Thursday, January 31, 2008

the God of small things (2)

Each week during the year, Lizzy (9) and Ben (7) put 10% of their pocket money into a "poor pig".

In October I add my own money, and we pack a couple of shoeboxes full of goodies, to send to "poor children" during Operation Christmas Child.

We just received a newsletter from Samaritan's Purse about last Christmas' shoe box deliveries. Here's the story of a girl, not far from my kids' age, in Tavua, Fiji:

The team met one 8-year-old girl who had not missed school for two years... she just loves learning so much. But her solo father is very poor and struggles to provide her with pens, pencils and paper to maintain her passion for drawing and writing.

When she opened her box, she shouted "Look!" and held up several packs of pencils, pens and other stationary. Her teachers were almost in tears, as they were so grateful that she received that particular box!
No-one else knew this girl's particular needs and the contents of this particular box, but God knew.

And Christian workers in Tavua have found that the shoeboxes have softened the hearts of many who were resistant to the gospel.

The God of small things indeed. A God who, through the loving gifts of his people, opens the way into hearts for the far greater gift of his Son.

the God of small things

It was the kids' first day back at school yesterday. Five minutes before we had to leave, and I was desperately searching the house for the Pokemon stickers I had promised to help Ben (7) put on his red lunchbox.
I looked in places likely and unlikely, noticing in passing the layers of dust on top of the fridge and the mess in Ben's desk drawers.

In the background I could hear the anguished cries: "I'm not going to school without stickers on my lunchbox! I'm not putting any other stickers besides Pokemon ones on there!" (the irresistable force meets the immovable object).

And I prayed "God, please help me to find them! I know Ben needs to learn to cope with disappointment, I know it's not important, but it's important to Ben, and I want his first day back at school to be a happy one."

In desperation, I eventually opened a small packet of what I thought were Pokemon tattoos in his drawer, only to discover that they were stickers. Problem solved, lunchbox decorated, one happy child off to school.

And this morning I unzipped the pocket on Ben's Pokemon backpack (an obvious place I failed to look yesterday) to discover the stickers I had been praying to find - but they were actually tattoos.

God knew what I was looking for, even if I didn't know myself.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

the faith that comes from obedience

I have a beautiful thing, a mug with an oddly curved handle. It is the perfect size, the perfect weight, the perfect shape for my morning coffee. It is patterned with a delicately stylised tracery of leaves and flowers.

It has a chip on its rim.

Six months ago I would have noticed the sharpness against my lips and been irritated. Not just by the jarring sensation of roughness where I expected smoothness, but also by the fact that my perfect mug's perfection was now blemished. I would have made a mental note to go and buy another perfect mug to replace the damaged one.

But today I noticed the chip and, instead of being an imperfection, it became a symbol of value. An indication that I have treasured this lovely object, that it has been used many times and bears the signs of cherished age, that it is more beautiful for having been loved.

And I realised how insidiously our disposable culture - where a damaged object can be instantly and cheaply replaced with a quick trip to the shops, rather than mended and used again and again - teaches us to value that which is new, young and perfect over that which is old, worn and restored. A devaluing of the aged which is subtly transferred to people as well as objects.

I also noticed the changes that the practice of self-control has wrought in me. How something as simple as not buying new things for half a year has transformed the way I see the world. How an object which was once worthless and only fit for throwing out has become something to treasure. How what was once a difficult struggle for obedience has become a joyful freedom.

Obedience not only comes from faith, it also reinforces faith. Enacted truth, it helps us see God's truth more clearly. It creates a subtle shift in perspective. It remakes the world in new and startling ways. We begin to see the world as God sees it.

Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8:31-32

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

dumplings tonight

Is is just me, or does everyone get excited by the way dumplings expand to more than twice their original size when you cook them? It's like getting something for nothing.

Two minutes to mix, three minutes in the microwave, and there they are, soft, puffy and delicious.

We're eating dumplings tonight, courtesy of Alison Holst's The Best of Home Cooking, a fantastic book which I bought second hand on AbeBooks from a bookstore in country Victoria, so close to my mother-in-law's house that she drove over to pick it up for me (ah, the joy of the internet, where you can source books all over the world, only to find them surprisingly close to hand).

Alison Holst is deservedly famous in her native New Zealand. She favours traditional home-style family food while catering for modern tastes, is completely non-intimidating (is anyone else terrified by those soft-focus photographs in trendy cookbooks?), and her recipes are easy, adaptable and wonderful. I use her cookbooks more than any of the others on my shelf.

