Sing!

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Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;

    it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
    make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
    play skilfully, and shout for joy.

For the word of the Lord is right and true;
    he is faithful in all he does.
The Lord loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of his unfailing love. Psalm 33:1-5

When did you last belt out a song to the Lord?

In God’s word the people of God are commanded over and over again to sing praises to our God.  Why? Does he need it? Of course not. We need it.

But since your church stopped gathering, have you still been singing?

It’s easy for me to say. I grew up with a Dad who was forever singing. Singing was just the usual background noise. I only really realised this when I got to university and met Andy, who was to become a brother to me in those years. Someone said to me once, “Have you noticed that Andy’s always singing?” I said, “No, like when?” She said, “Well he’s singing right now.” No, I hadn’t noticed, because I was used to it.

Then I married Mike, who comes from a household of singers (i.e. people who sing) and who was to become a worship leader. So we are a family who will put on worship music and sing along any day of the week. On a Sunday morning in Lockdown we will stand in our living room together and sing our hearts out. The Oompa Loompas who live next door watch us through the window as though we’re mad.

Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
    extol him who rides on the clouds[b];
    rejoice before him – his name is the Lord. Psalm 68:4

But even with all this habitual singing, I’ve also been commanding myself to sing.  Because even though we’ll sing for no good reason, actually as Christians we always have good reasons to sing. Every day we have a God who is worthy of praise. Every day our hearts are tempted to grow cold to this God. Every day the world, the flesh and Satan are trying to get us to worship something else.

So when you’re fed up, I mean really fed up of the same parks, the same bike rides, the same four walls, the same arguments about school work and the same uncertainty about when you will ever see your relatives again, sing. I will say it again, sing!

Sing the gospel. Sing of your God. Sing of all his mighty works. Sing of all he’s done for you. Sing to yourself. Sing to your children. Sing to your God. Sing with the angels in heaven. If Paul and Silas could sing in prison, then I can sing in Lockdown.

And it’s never been easier to get hold of worship music to sing along to. Remember when we had to buy CD’s? We can thank God for providing Youtube, Spotify and all those other ones young people use.

If you’re lacking strength for today, sing. If you’re lacking hope for tomorrow, sing. It’s so good for you. Even the world is now realising how good it is to sing. Schools who no longer sing hymns are having singing assemblies where they sing rousing secular hymns from Hollywood blockbusters. (I mentioned this here, too.) But praise the Lord! He’s put a better song in our mouths.

Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people;
    praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
    but his favour lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
    but rejoicing comes in the morning. Psalm 30:3-5

 

I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff

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Last term my son learnt the following story in RE at school, and had to perform it in an assembly:

24 “So then, everyone who hears my words and puts them into practice is like a wise man. He builds his house on the rock. 25 The rain comes down. The water rises. The winds blow and beat against that house. But it does not fall. It is built on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man. He builds his house on sand. 27 The rain comes down. The water rises. The winds blow and beat against that house. And it falls with a loud crash.”

My son’s line was something like, “So everyone who makes wise choices and does the right thing is a wise builder.” I love my children’s school – I almost couldn’t love it more. But do you see what they did there? They took Jesus’ very clear statement, “everyone who hears my words and puts them into practice” and changed it to the ambiguous and vague, “everyone who makes wise choices and does the right thing.” This is less offensive to a mixed audience.

When a storm comes – or a virus that empties the streets and fills up all the hospitals – we find out if we’ve been a wise of a foolish builder. I’m a bit like one of the three little pigs, and the wolf is here – but which pig am I? Did I use straw, sticks or bricks? Will my house fall down?

Going back to Jesus’ parable, I wonder if you feel that your foundations have been shaken. What are you building your life upon? Whose words are you putting into practice? Where does your security lie?

There all kinds of things we can put out trust in. Things we think will keep us safe and secure and happy:

I can trust in the security and freedom that money can offer.

I can trust in my relationships with family or friends to keep me safe and happy.

I can trust in my children’s education to give them everything they could hope for.

I can trust in scientific advances and modern medicine to give me a long and happy life.

I can trust in my good planning – my next holiday, my next house-move, my new kitchen, to give me hope and a future. These things can give me satisfaction as I daydream about them and count down the days.

But every once in a while, a storm comes. This might be the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job. It might be a rejection letter or an ash cloud or an image, a growing blemish on a scan. And these things can make us wonder whether we’ve been building our house on sand. When the unexpected storm comes, does my house come crashing down?

