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!

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Head Above Parapet

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I’m reading through Jeremiah at the moment.  Sigh.  It’s so tragic, not to mention long.  Recently at church we looked at Ezekiel together, and one thing I’ve learnt from Jeremiah and Ezekiel is this:  the Lord hates idolatry.  Sometimes I find myself turning to idols – comfort eating/retail therapy/thinking my husband can solve all of my problems – and I remind myself that those idols won’t satisfy me.  They’re not good for me.  And this is true – God uses it as a reason to turn from idols when he speaks to his people: ‘Where are the gods you made for yourselves?  Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble!’ Jeremiah 2:28.

But the first reason I shouldn’t worship idols is not actually to do with me and what I will or won’t get out of it.  The first reason is that the LORD is the only true and living God, and he hates idolatry.  He will not share his glory with another.  Just read what he says to his people in Ezekiel 7v3-4:

The end is now upon you,

and I will unleash my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct

and repay you for all your detestable practices.
I will not look on you with pity;

I will not spare you.
I will surely repay you for your conduct

and for the detestable practices among you.

It’s sobering stuff, isn’t it?  Idolatry makes God angry, because he alone deserves all the glory:

But the Lord is the true God;

he is the living God, the eternal King.
When he is angry, the earth trembles;

the nations cannot endure his wrath…
He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like [idols],
for he is the Maker of all things… Jeremiah 10:10;16

So when I find myself trusting in other things, I need to repent and ask the Lord to give me a pure heart that worships him alone.

Sometimes, though, an idol is so ubiquitous and normal in our society that we might not even notice it. These are the dangerous ones, because if they’re even normal within the church, we’re much more likely to keep on trusting in them, and therefore not fully trusting in the Lord.

One example of a popular god in our society has caught my attention recently.  This god is ruthless and cruel.  It promises much: power, success, money, opportunity, legacy, freedom, but of course it cannot deliver.  It will not satisfy.  But also if you don’t live up to its high demands, this god will label you useless, stupid and an all-round failure.  And even as its most devout followers begin to see the cracks and the disappointments in this religion, they are pushing their children harder in its rituals and practices.  Perhaps they just need to work a little harder at it?  Then they’ll really see results.  They’ll have absolute security; they’ll be truly satisfied; they’ll really feel significant.

Have you guessed what it is yet?  I hope so.  This is the Western god of education, or perhaps I should say Academic Success.  Now before you throw your laptop down in disgust (don’t do that, you’ll only regret it), I know that education and success in it are good things.  For what it’s worth, I did extremely well academically at school and I know I’ve benefitted from that.  But our society has turned this good thing into a false god, and the current generation of teenagers is being worked harder and put under more pressure than any generation before it.  Youth groups suffer (i.e. discipleship takes a back seat) because teenagers can’t spare the time away from homework and revision.  The local church ships its teenagers off to an independent school miles away while the school on its doorstep remains oblivious to the gospel message.  Young people leave university, crippled with debt and still not knowing who they are or what to do with their lives.  And all because we, not just our neighbours but our churches too, believe that salvation comes from being the top of the class.

Can I just reiterate that although I know I’m putting this strongly, I do believe that education itself is a good thing.  If it adds weight to my argument, I did used to be a teacher and I loved it!  And although I know this is a very contentious issue, I do believe we are free to send our children to whichever school seems right.  I do also think that we need to examine and question our motives, particularly because the worship of Academic Success is all around us, inviting us in.  Education might be a silver bullet, but it is not a saviour.

In a week’s time I will find out what school my daughter will be going to in September.  Every year this gets in the newspapers, with headlines about ‘postcode lottery’ and parents almost having breakdowns with the stress of getting their kids into the ‘only good school in the area.’  As a mum, it’s really hard not to get swept along with the hysteria.  Pangs of jealousy when you meet someone whose child got into the school yours didn’t get into.  Lying in bed at night wondering whether she will be irrevocably damaged by a sub-standard primary school.

I could go on and on about this.  If you know me personally, I’ve probably talked to you about it.  Maybe I’ll write another post (or ten) about it in the future, but for now let me just encourage you that above all, your child needs Jesus.  My daughter needs to know that the Lord made her – that’s who she is.  The Lord loves her – that’s where her security lies.  The Lord can forgive her sins – that’s her salvation.

The Lord loves your child, and his plans are perfect.  This is true if you can afford the best prep school in the country; it’s true if your child has a scholarship to that prep school; it’s true if you home educate; it’s true if your child’s school is ‘bog standard.’  It’s true if your child’s school is the absolute worst performing primary school in the UK.

I love this from 1 Samuel: Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless (1 Samuel 12:21).  In case we didn’t hear it the first time, he tells us again that the idols we make for ourselves are useless!  Only the Lord is God.

So how do we do turn away from idols?  As Tim Keller says in Counterfeit Gods, ‘idols must be displaced.’  We turn from idols by worshipping the Lord:

But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,

whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water

that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;

its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought

and never fails to bear fruit.’ Jeremiah 17:7-8