And the dumplings? They were delicious.

Here is the recipe (unlike most of her books, this one's out of print, so it should be ok to reproduce the recipe here). You can use gluten free self-raising flour - my husband's a coeliac, so we usually make it this way.
1/2 cup self-raising flour
pinch of celery salt and garlic salt (I use salt)
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
other herbs to taste (optional)
1/4 cup milk

Combine ingredients in order given, stirring just enough to dampen flour. Pour 1/2 cup hot water in a 23 cm flat-bottomed dish. Drop mixture into water in about 12 small amounts, using two teaspoons. Cover. Cook at Full power for 3 minutes, or until firm. Sprinkle with paprika if desired. Add to individual bowls of cooked soup.
You can add the dumplings to stew as well as soup. And if you like your dumplings crunchy, put them (uncooked) on top of stew (cooked or nearly cooked) and bake it uncovered in a 180°C oven for 20 minutes.

Monday, January 28, 2008

dieting and gluttony (1)

1. Of or relating to a food regimen designed to promote weight loss in a person or an animal: the diet industry

I have put myself on a diet.

Which is an embarrassing admission, since I am deeply suspicious of diets (and the diet industry, inextricably and somewhat disturbingly linked in the definition above). I've always thought that diets often promote idolatry (an unhealthy obsession with food) and vanity (an ungodly preoccupation with outer beauty) rather than godliness.

Although this is less a diet (a short-term and generally unsuccessful solution to weight gain) and I won't be following any fancy weight-loss plans (ditto, although such plans have their place, and I can count points as well as the next girl).

I'm simply eating less, and less unhealthily, in an attempt to develop a new long-term relationship with food i.e. one where I can stop after 1 piece of chocolate, where I don't eat whenever I feel bored or depressed, and (let's be honest) where I can fit into the jeans of yesteryear (and not that many years ago, either).

Self-control has never been my strong suit, but I have learned, during my continuing battle with over-spending, that it only (only!) takes 6 months to develop a (hopefully lasting) habit of self-control, with God's help. New attitude to food, here I come! One week down, only 5 3/4 months to go.

I would love to say that I am motivated by godliness (choosing to depend on God rather than food for comfort) or love (so that I might have more energy for my husband and children) or even by health (and yes, I do find scary articles about the risk of diabetes highly motivating) but let's be honest, it really comes down to comfort (oh, to be without that sagging spare tyre which is the inevitable product of 4 children) and vanity (ditto).

The reason I tell you this is not to embarrass myself in public (although I find I am doing this quite successfully) or to share my secrets of weight-loss with you, or to invite you to accompany me on my "journey to a healthier you". There will be no before- or after-photos, no handy hints, no "9 steps to slimness".

I am writing about this because I think dieting is a major issue for our society, and for Christians today. Epicureanism, dieting, and gluttony are all common forms of food-idolatry in our society. We are confused about the Bible's teaching on food, and we have forgotten the Christian wisdom of the past.

But what does the Bible teach about food? What should our attitude to food - and dieting - be? Why are there so many weight-loss books on the shelves of Christian bookshops? Does God really want my body, his "temple", to be skinnier as well as more godly? What is gluttony, and is it really one of the seven deadly sins? Is "moderation" godly? And is the Bible's call to "self-control" a call to diet?

Stay tuned, because I'm incapable of going on a diet without doing a lot of reading and thinking about what the Bible has to say.

You can follow the thread on dieting here.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

ants on my pants

It's been an ants on the pants kind of week.

It was the last week of the school holidays, and I wanted to get ready for the year (weekly plan, budget plan, exercise plan, prayer plan, chores plan, menu plan) and spend some meaningful time with the kids (playing with lego, walking to the park, visiting the library).

But I've been sick most of the week, with one of those viruses that makes you achy, feverish, sore, irritable and exhausted. So I've been doing a lot of lying around and thinking about getting stuff done. I dragged myself through the household chores, completed 2 out of 6 plans, and listlessly built some lego with the kids, but that's about it.

I was going to take the kids to Eltham Park yesterday, an idyllic park with huge old trees, grassy hills perfect for running down, an over-flowing library, and a coffee shop with a view of trains running over an old wooden bridge. It was a glorious morning, with clear blue skies, warm sun, and a cool breeze, just right for a promised trip to the park.

