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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Linking up, as always, with the lovely Leigh Kramer’s ‘What I’m into’ blog posts. Do check them out – you may discover a fantastic new blogger!

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Ballet shoes and empty chairs: can we really trust prophetic words?

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Image credit: Pixabay

I came of age in the wake of the Toronto Blessing.

It was quite common, at youth meetings I attended, for people to exercise all manner of ‘supernatural’ spiritual gifts, including prophecy. My ears pricked up when someone came to the front to share a prophetic revelation, but the person with a broken left ankle or having trouble sleeping was never me.

Fast-forward a few years, and it seemed like the church had become more cautious in its practice of the gift of prophecy. “I’ve had a picture of a desert,” someone would begin. “I think this is someone’s life. And there’s an oasis. I think that’s God wanting to refresh this person.”

Knock me out. God as an oasis? A kind of living water? I’ve never heard that one. Except in, hmmm, let me think – Psalm 42 (“as the deer pants for streams of water…”) or John 4 (the woman at the well) perhaps?

Don’t get me wrong, it was all encouraging stuff – but for this stuff to have been ‘prophetically revealed’ to someone? I was sceptical. Surely if we wanted to hear God, we just needed to read our Bibles more?

And then came January 2018. My life had just changed direction, with my youngest children doing more hours at preschool, and the hint of a calling on my life which I was attempting to pursue in my hours away from the kids.

But I was busy. So busy. Up past midnight most nights, keeping up with the tidying, planning and administrative tasks of a large family, as well as being deeply involved in the kiddoes’ school as well as our church.

I attended a women’s teaching day, and – like a child in a sweet shop just before closing – managed to grab the final ‘prophetic appointment’ slot – more by virtue of it being the last one, and therefore infinitely more desirable, than because I actually wanted it. Although something told me it could be useful.

When my slot came, I sat down in front of two women. They didn’t ask what I wanted or why I was there, they simply spent a few minutes praying for me, and listening, in silence.

And then came the prophetic pictures. One was of ballet shoes, the long ribbons being untied and the shoes coming off. The shoes were not indicating harmful things, I was told, but just things that had to be stripped away, in order for the dance to be more creative and beautiful, although perhaps not as technically brilliant.

I think that if prophetic words are to be trusted, they will first have an air of familiarity about them. I was able to easily recognise myself and my commitments in the ballerina and her shoes. And, not long after the appointment, it became so blindingly obvious that the ‘shoe’ I needed to remove was my role as a school governor. God was asking me to hand in my notice. Much as I loved this role, the revelation actually came as a relief!

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The second picture was of a garden party. I was the hostess – and yet all the chairs were empty. God was telling me that, although I was usually the host, for this season I needed to sit and eat. ‘The feast is for you’, my prophetic woman insisted.

Again, this picture was very familiar to me. We have a decent-sized vicarage and garden, and it’s rare that a day goes past without someone popping in for a cuppa, a meal or an overnight stay. But prophetic pictures and words also need to be weighed. If I had ascertained from this picture that God meant me not to host or cook for anyone else for the next few months, I think I would have missed the point.

I didn’t rule out that this might be the case, but as I’ve continued to ponder, pray and read the Bible, my interpretation has been that I need to spend this season seeking God, allowing Him to shape my character and inviting Him to ‘fill me up’, so that I might have something to give to others. It was no coincidence that my small group had already made the decision to study Kevin De Young’s ‘The Hole in our Holiness’ this term, a book which concentrates on personal character and righteousness.

Another aspect of prophetic words is that they will be specific and personal. Whilst the garden party picture was not a literal prophetic word, I was able to instantly relate to what God was saying because I love parties and I love to cook and host! If God created us and knows us inside and out, we should expect that anything he wants to reveal to us through others will be specifically geared towards our personality, character and situation. This word spoke deeply to me, as I know well the role of the host and the hosted.

Prophetic words don’t provide an alternative to God’s revelation in the Bible. On the contrary, if we are to make the most of any prophetic words given to us, we need to be actively committed to the Word of God – reading, thinking, applying, praying. And it goes without saying that genuine prophetic words will not contradict Biblical teaching.

