Saturday, December 15, 2018

different sort of christmassy

“Long walks going to the train station is not too bad when the streets look like this. - Japan 2017

In Cambridge, we'd celebrate Bridgemas - a faux-Christmas at the end of November, but with all the trappings. The choir would sing carol services, colleges would have bridgemas formals with all the christmassy foods, people would give bridgemas presents and the christmas lights would go on in the streets. Everything looked like Christmas, and when you broke up for the holidays it felt like a continuation of that excitement.

It's quite different this year in London. Whilst the lights are up in Oxford and Regent street, they aren't in Highgate (except for a rather straggly neon outline of the Nativity on the Archway Methodist Church which I usually don't notice, or feel rather sorry for when I do), and rather than a cessation of work and burrowing down in to bridgemas feels, I've been working on essays and presentations as the school term stretched longer into December.

And yet, in a way I feel like I've connected with Christmas still, though in a different way this year. I've been waking up exhausted, and the first thing I do (after switching off my alarm) is reach for my phone, open up my email and then close my eyes again as I listen to a desiring god devotional. They've been focused on advent, and although listening to them in my half-waking state means many are forgotten, some have stuck - like the one that reminded me that no matter how insignificant I feel he is a Big God who works through the world's seemingly impersonal movements (hello brexit vote, hello Caesar Augustus' census) for the little, individual people he loves. Or one I listened to yesterday (or the day before?) about how Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, coming to earth is a relief and joy, the same 'at last - oh!' of a lost child seeing their mother.

In work too, I've been reminded of the beauty of Christmas. The first millennium Southeast Asian court, invested in Saivism, Vaishnavism, animism and/or Buddhism, might seem the furthest thing from Christianity (so often associated with the West - but 1) Jesus was born in the middle east 2) God has no ethnicity, race, geographical or time boundaries). Yet in the midst of writing an essay on the Saiva Pasupata sect I came across an incredible book by Paul Mus (India from the East), arguing that the early southeast asian people believed in an 'earth god', a god who was 'profoundly impersonal […] a being abstracted from man', and that their worship of stones, lingas, and later anthropomorphic statues as they absorbed and adapted Indic religions were rooted in their desire to 'make perceptible the passage of the amorphous deity to its accessible manifestation'. That basic desire for a God we can understand as a tangible, personal being -- that is in part what Jesus answered when he appeared in the form of a child (And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. - John 1:14).

Yet where the Southeast Asian societies manifested their God in the form of ferocious and powerful deities (think Heruka/Bhairava/Hevajra/Siva/Kali...) Jesus came vulnerable, as a child who was put to death - who would invent a God like that to clothe the notion of a powerful, impersonal God?

I am thankful for these advent reminders in unexpected places. And I am reminded, of course, that on that first Christmas, the people of Israel did not have bright lights, cheery carols and presents to excite them about the birth of their saviour. They just had long-ago prophet's promises, and the need (the need in all of us) for the hope the Messiah would give. We have new promises of the fulfillment of the hope Christ has given, and so without lights or trees or songs I can celebrate the Messiah and wait for the 'at last- oh!' moment when he comes again.

Friday, December 7, 2018


A while back, I read this quote on a recipe blog: we are human beings, not human doings.

That quote came back to haunt me when I sat down with Naomi in Cambridge, with homemade bread and hummus and salad on the table before us, and she asked me 'And how are you and your heart?' Not in relation to anything else, just purely me. Not 'how are you coping with work?' not 'how is a long distance relationship going?' not 'how is moving to a new city?' which have been the three big changes in my recent life.

Just how are you.

I found it so hard to answer, and told her, honestly, that I'd been viewing myself through the lens of how I was performing/what I was doing. Who I was was so tied to how I was adjusting/loving/learning that it was hard to dig past that crust and get back to my own beating heart.

I suppose it's difficult because who I am is so tied to how I enact myself - the doing does in many ways make me. When I run, for instance, that makes me because the joy (and the pain) makes me more aware of my existence as an embodied, emotional, physical human being. I feel more at home with myself when I am doing. When I read poetry, or write poetry, I feel more myself because often the words express parts of me I didn't have the words for, or verbalise feelings that need an aesthetic and not just documentation. I suppose what links these self-creating doings is that they aren't intended for an end that is productive for some external matrix. I don't run because I'm made to, or because I want to be fit/thin (thank god, because that's a mindset I know I am sometimes dangerously on the brink of and have in the past fallen in to). I don't write because I want to impress people. I do them because I need to do them because they are part of my being.

Of course, a lot of what I do has an intended product for an external matrix - e.g. my course will eventually produce (I hope) a degree that will (I hope) qualify me for a certain kind of career. And that means that sometimes I get lost in the doing, just trying to get everything done so the scholarship board won't be disappointed in me, so people won't be disappointed in me, so I can prove that I'm coping and thriving, forgetting that to thrive means to be in love with life and that's hard when you're going through the motions so quickly you can't even really fathom what life is.

(But things like my degree also has moments of helping me be - like last week when I sat on Jacob's bed reading Jones' article on the 'Hermeneutics of sacred architecture' and my heart actually sped up with excitement and agreement and possibility - he is a genius. Here is a sampling: 'John Dixon, for instance, insists not only that the Sistine Chapel "can be understood only by participating in the act, which is an act of worship," but, more poignantly still, that, in some sense, the chapel (and specifically Michelangelo's ceiling)  "is a Christian liturgical act and can be rightly understood only as it is apprehended in its performance."' yes, yes, YES!!!)

But I felt like I needed to slow down some how, and remember that God is my matrix and that he asks for me to be satisfied in him, satisfied with the gifts and circumstances he has given to me in grace rather than anxious about their outcome or anxious about bettering or overcoming them. Because as his child, in the safety of his love, I can fully, truly be without the fear of disappointment (held by infinite love and grace).

This week, I wrote at the top of my planner 'THIS WEEK I WILL TAKE CARE OF MY INNER CHILD', after being inspired by a talk by Jane Adams at Kettle's Yard, who mentioned how the artist is at heart a child (a really refreshing take on art after a whole term of grappling with really political art, and feeling in some ways tired of it all. Can art just be as well? Does it always have to do and say?) And though it hasn't meant radical change in this week, it has meant a big shift in perspective when I do the quotidian things. 

Knowing that I am a child of God means I treat myself with more kindness, and more expectation. I'm a child infinitely loved by God, so why talk unkindly to myself, or stress myself out unnecessarily, or worry about validation/judgement from others? Simultaneously, I'm a child of a most High God, so why do things half-heartedly, or think ungraciously? When I work, I'm fully present and focused (most of the time - sometimes I do still get distracted and restless). When I'm with people I fully savour their time and conversation. When I'm hungry I eat with the assurance of a child. When I'm tired I rest. Interwoven throughout my day I talk to God as to a father.

Tonight as I cycled home, I realised I just wanted a space to not think. Coming from a long day of grappling with theory, my brain felt physically (and mentally) tired. When I got home, I  lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling, and then said loudly: 'I. AM. SO. TIRED.'


It was a good evening, not forcing myself to do work on little reserves, but instead listening to what I needed as a tired, human being.

(See, sometimes what I say to God isn't profound or structured. It's just honest to God 'this is how I feel'.)