LIVE James Taylor! LIVE Hairspray! LIVE nits! (What I’m into – July 2018)

Welcome to my monthly round-up! If you weren’t already aware, I share plenty of this stuff through the month on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Do check them out if you haven’t already – oh, and don’t forget to sign up to my mailing list if you’re not already on there…I promise not to spam you!

Books

OK, don’t judge me, but this month I have mainly been reading about sex.

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Before you judge (ha! I knew you were going to!), let me tell you just how great this book is. Sheila Wray Gregoire, the author, starts with the principle that, despite our culture telling us that the way to sexual fulfilment is to have multiple partners, the best sex is actually found in monogamous relationships, where two people have committed to each other for life.

That’s not the end of the story, though, is it? We all know that we live in a fallen world, and marriages aren’t always brilliant. So what I love about A Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex is that the author deals head-on with many of the problems that married couples might be dealing with, which could adversely affect their sex life: pornography, health problems, affairs, sexual activity before marriage, lack of friendship/socialising outside of the bedroom, and plenty more.

The author is very, VERY blunt in this book – and that’s actually what I really appreciated! Yes, she’s writing from a Biblical perspective, but she has none of the shame/taboo/embarrassment which, sadly, often arises from the church’s teaching on sex. She calls things for what they are, and encourages all of us to work on three sides of our sexual relationships: the physical side, the friendship side, and the spiritual side, with plenty of practical tips along the way.

She’s written this mainly for an engaged/newly married audience (it would be a great pressie if you knew of a Christian girl getting married this summer), but I think she covers so much ground that it is useful reading at any stage of a marriage.

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Serving Without Sinking is an absolutely fab book to read if you’re feeling, or have ever felt, burnt out by Christian service. It’s full of grace and wise words, and helped me to realign my priorities and rethink why I’m doing what I’m doing. Find out more in this short video clip.

I’ve also been enjoying several of my downloads from the Ultimate Homemaking Bundle (which, I’m pleased to announce, will be on sale again in November – hurrah!). A few which have stood out for me: Choose Rest (a really great online course in Biblical self-care), Clutter: Sorted (a helpful and practical guide to decluttering), and DD and I are working through the 15 Minute Marriage Makeover (a short task to do each evening for a month, although realistically it will probably take us three…).

Food

Barbecue season continued, although we ran out of steam a little after the World Cup, it has to be said.

It was our anniversary, and DD and I visited The Ivy, which opened in York last year. We were generously gifted a voucher for Christmas, so finally got round to using it!

The food was good, although we were quite surprised how ‘non-foody’ it was! We were expecting fine dining, and were presented with food which you might find on a gastropub menu. I tried to choose the most quirky items on the menu: a crispy duck salad for starters, followed by a monkfish and prawn Keralan curry, with a delicious chocolate bomb (and hot butterscotch sauce to melt it) for dessert.

It certainly didn’t disappoint in quality, but as folk who like more surprise and innovation when they eat out, we probably wouldn’t return.

Music

We went to see James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt and – oh my goodness – it was one of my top five gigs ever! OK, so we were around 30 years younger than most of the audience, but I argue that these are the BEST sorts of gigs, because all the best songwriters are from the 1970s anyway!

Raitt has an incredible voice, and expert guitar skills, and I pondered how I might switch Missy’s allegiance over from Little Mix. It seems to me that a 70-year-old, fully-clothed woman who knows how to ROCK is a much stronger feminist influence for my daughter than four pitch-corrected young ladies who can barely put together one outfit between the four of them.

(Sorry, no offence, LM – your songs are catchy – but you’re not exactly the Bangles.)

James Taylor – well, what can I say? WOW. He’s still got it – the voice, the guitar, the humour – and he played ALL my favourite songs. You’ve got a friend, Something in the way she moves, Fire and rain, Carolina in my mind…they were all there.

AND I nearly died when he performed Carole King’s ‘Up on the Roof’, as this is actually her song, on which he duetted with her a few years ago, so I wasn’t expecting that he’d do it without her. But he did! And it was all kinds of spine-shiveringly fantastic!

(I shared the YouTube clip of their duet a little while back, but it’s so good that here it is again!)

ŪTaylor’s band were F.A.N.T.A.S.T.I.C. – all 11 of them! They couldn’t have complemented his songs any better – when you have a Brazilian samba percussionist, an incredible violinist and some stonkin’ brass players augmenting an already fabulous keys/guitars/drums outfit, could life actually get any better?

All ready for the gig!

Stage and Screen

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I went to see Hairspray with some friends and totally loved it! Despite only recognising a couple of the songs, they were all really singable and catchy, and the choreography was brilliant. A totally fun show which anyone can enjoy, even if you don’t know anything about it in advance.

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Missy and I also went to see The Greatest Showman. Yeah, I know, we’re about 6 months behind everyone else, but cut us some slack – we spend our days managing chaos. What a brilliant film! Of course we knew most of the songs already (thank you YouTube and an obsessed 6 year old), and they’re great, but also the plot, the costumes, the acting, the dancing. Fabulous.

We saw it at the relaunch of our local community cinema which I’d never taken much notice of, but it was so lovely and I’m definitely going back! A bunch of film-mad volunteers have set this up, and it has such a lovely atmosphere. They even have an interval (with ice creams, yes), and a raffle – what’s not to love?! If you’re local, do check it out.

