ordinary mum, extraordinary mission – a review and a giveaway!

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The first official book of my 2015 reading list – i.e. the first one that I both began and finished in 2015 – Ordinary Mum, Extraordinary Mission (2013, Anna France-Williams and Joy French) has been sitting on my bedside table since a friend gave it to me last June. Before then it had been recommended to me by another friend. Why did it take so long to get into? Partly, I guess, because other books took over – book reviews, things I’d already started and so on.

But partly – and I’m ashamed to say it – I did wonder whether this book might just say things I already knew. Ever since I was pregnant with Mister, six years ago, I’ve viewed my days missionally – that is to say, I’ve known of the great blessings God has put in my path in terms of friendships, opportunities and ministries. I’ve wanted to follow His leading and allow myself to be used for whatever purposes He has in mind. I’ve seen friends come to faith for the first time, draw closer to God, step out in leadership and gain awareness of new giftings. I’ve led Alpha courses, Mums’ Bible study groups, outreach events and kids’ holiday clubs. I’ve shared my faith through conversations, meals, childcare and home-baked cakes. What could this book teach me?

Well, for a start, some modesty. Damn that sneaky old Devil, edging his way in to whatever good work the Lord is doing by making us believe that it’s down to us and our skills. It is not. To God be the glory. All the time.

And, for a second, this book could teach me a heck of a lot I’ve never considered before about how I’m raising my family to be missional, how I’m investing in my marriage so that it can be the basis of missional living, and how even my brokenness – both my sin, over which I have some amount of control, and the broken things in my life, over which I have no control – can be used by God for His missional purposes.

A bit more about the book…

This is an incredibly empowering, releasing book. It won’t guilt-trip you into thinking you should be running an orphanage in Bolivia or rescuing trafficked girls in the Phillippines. Of course there are plenty of exciting, front-line stories to be inspired by. But, for the most part, it’s about average, everyday mums, offering themselves and their families to God for His service. It is not threatening – but it is utterly challenging and thought-provoking. The two authors have a shared experience – both are mums, and both work with their families on deprived urban estates – but their differences make for a far richer read. One works in London, one in Sheffield. One has young kids, the other has older kids/teenagers. The variety of experiences of the authors and their friends contributes to an extremely well-rounded and helpful book.

What I most appreciated was… 

…the chapter on Marriage. And the one on Brokenness. And the one on killing off Supermum. And the one on encouraging your fellow mum friends. Actually, every chapter had something thought-provoking to say. In my opinion, the perfect cocktail for a Christian book is provocative Biblical insight mixed with down-to-earth practical tips – and this book had just that.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Ordinary Mum, Extraordinary Mission should be the handbook of all Christian mums everywhere. I hope it becomes a Christian classic over the coming years, because it’s that good.

You’ll enjoy this book if…

…you are expecting your first child, right through to if you’re a mum of teenagers. Once your kids have left home, I’d say it probably wouldn’t be quite as relevant – although there’s enough in here to make anyone stop and think, regardless of gender or child-bearing status.

And the giveaway…

You’ll remember I don’t give away something for nothing on this blog, so here’s the question (give me an answer in the Comments section to be in with a chance of winning the book): What quality do you most appreciate in one of your fellow mum (or dad) friends? Please don’t name them – that’ll just get awkward (but feel free to tell them the Nice Thing to their face). I’ll pick a name out of a concave object on Saturday 28th February, 7pm (read: Monday 2nd March, 10pm) and announce the winner on Facebook and places like that.

To kick off: one of my mummy-friends is so deliberate and thoughtful about her faith. She doesn’t just take things as read, or as applied by someone else, but grapples with what the issue means for her and her family. I love this about her!

nits and the sacrifices of parenting

Missy has had nits.

I’ve dealt with a lot of grossness in my 5+ years as a mum: poo in epic proportions, wind which factors on the Richter scale, and vomit to make our house resemble a University halls of residence in Fresher’s Week. I’ve been drenched in wee, baby sick and blood; wiped noses, bottoms and other bits; exfoliated cradle cap and creamed delicate areas. But there is something about nits – live creatures roaming around the scalp – which brings all the usual kiddy grossness to a new level of Vile.

It wasn’t just Missy. I’ve had my fair share, and Mister also got infested. (That is the technical term. Urgh.) These nits were persistent little buggers, and took a few weeks to shift. There was shampooing, conditioning, HeadRin-ing, brushing and combing ad nauseum, and eventually – one Super Dupa Nit Comb later – we identified and drowned them all.

