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.

going and not going, staying and not staying: how does god guide us?

If you’d asked me three months ago what I would be doing this week, the answer would have been easy: moving house. We would be finishing up the last bit of packing before heading off to a different part of the country, where Desert Dad would be starting a new job come September.

And yet, we’re not doing any of that. According to my diary, this week looks pretty similar to any other: the usual round of play dates, swimming, friends coming for dinner. By the end of the week I’ll have been to two goodbye parties, not one of them for me. What happened?

I used to think that God guided in a very hands-off way. You apply for a job, you pray about it, you go for interview – if you get it, great, that’s God saying ‘yes’. If you don’t, no worries, that’s God saying ‘no’. This is a very optimistic approach, and it’s not that I think it’s bad theology, it’s just incomplete. The last few months have shown me that God can and does intervene in situations when it seems that everything’s done and dusted. I’ve learned that perhaps we need to approach decisions with less vacuous positivity, and more serious God-searching.

For a large part of last year, there was one particular option for Desert Dad’s job and our future which was looking incredibly likely. Then, suddenly, God intervened: it was not to be. The way in which this happened was so unexpected, so awkward and so baffling that we just felt it had to be God: it defied much of the human logic which, up to that point, had been suggesting a positive way forward.

Five months later, God intervened again: this time to tell us that we shouldn’t be going to the job that Desert Dad had secured at the start of the year. Through one week in May, God taught me more about guidance than I’ve learned in my entire life.

But both interventions were puzzling, confusing and painful. During the latter, I found myself yelling at God “Why? Why do it this way? Why confuse things? Why couldn’t you have guided us right in the first place?” It seemed like needless time and energy had been spent, not just by us but by the church we were letting down. And for what? I don’t often break down in tears before God, but on this day there was nothing else left.

I wish this were a post with some clever things to say about God’s guidance – I really do. But right now, despite the steep learning curve of the last few months, I have more questions than answers. I don’t know, for example, how much weight our emotions hold in decision-making. There have been times over the past year when I’ve had to pull myself back because God’s plan seemed to be so much in line with my own desires that I didn’t dare believe it was true. There have been other times when I’ve had to submit my desires to God, knowing that they weren’t of Him – there have been more of these moments, and they have been the hardest.

Honestly, this is where I am at the moment:

* Before this year, I believed that the decision about which job my husband should go for was purely down to him, and very little down to me. Now I realise that if it’s right for him, it’ll also be right for me and the kids;

* Our emotions are important, but changeable. We need to neither ignore nor be swayed by them;

* Big decisions require the kind of prayer and fasting that I don’t think I’ve even touched the surface of yet. How one gets away for retreat when tiny children are about is another question – possibly one for a future blog post. But the last few months have made me see how vital it is, when facing a big decision.

So, for the moment, we are not going. That is not to say that we are staying – for there is a sense of temporaryness to the life we’re currently living – but we are not going. We are neither going, nor staying. We are simply waiting for the next direction. It might sound like a place of insecurity; in actual fact, we have known it, so far at least, only to be a place of peace.

You will keep in perfect peace
those whose minds are steadfast,
because they trust in you.

Isaiah 26:3

parenthood and generosity 1 (God, Clare, Julia Donaldson and that Hatmaker woman)

2013-03-21 00.11.07I blame Jen Hatmaker.

Well, actually – if truth be told – it’s more the fault of my friend Clare. She made the mistake of buying me ‘7: an experimental mutiny against excess‘. Here is the text I sent her upon receiving the book and scanning the back cover:

Book just arrived – looks excellent! Can’t wait to read it. Never seen it before but it looks just the sort of thing I need to be reading right now.

Ha. This text stinks of innocence – the sort of naivety of someone who doesn’t realise she’s about to get whacked round the face several times with her own excessive lifestyle. Here’s what I texted Clare once I’d read a few chapters:

Just wanted to let you know that Seven is messing me up big time. That is all.

This is not a book review, let’s be clear. But do read ‘7’ – it’ll change your life. There. Now that’s out of the way I can get on with the point of this post.

Which is generosity. Hatmaker and Clare are partly to blame. So is a sermon Desert Dad preached last week on Money and Generosity (10/03/13 – Slowing down in Lent 4: Mastering Money). There’s nothing that challenges you more than preparing a sermon (so I’m told) – and, as Desert Dad and I are kind of in the habit of sharing our money, that was to have an impact on me too. Here’s how last week went for me:

Sunday – Desert Dad preaches. (I miss sermon due to creche blah-di-blah, but he has filled me in.) Desert Dad feels God prompting him in a particular way. He tells me. I’m not convinced.

Monday – I pray. I become convinced of God’s prompting to DD. I also feel God giving me an additional prompting. DD isn’t convinced.

Tuesday – DD prays. He becomes convinced of God’s prompting to me. We wonder whether God is also prompting us about other ways of using our money.

Wednesday – I see the following headline and immediately buy the paper which bears it: “Half of UK children to live below breadline by 2015”. I am not into the news. I’d love to be – but I’m just not. I get my news mainly through Facebook – and as I’m fasting Facebook for Lent, I’m pretty news-less at the moment. So buying a paper is a big thing. God is tugging at my heart strings regarding ‘the poor’.

