Wednesday 20 December 2023

Joyful Friendships and Joyful self care - being intentional about experiencing joy

 Aware that the year is coming to an end and that I am two months behind on my posts about my joyful year I have implored myself to open up my laptop and get to work telling you about my joyful focuses for October and November.

As you may remember every year I choose a "word of the year" which acts as a focus and motivation to shape the year ahead.  I use the word to inform my attitude and my actions and I try to think about it's meaning and context in my life. 

Each month of this year I have focused on a different aspect of my life and how "joyful" can influence that part of my life.  In October I chose "friendship" as my monthly focus.  

For a while I had been in a bit of a dark place with regards to friendships, still mourning the loss of some of my closest friends when we moved across the country, and still others moving away, I was starting to feel like no one liked me or my children and I ended up closing ourselves in a bit.  I made it seem like we were busy with other things, but we weren't busy, I was just sad and lonely, and feeling like I wasn't a likable person.  

Luckily (by the grace of God) I decided to claw my way out of this hole I have got myself into, rather than languishing and becoming depressed, and change my mindset and attitude.  I decided to put myself out there again and work harder on my friendships.  I wanted to experience joyfulness in my friendships.

So I committed to going to our groups and meetups whenever we could instead of making excuses and I arranged some meet ups with old friends.  Just the action of doing these things really helped and gave me joy.  Seeing people, making connections and talking to other women all helped me feel better about myself and my capacity for being a good friend to others as well as drawing good friends to me. 

The climax of the month was the Baptism of my two youngest children.  We invited the Godparents who are good friends of ours, some other friends and family and had an absolutely wonderful afternoon together, it warmed my heart so much to be with such special people who had all come to encourage and support us. It was so special. 

November brought a self-care focus.  Self-care is something I am notoriously bad at. I find that there is a little part of my brain which likes to be a martyr and as such feels a strange sense of righteousness in wearing myself to the bone.  Clearly this is not good, it's not what God wants, it's not righteousness at all.  So I made small changes to that in November.  

Self-care is a difficult thing for mothers as so much of our lives require sacrifice for others, it is easy to believe that we don't deserve self-care, or that it is selfish.  But we all know it is important because it helps us be the best versions of ourselves which is what our family deserves. It's a win-win situation.  

The climax of my "Joyful self-care" focus was a visit to "Float in the Forest" which is a flotation tank centre near me.  My sister-in-law bought me a voucher for my birthday and I finally cashed it in.  I spent a blissful hour floating in the dark in a pod of very salty water and took myself out to lunch afterwards where I sat in a cafĂ© reading a book, eating a delicious lunch and feeling very much like Carrie Bradshaw! It felt so good to spoil myself and really relax.  


One of the things I realised over the past two months of joyful focuses is that to have a more joyful life takes intention.  It hasn't just happened because I said the word, it's taken action from me, it's taken work, commitment and planning.  I had to plan my date with myself at the floatation centre, I had to organise the Baptism, I had to make the decision to join meet ups and actually go there.  This year "Joyful" has been my rudder but I have still had to paddle the boat forwards. 

Now we are in December and I am focusing on my family enjoying a "Joyful Christmas".  I'll be sad that this word-of-the-year has ended because it's been so wonderful, but I will reflect on that another day. 

Saturday 21 October 2023

Joyful wardrobe - wearing clothes that bring you joy

 October is here and I've already begun a new joyful focus, but I'm here to reflect on my joyful focus of September with you right now, which was "Joyful Wardrobe". 

As many of you know each year I choose a "word of the year" this years word is "Joyful" and each month I've had a different focus which relates to this word, I've explored all sorts of aspects of joy in my life so far this year from family to my body to home education and more. This months focus probably sounds terribly frivolous, but it's an aspect of my life that was sucking joy before. 

I had found myself in a real rut when it came to clothing.  I had a few items that I loved and I had worn absolutely to death and I had filled in the gaps with hoodies and jogging bottoms.  It was getting to the point where I literally had nothing to wear that didn't have holes or was made from jersey!  I was feeling pretty down about my wardrobe and not really knowing what to do to improve it. Part of the problem related to having been pregnant or breastfeeding for so long, so maternity clothes or clothes adapted or otherwise suitable for breastfeeding have been my mainstay (I'm still breastfeeding so I still had to take this into account) and also just generally feeling unattractive and frumpy in whatever I wore.  I'd pretty much given up hope of looking nice. 

I had no idea what to wear, no idea what I liked, not much in the way of a budget to spend on new stuff and a deep dislike for clothes shopping! 

I really do despise shopping in clothes shops, I don't know what it is about the mirrors or the lighting but I always find myself feeling fat and ugly in shop mirrors, add to this the time pressures (must get back to the car before the ticket runs out, or back home before the baby freaks out or before whoever is looking after them needs relief) size and colour options and I have found myself standing in a shop totally overwhelmed hating life!

