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A Work in Progress: Walking with Jesus

Sacrifice: A Dirty Word?

What does the word ‘sacrifice’ mean to you? One of the Oxford dictionary definitions is ‘an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.’ I think that the concept of sacrifice is one that we struggle with in our contemporary culture- seen as outdated, irrelevant, negative. We want to have and do it all. We don’t want to give up anything, let alone something we (or society as a whole) view as valuable. But the Bible says it is a fundamental part of Christian living, and so maybe we need to think again.

This year I have started using the Bible in One Year (BiOY) app, a great free resource that takes you through the whole Bible in a year (obviously!), and using that have been reading through Matthew’s gospel. Jesus’ teachings on how to live in community with God and with each other were counter-cultural then, and are definitely counter-cultural now. I think that sometimes, the temptation can be to view our faith as an ‘extra’ on top of the life we are already living; something that adds value to it, completes it. But that is not what Jesus taught. He is looking for total commitment that invades every moment of our waking lives- every decision, at home, or work, or school; every relationship; everything we say and do. Unless we are prepared to live all out for Jesus, we will not be able to step into all the amazing plans he has for our lives- the unique work that each of us were put on this earth to do. In the words of Jesus:

If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.

Matthew 10:38-39, The Message

There will inevitably be a cost involved to living this way. Something has to give. Some things will have to be surrendered, given up. If we are walking in step with Jesus, life can never be the same as it was before. Sometimes we think it’s enough to sacrifice things that we were never very attached to, anyway. But according to the definition above, true sacrifice is giving up something we value. Maybe that’s popularity- being prepared to identify ourselves as followers of Jesus even when it’s not going to make us any friends. It may be financial security- listening to God’s voice and following his call even if that takes us away from a 9 to 5 job with a pension and job stability. Perhaps it’s career progression- turning down a promotion if we know it’ll mean we’ll be having to spend so much time at the office that there will be no time left for anything or anyone else. Maybe it’s how we spend our time, or our money- giving God the first-fruits, the very best, not just what’s left over once we’ve done everything else we want to do. The hardest thing to surrender is our sovereignty over our own lives- acknowledging that God is in control; that he knows better than we do what’s best for us.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

Matthew 6:33, NLT

Or, as The Message puts it:

Steep your life in God-reality, God- initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

We mustn’t just dwell on the first part of the definition, but read to the end of the sentence and remember that anything we may give up is for the sake of something of even greater value. Not only can we be freed to live the lives we were made to live here on earth, but we have a promise of eternity in heaven from a God who always keeps his promises. Following Jesus is always costly. But it is so, so worth it.

If you have questions about Christianity, why not try Alpha? There’s a course starting at Christ Church, Park Wood, Maidstone on January 28th in the evening. 

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The Discipline Challenge

I came upon this picture yesterday, posted by an inspiration and role model of mine, Christine Caine. It really spoke to me. I am quite good at the vision part- dreaming big, coming up with ideas, knowing where I want to end up- it’s the making it happen that I find more challenging. Having a vision, putting a plan in motion, embarking on a big adventure- that’s one thing. But the daily grind, the mundane reality of working hard every day to keep it going, is quite another. Whether it’s my dreams for myself, my family, or the Princess Project, I have finally worked out something that I should have twigged long ago- that it is the tiny steps taken every day, and repeated over and over again, that make the difference. That it’s not about the big breakthroughs, the mountain top experiences, the impressive achievements, but about being disciplined enough to keep on doing what we need to do day in, day out even when we’d rather be doing something else.

Most of us have probably seen documentaries or news items about successful sports men and women. They are gifted, and talented, sure- but what really sets them apart is the dogged determination to keep going; to train every day, whatever else is going on in their life, whatever the weather, however they feel. To press on through injury, disappointment, failure. To be prepared to make sacrifices to achieve their goals. The Bible frequently likens life to a long-distance race, and emphasises the importance of discipline to keep us on track:

Do you see what this means- all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running- and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed- that exhilarating finish in and with God- he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honour, right alongside God. When you find yourself flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he ploughed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

Hebrews 12:1-3, The Message

In this age of instant gratification, we want the end goal, the victor’s crown, without wanting the blood, sweat and tears that go with it. We want to be instantly famous by winning a singing competition, instantly rich by winning the lottery, to lose weight without having to diet for months, for all we touch to prosper without the need for sacrifice along the way. I guess for some people, achieving goals really can be that easy. But for most of us, we need to be prepared to put in the hard work first. If the Bible doesn’t do it for you, maybe you will be convinced by another heroine of mine, the wonderful Dolly Parton. I loved her song, The Sacrifice, from the first time I heard it, as it summed up all I wanted to say on this subject so perfectly:

So this year, my resolutions are all about committing to small acts that I can try and repeat on a daily basis, such as spending more time with God than my Galaxy tablet, and writing every day, even if just for five minutes. I know I won’t always manage it, but that doesn’t matter. If I keep on keeping on, eventually all those baby steps will take me to my destination.

