God bless us, everyone!

I know I’m already quoting Dickens, but this isn’t the proper Christmas Carol post – that’s still to come.  

Have you ever tried to do something festive and beautiful with your family? Christmas music on; candles lit; cattle lowing.  Here’s a reminder that the execution of such plans is often not quite as soft-focus and magical as we’d hoped.

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Here, Swiss Family Brooks attempted to decorate a gingerbread house.  We even bought it flat-packed from Ikea to reduce the risk of meltdown.  However, in the end not even Mike’s Structural Engineering expertise could reverse the sabotage of Miriam’s elbows.  

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But of course, the children loved it – and the gingerbread house tasted the same.  I do have a video of Ezra laughing his head off every time he added a smartie to the roof, but it’s far too blissful to show you here.

If a similar plan of yours has gone awry, please be encouraged that it’s not the end result that matters, but the fun you have in the process.  Now please excuse me while I go and apologise to my children for losing sight of this!

 

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This Christmas look down to the God in the manger

 

Please pause the internet Christmas shopping and take a couple of minutes to hear this excellent spoken word about Santa, and how we often view God.  It’s no bah-humbug!  (Christmas Carol post to follow – don’t think I’m joking.)

This was the trigger for an in-hindsight-amusing conversation with Miriam about Santa in Peppa Pig: ‘So you see, Miriam, Peppa had never met Santa but you can speak to God every day’ (Cue blank/confused/’can we watch another episode now?’ expression from eldest child.)

“Santa rewards those with good behaviour;  Jesus draws near to the broken as Saviour.”

Let’s Raise the Bar (Comparisons Part 1)

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Comparing washing piles – Ezra wins.
Guess who’s a 2-yr-old boy?

I’ve learnt a lot recently about comparisons.  Part of our nature is that we compare ourselves to other people.  One big problem with this is that we become complacent about our sin – if we believe we’re sinners at all.  If we’re Christians, we know we are sinful, but on a day-to-day basis we often slip into the habit of looking around and thinking with a nod, ‘Yeah, I’m doing alright!’

It strikes me that nowhere is this more prevalent than in the world of parenting.  Even before your baby is born, you start to compare yourself/the baby/the pregnancy with others.  Some of this is just to check that everything’s normal – but not all of it.

Let me give you a few examples, in case you’re not so sure.  Let’s take the topic of your child’s eating habits.  In the part of the city where I live, there are a growing number of children who have very weak bones because their (extremely wealthy) parents have fed them nothing but fruit and veg.  In fact, when my daughter was a baby her growth slowed, and the Health Visitor assumed I was starving her of carbs.  (In actual fact, she is about two-thirds rice cake.)

And of course, I also live near many parents who feed their children crisps and sweets for breakfast, and fried chicken and chip-shop chips for tea most nights.  They too are malnourished, but in a different way.

So here I am, with my Annabel Karmel Meal Planner, feeling rather smug.  Aren’t I marvelous – my children eat a selection of food from each food group (no veg, but I don’t dwell on that).  They snack on fruit; they feast on meat – my daughter confessed at a party recently that she’d never before eaten jelly and ice cream!  Well can’t I just pat myself on the back and thank God that my kids are so lucky to have me?  (I may as well be saying, ‘Thank you God that I am not like this tax collector…’)

Let’s see – are there any other examples?  What about how much TV my children watch, how often I read the Bible to them, how many extra-curricular activities I pay for them to do, how I dress my children, whether I breast or bottle feed, whether we eat meals together, whether they watch Disney, how much time I spend reading to my children, what kind of school I send them to, whether I make them wear a helmet or not, etc. etc. etc.

Of course, many of these things do matter a great deal.  But instead of comparing myself and looking down on others, why don’t I stop looking around me for a minute and look at where God has actually set the bar?

