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A Work in Progress: Walking with Jesus

The Glass Half-Full

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Last Wednesday was a really bad day.

It started off with a sobbing elder munchkin, distraught because the new hamster was gnawing his bars, which meant, according to her new Bible Hamster Book that he was stressed. And that obviously meant that she was the worst hamster mummy in the whole world and that he was going to get wet tail and die and…and…and….

By the time she had stopped crying and everyone was more or less calm it was 8.20 and we were all still in our pyjamas. Cue 15 minutes of frantic dressing, book-bag packing, hair-doing, squabbling, rushing, but we did at least make it to school on time.

And breathe.

At lunch time I discovered that a major Princess Project grant application that I had had high hopes of receiving had been turned down. This would have meant we had funding to ensure we could keep everything running for the next 6 months or so. But now…. it made me question all sorts of things. Were we doing the right thing? Where was I going wrong? Would we be able to pay the family bills in 6 months’ time?

I spent the afternoon preparing for a Princess Project Prayer evening, which is a chance for our supporters to get together and pray for the organisation, its direction and strategy, as well as for specific situations. I rushed to get dinner cooked, eaten, and cleared up, reading done with both munchkins, small munchkin in bed, big munchkin whispering sweet nothings to the hamster. All just about done and dusted in time for the advertised start time of 8pm. And then only one person showed up….!

Not a good day.

But that wasn’t the whole picture.

I texted my best friend in a fairly self-pitying fashion to say bleuurrghhh we didn’t get the grant application and everything is a bit rubbish. Like the wonderful person she is, despite being busy herself and with enough worries of her own at the moment, she phoned me almost immediately to see if I was OK. There’s one good thing, one blessing, right there. And as I was telling her about my day, a strange thing happened- I realised that actually it hadn’t been that bad after all.

Sure, Hamstergate was quite a stressful way to start my day. But together, my big munchkin and I managed to turn the situation around. I was able to tell her something that I hope she remembers and holds onto forever- that she never needs to face a problem or worry or anxiety alone unless she chooses to. I could reassure her that her daddy and I, as well as her Daddy in heaven, would always help her if she wanted us to, and would always support her and walk alongside her. We’re a team. We prayed together, and hugged a lot, and I dried her tears, and it was a special time that actually brought us closer together. After school we walked up to the pet shop in the sunshine, small munchkin, big munchkin and I, and laughed, and brought a ridiculously expensive new wheel in case the hamster was bored, and a fake log for him to munch on instead of the bars. (And prior to that, he and I had a tete-a-tete in which I calmly informed him that if he kept on stressing out my sensitive, oh-so-responsible big girl, I would take him back to aforementioned pet shop and ask them for another hamster that looked the same but behaves better. I think we reached an understanding).

When I found out about the grant application, I had just come back from looking at office furniture to put in our new Princess Project town centre office space. I should have said- looking at FREE office furniture, kindly donated by a firm shutting up their office to work from home, who were going to sell it on ebay but gave it to us instead. And I also should have said to put in our FREE office space, let to us at no cost by a charity that matches long-term vacant commercial properties with local charities needing space. We have a whole floor of an office building to share with two other local Christian charities, to use for storage, training, meetings, and whatever else we fancy. We may not have succeeded with procuring cold, hard cash, but God has been so amazingly generous in providing us with more than we could have ever asked or imagined! And I was reminded that God promises to give us what we need, when we need it, not what we want, when we want it.

When the email came through about the grant application, unlike most working days I wasn’t at the office alone- I was working from home, and hubby just happened to be between meetings and had popped home for lunch (this hardly ever happens!) So I was able to tell him about it, share my disappointment, and have him reassure me, dry my tears, give me a hug, just like I had done with my big girl a few hours before. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that same lesson- that I don’t need to deal with stuff on my own unless I choose to.

And what about the prayer meeting? Only one person came…. but it was just the right person. It was a lovely lady looking to get more involved with the Princess Project, and the fact that it was just the two of us gave us a chance to get to know each other better, and to have some really good prayer time. It was another reminder to me that in our results, outcome-driven world, it’s not all about numbers (as I’ve written about before). Jesus said

“When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” Matthew 18:20, The Message

It doesn’t matter whether it’s 2, or 20, or 200, the important thing is that we’re putting God at the centre of the Princess Project, and He’ll honour that.

