christmas is coming…

…the geese are getting fat and this desertmum is getting excited! I thought I’d share a few things I’m planning for Advent.

Christmas toy box

Have your kids ever received Christmas stuff for Christmas? It’s all very nice, but the motivation to play with it soon wanes in our household! Last year I stashed away all of the kids’ Christmas books, DVDs and jigsaws. This Saturday they’ll re-appear in a special Christmas toy box. (Well, a cardboard box and some cheap wrapping paper, but hey ho.) I reckon my kids will enjoy the novelty of ‘new’ activities to do through December.

Advent calendar

When Joel and Lois are a bit older, I look forward to doing an ‘active’ Advent calendar with them  – one where there’s a Christmassy task to do each day. For now, however, I’m sticking to a simple Nativity scene with 24 pieces. You can buy these, but I’ve made my own simple version using felt and cardboard. You could also draw or print out Nativity figures onto cardboard, and use blu-tack to stick them to a backdrop – or draw/print onto magnetic paper, and attach to an old metal tray. Here’s a sneak preview of what ours should look like by December 24th!

Food

I don’t like Christmas pudding…so this year I’m making my own, to see if I like it any better than shop-bought.

Mmmmm…if the gorgeous colours are anything to go by, I may just have found a new food-like!

I’ll also be hoping to make these scrummy mince pies with Joel at some point over the next few weeks. Besides being some of the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, the ‘pastry’ is actually a sort of shortbread, so it doesn’t require rolling, just pressing down. This is great news for Joel and others who don’t yet have the arm strength for heavy-duty pastry rolling!

Decorations

It’s not that I’m anti-Santa, it’s more that I don’t want people coming to our home over Advent and getting confused about what we’re celebrating. So, yes, there’ll be a few Santas, snowmen and other secular symbols of the season – but I hope that how they’re arranged will point towards the focus of our celebrations: the most amazing gift ever, Jesus. By focussing our decorations on aspects of His story, I hope it’ll prompt us to keep reminding each other of the mind-blowing sacrifice God made in sending His son to be born into the world!

Some of our decorations are bought, like this cute Nativity carousel:

Others are made:

Joel and I made these…they’re somewhat unconventional – but totally fitting prompts for the Christmas story! If he’s keen again, we might make mangers and donkeys. The angel looks a bit scary, doesn’t he?! Well, I suppose that’s pretty accurate, as I seem to remember Mary and the shepherds getting a little freaked out… The angel’s wings are cut-outs of Joel’s hands – the idea comes from Alice’s brilliant Christmas resources on her blog. Do check them out if you’re at a loose end for stories, play, craft, baking or Advent calendar ideas – there’s SO much on there to browse through!

Advent time

Our cell group has just started an excellent Advent series. On Monday, we were looking at the shepherds’ experience, and I was challenged by how they seemingly dropped everything and went off to look for Jesus – not dissimilar to the first disciples, I guess. In a similar vein, throughout Advent I’m aiming to ‘drop everything’ once the kids are in bed – much-needed chores, housework, email catch-up, time with Al – and spend just 10 minutes reading a section of the gospels relating to the birth of Christ: my Advent time. I might use this free e-book from the Desiring God website. It’s not much, but I hope that this regular routine will help me not to crowd out Jesus this Christmas. I’ve started this week – I’m so appalling at any sort of spiritual routine that I need a headstart!

How do you plan to celebrate the run-up to Christmas?

Through Advent, I’m linking up with Tanya’s blog. I’ve just found it – it’s so encouraging, and I highly recommend you take a look! If you write a blog and are interested in linking up, go to Tanya’s site for instructions.

parenthood and prayer 2

A few friends wisely commented that my previous post on prayer was pretty scant on the ‘how?’. This post seeks to address that issue.

I am no expert. But I am desperate to continue being a disciple of Christ, despite the pressures of having small children. John Ortberg suggests we should be ‘training’ rather than ‘trying’. This makes a lot of sense. Have you ever tried to lose weight? Tried to go for a run? You may have had some success, but ultimately when we try to do something, the focus is on a point which we haven’t yet reached (a goal weight or a running time), and therefore we’re bound to feel like we’ve failed.

When we’re in training, however, the focus is still on where we would like to be, but there is an understanding that we can’t fast forward to that point immediately. We realise we can’t lose three stone overnight, but we know that if we train ourselves into different eating habits, more exercise, etc, then that overall goal is more than possible.

