A different approach to Advent

This year, my advent calendar involves no chocolate or treats or little doors to open. And there’s no daily blog like last year either.

Jesse’s branch

My mum was keen to do some Christmas craft on a recent family weekend away and my sister Heidi found this idea in this blog post. From this, we learned that some people mark Advent with a ‘Jesse’ tree, based on the words of the prophet Isaiah:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. Isaiah 11:1-3

P1070301So we decided to create our own Jesse’s Branch Advent calendar, each one with a different name that is used in the Bible for Jesus, ‘the shoot that will come up from the stump of Jesse’. We followed most of the names in the blog post above, writing the name on the front and the verse on the back, but also added a couple of our own – like ‘Man of Sorrows’ from Isaiah 53:3 and ‘Son of David’ from Matthew 1:1.

Advent tree

P1070307As I couldn’t find any twigs/branches that seemed appropriate, (no local bushland near my inner city home and no nice sticks in the shops), I decided that our new little Christmas tree, ‘Christoph’ would have to do for my Jesse’s branch. I quite like the novelty of adding a decoration to the tree every day! He started off a bit sparse but is now looking well-decorated. Perfect!

Precious names

And I love discovering what name I’m going to pull out of my little bowl each day to hang on the tree. Each one is a promise filled with hope and truth about the one we celebrate at Christmas. Today it was ‘King of Kings’ based on (among other verses) 1 Timothy 6:14-15. I wish I could say I looked up each passage each day and reflected on it…but that would be untrue. I did it for the first time today. Only a few more precious names to be revealed until it’s Christmas!

P1070306

One foot in the door

After reflecting yesterday on the challenge of connecting with our neighbours, some relatively new members of our church brought along another of their neighbours to church this morning – the second young woman in less than a month. Just awesome.

When we found ourselves giving them a lift to a spontaneous lunch with other people from church, I couldn’t resist asking: what’s the secret?

He said “I just talk to people!”

I was like, but how? Where?

His answer: “The lift is the best place to talk to people. When people get in I check what button they press then estimate how many seconds I have to make conversation with them. I think quickly about what to ask them about. If they have kids I ask them about their children, or if they are holding shopping then I ask what they have bought and what they are cooking.”

So then I asked: “How did Sarah* come along to church?”

“Oh I met her in the lift last Sunday and we were talking about where we had been. I had just been to church, and wanted to know which one. I told her about One1seven and she was very interested. So I stuck my foot in the lift door and got her email address.”

He also reflected on the ease of striking up conversations with people in the park – you ask them about the dog – name, breed, age etc, and a few questions about themselves – find out about them first, then ask do they go to church? Apart from momentarily wishing I had a dog, this confirmed something I had observed recently – loving people always means listening to their stories and perhaps beliefs first, then sharing what we want to say – whether that’s telling them about Jesus or anything else.

Do I have the boldness, the confidence, the courage it takes? No, not really. But then I have to remember, it’s not about me. I can’t save people. God does that.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.

Romans 1:16

20 seconds is not enough time for a meaningful relationship to develop, but perhaps it could be a foot in the door. Who knows? A question about a dog or a baby could be an opening for a powerful message. I just have to be faithful, prayerful and take the opportunities I get.

My strength

Every day I am tempted to do things in my own strength. I don’t think I am exactly strong, but I still try to be a godly wife, employee, friend, church member, daughter and sister, on my own. Without God, I am weak and I constantly fail. Last night at Colour Conference I was struck by these words:

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

Psalm 84:5

I realised afresh that not only do I have the strength of my Heavenly Father because of what Jesus has done on the cross, but I am also blessed as I set my heart on pilgrimage towards eternity with him. Why rely on my human strength when the Almighty God of the whole universe wants to bless me when my strength is in him?

The purpose of Colour Conference is to gather Christian women each year, to encourage and strengthen them, and then scatter to the places where they are planted – empowered and strengthened to be the change.

This is my third Colour – one of the reasons I love going is because I know I will leave uplifted, strengthened and empowered to continue serving God faithfully in the church where God has planted me. And as I scatter (only a couple of suburbs away to Redfern), I must remember that God alone is my strength, and blessing is possible when he is in control. I can do nothing without him.

