40 breadless days, here I come…. but first some pancakes

When I announced to Tom this evening that I’m giving up bread for Lent, his reaction was ‘What??!! Are you mad??!!’…. to which my reply was ‘No, not mad Dear (well no more mad than usual), just wanted to do something really challenging this Lent.’ You see he knows how much I love bread and any bread products; I can’t usually go a day without something along those lines. Since we got a bread-maker, which I still maintain was one of my all-time best Christmas presents, I’ve been slightly obsessed with having fresh bread as often as possible. A few years ago my GP thought I might be gluten/wheat intolerant with the symptoms I was presenting. After 2 weeks of going gluten-free I’m sure I was more happy about the fact that I felt no better than having to carry on life without bread. (In the end it cleared up on its own and was put down to bouts of IBS.) It was a HARD 2 weeks; pasta I could cope without, and wheat cereals like Shreddies and bran flakes just about, but not bread, that was the hard part.

So when a friend at work today mentioned another friend had given up bread for Lent last year, that gave me a great idea. I was thinking of giving up chocolate, as that too would be challenging, but then I thought I’d just eat other things like cake, biscuits and sweets in its place. Having a blanket ban on sweet snacks wouldn’t do me much good either, as I find I need lots of energy during the day, with all the walking, cycling, swimming and of course breastfeeding that I’m doing. So bread was the answer to my search for a Lenten challenge: I would certainly miss it, and it’s not really replaceable with anything similar.

But why bother to give up anything at all for Lent? The tradition, as far as I was taught as a child, comes from the fact that the 40 days before Easter, or the period we call Lent, is a time when Christians take time to reflect on and contemplate quietly what Jesus did for us by dying on the cross. Traditionally they used to fast completely; this helped focus their mind on this reflection and contemplation, and it would certainly make them appreciate God’s provision in all the things they missed whilst fasting. More recently the tradtion became giving up just one thing, maybe a food or maybe something else like buying magazines, watching TV or biting finger nails. The point is that it’s something you find hard. However, some people might not find it particularly helpful to give something up to focus more on God. When I was a student, one of the leaders of our church student group once said that actually doing something new/different every day instead might help some people focus on God, for example making an effort to pray for longer or serve others by helping out with a charity. For me this year, as I give up something I know I love to eat, I will try to spend more time focused on God, and every time that I crave some bread, I know it will remind me to do so.

And finally the pancake bit. Along with the tradition of fasting in Lent was the tradition of using up all the fatty food that was in the larder beforehand, so the temptation wasn’t there to eat it. What better way to use up eggs, milk and flour than to make pancakes! This day, always a Tuesday (because Easter is always a Sunday and it’s 40 days before that), became known as Shrove Tuesday (to shrove means to ‘make merry’). In more recent years this has become Pancake Day thanks to the yummy things we eat in this 24-hour period.

This year I decided to make some pancakes for dinner, some with a savoury bean filling, and some with a sweet filling for afters. My pancake recipe was following the legendary Delia (I usually look up basic classic things like this on her website), and the fillings were my own. The bean filling was what has affectionately become known in our home as ‘Beanie thing’. Basically it’s what we have when we want a meal that’s more than just a snack but isn’t too heavy either. It turns out differntly every time because I vary the ingrediens slightly depending on what we have in the cupboard and what we fancy in particular. So I can’t really write an ingredients list, but here’s an idea about how to make it.

