Local Wisdom: Advent is Countercultural

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The humble beginnings of Christmas decorations in our flat – a tree and Advent candles. More decorations (and pictures to show you!) coming soon.

Hello friends!

I love the Christmas season – I always have. I’m sure it’s combination of things: food, music, gifts, decorations, snow, everyone being slightly more pleasant than normal. I am guilty of singing Christmas songs year round, and it’s a bit of a relief when I can start singing them in public without weird looks from everybody else. There’s nothing quite like the look you get from a stranger in the grocery store when you’re caught singing “O Come Emmanuel” in July. 😉

But in recent years I’ve started to dread the actual day of Christmas, as if I have to brace myself for all the things we have to prepare and what MIGHT GO WRONG if we’re not ready for everything.

I’m sure all of you who celebrate Christmas can relate. There is so much junk that gets in the way of understanding the relevance of the Christmas story. Now is the time of year when we scramble to finish things before deadlines at work and school before we can take a few days off. Ads convincing us to shop for the latest and greatest plastic things infiltrate even the most intimate of spaces – personal relationships and social settings become opportunities for us to be judged on our hospitality and generosity based on what we’ve bought.  This is especially maddening when the normal life things like illness, unemployment, challenging relationships, and the loss of loved ones get overshadowed by the “Christmas cheer” via plastic, electronics, and overexertion of our bodies’ energy stores.

WHAT THE HECK.

Moving to London has helped me START sorting out cultural expectations for Christmas from the genuine theological implications of the Advent season.

Before I moved here, I was excited to experience Christmas in London (so many of my favorite Christmas pop culture images come from stories set in Victorian England…and the Muppets…and Doctor Who.) But now the ways businesses use these images to hook people into buying “stuff” is less romantic than when I first came. The shops’ Christmas season began at the end of September since Halloween isn’t popular here, and Thanksgiving doesn’t exist (but this is essentially same period of time for the Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas shopping time frame in the US.) The cultural expectation to celebrate by buying is overwhelming.

To honor Jesus’ story in Advent, I would like lift up three individuals’ messages on this first Sunday of Advent. Some local wisdom to counter the advertisements’ messages:

  1. Mary and Joseph were literally the first people in history to accept Jesus into their lives. We can learn valuable lessons from them – living with the stigma of Mary’s extra-marital pregnancy, fleeing as political refugees when King Herod killed countless baby boys to find this other king he’d heard rumors of, and their REPEATED calls to obey God in raising this little person who would grow up to save the world. Following Christ is a lifestyle that will cost us the respect of other worldly forces, but it is SO FULL of love and joy.  – Andy Barnett in his message “Learning from a couple called Joseph and Mary” this morning at All Saints Church in Peckham
  2. We may feel like we have to “brace ourselves” for Advent, but the reality is that Jesus comes to us today as he did on that night long ago. He comes humbly, simply, quietly in the night when no one is paying attention. The opposite of us keeping life under control, Advent is about letting God surprise us with love, without fear of being imperfect. Jesus is the definition of God loving us in our mess. – Jenny Dawkins, the curate at All Saints Church in Peckham
  3. As Christians, we are called to enter into the story that God writes with people’s lives. There is always light and dark present on this Earth. From a British perspective with Celtic roots, Advent is a time to practice trust and hope in God even as nights grow longer and days grow colder. It is a time to pay attention to creation as it settles into the dormancy of winter. Even in a bustling city like London, it is a time to listen to the deeper resonances of creation’s power, and God’s power within creation – to the intimate songs and whispers that can transform our hearts as we journey together. – Janet Morley; poet, editor, Christian aid worker who spoke on her Advent poetry anthology, haphazard by starlight, today in St. Paul’s Cathedral

Advent is a time to wait and prepare. But it’s also a reminder of the kind of waiting and preparing for God we should be doing year-round anyway. How can I prepare the way for God today? In this conversation? With this meal? How can I be more gracious with myself? With others?  How can I be more aware of creation?  How can we prepare the way for God in community? How can we still let God surprise us? How can I do all of this when my life is insane, I have laundry to do, dinner to cook, and a family gathering to get to before they start lunch without us???

Blessings on all our journeys as we navigate the world in Advent…and all the other times of the year. 😉

Peace!

Emily

A Day in the Life

Hello friends!

It’s a month later than I planned, but it’s done! As promised, here is the post about what my general routine is, where I go, what I do, etc. My day begins:

I WAKE UP! But how well I slept the night before affects how easy it is for me to get out of bed. I’ll be honest, falling and staying sleep was a huge problem when I first got here (I think it was one of the ways my body attempted to cope with the anxiety of being in a new place.) Fortunately, this has been getting much better in the last few weeks! Sometimes it’s really easy to just pop right out of bed, and have a miraculously productive morning that may include a devotion/jog/walk/yoga/meditation…I went running twice last week before leaving for work, and I like to sit on the patio while I eat my breakfast when the chairs aren’t wet from any rain. Other mornings are me rolling out of bed 15 minutes before walking out the door, scrambling just to put on some clothes, throwing some lunch food in my bag, and eating breakfast en route. But most mornings are something between these two extremes.

