Christmas: The American Dream

2012 has been a year of many travels (you may have noticed).  So what more fitting way could there be to end the year, than with my first overseas Christmas? I am in the USA.  Where my brother now lives.

It has been a peaceful, calm, introverted Christmas (in my family we celebrate by eating and reading).  We were all enthralled by my new baby niece who is utterly adorable and completely wonderful.  There was snow on Christmas day, for the first time in 85 years in Arkansas (it even made the UK news, apparently).  My sister-in-law’s dad is a professional chef and so we ate some seriously good food.

With my beautiful niece

With my beautiful niece

But here’s the surprise.  I am used to being in different cultures really regularly, and places where the food, language and customs are completely foreign, and where there are few creature comforts.  And mostly it’s fine. Now here I am in a country which shares so much of our own culture and where every desire for convenience and luxury is fulfilled, and I have found it to be unexpectedly uncomfortable (and I’m not talking about the inflatable mattress we slept on).

I have struggled to work out why.  But I think it’s because the part of US culture I dislike most, is merely a reflection of something I am only too aware lurks in my own heart.  And it’s ugly.

It’s consumerism. The drive to always be buying stuff and to make that activity the means by which we define ourselves/cope/relax/attribute value is something that I battle against on home soil, and in my own soul.  It’s hard not to feel like the struggle is ratcheted up a few notches in suburban USA where civilisation seems almost exclusively to take the form of endless fast-food outlets, super-sized stores and shopping malls.  In the absence of any ‘third spaces’ for people to interact meaningfully, there is only the mall and your home – the place where you buy and the place where you use/display/consume what you buy.

Here, I revolt against this way of living; but at home I know and am ashamed of how easily I embrace it.

I picked up a book from my brother’s shelves over Christmas, called “The Trouble with Paris” and it spelt out the same truth.  The title refers to a girl struggling with depression who moves to Paris because she decides that she just needs a change of scene.   It turns out that “the trouble with Paris” is that hopping on a plane to a new city is just another way of chasing new experiences and avoiding reality.  We have become addicted, the book claims, to the hyped-up version of reality constantly sold to us by the media and the marketeers, and so we devote our time and attention to chasing (buying) a better reality than the one we live.

Well, quite.

At the cowboy superstore

At the cowboy superstore

But then I stumbled across this quotation which made it all hit home:

“We can buy fairtrade and organic, yet still live under the framework of consumerism, running from commitment and community, living for self, chasing experience at the expense of intimacy and connection, and treating others like objects.”

(Yes I buy fairtrade and organic).

Southern US suburban culture might be an easy target for me with its obvious excesses, but a few different shopping habits don’t make me immune from the infection of consumerism or the compulsive quest for a hyper-real life.  I am as addicted as the next person to constant social media news-feeds; new and exciting experiences; allegedly self-improving purchases; pretty, sparkly things…and just look at how much I travel.  Somehow I am reminded of a proverb involving specks of dust and planks of wood.

It’s not that I think I have no right to critique, but it’s always easier to judge something you’re not a part of.  A community you don’t live in.  A culture you don’t shape.  The more painful, more demanding work lies in the neighbourhood where I do live, amidst the consumer options that face me every day.   How can I share with my community, rather than consume as an individual?  How do I become a creator rather than a consumer?

So in the end it all comes back to me not them.  And it comes back to London not Little Rock.   It’s crazy how far you travel sometimes just to discover what’s in your own heart.

In 2013 I’ll be sharing some of my journey to live more simply in the city.  In the new year I’ll tell you all how the blog will be growing and changing… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: Let’s get naked

Today I am excited to share a guest post from the husband, originally written as a Christmas reflection for a Christian blog called Threads.

I am very good at being ‘almost radical’. I am good at challenging people just enough to make me sound edgy or creative, but not enough to allow any allegations of taking things too far. It cleverly avoids criticism from those who may disagree, which might hurt my still-too-tied-to-my-identity, people-pleasing, wanting-everyone-to-love-me ego.

