Repeat the Sounding Joy

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Happy Advent, friends! Are you feeling the pressure? Your social media feed is filling up with pictures of brightly decorated Christmas trees and children sitting on the lap of a stranger in a (fake) beard.  Maybe you’re behind. Maybe you’re hoping to avoid getting a tree. Maybe you’ve got the flu.

I’m reading through Luke’s gospel this Advent. I started early because I’m inadequate so I need extra days. We’re also reading through Luke in our women’s Bible study group, so I’ve got another chance at listening to what God is saying in case I wasn’t paying attention when I read it in the early hours of the morning! What a gracious God.

So I bring you two encouragements from Luke on this grey Sunday morning – one from my Advent devotional and one from my Bible study:

  1. Jesus is coming

Christopher Ash is helping me to look forward to the coming of Jesus. That is, the return of Jesus in his glory. This perfect Jesus, this humble King, this turn-things-upside-down revolutionary is coming back for us. That is good news! As my friend Jason Roach once said in a sermon I loved, “Jesus reigns – and that’s a good thing!” Now that sounds obvious, but as with many simple statements about Jesus, I need to be whacked over the head with it every single day of my life.

I don’t tend to keep up with the news (sorry), but as there is a UK general election coming up in December, even I am trying to keep track of what’s going on. It’s a stressful time and a time when the nation is divided. The thing that causes me the most stress is that I don’t know who I can trust. Politicians say words, but how do we know whose words to believe?

With this backdrop, what glorious news it is that we have a King who reigns eternal. He’s reigning now: he not only knows the outcome of the election but he’s also ruling over it. And one day he will come back and bring us into an eternal, perfect kingdom with the ultimately good leader who will never die. A happy nation! Now that is something to be joyful about:

As we reflect on the Jesus who came as a baby all those centuries ago, let us never forget that we are waiting, longing, yearning, praying for that great day when he will return… The more deeply we understand him in his first Advent, the more passionately we shall long for his return, when we shall see him face to face; and the more joyfully we will celebrate his arrival at the first Christmas. Christopher Ash, Repeat the Sounding Joy, p. 9.

2. Jesus came for losers like me

If Christmas makes you feel inadequate, I’m sure you’re not alone. There’s so much going on and expectations can be all too high. I think we can get it into our heads that Jesus really expects us to be on top of things, and that our children should really not be screaming outside the bedroom door while we write blog posts. They really shouldn’t have tantrums at the Christmas fair. And you definitely shouldn’t be panic-buying on Amazon on 23rd December. He is folding his arms and tutting at us. And even if he isn’t, someone else will be.

Last week some of the women in our church read together the astonishing passage in Luke 4 in which Jesus reads this bit of Isaiah and then says it’s about HIM!

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Now we’re not the sharpest bunch of women in London (ha!), but even we noticed that Jesus says quite clearly here that he came for the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed. So not the rich, the free, the I’m-fine-thank-you-very-much or the look-at-my-pristine-children/tree/tablecloth? No. He came for the needy.

I don’t mean we shouldn’t try to make Christmas a lovely time for our families. I also don’t mean we should resent someone else’s lovely tablecloth (!). But how liberating it is to know that Jesus came for the inadequate. This frees me up to be happy when someone else has done a much better job than I have this Advent. Because I don’t have to prove myself.

The challenge of course here is that I don’t usually think of myself as a poor prisoner or as blind or oppressed. But spiritually, that’s where I’d be without the Lord Jesus coming to save me. That’s why Christmas is worth being excited about.  All the other stuff is just the tinsel or the extra sheep in the nativity play (no offence). Jesus – and his good news to the poor – he’s the main event.

 

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Postscript: By the way, I do regularly feel burdened with a desire to try harder to get more people reading my blog. I’d love to do this because the people who do read it seem to find it encouraging, and I know that many mothers (and others) are in need of encouragement. However, I feel that I’m never going to be able to devote the time needed to “generate more traffic.” I also don’t want to become a commercial blog with dozens of affiliated links. I’m not knocking that at all, but that’s not what this is. It’s not what this will ever be. I just wanted to put that out there, so we’re all clear! Thank you SO much for reading. x

 

Redeeming Advent – Review and Giveaway!