My articles

On the blog, I shared 5 reasons I’m grateful not to own a home and some thoughts on keeping children safe in a ‘public’ home like our Vicarage. I mused about whether end-of-term teacher gifts were compulsory, and reflected on how I’m changing my parenting to connect with my oldest son.

I also shared the first of what will be two or three posts, reflecting on the brilliant Living Out conference I attended in June.

I guest-blogged for To Love, Honor and Vacuum (the blog of Sheila Wray Gregoire, see ‘Books’ above) Ten Ways to Enjoy Awesome Vacations – Even with Young Kids. I am hugely grateful to Sheila for giving me these opportunities to blog on her site and reach a Canadian/American audience! She’s worked so hard for so many years to build her blogging/writing/speaking ministry, and yet she is so generous in sharing her space with not just me, but many aspiring writers.

Writing What the Church needs to Know about Single Adopters for Home for Good was an informative and humbling experience. Please read it – it has the seal of approval from the many single adopters who contributed. This really is what they want the Church to know!

And, for More than Writers, I blogged on How to Build a Blog Audience.

Other articles

In order to research my piece on single adopters, I found this Christian adopter’s Open Letter to her Church incredibly articulate and incisive.

This piece, on Sheila’s blog, about Vashti – upholding her as a strong feminist icon in the Bible – is just brilliant. It had crossed my mind before that Vashti had been unfairly treated, but I hadn’t given her much more thought to be honest, so I loved the way Sheila totally unpacked this.

My new favourite blog is Abby King, who posts a devotional every weekend. If I had to pick a favourite post, it would be When you’re full of doubt, this is what you need to know. Give her a whirl!

IRL*

*This stands for ‘In Real Life’, and I am so cool that I’ve only just realised it. I’ve decided to henceforth adopt it for this section of the ‘What I’m Into’ posts, and probably overuse it other blog posts. You’ve been warned.

* We had nits. Again. Urgh.

* PTA stuff stayed busy, with our end-of-term disco, plus three ‘Freeze Fridays’, where the lollies and ice creams we sold went down very well in July’s hot weather. We had a new committee member join us, and our Treasurer stepped down. Highs and lows, but looking forward to a new year with excitement! (I’m planning to blog about my PTA experiences soon – would this be of interest to anyone? If any of you are PTA people, please wave a flag in my direction – it would be great to know!)

* Mister went to camp for five days without us. In case you didn’t quite get the enormity of that: I am old enough to have a child who can go to camp for five days without us. This is HUGE. He had an amazing time, went abseiling and kayaking, made new friends, remembered to change his underwear most days, and didn’t want to come home. I, on the other hand, felt like a piece of me was missing for five days, and wept like I’d lost him in battle. Save me, Jesus.

This was my July (linking up with Leigh Kramer). How was yours?

Also…affiliate links. This post contains some. You know the score by now: click through and make a purchase, and I may earn a teensy bit of commission at no extra cost to yourself. Thank you!

Identity and Culture – some thoughts from the Living Out conference

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Image credit: Pixabay

I mentioned recently that I’d been to the Living Out conference in June.

I was so excited to hear Tim and Kathy Keller speak, because last year I read their fabulous My Rock My Refuge for my quiet times, and this year I’m going through The Way of Wisdom.

But I was also hooked by the topic. Sexual orientation and the church is something I’ve been thinking and reading about for several years now – and, let’s be honest, we all need to grapple with this, don’t we? (Click here for a highly recommended book on the subject that I read earlier this year.)

Needless to say, from the first minute that Tim Keller got up to speak, I was typing notes as fast as my little fingers could move! There really was some stellar material across the day, and over the next two or three blog posts I’m going to share a few things I found interesting.

I’m not going to plagiarize the Kellers or any of the other speakers by repeating great chunks of their work, but plan to share a few things that I’d been thinking about anyway, which the day’s teaching helped to clarify for me, plus a few of my reflections in the weeks since the conference.

This topic is highly emotive for many people, so I hope my writing will be gracious, humble and compassionate in tone – and, in turn, that you will be kind and gentle if you choose to engage with anything I’ve written. This is not about winning an argument, this is about wrestling and grappling together, as we seek Christ first.

The day was themed around the idea of ‘Identity’, and the first session of the day was on ‘Identity and Culture’. It was like an undergraduate sociology lecture, and I found it fascinating!

Have you ever thought how ‘invisible’ our culture is around us? How easy it is to take so much for granted because of the time and place we’re living? Keller (assume Tim, for this post – I’ll talk about Kathy’s input in a future post) gave the analogy of a fish being totally surrounded by water, and yet not really aware that it’s there.

Every culture throughout history and across the world has had its own way of giving its members an identity – but without asking permission! So we end up in a place where identity information is kind of being imposed upon us – what is acceptable in our culture, what is not, where we get our value, etc.

However, in every single culture, Christians have formed their identity in a radically different way. We find our identity through the revelation of God’s love in the Bible. We are children of God, we are saved by Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit living within us – these are constants, regardless of which historical period you are living in, or which continent you’re inhabiting.

In other words, our identity is going to look rather at odds with the culture around us. The good news is: it always has done. We are in good company.

At the start of the conference, a guy gave his testimony to encourage us. I won’t share it all here, but suffice to say he is a gay male who has chosen a life of celibacy. One thing he said hit me hard. He said (excuse the paraphrase): “The church needs to stop talking about sacrificial living for gay Christians, and start talking about the sacrificial living required of all of us.”

