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.

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.

Swing it, shake it, move it, make it

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I love CBeebies – which is a British TV channel for young children. I’m always impressed by how talented the presenters and cast members are when they perform their annual ‘CBeebies presents…’ show. This year’s was Thumbelina. Nina-of-neurons fame is obviously terrific and did a lovely job.

I did feel sorry for Thumbelina though, because she spent most of the show telling people she didn’t know who she was. How terrifying for her.

I missed a bit – went off to cook the tea – and then saw the finale, which was a song:

“Thumbs up, you can be what you want to be…
I want to be free, I want to be me,
That’s what I’m gonna be.”

This is the doctrine of the young generation:

I can be whoever I want!
You can’t tell me who I am!
I’ll choose who I am!

And by the way… who am I?

After my children watched Thumbelina, we sat down to read the account of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary in Luke Chapter 1.

Imagine if Mary was a young girl now, and listened to the messages of the iGeneration:

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“I am nobody’s servant,” Mary answered. “I won’t let anybody push me around.”

And the famous Magnificat, the song of Mary, would have been more like this:

“My soul magnifies me.
And my spirit rejoices in me: I’m awesome.
From now on all generations will hear me roar!”

I know this is very silly, but just imagine it for a moment, because is is the attitude our children are being encouraged to have. If Mary had said this, she’d have missed out so badly! And she’d have been so wrong! She’d have lived and died in obscurity. Nobody would have heard her roar.

Our children shouldn’t expect an angel to visit them and tell them what their life will be all about. Instead we have God’s word, which gives us clear answers to questions about who we are and why we’re here. Praise God for that! None of us has to wander through life, wondering who we are.

The advent devotion we’re using said this:

The serpent’s lie says, “You won’t be happy unless you are in charge of your life.” (Here I added, “Thumbs up you can be what you want to be!”) The truth is, God is in charge and God is good.  Mary did not demand her own way.  She gladly gave herself to God.  True happiness is ours when we give our lives to our good God.

And the following day read:

The truth is that God made us to love him and live for him… You were made for God… Our dreams are too small compared to God’s purpose for our life.

I’m not going to ban CBeebies, but by God’s grace I’ll try not to sell my children short by telling them they can be what they want to be. Praise God! He has given them, and us, an identity and a purpose. “No human mind has conceived – the things God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2v9.

Happy Christmas, friends. X

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*In case you’re not British, or you’re a young whippersnapper, the title of this post refers to a song by the Spice Girls… ‘Who do you think you are?’

What would they like?

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I do at least a double portion of Christmas shopping.  I need to think of gifts for my family and friends, as well as think of what I would like from the kind people who ask me.  (It’s also my Birthday a week before Christmas, but I’ve only myself to blame for that, I suppose.)

But I also need to answer the dreaded question, “what would the children like for Christmas?” If, like me, you find this all quite  a lot to deal with, and your relatives have already started to ask, here is a list that I hope will help.

These are all things I highly recommend.  I’ve been very selective.  If these don’t go down well, you can certainly blame me! And if you do find any of these recommendations helpful, please do comment below.  This will benefit other readers and also encourage me!

If I’ve left any gaps, do ask below as I probably have more ideas.

Pre-schoolers (and above – my older children still like them):

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Toys
For tiny ones, the Galt wooden pop up toy.  Wooden pegs; springs.  A timeless classic.

Magformers – or knock-off equivalent.  I’ve heard Magnatiles are better, but we have Magformers and Magmagic (which are cheaper) and love them.  Amazing toy.  If I had my time again, I would buy fewer toys and be willing to spend more on good quality toys like this.

Melissa and Doug wooden Birthday cake or pizza.  Last year these were cheaper in the Black Friday Amazon sale.  Also the Melissa and Doug ice cream set is popular in our house.

Books
Julia Donaldson audio collection (10 CDs) – available at thebookpeople. This is the best thing that ever happened to our car journeys.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love with the actors.  Please buy it.  (It’s the one with The Gruffalo, What the Ladybird Heard etc.)

The One O’Clock Miracle – this can be a good one for non Christian families too, although you’d need to use your judgement.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Judith Kerr

Music
Anything by Colin Buchanan

Anything by Randall Goodgame, particularly Sing the Bible 1 & 2.  Also, “Under Where?” might work for a non Christian family as it’s a mixture of Christian and silly songs.  We love it, as we are quite silly, and quite Christian.

