Where can our children find God in the 21st century? (Interview with author Ann Clifford)

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed that I’m taking part in a blog tour this week for a stunning art book, “Where is God in our 21st century world?”, recently published by Instant Apostle.

Artists entering the Chaiya Art Awards 2018 were asked to respond to this question, and the results are showcased in this beautiful coffee-table book. All faiths and none are represented, and insightful commentary is provided throughout the book by author Ann Clifford.

I’ve really enjoyed looking through this book (full review coming on Friday!), and was delighted to have the chance to catch up with Ann Clifford to find out more about the book, and especially how we can use it as parents seeking to widen our children’s faith experience.

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Welcome, Ann! Congratulations on such a beautiful, thought-provoking book. I found your words a perfect complement to the images. Tell us a bit about your background and how this book came about.

Katrina Moss (founder, Chaiya Art Awards) and I have been friends for 35 years. We have had many adventures together: the one about the ugly sisters; the Cannes Film Festival; the feature film to name a few.  

My passion to encourage Christians to be involved in the arts began many years ago. For ten years I ran an initiative which brought artists from many disciplines together. My own discipline at the time was writing plays, acting and theatre directing.  

When Kat came to me with the idea of Chaiya I wanted to do everything in my power to support her. The idea for the book evolved and of course having just had my first book published (Time to Live: The Beginners Guide to Saying Goodbye), I was wonderfully placed to help make it happen and am grateful to Instant Apostle for creating and publishing it so beautifully.

I am so proud of Kat for the vision of this initiative and feel privileged to outwork it with her.  There will be another competition and art exhibition in 2020.

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Ann and Katrina at the exhibition launch

I imagine it’s hard for you to choose a favourite piece of art from the book – but was there one section which was particularly enjoyable to look at and/or write?

My heart is so full of gratitude to the artists that are featured.  Their passion is for all to see. The spiritual content of the work is undeniable and it is thrilling. I think Suffering and Death struck a deep chord as it resonated with what I had just written and it contains one of my favourite (amongst many favourite) pictures, The Suspense of Living on the Edge by Ashar.

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‘The suspense of living on the edge’ by ashar

Ann, you’re a mother and a grandmother, and you’ve worked as a special needs teacher. In your experience with children, how do you think art can open up their understanding of the world?

Low self-worth is the killer in our children. When reading and writing are a struggle, the arts can redeem so much in them and bring success.

I directed The Wizard of Oz in a primary school with Year 6s.  As my heart is for special needs I used unexpected children in the main roles. One child found reading so difficult but he had stage presence so I cast him in a main part. Learning the role took him hours his father told me, but he was absolutely determined to do it.  He was brilliant.

I taught visual art for a year to a class. The mess was unimaginable but it was a joy. A parent came to me at the end of term and said his daughter had been captivated by my Picasso classes.

When she told him he went upstairs to his loft and brought down a dusty book on Picasso he and her mother (who had sadly died) had bought together. Father and daughter then sat together enjoying chatting about all the pictures of the painter’s work and of course talked about her mum as well.  He left and I cried.

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Detail from ‘Pathways’ by Karen Weatherbee

When I heard about this book, I was hoping that Mister (9) would be ‘old enough’ to access it.

In reality, when I first looked at it, I happened to have my Meerkat (4) and Missy (7) climbing all over me! I was amazed that they were not only engaged by the images, but had some very thoughtful comments and questions about them.

I shouldn’t have been surprised really, should I?

Art is like music.  It reaches places that other things cannot.  

When my daughter was about eight I took her to what is now the Tate Britain.  She had her sketch book and pencil in case. I thought I would start with David Hockney as his pictures are accessible.  The Splash, the figure in the shower.

She sat on the floor and drew them. We moved onto Degas and the Little Dancer but it didn’t do much for her.  

The powerful and huge Jacob wrestling with the Angel by Epstein was instantly riveting, again she dropped to the floor and drew. This is how the visit went.  

We walked past some paintings by Joan Miro and she stopped and laughed. I don’t think I’ve laughed at a painting much. I looked again and saw the fun.

If we ask children what they see I guarantee it will open our eyes.  That is the beauty of visual art. Images are part of their lives now as never before. This is why I feel it so incredibly important to allow space for faith-filled visual art to be created and exhibited.

Children are so wonderfully open and without boundaries and their world has much to give us.  There isn’t anything on the market like this book. It is a great opportunity to talk about many important things together.

