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!

How to fear God and love children

Does it really matter what children do in Sunday School?

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This week we’re celebrating 500 years since the Reformation in Europe – a time when big changes occurred in the church in order to get vernacular Bibles into the hands of people who’d never understood the Bible before.  They’d been going to church all their lives without understanding a word of what was said, and they’d hoped they were good enough because they’d tried to follow the rules the church had set out for them, and they’d picked up on some Bible themes from the stained glass windows.  Their actions gave them a Christian appearance, regardless of any understanding of the gospel.  This is a very brief and inadequate description but this isn’t actually a post about the Reformation.

I’ve been thinking about children’s work in churches (although most of what I will write also applies to teaching our children at home).  I’ve noticed that sometimes the way children’s work is done bears some resemblance to this pre-Reformation religion.  Sometimes children’s work is done more for appearances than for any actual spiritual benefit.  Children hear a story and/or do an activity, and probably come away with tangible evidence, e.g. a craft.  But this is mostly done to show others that the children are participating in the church service, and they’re learning Christian stuff.

These children come out of creche or Sunday school with a lovely craft, but with no relationship with God.  They have learnt some Christian morals, but they have no knowledge of the Word of God.  They have been shown role models, but they haven’t encountered the gracious God of the Bible.  (I think the role model topic might be another blog post in itself.)

Why does this happen? Maybe it’s because it’s the easy option.  But I can also think of two beliefs behind this way of doing things:

  1. Christian children are nice and well behaved.  Therefore, it’s good if children come to church every week, because we all want nice and well behaved children in our community, don’t we?
  2. Children can’t really get to know the living God who’s revealed himself to us through his Word.  After all, they’re only little.  They can’t even tie their shoelaces!  How can they be expected to understand doctrine? Let’s be realistic.

I guess there are many ways I could argue against these two points.  As usual, I’ll come back to Deuteronomy 6.  You need to read the whole chapter really but here’s one extract:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 

The Lord has always commanded his people to teach their children about him, so that they’ll know who they are and what the Lord has done for his people.  For us New Covenant believers, we don’t just need to teach them about a rescue from slavery in Egypt, but also (and ultimately) about our rescue from slavery to sin, through our Saviour Jesus Christ.  And a Saviour is what we all need:

“And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.” (Deut 6 v25)

Like the Israelites, we are unable to keep the law, and so we need a righteousness from God that is by faith from first to last. (Romans 1:17).  We desperately need Christ’s righteousness, and to stop trying to rely on our own good behaviour.  So why on earth would we think that what children really need most is to be well behaved?

And why would we think that they can’t have a relationship with the Lord?  In order to think that, you need to ignore all of the commands God gives to teach children his word (e.g. Psalm 74:5-6) plus what Jesus commanded about letting children come to him, plus just common sense.  Does a child know his/her mum and dad?  Do they know their siblings, their grandma, their neighbour?  Do they know their Sunday school teacher?  So why can’t they know Jesus?  Is he not real? Knowing the Lord is what they were made for.  Of course I know that their understanding of things will be different to ours (although don’t forget Jesus told us to learn from them (Matthew 18:3), but teach a group of children for a period of time and you’ll see some of them relating to their God.  Hopefully this relationship will lead to good behaviour (that’s certainly what I’m praying for my children!), but good behaviour without a changed heart is just a veneer.  Let our creche not be a Pharisee factory, because I’m quite sure Jesus wasn’t impressed by the Pharisees.

If you’re teaching creche or Sunday School, your responsibility is not to churn out well-mannered children who can tell you who Moses and Jonah are: it’s to faithfully teach God’s word to them, and to pray for their souls.  Don’t underestimate that responsibility.  These people are made in God’s image, and their precious.  If we fear God, we should teach his word with reverence to him.  And if your church isn’t doing this, then I would urge you to remedy that, even if it means you have to take charge of it (I know, as if you haven’t got enough to do).

Can I just say that I help run the creche in my church, and we do want the children to behave well, plus they do crafts, so I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying those things aren’t good.  But they’re really not the point of us all being there.  If we really believe in the power of God to speak to us by his Spirit through His word, regarding his Son our Saviour, then we’ll believe that for our children, too.  I hope you can see how this links to what I wrote at the top about the Reformation. Let’s do children’s work the great Reformers would be pleased to see.  We have the Bible in their language, so let’s not just show the kids some pictures and send them away thinking that all they need to do is try their best to be good.

And if you read this and feel encouraged that the children’s work in your church is good, maybe you could encourage the leaders this week, and thank them for faithfully doing the Lord’s work.

 

This reminds me of a post I wrote a long time ago called Hearts Not Garments.  

The Power of “Goodbye”

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What’s the hardest thing about raising young children in the city?

I wonder what you think. The traffic, the rent, cramped living, the lack of grass? The noisy neighbours, the hit-and-miss schools, the on-street (and not even your own street) parking? How about the hours spent commuting, or the polluted air, or the lack of like-minded Christian families?   These are all relevant – some more than others. (Grass is overrated, friends. Heaven is a garden CITY.)

For me, not one of these things is the hardest thing about raising my children in the city. The hardest thing is this: people leave. I’m trying to nurture a stable family in a transient city, which feels a bit like trying to make friends in the middle of Kings Cross station. Some people do stop, they say hello, they might even invest a little. But then they have to rush – they have a train to catch.

People leave for good reasons. They take the gospel to undesirable places, or their job moves them, or they go to Bible college, or they move nearer to sick parents. (Some people don’t leave for good reasons, by the way, but I’m not here to judge.) And I can cope with that – ish. I miss them, and I cry when they leave, but I can see the bigger picture. The West Country needs youth workers: I get it.