These storms, though terrifying, can be an incredible mercy from God if they show us that all this time we’ve been building on sand. Because there’s still time to rebuild.

We’re living in the kind of storm that comes along less than once in a generation. It’s affecting everyone. The rain is coming down and the water is rising. The wind is blowing and beating against our houses.

Our investments have crashed and we might lose our jobs or take pay cuts. I can’t see my friends and family in ‘real life’ for weeks, probably months. The schools have closed and the exams are cancelled. And even the best medicine can’t save everyone from this virus. These things we were depending upon have turned out to be not so certain after all.

I don’t know if you believe in God, and if so whether you feel angry with him about all of this. But while I know this is devastating for many of us, can I suggest to you that God might be trying to show you something? Perhaps it’s time to build your house on something – or someone – that can withstand any storm.

Jesus can take us through the worst storm imaginable, because he went through worse for you and for me, and came out safely on the other side. He can take us through death and bring us out of it with a new body, in paradise.

When we all come out of hiding, will we be changed? This Easter is surely a good time to hear Jesus out. Let’s find out what his words are and see if we think it’s time to put them into practice.

If you don’t have a church or your church isn’t streaming services, can I recommend my brother’s Easter Sunday service to you? He knows this is hard, he’s been through storms himself, and he’d love to tell you about the hope that Jesus offers this Easter. You can find it here at 11am on Sunday, or catch up afterwards if you’ve got plans then(!) If you click on the link now there’s a friendly little message from him waiting for you.

The rain is coming down and the water is rising. The wind is blowing and beating against our houses. But there is hope this Easter.

Freedom

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. Galatians 5:13-15.

We’ve been using the Lent Prayer Tree prayer guide from Hope and Ginger. The other day it suggested we prayed for “people you find challenging.” Of course we all prayed for each other! Who sees the worst side of me? Who gets the least patient version of me? My poor, dear family. And now we’ve been sentenced to at least 12 weeks of family confinement. I mentioned I’m reading A Gentleman in Moscow – that’s about a man who’s living under house arrest. Little did I know when I began reading it how apt it would be. But he’s in a massive hotel and he has more than 5 people to talk to! Who knew I’d end up envying him, just a little bit? (I’m kidding… of course…)

I’m not complaining about my family. But I give them plenty of reasons to complain about me. The truth is, though, that it is challenging spending so much time with other sinners. This morning I read the children the passage above from Galatians. We talked about how we can spend the day (metaphorically?) biting chunks off each other, but if in the end we’ll all be “consumed.” There’ll be nothing left of us! Or we can choose to obey God and love each other as we love ourselves. So we prayed that the Lord would change our hearts and help us to do that instead.

I think when we read commands about loving and serving other people and showing generosity and grace, it’s easy to think about people “out there.” Especially now, when many people out there are genuinely in need of help. And helping people is the right thing to do, of course, but I think I often neglect to see that there are people right under my nose who need love, generosity and grace. And if they’re the only people I’m going to see today (other than on a screen), then this seems the perfect opportunity to start praying for supernatural love for them.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

I just wanted to add as a bit of a disclaimer: when I tell you about how things are going here I do spare you many messy details. The reason for this is that it wouldn’t be fair on my children to broadcast their struggles. I’m usually happy to share my own failings, but that’s my choice. It’s also not very encouraging to hear about someone else’s ugliness. But I just want you to know that when I share with you a craft or an activity that’s worked well, it may not have been all happiness and harmony along the way. We, like you, are works very much in progress. Some days go beautifully; some evenings require a brisk and fervent prayer walk. Most days are a bit of both.

Here are some things we’ve tried:

We’ve now got a “Shake Up 2” playlist which is: “Who’s the King of the Jungle?” Colin Buchanan, “Tell it to Jesus” (very apt) by Randall Goodgame and “Dr Jesus” by Awesome Cutlery. All available on YouTube with lyrics.

 

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I’ve started reading Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo with the older three and we’re going to do crafts and things along the way. If you’ve got a good children’s book that you enjoy, this is a great way to inspire activities because you can use the text as a springboard for all sorts of crafts/drama/writing. So far this has included making paper boats and painting some Japanese numbers – we did that thing with wax crayons and watercolours, which turned out nicely! I feel like I did that a lot in primary school. And you probably know this but twinkl.co.uk is a great place for resources and ideas.

