Tuesday, November 29, 2011

loving people at our school

This is the second of three posts about sharing Jesus with people in your local community; it follows on from praying for our school.

Our local primary school is marvellously multicultural. During the years they've been there, our kids have become best friends with Sikhs from the Punjab, Muslims from Pakistan, and Catholics from Serbia, as well as some fair-dinkum Aussie pagans. At last count, the kids at school trace their recent ancestry to more than 50 countries. In a place like this, mission knocks on your door and asks itself in.

It's not always easy to open that door. The school ground can be a daunting place, even for adults. There are tight groups gathered around picnic tables, chattering clusters and quiet loners, and people from backgrounds very different to your own. Around the edge are women from other cultures, wearing a hijab or salwar kameez: no-one, it seems, wants to talk to someone who looks a little different.

No doubt, to some, this sounds like a wealth of opportunities! To me, it felt scary and overwhelming at first; but I've learned to feel at home here, and I'm learning to love the people around me. I know you can't reduce relationships to a set of principles; but here are some things I've learned along the way.

  • Be friendly to everyone, but focus on a few
    It's important to be friendly to everyone, but it also helps to focus on a few. At the moment there are five women I've made a commitment to pray for and get to know better: women with whom I have strong natural connections or a growing friendship.1 Focusing on a few relationships keeps me from growing lazy; it may help you not to spread yourself too thin.

  • See below the surface
    As I talk with people, I start to see past the differences. I meet women looking for work now their kids are all at school, women hiding a little extra weight under loose garments, women rediscovering their 'faith' - whatever that faith might be. The similarities are a bridge between us; the differences, instead of being obstacles, become opportunities to find out what's important to them and to share what's important to me.

  • Do less to do more
    This year has been my most exciting yet when it comes to getting to know people and chatting about Jesus. I think that's because my husband had long-service leave, so I cut lots of other things out of my life - good things like leading a weekly Bible study and teaching Sunday School. I'll do these things again, because they matter! But it's shown me that sometimes you have to say 'no' to good things in the church so you have time for relationships out of it.

  • Friendship takes time
    I think I expect gospel conversations to come quickly; if they don't, I assume I've failed. I'm learning that relationships take time, at least for me! No doubt some are great at having 'meaningful' conversations early on; but while I let people know I'm a Christian from the start, it takes time for me to feel comfortable in relationships. Opportunities to talk about what people believe often come to me later. Which leads to my next point...

  • Work with your strengths
    God has put me in my friends' lives because I'm the one he wants there. I'm not an extrovert who can handle 30 friendships, but I'm good at slowly building relationships; my outgoing friend is great with those who are confident but not so good with those who are quiet. The women we spend time with are very different - and that's a good thing. She's taught me to think about my interests and strengths and to build on them.

  • Ask people into your home and go into theirs
    When someone invites me in for a cuppa, it’s easy to give them the Aussie cold-shoulder: "Sorry, but I'm too busy." I now allow time so that when people ask me in, I can say "Yes!". Having people over for meals (the pot-luck kind); asking people in when they drop their kids off (remembering a little mess can make them feel comfortable); spending time together in a neutral spot like a park or coffee shop: these are all great ways to grow relationships.

  • Love people and receive their love
    Have you ever taken a meal to someone outside your church? You might feel awkward, but I've discovered people appreciate knowing someone is there for them. I'm often clueless about caring for people - my friend and I laugh about how I offered to look after her kids the first time we met - but thankfully, she liked me rather than wondering if I had evil designs on her children! We've become close friends, and we care for each other in many ways: it's easier to receive someone else's love when they receive yours.

  • Get involved in a local community
    It's not hard for me to meet people, with kids in the local school (that's one reason we sent them there); but what if you don't have much contact with people outside the church? Maybe you could join a sports, craft or book club, do some volunteering (my mum helps a slow learner at the local school), ask your neighbours over for a meal, or just hang out in your front yard. There are people all around us; maybe it's time to start loving them, so that one day we can share the greatest love of all.

  • Love is costly
    None of us always finds it easy to involve people in our lives. It's easier to spend time with those who think like we do; to treat our homes as our refuge and our time as our own. But love is costly. We may need to set aside regular times to spend with people, and make deliberate plans to include them in our lives. If we find this hard, we may have to say to ourselves, "It doesn't matter how you feel. Just get on with it and obey." So often, we'll be glad we did.

These are real relationships, and these are real people: people I'm growing to love. But how can I say I love them unless I'm willing to share the best thing I know with them? I have to grow relationships, but also be willing to risk them; to love people, but to accept that they may reject me. This comes at a cost, but it's full of joy, too: the joy of knowing I'm not ashamed of Jesus, of watching women I love come one step closer to knowing the gospel, of seeing God at work in their lives.

