The Book of Joy

IMG_2157So this summer we hit a rough patch. A rough patch that saw my kid struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, that saw her lovely spark go out. I knew the day would come eventually, I had always known it was around the corner but perhaps naively I thought that corner was a little further down the line.

During one of the panic attacks she was struggling with her breathing and was crying at me that she was going to die. I was trying to calm her down but she was inconsolable. I told her she was not going to die and she responded:

“you don’t know that everyone in our family dies young.”

And right there it had come.

It is a question people often ask me “how does she cope/deal/manage with her Dad not being here, with never having met him?” I always responded that she didn’t cope/deal/manage because it simply didn’t affect her, she was a happy kid, she was loved and had lots of people around her – she had never known him and so you can’t miss what you haven’t had, or something along those lines. But this summer it did start affecting her, she was beginning to process what it meant for her.

Watching your kid struggle is hard, whatever it is they are struggling with, but when it is your biggest struggle too – it took me out, it knocked me flat and took me low, my long time wrestles and struggles came to pay another visit. It took me back to those hard places, like it was only yesterday.

Then one morning on my drive to work I was listening to a Sheryl Sandberg podcast – she is an amazing lady and for me she is up there with Brene! Sheryl is the COO of Facebook and two years ago she lost her husband suddenly leaving her a single mum to two small children. I cried as she cried for all she had lost, all we had lost and the pain it had brought. But she ended that podcast talking about joy and how struggle, loss, disappointment should always be a catalyst to learn and appreciate joy more. It hit me again that I had a choice in this.

Only a few weeks earlier I had found myself one Saturday evening in St Pancras with some time to kill before my train and as anyone who knows St Pancras will tell you it is probably the best station to have time to kill because the shops are pretty special. I had walked into an overpriced stationary shop coming out £30 lighter in the purse. One of my purchases was a small, thick, pale blue note pad with the numbers “365” on the front in gold and on each page a number from 1 to 365. I had no purposes for buying it except that I thought it was pretty – I wasn’t really sure what I was going to use it for.

Fast forward a few weeks to that morning in the car listening to that podcast and that book came to mind and I knew exactly what I was going to use it for. And so was born our “Book of Joy” and so a new ritual was started. Each night at bedtime we sit together and talk about our days and the things that we have been grateful for in that day, the things and people who have bought us joy, that have made us laugh. We have to include at least 3 things each, but some days it is more. Those things range from ice cream, to a conversation that touches our heart, to a situation that turned around, to answered prayers for people we care about, to Netflix.

On that podcast Sheryl talked about how joy is a discipline. I guess sometimes it is easy to get overwhelmed by the stuff that is hard, to allow that to take hold and that is ok, its ok to struggle and to voice that but for me in those hard moments of this summer, watching my child in pain I needed to hear that I needed to bring joy into the situation, that I needed to be intentional in doing that.

And you know we are 5 weeks into our Book of Joy and it has been such a positive exercise. In those moments where the struggle was looming we would say to each other “Joy” and there and then we would talk about the things we were grateful for in those moments and so shifting the focus from dark to light.

For me personally it has helped me recognise throughout the day things I am thankful for, something will happen and I will think “that will make the Book of Joy today.” I have been surprised at recognising how it is the small things that lift my soul, the simple things, and for me it has been nature – it has been my amazing beautiful journey to and from work, my beautiful passion fruit plant and its flowers, the clouds in the sky. It is those moments that bring me peace, that have helped me start to settle the wrestles in my heart.

For my kid well the spark is back, the panic attacks have lessoned, I am not sure we are out of the woods totally, and the processing will maybe continue for a lifetime but I am convinced that our little book has helped.

Sheryl Sandberg talks about second derivatives, so if you get angry you get angry that you got angry and so the anger becomes anger becomes anger. Likewise with joy – learning to find joy and gratitude in the small things of life multiplies the positives because joy becomes joy becomes joy – I love that! I love that so much! It is such a life-giving concept.

For us that Book of Joy is here to stay, because I know the negatives, the hard stuff of life is part of the deal but I don’t want it to take me out, I don’t want it to take my child out – I want us to be people marked by love and by gratitude because the more we go along with this new discipline the more I see the fruit of gratitude, the challenge it brings to bad attitudes, to self-focus – it has helped me see again how small I am, it has humbled me because yes I hate that my child was ever put in this place but the minute I start to think not about what we don’t have but rather all that we do have (which is an amazing amount of amazing things) the battle, the ego, the “poor me” mind-set gets kicked back down.

And something tells me learning to walk more and more in the ways of thankfulness and gratitude still have an awful lot left to teach me!

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You matter…..

She sits on the floor in a ball sobbing, her heart breaking in front of you, the next minute screaming and shouting, overcome with anger and despair. The man she loved, the person she expected to share her life with gone forever and her future feels overwhelmingly scary and desperately lonely.

Not many people knew, they were waiting until they were certain everything was ok but then it was gone before it had really arrived but it was here long enough to allow dreams to bubble up, for the excitement to start to build. It feels like it is happening for everyone else and she simply has to smile and share their joy but inside it is like a knife going into her deepest parts.