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Guest post: WW1 Christmas Truce

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my deepest desires for my girls is that they dream their own dreams, and work to see them come true. I recently posted a poem that my smaller munchkin had written at school; today my big girl came home and showed me a totally awesome piece of writing that, coming from a 9-year-old, leaves me in no doubt that whatever she chooses to do in life, writing will surely play a part in it. I share it here because I think it’s wonderful, and suitably festive, and because I am an unashamedly proud mummy. And because in doing so I hope it will help her to know how amazing and talented I think she is. She wrote this letter as a class assignment after studying the Christmas truce in WW1.

To my dearest Lizzie,

You will never guess what happened yesterday. It was the greatest day of this horrifying war by far! I want to tell you everything about it!

It was a snowy Christmas morning and I was sitting alert in these horrendous trenches that are infested with revolting rats. The boggy mud was squelching under my disgusting leather boots. I heard the gushing of the latrines overflowing and thought how you would hate these terrible conditions! Just then I saw a muddy German emerging from his trench waving a white flag although the war was still waging in the background! He shouted “Merry Christmas” and before too long, our soldiers were out there too! We shook hands happily with our enemies and swapped food and cigarettes despite the fact that we had desperately trying to murder each other yesterday! Suddenly, some of the lads threw their coats off into piles and a football match began in ‘no man’s land’. I actually scored a sneaky goal while the goalkeeper tied his shoelaces…

Eventually the Germans won 2-1! They were as happy as the blazing sun because they beat us! Suddenly we heard gun shots firing in the distance and it brought us back to our senses. We waved hurriedly and trouped back to our trenches in the front line.

As we sat in our own disgusting trenches in the evening, we sang the lovely carol of ‘Stille Nacht’ (Silent Night in English!) until our throats were hoarse and sore though it almost felt good!

How is our Jenny doing? I do so hope to be back home with you by next Christmas and will be thinking of you and Jenny until I am back! Miss you lots.

Your loving

Jake xxx

By Sophie Tanner, aged 9

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A poem for anti-bullying week: words of wisdom from a 6 year old

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Guest post by my baby girl :)

Sticks and stones can break your bones
But words can hurt you more.
Bullies bully and buddies help you.
Be a buddy not a bully.
Be friends not enemies
Help others not hurt them.

By Charlotte Tanner (age 6)

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Dream your own Dreams

Message StonesThis last couple of months have been even more of a roller coaster than usual. I stand poised to make a major life decision, and swap financial security and social standing (through ‘professional’ status) for something less finite, less certain…. and infinitely more exciting. I am aware that calling time on my veterinary career and stepping out in faith into what I believe God has prepared for me will raise a few eyebrows; it will affect those around me, specifically my husband and my children; it may cause us to tighten our belts for a while. I trust that what God has called me to, he will equip me for. But that’s not what this post is about. Recently I have started to hear a little nagging voice saying “But isn’t that selfish? Shouldn’t you be concentrating on your children, on their dreams and ambitions and not yours?”

This got me thinking. Am I being selfish? Am I relentlessly pursuing God’s purposes for my life to the detriment of my children? Shouldn’t it all be about them?

These thoughts came at an already testing time of conflict and discord and things generally being a bit pants. That’s usually when these sort of things rear their heads. I worried about it a bit, had it lurking at the back of my mind, not fully explored or dealt with, just a dark brooding shadow.

Then I realised (belatedly) that I was carrying around all sorts of worries and stresses that weren’t mine to heft around, and made the conscious decision to give it all to God. Praying it through I realised that actually there wasn’t a conflict at all. God is the only being who loves my family even more than I do; His purposes for me include them. As a family we’re all part of a whole, a symbiotic unit, and His purposes for all of us are intertwined.

I also realised that it is OK to have dreams of my own. Parents- mums especially- need to hear this. We can have dreams for ourselves as well as for our children. Indeed, I think that it is healthy to do so.

It’s good for our children to see us dreaming, trying, achieving, perhaps failing. We are role models for them- they may not dare to dream big, life-changing, maybe world-changing dreams if we don’t show them how. They may not all come to fruition- we need to help them understand that, too- but one thing is certain: if we don’t entertain the dreams in the first place, they definitely won’t come true. And I’m not just talking about paid employment- having ambitions, interests, dreams and plans of our own is equally vital whether we are paid to work outside the home, do it in a voluntary capacity, or are stay-at-home parents.