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‘Left out’ by Maxwell Rushton

One image which my children found particularly provocative was Maxwell Rushton’s ‘Left Out’, in which a homeless person sitting at the side of the path is wrapped in a bin bag.

They related to this scene as, sadly, walking past a homeless person is a fairly regular event for them (and of course I get the innocent and loudly-voiced “WHY’S THAT MAN SITTING BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, MUMMY?” when we’re clearly within earshot of the man in question).

We were able to chat through the idea of value and rubbish, precious and worthless, wondering what makes us special or important in the first place.

What I loved about the artworks in the exhibition is that some were immediate, authentic and emotional, so we could relate to them easily.  Some were more challenging but so worth exploring.

Some of us can find art scary. We wonder what we are ‘supposed’ to think or feel. To start with we need to be ourselves and trust ourselves. It is okay to feel what we feel.

Different people will see different things. Sounds to me like your children had a fab conversation with you that will make both you and them think.  

I remember my son still in primary school noticing homeless people and having conversations with him about it. One day I found him emptying his moneybox into a plastic bag. When I asked him why, he said it was to give to the homeless man sitting on the main road of our village.

Everything in me wanted to say ‘don’t give him everything’. I shut my mouth and went with him as he gave it away.  Who says children can’t teach us things?

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‘Scarred’ by Rachel Ho

In an earlier section of the book you write:

“Many artists desire to contribute into a hurting world. They do not necessarily bring actual food. They may have little money to give, but they can bring beauty… We human beings cannot survive on ashes – the ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ of our consumer society: horror, abuse, degradation, isolation, sickness, objectification. Or social media with its poisoned ashes of language that defame and destroy the chosen offender. The murmuration of electronic clutter, while essential, overtakes and dulls. We need food that empowers, food that causes us to lift our eyes beyond the material, beyond the constant soundscape; we need beauty.”

Children, similarly, cannot contribute ‘actual food’ to a hurting world. They have few monetary resources, and their lack of independence limits what they can contribute in terms of voluntary work. But in many ways they too bring the beauty you write about. What’s your experience of this?

My grandson Judah is now twenty months old.  I have watched the untrammelled joy he brings into my husband’s life.  

My husband is the General Director of the Evangelical Alliance and there is always so much going on. Positive, wonderful things, but his head gets full and tired.

Little Judah is such a happy giving child that his very presence and gorgeous smile banishes everything except the present moment.  

We have a large painting by Dinah Roe-Kendall of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple which Judah loves. The painting is not only beautiful, it also worships God twenty four hours per day whether someone looks at it or not. I love having it in my home: the power of a faith-filled painting.

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‘God’ by Trevor Attwood

Our children are more influenced by more sources than ever before – not only friends and teachers, but books, TV, the unlimited ‘voices’ screaming at them from YouTube, and – eventually – social media. Where can they find God in all of this?

Firstly I think put as much of God in them as you can from the moment you first hold them.  Pray over them, cover them with prayer daily.

What you put into them, and their acceptance of God, will become their plumb line of choice in the future even if they could never articulate it. Many children have no deep plumb line, indeed many adults as well, but that’s another story.

The early years are crucial – give them the time you can. When most of us have to work it is difficult and demanding as the last thing you want to do is give even more.

Ask God to expand you, grow you.  Give, give and give again. Love, love and love again. No-one will see most of what you do, except that God will see everything and He is no person’s debtor.

I thought when the children went to secondary school that’s when we would be having deep discussions, but they start much younger!

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‘I keep God handy in my little box’ by Mike Fryer

That’s great advice – thank you! Finally, what is your hope for those who read this book?

I have three hopes:

  1. That artists will be encouraged in their making to express spirituality and be emboldened and encouraged to do so.  
  2. That faith is given space in the visual arts as we search for meaning, relevance and hope.
  3. That all sorts of people would look at the work and grow a fresh delight in and understanding of the importance and relevance of art in our culture.

I would like to leave a quote from the end of the book as part of my answer.

“This is about allowing ourselves the freedom to search for and
expect ‘magic’ again. It is about walking into a hidden place and
experiencing the feel of a fur coat on our face. As our eyes adjust,
the light of a lamp reveals glinting snow. We walk through the
wardrobe, our feet crunch, and before us lie stone animals, mysteries,
things to explore. Excitement mounts.