The anxiety overwhelms him, his hands shake not so that many people would see but you know and you see. Sleep will not come easily in fact most nights it is broken. Exhaustion overwhelms him. He puts a good front on but inside he feels like he is falling apart.

You aren’t meant to bury your children. That is not the right order of things. The thought is too unbearable. But it is their reality – it is the nightmare they find themselves in. Their baby cruelly and shockingly taken with no warning, just as he was becoming a man, as he had his whole life ahead of him.

He had studied for years, so so hard, you had watch the years of spending hours with his head in a book, and he did it, he succeeded, he thrived in his career, he was good at it. Then the bullying came and the accusations leaving him broken, exhausted and wondering what the future held.

She had always dreamed of her wedding day, of what she would wear, of the flowers that would fill the room, the words that would be spoken. Each year that passes the more the disappointment grows.

We all know these people , maybe there is a little bit of our stories in those stories. These stories are not easy story. They are not fun. They are not particularly attractive. But they are real and they are all around us everyday whether we see them or not or often whether we chose to see them or rather look away.

These are all stories of people I know and love. They are the stories that have broken my heart. The stories that have had me cry oceans of tears. The stories that have had me on my knees until they are sore.

I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. I wish I could have made these situations right. If it is one thing I have learnt its that I can’t fix everything, I don’t have a magic wand that can make it all better, that can change the past, or direct the future.

I have had lots of conversations over the years about how to be in those situations, what to say to people when their worlds are falling apart, how best to help people, and I think my answer is probably that to some extent it depends on the person and the situation and in some situations it may well be different things on different days but the overwhelming thing that people need to know when faced with the unbearable, when everything is closing in on them is that they matter.

I have recently finished reading the book “Option B” by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, who in 2015 lost her husband suddenly leaving her a single parent to two small children, and trying to navigate the complicated journey of grief and at the same time learning how to be sole parent. As the cover of the book sets out it is about facing adversity, building resilience and finding joy.

It is a book that I really recommend whether grief has been part of your story or not, as it is not just a book about grief in terms of death, included in it are lots of stories of people finding their life in pieces and how they overcame in amazing ways.

There were lots of things in the book that resonated, that touch cords and that have been filling my head. One of the things she talks about is about the fact that it is really important that we as human beings know we matter. That may sound a really obvious statement but I wonder often how well we do that especially when things are hard.

Sheryl Sandberg talks about how important it is in recovery from life’s tragedies and hurts to know you matter, to know that other people notice you, care about you and rely on you.

My experience is of having good people around me who have repeatedly told me and showed me that I still mattered – sometimes that was a one-off, the words, prayers or actions of someone I didn’t know and maybe would never see again, but more often it was the consistent, faithful and patient presence of people who didn’t give up, over many years (bless you and thank you for not giving up on me I know it wasn’t pretty!!). I think it is only with hindsight I can look back and see how much their actions spoke of how much I mattered, because it was truly ugly at times and not for the faint hearted and it went on a long time. I know without a shadow of a doubt God put those people around me because I know I wouldn’t have come through those tough years, when it felt like one by one those that I mattered most to and who mattered most to me were taken, without those people surrounding me, holding me up, showing me I mattered and most importantly that I stilled mattered to God.

Who in your life needs to know they still matter?

Please keep telling them. Be it a text to say why you love them, why they are special or that you are saying a prayer for them. Make them dinner or take them flowers. Allow them to be part of your family by including them at meal times or bank holidays – I cannot tell you how hard those days are for people on their own, and for people who have lost and how an invitation can turn a painful day into a bearable day! Remember the key days. Let them know you haven’t forgotten. Let them have space to talk – be there to listen. Be consistent in telling them and showing them they matter.

Those you don’t know too – those you see sat on their own, please go talk to them, given them time, show interest. Lets encourage our children to do the same – I have had a gutful of playground politics recently, lets be raising our children to be kind, to include people, to let people know they matter and the importance of telling them they matter.

And I get that that isn’t always easy, and that often in the hard stuff of life it is uncomfortable to get alongside hurting people. That you can end up being battered in the process. But I say this with love you have to get over it because I guarantee however hard it is for you what they are going through is so much harder and one day you will need those people to do exactly the same for you. Love and life is messy, and after 40 years I have come to a joyful acceptance that it is always going to be that way and the only way to know the abundance of life, love and relationship is to walk those messes with each other.

I have a very special man in my life – he has become my surrogate Dad and he will never know how much he has meant to me. He has helped me through some hard stuff recently, repeatedly telling me I matter, and that I am important. The thing is I am not the only one he texts regularly to care for – I see him doing it over and over with so many people, people struggling with their health, with their pasts, with loneliness – he is probably one of those most loved people I know because he sacrificially shows people that they matter and in that brings light into the dark places.

Showing people they matter, over and over again, changes situations. I have seen it in my life and in other people’s situations. I think we need to learn to do it better, to get over our embarrassment and fear of vulnerability, because it brings life, it brings hope and it brings something beautiful. I think it is probably what our world needs most for people to know they matter.

