Advent ideas

About this time every year I have a bit of a panic at the thought that I’m not quite ready for Advent! The pressure to be ready for Christmas, to have presents bought and wrapped, food and entertainment planned is all around so it’s hard to forget it’s coming. But I find somehow or other – even in vicarage life!- that time to plan family Advent moments creeps up rather suddenly. But it’s taken us a long time to begin being able to explore some Advent family devotional traditions for so many reasons (which I wrote about here) and I don’t want to lose momentum (however slow and faltering it may be!).

There are so many really lovely ideas out there to find and have a go at, many needing little or no preparation really, and many printables to get things started if you want to add a daily reading or a daily act of kindness into advent calendar pockets you use already.  (There are links to some we have liked here)

So of course, as I was preparing tea tonight (A has not been well so it was my turn) B and I decided to… get out the clay (yes the clay! – the printables could have been so easy I think to myself sitting here now!) and make our own take on an advent wreath – the kind that’s a journey round a spiral getting ever closer to Bethlehem. Well why not at the end of a complicated and tiring day! Maybe pummeling clay was the stress relief we both needed.

Gradually in-between chopping and cooking we worked out how we wanted to shape it, and found the candles we think we will use in it. With the candles B stamped out the holes that will be the ‘steps’ along the journey, one for each day of Advent. And as we worked we wondered if perhaps each day the candle itself will be moved forward a step and then lit as we eat together, or whether we will have the 4 traditional Advent candles as markers along the way… perhaps we could find some activties and prayers about each candle’s theme and look at them on our Friday family Sabbath time (a new adventure I’ll write about soon). We found our little brightly painted nativity figures and wondered if maybe Mary and Joseph could make the journey one step at a time, and we could follow them along.

Once it is dry we will enjoy painting it together and maybe even making a base for it to stand on – with Bethlehem houses painted around it’s edge we thought. Lovely happy time dreaming and chatting together – much needed break. Now all we need to do is find a moment for painting, and of course have it ready to go on time!

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pray more than a shopping list

Either intentionally or unintentionally, we may communicate to out children a definite set of ‘rules’ about prayer: what their bodies should do, what their words should say, and what content is acceptable. This set up implies to our children that we can succeed or fail at how we perform the act of praying. That’s a big pressure when the God of the universe is the audience!

(Parenting children for a life of faith, Rachel Turner, p63)

Don’t know about yours, but at the moment my 3 are in a bit of a routine when it comes to praying – one we have kind of ‘coached them’ into. Pretty much set length ‘shopping-list’ prayers bringing to God a good balance of their own needs and those of family & occasionally further afield. But it can feel rattled off, well rehearsed at times and at the moment T is opting out. So when I was reading these words of Rachel Turners stuck me. She’s right of course, in trying to ‘be good christian parents’ we have taught them a ‘correct’ template for prayer I suppose.  And there’s some good in that – it is a framework that they can always fall back on in times when praying is hard. But having a ‘correct’ way means our children are coming to talk to God from a very particular unconscious perspective – that God is a slot machine you have to have the correct change for?, that if you don’t see the answer you’re imagining from God that you didn’t pray it right?, that God is fearsome and only listens to perfect prayers?, or that he’s not interested in small talk with us just wanting to get the business done?

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None of those perspectives fit the way God reveals himself to us. He says ‘call me Father’, Jesus says when you talk to God say ‘Daddy…’! That’s intimate, and caring. That’s personal. The father child relationship is an everyday one – what I mean is that at it’s best (deliberately in bold!) it’s a relationship that gets involved in all aspects of our lives, it’s the type of relationship where life becomes an intertwined shared experience. Daddy and child. The child looks up to the Dad and hangs on his every word – the Daddy dotes on his child, treasuring every shared moment, every conversation no matter what its about.

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?” (Matt 6:5 MSG)

Wanting children to have a safe place to encounter God is a right desire. My initial response to that desire, though, was to put myself between God and children. I was the safety gate. Since I saw this tendency in myself, I’ve changed the boundaries. I don’t want to be the safety gate between God and children. I want to be the steward – the one who guides a child into the presence of God and stands guard to protect their time and space as they interact. I want to be the one who walks with the child away from that encounter and helps him to process the way it changes his situation and life.

(Parenting children for a life of faith. Rachel Turner, p 66)

I don’t need to protect my children from God – he’s their loving Father, he knows and loves them better than I do! I don’t need to help my children to formulate ‘perfect’ prayers. I need to guide them into their Daddy’s presence, and model for them how all of life – the wiggles, giggles, moans, frustrations, worries and wonderings – is on the table when we chat with God.

