Emma Tanner

A Work in Progress

Surface Pressure

There’s something about the start of a new year that makes us reflective. When that coincides with a new Disney movie with a killer soundtrack…. double whammy. I am a Disney girl through and through, and when Disney meets the lyrical and musical genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, what can possibly go wrong?!

I can’t stop listening to this particular song from Encanto, sung by Jessica Darrow, the voice of Luisa. (Do click and listen to it if you haven’t already!)

Ouch.

I know so many people who, like Luisa, are carrying so much at the moment. Who feel the weight of pressure and expectation, from family, and friends, from the churches they lead, or the teams they manage, or the people they work alongside. Who are supporting people in many areas of their life, and feel like there is a crushing weight on their shoulders. Who feel like they need to be the strong one; that without them being that to so many other people, the house of cards would come crashing down.

Some of those lyrics are almost painfully resonant for me.

“Under the surface
I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service…”

“Give it to your sister, it doesn’t hurt and
See if she can handle every family burden
Watch as she buckles and bends but never breaks
No mistakes, just

Pressure like a grip, grip, grip, and it won’t let go, woah
Pressure like a tick, tick, tick ’til it’s ready to blow, woah-oh-oh…”

When we have a lot going on, when we are juggling so many balls that dropping one is inevitable- and we just hope that the one we drop bounces rather than shatters- it is so easy to look inwards. To pull up the metaphorical drawbridge, and withdraw. To tell ourselves we can only rely on us, that we are the only ones who can sort this, that no-one else can help, that everyone else has loads going on as well so we must just suck it up and keep going. Grin and bear it. Stiff upper lip and all that.

The problem with that is that it’s not true, and it doesn’t work.

A couple of months ago, I was wrestling with a family crisis. It came to a head on a Sunday morning, and I found myself on the sidelines of an under 14s football match having a minor breakdown (internally, of course, I’m very British) whilst simultaneously trying to cheer on my daughter and her teammates and make small talk with the football mums. When it all got a bit much (pressure like a tick, tick, tick ’til it’s ready to blow, woah-oh-oh…) I took myself off for a walk. It didn’t help that all the people I might have felt able to talk to were in church, and uncontactable. I also mentally ruled out quite a few others, on the grounds that they were all battling even bigger demons and I didn’t want to add to their stress. I started having a very self-pitying conversation with myself.

“No-one is here for you. You’re always there for everybody else, but when you need someone, there’s no-one here.”

“No one cares.”

“You’d better sort it on your own, as usual.”

What a load of egocentric, ridiculous clap-trap.

With the benefit of hindsight, and when my brain isn’t in crisis mode and can think a bit more rationally, I can recognise and call out the BS. And thankfully, God helped me to do that in the moment, too.

I was on the verge of losing it and succumbing to hysterics and I started praying as I was walking. I felt prompted to put on my spiritual armour, and I started praying Ephesians 6.

“Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.”

Ephesians 6:13-18, The Message

God reminded me that he was in control. That his resources of love and grace and peace were infinite, and more than enough to cover this (and any) situation. That I didn’t need to carry burdens that were never intended for me to bear alone- Jesus has already gone ahead and done that. I just needed to trust him with them, and hand them over. What a relief.

The other thing he prompted me to do was to reach out to a few trusted friends and ask them to pray, which I did. The next day I opened up to a couple of those friends, and- much like Luisa Madrigal in Encanto- felt so much better for being honest about what was happening and how I was feeling. People can’t stand alongside us if they don’t know anything is wrong; if we don’t let them in.

I’ve been reading Dare to Lead by Brene Brown, which talks a lot about the importance of vulnerability; of being prepared to be open and truthful with those around us about how we are feeling. I’ve found it both thought-provoking and challenging. It’s definitely made me change how I try and lead my team, and how I interact with those around me. Being honest and vulnerable with other people gives them permission to be honest with us, too, and to reach out for help when they need it.

I think often (especially in good-girl circles- I’ve written about that concept before-) there is the temptation to think that we are somehow letting the side down if we admit that things are less than perfect, or that we have a problem. We prefer to be the ones helping than the ones accepting help, or acknowledging that we need it.

WE ARE FINE. Except for when we’re not.

“But wait
If I could shake the crushing weight
Of expectations would that free some room up for joy
Or relaxation? Or simple pleasure?
Instead we measure this growing pressure
Keeps growing, keep going…”

I think that freeing up some room for joy, relaxation and pleasure sounds like a good thing to aim for this new year. That might mean letting go of other peoples’ expectations, or our own- being kinder to ourselves. It may mean letting go of some burdens that we don’t need to be carrying, or starting to share them with other people- or even better, surrendering them to Jesus, whose shoulders are infinitely broader than our own.