Primary Schoolers

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Toys/Games
Dobble kids – every family should have this.  It’s particularly handy when you have guests for lunch and your children are looking after them while you’re doing the final preparations.

Ticket to Ride, First Journey

K’Nex – good value and my son adores it.

Lego Spinjitzu spinners – I was surprised at how good these were.  I’m embarrassed to say that I spelt Spinjitzu correctly on the first attempt.

Stomp Rocket – this would work for pre-schoolers as well.  It’s an outdoor toy but as long as it’s not raining you could use it in the winter.  It’s just truly fabulous.  Simple, yet so effective.  We always gather a crowd of curious children when we use it on the beach.

For girls, anything from the shop Smiggle tends to go down well.  As far as I can tell, they always have things in the sale.  Don’t buy anything full price – what a rip-off.

Books
Everything a Child Should Know About God by Kenneth Taylor – extremely simple doctrine book with beautiful illustrations.

The Diary of a Disciple – a Tom Gates style re-telling of Luke’s gospel, and there’s one for Acts as well.  My son loves these.

The Action Bible.  I highly recommend this for around ages 8+, and there is a junior version for younger children (my 5 year old has it), but you’d have to decide whether it’s suitable.

The Ology, Marty Machowski.  A beautiful doctrine book for 6-11 year olds.

Magazines – my son really likes the Aquila magazine.  They frequently sell back copies for £2.50 each, which is excellent value.  I’ve got a stash in the cupboard and every month or so I give him a ‘new’ one.

Music
We’ve recently discovered Jamie Grace, whose album “Ready to Fly” is excellent, particularly for pre-teen girls.  Although my boys love it too.

Also, any of the above music CDs go down well with our older children.

 

Over to you:
What would you highly recommend, please?

“I’m Ungrateful!”

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“That ain’t fair, miss.”

This is one of the most commonly used phrases in the classroom.  Sometimes, when teaching teenagers in East London, I used to respond with a lecture about how they were absolutely right, things aren’t fair because they get an education they don’t have to pay for, in safety and comfort and with all the resources they need, while some children have no opportunity to go to school and have to slave away seven days a week just to survive.  So no, life isn’t fair. As you can imagine, this went down really well.

It doesn’t take long for small children to learn to say “that’s not fair.” Some children I’ve met seem to begin each sentence with this phrase – I’m not sure they’re quite sure they’re even saying it.  But it’s not just children.  Of course, they’re only expressing an attitude which many of us, as adults, still have.  We might not say that same phrase as much, but we might harbour resentments or appeal for sympathy because we, deep down, feel that things are not fair.  “I’m fine, it’s just really hard because, you know, I don’t have a tumble dryer.” Or “It’d just be much easier if I had a car, that’s all.” Or “That’s good advice but I can’t do that because I don’t have the time/space/money/figure/teeth.”  Poor me.

In our home we’re not allowed to say “that’s not fair.” Of course, people do say it, but I won’t just let that go unchecked.  (There is, of course, a way to say “that’s not fair” and not be whinging, but I’ve never heard my children use it that way.  When they say “that’s not fair”, what I hear is, “I’m ungrateful.”) Instead of being thankful for what they have, they’re looking at what someone else has or what they feel they deserve, and being discontent with their own lot. When I hear them say, “that’s not fair,” I try to have them rephrase it and apologise, e.g.

“No you can’t have another biscuit.”
“That’s not fair!”
“What you mean is, ‘I’m ungrateful that I got to have one biscuit.’ What do you need to say?”
“Sorry that I’m ungrateful that I got to have one biscuit.”

I’m sure you can find many flaws with this approach, but hopefully it’ll go some way to showing the children that nothing good (not even a biscuit) can be gained by being ungrateful and discontent.  Lord, may they not become “that ain’t fair, miss” teenagers.

