He made his dwelling place among us

I have a fun task this afternoon – creating some palace scenery for King Herod in our Christmas Eve family service this year. True panto style I’m imagining going big, bold and dramatic… he was known as Herod the Great after all…. ‘Oh no he wasn’t!, Oh yes he was!’. We even have a panto camel waiting to join in this year, can’t wait.

IMG_20181221_131458181

Looking back into history it’s hard to grasp just how vulnerable a baby was, even born into a palace with guards for safety; servants to keep fires going and wood stores full; money for blankets, clothes, and beds; well educated advisers to help; it must have been precarious for the newborn and the Mum. Harder still to imagine the dangers for a baby born outside a palace in an ordinary home, or less. Imagine the dangers of having a newborn at a time when the kings whims were law. Of course Herod the Great could order that all baby boys under the age of two be killed in and around Bethlehem so he could keep a tight hold on his power.

When I think of the vulnerability of how Jesus came to us it astounds me. That the Son of God should hold so loosely to his home in heaven and come to earth in this way (as a baby born into a situation with little political and material security and minimal life expectancy, on top of the innate vulnerable dependence of being a baby) is unbelievable, isn’t it? It fills me with wonder and astonishment that he should be born among us like this, just the same as us, just the same as the least of us – us at our most vulnerable.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (NIV Lk 2:6,7)

Christmas with all it’s excitement and busyness, with it’s celebrations, family gatherings, feasts and presents seems a far cry from the moment Mary gave birth to Jesus. We had a card this year with a poignant and provocative picture of the manger in the foreground of a merry-go-round scene, busy with people and noise. It brings home to me the seemingly stark contrast between Jesus’ birth and what Christmas today seems to look like.

IMG_20181221_133440081

Yet perhaps emotionally it’s not dissimilar. Christmas seems to bring into sharp focus our feelings of insecurity. Will the money stretch, can we get the gifts we want/feel we need to get? Will family all get along when we meet up or will it feel fraught with tension? Have we got enough food in, have we got everything we need? Is my house big enough, good enough for visitors? Are my relationships secure and content? Am I safe? Am I alone? Am I seen? Am I understood? Do I belong? Why does life feel so hard when everyone else’s life looks like a party? Christmas can make us feel our vulnerability. We yearn for home – the home that’s perhaps in our imagination, where there is harmony, peace and love, where every little detail is perfect and safe and cosy. That’s certainly not our real experience. Even putting up our tree this year triggered a meltdown that took a good couple of hours to calm.

IMG_20181216_201253163

Difficult family dynamics, hard to manage meal times and bed times still happen despite Christmas and feel worse because of it! Meltdowns and shutdowns don’t stop for the holidays, in fact they tend to increase in frequency because of the bombardment of sensory input, and lack of routine – not to mention the number of people coming and going and the demands of increased social interaction. The stresses of the logistics of family life and church life seem to be at their worst at these times as we juggle all the extras that we all throw in because it’s Christmas. The pressure we put on ourselves to make it all amazing and good enough for everyone presses our I’m-not-good-enough buttons. And we keenly feel the losses; loved ones who have died, traditions we always hoped for that are simply impossible for us, family moments we have imagined but have yet to realize.

Jesus came into the midst of all that. The uncertainty, the sadness and grief for what’s lost; the insecurities within us and around us; and into the midst of the hopes and longings. He came and made his dwelling among us – not at a respectable distance where he was less vulnerable but right there at the heart of real, everyday, ordinary human experience. He came into it to reach us, to meet us where we are, despite the dangers, despite taking on vulnerability because of love. He came as a baby to be one of us and died our death to break it’s power. His love was strong enough to come to us, strong enough to free us, strong enough to gather us into his family through the new life he offers. The story of the baby born, fully God fully human, God making his dwelling place in the midst of our everyday is a story of hope. He entered into the insecurity and vulnerability of our existence to find us and love us all the way back home to him.