Wow. And totally true.

I acknowledge the different arguments and tricky grey areas when discussing the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. I fully understand that people will come to different conclusions regarding what is said about unmarried sexual relationships, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and homosexual practice.

But I also believe that, wherever we stand on the ‘debate’, actually the most important thing in all of this is to give ourselves to God wholeheartedly, and I worry that maybe sometimes we come to a conclusion so firmly and forcefully that we’re not open to any kind of change that God might be whispering to us – and this happens on both sides of the fence.

If a gay Christian reads the Bible, seeks the Lord for wisdom, and comes to the conclusion that he/she may enter into a monogamous sexual relationship with someone of the same sex, I’m not sure anyone is able to disagree. After all, everyone is reading the same Bible, yet coming to different conclusions. Hasn’t God given us our minds to use in this way? Reading, absorbing and turning things over in our minds until we find some kind of way forward?

But if any of us come to know Christ for ourselves, yet resolutely refuse to change a particular area of our lives – be it our jobs, our money, our family relationships, our character or our sexual practice – is that not opposed to the message of the gospel?

Isn’t the whole point of turning to Christ that we do just that – turn towards Christ, seeking to obey whatever he might ask of us? It might not mean that there’s anything inherently wrong with what we’re currently doing, but we still need to be open to God asking us to do things differently.

I can give you an example. When we had our birth children, there wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with that, we weren’t being disobedient. After all, we’d read the Bible, and believed that ‘Go forth and multiply’ was to be taken literally!

And yet, shortly afterwards, God called us to adoption, and we obeyed. Would it have been right for us to say, before God, “This is our family, this is how it’s going to look, and nothing’s going to change that”? No, of course not! We needed to be open to God transforming us in every area of our lives, including what our family would look like.

So I guess my first ‘big thought’ from this conference is twofold. Firstly: if we are Christians, God calls all of us to Himself – and this will involve sacrifice. Rather than pointing out specks in others’ eyes, shouldn’t I be looking at the enormous logs in my own? (And they are enormous, and they certainly are plural.)

The second aspect is this. As Christians, our calling is simple: to give all of ourselves to God. This inevitably means that we hold onto earthly things a little more loosely than if we were not Christians. Is our sexuality also something we can hold a little looser than our culture would have us believe?

I’ll be continuing with some thoughts and questions over the next week or so. In the meantime I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

(Incidentally, the image I’ve used above – courtesy of Pixabay – is absolutely spot-on for what I learnt, and am still processing, from the conference. We are all unique – fearfully and wonderfully made, with totally unique fingerprints – and yet LOVE. Love covers all, love joins us together, love covers differences in opinion and different interpretations of Scripture. More next time!)

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Adoption and Vicarages: How do I keep children safe in a ‘public’ family space?

'Bonjour' door sign with text reading "Adoption & Vicarages: how do I keep children safe in a 'public' family space?

The adoption process involves several home visits.

Your social worker doesn’t need to see a show home (thank flippin’ goodness for that) – but they do need to see that you have the space for a new child/ren, that you’re able to keep the home clean and tidy enough to nurture human life, and that there are no obvious safety hazards for a young child.

Our situation, as the fortunate inhabitants of a ‘free’ home (my husband is a vicar – the vicarage comes with the job) had its pros and cons when it came to these visits.

The pros were plentiful: we have enough bedrooms for an extra child or two (vicarages are supposed to have at least four bedrooms as standard), there is plenty of space to play downstairs, and we have a decent-sized, child-friendly garden.

Location is also important, as isolation can be a huge cause of post-adoption depression (as it can be with post-partum depression). On that front we ticked all the boxes too, being within an easy walk of shops, cafes, the library, our church, several toddler groups, a gymnastics centre, a swimming pool – and we live directly opposite the primary school.

In many ways, our home and its location were a gift to us (and our social worker) as we moved closer towards our adoption panel.

But on the second occasion that our home was ‘inspected’, there was something we couldn’t hide.

It was blindingly obvious that someone was living in our spare room.

There was more luggage than one might bring for a night or two’s stay, so we couldn’t have fudged it, even if we’d wanted to.

The man in question was a friend of ours, a new member of our church, a Dad of similar-aged children to our own, and someone we trusted. He’d had some accommodation problems which had left him temporarily homeless, and we were happy to step in. He must have stayed for two or three weeks at the most – no big deal.

If our social worker had visited on either side of that fortnight, she’d have known no different. And, by this point, she’d got to know and trust us, so there was never any question of her stopping us from going any further in the process, but her visit, and her discovery, provoked an important question.

“With all the ways your home is used for others, how do you ensure the safety of your children?”

It was fair enough – and fortunately we were in a position to be able to answer with confidence, having already thought through this issue with our two birth children.

In order to share the answer with you, let me back-track a little and explain the concept of a vicarage. It’s a home owned usually by the Diocese, sometimes the church, which you and your family can live in rent-free for the duration of the time you’re working for a particular church.

Vicars might be single, or they may have large families – but the vicarage needs to be suitable for all – hence the four-bedroom rule (although some have five or six). They also tend to have gardens and be in a convenient location for the church/es for which the vicar is working.

Another aspect is that they are supposed to have two reception rooms – specifically so that the family has somewhere to go when meetings are being held – and also a study, which is supposed to be accessible without guests having to go through the house.

