Picture Perfect

Picture Perfect

My family and I have just returned from 5 days glamping (glamorous camping) in the beautiful Bedfordshire countryside, UK. We stayed in an idyllic canvas lodge – a tent with a wooden floor, proper beds, a flushing toilet and and a wood burning stove. The camping field was on a 400 acre farm with pigs, horses, fields as far as the eye could see, go karts, an honesty shop and tiny rabbits and guinea pigs, one of which was delivered to us to become our pet for the duration of our stay. We called him Blackberry.

Apart from an American family who stayed for a couple of nights (along with their shellshocked friend who thought by country retreat she was off to stay in a castle – poor love), we were the only ones there.

Like most thirty-somethings I took the opportunity to take a zillion pictures. My kids are growing up fast and I have a new phone with a pretty decent camera. I want to remember these days and I want to capture special moments so that when the kids leave home I can look through my photos wailing at just how fleeting these years were.

My parents did the same. Growing up the camera was always out on holidays and special occasions and we would pose for the pictures that still fill album after album in my Dad’s study.

All these photos evoke memories. This one of me was taken on a holiday to Switzerland when I was about 9.2gJg24+iSxCfC1D94We%BQ

We only really did UK holidays so it was such a treat. The weather was great. There was a festival while we were there which we loved. We rode ski lifts to get to the top of mountains. We ate delicious food and stayed amongst breathtaking views. The photos capture all of that in all it’s perfection.

But we’re human and perfect it was not.

We drove all the way there in our family car – a maroon Toyota Space Cruiser. As we drove the 700 miles there our car thermometer picked up a temperature of 41°. The moon roof  and windows were the only source of air conditioning and hot does not describe it. Mum and Dad had to negotiate Paris roads which was stressful to say the least. It was a holiday with 3 sisters, 2 of which were teenagers and one of which was me. There was moaning and arguing and standard sibling behaviour. We played tennis one day which was lovely until I tripped and badly hurt my leg, limiting what we could do for the rest of our stay. My diabetes came with us too so long walks up mountains were inevitably met with horrid episodes of hypoglycaemia.

The photos don’t capture any of that. The memories we absolutely want to keep are recorded and every few years we look back through them with fondness of all the wonderful times we had. The less nice memories are just that – memories. They feel less harsh years later and fade into the abyss compared to the captured wonderful moments.

Just like my parents, on our holiday just gone we took perfect pictures. They were of our kids playing beautifully, lit fires and boiling food, cuddles with fluffy animals and a bowl full of chicken eggs. They capture a brilliant holiday with so many moments we will treasure forever.

But it wasn’t perfect.

They don’t capture the sheer exhaustion with which we arrived. A zombie like state from prolonged sleep deprivation and an incredibly busy and intense time for Dave at work. They don’t capture the dog phobia that cripples our oldest child that made trips up to the main farm tricky (though helped so much by a very understanding lady looking after the farm). They don’t capture the hours spent with hungry children waiting for the fire to heat up and no fridge meaning many, many crisps were consumed. They don’t capture the dirt that penetrated every item of clothing we took nor the trip for eggs while the water boiled in waiting only to find the chickens had not laid. They don’t capture the big argument we had while the kids were asleep, although our eldest wasn’t and heard everything. They don’t capture the hours spent awake at night dealing with our youngest child’s diabetes nor her wakeful fear of the badger making loud noises under our cabin for a good hour in the middle of the night.

I posted our perfect photos on instagram and facebook. I love sharing them for far flung friends and family and as an online diary for me. Like Mum and Dad’s photos they are a record of a very wonderful time and I want to look at them and let others see them.

But Mum and Dad’s photos are shared with narrative. We sit down look at them and discuss “when that happened” or “do you remember just after that was taken when”.

Social media robs the narrative and therefore presents a picture of perfection that is mostly not true. The pictures are wonderful and celebratory and capture the brilliant. But we must be wise enough to remember that we do not hear the back story.

I don’t think we should always post the bad stuff online. I don’t want to post a picture of my husband and I enjoying a meal together with the caption “this time last night I was calling him a *$^@*.” I want to remember the happy meal we shared. We know the narrative, it’s personal and it’s ours to dig up if we choose.

Sometimes it’s important to share the less good. I remember when Nia was diagnosed with diabetes we felt it right to share on facebook. We were met with an army of support and some key people, who may not have otherwise known, became an integral part of our journey.

Some of you may follow Simon Thomas on Instagram. He tragically and suddenly lost his wife last year and he’s documenting his grief and life after Gemma in an incredibly honest and real way. It’s raw and painful and difficult to read at times but it also shows the importance of beautiful memories he and his son have of their beloved wife and Mum. The British are not brilliant at grief and I am convinced God is using him to impact so many. He’s giving permission for others to be openly devastated and to go through an essential time of proper mourning. He and his son are remarkable and I am grateful for their bold honesty.