I guess for us part of that process is practicing and modelling those kinds of relationships within the family home. Talking together about stuff; being a family that shares joys and struggles together, and talks about questions, dreams, ideas. Part of that will mean Andrew & I intentionally choosing very open ended questions and conversation starters – or we’ll just get a one word answer.

Communication with our family and friends is filled with half spoken thoughts, ponderings, funny stories and really deep sharing. We often speak from the heart about what is going on with us… In relationship we share the little things in life because, eventually, big things come along, and we need to know that the other person in that relationship cares about and can handle both.

(Parenting children for a life of faith, Rachel Turner, p69)

To help this begin to be a bit more intentional I have had some fun and made some conversation starter stones (a bit like my happy chatting lollipop sticks but very much open ended). I am hoping they will encourage us to do more talking about feelings and abstract things as a family, but I also hope they can be useful in prayer too. Choose a stone, read and let it be the beginning of a chat with God, or a picture or letter for God. They are made by cutting small shapes out of thin patterned paper, writing on a simple open question or the start of a sentence and then sticking them onto the stone with PVA glue. Then seal the paper with more PVA glue just over the top. I have deliberately kept mine very small, with teeny tiny writing – T especially loves finding tiny writing & working it out – and loves magnifying glasses!

 “What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right? And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—even numbering the hairs on your head! … You’re worth more than a million canaries.” (Matt 10:29-31 MSG)

Also for us I think it means continuing intentional work about naming and recognising emotions in ourselves (we’re then planning to continue building on that self awareness towards recognising and acknowledging emotions in others).  Recognising (and so naming) emotions is something we usually learn by inference, but neither of my girls do their learning from inference, which means unravelling and naming physical sensations/tone of voice/body language/facial expressions intentionally together and then putting together a picture of each emotion as they experience it, and then how we might look for those clues in others – or slightly different clues – lets face it we don’t all present emotions in exactly the same way… goodness this could (probably will!) take years!!

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Pet 5:7 (NIV)

 

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peacemaking

I’ve been searching out some ideas and books to use to start conversations about peace as Remembrance Day approaches.

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Peace is a tricky word, a big concept to pin down. I guess our first thought this week is to think of peace as time without conflict or war. But there can be a huge range of different experiences and quality of life even in times and places without war in this world. Can peace be fully expressed when there is still poverty, a huge gulf between the rich and the poor, injustice, inequality of respect and of opportunities, oppressive relationships and so on, and when our way of living brings harm to the environment and so also harm to others – and in all of this hurt and damage to our relationship with our Creator. Is there a fuller, deeper peace to long for, a wholeness for the world to talk about and dream of with my children?

Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want. (Amos 5:23-25 MSG)

 

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:5-7 NIV)

  • Meaningful Mama has put together a good starting place list of books about peace for children, from all sorts of cultural and religious backgrounds. Some of these will definitely promote discussion in our house.
  • Finding out about poppies, and about Remembrance Day: The British Legion has information about red poppies here, and the Quakers about white poppies here.
  • Yummy Mummy Club have some easy red poppy craft ideas.
  • Inner Child Fun have some lovely ideas for peace dove crafts, I especially wonder if the hand-print dove would start interesting discussions about how our hands, our actions can be peacemaking.
  • dove of peaceOne of the designs in my contemplative colouring book  ‘Angels Singing’  reflects on the verse from Isaiah about Jesus being the Prince of Peace, the bringer and establisher of peace. We used it in our school outreach today to create space for dreaming about peace, what it would look like, and round the edges we wrote our prayers and longings for the things we want to see healed and changed. One student rather poignantly added a poppy into the dove’s beak – wish I had taken a photo to show you!
  • We might try writing a prayer for peace together as a family using the letters of PEACE, or maybe writing a sentence for each of the senses ‘Peace looks like…’, ‘peace feels like…’ etc. and using them in prayer perhaps with a phrase like ‘Jesus help us be peacemakers’ to repeat together in between reading out the sentences.

 

 

 

 

making gifts together

We are just beginning to make our plans and preparations for filling shoeboxes with gifts for children which we collect as a church and send around the world with Operation Christmas child.

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homemade flower crayons

This year I am keen to get B, A & T involved more and have been wondering if there are any gift ideas that would be easy enough for us to make together to put in. There’s something prayerful about spending time making something to bless someone else, and those times we do manage it I find it inevitably changes, and blesses us too.