The artists featured in this book stepped through a wardrobe, they
discovered the snow, heard its crunch underfoot. They invite you
to join them.

Spring is coming.”

Look out for my review coming this Friday!

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Brilliant books, BBQs, and a post that went (my version of) viral! (What I’m into – May 2018)

Books

After a couple of heavy-going titles this year, May was a good month for books.

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Our book club read The Light between Oceans which was fabulous. Lighthouse-keeper Tom and his wife Izzy are the only inhabitants of a tiny island many miles off the west coast of Australia. When a boat containing a baby and a dead man gets washed up on shore, the couple is left with an agonising decision.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I’ll stop there, but needless to say the story’s main ethical dilemma, interwoven with a complex web of loss and love, death and life, made for an absolutely stonking read.

I also read Spark, the second in Alice Broadway’s brilliant trilogy (I read the first book, Ink, last year). I wish I’d made time to re-read Ink before reading Spark, as the books are set in an innovative fantasy world, and I just couldn’t remember all the details from last year. But, as the plot came back to me, I found this book gripping – maybe not as much as the first, but I think the middle book in a trilogy is always going to be harder work, without the novelty of the first and the conclusion of the second.

However, I really loved the space there was to explore all kinds of questions about what constitutes ‘truth’, how the same event can be portrayed differently by different groups of people, how hard it is to shake off what you were brought up with, and so on. I can’t wait for book three!

Food

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We had a pretty awesome barbecue over the first bank holiday weekend with lovely family. (At risk of sounding Very British – hasn’t the weather been lovely? And it’s not even June. Well, it is now – but it wasn’t in May. When the weather was fab. Did I mention this?)

Also, the kids wanted to bake bread, but we didn’t have a whole lot of time to be doing with the rising and the proving, so we cheated and made soda bread (which is actually just as nice as normal bread, but don’t tell).

Our book club met at Bistro Guy for pizza. I know I go on about this place, but it really is something. If you’re local and haven’t tried it, you really must.

The kids made some fruit sparkler skewers – very simple really, taken from The Artful Year – which I totally love as a guide to process-oriented art (as opposed to “let’s all make exactly the same thing out of exactly the same materials”-type art).

Music

Seems an age away now, but we enjoyed Eurovision. Actually, I’m not sure ‘enjoyed’ is the word – what is the correct adjective here?

We’ve had a lot more Karine Polwart in the car, and DesertDad has been making me listen to this Hans Theesink album – reasonably palatable Blues (to a non-Blues fan) – since he saw him live at the start of the month.

Stage and screen

I went with some friends to see The Play that goes Wrong after rave reviews from various members of my family. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – it’s basically non-stop slapstick, and there were a few moments when my attention wandered – but there are also several genius comedy moments, which are executed brilliantly. There are still loads of places left on the tour, so if it’s coming near you, I highly recommend it.

The hubs and I have also been watching House of Cards (the British version from the early 90s). Totally absorbing, even for a non-politics person like me. The central character, Francis Urquhart, becomes more and more twisted in his relentless drive to become PM, and it does make for compelling viewing. We’ve just started the second series and I’m hooked!

And a friend invited me to watch The Holiday which is totally my kind of feel-good rom-com, with all the essential ingredients (crappy ex-boyfriends, wonderful British-American banter, and Jude Law). Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz take part in a holiday house swap, to get as far away as possible from their complicated romantic lives. Kate ends up in L.A., Cameron in Surrey. Romance (obvs) ensues. Much recommended!

Articles

Everyone has a role. So what’s mine? is a powerful, tear-jerking article by foster-carer Julie on behalf of Home for Good, outlining how we can support vulnerable children, even if we don’t do the actual adopting/fostering ourselves.

I loved these responses to Bishop Michael Curry’s Royal Wedding sermon: 9 Assorted Thoughts on That Wedding Sermon and 4 reasons people didn’t like the Royal Wedding sermon – and why they’re wrong.

And I resonated with 5 Valuable Work Lessons from Maternity Leave – so much so, in fact, that you’ll be spotting my own response to this in the next couple of weeks.

On the blog

I wrote about the challenges of parenting in The Day of Demands, the challenges of marriage (not least royal marriage) in Dysfunctional Families? There’s hope in marriage! and the challenges of adoption in my review of The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting.

I was thrilled to interview new author Joanna May Chee on How to Chase your Dreams (and why so many of us don’t), and wrote a little blog about money, based on my first few months’ experience attempting to build a freelance writing career.