Sometimes that tactic comes from a good place of wanting to ‘start where people are at’ or be relational, but I have to confess that most of the time it just comes from a fear of being exposed to ridicule and challenge.

We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus. This was not the arrival of a control freak, carefully managing their surroundings for least disruption to their ministry. He arrived helpless to this beautiful, yet broken planet, trusting himself into the hands of imperfect humanity. Thirty-three years after that meek entrance, he would be stripped and naked again. This thought is teaching me something quite profound:

You have to be naked to start a revolution.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:6-7)

You have to be prepared to be vulnerable, exposed and misunderstood.

You have to be prepared to be mocked, caricatured and offensive.

Jesus’ unpredictable ministry was not the work of someone who had one eye on Jerusalem and one eye on Twitter to see how he was being perceived. They say I’m too obtuse? Let’s tweak that for future public engagements – give them a bit more solid theology. A little too angry? Let’s visit a nursery tomorrow – the tables will be too low to turn over anyway. Not nationalistic enough? Let’s wear some military garb for the next photo opp.

Those who have kicked off radical movements have always run the risk of being written off as lunatics or being ignored because of their lack of a media strategy. They have been prepared to be naked and resource-light in human terms. They have been prepared to look stupid, to be criticised, to be plastered across the press as hopeless dreamers, do-gooders, bigots, or irrelevant.

Don’t get me wrong. I spend a good chunk of my time training believers to engage intelligently in the public square – in the media and in politics. It is hugely important. But in 2012 have we become so media-fixated, hypersensitive to criticism, and less rooted in God that we are paralysed from saying or doing what we are called to?

For Facebook friends, read ‘audience’ and for status update, read ‘press release’. We are becoming our own press officers, managing our public profile and perception. Our brains are becoming increasingly wired to insecurely gauge and seek responses to what we say or do. We edit our status updates and lives to present only the most appealing or acceptable part of ourselves, or what we think we can get away with. And that takes us right back to my disease of almost saying what I actually think. My calculation these days is too often: “How will this affect that person’s or the public’s perception of Christians?”(handily connected to their perception of me) rather than “God, what would you have me do or say?”

We are called to follow Christ, not employed by him to be spin doctors for the kingdom. Jesus didn’t want to be ‘Like’d. He wanted to be obeyed and worshipped.

Here lies Andy Flannagan – he was almost radical. Not an epitaph I want.

Is it time for us to shed the clothes of popularity, respectability and compromise? Is it time to get naked?

Christmas in a strange land

It’s only a few days till Christmas, and I am far away from home in the state of Arkansas, where everything is super-sized.  Happily I am not alone, and I’m enjoying some family time (being in the same continent as the husband has become a novelty this month) and meeting my new niece.  Who is completely beautiful.

But should you be lacking in inspiration this week, here are a couple of things I prepared earlier.

Last year I wrote a blog about how I try to hold onto the story of Christmas in the midst of family chaos, and I shared some liturgy we use.

Last week in Guatemala we filmed a reflection on the story from Mary’s perspective – you might recognise some of the thoughts from my earlier blog.

The Hope Of The World from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Have a great Christmas. I’ll be back in the new year, with some changes!

Waiting for God-knows-what

It is the season of waiting.

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Or, parties. Calendars are awash with office socials, family reunions, carol concerts, school nativities, mulled wine on chilly nights, shopping-trips, ice-skating and tree-decorating.  Not mine, this year, because instead I am travelling to far-flung continents to hear new stories and meet new family.  And so for once I am a little removed from the hullaballoo and I am pondering the meaning of it again.

I read recently about a Catholic community who mark the season with simple, frugal living and prayerful reflection and my heart sank at the thought of opting out of all the fun.

And it brought me back to the question of waiting, what it means to wait, and how I strain to avoid it.

My friend Kelley just wrote a beautiful blog about her Advent ache as she confronts the trauma of today in Goma and Gaza, and in relationships closer to home.

