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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Image credit: Pixabay

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?

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five fabulous things you can do with your family this lent

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Image credit: Pixabay

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!

24: cheerleaders

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Hands-up who also has a sad remnant of an Advent candle sat on their dining table?
Well, the 24th is here, and I can hardly believe I’m still writing. I set out on this #randomadvent project rather spontaneously, more for my own spiritual reflection throughout Advent than anything else – but I’ve been absolutely flabbergasted and humbled that so many of you lovely Desert-wanderers have decided to join me! A huge and heartfelt thank you from the bottom of my heart – I totally wouldn’t be here without you all.

If you’ve been one of the lovely people who have encouraged me with comments, texts, messages or emails this month, then a special thank you to you guys. I know you’ll all have been busy during December, so the fact that you’ve taken a few minutes to write and let me know you’re reading does mean a huge amount to me – and, in fact, has spurred me on to completion. (And sorry to those of you I haven’t replied to yet – it will happen, just maybe not in 2017!)

It reminds me of that wonderful passage in Hebrews 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Advent is a small representation of a longer journey that we’re all on. The journey to draw closer to that babe in the manger. Throughout the year, day in, day out, we plod on, seeking Jesus at every step. Sometimes it’s as easy as pie, sometimes it’s a joy, sometimes it takes courage, sometimes it feels as hard as climbing a wall with no support, sometimes it’s the last thing we want to do, and sometimes it’s the only thing we can do. But we can’t do it without one another.

There are two other things I’d like to draw out from this passage in Hebrews. Firstly: when our Christian journey feels tough, we are to remember him who endured the cross and ‘opposition from sinners’. There is nothing we will go through that will be tougher than that. Jesus went through this for the joy of being with God forever – and, one day, after this tough race has finished, we will know that joy too.

Secondly, we are to throw off ‘the sin that so easily entangles’. It would be ludicrous for a marathon-runner to carry a backpack or wear a heavy overcoat – and yet, so often, we are loath to look at our own lives and deal with the sin we find, in order that we can move forward in our relationship with Jesus. When we are struggling, it is not always as a direct result of our sin, of course, but I know that in my own life, it so often is. I want the blessings of a close relationship with God, a sense of His calling in my life, the joy and the peace that come from knowing Him – and yet I stubbornly refuse to deal with a sinful attitude, a grudge against a friend, the ungodly way I interact with my children. Like the heavy overcoat worn by the marathon runner, this is going to significantly hinder my chances of reaching the end point.

* However easy or difficult your Christian journey feels right now, allow God to speak into one area where He wants to offer encouragement, comfort, or challenge.

Lord God, thank you for your precious gift of Jesus. Thank you that, through his suffering, I can not only have eternal life with you, but also a friend who empathises with my own suffering. Thank you for the ‘cheerleaders’ you have put in my life who spur me on to complete the race – and please equip me to encourage others around me, so that we may all enjoy the crown of eternal life when the race ends. Amen.

***

This Advent, I’ve mentioned everything from The Apprentice to wrapping paper to Christmas lights to supermarkets. My posts haven’t been super-holy, and at points they haven’t even been very Christmassy – but they’ve been real, daily acknowledgements of the Jesus I want to know better, through the craziness of this season (and normal life). I hope you feel, as I do, spurred on to grab 2018 by the horns and seek more of God’s presence in your life. I suspect most of us could do with emptying our lives a little to spend more time listening and waiting on God – and, if we did, I reckon we’d see a little more of the Kingdom we await.

Here’s to seeing His Kingdom Come in 2018.

See you then – meanwhile, happy Christmas!

Lucy xx

 

23: the feast

Does anyone else, at this point in December, feel like they’re taking up residency in a number of different supermarkets?

We had a supermarket delivery on Monday. I popped back there on Wednesday, and again on Friday. In danger of sounding like a Craig David song (but far less fun), yes, I’m popping back again today. And I’m not even hosting Christmas. But somehow four lots of Christmas parties, a heck of a lot of homemade sweets and treats, a bit of entertaining, and my usual forgetfulness means that the supermarket does become my second home in the last few days before Christmas.

It’s a little tiresome to have to make so many trips, but I enjoy the result: homemade puddings stashed away in the freezer (looks like we will have time after all – hooray!), personal gifts for special people in our lives, shelves well-stocked with drinks, posh crisps, chocolates and the wherewithal to create (I hope) decent meals for when my family comes.

When I’ve had the choice of products, or quantities, I have to say I’ve over-catered. (Which flavour? We’ll get both. Three tubs or four? Best go for five.) I really don’t want to run out of anything and be doing these supermarket-runs when people are staying, even though we all know I’ve ordered too much.

Whilst there’s a very real issue of food waste at Christmas, and I know I’ll need to be creative to ensure that leftovers are eaten up before going bad, I do think that, as long as it’s not putting you in debt, this is how Christian festivals should be celebrated.