So why bother with prophecy at all, if the Bible remains the authoritative voice of God? Because God longs to have a deeply personal, intimate relationship with each one of us. He already knows us deeply; if we long to know Him better, then it is right that we learn to hear His voice, primarily in the Bible, but also through the words and pictures which can speak the specifics into our lives.

We will never be able to discern, weigh, or appropriately act upon prophetic words if we don’t first know what God has revealed to us in the Bible – but without prophetic words, we may miss some of the personal applications of the Bible’s teaching.

Prophecy is not something to be feared, but a helpful tool in drawing closer to God and seeking more of His will for our lives. My year will be different now as a result of what God spoke through two ladies. Is God impacting your future too?

Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation (review – and a GIVEAWAY!!)

Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation

It’s been on my mind for a while now that, whilst there is a place for debate and argument when it comes to the ‘grey’ areas of Christianity, we would do better to find ways of living alongside those who take a different stance to us, rather than relentlessly trying to persuade others to adopt our own viewpoint.

After all, Jesus said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

Call me a crazy fundamentalist, but I think Jesus had a point. We gain nothing by arguing people into submission. We gain much, however, from conversing with our brothers and sisters, listening to their views and sharing ours. The deep love which can be experienced through relationships where there are differences can be highly attractive to those who observe it.

So I was delighted when I discovered, last year, that Stephen Elmes had written a book which was encouraging just this sort of open conversation on a subject close to my heart – sexuality.

Quite simply, this book is wonderful. The friend who lent it to me offered the proviso, “It won’t give you any answers – just more questions”, but I’m grateful for this.

For eight months of 2014, Baptist pastor Stephen Elmes led a working party in his church to discuss the issue of sexuality, with the aim of ‘considering how a local Baptist church might respond to those who live with same-sex desires and seek to follow Christ’. The results formed the main research vehicle for a dissertation Elmes submitted for a Masters degree in 2015.

This book alternates four strands, woven together to make a whole: summaries of the working party’s discussion, pieces of theological writing by Elmes, true life stories (names changed), and fictional conversations with a non-Christian protagonist ‘Alex’, whose role is to question Elmes’ research methods, and make sure no stone has been left unturned.

I loved a lot of things about this book. The gracious, gentle tone of its author. The compassion and love which flood every chapter. The engaging, ‘storyteller’ style at which Elmes is adept; the book prompts and challenges its readers, but feels easy to read. However, most of all, I liked hearing the reasoning behind those views which are different to my own on this issue. It gave me more understanding, and I hope it will give me more humility and openness when discussing this issue with others in the future. It’s a book all Christians should read.

A slight niggle of mine was that we never got to see the response which Elmes’ working party fed back to their church. Perhaps this was because such a response outside of its proper context could have been easily misinterpreted – and, with such a sensitive subject, this could have far-reaching consequences.

Whatever the reason, it would have been helpful to include some ideas of what a church’s response to those with same-sex attraction could look like. The book ends with ‘to be continued…’ – so perhaps this gives hope that we’ll be reading more from Stephen Elmes in the future! (In fact, I only just noticed that the book’s title bears the heading ‘Part One’, so I would think that a sequel was happily inevitable!)

Yes, perhaps this book won’t give you ‘answers’. But perhaps answers aren’t what we need. Perhaps a deeper awareness of the questions can help to formulate a response which is compassionate, God-centred and Christ-exalting. This book leads you to believe that such a response is possible. I thoroughly recommend it, and you can get a copy here.

But if you’d like to win one, simply comment here on the blog (Facebook/Twitter comments won’t be entered) by 11pm this Thursday, 8th February. I’ll use a random generator to pick a name, and put a copy in the post a.s.a.p. Good luck!

THIS GIVEAWAY HAS NOW CLOSED.

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Disclaimer: All views are my own. I did not receive a free copy of the book in return for this review, and haven’t been bribed in any other way. But if enough people buy this book upon my recommendation, maybe Stephen Elmes will buy me a glass of wine if we ever meet 😉

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Like books? Read some of my latest reviews!

tim keller, feminism, disney and a whole lotta chocolate… (what i’m into – jan 2018)

Books

Totally by chance, I’ve fallen into a little pattern with some of my reading this year.

