Love Life Live Advent – 8th December – Treat yourself

One (wo)man’s trash is another (wo)man’s treasure, and all that – you may have found that when you tidied a shelf or drawer last week.  Or you may have found the one (wo)man’s trash is simply trash.

Well, the same thing applies to treats.  Each one to their own. My idea of a treat may be just normal for you, or it may be incomprehensible; you may look forward to doing something that I would never in a million years want to try.  Skydiving. Caving. Bungee jumping.  I could go on. There are so many things that many people look forward to doing that I have no desire to do. And there will be many things that I get excited about that would leave others feeling ‘meh’ or worse.

So, today is about finding something that you want to do.  Not something that you think you ought to want to do, or something that the world around you tells you is a treat. No, it’s something that you actually want to do.  And if you live most of your life dashing round doing things you have to do, it can be tricky (a) finding time to do things you want to do, and (b) working out what those things would be if you did have time.

So is today just about being selfish? I suppose it is in a way.  But selfishness has got something of a bad name, and in moderation it’s not always that bad.  Think of the great commandments that were Jesus’ summary of the law:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind and strength’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

If you’ve been following Love Life Live Advent, you’ll have done a bit of the first one by making time to reflect on the meaning of Advent, and you’ll have done some of the second one, too, if you donated to a food bank or started a jar of coins to donate to a charity. But the bit of this wonderful summary of the law that tends to get ignored is the last bit: ‘as yourself‘.  If you do not love yourself, then loving your neighbour as yourself starts to sound like it might not mean so much.

The theology of it goes something like this:

The first command is to love God. And if I love God then I love what God loves (what makes God happy makes me happy).  God made everything, including other people, so when I love God I learn to see others as God sees them, and I learn to love them as he does. So far, so good.

Then I realise that I am also loved by God.  I am part of his creation, and I have to learn not only to see others through the loving eyes of God, but I also have to learn to see myself through those loving eyes.  Which is trickier, because I can probably learn to love other people (even if they annoy me) either by avoiding spending too much time with them, or telling myself that they probably have good reasons for being irritating and I should give them the benefit of the doubt. But this doesn’t work so well when I try and apply it to myself: for a start I cannot avoid myself even if I am irritating myself, and then I cannot really give myself excuses. If I am to love myself  as God loves me then it has to be the real thing.

And if I can master that, then I’m ready to go round again and revisit the nature of my love for others, and see whether or not it was for real.

So, where does treating myself come into play in this piece of needlessly over-complicating today’s action?  For me, there are a few things that spring to mind:

1. Treating myself is not intrinsically a bad thing to do, but I want to know that I am doing it not as a displacement activity or distraction because I am depressed, or bored, or anxious about something unrelated, but because, as the advert always said, ‘I am worth it’.  (Actually, my self-worth cannot me measured even in really nice hair shampoo, but that’s another separate blog post).

2. Treating myself to something I actually want to do, rather than to a ‘generic’ treat is a way for me to discern those things that make me happy, that give me life, and make me unique, rather than what people my age and gender are told they ought to want to do.  I am unique in creation, God made me that way, and if I can embrace my own uniqueness, then I will be better at embracing the uniqueness of others. I will be less likely to see ‘other people’ as a homogeneous genre if I am enjoying my own idiosyncrasies.

3. Treating myself to something that is actually life-giving and affirming is a way of inhabiting, even just briefly, a world in which I am blessed, loved, and cherished, for who I am, not who I ought to be.  If this brings me closer to the God who loves me despite everything, then I’ve accidentally also done a bit of the first commandment, too.*

*Actually, as you’ve probably spotted, there is only one commandment. It looks like two (love God, love others) then you spot the third one (love yourself) then you realise that they’re three sides of the same coin.

readingSo, yes, for me, my treat is to abandon (until tomorrow) the book I’ve been slogging through for ages as part of my PhD reading, and instead pick up one that I’ve been wanting to read for ages. And I will make notes on it using my lovely fountain pen. And I will drink decent coffee while I read. I might even have hot chocolate later.

So, what’s your idea of a treat? And how will it help you to remember that you are loved more than you can possibly imagine by the God who loves everything he ever made?