During Lent I’m reading through Proverbs and also The Way of Wisdom by Timothy Keller.  There’s a lot in Proverbs about envy:

Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
    when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice,
or the Lord will see and disapprove
    and turn his wrath away from them. (Proverbs 24.17-18)

Keller writes about the German word Schadenfreude, which means joy in someone else’s sorrow/shame.  You know, like tabloid newspapers? But it’s a problem we all have in our hearts at times.  We might not want to be, but we’re secretly pleased when something finally goes wrong for someone.  Or there’s the opposite, which is secretly being upset when someone else does well.  What ugliness.

When I envy my friend’s gifts, house, cooking skills, church community, success at work etc. I’m actually being really unloving towards her.  Do I get that?  I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of envy.  If you envy me because I can go on a super duper holiday, for example, you’re essentially saying that you wish I didn’t have that blessing.   (And by the way, isn’t Social Media the perfect breeding ground for envy?)

That’s not love.

A heart at peace gives life to the body,
    but envy rots the bones. Proverbs 14:30.

A heart at peace is thankful to God.  Comparisons and envy will destroy me.  As Keller said, ‘envy is being unhappy at other people’s happiness.’  How horrifying!  I think we know this is bad, but it’s good to be reminded.  I also think that we don’t recognise this very well in children.  Envy becomes an accepted part of life, and we can even plan things around it.  We don’t challenge the child who says, “How come she gets to go there/do that, I’ve never been/done it, it’s not fair!” Or we even withhold good things from one child because we know the others will be envious. “I can’t let them go to that party/have that free drama class because it wouldn’t be fair on the others” (i.e. the others would have a tantrum about how unfair everything is).  When they’re crying over someone else’s birthday presents we try to placate them by saying, “Oh well I’m sure you’ll get something nice for your birthday.”

“It’s only natural they should be envious,” we say.  It is natural, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.  As Christians, we wage war against our natural, sinful natures.  Instead, we can encourage them to be thankful for their brother or sister’s joy and success, and we can remind them of everything they have to thank God for.  If we train them early, what a blessing it will be for them later in life if they’ve learnt to be thankful for God’s grace in the lives of others.

For more on comparisons, please see here and here.

Dear Santa

I’m just kidding, I don’t write to Santa.  That’s because he’s a big fat lie who drinks sherry.

At this time of year everyone asks what you want for Christmas, and for some that’s lovely and for others it’s really stressful.  If you’re in the latter group, here are some ideas from me:

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In no particular order:

  1. None Like Him  – this is a book about God, with short chapters and big truths, explained brilliantly by Jen Wilkin.  She is really good at writing, and I don’t say that about many people.  She has a gift and she’s using it to teach us how we are not like God, and that’s a good thing!  I highly recommend this – get your best friend a copy too and read it together.
  2. Prayer – Timothy Keller.  The book absolutely blew my mind.  The only trouble with it was that I wanted to read it about five times, but it took me a year to read (on and off) so there wasn’t much chance of that.  You know I love Tim Keller – he’s fantastic.  What a blessing he is to so many people.  This book will inspire you to pray and then give you practical advice for daily prayer.  Here’s some inspiration from the book about how the Lord Jesus sets us an example:
    Jesus Christ taught his disciples to pray, healed people with prayers, denounced the corruption of the temple worship (which, he said, should be a “house of prayer”), and insisted that some demons could be cast out only through prayer.  He prayed often and regularly with fervant cries and tears (Heb 5:7), and sometimes all night.  The Holy Spirit came upon him and anointed him as he was praying (Luke 3:21-22), and he was transfigured with the divine glory as he prayed (Luke 9:29).  When he faced his greatest crisis, he did so with prayer.  We hear him praying for his disciples and the church on the night before he died (John 17:1-26) and then petitioning God in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Finally, he died praying. 
  3. The Plausibility Problem – Ed Shaw.  This book isn’t hot off the press (none of these books are), but I think this should be compulsory reading for any Christian who’s serious about obeying Jesus’ command to love one another.  However, it’s not my job to set compulsory reading for Christians, so I’ll jus say it comes very highly recommended.  It’s not just a book about loving people who are same-sex attracted*, it’s about how to love people and live as church family, as we’re called to do.  It’s fascinating, it’s challenging, it’s very moving.  Thank you, Ed.
  4. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson.  Oh my goodness, I read this a couple of months ago and it’s a book I didn’t want to finish.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, which yes means I am very, very behind on life.  It’s the memoire of a mid-twentieth Century pastor in rural Iowa, and if you like good writing and a good character piece, and especially (but not necessarily) if you’re a Christian, you’ll love this.  She’s written other books too, which I should probably read…
  5. Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan.  Right, so I’ll come clean.  I haven’t actually read Pilgrim’s Progress.  If you think that’s bad, then wait till I tell you that I think it was required reading for my English degree.  It’s not on my Christmas list because I know exactly where it is on my bookshelf.  You know when you’re in a Bible study and someone says, “This reminds me of Pilgrim’s Progress when..” and then gives a really poignant and relevant example?  And you have to smile and nod because you’ve never read it?  Well I plan, by the end of 2018, to be able to smile and nod sincerely, because I will have read it.  Hey, I might even be the one with the insightful Bunyan anecdote.  Maybe we could read it together – so to speak – next year?