I waxed lyrical about this amazing Herbs & Essential Oils bundle (flash sale ends this Monday, 4th June so be quick if you want it!).

AND…I was slightly flabbergasted to find that my thoughts on Should children be allowed to run around in church? quickly became the second most-read blog post on Desertmum…EVER! (And I’ve been blogging six years, so this is quite an achievement!)

It clearly struck a chord with some, and I’ve enjoyed the various debates on Facebook, ranging from “No, they absolutely shouldn’t” to “We need to re-think how we do church so that no one has to stay in their seats at all”. Loved it!

(Although, had I known how much attention it would receive, I might have worked on it for a bit longer. I mean, it’s kind of like going out in jeans and a top, then realising everyone else is in a dress and, if you’d have known, you’d have smartened up a bit.)

Elsewhere

On Home for Good, I wrote Preparing Birth Children for an Adopted Sibling, which does what it says on the tin, while my ACW blog this month was titled What Led you to Writing?

Also, I started organising everything I’ve ever written about adoption in one easy-to-navigate Pinterest board: Adoption Encouragement and Honesty. Not everything is up there yet, but I hope you’ll agree it looks much more enticing than a plain old list.

Do have a look! And please follow/share with others who would be encouraged to find this free online resource library.

Other

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* We spent a beautifully sunny day enjoying Fountain’s Abbey. What a place! We just love it here. Oh, and we used the opportunity of being en famille plus one to attempt a family photo – no fewer than 18 times. The result? I think we got one where 5/6 of us look OK.

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* I got me some NEW HAIR! (And then I washed it, and it pretty much went back to normal.)

* THE ROYAL WEDDING!!! Wasn’t it immense?! I’d quite forgotten how fun these are, and felt kind of sad that there won’t be another important one for a long time.

* I put up a hanging basket ALL BY MYSELF.

* And we had a glorious couple of days away sans kiddoes – the first time this has happened in over four years! I planned it as a surprise for the hubs – he’s pretty dozy, so it wasn’t difficult to pull the wool over his eyes. But it worked – he’d had no idea, and was pleasantly happy at the thought of no responsibility for two days. Look at us, looking all happy and carefree and like we haven’t cleared up a puddle of wee in 24 hours! (In case you’re wondering where we stayed – it was Gladstone’s Library – a residential library! How cool is that?)

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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How to chase your dreams (and why so many of us don’t) – interview with Joanna May Chee

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I’m delighted to be sharing a Desertmum ‘first’ with you all today – a blog interview! Woop!

One of the huge, huge blessings I’ve encountered since starting my ‘proper’ writing journey in January has been getting to know other Christian writers through online networks. It’s my absolute pleasure to be able to introduce you to one of these new friends today.

Joanna May Chee is a hugely encouraging and inspiring person; both as a writer and as a Christian she has taught me a lot, not least through her fabulous book, which I reviewed back in February.

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I’ve asked Joanna to share a few thoughts about chasing our dreams – something that’s been on my mind since I started to pursue mine this year. Read away…

I’m so thrilled to have you with us today Joanna! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

It’s great to be with you, Lucy! I’m Joanna, wife to an amazing man, and mum to four
wonderful teen kids. We’ve lived in several countries – Malaysia, Bosnia and Turkey – and are now settled back in England. We’ve had a few adventures! I love to write and teach, and have a heart to encourage and equip women to love their families and meet with God.

What’s the dream you’ve been chasing recently?
It’s always been my dream to write a book. And, in February this year, my first book Forever Loved: Eve’s Story was published! It’s the story of Father and daughter, as told by Eve, and focuses on God’s Father heart of love for Eve, and for us as women.

I still can’t believe I’m an author! Or that my book hit #1 Women’s Spirituality and #1 Christian Literature on Amazon UK in its first week of publication. If God can do that for me – an unknown, first time, self-publishing author – just think what he can do with your dream! God is a God of the impossible!

What obstacles did you face in seeing your book come to life?
The largest and most unexpected obstacle to getting my book out there was getting a cover designed! It took me 3 years to write the book (Mum with four children here!), but then another whole year back-and- forward with designers trying to get a cover I loved. I didn’t like anything they came up with, and got through designers and money. It was a hugely frustrating and difficult process. (You can read how my cover came to be, and see previous versions, in this blog post.) In the end, I designed the cover myself and just got a designer to tweak and perfect it.