Thursday – I read this incredibly challenging commentary on Ruth 2. Read it, folks. Oh, and I also read Leviticus – as you do – and am challenged by the idea of a Sabbath year. For six years the Israelites would work the land, sowing and reaping what they needed. In the seventh ‘Sabbath’ year, they weren’t to sow anything, but simply to live off their hard work of the previous six years, trusting that God would provide their needs. This gives me an idea for ‘Sabbath week’, which I’ll write about soon.

Friday – God realises we need a break. Nothing challenging happens on this day.

Saturday – hooray: God believes in weekends. Have a lovely day with friends we haven’t seen for an age. We eat, drink, play, dig and generally have another unchallenging day.

Sunday – OK back to challenging. God pulls at DD’s heart strings again…and so it goes on.

All of this is underpinned by the massively unsettling tones of ‘7’. (Did I mention you should get your hands on a copy of this book as soon as?)

Also – strangely enough – Mister’s bedtime book choice for the week was The Smartest Giant in TownAgain, another great read – but for different reasons. For those of you unfamiliar with this Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler classic, the story is of a scruffy giant who, upon discovering a smart new clothes shop, invests in a smart new outfit. But as he wanders along, he meets various people (OK, animals – I won’t lie) who need his clothes more than he does. He gives his tie to become a scarf for a giraffe with a cold neck. (“It didn’t match my socks anyway.”) His shirt becomes the sail on a boat steered by a goat, while the giant comments, “It kept coming untucked anyway”. He gives his shoe to a family of mice who’ve lost their home, and says “It was giving me blisters anyway”.

As I read and re-read this story to the kids, I was aware of the uncomfortable parallels in my own life. Am I willing to give not just the things I don’t need anymore, but the newest, the best, the smartest – the things I’ve just bought – to those who need them more desperately? I’m starting to feel that much of what I own is ‘giving me blisters’ – possessions cause stress, clutter, dust, worry. I long to live a simple life where the focus is God and my time is spent building relationships which are rich in Kingdom treasure.

There is more – so much more – to write on this, but for now excuse me while I try to put my mind back together again.

Anyone else feeling challenged on issues of money, generosity or simple living right now?

Last week's reading.
Last week’s reading.

parenthood and meeting together

The third in my (very slow) series of being a disciple as a parent (see the first and second posts) deals with ‘meeting together’. In the 1970s, this was called ‘fellowship’ – but I’m told by Al not to use that word if I want this blog to remain credible. And if it’s him telling me that – him who listens to Elkie Brooks and knows more sports statistics from the 1980s than now – then I’d better listen.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25

So…what is ‘meeting together’? Church once a week? Well, yes, partly. It’s good for us and our kids to grow up within a church family, getting into that pattern of meeting together regularly as a bunch of believers. And actually the kids’ groups in most churches model a really good form of meeting together. Even Joel, at just 3, is in a small group where there is opportunity to chat stuff through. But that doesn’t usually happen at ‘grown-up’ church!

So, much as church is important, of immense value is the small accountability group model: somewhere safe, with good relationships, where you can be honest with others. This could mean simply finding another Christian to pray with on a regular basis, and some of my friends do this. What a great way to grow your faith as a young parent!

One of the downsides to online ‘meeting together’, e.g. Facebook or Twitter, is that you tend to see only people’s highlights. Before long, you start to believe that everyone else frequents luxury spas on a weekly basis, has genius children who look great in every photo, and an incredibly romantic husband who brings home thoughtful gifts each night of the week. When you are in real relationship with others, you see everything: the highlights, the lowlights, the in-between-lights. I believe this is one of the reasons why we need to take seriously those verses in Hebrews.

2012-12-10 16.49.28
We’re not usually this serious…I asked them to put their heads down just in case they didn’t like this blog post and wanted anonymity!

I am incredibly fortunate here to belong to a daytime cell group for mums.* Every Monday afternoon, a group of mums gather together in our study for an hour to worship, read the Bible, chat about it, and pray together. For someone who rarely goes to the toilet without interruption from a Small Person, this is a Big Thing. Our children, meanwhile, are being superbly entertained in the lounge by some wonderful creche volunteers…

Honestly, these guys are unsung heroes. I try to tell them how much their work is appreciated, but I don’t think they believe me. While they’re building towers, bopping to nursery rhymes, sorting out snacks, reasoning with toddlers, rocking babies and being jumped on (often simultaneously), lives are being changed in the next room.

2012-12-10 17.30.41
The state of the lounge after the kids have had a go…

Does that sound overdramatic? Maybe. Sure, it’s a gradual thing, but when I look back over the last 12 months and see where God has taken me, I know I owe a huge amount to this group. My faith could easily have become stagnant during this phase of early motherhood. Instead, the input of others, their challenge, their making me think – God is using these things to draw me, and many others, closer to Him. And it’s something as simple as playing Duplo with my kids for an hour that enables this life-change – this growing of my mustard-seed faith – to happen. It’s not just knowing God is there somewhere in the background, it’s seeing Him do amazing things during these otherwise desert years. Exciting!