All the abundance, decadence and extravagance that we can muster at this time of year does not come close to the great riches we will one day inherit from our heavenly Father. It’s merely a very, very faint substitute. But it’s a wonderful way to celebrate our Saviour’s birth, because it reminds us of the feast that is awaiting us in heaven, thanks to his great sacrifice.

For anyone who thinks I may be going a bit prosperity here, let me make clear that I don’t hold with that stuff at all. I’m not suggesting that we should eat like this throughout the year – but that we should mark the Kingdom-coming-ness of Christmas with a nod towards that Kingdom.

My parents-in-law have taught me most about this – not through words or philosophy, but simply by how they go about their hospitality. My mother-in-law loves to spend time, energy, money and love on others. When you eat at Casa Grand-Desert, you feel like royalty – beautiful food and drink, wonderful conversation, thoughtful little ‘extras’ like nibbles before the meal, or champagne on your birthday, regardless of how well they know you. My father-in-law won’t let you lift a finger either – he does the behind-the-scenes work of setting up and clearing away with no fuss or complaint.

It’s appropriate, because it gives us a glimpse – albeit pale – of the kingdom of God, which is so often described in Scripture as a feast or banquet:

…“Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 14:15)

I mentioned yesterday that everyone is invited to participate in God’s heavenly banquet. Likewise, our extravagant hospitality at Christmas should be inclusive, and seek to involve those on the fringes. This might not necessarily mean someone who it’s hard to have in your home – it could be a good friend who you wouldn’t dream of not asking but who, without your invitation, would be on their own. (Or it could be someone living on the streets. Be inclusive.)

If much of our food lasts into January, it won’t go to waste. In fact, this is all the better, as it will simply extend the celebration, the feast, the thankfulness for all the good things God provides, day by day.

* You may have noticed I’m a bit obsessed by food. If you’re not, pick an area of Christmas you absolutely love obsessing over: how can you re-claim it for Jesus this Christmas?

Jesus Christ, you came into the world to point to the Kingdom of God, and to give us a way to get there. I praise you for your sacrifice. In my celebrations over the next few days, please help me orientate the extravagance towards you, using it both as an opportunity to thank you for your provision throughout the year, and a chance to bless others by showing them a little of how much they mean to you. Thank you that, one day, we will experience a feast which is wilder than anything we could dream up here on earth. Amen.

22: the vicar’s kid at christmas

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Vicarages are crazy places at Christmas. Every time you try and tidy up for the next social gathering or family get-together, the house becomes flooded with boxes of Christmas flyers to go round the parish, or bags of food for a community Christmas lunch. Like the rest of the year, your home is also your Other Half’s office and warehouse.

But vicarages are also fun places at Christmas. I grew up in one, and used to spend hours looking through all the goodies that started to appear under the tree from grateful parishioners. I don’t know if it was my frugal parents, or the fact it was the 1980s (probably a bit of both), but we didn’t tend to see a box of chocolates all year, so the appearance of several tins of Roses and Quality Street at Christmas, in addition to posh cheese boards, smoked salmon and All The Alcohol got me excited just a little.

This year, I’m getting flashbacks. Already, we’ve been the recipients of some very generous gifts from those in our church family. I’m particularly in awe of those who’ve made time to buy and wrap a gift for each of our children. I mean – we have a few, so that’s a tall order. It’s not at all expected – a tub of Heroes would be more than appreciated by the six of us. But there are some at our church who are particularly good at looking out for our children, and we appreciate it so much.

Being a vicar’s kid can be wonderful but also pretty tough. Your ordained parent – mum or dad – has to work funny hours. Yes, you usually see them for breakfast, but they’re often out on an evening, or at awkward times across the weekend. You have to share your home – and your life – with any odds and sods your parent brings home (and some of them are very odd). Sometimes plans have to be changed at the last minute, or something you thought you’d be doing with both parents, you now have to do with just one. You’re fending for yourself at church after every Sunday service, because both of your parents are otherwise-engaged (very rarely does a vicar’s wife or husband ever get off scot-free on a Sunday!), sorting everything from children’s work to worship band, finance to toddler group. Sometimes, if it’s a tight week, Mum and Dad will both be involved in the service, and on these weeks you’re ignored for an hour before the service too. Fun times.

The gifts that our kids will be opening next week are a token of appreciation from members of our church family. These gifts say, “Thank you for lending us your Dad. We see you, and are so grateful for what you give up in order for us to be blessed by his leadership.”

Now if you’re reading this and you belong to our church family, please don’t rush out and buy our kids anything! We don’t need our whole church family to acknowledge our children – just a few of them – and they already do. Our kids get plenty at Christmas, and don’t need anything else.

But I think there’s a message here about seeing the ‘unseen’. Some of our church family are great at seeing our kids – not just buying them lovely Christmas presents, but chatting to them throughout the year, getting to know them, and treating them as full and valued members of our church. They know it can be tough to grow up in a vicar’s family, constantly in the spotlight. Others in our church are great at seeing the single mums, or the older folk, or those recently bereaved or divorced. We all have different gifts, and we all ‘see’ different people at different times.

