25 December 2011

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Shout with JOY to God, all the earth!
Sing the glory of his name;
make his praise glorious!
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power
that your enemies cringe before you.
All the earth bows down to you;
they sing praise to you,
they sing praise to your name.

Psalm 66:1-4

23 December 2011


At the beginning of December I wrote our annual Christmas letter. I always put a Bible verse at the top of said letter - and somehow I seem to rotate between Isaiah 9:6,7 and Luke 2:11. This year however I used

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
Philippians 4:4

And it got me thinking about joy once again. The joy in this verse isn't dependent upon personal circumstances. It's not about those moments when things are going right and it's easy to smile. Joy in this verse is ever present and lies deep in my soul because irrespective of what is happening in my life, whether my circumstances give rise to smiles or tears, excitement or fear - and I described moments that took in all of these emotions in this year's Christmas letter, such was the year - I always know that God sent His one and only Son to earth a baby, to die a man on a cross and be raised to eternal life. And because of that, no matter what is happening in my life right now - the good and the bad - I live with the blessed hope of eternal life with Him. That brings a deep joy that is always there, irrespective of my day to day circumstances.

I looked up some other verses that use the word "joy" and they are breathtaking, when understood in this light.

Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?”
Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD.
You have filled my heart with greater JOY
than when their grain and new wine abound.
I will lie down and sleep in peace,
for you alone, O LORD,
make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4:6-8

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will REJOICE in the LORD,
I will be JOYFUL in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 3:17-18

Though you have not seen him, you love him;
and even though you do not see him now,
you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious JOY,
for you are receiving the goal of your faith,
the salvation of your souls.
1Peter 1:8,9

There are many more to be found like this. And this joy is the joy of Christmas. Every year there will be those who delight in Christmas and those for whom it is an intensely sad time. Those who are well prepared, those who are ill prepared and those who lack the means to be prepared at all. Those who have much to celebrate from the year gone by and those whose lives have been turned upside down as the year unfolded.

But deep at the core of Christmas is the truth of John 3:16 - that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. It is right to feel immense happiness or deep grief at this time of the year - if that is the path your year has taken. But then there is this joy, that operates independently of our lives, because it comes as a gift from God in the form a baby born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.  

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

22 December 2011

Saying thanks

Blogosphere has a lot to say about Christmas (this blog included!) - but there is one little idea that I have seen only in one spot.  A simple idea, easy to do, perfect in every way.  I noticed it after Christmas last year - a photo and one sentence tucked away in a larger post.  Here.  Amanda's family spend a little bit of time thanking God for all the good things He gives them before they open their presents. 

Given a bit of warning, everyone has time to think of something they're thankful to God for - and what a great moment for an adult to give thanks to God for sending His Son to earth a baby, to die a man on a cross and be raised to eternal life that we too might have eternal life with Him.  And if done annually, what a rich thing to see how these prayers of thanksgiving develop.

Thanks Amanda.  This is a gift.

13 December 2011

A Christmas question

Here's a question for all those Sunday School teachers and/or observant parents out there. 

What sorts of activities have you done with the children at church on Christmas morning in the past?

I spend most of December teaching my way through the Christmas story and doing associated activities with our Sunday School children.  By Christmas Day they are very familiar with the Christmas story.  Additionally when the children get to church on Christmas morning they are either exhausted because they were too excited to get to sleep the night before or because they started their day at 5am and they want to get home to play with the presents they opened at 5am or want to get home to open the presents they weren't allowed to open until after church and they have also potentially had too much sugar for one day already by 9am.

So, fellow Sunday School teachers (or observant parents who have noticed what the Sunday School teachers are doing) - do you have any suggestions for Christmas morning children's activities?

Last year I made these decorations with the children.  They took some home and gave some out to various members of the congregation.

Any ideas?

10 December 2011

The garden miracle

Peeking out from this photo is a small miracle.

It's an agapanthus in flower.  Which may not seem all that miraculous to you.  In fact lots of people don't even like agapanthus plants and some relegate them to the category of weeds.