During the book writing process, I also learned how to blog, how to grow an audience to market to, and how to self-publish. This involved a lot of research, and a lot of hard work. Fulfilment of a dream usually requires commitment, pushing through, and passion. The result is totally worth it!

How do we discern which dreams are God-given, and which are self-indulgent?
If we are pursuing God, then I’m not sure that any dream is self-indulgent! The Bible says
God gives us the desires of our hearts (as we delight in Him, Psalm 37:4). He is a good
Father; I think He gets really excited by the things that stir our hearts, and loves to see us
pressing into them.

Of course, there is timing. One dream may be for now. Another may be for future. The key is probably to ask God what to pursue when, and to go with what you have excitement and peace for.

What sort of things do you think keep us from pursuing our dreams?
So many things: lack of time, fear of failure, financial pressures, not knowing where to start, fear of what others will think, life overwhelm, feeling inadequate, questioning the timing and so on.

Are there particular obstacles for women, do you think, in pursuing their dreams?
There is one area I can think of straight off! I know many women dream to speak, to preach, to lead. Often this is hard because they do not have a platform to do so, or sadly, are not allowed or encouraged to.

The amazing thing is that the internet has totally opened things up for us as women. Anyone can create an online course, and teach or speak. Anyone can start an online community. Anyone can mentor others online. Yes, there are things to learn, but the internet truly makes it possible for you to pursue whatever is on your heart!

What advice would you give someone who felt God had given them a specific dream to pursue?
Go for it! Get excited. Dream big. Ask God for wisdom in pursuing your dream: how to start, and what to do each step of the way. Prioritise your dream. Carve out short time slots in your week to plan, to research, to implement. Even 5-10 minutes a day for a year adds up!

Search out others pursuing a similar dream – Facebook groups are great for that. Learn from them; receive support and encouragement. Find a friend to pray with and be accountable to. Know that God is able. He can work through you to make your dream reality. Receive from Him each day. He is your source and your strength.

I recently wrote a blog post titled Beautiful Mum … What’s Your Dream? where I expand on these thoughts, and share my own experiences of pursuing my dreams, as a busy mum with a million other things to do! I encourage you to read it … and go for your dream! There’s nothing more exciting in life than living with purpose and passion!

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Joanna Chee gets excited about God! She loves to write, and is often awake in the night with a million ideas for her next book or project. Joanna blogs at JoannaMayChee.com and MumsKidsJesus.com, where it is her heart to encourage and equip women to love their families and meet with God. She is author of Forever Loved: Eve’s Story, a creative retelling of the Bible story of Eve, and a #1 Amazon UK bestseller. Connect with Joanna on Facebook.com/JoannaMayChee | Facebook.com/MumsKidsJesus | Pinterest.co.uk/MumsKidsJesus

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Should we avoid Mothers’ Day just because it’s hard?

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Luke 13:34 “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” Photo credit: Pixabay

Every year Mother’s Day rolls around. And every year I see a barrage of comments on social media or blogs about how hard Mother’s Day is for many people. And every year there’s someone who’s calling for the whole thing to be abolished.

I do wonder whether Mother’s Day – like many festivals, special days and life events – has become harder since the advent of social media. Prior to the late 2000s, one could easily avoid card shops in February/March, distract themselves with other pursuits, and then burrow themselves away on the day itself. Nowadays, we’re faced with post after post about people’s brilliant Mums, brilliant kids, heartfelt messages or extravagant gifts.

It’s hard for many people. Not just those whose desire to have children hasn’t been fulfilled, but those whose own mother was absent, neglectful or abusive, those who have lost their mum, those whose mum no longer recognises them, those who have lost a child, Dads who have lost their partner and Mum of their children, and countless other situations.

For others, it’s not necessarily a hard day, but it’s complicated. I can (and will) praise God for giving me each of my four children, but knowing that two of them have a biological mum who they will never meet adds a different dimension to the day.

And this begs the question: should we stop doing something because it’s hard?

This is the world’s way, certainly, and this is the individualistic mindset. It’s a hard place for me to go, so I just won’t make the journey.

But, as Christians, we’re no longer just individuals. We are part of a wide and diverse community. We are called to share in each other’s joys (2 Corinthians 1:7), which means celebrating when one of our sisters is blessed with the gift of children, or another sister is celebrating her close relationship with her own mum, even if we’re not in that situation ourselves.

