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

 

Learning to say ‘Thank You’

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One day this will be a nostalgic image for me!

I’ve been excavating this week.  When you have your second or subsequent baby, you have to unearth all of the baby paraphernalia that you’d hidden under the bed/on top of the wardrobe/at your mum’s house.  It’s quite heartwarming in a way, because it takes you back to those early days with your older child(ren) which seem so long ago. But in other ways, it’s a tiny bit disheartening.  What I mean is, I find it really satisfying to get rid of stuff I don’t need anymore because I’ve moved on to a new stage.  So going back to the earlier stages and starting all over again can bruise my organisational ego.  I’ve realised that I often look forward to the day when I won’t need an entire kitchen cupboard dedicated to plastic crockery, sippy cups, bottles and baby food.  Or when I won’t need to buy kiddie snacks or dairylea slices, because the kids will eat what we eat (this may never happen but shhhh don’t tell me).  But even as I long for this I do have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not a very godly way to think.

Growing up I was always told, ‘Don’t wish your life away.’  I think that was because I always wanted to be about three to five years older than I was (those days are gone, I can assure you).  Although this isn’t a phrase from the Bible, it is wise advice.  Always pining for the next thing is really a recipe for discontentment.  While I’m longing for the days when I can have a serious conversation with my son, I’m missing the blessings of the here and now.  While I’m pining for the time when I won’t have to cadunk my buggy up the steps because my buggy will be long gone, I’m ignoring the beauty of cute babes in a pushchair.

I’m reading a really interesting book which has encouraged me massively – One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.  Today I read this, as Ann recollects holding her sleeping daughter, the youngest of six children:

‘My baby is five… She is leaving me, she’s growing up and moving away from me, and she stirs and I sweep back the crop of golden ringlets.  Stay, Little One, stay.  Love’s a deep wound and what is a mother without a child and why can’t I hold on to now forever and her here and me here and why does time snatch away a heart I don’t think mine can beat without?’ (p. 160)

I felt so rebuked by this.  My eldest isn’t five yet, and I often wish she were just a bit older.  But I’m sure one day (maybe soon) I’ll turn around and mourn the loss of their early years.  That will also be discontentment of course!  So what’s the solution?  How do I enjoy the here and now; savour the moment?  Well, Voskamp’s book is all about thankfulness.  I know I should be thankful for today, but how?

One wonderful thing about being a parent of young children is that you have someone showing you how to live in the moment and enjoy the here and now, every single day.   Here are a few things my tots were excited about today (and these are just the ones they shouted about):

–       steam from a chimney

–       an aeroplane (many, many times, we live under the Heathrow flight path)

–       a blue van

–       ‘Sparkles’ (Actually the sunlight reflected in raindrops on a grey, dirty pavement)

I want to be more like that.  I want to be enchanted by the mundane and thankful for the ordinary.  If I can learn to do that, then I’ll start to focus on the beautiful things in my life, great and small, and to sideline the hard things that I can’t change.

At the end of a wearying day, I want to tell my husband every detail of the battles I’ve endured.  I don’t want to focus on the lovely things, because… hmmm, if I’m honest I don’t want him thinking I’ve had an easy day.  Then he might not sympathise with me.  If I tell him all the blessings, then who gets the glory?  Not me, of course, but the Lord, the giver.  I want this, and I don’t want it.  My new, spirit-filled heart wants to praise the Lord; it’s my sinful, self-centred self who wants to wallow in self-pity, ingratitude and dissatisfaction.

I’ve heard many times before that being thankful is a way to find joy and to be content.  But it seems so hard to do.  It is hard, but I’m realising that it’s a lesson to learn, and a lesson that takes time.  We can train ourselves to be thankful.  Ann Voskamp trained herself by writing one thousand things she loves, or in other words one thousand gifts she is thankful for.  I’ve started trying to do this myself.  I’m making quite slow progress, partly because I’m out of practice (I’ve never been in practice), and partly because I don’t have my notebook lying around all day (for fear of it being splattered/snatched/accidentally recycled), so I have to remember things and write them down later.  But even so, I can tell that God is gently changing me as I discipline myself to find the beauty in my life.

So may I encourage you now to try this – you don’t have to write it down or set yourself a target of course, but if you would like to find more joy, try learning to be thankful for the ‘now’ you’re in.  Maybe you live in a beautiful location, in which case your list will probably be full of natural beauty.  However, may I refer you to the title of this blog, and remind you that I live far away from wildlife (unless you count pigeons and the odd urban fox, which I absolutely do not!) or sweeping landscapes.  But there is still beauty in my life, and I’m learning to find it.  Here are ten items from my list so far, just to encourage you to give it a go:

7. Help up the stairs

10. Soft slippers on aching feet

16.  My children stopping at the road

20. Double glazing

23. A cup of tea by the bed

26. The listening ear of a friend

44. The kitchen bin, empty

60. The radio

62. The generosity of friends

111. Anaesthetic

Nothing spectacular I know, but they’re God’s gifts to me and it’s right that I thank him for them.  You can probably think of something more joy-filling than an empty kitchen bin, and I encourage you right now to thank God for whatever that is!