  • Chop and onion and a garlic clove. In a saucepan, fry in a little olive oil until golden and softened.
  • Add a tin of beans (drained first) such as cannellini, borlotti, black-eye, kidney, haricot etc. or even chick peas or lentils.
  • Add some other veg like sweetcorn/peas/grated carrots/diced pepper/mushrooms.
  • Add a tin of chopped tomatoes. Stir well to mix up all the ingredients.
  • Add some herbs like dried mixed herbs or indiviual things like oregano/cumin/parsley (anything you like really). Even add a dash of Tobasco if you’re feeling like a bit of a kick to it.
  • Mix up a couple of tablespoons of cornflour with a little cold water, to form a thin paste. Add this to the bean mixture and stir well. Keep on the heat until it’s thickened up as much as you’d like.
  • Serve with fresh bread (or, if you’re giving it up for Lent, some alternative….need to think about that….), or pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

After we’d finished our savoury pancakes with beans, there were sweet ones filled with white chocolate buttons, which melted and oozed out as the pancake was still hot 🙂 Andrew only had a small taster of mine as I didn’t want to risk a sugar high that close to bedtime (as it turns out he’s shattered after a busy day with Granny and Grandad and went straight off to sleep!) What did you fill your pancakes with? Any unusual toppings that you’ve come up with or heard of? Happy Shrove Tuesday everyone, have a flipping good time 🙂

From one love to another love

As it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought we’d go for a bit of a wander through my thoughts on ‘lurve’. I’ll start with love as we think of it on Valentine’s Day, and end on the most amazing love I know of, which is for everyone, not just those with a Valentine.

If you believe Wikipedia, Saint Valentine’s Day has traditionally been associated with lovers celebrating their love for each other since the Middle Ages. These days it seems to have become another one of those annual events that card shops, chocolate manufacturers and florists big up in order to sell their goods, handily situated between Christmas and Mothers’ Day.

Since Tom and I started ‘going out’ in 2004, we have always gone out for a meal together on or around 14th February, because we enjoy our food and for us it’s the perfect way to spend an evening together. The one exception was last year when we had a 2 week old baby – we got takeaway instead! I say ‘on or around’ because I think most years it’s actually been another evening close to the 14th, mainly because it’s so expensive to book a restaurant on the night itself, and we don’t feel as though we need to show/tell each other how much we love each other on one particular night of the year – we try to do that every day. It’s a good excuse to go on a ‘date’ though 😉 This year Tom has a surprise location planned for dinner tomorrow, and I’m not allowed to guess where. Andrew’s Godmum has kindly offered to babysit.

The kind of love we think about on Valentines Day is just one of various kinds of love. It’s the attraction felt between two people who are ‘in love’ (though of course Valentines is not just about existing couples but also those who want to tell the one they are attracted to just that). Somewhere in my linguistics-related past I remember learning that Greek is a language which has various words for different kinds of love, not like English which has to qualify which love is meant if the context isn’t clear (it usually is). But since my already jam-packed memory for linguistic info didn’t need to access this interesting insight about Greek semantics (or word meanings – I’m a sounds girl), it must have filed it in the hard to reach areas – yes, I’ve forgotten exactly what the words are. As my days of sitting in the University Library are long gone (not a bad thing), my research into this ‘love’ly topic can’t come from there; instead I choose Google. The top result in my search is of course Wikipedia, though scrolling further down I come across various sites and blogs that agree with it. And here’s what I find, summarised…

Eros

This is passionate or intimate love, often with a feeling of desire and longing. Though it does not necessarily have to be sexual, it applies to someone you love more than a friend, including dating relationships and marriage. It’s where we get the word ‘erotic’ from in English.

Philia

This is affectionate love or friendship, such as that between family, friends and within a community. In ancient Greek it could also be used for enjoyment of an activity, like we say, for example, ‘I love swimming’. It’s where we get the suffix (or word ending) -phile from in English, as in Francophile (someone who likes/loves all things French).

Storge

This means a natural affection, used mainly for family relationships, like the love that parents have for their children. It can also be used to mean ‘putting up with’ situations.

Agape

This started off in Ancient Greek as a general affection or deeper sense of love than eros which suggests more of an attraction. It was also used for the love parents have for their children, and that between a married couple. In the Bible, the writers of the New Testament, the part written (in Greek) since Jesus was born, used agape to mean unconditional and sacrificial love – the love that God shows towards us.