This is exciting – I have a book to recommend and a free copy to give away to one lovely reader.  Brace yourselves, I know it’s still November but this is another festive book – this time by the lovely Lucy Rycroft, aka Desert Mum.

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Over the years I’ve recommended several advent resources to you, since I love Christmas and I know it’s an ideal opportunity to get yourself (and your children) excited about Jesus. I mean, in Him all things were made!  And yet He became flesh and lived among us! A mere 2000 years ago!

But let’s be real – Christmas is a hectic time. It’s a time of chaos. It’s a time when you’re short on time. It’s a time when each of your children is in several shows that you can’t miss. It’s a time of wrapping paper and black treacle.

Friends, it’s a time of glitter.

With this in mind, Redeeming Advent is a book that I recommend particularly if you find December pretty overwhelming and you need some help to bring Christ into focus amidst the haze of gingerbread and cinnamon fumes.

Each chapter is a little bit like a blog post – imagine having a lovely new festive blog post to read every day of advent? What a treat. Lucy takes everyday examples from down-to-earth motherhood and helps us to lift our eyes to Christ, who is with us in each ordinary moment of the day.

Lucy’s style is very warm and welcoming. For example,  I’d say that Lucy and I are on about the same page regarding Santa, but she’s much more polite about it than I am. I think it’s because, although she lives in York, she’s not actually northern. And whilst I live in the South, I definitely am (please see evidence here). I have been known to call Santa (on this very blog) a big fat lie who drinks sherry.  Eek.

This would therefore be a book that I’d also happily give to a friend who wouldn’t call herself a Christian, as I think she’d enjoy it and be challenged to think a bit more carefully about this baby in the manger. In fact, if you’re reading this and you’re not sure about Jesus – please do try the book! You might even win a copy – see below.

At the end of each short chapter there’s a suggested prayer – which can be very helpful indeed when your brain isn’t in gear or you’re distracted. Let’s face it, sometimes you can’t remember your own name during advent, so a little help on the prayer front is very much appreciated.

This is a thoughtful, sincere and joy-filled companion to the Christmas season, and if you’d like to win a signed copy, please Like my Facebook page (if you haven’t already) and comment on this post on there.  If you don’t use Facebook you can comment below instead.  I have in the past asked people to comment with the title of their favourite Christmas song but people didn’t seem to want to do that… maybe this year will be different?  I wait in hope. The deadline for the giveaway is midnight on Wednesday 20th November.  If you don’t win (or even if you do), you can buy the book here.

The Gift

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Bear with me, I know it’s early November but we’ve got to get organised, peeps!

Christmas is the only time of year when it’s normal to send your friends and family cards with words about Jesus on them.  We might feel that these words – these miraculous, life-giving words – are falling on blind eyes, buried underneath Amazon parcels and Santa cards. However, I believe that God can use his words to draw people to himself, even amidst the din of Wizzard and (give me strength) Michael Buble.

If you’re looking for a little book to give to loved ones this Christmas to help them think more deeply about life, then I’d love to recommend to you Glen Scrivener’s The Gift. Glen is a fantastic communicator and this is a truly refreshing read. He writes in an accessible, down-to-earth way about Christmas and all the joys and reality-checks it brings, and he presents the good news about Jesus in an attractive way.

This is a book that is Christmassy but not cheesy. I love Christmas, and this helped me get excited about it. (We’re going to bonnie Scotland this year! Can’t wait.) You don’t want a Christmas book that briefly mentions Christmas and then swiftly goes into a six-point bible overview. You also don’t want schmaltz. Well I don’t, anyway. In this book, Glen uses the theme of gifts to describe what God has done for us in sending us the most precious gift imaginable.

I almost forgot to mention that at one point he even (wonder of wonders) quotes Billy Joel! One of my absolute favourites. That man raised me (along with, you know, my actual parents).

There’s a film too! At the end of the book you’re invited to go online and watch a short film called Let Me Go There. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m excited!