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I just want to give a little shout-out to Post-It notes. Give a child a Post-It note to write something on, and he’s pretty chuffed. Plus it’s a way of sticking things to the wall which (I hope) doesn’t do any damage. I’ve started using them to plan out the day – so we all have some idea of what’s going on – and today I used some to remind me to help my daughter learn these sounds:

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Childsplay

imageAt that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:1-4.

My first week at home has predictably not gone to plan. Sometimes I’ve felt that we’ve got nothing at all to do and other times we’ve felt strangely time-pressured and stressed. I can see that I’m very gradually going to learn what’s realistic and useful; meanwhile there’ll be a lot of trial and error.

As I reflect on how things have gone from the children’s point of view, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words that I need to become like a little child. They’ve certainly enjoyed themselves more than I have. So what can we learn from our children about how to live in Coronatimes?

Take things one day at a time
Younger children are especially good at this.  My 10-year-old is likely to have some worries about the days ahead, but my 3 year old has very little concept of the days ahead. She’s counting the sleeps till her birthday but I can see that this abstract concept is mere head knowledge to her. She doesn’t truly understand what “9 days’ time” means.
When I try to imagine how we’ll be after four, six or twelve weeks of this, I’m tempted to feel a dangerous cocktail of dread, panic and frustration. But I don’t need to imagine that, nor should I try to do so. Instead, I should ask God for my daily bread and not borrow trouble from tomorrow. “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Isn’t that the truth! I don’t need strength for tomorrow – only for today.  And I can trust, like my children, that my Father will provide for me tomorrow, just as he has done for me today.
Incidentally, this is one big reason why we shouldn’t be panic buying. We can be generous and we don’t need to hoard because our Father provides for us.

Trust
This is linked to the one above. My children trust my words. They’re learning that plans don’t always work out, but they still believe and trust what people in authority tell them. This makes them vulnerable but it also means they don’t worry.
We all believe in things, so let’s choose to believe and trust in the promises of God, rather than filling our heads with speculations and tabloid hyperbole. Children take things at face value rather than trying to find loopholes or negatives.  Let’s take God at his word. Here’s one promise to hold onto:
“…fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10.

Try to enjoy yourself
I’m reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and yesterday I read this line:
“Just remember that unlike adults, children want to be happy. So they still have the ability to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest of things.”
I don’t know how much you agree with what the character is saying here. I think that most adults want to be happy too, but so often our minds are drawn to heavier thoughts or deep anxieties. When was the last time you allowed yourself to become absorbed in a simple, enjoyable task?
I know we’re busy. But maybe I’d be more of a blessing if I took my day one hour at a time, giving thanks in all circumstances and taking pleasure in simple gifts, rather than always having my mind on what’s happening next and how we’re all going to blooming-well cope.
So let’s all be like kids this week. If you’ll excuse me, I’m expected at Nerf practice.

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Tips

In case you need ideas, here are three things which have worked well for us:
1. We’ve started looking at Bible stories that involve mountains. I hope to do eight altogether. First we did Noah and a few days later we did Abraham and Isaac. The older three highlighted key parts of the story and then created storyboards. They enjoyed this – who doesn’t love a highlighter? My younger child stuck popcorn onto a picture of a ram. By the way, I hope you know that any Bible times you do with your children are improving their literacy skills. Comprehension, identifying key points and drawing connections with other stories (such as Jesus), are all vital English skills. Bonus!
2. We get a subscription to a science magazine called Whizz, Pop, Bang. My 8 year old son loves reading it and each issue includes experiments which require “equipment” which you should already have in your home. They also email you the equipment list about a week in advance so you’re pre-warned!
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3. We’ve done a lot of baking already. Baking helps young children with maths and you can talk to them about the science of it as well. Following instructions in the correct order is an important skill. Plus baking is a comforting activity for little ones because it’s “normal” and you hopefully get to eat something yummy at the end.

Oh boy

3E4B3299-6BEB-483C-8307-690C7B6D2ED2I hope you’re all doing OK. I’ve been ill in bed for two days so today my husband took the day off working-from-home in order to do the lion’s share of the homeschooling.

