Are you ready? Are the Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Is Jack Frost nipping at your nose? Are yuletide carols being sung by a choir?
Confession: I am not feeling the Christmas vibes this year. Not at all.
I’ve tried. But mostly all I can think about is the 7 different types of vegetables that need preparing and then the turkey the size of a small child that needs roasting (sidenote - since when so we need to eat 7 TYPES OF VEG ALL IN ONE MEAL?!)
And so, please, be gone from my presence with your Christmas jumpers. No, I will not watch Love Actually. Stop talking about how many mince pies you’ve eaten. And for the love of mulled wine, stop singing Mariah and Bublé and the Fairytale of New York.
I am done. I do not care. Resting Grinch face has been activated. Take your Christmas filled joy far far away from me.
As the poet once said: Bah! Humbug!
And yet, I still stopped to listen to the brass band playing Christmas carols at Waterloo Station.
And I still bought a Poinsettia - because I am my mother's daughter afterall and is it even Christmas without one?! #plant-lady-is-the-new-cat-lady
Because despite the fact it seems like most of the world is on fire and it's people crying out for liberation, there is hope enough for a weary world to rejoice.
Because actually, being a Grinch in the face of all the hype grounds me in reality that Christmas is a celebration of life-giving radiance breaking through the darkness in the unlikeliest of ways. Christmas is a celebration of pain and suffering and cries for liberation not going ignored. Christmas is a celebration of hope.
Celebration is not just a way to make people feel good for a while; it is the way in which faith in the God of life is lived out, through both laughter and tears. Thus celebration goes beyond ritual, custom, and tradition. It is the unceasing affirmation that underneath all the ups and downs of life there flows a solid current of joy." Henri Nouwen
Because Immanuel. God is with us.
God is with us in joy and sorrow and everything in-between. Some days that’s the very thing getting me through the day. Other days I'm not even sure what it means. And so, when all the world is an altar, and joy and sorrow are intermingled, we break bread, pour wine, feast and celebrate.
And then even my weary Grinch heart finds a glimpse of hope, and reasons to rejoice enough to shed a few tears in the middle of Waterloo Station when the brass band play O Holy Night – it gets me every time.
Immanuel. God is with us.
I hope you have a Christmas of joy and peace and laughter. And if your heart is weary, I hope you can somehow see your way through to find reasons to rejoice.
2019 will go down in The Chronicles of Rachel as the year I embraced the spiritual practice of letting my hair down in the wind and was (mostly) unashamed to have The Messiest Hair Of Them All.
"Regarded properly, anything can become a sacrament, by which I mean a visible sign of an inward spiritual connection." Barbara Brown Taylor
Big hair don't care, has pretty much become a daily mantra - because if you say it enough times it becomes true, right?
But I'm learning that regarded properly, letting the wind run riot with your hair can become a spiritual practice, by which I mean a visible sign of an inward spiritual connection. And fortunately, thanks to London city planners and tube network designers, London is FULL OF WIND TUNNELS, which means plenty of opportunities for practice.
You see, for someone who has vehemently avoided letting the wind run riot with her hair pretty much her entire teenage to adult life, for someone who is never seen without a hairclip either in her hair or about her person, for someone who's hair goes from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds, letting the wind run riot with her hair is No Small Thing. It means days of hassle dealing with frizz so big my hair can no longer be crammed under my hat - A NECESSARY ACTION IN THESE DAYS OF INCLEMENT WEATHER.
But letting the wind run riot with my hair reminds me that I’m not in control of everything and actually, if I trust in the God of All The Things like I say I do, then I can survive not being in control.
Letting the wind run riot with my hair reminds me that the Spirit goes where it will, wild and uncontainable.
Letting the wind run riot with my hair reminds me that sometimes life is more fun when you let it get a little messy.
Letting the wind run riot with my hair reminds me to be thankful for the good hair days and all the other seemingly everyday things I fail to notice (though lets be real, good hair days are a rare miracle these days).