And if you need to know you matter today please hear it deep in your heart – you do matter, you are precious, you are needed, and most of all by your heavenly father – he’s got you, he loves you, he’s fighting for you and has gone ahead of you x

Home Sweet Home

The other day I had a bit of a revelation in that I realised that one of the things I feel most passionate about, one of the subjects that excites me and makes me come alive most, one of my greatest heart’s desires is also something that brings with it pain and disappointment and that that pain and disappointment stop me really embracing it. And that made me feel sad.

I love the concept of home, of family and of tables but for so long my family has felt incomplete, my home not quite a real home and my table not as full as I would choose.

I love my home, especially when it is clean and tidy (big joy for the cleaner starting next week!!) – my home is my safe space, its my comfort, and so often when I am tired and have had enough of people it is my place to come and hide away. My little house has been a place of healing and rebuilding. It has been a gift. It has come with wonderful neighbours. But often it feels empty, it reminds me when its other occupant is in bed that I am alone in ways I never expected or wanted. It is not as full and busy as I had dreamed it would be. Yes most of the time it is calm and peaceful but often I crave noise and chaos.

I love my child, I love her more than anything else, she is more than enough – we are each other’s family and we have a lot of fun, there is always music and often dancing and we share a lot of love but that family is definitely not what I hoped for. I read articles and books on raising children, on building a family and it hurts my heart because I am not raising my family in the way I would want. My family is so much smaller than I would like.

I love nothing more than sitting round a table with people, sharing life, eating food, laughing, talking, maybe even a few tears. Proper and real connection. Vulnerability, authenticity and courage – sharing stories, sharing memories.

A while back I read the following and it resonated so deeply in me:

“Tables have the potential to break down walls, open hearts and mend bridges. They nourish and give, but they also need and receive. I would wager a guess that most wars we’ve seen throughout our ragged history started around tables. But I know redemption starts there too. Healing. Mending. Peace. Sometimes wisdom isn’t found in governments, intelligence, science labs and even religious institutions, but in more simple and intimate places, the every day and ordinary, around human tables set to give and receive.” (DVO app)

I think I have pulled away from inviting people to sit round my table making excuses that my house is too small, I am not a great cook, cooking stresses me out, that working full time makes it difficult when actually the truth is I don’t feel like my family looks quite right.

I realised these last few days that because my picture didn’t look quite look like I thought it should or would want it to it had been stopping me embracing the things that I really love in life, because my home, my family and my table didn’t feel like quite enough.

My heart is for love, it is something I try to do and want to do better that love which transforms, that brings safety and acceptance, that gives comfort, that tells people they are enough. That love that always points people towards Jesus. I am not always very good at it, I get it wrong but as long as I have breath in my body I am going to try with all I am to love well. It is that love that excites me more than many other things, the potential that loving well and intentionally brings with it – redemption, restoration, healing, mending, change.

I want my home to be a place of that love and not simply for the people who sleep there but for all those that come through its doors. So I made a decision – my home, my family and my table are the ones I have been given, the gifts God has given me for this season and I am going to learn embrace them, celebrate them and share them. I am going to be braver in inviting people in. I am going to be intentional about that. I want to love better and I want my home to be a place of life, of love, of people and I have a choice I can fill it full of those things or I can shut the door and keep wondering what could have been.

Its choosing to believe all over again that my family, all 2 of us, is a family God put together and so it is more than enough. And that family, if I let it, can still bless others, can still give, can still love – so here and now I make a choice to not let disappointment and pain stop me taking hold of the things I love, to stop letting comparison or expectation dictate what it looks like. We are enough.

You are enough, whatever your home, your family and your table looks like. God has plans and purposes for each of us, for each of our families, our homes and our tables, the question is will we embrace and celebrate what we have been given rather than fight against it and wish things were different?

So my table is going to be set much more often, the food may be simple but there will be more of it, more people squashed in and a door that will always be open.

Thank you….

I remember nearly passing you by, thinking you weren’t right for me, something like you had never been part of the plan.

But something made me give you a chance – I remember vividly sat there making my first contact with you on paper, those seemingly ordinary moments which become seared in your memory because actually without you realising it they are something pretty special, a normal Sunday night which changes the course of everything.

The first time I met you I knew -there was such warmth, such love – even though you were a crazy option on so many levels I knew. I knew I wanted to be with you, to be part of you.

You were a gift straight from heaven. I have often described you when people asked me about you as being like the warmest, softest blanket being wrapped around me tight, making me feel safer than I had felt in such a long time.

You will never know how special you have been to me. I arrived at your doors pretty battered but you have bought me healing and life and joy. You have come with such friendship. You have made me laugh over and over again. You have given me rest. You have given me confidence back – the affirmations, the encouragement and the constant support. You have called things out of me that I thought had long died and that I didn’t even know were there. You have bought me back to life again – time and time again you pointed me to Jesus, reminded me of whose I was and what was important. Even your challenges have been so needed and so life-giving.

In the walls of your building, in the seats of your chapel, in your people, your precious, precious people (oh I love your people) you showed me that God loved me, and had not forgotten me, that he still had plans and purposes for my life.

I love who you are, what you stand for and who you fight you – I love that most of all, those precious lives you never stop fighting for. I have been so proud to be a small part of that with you. I have loved learning of your history, of your legacy, your pictures, your stories.