The shake up went very well. It’s a New New Day by Awesome Cutlery is a particularly poignant song to start the day with when you’re feeling a bit like life has been put on hold:

It’s a new new day to sing your praise
It’s a new new day to walk in your ways
It’s a new new day to make you known
It’s a new new day to see your Kingdom grow

It’s good to start the day asking God what he wants to teach us and how he wants to use us today! The children were reluctant to do the shake up but then thoroughly enjoyed themselves. One thing you learn as a teacher is to ignore whinges and plough on!

After Maths and English we enjoyed watching Michael J Tinker on Facebook live.  God bless him for his enthusiasm – it’s really appreciated! I’m sure the children feel reassured. And excellent to be reminded that the Coronavirus cannot separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

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A French lesson with Michael J Tinker

We did a bit of Geography which, truth be told, was just completing some map jigsaws.

After lunch and running around I’d planned a session looking at Genesis 6-8. This was difficult. It’s a spiritual battle, folks! Let’s remember that – and pray.

By 3.15 we were flagging. This is when we put a film on and I began wondering how we’re going to manage for 12 weeks. Any ideas from you are most welcome!

Tomorrow I think we’re going to try to watch a history lesson online. However I am reluctant to do too many online things. You know me, I just don’t really like technology.  I’m hoping that once the children settle into the routine they’ll be better at doing things independently – like going away and reading or playing a game together. (Please don’t laugh!)

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Opting for some peace and quiet outside

It occurred to me today that when we’re struggling it’s easy to feel discontent and to start envying other people’s situations/gardens/houses/families/health. Let’s guard against that. The best remedy is gratitude, in my experience. I’m thankful that my children have someone to play with, a home full of books, games, jigsaws and toys and an outside space. We also have a wonderful church family who keep delivering supplies to us.

The only remotely amusing anecdote I can think of for today is that my son’s first wobbly tooth almost fell out – but didn’t. I was alerted to this horrific fact when I heard my poor husband utter the words, “Great, your mouth’s full of blood but can you please get out of the kitchen?”

So how did your day go? Any tips? Don’t be shy!

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6.34

Day One in the Big Brooks House

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The thrill of a care package

I expected to be writing this blog post on Monday evening but homeschooling started early for the Brookses. My son developed a dry cough last night so we decided it would be best to keep them off school and quarantine ourselves. This was a really sad start to the day as we had to break the news to our daughter who was very upset to miss the last day of school.

It’s all a bit daunting. If you feel overwhelmed by social media input at this time, you’re not alone! I hope and pray that my blog will simply encourage you and share ideas – and hopefully give you a chance to laugh (kindly) at my misfortune at times.

I think as a mum I feel really responsible for holding it together and keeping my children happy. This is quite a burden to bear so I was delighted to be reminded of something when reading Galatians: So also Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’ (Chapter 3 v 6). It reminds me of Romans 1.17 which I’ve written about here. (There is overlap between the pressure of making Christmas special and making quarantine special, for sure!)  The bottom line is this: we’re righteous by faith, not by works. So we don’t need to be amazing. Which is great news for me because I’m not.

One complication of starting to homeschool early is that I had Bible study (via the Zoom app) at 10am so of course we had to resort to putting a film on for the kids. Sigh. We lasted about 70 minutes before resorting to screen time! But such is real life.

I find it helpful to have a rough plan of timings but we didn’t stick to it so I’ll just let you know what we did today (in case it’s helpful):

Film: Two by Two. No idea how good it is.  A thoroughly inaccurate portrayal of Noah’s ark. Not exactly how I’d envisaged kicking off our theological programme of study!
Maths – Numeracy Ninjas (see below) and the maths workbooks I frantically bought them in Waterstone’s the other day. With Martha (3) I played a game of Dotty Dinosaurs (Orchard Toys) which is good for shape recognition. We also baked cookies later which I reckon counts as maths!
Lunch, then a bit of TV while I had a quick lie down.
Art” – we made a giant banner for our neighbour who turned 4 today. We also received party bags from them so teh children had lots of fun playing with their little toys and eating sweets. 10y-old also made playdough as birthday present for neighbour.
Harry Potter Game with Dad.

A friend recommended Numeracy Ninjas to me, where you can print off free worksheets for your children to do each day.

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I guess if you wanted to make a big banner but it wasn’t someone’s birthday, you could just make up a random reason. A bible verse maybe, or a cheery slogan of some sort? The children did enjoy this.

