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A Work in Progress: Walking with Jesus

Little Miracles

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Sometimes, it’s the small things that speak the loudest. (In the case of my 7 year old that’s definitely true, but that’s not what I’m talking about today!)

An encouraging text message from a friend, telling you they’re thinking of you.

A hug at just the right time.

An unexpected present.

Getting home late from work to find that your husband has made you dinner.

As Axa Insurance put it in their irritatingly catchy advert “Little things mean a lot.”

In my experience, the same is frequently true in our relationship with God. He is the creator of the universe, he flung stars into space, he has billions of people to concern himself with, but he really cares about the minutiae of our day-to-day lives. And that is what I find totally mind-blowing.

I shouldn’t be surprised- the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, who showed us in person just what God is like, show that he always concerned himself with the individual. Things that mattered to the people he loved and came to save mattered to him. He cared when they were about to run out of wine at a wedding (social death!) and intervened to fix it. He frequently interrupted his plans- usually with large crowds in tow- to answer an individual cry for help and healing.

The same is still true today.

When our family moved to a new church at the beginning of this year, I prayed for my big girl, who doesn’t like change, or big groups, or meeting new people. We had tears of anxiety beforehand from her, and soul searching from my husband and me. Were we doing the right thing? Had we got it wrong? Please, Lord, look after my girl and give her peace; help it to be a positive experience.

The first thing that happened when we arrived at the venue was doughnuts. That put a smile on her face. Then she was welcomed by name and told in advance where she would be going and what would be happening. That allayed her anxiety. Then later on when she  went into her group, there was another girl of a similar age who loved horses and riding. BOOM! (as she would say). Jobs a good’un.

I could not have planned a more fortuitous set of circumstances myself, and I like to think I know her pretty well. But her Daddy God, who made her, and loves her even more than I do, knows even better what she needs.

I could give countless examples like that.

Often these little things aren’t even external, but internal; incremental changes that are happening within me and those around me. Watching a good friend take her first steps of faith, and blossoming into the woman she was created to be as she discovers her real identity and purpose. Gradually being set free from negative patterns of thinking and low self esteem as God lovingly heals the hurts of the past and reveals to me the wonderful potential of the future.

This is how I know that God is real. He is not distant, only concerned with the major issues of the day. In Jesus he is also our friend, our Saviour, with us in every situation and circumstance, should we invite him to be. We can know him personally, and see him at work in our day-to-day lives. He can, and still does, do the big miracles- as the angel reminds us at the very beginning of Luke’s account of the Christmas story

“Nothing is impossible with God.”

Luke 1:37

But it’s the little miracles that speak to me more; that remind me that eternal, almighty God is a loving Father who cares deeply about the individual needs of his children.

 

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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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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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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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Dreams Rediscovered: The Importance of ‘Us Time’

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

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

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

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

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

Below are a few pictures of our time away…

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Handsome swan

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The church where William Shakespeare is buried

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Cotswold thatched cottage

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Coffee break at the RSC cafe

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Old market at Chipping Campden

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Time for a beer…!

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Beautiful Stratford

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You’ve got a Friend

 

The last few weeks have been rather strange ones for me. A tumble down the stairs whilst on holiday (note to self: rushing down a polished wooden staircase wearing a onesie with fleecy feet is not a good idea) resulted in what was thought to be a rather painful broken toe. At a routine follow-up appointment a flustered registrar informed me that it wasn’t actually broken, but there was a growth in the bone. They thought it was probably benign, but  weren’t sure. I was dispatched to the MRI department with a green slip of paper requesting an appointment, which reassuringly contained the words ‘Benign?? Malignant?? ***URGENT***’ !!! The scan was arranged with impressive speed, and then I had a 10-day wait for the results.

And that was what I found tricky. A little knowledge is very definitely a dangerous thing, and I inevitably extrapolated from animals (I’m a vet by profession) to people. Bone tumours in dogs and cats are generally bad news. Dr Google informed me that bone tumours in humans are not usually anything to worry about, but I guess that message didn’t quite get through to my subconscious. Rationally, I knew the probability was that all would be well. I knew that God was with me no matter what, and could and would use my circumstances for His glory if I allowed him to,  whatever those circumstances were. I was still reading my Bible, still praying, still just about keeping everything ticking over at home and work but that was about it. I am used to tackling life with enthusiasm and driving things forward, being proactive; now I was only doing what really needed to be done, and struggling even to do that.

And that’s where my friends came in.

I can often find it difficult to ask for help, but this time my hand was somewhat forced. I was unable to walk the children to school the first two weeks after my tumble as I couldn’t put any weight on my foot, so two lovely friends stepped in to walk them there and back for me. People kept kindly enquiring after my broken toe and so I told them what was going on. I was overwhelmed by people’s response. Words of support and offers of help at the school gate. Text messages reassuring me of people’s prayers. Bible verses offering encouragement and reassurance.