Just so you know I’m not just saying all this (not sure why I would!), I’ve now bought 6 copies to send to some lovely friends this Christmas. I’ll be praying that this year they’d choose to enjoy the ultimate Christmas gift.

Which way, Toto?

 

I recently applied for some jobs for the first time in twelve years.  Cue (in between much prayer) panic, self doubt and the distinct feeling that I’m really, really not in control.

When making big life decisions, here is a proverb that we might find helpful:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

(As an aside: it seems to me that British Christians are not too hot on the book of Proverbs.  Not sure why that is?  I’ve made a sweeping genrealisation there and I’m not going to delete it! I’ll get back to you if I make any headway on Proverbs.  I bought that Tim Keller book but I think it might be stuck under my bed somewhere.)

In the midst of the job hunting,  I attended a seminar about being a Christian millennial (I don’t consider myself a millennial but was hoping to gain sympathy for them), and one of the things that came up was the struggle with making decisions.  Rachel Jones (she’s written a book – here it is), had a simple list that people could use which would help them to make decisions. I believe that this sort of practical wisdom is needed, especially if the decision you’re making seems like it could change the course of your life.

I believe that, but not everybody does. It seems to me that there are two common ways to look at a big crossroads-type moment in your life.  And I think I can flit between both of these methods:

One is to read the above Proverb and then wait on the Lord for him to show you the straight path.  The Lord knows which job he wants me in.  Therefore I’ll pray a prayer of submission to God’s will (v6) and wait for a strong feeling about one of them.  Or I’ll wait for a clear sign that I should take one and not the other.  I’m not leaning on my own understanding (v5), so that means I need to allow God to show me the right path.

Method number two might be seen as a more practical approach.  This is where we know that God cares about our hearts, and in his grace he’s given us practical wisdom.  So I’m going to focus on loving God with all my heart, submitting to him, and therefore it doesn’t matter which job I choose.  I don’t need to panic, because the job I do day-to-day doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.  I can stack shelves or sell stocks and shares – what God looks at is my heart.  As long as I’m working for him and his glory, I’m free to choose any job I like.

There is truth in both of these, but my recent job hunt reminded/taught me that there is an important middle ground.  I’m a conservative evangelical Christian, and my church culture would favour method number two.  We don’t sit around waiting for signs from God.  We pray, then we do something.  I think we even read books with titles like that.  But what I was recently reminded of is that God does actually really care what job I do.  And he can intervene.  And he does intervene!  He intervenes more than we conservative, pro/con list-writers like to admit.

It’s easy to think that it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it’s for the glory of God.  But that’s not quite right!  God’s word says “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31.) It’s not that God doesn’t care what you do, but he does care much more about how you do it.*

Hunting for my job, I prayed and agonised over decisions, but in the end I just had to do what to me seemed best.  I applied for the only job that seemed to be an option.  And God intervened in a ridiculous way.  (It all coincided with a big multi-church weekend away I was on, so those who didn’t see me coming and hide got to hear all about it in real time.) And looking back on it, I’m really encouraged that God does care massively what job I do, and he has good things in store for me, and he does direct the course of events for his own glory.

So as I’m praying for my children – what school they should go to, what activities they should do, what jobs they might do in the future – it’s such a joy to remember that a) God cares much more about their hearts than any of that other stuff, and b) he does care what they do, and he will have them on the path he’s prepared in advance for them to be on.

 

*This reminded me of a very specific bit in The West Wing.  See here if you’re interested!

Mum(?)

I’m writing this one from glorious Cornwall. That’s me and my son, crabbing.

I recently watched the award-winning British comedy series Mum on BBC iPlayer. Some bits made me cringe and some scenes I didn’t even watch. But it had moments of genius. There’s a magnificent conversation about tolerance in the final episode (“I can’t stand intolerant people”), and the observational humour is at times just really, really clever. I mean, really.

I’m not here to write a review of Mum, but it did get me thinking about our society’s confusion about motherhood. In each half-hour episode, the central character, Mary (Mum) is the steady, gravitational force around which all other characters orbit. She feeds them; she listens to them; she provides them with safe shelter. There are a lot of things going on in the programme, but this is certainly one running theme.

