Identity and the Church – Can a church be inclusive without compromise?

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Image credit: Pixabay

It’s no secret that one of the big debates in the Church today is how to pastorally respond to those of varying sexual orientations.

Churches the world over range from a permissive, arms-open approach to a more closed, even angry, approach. And any talk of trying to ‘strike a balance’ is futile, as there are as many opinions on this subject as there are Christians, with everyone holding a different idea of what that ‘balance’ would entail.

So – and I’m convinced of this – we need to find different solutions to working and worshiping together peacefully and lovingly. Solutions which embrace the diversity of opinion found within the Church and use it to strengthen our mission, not divide it.

It’s why I loved reading Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation earlier this year. And it’s why I was thrilled to attend Living Out’s Identity conference in London this June.

I’ve already blogged a few thoughts reflecting on this conference, firstly how culture shapes our identity (without us even realising), and secondly how affected I was by the testimony of four celibate, gay Christians. Do have a read if you haven’t already.

This is the third and final reflection, and it concerns our approach as churches.

Kathy Keller spoke wonderfully in the afternoon on the more practical issue of how we make our churches welcoming and inclusive, while holding to traditional Bible teaching about sex being for (heterosexual) marriage.

This will jar for those who don’t read the Bible this way, but one thing I found particularly strong was Kathy’s assertion that actually homosexual ‘sin’ is a lot less common/frequent than heterosexual ‘sin’ – purely by nature of there being more heterosexual than homosexual people in the world. Of course this is obvious really, isn’t it? Only I’d never thought of it this way.

In other words, where do our churches stand on teaching about sex within marriage generally? How do we address those who are living together outside marriage, those who have had affairs, those who are in the process of a divorce, those who are considering remarriage?

There are no easy answers, of course, to any of this – but the point is: sexual sin needs to be addressed as a whole. Singling out any one group of individuals is not helpful, and it certainly isn’t Biblical.

Living Out had produced a church inclusivity audit for the day, which I found incredibly helpful, not to mention challenging. If we really ask these questions of ourselves and our churches, where do we stand? I know we fall down in a number of areas.

For example:

“Church family members instinctively share meals, homes, holidays, festivals, money, children with others from different backgrounds and life situations to them.”

I’m not so sure that our church, diverse and welcoming as it is, really models this kind of sharing with those of different backgrounds. The thinking here is that if a church develops this kind of culture then it will make life easier for a person who has chosen, for whatever reason, to live a celibate lifestyle, as they will automatically feel included, and experience life-giving relationships within their church family.

Another example:

“All in your church know that we all experience sexual brokenness and all are being encouraged to confess their own sexual sins.”

I just don’t think that we talk about sex very much or very well! Are we encouraged to think about past sexual behaviour, and whether it was God-honouring? We might be in committed marital relationships, but have we ever asked God to forgive us for what we did before that, or for mixed motives even now?

Again, this general focus on sexual sin (rather than homosexual sin) is helpful, I think, as it sets high and challenging expectations for all of us.

You can download the full audit here and I really recommend taking a look – there are some stonking statements on there. In addition, there’s a great video of Ed Shaw (a same-sex attracted church leader) explaining at the conference how he went through this audit with his church leadership team.

There were some great books recommended during the conference which I wanted to mention here, as well as some of my own favourites:

Walking with Gay Friends – I found this incredibly helpful a few years ago in helping me think through this issue. The author is a Christian and a lesbian.

Space at the Table: Conversations between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son – this is on my to-read list, and looks amazing! Check out the trailer video here: it might make you cry!

The Gospel comes with a House Key – Rosaria Butterfield’s story of converting to Christianity as a gay, feminist academic is one I want to read – this is a follow-on book, where she describes the kind of radical hospitality Christians are called to give.

Mere Sexuality: rediscovering the Christian vision of sexuality

The plausibility problem – written by Ed Shaw, featured in the church audit video.

Gay girl, good God – I spotted this on Twitter, and it looks fascinating – the story of Jackie Hill Perry’s coming to faith.

Undivided – Vicky Beeching’s story, from a different perspective, has also been on my to-read list since it was released, and I know many of you have already read it.

Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation – as mentioned. Read my review here!

Happy reading!

A note on my affiliate links: this post contains them! You know the drill: click through, make a purchase, and I earn a small amount of commission.

