Being thankful

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Autumn is here! A time for gathering in and taking stock. Plums, apples & whatever soft fruit and veg I have successfully grown. It’s a time of change and a time for re-grouping somehow I always feel. And of course a time of thankfulness. For us crunchy leaves also mean birthday season – so much to give thanks for. But it’s been a tough month to be honest… with so much newness everything seems to have taken a lot more energy than usual. So I’m looking for practical, calming activities to remind myself to give thanks and count all those blessings!

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Doodle thanks I can’t help but doodle my way through life, so this one wasn’t hard to find. Simple… paper and a pen, add a few things when you have a moment to sit down each day. Wouldn’t it be great to display a whole family’s set of doodle thanks. Or maybe start a big communal poster that everyone can add to throughout autumn!

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Jars of thanks: again, not a new idea. We have collected thanks in jars at other times too. It’s lovely to fill a jar together over a few weeks and then have a celebration get together and read them all out. A prayerful activity that grows gratitude in us. These jars were washed out plastic hot chocolate jars (quite astounding how many of these I accumulate!) decorated with foam stickers. We made them at our church’s monthly accessible service.

 

Contemplative colouring: a new design for our celebration of Harvest at church. Please follow the link to print out a copy and enjoy. The idea came to me as I was thinking about surviving those downpour moments in life, when you feel under a cloud and nothing is easy or going smoothly. As I chatted to God about how tough things felt we imagined this together, going one step further than ‘learning to dance in the rain’ we turned the umbrella over and began collecting the rain. I was reminded of the imagery of God’s blessing being poured out, being like rain on thirsty ground. So much rain that it is more than enough blessing for me and for me to share with others. Abundant blessing in the midst of the storms of life. It helps me to stop with an activity like this and deliberately become more aware of the blessings God pours into my life, it makes thankfulness bubble up again.

Books: There are so many good books out there that help us explore thankfulness, and get us talking about gratitude. ‘The world came to my place today’ by J Readman & L Roberts is great for thinking about how many other people and places have had a part in bringing what we need and want to our homes. The classic ‘Wonderful Earth!’ by N Butterworth & M Inkpen is one I go back to over and over again which helps us think about taking care of the gift of creation. Someone recently reminded me of Pollyanna by E H Porter, and the glad game. It’s not one we have so it’s now ordered and on its way! My own book ‘My Easter egg hunt’ explores all that Jesus has done for us and ends with an emphasis on our thankful response.

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Bible story: Looking at the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus would be interesting. Mina has a lovely way of retelling the story over on Flame Creative Kids  It would be fun to go on and each make a chain of 10 paper people, and challenge ourselves to have said thank you 10 times by the end of the day. Or perhaps make some gingerbread men to help us remember.

Bunting: We have often made decorated paper bunting – I have hooks at the ready on one of the kitchen walls. Paper cut into triangles or flag shapes, newspaper, colourful plastic bags, pressed flowers – you get the idea…almost anything can look great as bunting. For thankfulness, at Harvest or Thanksgiving time how about leaves. Decorate with metallic sharpies or marker pens, writing or drawing some of the things we are thankful for. Then laminate them (may need to go through the laminator more than once) and they will keep their colour and hang really well. A hole punch at the top of each and as simple as that you have autumn thankful bunting.

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Knowing God’s voice

‘God answers our prayers’

‘God is always with you’

‘He will help you’

‘God will guide us’

2012-05-13 12.29.31These are all phrases we often use when trying to put words to our faith and hope in God as Christians. At the moment they are often met by T with questions and doubts: ‘how?’, ‘I can’t see him!’, ‘he doesn’t talk to me’. The thing is our words and phrases express our experience of mystery. Our faith is in a concrete, true, eternal God but our experience of Him is not tangible in the same way as a hug with a friend or parent. We don’t hear answers to prayer audibly (very often!) in the same way as a teacher answering our question. The way God’s presence faithfully stays with us as we trust Him is not visible to our eyes in the same way as we see and hold onto our comfort teddy throughout the day. We experience glimpses, senses of these intangible realities through faith and God’s grace (his free gift).