I don’t need to remind you that Jesus ‘saw’ the unseen – encounters with prostitutes and tax collectors are strewn through the gospels like over-zealous confetti. But sometimes we forget that there were a heck of a lot of people that Jesus didn’t minister to, either. It wasn’t that they’d been left out of the Kingdom of heaven – but that it was going to be down to someone else to share the good news with them. Jesus came primarily for the Jewish people – it was Peter, and later Paul, who would have a ministry among the Gentiles (the ‘non-Jews’).

The story of Jesus healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman is really striking. It does seem as if Jesus isn’t going to act, purely because the woman isn’t a Jew – in the end he does, because her strong faith is so evident.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:21-28)

Although Jesus does heal the girl, he makes it quite clear that he has come for the Israelites – not the Canaanites. And of course the gospel accounts only tell who he did minister to – we’re left to fill in the gaps of all those he wouldn’t have been able to engage with, through lack of time or opportunity, or needing to move on to the next town.

We’re very grateful for those who see our kids, and are so generous to them each Christmas. We’re also delighted by others in our church family, who pour their gifts and time into different people who need encouragement. Where would we be if everyone spoilt our kids at Christmas, but never invited the single parents for Christmas lunch? Or if all the single parents were well cared-for, but the elderly or housebound were never visited? The body of Christ works best when we look out for each other.

* Who are the ‘unseen’ people in your life? Those who need an encouraging card written to them, or a small gift, or day-by-day messages of support? This person, or group of people, might overlap with who you thought of for Day 19, or it might be someone totally different. Don’t try and ‘see’ everyone, but allow God to bring to mind a person or two He wants you to encourage over the next few months.

Dear Father God, you see EVERYONE. No one is left out of your invitation to the Kingdom of heaven. Thank you for your hospitality. And thank you that you use us as your ‘eyes’, to notice and walk beside those who need encouragement. Please tell me who you would like me to draw alongside this year. Amen.

21: the jobs left undone

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This week, for me, has been largely one of ticking jobs off a list. Food has been ordered. Presents largely bought and wrapped. Good headway made on the handmade gifts. Teacher cards written. The extra-long airbed for our nephew who, all of a sudden, appears to be 6ft tall has been purchased.

But there are still jobs I haven’t done, and perhaps won’t get a chance to do. The hopes I had of making a few puddings ahead of our big family New Year gathering may have to be whittled down to ordering a few ready-made cheesecakes. I haven’t made a start on the packing for our trip to the in-laws over Christmas. None of the food contributions for my children’s class Christmas parties have been handmade.

Perhaps you’re feeling a bit like this too. The DIY jobs you’d hoped to complete in time for family arriving will now not happen. Tasks you’d hoped to finish at work have been shelved, with a ‘January 2018’ label. Dishes you’d hoped to make, presents you’d hoped to wrap, extras you’d wanted to buy – time is running out, and it’s a case of taking short-cuts, or leaving things out altogether.

At the start of this Advent series, I told you about my unrealistic ambitions. To be honest, I’m pretty amazed that it’s Day 21 and I’m still here. I always, always have expectations of myself much higher than I’ll ever manage to achieve. Perhaps there is something good about this: it keeps me motivated, aiming for my best. Or perhaps it has the opposite effect: de-motivating. The little voice inside my head which says, “You’ve failed. You haven’t met your expectations. You haven’t kept all the plates spinning. You’re a mess.”

At several points during 2017 when I haven’t managed to do things I was hoping to do, I’ve had to stop and tell myself, “But you weren’t called to do that. You have four children. You have adoption clouding the mix. You have a husband with a pastorally-demanding job. You’re not called to have a show-home/cook everything from scratch/commit to this voluntary body or that community group.” [Insert whatever is most appropriate into the last sentence.]

It’s of enormous comfort to me when I realise that we each have different callings. I may be blessed by entering someone else’s immaculate house – but they may be blessed by my messy parenting. I may be blessed by the financial giving of someone on a great salary – but they may be blessed by my heart for adoption.

We are not called to do everything, much as it’s hard for some of us to accept this. Mary had a very clear sense of calling, and she did it with obedience and joy.

 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49)

In 2018, I will aim to pursue my calling of parenthood, adoption and writing with obedience and joy. When I’m distracted by callings which are not mine, I may even try and remember to jot them down and stick them to my mirror, as a reminder that these are not my callings.

* Do you get tempted to take on too much, or to do what you’re already doing to impossibly high standards?

* What is your actual calling, and what distracts you from it?

Lord God, thank you that you have planned good works for me to do (Ephesians 2:10), and thank you that you have planned other good works for other people to do. As I end 2017 and look towards 2018, please give me a clearer sense of calling, so that I may pursue what you have asked of me with the same obedience and joy that Mary did. Help me not to compare myself with others who have been given different callings. In your name, Amen.

 

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.