Category Archives: Faith

Blue Christmas: Lament and Hope

We held a Blue Christmas service at my church last night. This is a tradition I have found helpful over the last few years, attending a couple of similar services, although this was the first time I have been involved in leading one. Blue Christmas is about naming the fact that for many people, the joy, celebration, and expectation of this time of year is often tinged with sadness. It is an opportunity to take time to sit in the darkness, to bring before God our sadnesses and sorrows, to recognise that there are often no easy answers or quick fixes, but to seek hope in the midst of wherever we find ourselves.

I’ve learned from the psalmists that we need time and space to be honest and vulnerable before God and his people. The lament psalms give us permission to be brutally honest; to name our sadness, doubt, confusion, or even anger in prayer.

We met last night, on what for most of the world is the longest night of the year, the night of greatest darkness, which comes just a few days before we remember the dawning of hope in the birth of Jesus. Of course, living in the southern hemisphere, it is not physically for us the longest night but one of the shortest, but that doesn’t mean many of us don’t feel like we are experiencing dark or long nights, and so we joined with sisters and brothers throughout history and around the world seeking the Light of the world in the middle of the darkness.

For many centuries, Christians have been lighting candles to represent giving their prayers and themselves to God. This isn’t necessarily part of my own church tradition, but we built our time together around the lighting of candles: the central (white) Christ candle, representing Jesus, the Light of the world, surrounded by four blue candles representing the different circumstances some of us find ourselves in.

There are many different ways of doing this, but we linked the four candles to the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love.

The first candle represented those experiencing grief, who have lost someone they loved. We took time to remember them, expressing our aching hearts to God, and the way death makes us feel angry and cheated. We looked to Him to sit with us in our grief and make known His love. We then heard the words of Isaiah 40 speaking comfort.

The second candle represented those experiencing sickness, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, despair. We took time to acknowledge the burdens we carry, expressing our sadness and confusion to God, and the way suffering can make us feel alone and misunderstood. We looked to Him to sit with us in our pain and make known His joy. We then heard the words of Jeremiah 31 speaking restoration.

The third candle represented those experiencing broken relationships, conflict, tension, separation in their families. We took time to acknowledge the messiness we live in, expressing our longing for reconciliation, resolution, and forgiveness to God, and the way brokenness can make us feel incomplete. We looked to Him to sit with us in our discord and make known His peace. We then heard the words of Psalm 23 speaking tenderness.

The fourth candle represented those experiencing unmet expectations, shattered dreams, dashed hopes. We took time to acknowledge the deep longings and unanswered prayers, expressing our emptiness to God, and the way our lacks can make us feel troubled  and bitter. We looked to Him to sit with us in our yearning and make known His hope. We then heard the words of Lamentations 3 speaking solace.

We finished with perhaps my favourite Christmas carol, crying out for Jesus to come to us right where we are, in the middle of whatever darkness we are facing, just as He came and met the hopes and longings of His people on that first Christmas night:

Come Thou long expected Jesus

Born to set Thy people free

From our fears and sins release us

Let us find our rest in Thee

Israel’s strength and consolation

Hope of all the earth Thou art

Dear desire of every nation

Joy of every longing heart

Then each person lit a small individual candle to represent seeking the Light of Jesus in their own circumstances, and took home a blue Christmas decoration as a small reminder of what we had shared with God and His people that night. We gave people the opportunity to pray for and with one another, or just to sit in the silence and stillness for as long as they needed. I think we all found it helpful to have the space to do that, especially at this time of year.

I think that nearly all of us are carrying stories of brokenness, grief, doubt, sadness, and darkness. This is difficult at any time of year, but particularly so if we are surrounded by celebrations, busyness, and expectations, as we often are at Christmas. Maybe you can find a Blue Christmas service near you this year to share in a time of lament and hope with God’s people. Maybe you can create one for others. Or maybe you can just create your own space to name the sadnesses and darknesses you are carrying and allow yourself the freedom to sit in them for a time, expressing them to God and looking for Him to meet you in the middle of them.

 

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Today would be a good day to be in Nazareth

It’s hard to believe 5 months have flown by since we were in Israel. Today I’m wishing I could head back for the day to one of my favourite towns. Nazareth is most famous as the place where Jesus and His family lived and it is great to ground some of the stories of His life in this place. It’s also just a really lovely place to hang out, observe and share life in today.

What have I loved about Nazareth?

Like many places, it is the combination of geography, history, and culture, that weaves the story and invitation of this place.
Nazareth is located in Galilee, in a natural ‘bowl’ surrounded by hills. This great view of the city is found from Mt Precipice, believed by some to be the place where the people of the town wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff after his sermon in their synagogue.

The mountain looks out over the Jezreel Valley, the most fertile part of Galilee, and standing there makes me feel like I’m standing in the middle of a map.

In the city itself is a maze of donkey-track streets going up and down, round and about, what I have found to be a great place to wander and a tricky place to drive!

I love seeing the beauty of houses from different eras built side by side, standing as testimony to the many lives and stories in this place over generations.

Nazareth today is a large town with a largely Arab population, about 1/3 Christian and 2/3 Muslim. Near the central old market is the beautiful old White Mosque.

Even older again is the so-called Synagogue Church, a simple room built atop crusader ruins to remember  and evoke the church where Jesus preached.

And even simpler (and older) again are the caves located underground where it is believed Christians hid during Roman persecution.

The layers of history are also seen at the Catholic Church of the Annunciation. The large church was built in the 1960s.

Inside is a church within a church, with an 18th century altar.

This is located inside the grotto, an ancient church where 5th century mosaics have been located.