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Daily…I am reading The Way of Wisdom (Tim and Kathy Keller). It was a no-brainer, really, having enjoyed their My Rock, My Refuge devotional last year. Honestly, I can’t recommend these two books enough – a great-value devotional (£10 will last you all year!) which packs a punch and yet is short enough to fit in to even the busiest parent’s routine.

Weekly…I am reading The Hole in our Holiness (Kevin de Young) with my housegroup. The premise is that we evangelicals love to prioritise grace – but what about holiness? Why is it important? Surely we’re saved by faith, not by works? And yet isn’t holiness all about obedience which is about…works? There are study questions for each chapter which are helping our weekly discussion. I won’t say we’ve agreed with all his emphases or his style in places, but it’s certainly stimulated a really helpful and lively discussion.

Monthly…I am reading Hands-free Mama – a book recommended in my Year of Books (from 2015 – oh yes, I’m still working through that wonderful list!). There are twelve chapters, and the author recommends taking it slow, one per month over a year, in order to reflect and change habits. Chapter one was all about spotting the moments in our kids’ lives that we might be missing because we’re on our phones or devices, or ‘just’ doing this last bit of laundry or clearing up – the chapter has been in my head since I read it – it’s so practical!

AND our Book Club started this month! I’m so excited! Our first venture was a piece of classic chick-lit – The Chocolate Lovers Club (Carole Matthews) – shallow characters, underdeveloped plots, lots of sex – you get the idea. It wasn’t a totally unenjoyable way to spend a week, but several of our members couldn’t finish it. I guess I’m more shallow than they are.

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Last but not least (from the ridiculous to the sublime), I read Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation (Stephen Elmes). This book is just a little bit wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that I’ll let you look it up for yourselves, and write a full review of it sometime soon.

Food

Mainly eating up Christmas chocolates. And I remembered why these are my hands-down favourite biscuits in the whole entire world (by eating most of a whole box myself). Not a dud in the whole pack. Genius.

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Music

Nothing. Too busy reading and eating chocolate.

Articles

Ditto. Maybe I should just start deleting some of these headings?

On the blog

Actually, a bit of action here. So it turns out that I’ve been spending January reading, eating chocolate AND writing. I kicked off with my round-up of 2017, then pondered the traps we can fall into when making New Year’s resolutions.

I shared with you my exciting news for 2018, wrote about how being a SAHM isn’t mutually exclusive to being a feminist, and suggested five fun things to do with your family during Lent.

Go on…make yourself a brew, put your feet up, whack cbeebies on and have a read! You know my blog stats want you to!

Stage and Screen

I didn’t get my backside in gear to book any stage shows for January, BUT I made up for it with ridiculous amounts of telly. January is the month I catch up on all the stuff I didn’t get time to watch over Christmas. Praise God for catch-up TV.

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Films-wise, I enjoyed The Hundred-Foot Journey (although it got a little less believable towards the end), The Red Shoes (pretty dark, late 40s psychological/emotional thriller), The Hangover (better than it sounds, but nothing to write home about) and Big Hero 6. This last one was my son’s choice on a sick day, and I’d never watched it all the way through before (parents rarely get this privilege), so I didn’t realise just what an incredible movie it is. Kudos to Disney for doing something very unlike their usual offering. (Which, of course, is also incredible – just in different ways.)

I indoctrinated my lovely friend with the ways of Pitch Perfect by going on a mate-date to watch the third installment at the cinema. It worked – she’s now seen the earlier two films and has converted to fan status! I still reckon the first film is the best – but the humour certainly doesn’t fail in the later two films.

TV-wise, the hubby and I really enjoyed Feud: Bette and Joan – about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s ongoing dislike of each other. In addition to the gripping storyline (which I realise will have fictional elements), and fabulous cast, I’m interested in what it says about Hollywood’s attitudes to women in film (both on and behind camera) in the early 1960s. It’s still available, but only for a few days, and has eight episodes, so hurry if this kind of stuff interests you!

Lastly (phew!) anyone interested in adoption, fostering and the effect of trauma on kids in the classroom, should watch a fantastic clip on The One Show, shown Wednesday 17 January. It’s just a few minutes long (starts around 11 or 12 minutes in), but offers a real insight into the struggles adopted and fostered kids have in school. I’ll say no more except these kids are far more likely to get excluded than kids who aren’t in care. Have a watch.