Not a good starting point!

But not one to be put off I was determined that I was going to do something about my wardrobe so I began to add to a board I started a few years ago on Pinterest, pinning outfits that I had seen online and liked.  I called this board "finding my style" and it has really helped me to work out what I actually like.  My board now has nearly 300 pins to inspire me in my search for my own fashion tastes and styles.  

I am not the sort of person to follow fashion, I never have.  For one thing I've never really been able to afford it, and for another I'd much rather wear styles that suit my body shape and personality than styles that are on trend.  So if you're thinking that this post might help you be on trend then you'll be disappointed!

If you'd like to take a look at my Pinterest board click HERE

Here are some examples of outfits that I have pinned:


Hopefully you get an idea from all that what sort of outfit and style I like.  I'm sure these aren't the height of fashion, but I really don't care, that's not something that's important to me. I just want to feel comfortable really, whilst also not drawing attention to myself as something the cat dragged in!

The next step I took in switching up my wardrobe was to start purchasing items.  Now as I mentioned before, I'm on a tight budget so I knew I couldn't go into actual shops and buy anything like this new, so my search began in the local charity shop.  I had an idea in my mind of what I was looking for and anything that vaguely fitted the bill in the charity shop, I would buy. It didn't matter too much if the items I bought ended up looking terrible or not fitting properly because they only cost me a pound or two, so not great loss, I could donate things back to charity and feel good about it at the end of the day.
Unfortunately however I wasn't always able to find what I was looking for in charity shops.  

Then someone mentioned the website Vinted to me so I decided to take a look and to my joy I was able to find exactly what I was looking for second hand (and sometimes brand new) at a fraction of the cost of the stuff in the shops (most of which I didn't like anyway!)

So this has been a whole new, exciting thing for me! I choose an outfit I pinned on Pinterest, then I look for each item or something similar on Vinted. I've picked up some real bargains, it's been brilliant and I've revamped my whole wardrobe for less than £100.

I will confess to you now that I did make one dirty purchase from Shein (I know, I know) but aside from that and some essentials that you can't but second hand (if you know what I mean) from ASDA, everything I've bought has been second hand either from charity shops or from Vinted or Ebay. 
Honestly it's been like opening up a whole new world of clothing for me and I've really enjoyed it.  Of course I've had some disappointments, where I've got things home from the charity shop and found they don't fit or look ridiculous, and a couple of things from Vinted which were too big or the colours weren't quite as expected, but apart form that it's been great and I highly recommend it.  The other thing that's great about buying second hand is that you can buy branded stuff for much less (you might not care, but I do think that some brands produce better quality clothes than others.  There is a whole lot of fast fashion items on Vinted so you do need to filter thought all that to get to the good stuff) and you can buy better quality materials for much less too.  Second hand wool and leather items are great buys on Vinted especially if you object ethically to buying these materials new.  No harm has been done to an animal by buying second hand wool jumpers or leather boots. I would argue in fact that this is much better for animals that buying plastic shoes and jumpers which will never degrade. 

So all in all my September joyful focus has been a great success, possibly my most successful joyful focus so far and definitely my most enjoyable.  
The best purchase for me was a cardigan that was the same as one I bought about 15 years ago.  It was a cardigan that I loved so much it was full of holes and coming apart.  I had looked a few times on ebay to find a replacement, but I had very little hope with it being over 15 years old.  Then one day to my absolute joy I found one on Vinted, same size and everything.  I can't tell you how happy I felt receiving that cardigan through the post, it was like going back in time and having my old cardigan back but brand new, it was like it hadn't been worn.  I am so pleased with this purchase, I bought another one that I found in a  different colour!  I've also bought a second pair of my favourite jeans. 

So if you feel like your wardrobe isn't bringing you joy I highly recommend this process of pinning styles you like on Pinterest then finding similar things second hand online, it's been a fun and really enjoyable process that I will definitely be carrying with me into the future. 

Here are a few terrible pics of some of my new clothes:



Sunday 3 September 2023

Joyful Food - Crafting a diet that's both healthy and joyful

This year my word-of-the-year is "Joyful". Each month I have chosen a joyful focus to inspire me, motivate me, to keep me on track. August's focus has been on food and what we eat.  This focus didn't start abruptly at the beginning of August, it has been a more gradual process over the past few months but August has given me the opportunity to have a moment to think about how it's going, to re-access what is and isn't working.

Over the past few years, young children, and time pressures have meant that I have been turning more and more towards processed and oven ready foods. There has been a lot of media coverage on how harmful ultra processed foods (UPFs) are and it prompted me to re-access our diet and what I have been putting into my, and my children's bodies. What is more, it is clear to me that UPF's are not joyful. Whilst they might taste ok, and fill a hole the burden of additives, preservatives and fake ingredients doesn't kindle joy in my heart in the way a home made slice of cake, a freshly tossed salad with dressing, or a newly baked loaf of bread might.