Letting the wind run riot with my hair makes me laugh and laugh and laugh - because who could fail to be amused by the sight of Rachel with Wild Hair. Sorry, not sorry to anyone who's had to be seen with me post channelling my inner Pocahontas.
Turns out, letting the wind run riot with my hair is one of the many pathways to joy.
Turns out, regarded properly, anything can become a sacrament. Here's to embracing the Wild Hair Days!
Where could a little paying attention and regarding properly lead you to a spiritual connection?
What can I say, its been a while. How have you been? I love your new haircut by the way, I’m thinking about cutting/dyeing mine too. Any suggestions?
Did you have a good summer? I know, what with allll the beautiful autumnal leaves and allll the Sunday afternoons eating apple crumble and custard, summer seems but a distant memory right now. But it would feel rude to jump back in without the obligatory small talk. Also, I do genuinely want to know - how was your summer? Although, in truth, I’m becoming more and more convinced that who we’re becoming is a far more important question to consider than how we’ve filled our time. Last week, The Google reminded me that its been two years since I was asked who 50-year-old Rachel will be. I’m as certain about the answer now as I was then:
50-year-old Rachel is a wild hippy with flowers in her hair.
What I didn’t realise was that I’ll also turn more and more into my mother with each and every passing yearweek day. Case in point – I can’t help but fill my phone with allll the photos of alll the beautiful flowers I see. What will I do with allll these photos I hear you ask?
They will sit in The Cloud from now until infinity and beyond, taking up valuable digital space and probably contributing toward the melting of the ice caps and deforestation of the Amazon. My mother’s phone is full of photos of such flowers.
But anyway, back to Wild Rachel - you'll find her barefoot, with the sun on her face and the wind in her hair, singing and dancing her way through the day and gazing at the stars by night.
Wild Rachel lives wholehearted and vulnerable. She laughs with no fear of the future because she has lived success, love, joy and laughter, she has tasted defeat, failure and heartbreak, and yet, she firmly holds that God is good all the time, and that all the time God is good - that is her song and she continues to sing it come what may.
She has finally accepted that it is sometimes OK to lose games and has unleashed her competitive spirit, so watch out anyone in opposition.
Wild Rachel not only believes in miracles but expects to see them daily. She has seen the immeasurably more and lives life amazed and perplexed. She throws caution to the wind and errs on the side of love and whimsy.
She drives a car that runs on cooking oil. And she takes a tambourine to church.
Not to sound like a 1950's housewife or anything but Wild Rachel finally owns a KitchenAid and it is her pride and joy (Holla at me KitchenAid crew, you know who you are).
Wild Rachel will have finally learnt to bake bread, sew her own clothes and crochet a granny squares blanket. She is also an expert forager and knows all the phases of the moon.
She watches the sunrise every morning because being a daily witness to light breaking through the night embodys her hope that the people walking in darkness will one day see a great light.
Wild Rachel loves her people with the fire of a thousand suns and will fight unto the death for all the things she holds true.
Wild Rachel does not care what other people think, atleast, she does not care if they think her foolish or crazy or a wild hippy with flowers in her hair but she hopes that when they look at her life they see one overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithful, gentleness and self-control - a life that points to the fount of every blessing.
Her fridge is always full and the cake tin replenished daily. Sorry not sorry, but Wild Rachel will never invite you over - You are always welcome and there is always space for you at the table, just turn up already. On the flip side, chances are Wild Rachel will just turn up on your doorstep and make herself at home.
Wild Rachel does not fear failure and she does not fear disappointment.
She is not afraid to cut off all her hair to both save the planet the burden of producing her hair products and to save time (also, her Nan will kill her if she ever gets dreads).
She is not afraid to make decisions based on faith and not fear, the kinda decisions that don't seem to make much sense to the world at large. In fact, 50-year-old wild hippy Rachel is not afraid of anything - expect spiders, they will always be terrifying.