It may mean being intentional, unapologetically carving out time for those things that restore our souls and fill up our emotional tanks, equipping us for whatever we are facing in our day-to-day. Yes, we’re all busy, but those things- whether they’re quiet times, country walks, spending time with friends, spa days, cycle rides, DIY, reading, writing- it’s different for each of us- can be the life-saving pressure valve that prevent us from blowing.

It may also mean watching more Disney films. And listening to more Lin-Manuel Miranda. On that note, I think I may go re-watch Moana….

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The Complicated Process of Unlocking

Waiting to get into Primark in Norwich- Sky News

This week saw a significant lifting of lockdown restrictions in England. As well as continuing to meet our nearest and dearest outside, some of the things we are now able to do include go to the shops, have a haircut, have a pint in the pub- outside, of course- visit the gym, go for a day out to the zoo or a theme park, or attend an indoor parent and child group. For many it feels like a welcome step on the road to recovery.

I saw a fair few judgy social media posts yesterday, however, which put me into reflective mode. People loftily saying they couldn’t understand why on earth people felt the need to rush to Primark (“I bet they’ve sold out of leggings” said someone rather cattily) ; that they for one wouldn’t be rushing to visit the shops/go to the hairdressers/pub/insert whatever activity they are not interested in here.

This made me check myself, as well. Although I haven’t posted publicly, I confess that I, too, have harboured some similar thoughts. From the privileged position of being able to afford a holiday in the UK, and not having any loved ones abroad, I have pondered in a rather judgemental way about why some people are so keen for a trip abroad this summer. In a work context, too, I have been tempted to make comparisons with other organisations; to be critical of other peoples’ decision-making, whether I perceive that to be too ‘gung ho’, or too risk averse.

Whatever the context, if it doesn’t match up with the position that we have decided we are comfortable with, the temptation is to make ourselves feel better about our own choices by criticising other peoples’.

The fact is, however, that although we have all experienced a collective trauma, we have all experienced it in different ways. And there is no doubt that some of us have been shielded from its effects more than others.

For some, their very personal experience of the loss of a loved one, or prolonged shielding due to chronic illness or disability, is understandably the lens through which they are looking at the world at the moment. For others, having to stay at home has not meant staying safe and comfortable, but instead has meant stress, danger, or mental heath crisis. Workers from many sectors have not been able to work from home. For those already on a low income, being furloughed has meant being unable to make ends meet. Some of those who are self-employed or own their own businesses in badly affected sectors have fallen through the cracks of government support altogether.

We have witnessed first-hand at the Princess Project how disadvantaged communities have disproportionately experienced the effects of covid. Many families that were already on low incomes have had to make impossibly hard choices every day: between buying food, and nappies, or paying the rent or utility bills. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Little Village, a London-based baby bank, found that across the UK, 34% of children in households where there are children under 5 are now in poverty. More than half of the worst-off parents have had to borrow to cover basic costs such as housing and food in the past year.

Interestingly, the Little Village report also looks at the 2020 British Social Attitudes survey. Whilst 98% of people think that it’s important to reduce child poverty in Britain, a majority lay the blame for that poverty on parents themselves- 75% think that drug and alcohol problems are the underlying cause, and 63% believe that children are in poverty because their parents choose not to work. We humans really are a pretty judgemental bunch.

If our personal experiences of the pandemic differ so widely, surely it shouldn’t surprise us that our coping mechanisms for both lockdown, and emerging from it, will differ too. A long-awaited trip to Primark may be the only way that a mum on a low income can afford new clothes for a child that’s been growing like a triffid during lockdown, or a lifeline for a fashion-loving teenager who has been denied so many opportunities this year and whose mental health is suffering as a result. Or it may just be that people are craving a bit of normality, and a trip to the high street gives them that.

We can never can fully understand someone else’s story, or the decisions they make- that’s why judging those decisions is a dangerous game. That person who looks like they have it all together on social media is really hanging by a thread. That ‘perfect family’ is really anything but.

What is becoming apparent is that emerging from lockdown is going to be infinitely more complicated than entering it. Some may be keen to exercise any new freedom immediately, and to the full. Others may be more cautious. Both are OK. I think we take the moral high-ground about the choices we make at our peril.

Maybe (and this is very much a note to self as much as a call to action) we could all commit to thoughtfully making the decisions we think are right for us, our families, or the teams and organisations and businesses we lead, and supporting our friends, loved ones and colleagues in their decisions, even when they look different to ours. I think that’s the only way we will be able to emerge successfully, together.