But I felt too ill to walk up hills with 4 energetic children in tow. Instead I sat on the steps to our front porch while the older children played, Andrew (1) pressed against my leg. A brief excursion outside to feel the breeze on my skin, breathe fresh air into my lungs, and watch the neighbour's shrubs trace patterns against the sky.

Until I noticed that Andrew and I were sitting on a trail of ants and they were crawling all over our pants and his beloved yellow blanky.

Modern psychology at this point would tell me to replace negative, catastrophic, glass-half-empty thinking ("I always get sick! We never make it to the park! Something always goes wrong!") with realistic, resilient, glass-half-full thinking ("Sometimes I get sick, but usually I'm well. We can go to the park another day. Yes, I have ants on my pants, but I can move to another step and still enjoy the morning.") Which is helpful as far as it goes, and I did exactly that.

The Bible, on the other hand, would remind me to replace grumbling thoughts with thankful ones (1 Cor. 10:10; 1 Thess. 5:6-18).

So I also thanked God for the sun, for good health, for a giggling baby copying my every move, for the cool breeze, for a week with my children, and even for the ants. For my heavenly Father who "in all things ... works for the good of those who love him", the greater good of making me not necessarily more comfortable, but more like Christ (Rom. 8:28). A Father who counts the hairs on my head, notices the fall of every bird, keeps my body in sickness and health, and guides the path of every tiny ant.

Even ants on the pants can remind us to be thankful.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bible reading ideas for mums and other busy people

Today we continue the theme of Bible reading ideas for mums, or for anyone else who's busy and distracted.

Here are some approaches my fellow mums have tried and found helpful:

- my own personal favourite, as you know if you read yesterday's post, is The Daily Reading Bible, also found in the "Bible Brief" at the back of The Briefing. These studies are deliberately kept short so they can be done easily during a busy life. They are theologically insightful and question based, encouraging you to read the Bible closely. The readings are mercifully free from guilt-producing dates which leave you reading July 3rd's reading on December 22nd.

- update (18 months later!) I have a new favourite - Explore Bible notes by The Good Book Co (see sample) which work through the Bible systematically over a 5 year period using 28 undated readings per month. These follow a fairly traditional format for subscription Bible notes with a passage to read, some comments on the text, and a few questions. The theology is generally excellent, the comments are readable and encouraging, and it's really helpful to have questions for reflection (not all Bible study notes have these). This is a great way to read the Bible in small, manageable bites that still get you thinking.

- from memory (I did it long ago) Search the Scriptures was a similarly helpful guide, with an introduction to each book, and 2 or 3 questions (with notes) on each passage. This gets you through the Bible in 3 years, so it's not too ambitious for busy mums. It uses a similar format to The Daily Reading Bible, but covers the whole Bible systematically, although the questions are quite complex, and the language formal and old-fashioned.

- the "highlight the box" method. One of my stationary loving friends uses this approach. She prints out every chapter of the Bible in order in a table (she uses a funky font, being that kind of gal). When you read a chapter, you get to colour in the box. This works best if you have just bought a new pack of good-quality coloured pens and want to use them - an excellent use of money if it motivates you to read the Bible! She has successfully used this method off and on through many years of child-rearing, and since she's one of the more consistent Bible reading mums I know, it obviously works well.

- you can combine this with reading introductions to each book before you study them e.g. Fee and Stewart's How to read the Bible book by book (I haven't read this one) or William Dumbrell's The faith of Israel (I read it, I loved it).

- study a book of the Bible as you would when preparing a Bible study, perhaps a chapter a week (e.g. read it once through quickly, once to divide up the passage, once to work out major themes, once for application, and once with a commentary). A very energetic older mum told me she has done this for many years. But her children have grown up, so maybe she's forgetting how hard it is to do this when you have young children, or maybe she's just got more energy than me (well, that's true, she does). I find this intimidating, but inspiring.

- use the 3-year Bible reading plan from La Haye's How to study the Bible for youself. This will get you through the Bible 3 times in 3 years at the rate of about 4 chapters a day, so it's not for the faint-hearted, and probably not for most mums, unless you're unusually dedicated! But it's a great way for new Christians to get to know the Bible (the first year focusses on the gospels and epistles, the second on wisdom literature and epistles, and the third covers the whole Bible) and it has introduced more than one person I know to the habit of reading the Bible daily.