Truth be told, I'm not half as much Wild Rachel as I could be right now, but there's still time . Any thoughts on who you want to be? I'd love to know - the kettle is on and a freshly made pistachio cake is cooling on the counter so what are you waiting for? Come over aready.
I am constantly reflecting and all the joys and sorrows of last year, trying to drag out another lesson to make all the blood, sweat and tears seem worth it. About this time last year I was holed up in an old convent in Cornwall, wondering why on earth I’d thought a silent retreat was a good idea. It was one of the toughest weeks of my life - right up there after the death of Grandparents but slightly before that one week when I was 15 and convinced that all my hair was falling out and I'd be completely bald by 17 (THE TEARS).
But, je ne regrette rien. Especially after I read this and realised why it had been much harder than I'd expected:
In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding; no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me—naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken—nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.” Henri Nouwen
In that week of solitude I was stripped of scaffolding - no friends to talk to, no social media to update, no work to attend, no music to sing and dance along to and no books to transport me to far away lands. I didn’t have to check in with my people and see how their week was going, I didn't even have to decide what to cook. All that was left was the truth of who I was without all those things to validate my worthiness of life/time/attention/love or distract me from the lack of it.
Naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived and broken.
And yet, I've realised that that place of nothingness can be the birthplace of freedom. Because in that place, God holds a banner over us for all the world to see proclaiming that we are loved and we are valued - despite all things we would rather hide and all the things we are too ashamed to even acknowledge.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, we can do to earn God's love or make God love us more - not pray our way there, not read our Bible more, not attend church more, not go to The Gambia and not even give away our very last Rolo. You are worthy, simply for being you.
Without realising, I'd let a notion of earning worthiness creep in and set conditions around something that has always been extravagantly wild and free. Who I am without my scaffolding is enough. Who you are without your scaffolding is enough. Nothing from your past can change that, nothing in your future can steal that; not our fears for today or our worries about tomorrow. Whether we are high above the sky, in the deepest ocean or on a silent retreat, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus.
Being rooted and grounded in God's unwavering love for us in our place of nothingness can give us the power and confidence to live free from fear - of the judgement of others, of tomorrow, of the valley of the shadow of death, of loneliness, of looking like a fool and yes, free of even the fear of Brexit. Life in all its fullness transforming nothingness into a place of JOY - you know the place - beautiful sunrises over the mountains, a fridge full of lemon tart (made with fairtrade lemons and no palm oil, obvs and dancing for joy along to your favourite 90s pop and 00s indie rock songs.
I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your heart as you trust in him. May you be rooted and grounded in the soil of God's marvellous love. And I pray that you have the power to understand, as all God's people should, how wide, how long, how high and how deep God's love really is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is so great we will never fully understand it.
By and large, what human beings want is resurrection without death, answers without doubt, light without darkness, the conclusion without the process." Richard Rohr
I have a confession. I did not want to go to China. If anyone had given me a good reason to stay home I would have willingly taken it. And if anyone has suggested I come home early I would have joyfully packed my bags and skipped to the airport singing songs of thanksgiving and freedom.
Don't get me wrong, I wanted to go in theory. I just didn't want to go in actual I’ll-have-to-live-this real life. It was nothing but the grace of God along with the prayers and enthusiasm of my people that got me packing my bags and on the way to the airport. I knew it would be a challenge and I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle it. But I also knew there was a high chance of seeing some things and learning some lessons that could very much change my life. I very much wanted the conclusion without the process of having to live through the difficult things.
Day one – “Alright, here I am. What am here to learn?” I was pretty confident that if I could figure it out as soon as possible then the rest of the trip would be much much easier.
By and large, what human beings want is resurrection without death, answers without doubt, light without darkness, the conclusion without the process.