In other words, there is the expectation that the vicarage will be used for church meetings and business, but also that any family members should have some privacy and protection from those coming into the house.

Now there isn’t specifically an expectation that there will be a spare room dedicated to anyone who’s in need of urgent accommodation – but it kind of makes sense that, if you’re a Christian and someone is in need and you have the space, you will accommodate them. I’d hope this would be true of any Christian with a spare room, not just those living in a church-owned house.

The thing that makes all this more complicated is that, inevitably, a vicar’s work will bring him/her into contact with vulnerable people, some of them very damaged.

So, when your home is also a work-space, and when that work involves vulnerable adults, it’s important to put up some boundaries to protect your family, not least if you have adopted or foster children who are particularly susceptible. Here is a longer version of what we told our social worker.

We are careful about who we invite into our home

Yes, we’ve had alcoholics, recent prison graduates, thieves and drug users in our home for meals or to watch a sports match. But they’ve all been people with whom my husband has built a relationship through a church ministry. Often I get to know them too, and they become friends.

Our boundary is that we wouldn’t invite cold-callers into our own home – if someone unknown to us were to ring our doorbell and ask for a meal or some accommodation, we would support them in getting what they needed, but we wouldn’t physically bring them into our home.

And it should go without saying that we would never tolerate drug use, or excessive drinking, in our home. Fortunately, those invited in have always honoured our family in this respect.

We are careful about when we invite people into our home

We love to host meals for others, especially Sunday lunch, which we’ve found can be a great ‘levelling’ meal for lots of different people to come together. But this is a specific invitation for a specific time of the week. And while we have an open home to those we know well, we are careful to invite more vulnerable/less well-known people at specific, appropriate times.

The boundary here is that if I’m home alone without my husband and someone comes to the door, I’ll have a conversation on the doorstep but won’t invite them in. And we’ve never initiated the kind of culture where people can just show up (although we absolutely have this culture with those we know well).

We are careful about who stays the night

A meal is one thing – an overnight stay is totally different. There are numerous safeguarding issues involved when someone, say, with a criminal record is in your home with your kids while you’re asleep, not to mention the awkwardness of having to shoo them out the next morning.

The friend in question who was staying temporarily with us when our social worker visited was already a trusted friend, someone we saw regularly and had got to know reasonably well. He wasn’t a risk to our children, he was not addicted to drugs or alcohol, and he has no criminal record.

Our boundary here is that we err on the side of caution. Those who stay are either pre-planned friends and family, or local friends who suddenly find themselves in need of a bed – I think there have been around four of these over the last four years in this job, so not a huge amount.

We supervise our children at all times

This sounds obvious, but we make sure we’re always with our children – that they never have any 1:1 opportunities with those who visit. We don’t nip out and leave others in charge of them. The only people to babysit are trusted friends and family.

As much as anything else, this protects the adult in question. If we have a vulnerable adult staying with us, we need to protect them too – and having the responsibility of looking after your host’s kids is not a burden they need.

Whilst sacrificial hospitality should be a hallmark of all Christian homes, not just vicarages, the sacrifices we make should not involve our children.

After all, giving a loving, stable home to children who otherwise wouldn’t have one is a radical and sacrificial act of hospitality in itself.

If God has called you to care for vulnerable children, they are your first priority and nothing you do with your home should endanger them. Instead, our homes should be places of refuge and safety, peace and joy.

But, as God directs, you will find ways of sharing these things appropriately and safely with those outside of your family too.

Like this? Find plenty more adoption articles on my Pinterest board.

Here are three samples to whet your appetite:

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How do I connect with my 8 year old son?

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A year ago, my son moved from Year 2 to Year 3.

I thought this was simply a matter of moving up a year, like Year 1 to 2. Apparently not. There’s been a noticeable change in my son’s attitude – and my friends say the same about their sons too. These 8-year-olds are displaying more sulkiness, stroppiness, rudeness and even aggression.

Mister’s teacher taught his class in Year 1. Although she’s enjoyed having them both years (and done a great job both times), she’s reported increased confidence and cheekiness. In short, they’re more likely to tell her when she’s made a mistake!

This change in attitude has given us a new challenge as parents. How do we establish boundaries? Should my son have his say in what he is and isn’t allowed? What discipline measures are effective?

But there’s another aspect to this. Just as I’m seeking ways to connect with my son, our interests are starting to diverge. His main two hobbies are football and video games – neither of which I have any interest in. (OK, save for the World Cup. That was pretty awesome. But otherwise.)

The fact that my son is not turning into me doesn’t come as a surprise – but I’m absolutely determined not to lose the relationship we’ve spent nearly nine years building.

For Mister’s first two years we did everything together. We went to groups, did baby yoga and massage, swam together, and made new friends. We hosted playdates, and went to play at others’ homes. We even hill-walked together on one occasion, just me and him.

Even with the addition of his sister, and later his brothers, I don’t think there’s anyone he’s spent more time with than me, nor I him, over the course of his life.

We have too much history, Mister and I. We were best buds from day one, and he taught me how to be a Mum. So – what do I do?

How do we connect with our sons when they start to drift away from being Mummy’s boys? How do we keep communication open so that boundaries can be discussed, negotiated and established? How do we stay close so that when adolescence hits, they still have a secure base to turn to?

I’ll admit I don’t have many answers. Please fire away in the comments, as I’d love to get some wisdom here! But here are a few things I’ve noticed in the last few months.