So here’s a list of ideas I’ve found:

  • T-shirt headbands (‘lovestitched’ have an easy to follow tutorial here)
  • T-shirt neckwarmers (needs sewing) (‘lilblueboo’ have a good tutorial here)
  • no sewing tutu skirt (Simply Real Mums have instructions here), the same method can quickly also make a flowy headband, or wrist band.
  • braided bead bracelets (see beadaholic’s video tutorial here)
  • no sewing fleecy pom pom hat (great instructions here from Creative Jewish Mum)
  • homemade shaped crayons (valentine ones on Mumdot here) These can be any shape you have a silicone mold for of course.
  • dolly peg fairies/dolls – sharpies, lace, tulle, felt, wool and imagination! A quick google for ideas revealed lots and lots to be inspired by.
  • wooden car tracks (BuggyandBuddy share their instructions here for wooden track) I was wondering if the same concept could be done with felt pieces, which would mean corner pieces could be made too.
  • lollipop stick puzzles (Mum Endeavors makes some here)
  • a world in a tin/suitcase – you can buy tiny tin suitcases, or use a little tin or large matchbox. Buy a little soft toy or little play figure that will fit in the tin or box, and then use felt, pretty papers and tape to decorate in the tin. Maybe the box will turn into a bed for the little doll, or maybe you have room in the tin for a whole house, or scene for the play figure.
  • baby tag blanket  – will need sewing (‘wholefully’ has a good tutorial here)
  • stacking game made of cotton reels (Handmade Charlotte has instructions and a printable design for beautiful animal mix n match, look here.)

Well, we’ve made a start at having a go at some of these. It’s a great way to stop and chat together, particularly about what the children who get the shoeboxes will be like, and what they will enjoy playing with or using, and where they might live.

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a rainbow tutu headband

 

Summer Festival

 

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a little patch of blue sky was spotted during the week!

For the last few years we have been going to the Christian summer festival, New Wine. Last Year I was reflecting on how important it has become for us as a family because it is a week of intensive community with our church family (both locally and families who camp with us from other churches). The week following New Wine we meet up with parts of our extended family for another week of camping in lovely Somerset. Inevitably we get chatting about the Christian festivals we each go to, some to Spring Harvest, Word Alive, some to Keswick. This year we chatted a fair amount about the logistics of taking our families – all in some way shaped by additional needs – to such large, noisy, intensive festivals. On paper it sounds mildly ridiculous to attempt such a thing, so what does it work out like in practice?

These are some of the ways we as a family handle the logistics of camping, being in community, going to the meetings and events, sleeping, eating, staying clean enough… and growing in our faith:

Eating

When we first began the adventure of camping the eating side of things was actually really difficult. B has not ever found eating easy, her diet at that time was really very restricted and her usual routine involved managing to eat just enough sitting on her own with the TV on simply to dampen the stress and panic enough to face the food. So eating while camping was tough for her. Most of her ‘safe foods’ were possible to store and prep in a tent so that was something, but of course no TV, no space, family and wider church community right there all the time.

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Plus whenever a bug, fly or wasp came even remotely near her she was panicked. So at first food was eaten (or looked at) rather stressfully outside with the rest of us, but by the end of each mealtime B was usually quite distressed and sitting in the bedroom, zipped in on her own. Over the years this level of stress about camping mealtimes has eased a little and most of the time B manages to join us and eat something. I think in part this is a reflection of a wider change about how B is coping with meals together all the time. Needless to say wasps are still a problem! This year with 5 adults around our table we still had a bit of a job dealing efficiently with them and keeping the meal on track!

As a church group we eat together in ‘family clusters’ – so everyone is included, and supported. This year we had the joy of 3 extra adults eating with us. All known really well by our kids, and all extremely accepting and patient of how our family life happens. Their help was invaluable at mealtimes, getting the food started when Andrew or I were still walking back after fetching T from a group, helping involve the kids in washing up and generally keeping us cheery throughout even the most dysfunctional moments, and bringing the first evening meal so we didn’t need to cook after putting up the tent and sorting the kids out on the day we arrived.

We have a menu that we only have to tweak each year as dietary needs change, and alongside the menu we have 3 shopping lists! One is a list of what needs to be prepared or bought and packed to take with us (we prep 2 main meals in advance and take them frozen.). The second is a shopping list for Andrew to fetch while I register the kids with their groups after the tent has gone up on arrival day. The third is to be bought on the day off, including things to take to the BBQ with our whole church group that evening.

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a bit wet for BBQ but great food & company! (Thank you A.Wall for the photo)

Sleeping

What can I say??? We’re not naturally great at sleeping anyway! This year though we all slept in the same bedroom section and I think, miraculously, we possibly got more sleep than usual!

Washing

There are shower blocks dotted about the showground where New Wine is held. There are also sinks in all the loo blocks which lots of people use for washing faces and doing teeth though we do that in the tent where it’s less crowded and distracting. The showers are quite small and there is almost always a queue, it’s also fair to say that they are a little hit and miss – usually a mixture of hot moments with unpredictable cold ones thrown in. This year we also faced the challenge of some of the showers losing water pressure – not easy with shampoo already applied but only a dribble of water running down the wall to rinse with!