We want the miracle of something coming back to life but without it having to actually die first. We want to know the result for certain but without ever wondering if its right. We want to fully appreciate goodness but without ever experiencing the pain. We want the end result but without having to work for it.
And right now I could add – we want the joy of risk but without the leap of faith, we want knowing that we can handle the routine of the 9-5 and slot back in to normal life (whatever that means) without having to actually do it. No, just me on that one?!
And why do we want these things? Because dealing with death, doubt, darkness and the process can all be so desperately difficult. We only have one wild life and who wants it to be filled with difficult things?
But the truth is, we never have to face any of those things alone. God is with us every step of the way in dealing with all these things and more. God prepares a feast for us right in the very presence of death, darkness, doubt - we are invited to sit at the table, in the presence of God and celebrate, even with our enemies banging on the door, baying for our blood and reminding us of our ever increasingly urgent to do lists.
O Lord, let me enter into your presence, and there taste the eternal, timeless everlasting love with which you invite me to let go of my timebound anxieties, fears, preoccupations and worries.” Henri Nouwen
Is this not what it is to abide? To enter into the presence of God and let it remove all of our timebound anxieties, fears, preoccupations and worries? To keep our eyes on Jesus and abide with God through the tension of dealing with death, doubt, darkness and process.
So if, like me, you've found yourself battling through, hang tight - the table is set and the bunting is up. There's a feast prepared in your honour and God is waiting in anticipation for you to take your place at the table.
Come, have a seat, everything is ready for you. Abide well.
Turns out by the actual daily grace of God I survived a couple of months in China.
Turns out I missed you with my whole heart.
Turns out I couldn’t update my blog from China – the Great FireWall keeps out many an internet essential (Google, WhatsApp, Insta, BBC etc). And so, for your viewing pleasure, what I would have posted if I’d had a Great FireWall evading VPN (apols if you were on my e-mail list, this may be a little familiar).
I am alive. I am well. I reached China in one piece with an almost struggle free journey*.
I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new world because I am certainly not in KansasGambia Croydon anymore. Something that I am constantly aware of because hardly anyone speaks English and I can’t read ANYTHING – bus stops, bus routes, menus, food packaging in the supermarket, shop signs and, more crucially, road signs.
What with google not working out here, the maps app being in Chinese and having no sense of direction whatsoever, I’m spending a lot of time being lost/taking an unplanned scenic route and apologising for being late, again. Fortunately, I love a good wander and its mostly sunny. But if you never hear from me again I’m wandering through suburban China, marveling at how anyone can ever know where they are when EVERY SINGLE APARTMENT SKYSCRAPER BLOCK LOOKS THE SAME.
Much of these past couple of weeks has been spent trying to master the art of eating with chopsticks** and trying to not get run over - there’s even a massive junction where pedestrians have to wait in the middle while the buses, cars and lorries thunder past! I’m learning lots about the different cultures and beliefs here. I’m also learning a tiny bit of Chinese. Chao sa z ma zou (how do I get to the supermarket?) Now I just need to figure out how to understand the replies. In general though, the people in this city have been amazingly helpful when they realise I don't speak Chinese. Maybe because in a city of 1million there's less than 500 ex-pats, foreigners are still a bit of a novelty in this region. I get stared at all the time and random strangers want me in their selfies.
One of the things I have been most surprised to discover is that old guys do actually fly kites in the park, people really do play board/card games like mah-jong in the streets, people really do play flutes/saxophones etc in the park, people really do some kind of tai chi type exercise outside, and people really do let off fireworks during the day. THESE THINGS ACTUALLY DO HAPPEN. It’s not just a lovely Pixar creation. Who knew?!
Also, good news of great joy – this week I went to the Import Store and bought butter and raspberry jam and cheese! ALL THE GOOD THINGS.
So other than not being able to understand anything, getting lost all the time and battling with chopsticks my life here is a breeze. As ever, I would LOVE to hear all the things in your life so do write back and tell me everything.