Shared rhythms

I’m grateful that, way back before we got to this stage, our family established daily shared rhythms. For example, we always eat our evening meal together at the table, and we always read the kids a bedtime story.

It might not seem like much, but these two simple acts ensure that, every day, I’m connecting meaningfully and positively with my son at least once or twice. Of course, we usually connect more than that, but for those days where we’re just not speaking the same language, at least we still have meals and story time.

Dad is important – but he still needs Mum

Mister has definitely made the switch from wanting me around to wanting his Dad around. He shares more interests with his Dad, and connects more easily.

For those of you who are single Mums to young sons, I encourage you to find some great male role models now so that, as your boy grows, he will have some people to relate to and let off steam with, when he can’t do that so easily with you.

But don’t delegate everything to Dad/other male role models! Even when he’s reluctant, I still make regular effort to converse with/hug/connect with my son. He won’t do it in front of his friends, but when we’re at home, he often asks to hold my hand, cuddle or kiss. Boys still need – and love – their Mums. Hooray for that!

Notice his positives

Yes, my son can be angsty and aggressive, shouty and rude. But, on the whole, he is a kind, thoughtful boy, who’s a great big brother and makes us proud every day.

If I’m not careful, I become the kind of nagging mum who no one wants to confide in. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t find ways of gently encouraging our boys to put their laundry in the basket or give us more than five minutes’ notice when they have homework due, but we can do this with grace and love, always remembering that our role is to teach our children these skills – they don’t just absorb them.

And the advice to ‘pick your battles’ is wise here too. I’ve learnt not to worry so much about the state of my son’s bedroom, for example, although I did intervene the other day when there was literally no floor to walk on. But, you know, other than that 😉

Don’t tease

Our family likes a bit of banter.

OK, we like a lot of banter. And we’re pretty sarcastic. We frequently have to check with each other whether we actually meant something for real, or were just using sarcasm.

But any banter at the expense of my son’s feelings is not good. Usually he enjoys being included in this way, and gives as good as he gets, but on occasion I’ve felt that we overstepped the mark in joking about something he’s passionate about.

It’s easy to make fun of how much Mister loves geeky football videos or Roblux – but the reality is that he’s trying to work out who he is (and who he’s not). If my wisecracks are purely about trying to score points from those listening, if it’s all about making me sound like I’m witty and quick and cool, at the expense of my son’s feelings, then this needs to be stopped. I’m effectively saying ‘Your identity is wrong’ or even ‘My needs override yours’ and that is really hurtful.

So I’m learning to raise up and encourage my son – particularly in front of others.

Try and show an interest

Even if it kills me (and it hasn’t yet), if I have a few spare minutes when the other kids aren’t making demands I’ll sit with my son while he plays Minecraft or watches football, and ask questions and try and learn about his hobbies.

This is kind of obvious good advice, I guess, and yet it’s so hard to actually put into practice when football is SO BORING and video games are SO NONSENSICAL.

But have you ever been on a walking tour led by someone passionate about what they’re showing you round? I think we all catch someone’s excitement when their eyes light up and they explain a new idea to us enthusiastically.

It’s like this with my son. If I listen carefully to what he’s saying, I’ll catch his excitement. Football, video games, or whatever he’s into that week, won’t be the boring stuff it used to be. It will be exciting, because my son is excited about it, and he is making me excited about it!

Learning from our kids is actually really great, because they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our love and nurture – and now look at them! Teaching us all kinds of things we’d never have known otherwise!

Parenting Mister is a little harder this year than it was last year – but it’s us who need to adapt, not him. He is simply doing the hard work of growing up. We are here to love, support and guide him as he discovers the person he was made to be.

Do you have, or have you had, an 8 year old boy? Does any of this resonate? What’s your advice?

And, for those of you with girls, do you face challenges similar to these, or different, or is it much easier?! (Please tell me it is!)

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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End-of-term teacher gifts: are they compulsory?

End-of-term teacher gifts_.pngIt’s that point of the year when we’re all (figuratively, if not literally) crawling our kids to school, fingernails scraping the parched grass as we pant towards the finish line of next Friday.

Of course, we’re aware of just how much our children’s teachers have done for them this last year, and we are very grateful. In the back of our minds we vaguely wonder about getting some flowers or wine to say thank you, but in truth we’re totally exhausted and it seems like one more thing on the already bulging ‘to-do’ list.

So – what to do? Are gifts necessary at all? I mean, they get paid don’t they? And what if you’re just not convinced that your child’s teacher has done much for them this year? What if they’ve been off sick for 6 months? How do you respond then?

There are honestly no right answers to the question of whether to splash out on your kids’ teachers or not. If you don’t, you’re not stingy – and if you do, you’re not a sucker. But perhaps there are a few things we might think about before making our decision.

Our teachers get paid – but, often, go over and above.

Not knowing I was about to write on this subject, 6-year-old Missy informed me today that her teacher stays up late doing ‘all her school work’. I could have guessed this – she’s an excellent teacher, with creative ideas a-plenty, and a thorough diligence to each child’s progress – but the fact that my young child is already aware is worrying.

This is not an essay on teacher workload. But I think it’s worth considering that our children’s teachers regularly put in far more than what they’re paid to do. And I, for one, feel grateful for that. (I mean, I’d like them to work a little less hard and go to bed a little earlier, but I’m grateful for their commitment to my children.)