But 2 years on it is time to say goodbye (well nearly!) and it is breaking my heart. I can see those around me not quite understanding why there is a constant stream of tears (my eyes are red raw from all the tears), the tears are flowing as I write this, they don’t really understand why the big deal but they don’t know you, because if they did they would know.

I know it is the right time to move on but the problem is I never expected to become quite so attached. Why is it that sometimes the right thing is so flipping hard? So much of me wants to stay with you, to stay in the safety of your arms and to never leave but you have given me strength back and I know I can’t stay with you because you are safe. You have made me brave and it’s time.

So what do I want to say to you as I say goodbye? I want to say thank you, for every life giving conversation and there have been so many, for the prayers, the hugs, the fun, the wisdom, for always having my back and always pushing me onwards – so many precious moments, so many significant times.

I hope I have given you back a fraction in return, even a little something, I hope its not all been one-sided.

I will always be one of your biggest cheerleaders, always an advocate, always a supporter, always praying. I will always be watching what you are doing with anticipation, pride and excitement.

Church Army you may have ruined me for all future employers because I know this was a one-off, and even though you have made me cry more than I have cried in a long time you have been worth the pain in my heart and all the tears! I know I will always look back on you as being one of the most special and beautiful of seasons.

THANK YOU x

The Master Builder

A Future Not Our Own
(Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw)

“We accomplish in our lifetime
only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise
that is God’s work.

That is what we are about.
We plant a seed that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations
that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation
in realising that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace
to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.”

A colleague read this to us the other week and something stirred in my heart. These words aren’t the whole prayer, simply extracts, the bits that moved me and which my soul responded a big Amen to.

They reminded me that God is a big God, and that I am very small in comparison and that as small as I may be, as small as each one of us in the grand scheme of the universe and this crazy adventure of life, we all have a part to play. I think what I loved most about these words is the part that talks about the seeds we plant, the seeds already planted, the foundations we lay and that yeast producing effects far beyond our capabilities.

So often I wonder whether I am significant, I need to find worth in what I am doing, in what I am producing, I question whether I am enough. Am I having any impact in the world I inhabit? Am I making enough of a difference? Am I loving people well enough? Am I alone in those questions? I am guessing possibly not and if I am well maybe I have just outed myself as being a complete nutcase.

There was a freedom in hearing those words. I can’t do it all. I am not meant to do it. I am just meant to do that little bit that was set aside for me, nothing more and nothing less. But who knows where each of our little bits will lead, of the potential and the possibilities.

Maybe I am just meant to walk part of someone’s journey with them, and then let them go for other people to pick up the next stages and maybe I will never know what impact my words or actions have had, if any. Or maybe you have laid the foundations in a piece of work or a cause and someone else will be the one to build it into something greater.

I guess that is the challenge of those words, of that prayer, it is a challenge of surrender and trust. Trusting that our little bits are part of a much bigger picture we often do not understand, a picture this side of heaven we will probably not even see.

How often do people come into my life, and by their words, their actions and their examples impact my life and yet I never say anything. I never let them know of the significance they have had in my life.

We may never see how the seeds we have planted will grow, or understand all those seeds that have already been planted way before we entered a particular story. We may simply be asked to play a small part and then walk on and let others take over or maybe we come in at the end. I love that, like a jigsaw, our lives are interconnected, we all do our thing and play our part, which is simply a piece of each other’s stories, and all those parts come together to form lives, stories, something much bigger than simply us on our own. I love that that is how it was created to be, all in it together. Those words moved my spirit in ways I can’t articulate well, in terms of what they said about community, and of humankind – about the power of us all doing our “something” and doing it well and the possibilities that come from that, with all our “somethings” added together. I warned you I wasn’t going to articulate that well!!

So, what is your “something”? What is the thing or the things you have been given – the calling, the gifting, the people, the character – that has been entrusted to you and how do you do that well? I guess those are questions we will always be asking and that those things will change in different chapters and seasons.

Alongside that prayer the other night I read these words from my devotional (DVO app) and for me the two pieces of writing flowed together.

“Love is always within our reach.”

“When you strip it all back – the fame, fortune, reputation, success, achievement, poverty, disease, failure, houses, government, wars, history, heroes, prisons, criminals…. the only thing left to see will be the love that has been given and the love that has been received.”

“It’s our love that defines us and leaves an eternal grove upon the earth.”

“When all is said and done, when we stand on the other side of eternity and the fog clears, and we can see clearly, I bet we’ll be astonished at how united and connected we all are. We’ll be able to see the deep and resounding effect our words and actions have had on others.”

“Love is the highest calling and most enduring legacy. It’s like water, it dribbles and leaks and pours into nooks and crannies that haven’t seen light for years if we let it flow.”

I want to be defined by the way I give and receive love. I want the “somethings” I have been given to be done to be done with love.

We may never know how the parts we play, the things we do, the words we speak, the way we are, the jobs we have done, the small acts and the big stuff impact, affect, change things but more and more I am learning that maybe we aren’t always meant to know, as long as we always trying to do these things with love, then we need to surrender and trust that someone bigger is the master builder and we are simply the workers, and each of those things will be threaded into stories, in lives, in beautiful ways.