 For now [in this time of imperfection] we see in a mirror dimly [a blurred reflection, a riddle, an enigma], but then [when the time of perfection comes we will see reality] face to face. Now I know in part [just in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God]. (1 Cor 13:12 AMP)

We learn to see with eyes of faith rather than physical eyes, and to hear with our listening, quietened soul – our inner self reaching out for God. We learn to feel his real presence with us. We learn to recognize the physical markers as our bodies and spirit respond to spiritual realities we cannot see or touch physically. A quickened heart beat; the unexpected calm flooding our body and feelings quite independent of our circumstances; a beyond-our-own-courage; an inexplicable warmth; a moment when our own inner monologue is at rest and a new word drops in; goosebumps; when our body and spirit feels the same relief as it does when it can slump into the lap of home – our favourite sofa, in our favourite safe space where we belong and know we are unconditionally loved. We learn the sounds, and touch, the tastes and smells of the mystery that is our living God coming near and walking alongside us unseen and intangible. This is a lifelong adventure of love, of being known and getting to know.

Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!” (Jn 14:7 MSG)

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These are things I hope I can model and articulate as Mum to B, A & T. Finding ways to explain the mystery takes me out of the box. We have talked about how we get to know a voice to the extent that we recognize and respond to it even when we don’t see the person. The game where you have to close your eyes and listen with your whole body to be ready to spot someone coming to steal the keys or bells, or a game where we are blindfolded and have to identify the person by voice or smell can remind us of how our body feels when someone is familiar, how our bodies can recognize and respond to someone’s presence. They also remind us how difficult it can all be! That’s quite useful to throw into this discussion. We have spent time talking about the vast number of things we trust are real that we cannot see with our physical eyes, or hear with our physical ears – when you stop and think about it there’s so much we take for granted as real that we cannot see and hear. Germs; wind; atoms; electricity; energy; love. Believing that these things are real is something we do already. Talking about, and living out, spiritual things as real and living rather than just ideas on paper or in a book invites discussion and exploration.

Practicing being in God’s presence together – in prayer, in worship, in questioning, in praise and thanks, in quiet, reading the Bible  – needs to be intentional for us, it’s the thing that so easily takes second place to everything else life throws at us. It’s difficult. Mealtimes, bedtimes and mornings are already a battle ground full of demands. I don’t want activities that invite us to draw close to God to feel like another demand, or another chore on the long list that has to be done at certain times of day. As I have said before, I try to simply be ready! There are bibles on every shelf and I love to read from them when they are picked for bedtime stories. We pray together when we can, in ways that we can – and try not to get worked up when we can’t or when things really don’t go well. We listen to worship songs in the car, and sing them out in the garden and as we walk. We say our arrow prayers and arrow bursts of thankfulness out loud. We name it when we feel God’s presence or guidance, or when God gives us peace or courage. I don’t ever worry about doubts – they open discussion, and invite exploration together. I don’t need all the answers for I speak about mystery and point to our living God who is already drawing close to our children.

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selective (not selected) mutism

It’s a very unhelpful name, selective mutism I think. If we were in the middle of a game of word association it might be followed by ‘choice’, ‘choose’, ‘select’. I can understand how it can so easily be misunderstood as ‘shyness’, ‘manipulative’, ‘oppositional behaviour’, ‘stubbornness’. We hear the phrase and immediately jump to the misunderstanding that the child is selecting when to speak and when not to. It’s more accurate to understand it as the mutism is selective, not the child. It gets it’s name from the way that the mutism is only seen in certain contexts and not in others not because it is implying choice.

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The most helpful way I’ve found of thinking of selective mutism is to focus on the physiological. It is known that in moments of extreme anxiety or panic the body’s fight/flight/freeze mode affects us physically. Our body’s hormone balances for example are completely upturned, in order to get ready to run or fight. One of the physical affects can be the seizing up of the muscles needed for speech – including the vocal chords. So in that situation of panic speech is simply not physically possible. And that is selective mutism. An outworking of extreme anxiety. For some this anxiety is seen in group contexts (even of familiar people); for others with strangers; for others it is in particular places; for some when under the pressure of a direct question; or simply in front of others. It stems from social anxiety, social phobia and anxiety about demands. Responding to selective mutism as if it is ‘stubbornness’ or ‘manipulative behaviour’, or ‘a shy phase’ ignores and adds to the anxiety.

Selective mutism can affect autistics as well as others. And it can make life very challenging, and scary – imagine needing something and being completely unable to ask for help and get support. It makes being in new situations and places especially difficult when you know you cannot stop and ask for directions or check something with the teacher or your classmates. It can make learning hard work when you are unable to ask for help or clarification. It can make friendships and social times, like lunch breaks, really challenging.

There is really helpful advice and explanations at SMIRA.