If all our dreams and ambitions are tied up in our children, that can put immense pressure on them. Our dreams for them may not be the same as their dreams for themselves.  They may end up taking a direction that they would never have chosen themselves, just to please us. They need to know we believe in them, no matter what life choices they make- that we love them for who they are, not what they do. We need to help them to discover God’s plan for their lives, not teach them to live out our plans for them, otherwise they may go through life feeling like a square peg in a round hole.

So I’m going to continue along the path I believe I am meant to be walking, but not alone. We will all walk it together, and hopefully learn together, laugh together (and no doubt share some low points together, too). It’s not all about me- but it’s not all about them, either. It’s all about us, and I can’t wait to embark on the next leg of our journey together as a family.

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Good Girls (and why we shouldn’t always try to be one)

 

A few years ago I attended a seminar about working with teenage girls. I was hoping for some useful tips, inspiration and new ideas, and I came away with all of those. But I also came away with something a little more unexpected- a revelation about myself.

This seminar introduced me to the concept of the ‘Good Girl’- one I instantly identified with. Good Girls like to please. They tend to overachieve. They don’t like getting into trouble, and care very much about the opinions of those around them. And this behaviour is held up as a model, something to aspire to. Compliant teenagers?! The Holy Grail! But of course, scratch the surface, and underneath lurk the same swirling mire of complicated, hormone-driven emotions that are an integral part of growing up. Good Girls tend to suppress these emotions, rather than display them. Rebellion may be internal, or (as was in my case) concealed; they aren’t looking for the attention that confrontation brings, but seeking to avoid it at all costs. Parents of Good Girls may drift along in blissful ignorance, unaware of the double lives their apparent model offspring are living. And of course, the danger then is that if Good Girls do derail, they do so in spectacular style.

Recognising this trait in myself was the beginning of a journey of discovery for me; realising that other people’s opinions of me are not the be all and end all, and realising that God’s opinion of me does not change according to how I behave- He loves me unconditionally, for who I am and not what I do.

I’ve been reminded a lot about this recently. For one thing, my girls and I have been watching Frozen (a lot). And listening to the soundtrack (on loop in the car, much to my husband’s dismay. Although he does do some good Sven impressions. But I digress.) Readers of this blog will be aware that I am a big fan of the movie (see previous post Fearless not Frozen ) and every time I watch it I find more in it that makes me think. At the start of the film Elsa, one of the principal characters, is an archetypal Good Girl. She has been taught from an early age that she must hide her powers away from the world, and protect her little sister at all costs:

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see,

Be the Good Girl you always have to be,

Conceal don’t feel, put on a show…

Make one wrong move and everyone will know…

But (spoiler alert- if you live on another planet and have not yet seen the film) this does not turn out well. Unsurprisingly, trying to suppress who she really is and constantly put on an act for everybody else eats her up inside; consumed by fear she is unable to harness her powers until she embraces who she is, and is accepted for who she is by those she loves.

Another reason this has been at the front of my mind is that I have the makings of a Good Girl myself. A compliant, eager to please, academically gifted child to whom expressing her emotions does not come naturally. I am trying to encourage her to share how she feels, and to reassure her that getting angry is not always a bad thing. To tell her often that no matter what she does, her mummy and daddy (and her Daddy in heaven) will love her just the same. To make sure she knows that she won’t be able to please everyone, all the time, and that that’s OK. That being herself, knowing herself, standing up for who she is and what she thinks is right is more important than keeping the peace.

My hope and prayer for both my girls is that they would feel able to be themselves, wherever they are and whoever they’re with; that they may be thermostats that influence the environment around them, not thermometers that merely reflect it. And that they would realise that ‘Being Good’ is often not all it’s cracked up to be.

 

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Raising Risk-Takers

Caution children s

A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are for.

(John A Shedd)

My Big Girl and I have been talking a lot about taking risks recently. As someone unused to failing or getting things wrong, this is a concept she struggles with. The issues now may be small- trying something potentially dangerous (using the kettle) or embarrassing (reading aloud in public) for the first time, for example- but they will only get bigger.

It is a natural instinct for parents to protect their children. But do we sometimes go too far? Do we sometimes insulate our children so much from the physical and emotional dangers of the world they live in that we teach them that ‘playing safe’ is what is most important?