The next day I was leading a parenting course, and our group discussion turned to how it’s all too easy to focus on the bad rather than the good in our children, too.To pay more attention to the blazing row my children are having rather than the hour of harmonious co-existence that had gone before; to the 2 wrong spellings as opposed to the 18 right ones; to the spilled drink rather than the effort my daughter made to fetch it herself.

What we focus on the most will assume the greatest significance in our minds. If we choose to focus on the positives rather than the negatives, on what God has done rather than what we think He should have done, on what we love about our partner rather than their flaws, on our children’s good behaviour rather than the behaviours that press all our buttons- then I have a feeling we may find we have more good days.

Wednesday really wasn’t so bad, after all.

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Soundtrack to my Life

There is nothing quite like music to instantly transport you to another place, another time. This struck me afresh a couple of weeks ago, when I was lucky enough to be invited by my sister Becky to a concert in her home city of Birmingham. I hadn’t been to an event like that for a long time, so I’d forgotten the excitement, the feeling of anticipation mounting as gradually 16,000 people found their seats or somewhere to stand. The lights going down, the warm-up beginning, loving hearing the fabulous Ella Henderson sing but knowing that she was only a tasty starter, the main course being yet to come.

An interval, moving the set around. The lights go down, a couple of artists come on stage but you can’t see their faces. Is it them? Is it starting? They toy with the audience a bit, tease them, but then three figures appear and everyone knows. A collective scream comes from the assembled masses and there they are! Gary, Mark and Howard. What remains of Take That. Their music provided the soundtrack to so much of my teenage years, but so much I’d forgotten. Hearing it again brought so much flooding back.

Doing the dance routine to ‘Could It Be Magic’ with my ‘posse’ of friends, age 15, in my then-boyfriend’s front room.

‘Back for Good’, which marked the end of every Churchill Pav, the Thursday night disco held in the bar and the highlight of our undergraduate week.

‘Never Forget’- the last one before they split up (first time around), so obviously tinged with memories of hysterical overreaction by 19 year-olds who were old enough to know better.

There was a 10 year gap in the middle but then they picked up the baton again. ‘Patience’, ‘Shine’, ‘Greatest Day’ taking me back to when I was at home with my munchkins when they were tiny.

I wouldn’t call myself the world’s biggest Take That fan (honestly!)- but I found it an uplifting and emotional experience singing the familiar words along with so many other people, and submitting to waves of remembrance and nostalgia as I did so. Even if Gary Barlow’s thank-you-for-coming talk did involve thanking everyone for getting babysitters, reminding us collectively of our advancing years.

Music moves us. It speaks to our hearts, our souls, as well as our minds. It gets under our skin in a way mere spoken words can’t. We find it easier to remember the words we sing along to than those we just read- they seem to become hard-wired into our brains much more easily. I guess as a Christian that’s why I try and pay attention to what the munchkins and I listen to.

During our recent trip to the USA we did a lot of driving, and listened to a lot of music on the radio along the way. There is a very different line-up of radio stations over there compared to here in the UK, with many stations playing either country music or contemporary Christian music. I’m a big country music fan but the girls just loved the Christian music stations (especially Z88.3 Orlando!) and so that’s what we mostly listened to. We came home with a family playlist of songs that had touched all of us as we listened to them repeatedly, and which became the soundtrack to our holiday.

One song in particular really touched my big girl and me. I will be forever grateful to Francesca Battistelli for writing the beautiful ‘He Knows my Name’, that reminded my munchkin and I that we are loved, chosen, free, forgiven, children of the King. That it doesn’t matter whether we are known or celebrated by anyone else- we’re famous in our Father’s eyes, and we are loved just as we are, and used just as we are, imperfections and all. It was a perfect accompaniment to our holiday of a lifetime, and if it remains the soundtrack to my daughter’s life I will be a happy mummy indeed.

Do have a listen. It’s a beautiful song. And who knows, maybe it’ll end up being the soundtrack to your life, too.