Please don't get me wrong, I don't believe that our diet has been drastically bad over the years, we haven't been eating all ready meals, fizzy drinks and take-away.  We are all pretty healthy, but there is definitely room for improvement (my husband and I are definitely fatter than is strictly necessary!)

One area I've felt especially guilty about is that of organic food.  I haven't been making much effort to source organic food.  As a child my own mother went to great lengths to buy organic food for us in a time when it was much more difficult to come by and wasn't readily available in the supermarket. I remember spending hours wandering around farm shops in the middle of no-where waiting for my mum to buy her fruits and vegetables, she even set up her own food co-operative from our home, bulk buying organic whole foods like oats, raisins and beans which she split up with a few friends.  She felt like organic food was really important for us and I don't want to undo all her good work on my health throughout my childhood by buying chemical laden food from the supermarket now. 

Considering diet can be a very confusing these days, there are so many different approaches to what we eat, so many people saying their diet plan is the best, most natural, most nutritious, or most healthy one out there and there are often many conflicting studies and contradictory research which supposedly back up the benefits of each one. This makes finding the truth extremely difficult and has led me to rely more on my own instinct and intuition about diet and nutrition than relying on the advice of all the so-called experts and proponents of different diets that are out there. 

For me this has meant organic whole foods, food as nature intended.  

Eating whole foods naturally means cutting out UPF's because a processed food is not a whole food. Whole foods are foods that have not been processed, although I have been processing some of the foods myself at home to make them more enjoyable, making my own bread for example. Home made food feels joyful, not just the simplicity of the ingredients but the heart that has gone into it.

Over the months I have been gradually trying to cut out as much processed food as possible, by making more things myself at home and sourcing organic versions of the things I normally buy. This has had a mixed response from my family!

I have had some successes, making my own bread for example, (I have made my own bread on and off for years, but I really committed to it this time), we are really enjoying a weekly organic veg box, and I have had some failures, (no one liked the home made granola I made) but there have been some downsides too.

For me as a home educating mum, (meaning that I don't get paid for my work and I am very occupied), trying to eat organic wholefoods has been very expensive and time consuming. I have found myself waking up to children clamouring they are starving because I have neglected to make more granola or bread and there is nothing for breakfast, or we have decided to have egg mayonnaise sandwiches for lunch but I haven't made the mayonnaise, or I've simply just not known what to cook.  The whole thing quickly because an overwhelming burden. And that is not joyful.

This whole journey with food has forced me to admit that I can't actually have it all, I can't actually do it all! If my children were in school I would have more time to make all the food myself, if I worked I'd have more money to spend on organic food, but I don't, so, as my online name, Imperfectly Natural Mama reminds me, I'm imperfect, and I can't actually be perfect this side of heaven, I have to live in this middle ground, this half way, working towards perfection but never quite making it and having to accept that. 

I am learning to compromise.  There will still be home made bread but we might not be spreading it with home made organic jam.  I think this is where I can find the joy in my food, eating as much whole, organic foods as possible but not wearing myself to the bone trying to get to it, and perhaps more importantly, letting go of the guilt of not being able to do it all. 

Monday 21 August 2023

Turning 40 - Why I'm not giving up on my dreams and neither should you

 In episode 1 of The Good Life, a 1970's sit-com based in Surbiton, England, following the story of the Goods, a couple who decide to quit the rat-race and try their hand at self-sufficiency, we see Tom Good turn 40.  

As a young 20 year old in her second year at University watching the series on VHS on my little TV in my bedroom, the Goods seemed ancient, but they inspired in me the seed of a dream that I had to one day become self sufficient myself.  If they could pick up at 40, living in a suburban house and become self-sufficient then I, with a whole twenty years extra time ahead of me, could easily achieve this dream.

Well now I'm 40 and I'm not self-sufficient.

What happened?  Well life happened, I had no house, no land to be self-sufficient on, so I had to get a job, I trained to become a teacher, got a mortgage (but not for a big house with land because who can afford that on a teachers income in Berkshire!?), I got married, then I had a child, then another, then two more, and now... here I am. In a house full of kids, no chickens, no goat, a few sad veg that grow as a testament to the little spark that still resides in my chest, waiting to be kindled into a flame. 

I'm pretty happy with my life though.  I think I have achieved some great things in my 40 years, things that I'm really proud of.  I've grown so much as a person through the trials and the joys that I have experienced over the years, they have embroidered many layers into my personality and identity, layers of wisdom, contentment, self-sacrifice, resilience and strength, and I've really enjoyed getting to know myself in deeper and more profound ways.  I'm proud of this person that I am, that I've become, that I am becoming. And not achieving my dream of self-sufficiency doesn't mean that I've lost anything or failed, it's It turned out differently than I imagined.  