Magic in the mess

It was not even ten steps into my Saturday morning run before my foot hit the ice and I ungraciously ended up in a pile on the pavement, with my knee bleeding and looking like that of a 7 year old boy’s, my favourite running leggings ripped (with the knowledge I couldn’t even buy another pair – a whole other story), sobbing uncontrollably. It summed up the week that had gone before.

Half an hour later as the sobbing subsided I asked her “Is there ever going to be a time when life doesn’t feel messy?” I knew what her answer was before the words left her mouth but I wanted her to tell me that it was possible because actually right in that moment the mess hurt (as did my knee), the mess had broken my heart and I wanted to run as far away from it as I could (although there would be no running for a while given the pain my knee was in). I wanted to hide from the world for a bit and come out again when the mess was gone.

Was it only me that got into these ridiculous messes? Is it because I am far too heart led and emotion fuelled? Did I do something wrong? Probably the answer to some extent is “YES” to all of those questions but I am me and those pesky emotions are hard wired into me.

Then there it was again that “tension” word. The tension I couldn’t know love without mess. I couldn’t enjoy relationship without mess. I couldn’t take risks, be brave and jump into adventures without mess. Family couldn’t exist without mess. And friendships too they come with their fair share. Mess is part of it all.

I can’t fully engage and live my life without mess. FACT. TRUTH. REALITY. And I hate it and love it all at the same time.

Once I had stripped back the emotions and gained some perspective I realised again that mess is inevitable, and part of the human condition – although I am still pretty convinced that those blessed with more control of their feelings are slightly less prone to so many messes or maybe they just look different!

We are all so different, we all have our own unique passions, oddities, experiences, losses, loves, prejudices, struggles, insecurities – we all come with so much stuff, a crazy mix of the good and the bad that actually when we come together to do life as family, as friends, as colleagues, neighbours the mess is not going to be far behind.

Then I read the words of Brene Brown (I love Brene!), in her book, Rising Strong, that actually maybe there is magic in the mess. MAGIC IN THE MESS!!!! Could that really be the case?

So where was this magic? It didn’t take me long to recognise it.

It was right there in those arms that hold you as the tears stream down your face, as you heart breaks, or in those people who rant and rage for you, who voice all the frustrations and questions that perhaps you don’t dare utter out loud. Its in that hand on the small of your back in the midst of a tough moment, or a look across the room full of people that says I have got your back, I am for you.

It’s in those relationships that had been forged so deeply in the midst of the mess, where we have carried each other, fought for each other, been on our knees crying out for each other – that mess which meant safe places were created, home was formed, where acceptance and unconditional love grew despite of and maybe because of each other’s vulnerabilities, where the real belly aching laughter happens.

It’s in those lessons learnt, the characters that have been formed, in the strength, compassion and patience that has somehow found their way through the rubble. In the humility and vulnerability of hearts laid bare.

Most of all it’s in the safety of the father’s arms which again and again say “its all going to be ok”, that tell us to lean in tight and let him sort it out. Those arms that wrap round you as wrestle and tantrum never letting go but patiently waiting until there is no more fight left.

I’ve seen that magic so many times in my life and in the lives of others.

I was able to go and wash my bloody and bruised knee knowing it was going to scab and probably be uncomfortable for a while but that it would heal. But something much bigger happened in my heart that morning – I realised I didn’t need to wrestle as I maybe would have done in the past, I didn’t want to wrestle. I simply wanted to be held by my heavenly father, to let him have the mess and sadness and over and over I have simply prayed “please bring something beautiful from the mess.”

I have no idea what that beautiful will look like but I am confident it will come and I am pretty sure Brene is right that there is always magic to be found in the mess if we look hard enough.

Small things with great love

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Well here we are at the end of another year. I am not quite sure how we got here because I swear it was only January yesterday – time is flying by far too quickly.

2016 for me personally you have been fine. Certainly you included lots of lovely times, celebrating special friends and their big birthdays, wonderful weddings, journeying with an amazing church family in new adventures. Your highlights have very much been bringing that beautiful baby into our family, and seeing my child grow and thrive. As with each year though you have bought with you some tears, some struggles and a fair share of heartbreak. I am learning though that that is simply life and that probably that is how most years look, that tension between the life-giving amazing moments, the ordinary normal, which in hindsight is probably where the special actually happens, and the hard painful moments which find you on your knees questioning why, how and what.

One thing is definitely for sure though from a world perspective 2016 will definitely be one that goes down in the history books. Brexit, Trump, the atrocities that fill our screens and newspapers on a daily basis, as well as an unprecedented number of well-known deaths. I guess we will all have watched on feeling hopeless, helpless and maybe a little despairingly.

If I am being honest the last couple of months I have felt disengaged, not really being able to connect with God properly or with life. Whilst life is generally good and I am so blessed I have at the same time felt a little overwhelmed and heavy- hearted watching pain unfold around me, in the lives of people I love and in the world at large. I feel helpless because I can’t make things better and I don’t really know how or what to pray. All I can do is try and show love in the midst of it all and I am not always sure I do that very well.

As I looked at all the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve, there was a tension in my heart between being thankful for all that I have, all the love and the material stuff, the massive blessings that I know in my life and which I am guessing you probably know too verses the discomfort of excess and abundance in light of all those who will have spent the festive period in very desperate circumstances.