- and while we're on the subject of 4 chapters a day, there's the well-known M'Cheyne Bible reading schedule . This will get you through the New Testament and the Psalms twice, and the rest of the Bible once in a year. M'Cheyne believed you should read chapters from different parts of the Bible each day, in order to link various passages in your mind, and to carry you through some of the harder-to-read bits of the Bible. Like LaHaye, it's probably too ambitious for most mums. If you successfully complete it, I am truly impressed!

- alternate Bible reading plans (including lots of printables with boxes to tick!) include Tim Chester's Edge Network Bible Reading Plan, 10 ESV Bible Reading Plans including the ESV Study Bible Daily Reading Plan, the Daily Reading Bible, The Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan, and the Book-at-a-Time Bible Reading Plan (there's a helpful introduction to these plans at Justin Taylor's Bible reading plans)

- Don Carson's For the Love of God is based on the M'Cheyne readings, accompanied each day with a thoughtful discussion of 1 of the chapters. I'm a great fan of Carson - one of our sons is burdened with Carson as a middle name - but I became a little frustrated that he only comments on 1 chapter of the 4, and not necessarily the one I was most curious about. Did I read this as a mum? I can't remember, but I doubt it. If so, I did pretty well, didn't I?!

- I was encouraged by Barbara Hughes' Devotions for ministry wives during a time last year when I lost energy for close Bible reading.

- pick a book, read a chapter, find something which strikes you as inspiring, write it in a journal. (LaHaye encourages you to find a promise, a command, and a "timeless principle" in each chapter.) While this has the benefit of being achievable, it's not very thorough, easily leads to taking verses out of context, and encourages a focus on your own hobby horses. You wouldn't want to do it without a good grasp of the Bible from more careful inductive study. Still, it has worked well for me at times.

- memorise, memorise, memorise! Now here's a forgotten spiritual discipline that is incredibly suitable for mums. Learn individual verses using a topical memory system, verses related to particular struggles (e.g. over-spending, worry, envy - God's Spirit still brings verses to mind I learned 10 years ago), or whole passages and books (I find this easiest, oddly enough). Between children I printed out Philippians and Ephesians, folded them small, and took them with me on walks, where I could be seen muttering to myself like a demented woman while I plodded along and peeked at them occasionally. Can't say I remember them word-for-word, but they inspire many meditations and prayers when I'm finding regular Bible reading difficult.

- and make sure you don't forget creative ideas like these suggestions from a mum, which fit well into a busy life: listen to sermons on CD or iPod, use visual aids like maps, read alongside a sermon series at church, or listen to Sons of Korah CDs while reading the Psalms.

- no doubt there are many other great Bible study resources out there, please add your own ideas to the comments! I just came across these free downloadable NavPress Bible studies and Bible reading plans which I've only glanced at briefly, but which look promising. There are 3 reading plans to suit different understandings and energy levels, and boxes to colour in. Get out those coloured pens!

I feel so inspired by all these different ideas that I might try some of them myself.

This blog is dedicated to my Bible reading fellow mums, especially my friend who wrote a study on this topic years ago, which I have borrowed from liberally. You know who you are.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

quiet, please! mum reading Bible.

I'm reading Zechariah at the moment, and I'm enjoying it so much that I don't have to force myself to do it each morning.

This astonishes me, because I don't remember reading the Bible with such pleasure for some time now. It's been a real struggle to read the Bible regularly since Lizzy, the first of my 4 children, was born 9 years ago.

Perhaps my brain is returning after 4 children. Perhaps my attitude has changed, since Andrew is probably our last child, God willing (there's something about not steeling yourself to face yet another pregnancy which frees the mind). Perhaps returning to ministry, even of the on-line variety, had inspired me to keep feeding myself from God's word. For whatever reason, I find myself actually looking forward to opening the Bible each morning.

In my limited experience this is unusual for a mother of young children. One of the unique challenges of being pregnant or breastfeeding is that your brain turns to mush. I don't know the scientific basis for this, but I have witnessed it many times. Women who graduated from difficult and demanding university degrees suddenly find they can no longer sit through a sermon or read a chapter of the Bible without their minds drifting.

And it's incredibly difficult to concentrate on the Bible while 1 to 4 children climb on you, or cry from a cot, and loudly demand your attention. I managed it with 2 relatively quiet, compliant children (other mothers were always amazed) but with 3 and 4 turning out to be more strong-willed and attention-seeking (i.e. normal) calm Bible reading over morning coffee is now a thing of the past.