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Peckham Park Primary School

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Oliver Goldsmith Primary School

I WALK TO WORK! On Monday and Wednesday, I walk down the street for 5 minutes to get to Peckham Park Primary School. I like to say hello to students and their families as they’re walking to school, too, since they live so close to my flat. On Tuesday and Friday, I walk with Mathea (my flat mate and fellow intern) to Oliver Goldsmith Primary School over in Camberwell (the district just East of Peckham.) This walk is a bit longer, taking about 25 minutes, and includes two different crosswalks where some really friendly people in reflective vests with flags stop traffic to assist us across the street. The first times I walked these streets, the people/vehicles/chaotic dashing across the street was really overwhelming. I’m pretty used to it now, and it’s strange to look back on my initial reactions to the seemingly “strange” things about my new neighborhood. Thursday mornings I spend in the Springboard main office in Central London, so I walk a few minutes to get to the bus stop. Then, I get to ride one of those iconic, bright red, double-decker buses for twenty minutes to get to the office! On a perfect morning, there is a top deck seat right in the front available, and the SUN IS OUT – this makes for a beautiful view of some of the city with the bright blue sky beyond and above the London architecture. Then I take the bus back to Peckham for an afternoon in the Springboard room at Harris Peckham Academy, the secondary school.

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A view of London from the Springboard room at Oliver Goldsmith at 4:15 PM a couple of weeks ago. It’s so dark! But can you see St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard?

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A beautiful street I found with a new acquaintance after church between Peckham and East Dulwich.

I WORK! I work for a London-based charity called Springboard for children. Through Springboard, I teach literacy to twelve students in the primary schools – I teach each of them one-to-one in 40 minute long lessons. We practice our reading and writing with books, games, and visual or kinetic activities that help the kids engage their literacy in a variety of ways. On Thursdays, I’ve recently begun teaching literacy lessons in the Harris Peckham Academy Secondary School as well, which is another new and exciting experience. It’s very different from the primary schools, but the needs and trends of the students I interact with are generally the same. The students who come to Springboard for Children usually have a lot of other challenges stacked against them in British society, like poverty, unstable family situations, malnutrition, special education needs, or learning English as a foreign language. A struggle I’ve had as I’ve been settling into my volunteer placement is figuring out what my role is in helping these children. I teach literacy to students who struggle in reading and writing, but the things that make it hard for my students to succeed in the classroom are outside of my power to change. It’s most definitely outside of my power to change the kind of support the students get at home, the institutionalized racism and classism that keeps their families down, the poverty they may experience, the way that society adjusts to their special educational needs. On the flip side, there are countless children around the world who experience variations of these learning and LIFE barriers every day, and I have the privilege of seeing what the faces of justice and injustice look like in this London context. It is also a privilege to work alongside such amazing people as well…my supervisors and fellow tutors are inspiring people, and I take comfort knowing that we can wrestle with difficulties of our roles together. 🙂 (You can look forward to some pictures of me and my co-workers, although I won’t be allowed to post pictures of my students for their protection.)

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The sky on my way home from work last week – it looks like candy floss! (aka cotton candy in British English)

I HANG OUT AT HOME! I come home to my flat in the late afternoon/early evening. According to Google, London’s sunset today was at 3:57 PM…so it really doesn’t have to be that late for me to call it evening now. 😉 I’m usually hungry right away, so I cook dinner and usually snack later. If I need to go shopping for boring grownup things, like food or toilet paper, I can do that as well. I don’t have much of a routine at home, but I started to go running more now that I’m not afraid of being out after dark in a big city! I’ve learned that if I go running where there are other people about, especially families, everything’s okay. I also joined a Christmas Choir at my new church, and we rehearse every Monday night for the carol singing we’ll have in a few weeks. I had been watching a bunch of Doctor Who (a popular BBC sci-fi television show that I started watching a few years ago…words cannot describe how much I love Doctor Who!) in my evenings to get ready for the big 50th Anniversary episode last Saturday. I also enjoy watching the BBC news on the telly (aka television) in my flat, reading A LOT of books for fun, writing in my journal, hanging out with my flat mates, doing art projects, and exploring Peckham. There are some other things around Peckham I’m looking into like book clubs at the Peckham library, and some community choirs. And since we live in London, there are plenty of things we can go out and do (museums, the theatre, music concerts) but since we teach energetic young people each morning, we stick around the Peckham area on the weeknights…unless there’s something extra special.

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The bus ride to the Camden Markets a couple Saturdays ago…this is underneath the bridge at the Elephant and Castle tube station. This is the route I’ve gone running along, as well as the bus route to the Springboard main office or other Central London destinations.