He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross. (MSG Col 1:19)

In all the moments of insecurity, worry, stress, and difficulty this Christmas the story invites me to see again the truth that Jesus gets it, he understands it; he faced it too so he could have the chance to whisper ‘I love you, you are so precious to me’. (Even when everything is a muddle;when children don’t appear to listen when you read the stories about me; when people get along – and when personal space gets invaded, again; when you stay in with one child who doesn’t want to be out in the snow, and when you’re dealing with the over cold children who did go out to play; when there’s a meltdown; when you worry about the child hiding in their room; when the food’s just not right…. I love you, you are so precious to me.)

Advertisements

Myth busting the Nativity

IMG_20181207_104138209

There are so many traditions and embellishments that over the years we have added to the Biblical account. Many are lovely, they can help us imagine the scene, some draw us in and bring it to life. Some however can give us the wrong idea about the story altogether. It’s really useful for us to have clarity about what’s there in the Bible, what we know and to separate out the add ons – not necessarily to ‘banish’ them but to know them as extras.

My girls need that clarity. It’s hard to have to unlearn something later and have to build trust again with the story itself, and the people who told it. Far better to be clear from the beginning (great with hindsight I know!).

Little Donkey is unfortunately never mentioned in the Biblical accounts. It’s true that we know with some certainty that having a donkey with you when you traveled at that time, in that place was common – if you were well off enough to have one. But the donkey would probably have been used to carry things not people routinely. So yes, it is lovely to imagine Mary having the assistance of a donkey for the really long journey on foot to Bethlehem whilst heavily pregnant – but we are having an educated guess. We don’t know for certain they had one with them.

Three Kings are a neatening up of the story. The Bible describes simply ‘some wise men from the East’. We have made the logical step of assuming they had wealth and social standing to be able to abandon what they were doing and set out on the long journey of discovery, and because of the expensive presents they brought. We’ve also neatly assumed three when writing carols and nativity plays – easy, one for each present. But it could have been a group all coming together to bring the three presents. They could have had an entourage of servants with them, there could have just been two out on an adventure together… we’re simply not told.

Stable round the back of the Inn Now this is a tricky one. Almost all Christmas cards show the nativity scene in a wooden stable that we in the west would recognize. It’s usually either at a small distance from the town or like a lean to against the Inn. Also I think we have translated the word ‘Inn’ looking at the story through western eyes, imagining perhaps an old fashioned public house taking in weary travelers with rooms for hire upstairs – and it’s full to bursting. In fact that kind of Inn was not the norm in the Middle East at that time. The culture had at it’s heart the expectation of hospitality. Every home would be ready to give it. Those who could afford to had a guest room set slightly apart from the busyness of their family life, maybe up on the flat roof, or perhaps just separated by a wall from the family living area which would most likely have been one room, bringing the precious animals in for the night to give warmth and security, and all sleeping within that family space with the animals. So it was probably not a wooden stable building that Mary and Joseph were offered for the night, but the chance to squeeze into someone’s family space – animals and all because all the guest rooms were already full. Not secluded, not quiet, not private as we perhaps have got used to picturing it. But yes, he was placed in the manger and yes he was born in with the animals that belonged to that household and I expect they were very glad of the warmth.

2016-12-10-13-58-06

Shepherds and wise men visit. We are used to telling the story all in one go – especially for children, and so we have grown accustomed to imagining the shepherds and wise men all arriving on that first night. But actually the Bible says that the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem much later, perhaps months later. We know Jesus was still young because Herod (otherwise known as Herod the Great – there were a few Herod’s in Biblical times) ordered all babies 2 years and under to be killed in the hope that he would remove this ‘new king’ the wise men had come to see but he was described as a ‘child with his mother’ when they saw him, not as a baby lying in a manger.

Another thing that can so easily get muddled is stars and angels – angels came to the shepherds and the star led the wise men.

2016-12-09-17-00-47

‘No crying he makes’ – no chance!!! How worrying would that have been for Mary. Babies need to cry, to take in that first big breath and to get fed when they are hungry and cleaned when they are dirty. It’s true Jesus was perfect, the Bible tells us he was without sin. But babies crying is not sinful it is necessary (Don’t ask me why we say ‘oh they were such a good baby’ when we mean they didn’t cry too much more than was convenient!! Maybe it harks back to the Victorian adage ‘children should be seen and not heard’). Yes, Mary would have been relieved to hear baby Jesus crying. And just to clarify he would have been a beautifully ordinary Bethlehem baby; olive skin, deep brown eyes, really dark hair – just like his Jewish, Middle Eastern Mum & Dad – he was really, truly human.