But I have a soft spot for them.  They remind me of Adelaide - a city close to my heart - where they abound.  They remind me of Christmas.  I love their colour.

The thing is, I have had four attempts in four different gardens at growing them but have never managed to have one flower.  But our current garden obviously has the right soil. 

And behold, a flower!

08 December 2011

All wrapped up...

...and ready to go!

Christmas Craft

And here's an easy Christmas craft idea.

Take the front off an old Christmas card
or off one of the daggy ones in the packet that you're never going to send to anyone.

Punch a hole in each corner. 

Fold the card in half horizontally...

...and vertically.

Then make diagonal folds from the horizontal and vertical midpoints.

Put a few festive lollies in the middle (and you could also write a Bible verse or Christmas message in the white diamond because at some stage these decorations will be opened in order to retrieve the lollies)...

...and then bring the four corners together, threading curling ribbon through the holes.

Pull it all together, tie a knot at the top, make a loop and there you have it...
a simple craft Christmas decoration to hang on your Christmas tree.

I made these with my Scripture classes today as an end-of-year, farewell fun activity.  That is, with the classes that weren't bumped for the cross country event.  Hoping to catch up the last class next week before school ends.

07 December 2011

Sand Art Brownies

These are called Sand Art Brownies.

I received one as a gift several years ago.  I'm not sure where the idea originated from but I just googled it and got a gazillion search results.  So I'm adding this post to the collection and apologise for not acknowledging the original source.

For one jar you need...
2/3 teaspoon of salt
1 and 1/4 cups of plain flour divided into two equal portions
1/3 cup of cocoa
2/3 cup of brown sugar
2/3 cup of white sugar
1/4 cup of milk choc chips
1/4 cup of white choc chips
1/2 cup of walnuts or pecans

Layer the ingredients in the jar as follows...
Half the flour
Half the flour
Brown sugar
White sugar
Milk choc chips
White choc chips
Walnuts and pecans

(The observant ones will notice that I didn't quite follow the layering instructions.  I lost concentration early on in the process and then had to improvise down the track!)

Seal the jars.  Wrap with clear cellophane and a bright, Christmas-y ribbon.  Attach a label that says...

Sand Art Brownies
1.  Preheat oven to 180 degrees
2.  Prepare a slice tray
3. Pour the contents of the jar into a bowl and mix well.  As an optional extra add chopped glace cherries.
4.  Add one teaspoon of vanilla, half a cup of vegetable oil and three eggs.  Stir until just combined.
5.  Pour mix into the prepared tin and bake at 180 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.

We made these as presents for teachers this year.

05 December 2011

Getting heads, hearts and hands ready for Christmas # 2

[Much of the content of this post is a re-post from a couple of years ago, with a few additions.]

So, bearing in mind the principles of out-celebrating the secular world, praying about our activities and creating gospel-laden traditions, what are some practical things to do to steer children (and grown ups) towards the real meaning Christmas when we are surrounded by secular commercialism?
But before you read on, here is the standard health warning that comes with all lists. Do not attempt to do every item on this list in one year. Nor feel guilty if you do none. And so, to the list...

* Make sure you actually read the Christmas story!

* Emphasise that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus' birthday. So do some of your own family birthday traditions on Christmas day. A popular one is to have birthday cake on the day...and of course the best time to do this is at breakfast because there is often little opportunity after that!! Cake at breakfast time will surely create a great memory! But if you can't stomach cake for breakfast, it makes a child friendly alternative to Christmas pudding when you have your family feast.

* Have a nativity set at home. When the children are young have one that isn't too precious and let the children play with it, act out the story with it and generally engage with it.

* Look for the nativity scenes set up in shopping centres. Make a point of going and looking at them and talking about them with the children. Be seen in the shops doing this! And send a note of thanks to the manager for including it in amongst the decorations.

* Have an advent calendar. These are good for including daily readings, activities, treats or just simply counting down the days until Jesus' birthday and children LOVE them.