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Incredible Journey

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Today is a big day for me. After nearly 14 years working as a veterinary surgeon, it’s my last day for the foreseeable future in clinical practice. In a few weeks, after some eagerly anticipated family time, both my husband Graham and I start new jobs, in what is a completely new season for our family. I’m going to be working for the Princess Project, swapping dogs and cats for mums and babies. So how did I get here? I was asked to speak at a Ladies’ breakfast last weekend, and I took the opportunity to look back over the last few years and reflect on exactly that. What God has been doing is simply incredible, and I am just thankful that I have been a part of it.

I had my first baby in 2005 (now a very grown up 9 ½- neither she nor my smaller munchkin who is nearly 7 can be called babies anymore!) At the time it struck me how hard it was despite all the support I was lucky enough to have- husband, family, friends, church, house, car. I was surprised even then how little support or preparation there was for parenthood from ‘the state’- and started to think that this was a gap the church community could be filling. State provision has only got less since then, with resources being stretched all the time. At the same time Graham and I were running a weekly activity evening at Trinity Foyer in Maidstone, accommodation for young people aged 16-24 who would otherwise be homeless. I got to know several girls who became pregnant – and discovered that they often had very little or no support once they’d moved out, and could therefore become very isolated.

I had the word ‘Princess’ given to me from a number of different sources. Then I heard the song ‘White Horse’, by Taylor Swift, whose lyrics include

“I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale, I’m not the one you sweep off her feet, lead her up the stairwell; this isn’t Hollywood, this is a small town, here in your rearview mirror disappearing now, and it’s too late for you and your white horse to come around….”

That same week I read a verse that seemed to provide the answers for the disillusioned girl in the song searching for her fairytale hero to sweep her off her feet:

“God is bedrock under my feet, The castle in which I live, My rescuing knight.”

2 Sam 22:2 (The Message).

I felt God was saying that these young mums, often judged, looked down on or just ignored by society at large, are so precious to him. They are his princesses, not in a Barbie sparkly sense but in the sense of being daughters of a heavenly King. I wanted to be able to demonstrate to them that they were loved, by God, and by his church. They often had no hope, no aspirations, no confidence, either as individuals or parents. I wanted to show them that they matter, and that in Jesus they can be whole and healed in every sense- that he is that fairytale hero we all search for.

In 2011 one of the Trinity Foyer project workers phoned me out of the blue wanting me to come and meet an 18 year old girl currently living in their move-on flats who had just found out she was pregnant and had no real peer or family support. This girl, and one other who I was already meeting regularly having met her when she lived at Trinity, were my two original ‘princesses’, and our relationship was the pilot for the Mum2Mum befriending service.

And it all started from there!

At the time, I did not feel at all equipped or confident to step out for God. The confidence I did have was not really rooted in God but in other things, especially my career. At the beginning of 2011 I joined a small veterinary practice in Maidstone (I had been working for a larger practice just outside Canterbury- the Maidstone job was a miraculous provision in itself, but that’s another story…!) I found myself in a practice full of laid back people and clients, the atmosphere less self-important and intense than that which I had been used to.

God began the process then of showing me that I can serve him wherever I may be, and that what I do does not define who I am; my identity is in him. My confidence had taken a massive knock at university- I went from being the top of my class at school, a member of the orchestra, in the swimming team, chair of the debating team- to spending 6 years at Cambridge University feeling totally out of my depth and inadequate. My identity had been so tied up with my achievements- I had always felt like people liked or approved of me because of what I did, the grades I got, not for who I am. I guess I thought that was how God saw it too. But over a period of months I started to realise, and believe, that God loves me for who I am, not what I do. I started to believe that I am one of his princesses too, and to become more and more confident in that identity.

At this point I was completely terrified about speaking in public- even speaking out at a meeting was way out of my comfort zone- I’d get home and wished I’d had the courage to say what I’d wanted to say. Even meeting new people, phoning people up, walking into a strange place were all things I found uncomfortable. But I knew that God had put this passion for mums on my heart, and that just seemed to take over. I came to the realisation one day that if I waited until I felt ready, until all my ducks were in a row, until I had the time, until circumstances were just so, then I would never do anything. And I really didn’t want to go through life without at least trying to find and walk in the purpose God had for me.