 

How can it be nearly December?? what happened in November

I’m not sure what happened to November this year!

It’s been fast and furious in our family this year. After the settling down into new patterns of school and college at the beginning of term, November has seen homework and assessments… and the planning and organizing of work experience placements which is daunting. This term A has been involved in the school musical again, ‘Legally Blonde’ so he’s been busy with rehearsals and this week with the shows. We went to see it together, really fun. (Came away with plenty to unravel and talk about with T afterwards though, maybe more of that in another blog.)

IMG_20181130_103322233

Little Jaffsie enjoying a secret hideout in the garden

The kittens have reached the age to begin exploring the garden – though I am nervous, and closely supervise still. My worries not at all calmed by Jaffa discovering how to get up on the garage roof already. Padfoot is still being kept inside, his health has not been good since we’ve had him and there are ongoing investigations and tests with the vets. So for now it’s easier to monitor him in the house. It’s easy to make sure he gets tonnes of cuddles and fuss – he just laps it up. They are becoming a wonderful part of family life, Padfoot particularly seems to sense when to curl up near someone who needs calming, and Jaffa is a bundle of energy and curiosity which is a great motivator.

IMG_20181112_193416537

helping with bathtime

All the usual stuff of course is still being shoehorned into each week – although sadly the washing Himalayas is actually a mountain range of epic proportions as I write despite my best efforts! And no matter how often I hoover, it always needs doing. And best not to even comment on the lack of tidiness – it’s overrated I reckon.

IMG_20181123_211949133

Padfoot (aka paddington!) investigating our latest creation – a gingerbread house

We have had some together time of Friday evening – one week even a film we all watched together (quite often we divide into two groups for Friday chillin out) – and we made our kittens a gingerbread house at the same time, partly inspired by the film choice: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. Little projects to occupy while we wait for the start help such a lot, and I’m on high alert all the time I find it near impossible these days to relax with a film so it kept me busy too! We’ve also ‘enjoyed’ some Friday family times shaped by meltdowns and struggle – so it’s good for me to sit and remember a good one.

2016-06-01 16.00.53

It’s been difficult to say goodbye to one of our lovely loyal guinea pigs this month. Custard Cream died very unexpectedly. And we miss him. We have planted a beautiful Hebe where he is buried. And the other half of the duo – Bourbon Biscuit – has been brought inside for the winter and is getting a lot of looking after from T. The two hamsters are fine – rather cheeky around the kittens, always popping out to stare at them, and trying to have a little nip if the kittens get too close. And the chickens, bless them, have been malting so look a bit scruffy and sorry for themselves but are fine.

Church life is gearing up for Christmas on top of all the usual busyness – I have yet to begin everything that needs doing for family Christmas of course, but somehow it seems to always come together in time (and what doesn’t, doesn’t matter). And schools have a lot of extras, Christmas Fairs, services, concerts, mufti days, discos… most weeks I struggle to keep up with what’s happening when and for whom!! I’ve also finally got round to filling in yet more forms to apply for carers allowance with the encouragement of a good friend. These things take such a lot of energy! Really thankful Andrew is a detail person, November has been a month and a half!

 

 

calm woodland corner

Well, schools have finally broken up for the Christmas holidays, and we have our first visitors arriving tomorrow. So in preparation I spent some of today creating a calm corner for the girls (and anyone else of course!) to use when they need some space or need to work at calming down.

We have a little gap behind the sofa in the sitting room. It’s very small but maybe that is in its favour – it’s definitely a ‘one at a time’ kind of space!

20171222_103127

I have made a mobile above the space with paper snowflakes which moves and spins slowly as the air moves in the room. I have collected together some pine cones and wood, some laminated autumn leaves and brought a natural woodland feel right into the corner. T has a mood colour night light hedgehog so he’s moved in too.