Over the last few days I have sensed a glimpse of something rising up in me – hope maybe, or a light, definitely a desire to re-engage, a desire for more and to fight harder for people and life and love. As I come to the end of 2016 and get ready for 2017 I think my heart is mainly engaging with these three thoughts:

  1. Light in the darkness.

“In him was life and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1 vs 4-5

This verse has very much been the focus of advent for me. I find the darkness hard, I find it scary, it overwhelms, it leaves me confused and questioning but I don’t ever want to let it win – I always want to let the light shine brighter. I want to keep fixing my eyes on the one who is always light, who can always overcome the darkness.

I want to chose to keep inviting the light in, to keep believing it will always have power over the darkness, to keep praying that light into the hard broken places of this world and keep being that light for the people God has put around me – I may get that wrong some or a lot of the time but I want to always be willing to show up and  be that light.

The light has to win because I know from my own life that that light is our only hope, the only thing that can bring healing, transformation, redemption and restoration and ultimately life itself.

  1. A few weeks ago I was chatting to my wise skype lady in the States and she challenged me to change the way I question. So often when I hit a hard place, when I am struggling to make sense of things I get tied up in the why questions.

“Why has this happened?”

“Why me/us/them?”

“Why God have you not stepped in and changed this situation?”

The list could go on and on – as one of my wise friends often tells me I am trying to square the circle and that ain’t ever going to happen.

I was challenged to respond to say “Ok God you have me in this place how do you want me to respond, what part do you want me to play in this particular story and what do you want to teach me through it?”

I loved that challenge because it unlocked something deep inside me and as I go into a new year that is how I want to face every adventure, challenge and struggle that comes my way. I want those two questions to dictate how I respond to life in all its craziness, in all its weirdness and in all its beauty.

  1. I love the Queen. Those who know me well will testify just how much – in fact one of my Christmas presents was a blow up crown and another was a royal colouring book. She is my hero.

In her Christmas Day speech this year she quoted Mother Theresa “Not all of us can do great things but we can do small things with great love.” She went on to talk about the fact that sometimes the world’s problems seem so big that we can do little to help.

“On our own we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice but the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine.”

Her Majesty went on to talk about the example of Christ, the example she bases her life around, because his example allows her to see the value of doing small things with great love.

“The message of Christmas reminds us that inspiration is a gift to be given as well as received and that love begins small but always grows.”

I love those words – words that answer that overwhelming helplessness – just start small and always with love. A response which we are all capable of.

So as I come to threshold of 2017 these are 3 things I am taking with me, that light that always shines brighter, that response of “God what part do you want me to play and what do you want me to learn” and doing small things with great love. As I focus on them, as I have sat and put them down in words, an excitement and an anticipation fills my heart at all the possibilities and potentials.

Wishing you a peaceful and light and love filled 2017.

Beauty in the broken things

So he has been gone nearly 10 years, a decade – that seems like a crazy, long amount of time, so much has happened, so many tears alongside the laughter, so much pain followed by amazing and beautiful healing, more loss and new life, the ordinary alongside the extra-ordinary, old faithful friends and lovely, life-giving new friends.

He was part of my life for such a short time. If you drew a time-line of my hopefully 80 years odd he would take up such a short part of it but yet the depth of his impact will always be greater than any other. Loving him and losing him changed me for the rest of my days.

So many lessons that he taught me after he had gone. Lessons of holding on, of forgiveness and grace, of keeping on loving even when it hurts and its hard, of trusting, of choosing life and not bitterness, of identity, of faith, of community. So many beautiful and life-giving lessons which could only have come through the agony, the desperation, the loss, the emptiness. Would I have chosen those lessons over having him here? NO absolutely not! But there wasn’t an either or option, I didn’t get to chose how it played it out I could only walk the path I had been given. I haven’t always walked it well, in fact a lot of the time it has been hideously messy but I have learnt that what God desires most is intimacy with us and the only way that that can happen is through broken lives and mess – it is how the joy comes, where the healing is done and where the lives are transformed.

Ask those that know me well and they will tell you I probably overuse the word “favourite” – I have lots of favourite people and things, but if I had to chose my favourite lesson that I have learnt over the past decade it would be that there is always beauty in the brokenness.

This morning I have woken up with the image of Kintsugi strongly on my heart. I think it is probably God reminding me in the midst of my heart hurting for people I love that he is all about healing, restoration, redemption and transformation. He is whispering in his tenderness the truths that however big the mess is, however great the pain, there is always a way, always.

A while back my lovely boss sent me an email about Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repaired pottery. Broken pottery is repaired with lacquer dusted or mixed with powered gold, silver or platinum. The idea is that the bowl becomes more beautiful for having been broken, that the breakage and repair become part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. There is an embracing of the imperfect and the flawed. I love that image.

Again this morning God is saying to me

“Isn’t that the same way you should view your life and the lives of others around you?”

So often we are ashamed of our brokenness, of the mistakes, of our pasts, of our tragedies. What I love about following Jesus is that he turns it all on its head and views it the opposite way. Messy is the currency God works in.