Snapshots from Colour Conference 2013

Snapshots from Colour Conference 2013

Advent Blog Day 24 – This is merely a shadow

It went so quickly.

Tonight, after putting in several practices, we had our first ever Christmas Eve service at our church. It went well, but quickly. Same with our Christmas brunch with my family today. Lovely, but over so fast, I found myself in the car on the way home trying to remember if I’d had any quality conversations with my family at all.

I enjoy looking forward to special occasions – birthdays, holidays, reunions with friends I’ve missed, and of course, Christmas. I always have and probably always will. And I don’t think I’m the only one. We’re all placing hope in something in the future, something just around the corner. A promotion. A holiday. A new car. A reduced mortgage. The problem is that all these things are either just that, things, or they are just days, or weeks at the most, and they pass, lose their newness, their worth.

With Christmas tomorrow I’m feeling a mix of emotions. I’m already experiencing a bit of disappointment that part of our Christmas celebrations are over. And after digging up all our old Santa photos  at Mum and Dad’s, I’ve been reflecting again on the excitement and tradition of the Christmas Eves of my childhood. Going to church, and afterwards drinking ice-cream spiders, eating Mum’s special Christmas slice afterwards and setting out food for Santa. It doesn’t feel special like it used to. Tonight we ate Thai on the couch while trying to resolve a misunderstanding.

It’s very tempting to get all nostalgic and sad now, but I must catch myself. The family lunches, the events, the memories of the past – they’re simply not what Christmas is about. And the hope that it evokes needs to be centred on something worthy.

Celebrating Christmas is merely a shadow of a greater celebration that is yet to come. It won’t pass quickly – it will never end. Jesus was born – that he might die and rise again to pay the price for our rebellion, giving us the life that is truly life, forever.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night when Christ was born; O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

Jesus – the reason for Christmas

Jesus – the reason for Christmas

Advent Blog Day 23 – Why remember Advent anyway?

Today in church, our student minister asked us to reflect on what we’re hoping for this Christmas. A certain present? Quality time with friends and family?

Advent calendar

I have always loved counting down to Christmas Day on advent calendars. Last year I enjoyed having one of the cheap chocolate advent calendars from Aldi. Keeping a blog has been far healthier…except perhaps when it comes to sleep. I remember fondly some of the advent calendars we had when we were kids, and in particular, a felt one that I made myself. For each day there was a Christmas stocking with a unique decoration on it, and each one had a lolly inside and a little slip of paper with a Bible verse on it. I do remember wondering though why there were only 24 days on my calendar. Why wasn’t the most important day included? Perhaps because the wait is over come Christmas Day.

I learned today that the traditional season of advent doesn’t necessarily start on 1 December. It actually starts on the fourth Sunday before 25 December (anywhere between 27 Nov and 3 Dec).

Even if we have simplified the start-dates, there remains significant purpose in advent. According to trusty Wikipedia, for Christians:

The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.

Advent is all about Jesus. It’s about sharing in and remembering his coming to earth as a man, the first Christmas – God with us, as well as looking forward with true hope, to his return.

Bible Society #25days Advent Calendar

Bible Society #25days Advent Calendar

I’ve enjoyed receiving the #25words thoughts and videos as part of remembering Advent this year. Today’s email said:

Christmas is one of the world’s great stories. But it’s only the beginning. There’s the life Jesus lived, the teaching he brought, and the benefits of his death and resurrection. Still, there’s better yet to come. Especially to those who are broken, who suffer, as you’ll see:

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Revelation 21:4

As we eat our final chocolate(s) or write our final Advent Blogs, we can remember that Christmas is worth hoping for, but the best is still to come. What are you hoping for this Christmas?

 

 

Advent Blog Day 11 – ready in Redfern

beautiful Christmas dinner table

beautiful Christmas dinner table

There’s something truly delightful about a set dinner table, and especially one set for a Christmas meal. The readiness brings with it a great sense of anticipation. Just waiting for the food and the people to bring it all to life.

