31 December 2012

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

When I read the last words of Crossing to Safety my second reaction was to think, "Thank goodness that's over!"  That came after my first response which was to allow a few little tears to trickle down my cheek.  (That moment was interrupted by finding a seven year old's face about 10 centimetres from my face requesting crackers for afternoon tea.)  Why the second response, when I was moved to tears in the first instance?  Relief that after four (albeit glorious) days I could get myself to bed before midnight and the family stood a chance of a) getting some eye contact from me after four fairly remote days and b) something better than crackers for afternoon tea.

Crossing to Safety was written in 1987 by American author Wallace Stegner.  It is the story of the lives of two couples - Sid and Charity Lang and Larry and Sally Morgan - who met for the first time during the Depression.  Sid and Larry both have their first jobs in the English Department of the University of Wisconsin.  Their wives are both pregnant.  A lifelong friendship is born.  The book, told from the point of view of an aging Larry Morgan, charts the progress of friendship, life, love and loyalty. 

Written about a different era, and yet it was very evocative of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  Of Gilead I said,

"And it is a wonderfully written novel. It moved along so slowly, and yet it was a page turner. It was oh so gentle, but not light weight by any stretch of the imagination. Full of peace, compassion, deep love, honour, loyalty and lived out, deeply understood theology.  Beautiful holiday reading!"

Apart from the "lived out, deeply understood theology" bit, that description fits this book perfectly.  Crossing to Safety is not written from a Christian world view so when it takes in the subject of dying I found it achingly sad to read very good writing about dying and death, but death without hope.  So there is that to it.  But as far as great reads go, this is a wonderful, wonderful book and if you are a Gilead fan, then I feel fairly sure you will love this too for its pace, poise and richness.

Thank you so very much to Karen whose review first introduced me to this book.  Unlike Karen, who seems to have excellent self-control and makes very good use of her local library, I actually bought this one and put it away for Boxing Day.  It was all I could do to not take a sneak peak during December.  (I did end up reading the introduction and the first chapter before Christmas...)  And in the spirit of lack of self-control, I was going to a summer reading round up at the end of the holidays, but I couldn't wait until then with this book.  If you are in need of a good summer read (or a good winter read for that matter) then this might be one for you.  As for me, my summer reading plan has just changed directions.  I am off to find Gilead for a re-read now.  (I bought that one too!)  But I might fix afternoon tea first.

30 December 2012

Wrapping up 2012

I love this time of year in blogosphere when people look back on the year gone and look forward to the year ahead.  So, 2012 in this neck of the woods.

Stuff I said I'd do...

Reading glasses...Done.  Life changing.  Really. 

Cooking...Adding to the repetoire of weekly meals. 
Epic fail.  Man, mid week meals around here are Oh. So. Boring. 
I could possibly write a recipe book called One Hundred Two Ways with IKEA Meatballs. 
The brief but somewhat intense foray into Tupperware this year means that my hamburgers are so much better and I should mention that for one who is not big on gadgets, I cannot live without the Smooth Chopper.
The boys have learned to eat and appreciate soup this year.
I got a new carbon steel wok for Christmas.  My other wok gave up the ghost (due to my inattention) after fifteen years of good and faithful service.  Looking forward to seasoning this new one and getting it into use.
And the mince pies this Christmas were delicious.

Approach Bible reading differently...This was good.  Really good.  It was excellent to zone in on the prophets (and I only scratched the surface but enough to help me get by for the moment) and then it was quite something to try and race through the whole Bible in chronological order in six months.  I didn't make it through but not to worry.  The thing about the 2012 approach though was that I didn't get near the New Testament in my own personal reading (althrough I did read bits of it in Bible study groups and at church) until half way through November.  I love the Old Testament dearly but I did miss some of my good New Testament friends...so I will doing things a bit differently in the new year.

Add basil and mint to the pot of time on the kitchen windowsill...I got the mint and the basil.  It sat alongside my thyme and a little plant with pink flowers.  The thyme didn't like the pot it was in, never really grew and eventually passed away.  The basil couldn't grow fast enough for my consumption and I ended up a) stripping the plant until it wouldn't grow anymore and b) still needed to buy bunches of the stuff anyway to supplement my measly crop.  The mint however did what it needed to do...and provides me with the odd leaf here and there for drinks, salads and mint sauce.  So the thyme and the basil have gone - and will be purchased by the bunch as needed - and the mint grows alongside the pink flowering plant and another interesting, multicoloured thing.  And that is enough on the kitchen windowsill.