I want to raise daughters that are willing to try something new for the first time, and not worry too much about whether they’re going to be any good at it or whether they’ll look silly. Daughters who invest in relationships that go beyond the superficial, who are prepared to share of themselves and be vulnerable, even if that may sometimes result in hurt and rejection. I long for my daughters to dream, to fly;  not to be intimidated by anything other than the familiar and mundane. Nothing world-changing (or life-changing) ever happened from staying in your comfort zone.

Easier said than done. For me, I think it means being prepared to let go a little, loosen the reins, let my girls get on with things even if none of us are sure how it’ll turn out. Maybe I need to stop thinking “But what if they get hurt? What if…. What if…”  and realise that- yes,  maybe they will, but that’s not the end of the world. It’s life; it’s normal. I won’t be able to protect them from everything forever. Far better to teach them how to handle hurt, failure, rejection. To show them that whether they succeed or fail, how I feel about them will not change- that they are loved for who they are, not for what they do. To praise the efforts, not the results. And to be there to pick up the pieces and reassure and comfort if it all goes belly up.

It also means leading by example- to walk boldly in God’s purposes for me and my life, tackling the rapids head on where necessary, not just pootling along in calm but insipid backwaters. Allowing my daughters to witness my failures as well as my successes, and to see that getting something wrong is not the worst thing that can happen; that it’s possible to come out the other side, perhaps a bit bruised and battered but hopefully a little bit wiser, too.

For those of us who try to walk where Jesus leads this represents a particular challenge as he often seems to delight in leading us far past where we feel comfortable and at home, stretching us, showing us that we are capable of so much more than we would ever have believed possible. One of my favourite verses in the Bible is this:

For I can do anything through Christ, who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:13

If we can do anything, then surely doing nothing, never risking anything, never being prepared to try and fail and fall and get up and start all over again, is not an option. I pray that my girls and I will continue to learn together that some risks are worth taking.

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Dreams Rediscovered: The Importance of ‘Us Time’

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We found this card in the brilliant ‘Daisy Chain’ Gift Shop in Stratford and I just had to buy it for my daughters! The design is by Leigh Standley.

The last couple of days have been, quite simply, wonderful. In a previous post I talked a bit about priorities and how God had reminded me that my marriage needs to come first; this week I ‘got away from it all’ with my lovely husband in Stratford-upon-Avon. This much-needed ‘us time’ nearly didn’t happen. Apart from having numerous clashing events for these particular few days (events which we had turned down, at first involuntarily- again, I refer you to my previous post!- and then once we’d finally been made to see sense, voluntarily), our break was preceded by a few days of some quite impressively monumental arguments. Tired, grumpy, frazzled people do not a happy marriage make.

So we found ourselves en route to Stratford, on an impossibly beautiful spring morning, having jettisoned feline dependents at the cattery and human ones at the grandparents. As the miles clocked up, and the responsibilities receded, I could almost feel the tension starting to melt away too. At the beginning of the journey we were still a bit tense and snippy with one another; as we drew into the hotel car park we were joking around.

We didn’t do anything particularly earth-shattering in the 48 hours we were away. We went for a walk along the river, explored some fantastically quirky shops, drove through sleepy Cotswold countryside full of lambs and blossom and rapeseed, ate too much, drank too much. But we talked. And not just about the mundane stuff that by necessity dominates our conversation at home, such as what time the under 6 football starts, or whether we’ve paid the window cleaner, or whose turn it is to clean the litter tray out. No, without the distractions of a hectic work and family life we were free to concentrate on one another; for once, to make each other the centre of our attentions. We could talk about our hopes and plans for the future. We could put the world to rights. We could think big. God has consistently used these little oases of tranquility to recharge our batteries in every way, and it is times such as this that have birthed many of our dreams. I know that not all of these dreams will come true, but if we don’t allow ourselves to have them, and pursue them, then none of them will.

We’ve tried to get away on our own like this every year since we’ve had our children. Where we’ve been, and for how long, has varied along with our finances! We are so blessed to have two sets of wonderfully supportive parents who look after our munchkins for us, and make sure that they have at least as good a time as we do. I know that isn’t true for everyone. But even if it’s not for long, even if it’s just finding a friend to provide reciprocal babysitting so that you can spend an evening with your partner and focus on each other, to be Mr and Mrs instead of Mum and Dad; even if it’s just going for a drink for an hour or so, or going for a walk around the block together- whatever works for you-  it will be a vitally important investment in your marriage, and your family.

Below are a few pictures of our time away…

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Handsome swan

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The church where William Shakespeare is buried

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Cotswold thatched cottage

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Coffee break at the RSC cafe

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Old market at Chipping Campden

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Time for a beer…!

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Beautiful Stratford

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Mother’s Day: A Bittersweet Celebration?