Later in the day we received work packs from school, which I found completely overwhelming. They have written out a (thankfully) “suggested” timetable. It’s similar to mine but involves more screen time (albeit educational), which I’m keen to avoid unless desperate. I’d rather reserve it for when I’m feeling unwell or trying to lead a Bible study. There’s also no way I can teach my three children three different history topics. I’m sure their teachers will understand – it’s the children I need to convince!

So today has had its ups and downs.

Our Tesco delivery arrived today, mostly intact. No rice or pasta but plenty of fresh food. I’m so grateful for God’s timing as we won’t be able to go and buy food for 2 weeks.

I’m thankful for friends who are willing to bring us things from the shops/pharmacy.

And I’m reminded of the importance of not wasting food. I hate waste anyway but when you’re into sure when you’ll next get to buy oranges (or rice) it does make you extra careful.

I also wasn’t 100% sure we were right quarantine ourselves but this afternoon I saw a GP I know had written on Instagram that you can’t be too cautious because the choices you make today affect people in ICU in 2 weeks’ time. So I think we did the right thing.

Praying that you, dear reader, would be trusting in the Lord’s provision today.

Dear Gail Porter

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Since watching the recent BBC documentary, Being Gail Porter, I’ve felt compelled to write a response.  Following the tragic death of Caroline Flack last weekend, I can’t help but see the similarities between these two women. Both were children’s TV presenters who went on to host hugely successful mainstream TV shows. Both suffered at the hands of the media and were left with severe mental health issues. Both were idolised and derided.  Thankfully, Gail is still with us, but it could so easily have not been so.

Here are some simple thoughts, in the form of an open letter.

Dear Gail,

I watched your fascinating and moving documentary. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I was a teen of the nineties, so your Top of the Pops years were my Top of the Pops years, too. Watching the clips of your time on the show was like flicking through a photo album of my formative years.

I’m not a psychologist or a medic or a counsellor of any kind. I don’t claim to have a useful diagnosis for you and I won’t be recommending any self-help books that I think will give you the answers you need. But if you were my friend (and I do have friends who share various things in common with you), this is what I would love to say.

I firstly wanted to say how sorry I am. I’m sorry for all the ways you’ve been hurt and let down. The clip from Never Mind the Buzzcocks was hard to watch, and I’m sure it was just a taste of all you’ve experienced. I’m sorry that our society is such a dangerous place.

You seemed like you were searching for answers – what had happened to you? Where had it all gone wrong and why? I don’t know you – we’ve never met – but I can tell you what I believe to be true.

The Bible says that we’re made in God’s image – each and every one of us. That means we’re hugely valuable and very precious. We’re made for relationships, first and foremost with Him, our creator. We’re made for freedom, for joy, for good works and for love. We have a purpose; that purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. God’s word says that there are good works which he planned in advance for us to do. So when we’re lonely or we feel unloved or lost, it’s often because something’s gone very wrong with the relationship between God and the people he’s made. Living my own way, I might feel free at first; I might have a right-rollicking good time. But like a fish out of water, I’m soon left floundering and gasping for oxygen.

The trouble is, God seeks our good – but people are not like that. People take advantage of us and treat us harshly.  In the hands of others, rather than God, we can be elevated and then crushed. We can be flattered and then mocked. We can be bolstered and then betrayed. We can be admired and then shamed. People hurt us. There’s no doubt that you have been catastrophically failed by those around you and by our culture at large. If we truly are made to be loved and to love, then it’s no wonder that you’ve suffered such mental health problems as a result of all that’s happened to you. If we’re just mammals; if sex is just fun; if my body is just flesh and bones, then why does it hurt so much?

“I just wish I was a better person.” You said this in the film when you were feeling very low after attending an event in Westminster.  I don’t know exactly that you meant at the time, or if you often feel like that, but I think it’s a feeling most people have. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t and said things we feel guilty about. I think most of us have felt truly ashamed at times. I know I have, and still do. I definitely wish I were a better person!

But I’ve found hope. Jesus humbles me and then lifts me up. He does the opposite of the tabloids (who are, of course, acting on behalf of the people who read them). He’s the antithesis of social media. Jesus tells me that I’m much worse than I think I am. Then he offers me real hope because I’m also more loved than I’ve ever deserved or even imagined. In Jesus I have a friend who’ll never betray me, who’ll never break his promises and who’ll always protect me. One of the ways that he loves me best is by reminding me that he is the King at the centre of the universe. This is so liberating.