Pray for my friends...Done.  Well, still going really.  What a joy to have a specific prayer project, praying for friends all year. In God's grace they did famously on Kiribati and within their sphere, made a real difference there.  And they managed to get back home just in time for Christmas, despite Hurricane Evan's attempts to keep in them in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for a bit longer.


Reading has been a highlight of year. Especially after getting my new reading glasses. Reading has given me rest, joy, things to think about and good things to share.

Favourite book?  That is hard call. I look at my reading list for 2012 and they were all good.  But if I had to narrow it down, Knowing God was an important book to read and wonderful. I will be reading it again - along with 18 Words. And Moby Duck was sensational and life changing.   Where other campaigns have failed, this book has single handedly made me take a serious look at my use of plastics, take my own shopping bags to the grocery store every sing time, tell those kind folks at Subway that I don't need my wrapped roll in a plastic bag that will be dispensed with 10 seconds later, reduced my usage of clingwrap and so on. 

The blog...

Most read post this year - was Infusing Christmas with Christ for Kids - the Jesus Storybook Bible, a post about how the Jesus Storybook Bible could be used as a series of Advent readings that I wrote in November 2009, thanks to some generous linkage by a couple of bloggers whose reach is vast. 

Most read post that I wrote this year - Making the Transition from Children's Ministry to Church.  It's an issue that will never go away, and ultimately it is in God's hands, thankfully.  But good to think about these things. 

My favourite post for the year - One to One Bible Reading - I love this little book that describes the very thing that makes my heart beat...getting people reading their Bibles and furthermore, getting them to love reading their Bibles.

Remember this quote?

Imagine if all Christians, as a normal part of their discipleship, were caught up in a web of regular Bible reading - not only digging into the Word privately, but reading it with their children before bed, with their spouse over breakfast, with a non-Christian colleague at work once a week over lunch, with a new Christian for follow-up once a fortnight for mutual encouragement, and with a mature Christian friend once a month for mutual encouragement.
It would be a chaotic web of personal relationships, prayer and Bible reading - more of a movement than a program - but at another level it would be profoundly simple and within reach of all.

It's an exciting thought!

(It's from from The Trellis and the Vine (page 57) by Tony Payne and Colin Marshall (Matthias Media) and quoted in One to One Bible Reading (page 12) by David Helm.)

New visitors at the blog - I don't really know how many people read this blog but there has been an interesting development in the stats that Blogger provides. It turns out that most of the Key to the Door readers are from Australia, which makes perfect sense. Second in line is the U.S. and I can account for that. Fourth is Chile and surprisingly, I can account for the Chileans too. (Hi guys!!) And fifth is the U.K. But in third place - and only since this year and it happened all of a sudden - is Russia. I'm not sure how you found me, but to those of you in Russia, a warm HELLO and WELCOME.

And life itself...

And of course there many other good and noteworthy things, some of which made it to the blog and others that didn't... seeing Stuart Townend perform and also singing lots of his songs in church, taking in three symphony performances, a holiday housesitting for friends who live much closer to the beach than we do while they went elsewhere on holiday, friends moving near us and then delivering meals to us at times when they knew we were stretched, agapanthus and rose success in the garden (although I understand now why you prune your roses in July and not in September if you want to enjoy your blooms for longer than two weeks before the hot weather sets in) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel...  All of which makes me wonder about reprising the status reports to catch glimpses of the small but special stuff along the way.  What do you think?  (And if I do, any fellow bloggers out there want to come along for the ride and make it a feature of our blogs month by month?)

And there were the struggles that come with any year too.  The nights of little sleep and much prayer.  The days of being stretched.   The sorrows, irritations and struggles.  Interestingly, instead of tacking "Happy New Year" onto the end of the "Merry Christmas" bit as I wrote my Christmas cards this year, I found myself saying, "And may you know all the through the year ahead how much God has already blessed us through His Son Jesus Christ."  We always hope the year ahead will be happy - but we know that that every year will have its ups and its downs.   But we have been blessed right out of our socks already before we even start because of Jesus.  No matter what happened, 2012 was a year of great blessing.   And happily, 2013 will be the same.