Love Life Live Advent – 6th December – Spend some quality time with a pine cone

So last week my son picked up a pine cone and wanted to keep it, but rather than putting it in his own pocket, he wanted me to put it in mine. So I did, and as usual, he forgot it was there, and so did I. Today was the first time I wore that coat again since then, and I’m about to go and pick the kids up from school, and I put my hand in the pocket hoping to find my gloves and instead I my fingers touch this weird scaley thing, and I have a real moment of ‘Yikes, what is that???’ before I get hold of myself and look at it. It’s the pine cone. And then when I get back from the school run I look in my Love Life Live Advent booklet, and the task for the next day is to look at a pine cone, and notice its textures, and I think, ‘I already did that!’

My son didn’t want the pine cone after all (a few days in my pocket and it wasn’t quite as perfect as when he’d found it, perhaps) so I thought I’d draw a picture of it instead. I don’t think I’d drawn a picture of a pine cone since I was at school. It’s amazing what you see when you try and draw something – the mathematical arrangement of the ‘petals’ (if that’s the right word – it probably isn’t) is never quite regular, but it’s still beautiful. And they’re really hard to draw! So I can’t offer a perfect 2D reproduction of the pine cone, but here is my original, plus some ways that my phone’s camera had fun with it – I rather like the way you can play with the contrast, the light and shade. Actually, my favourites are the ones that are least like the original drawing…. And I did end up spending some quality time with the pine cone after all.

pine cone 2pine cone 1  pine cone 3  pine cone 5 pine cone 6pine cone 4

Love Life Live Advent – 4th December – Where did all this stuff come from?

…and more to the point, how can I get it to go away?

In August this year we moved house. But we didn’t just move house, we moved continents. And jobs. Just for a year.  But given that there was no way we could afford to put our whole 4-bedroom vicarage worth of accumulated stuff in storage, we had to downsize. We started downsizing about eight months before we left. We stopped replacing broken items, we ruthlessly combed our wardrobes for clothes we didn’t really wear (enough to populate a whole charity shop, I think!), we gave away the toys that the children had grown out of, and we thought we’d done quite well.

Then it came to actually moving. The removal people came and estimated how many boxes we’d need, and we laughed. ‘We haven’t got that much stuff!’ we said. We were wrong. We filled many, many boxes. Dozens. We asked Emmaus to come and take away all the furniture we didn’t have room for, a friend kindly took two van loads (yes, van loads) of stuff to the tip for us, and then on the day we moved out we still ended up with enough for two trips to the charity shop and enough bin bags of absolute rubbish that my poor parents ended up making six more trips to the tip for us after we’d gone…..

Where did it all come from? How and why on earth were we sharing our house with such a huge amount of stuff that we didn’t need?  And if we hadn’t been moving abroad,  would we have simply carried on living with it, accumulating more and more, until we finally couldn’t move at all?

And why, as I sit here in our rented house thousands of miles away, can I see piles of stuff on every surface? We only brought a suitcase each, how can we possibly be creating clutter so quickly and effortlessly?  Especially as come July we know we’ll be packing our lives into one suitcase each again to come home!

I am getting more and more certain that clutter is the only thing now that ever gets created ex nihilo.

I don’t know many people who wouldn’t be nodding their heads at at least some of what I’ve written here. Stuff arrives in most houses most days, and it’s jolly hard to find a way of dealing with it so that it doesn’t take over. Here are some things that I’ve tried, with mixed success:

  • Have a recycling bag/box/container easily accessible so that if you see something that can be recycled, you can put it in there straight away with little or no effort (step two of this is to actually empty the recycling into the wheelie bin, of course, before it overflows….).  You may need recycling bins in every room if you’re anything like us.
  • Have a box/bag/container near the front door marked ‘Charity shop’ and put in it anything that’s finished with but good enough for someone else to want.  When you next go into town or get a genuine charity bag through the door, it’ll be easy to make sure your stuff gets to a new home.
  • On that subject, if you have children, get them into the habit of telling you when they have grown out of clothes or toys and putting them straight into the charity shop container by the door.
  • Whenever you tidy up, think about whether each item you’re putting away is needed (and if you have trouble fitting it in the cupboard or drawer, earmark that cupboard or drawer for next time you have time to do a proper sort out, as in today’s Love Life Live Advent action.