And here lies another question: does celebration have to be about forced smiles and pretend joy?

Again, this is the world’s way. The world, for all its glitzy appeal, has only very limited possibilities for celebration. It’s really all about looking like you’re having a good time. But, again, as Christians we know a different way.

The Bible speaks of joy and suffering alongside each other (Romans 8:17). Celebrating with a friend who has a big, noisy family, when we’ve suffered a series of failed IVF attempts, is not about being happy all the time. Yes, we share in their joy, but we also share in their suffering: their tiredness, their guilt at not being the Mum they want to be, their sense of helplessness at not knowing how to respond to a child’s behaviour. And they share in our suffering and joy too. We are permitted to cry and be honest with them.

I love the Jewish culture of celebration: it is loud, vibrant and authentic. And I love what they say to those who are suffering: apparently, when someone has suffered a bereavement, they are excused from dancing at celebrations for one year following the event. Note that there is still an expectation to show up at parties. It is acknowledged that a grieving person may not feel like dancing, but that it is still good for them to be in that place of celebration, to be reminded of (and uplifted by) the joys of others.

Mother’s Day is not about boasting of all the cards and presents we’ve received. It’s not about gloating over social media. But neither is it about avoidance. Celebration in its truest sense will involve having conversations with those who are different to us. We need to hear their stories, and they need to hear ours.

Furthermore, Mother’s Day should be a day for celebrating ‘mothering’ in the broadest sense of what it means in a Christian community. And we can all do that. Who has spiritually mothered you? They might be a ‘mother’ figure, or they might be physically younger than you, but Mother’s Day can and should be an opportunity to thank them for the impact they’ve had on your life.

I have two godmothers, neither of whom have children. It saddens me that I have never thought to honour them on Mother’s Day, because both of them have had a positive spiritual impact on my life, and still keep in touch with me well into my 30s. Maybe this is a tradition I can start next year.

One of my friends hasn’t had her own children, but has had a large involvement in the lives of her nieces, and each Mother’s Day they give her special ‘Aunt’ cards and presents, to acknowledge her mothering influence in their lives.

Rather than succumb to the secular urge of Mother’s Day, which is to highlight our nuclear families over any other way of living, we should use this day to do what we Christians need to do daily: thank God for what He has given us (1 Thessalonians 5:18), honestly share our feelings with Him (as modelled all over the Bible, a good example being Job 3), acknowledge our sin in failing to trust him with our parenting, or looking to children to bring fulfilment (John 4:13-14), and being assured of His forgiveness and grace (Psalm 32:1-2), knowing that He longs to draw us closer and change us more towards Christ’s likeness.

So, this Mother’s Day, celebrate. Celebrate with laughter and smiles, with tears and grumpy moments, with elation and confusion, happy thoughts and sadder ones. Embrace the fullness of our God, who has created us capable of experiencing the full gamut of emotions – and take them all to Him.

I’ve always loved this sensitive liturgy suggestion for Mother’s Day – take a read!

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.

what i’m into – november 2017

November can be a pretty miserable month – it’s cold, wet and dark, and it feels like we’re hanging around waiting for December to begin. To distract myself from the temptation to put the tree up on November 1st (did I mention I LOVE Christmas??), I kept myself busy with…

Books

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Having recently read ‘Me Before You’, it was only natural to want to know what had happened to Louisa, the main character, so I enjoyed ‘After You’ (JoJo Moyes) as an easy-to-read but satisfying ‘conclusion’ to the first book. I was just thinking that the story would work well as a trilogy – and then discovered that there will, in fact, be a third book coming out in the spring! Yay!

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I’ve not yet finished, but am thoroughly enjoying, ‘Why Love Matters’ (Sue Gerhardt), something I’ve been wanting to read in full since coming across it on our adoption reading list two years ago. It’s about the vital role that early love and nurture play in the development of a child’s brain, helping it to regulate emotions, retain a normal level of cortisol (stress hormone), and all sorts of other interesting things. Gerhardt shows how a baby who does not have its emotional needs met, and/or experiences separation from its primary caregiver, is much more susceptible to poor mental health and even physical health in adulthood, amongst other undesirable states.

Now I am NOT a scientist, but Gerhardt has condensed a 50-page bibliography of current psychological research about the brain into a novel-sized book that even I can understand. Brilliant and thoroughly recommended for anyone, like me, who has a passing interest in psychology but not enough to do a whole degree in it!