When I read about these different Greek words for love just now, I did recognise the word agape from more recent times in my life than eros, philia and storge (which I vaguely remember reading/hearing about at some point). It’s because the term Agape supper is used at church, to describe a meal that we sometimes eat together as a community of Christians (usually just before Easter on Maundy Thursday evening), to remind ourselves of God’s sacrificial and unconditional love for us. He showed this love by sending His only son, Jesus, to live on Earth, then die by being crucified on a Roman cross, to make up for all the things we do wrong that separate us from God. In this way Jesus showed the ultimate sacrificial love for us, taking all our wrongdoing on himself instead, to allow us to come close to God. Even when we mess up, again and again (I try not to, but I’m not perfect and still fall short of living a perfect life), God is always there, unconditionally loving us, ready to welcome us back with open arms and be close to Him again.

Now that I’m a parent, I understand what this kind of love feels like more than I did before Andrew came along. I know that I would do anything for him, even sacrifice my own life in order to save him if we were in such a situation; I can’t imagine not accepting him as my son, even if he did something really awful (though I guess at 1 year old I’m not going to be able to imagine that kind of thing yet anyway!) But, unlike me, God is perfect, and I have no doubt that He will welcome me back whatever I do, and I will say sorry to Him for messing up in whatever way, small or big, because I know what Jesus did for me by dying on the cross. As Christians we think of God as our Father (in heaven), and the kind of love that parents feel for their children is (out of the various kinds of love we can think of) probably the most like what He shows with agape.

I’d like to draw this wander through my thoughts on different kinds of love with some of my favourite verses from the Bible, because they remind me of how loving and perfect God is. First a selection of lines from one of the letters that a writer named John wrote to a community of early Christians:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. (1 John 4:16)

We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19)

There are two things here that I find so amazing: 1) the very definition of love is ‘God’, and His character is ‘love’; 2) this love is not something that our actions initiated, it wasn’t anything we ‘did’, rather it was started by God and given to us.

Following on from ‘God is love’, here is a passage from a letter that a writer called Paul wrote to a community of early Christians:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 13)

Again, there are two things here that I find so amazing: 1) the importance of love – without it even seemingly important talents or faith mean or are worth nothing; 2) perfect love has so many attractive and positive characteristics that I would love (!) to have (more patience and kindness, less envy, pride and anger would definitely go down well with me) – since ‘God is love’, we could re-write that list of characteristics with ‘God is patient, God is kind… etc.)

If you’d like to find out more about this agape love that I’ve talked about here, either contact me through the blog/twitter/facebook to ask me more, or why not find an Alpha course near you, where you can ask all sorts of questions about the Christian faith, like ‘Who is Jesus?’, ‘If there is a God, why does He allow suffering?’, and ‘What do I need to do to feel God’s love?’ After all this thinking about agape, I’d better get back to writing the card and wrapping the present for my Valentine. Have a ‘love’ly day everyone 🙂

Exciting times: first shoes

On Tuesday Andrew, my mum and I went shopping for a very special reason: Andrew needed his first pair of shoes.

He’d been cruising around any furniture or object that was stable enough (or not) for a few months, and we kept thinking that unaided walking must be just around the corner. The actual moment of what I would call proper walking (i.e. more than a few steps) came a couple of days before his first birthday. We’d just got home from the childminder’s. Andrew was standing by the washing machine, putting toys into it and closing the door, and I momentarily turned my head to open some post. A few seconds later I turned my head so he came back into view, and the next thing I knew he was walking towards me. I couldn’t quite believe it at first, but he carried on and I greeted him with a big hug when he reached me. His grin was as big as mine. After that, there was no stopping him. By his birthday he was toddling about everywhere, and handily Granny and Grandad’s present to him was just what he needed: a year’s worth of shoes! I was VERY grateful for this, having gulped after previously seeing the price tag on kids’ shoes. As Granny was coming over again in the week, we decided to make it a shoe-shopping date, and the three of us go into town to buy them together.