In other news…

I’m a writer! Kind of. Still struggling to believe it a bit. But there has certainly been work (and will even be a paycheque at some point in the next couple of months), and I’m enjoying pushing doors and seeing opportunities I never knew were there. Already I’ve learnt loads.

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…I went on a fabulous Women’s Day organised by a local church – it’s an annual event, and this was my fourth year. Great teaching from Nadine Parkinson, food, worship – and, of course, several hours away from my darling kiddoes. Not to be sniffed at.

What have you been up to in January?

Disclosure: Affiliate links not included in this post because I hate Amazon.  If you click throughany purchase you make doesn’t result in a penny for me. But you’re welcome to buy me chocolate next time you see me as an act of left-wing solidarity OR as a thank you for recommending some totally awesome resources which have, obviously, changed your life.

Linking up, as always, with the lovely Leigh Kramer’s What I’m into series.

five fabulous things you can do with your family this lent

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After the long Autumn term – which feels like it’ll never end – this term, by comparison, goes in a flash. Linger in January for a moment too long, and suddenly it’s Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday and BANG! We’re into Lent.

I love using the seasons and festivals to make some family traditions and – more importantly, for me – draw my family closer to Jesus. But our family life right now is so manic that I live day-to-day, with little forward planning. I’ll get to Shrove Tuesday evening with nothing prepared to get my littlies through Lent, and think “Dammit! I wanted to make MEMORIES!” In protest, I will give up Pinterest and every other vehicle designed to make parents feel rubbish, and bury my head in the sand, pulling out the odd tradition whenever it fits or I remember.

So – this year will be different. Yes it will! Lent starts in three weeks, and I’m determined to make the most of it. If you fancy finding something family-oriented to teach your kiddoes about Lent, Easter and the Christian tradition, I’ve pulled together a few tried-and-tested ideas for you here:

Use ‘Follow Me’ for stories and creative activities. Check out my review for more detail, but allow me to give the bare facts here: it’s fun, it’s flexible and Amy’s done the hard work for you, so all you need is this book and (occasionally) a few basic props or materials – nothing you can’t find around the house. You can pick and choose what works best for your kids – everything’s designed to make you consider a Bible story from different perspectives and angles, and you simply choose what appeals. Whether you want something to use every day, or just once a week, this resource works well. I reckon it’s best for primary-aged kids, and probably slightly younger too – we used this two years ago for our then 4- and 6-year olds, and are planning to use it this year for our 3-3-6-8 combo.

Make a Lent prayer tree. You can do this any way you want! Click here if you’re interested in how we did it for a few years. Basically you pray for a different friend or family member each day – it can be as simple as mentioning them by name, or you can print out some photos to keep things visual and stimulating for your little ones. We used this when our kids were very young – babies and toddlers, but obviously as your kids grow, this idea becomes more about them verbalising their own prayers.

Sign up for 40acts. This is a wonderful and practical way of developing kindness, generosity and selflessness through Lent, and is a great fit for creative/industrious children who prefer to be doing rather than listening. You don’t have to follow a particular faith to enjoy and get lots out of 40acts! Last year Missy did it, and she raised £80 for charity through selling cakes and cookies she’d baked herself. With our help, she researched which charities to donate to. The best part is that the actual poster containing the 40acts is FREE – you just download and print it. (If you want to buy ‘Exploring Generosity’, a pack with more resources and stickers to go along with 40acts, you can do so here.)

Start a gift-giving tradition. Yes, I know our privileged Western kids have way too much as it is, but hear me out on this one. If Lent is supposed to be a time of focussing on, and drawing closer to, Jesus, then perhaps one of the most wonderful, yet simplest, traditions we can start for our children is to give ‘Lent presents’: something to help them in their faith journey. Last year, on Ash Wednesday morning, my children woke up to an unexpected gift at the breakfast table. Mister, then 7, received his first unabridged Bible (we went for this one, which is a very clear translation for early readers), and Missy received the Exploring Generosity kit mentioned above. We, affluent Christian parents, spend so much on our kids each year in clothes, toys, hobbies and interests – how much more, then, should we be prioritising generous investment in good-quality resources to help them develop their faith?