It can be hard to throw things away.  The best advice I got when we were preparing for our big move was rather than trying to decide what to get rid of, I should decide what I absolutely had to keep.  It really concentrated the mind, and was strangely liberating.  It was amazing what we found we could live without.  We no longer have a television.  We do not have any of our CDs.  We only have a small proportion of our books (but yes, the rest are all in storage waiting for us when we get back – there are limits to what I’ll say goodbye to!).  We have one of something instead of ten of them.  We are living less cluttered lives than we were.

But yes, we still have ‘stuff’ and I am still hopeful that by the time we return to the UK next year we’ll have better learned how to live without that, too.

Tidying a shelf or drawer is a microcosm of what you do when you have to downsize. It’s a chance to do some good things:

  • You can make some space in a room that can become beautiful, calm, or useful.
  • You can start to work out what’s rubbish and what’s good, and what’s rubbish to you but gold to someone else, and both you and they will benefit from transferring ownership!
  • You can find things that have long been lost, and enjoy them all over again.
  • You can work out what really matters – what you actually need, not just what’s accumulated around you.

In the Christmas Story, the Holy Family unexpectedly have to up sticks and journey to their ancestral town,and then later had to flee for their lives to Egypt.  They would have had far less luggage than we had when we moved. They would have had to think so carefully about what they really couldn’t live without, and take only those things. Across the world, millions of people live like that every day, displaced by natural disaster and conflict.

So, finally, some prayerful thoughts as you clear your shelf:

Lord Jesus, you came into the world with nothing
save the love of your family
and your love for the world,
help me to cherish the things that matter,
and sit lightly to the rest.

Lord Jesus, across the world
some live in plenty, and some in poverty,
may the goods that I have be shared more justly,
and may the giving bring freedom
to me, to those in need, and to your world.

Lord Jesus, my mind is full
with clutter of all kinds,
speak your peace into the stresses of the season,
and focus my heart on the story of your coming,
so that I will have room for you.

Lord Jesus,
Bless this bin and those who work hard to process my rubbish,
Bless these donations, and all the giving and receiving this Christmas,
Bless this clear space,
in its emptiness, let it bring calm,
and if it is filled, let it be with things
that will bring happiness and wholeness
to all in this house.

Love Life Live Advent – 2nd December – Collection pot

A pot is just a pot, right?  It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as you put your spare change in something, and then give it away to a good cause. So why does today’s challenge invite us to decorate the pot into which our small change will go during the season of Advent? Here are some possible reasons:

1. We decorate everything else…
…so if we decorate the pot, too, then it becomes more fully integrated with our preparations for Christmas, and helps us to reflect in our own lives the generosity of God.

  • You could co-ordinate it to go with your Christmas tree, so that every time you see your tree, you think about your money pot.
  • You could colour it purple – the church colour of the season, and keep it in your ‘special place’ (see 1st December’s action), making the act of donating money part of your prayerful reflection on Advent.

2. Decorating takes time…
…and it might make you sit down for a few minutes and do something creative.

  • There aren’t many stopping days left till Christmas, and it’s worth grabbing every chance you can to spend a few minutes doing something that you don’t have to do.
  • A creative project doesn’t necessarily mean an individual project –  rope in other members of your family, or invite a neighbour round for tea (and provide a pot for them too) and have a nice cup of tea while you decorate together

3. Decorating your pot takes effort…
…and means you’ve invested more in it than just small change.

  • you probably won’t get a chance to see what becomes of your money once it’s donated – decorating your jar is a way of making your donation feel real  and significant.
  • You’re more likely to remember that the pot exists(!) and that you need to fill it(!) if you’ve made some effort decorating it – it will stay nearer the front of your mind.

4. Decorating your pot will draw attention to it…
…and you won’t be the only person who notices.

  • The more beautiful (or wacky, or bizarre, or lovely, or funny) your decorated pot is, the more it will attract attention.  It makes generosity an attractive focal point.
  • It can be a great conversation starter with people who visit your home (or see it on your desk at work), and you can use the opportunity to talk about why you’re doing it.

But in the end, whether you decorate your pot or not, you’ve introduced into your household a really great habit: taking the spare that you might not even miss and making sure it goes somewhere where it will make all the difference in the world.  The decorating may well be good for you spiritually and socially – and may also be fun! – but the money is above all not for us, it’s for others.