Our scottie dog doorstop is soft and happily brings some weight onto a little one’s knees to ground them and bring a sense of safety. And our soft cuddly snowman sits ready for a squeeze.

To make use of the radiator that I can’t move out of the way, I have laminated some clip art woodland animals, and cut out some basic silhouette trees – added some magnets onto the backs and created a quick ‘make your own woodland scene’ which can be fiddled with, can inspire stories and become absorbing. As I cut the shapes out I tried to make sure there were no sharp corners or edges so it’s all smooth to touch.

Next I have made a lap size light box from a small household opaque plastic tub with a lid and some LED lights. I will put some tissue paper shapes and some coloured plastic counters that can be arranged on the lid and played around with enjoying the light.

Then I have collected some fidget toys, puzzles and sensory activities into a basket the other side of some cosy cushions. There are a lot of DIY ideas to try. We liked these…

20171222_143231

  • ‘our best bites’ have instructions for homemade snow globes
  • ‘red ted art’ has printable mesmerizing flextangles
  • ‘Views from a step stool’ has instructions for a Christmas themed sensory bag
  • DIY light box instructions from ‘the imagination tree’.
  • fabric marble maze instructions from Yvonne Reynolds (I’m making mine from felt, and tree shaped for my woodland calm corner).

But we also added a sand timer, a Christmas I spy jar we made last year using rice and little pictures and sequins, a tactile snowflake made from fluffy pipe cleaners and hair bobbles with big beads on, a couple of simple puzzles, a Christmas stencil with pens and a pad of paper for doodling, and a create your own story game that we have.

I like the printables for the calm down kit from ‘the chaos and the clutter’ which give suggestions for how to calm down. If I have time I will put something together on a woodland theme. Maybe ‘curl into a tight ball like a hedgehog’ or ‘take a deep breath like the owl flying’, ‘warm up the snowman with a tight cuddle’ ? Any suggestions welcome! …

 

 

 

 

we need to talk Father Christmas

Well, this may be a controversial one but I think we need to talk about Father Christmas as Christian parents. It seems over the years we have been parenting to be one of those taboos that just can’t be explored openly. There is fear of children overhearing, fear of upsetting each other with different views, fear of the myth being lost and our children ‘losing the magic of Christmas’. But for me there are questions I want to grapple with as a Christian parent, and it would be so much easier if we could just talk! We are good at talking – the state of education, mainstream or homeschool, what books are most suitable or not at all suitable, what clothes shops are most ethical, what we let our kids watch on TV & why, the best diets, how to support our kids friendships etc etc, but not Father Christmas!

20171208_115550[1]

So, spurred on my Miriam Gwynne’s frank and open blog about this subject last week, and how her family deal with the Father Christmas myth ( find it here ‘Why I told my Autistic Daughter there is no Santa) – I am going to be brave and continue the conversation, please join in!

Andrew & I have opted out of the Father Christmas myth as parents, we don’t talk about writing lists for him, or about his naughty or nice lists. We don’t tell our kids any of their presents are from him, and we don’t put them to bed on Christmas eve with the words ‘go to sleep or Santa won’t come’. Strangely we both were just of one mind about it, it wasn’t an agonizing decision. We simply both felt that if it was top of our parenting aims to raise children who knew Jesus was real we didn’t want to confuse things by acting as if Father Christmas was too. And that’s just our take. What’s been difficult has been feeling free to opt out in a culture which is embracing it all. Our extended family haven’t made the same choices in their families, and we haven’t yet come across many in church family who opt out either. And we certainly haven’t ever felt the need to impose our take on it as ‘the right way’ for all Christian parents. But it’s right for us, and I hope that in sharing why & how that maybe it encourages someone else by breaking the taboo.

I’ve told you what we don’t do in our family about Father Christmas but let me tell you what we do do. As you can see we do stockings, but we do it differently. We each have a stocking, including Andrew & I, and his parents who are with us for Christmas each year. And we play the Father Christmas game, which for us goes like this…

20171208_123258[1]

Each year we read about St Nicholas, and talk together about how he became an example of how to share the generosity of God’s heart with others. We read the St Nicholas story about the three girls without enough food, or money for dowries, and how St Nicholas shared his plenty with them by climbing up and dropping coins down the chimney into their fireplace & stockings. There are lots of books and resources out there but we love this one.