I've had many adventures in my 40 years, which at the time I thought were side quests, distractions from my main goal of becoming self-sufficient, but in the end became THE quest.  Submitting to this quest has been one of the hardest and most joyful journeys of my life.  I never would have guessed all those years ago that self-sufficiency would become a side quest.  

In my defence though there are reasons my life did not exactly emulate the Goods, for one thing, unlike the Goods, my husband and I decided to have children.  Also, and I don't know if this is due to the economy now verses the 1970's or simply because of the children, but in episode 1 Tom reveals that they have paid off the mortgage. Imagine that!!  Being mortgage free at the age of 40.  Was that the norm back then?  (Please let me know in the comments if you know).  We still have a pretty substantial amount to pay off our mortgage which requires work, which means one less person for all the milking and growing, bartering, digging and egg collecting (and that one person has been pretty occupied by the child rearing!).  I also have a husband who does not share the self-sufficiency dream. Tom was quite easily able to persuade his wife Barbara that becoming self sufficient was a great idea, my husband isn't so keen.  

So what's to do?  Give up on the dream?  That's what most people do isn't it.  They decide, or perhaps realise that their dream isn't really their dream any more, or that in fact it isn't achievable, but I'm not ready to give up yet.  

The Goods became self-sufficient when they were in their 40s and so can I! (there is that slight issues of the mortgage needing paying for but let's put that to one side for now.)

At the moment my main quest, my mission is my children, home educating them and helping them become ready to be independent people in the world. 

But oh the side quests!!

Some days I wish I wasn't a person who had side quests, if only I could put aside all that and just be a mum, focus all my attention on that.  For some reason God didn't make me that way, He made me to have multiple interests all at once.  There's the Art side quest (that was once my main quest too), I love art, it is something that brings me so much joy and peace, expressing myself though paint is a rare but nourishing treat.  Then there is the writing side quest, I absolutely love writing, putting a message out there, encouraging others with my words, maybe even improving our income a little bit with various projects (stay tuned for the book I'm writing!), then there is the self-sufficiency side quest that I've already mentioned.  These days I prefer to call this "homesteading" which sounds terribly American, but like the American "Homemaker" over "Housewife" describes better what I am aiming for I think.  Self-sufficiency feels a bit like I want to cut myself off from community and I don't want that, I also feel it alludes to spiritual self-sufficiency which I also don't want. Homesteading is more about growing what we need, preserving that and using our skills to provide for ourselves or create a small income.   Of course my homesteading side quest is very meagre, my little garden of veggies, my efforts to make bread and other food from scratch, to forage what I can, to break away from the system that ties us into working "for the man"! But it gives me an extra sense of purpose, and fuels my rebellious side! 

I'm certain God is using me in all these ways to glorify him, (which is of course the quest that supersedes all other quests, along with loving God and loving others) I can't say I am certain how yet, maybe it's like one of those films or TV series which have multiple story lines all playing along at once that all converge at the end of the story in one extraordinary climax!!  

In episode 1 of The Good Life Barbara plays a record for Tom on his birthday, a song by Sophie Tucker, I played it for my husband's 40th birthday, you'll recognise the name it's called "Life begins at 40", you can listen to it here some of the lyrics are quite poignant, she says:

"Yes, life begins at forty

And I've just begun to live all over again

You see the sweetest things in life grow sweeter as the years roll on"

When I think about this, it does seem true that I have lived half my life and am beginning a second half now. I am done with having babies (very sadly as I'd love more) and the truth is that I am now facing the beginning of "middle age" I'll be thankful if I have another 40 years on earth, maybe I'll get more than that, like my grandpa who is approaching 100, or maybe I'll have fewer years like my dear mother-in-law who died aged just 70.  I don't know what the next decades will hold for me, I hope that Sophie Tucker is right and the sweetest things will get sweeter as the years roll on, but one thing is certain, I am not giving up on my dreams.  I am not giving up on my dream of homesteading, and I have no intention on giving up on any of my other side quests either, and I want to tell you that you also shouldn't give up on your dreams, it is never too late.

It's not too late to learn a new skill, to start writing a book, to learn a new language, to learn a new sport, to achieve a physical goal like running, losing weight or starting a new sport, it's not too late to learn to paint, to start a business, or fly a plane!  There is so much that can still be done, so many dreams that can still be fulfilled, it is never too late to set a new goal no matter how big or small.  

Vera Wang didn't design her first dress till she was 40, Stan Lee created his fort hit comic at age 39, and Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't publish her first Little House book till she was 65!  There are hundreds of people who have gone before us, paving the way, starting new dreams after middle age, if they can do it, so can I, and so can you!