However, I realise that many of you will Google the book titles, just to check whether there’s a cheaper price. I get it – I do that too. I always try to put the cheapest price I can find right here in the blog post, but that’s not always possible (prices change all the time, I’m UK based so some things will be cheaper/dearer in other countries, and I have an aversion to Amazon…). So by all means, go check the cheaper price – but if you find that it’s the same as what I’ve recommended, do come back here and click on my links pretty please. It’s how I keep the blog free! Thank you 🙂

 

 

Identity and Culture – some thoughts from the Living Out conference

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Image credit: Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow. And totally true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now read my second reflection on this thought-provoking conference!

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

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The adoption process involves several home visits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are careful about who we invite into our home

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

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

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

We are careful about when we invite people into our home

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

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

We are careful about who stays the night

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

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

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

We supervise our children at all times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Should children be allowed to run around in church?

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When we arrived at our current church, a little over four years ago, our two children (then aged 4 and 2) were the only regular kids attending.

Some weeks it was just the two of them – and other weeks, they had one or two friends join them – but, with such small numbers, they always had the run of the church.

And, when I say ‘run’, I mean ‘RUN’. My husband and I were frequently both involved in any given service, and our kids hadn’t yet got to know the other adults well enough to sit happily on their laps – so we let them run.

As our church started to grow, we realised that we’d inadvertently set a precedent. New families coming into the church only had our model to follow.

It’s not that it was a bad model necessarily, it’s just that we’d done what we needed to, given the circumstances, and it hadn’t really been thought-through – theologically or practically.

So now that we have four kiddoes (8, 6, 3 and 3), and our wonderful church welcomes nearly 30 children each week, the issue of what we should expect from kids during services is regularly on my mind.

On the one hand – I love that our church is so welcoming and non-judgemental, and wish all churches were like that. (I’m aware many are, which is brilliant!) On the other – I wonder when kids should start engaging with the service, and how that’s supposed to happen when we haven’t developed that culture with them.

May I answer a question with a question? (I’m not going to wait for your answer. Jesus answered questions with questions, so I reckon I’m fine.)

In response to the issue of whether children should be let loose in church, I’d like to ask, What would they be doing if they weren’t running around?

And here are some possible answers to that question:

They might be screaming, tantrumming, or banging the pews/chairs. (An aside: for all their frustrating inflexibility, pews are SO much more satisfying to bang, right? A much more resonant sound. Thank you. As you were.)

Mainly, this applies to toddlers. Let’s be fair: when do we ever expect a 2 year old to sit still and quietly for more than a couple of minutes in any context apart from church? (Mealtimes don’t count – you can’t strap a child into a highchair in church, and you can’t feed them for the entire service either, not unless you want to raise a child reminiscent of the Michelin man.)

This might also apply to older children with additional needs. These beautiful human-beings, who God created and loves and wants us to welcome graciously, may not yet have the emotional understanding or ability to meet the kind of expectations we might put upon other children. Are we to place impossible, stressful demands upon them and their parents?

Quite honestly, if it’s a toss-up between a child roaming freely around church, or having a screaming fit because they’re feeling restrained in a pew – I’m with the first option.

But here’s another answer: if the children weren’t running around, they might be actually engaging in worship.

I’m speaking now of school-aged children primarily – children who do regularly sit still in class at school, and in assemblies. By allowing them to run amok, are we denying them of the opportunity to absorb Scripture through learning hymns and songs, taking part in the confession, and hearing Bible passages read to them?

John Piper gave a thought-provoking interview a couple of years ago on “Should children sit through ‘big church’?” I don’t agree with everything he says, but I do love his emphasis on our role as parents when it comes to modelling church for our children:

“The greatest stumbling block for children in worship is parents who don’t cherish [it]…They don’t love it. Children can feel the difference between duty and delight. So, the first and most important job of a parent is to fall in love with the worship of God…You can’t impart what you don’t possess. And this is what you want your children to catch. You want them to catch authentic worship…The cumulative effect of 650 worship services spent with mom and dad in authentic communion with God and his people between the ages of 4 and 17 is utterly incalculable.”

If we don’t allow our children to authentically engage in worship – first by observing us, then by taking part themselves, then by believing, questioning and really owning it themselves – what are we hoping for their futures? That they won’t know how to cope with services which aren’t specifically tailored to their age group? That they will never own their faith for themselves?