Jesus covers my shame. In the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), Adam and Eve brought shame upon themselves by disobeying God’s perfect rule. They immediately felt ashamed because they were naked, so they tried to hide. Ever since then, every human being has brought shame upon themselves by following in Adam and Eve’s footsteps. If we don’t feel shame, we really are in trouble because the truth is we do stand naked before God and he sees it all. But in the Garden, even as God was judging Adam and Eve, he clothed them.

He covered their nakedness. This was a sign that one day he would remove their shame by clothing them with perfection. Jesus came to live the beautiful life that none of us has been able to live. He came to be the “better person” that none of us can be. And if we trust in him, he clothes us with his “righteousness,” which is Bible-speak for a life perfectly lived. It’s a clean, pure, no-regrets and full-of-joy life. It’s our own Wikipedia page deleted and replaced with a perfect track record – the life we should have lived. This is what Jesus offers us.

I believe that God would take your pain and heal you; he would take your shame and clothe you, he would take your loneliness and love you; he would take your emptiness and fill you. All you have to do is turn to him, say sorry, and ask. 

One more thing. At the end of the documentary we saw you singing in a choir. I hope that’s been beneficial to your mental health, as you hoped it would be. I’m sure you know this, but it’s worth being reminded that every single week there is a free place you can go to where you can sing your heart out alongside a community of broken-but-healing friends. They sing from a Book which reminds them to sing because it’s so good for the soul – and because it pleases their Father in Heaven.

But let all who take refuge in you be glad;
    let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
    that those who love your name may rejoice in you.

 Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;
    you surround them with your favour as with a shield.
Psalm 5:11-12

Instead of your shame
    you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
    you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
    and everlasting joy will be yours.
Isaiah 61.7

Free Refreshments, Anyone?

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“…encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.”

How do you feel about words? Do you remember things people have said to you?

I used to be able to remember the exact words people had said, and find it odd that others couldn’t. They’d be telling a story and I’d think, ‘that’s not how they said it! Why the paraphrasing?’ Now I feel increasingly frustrated that my memory isn’t what it used to be. I don’t know if it’s just natural as you get older, but I think there might be four other contributing factors living in my house, who have given me ten years of broken sleep.

But I do still remember things people have said to me, if not verbatim. I put both my husband and my brother on edge when I start a sentence with, “I remember you said once…” because it’s usually something they neither remember saying nor still agree with. On the plus side, at least they know I listen!

The other day I found a Thank You card someone had sent me in 2014 after a camp we were on together. As I read it I realised that I had remembered, 5 years on, an exact phrase from the card which had encouraged me, and treasured it in my heart. It wasn’t anything spectacular – in fact, if you’re interested, it was that she appreciated our “down-to-earthness” – but I’d hung on to it nevertheless.

This got me thinking that we underestimate how much adults need and appreciate encouragement. We know that children need to be affirmed. Teachers in school know to praise good behaviour much more than they rebuke the bad. If you’ve read any parenting books or online articles you’ll have been told to do the same with your own children. I wrote a blog post years ago about this which I still recommend!

It’s true that children love to be praised, especially for specific things. So not just “oh aren’t you clever!” which can sound a bit false, but “I’ve noticed that your handwriting is really improving, you’ve clearly been working hard on it. Well done!” And if we can affirm character traits in our children, then all the better. “You’ve been so kind at sharing your Christmas chocolate with people,” and even, “that reminds me of how God shares all the good things in our lives with us.” Children love this and it’s really effective, but when do we think we grow out of our thirst for encouragement?

I’m not convinced we ever do.

I mean, honestly, which of us would not be thrilled if tomorrow a friend gave us a sincere, specific word of affirmation and then shared how it reminded them in some way of what God is like? Or it showed them how God has been working in us?