Add to that the effects of sleep deprivation, and the minute amount of time and energy left after meeting the demands of small children all day, and it's not surprising that Bible reading is often put on the back burner of a mother's life.

So it was no great surprise to me when my attempts to regularly read the Bible petered out last year.

I was reading Zechariah using volume 7 of The Daily Reading Bible. This is the only aid to reading the Bible (along with its forerunner, the "Bible Brief" in the back of The Briefing) which has worked well for me long-term as a mum (other mums use other methods, I will share them with you some time).

Brief yet theologically astute, each reading includes an excerpt from the Bible, with 3 questions to answer, a point for pondering, prayer ideas, and useful pointers. Just about as much as my limited time, energy levels and concentration span allow for.

But last year my breast-feeding addled brain was becoming increasingly bogged down in the complications of Zechariah, when it was completely stymied one day by the mental gymnastics required by Reading 26 on Zechariah 4.

The reading required me to "draw Zechariah's vision" and answer the (for me) unanswerable question, "Does the lampstand represent Zerubbabel, the temple, God, or the community of God's people with God in their midst? (Hint: Who or what requires sustaining from outside itself? See also Revelation 1:20." So confused was I by the hint, that I tentatively wrote"God??" (well, God doesn't need sustaining, does he?) knowing this had to be wrong, and put down the notes in despair.

I dabbled in various unsatisfying devotional books and occasional random Bible reading during the intervening months. But a week ago I picked up the notes on Zechariah, and found that suddenly the question made sense. Of course! Option 3! "The community of God's people with God in their midst!" (Hopefully I am right about this, or I am really making an idiot of myself in print, not that this is a new experience.)

It should be noted that I stopped breast-feeding somewhere between my two attempts to unpack the mysteries of Zechariah 4, which says something about the effect of breast-feeding on my mental processes.

I have now enthusiastically returned to the challenging study of Zechariah. This morning I was encouraged to read these words:

On that day the LORD their God will save them,
as the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
they shall shine on his land.
For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty!
(Zech. 9:16-17a)

How wonderful to have my eyes taken off my small concerns, and to be reminded of God's certain and glorious salvation!

Friday, January 18, 2008

watery blessings

This evening I found myself washing our dishes by hand, as the first hint of a cool change breathed its way into the kitchen.

Our dishwasher sprang a leak this morning, flooding the kitchen floor with sepia tinted water.

So tonight I was standing at the kitchen sink, wrist-deep in hot, soapy water, meditating on the tactile pleasure of sloshing dishes to and fro through the bubbles, a childlike joy not often felt in these days of dishwashers.

Well, I was meditating on the simple pleasure of washing dishes. But after filling the sink a third time for yet more dishes (sorry drought) and drying the fourth dish rack full of wet dishes with a damp tea towel (6 people can produce a lot of dirty dishes in 2 days) the simple pleasure of owning a dishwasher became more apparent.

But who am I to complain, for playing with a sink full of dishes is the only form of water play left to us. My children won't grow up with memories of leaping squealing through needle-sharp spray from a sprinkler and landing in lush green grass, splashing their feet in a kiddie pool filling slowly from a garden hose, and running screaming in mock panic from a water pistol. Their outdoor summer memories will involve prickly yellow grass, dying plants, and over-heated concrete.

For water is no longer to be played with (except in the bath) and is now limited to the necessities of life (or at least what we consider to be life's bare necessities): clean dishes, clean clothes and clean bodies. Also life's real necessities: the provision of food and drink.

Of course, we can still water our gardens using a (remarkably ineffective) dripper system, but who remembers to water their garden between the hours of 6 and 8 am every Tuesday and Saturday? Not me. But perhaps I'm lacking in commitment.

Indeed, so limited has water become that dead pot plants are now a badge of honour. We have 2 large, dead pot plants standing proudly in front of our house, proclaiming to any interested persons that no, we don't water our garden on non-watering days, in fact, we no longer water it much at all really.

But how privileged I am, in the midst of a drought, to be able to shrivel my hands in sink after sink full of hot, soapy water, flood the kitchen floor, and use the dishwasher to my heart's content (once it's fixed, anyway, and only when full, of course).

So with the cool change sweeping into the house on a welcome wind, and the sweet smell of rain on dusty ground drifting through open windows, I find myself grateful for watery blessings: soapy water, dishwashers, and summer rain.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

the results are in!

It's the moment you've all been waiting for (or at least, you would have been, if you had any idea I was subjecting my husband to this) ... the results of Steve's personality test!