That was when I made what for me was a life-changing discovery- that when we step out of our comfort zone into the unknown, God will bless us, and equip us with exactly what we need. In 2011, my younger daughter started at preschool, giving me a few child-free, work-free hours a week to finally start putting some time into what had up to now only been a dream- the Princess Project. We officially launched the Princess Project at a Community Day at St Luke’s church in June 2011.

Banner at the 2011 launch

As a result of that I was invited to go along to a conference a month or so later at the Hazlitt Theatre about tackling teenage conception in Maidstone. I arrived at this event, just me and a few leaflets printed from my home PC, and felt completely out of my comfort zone. I forced myself to do that activity that struck fear into my heart- “networking”. I made myself walk up to people I’d never met (some of whom were blatantly wondering why I was there, as it was mostly professionals and everyone else had been paid to attend!) and introduce myself and explain about the project. I found the whole process acutely uncomfortable but came away with a real sense of achievement, and knew that it was the Holy Spirit who had enabled me to get through the day.

Since then God has gradually been setting me free from my fears and insecurities. I’ve had stands at other conferences since that first one, and felt a lot more at home!

Slightly more sophisticated display at a conference in 2012!

I’ve spoken at church services, been a seminar speaker at Detling Summer Conference, even been interviewed on Premier Radio’s Woman to Woman programme. Every time I do it I smile. Every time I stand up to speak and know that I haven’t had countless sleepless nights of terror leading up to it, I am struck by the miracle that God has brought about. It is his way of constantly reminding me that it’s in his strength that it’s all possible, not mine. God has been removing the barriers that were holding me back as I step out towards him, and he is now releasing me to be who I really am; who he has created me to be. I started from a position of saying ‘No, I can’t possibly do that’ to discovering that if I’m relying on God then- yes, I probably can! One verse that I have returned to time and again is Philippians 4:13:

“For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”

Let’s not write ourselves off, and put a ceiling on what we think we’ll be able to do, or rule certain things out without trying them. God loves to show his strength by working through our weakness- we just need to be willing and obedient, and prepared to give things a try.

In 2 Timothy 1:7 Paul writes

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.”

I used to be crippled by that spirit of fear and timidity, but the Holy Spirit is gradually changing me from the inside out.

In May 2012 Graham and I went to the HTB leadership conference at the Royal Albert Hall. We were lucky enough to hear Rick Warren, Christine Caine and Judah Smith (amongst others). For me, the take-home, life-changing message was embarrassingly simple. These men and women of faith, who are quite literally changing the world with the work they are doing, all emphasised how essential it is to be spending time with God, every day. To be reading his word, listening for his voice, kneeling at his feet, growing in intimacy with him. It really impacted me that this was the ‘secret’ of their success. There are no shortcuts. If that is true for them (as it was for Jesus himself!) then how dare I think it was not just as essential for me? If I was too busy for that, then I was too busy, full stop. Since I have recommitted myself to that, my relationship with God has deepened immeasurably, and I find that when I am being filled up by the Holy Spirit I have plenty of energy for all he wants me to be doing.

Something that God has had to teach me repeatedly is patience, and the importance of trusting in His perfect timing. Quite early on I read a tweet from Christine Caine that I found really helpful:

“What satan can’t stop, he will often try to speed up. The timing of God is everything!”

Right from the off there has been the temptation to tear ahead at 1000 miles an hour; time and again God has slowed it down, closed doors, made me wait. The best example of this is my employment. Back in 2012, the trustees agreed that to take the organisation forward, I needed to be working for the Princess Project full time- we needed someone to be accountable, overseeing the day to day running of the organisation, managing the volunteer teams, as well as thinking about the strategic development of the charity. They agreed a salary based on comparable positions. The only thing was…. we didn’t have the money! We applied for various grants and were unsuccessful.

Then I realised that there was another factor in play. My husband needed to be 100% on board with the idea of me jettisoning a well-paid, professional role for a temporary contract with a small organisation with nowhere near enough regular income- and at that time, he wasn’t. I don’t blame him at all for that- a lot of people still think I’ve taken leave of my senses! He is hard-wired to be our provider, he is the one who always deals with our family finances, he is the sensible one who is always having to rein me in and keep my feet on the ground (we make a great team!) And the idea of leaving that stability behind was stressing him out quite a lot. I was in a bit of a quandary as I really felt like this was what God wanted me to do- but at the same time, I knew with absolute certainty that he would not want me to do anything that would cause conflict or difficulty in our marriage.