26 December 2012

One last Christmas idea (to store up for next year) and a request

One of the fun things I did on Christmas day was to run some activities for the kids who came to church in the morning.  I've done this for a few years - but lest you think me very virtuous, let me tell you I have had an extremely checkered past in this department.  There was the year I planned fabulous activities and only two kids turned up to church.  The following year I didn't plan anything (thinking I would just play with the two kids) and loads of children came.  There was the year of making Christmas cards (boring...already done that at school and by Christmas day it is too late) and the year I was so tired that all I could muster up were a few colouring in sheets (the less said about that one the better).  Last year we did a simple craft activity which went down very well.

Running the kids' activities on Christmas day is always a bit hit and miss.  You never know how many kids will be there.  And you never know what shape the kids will be in.  Some years they arrive full of beans.  Some years they arrive spent from nights of excitement-induced lack of sleep, an early start and possibly crazed from too much sugar already and it is only 9am!  There are the kids who have already opened their presents (and very possibly would rather be at home playing with them) and the kids who are impatient for church to finish because they are yet to get near their Christmas tree.  So many variables.

A few weeks ago I made the conscious decision to give some enerygy to this part of Christmas day this year.  We played party games.

Game # 1 - the treasure hunt
I pulled out the stable from the old Vegie Tales nativity set from a gift bag and asked the children what it was.  Then I sent them off to find all the characters, having hidden them all around the hall before church.  Once all the pieces were found the children set up the scene, telling me the story along the way.

Game # 2 - the guessing game

I'd taken six decorations from our tree and put them in a bag.  The children took turns to put their hand in the bag and guess what one of the decorations was by touch.  As they guessed them we pulled them out one by one and had a Christmas related discussion.  The decorations included a star, two angels (because one visited Mary but a host of them visited the shepherds), a bell, a tree and a stocking (the last three giving rise to good chats about traditions, church and giving.)

Game # 3 - pass the parcel

This was especially good for the children who hadn't yet opened anything that morning.  We sat in a circle and rolled a dice, passing the parcel around the number of people as shown on the dice.  Underneath each layer there was a question to answer or an instruction to carry out (by the child who had done the unwrapping and sometimes others chipped in as well, which was nice.)  The layers went as follows...

Layer 1 - What is your favourite thing about Christmas?
Layer 2 - What is your favourite Christmas song?
Layer 3 - What is your favourite Christmas food?
Layer 4 - This layer had a small prize with the instruction, "Because it is nice to give presents at Christmas time, give this prize to someone else in the group" (leading to a discussion about giving as well as receiving.)
Layer 5 - Tell us a short version of the Christmas story.  Make sure you include Gabriel and Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, Jesus born in the stable, shepherds and angels and wise men and the star.  Or give this task to someone else to do. 
Layer 6 - Give the parcel to the person who told the Christmas story and tell them they are allowed to open the next layer.
Final Layer - there were two small bags of chocolate coins at this point and a note that said, "Well done for telling us the Christmas story.  Here is prize for you to take home and one to share with everyone now."  And then we shared out the chocolates amongst the group.

This done, there were just a few minutes left - long enough to play three quick running around games - and then the parents were out to fetch their kids and take them onto the rest of their Christmas day events.  It was a great morning.  The kids were engaged and I think they all had a good time.

So here is the question.  If you organised something for kids at church on Christmas day (or if you have kids and they had something organised for them) could you please please please share what you/they did with me in the comments?  Because I am sure I will doing this gig another time and I'm always on the lookout for new ideas.

24 December 2012

Merry Christmas

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees!
Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!


21 December 2012

The gift of gifts

Despite all good intentions, sometimes it is hard to hold onto what it is that we celebrate at Christmas time.  I was going to post this beautiful prayer for Christmas Day but as I read it over again and prayed it for myself last night and again today, it occurred to me that it's probably of more use to share it now, in these last days before Christmas.  If you are finding it difficult, for whatever reason - and there are many - to pause before the manger just now, then I hope this prayer will help you to get your heart back in the Right Place, as it has done for me.