Use this Lent Family Creative Journal from Engage Worship. This is a simpler (and cheaper!) resource to take you through Lent than Follow Me. There’s not as much material to work with, but that takes the pressure off having to do something every day. It’s just as creative, with lots of different activity suggestions, but you may need to put in more effort to actually do them – think of it as the scaffolding for what could be a really explorative, creative Lent if you’re prepared to add the bricks.

Of course the random picking of odd traditions here or there as you remember is a fun way to go as well! None of the above ideas are necessary in order to cultivate a prayerful, God-centred family life – but I hope they’re helpful to those of you who have the time and desire to try something different this year.

Over to you…which great Lent resources or traditions can you recommend? Have you used any of the above? I’d love to know what you end up trying out!

what i was into – 2017 special

I’m not doing a ‘what i’m into’ for December, for the simple reason that you can probably guess what I was into, seeing as I’m a total Christmas-freak, and if you still really can’t bring yourself to imagine December Chez Desert then you can read each of the 24 ADVENT BLOG POSTS I WROTE!! Still can’t believe I made it to the end.

Anyway, instead, here’s a round-up of 2017, with my top three of everything! If you’re looking for inspiration for what to read, cook or watch in 2018, look no further!

Top three books

miller_aprayinglife.jpgIt’s tremendously hard to pick three, as I read some stonking stuff this year, but purely because of the lasting impact they’ve had on me, my top three (in no particular order) are:

A Praying Life – if you’re a Christian and haven’t read it, I beg you to plonk it on your list for 2018.

My Rock, My Refuge – had to make the list because it’s the only devotional I’ve stuck to for an entire year. Some days weren’t all that noteworthy, and others were hugely relevant and challenging – but I know that the cumulative effect of me absorbing each and every Psalm across the year is a positive one.

Image result for wonder bookWonder – one of the simplest, yet most powerful novels I’ve read. Wonder-ful.

 

 

 

Top three meals out

Bistro Guy (November)

Zill’s (October)

Bistro Rosa (August)

Top three new recipes

Brownie Ice Cream sandwiches (Twist, Martha Collison – get it now while it’s cheap!)

Millionnaire’s Shortbread (Twist, Martha Collison)

Veggie fajitas (I make it up! But based on various recipes easily sourced from t’Internet)

Top three TV programmes

I actually only watched about three things this year. They were good though.

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The Apprentice (obviously this would always make my list), Twin Peaks, and that amazing Rio Ferdinand documentary on bereavement, which made me cry quite a lot.

Top three films

Philomena, Lion and The Lady in the Van – all powerful, but in very different ways. Amazing performances by all the lead characters, and gripping plots too.

Top three live theatre shows

Very, very hard to choose, but I’m going to go with: Nina Conti, Everything is Possible (locally produced play about the Suffragette movement) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

(I’d also like to add Jane Eyre in brackets, because I’m not supposed to be allowing myself a fourth, but it was so good that I’m hoping no one will mind.)

Top three blog posts

Statistically, they were:

* Five Ways my Toddlers are Different from Yours

* The Silent Anniversary: Celebrating Marriage in a Culture of Relationship Breakdown

* Am I OK with my daughter aspiring to ‘mummy’?

But because I’m always interested by the variation between what I think is an interesting blog post and what you do, here’s a post which I rather liked but didn’t do as well as I thought it might: What we want for our Kids: Status (why not have a read and boost its stats!).

Three things I never thought I’d do in 2017

  • Go for a job interview (May)
  • Go to a football match (October)
  • Spot a house intruder (November) – ah! I never told you about this one, did I?!

Three things I’m very proud of doing in 2017

  • Setting up the school PTA (February ish)
  • Giving a talk to a reasonably-sized audience (April)
  • Fixing a lawnmower (June)

 

Thank you all for being a marvellous audience in 2017. There are some exciting things afoot for 2018 which I can’t wait to share with you – watch this space, I’ll be blogging again very soon!