“This Advent I stand in the ancient tradition of lament and longing,” she writes, “as my insides churn at the not-yetness of it all.”

Why would we choose to enter purposefully into a season of waiting? It is usually a chore rather than a choice. Ten seconds in and we (I) reach for our phones, for distraction.

But at the heart of this season, for those of us who seek it, is an unfinished story, and an invitation to wait not just four weeks, but as long as it takes.

I see it most clearly through Mary.

At so young an age she is chosen – and her soul sings. She is asked to imagine that something otherworldly could be possible.  She is asked to believe and she does.  (And this at a time when childbirth was perilous).

At the moments when our souls sing and we hear and see God alive in everything, extraordinary things feel possible. (Perhaps because they are).

It is afterwards, in the banality and prose of everyday living that it is harder to believe in miracles.

But that is where waiting takes us. For Mary, first it was nine months. Nine months of pregnancy, of feeling something real grow inside of her, the promise becoming tangible.

But it was also nine months of everybody else interpreting events in their own way. Who could possibly know or understand or believe the truth? There were nine long, painful months of watching her parents’ shame, feeling desperately alone (except for that time with her cousin), doubting herself. How much of that could Joseph share, how much was he prepared to?

And then there is the beautiful story of how her son was born, miles away from everybody who misunderstood, attended by the strangest assortment of guests.  And I imagine Mary’s tears when she sees her baby, and when, for the first time, she is able to share the miracle with a host of others – all of whom know that whatever this is, it is from God.

But what of the years that follow? In all the years of poverty and political oppression, in the mundane detail of family life, of finding enough food and earning enough money, what does Mary do with all those prophecies? Do they feel real? Does she know what any of them mean? Does she know who her son really is?

Waiting, in this sense, is never one thing.  It is a heady cocktail of joy and agony, of confusion and doubt, of excitement and fear. And sometimes it is just long and hard.

It is always easier to give up. It is less tiring and it hurts a lot less.

But Mary does not give up, she is there even the moment when her son is killed.  How could she begin to make sense of that day?

It is hardest to wait when it least makes sense, but at the heart of Advent is the invitation to do just that.  Because in all its brilliant beauty, the Christmas story is not an ending or a resolution and it does not answer every question.  It is a dazzling glimmer of hope and the promise of proximity and involvement.  It is a beginning but not an end.

To me, Advent is an invitation to wait as Mary waited.  Always pondering, treasuring these things in my heart, but also participating in the story without understanding fully where it is going and what that will look like.  It is looking for where I can step in, moving towards the brokenness rather than hiding from it.  It is not running away from the ache, the deep, long ache for the good ending I believe in.

Retreat (revisiting something I said I’d never do)

When I was a teen I wanted to be an actress.  When I told people at my church they would respond with enthusiasm – “We do so need good dramas in church,” as if my grand ambition was to play Mary the mother of Jesus at Christmas or be in any of the half-baked comedy sketches that popped up sporadically on Sunday mornings or church weekends away.

And so I ventured out into the big wide world with my dream and needless to say found that the big wide world was less enthusiastic about me.  (We’re still working on it).  But I have successfully avoided church drama all this time.

A couple of years ago the husband asked me to write some monologues based on some stories from the Bible, pretty much the very thing I’ve run away from for so many years.  But I took up the challenge (I have a soft spot for him), and we interweaved them with songs sang around hay bales in the big top at Greenbelt festival one summer, with guitars and cellos and other nice stringed things.

It was good.  I didn’t want to cringe and run away.  And it seemed to touch people.

It seems I don’t hate Christian drama, I’m just really fussy, and I really want it to be good (not that I’m saying here that I do it better than anyone, it’s more that I want it to be better than I’ve experienced it to be, that’s what I aspire to). I want it to mean things that I think are important (and actually I have a head-start here because I do think that people’s encounters with Jesus, with God, matter profoundly); and not be heavy-handed or tell you what to think.  Then I think it can be quite beautiful.