So I’m applying this principle to my prayer life. I am not discouraged when I have a busy day and pray little. But I’m in training for a more disciplined life of prayer. Here are a couple of practical things which help me.

Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

As I ‘train’ to live a life of prayer-on-the-go, I figure I will start with the times when I am pushing the buggy. As a prompt, I have attached this band to my buggy handle:

Pray without ceasing.

It reminds me to pray (if not conversing with Joel or anyone I might be walking with). Great. A reminder. But what do I pray for? Baby-brain kicks in, and if I wasn’t in training then I’d have nowhere to start. But I am – so my decision is that my buggy prayers will focus first on whoever is in the buggy. Next, I will pray for wherever we’re going, whatever we’re doing, and the people we’re likely to meet. Once I’ve done that, we may be at our destination – if not, then my praying brain has usually been warmed up sufficiently to remember other prayer needs.

Prayer prompts

I am a visual learner…images help me to concentrate. So I made a prayer board. As Al says: “Bored of prayer? Then try the board of prayer!” (He was very pleased with himself for that one.)

I’ve been wanting to make a prayer board for ages…finally, the planet of Spare Time has aligned itself with the planet of “Eventually-got-a-noticeboard-on-Freecycle”, whilst the moons of “Got-round-to-printing-off-some-photos” and “Collected a few prayer letters” have collided…and it’s done. It displays photos of family, friends and godchildren we are praying for. There are pictures, logos and prayer points for the organisations we support. There is space to add new prayer requests.

In the interests of confidentiality, I can’t show you the rest of the board. Sorry – you’ll just have to imagine! One day, someone can teach me how to pixellate…

It’s a helpful place to keep prayer letters where they’ll actually be seen, read, and hopefully prayed through. It stimulates my weary mind when I know there is stuff to be praying for, but can’t remember exactly what. Effectively, it makes better use of my (limited) prayer time, as I can launch straight in, rather than spend three minutes trying to remember what I’m meant to be praying for, then get interrupted by a waking child or an incident involving wee. It’s also totally fab for encouraging Joel to pray! He loves looking at the pictures of his friends and family, and praying (or asking me to pray) for them.

God made you…YOU!

My friend Hannah reckons a lot of it comes down to recognising what type of people or pray-ers God has made us. If you’re an activist (me), then perhaps doing something, and then using that as a prayer stimulus, is the way to go. Her example was: buy a box of chocolates, then pray about who to give them to. If you’re a prophetic pray-er, then you could commit to praying prophetically for a specific person. As Hannah says, “If we work within our gifts to start with then perhaps it will open paths for different types of prayer”.

This is just the type of discussion I hoped my blog would start! So – over to you – what are your practical ideas for prayer?

P.S. One more day to enter this giveaway!

a baked cheese is a must this christmas…

…or so says a heading in my food magazine. Now I like plunging a chunk of warm bread into a good old melting Camembert as much as the next person, and I certainly have poppy and apricot bread, to which this heading is referring, on my ‘to-bake’ list. But I’m slightly overawed by the confidence of the statement.

A baked cheese is a must this Christmas. What, like the top thing we should all eat? Or merely in the top ten, where turkey and mince pies feature pretty high also? Or has it even made it into the top ten of all Christmas rituals, along with Noddy Holder and the Christmas Radio Times? Come on, guys, explain.

A baked cheese is a must this Christmas. Who said? When? What was I doing to miss this important announcement? Who makes these decisions anyway? Will it still be a must next Christmas? Why wasn’t it a must last Christmas?

A baked cheese is a must this Christmas. Oh dear. We really have gone potty.

PS There’s still time to enter the giveaway. ‘See you soon’ is better even than a baked cheese. You have till Monday – good luck!

why everyone should read ‘see you soon’

When my phone alerts me to a new text message I instinctively reach for it, unlock it and read the message. It’s now such an intuitive reaction that I do it whilst doing something else – with the consequence that I’m only half engaging with the content of the message.

Most of the time, this doesn’t matter too much. Most of my texts are pretty low-level communication – along the lines of “Are you free next Saturday?”. Occasionally, there’s exciting news: a new baby, or a friend’s engagement. Only once have I received sad news. When I reached for my phone that Wednesday evening five years ago, I was tidying the Music office after the kids had gone home…I couldn’t have been doing a more mundane task if I’d tried.