Monday 7 August 2023

Joyful Marriage - Nurturing marriage in a culture that doesn't

 So August is upon us and wet July a distant memory.  July was such a challenging month for us and for me personally I have and continue to be really struggling with life right now, home educating four children of different ages, trying to keep on top of a house that is overflowing with things and people who mess it up, helping my husband through grief, financial challenges, the whole shebang. There hasn't been much room for Joy. 

You may remember that every year I choose a word for the year. This year's word is Joyful and each month has had it's joyful focus.  Having Joyful as my word of the year has really helped me to be intentional with my thoughts and attention, giving space for me to reflect on how I feel and what positive changes I can make to my life. 

July's joyful focus was marriage, and I will tell you now that I haven't done anything for this goal.  July was too stressful and too hard and too overwhelming to give any thought or attention to my marriage other than the bare minimum.  Right now we are in survival mode.  But now the month is over and I am able to reflect on the notion of joyful marriage I have lots of thoughts and reflections to share with you.  

My husband and I on our wedding day 14 years ago

Before you get married there is usually quite a lot of support and encouragement, the church supports you with a marriage preparation course, your friends get together to send you off with a hen/stag do, family often supports you financially for the wedding and help with planning and creating your big day. On your wedding day your family and friends all gather round to celebrate your love for each other, they spend money on new clothes, travel and drinks, they give gifts or money and cards to encourage you.  You go on a glorious honeymoon where you get to spend quality time together before getting into the practicalities of married life, the message is clear, marriage is great, we love marriage, woo hoo! Go marriage! You return from your honeymoon, the dust settles, friends and family return to their normal lives, the church goes back to being place for Sundays and you realise...your on your own.  

Reflecting on marriage this month has made me realise there is no culture in our society for supporting marriage after the wedding day. 

My husband and I have been married for 14 years this years, and the only people who really support,  encourage or care about our marriage is us.  We are on our own.

I don't mean to sound unkind to our parents here, they send us anniversary cards and help us in the usual ways you'd expect parents who don't live very close to help, looking after children from time to time and giving financial support when it's been needed, and I am forever grateful for that.  But they, like everyone else who supported us before and at our wedding don't actually do anything to specifically help and support our marriage, I sense that that is considered our business.  We are on our own.

On our honeymoon in Italy

The church has never done a follow up on our marriage, my bridesmaids haven't ever inquired over our marriage, none of our wedding guests have checked in on our marriage, we are completely on our own.

Now you might be thinking, well why should any of these people care about supporting our marriage, what's it got to do with them at the end of the day? Our marriage is ours and we are supposed to look after it, to work on it.  I totally get this, as I've said, we are in a culture that doesn't support marriage (after the getting married part) and I am just as guilty of not asking the pertinent questions of my married friends and family, but it should, For two important reasons.  Firstly because there is a great deal of personal responsibility placed on marriages failing.  Divorce is generally blamed on the two people who are part of it.  Marriages fall apart for many reasons, but we have to ask what could the community have done to support that married couple in nourishing their marriage, in saving their marriage.  No one ever asks "how is your marriage going?" to open up that window of conversation to allow for the opportunity to ask for help or advice, or "what can I do to support your marriage?" No.  We struggle on, and then everyone wonders what went wrong, "they were so happy", "they seemed perfect for each other", and the assumption is that there was something wrong with one or both of the partners in the marriage that caused it to fail. There is no culture of talking about marriage struggles and challenges, because we are all supposed to live "happily ever after".  If the church, friends and family don't think to, or aren't willing to consider supporting the marriage of the people they so encouraged and celebrated before and during the wedding then they shouldn't just be placing blame on the two partners of the marriage. 

Secondly, we should all care about marriage because it greatly benefits society. Google tells me (and you're welcome to check yourself) that married men are less likely to commit violent crimes and married women are less likely to be victims of violent crime, marriage has been shown to lead to better outcomes for children, married people have better physical and mental health, and marriage leads to better economic outcomes, as with any statistics we don't see the full picture here and I don't mean in any way to imply that my single friends might not be doing as well as me in life or indeed with their children, because I know that's not true, my emphasis is on the fact that we can reliable say that marriage is good for society and therefore there should be an interest in all of us to support and encourage marriage because it makes society better for all of us and not just the two individuals who are part of it. 