Oh, and I was massively excited to be part of a new book club launch in my area! We’re kicking off in January, and you’ll be the first to know what we’re delving into!

Food

For the first time, I got to experience my friend’s bistro in the evening. The daytime menu at Bistro Guy is what you’d expect from a decent, modern-British restaurant – local organic platters, decent home-cooked burgers, soups and salads – and we’ve been several times. But the evening is totally different, and I highly recommend it for any Yorkie who hasn’t yet been.

Guy provides a tantalising menu of ‘small plates’, all with a Japanese-Western fusion, and you simply order as much as you feel you can eat. Which, in my case, would probably be all of them – except for my bank balance, and the fact that we were eating before a show so were somewhat time-limited. I’d seen the menu before, but the reality was even better.

I started with Karaage chicken, Yuzu dressed fine beans and a wasabi emulsion – delicious flavours and beautifully tender – but it was so yummy that I’d necked the lot before I thought of taking any photos.

My Dad enjoyed a wild mushroom and garden pea soup: (Excuse the rubbish phone pics, they really don’t do the food justice.)

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I tried a wild mushroom and leek filo roll, squash puree and parmesan crisp (only halfway through before I remembered to take a pic):

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And then – the piece de resistance – whiskey-smoked duck, a feast for the eyes and tastebuds:

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I absolutely loved the smoke-filled bell-jar – and the aroma when it was lifted off was absolute heaven. The duck was beautifully cooked and the flavours matched perfectly.

As if I hadn’t had enough amazing flavours, I finished off with the chocolate brownie, coconut pannacotta, red bean and ice cream:

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An incredible meal.

Elsewhere, in what was probably my most stressful week of the year, our Suzuki teacher (and my boss) made me this amazing cake. Wasn’t that kind?

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And a couple of fun pre-Christmas foodie traditions at home. I made a batch of Christmas chutneys for gifts:

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And the kids (well, the younger three – the oldest has sadly opted out this year) helped to make our Christmas pud. And yes, we made it on Stir-Up Sunday!

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Music

It was a teeny bit stressful, rashly offering to step in to accompany a friend’s school choir in the middle of town at short notice this month – but, once I’d put in the practice, I absolutely LOVED being able to justifiably play Christmas music mid-November.

Did I mention I LOVE Christmas music??

Stage and screen

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My Dad is a big G&S fan, so I invited him and Mum up here to see Patience. It was pretty good (for a not-so-fan), and I even managed to stay awake through it all – something not achieved by the other not-so-fan in the party. Spotting one of Mister’s teaching assistants in the chorus was a particular highlight.

I went to see Nina Conti with a friend and she was brilliant brilliant brilliant. We laughed so hard that we hurt – and it was the kind of laughter that you couldn’t stop if you tried. Her improvisation is so quick, her puppetry is amazing, and I’ve simply never seen anything like it. I can’t understand why she’s not better known, so have vowed to make it my mission to spread the word, starting with this video, which you simply MUST watch:

On the blog

Hooray for managing another blog post this month besides these monotonous run-downs. Turns out that Five Ways my Toddlers are Different from Yours hit a chord with people, and within days it had become one of the most-read posts on this blog EVER (that’s over-five-years Ever). I also introduced my #randomadvent blog posts, and would be thrilled if you wanted to pootle along with me during Advent. The easiest way is to sign up to receive them directly into your inbox – you should find the appropriate box in the right-hand column of this blog.

In other news…

* I’ve made an effort with Twitter. I’m @DesertMumBlog if you’re interested to follow me. Sometimes I say something good and no one notices. Other times, I say something predictable and it gets lots of likes and retweets. Twitter is a strange place.

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* I attended Adoption UK’s Annual Conference – it was my first one, and it was amazing! This year’s theme was ‘Attachment and Trauma in the Classroom’ and so much of it was helpful to work through, both as a parent, and as a governor, seeking to make a positive change within our school community. Some of the speakers had really interesting experiences, like the headteacher who runs his school very differently since he’s become an adoptive parent, or the mum who started her own school because her son wasn’t catered for in the mainstream.

There was also a decent lunch, surely the mark of a good conference:

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* We had a Baker Day (anyone else still call them that?) so I took the kiddoes to William’s Den – highly worth a visit if you’re local. Brilliant for toddlers through to older primary kids – like soft play, only hard.