O Source of all good,
What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts,
  thine own dear Son, begotten not created,
  my Redeemer, proxy, surety, substitute,
  his self-emptying incomprehensible,
  his infinity of love beyond the heart's grasp.
Herein is wonder of wonders:
  he came below to raise me above,
  was born like me that I might become like him.
Herein is love:
  when I cannot rise to him he draws near on wings of grace,
  to raise me to himself.
Herein is power;
  when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart
  he united them in indissoluble unity,
  the uncreated and the created.
Herein is wisdom;
  when I was undone,
  with no will to return to him,
  and no intellect to devise recovery,
  he came, God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost,
  as man to die to my death,
  to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
  to work out a perfect righteousness for me.
O God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds,
  and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
  and hearing, believe, rejoice, praise, adore,
  my conscience bathed in an ocean of repose,
  my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;
place me with ox, ass, camel, goat,
  to look with them upon my Redeemer's face,
  and in him account myself delivered from sin;
let me with Simeon clasp the newborn child to my heart,
  embrace him with undying faith,
  exulting that he is mine and I am his.
In him thou hast given me so much
  that heaven can give no more.


(From  The Valley of Vision page 28- a collection of Puritan prayers and devotions edited by Arthur Bennett.)

06 December 2012

Three ways into the Christmas story

If you are in the business of having to do a kids' Christmas talk this year maybe one of these might help...three of the ways I have told the Christmas story in Scripture this year. 
# 1...Jesus is the best gift of all.
For this rendition I put a nativity set into a gift box or gift bag.  Then it is a matter of telling the story and pulling the bits and pieces out of the bag as they come up in the story, starting with Mary being visited by the angel, and building up the scene as you go. 

When I do this I usually use this nativity scene - a very plastic (non-breakable) Veggie Tales set.  The kids at school, who aren't familiar with Veggie Tales, are very amused that all the characters are vegies and it is enough to hold even the big kids through the telling of a familiar story.

(I remember being aghast when my husband brought this set home, having purchased it for next to nothing from the markdown shelf at a certain Christian bookstore.  Ironically it is the nativity set that our boys played with the most when they were young and I use it all the time now as a teaching resource at this time time of the year.  So to my husband...apologies for that look of absolute horror when you walked in the door with this little purchase.)
At the end of the story you ask why the nativity scene was in a gift box and explain that God gave us the best gift of all in sending Jesus to earth a baby to die on a cross a man so that we might be forgiven for all our sins.  Jesus is the best gift of all.
# 2...The "So you think you know the Christmas story" super quiz
This is great for bigger kids who really think they know it all.  You ask the following six questions and get the children to write down their answers.
1.  When Mary first heard that she was going to be the mother of God's Son, she heard the news from an angel.  What was the angel's name? (Gabriel)
2.  When it came time for Jesus to be born Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem.  Why did they have to go there? (To take part in the census.)
3.  Was Jesus born in a manger or put in a manger after he was born? (Put in the manger...born in the stable.)
4.  After he was born Jesus had two lots of visitors - some shepherds and some wise men.  Who came first or did they come at the same time? (Shepherds first, wise men second.)
5.  How did the shepherds and the wise men know that Jesus had been born?  How did God announce the news? (Angels for the shepherds and the star for the wise men.)
6.  When the wise men visited they brought presents.  What were the presents?  And by the way, how many wise men were there? (Gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And we don't know how many wise men.  The Bible just says "the wise men".  There were three gifts but there may not have been three wise men.)

You then provide the answers by telling the story, revealing the answers as you go, dispelling a few myths generated by carols and Christmas cards along the way.   (There is also the issue of the age of Jesus when he was visited by the wise men.  Head down that path if you want to take in the Herod story during your session because there is a bit of mythbusting to be done there too.)
#3...Christmas (and in fact the whole story of the Bible depending how far you want to take it) through the lense of the wise men's gifts.
Start by asking what sorts of presents babies and small children receive.  Then put the wise men in their context (ah, that would mean a quick retell of the story!!) and head on into your main discussion - about the highly unusual gifts Jesus received from the wise men. 
Gold is a precious metal - the metal of kings - pointing to the fact that Jesus is the King of kings.
Frankincense is the incense used by the high priest, pointing to Jesus as the great High Priest. 
Myrrh is embalming oil, used only for royalty, pointing to his important death. 
Through the themes of King, Priest and Jesus' death you can take the story as far, wide and deep as time and the age of your audience will allow. 

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 
Luke 2:10,11