When B, A & T were small enough we took a large-ish flexi bucket for baths in the tent. It was a bit of a slow process heating a few kettles to add to cold water to get the temp right, but it was clean, enough room for me to help, and no queuing, as they grew a small paddling pool also came in handy in a similar way. Now they are all too big, but we have managed finding times to use the showers and have coped. And with T this year I simply haven’t pushed it – baby wipes took care of it! There is a disability accessible shower on site, with enough room for a parent to help a larger child. We may well look into using that next time.

I take travel hand wash detergent with us and try to wash tea towels and any other essentials on the afternoon of the day off. This year was so wet I didn’t get the chance – nothing would have dried. But of course the wet, and the festival mud created a lot of washing, and ‘Our Place’ (New Wine’s inclusion teams) came to the rescue washing the things we really needed – especially T’s ‘apple blanky’ when it was dropped in a puddle.

Meetings

There are kids groups right through from baby to late teens, and registration forms are taken between certain times on arrival day, and the kids are given wrist bands. Most of the groups have a couple of sessions each day, babies fewer and older teens more choices but a similar amount of time.

There is a thorough system of dropping off and collecting, with more than one check of your ID, the handover card you gave in that day, and the child’s wristband. It takes a bit of time but works well. T didn’t like the wristband at all this year, and kept taking it off and ‘putting it somewhere safe’ – so on a couple of the days that she went to her group we had to get her an alternative, approved ID badge from the admin team at the back of the venue.

The groups are very busy and so they are quite noisy even without the music & use of microphones. There are stage lights and live worship bands, and in the younger groups often team in costume for the upfront parts of the session. Kids are in smaller groups with team looking after them and always get dropped off and picked up in that same place with those team members. For the younger groups the sessions are very tightly structured and include upfront storytelling, silly games and worship and prayer and also active games. craft and chat in the smaller groups.

This year T struggled again and we were so very thankful for the Our Place team. Our Place have team in every venue supporting children to help them join in with their group. They also have a break out space near the side or back for times when kids need to escape or some calming down space. They have fidgets, a visual timetable and ear defenders at the ready! We needed support at drop off, and T needed support during the sessions she attended. Our Place also have a separate kids, youth and adult venue that is open a bit later than the others as a safe haven for those who can’t settle or who can’t manage a whole session. T loved the kids venue and most evenings we went there rather than her group having used all her energy up during the rest of the day.

Some mornings were also just too much and we took T with us to the main arena. Getting out my emergency distractions and other little games that I always have to hand.

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B, A & T all have boxes or tins in their rooms where we put all the little oddmenty toys – from those fast food freebies, to the one off homemade and all things small and unique. I pack up a small bag of these when we go for days out or away for longer like these weeks. I also like to have bubbles (the small tubes sold as party favours are great), fidgets, little notebooks and pens (the ones with multiple colours in just one pen are my favourite – space is of the essence, I have to carry it everywhere!). This year A & I turned a little mint tin into a habitat for a tiny dinosaur complete with rocks trees and volcano – a whole world in a tiny portable tin – perfect!

It sometimes feels frustrating that it’s not straight forward getting to sessions I want to get to – this year I didn’t make it to many things in the evenings at all – but over the years I have found these times when I take a little one to an alternative venue (either Our Place, or Stepping Stones when T was little – a large play space, with tea coffee and the main arena being shown live on a screen) to be full of valuable conversation, chances to connect with other parents often feeling the same frustration and the team in these venues just as ready to pray with you and to talk discipleship!

Our Place run seminars for parents in the mornings which have been a place of gentle challenge (ok sometimes challenge never feels gentle!) encouragement and prayerful support. I have grown such a lot in my faith as I have been a part of the Our Place family network. The encouragement and safety of the space they provide has helped me to go on wrestling, to dare to step out and step up, to trust and hope in deeper ways as we share experience together, know that whoever we sit with or pray with there is understanding and acceptance. This year we looked together at the story of Ruth and reflected together on feeling uprooted, the frustration and pot-boundness circumstances can sometimes make us feel; how God provides, often through the support and help of others – like Ruth’s Boaz; and how God turns the situation right around breaking the chains around those women and leading them to fruitfulness. Plenty for me to treasure and to keep on reflecting on in the midst of piles of muddy washing, a garden that has grown quite a bit while we were away, a tent in need of drying, camping gear to put away, a house that is in disarray and trying to help the kids adjust to down time at home, while Andrew goes back to work!