Presents are nice – but words mean more

Have you ever written a condolence card to a friend or family member, including all sorts of wonderful tributes to the deceased person – and then wondered why you didn’t tell them what you thought of them when they were alive?

I don’t think we’re generally very good at telling others how much we appreciate them. We kind of expect them just to know, don’t we? But who doesn’t like to be told?

Whether you go down the present route or not, a card with words from the heart means a hundred times more. When I was teaching, I used to keep any cards like this in a special folder, which would encourage me on hard days. Words of gratitude and encouragement really are a bolster to anyone, not least your child’s teacher as he/she prepares to take on a new class next year.

Please don’t worry about using perfect sentences, grammar or punctuation – you’re not being marked on any of this! Just tell your child’s teacher, in plain English, what you have appreciated about them this year.

A lot of it has to do with personality

I’m a gift person – I love to receive them and I love to give them. So I do teacher gifts at Christmas and in the Summer. They’re not expensive or extravagant, and usually they’re homemade and edible (at least in part), but I like to give something.

For one of my children, a few parents in the class have clubbed together to get vouchers for the staff. Many schools do this, as it means your contribution can be big or small, but still contributes to something worthwhile. If your school doesn’t do it, do what I did and just gather a few friends to chip in to something bigger. It’s nice to receive wine and chocolates, but also great to be able to buy something more substantial which might last a little longer and will remind the teacher of a particular class.

But it’s also OK if you’re not really that into gifts. Write a card or a letter. Make sure the teacher knows they’re appreciated. It doesn’t have to get pricey.

Who doesn’t get thanked?

I used to be a secondary teacher, and secondary teachers get naff all. Fair enough – each child maybe has 10-12 different teachers, so it’s just not practical to give to each one.

But the cards I did get were kept and treasured. As a Music teacher, I would inevitably receive cards from the parents of the kids who were really involved with Music. They were the ones who had more contact with me, and if your kid is good at Music, you’re likely going to be grateful for the teachers who are supporting and nurturing them as they develop.

And this makes me think: is there someone at your school who doesn’t get thanked? A specialist teacher? The Head? The receptionist? Who has really blessed you or your child this last year? Can you write them a card to show your appreciation?

What if my child’s teacher hasn’t done their duty this year?

This is a hard one. What do you do if you don’t feel gratitude this year? If your child hasn’t made progress, or there’s been a bullying issue which hasn’t been sorted, or you just haven’t ‘clicked’ with the teacher?

I think that in all but the very extreme cases, there is usually something you can find to thank your child’s teacher for. You may not have ‘clicked’, but that’s OK – we’re not going to be best buds with the teachers. Think objectively. Look at your child’s report. Where has he/she made progress? Don’t you think their teacher deserves a few words of thanks?

Has your child been happy in their class? Regardless of what you think of the teacher, if your child likes him/her, then that is reason enough to write a card.

And if there’s been an unresolved issue this year, try to be balanced. How much is actually down to teacher negligence – and how much is ‘just because’? Some things are just pretty impossible for a teacher to sort out, much as they might try. Bullies are very good at hiding their actions from teachers, so it can be very difficult to resolve a situation like this. Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t be concerned about it – just that it may not be entirely the teacher’s fault that it hasn’t been sorted out this year.

Over to you – do you do gifts? What do you get, and is there a class-organised present to contribute to? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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5 reasons I’m grateful not to own a home

hiking.jpgOne of the perks of being married to a vicar is free accommodation.

If I’m honest, the insecurity of not owning our own property has started to bug me over the last couple of years. I won’t say it ‘concerns’ me or ‘worries’ me, because I have no reason not to trust that God will provide everything we need in the future. But it does bug me.

As friends move on to their second, third, fourth property, gradually moving up the ladder, gaining space, building extensions and increasing their investment, we live fairly comfortably in a house which won’t be there when my husband retires. I sometimes wonder if we should be living on more of a shoestring than we do, and paying off a mortgage on a tiny holiday property somewhere in the sticks.

We did own a house, once. In fact we were amongst the first of our friends to buy a place, thanks mainly to the fact that we’d moved to the North and could afford something small. But when we relocated, we rented the property for a year then sold it. It didn’t seem right to keep it, as it wasn’t a natural rental property – but nor did it seem right to purchase a different property elsewhere.

It was the hubs who felt strongly about not re-investing in property. I wasn’t convinced at first, but after a fair bit of submitting the issue to God, I came to the same conclusion. And we still have no regrets about what we did (or didn’t do). But that doesn’t make it an easy decision to live with!

However, to counter any jealousy I may feel when others are moving into gorgeous homes, to which they can do whatever they like, I thought I’d write down five things to be grateful for about our situation – not with gritted teeth, but because I’m convinced this is where God wants us, and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). I’m trying to practise this truth!

We don’t pay maintenance costs.

While we cover the costs of the garden and (most) interior decor, all the essential maintenance is sorted out by the Diocese. If the boiler breaks, we don’t have to worry about finding the money to fix it. If there’s a leak, we don’t have to spend ages ringing round companies that might be able to come and sort it out immediately.

Sometimes there’s a tension between what we think is urgent, and what the Diocese thinks is urgent – but, on the whole, one call to their housing people, and things are sorted out pretty efficiently.

We get to live in a house that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

Vicarages have to have at least four bedrooms, plus two reception rooms (so that one can be a study – a vicarage is a work-place as well as a home). They tend to be generously-sized.