On the surface it sounds like a premise no-one could take issue with: a day to celebrate mums, and all they do for us. A time to thank those we often take for granted. A chance for mothers everywhere to put their feet up and enjoy some well-earned pampering.  For some, it’s a happy day, and that’s wonderful. But for some- I would even go as far as to say most- it will be tinged with slightly less positive emotions.

Those who have lost their mums, and wish they were still with them.

Single mums of young kids who have  no-one to affirm them and tell them they’re doing a good job.

Those who long to be a mum more than anything else in the world, but can’t be.

Those who’ve lost a child.

Those who lack that wonderful relationship with their mum that on Mother’s Day it seems like everyone around them enjoys.

Those for whom motherhood is a daily struggle, and at the moment feels like nothing to celebrate.

Those who feel unappreciated in their role as a mother.

Even for those fortunate enough not to fall into any of those categories, it can be another day when the commercial hype sets us up for a disappointment. We are bombarded with things to buy and places to go in order to show our mums how much we love them.

Make Your Mum Feel Special This Mother’s Day. Shop Today. Hurry!  (Tesco)

Show your mum how much she means to you, with a Mother’s Day gift to remember.  (Argos)

Make this Mother’s Day completely perfect by shopping with Thorntons.

Show your Mum how much you care with our mothers day gifts… (Matalan)

These are just a small selection of this year’s advertising slogans. It’s difficult to avoid them; it’s easy to feel like we’re falling short, or being short-changed ourselves, if we’re not part of it. But we all know that there are many other ways to make people feel loved and appreciated than just buying them stuff.

Let’s celebrate mums for who they are: normal people who have been blessed with children, for the most part trying our hardest to carry out the role of mother as best we can. We’re not the super-saints and paragons of virtue that we are somehow portrayed as on Mother’s Day. It is not a role that everyone is able to have, or that everyone wants, and on today of all days we should be sensitive to that.

Why not say something encouraging today, be it to your mum, someone else’s mum, or someone you know will find the day difficult, and celebrate those that have mothered and mentored us, whether they are related to us or not. And let’s not allow ourselves to be made to feel guilty (or guilt-trip those we think should be treating us!) if we haven’t spent a fortune on gifts and cards. We’ve got the rest of the year to make the mother-figures in our lives feel loved and appreciated- it’s not meant to be a one-day wonder.

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Quality not Quantity: It’s Not All About Numbers

We might moan about maths at school,  but we adults  like facts and figures. We like to record how long things take, how much they cost, how long it takes to get to a destination, how many people attended an event. Often, this data is useful. It provides us with objective information, quantifiable answers. But it’s not the whole story, or even, in my view, the most important part of it.

My team at The Princess Project are in the middle of running a parenting course. I was telling someone about it on Sunday at church. Can you guess the first question she asked me?

“How many people are coming along to the course?”

“Five.”

“Oh….well, there’ll probably be more next time!”

There’s nothing wrong with what this lovely lady said- she was being genuinely interested, and to be honest I would probably have asked the same thing. But I confess it got my hackles up a little and put me on the defensive. Why? Because the assumption was that the success of the course could only be measured by attendance figures, and I know that isn’t the case. I know that getting five young mums along to a parenting course for four weeks on the trot with children in tow is no mean feat. As  I get to know each of these mums individually I am seeing the impact that a little support and encouragement of their parenting skills is making. We could be running a course attended by fifty parents but if no lives were being affected by what they were learning, it would be pointless. If they were to be there in body but not engaged, the effect would be minimal.

This led me to ponder where else this principle of quality rather than quantity might be applied. At work, for example, I know that a few, committed, loyal clients are worth more to the business than several unbonded clients who shop around for the best deal.

At home, how I spend my time was what immediately sprang to mind- specifically, time I spend with my children. I might spend an hour in the same room as them, listening to them with one ear and halfheartedly interacting with them, priding myself on the ability to cook dinner, referee the bickering and comment on their latest masterpiece simultaneously, but wouldn’t even five minutes of undivided attention be better? No TV, no phone, no tablet, no Twitter, no chores, just Mummy all to themselves?

And what about  the time I spend with God? Perhaps ten minutes of focused attention and wholehearted reading, praying, or simply being still and listening is more meaningful than an hour-long quiet time with brain and heart disengaged, and me unchanged and unchallenged afterwards.

I think that the inevitable focus on data, statistics, and numbers is one of the reasons that I find writing grant applications so difficult. I understand that funders need quantifiable data and measurable outcomes. But I am convinced that some of  the most important things in life can’t be quantified.  I would argue that the question we should be asking is not ‘How many?’ or ‘How much?’ or ‘How long?’  but ‘What difference is it making?’

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