The day came and I was incredibly excited, much to Tom’s bemusement – ‘It’s only a pair of shoes, so why all the going on about it?’ he dared to utter after the umpteenth mention of the subject. ‘Ah but it’s his first pair of shoes, his FIRST pair of shoes, don’t you think that’s exciting?’ I replied. Granny arrived whilst I was at work in the morning, and she and Andrew came to meet me at lunchtime. After a yummy lunch of pasta at Carluccio’s, we headed to Clarks. On being lifted out of the buggy, Andrew was instantly showing off his walking to the sales assistant, and making a beeline for the snazzy electronic foot measuring machine. Ah that was a blast from the past; it reminded me of shoe shopping as a child. But for such little feet (and such a wriggly body) the manual foot measure was needed. The patient assistant had clearly measured little feet before, and knew that the reaction of scrunching his feet up rather than laying them flat on the measure was normal. After a little encouragement, we had the size sorted: 3 1/2 G.

Then came the choice of shoe. Clarks do a Cruiser range, designed as first shoes when babies are doing some crawling and some walking – supportive but still softer soles than older kids’ shoes. For our little messy pup I wanted to get a dark colour, otherwise they would just show the dirt that he’s bound to get on them. That narrowed the choice down somewhat, ruling out the funky but not very practical pastel blue and checked yellow models. I realised that here I was doing exactly what I used to wish my mum wouldn’t do – only allow practical shoes; it’s the kind of thing you only understand when you’re now the mum. I went for a brown leather shoe with a velcro strap and a dinosaur on the side and the strap. Andrew didn’t seem too fussed whichever he got, and was more interested in trying to defy Granny’s attempts to stop him climbing on the foot measuring machine (complete with a ‘Please do not let your child climb on this’ notice).

Just checking the fit
Trendy dino design

As part of the first shoes buying experience, Clarks take an instant photo of the proud new wearer of the shoes, and stick it on a pack with various goodies including a height chart and a shoe size card so parents can remember their toddler’s ever changing size. We were vary happy with the experience, and walked out with smiles all round. When we got home, Andrew had to practise walking with his new footwear on, because, as they had warned in the shop, it takes a bit of getting used to walking with shoes on when you’ve not done it before. It was interesting that he seemed to regress slightly and wobble lots, but then soon got the hang of it again, and even managed his first toddle outside to wave goodbye to Granny when she left.

My first shoes

Watching Andrew figure out how to walk, seeing his wobbly first attempts after he got his first shoes, reminded me of a couple of verses in the book of Psalms in the Bible. Psalm 37 says:

The Lord makes firm the steps
of the one who delights in him;
though he may stumble, he will not fall,
for the Lord upholds him with his hand

Just like I follow Andrew when he’s walking, and hold him up when he’s looking particularly wobbly and about to fall, so God does the same for me in a less physical sense. For me it’s more about God helping me through my daily tasks, and even though I often get things wrong, He’s with me all the time, helping me to cope and not fall down into a heap of despair. Psalm 121 also says something similar:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

I love this verse, and I often think about it through the modern song(s) based on it. Again it speaks of a God who always watches over me and doesn’t let my foot slip, like I try and protect Andrew’s foot from slipping by watching where he’s walking, but the difference is God is perfect, unlike me. It’s at times like this, when I see our baby making it to significant developmental milestones that I reflect on God’s awesome creation, and what an amazing thing this little life is that we are in charge of bringing up. As I watch over Andrew and do my best to make sure that he doesn’t fall, I stop and think about how God is doing even better for me (and Andrew), and that makes me smile 🙂 I guess not everyone reading this will know the God who I know and love. Please do get in touch if you’d like to ask me more questions about my faith as a Christian. I’d be very happy to let you know more about it.

Mummy was very excited, and Andrew sat still just about long enough for us to take this picture with his new shoes on!