If you’re a young parent, how do you continue ‘meeting together’ with other Christians? If you can’t think of anything – have you ever thought about starting something? Meeting up with a Christian friend regularly? Or even getting together the mums in your church to start something?

*We actually call them ‘Belfrey groups’, just so you know, but for the purposes of this blog I’ll refer to them as cells, as that’s a more familiar term.

nothing left but jesus

Forgive the blog silence. It’s been a funny, unusual sort of Advent for Desertmum – at times difficult, sad, vulnerable, lonely and ill. Maybe I’ll blog more about it in the New Year when I’ve had a chance to process the different things which have happened – or, at least, to an extent where I can communicate them in a way which makes sense to you.

Lots of things have been abandoned this Advent.  I haven’t made it to a carol service. I’ve hardly made it to church. Prayer has been a half-hearted, distracted sort of affair. The Advent Reflections I was so looking forward to went out of the window a fortnight ago.

Some good things have happened too. One is that Joel has been getting really excited about the real Christmas story. We have a small nativity scene, and various props, and he loves to do the story on a regular basis. (His favourite role is to hold the torch, and switch it on when we talk about the angels appearing!) Lois longs to be like her brother, so loves to join in too. But Nativity scenes don’t exactly mix well with a 3 year old and a 15 month old, and it made me smile this evening when I noticed that on top of the telly, where I put our Nativity scene a couple of weeks ago, there now remains only the baby Jesus. No idea where Mary is, the wise men or the stable. Even the manger’s gone. They might be under the sofa, in a bin, or in the toilet. Who knows.

I’m not yet able to articulate quite what this Advent has felt like, but that image – nothing left but Jesus – comes pretty close. When spiritual reflection, Bible reading and my prayer life fall apart – I’m left with Jesus.

This Advent, I was hoping for some decent preparation time, aided by appropriate Bible readings and reflections. Actually, I’ve failed. But I’ve gained more: a reminder of the grace of Jesus, who – thank God – is able to save us on his own, without our works and efforts. It’s not been an easy month, but remembering Immanuel – that divine truth that God is with us – has given me incredible peace.

Have a very grace-filled Christmas. And see you in 2013, when I’ll (hopefully) have a cheerier outlook and an explanation of the above!

parenthood and prayer 2

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

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

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

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

Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

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

Pray without ceasing.

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

Prayer prompts

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

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

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

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

God made you…YOU!

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

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

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

parenthood and prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

days like these

Yesterday I had one of those Days. There were no tantrums, no trips to A&E, no breakages of major appliances. It was just one of those Days.

I felt severely lacking in creative ideas. Joel spent the morning at pre-school, while Lois napped, so I had both kids awake and needing to be entertained from 12.30-7.00pm. Al was at work till late, so it was just me. We usually swim on Thursday afternoons, but the kids have had dodgy tummies so we cancelled. The weather was awful – no chance of a cycle ride or park trip. A bit of rain doesn’t frighten me or Joel, but with Lois not yet fully walking, it’s just a bit too tricky. If I hold her, I haven’t got hands free for Joel. If I carry her in the sling, she gets frustrated that she’s not able to move.

Before motherhood, I dreamt of a family utopia where afternoons would be filled with creative activity upon creative activity – baking, painting, glueing… Again, while Joel is keen for these things, Lois is at the ‘wrong’ age. Too old to sit in one place and watch, too young to participate. Likewise, Joel enjoys playing games and doing jigsaws, but we usually save these for Lois’ nap time, as small cardboard pieces and a one-year-old just don’t mix.

So the afternoon dragged. It wasn’t boring, it didn’t make me want to pack it all in, apply for teaching jobs and research childcare options. It just felt I was letting my kids down by not being able to come up with any interesting pursuit.

Now, before you feel sorry for me and write affirming messages of “Don’t give up!” “You can do this mothering thing!” and so on – please don’t worry. I don’t think I’m a terrible mother. I’m telling you this for two reasons. Firstly, I hope it connects with other mums who have days like this – to reassure and encourage you that we can’t all be exciting and creative all of the time.

The second reason is this. One of the things I did while Joel was at pre-school and Lois napped was read my Bible and pray. I’m shocking at spiritual discipline, so it had been a while, and I was pretty hopeful that God would realign my priorities, give me peace and generally sort things out. But the day was still a bit of a wash-out. My point is that we shouldn’t spend time with God in order to gain something instantly. We need to come to Him regularly and trust that He is working in our lives, however gradually. I can’t say that yesterday I experienced much of the peace, motivation or creativity I know God has in abundance for me. But it doesn’t matter. Firstly, God owes me nothing anyway. Secondly, I believe He wants to bless us with all these things and more – but it happens over time.

I would love it if there was some immediate connection every time I read the Bible. But, actually, I’m pleased there’s not. Because, conversely, that could suggest that God was not willing to connect with me in those times when I’m not reading His word. And that would mean that my relationship with God was actually one of legalism, and not one of grace.

I think when I have another one of those days, I’ll try and remember God’s continuing grace and His never-letting-go arms around me and my family.