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As I combed Missy’s hair for the umpteenth time, telly on in an attempt to keep her still for the required time, I thought I could really do without all this. I could do without taking an hour out of our day for this conditioning-combing-rinsing debacle. I could do without the argument which ensues beforehand, could do without trying to find a new way to entice Missy to come on board in this process, could do with this all being OVER.

And I realised that this is parenting. It is one, long series of sacrifices – and no option not to make them. Just as I had to keep combing and combing, so we keep parenting and parenting. We love it, and it carries with it great rewards, but it is also one sacrifice after another – too many to count, and, after a while, too many to notice. We sacrifice lie-ins, finished conversations, the state of our homes, our bodies, mealtimes, daytime naps, our appearance, our careers, money, food, the places we want to go, our dreams, ambitions, the option of having a glass vase on the floor, the bed-springs, sleep, a social-life. And these are only the sacrifices which have a name. Day by day, hour by hour, we parents are continually making decisions which put our offspring first.

And this is godly and Biblical. Read Philippians 2, for example. These are the loving sacrifices God has equipped us to make for the children He has given us to care for. Except.

Except that we cannot make these sacrifices when our own tanks are Empty. We just can’t. In order to give, give and give thousands of times a day, we must allow others to give to us without any sense of guilt or pride. Has God given you the money to pay for a cleaner? Use it. Has a friend offered to look after your kids for a couple of hours? Take her up. Spa day invitation? Go for it. Recognise these sweet moments as God’s grace to you. God’s gift of refuelled tank, ready for more sacrificial loving.

And also: we cannot make these sacrifices when our own identity is in question. The greatest sacrifice ever made – Jesus, on the cross, for us – came from a place of true identity. Jesus was truly secure in who he was, that he was God’s son, dearly beloved. We, too, are dearly beloved – our parenting successes and fails don’t ever change this reality. We are loved. Unconditionally, truly, deeply loved. And it is this love, with its deep roots in our lives, which will allow us to humbly make sacrifices for our children (even searching their heads for nits) – sacrifices which, we pray, will show them love. Our love, yes, but also one much deeper, stronger and more perfect than we could ever muster.

“…if [you have] any comfort from his lovethen make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (Ephesians 2:1-2)

january with james

Before you go thinking that I’ve gone and got myself another man for 2015, let me bring you back onto the track of my actual 2015 resolutions, one of which was to cook from a different cook book each month. January was the month of James Martin. So, yes, I did enjoy another man for a month, but not in the way you thought.

Slightly awkward introduction over, what did I learn this month? I’ve set myself this challenge in order to widen my cooking repertoire and decide which cookbooks are worth keeping. Did this book break my cooking rut? Is it a keeper or a bleeper?

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I think this book was a Christmas present a few years ago. The burnt cover might suggest it has been well-used – but, in actual fact, I think we’ve only tried one or two recipes. The rest of the time, the book appears to have been used as a rather unsuccessful trivet. So, with ‘comfort food’ written all over it, what better month to try this book than cold, unforgiving January?

The food, the bad and the ugly

Caramelized braised beef, with a strong flavour of balsamic, was a hit with all of us, as an alternative to a traditional roast. We cooked the Paillard of Chicken – cooked chicken breasts topped with mozzarella, Italian ham, sage, and chutney – when friends came for dinner, and it had that great appeal of being both easy to cook and special to eat. The Roast Cod with Smoked Garlic and Vanilla Mash was a revelation – not the cod, which I often find rather flavourless, but the idea of adding vanilla to mash, which I’ll certainly do again.

Believe it or not, I was keen to try the Calves’ Liver with Port-flavoured Pan Juices. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but we used to eat liver fairly regularly prior to having the kids, and felt now was the time to educate them. Perhaps it was that the butcher only had pigs’ livers available – but this recipe ended up a little more mediocre than one might have expected. Not awful, just mediocre. I would give the same rating to the Chicken with Plum- and Sun-dried Tomatoes.

I wasn’t surprised that a Yorkshire-born batchelor chef hadn’t included a Vegetarian section – but, as we try to eat veggie food three or four nights a week, I had to look a bit more closely to find any ideas on this. The search was rewarded with a few dishes which could easily make it into our regular repertoire: one, beer-battered red pepper fritters – incredibly quick and easy, but very scrummy. I think they were meant as a starter or snack, but padded out with some chips and lots of veg (because, try as I might, I couldn’t really justify deep-fried veg as being one of our 5-a-day), they proved a more-than-adequate evening meal. The next day I used leftover batter to fry some courgettes, and they worked well too.

