean it did arrive last Saturday, in time for the Lent countdown to Easter.

With it’s beautifully finished oak spiral and figure of Christ hauling his cross, our wreath has begun counting down to the dawning light of resurrection at Easter.

I am excited to have this visual and tactile aid as we endeavour to incorporate the living symbolism of Christianity into our family life.

A purist might say that props should be unnecessary; I am simply filling my life with more stuff and indulging in the human penchant for replacing interaction with God with man-made traditions. My reply to this is that I know my weakness. Materialism is unnecessary but inevitable because I have a physical body living in a materialistic social framework. Therefore I manipulate this natural tendency such that my heart is turned towards God by the stuff in my life rather than away from God by the independence that comfort brings automatically.

The physical presence of a wooden spiral in the middle of our dining table with a candle and figure of Christ carrying a cross on it is already reminding me that there is a meaning to life far beyond the usual daily grind. That is gain.

Kiwi Christmas

We Kiwi Christians can be a bit confused when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Easter is easier – Easter bunny is clearly a crock and we find it reasonably easy to claim Easter as a Christian occasion because for the unbelievers around us it is just a long weekend and an excuse to eat chocolate.

Christmas downunder

Christmas, however, has all sorts of cultural baggage and expectations which make us feel quite out of sorts here downunder in a secular society attempting to celebrate what is effectively a northern hemisphere midwinter festival. People hang up lights to decorate their houses despite it still being light at 10pm. We gorge ourselves with food then flop around getting sunburnt. Songs like “Let it Snow”, “Jingle Bells” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” play in shopping malls that are selling bathing suits, camping gear and cricket sets. It really doesn’t work, it’s like some collage of Christmas clutter dumped into a jumbled heap on the beach. Yet we still have plenty to be thankful for in our Kiwi Christmas celebrations.

Pointers to Christ

It is summer, most people are on holiday, and even despite the pre-Christmas madness in a time to relax. Let’s treasure that, Jesus came to give us rest – while flopping around after Christmas dinner too full to move much, enjoy the rest and consider God who came to gain it for us.

Christmas in New Zealand is blessed with fresh fruit and vegetables; cherries, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, new potatoes, baby peas… Jesus is the true vine, He came to bless the earth and make it bountiful, He plants the seeds of the great harvest. For us Christmas is like a harvest festival and we are right to rejoice in the bounty of God’s blessing.

Particularly here in the deep south, Christmas day is _long_ – it gets light at about 5am and stays light until after 10pm. Seventeen hours of glorious light, almost two-thirds of the day! And here under the ozone hole it is bright light, a taste of what dazzled those shepherds and a reminder that He who dwells in unapproachable light came to abide with us. Every time you put on the sunnies and sun hat (and sunscreen) be reminded of the Light who dawned upon the whole earth in the advent.

An element of the nativity story that we obviously can identify with in New Zealand is the sheep (mmm… roast lamb for Christmas dinner!). Now, aside from the obvious anomaly of a lamb being present in the Christmas story if it was mid-winter, we know about sheep here, despite the Fonterra take over. Jesus is the Lamb of God, leading up to Christmas lambs are everywhere you look in this country – we get to remember the Passover, the feast of weeks (harvest) and the Advent all in one!

Christmas is a time when families like to get together, with all the strife this entails. Spare a thought for Mary and Joseph – they had travelled for days to get there, had lousy accommodation, were both isolated and lonely for home yet were in a town full of their relatives and then had a load of complete strangers turn up for supper! So whether lonely for company or overwhelmed by too much of it, you can at least feel for someone in the advent story.

Kiwis often get the barbeque out on Christmas day. Mary and Joseph quite likely cooked in a similar way on the very day Jesus was born. They certainly didn’t microwave last night’s leftovers!

Another way in which Kiwis have an empathetic perspective on the nativity story is our smallness and insignificance on the world stage. God chose to be born as a baby into a poor family in a stable in Bethlehem – an insignificant town. He then grew up in Nazareth, an even more lowly village. God chooses the insignificant place to come as God incarnate. Christ will come to us and dwell even here at the bottom of the world, we can be sure of this because He has already done it before – 2,000 years ago.