WEEKENDS! Generally a combination of “playing tourist” in Central London, cleaning the flat, going to the grocery store, practicing my amateur photography skills with the camera I was given before I moved to London, movie nights and exploring with my flat mates, bringing tea to the library and enjoying the literary atmosphere while reading, visiting various coffee shops, exploring my neighborhood, going to church at All Saints Church in Peckham, doing art projects, shopping at markets, going to museums and galleries, letter-writing, talking with strangers, Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, hanging out with other volunteers…and I’m looking into taking a lesson on how to ride a bicycle in London traffic! Also, I’ve discovered how fun it is to go running in the city. There is so much to see!! And I surprised myself last Friday by going for a five-mile run. On Sunday? Eight miles. I am a sprinter, not a long distance runner, so I’m just as confused as you are. Apparently, London has this magical ability to turn Emily Kimball into a long distance runner??

I love living here.

Adventure is out there! 🙂

Cheers! (British for “thanks! good bye! I toast to your health!”)
Emily

P.S. Please let me know if there are specific things you want to know about my experience. I love sharing stories, but I don’t always know where to start since there’s so gosh darn much to share. I’ve already received a request to talk about Christianity, religion, and spirituality in London and the UK (comparing and contrasting with the US)…but if there’s ANYTHING that piques your interest (from the more abstract ideas about gender roles or human migration or the British education system, to the more concrete things like how I do laundry or ride a bus or make tea) just tell me. 🙂

8 Million Voices

I have been in London for a week and a half. Really? I’ve experienced too much for that to be all.

The noise is overwhelming. There are more than 8 million voices in this city. Musical cacophony.

Life is filling my soul at a rate I’m not used to. So much has happened in these last eleven days. I’ve been journaling like a madwoman, quietly allowing my voice to fill pages of paper that only I will ever read. My emotions are stretched to the limit and it wasn’t until today that I felt I could sit down and just tell you what life has been like without falling apart on top of the computer. 😉

I’m struggling with myself about what I should share with you. There are so many voices in London, and try as I might, I can’t sum up London with one voice. But maybe that’s the first thing I’m meant to learn from my time here.

So here are some voices –

  • Victoria and Chrissie were the enthusiastic voices accompanied by waves, smiles, hugs and warm welcomes for us newly arrived Christian missionaries from America.

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    My fellow UK Young Adult in Global Mission volunteers. This is us together at orientation in Chicago, and now we’re spread all over England.

  • Linda’s voice was the warm motherly one that calmed Katharine and I on the way to our new house and told us about our internship for the coming year.
  • I can only understand a fraction of the voices in the grocery store, the post office, and bank in my neighborhood of Peckham. Languages from around the world intersect right here in my new home, and my knowledge of English and French will only allow me to really listen to some of them. Fortunately, I can watch their facial expressions, see parents chasing after children down the produce aisle and guess what they might be saying.
  • The woman at the bus stop on our first day heading to the Springboard office was singing to herself, beautifully and LOUD – I couldn’t understand the words of her African heritage, but she seemed to be lost in the wonder of her morning, her eyes piercing and vibrant.
  • The British Caribbean man who taught the Zumba class I attended kept telling our group to add more “flay-va” to our dancing – “This is Zumba. We’re supposed to make fools of ourselves!”
  • Lovely French words drift through my window from the next door neighbors who devote so much time to their garden. There are a lot of other French speakers around here, and the African and Caribbean dialects make it hard for me to understand. But it’s like dark chocolate for my ears.

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    To help the Peckham Library to better meet your needs, let them know more about you! This part of the form gives you a taste of the diversity in my neighborhood. How would you identify yourself according to the categories given? Do you think these categories are fair?

  • The children’s laughter on the playgrounds in my neighborhood is so full of joy – the world would be such a better place if grownups weren’t afraid of being happy.
  • Two other Christian missionaries from Thailand and Italy I met on the street asked if they could pray with me. It was a beautiful moment full of love and empathy.
  • The stranger who greeted me by telling me “I love your smile” …and that was it. He walked away and I’ll probably never see him again, but he made me feel so special in this city of 8 million voices.
  • The voices, or lack of voice, of all the unmet need I have witnessed even in my short time here are daunting…boundaries made of prejudices against race, sexuality, class, language, and citizenship keep a lot of voices from being heard even within the borders of a single city. But I’ve only scratched the surface with the people I’ve seen in less than two weeks…
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The Springboard for Children Interns: (left to right) Christian, Emily, Katharine, Mathea. We’re still in training, but we start tutoring soon!

And then as I lay in the grass near the Houses of Parliament on Saturday morning, reading London by Edward Rutherfurd, I hear the voices of three consecutive high school groups. I can’t understand the languages of their European home countries, but I can see that they are wide eyed, wearing skinny jeans, and taking a lot of pictures with iconic London scenery behind them. I wonder how they can possibly say they have really heard the voice of London by only listening to Big Ben strike the hour. But I need to get off my high horse, given that I have been in London less than two weeks. Have I really listened to London yet?

Here’s my prayer — God, please help me listen. Really listen. Help me listen with not only my ears, but with my hands and feet as well. With my eyes. With my nose and mouth. It’s overwhelming to even attempt deep listening – all of this life would make a human explode if it had to wrap its finite brain around all the souls and sounds. But maybe that’s why we have you — to brace our skeletons, our muscles, our emotion — as you allow us to expand beyond all the previous limits. Thank you for the grace to grow.

Amen