I always want to be real and honest. The name of my blog clearly demonstrates that. There are times when I will record the tough and the hard. Sometimes I share the narrative as a sort of therapy for me or to encourage others that we don’t live perfect lives. But I believe that recording beautiful, happy memories in picture or word is food for the soul. That leaving the bad stuff to remember with dampening retrospect is part of the way we recover from tough times and allow them not to tear us apart.

I want to flick through these photos in a year and remember the delicious risotto I managed to cook on the stove. I want to remember the girls running free and playing together and feeding the hilariously ugly pigs our food scraps. I want to see our family looking chilled and Dave and I drinking champagne in a field. And I want to see the beautiful scenery that surrounded us for a precious and rare 5 days alone together.

If you follow me on social media I really hope you can enjoy these photos too. But remember there is a narrative behind them all that maybe you’ll hear in detail one day. Maybe you won’t.

It wasn’t the perfect holiday because I’m not sure one exists. One day I’ll go to heaven and I truly hope to see you there. That will be absolutely perfect.

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Self Confessed Devotional Dependant

The Bible and Christians should go hand in hand. They should but the reality, certainly in my own life, is that they often don’t. The Bible is rightly described in Hebrews (one of the books) as “alive and active”. It’s there to be delved into, read, re-read, studied, shared,  enjoyed and most importantly to be life changing. So often it’s placed prominently on the bookshelf but in time actual time read it’s much lower down the pecking order than the latest thriller, a cheesy but easy holiday rom-com or a huge repertoire of books explaining parts of faith and the Bible which although are often brilliant, wise and helpful- are interpreted by someone else.

The Bible is big and there are SO many pages. Some parts are easier to understand like the stories Jesus told or proverbs with fairly straightforward instructions on how to live. There are also CRAZY stories like this..“Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it.” Yuk. Not only is it pretty violent in places, there are lists, and lists and lists of genealogies and family trees and WHY DO I NEED TO KNOW THIS??

There are some apparent contradictions and horrible things that have happened and sometimes God seems really, really mean. Some books are more depressing than the Channel 4 news. I so wish I could pick up the Bible and read it non-stop but it is a pretty tough read.

So what’s happened is I and so many others have become devotional dependants. A devotion is where a writer will choose one or two verses then write a blurb about it. They are often absolutely brilliant. They allow the Bible to come alive with examples of how other people have it into practice. They are quick to read, thought provoking and easy to digest. I have 3 that (on a good run) I read most days and definitely benefit from reading them. I enjoy the perspective that someone else brings to a verse shared and the simple challenge they give to how it will impact my life that day. I love a devotion and although I love my Bible it’s not been given nearly enough attention in recent years.

I’ve been a Mum of kids who don’t sleep for 8.5 years now. They’re up through the night and they’re up early. Like really early. I know some people are good and will set their alarms an hour before the kids get up. I tried setting my alarm for 5am once and one of the kids woke at 4.45am so I took it as a sign and sacked it off. I’ve been exhausted and have needed to be drip fed for a long time and that’s ok. It’s kept me going and I am so grateful to the people who have properly read and studied the Bible for years and years to provide me with nuggets of gold to help me.

I’m not particularly academic and I am not a skim reader so ploughing through pages of Old Testament law isn’t nearly as attractive as picking up an easy to read book about faith by a witty, insightful, American, 40 something. But recently I’ve felt challenged by God to really study his living and active word. Not just look up the stories that I know and love, not just read one verse at a time, not just read other’s interpretation of it but to properly study and go through whole books (there are 66) and in time the whole Bible.

So many times before I’ve tried to really study the Bible. I’ve signed up to (and never completed) online courses and reading plans. I’ve downloaded countless Bible in a year apps and got piles of paper and journals started with good intentions but never completed. I don’t want to just list all the bad stuff and excuses but as the name of my blog suggests, I want to be real and honest about where I am and have been in the hope that we might encourage one another to grow in faith. I grew up with parents who study the Bible daily and have seen the profound impact it has had on them and on me. I can recount so much of the Bible because of the upbringing I had and I want to pass the same to my kids.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is something I very regularly say to my kids and what I’ve been doing for the last few weeks. I’ve carried on with my daily devotional reading but I’ve been trying to set aside a few hours a week to sit and study. It’s nerve-wracking writing this all down in a public forum in case I don’t keep it going but it’s what I, and maybe you have to do. If you’re sat there nodding in agreement then try again. Try a different method of study. Start a group to be accountable. Download another plan. Buy a new notepad or a journaling Bible. Do whatever but just try, try again.