References:

It takes a village: how to make all childhoods matter (Little Village/JRF, February 2021)
Caught in a (Covid) trap (Karl Handscomb and Lindsay Judge, Resolution Foundation, November 2020)
Call for a stronger social security lifeline for our children (JRF/Save the Children, July 2020) British Social Attitudes, series 37 (The National Centre for Social Research, 2020)


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The Wisdom of Cats

It will come as no surprise to anyone at all that I love cats. Especially mine. I have a big middle-aged black cat called Oreo, who is a bit of a lumbering dufus whose greatest love in life is food, and a cheeky 7-month-old munchkin called Puffin, who arrived in the Tanner household during lockdown and within a few days had established herself as Queen of the household, thank you very much.

I have found it absolutely fascinating to watch their relationship evolve. You would have thought that the teeny tiny kitten would have been afraid of the massive adult male cat, but no. She emerged from her basket the first day in her new home, puffed up her little tail at the sight of him, and hissed and spat and reduced him to a quivering wreck.

Once they had both established that the other was actually pretty harmless, the dynamic changed. Puffin craved Oreo’s attention more than anything in the world. She followed him constantly, getting as close as possible before being batted out of the way or him taking evasive action and running off. She jumped on him. She chased him. She watched him. She didn’t seem to understand why this creature was the only thing on the planet who didn’t seem to find her irresistible. The humans and their friends and family who visited played with her, stroked her, gave her velvet cushions to sit on, fed her, and generally adored her. By and large, Oreo ignored her.

But slowly and surely, she wore him down.

He stopped running away when she came into the room. He greeted her when he saw her. They sat closer and closer together. And he watched her.

Oreo had a bit of a tricky start to life. He shared a house with lots of other animals and humans, and spent most of the first few weeks of life hiding in a cupboard. When he came to us he was very sweet, but scared of his own shadow. This wasn’t helped by the way he was treated by our other cat at the time, my beloved old boy Woody, who we lost last year. Woody was definitely an alpha male and had no patience for a weedy, cowering kitten- mostly he ignored him, but he also had a tendancy to sit in a doorway and give Oreo a whack as he passed by- claws in, not to hurt him, but just to remind him who was boss. When Oreo was a kitten he mostly hid away somewhere safe- a far cry from precocious Puffin who treats the whole world as a playground. We bought Oreo plenty of toys when he was a kitten, but 7 years later they remained unplayed with. No matter how much we tried, he just wouldn’t engage. He didn’t know how.

But something has been happening over the last few weeks. Oreo has started to play. Cautiously at first, but now with growing confidence, he has started batting Puffin’s toys around the floor, and copying what she is doing. I’m not going to lie, the first time I saw my beautiful, clumsy, ungainly boy skidding across the floor and doing a little pounce on a toy mouse I may have shed a little tear (“You know this post is going to make you look even more like a mad cat lady, right?” Yes, Sophie, I do. But I’m OK with that). It’s like she has taught him how to be a cat. He is spending more time with the family, purring more, less obsessed with food- he seems happier (if we’re going to anthropomorphise).

I was reflecting on this and thinking that there were a few things we could all learn from this tale of two cats.

First of all, the power of modelling. Our actions are important. We can speak, lecture, cajole, and nag until we’re blue in the face, but how we behave often has a much bigger impact. In the same way Oreo was watching Puffin, people are watching us. This is especially relevant for those of us in leadership roles, and particularly for those of us who are parents. If our kids see us being kind, or generous, or modelling good self-care, they learn from that. (They are also excellent at noticing when our words and actions don’t match up, but that’s a whole different blog post.)

Secondly, the importance of perseverance. Keep going, keep trying. Puffin was determined to win Oreo around- and her persistence paid off. Don’t give up on seemingly lost causes; God loves them, and they hold a special place in his heart. Our God is the one who leaves 99 sheep to go and look for the one who was lost. He never gives up on anyone, and neither should we. He also exhorts us to persevere in prayer. This is something to hold onto this year, of all years. Keep praying, keep the faith, keep hoping.

Finally, you’re never too young to make a difference, and you’re never too old to learn, change, and grow. So many of us disqualify ourselves from all God has for us on the basis of our age, but all we need is an open mind and an obedient heart. Age is not important.

I want to leave you with this little video clip I managed to capture of Oreo properly playing for the first time, at the age of 7- positively middle-aged for a cat! I hope it makes you smile (and if it doesn’t WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!) I love how God can teach us through the most mundane, everyday situations we find ourselves in- yes, even through our cats. Thank you, Lord, for that…. and for cats!