1. How do you choose who to focus on? My friend has chosen some women she "clicks" with and some who are lonely. Another friend, experienced in suffering, is drawn to the broken. One woman I know excels in loving people who are socially awkward. I encourage you to pray, then wait and see who God brings your way.

This post first appeared yesterday at The Briefing.

image is by Adam Jones, Ph.D. at flickr

Monday, November 28, 2011

what I'm reading: congee for the grieving from Emily Post and Joan Didion

If you're not sure how to help someone who's grieving, Joan Didion directs you to the practical wisdom of an earlier time: the chapter on funerals in Emily Post's 1922 Book of Etiquette (which you can read for free on line here). She writes,

The tone, one of unfailing specificity, never flags. The emphasis remains on the practical. The bereaved must be urged to "sit in a sunny room", preferably one with an open fire. Food, but "very little food", may be offered on a tray: tea, coffee, bouillon, a little thin toast, a poached egg. Milk, but only heated milk: "Cold milk is bad for someone who is already overchilled." As for further nourishment, "The cook may suggest something that appeals usually to their taste—but very little should be offered at a time, for although the stomach may be empty, the palate rejects the thought of food, and digestion is never in best order."...

A friend should be left in charge of the house during the funeral. The friend should see that the house is aired and displaced furniture put back where it belongs and a fire lit for the homecoming of the family. "It is also well to prepare a little hot tea or broth," Mrs. Post advised, "and it should be brought them upon their return without their being asked if they would care for it. Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it, and something warm to start digestion and stimulate impaired circulation is what they most need."

There is something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here, the instinctive understanding of the physiological disruptions...As I read it, I remember how cold I had been in New York Hospital on the night John died...Mrs. Post would have understood that. She wrote in a world where mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view...

In the end Emily Post's 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read. I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat.
Joan Didion The Year of Magical Thinking 59-60

image is by rickyqi at flickr

Saturday, November 26, 2011

another volcano cake that almost worked

For some reason, it's been a year for volcano cakes in our house. Here's another volcano cake we made that almost worked - and it would have worked perfectly if I read the recipe more carefully! :) It was very easy, and the yummiest birthday cake we've ever made, by a lo-o-o-ong way. This one was for Ben's 11th birthday, and Lizzy helped me make it.

You start with a round chocolate cake (ours is a double gluten free cake from a packet)and 4 litres of ice cream softened a little (about 10 minutes) then shoved into a metal mould - this shape is great if you can get it. Put it in the freezer overnight.Turn the ice cream out on top of the cake (our ice cream is butterscotch mixed with good quality vanilla).Beat 600 ml cream with 1/4 cup cocoa and 2 tbsn icing sugar until it's thick, and spread it over the cake.Chop up lots of chocolate bars (the yummiest is Snickers, but include some Cherry Ripe, Crunchies, Toblerone and anything else you like). This is where we went wrong. I misread the recipe and bought about 400g of mixed chocolate bars instead of (believe it or not) 200g chocolate bars and 1 1/2 kg Rocky Road.Here's our volcano - as you can see, there weren't quite enough chocolate bars to cover it! But it looks good all the same. (You're supposed to pour thick strawberry topping over it, do some complicated thing with sheets of homemade toffee, and put dinosaurs and dessicated coconut mixed with green food colouring around the edge. I got a little lazy here! ;) )Put it back in the freezer to harden up for a few hours (the cream is YUMMY after you've done this). Get it out, stick some sparklers in, light them,
wait for them to go out,then watch it disappear.YUM!

This cake is adapted from the "Volcano Vibes" cake in The Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Puritanism: a piety of joy

Today I discovered something exciting - well, exciting to me (and perhaps to no-one else except my mum). The one and only article I wrote about the Puritans is online!1

The Gospel Coalition has published all the old issues of Kategoria, a quarterly journal edited by Kirsten Birkett and put out by Matthias Media from 1996 to 2004.

There, in issue number 10, published wa-a-ay back in 1998, shortly after I finished my PhD and just before my daughter was born, is an article by yours truly:

Puritanism: a piety of joy.

For me, reading it was like visiting an earlier self: a scholarly pre-child self, who had forgotten more about the Puritans than I will ever remember, and who spoke (or wrote, at least) with long footnotes and a knowledgeable tone.