On our 14 year anniversary

So what's to be done?  I can't and don't expect for all my loved one to turn around and suddenly be making an effort to support my marriage, as I said, there is no culture in our society for doing this, no one knows how, but there are two things that I CAN do.  Firstly I can seek out support, I can ask for recommendations for books, and online courses, I can ask people what they do to nourish their own marriages, I can look to people whose marriages appear to thrive and ask them what their secret is.  Secondly I can be the change I wish to see in the world by asking how I can be a support and encouragement for the marriages of my friends and family I can ask the question "How are things in your marriage?" and hold a comfortable space for them to talk about any joys, problems worries or challenges.  I can share honesty about marriage and things that have worked for me, I can be open about the fact that marriage can sometimes be hard, needs to be worked on and isn't always a fairy tale.  Also I can keep in mind how I can one day support the marriages of my children.  One day I hope I can do this not just by offering childcare or money for meals out or nights away but by opening up a conversation about marriage, allowing space for my children to talk about any struggles they might be having without any sense of shame or blame, and to share what things have worked for me and my husband in our marriage.  

Do you have a joyful marriage?  What do you do to nourish your marriage?  I'd love to hear any books, courses or words of encouragement to help my marriage to thrive.  I want to make my marriage a joyful one, not just a muddling through one. 

Finally some encouragement for you, a quote, that I love from Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres:

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your root was so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is.
Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in love, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.

Saturday 29 July 2023

The Bible: A Dangerous Book?- How to tackle the more challenging parts of the Bible with children

 A few weeks ago my voice appeared on radio for the first time, this was both exciting and cringe worthy.  Like many people I don't like the sound of my own voice much, but I gritted my teeth and listened to myself chatting about how I approach the tricky bits of the Bible with my four children.  My segment lasted just a few minutes and was edited down from a much longer conversation.  Of course this is necessary for radio, but I felt like I wanted to elaborate on what was presented on the radio because I certainly have further thoughts and reflections on the topic.  

My family motto from my Scottish ancestry is "Never unprepared", so in true Johnson clan style I did a bit of research and wrote a few pages of notes before the conversation.

My research mainly focused on the Utah Bible ban, the news piece which inspired the discussion in the first place.  It was clear from what I read that the whole debacle had been a mockery of the recent ban on explicit literature for children appearing in school libraries.  To be facetious it seems, some parents who objected to the initial ban cited the Bible as being grotesquely violent and "one of the most sex-ridden books around", based on it's "violence and vulgarity", as a result the Bible was temporarily banned in some schools. 

The question I was asked to contemplate in the light of this therefore was, how do we teach the violent and/or difficult bits of the Bible to children, and, should we leave out the more challenging parts?

For me a simple answer to this would be yes, I do think there are parts of the Bible that at certain ages we should leave out.  Young children's brains aren't developed enough to be able to comprehend the meaning behind what they might be  which could lead to short term harm.  The Bible is a complex book with many layers of meaning and depth.  While children can understand a great deal of depth and nuance; a straightforward good verses evil battle, even one which appears pretty gruesome, such as David and Goliath, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, Jael with her tent peg or the Israelites escaping from the Egyptian army through the red sea, are straightforward for children, and easy for them to understand the message, there are other stories in which the good and evil is not always obvious. Stories where an apparently innocent person suffers are much more difficult to present to children.  The rape of Dinah, the dismemberment of the concubine and the death of the first-borns in the plagues of Egypt for example. Children can understand the good verses evil concept, they understand that God is good and God destroys evil.  These stories can be understood by children on quite a superficial level and in spite of their violence, are not traumatising because they know that Good wins in the end. The stories where apparently innocent people suffer or die however can be difficult even for mature Christians to understand, so to expect a child to be able to pick apart how they were parts of God's big plan to show his great love for us would be an inappropriate expectation.  Therefore it is my view that these stories should be saved till a more a child's brain is more mature and ready to understand the message behind them.  The Bible is not meant to make children fearful, our God is not a God of fear "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God"  Isiah 41:10 tells us. So for this reason when they are little I use children's Bibles to read to my little ones.  

Some of our children's Bibles

There is a time and a place for those more challenging and difficult parts of the Bible.

Utah State Representative Ken Ivory was quoted saying:

"Traditionally in America, the Bible is best taught and best understood in the home, around the hearth as a family."

Now whilst this seems like a rather antiquated scene of the family sat around the fire sharing stories from the ol' family Bible, Ivory does make a good point.  The family is a great place to really get stuck into literature, to ask the hard questions and share thoughts, feelings and opinions in a safe space.  So in the unlikely event that your child should encounter one of the more difficult stories from the Bible, like those mentioned above, if you have created a home environment that encourages curiosity, questioning and honest conversations, children will feel safe to ask about the more shocking stories and you can read through and discuss the verses together, eliminating shock and fear and revealing how the stories show God's great love for us.  You can also pick up a Bible study aid of some sort to help understand the layers of meaning in them as well.  I have learnt a lot myself  reading through the Bible like this with my children, reading age appropriate stories and  finding out about their deeper meaning. 

I think that Ivory doesn't go far enough though, maybe because he sees religion as a private matter, but for Christians raising their children in faith, the church is also a vital place for children to gain understanding and wisdom of more difficult and challenging Bile stories.  It's important for children to hear about the Bible from all sorts of different, knowledgeable and spiritually mature people and not just their parents.