Praying with a friend, she told me she’d had an image of me swinging tarzan stylee through the jungle (apologies for that mental image)- and that I had to let go of one vine before grabbing the next. It felt like God was saying there had to be an element of trust- we couldn’t wait for it all to be in place before stepping out and letting go of our financial security. But she also said that my green light to go would be Graham’s blessing of the decision. Another good friend suggested that, like Gideon (see Judges 6), I lay down a fleece and asked for a sign. I asked God that when the time was right, Graham would be OK with it- not superficially OK to make me feel better, but really OK.

And God honoured that.

I kept quiet, didn’t go on about it (quite a feat- I’m a very good nagger!) and one day Graham came back from work and said “Well, if you’re serious about stopping at the vets I suppose I’d better do a spreadsheet and see how it’s all going to work!” Once spreadsheets had been mentioned, I knew he was on board. Just as I’d asked, it was my green light to go. In his own, unique, understated way he was giving me his blessing, and trusting God for our future- a real act of faith for him and I was, and continue to be, so very thankful for his support and belief in me, and the vision that I have for the Princess Project. He really is a faithful man of God and it is very much a shared journey that we are on. I was also so thankful to my Daddy God who had given me the clear sign I had prayed for.

We decided that one way or another I wouldn’t go back to work at the vets after a holiday we had planned for April. Since then, so much has happened. When we stepped out in faith not knowing where the money was coming from, suddenly it started coming in earnest. The Princess Project received £3000 in donations in the first 3 months of this year alone. In February the trustees decided that there was enough money to offer me a 6 month contract starting in April (and actually we now have nearly enough for another 6 months after that!) I start my paid role at the Princess Project on the 27th April, and can’t wait to take things to the next level. I am also so excited at the prospect of bring able to work around my munchkins, not work at weekends, pick them up from school, look after them when they are sick. They, as well as Graham, have enthusiastically embraced the Princess Project, telling people about it, holding ‘tombolas’ at home to raise a few pennies, coming to events with me. It is very much a family enterprise, and if through this whole process they learn that nothing is impossible with God, to pursue their dreams wholeheartedly, and that some things are more important than money, I will be a very happy mummy.

I don’t know what the future holds- I am very excited about it though! Since I have handed in my notice at the vets, things have rather exploded at the Princess Project, with referrals for the Mum2Mum befriending service coming out of our ears, two Parentalk courses planned, and a new arrangement in place whereby we provide all the new mums accessing the Meadow Children’s Centre with a Princess gift basket. We have two more funding applications in the pipeline. One thing I know- God is graciously only revealing a small part of his plan at a time. If you had told me 5 years ago where I would be today I would simply not have believed it (and quite possibly run screaming for the hills).

I am forever grateful for the reminder that God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. We don’t need to be super talented, or super spiritual, or extraordinary in any way. We just need to listen, trust and obey, and then God can use us in ways that surpass our wildest dreams.

Collecting at our local Sainsbury’s (we’re their charity of the year) with my big munchkin and our good friend and Princess Project volunteer Anne this Mother’s Day

Princess Project Ball 2014

Speaking at the Princess Project Butterfly Ball, October 2014

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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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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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Raising Risk-Takers

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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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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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Bee Yourself (Life Lessons from Disney Volume 2)

I was in the car today, listening to the radio, when an unwelcome voice came into my head.

“You are so old, listening to Radio 2! If people could see you they would think you are so sad…”

A trivial example, I know, but a couple of years ago I would probably have listened to that voice, and questioned my choices. (I still remember ageing about 10 years in my own eyes when I made the epic decision to switch from Radio 1 to Radio 2. It was Chris Moyles leaving that was the final straw. But I digress). In the last 2 years or so I’ve gradually started to become more comfortable in my own skin. Or, in the wise words of the fantastic Genie in Aladdin, to Bee Myself.

This is a lesson I have found particularly hard to learn. From childhood I have been taught that what people think of you really matters. That it doesn’t matter what’s going on indoors, as long as we put on a good show for those watching from the outside, and that they think well of us. “What would (insert name of easily outraged person here) think?!” I am gradually teaching myself a new answer to that question: “I really don’t care!”