Till next time,
Love, peace and chopsticks x x
*Let me tell you, you do not know despair in your heart until you’re sat on the train, at the start of a 1,000 mile trek across London through rush hour commuters to get to Heathrow airport, and you look at the floor wondering where all those pieces of plastic have come from, and then realise that yes, in fact, they’ve broken off one of the wheels of your suitcase. The suitcase containing all your belongings you’ll need for the next two months that you need to take on trains and tubes across London. The suitcase that needs to travel a million miles to China and back again. All this and you’re less than 400 metres from home. O DARK NIGHT OF MY SOUL. Forget getting to China, I didn’t think I’d even make it to Victoria Station. Mum - you were right, I do need a new suitcase.
** Before arriving here I had never eaten with chopsticks, now atleast one meal a day you’ll find me attempting to eat with as much dignity as I can muster – precious little most of the time. I have never concentrated so much on anything in all my life – not even when I’m painting my nails. I am exhausted by the end of every meal. And if you were ever in any doubt, the best way to build friendships is to impress with your ability to get food all over you, your new friends, the table, the small child at the next table, the small dog outside, the floor and the ceiling (noodle soup *sighs*).
Mine was pretty much like the rest of this year – an absolute whirlwind of the loosely planned being usurped by the surprising. Though I learned the hard way that if you spend half the day holding small children and hefting a turkey in and out of the oven your arms will ache for atleast a week. Even brushing my hair is a challenge - sorry to anyone who has to be seen with me in public right now.
I must confess, I was not ready for Christmas this year. I don't understand how its come and gone already, I'm still waiting for summer. I was the most Grinch of all the Grinchs and so reflecting on the reason for the season was not forefront of my mind. But what I did realise is that Christmas is all about abiding - Jesus came to abide (live/dwell) with us, so that we could abide (live/dwell) with him.
The birth of Jesus was the beginning of the end of our separation from God. It changed everything. Jesus came to abide (live/dwell) as light in the darkness, offering us hope, peace and joy.
God was no longer as distant as before. But here. Present. With us. Immanuel.
And just a few short decades later the death and resurrection of Jesus would change it all again. Giving us access to a home we could fully abide (live/dwell) in together. Forever.
But it’s not just for the future, if nothing else, this absolute madness of a year has taught me that abiding is also for right here, right now. This very moment. Here. Present.
Everyday in China I asked God for the grace to make it through just that day. And the next day I asked the same. And the next day the same again. But I think what I didn't have the words to ask for was this:
O Lord. Life passes by swiftly. Events that a few years ago kept me totally preoccupied have now become vague memories; conflicts that a few months ago seemed so crucial in my life now seem futile and hardly worth the energy; inner turmoil that robbed me of sleep only a few weeks ago has now become a strange emotion of the past; books that filled me with amazement a few days ago now do not seem as important; thoughts that kept my mind captive only a few hours ago have now lost their power and have been replaced by others... Why am I continuously trapped in this sense of urgency and emergency? Why do I not see that you are eternal, that your kingdom lasts forever, and that for you a thousand years are like one day? O Lord, let me enter into your presence and there taste the eternal, timeless, everlasting love with which you invite me to let go of my time-bound anxieties, fears, occupations and worries.... Lord teach me your ways and give me the courage to follow them. Amen." Henri Nouwen
This is what abiding this year has looked like - an invitation to let go of my time-bound anxieties, fears, occupations and worries. To live fully loved, at peace, joyfully, on a foundation of trust.
Is this what I've been doing all year? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha (pauses to breathe and then resumes hysterical laughter) hahahahaha.
I had to go to China and back to figure this out, let me save you the journey and the planet the carbon emissions. Turns out sometimes abiding feels like a picnic in green pastures beside still waters.