In real life, we all want someone to be that person for us. We all need food, safety and shelter. We all need someone to listen to us. In the church community, we hopefully have several “mums” (and “dads”) who serve us in this way. This is one major way by which The Lord provides for us.

We all want this, but it’s much easier to be on the receiving end of it than to be the one giving it. Jesus said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” He said that “whoever wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” We believe these words, but boy do we need to be reminded of them. How many of us were looking forward to a nice rest this summer? To putting our feet up? How many of us were disgruntled to discover that our summer holiday actually involves more work, more service, more providing-for-others?

Spoiler alert!

It saddened me that in the final episode of Mum, the take-home message seemed to be that Mary needed to put herself first for once. All this time she’d been serving everyone else, and biting her tongue, and putting other people’s feelings before her own. But finally she became enlightened to the truth that she was entering a new season of life – one in which she could walk away from those who needed her and just enjoy herself.

This is where I think our society is confused. We want to celebrate mothers (and other servant-hearted people, or “local heroes”) and the strong communities they gather. We well up at the memories of all the home-cooked meals and steady, reliable sanctuaries we’ve benefitted from. But we also tell each other to look after number one, follow our hearts and make happiness our goal.

Of course, the irony is that Jesus is so right, and as our creator he does actually want to bless us! When we put the needs of others first, we find blessing. When we serve one another, we find real, joyful community. When we look to the needs of others, we find that we’re all provided for.

So I’m not having a go at Mum, as it really is very well done and it is an astonishingly accurate reflection of the culture it’s reflecting. I envy the writer! And I wouldn’t even say not to watch the final episode, because you’d miss the bit about tolerance. But this summer if you’re feeling a bit ragged and sorry for yourself, as we’re all prone to do, let’s repent together and thank Jesus for giving us people to serve and love. What a mind-blowing privilege it is that one day, Lord willing, they might look back and thank Him for the ways we served them.

Book Review: Plugged In

 

Friends, if you’re looking for a good book to read this summer, then I heartily recommend Daniel Strange’s book, Plugged In.  If you’re a parent of young children, you might not think that a book about culture is really relevant to you – especially one that’s written by a clever Dr person who’s the director of a Bible college.  And whilst I don’t want to have an argument with you, I think you’re wrong.

Firstly, let me just reassure that this book is really clear and is definitely pitched at ordinary folk like you and me – even those of us who are distracted and sleep-deprived.  Dan Strange also realises that we might need persuading that culture is an important thing to think about.  As human beings, we create and consume culture.  We can’t avoid it, even if we try.  And guess what?  It’s likely that your children are also human beings.  Which means that they, too, are cultural creatures.  They have a culture, and so does the world around them.

Do we want our children to live for Jesus in this world that’s full of culture?  Do we want to worship Jesus in our families and to engage with our culture in a Jesus-honouring way?  Then this book can help us.  Some of us just need to learn that we can’t escape culture and we don’t need to be afraid of it.  Some of us are thinking through how to guide our children as they come across culture.  Some of us want to know how to speak into our culture and point people to Jesus.  Plugged In addresses these things.

As parents, we do actually need to be plugged in.  Our children are being told stories every day – and so are we!  They’re not all bad, but which bits are true and how can we tell?  I want to help our children to see the world through a gospel lens.  As Dan writes:

“We need to learn to identify where [cultural stories] are suppressing the truth, and to spot where that truth keeps ‘popping up’ like a beach ball.  This is what it means to “engage with culture” – not to swallow its stories hook, line and sinker, but to let it point our own eyes over and over again to the gospel story.” p. 74.

And at the end, there’s a bit about Japanese toilets.

You can buy the book here if you wish.

My Path

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I’ve written the following post to support Compassion UK’s Different Path Appeal.  They are raising money for pregnant mothers in Togo.

In the UK, 1 baby in every 250 born will sadly not live to see their 1st birthday.
In Togo, it’s 1 in every 20.
In the UK, the chances of a woman dying in childbirth is less than 1 in 12,000.
In Togo, it’s 1 in every 58.

Why is this so?  It’s easy to assume that the reason my children and I are alive and well is that we haven’t had many complications or medical issues.  But in my case, that’s just not true.