Of course, we all care what people think of us to some extent, and it’s right that we consider the opinions and sensibilities of those we love and respect. But if we live our lives governed by other people’s ideas of who we should be and how we should behave, it will cripple us.

We all have different ideas about pretty much everything. What we spend our money on. What we watch on TV. How we bring up our children. We need to acknowledge those differences, but be OK with them. What’s right for one individual, one family, may well not be the right thing for another. When we are insecure about ourselves and the choices we make we often feel the need to make other people, who may do things differently, feel small. And at the end of the day that won’t make us feel any better, it’ll just make the other person feel a whole lot worse.

Jesus famously said

“Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Matthew 22:39

We tend to focus on the first part of that statement- but that is only half of the story. We need to learn to love ourselves. God loves us as we are now; he doesn’t need us to change first. And it’s his opinion that really counts. We may be a work in progress, and there will probably need to be some growing and changing that needs to happen so that we can do all we were made to do- but we don’t need a personality transplant for God to like us. He made me me, and you you; we were never meant to be the same.

So let’s cut each other, and ourselves, some slack. Let’s not worry too much about what other people think and just get on with being us- the real us, not the people we think others want us to be.

In the words of Sting, from the song ‘An Englishman in New York’:

“Be yourself, no matter what they say.”

 

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A Dream Delayed: building character along the way

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Do you have a dream for the future? If life right now is not all you had hoped it would be, do you get frustrated? Do you ever wonder when your dreams will be fulfilled, and question whether they will be at all? I think if we’re honest, we all do sometimes. I read a verse in the Bible this week that really spoke to me about this:

Until the time came to fulfill his dreams, the Lord tested Joseph’s character.

Psalm 105:19

If God has given us a dream, it will be fulfilled. If he has made us a promise, he will keep it. But in the meantime, we mustn’t expect just to sit around marking time, counting down the days. We have work to do. God has work to do in us. If we embark on a new career, we expect to do at least some training or preparation- go on a course, do some reading, maybe undertake some work experience.  And if God has given us a new dream, a new vision, there will be preparation to do there too. And not just in the revising, sitting-in-a-seminar-dozing-off kind of a way, but preparing our very selves. And that kind of preparation is a lot harder. It involves God showing us where change is needed, challenging bad attitudes, sanding down our rough edges and sharp corners. And it seems as though God often uses difficult circumstances and situations to bring about those kind of changes.

Take Joseph’s life as an example (you can read the whole story in Genesis 37 and 39-47). He had received dreams and visions from God from an early age, and he knew he was destined for greatness. But he could have been forgiven for thinking that God may have changed the plan for his life along the way. He was sold into slavery in a foreign country by his own jealous brothers, and then falsely imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. He must have wondered what had gone wrong.  Joseph entered that time of testing and hardship as an arrogant young man, and emerged as a wise leader and a faithful servant of God. As Pharoah himself remarked

Can we find anyone else like this man so obviously filled with the spirit of God?

Genesis 41:38

He ended up in charge of the entire land of Egypt, second in rank only to Pharoah himself. I wonder how things might have looked if his dreams had been fulfilled immediately. If a brash teenager had been made ruler, one who hadn’t had years of learning dependency on God in the isolation of a prison cell; one who hadn’t been taught wisdom, humility and compassion. Given Pharoah’s penchant for impaling those who offended him (see Genesis 40:1-3,22) I don’t think things would have worked out all that well.

I am often impatient. If I know where I want my destination to be, where I think I am headed, I want to get there straight away, without any deviations or detours. But for God, and for our characters, the journey is at least as important as the destination. The journey is often less glamorous, and less public. It might be that no-one can see us trudging along other than God himself. But when we’re walking that path,  God will be building integrity in us; transforming us into the people we were made to be, and we long to be. In the words of Christine Caine

What we do in anonymity will build our inner world.

Becoming people of character and integrity cannot be rushed. We will be a work in progress until the day we go to be with Jesus. So take heart. God always keeps his promises. The bigger the plans he has for you, the more groundwork will need to be done first. So I will try not just to look ahead to the future, but to embrace the present. To serve God where he has put me, right now, even it’s not where I want to be forever.

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