* On advent calendars, if you are a godparent or aunty (or uncle...not sure if any men read this blog!) or grandparent...if you have a special child in your life who is not your son or daughter, think about maing or providing an advent calendar for that child and then provide the contents for it every year as your special gift to that child. What a great tradition. How did I think of this idea? Well, I didn't! Our boys' godparents came up with this idea. They gave our oldest son the actual calendar with the pockets for his first Christmas and every year they supply the goodies for the pockets. It is a wonderful, wonderful gift. Thanks guys!

*  Stuck for Advent Readings?  There are lots to be found on the internet.  Or get a copy of the "Jesus Story Book Bible."  The format of this children's Bible is such that there are twenty one stories presented from the Old Testament (which "whisper Jesus name") and then the Christmas story is presented in three stories. That makes twenty four stories that will paint an Old Testament backdrop to the birth of Jesus and then tell the story of his birth. Twenty four superb readings to do with children - one a day - during the month of December leading up to Christmas.

* Tap into the great Christmas CDs and DVDs that are available. Have Christmas carols playing in your house and car.  Colin Buchanan has a great CD/DVD called "The King of Christmas" for kids.

* Presents...
Consider church first, presents second.
Chat about why we have presents - remembering Jesus birthday and reflecting the gifts the wise men brought.
Look at the story of St Nicholas (the origins of that man in the red suit) and observe his emphasis on giving rather than receiving. The Grinch who Stole Christmas  by Dr Seuss also encourages looking outwards and thinking about what else is important at Christmas rather than just being greedy for gifts.
Pause to say a prayer of thanksgiving before the unwrapping begins.

* Get the children to make Christmas cards that feature the real meaning of Christmas to give to...their teacher, best friend, grandma, godparents, someone they know and love, someone you would like them to thank.

These are a few ideas I've seen, heard, collected and/or done.  There are many more.  Have fun doing what you can in the midst of all that is December.

04 December 2011

Getting heads, hearts and hands ready for Christmas # 1

[Much of the content of this post is a re-post from a couple of years ago,
with a few additions.]

It's December and once again I'm thinking about how prepare myself and my family for Christmas.  We are surrounded by secular commercialism and tradition.  I am more than happy to give gifts and decorate our house.  It's all part of having fun as a family and making memories together.  And at this time of the year the calendar fills with all sorts of opportunities to celebrate - Christmas, the end of the year and at least where I live, the arrival of summer.
So in the midst of all of this, how do I make sure that my head and heart are filled with Jesus and God's goodness and my hands are busy serving Him, rather than being distracted by all that is going on around me?  And how do we encourage our children to do the same?
Here are three things that I try to think about as I seek to put Jesus' birthday at the centre of all that is December.

1. Pray

Before we do anything it is good to pray - pray that our heads and hearts will be in the Right spot and that our children will truly grasp what Christmas is all about and embrace the gospel. This could be a special prayer project for December.  (Or better still, a project for November.  But it's too late for that this year!)  And it's good to pray about each of our specific endeavours we are trying, as time and energy allows, to steer our children towards the real meaning of Christmas as we plan them and put them into action.

2. Determine to out-celebrate those in the secular world

Christmas is great. Catching up with family and friends, the presents, the cards in the mail, the food, the decorations...it's all good. But for those who know and love Christ there is so much more. This is the day we celebrate that God sent His Son to earth "that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16b). The presents, the tinsel and the food are great and fun (and wonderful for creating terrific memories for our children and ourselves!) but the first Christmas day was an INCREDIBLE moment in history. We have much to celebrate. Those who know and love Christ should determine to out-celebrate what the consumerist world presents as Christmas. On that very first Christmas God sent us His Son, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. That's as big as it gets.