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* My wallet was stolen. I don’t actually mind, because the story’s a good one, and it’s always nice to build up one’s repertoire of dinner-party-worthy anecdotes (maybe I’ll share it on here one day). People were all like, “Oh what a pain, you have to cancel all your cards” – but I’m ashamed to say I had only one bank card and approximately five gazillion store loyalty cards for every single shop within a 50-mile circumference of my home. I’m a SUCKER for anyone offering me a paltry discount in return for a large chunk of my patronage. IMG_20171129_125507[1]

* We got back into doing some interactive Bible stories over breakfast. It’s been a surprisingly easy habit to fall into, and the younger three kids love them. I use Play through the Bible, sadly no longer available, so if you’re interested, you’ll have to borrow a copy 😉 I feel we’ve cracked the habit in time for starting some Christmas stories this weekend.

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* The younger boys (and I!) were very excited by this rainbow!

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* We were then very excited by the snow! NOW, Desert readers, help me out with something. After each blog post, I am indebted to all the wonderful recommendations you come up with – most recently, for a new ironing board cover (still in progress…). So, when the temperature suddenly dropped by 20 degrees last week, my face very quickly started to resemble blotchy red sandpaper. Any great recommendations of a decent facial moisturiser which protects against the cold? We live in the North, you know.

* Last but very much not least…it’s our school Christmas Fair tomorrow, so I’ve been doing lots of bits for that. It’ll probably get a mention in #randomadvent, but for now let me just tell you what a total JOY it is to compare how far our school has come since last year’s Christmas fair. We now have a proper PTA, a committee, and a good bunch of enthusiastic and reliable parents to help out. I’m expecting great things!

And, oh gosh, it’s past midnight, which means that the Fair is today. Best get some sleep.

 

random advent

I am the Queen of unrealistic ambitions.

Approximately every five days I have a new business idea, or personal goal, or family-related plan which I will never – I repeat, NEVER – be able to see into action.

And so, it’s fully understandable that I began this year with the aim of writing an Advent devotional ready for this Advent.

I mean – what was I thinking??? I have four kids who each present their own set of challenges. A husband who presents more. I’m a school governor and chair of the PTA. I lead a house group, help run a toddler group, am on the Sunday kids work rota and occasionally lead worship. If I’m in bed before midnight, I count it as a minor miracle – and that’s with a pile of dirty laundry dumped by the machine, pots sitting unwashed, emails unreplied to and our bedroom still resembling the aftermath of a hurricane. (Still. After I’ve spent the whole year trying to get round to tidying it.)

So no. The Advent devotional didn’t happen. But then I realised something. I always begin Advent full of good intentions about sticking to a devotional, focusing my mind in the busy lead-up to Christmas. And it lasts for two weeks, max, before I lose the habit and drift off. Just like my over-ambitious life plans, even trying to read something for 10 minutes a day for 25 days is an unachievable goal.

Now it struck me that if I’m like this, maybe others are too. And doesn’t this, in itself, bring us back to the Christmas story? Our good intentions, our ambitions, our desire to get things right – we can’t possibly keep this up. And when it inevitably falls flat on its face – in life, or in the stresses peculiar to December – we are left with a small baby in an animal feeding trough, born as a refugee into a political unstable country. His vulnerability, at birth and at death, would become our strength.

So here’s what I’m planning to do: write a little thought here on the blog every day this Advent. I’ll share anecdotes from my day, or things I’ve been thinking about – and I’ll try and include a short Bible passage too. You’ll bump along with the Desert household as we carry out our Christmas traditions and enjoy the season – but, inevitably, you’ll be the first to know when things don’t go to plan.

If you’re looking for exegesis or coherent thought, then this probably won’t be for you. If you like the idea of ‘doing Advent’ alongside another desert wanderer, then please join me. I’m going to call it ‘Random Advent’ – I did think of joining the words together in some overly fashionable way, but #randvent just sounds like the wrong kind of hashtag. This is not that kind of blog.

I’ll be updating on Facebook and Twitter, obvs, so please like/follow me on those media if you don’t already, but the easiest, surefire way of receiving each Advent thought is to sign up to email alerts. You can do that on the right-hand column of this blog – just type your email address and click on ‘follow’.

I’m not promising it’ll be anything profound, but perhaps as we offer God our mundane and simple, He will do something extraordinary. It worked for Mary and Joseph.