From the Jesus Storybook Bible

Obviously it's fairly unlikely that a child will pick up a Bible and encounter one of the more difficult stories on their own, one hopes that if they did they would feel they can approach a parent and discuss the story and ask questions.  Occasionally we do encounter a more difficult verse during our Bible reading and study and I will adapt the language to make the story more age appropriate. For example I might say that a woman was attacked, rather than raped. This isn't because I want to pretend to my children that rape doesn't happen or that I am afraid of the subject, it is because I want to maintain my children's innocence.  They encounter the darkness of the world every day and I want to limit it, I want to preserve their innocence and goodness as long as possible.  They will come across the concept of rape sooner than we would like anyway and I would rather discuss it with them then, than introduce the idea to them earlier. 

Likewise the word "adultery" I would probably change for "ran off with..."  Again this isn't because I am a coward and don't want to discuss the idea with them, it's to do with preserving their innocence and preventing them from worrying.  

Another tool I use if we encounter a difficult passage that they may not be mature enough to understand is to allow questions but not necessarily answer them.  So suppose they do encounter the word "rape" and they ask me what this means, I might give an age appropriate description, for example "it's when a man attacks a woman" or I might even say "that's not something you need to know right now".  

The fact is that the Bible does contain some dark stories.  Of course because it is about the world and real people and darkness is a part of the world and is a part of people.   

From the Hosanna Bible

When the Brothers Grimm wrote their fairy tales, they were a lot darker and more sinister than the more sanitised versions we read today.  The purpose was to create moralistic tales for the social good, to give children warnings about the world and how to live.  Although less gruesome the warnings to children still come through the stories today.  The story of Little Red Riding hood warns children not to turn from the path set out for them, to ask questions when you are in doubt and to listen to your gut instinct if something feels wrong.  Snow White taking the juicy red apple teaches children that if something looks too good to be true it probably is, not to accept treats from strangers, it tells us that the true meaning of beauty is more than just physical appearance, and to hold onto hope that you can overcome seemingly hopeless circumstances. 

Children being captured by witches, old ladies being eaten by wolves, being tricked into eating and drinking poison, parents dying, slavery...the writers of fairy tales did not shy away from challenging topics, because, like the Bible they reflect the truths that exist in the world, we live the the same world as the fairy-tale characters, and through them we too learn that there is darkness in the world, that we all make mistakes and that there is hope to overcome challenges.  Themes of good and evil, truth and lies, beauty and ugliness, capture and rescue, life and death, permeate the tales and all end in a happily ever after. 

In this way they reflect the stories of the Bible, we don't worry about sharing these challenging themes with children through fairy-tales, so we should not shy away from them in the Bible. 

From the Ladybird Children's Bible

Likewise, each and every challenging story in the Bible is included because they have an important message about God, ultimately they all lead us back to God's amazing love for us.  They help us to understand that we live in a fallen world, and how we should live in this world. They help us understand that we are all fallen human beings, each one of us flawed and sinful, just like the heroes we see in the Bible and the characters from our beloved fairy-tales.  If God can use those broken people for his glory then he sure as heck can use us too. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel, in the Bible we see real people over come real human challenges, not made up characters.  This inspires and encourages us, that we too can overcome great challenges that we face in life. We hear about Christians being persecuted and, although it is unlikely that we like John the Baptist will get our heads cut off, it prepares us for the fact that committing our lives to Christ does not mean a ticket to easy street, we will most certainly face persecution at some point in our lives because of our faith. The persecution and death of Jesus himself is completely terrible and gruesome, but it is vital that children learn about it, they need to hear the truth of Jesus being nailed to the cross to understand it's significance and importance for their own lives.  

The big difference between the Fairy-tales of our childhoods and the Bible is that the happily-ever-after that is promised in it is actually true.  We really do have a rescuer who has conquered evil and saved us, and one day we will get to experience this ourselves for real. Through Jesus death, as awful and shocking as it was we are not only saved for an equally devastating death, but we receive the gift of living that truth right now. 

So, although the are some very gruesome and dark stories in the Bible, it will always be safe and right and good to read the Bible with our children because through it they can learn the real truth about good and evil, darkness and light, capture and rescue and life and death, and that it is through Jesus, not magic spells, that we can have a real, true happily ever after. 

You can listen to my little segment here:

Wednesday 28 June 2023

Joyful Family - Creating a family culture of joy

I realise it is nearly the end of June and I am only now managing to share what my joyful focus has been for this month.  It has been an extremely challenging month for my family because we very sadly lost my dear mother-in-law after a long illness.    Her passing has taken a huge toll on us all and we are really hanging on by the skin of our teeth. It seems therefore, extra poignant that my word focus for June is "Joyful Family."