But it’s harder for children to see the bigger picture. My daughter doesn’t even know how long an hour is; my son doesn’t quite know the difference between London and Longnewton (my parents’ village). So how are they meant to understand that it’s actually a good thing that we’re waving goodbye (yet again) to another precious friend, because they’re meeting a need somewhere in South East Asia? My heart aches in a way it never used to before I had children, because I don’t like to see them sad. It’s as simple as that.

It’s not just church family members, either. It’s the teachers, the support staff, and the classmates. They can be here one day, and gone the next. And each time this happens, I feel like my child’s foundations are crumbling away, bit by bit.

But I need to learn some things. I spent last night and this morning in tears about this issue, by the way, so please don’t assume I have this figured out!

The more people leave us, the more we rely on the Lord. He’s my rock and my foundation. He will never leave me. Time and again the Lord reminds his people of this fact: ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’* Sweet, sweet words. (This is what I told my daughter the day her nursery teacher was dismissed without notice.) And of course, Jesus himself comforted his disciples with these words: ‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matt 28:20). When friends leave, we’re forced to lean more on the One who never does. So if our weak foundations do crumble, by God’s grace they can be replaced by the true Rock.

When people leave to serve in God’s Kingdom elsewhere, it does help the children to have a more global perspective. This is hard for them, but it is possible. We’ve found that showing them maps and praying for people in other countries has helped them with this. And, similarly, they are learning that we all suffer for the advance of the gospel – those who go, and those who stay behind. These are hard but character-building lessons to learn, and I pray that by learning them my children will be blessed, and will be a blessing to the Kingdom as they grow up.

Also, waving goodbye to people makes us long for Jesus to return soon. I can tell my children that in the new creation, in the garden city, there’ll be no more goodbyes. There’ll be no unreached people groups, no sick relatives, no war zones, no more tears. It would be nice if my church family could be together forever, and that nobody would have to leave, but then we wouldn’t look forward to heaven enough. And one day, we will be with our brothers and sisters for eternity. In the words of that great Australian theologian of our time, Colin Buchanan: ‘Hooley Dooley Wop Bam Boom! Jesus Christ is coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Let me know if you have any thoughts on this.  Click on the speech bubble, top right.

*Deut 31:6-8; Joshua 1:5; 1 Kings 8: 57.

Enjoy yourself (Just not in the same way you used to before)!

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I used to look forward to, and enjoy, weekends away with church. Now I brace myself for them, and often feel I’m the worst version of ‘me’ when I’m there. Sad, I know. But I believe that through prayer and practical wisdom this, the “time away with church family, with a family,” can be conquered!

I’m going away today, so I thought I’d offer some tips on how to get through, I mean enjoy, your time away (it’s more fun than packing). I’m in no way the expert, but I thought I’d share what I’ve come up with thus far – you’ll see I’m learning from my mistakes.

Things NOT to expect:

Sleep – Time and again I make the mistake of arriving on a conference/camp/ weekend away already tired, and hoping for some rest. Go on, point and laugh, I deserve it. You won’t get much sleep. Things will prevent you from sleeping: probably your children. But while you can do everything in your power to encourage your children to have a good night’s sleep (blackouts, familiar bedding, nightlight etc.), there are always things you can’t control. Even if your children sleep wonderfully, you are still likely to be woken up by something else, e.g. someone else’s child; a fire alarm; a 5am delivery van; a 3am Pentecostal prayer gathering (this has been my experience, anyway).

Catching up with good friends – this is unlikely, because you will be busy with your brood and also there may be other people who need you more. You don’t want to end up resenting your children or anyone else who gets in the way of your nice long chat with so-and-so. Maybe think of this as an opportunity to arrange to meet up with that friend in the next couple of weeks! Then, if you do end up having a good chat: bonus!

Taking part in everything that’s going on – it might be the teaching you look forward to, or the social aspect, or praying together. But it’s likely you’ll miss out on something you’d really like to have been at. You might get trapped in your room with a clingy baby and no phone signal to beckon help, while everyone else is having a whale of a time doing “organised fun.” You might miss all of the talks because your 3-year-old is terrified of the unfamiliar surroundings, or you might have to take someone to A&E. Hopefully none of these will happen, but I’m just saying it’s good to be emotionally prepared to miss out.

Things to DO:

Be thankful. Sorry everything above is so negative. I think that if we “manage our expectations” (fancy phrase) then we’re more likely to be thankful for any fun/teaching/sleeping/encouragements that we do receive. I need to remember to be thankful, because I just won’t be otherwise. I’m like that, me.

Forget yourself. I find that at these intense, emotionally draining times I get too focused on my own “problems” (e.g. lack of sleep/missed the seminar), which is just a recipe for disaster. If I try to focus on making sure other people are OK, I’ll actually start to forget what I was so narked off about in the first place. Get over yourself, Catherine (or, you know, something less harsh).

Research – if you haven’t been to the venue before, try to find out what you need to take with you from someone who has been or from the venue itself. You don’t want to arrive and realise you were meant to bring bedding. Almost equally you don’t want to stuff five duvets into your boot (trunk) and then discover you didn’t need them. Especially if you don’t have a driveway, so loading the car is tricky, and you bought the duvets especially. Just saying.

I’ve now noticed that (maybe apart from the final one) these are quite good tips for life in general. Maybe that’s because time away with church is really just a more intense version of normal life. And I need to remember, too, what an AMAZING privilege it is to have the resources, the community, and the freedom to be able to do this. Would my North Korean sister be grumbling about missing the Saturday night karaoke if she were here? No, I’m pretty sure she’d think she’d died and gone to heaven.

Have a good weekend, folks!