Another unlikely veggie main course was a Rustic Tomato, Bread and Basil Soup – thickened the Italian way with chunks of ciabatta, and cooked in white wine, it made a very hearty and tasty main course. Then there were a couple of veggie pizzas – red onion and creme fraiche (a combination I’d never have dreamt up in a million years, but surprisingly good), and anchovy and rosemary. OK, so this one isn’t strictly veggie. But you could change the toppings easily – the main difference here was that the pizza was made on a ciabatta, sliced horizontally. A quick and easy solution to home-made pizza when there’s no time to make a base.

Besides the main dishes, I tried a lovely Olive Focaccia with Rosemary Oil – which worked brilliantly in the bread machine – and several puddings. The Banana Tarte Tatin was good, but I always find these a bit of an unnecessary faff, so not sure I’d try it again. The Lemon and Goat’s Cheese Tart divided those who tried it, and the Hot Walnut Tart was only average, like the Lemon, Pine Nut and Brown Breadcrumb Cheesecake. However, everyone who tried the Chocolate Ginger Cheesecake and the White Chocolate, Whisky and Croissant Butter Pudding (served alongside each other at a Sunday lunch gathering) agreed that they were keepers. The latter sounds sickly, but no, it really worked!

Is it a keeper?

For a restaurant chef, James Martin’s recipes – many of them, at least – have been pared down to dishes that are easy to cook. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how little time some of them took to put together – useful for a weeknight, which is when most of my cooking happens.

But there are also quite a few recipes in this book which feature ingredients that would take a lot of effort to source – duck and game, random fish and specific brands of goat’s cheese, for example. Not to say you shouldn’t bother with these ingredients every so often, but the amount of these sorts of recipes in the book didn’t really tally with the ratio of how often you’re likely to cook them. Which was a shame, as it means that the book isn’t quite as crammed full of helpful recipes as I’d like it to be. However, there’s enough food in here that I’m likely to crave miserably if I give the book away – so, on that note, it’s a keeper!

i don’t understand my three-year-old’s play

OK, so I know play is important. Develops social skills, helps kids make sense of their world, bonds them with their parents, yada yada yada…

I have no problem with play. To an extent. Games? No problem. Jigsaws? I could do them all day. Books? Love them. Basically, I’m pretty good at things which have a definite outcome. As long as I know what we’re aiming for, and when we’ve reached it, then I’m happy.

And it’s not as if I have zero ability with open-ended tasks either. I’m a musician, for Pete’s sake. There is no ‘answer’, no ‘end point’ with the arts. And I can deal with this. I can paint, draw, cook, bake and make with my children – no obvious outcome, no sign of when we’re near or when we’ve reached it, but that’s OK. I can do this, and I even enjoy it.

The problem is that old chestnut of imaginative play. Friends with babies or bumps or not-quite-bumps, let me draw you in to the world of what it’s like to have a three-year-old. Today, to give an example, we started off – quite happily – with a good old role play of Mummies and Daddies. She is the Mummy, I am the Daddy – a role I’m happy to take, as it mainly involves sitting and watching Mummy do the work, occasionally suggesting improvements to the routine, but never actually having to implement them myself. Fine. And it’s an easy playtime as we have all the Gear. No sooner had we got rid of our baby bath, highchair and pram, than we were obtaining these things all over again in doll form. So out comes the dolly bath, the dolly highchair, the dolly prams, plus myriad outfits, dummies and weaning paraphernalia, and we begin.

But then – then it all turns kind of weird. With a very determined, matter-of-fact look on her face, Missy guides me through all manner of scenarios, locations and Things To Do. We have two upturned umbrellas in the lounge – I know not why – and these, amongst a random assortment of other items, become a kind of barricade, beyond which we’re meant to lie down and go to sleep. Or do our sticker books. (Hooray! A task with a definite outcome!) Then I’m supposed to go and kill the baddies – which, I have to say, I perform with great aplomb, using a wooden dagger and a gun crafted for me out of Duplo. (All that obsessive Twin Peaks watching recently has stood me in good stead for moments like this.)