And I suppose that’s how tragedies work – they creep into our lives when we were least expecting them, when we were expecting our spouse to ask us when we’d be home, or a friend to make weekend plans. In one of these innocuous moments, our friends Philippa and Graeme Skinner had lost their 21-year-old son to a heroin overdose, whilst he was working for Jackie Pullinger’s organisation in Hong Kong. An innocuous moment – but one which could not be undone.

‘See you soon’ is Philippa’s story of Jim’s life and death, the effect it’s had on her, and what she’s learned through it. I make no apologies for the natural bias of this review – the Skinners are our friends and were our church and small group leaders back in Sale, so I know them to be ‘normal’ folk, but with much faith and integrity. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Philippa writes with beautiful, honest eloquence. You will warm to her family even if you’ve never met them. Jim had been working in Hong Kong for three years with St Stephen’s Society, which helps drug addicts and prostitutes break free from their addictions and come to faith in Jesus Christ. God was so clearly moving in Jim’s life, and blessing others through his ministry, that the unanswered question of why God didn’t choose to heal him from his own addiction could have left Philippa and Graeme faith-less themselves. Then there was the shame and stigma of being the family of a drug-addict – not to mention the guilt – was it their fault? Could they have done things differently?

But, despite all the battles they had to face, they chose a different path. From my naive perspective, inexperienced reader of bereavement literature that I am, Philippa’s telling of their journey is brilliant. It doesn’t offer glib answers – an “everything’s OK now” sort of approach – but neither is it full of morbid fear and bleak hopelessness that a book of this nature might be. Philippa draws on useful sources – Scripture passages, books, philosophers, poems, songs, charities – as well as articulating her own thoughts about suffering and bereavement. It is clear that God has used the last five difficult years to bear fruit in the lives of the Skinners.

It’s a book everyone should read because:

* it will give immense hope to anyone suffering a bereavement (especially a drugs-related one) or supporting someone who is

* any parent will relate to Philippa’s story of desperate love for Jim, and will feel a portion of her loss

* it will make you think about suffering and, in particular, the ongoing spiritual battle in new ways

* it will challenge your ideas of faith, grace, sin and salvation

* it bears incredible witness, through the awful tragedy contained in the pages, that our God is sovereign and asks us to trust Him, despite unanswered questions

If you’d like to win a copy of this amazing book, please leave a comment below. Next Monday, I’ll put all the names in a hat and pick one for the free book.

To order the book, and for loads more articles and related information, please click here.

Graeme and Philippa spoke last night at our church. You can listen again here.

parenthood and prayer

This is the first in what I hope will become a sort of mini-series of thoughts on…how the heck do I continue any sort of discipleship while I have small children in tow???

We’re kicking off with prayer – kicked off, in turn, by a fantastic sermon Al preached last night on the subject. Before you accuse me of bias, let me tell you that I am my husband’s biggest sermon critic and certainly don’t massage his ego without good reason, so if I’m relenting and telling you he preached well – I mean it. If you’re keen to listen, you can find it here (under 11/11/12 Al Rycroft) or here if you fancy the slightly longer version he preached at the next service.

I really don’t pray enough. Of course that is the world’s greatest understatement. There are many reasons why I don’t, but the top three which come to mind are:

* I like to feel in control. Prayer is the ultimate exercise in loss of self-control. My life is no longer being controlled the way I would like, but guided by the One who knows me better than I know myself.

* I am a task-oriented person. Prayer cannot be ticked off a ‘to-do’ list, usually has no immediate tangible results, and doesn’t result in a tidier house. I need to remember that it is a million times more important than things which seem more urgent and pressing.

* I am an activist. Prayer seeks the divine hand of God to impact situations in an infinitely more powerful way than our own intervention would ever do. Still, it is tempting to come up with solutions myself, to look for the ‘logical’ answer to a situation, and to set my own deadlines so that I’m not left waiting till the last moment for the answer.

I’m not keen to stay where I am, to merely shrug my shoulders and go “Oh well, that’s me, I’m just hopeless at prayer”. But is early parenthood really the right stage of life in which to try training myself into better prayer habits? Two recent thoughts make me say a resounding, if slightly nervous, “yes”.