These results have only been gained with great difficulty on my part, since Steve has absolutely no interest in analysing his personality. I printed out this questionaire, but could only ask him the questions when:
a) he couldn't get away from me (i.e. when we were shut in the car together);
b) he could hear me over the car stereo (Steve is introducing our kids to the delights of music from the 60's, 70's and 80's, from the Beatles through Abba to U2. Ever heard a 4-year old sing "Ah wanna wock an' woll all nigh' "? It's very distracting.);
c) he was willing to answer "just a few questions" (i.e. a page or two of unswerables such as "The process of searching for a solution is more important to you than the solution itself" - answer "no", we think).

It only took me 3 months to gather this information.

Well, it turns out that Steve is a borderline INTJ / ISTJ, using the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator. But it is the INTJ characteristics which so amusingly sum him up.

For INTJs apparently:

- project an aura of "definiteness" and self-confidence - occasionally mistaken for arrogance (surely not!) by us mere mortals;

- have a witty and irreverent sense of humour, and can occasionally be seen to clown around;

- are non-conformists, even if they observe social norms for their own or others' sake ("But the invitation doesn't say I have to wear a suit!");

- choose jobs combining intellect and incisiveness (student work, anyone?);

- are not easily taken in by buzzwords or slogans ("Why would anyone want to eat a hamburger just because they see it in an ad?");

- (now this one's bizarre) tend to be guarded in their facial expressions, but when they become animated, use characteristic hand movements (Steve's gestures while giving a talk have led to many amusing parodies on the part of his trainees - and not a few unconscious imitations);

- have a strong need for privacy (it would take a pick-lock or a crowbar to break into Steve's home office while he is working);

- are deeply committed in relationships, but see rituals and ceremonies (like weddings) as a waste of time (it's amazing what you will go through for the sake of your wife-to-be, although our wedding photos do reveal a certain subtle resistance - bleached hair, anyone?);

- have the same personality type as C.S.Lewis, Gandalf the Grey, Mr. Darcy (now there's a triumvirate to be proud of) Jane Austen (yeah!) and Hannibal Lecter (oops!). Oh, and Dr. House (I added that one for fans of House).

Interestingly, the NT's best match is an NF (which, like astrological matchmaking, should be taken with a large grain of salt unless, like me, you're an NF a married to an NT).

The NT's calm steadiness complements the NF's emotional warmth (for which read: cold fish need warming up, and volatile ditherers need grounding). And they both enjoy abstract discussions and playing around with language (for which read: no-one else is going to have patience with all that obscure conversation).

And if the NTs love of chasing down fine logical distinctions in an argument can wear out the NF's patience (particularly when the argument gets heated), and the NT's lack of emotional expression occasionally rubs the NF's emotional expressiveness up the wrong way (and vice versa, no doubt) - well, no relationship's perfect.

Still, NTs make "wonderful mates", being loyal, uncomplaining, warm and honest. And both types are uncommon and only rarely find each other. Which makes me all the more grateful for God's sovereign care - and sense of humour.

What other human being would have married Steve or me and enjoyed it?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

the perfect gift of right now

The following was written by a very wise man, reflecting on what God taught him through a time of excruciating grief and loss.

What he wrote inspired me to stop complaining about my circumstances, to stop regretting the aspirations and ministries I have no time for because of my current responsibilities, and to trust God to give me exactly the circumstances I need to grow and glorify him at every moment : the perfect gift of right now.
[W]e love God most and serve God best by doing the thing he asks of us rather than constantly wishing we could do something else instead. ...

When we find ourselves in circumstances we don't like, we need to ask what God may be wanting to give us through those circumstances. Sometimes we are so busy resenting our circumstances, we are incapable of paying attention to God's lessons through them. Yet presumably God is seeking to give himself to us all the time, and our circumstances are one of the vehicles of his self-giving. ...

Sometimes we spend so long looking at the things we can't do, we fail to do the thing that we could - the task that lies to hand. ...

The great lesson that I am constantly having to learn is that my circumstances, far from being the enemy of my soul, are its friend, its teacher. They set the agenda, mark out the course, underline the lessons I most need to learn, and persist in dragging me back to those lessons when I want to wander off into something more appealing but less beneficial. This is not a cruelty to me, but God's kindness. He has eternity in mind, whereas we are so short-sighted. He knows what it takes to make each of us like Jesus - to make us rich in our character and fruitful in his service. ...