I especially like way the article ends:

 Celebrate your child’s unique qualities
We cannot change the personality of SM children – and wouldn’t want to! They are naturally sensitive individuals who take life seriously and set themselves impossibly high standards. The downside is a tendency to be overwhelmed by novelty, change and criticism; the upside is an empathetic, loyal and conscientious nature.

How to support?

  • be kind – patience not pressure
  • surprises add to anxiety
  • give more time than you think for an answer
  • praise achievements
  • disappointment and disapproval are definitely not wanted
  • support the anxiety
  • help find safe ways and places to calm and regulate
  • enable coping strategies for anxiety
  • remember it is selective but not selected

It is not easy to truly understand or appreciate another person’s experience of anxiety – we all get worried about things from time to time, and it’s all to easy to assume other’s worries feel and affect them the same way that ours affect us. Our expectations are too often shaped by our own experiences. But to be able to support we need to put those expectations to one side and take on board the extreme level of anxiety being experienced by someone with selective mutism. It is not a choice. It will not be easily and quickly ‘got over’ or ‘snapped out of’. It is quite paralyzing. And can be so very isolating.

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Role models

Growing up in a Christian home, a manse with many people coming and going, a faith filled extended family, and being at the heart of church family life meant I had many followers of Jesus as role models. I can sit here and think of a number of really significant people whose life of faith has encouraged, strengthened and challenged mine as I grew (and continue growing!). From Sunday school teachers and youth house-group hosts to honorary church grannies who listened and shared life with us, from Bible college tutors and fellow ordinands to Mums like me living out their faith I have been shaped and inspired by other Christians.

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It was Paul who said rather challengingly:

Follow my example, just as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Cor 11:1)

It wasn’t just people alongside me either. As a child I loved reading biographies (still do given half a chance!) of Christians doing extraordinary things with God. Books like ‘Through gates of Splendour’, the story of the Elizabeth Elliot; the writings of Corrie Ten Boom; or the story of Mary Jones walking to find a Bible shaped me and inspired me – they still do.

One of the youth sessions at the New Wine summer conference that A came away talking about was an evening when a woman from North Korea came to give some of her testimony. She had become a Christian, had escaped, found a Bible and written it out in its entirety committing much of it to memory. Later whilst in Prison for her faith and escape, she had shared her faith despite the dangers and had started a church that met in the prison toilets which was so very dirty that guards never went near, and they prayed and recited scripture in whispers. She spoke of the reality of living as a secret Christian, of people burying Bibles to keep them hidden and going at night to dig them up read them, of the danger of being known as a Christian and yet how faith is being shared. For A it was I think one of those encounters that will shape him. We have certainly all come back less complacent about how easy it is for us to reach for a Bible and to read God’s words to us.

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Hearing testimonies like this from Christians whose experience is so different from ours is so challenging, and so needed in our growth in faith and belonging in the church. These are the testimonies that have made me courageous (terrified yet stepping out with God) in my life of faith.

“As parents we are the main spiritual influence in our children’s lives. And as we discover more abut what it means to ‘abide in him’, we have an amazing opportunity on the roller-coaster ride of family life to model to them what seeking to live in a real relationship with God actually looks like.” (p47, ‘Raising Faith’ Katharine Hill & Andy Frost)

It is a daunting thought that I am a role model of a life of faith in my children’s life. I certainly don’t want my life to be the only one they look at to see what a life of faith looks like. I want to enable them to encounter many others too who will inspire them and show them in different ways, and through different experiences what following after God can be like. Being regularly part of church family is great, and opening the doors of our home to others as often as we can is good too. RE projects (Gladys Aylward is now very well known to B & I), talks, films, you tube, family and books (10 girls who changed the world, by Irene Howat is good – there’s a boys one too) – the opportunities for introducing our children and young people to other Christian role models are many and so very interesting and inspiring. Helping my three to hear other’s stories of faith feeds me too.

 

 

sensory pit-stops: invitations to find calm

We are counting down now to beginning a new term – new teachers, new classes, and for two of mine new schools. There is definitely a need for me to be providing and enabling as many calming sensory activities as possible – yesterday I just couldn’t keep up!

Our emotions and physical responses to them are so complex I wonder how any of us actually learn to regulate ourselves. For many of us no doubt it comes easier than for others. Certainly if our understanding and recognition of different emotions is still a work in progress then instinctive self regulation is going to be almost impossible. It has to be learnt. So the more varied and frequent opportunities to learn to become calm and collected when feeling huge emotions the better.