The one above is the handiwork of my friend Naomi Johnson, set tonight for our church leadership and staff end-of-year dinner. It was such a joy to be gathered around one table, sharing delicious food and funny stories with the people I have served alongside and sat under the leadership of this year.

And there were no useless plastic toys, paper hats or bad jokes to be found on this table. Lindt chocolate crackers…genius!

Naomi's pretty table centrepiece

Naomi’s pretty table centrepiece

Adam is working in Perth for a few days so sadly he missed out, but I’m feeling thankful for a relaxed evening of fellowship and food. I also have a new-found appreciation for Christmas pudding. Tonight’s was ice-cream based – think I might have to get that recipe Hayley!

I don’t tend to host big dinner parties, but I still like to set the table even if it’s just the two of us. I like the table to be ready. But as I reflect on the value of being ready, I’ve been thinking not about pretty tables or completed Christmas shopping, not even about Jesus coming as a baby as he did the first Christmas, but coming again.

I saw this Christmas card yesterday, just in a regular shop:

Jesus is coming

Jesus is coming

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

Revelation 21:2

Will I be ready when he comes again? Will you?

Advent Blog Day 7 – soaring with the Lord.

but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:31

Yesterday I, and many, many others, said goodbye to a precious young lady – Victoria Leah Pearce. Tori was 23 when she passed away last Wednesday.

Tori

Tori

The service was perfect. Tori loved her family, her church, her friends so much. And oh how she was so loved.

I remember visiting Tori in hospital when she was a baby – she was born with spina bifida and so throughout her life has been in and out of hospital for various reasons. My Mum and Dad were her god-parents. Our families spent lots of time together when we were kids…bushwalking, camping, birthday parties, playgroup, picnics, violin concerts and lots of things at church.

I hadn’t seen Tori for some time. The last time I saw her was at Hillsong Colour Conference – but it was so inspiring to hear the brave, honest words from her friends and family about the beautiful woman of God she had grown into. A young lady who loved Jesus with all her heart, and whose wheelchair never held her back from anything – skiing, swimming, singing, dancing in her chair, playing violin (we all had the same teacher) and more recently, driving. Determined, joyful, stubborn, loving and always smiling.

I can’t comprehend the loss that her family would be feeling. Her dear sister Sarah said, “Well, this sucks.” God’s timing is so far beyond our understanding. As I sat in the service, tears rolling down my face, sang songs of praise to and hope in God, and heard about the impact of Tori’s life on people, I felt a great sense of confidence that God would bring good, awesome things out of this. Her life had significance because she trusted in Jesus. Sarah thanked her parents for fighting for Tori each day of her life, helping her grow and flourish. She concluded with these words of hope and truth:

Tori is with the Lord. And the Lord is good. 

butterflies

Advent Blog Day 4 – Friendship

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. Proverbs 17:17

Tonight we met with our church small group – probably for the final time this year. We reflected on what the book of Proverbs has to say about friendship. According to Proverbs, great friendship is characterised by loyal, constant, unconditional love that mutually encourages both people.

It was a joy to share and reflect on these things with friends – with people we have grown closer to as we have shared life and learned together over the past year.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:13

In dying for us we see that Jesus is the ultimate friend. He loved us before we even knew him.

God has blessed me with many wonderful friends. I’m thankful for each one and feeling challenged to be more intentional in my friendships. I pray that I might love my friends at all times, in a way that is deeply, truly encouraging.

Here’s a little photo snapshot of some dear friends…

NaiSuse

AJNAiKtKathNai Vioricaone1seven

(and if you’re not here I still love you…it’s almost midnight – my advent blog deadline!)

musings on life and holidays from Spain

Street art in Valencia

Today is about the halfway point of our holiday in Spain, and I woke this morning feeling anxious to make the most of both the day ahead and the rest of the trip.

With little more than accommodation and flights organised beforehand and our longest overseas holiday together since our honeymoon, I really don’t want our spontaneous adventures in Spain to end!

So this morning I was already thinking ahead to the end of the holiday, sad that our adventures would be over and apprehensive about going back to work with zero days of leave.