But also, abiding can feel like being on a rollercoaster, holding on to the edge of your seat, both eagerly anticipating what’s next and dreading it, uncertain whether to laugh/cry/vomit/all three, wondering why you’ve put yourself in that position AGAIN and why no-one told you it was a bad idea, clinging for dear life/faith/sanity onto the knowledge that God is good and God is with you always even if it doesn’t feel like it, and praying it will all end soon so you can get off and return to life on terra firma.
Christmas, a solid reminder than wherever we find ourselves and whatever is going on God abides with us. Our choice is whether we abide with Him at the picnic, the rollercoaster or elsewhere.
This is it y'all. Only a few hours remaining until I head to Asia! I don't know whether to laugh, cry or throw up. You know what they say - when in doubt, write it out.
1st of All. Thank you so much wonderful people for your all your support. You have no idea how much you have cheered me on through all the preparation and how much that will cheer me on out the door and on the way to the airport IN JUST A COUPLE OF HOURS.
2nd of All. Clear evidence I have matured - this time 8 years ago I was debating whether I should take The Princess Bride book or my purple yoda jumper with glow-in-the-dark lightsabre on it with me on my travels. Yesterday I put The Princess Bride in my suitcase with no hesitation - jumpers with glow in the dark decal in no way prevent you from falling over mystery objects in the dark. Clearly I am now wise and mature beyond measure.
3rd of All Preach Brother Mark -
When you are preparing for a monumentous change in your life, the reality often doesn’t kick in until a few weeks beforehand. Then you start thinking about how it is really going to affect your life, wonder why the hell you decided to put yourself in such a position and occasionally, inevitably, ask yourself whether you can’t get out of it.
4th of All. This past week has been a whirlwind of:
Wearing all my favourite clothes that I can't take with me (yes, I'm talking about you, most beautiful Lavender Fields jumper of them all. I miss you a million and seven already)
Eating all my favourite eats (yes, I'm talking about you pretentious yet delicious toast in Balham)
Saying 'see-you-in-November' to too many of my favourites (insert crying a river emoji here. I miss you a million and seven already)
Asking my bffs "WHAT IS THIS LIFE/WHAT AM I DOING?" on a daily basis (general response: I don't know what you're doing either)
And really useful things that are definitely a good use of time and not some thinly veiled procrastination like folding all the clothes in my cupboard (inner neat-freak cannot abide the idea of coming home to a messy wardrobe)
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN. da dadada daaaaa da da da da da.
Next stop, Asia. Well, after a million year trek to Heathrow Airport #consideritalljoy
[Insert perfectly candid photo of me panicking though somehow managing to look like I still have everything together and is totally able to handle everything]
I hereby serve notice of the termination of our friendship on the grounds of your terrible life advice and general encouragement in making this year even more ridiculous than it already has been.
Because you know what? I’ve only been home from Gambia a few weeks, I’ve only just remembered how to function here, I haven’t even been able to wear all my fun summer dresses and now I AM GOING TO ASIA IN NINE DAYS. I already went to the Lake District this year, is that not travel enough?!
Apparently not one of you had sense enough to tell me to stay at home. WHY ARE YOU ALL SUCH ENABLERS?! Stop encouraging this freewheeling, I’ll make a plan when I make a plan lifestyle. IT IS NOT GOOD FOR ME.
You know what is good? Stability. Routine. Schedules. Have you not seen Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? EVEN SCIENCE TELLS ME YOUR ADVICE IS ALL WRONG.
You no longer have the right to live vicariously through my questionable life choices that you have encouraged. IT’S OVER (though I’ll hopefully be updating this hallowed space so hang tight, you just might get to yet).
Not I am not freaking out in the slightest. Whatever gives you that impression?! I AM CLEARLY EMOTIONALLY STABLE AND WELL ABLE TO HANDLE MY EVER-GROWING 'GETTING READY TO GO TO ASIA' TO-DO LIST.
Whatevs, see you losers in November.
P.S. Sister, you are obvs exempt from this because you are still Chief Hater and have in no way, shape or form, encouraged this endeavour. 5 points to you.