We remember together how over the years people have remembered this kind of generosity by hanging out stockings and filling them with gifts for each other. How gift giving reminds us of God’s generosity and his greatest gift, Jesus. We talk about the Father Christmas myth that they hear about at school and in the shops, and on TV, and what a wonderfully fun idea it is. And how much fun we can have each year playing this game. (That’s the phrase we often turn to for this, we don’t believe in Father Christmas, but we do play the Father Christmas game together.)

Stocking presents are bought and made, and are little things. None of our main presents go in the stockings. We also always buy chocolate coins for every stocking linking back to the story. Over the years, out of necessity and running out of time, a much loved family tradition has evolved – the stocking shopping trip – with a set amount of time (only approx 40 mins max), a set budget (presently £6 per stocking) and having divided up into two teams we head out to fill a stocking with the most imaginative, thoughtfully chosen, value for money, funny gifts!! Whilst trying not to let the other team see you of course. Hard work but hilarious every year without fail… though the pushchair years were tense at times, it did feel as though one team always had an advantage if it wasn’t the one wriggling in and out of shops with it, and somehow or other this expedition brings out the competitive in us! (needless to say a strict yearly alternating rota formed.)

Then, when we next have a minute mini teams hide away in corners of the house with saved wrapping paper from last year wrapping up the hoard for a stocking, usually taking great care to undo any multi-packs and wrap each item separately – yes biros, paperclips, you name it. I think Andrew is responsible for this little tradition!

dscf3221

On Christmas Eve itself we take turns to wear the Santa hat trying to tiptoe through the house without being spotted ‘being Santa’ and delivering a stocking to the end of someone’s bed, before we go to bed ourselves. So logistically, T often plays Santa to Nanny & Grandad, B & A play Santa to Andrew & T and I then play Santa for them while Andrew is leading the midnight service, and usually Andrew plays Santa to me, putting my full stocking on the bed before he goes out.

Then we open them in the morning, often the kids pile in with each other (T leads the waking up early nowadays) first, and then come in and jump on our bed to watch us open our stockings, and then show us all of their things (which I then have to work hard at gathering up off the bed and putting back in the right stockings to prevent wars later on in the day!). Of course it’s not over till we vote on which stocking shopping team is the winner that year (almost always not me!).

So why do it all this way, it’s not an easy way in the midst of others who don’t – especially with our forthright and often brutally honest children?

These are the things that have motivated us;

  • If we live and act that Father Christmas is real, and also that Jesus is real, how can we expect our children not to equate them? When they work out Father Christmas isn’t real will they also be working on the assumption that Jesus isn’t?
  • We didn’t want to lie to our children, and it seemed to us too difficult to maintain such a well formed myth without lying.
  • We didn’t feel comfortable with the concept of the naughty/nice list, the idea that receiving a gift is something you have to deserve or earn, and that in theory some are never going to be good enough… God doesn’t show us this kind of generosity, in fact quite the opposite, so to embed this thought into out family culture in this yearly tradition seemed unhelpful to us.
  • We were keen to make family traditions that spoke of Christmas being for everyone, not just the children, and for us we were aware how the Father Christmas myth brings with it the idea that the ‘magic’ goes when you reach an age to see through it.
  • For us the ‘magic of Christmas’ comes from the gift of Jesus, so we thought to ourselves that opting out of the Father Christmas myth should not take it away. In fact maybe by not buying into it we would be freeing ourselves to receive the joy of Jesus in new ways.

Unwittingly, looking back with hindsight, having got to know our wonderfully quirky children over many years now, we can see how our opting out has been so good for us as a family, we have not had to worry about the anxiety that would have come from the myth as Miriam Gwynne describes in her post, and we will not face the task of unravelling and unlearning things that aren’t truly the heart of Christmas – for which I am very very thankful…

Now over to you, I’d genuinely love to know what you do, and what you think…

cropped-2016-12-12-13-13-28.jpg