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Soul food

Beach huts at Herne Bay

As countless others have observed, we all find ourselves in a strange season at the moment. For most of us this has involved change. For some, this has meant an enforced slowing of pace, though furlough or unemployment. For those of us fortunate enough to still be working, though, work is often busier (and more intense) than ever. My work definitely falls into this category.

I have found it increasingly difficult to keep my work/home boundaries precise- they have a tendency to become distinctly blurry. I find myself working more hours and longer days.

It feels like God has been prodding me about that recently. My colleague Beth and I had a meeting with our Cinnamon mentor this week. On hearing how busy we were, how we had new developments on several fronts, new opportunities, more and more referrals, he ever-so-gently reminded us of the importance of making sure we had enough capacity for all of it; to look after ourselves and manage our time sensibly, to avoid burning out. At our staff meeting this week, I took the opportunity to remind the team of the importance of not routinely working loads of extra hours, of taking time back in lieu, and taking holiday.

Even as I said it, I thought about the kind of example I was setting by doing exactly what I was saying not to do. Ouch… I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland’s famous words:

“That’s just the trouble with me, I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

How can I ask my team to do something, and then not do it myself?! Effective leadership, wherever we do it- parenting, in the workplace, at church- is always less about talking and more about modelling.

We are in the middle of 21 days of prayer and fasting at church. On our Sunday morning Zoom call we heard wise words from several people about the importance of finding God in the everyday moments, and having an attitude of prayer. This was another timely reminder for me. We don’t need to create an artificial secular/sacred divide. God made us. Our wonderfully unique personalities are not an accident. Our souls are not separate from our bodies. We are one whole, messy entity. The great news about a relational God who loves to spend time with us is that it doesn’t matter where we are or what we are doing, He can still hear us, and speak to us. So it is totally fine to spend time with God doing what recharges your batteries; what fills your emotional tank and feeds your soul.

I realised I needed to put into practice what I was preaching, and take back some of those extra hours I had been working (as a small charity we can’t afford to pay overtime, so encourage our team to take back extra hours worked as time off in lieu). The to-do list will never be clear. There is never an ideal time to take time off. But it is vital (and no-one is indispensible, despite what our egos may tell us). So I booked today off.

After half an hour clearing essential emails and making sure all was relatively quiet on the Western front (baby steps and all!) I drove to beautiful Tankerton. I walked 5.5km to Herne Bay, with my headphones on, listening to worship music, and letting truths about God wash over me. As is so often the case with a playlist on shuffle, I end up hearing just what I need to hear. For the first half an hour, I just listened to Goodness of God on repeat.

I didn’t even really consciously pray. I gave the morning to God, and breathed the sea air, and walked in His presence; I took pictures of cute beach huts and little scurrying birds, and watched toddlers wobble on bikes and dogs bound exuberantly off their leads. It was joyous.

When I got to Herne Bay I ate sausage and chips on the beach, closely eyeballed by several large seagulls. I didn’t feel in the least bit guilty, because did I mention I just walked 5.5km. (I don’t really understand the calorie exchange but pretty sure that’s enough to cancel it our, right?!)

There were fewer people around on the way back, so I felt able to sing my praises into the wind. Sometimes on a day like this, I get some clarity about a particular issue, a revelation, a new idea; it can feel like God is downloading stuff into my brain. It wasn’t like that today. Our daddy God knows what we need. Today, He knew I just needed to be in His presence, to remind myself who He was, and who I am- a daughter of the King.

I was only gone for about 4 and a half hours, but I know that that relatively small time investment will pay dividends over the coming days and weeks. Working, serving and loving from a place of Holy Spirit fullness is so much better for us than running on empty. I hope that by sharing this today, it will be the affirmation that someone else needs to refuel- whatever that looks like for them.

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Find the Voice of Hope

Picture credit: Lily Padula, New York Times

The world is full of competing voices clamouring for our attention. During this challenging season, our country- our world even- seems to be increasingly polarised. There are lots of big, loud opinions around (mine included!) Lots of people are fearful, or angry, or both. We are frequently bombarded with negativity on our social media feeds and TV screens.

But we can all choose which voices we listen to.

We can listen to voices that wind us up, make us more angry and cynical, make us feel bad about ourselves, cause us anxiety- or we can make a concerted effort to spend more time listening to voices that leave us feeling encouraged, hopeful, at peace; that speak the truth to us in love. Maybe these voices belong to trusted friends or family members; maybe they belong to public figures that seek to build up and reconcile rather than divide and tear down. Maybe it means changing what we watch or what we listen to.