I always think of my children’s medical history as being very uneventful, but with four children there are always going to be stories to tell.  Like the time when I was in A&E with two of my children at the same time, for completely separate reasons.  That was a weird day.

But the truth is, it’s so easy to take for granted our good health which is only down to the medical treatment we’ve received in the UK.  We thank God for the NHS, and for providing clean water and good food for us every day.  Here are some examples of how we’ve been saved by modern (or you might say Western) medicine:

(This is not for the faint hearted.  Please do not read if you’re squeamish.  I’m writing this to help highlight how wealthy we are, but normally I wouldn’t overshare like this.)

The birth of my first child was pretty long and a little complicated.  After labouring for about 23 hours, she was born by emergency C section – necessary due to the position of the baby.  Had I been far away from a hospital and without assistance, I would probably have kept pushing for days until eventually the baby died.  I’m not sure what would have happened to me.  I’m no expert, but I assume the risk of prolapse and infection would have been high if not certain.  This may have prevented me from having further children, even if I had survived.  I find these facts overwhelming.

I stayed in hospital for five days with my eldest – we were finally discharged after her jaundice had cleared up with the help of a UV lamp.

In all subsequent pregnancies I was treated as high risk due to my previous C Section.  This meant I received extra care and attention and the threshold for doing a C Section was much lower.  This was all done to protect me and my babies.

I lost my second child in the first trimester.  We are thankful for the gentleness and compassion of the Early Pregnancy Unit at our local hospital.

Then came my second full-term baby, who was born via normal delivery – hooray!  After his birth, the midwife noticed that I had a partially retained placenta.  I’m so thankful for her eagle eyes, because if I’d been sent home this could easily have led to an infection.  The bit of placenta still in my womb was removed manually by an obstetrician.  Sorry, I did tell you not to read this if you’re squeamish.

The next one was pretty straightforward.  He needed a hip scan because he was a big boy, but that was just a precaution.  In fact, in physical/medical terms he has been our straightforward child!

Then came the lovely Martha.  Born via normal delivery.  She developed mastitis at 3 weeks old and needed antibiotics.

All of my children were born in a hospital which is at the bottom of the street – it’s about a 10 minute walk.  Call that 20 mins if you’re pregnant.  The women in Togo often don’t go to their antenatal appointments, and less than half give birth with a skilled birth attendant present.  This is often because access to a medical centre is so difficult.  It’s too far away, it’s too hot and – of course – they’re heavily pregnant.

I’m not going to recount every medical treatment my children have received, but I will say something about antibiotics.

My elder son who’s now 7 has had a few trips to hospital.  He broke his leg just in time for his 1st birthday, and he got impetigo the following Christmas.  This meant he had a horrid-looking boil-blister thingie on his face, which looked like it would never go away.   Enter antibiotics.  Within days it had faded to a pink patch, which quickly went away completely.  I asked my GP, “What if we didn’t have antibiotics?”  He said that the bacterial infection would spread, and get into his bloodstream, and would present in different patches all over his body.  He also said that this is why King Henry VIII ended up with a hole in his nose.  So you could say, and I will, that my son is in some ways richer than King Henry VIII.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, I expect you could tell similar stories of how the course of your life and your children’s lives have been affected for the better by medicine.  I haven’t even mentioned the plastic surgery my daughter received, aged 2, so she wouldn’t be scarred for life.  Nor the precautionary ECGs that two of my children have already received during their short, uneventful lives. I think it’s important that we remember to thank God for providing these people and these medications and treatments – what an amazing blessing!

And let’s remember those who don’t have access to care like this.  It can be overwhelming to think about, but it doesn’t mean that we should turn a blind eye.  The Lord cares about the poor and the forgotten.  He hates injustice.  It’s easy to feel helpless, but we can pray for those women and ask God if he wants us to do something for them.  Maybe we could go without something this month and donate the money to the Different Path Appeal.  Please click on the link and read about what Compassion UK are doing to help women and children in Togo.  I don’t mean to be controversial, but I think we know that suffering children are more important than, say, scorched cathedrals.

23 Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5)