And then there’s a lot of time where Missy struts around the lounge, as if looking for something very particular, occasionally gracing me with a sentence or two which doesn’t really make sense out of context. And there is no context. Is this how she feels, when I faff around doing household chores, occasionally muttering something out loud – fully comprehensible to me and my train of thought, but totally bonkers when spoken aloud as a single comment?

I’m pretty rubbish at this kind of play. I never know what to say or how to respond. But I’ve realised that the best course of action is simply to be there. To put the phone away, to sit amidst the chaos and listen and nod when Missy outlines her plans. And, of course, to observe what she’s doing, spotting which parts of her world she’s trying to make sense of as she brings them to life in role play. And it’s bloody fascinating.

If not just a little strange.

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*For any confused souls who know me in real life, I’ve started using pseudonyms for my children’s names to protect their identities.

the ministry of a messy house – a review and giveaway

One of my goals for 2015 is to read a book a month. I promised to review them all here, so here’s number one. And before you go patting me on the back for being ahead of schedule, this was actually a book I started in the tail-end of 2014. I have another book on the go for January – and, don’t worry, I’ll definitely be behind schedule in finishing it. Reassured that it’s still me? That I haven’t been taken over by a super-efficient ghost-blogger? Great.

The book I read was…

…”The ministry of a messy house” by Amanda Robbie. My wonderful cousin Naomi, general fountain of knowledge when it comes to books, especially Christian ones, sent me a copy after reading my hospitality blogs last year. Well, blow my socks off if it didn’t just put me out of a job. Mrs R has all the hospitality know-all I’d love to have, and has helpfully published it in one easy-to-read paperback.

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The ministry of a messy house (in a messy house)

A bit more about the book

On closer inspection, however, I discovered it wasn’t just a book about hospitality, although that’s a recurrent theme from start to finish, and there are plenty of tips and suggestions and perceptive theological links. This is a book about ‘mess’ in all its forms: relationships, church, kids, food, homes. So, even if you have a spotless home, this book will teach, challenge and inspire. Its starting point is that we’re all ‘messy’, and what we have to offer is flawed and not always high-quality. But when we offer it to God through offering it to others, He does something special with it.

Now that is a very simplistic summary – but if I went into more detail, there’d be no point in buying it, right?

What I most appreciated was…

…the humour and reality of it all. Also the fact that the author is married to a vicar, like me. Her homelife bears so many similarities to ours, that I found this fascinating reading – especially given that they’re a few years ahead of us. It was encouraging to see how things had worked themselves out in their lives, and to be reminded of why we do what we do.

Here’s a proper pic of the book so you know what you’re looking for when you rush over to your favourite online bookseller directly after reading this review:

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You’ll enjoy this book if…

…you want something comfortably easy-to-read, radically practical and Biblically truthful. There are pearls of wisdom scattered throughout, and whilst I wouldn’t say that the whole tome was full of outstandingly original thought, I was certainly kept interested from start to finish.

And the giveaway…

I enjoyed this book enough to want to keep it :) But, since I didn’t have to pay for it in the first place, I’m willing to buy another copy for a giveaway! It’s that good. If you’d like to be in with a chance, please leave a comment here, telling me one of your messy secrets! (Oo-er! I’m talking, like, hiding dirty laundry under the bed or something. If you have something bigger to share, please do it in person with a close friend or psychiatrist. Ta.)

The deadline is Saturday 31st January, 7pm – at which point I’ll put all entrants’ names into a suitable receptacle, and pull out one lucky winner.

And, to kick off, my messy secret is that our bedroom is always messy. The other rooms get prioritised, and somehow the bedroom never makes it onto the cleaning rota before the lounge needs doing again…

50 dates

All marriage experts will tell you of the importance of keeping your relationship ‘alive’ particularly during the child-rearing years. They will tell you that it’s all too easy to spend every second of your time meeting the demands of your children, and not the needs of each other. They will warn that you’ll drift apart if you don’t make a concerted effort to invest in your marriage regularly. With hushed tones, they’ll recount the story of a couple who, when their children had grown up and flown the nest, realised they had nothing in common anymore.

So, here’s an idea for keeping marriages fun and exciting, even in the child-rearing years! I can’t take any credit for the concept – it was something I saw on the internet before Christmas, and thought would be great to reproduce for Desert Dad’s Christmas present.

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I took 50 coloured lollipop sticks, and wrote a different date idea on each one. It was challenging finding 50 different activities, but the Internet helped, and I did it over a few weeks. All the sticks went in a jar, and – voila! A gift to last the entire year, give or take a few weeks for holidays and dates that Desert Dad might want to plan himself, shock horror.