During lockdown my family and I have been walking- a lot. First of all it was because it was all we could do, and more recently because it’s grown into a habit we all enjoy. Sometimes we walk together, but I’ve also been spending a fair amount of time walking alone. We are lucky enough to live within walking distance of Mote Park in Maidstone and I have been getting up early and walking around the park before work. This has given me time and space to be still, and to reflect, and to pray, and to listen- to the still, small voice of God.

He tells me:

 I am chosen (1 Thessalonians 1:4)

I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)

I am blessed (Galatians 3:9)

I am set free (John 8:32)

I am strong in the Lord (Ephesians 6:10)

I am accepted (Ephesians 1:6)

His is the voice that tells me who I really am; that encourages and challenges and strengthens me; that brings hope, and peace.

If we seek out and listen to voices that build us up, we can then speak hope and encouragement into other peoples’ lives, and help to spread peace and reconciliation, rather than negativity and division. It’s a big challenge- but one that I think is well worth accepting.

Originally broadcast as a Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Kent, Sunday 5th July 2020

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Frozen Revisited

Show Yourself, from Frozen 2

Yesterday I was doing some cleaning whilst belting out songs from my Disney playlist (don’t judge- it turns out both Snow White and Mary Poppins had a point, this does actually make menial household tasks more enjoyable). One song I kept coming back to was Show Yourself, from Frozen 2. I love that song. I love that movie (nearly as much as I loved the first one). I remember so clearly going to see Frozen at the cinema back in January 2014, accompanied by my over-excited 8 and 5 year old daughters, and a long suffering husband (who secretly really enjoyed it too). I was transfixed from the beginning. Never have I identified with a character on screen as much as I identified with Elsa (see Fearless not Frozen, and Good Girls (and why we shouldn’t always try to be one)).

Fast forward 6 years, and in Frozen 2 Elsa continues her journey of self-discovery. She discovers both the origin and the purpose of her powers, and finds freedom in finally being able to express them fully (with the help and support of her loved ones).

Channelling my inner Idina Menzel (sorry, nighbours) made me stop, and look back. This is a good thing to do every so often. All through the Bible God reminds His people of the importance of remembering what He has done for them. In the Old Testament, God tells Joshua to make a memorial to remember the miracle He had just done:

“In the future your children will ask you. ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant went across.’ These stones will stand as a memorial among the people of Israel forever.”

Joshua 4:6-7

Back in 2014, The Princess Project was just a few years old, and I was juggling running that with working part-time as a vet and being around as much as possible for my husband and my girls. I was just beginning to step out into a new season- into God’s plan for my life.

Six years on, so much has changed. Things have changed on the outside, sure- if you had told me in 2014 that I’d be working full-time for PP with a fantastic team of four ladies alongside me, that we would be being mentored to replicate on a national scale, that I would be regularly speaking in public- I would have laughed at you (or cried, or run away). But it is what God has been doing on the inside that has been the real miracle.

For the first time in my life, I am comfortable in my own skin. Like Elsa, I have accepted who I am. In 2018, we sang a song in church for the first time that impacted me profoundly. I remember listening to and then singing these words, with tears pouring down my face:

Who the Son sets free

Oh is free indeed

I’m a child of God

Yes I am

In my Father’s house

There’s a place for me

I’m a child of God

Yes I am

I am chosen

Not forsaken

I am who You say I am

You are for me

Not against me

I am who You say I am…

Who You Say I Am- Hillsong Worship

As I sang, I found myself letting go of all the words that other people had spoken over me, that I didn’t even realise I had been carrying around. Superior. Judgemental. Stand-offish. Guarded. As I sang, I really started to believe the words I was singing. I wasn’t who anyone else said I was. I was who God said I was. I felt the weight lift.

I realised that God had made me the way I am. I knew that I was His daughter, and that nothing else really mattered. I knew I had to let go of other people’s expectations and acknowledge that living up to those was impossible. For the first time I was able to make peace with, even embrace, my often misunderstood introvert self; the one that prefers writing to speaking, struggles with many social situations, and needs time alone to relax and recharge.

I received a fresh understanding of the unconditional nature of God’s love for us. He gives us work to do, calls us for a purpose- but His love for us is not contingent on us carrying it out. He knows us better than we know ourselves and if we choose to be obedient to His call, then that will lead to a freedom and a fulfilment like no other. And our calling doesn’t need to be a dramatic one; usually it just looks like lots of little everyday decisions to be faithful to what God has asked of us, and true to ourselves.

Rumour has it that there will be a Frozen 3 one day (yay!) If so, I look forward to discovering the next instalment of Elsa’s journey, and also to taking the opportunity to look back and reflect on mine. I am certain there will be lots to be thankful for.