Remembering Christ in Christ-mas

As a child I remember the feeling that Christmas was *finally* here, after what seemed like weeks, even months, of waiting. Now as an adult, I can’t believe it’s come round so quickly, and I find myself thinking where did those weeks and months fly by to? I guess now there is so much to do in everyday life, so much to distract me from concentrating on one particular thing. Though this year more so than recent years, I’ve noticed a kind of return to a slightly more childlike anticipation of Christmas, no doubt due to having a child of my own now, and experiencing the fun of several parties in the build-up to the day itself. It’s through all this partying that I’ve been reminded, more obviously than before, of the joy that this time of year brings, and of the reason why.

Having seen and heard Christmas greetings in languages other than English, this got me thinking about the word Christmas from a linguistic perspective. It struck me that English is one of few western European languages in which we get a rather obvious reminder of the reason for celebrating Christmas in the word itself. The word in several Romance languages comes from the Latin natalis (meaning ‘natal’, ‘of birth’) or nativitas (meaning ‘birth’, or, if with capital ‘N’, ‘birth of Jesus Christ’) – e.g. Italian Natale, French Noel, Spanish Navidad, Portuguese Natal. The German word Weihnachten comes from the Middle High German ze wihen nahten (meaning ‘on holy nights’) (ah MHG, how this reminds me of undergrad days in Nottingham!). The Scandinavian languages use a word which comes from Old Norse jol (the name of a pagan religious festival which became equated with the Christian celebration of Christmas) – Danish jul, Swedish jul, Norwegian jul, Icelandic jol (it’s also where English Yule comes from). The Dutch word Kerst(-feest/-mis), like the first syllable of English Christmas, comes from the Latin word Christus, originating from Ancient Greek Khristos (meaning ‘the anointed one’), which derived from the Hebrew word Messiah (meaning ‘anointed’).

A knitted Nativity - not sure where Joseph is?! Andrew's first Nativity set

OK, I hope the less linguistically inclined of you (and even those who share my interest in etymology) are still with me. The point that comes out of all this word dropping is that Christ is the reason why we celebrate Christmas. In their words for the celebration, the Scandinavian languages don’t mention this at all, the Romance languages kind of implicitly hint at this (it’s about someone’s birth – Jesus’, if you know Latin), likewise German mentions that it’s something to do with holiness, but English and Dutch explicitly put Christ at the beginning of Christmas. Here the English language makes up somewhat for its inadequacies, inconsistencies and general strangeness.

So who is this ‘Christ’, the ‘anointed one’? The Bible tells us that God’s son, Jesus, was born as a baby boy into our world, so that he would later die, crucified on a Roman cross, to make up for all the wrong things that we as people do, which separate us from God. This baby boy was God’s gift to us, a far greater gift than any of those we’re going to unwrap from under the Christmas tree this year. This gift was also undeserved – Jesus Himself had done nothing wrong, but He took on all the wrong things done by people, and died for our sake. The story doesn’t end there though; Jesus not only died, but also rose again from the dead. This is something I can write more about at Easter. For now let’s stick to Christmas, and the amazing gift from God that we are celebrating. But what does all this mean on a personal level? The one thing God asks of me (and anyone else who believes in Him), is that I follow Jesus, by committing my life to Him and putting Him at the centre of everything I do. Jesus has already made up for all the times I mess up (and continue to mess up), so that I can have everlasting life with God, even after my time in this world. I think that’s absolutely amazing!! (If a little mind-blowing!)

In all the busyness – both fun and annoying – at Christmas time, it’s quite easy to forget Jesus, even though it’s His birthday. I recently heard a simple but clever little way to remember Christ at Christmas. (This isn’t my idea – credit should go to Matt Philips of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge!) A tradition that many people observe at Christmas is hanging candy canes on the tree (apparently, if you believe Wikipedia, the candy cane was originally thought up by a German choirmaster who wanted to give sweets to children at his church at Christmas, but felt he needed to justify this by making the sweets in the shape of a shepherd’s staff, to remind the kids of the shepherds in the story of Jesus’ birth). When candy canes hang on the tree, indeed they look like a staff. But if you turn them the other way round, they turn into the letter ‘J’ – a cool little reminder of Jesus 🙂 We hung one on our tree at home, and when we arrived at my parents’ house, their whole tree was decorated with them. I definitely have a great way to remember Jesus this Christmas.