To that end, I try to be wise in choosing which invitations to functions to accept during December. This may come as a contradiction having just said, "Head out there and out-celebrate the rest of the world!" But read on. There are plenty of Christmas parties to attend and if you dwell in the southern hemisphere, there are all those "winding up the year" events too. Not to mention the "we must catch up before Christmas" phenomenon.  I pick and choose around all of these social opportunities, trying carefully not to offend when I sometimes have to say, "Hey, December is pretty busy for us.  But January is really quiet.  Can we catch up then?" 

The bottom line is I want to save my energy - and the energy of my family - to make the best use of this gospel-laden month. Maybe I miss out on a few fun opportunities - but December is a really good month to accept invitations thoughtfully and intentionally.

3. Traditions are important

When I think of Christmas, my immediate childhood memories centre on decorating the Christmas tree and house, opening presents on Christmas morning, the food... And I remember these things because there was a tradition built up around of each of them.
So if we can develop traditions with our children that have the gospel "trapped" within them, then in years to come, when they reflect on their own childhood recollections of Christmas, they will have a recollection that is infused with Christ. If they are, we pray, still walking with the Lord, this memory will be a warm encouragement to them. If they have wandered, then this will be a gentle prompt. 

Christmas traditions infused with Christ are powerful. It is well worth spending some time thinking and praying about, planning carefully and implementing Christ-laden Christmas traditions that can occur every year with all the Christmas joy we can muster.

Tomorrow, some practicalities.

01 December 2011

Status Report: December

Eating:  Maltesers.  It says it's a jumbo share pack.  I won't eat ALL of them while I am sitting here.  But I doubt very much if I'll be sharing what's left! 

Drinking:  A glass of cold water with eight iceblocks in it, one of which is a lemon iceblock.  Would have been nice with a few mint leaves floating in it, but the mint is dead.

Reading from the Bible:  Romans.  The reading plan has crashed.  That is a post to follow.

Also reading:  Nothing.  Should be reading Come Thou Long Expected Jesus but I gave my copy away last week because there was someone who just had to have a copy of it.

Waiting:  For the order of books to arrive, including a small stash of Come Thou Long Expected Jesus books.  When that arrives I will be reading it again, and also sending a copy to Em.

Wanting to say THANKS:  To all the kind people who have been ordering books from The Book Depository through my blog.  I'm nearly up to £20 in commission.  Very excited and grateful.  Thank you.

Feeling like things are essentially in hand:  For Christmas.  The shopping is underway - including some done online this year.  I haven't really done that before but it has become a bit of a necessity this time around.  The fruit mince is bottled and brewing up ready for mince pies.  The family Christmas letter is underway, the Christmas card list is written (somewhat culled this year) and the cards are here and waiting...

However:  The Christmas cards don't seem to be writing themselves.  My week is generally quite full so I am not sure when I thought I was going to write them.  There is some time on the horizon dedicated to the task but as happens most years, some people will be receiving Happy New Year cards rather than Merry Christmas cards.

Glad:  There are nine more days of school.  Glad that the boys will be at school for nine more days giving me a few pockets of time to get some things done that will be hard to do when they are at home...like buy them a Christmas present.  And glad that in nine more school days they will be home,  we can hang around in our pyjamas a bit longer in the mornings and operate at a slower pace for a while.

Thankful:  For the opportunity to teach Scripture in our local primary school.  I have taught the three senior classes this year.  Today we covered the real meaning of Christmas and next week we will do a craft activity.  Craft for 80 children.  Am I crazy???  Some years I get to this point and think, "It's been good but I am glad there is only one more lesson to go for the year."  This year I feel a bit sad that it has come to an end.  I've had some of these children for three years and now they are off to high school.  Praying that my words and actions - these little seeds sown - will spring to Life in the hearts of these children.

Thinking:  This is probably my last Status Report.  It's been great fun but the opportunity of short summaries in status reports makes it too easy to not post in greater detail on some of these issues during the month.  It's making me lazy. 

Hoping:  You are able to spend some time in the hurley burley of December to think hard and be filled with joy at God's goodness in sending His Son Jesus to earth as we approach Christmas.