Outside, excavations underneath the church have discovered the remains of the village from Roman times.

In the bustling town today people live and shop and socialise in the footsteps of this history. Take this carpenter’s workshop for example, its owner following in the traditional profession of the town’s most famous resident and His father.

Or the renowned Elbabour spice shop, milling and grinding local produce for over 100 years.

When travelling without the larger group, I’ve had the privilege of staying in the beautiful Fauzi Azar Inn.

The staff and volunteers of this guesthouse have a heart for the local community and were engaged in numerous projects including this youth drop in centre with its juxtaposition of modern facilities in an ancient location.

What have I learned from Nazareth?

There are two experiences in Nazareth that I have found educational in complicated and unexpected ways. The first is Nazareth Village, an open-air museum built to reconstruct and reenact life in Jesus’ time.

I have mixed feelings about this place.

It is certainly helpful for bringing the biblical story to life …

… and evoking imagination about a different time and place.

But it is run by non-locals and has a distinctly Western flavour.

And, I think it is fair to say, it can feel a little bit kitsch.

The other place I continue to ponder is the Church of the Annunciation itself. It contains some of the most beautiful modern stained glass windows I have ever seen, which shaped some of my reflections in a previous post.

But it is also decorated by mosaics from around the world depicting the annunciation story.

Each one depicts the story from their own national perspective.

On one hand I do like the idea of drawing our own connections to the significant stories of our faith.

On the other hand, it feels like perhaps we are re-creating Mary and Jesus in our own image.

I have used these photos in some of my biblical studies classes to raise this question.

And of course inevitably someone asks about the Australian artwork, which I have to admit I personally find one of the more difficult to engage with.

I think in the end my favourite is the one from Nazareth itself, both because of its simplicity and because of its authenticity to the story’s location within history, geography, and culture.

It reminds me again that there is still much to learn from the people who make Nazareth their home today. Apparently the bulk of visitors to this city do a day trip to see a combination of these main sites but don’t actually stay in the town. If that’s true, they are missing out. The generosity and hospitality of the local people here, despite significant political and social challenges, is inspiring and challenging. I hope to spend more time among them if I can.

 

Crying over spilled leadership?

Last Friday afternoon I found myself, like numbers of my fellow Australians, glued to my phone, waiting and watching for the results of the latest Liberal party leadership spill. Waiting to find out who our Prime Minister was.

The flurry of social media polls and memes. The speculation and rumours. Then the results, the announcements, the reactions, the counter reactions, and the counter-counter reactions.

Now it’s a week later and  … it feels like nothing much has changed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to live in a country where we can have a sudden and unexpected change of political leaders without shots fired or bombs detonated, without mass protests or prison sentences. I recognise that throughout history and across the world, that is a pretty privileged position to be in.

I’m also frustrated that many of the policy decisions that disturb and outrage me remain unexamined regardless of who is in charge.

But I can’t help feeling like the change of leadership itself should matter more. That the very fact of who leads us should somehow be more significant in its influence and impact upon us.

Sure, for the political die-hards the conversation has continued. And amongst that group there have been plenty of ongoing discussions about the roles of gender and faith in political leadership, not to mention the leaking of several disparaging stories about various contenders. But most other people I have talked to have already moved on. Nothing to see here. More of the same. Whatever.

Perhaps it just shows how disconnected our political leaders are from most people’s everyday lives. Or perhaps it demonstrates our own apathy and lack of engagement in the electoral process. Maybe it demonstrates the lack of diversity amongst those who rise to the top in our system such that they become barely distinguishable from one another to many.

But as someone interested in leadership and influence more broadly, I wonder whether it also has something to say about our understanding of leadership itself.

Is there something to learn here?

If we’re honest, most of us in leadership roles like to think that who we are and what we do really matters. That people would notice if we were gone. Perhaps even that things would fall apart without us. It is disheartening to feel that we might be but cogs in a machine that will continue to turn unabated regardless of whether it is us or someone else in the position of influence and power.

And perhaps if we too were offered the opportunity for greater significance and prestige in leadership we might be tempted to do whatever it takes to grasp hold of it.

But is that what leadership is really all about? Is leadership really about us at all?

Some of the commentary on the events of the past week has pointed to a deeper concern. The bipartisan chord struck by Senator Richard di Natale’s fiery speech suggests that maybe many are actually looking for a different kind of leadership. That in the midst of crises and trials, we are looking for leaders who put their service to the people they represent above their own interests and ambitions. For a kind of leadership that empties itself and seeks the good of the community first and foremost.

This kind of leadership appears to be much harder to come by. Not just because we don’t often see it in our political leaders, but because I know myself how much I struggle to embody it. And how often we can be tempted to disregard it.

But it is the kind of leadership that has been demonstrated to have a different kind of power: the power to truly transform lives and through those lives to change the world for good.

Jesus of Nazareth said to his followers, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord power over them and their high officials wield authority over them. It is not to be like this among you. Rather, the one who wants to become great among you is to be your servant and the one who wants to be first among you is to be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

And when His followers have taken those words to heart and followed His example to lead by serving, when the church has been at its best, lives, communities, and nations have been transformed. This is the model of leadership many are crying for.

So whether the political conversation simmers down for a while or boils over again soon, as I reflect and think out loud about my responses, my question today is this: How can I let the dissatisfaction I am feeling with our national leaders challenge me as to what kind of leader I am and want to be?

Can we be thinking about how leadership might be ‘spilled’ in a different kind of way, in the pouring out of ourselves for the benefit of others? Or in other words,

What does it look like for me to lead by serving?