And so I want to say to you that there are no perfect circumstances in which to learn to follow Christ except those you are in today. That is why he has you there. I do not want to speak lightly of the difficulties some of you may be facing; I acknowledge that you may be living with desperately painful circumstances. Believe me, I know what tears are; I have shed buckets-full. But Jesus will meet you in your circumstances and make you the person a loving heavenly Father wants you to be - for his glory and for your good. ...

I close with a line from John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote, "The cross, if rightly borne, shall be no burden, but support to thee".

Eddie Larkan, "The perfect gift of right now", The Briefing issue 351, Dec 2007, pp.16-18.

The emphasis is mine: I hope this sentence stays in my head and heart for a long time.

Friday, January 11, 2008

resolved: to grow

I have no great faith in New Year's resolutions. I have seen too many resolutions confidently set sail, only to founder on the shoals of my inertia and intractability.

But I just can't resist the start of a new year, like a pristine white page waiting to be written on (or, so as not to mix metaphors, an empty sea waiting for ships to sail ... oh, forget it).

So the turn of each year finds me walking along the beach at Apollo Bay, not making pointless commitments to diet and exercise, but practising what the Puritans called "self-examination": prayerfully reflecting on my life during the last year, asking God to show me key areas of (un)godliness he wants to work on, and committing myself, with God's help, to grow in these qualities in the year ahead.

This year I resolved:

1. to grow in self-control, especially to exercise godly moderation in eating, spending and computer use.

    Recently, I've been doing a lot of research on the meaning of self-control, the final fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I concluded that it means to control our passions, not as an end in itself (as if intense pleasure or feasting are bad, and moderation and self-denial good in themselves) but in the service of love and godliness. (One of these days I'll get around to writing that blog on dieting, and explain my reasoning.)

    So we might eat less because it reduces our irritability and laziness, and helps us to serve God more energetically (a far more important goal even than health - see 1 Tim 4:8); spend less so we can be more generous towards others; and use the computer less so we can spend more time loving our family.
2. to grow in my commitment to spiritual disciplines such as regular (notice I don't say daily) prayer and Bible reading.

    Now there's a resolution I make every year! I was motivated this time by something I read in Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Spiritual Depression, where he explains that one of the most common causes of spiritual discouragement is simply lack of discipline: distracted by all our modern entertainment options, we put in some screen time or read a newspaper instead of praying or reading the Bible.

    It's time for me to sit down and figure out exactly what form prayer and Bible reading are going to take this year, in the midst of a busy life filled with the demands of children: a useful annual exercise.
The key word in both these resolutions is "grow". Oddly enough, I've never much liked talking about "learning", "improving" and "growing. Perfectionist that I am, I'd rather have it all learnt, improved and grown already. But that is exactly what God wants to see in my life: growth.

So I am praying to "grow" in self-control and discipline - not to perfect them, not to make bold resolutions which invite failure, not to adopt amazing new programs which promise success and inevitably fail to deliver - simply to grow, with God's help.

May God help all of us to grow in grace and godliness this year. Amen.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

dazed state of the sunburnt mind

If my brain seems to have gone on holidays, and I am posting blogs of no significance whatsoever, it's because I'm in that dazed holiday state where nothing much seems to matter, and real life feels a long way off.

I hope this finds your brain in a similar state of extreme relaxation, that is if you're also on holidays, not if you are a working person caring for critically ill patients or rescuing victims from life-threatening situations (in which case, thank you, it's a good thing someone is keeping civilization going. May your own holidays be extra blessed, whenever they may be.)

As for me, I am feeling refreshed and invigorated (and slightly more aged and wrinkled, thanks to the sun) after holidaying in Apollo Bay for 10 days after Christmas. We stayed with my parents and my brother's family in a huge, noisy 2-story white house overlooking the sea. The holiday was paid for my my generous parents - thank you parents!

Steve had 7 days all on his own, his idea of the perfect holiday being to escape from a people-intensive job and a large family and live in front of the computer/television for a week (don't worry, my time for solitude will come).

He joined us in Apollo Beach for the last few days, promptly got badly sunburnt ("I couldn't reach my back! I thought you'd brought the sunburn cream to the beach!") and had to sit around stiffly watching the cricket during our final day (no doubt a great hardship).

My head is echoing with those moments, good and bad, so crucial to a beach holiday:

    The endless putting on of bathers, plastering on of sunburn cream, and packing of towels, hats, buckets, spades, and boogie boards as the kids and I prepare for yet another morning at the beach.