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Finding Solid Ground

Have you ever walked along a sandy beach when the tide has just gone out, when it’s hard to tell what surface your feet find with each step? Solid, dry, compacted sand; a wet salty puddle; sinky mud… you have to consciously think about where you’re walking, make adjustments, meander around to adapt to the terrain. A far cry from walking along a straight, paved path, when you don’t really need to think about what your feet are doing at all.

To me, the last few weeks and months have felt like walking on that sand. It feels like everything has been shaken, and that merely attempting to keep walking requires concentration and effort and a lot more energy than usual. Nothing is as it was. The measures we have had to adopt in response to covid-19 have affected every aspect of our lives. Home life has changed, as we have had to adapt to either spending most of our time cloistered away with the ones we love (who also happen to be the ones who can drive us bonkers!), or to being alone. The way we connect with friends and family has changed- from the national discovery of Zoom, in all it’s useful-but-a-bit-annoying glory, to, more recently, socially distanced walks and picnics with a chosen few. Work has changed. For some, work has come to an end, at least temporarily. Others are trying to juggle working at home with home schooling. Those of us in charge of businesses and workplaces are having to constantly adapt and refine our ways of working to cope with latest guidelines and developments. Church has changed, moving into homes and online into Zoom calls and YouTube services and live Facebook streams.

Against this backdrop came the killing of George Floyd, the catalyst for the release of a tsunami of pent-up hurt and anger and frustration across the world. That event, and varying reactions to it, prompted the beginning of a series of conversations in our multicultural church. Watching those conversations on the television, and having them myself with my black friends, has been challenging, uncomfortable, and revelatory. As shocking and awful as the video from the USA was, it seemed somewhat removed from the situation here in the UK. What has opened my eyes and broken my heart is hearing about the everyday lived experiences of black people in our own communities. Watching the youth pastor speak of his worries about his children’s future with tears rolling down his cheeks. Seeing a confident young man lost for words and choked with emotion trying to express how the drip, drip, drip of casual, covert racism has affected every area of his life. Hearing about a side of my black friends’ lives that, to my shame, I had never really thought about before. Listening to stories, and feelings and emotions that have been long suppressed but are now resurfacing. Scratch the surface and there is so much hurt and pain; this seems to be the big social justice issue that has been right under our noses this whole time but rarely acknowledged, let alone discussed. It feels like we are at a momentous cross-roads, at the beginning of a journey of listening, repentance where needed, reconciliation and change. It will likely be bumpy and difficult in places but we trust that it will lead us to a better place than where we are now.

All of these things can leave us feeling like the ground is shifting beneath our feet. It can be disorientating and unsettling. This morning I woke up and knew that I needed a bit of a reset. I’ve written before about my favourite way to get my head around tricky stuff– trainers, headphones, worship playlist, Mote Park. I love how the park is always there, a constant, despite changing weather and seasons and degrees of busyness. I find walking the familiar paths whilst praying and worshipping helps soothe my soul, order my thoughts, and listen to God. Today was no exception. I was reminded once again of the importance, especially in times of turmoil, of focussing on the constants, on eternal truths that never change.

God is good.

Praise the Lord because He is good. Sing praises to our God. It is good and pleasant to praise Him.

Psalm 147:1, ERV

God is faithful- He always keeps His promises, and is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! His faithful love endures forever.

1 Chronicles 16:34, NLT

Nothing can change His love for us. He looks at us and loves us- no matter who we are, how we behave, what the colour of our skin may be, or what language we speak- and nothing we do can make Him love us any more, or less.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow- not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below- indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39, NLT

So rather than focus on the shaking ground, the shifting sand, I am going to make a conscious decision to try and keep my gaze fixed on Jesus, who never changes and will never let me down or let me sink.

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For Such a Time as This- a Princess Project Update

Jordan and Louis rainbowArtwork by Jordan and Louis 

This morning, I suspect along with a significant proportion of the nation, I find myself feeling more than a bit unsettled. Life as we know it has completely changed. Our Prime Minister is seriously ill in intensive care. People I know have lost loved ones. The need around me is huge. It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed.

Breathe. Pray. Reflect.

So much has happened over the last couple of weeks. I feel out of sync with much of the world, whose pace of life has slowed to a snail’s pace; we have been so busy at the Princess Project that I realise I haven’t really given myself much time or space to think, and adjust. But as it all started to catch up with me this morning, and I did think, and cried, and prayed- I was struck by how much I can see God at work.

Right from the outset of this crisis this verse from the book of Esther has been slooshing around my head:

“Who knows if perhaps you have come to your royal position for just such a time as this?”