 

20: how Santa draws us to Christ

One of the joys of this blog is being able to share stuff with you which is far, far better than what I’m writing, so it’s a privilege today to point you all in the direction of The Life-Changing Magic of an Untidy Christmas, which was published yesterday over on Desiring God. It has little to do with what I’m going to write about, but was too damned good not to pass on. Have a read, see what you think.

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A friend asked me yesterday whether I had any advice on speaking to small children about Santa, and since our day was also punctuated in other ways by Santa (Monkey and Meerkat had a visit from the Big Man at their preschool Christmas party – and were constantly talking about hanging up stockings on Christmas Eve), he seems a good topic for today’s reflection.

There is so much which is fun about Santa. He’s a novelty – someone who turns up just once a year, but is friendly and kind, and delivers exactly the presents you’ve asked for, all wrapped up in a stocking. How fun is that? And he doesn’t just do this for you, but – somehow, miraculously – for all the children around the world.

The real ‘Santa’, St Nicholas, was also a kind, friendly, generous man – he loved God, and from that relationship came a heart for the poor and vulnerable around him. The legend of him dropping three bags of gold into the slippers of three young women in his village whose father was too poor to afford their dowries – even if it may have been embellished down the years – shows a heart which was sacrifically generous.

During Advent, we have always taught our children that Santa was a real person, St Nicholas, and we tell them this story about his generosity. We use this book, but one which has been recommended to me by a lot of Christian parents is Just Nicholas (we don’t yet have it ourselves). Doing this, our kids have always known that Santa – as we celebrate him today – is not alive today, but that he was based on a real person. (We’ve also told them not to tell their classmates!)

This has not killed the magic for our family – on the contrary, I believe it has added a rich significance which merely believing in ‘Santa’ does not. Because Santa also has his failings. He only rewards you if you’re good. He watches what you do through the year, and keeps a list of your wrongdoings. He’s not interested in a relationship with you.

In short – Santa is only human. To base our Christmas around him would end in huge disappointment.

But celebrating ‘Santa’ as St Nicholas each Christmas is a way of pointing to Jesus in our celebrations. St Nicholas gave freely and sacrificially because he’d received freely and sacrificially from Jesus’ death and resurrection. The baby Jesus who we celebrate at Christmas grew up to be our Rescuer – the One who would put us right with God forever. He would not keep a record of our wrongdoings, but forgive us freely – and His gift would be available to all, regardless of how ‘good’ we were. As we remember St Nicholas, the gracious man who gave of his money, time and energy, we are more able to look up to the God who inspired him.

I genuinely feel that celebrating Santa can be a hugely significant part of our festivities. But elevating him to a position above Jesus is so easy to do – and, although we may not realise it, over-indulging in Santa at Christmas really muddies the waters for our young children. They don’t realise who or what they’re celebrating – nor why. Or else, the sacred and the secular celebrations (Jesus and Santa being celebrated equally, but separately) represent two parallel, but unrelated, Christmas traditions.

In Zechariah’s day, God’s people felt disappointed by their return to Israel. It wasn’t all they had expected, so they started to grumble, and turned to idols. But, through Zechariah, God made it very clear that these idols had no power whatsoever – His people needed to return to Him, who was able to do all things:

Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime;
    it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms.
He gives showers of rain to all people,
    and plants of the field to everyone.
The idols speak deceitfully,
    diviners see visions that lie;
they tell dreams that are false,
    they give comfort in vain.
Therefore the people wander like sheep
    oppressed for lack of a shepherd. (Zechariah 10:1-2)

In today’s terms, an ‘idol’ is anything which diverts our attention from God. Perhaps this sounds a little dramatic for something as innocent as Santa. Or perhaps it’s the innocuous parts of our culture which have the most potential to draw us away from Jesus.

* If you have children, think back over the last few weeks. How many of your activities/celebrations have been about Santa? How many about Jesus? Or do you combine the two?

* As an adult, what are the secular Christmas traditions (like Santa) which threaten to draw your attention from Jesus?

Lord God, you’ve commanded me not to make idols – and yet I do it unthinkingly in so many ways, not least at Christmas when so many festivities claim my attention and focus. Please re-orientate my gaze onto You, trusting in You for the satisfaction I can’t find elsewhere. Amen.