    The uncomfortably damp, sandy return home in the hot car, followed by the ritual washing of sandy feet under the garden tap, rinsing off small sandy backs and bottoms under the shower, and hanging countless damp towels and bathers on the line.

    Our rainbow-striped kite snapping its sides and flicking its tail high against the dazzling sky, confidently riding a steady ocean wind far above the pummelling gusts below, the thin nylon string tugging at my fingers and rough grass prickling my feet as I gaze meditatively upwards.

    Catching my breath at the beauty of the ocean in the evening light, foaming waves touched to phosphorescence tumbling towards the shore and crashing against the rocks, sending dotted plumes of white spray improbably high into the air.

    Enjoying the exhilarating rush that even a child's boogie board on a small wave can provide, and the long ride through turquoise water churning to brown as I reach the shallows.
Of course, being on planet earth, not yet in heaven, there were also more painful moments: digging a huge splinter from the rough veranda out of a 4-year old's foot while he tried desperately to be brave; smearing aloe vera ointment into reddened skin after a 9-year old's first encounter with sunburn; and trying to rest, after a disturbed night cuddling an unsettled baby, in a noisy house where the wooden floors overhead magnified every step into a shuddering bang.

But isn't the world wonderful? And hasn't God made it gloriously? What I am left with (besides more freckles and an advanced state of relaxation) is an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the God whose final act of creation was that wonderful gift: rest.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

our mugwump

My husband takes great delight in the similarity between his personality and that of his second son, 4 year old Thomas.

"A strong-willed child grows up to be able to stand for something" - at least, that's what Steve says, and he should know. Personally, I think God is showing Steve what he put his own parents through (much to Steve's amusement).

Thomas has two family nicknames: "mugwump" (for the spectacular tantrums he throws when his will is thwarted) and "stubborn old goat" (since we have never seen anyone except Steve - oh, and my father and brother, now I come to think of it, so I guess it runs in the family - so willing to stick to a position even when it no longer suits him to do so).

And before you complain that we should never negatively label children lest they live up to our expectations, let me assure you that these nicknames are spoken with great affection. My own childhood nickname was "GP" or "Great Procrastinator", and I'm aware of no deep emotional scars or lasting effects on my character. All part of the joy and fun of family, at least when nicknames are fondly spoken and well received.

Well, like many men, Thomas hates new clothes. When I dressed him in a pair of pyjamas he had never seen before this evening, he said "I don't like that picture" (a perfectly innocent depiction of a boy wearing a snorkel) and refused to put it on. From bitter experience, I knew that he would refuse the pyjamas on all future occasions if I didn't get them on him tonight.

I have found that the most effective way of dealing with a recalcitrant Thomas is to count "1 - 2 - 3" until imposing a threatened punishment. (I have counted to 3 about 1,000 times more often with Thomas than with either of my older, more compliant children. I do not exaggerate.)

As I got to "2", Thomas said "You do it, you do it!", since this represented a smaller loss of face than giving in and doing it himself. I helped him to put on the pyjama top (oh, what a flexible mother am I!) Battle won: 1 point to me.

Five minutes later I noticed that he had gone to his room, and switched his top around, so that the offending picture was now on his back rather than his front, and he no longer had to look at it. Battle drawn: 1 point each.

A creative solution which led to satisfaction on his part and giggles on mine.

Monday, January 7, 2008

ah, summer

I hate hot weather.

In the middle of the hottest Melbourne summer on record, I dread what summer will be like in years to come if they're right about global warming. I think I might move to the UK, where the grey, misty climate perfectly suits my skin (Celtic pale with freckles) and soul (a lifetime of English children's literature).

I am engaged in an ongoing debate with my 9 year old daughter about which is better, hot or cold weather. She goes online every morning to check the weather report. A predicted maxiumum of 18°C plunges her into despair and morning grumpiness. But predictions of 30°C or even 40°C cause her to exclaim with delight (and plunge me into despair and grumpiness, I admit it).

So now we've sweated through a 42 degree day in a holiday house with no air conditioning, what does Lizzy say?

I don't like really hot weather, but I do like the way it feels, tastes and smells.

I like the taste of icypoles and icecreams, and that I'm allowed to eat them when it's hot.

I like the feel of sand and water on my skin.

I like the smell of sunburn cream.

I just don't like the flies.
She almost makes me love hot weather myself.