It doesn’t sound very optimistic!

I do think our services need to be free and relaxed enough to accommodate children in all stages of life, with all sorts of different needs, on all sorts of days, in all sorts of moods. But I also think that us parents have a responsibility to develop a healthy model of communal worship with our own offspring.

A final answer: if children aren’t running around in church, they’ll be running around at home, at the park or on a football pitch.

None of these options are bad – in fact, they’re all lovely ways to spend time. But ultimately it’s a joy to have children in our churches! Do we really want to lose them to other activities because parents have felt judged or frowned upon when they’ve come through our doors?

Regardless of our own feelings, if our words and actions make parents feel uncomfortable and unwelcome when they show up, then they simply won’t return.

Sometimes, we’ll just need to bite our tongue or smile when we don’t feel like it – but if these small actions help people to know God’s welcome, God’s love of children, and God’s huge desire to see them come to know Him, they’ll be worth every piece of our energy.

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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!

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Hello.

It’s been a while, friends, and for that I apologise. Before you accuse me of idleness (because you know you’re about to do just that), let me fill you in on how time has been spent.

We are doing awesome things with our garden. I’m allowed to boast, because for the last five years our garden has borne an uncanny resemblance to a piece of community wasteland. I swear it’s only the assortment of random, second-hand kids’ play equipment, strewn across what passes for a lawn, that has kept the re-developers away. If you don’t believe me, then this:

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So now, in that space, we have a playhouse and play garden which is all kinds of cool:

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(I’m not entirely sure that this wasn’t built purely for selfish reasons – but then again, much of parenting is just about reliving childhood, so why feel guilt? And, in case you were asking [which you probably weren’t], the playhouse was preloved, the stones for the path were from a stash we already had in our garage, the tree stumps were free, and the table was upcycled from a piece of scrap MDF and a broken kiddies’ bass drum. Enough said. Oh, and I bought the fence new. Sorry.)

Then our friend got trigger-happy with a chainsaw, and now our overbearing rosehip is no more:

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I realise the second picture looks even worse than the first – not your archetypal before/after pics – I can confirm that the bits of tree have now been carted away, but it’s currently pushing midnight and if I take a pic then all you’ll get is black, and you don’t want that now do you?

We’ve discovered the wonder that is Boj. Pure joy, from the catchy Jason Donovan theme tune (just what is the third line?) right through to the bizarre food combinations and eco undertones. As part of Mister’s ongoing musical education, I will soon be showing him on repeat as many Jason videos as YouTube can throw at us.

I visited a church-run community cafe in a local suburb, and thought about how we might make that idea work in our community.

Missy potty-trained:

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She will now no longer be able to take photos of me changing her nappy:

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Although New Year was approximately five minutes ago, it is now June – which can only mean one thing: elderflower! The sweet scent lines our every path at the moment – and we’re looking forward to making cordial pretty soon. If you’ve never made it, you must! Right now! Here’s the recipe which works for us. It’s so delicious, you’ll never return to the bought stuff ever again. This year might even be the year where we branch out and make sorbet too. Go crazy.

We helped out at our local community garden for the first time, one warm, sunny Saturday morning. The kids picked litter, watered plants, played in mud, and amused themselves jumping off a large soil pile for ages. We learnt about the amazing potential of free fruit and veg for the community.

I’ve started to volunteer for The Besom. Entering people’s homes, enjoying their accidental hospitality, has made me ask questions about need, and the cycle of poverty, and shifting cultures, and benefits, and how so many families can’t support their own kids through an education which might raise their aspirations because they’re worrying about how to give them dinner that night. And there can be no greater worry for a parent than whether you’re going to be able to feed your kids.

I thought about blogging, and whether to stop. I concluded that I would keep going, but work more on my writing style. I never started this blog because I believed I was a writer, but now I’ve become one – and, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. I feel responsible for making my blog fun and interesting to read, and sometimes, let’s face it, it’s been dross. Sorry. Will amend. Let me know if you notice any difference.

I made salad soup. Honestly. I had salad that was going to turn bad before being eaten, and I hate to throw food away. Turns out it’s one of the nicest soups in the world and I can’t believe I didn’t Google this earlier.