I love that with Jesus tragedy is not the end. I love that if we let him he can take the pieces of our broken lives and make something new and amazing. I love that he is all about restoration and redemption. I love that, with Jesus, the fact I was a widow at 29 was not the end of the story but maybe just the beginning. I love that the years of pain and agony were not wasted.

I love that with Jesus not one of us is beyond his love – no situation is hopeless with him. No person is beyond his forgiveness, his love and his power.

I love that even when we make the biggest of mistakes or when the unimaginable has happened, there is always a way out, always an answer and always hope with Jesus.

I love that Jesus takes our disappointment and moulds it into something new. Disappointment has been one of my greatest battles – disappointment that my life hasn’t end up how I thought it would but as we let go of the controls and give him the control we are taken on an adventure we could never imagine, way beyond our disappointments.

I love that Jesus never intended us to walk alone. I love that in the most broken of times, when our lives feel in pieces it is often when our relationships with him and with others are forged deeper and stronger. I love those real, authentic and vulnerable relationships, that are such gifts, and are so beautiful – that are always worth the risks they carry.

Life gets messy, our hearts break, our lives at times are shattered but it is never the end of the story– there is such hope and promise in Jesus, that he will take those broken pieces and rebuild it into something new and beautiful.

I am so thankful for those in my life that live this stuff out, who inspire me, whose lives have been broken but who are so incredibly special because of that brokenness, whose stories shine the beauty, who pour into the lives of others with wisdom, compassion and life because of their experiences. I want to always stand on my story and their stories  for other people in their brokenness always believing for the beauty.

 

Running the race….

This is probably a bit of re-write of things I have written about previously but I feel so passionately about this stuff that it is often on my heart. I think it is a subject we need to be thinking about more and working out how to do better.

Community. Relationships. Belonging.

Last week I ran the Sheffield 10k – to many not that bigger a distance, but for me on that particular Sunday it might as well have been a marathon. I had felt sick, with a really ropey stomach the whole of the week before, which only furthered my anxiety about the whole thing. The fact I was running for an amazing charity and had sponsorship riding it on meant I was heaping even more pressure on myself. Bless those (mainly my lovely workmates) in the week leading up to the race who had had to deal with me because I was a bit of a mess, mainly fuelled by anxiety. It was totally irrational but very real nonetheless.

I did it though, I didn’t run as fast as I normally do, as I had to keep stopping as my stomach ached, but I survived and got to the end. I know though that I probably wouldn’t have got to the end if it hadn’t been for those cheering me on. Some were people I know and love others complete strangers. At around the 3k mark were the cheering squad from the charity I was running for, and a few hundred meters on some of my church family, out on the steps of our church. As I had pushed myself up the two hills on the course and was on a downward stretch I saw a figure jumping up and down and screaming “go on Becky you can do it”, my precious colleague, Sarah, and then just round the corner another colleague, again shouting encouragements, and then further down the road old friends and neighbours all spurring me on. By the time I got to the last kilometre I was feeling pretty rough and a girl in the same t-shirt as me, so also running for the same charity, a girl I didn’t know, just looked at me and said “lets keep going, we are nearly there.” I then heard shouting saying “don’t give up, you are so nearly there” and it was one of my best friends, Rach, who is one of those crazy running types that loves it and runs like a gazelle. She had run the race and then run back along the course to find me and shout me on. Rach is one of my biggest cheerleaders in life.

I also loved watching other runners as I ran, some were physically pushing each other forward, other’s were looking back for friends to check they were ok and others putting their hands out for others to pull them on towards the end.

What an analogy of what our communities should look like.

I had literally worked myself up into such a state about this race, partly because I felt so rough, that I was dreaming about the route. Roads I know so well. Roads I have grown up with. Roads I have run lots of times before. One night a few nights before the race I believe God really spoke to me in a dream (which happens rarely for me) – I could see different parts of the routes, and it was as if God was showing me how our lives are like that route.

The bible talks about our life being like a race, that we are moving towards the finish line, that finishing line being heaven, and going home to be with out heavenly father.

Our lives are made up of a crazy mix of good times, times when we feel like we flying and all is well with the world and hideously hard times when life feels incredibly painful, confusing and a little bit, or maybe a whole lot scary. In between there are those normal, ordinary times, where we just moving forward.

Those hills on that route were tough, it was a fight to keep going and get up them, it took all my willpower not to give up, to not sit on the side of the road and say “enough”, or at one point to take a short cut which was downhill/flat, but I struggled on to the top knowing that there were gloriously flat and downhill stretches waiting at the top. I loved those downhill stretches, those brief moments of that run that I really enjoyed, where I remembered why I run. Those moments where I felt fully alive. Then there was those flat bits which felt neither awful nor amazing, there were just there, just ok.

It was as if God through that dream was reminding me that life was just like that route, of those times where it takes every ounce of strength to keep going and not to give up, of those times where you feel on top of the world, bursting with all the goodness life has to offer and those times where you are just getting on getting on. Then on the day itself God reminded me yet again of the beauty of community, of belonging and of relationships. That they are so precious and so important in running this crazy race that is life. We need to be constantly pushing each other forward. We need to be stretching our hands out for each other, to be pulling each other forward. We need to be shouting those encouragements, to be on the sidelines of each other’s lives, spurring each other on, saying:

“Come on you can do this.”