So I’m hoping, by God’s grace, that by cultivating a thankful heart, I will bring glory to God with my attitude, I’ll find joy, and I won’t get to the end of my life and realise I’ve spent it wishing I were somewhere else.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

Push, Push, Glide: Reflections on my Daughter’s Fourth Birthday

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My daughter turned four last weekend.  She’s my eldest, and four seems much older than three.  Three-year-olds can be classed as toddlers; four-year-olds go to primary school.  Yikes.

Miriam has been asking me for months if she can go ice-skating.  Living in central London without a car and with two younger children, this is not an easy request to grant, so I told her that when the winter outdoor rinks sprang up we would go.  This coincided nicely with her birthday, so I booked us a lesson on her birthday – at the crack of dawn, incidentally!

On the way there, I was thinking about how relieved I feel when I look back over the years since her birth.  I’m relieved because I found things so much harder when she was first born than I do now.  I expect most people feel like that, although I know some mums love the baby phase and find the pre-school phase harder.  I don’t want this to sound ungrateful, because children are such a precious gift, but I found the first three months in particular extremely difficult.  I feel so relieved to have gotten this far!  Many thanks to God for his grace!

When we arrived at the ice rink, Miriam was given a stabiliser to hold – they give out heavy, plastic penguins with handles so children can push them along and spend less of their time prostrate on the ice.  But from the moment she stepped onto the ice, Miriam hated it.  Several teachers tried to help her – ‘Come on, take baby steps, I’ve got you, yep small steps, you won’t fall, you’re safe’ etc., but to no avail.  She was miserable.

One of the teachers told me to try waiting inside to see if that helped Miriam to get engrossed and start to enjoy it, but as I watched her through the window she just stood there, morosely gripping her penguin, watching the other children slide and shuffle about.  It was, for both of us, excruciating.

It did strike me that her experience on the ice was a tiny bit like my experience when Miriam was first born.  She had wanted to ice skate because she’d seen it on the TV and it looked fun.  It looked elegant and graceful.  It looked rewarding.  I think she probably assumed it would come naturally – that she’d get it right first time.

My ideas about motherhood were about as naïve as Miriam’s were about skating.  Even when people told me ‘it will be hard at first’, I still didn’t really know.  You can’t know, can you? Not until you get out there on the ice.  Until day three of breastfeeding.  Until no amount of pacing will stop the crying.  Until you realise that between you and your husband, despite your combined intelligence and the books you’ve read, you have no idea what you’re doing.  (I have friends who between them are Doctors three times over, who have at least once managed to put their baby’s disposable nappy on back to front AND inside out!)

One thing that it hurts to admit is that it’s actually a good thing that I didn’t and don’t find motherhood easy.  True, this is a result of the Fall – frustrations and disappointments and poo down the wall won’t happen in heaven – but God is also using this season to make me more like Christ.  It’s hard to be proud when you’re crying because baby won’t get his wind up, or crying with the pain of breastfeeding or just crying because you haven’t had any sleep, or crying just because.  This is when we learn to depend on God more.  If I’d found motherhood easy, then I’d have been even more proud and self-sufficient.  Instead, God chose in his kindness to refine me: to make me more pure.

It’s amazing how a change in perspective can affect you.  Since I’m older than Miriam, I know that ice skating is hard and you have to practise, fall on your bum fifty times, get back up and practise some more before it gets remotely fun.  And yet, when I became a mum for the first time I was so shocked at how hard it was!  (I don’t know why I’m using the past tense – I still regularly get surprised by how hard it is.)  But as we struggle and learn, we’re growing.  God is giving us character – which we wouldn’t get if the lesson were easy.

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”  Romans 5:3-4.

I have to admit that, compared to God, I am about as wise and patient through difficulty as my four-year-old daughter.  Thanks be to God that he has the right perspective, and he’s there with me on the ice, holding my hand and cheering me on.

And do you know, it’s not all bad!  Even though Miriam was stubborn, reluctant, sullen and uncooperative, I could see glimpses of a talent for skating.   I know that she didn’t believe me when I said from the sidelines, ‘You’re doing it!  That’s it!’  And when your mum or your friends or your husband say to you, ‘You’re doing a great job’ and it’s week three and you’re just trying to keep your head above water, you might think, ‘as if!’ but they do mean it.  They’re seeing glimpses of the ability God has given you to excel at this particular line of work.

So I’d like to encourage you (no matter how old our child is, by the way!) – if you feel today like you’re slipping around and just getting cold and wet, please remember that God is growing your faith and your character, which is priceless – ‘of greater worth than gold.’ (1 Peter 6:7)  And the people you see gliding around have all been in similar positions to you, they’re just further along the journey. And slowly but surely you are making your way across the ice.  Small steps!

On an even more personal note, I would just like thank God for giving my daughter breath in her lungs for four whole years.  [Jesus] is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  Colossians 1:17.  From emergency C-section until now, may I never forget that it’s the Lord Jesus who is holding us together every. single. day.