Holidays are wonderful high points in life – a concentration of new experiences and a time for refreshment and reflection away from the usual busyness of the everyday. I’m really thankful for this opportunity and that I live in an age and culture where holidays are encouraged.

Medieval gateway in the streets of Valencia

Five years ago I booked a trip to Melbourne within a week of returning home from my first overseas trip. I needed something new to look forward to. I love having good things to look forward to, especially holidays. But as I get older I realise it’s dangerous living from holiday to holiday.

John Lennon once sang,

Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

It’s true. This morning I was imagining myself feeling sad days in the future, but as I did that I was missing the real life happening around me here, on the holiday I was anticipating the end of. Things like the sounds, smells, sights and flavours of daily life in Valencia: the squeals and laughter of children heading home for siesta in the middle of the day, impressive medieval gateways, even the regular whiffs of sewerage on the footpaths and the cross-shaped neon green ‘Farmacia’ sign flashing outside the window of the apartment.

Modern architecture in Valencia

Even if holidays aren’t what life’s all about, I think it’s natural for us humans to look forward to and enjoy rest. We were made in the image of a God who rested after his work of creating the world. He created rest – but we were made to glorify him not the good things he has created.

As a Christian, my challenge is to embrace the tension of living in the moment and enjoying God’s good gifts, including holidays, while at the same time fixing my eyes on the only true rest possible, in eternity. And as Adam reminded me, our spontaneous adventures won’t be over when our holiday ends…marriage is a lifetime of adventures! Five great years of them tomorrow actually.

Yesterday’s adventure – we cycled to the beach in the pouring rain and celebrated accordingly!

a party and a story

Last week Adam and I went to a very unique party. A party to celebrate the fact that a family who once lived in fear for their lives can now call Australia home. Last year their initial application for residency in Australia was rejected, but on 26 March this year, I got a message to say it had been approved!

the story

refugees in Africa

The Sydney Refugee Team was working with this family last year. Their lawyer was doing a reasonable job but B* and his wife S* were very distressed and simply couldn’t understand why the government had refused them. They were scared and confused. So even though my knowledge of refugee law was limited, my boss Janice graciously let me don my lawyer’s hat and I listened to B’s story.

B recounted parts of his and his wife’s childhood, of growing up in a culture where violence, discrimination, poverty and corruption were sadly, normal. Like many refugees, their story was complex and fragmented. I asked, “Did that happen before or after this?” at various points. I too was confused, but at the same time filled with compassion for this man and his family. I was starting to pull the pieces together – it seemed that their case was really valid, but their story was muddled.

For him, the events had just happened. But I explained that he needed to tell his story to the tribunal in the order the events had occurred. I don’t think he’d even heard of chronological order, let alone understood it. I was struck by this vast African/Australian storytelling difference.

How does one talk about such traumatic events in an orderly way? If this couple couldn’t write and tell their story in a clear, consistent order, enabling our legal system to recognise them as refugees, there was a risk that they might be rejected again.

I also read to him the definition of a refugee according to the United Nations. He said in his culture persecution equated only to being killed. He didn’t know that other forms of harm and discrimination are also considered persecution.

B and S were able to rewrite their application, face the tribunal process and then wait the many months for the outcome with help and support from Sally and the SRT. The team truly walked with this family on this difficult chapter of their journey.

the party

At the party B* was almost the first person to greet us – he emerged from the loud African music and dancing – and hugged me, saying, “Naomi! It’s good to see you. Thank you. Remember that day! Thank you for helping us. Thank you.” He turned to Adam and embraced him – automatic friends. I was so glad to help them in a small way! Oh and I almost forgot to mention that they came to faith in Jesus in the midst of their trials!

helping refugees

Adam and I before RIDE 2010

I’m getting a team together to do RIDE for Refugees on Saturday 18 August in Sydney. I want to help people like B and S and others around the world facing uncertainty, fearing for their lives, fighting for survival and desperately seeking a place to truly call home. Want to join my team (leave a comment on this post) or register your own (go to the website)?

Today is World Refugee Day. Every refugee has a story, but few have a choice in what happens next…how will you help write a different chapter for a refugee today?

*Names withheld to protect their privacy.