Craft production has gone a bit insane. I made oven gloves for my mum:

2014-04-20 21.53.33followed by a heck of a lot of (blank) greetings cards for her birthday (one per year of her life, i.e. a lot), my first ever three-tiered cake for a friend’s 21st:

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cushion covers for our lounge:

2014-06-05 22.33.02 and a present-that-shall-not-be-named-for-she-has-yet-to-receive-it for my friend. I still haven’t finished the quilt, updated Missy’s scrapbook or baked a cake for our housemate’s birthday on Saturday. I am trying to learn that it’s OK to buy things rather than spend insane hours of the night sewing, sticking or icing. Pray for me.

Al and I got chatting to CAP about how we might partner with them in our community. I realised the urgency of saving lives, marriages, families and kids’ futures being wrecked by debt – and we both felt a strong urge to set up a Debt Centre as.soon.as.

This call to the poor, if that’s what it is, has been simmering away for two or three years, bubbling up gradually until setting point, 2014, the year when Besom, CAP, community gardens and cafes all enter the mix. God knows the outcome. Dare I pray for revival amongst the poor in my lifetime?

The frivolous and the deep. That’s how life goes. But who’s to tell which is which?

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What frivolous and/or deep things have you been up to recently?

reflections on running a church toddler group (3)

This is the final of a trilogy of reflections on what it’s been like to lead our church toddler group, Tuesday Tots. My first post spoke of how our group is unashamedly Christian, but with no agenda for others to subscribe to our beliefs. My second spoke of the busyness and exhaustion entailed through running the group. This post looks at the importance of prayer.

I am a do-er. Prayer does not come naturally or easily to me, because I want to be active pretty much all the time. If I’m not engaged in a task on my to-do list, if I’m not feeling ‘productive’, then I struggle. So I’m incredibly grateful that, when we started Tuesday Tots, there were some wise friends around who inspired particular prayer prompts for the group. These prompts slow us down – they remind us that “unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labour in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

Firstly, we always pray for Tuesday Tots before we open the doors. Secondly, we aim to devote an hour or so of our Monday evenings to pray specifically for this group, and other mums/toddlers outreach projects around the city, from wherever we are. Getting together in an evening, when there are young children around and often husbands who work long hours, isn’t easy, but praying in our individual homes at the same time as others still gives us the solidarity of praying with others, in spirit if not in physical presence.

It’s not easy stopping to pray – but, ever since we started Tuesday Tots, I’ve been challenged that unless we’re committing this project to God in prayer, we might as well not be running it. A prayerful friend told me she never takes on a new commitment unless she knows she has the time to pray regularly for it. This sounds so obviously something I can agree with – and yet I still busy my life with action after action, filling every conceivable minute with ‘work’, rotas, good deeds, hospitality, church things, family and friends. All of these are good in themselves, but I know I take on too many commitments/relationships/favours without first asking myself whether I have the time to support them in prayer.

It was prayer which initially fuelled Tuesday Tots. A few of us sensed God particularly asking us to pray for the future of mums and families’ outreach in York, not knowing that just a few weeks later an opportunity would open up to start a new toddler group. God even seemed to be asking me to lay aside a different ministry – when I didn’t yet know what for. So, as Tuesday Tots started with prayer, so it is sustained by prayer. We don’t make decisions without several of us committing them to God first. We don’t make the group more complicated than it is, unless God makes that very clear.

And we’ve seen Him guide us so clearly! From additional volunteers turning up unexpectedly on the mornings we’ve needed most help, to raising our kitty from £10 to £90 in just a fortnight – God has been faithful, and will continue to be as long as we place this group into His hands.

Why am I waxing on about prayer? It’s been my observation that some church ministries – particularly those not overtly linked to worship, evangelism or discipleship – often function with little reliance on the Holy Spirit. Things happen because they always have done, because someone had a great idea, because there seems to be a need. But not necessarily because God is saying Here and now, this is what I want you to do. It feels like many ministries are a slog – and, whilst following God’s plan isn’t always going to be easy, I wonder how much we slog away at stuff which should have been finished long ago (or not started at all)? Carving out time for prayer helps keep us on God’s track.

Those of us who lead Tuesday Tots often feel that God keeps us on the edge – providing just enough of what we need (money, helpers, attendees), but not so much that we stop trusting Him. It’s been an exciting 15 months of relying on Him for the group, and gives us an enormous peace for the future. We don’t know whether the group will last another 20 years or be done with by the summer – but we feel sure that God will sustain it for as long as He wants, and that’s totally OK with us.