I’ve been reading Ezekiel, and learning about how the prophet sees a vision of the likeness of God’s glory, which is absolutely mind-blowing: ‘When I saw it, I fell face down…’ (Ezekiel 1:28)  And not only that, but we have seen God’s glory in a bigger way, since Jesus showed us his glory, particularly at the cross.  There, the holiness of God; his love; his justice; his mercy and grace are blasted out to the world for all to see: ‘We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’  (John 1:14)

So what standard does this glorious God set?  Jesus says, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’  Hmmm.  When I think about that, I don’t feel so proud of myself.  How does God feel about my sin?  Look at the cross – he poured out his wrath on his Son because of it.

Can you imagine Ezekiel strolling up to the image of God’s glory and saying ‘OK, but do you know I fed my children cereal for breakfast every day!  And no sugary drinks!’  Ridiculous I know, but in my heart I whisper that to God when I’m feeling proud.

The right response to God’s glory is to bow down and worship him, and to cry out for mercy – which he freely gives.  That should be our response, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.  I need to keep reminding myself of this, especially when I’m comparing myself to parents who in my sinful opinion are not as competent as I am. (Gosh, don’t I sound like a delight?)  God’s not judging me by comparison.  He is holy.

As a church community, I think we can help each other out with this a lot too.  We’re always having examples of ‘bad’ parenting thrust in our faces – in the press, at the school gate, or maybe just people we know.  So when a wonderful parent in our church says things like, ‘Oh I really lost my patience today with my kids,’ or ‘I just wish I could be more joyful about motherhood,’ we think, ‘But you’re fantastic!  You’re the best mother I know!’  And often we console them by saying things like, ‘Oh that’s understandable/everyone feels like that sometimes/you’re much more patient than I am’ etc.

Now I’m not saying we should be judging each other at all – and we definitely should encourage the good we see God doing in people. But if someone is feeling convicted of sin, they need to hear the gospel.  And by ‘gospel’, I don’t mean ‘Oh don’t worry, there are loads of people who are much worse than you!’  That’s not good news at all!

Instead of making each other feel better by implying our sin doesn’t really matter, let’s acknowledge that it does matter and remind each other that God has dealt with it all at the cross.  You don’t need to feel guilty – not because you’re perfect, but because God has removed your guilt from you:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1: 8-9

I’d much rather be reminded that I am purified from all unrighteousness than be cheered up by the knowledge that someone else is worse than I am!  Not only is it more wonderful, but it’s also the truth that I need to hear.

So if you’ve recently entered the world of comparison-parenting, or you’ve been a resident for a long time, may I encourage you that you’re actually worse than you think you are!  And if you’re in Christ, God sees you as righteous, holy and perfect:

‘Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven
Whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the one
Whose sin the Lord will never count against them.’
(Romans 4:7-8, quoting Psalm 32)

P.S.  You might be thinking – ‘But when I compare myself to people around me, I feel worse, not better!  I feel like the worst mum in the world!’  I’m hoping to write about this in my next blog post!  (Or at least one in the near future…)

Bible Overview Advent Calendar

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Well isn’t this the most festive sight you ever did see?  No?

I know it’s doesn’t look great but please don’t be put off by the beige/white combo and the peeling paint which I’m trying unsuccessfully to hide!  It’s actually completely marvellous!

This is an advent calendar for young children, which my wonderful friends created and have kindly given to me.  Each day you turn over the relevant day to reveal a picture (see the second photo), look at a Bible story together, maybe do a song and colour in the picture.  Eventually your children will have built up their own colourful Bible overview!  Brilliant!

If you would like to do this with your children, I can email you the teaching guide and the sheets for each day.  You will need:  A functioning printer or access to one; some string (unless you choose to do it some other way – a scrapbook? placed around the room?); a children’s Bible.  There are really useful notes for each day so don’t feel you have to be an expert to give this a go!

I don’t seem to be able to post the documents on here for you to download, so if you’d like them please could you post a comment below and I’ll email them to you.  Why not let me know your favourite Christmas song (Christian or secular, sorry if that offends!) to get us all in the mood!  You comment by clicking on the speech bubble, top right.

If I manage to make mine look more festive (could it get any worse?), I will post a picture just to cheer us all up!  Happy Advent everybody!

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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.