Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas Reading: Stories, Not Lists

As I wind down coming up to Christmas, I like to read a solidly non-academic book that will not help me in any way to achieve study or work-related goals.  So, a few weeks ago I headed to the Oxfam Bookshop to choose such a read.  I was sort of hoping to get a second-hand copy of Mandela's 'Long Walk to Freedom' (we're going to South Africa in April) but the closest thing I could find was Ffyona Campbell's 'On Foot Through Africa'.

I remember the author being on TV in the early '90s, after her mammoth trek from Cape Town to Tangier.  She persevered through illness, attack and war zones to make sure she took every single step along the way, never taking a short cut even when it seemed justifiable to do so.

This adventure/travel book won't help me with work or study, so it meets the Advent and Christmas holiday reading criteria.  But even such carefully selected easy-on-the-brain literature can touch on spirituality.

"feel excitement about where you are,
not about where you will be."

Yesterday, on the train, I was struck by Campbell's words on page 144: "feel excitement about where you are, not about where you will be."

Very apt for the season of Advent!

The past 24 days have been like a long walk towards the exciting destination of Christmas.  I think it's really good that the church tells us to value waiting, preparing, journeying, and not just rush straight into Christmas. There are lots of voices telling us we can have it all now, instant gratification, instant cash, ... including (sadly I think) some voices within the church that we call prosperity teaching.

'On Foot Through Africa' is such a good read, precisely because it is far more than a list of successful arrivals in linear fashion across the map.  Campbell integrates experiences of suffering, defeat, sickness and fear.  She isn't scared to admit when she's the cause of her own troubles, her self-absorption or insensitivity to her fellow adventurers.

Integrating the hardships along the way turns her book from a list into a story.  And stories are way better than lists, if you ask me!

I think if our lives are all about the destinations, then we are like lists.  And lists are not the most exciting (or human) of documents.  Lives that are just lists of successes, are fragmented, indigested lives, sort of semi-fictional accounts selected carefully to project our best side in the hope of getting a job.

It's the long times in between successes that make our lives into stories.  The journey.  The long hours waiting, hoping, persevering.  That's what makes a good novel: connecting fibres, texture and depth, shade and light.

I like what Ffyona advises herself.  She won't make the journey, let alone enjoy it, if she can't choose to be excited about the now.

I have to learn to be patient along my path to finding out if I am to be trained for ordination or not.  It would feel great to be relieved of the wait, but the journey itself is good for me.  I dare say the same has been true during times of illness - I've learned more from suffering than from the cure (great as that is when at last it comes).

God's long, patient pedagogy can only be experienced fully if we learn to wait.  Advent is good for that.  And good for us.  It trains us for the hard bits of life we often want to pray away, fast-forward past to the end.
I've enjoyed my Advent reading, and letting an unlikely author speak to me about my faith journey.  Has the makings of a good New Year resolution ...
... but for now, I'm off to enjoy The Christmas Story.  Merry Christmas!

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