These are some of my favourite activities to leave out dotted around the house that can become calming sensory pit-stops:

  • cornflour gloop – best in a room with a wipeable floor: cornflour and just enough water to make a gloopy paste in a shallow bowl or tub. This is great, it gives a sensation of resistance when poked and pushed and also soft fluidity when dangled or allowed to ooze back into itself. To dispose of it afterwards I leave it to dry out a little and then put it in the bin. Bits on the floor or table leave to dry then brush and scoop into the bin. (It blocks drains if washed down the sink)
  • playdough – We make our own, and then for extra sensory input can give it a scent like lavender, citrus, peppermint etc. The best bit of making your own is that it needs to be kneaded like bread dough as it cools down and the warmth with the kneading is amazing… just check it’s not still very hot before you hand it over to the kids. (Our recipe came from a good friend: 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup salt, 2 tbsp oil, 2 tsp cream of tartar, 1 cup of water with food colouring in if desired… beat it together as it heats up in a saucepan.)
  • painting- not perhaps something I would leave out casually all the time but this can be really absorbing; big plain paper, brushes, sponges, fingers etc, paint & imagination.

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  • wobble board – we have a circular board with a curved underneath that was being sold as a toning piece of equipment for keep fit, but we use it simply for fun balancing. When movement and concentration come together it can prove very calming. And this can simply be left out in a place with some space to be used in-between things, or on the way from one part of the house to another.
  • Animals – in our house one of the key strategies for self-regulation is to spend time with animals. Before we had the kittens days like these would be better if the guinea pigs came in and were easily available for cuddles. Now of course the kittens are always to be found somewhere in the house, and thankfully they crave attention and fuss. The only problem is when the attention given to one of them becomes a stress trigger for a sibling- either because they are not ‘doing it right’, or the kitten was found in someone else’s space, or its not considered to be ‘their turn’… but despite those (very frequent) moments I still think being in physical contact with animals brings such a lot of calm and reassurance.
  • blankets – and hot water bottles which add weight and warmth. Always on the sofa and beds ready to snuggle up in, hide under or tuck in tight around you.
  • water – another I cannot simply leave out, but there are so many opportunities during the day whether it’s to encourage lingering over hand washing, helping with some washing up, or allowing some pouring play between jugs tubs and cups. And there’s always the bath & shower on a day without time pressure which for our youngest is probably one of the best ways to really ground her when very anxious. Yesterday we resorted to a bath in the afternoon – and I got time to clean the bathroom at the same time!
  • a familiar activity – whether it’s a film that’s been seen a hundred times, reading a book that is known word for word, or a puzzle that’s a favourite, or a sorting activity with buttons or marbles etc that always gets done in the same way, a familiar activity can be very soothing.
  • music – a tricky one to balance everyone’s different needs at any given moment but brilliant nonetheless. As I write A is playing the piano which he gets completely absorbed in. B likes to listen to music on headphones which shuts all other hustle & bustle out. T loves to move and sing, and tends to want music loud when she wants it. Dance mats, dance games on the Wii, and listening to songs over and over again seem to really help T… but for the sake of everyone else we try to manage how long each time! Another absorbing and regulating music & movement activity is hand clapping rhymes and other nursery rhymes. T still asks for ‘this is the way the lady rides’ (a bouncing on a knee rhyme), and loves ‘a sailor went to sea, sea, sea’ etc.
  • hugs! – almost always on their terms of course, but being available for regular deep squeezing hugs is essential – and so easy, no prep required!

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  • marble bowl – simply marbles in a shallow wooden bowl. They can be swirled, spun, sifted through fingers and listened to as they spin gradually getting slower and slower.
  • mini sensory bin – again a simple bowl or tray, with rice, pasta, cous cous or sand in that is simply available to arrange things in (small world play figures or stones, shells, beads etc) and feel.
  • balloons – not for everyone I know, but the process of blowing up a balloon slows breathing down, and makes us take deep breaths in. And they are really fun when you don’t tie them but fill them and let them go over and over. And for the daring moments when the thought of the clearing up doesn’t phase you, balloons with some water in that can be held (it has a weight to it) and that move about in your hand are fascinating too.
  • dens – safe, inviting spaces to retreat into and block out the hustle and bustle. Soft glow light, flumpy cushions, paper & pens to doodle with and some cuddly toys.
  • tearing and cutting – leaving out an old newspaper or magazine with scissors if that’s appropriate. Prepare for easy to clear up mess, but T can be absorbed in cutting, tearing and scrunching paper for some time and this can be a good distraction from the times when anxiety begins to show itself as restless frustration.