I enjoyed the article. It's not a bad read. You might enjoy it to. You'll find it here, on page 11. Here's a quote to whet your appetite, from the Puritan preacher John Collinges' sermons on the Song of Songs:

Is Jesus Christ precious to you? Is his name to your soul like an ointment poured forth? Is your whole heart filled with the sweet smell of Jesus Christ? Are you ravished with his love? Does the very thinking of Christ ravish your heart? Does the naming of him carry your soul almost above itself in an ecstasy of love? Is he like an apple to your taste, that your mouth is filled with the sweetness of his juice? Are you melted with his love?2.
And if that doesn't puncture your pre-conceptions about the sober-minded, black-hatted, joy-squashing Puritans, nothing will.

I might bring you some more quotes in coming weeks.

1. Thanks, Lionel, for letting me know, and Sandy for drawing his attention to it.
2. John Collinges, Five Lessons for a Christian to Learne, 1650, sermon 1, page 49.

Monday, November 21, 2011

what I'm reading: hiding death and grief from Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking

Something that struck me as I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking was how attitudes to dying and grief have changed. Death once happened at home and touched every household, and every adult was expected to know how to deal with it; now it happens in hospitals, away from public view, and grief is something to be hidden. Joan Didion writes,

Philippe Aries...noted that beginning about 1930 there had been in most Western countries and particularly in the United States a revolution in accepted attitudes towardes death. "Death," he wrote, "so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden."

The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Goer, in his 1965 Death, Grief and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself”, a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” In England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was “to treat mourning as a morbid self-indulgence", and to give social admiration to the bereaved who "hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”

One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage. In the earlier tradition...the act of dying had not yet been professionalized. It did not typically involve hospitals. Women died in childbirth. Children died of fevers. Cancer was untreatable...The average adult was expected to deal competently, and also sensitively, with its aftermath. When someone dies, I was taught growing up, you bake a ham. You drop it at the house. You go to the funeral.
image is by José Goulão at flickr

Sunday, November 20, 2011

an easy volcano cake that almost worked...

This volcano cake was one of the easiest we've made, and almost one of the most effective...;) Okay, so it looks kinds of pudding-ish. But Thomas and Andy, whose birthday it was, didn't mind!!It's super-easy. Here's how we did it:

We baked a butter cake in a pudding basin,
made some chocolate butter icing,and iced the cake.We made runny red icing,runny orange icing,and runny yellow icing;then poured them on the cake - first red,then orange and yellow.We put some dinosaurs around the sidesand stuck in some sparklers.Voila! One volcano cake!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

a question about reading the Bible with kids – even the hard bits

There was an interesting comment on my post Reading the Bible with kids - even the hard bits.

A mum who’s thinking about how to read the Bible with her family said, “I’d love to see a follow up article about tackling the other types of difficult passages of the Bible – the particularly gory or sexual bits.”

I’ve been giving some thought to this, and I hope to write something in response; but I’m interested to hear your thoughts first, since I think different people will rightly handle this in different ways.

I think there are two important issues:

  • how do we deal with these passages with our own children?

  • how do we deal with these passages with other people’s children, for example, when teaching Sunday School?

What do you think?

You can comment here or at The Briefing.

Monday, November 14, 2011

what I'm reading: Joan Didion The Year of Magical Thinking

When my friend lost her father, she shared with me some books about grief. One of them was The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's account of the year after her husband died. It's not a Christian book, but it will help you understand what it's like to grieve and may help you when you grieve.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a stunning book, a picture of grief from the inside. It's written with unflinching, sparse language that won't let you look away. The 'magical thinking' in the title refers to the way grief disorders your thinking: how there's an irrational conviction that if you do this, or don't do that, the person you grieve for will be able to return.

Here is an excerpt - a desciption of grief.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined event. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In this version of grief we imagine, the model will be 'healing'. A certain forward momentum will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place...We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (pages 188-189)

Friday, November 11, 2011

shown up again!

On the rare occasions he steps in to teach Sunday School for me, my husband always shows me up.

After a Sunday School class in which, with little-to-no preparation, Steve managed to incorporate a simple biblical theology ("Jesus is better than Moses") into the story of Jesus feeding the 5000, and entertained the kids with riotous games which they clearly preferred to my quiet crafts, eight-year-old Thomas bounced in the door and declared, "That was the best Sunday School class ever!"

Then, sensitive to my feelings as always, he stopped and added, "Daddy is the best in Sunday School, but you are the best in love, Mummy."

And then, in case I needed a little extra reassurance, "I love you and blankie best! I do, Mummy, I do!"