Happy Christmas everyone! I hope you enjoy all the fun, and can maybe take some time to remember Christ in Christmas.

Candy cane on our tree...
...turned upside down it turns into the letter 'J'
Candy canes on my parents' tree

Christmas is coming

It’s that time of year again. For several weeks now, especially after Hallowe’en was over, the shops have gradually been increasing the amount of red, gold and sparkly-packaged products they have on sale. Special foods adorn the aisles of supermarkets, whilst toy shops are crammed with the latest ‘in’ things for kids; in fact it seems there is no kind of shop which escapes a noticeable change in stock at this time of year. Decorations hang both inside and out, with twinkly lights illuminating even the most dull of concretised city centres (I know this, I was brought up in Coventry!) Of course, it’s the run-up to Christmas, or, as it’s more traditionally known, Advent.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the word ‘Advent’ is still used these days, but mainly in conjunction with ‘calendar’. An Advent calendar is a tradition which I believe started in Germany quite a while ago, and is obviously going strong in the UK today (just walk into any supermarket and you can’t fail to notice the offers like ‘3 for 2’ on the chocolate ones). In our family, we had a couple of traditions as my brother (Matt) and I were growing up – one pair of grandparents always bought us a chocolate Advent calendar each, and as a family we had a ‘Peanuts’ one (of Charlie Brown and Snoopy ilk), in which the story of the first Christmas was told a little bit each day, as we opened each door to reveal a short rhyming verse. The next generation of Advent fun has now begun, as Mum passed the remarkably resilient Peanuts calendar down to me, and Andrew can start being part of the tradition. Oh and I can’t forget the famous (in our family) video clip of Matt and I arguing about whether there were 17 or 18 doors open on the particular day in Advent that we were being filmed. (Incidentally I was right, but Matt was generally good at arguing that black was white… “18, see!” – this won’t mean much to most readers I’m sure.)

Snoopy dressed as a shepherd is getting ready to help tell the Christmas story
In days of old by royal decree, news was sent to Galilee....a message was sent to every home, to pay the taxes owed to Rome....Joseph and Mary were told that they, must go to Bethlehem far away....

So here comes a linguistic bit (2 paragraphs into the post isn’t bad going for me)…. Advent comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’, which means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. Christmas is what’s coming, right? Of course, but I like to think of it as Jesus is coming, because for me, that’s who Christmas is about. It’s a time of year that I (along with other Christians of course) prepare to celebrate the arrival of Jesus who was born over 2000 years ago. His wasn’t a grand entrance to the world – his mum gave birth in an animal shelter because all the accommodation in the town they were visiting was full, and she wasn’t a ‘celebrity’, so no 1st century equivalent of the paparazzi were clambering to scoop an exclusive story. But as he grew up, those who lived around him saw that he was an amazing person, who did some amazing things. I’ll go further into that in future posts; for now I’d like to stick with the topic of Advent. Opening a door on a calendar each day from 1st to 24th December (a 25th door seems to be a modern addition, at least since the time of Charlie Brown) helps me to remember why I’m looking forward to Christmas. It’ll be great to spend time with family and have some time off work, yes, but the most important part is doing all this whilst celebrating Jesus’ birth.

Writing this has made me realise just how close Christmas is now. Living in Cambridge, we’re already experiencing Christmas events that have been going on for the past week at least, as the undergrads go home soon so they squeeze these in at the end of November. I’ve just put up our Christmas tree (‘up’ being a common theme this year – up on a table, out of the reach of little hands), which will be a nice surprise for my boys when they get home. So, roll on 25th December!

Up on the table out of the way of little hands!