I think this is a wonderful way to be a blessing to our church family and wider community. And it doesn’t cost a thing! Plus, the more you do it the more it will become a good habit. Here are some examples of ways you could bless people with your words:

  • If you have people in your church who have been serving in the same way for years, now is the time to thank them. They’re the least likely people to be thanked or encouraged for what they do. The longer someone serves, the more they’re taken for granted.
  • If you take one encouragement from the Sunday sermon, go up to your pastor and tell him it. Don’t assume he knows!
  • If you have a visiting preacher at your church, email him the following day to thank him for coming and give him a couple of things you found encouraging from his talk.
  • If there’s something you really like about your children’s teacher, why not tell them?
  • Try not to let people squirm out of your encouragements. Imagine you’re passing them a gift and they’re trying to give it back or drop it. Just keep handing it back to them. Look them in the eye and say, “I’m trying to encourage you, please don’t shrug it off.” Or something like that! “Shut up and listen to me” might also work.
  • You could send encouragements via text or – better still – a postcard popped in the post. This is a different way of doing it and may be a good place to start if you feel nervous about doing it face to face.

You might read this and think, “I’m not that kind of person.” The truth is that I’m not either. You don’t have to pretend to be someone else in order to encourage others. You need to do it in your own way, but the sad truth is that hardly anyone is “that kind of person.” As a result, people around us are starving for words of affirmation.

Also, I would argue that we do all know how to praise and encourage. We love to tell people how good a particular film or book is, or even the reasons why we love a certain person. But why don’t we say those things to the person directly? I know it’s not British. But godliness isn’t British, folks.

As with other gifts – hospitality, evangelism, giving – some people will be better at this than others. But that doesn’t leave the rest of us off. We should all be trying to encourage others. And you never know, you might find you’re better at it than you thought.

And you might even save someone’s life:

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. Hebrews 3:12-14.

Working Mum – Yikes!

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Happy New Year, beloved readers. As you think about the year ahead I don’t know if you feel that change is afoot, but for me 2019 was a year of change. Back in September I started a part-time job. Aside from some admin jobs I’ve done that worked around my children at home, this is the first time I’ve been in paid employment in nine years.

I’m working in a secondary school (high school), which of course is full of people. There are people aged 11 right up to nearly-retirement age. Hundred and hundreds of people. This is quite a contrast from my daily routine prior to working there. Looking after a three-year old, doing a lot of laundry, perhaps meeting up with a friend for a cuppa… this is in many ways quite a lonely season. I found it as such, anyway. I love spending time with my children, but the lack of structure and the lack of adult company was a challenge for me.

In contrast, a school must be one of the most structured places in society. Every minute of the day is accounted for. And if the timetable is accompanied by many rules which are strictly adhered to, then this adds to the feeling of – to me, anyway – a certain security. At work, I know where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m not free to choose. I’ve been told where to be and when. This, after 9 years of wondering what the best use of my day would be, is a welcome relief.

You might think I’m mad. Some people hate structure. However, I notice that the routines and the rules do make most of the students feel safe. So I don’t think I’m too weird!  So anyway, here are some observations based on my transition from Stay-at-Home-Mum-of-Four to Working-Mum-of-Four:

  • The hardest thing about starting a new job has been that nobody knows me. It’s such a drag. Not that I don’t know them (although that’s something I’d like to remedy), but that they don’t know me. It’s a very lonely feeling. This got me thinking – how many people live in our neighbourhoods who don’t feel that anyone knows them? It’s a horrible feeling. And to be a Christian is to be truly known by the one who made you. (Psalm 139:1) What a wonderful truth. I’ve never really appreciated it properly before, and I’m so thankful to God that he knows me. I wonder who I could get to know better in the coming months – maybe in my church or on my street.
  • The years at home are short. If you’re working part-time or having given up paid work completely to be at home with your children, I know it can feel like a very long time. Looking at leaves, counting aeroplanes and playing the shopping list game again can really slow down time. But having come through that season (sort of), I can assure you that it is not long at all.  It means everything to our children – it’s all they’ve known so far – and they’ll benefit for the rest of their lives.  But to you, it’s one line on your CV that can be explained to a colleague in one short sentence. (Don’t expect them to ask you any details, either.) And just thinking pragmatically – there are, Lord willing, many years left to be ‘at work.’ This week a boy at work asked me how long I thought I’d work at his school. I said it could be for another thirty years – and by then he will be in his forties, perhaps sending his own children to secondary school. So what’s five or ten years in the grand scheme of things?
  • Anything new is very tiring. You’ve got new people to process, new systems to get your head around, and you might need to adjust many other things in your life to compensate. (E.g. you might have to spend your evenings, rather than your afternoons, making Ziggy Stardust costumes – or is that just me?) So cut yourself some slack. Try not to fill the diary. And get to bed early!

Repeat the Sounding Joy

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Scroll down for some reality

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