1) Do less, pray more. This has been running through my head for several weeks. God is challenging me to see my weekly commitments as prayer-commitments too, whether they be family, church or finance-related. He’s not saying “Do this in a few years, when life’s calmed down a bit” – He’s saying do it NOW, before I squeeze Him out of those things I expect Him to automatically ‘bless’.

2) Recently I’ve been reading Jackie Pullinger’s Chasing the Dragon and, although I could go on all day about what a fantastic read this is, the story which held the most challenge for me was when she took a fellow Christian on a prayer walk through Hong Kong for a day. He was sceptical – but she prayed as she walked, on the buses, in the drug dens…just on that one day several people came to faith! Is this a way of life I could train myself to develop? Paul talks about ‘praying without ceasing’…for a young parent, with little time to stop and pray for hours at a time, this could be a godsend!

I have so far to go – and am grateful for God’s grace which allows me to fall, and even to never pray at all. But what incredible things might we see happening in York, in the North, in the UK, and all over the world, if we allowed ourselves to be changed through committed, passionate and sacrificial prayer? Am I opting out, just because I have young kids? As if! They’re part of it!

from quentin blake to john piper

Quentin Blake – one of our family’s favourite author/illustrators!

It has become something of a Rycroft tradition that on Al’s birthdays I make him a spoof children’s book, usually at the expense of his latest theological ponderings – and, in particular, any chance to mock my husband’s idolatry of the pastor and writer John Piper (for whom he has more than a healthy admiration) is welcome.

First there was ‘That’s not my preacher’, a spoof of the classic ‘That’s not my…’ touchy-feely books. The book featured four well-known Christian leaders, each with a touchy-feely texture to match the description: “…his theology is too woolly”, “…his thinking is too fuzzy”, “…his delivery is too smooth”, ending with (of course) a picture of the great JP himself, and the line “THAT’S my preacher! His insights are so sparkling.” Picture (you’ll have to imagine) of JP with gold sparkly tie.

Then there was “Mr Tumble goes to church” – a chance to combine Joel’s love of all things Tumble with Al’s cynical wit. My favourite page is the one inspired by Joel himself – the one where the speaker at the church turns out to be Nicky Tumble (for those of you unacquainted with the Alpha course, the real man’s name is Nicky Gumbel).

The latest production is “Mister Johnpiper”. It is a spoof of Quentin Blake’s masterpiece “Mister Magnolia”. If you are unacquainted with this particular classic, let me fill you in.

Mister Magnolia has many enviable things in life – two sisters who play the flute, a large purple dinosaur, green parakeets –  but, for reasons of poverty, forgetfulness or eccentricity (we are not told), Mister Magnolia has only one boot. As the story unfolds, and we are informed of more and more things in Mister Magnolia’s life for which he should be grateful (the ability to juggle fruit, for example), the sad fact remains: Mister Magnolia is left with an unfulfilled longing for the second boot. Imagine his delight, therefore, when, at the climax of the tale, he discovers that an anonymous benefactor has given him – what else – a new boot! Sure, it doesn’t match the old one – it is not the same colour and the toe is markedly more pointed – but it will keep Mister Magnolia’s foot warm and heart content nonetheless.

John Piper: one member of our family’s favourite Christian writer!

My spoof ran thus: “Mister Johnpiper has only one view…”. For those of you familiar with the thrust of JP’s ministry, you will know that this view is: “God’s ultimate goal is to glorify Himself”. And for those of you who may be familiar with the original rhyme, here’s my reworked version:

Mister Johnpiper has only one view.
He has an old website, writes blog posts anew – 
And a Twitter account, where he tweets right on cue.
But Mister Johnpiper has only one view.
 
Just look at the way people stand in a queue
To listen to him as he preaches to you
And if he works hard, he’ll take time off in lieu –
But Mister Johnpiper has only one view.
 
He reads many books, and has written a few,
Some are quite good – to give credit where due.
But Mr Johnpiper has only one view.
 
In his church are some people who sit in a pew
He preaches a sermon, over which one might chew –
His jacket and shirt are an interesting hue
But Mr Johnpiper – poor Mr Johnpiper! –
Mr Johnpiper has only one view…Hey –
Wait a minute… Now then… Keep going… What’s this?
Look! It’s a view! It’s a view!
Whoopee for Mr Johnpiper’s new view!
 

(And I’ll leave you to guess what that new view could have been…)