Well, that's a relief.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

in my weakness, your growth

None of us wants to be the cause of another person's sanctification - at least, not unintentionally - and yet, so often, that is what we are.1

Is this one of the reasons that God allows us to become weak, dependent and forgetful as we grow older? Is it so we can place a necessary burden on those who were once dependent on us: a burden of forbearance and loving care?

Is this one of the reasons we may have to bear chronic illness or long-term disability? Why we may fight depression or suffer from mental disorders? Why we experience unemployment or material need? We may not want to receive others' charity and compassion, but in giving these, they grow into who they should be.

Is this one of the reasons God gives us personalities both winsome and challenging, attractive and off-putting, charming and awkward? Which of us would choose to have a 'difficult' temperament? But it's our unappealing qualities - uncomfortable thought! - that help others learn to love someone who's hard to love.

Is this one of the reasons we're not yet made perfect; one of the reasons that transformation happens so slowly? As we live with imperfect people, we practise forgiveness and forbearance, giving to them what God has far more generously given to us.

Speculation, I know, and raising all kinds of questions about God's sovereignty and our responsibility (yes, I am responsible to grow in godliness, not to persist in my ungodliness because it might help you grow!). In adversity, faith fixes its eyes on Christ and chooses hope, courage and love, not self-centred neediness (Hebrews 12:1-3). But it doesn't do this by a proud denial of need.

My instinct is to conceal my sin, make excuses for my faults, play to my strengths, and deny my dependence. What if, instead, I admitted my weakness, and gratefully accepted your generosity and grace? What if I served, even when the service wasn't perfect? What if, during times of helplessness and need, I practised contentment and received your help with gladness?

We are not strong; we are weak. We are not sinless; we are sinners. In our attitudes towards those who love and bear with us, we can choose to grow in humility, self-forgetfulness and joy. As we do this, we practise something far more significant: an attitude toward God that helps us to humbly receive his grace.

1. This odd little thought popped into my head while I was vacuuming. I suspect it has its roots in some novels I've been reading by the Anglo-Catholic author Elizabeth Goudge. While there's lots about her theology that I don't agree with, I am often encouraged by her moral insights.

This post first appeared in The Briefing yesterday.

image is by SanShoot from flickr

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

a question for you: a book for someone who's grieving

Penny has written in with a question for you:

I just wondered if you or your readers knew of a good christian book I can give a friend? She is in her late twenties and her husband has died. She is a new christian (has no children) and would love a book addressing her situation from a Christian perspective.
Does anyone know of a book Penny could give her friend?

Monday, November 7, 2011

a favourite quote: CS Lewis on "My time is my own"

This quote from CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters has been running round and round my head for some reason.

It's a great reminder that, if Jesus demands nothing more taxing of me than bearing with an irritating visitor, who am I to say no? Yet take away an expected hour of rest or day of relaxation, and I feel hard done by.

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him.

It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tete-а-tete with the friend), that throw him out of gear. Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption “My time is my own.” Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employer’s, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defence. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed a total service of the Enemy; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman; and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one half-hour in that day the Enemy said “Now you may go and amuse yourself.” Now if he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realise that he is actually in this situation every day.
CS Lewis The Screwtape Letters

image is by Ingorr from flickr

Thursday, November 3, 2011

what's happening with me

Hi, everyone! I thought it was time I dropped in and let you know how I am.

A week ago, I handed in that big editing job I've been working on for much of this year (it's a training manual for MTS, for those of you who are interested). After months of trying to juggle long working hours with raising 4 children and managing a home (poorly), you can imagine what a relief it is to be able to focus on my real job again!

Why did I do it? To save up for our seven week driving trip to Cairns, which, as you know, we did during Steve's long service leave. It was worth it: we came back refreshed, and with family bonds strengthened, in that vital time when your children are on the edge of becoming teenagers.

Since then, I've run a birthday sleepover for a thirteen-year-old and eight of her friends, dealt with one major health scare (thankfully, it looks like being nothing), and we've all gotten sick. Hmmm. I'm writing this with a sore throat, aching muscles and grainy eyes.

Writing for The Briefing - the only kind of writing I've been doing recently, as no doubt you've noticed! - has been fun but a little demanding, which is one of the reasons I haven't been writing much else. I'd like to get back to those rambly posts about books and our family now that my job has finished, so we'll see how that goes.

In the meantime, I'm playing lots of games of Carcassone with my sick boys, trying to wheedle my newly-teen daughter out of her room so we can spend some time together, and hosting lots of meetings at our house (if 'hosting' isn't too fancy a word for providing some chairs and Tim Tams).

We're having take-away chicken tonight, the gluten-free kind! A satisfying conclusion to a very lazy day.