Esther 4:14

Just like Esther, who became queen at the time her Jewish people faced great danger, maybe God has positioned our little organisation (and countless other churches and organisations like us) at the heart of our communities, so that we can be His hands and feet to His precious children when they need us most. I know that in our strength, responding to this huge need is too much, overwhelming, impossible.

But God.

Suddenly being a small, independent charity has given us a massive advantage. We have been free to listen to God’s prompting and adjust the way we work- just like that. Our overheads are small, and we have always been used to a hand-to-mouth, having to trust-God-for-everything existence, and at making limited resources go a long way. So the current financial uncertainties are familiar territory for us.

We are privileged to already be in relationships of trust with many of the vulnerable, isolated families who are being hardest hit in the current climate- mums on a low income, often parenting alone, many in small flats with no outside space, many with children with additional needs. Their lives were hard before- and even harder now.

God had already showed us a way forwards and so when the lockdown hit we already had new plans and processes in place for how to continue to provide support and build relationships and community when meeting together physically became impossible. Our team are in frequent personal contact with at least 100 of our ‘regular’ mums, messaging or phoning at least weekly, providing a reassuring, encouraging voice to counter the understandable panic and anxiety and fear; to remind our mums that although they may be physically alone, we are still all family together.

We have started Facebook Live sessions three times a week when our Hubs would have been meeting, which hopefully provide a friendly, familiar face for our mums and their children, as well as providing links to free activities to do together at home and family challenges to complete together. Despite this being massively out of our comfort zone (some of us more than others!), and being let down by technology on more than one occasion, they have been viewed nearly 4,000 times so far, and, more importantly, mums are engaging with them and telling us that their kids are enjoying watching them, and sharing lovely photos with us of them trying out some of the activities at home. Definitely worth the moments of awkwardness, blind panic, and Facebook making every effort to choose the most unflattering pictures possible as the video thumbnail images!

We have also been delivering formula, nappies, food parcels and other baby and toddler items from Totcycle (our baby/toddler bank) to both mums known to us already, and to sick or self-isolating mums who have been referred to us by other agencies, including the council-led community hubs in both Medway and Maidstone. We have made 32 such deliveries over the last 2 weeks. At the outset, we had estimated that we would need £2,500 to be able to provide this service free of charge for 6 months- and, as usual, God has provided exactly what we need! This has come in the form of a generous grant from our local Park Wood County Councillor Gary Cooke (always so supportive of community initiatives such as this), an equally generous anonymous donation, and numerous smaller donations to our emergency response fund. Amazing!

As well as providing practical and emotional support to our mums and their families, it is our greatest privilege to be able to pray for them. We believe that God didn’t cause this situation, but that He is in it with us, and that Jesus can bring hope, peace and healing into every circumstance. We have been praying for scan appointments, for safety, for housing situations, for healing…. we know that no worry or request is too big, or small, for our God to be concerned about.

Even as the ground seems to shift beneath our feet, I am reminded that it is not sand we are standing on, but rock. The solid, Jesus-shaped rock that doesn’t change, doesn’t falter, is the same yesterday, today and forever. That is absolutely trustworthy. So I will choose not to let my heart be troubled; as our foundations are shaken, to look up and not down; to trust in the God who has, time and time again, proved Himself to be infinitely trustworthy.

Good Grace by Hillsong United

 

 

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Mother’s Day Reflections: Reality vs Perfection

shallow focus photo of pink ceramic roses

Today is Mothering Sunday. A day when we think about our mothers, and mother figures, for better or for worse. A day when we are often presented with the image or idea of a perfect mum, and then feel inadequate or short-changed when our reality does not match up to that. I think that this year, more than ever, we need to let go of that perfect ideal and accept that there’s no such thing as a perfect mum- or a perfect person for that matter- and that that’s OK.

Everything is new at the moment, and we are all making it up as we go along. We will make mistakes, we will get it wrong- and that’s OK.

Despite our good intentions of a structured school day at home, lots of wholesome activities, catching up on projects we’ve been meaning to do for ages, working from home, the reality is that we can’t do everything- and that’s OK.

There are still lots of things we can do. We can prioritise relationships over everything else. The way we invest in these relationships may look different at the moment- video calls and group chats and messages rather than visiting or going out together- but it is so important that whilst we are physically apart, we still journey together.

We can make an extra effort to show kindness and patience to those around us, both in person and online, whether they are our loved ones or those we’ve never met. Our kids are going to need our love and reassurance much more than lessons and activities at the moment.