As so often is the case, my daily Bible reading seemed very topical and timely. Having worked through the book of Colossians, I had come to the final verses:

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and  the church in her house.

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord.”

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

Colossians 4:7-18

I found it striking the amount of time and space Paul devotes in this letter to personal greetings and news of his friends. We often associate Paul with dense and weighty theology, or view him as a lone visionary and evangelist and think of his ministry and mission as being a one-man affair. But more down-to-earth sections like this one from Colossians remind us how far from the truth this picture is. Paul was very much a team player. Yes, he was the one with the apostolic calling and often the one with the vision, but he makes it clear time and time again that he could not do it alone. He had a close relationship with God, but needed the support and encouragement of his friends as he journeyed through life.

And if that was true for Paul, one of the most influential people of all time, responsible for the spread of the Christian gospel out of the Middle East and into Europe and Asia, how much more is it true for all of us? For me?

We are not designed to live in isolation, as individual islands as the river of life flows around us. We are designed to live in community, in relationship with one another. To laugh with each other, cry with each other, love and support one another in good times and bad. These kinds of relationships require a degree of vulnerability that some of us find more difficult than others, but are essential to our wellbeing.

I found out on Monday that the lesion is indeed a benign one, and so nothing to worry about. A weight has been lifted from my mind that I wasn’t even aware I was carrying. Looking back I can see that the last few weeks have taught me many valuable lessons. That in all things, God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). That I can’t always do it on my own, and that I shouldn’t  be trying to. That the good health usually enjoyed by me and my family is something to be extremely thankful for, and not taken for granted. And most of all, that I am blessed with many wonderful friends. If any of you are reading this, know that I am thanking God for your presence in my life.

 

 

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Lighten Up! The power of laughter

 

When my husband Graham and I were first married, life was quite stressful. In the space of 3 months I’d done my finals, moved house twice, got married, and started work as a newly qualified vet. Looking back on that time, I think there was one thing that helped (rescued?) our marriage more than anything else- Graham’s ‘melting’ skills.

Let me explain.

Wife comes home from work, exhausted, overwrought, near to tears, looking for an argument. Husband tells inappropriate joke, diffuses situation, perseveres with downright silliness until aforementioned wife cannot help herself but to smile (despite all her best efforts). Husband then continues until laughter ensues. Followed by hugs. Situation redeemed.

“Melted my wife!” he says triumphantly.

My husband is great at not taking himself too seriously. He is very good at seeing the funny side, especially if I am struggling to. Although this has bordered on irreverence at times (I never quite recovered from being made to watch his take on ‘liturgical dancing’ following a demonstration at church), it has led to lots and lots of shared laughter over the years.

And now he not only has one girl to melt, he has three. Our small munchkin doesn’t usually need much encouragement to find life funny- she usually starts us all off- but the larger munchkin has inherited her mummy’s tendency to take herself a little seriously at times, so is a much more satisfying subject for the practising of one’s melting techniques. If he can get through the frustrated

“DADDY! You’re SO ANNOYING!!!”

the wonderful giggle that he can coax out is well worth the effort.

All of this has started to rub off on me. I try not to take myself as seriously as I used to. Shared silliness has started to become the norm in our house. As Graham remarked a little wistfully when I told him I was writing this post,

“I don’t need to melt you as often as I used to…”

Seeing the funny side can prevent us from being crippled by that most British of fears- looking silly. If we’re not afraid to look ridiculous, if we can laugh at ourselves, then we often find that we worry less about what other people think of us. And perversely, if we are laughing at ourselves, it is much less likely other people will laugh at us anyway. People with an overinflated view of their own gravitas and importance and who aren’t prepared to join in with the joke are a much more tempting target.

If we’re jumping around the kitchen singing along to One Direction with our children using wooden spoons as microphones, all having fun together, who cares what other people think? We’re making memories, and that’s what counts. (What, you don’t do that?! It’s only us?!) The sound of my children’s laughter must be my favourite sound in all the world.

And it’s not only our homes and families that benefit from a healthy dose of laughter- our churches do, too. All too often Christians are stereotyped as being killjoys, miserable, anti-fun- and definitely as people who take ourselves too seriously. We absolutely must take God seriously- but not ourselves. As Jesus said,

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10

That seems to me to be a call to enjoy the lives we have been given.

The Psalmist writes

We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy. And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.
Psalm 126:2
Wouldn’t it be amazing if those outside our churches could look at us and think the same.
So my challenge to you today is to make someone laugh. Smile at a stranger. ‘Melt’ your partner even when it would be more tempting to shout at them. Smiling and laughing are incredibly contagious- let’s start spreading some silliness, lighten up a bit, and who knows what may happen.
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