Not only would we not be able to afford the size of this house if we were in different jobs, but we also wouldn’t be able to afford the location of this house. While we’re not in a particularly affluent area, the fact that it only takes 15 minutes to walk into the city centre whacks on another few thousand to the value of our home.

Another advantage specific to our home is that houses like ours just don’t exist in our area. Usually if you want to be close to town, you sacrifice a garden. Or you move out of town to get a garden – and sacrifice convenience. We are fortunate to get both.

Obviously not all vicarages are exactly like ours, but they will all have their unique quirks and advantages which add value – value which most of us wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

It’s a constant reminder that our home belongs to God.

If you’re a Christian, everything you are and have belongs to God. But how easily we can slip into selfish ways with our homes, our money, our possessions and our families!

I totally do this all the time with the things I own and the people I love. But one thing I’m not so selfish with is our home. A vicarage is owned by the Diocese, and it’s supposed to be used to bless your church.

Whether it’s New Year drinks to say thank you to the people who lead at church, our weekly parents’ house group and creche, or (yet another) World Cup barbecue with the 20s group, our family has a wonderful opportunity to live in a space which is designed to bless others. How cool is that?!

(For the record, yes there are boundaries that need to be set, and we take these seriously. After all, we’ve been through the adoption process, where we had to justify the use of our home from a safeguarding perspective. But that’s another blog post!)

It helps us to empathise with those around us.

Many of the people we see regularly at the school gate, at church, or round and about, don’t own their own home – and, whilst some of these people are hoping to buy in the future, many won’t even entertain this notion, as there’s absolutely no way they’ll ever have a chance to get on the housing ladder.

It’s tempting to think that owning a home is a right, but actually it’s a luxury, and it’s only enjoyed by a minority across the world. Even in the UK, it was only 40-50 years ago that people started to buy homes en masse. Renting a property owned by someone else has generally been the way that people kept a roof over their head throughout history.

Not owning a home, and realising the many, many people around us who don’t own one either, reminds us that it’s a luxury. If we ever do buy a home, we certainly won’t take it for granted.

We have more security than many.

And finally, whilst in many ways we’re in a similar situation to those around us, we’re also very different. We have earning potential. We have savings. We have financial support from our families. We’re in a much more secure position than many, and may one day have the option of buying a home.

Again, not owning a home reminds us of the great security we do have: a landlord who’s not about to kick us out with a month’s notice. A decent place to live which is kept in good order. A guarantee that we can live here until the hubster’s job ends. And that, when it does, we’ll have another home provided for us.

Compare this to friends living in social housing with no proper flooring, private-rentals with dodgy landlords, or in communities which are unfriendly and antisocial, and we feel pretty grateful.

I won’t pretend this is an easy journey, but it’s the one the Lord has us on for now. Maybe He will guide us to buy a house in the future or maybe we’ll spend our retirement renting, but one thing I know for sure is that His ways are best.

We don’t get to take our homes to heaven, after all!

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Eleanor Oliphant, pulled pork and a sexuality conference (What I’m into – June 2018)

Books

Wow. Just wow. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine certainly lived up to its hype.

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This was our Book Club’s choice this month, and I was delighted as it’s been on my list for months. Eleanor Oliphant lives an isolated life, devoid of any meaningful relationship, hobby or interest – beyond drinking vodka on her own all weekend to get through the gap between her working weeks.

Without giving anything away (because you really do need to read this book for yourself!), it’s fairly apparent from the start that there’s something unusual about Eleanor – but what it is unfolds gradually throughout the book.

I loved the hopeful way the book ended (not to mention the exciting twist in the last few pages), and I found the whole thing immensely enjoyable – laugh-out-loud funny at times, as author Gail Honeyman captures Eleanor’s straightforward, literal thought processes perfectly.

Again, without giving too much away, I particularly enjoyed this book from an adoption perspective. Although adoption isn’t a theme in the book, the impact of trauma, neglect and abuse is explored, sometimes making for difficult reading, but always sensitively and wisely handled.

In short – read this book! Seriously one of my favourite books ever.

It didn’t take me long to finish, but everything else I started this month didn’t get finished, so you’ll just have to wait till next month for more books!

Food

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Of course there were plenty of BBQs, and general al fresco eating this month – BECAUSE EATING OUTDOORS IS SO MUCH MORE FUN AND LESS HASSLE. And because – look at the weather! Even in the North!

My personal favourite was the yummy pulled-pork recipe you see above. It’s a great one for a busy day, because it takes about 10 minutes to get all the bits together and whack in the oven – then when you get home from your busyness, you’ve got a fabulous meal waiting for you with very little else needed except buns and coleslaw (although we did chunky chips – also easy – and some cooked veg for fussy little eaters).

And I successfully made canneloni for the very first time! I realised the problem was in the piping bag – so, in the month where I tried to reduce plastic usage by buying a shampoo bar instead of a bottle, I offset this by buying a roll of 100 disposable plastic piping bags. Eek. Sorry, world.

It did help, though. The result was amazing (this is the recipe I used). Sadly, I don’t have a pic of the finished article, so (just for evidence, so that you believe me that I actually pulled this off) here’s a pic of the cannelloni, all neatly piped and ready for some sauce, cheese and a half-hour in the oven.