Another thing I was told as a teen was that my vocation was either in the church or in the world (no sitting on the fence).  And I picked the world, which is in some ways laughable given that I have now spent eight years working with a charity who are passionate about the local church. But now as I come to unpick some of the things I learnt so young and which solidified too quickly in my worldview, I am returning to this dualism too.  It suddenly seems such an unnecessary dichotomy if we hope to be the same people every day and not play two (or more) versions ourselves. Of course, expectations and values differ in contrasting arenas, but surely integrity means some consistency, it means always being recognisably me.

And so it means not drawing such clear lines about where and when I will tell stories and for whom.

Which is a long way of introducing a project I put together this year for a network I do some work with.  Someone caught our double act (the husband’s songs, my monologues) and wanted to find a way to make a DVD.  The challenge this collaborator had in mind was contexts where Christians were working in tough places, amongst violence, poverty, oppression, injustice…and they often struggled to connect the huge questions raised by this work with their faith (too often presented in a pretty box).  Imaginative storytelling and music that brings Bible texts to life – resources that create an experience and the space for questions and conversation – could unlock a connection.  We hope.

So here is one of those sessions, about busyness.  There’s a monologue, some discussion questions about the Bible passage in question, and a song that gives you some space to reflect. There are six sessions in total and you can access them all online here.  Or if you’re after a DVD, drop me an email.

Busyness from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

That Christmas story

Yes, it’s my favourite time of year, and we’re about to celebrate my favourite story, ever.

It’s not that I have spectacular Christmas memories from growing up (although I did get a brilliant puppet theatre one year).  Christmas was usually quiet in our house. I remember a typical Christmas afternoon when I was 16:  dad was upstairs sleeping off lunch; mum (a nurse) was also upstairs sleeping after working a night shift at the hospital; my brother Doug. then about 13, was also sleeping – he’d been too excited to sleep the night before.  And I was alone in the dark, watching Casablanca.

In other years when the family stayed awake, everyone generally read their new books in the afternoon.

Not exactly a wild party, or even a deeply religious occasion.  But the thing about my Christmases growing up is that there was always lots of space to pause and to think (although obviously I longed for a crazy sociable whirlwind of a Christmas with hundreds of people and lots of games).  Every Christmas Eve I went to midnight mass in the local Anglican church, generally with my little brother and my friends Jade & Howard.  We would sit in the cold, listening to the story told all over again, and I was amazed every time.

I was single then, and my favourite moment of all was when I would get home in the early hours and sit alone in bed, thinking about the story, writing in my journal, and talking to God. There was always something in the story that seemed especially alive or important, and in the quiet and the dark, it all felt mysterious, wonderful, and possible. That God would do something as ludicrous as being born as a baby.  And that this wild and beautiful story had something to do with me.  Those moments felt alive with hope and kindness.

The year I got engaged I spent Christmas with my fiance’s family in Northern Ireland and it was a very different experience.  For a start, nobody went to sleep in the daytime (actually, I think I might have nodded off…).  It was wonderful – and as sociable as I had always wanted, full of kids and chaos.  And because of that there was suddenly a lot less space to be on my own and reflect – I hadn’t thought for a moment that I would miss that, and I didn’t do anything to try to find that space.  It was a very special Christmas,  but I came home feeling like I’d missed something.  Not because it wasn’t there, but because I hadn’t made space for it in my time and imagination. Somehow I’d lost hold of the story which was what made it all mean something more.  And, short of returning to my single life and my parents’ house, I wondered what I could possibly do to hold onto the story more tightly…

I came home and did something a bit weird. I wrote some liturgy.  It was just my way of trying to create moments in the day when everyone could come together and remember bits of the story and maybe even why they matter.

So, I offer it here as a Christmas gift, in case you’d like a way to enter into the story a bit more this year:

liturgy

Happy Christmas!