So what’s in the jar? The ‘predictable’ dates are in there – cinema, theatre, a live music event. But although they’re obvious, we rarely make time to actually do them. To be told by a lollipop stick that this week we need to go to the theatre – because you can’t say ‘no’ to a lollipop stick – will help get us out of the rut of staying in just because it’s been a long day and we can’t be bothered. There are a couple of twists in there too – like ‘Go to the restaurant which is top on TripAdvisor this week’.

Some of the dates are more like activities which we can enjoy doing together. More often than not, they’re things which one of us would usually do without the other – ‘make something together that the kids will enjoy’ was the first date which Desert Dad picked out. Usually I’m the crafty one, but being able to plan together a puppet theatre for the kids, and make a start on its creation, was a bonding experience. It reminded me that my husband can be creative, that he’s good to bounce ideas off, that he is interested in what our kids play with. We didn’t get very far with the project, but maybe it’ll be something we pick up on other nights, doing little bits gradually through the next couple of months. Other activities in this category are things like ‘Watch some live Blues’ and ‘Play an online pub quiz’ – my attempts to get involved in hubby’s passions.

Some of the date activities are more reflective: ‘plan a child-free weekend away’ will help us to work out what we most need to invest into our marriage, and ‘write a card/letter to someone who has blessed us recently’ will unite us in recognising a friend who has had an impact on our marriage. These things won’t necessarily last a whole evening, but are activities which will draw our often-independent lives together.

I’m struck by the amount of entertainment represented by the contents of our home – most of which we never touch. So some of the dates are about utilizing what we already have: ‘Watch a film we own but have never seen’, ‘Try a magazine cut-out recipe which we haven’t yet cooked’ and ‘Play a game we own but haven’t played for ages’.

We both enjoy cooking and baking, but usually do it on our own. ‘Bake something impressive’ or ‘Cook and eat an Indian feast’ will encourage us to plan, shop and be creative together!

Some of the dates are strokes of genius – if I do say so myself. Others, let’s be honest, are a bit of a barrel-scrape. But, despite this, here is a present which says “I love you and want to spend time with you”. It could be adapted for any special person in your life. Imagine the delight of a friend, receiving a booklet of treats you’d like to enjoy with her over the next few months? Or how excited your child would be, if you gave him a lucky dip bucket with a range of fun day trips and holiday activities?

Next time you’re stuck for a gift idea, why not try this?!

2015: the year of books (part two)

Wow, thanks for so many recommendations of books for 2015! Here is my list – you’ll notice it’s a little short of 12, to allow for a couple already on my bedside table, and any book reviews which may come up this year. I’m grateful for such a diverse array of fascinating-sounding books – thank you! They are (in no particular order):

Better than Sex – Hunter S. Thompson

Compared to her – Sophie de Witt

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Secret Life of a Lonely Postman – Denis Theriault

Hands-free Mama – Rachel Macy Stafford

Bread and Wine – Shauna Niequest

A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

Attention All Shipping – Charlie Connelly

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Barbara Kingsolver

The night circus – Erin Morgenstern

I suspect some of these titles will take me much longer than a month to really digest, so it might be that I start overlapping titles, in order to savour them for longer. But……….

……..how exciting is it, to have a tailor-made list of ten books which your friends love??!! I can’t wait to get stuck in!

The second challenge

My second challenge for 2015 is to make better use of my cook books. For a keen cook, I don’t have a huge selection, but I have more than I use. So, each month, I’ll take one book, and cook through it as best I can, using as many recipes as possible over 30 days or so.  Why do this?

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* I love to be adventurous with food, but feel that my cooking got stuck in a bit of a rut in 2014

* I want to know whether chefs’ recipes actually work in practice, for quick and easy midweek meals, as well as longer weekend menus. Do they deliver on flavour, or just look pretty?

* I want to get to know my cooking library better, to know which books to keep and which to charity-shop.

I’ll blog about this each month, recommending cook books and pondering just how ‘workable’ recipe-book recipes actually are.

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So there are my challenges. If I only read six books this year, I’ll not feel that that’s been a waste of time. And if I discover just two fab new recipes, likewise, I won’t complain. There will be no guilt, and there will be a good amount of celebration during 2015 – because if you can’t keep up previous resolutions, then what’s the point?