If you’d like other ideas, click on the “Books” category and you should see my previous posts about books I recommend.

 

*This is how Ed Shaw describes himself.  It’s all explained in the book!

One True Christmas Gift

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Christmas is round the corner and we all know what that means.  There is a stereotype of a busy mum at Christmas, and I don’t know about you but I find that I am that stereotype.  I love Christmas – did I mention that? – but let’s face it, it’s a crazy time.  It’s a time when I make crazy decisions and I overreach to new and surprising heights.

Advent is a time when we feel pulled in several directions all at once.  There are children’s parties and grown-up parties (which non-parents just call parties), church outreach events, church social events, Christmas shopping, over-excited children, gift wrapping, travel, relatives, Christmas cards, sometimes Birthdays (e.g. mine), Secret Santas, school performances, more baking than usual and (we hope not but maybe) the occasional bout of flu.

So at this busy time, when we can become so much like Martha of Bethany, rushing around in a sweat and scowling because nobody is helping, it’s all-the-more important that we try to be like Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him – I assume it’s not just me.

There are many resources around to help us meditate on the Lord Jesus during the Christmas period, and I wanted to recommend this one to you – One True Gift – as it’s new and it’s a little bit different.  Sometimes a different angle can help us to refocus.

It’s by Tim Chester, who I think is brilliant.  If you haven’t read Total Church, which is now really old, then please do.  You don’t have time now, but maybe in January.  I really enjoyed reading his Advent devotion in John’s gospel, One True Light a couple of years ago.  He’s a good man and he communicates the gospel in a down-to-earth way, which is very helpful when you’re knee-deep in overambitious Christmas crafts.

The thing that makes this book a bit surprising is that it’s a 24-day meditation on Philippians 2, which isn’t usually seen as a festive passage of Scripture.  But since it’s about the Son of God coming to earth as a human baby, who would grow up to serve and even to die, and is therefore now raised up to the highest place from which he’ll return one day to judge the world, there are plenty of good reasons to meditate on this passage in the run up to the celebration of the astonishing and marvellous incarnation.

So while I’m doing my worst Martha impression in the run up to Christmas, here are three ways in which, by God’s grace, I expect this book will help me:

I’ll be rebuked by Jesus the servant:
“‘I’m willing to serve,’ we might say, ‘but not that person – not after the way they’ve treated me.’ Yet Jesus washes the feet of Judas knowing that Judas already has 30 pieces of silver jangling in his wallet.” (p. 47)
Jesus is my example to learn from and to follow.

I’ll be encouraged by the love of Jesus.
“Jesus died for your sins.  When he hears you grumbling and arguing, he didn’t turn away in disgust.  In his love he turned towards the cross, arms opened wide to take the nails.  And now in his love he turns towards you, arms opened wide to embrace you.” p. 77.
Jesus is my Saviour to love and to trust.

I’ll be awestruck by the incarnation:
“we are left with this conclusion: the baby in the manger is none other than the LORD, the covenant God of Israel, the Creator, the one, true God.” (p. 41)
Jesus is my Lord to praise and to worship. 

If you don’t buy this book, I do hope you’ll find another way to make sure you’re feeding on God’s word each day this advent, so that your acts of service and good works are done for Him, our Saviour and Lord and the true star of every show.  This book is very accessible, so I’d recommend giving it as an early Christmas gift to a friend or your mum, or anyone you think might be willing to take a closer look at Jesus this Christmas.  You can buy it here from the Good Book Company.