In this time of uncertainty, when everything is changing, I take comfort from the fact that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is good, and He loves us. We sing a song at church that contains these lines:

“He’s not moved by perfection

Or how well we look the part

But He’s wild about the hidden stuff,

Like He’s wild about the heart…..”

from ‘Ready or Not’ by Hillsong United

I love that. God has never expected us to be perfect, to have it all together, but He wants us to be honest with Him, admit when we’re struggling, and ask Him for help. He sees the real us- and loves us anyway.

So today, on this Mothering Sunday, let’s all hold tight to the thought that in God we have a perfect parent who loves us unconditionally, just as we are. And let’s try and love each other in the way He has asked us to, so that we can make this situation a little bit more bearable for us all.

Originally broadcast as a Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Kent Sunday Breakfast 22nd March 2020

Photo by Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush on Pexels.com

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Learning to Let Go

Let-it-go

Life has a habit of shifting the goal posts. Just when we think we’ve got stuff licked into shape, got into a good routine, got things under control, then everything changes again, for better or worse. These may be major life changes- a new birth, or a bereavement; changes in our health status; a new job or a redundancy; relationships beginning or ending- or, more insidiously (and inevitably) smaller, incremental changes- changes in season. I find myself in changing seasons in a few areas at the moment, and I confess that this has unsettled me a little. God has been using these changes to work on a few control issues that I wasn’t aware I had (a work in progress!)

Firstly, at home. My girls are now both at secondary school. They get there and back under their own steam. They both have friends I’ve never met. They don’t need me to do so much of the practical stuff for them anymore. Our relationship is evolving, but this isn’t a bad thing; I love sitting with them and putting the world to rights, having conversations that can range from politics to theology to ridiculous internet memes in the space of a few minutes. They are great company. I love seeing their personalities develop, watching them make decisions, helping them learn from their mistakes, laughing with them, crying with them. But I can’t control them any more (if indeed I ever could!) My elder daughter is 14 and I have to trust that as she takes the first steps towards independence, that she would make good choices. I can’t make them for her any more.

We run Care for the Family Parentalk courses at the Princess Project, and one quote from the course (from speaker and author Katharine Hill) really stuck with me:

In navigating the road to independence one of the most helpful pieces of advice I received was to ‘keep the children on elastic, not string’. If we hold them tight on a short bit of string it will pull taut and eventually snap. If, however, we keep them on elastic from the beginning we can gradually let it stretch, giving them more responsibility and more freedom appropriate to their age. This makes the journey to independence easier both for them and for us.

I need to learn to let go.

Secondly, at work. The Princess Project seems to be in a constant state of change, as God grows it and prunes it and takes it in all sorts of different directions. These are good, healthy, God-ordained changes, but they are changes none the less. Our team has grown (again!) Mary joined us at the beginning of the year, to help Beth run our Maidstone services, with the idea being that it would free me up to concentrate on our Mum2Mum replication work, and the governance-type stuff that by necessity always takes a back seat to real people with real and urgent problems that need addressing.

I knew it was the right thing do to, so when people asked if I was OK with being less hands-on and front-line I glibly said of course, totally fine. The reality was, as ever, slightly messier. I have experienced a range of emotions. I don’t know everyone anymore. There are mums and their kids who have visited one of our Hubs who I’ve never met. This is a very weird feeling. Beth and Mary started a Parentalk group on Monday morning, the first one that I haven’t been at, which was by all accounts a great success. I turned up late to the Gillingham Hub having been stuck in traffic, and arrived to a happy hubbub of noise and activity, all running perfectly fine without me being there.

I am simultaneously so proud of our amazing team that have risen to the challenge and are seamlessly stepping into leadership, excited at being able to work on the ‘big picture’ stuff, ready for a new challenge- and fighting the urge to check up on everyone and everything, interfere, and micromanage. The Princess Project is my baby- but, like my girls, it’s growing up- and I need to let it.

Holding on for too long- to our kids, to particular tasks or roles, to the way things have always been done, to the status quo- holds others back, as well as ourselves.

This need for control is hard-wired into us humans. We like to think we know best. One of the most counter-cultural teachings of Christianity is that we only truly find freedom  when we surrender our lives to our Creator; when we acknowledge that He knows best, not us; when we can truly and honestly pray, as Jesus did in Gethsemane, “I want your will to be done, not mine.” In relinquishing control of our lives to God, we are admitting that He knows what we need better than we do- and most of us find that pretty hard. The good news is that when we do let go and let God take over, we are free to step into all He has prepared for us, into His perfect purpose for each of our lives.

So I am going to make a conscious effort, every day, to try to do a bit more letting go. To give my children space to grow and thrive and fly; to give my wonderful team the freedom to take the Princess Project forwards; to let God take control. I feel lighter already.

Let Go- Hillsong Young and Free

 

 

 

 

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