Music

Not being at all gadgety or Internet-y, I was absolutely delighted to discover that Spotify was indeed as wonderful as everyone says it is. I bought a 99p 3-month trial so that I could put together a soundtrack for our Summer Fair (see below), but within an hour or listening for my own benefit, I was totally converted that THIS IS HOW I WANT TO LIVE FOREVER, THROWING OUT ALL THE CDS AND NEVER USING ANYTHING OTHER THAN DIGITAL MUSIC EVER AGAIN.

Until the hubs reminded me that our car only plays CDs. Oh well.

Through Spotify, however, I discovered Lily Allen’s latest album – I’ve kind of lost touch with her since her first album, but this one was perfectly accessible and just brilliant. I like how her music’s grown up with her, exploring different territories lyrically (divorce, being a working mum, etc.) but musically having the same quirks and emotional sweetness of her earlier stuff.

My personal favourite on the album was ‘Three’ but, honestly, there’s not really a dud song on there.

Stage and screen

download (2).jpgWell, having read it last month, our Book Club had to watch The Light between Oceans, didn’t we?! It’s good, and well worth watching – obviously not as good as the book (did I really need to say that?), predominantly because so much detail has to be left out – detail which changes how you view the secondary characters – but it’s a powerful film none-the-less.

download (3).jpgWe finished the UK House of Cards (the old one), and, much as I’d enjoyed the three series, I was hugely disappointed by the finale, which felt like a cop-out along the lines of “…and then they woke up to discover it had all been a dream”. I really felt that, with the clever plots and dialogue thus far, the writers could have come up with something better. Anyone seen it/share my views?! Feel like I’m kind of on my own here in 1990s British drama territory.

Articles

Some great stuff this month!

I’ve started to think a bit more about transgender and sexuality issues (and no, this is not my way of announcing my impending transition).

I absolutely loved Living Out’s Identity conference (see below), and interestingly I’ve started to find a few non-religious voices speaking out against the ease of gender transition (not against it per se, but concerned particularly for under 18s, and their vulnerability when it comes to their gender, and decisions which could have an impact they’re not expecting). This article is long but well worth a read – it’s one mother’s story of her daughter’s desire to transition.

Not on my watch is Krish Kandiah at his best, using Fathers’ Day to ask men whether they’ll step up to the challenge of caring for the most vulnerable. Adoption and fostering are two ways to do this, obviously, but they’re not the only ways. Our society has one particular definition of ‘real men’, but the Bible may be calling you guys to something different…take a read!

This article, about some fiery female missionaries who were practising Christian feminism way before the #metoo movement, was fascinating.

How disability makes a church strong spoke right to my heart about how vital inclusivity and diversity are to our church communities. I’m becoming so passionate about this!

And I’m really enjoying Abby King’s blog at the moment. She’s a fellow ACW member and writes a really thought-provoking devotional each week. I’m finding it so relevant and considered. Have a read of Why it helps to know what you really want.

On the blog

I was privileged to review The Mermaid who couldn’t, a fantastic book aimed at adopted children.

For Fathers’ Day, I published two pieces: some musings on the idea of having no father, and a tribute to my husband, who’s a wonderful father to our four kids.

In response to 5 Valuable Work Lessons from Maternity Leave which I mentioned last month, I wrote about five valuable work lessons I’d learnt from my nearly nine-year ‘maternity leave’…

To celebrate National Writing Day last week, I took up this writing challenge (“I feel most free when…”) – and then shared a few thoughts having watched the wonderfully thought-provoking ‘Gone Fishing’, featuring Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer.

Elsewhere

Whilst I still feel like a blog novice (after six years?! How can that be?), people have started to ask my advice when thinking about starting their own blogs. So I put a few thoughts down in my ACW More than Writers blog this month: “Why and how should I start a blog?” Do have a look if you’re in this position.

Other

* I went to the beautiful wedding of a lovely new friend – it was down-to-earth, simple, and God-centred.

* We finally found a Fathers’ Day gift for DD that he liked and didn’t complain about (he doesn’t like ‘commercial festivals’ and never knows what he wants for the non-commercial ones):

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God bless Pinterest.

* I went to watch my boy play cricket for his school (having no idea whether he knew the rules or not). It was a lovely, relaxed tournament for Years 3&4, with the Years 5&6 matches clearly taking on a bit more formality (read: they had rules). Our school did really well, winning our group and progressing to the semi-final where I think we came 3rd (?). Anyway, it was a great achievement for a school which doesn’t have loads of kids paying for additional sports coaching. We were all very proud!

* We had our school Summer Fair! Anyone who’s been following this blog for a while will know what a big deal this is – our PTA only started last year, and this is our second Summer Fair. We were aiming to improve on last year’s £1000 profit by a couple of hundred, but I was sceptical about actually reaching it. In actual fact, we made over £1400 – smashed it!! It was also just such a lovely afternoon, with great weather, and a brilliant atmosphere amongst all the families who came.

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* The most exciting thing for me this month – and possibly this year (you can tell I don’t get out much) – was a child-free 24-hour trip to London with my good friend Izzy to hear Tim and Kathy Keller speak on Identity and Sexuality. Oh my goodness, they were superb! The first hour was like an undergraduate Sociology lecture – the second was a brilliantly packed sermon. After lunch Kathy stormed it with some practical guidance for churches, then there was a brilliant panel made up of the Kellers and a couple of LGBQTI+ Christians. I couldn’t type my notes fast enough! I hope to be able to share a few thoughts with you on this blog over the next month or two…let me know if you’d be interested.

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