“You are doing brilliantly.”

“You are more than enough, you are good enough.”

“Don’t give up.”

“Keep going.”

“I am proud of you.”

Just before we started the race I was stood with some of the guys from church and one of them asked whether he could pray a Runner’s Creed over us. It was a really special moment and the words were so powerful. They obviously relate to physically running a race but could so easily be about the race we run in terms of our lives:

“I am a Christian Runner.

I will never quit. I will encourage those around me. I will persevere. I will pray. I will push. I will see Victory.

I will not compare myself to others. I am bettering my former self and the only opinion that matters is Christ’s.

I have good days and not-so-good days. But all my days are God-days.

I am not defined by pace or distance. I am defined by who I am.

I will be thankful for the ability to run. I will celebrate every moment, every mile, every personal record because they are blessings I refuse to take for granted.

I believe that God has equipped me for what is ahead and that no matter how or when I finish, if I run for Him, I win every time.

I will trust God to get me to the finish line… not just on race day, but on that day when my race on earth is over and I am welcomed home.

I don’t run for personal glory, recognition, medals or the calories burned. I don’t run for bragging rights or bucket list accomplishments.

I run Soli Deo Gloria, to the Glory of God alone.

I am a Christian Runner.”

My race that day didn’t look particularly impressive or pretty but I don’t think that’s the point, I ran and I finished and that is all God asks of us, that we do our best and we do it together, encouraging and loving each other forward.

Thank you God for little mermaids

The other day as I was out on a run I passed two ladies arm in arm, one was younger, the other older. I presumed they were mother and daughter. They weren’t walking particularly quickly, they just seemed to be enjoying each other’s company, as they walked together through the woods. I am not sure why but watching them made me tear up. I just sensed a preciousness in that moment. Maybe for them it was a very ordinary day and maybe their conversation wasn’t anything particularly special but there felt like there was something holy about it. I had a desire to be able to hold that moment in time for them. I wondered about how they would long for those walks and those conversations when the time came, one day in the future, when they could no longer walk or talk to each other. I have a slightly morbid outlook on life at times.

It was a moment that stirred my heart to want to learn to engage with and savour those precious moments more. Time is racing by so fast I don’t want to look back and regret missing things that really mattered.

Last week at the weekly children’s swimming lesson, aka being tortured in a very hot building full of lots of small people, who are tired, hungry and pretty hideous, there was a little girl sat on a bench. I would guess she had just turned 3 and she had really round cheeks covered in freckles. On the bottom half of her body was a long tight bright green skirt in the shape of a mermaid’s tail. The sight made me happy. Again a small child in dressing up clothes is not that unusual but she made me smile so much I had to say to her mum how the sight of her had made my day. She explained it had been her birthday the day before and she refused to take her new mermaid costume off. The mum went on to unzip the top her little girl had on to reveal a little pink bikini mermaid top. The little girl then stood up to leave and I couldn’t stop myself laughing out loud because the skirt was so tight she could only move her legs in the smallest of movements. It was one of the funniest, happiest sights I had seen in a while and kept me laughing for a good few hours afterwards, to the point Lucy kept asking “you are laughing at that little mermaid aren’t you?”

I love photos. John used to ask me whether it was really necessary to have photos on the wall of every person I had ever spoken to. That’s a slight exaggeration but there are a lot of photos in our house. Something has changed this year though because the photos on my phone used to be of a whole mixture of people and things but this year there is one subject which has taken over. My little nine month old niece – I get sent photos of her on a near daily basis and I cannot get enough of them. Her little face is one of my favourite things and fills my heart. Every now and then a video gets sent and I watch it over and over, her little nonsensical sounds and her laughter are often the best noises I hear all day.

As God has been challenging me to learn to rest he has also been challenging me to see beauty in the small things, as well as in the very special people and moments I so often take for granted. I don’t want to be so busy I don’t have time to properly stop and really enjoy the things and people around me but I know I do. So often I end a conversation and I know I haven’t engaged as fully as I should because my mind is on what I have to do, or something I am worrying about.

In the summer my friend, John, told me I spent too much time on my phone. I know how much it frustrates him as I know his wife, Rach, drives him crazy for the same reason. It left me with a horrible feeling I couldn’t shake because I knew he was right. Last Friday night I had dinner with John and Rach, and as I arrived I put my phone in my bag and left it there for the evening. We had such a lovely evening, really properly talking life, love, work, children, faith – it was the sort of conversation I love – real, vulnerable and engaged.

I want to find my way to a simpler life. I want to learn how to slow down. I want to learn to put the phone down more. At the moment I feel such a longing for more vulnerability, more depth and more adventure rather than racing from one thing to the next and rarely going below the surface with people or being so busy or tired that I fail to see the amazing people and moments in front of me.

I wonder whether if by learning to see and appreciate those small moments more, like a chubby little mermaid, we will find more of a peace and a stillness. That actually if we stop racing around to get more and do more we will find more. I dare to guess that probably it is those small seemingly insignificant moments combined with those moments of real engagement with those around us, of having time to be real and available that lead to a greater connection with our maker and each other, which makes us feel more alive than any full diary, or great career, or big bank balance ever could.