On Christmas Newsletters

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I have now lost count of the number of rants I’ve heard this year against Christmas newsletters.  I read one yesterday suggesting that the portrayals of perfect children make us feel very insecure about our own offspring, and Lynne Truss on Radio 4 has been listing increasingly offensive ripostes which might be sent to discourage the recipient from ever sending another one.

Frankly, I don’t get it.  There are people who have been pivotal in my life – childhood friends, university friends, former fellow church members, distant cousins, whose paths no longer cross with mine in daily life.  We have settled in different parts of the country or the world and the only news we hear of each other is via the Christmas newsletter.

I can’t imagine the curmudgeonly spirit that finds these missives annoying.  Of course they contain only the edited highlights.  Well, most of them.  I have one friend whose annual letter is a catalogue of woes – ailments, disputes, accidents.  The nadir was the year she described the boils on her 20-year old son’s bottom and the measures she was having to take to dress them.  But this is the exception.  Most people know how much information is too much.

Because I haven’t seen many of these friends over the years, in most cases I’ve never met their children.  But I’ve followed their stories, annual episode by annual episode, with genuine interest.   I think people are wonderful creatures.  I love to hear about them.  I welcome the chance to rejoice in someone’s success, even someone I’ve never met.  I love that even if a son or daughter hasn’t turned out to be an academic high flyer or an amazing career genius, a parent’s love can still single out things about their life to celebrate.

Most of these children and young adults I wouldn’t recognise if I passed them in the street.  But that doesn’t stop me taking a real interest in what they’re doing.  C.S. Lewis once said, “There are no ‘ordinary’ people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.”  He was right.  Every human person is an eternal soul with a streak of pure genius in some area of life.  I recently met up with some distant cousins at a family funeral.  Some of their children I haven’t met since they were very small, some I had never met before.  They are all doing amazing things with their lives – a book illustrator, an events organiser, a mother of four, and one is the director of Action for Happiness.  Thanks to Christmas newsletters I already knew what they were all doing, and that greatly enhanced my experience of meeting them at last and being able to put faces to the names.

People are wonderful, amazing creatures.  The humblest and most obscure of them achieves so much.  Even my disabled daughter whose life and possibilities are so limited has a zest for life that many a self-important business executive should envy.  I hope that when people read my annual letter they enjoy reading about my children too.  Imagine that mother of four.  She is raising responsible, caring citizens who will contribute who knows what to this world in the future.  How exciting!  So please, keep your newsletters coming.  I look forward to receiving them, I promise you I read every one, I love to hear your news and they remind me to pray for your families.

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Some musings about old age and Christmas

I’ve spent part of every week since September caring for my mum who is becoming quite frail, and for my aunt who, although older than my mum, has been caring for her for the past few years to the point of exhaustion.   The weeks I’ve spent with them have confirmed some things we all know about old age – it is a time of memories, frailty, increasing dependence.  But there are some things about it that have been new observations for me. 

 I had never really appreciated before that old age is a time of multiple bereavement.  In the past 3 years my mother has probably lost around a dozen close friends and family each year.  She feels the loss as keenly as any younger person would do.  Her much loved sister-in-law died last month, and I have learned today of the death of another treasured aunt. 

I’ve been impressed with what a large proportion of each day my mum and her sister spend in prayer – whether alone, together, or corporately in church.  They are clearly deepening their relationship with the One they long to see face to face at last. 

 And my mother exposes the truth about that wicked lie put forward by the euthanasia lobby – that increasing dependence on others for personal care involves a loss of dignity that is worse than death.  I have seen very clearly that loss of dignity is an interior state of mind, one that my mother refuses to entertain  – she accepts my ministrations with a poise, grace and dignity that come from within.

 Thinking all this over, my mind has travelled to another old lady – Anna.  The Greek in Luke 2 is a little ambiguous.  Some translations have it that she was married for seven years and then a widow until she was eighty-four.  Others suggest that she was married for seven years and then widowed for a further eighty-four.  Assuming she married at about thirteen or fourteen as was customary, that would make her about one hundred and four. 

Either way, it was a great age for that time.  She would have seen almost all of her contemporaries predecease her.  We are not told whether she had children – even if she did, life expectancy at the time was such that they might possibly have died before their mother.  No employment would have been open to her, and in all probability she had lost everyone who might have been able to support her.  She certainly knew what it was to lose loved ones, and to be stripped of everything that mattered until God was all she had left.

Anna spent her days in the temple, worshipping, fasting and praying.  In fact, we’re told she never left the temple.  Like my mother, she had been captivated by the love of a Father who was worth devoting her whole life to, and she eagerly anticipated a face-to-face meeting with her Saviour, even though unlike my mother she didn’t know who He was or when He would come.  The moment she saw the baby Jesus, she recognised Him because she had spent a lifetime attuning her ear to the Father’s voice. 

This peasant couple, looking like any other poor and powerless family, unnoticed by most in the temple, caught her attention not because there was something striking about their son’s outward appearance but because, like Simeon, she had spent her whole life looking for the Messiah, and the eyes of her heart were wide open so as not to miss His coming.

So even though the whisper in her heart, “Here He is!  This is the one who will bring redemption!” was imperceptible to all those around her, she heard it loud and clear.  Simeon declared that he was ready to depart in peace, and Anna lifted her voice in thanksgiving to God.  I hope that by the time I’m her age I will have spent my life drawing so near to Him that I don’t miss His finest whispers or His most scarcely perceptible arrivals. 

I pray that all of us who long for His coming – not just His second coming, but His manifest coming in revival in response to many heartfelt prayers, will spend the interim in intimate communion with Him, preparing our hearts so that should He come, as He has in the past, in a guise that many do not recognise, we will be so straining the eyes and ears of our hearts to catch a glimpse and whisper of Him that we will not miss the moment. 

“Consider the incredible love that the Father has shown us in allowing us to be called ‘children of God’—and that is not just what we are called, but what we are. Our heredity on the Godward side is no mere figure of speech—which explains why the world will no more recognise us than it recognised Christ.  Oh, dear children of mine (forgive the affection of an old man!), have you realised it? Here and now we are God’s children. We don’t know what we shall become in the future. We only know that, if reality were to break through, we should reflect his likeness, for we should see him as he really is!  Everyone who has at heart a hope like that keeps himself pure, for he knows how pure Christ is.”  1 John 3. 1-3, JB Phillips