The Bible tells us in Thessalonians 5:16-18 to "Be joyful always, give thanks in all circumstances."  And I can tell you that it has been very hard to be joyful and thankful this month.  Our family hasn't been very joy filled. 

As many of you know my word for the year this year is "Joyful".  Having a word of the year helps        me to set goals and remain intentional and mindful as the day, weeks and months pass.  I find if I            don't have a focus like this I begin to stagnate and drift aimlessly through the year not achieving            anything, not growing as a person or maturing in my thoughts and actions.  Time seems to pass so        quickly when you are busy with little children, they constantly grow and change and are a visual      reminder that time is passing, so having a focus helps me slow things down, take notice and squeeze    as much juiciness out of life as possible!

May's focus was "joyful body", I confess I didn't make any great changes except from buying some new moisturiser and going for a handful of jogs, but the focus allowed me to think about what changes I want to make for my body and gave me a chance to think about my body, how it feels, what it needs, in order to start making small changes, that add up to big changes.  I have been thinking a lot about food recently, wanting to reduce processed food and eat better and about becoming more physically active, in many ways I haven't felt able to actually make the changes, I needed time to meditate on what a joyful body meant to me. But I am excited to start making actual physical changes now which I'm sure I'll share with you at some point.  I think that some changes we make in life have to happen over the period of many months, maybe even years, undoing habits and re-laying the rails as it were.  Big changes can take time and that's ok.  

So onto June.  This month my focus has been/is "Family".  A couple of weeks ago we enjoyed some quality time together on a much needed family holiday, although it has to be said it wasn't a relaxing holiday and I did come home feeling like I needed a holiday to recover from the holiday! The change was good though and being together for an intense period of time like that helps you understand each other a little better.  I had one moment walking on the beach, chatting with my eldest who is now 11, where I felt like I was walking with a friend.  That was a very encouraging feeling, and gave me hope that one day it won't be all correction and discipline and tolerating their noise and mess. 

Family is very important, one of the most important things in life I believe.  I know that is hard for some people to hear because many families are a disappointment to them or let their members down terribly, but I think it remains true, and I certainly see people who haven't got good family bonds working very hard to create great new families with their own children. 

I feel more and more like we do not live in a very family friendly society.  There is such a push to get women back to work after having babies with the lure of free childcare and the guilt associated with staying home.  I do not believe this is truly about money, I believe this is really about splitting up the family in order to divide a conquer as it were.  A family that is able to spend a lot of time together is a family that can develop, grow and nurture their own values, and family that is split is three or four directions for many hours of the day may result in individuals who take on society's values, or their friend's values, or their work-place's values and these aren't always compatible with the family, or, importantly for me, Christianity. Values such as selflessness, caring for the welfare of others over yourself, being content with what we have and being grateful for what we have, to give just a few examples. 

Our family has been through a lot over the past three years, we have faced many unexpected challenges, we don't always get along and we aren't always our best with each other but we love each other very much which is the most important thing and we are always trying to be better. 

There is always work that can be done to make family life more joyful, I decided to create an acronym to put up on the wall to remind our family of what attributes we value and strive for and to bring us all together:

                                                            The Jacksons are:


J – Joyful

A –Adventurous

C – Creative

K – Kind

S – Selfless

O – Optimistic

N – Noble

(It took a lot of strength not to write "noisy" for "N"!) Our Surname Jackson means "God is gracious" which is such a helpful meaning for our family. We definitely need God's grace in abundance!

Maybe you'd like to create an acronym for your family name which celebrates your ideal values and attributes. 

Finding moments of joy in everyday family life makes a big difference to your family culture.  Choosing to laugh at the little things that might otherwise be annoying, joining in with your children's games, entering into their world, making moments memorable by doing something different, or special and trying new things together can all help to nurture a culture of joy in your family.

Being mindful to nurture your family and work on making your family bonds stronger and closer is vital, not only for creating a joyful family for you and it's members to enjoy but for the rest of society as a whole. We know that the family is where we learn the fundamental skills for life, and that people who grow up in strong families are more likely to be happy, healthy and successful.  People from stable families have higher life expectancy, lower risk of mental health problems, lower engagement in crime and many other attributes which are beneficial to society as a whole. 

 Author Sally Clarkson says: "As a mother, you have the opportunity to form your home and family life in such a way that God's reality comes alive to your children each day."

Do not underestimate how important your work in building, growing and nurturing your family is. You are building a legacy which which be handed down through the generations and it's reach goes far beyond the walls of your home. 

So if you are having or have had hard times in your family, I want to encourage you to hang in there, keep working on it, keep striving for closeness, communication and love in your family.  And remember that joy is something you choose each and every day. 

This blog post is dedicated to my Mother-in-law, for whom family was most special.