This time I have bought a huge Pukka Pad. I’m reading (by reading I mean listening to the audio Bible) and then writing down the headlines of each chapter. Then I write down a learning lesson (something I can apply to my life). Sometimes I have to think quite hard but out of all the chapters from various books I’ve dipped into so far I’ve yet to not write a learning lesson from each.

I have learnt profound things. Even though I have known the stories and read them before, I have seen something new. I have been reminded of promises God has given me in the past. I have been reminded of the importance of patience and choosing to trust God, long-term. Most importantly it has grown my faith in Jesus, his goodness and the future (Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Hebrews 11:1).

I’m not sure if it’s because Bible study is on my agenda (like when you get a new car and suddenly everyone’s driving that car) but it seems to me like God is speaking to many Christians about this at the moment. I mean, he is always speaking about this. It’s reiterated over and over in the Bible. But lots of things I’m reading, conversations I’m having and even our current series at church seem to be about the importance of really getting into the Bible, and through it seeing God do some serious work.

So if you’re and old hat at Bible study, well done. Please continue sharing it with others and retelling what you’ve read. If you’re a “I wish I studied the Bible more” type then try again. Set aside some time over the next few weeks to study a particular book. And if you’ve never read the Bible then give it a try. The key may well be to not start at the beginning but to start elsewhere. This blog gives helpful advice on where to begin.

The Bible IS the alive and active and has the power to change us significantly, profoundly and eternally. And if at first you don’t succeed, you know what to do.

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What I Really Need

I’m sat in a coffee shop, typing this on my phone having just had a ridiculous experience….

I’ve been to a nice out of town shopping centre, with no kids which is a rarity for me. “Great” I thought. “I can get some new clothes, new shoes, smarten myself up a bit.”

If you know me, you’ll know that I’m a fashion inbetweener; neither super fashionable nor super frumpy. I’d really like to look smart and on trend all the time but I don’t have the money and I’m just not the type.

But when I shop, I get this wave of crazy woman about me. I become consumed by finding the right jeans, right boots, that one style of top that will be my go to forever more because it makes me look trim with a hint of healthy bosom.

Today I got the “need” in my head. Suddenly our budget went out the window and the 3 new jumpers, 4 tops, jeans, boots and some new socks were essential. I easily justified it as I began trying stuff on.

So I’m stood in a Topshop changing room, squeezing myself into a pair of jeans and putting on a trendy jumper that was the colour of my skin and made me look like a spotless Mr Blobby. Gently I hear a little voice in my head….”Hannah….get a grip”.

You might call it my internal monologue or conscience but I call it the Holy Spirit. The quiet voice of God that helps me to make the right decisions. So I asked Holy Spirit what to do. I felt him say to go and get a coffee. In the bible it talks a lot about being still. I guess this was God’s way of telling me in the busyness of the shopping centre, to be still.

As I walked out the shop, empty handed I was reminded of something I’d shared at church not long ago. That week our car had started making some loud clunking noises. It’s nearly 10 years old and has recently had to have a bit of work so I thought “That’s it. We need a new car!” Before I knew it I was on a forecourt in a Ford Kugar next to a salesman arranging a test drive for my husband and I for a car we couldn’t afford without taking out a loan. As I drove away feeling very stressed I heard the same voice I heard today….Hannah….get a grip”. After, there was no stillness. There was a rush to get the kids and then ensued after school chaos. But later, my husband and I chatted and agreed that we needed to stop and follow Jesus’ lead. We’ve not heard the car noise since.

Now I want to be clear. My heart doesn’t feel like it’s changed. I would really love a new car. We drive long journeys with the kids. We love cars and would really love to have a shiny SUV. I would love to be content with our old car but I’m not there yet. Our car is currently fine and so we now need to leave it with God and make space for him to speak to us in that still small voice, about our car when the time is right. I’m hoping we find a winning lottery ticket (we don’t play) but I have a feeling he might not do that….bother!

So back to today. I’m sat here and in all honesty I’m feeling a bit grumpy. I would like to be surrounded with bags, new shoes and a big smug smile at the perfect jeans I’ve finally found after 34.9 years. But I’m not. What I’m sat with is money still in my account which can now be spent on what it was actually budgeted for.

I want to clarify that new clothes, cars, shoes and things are not inherently wrong. Not at all. But to assume we need them is. Today I was consumed by the idea of getting things that were not mine to have. Today God is really not that bothered about my wardrobe, he is bothered about my character and ability to listen to him. He has reminded me that he has ADORNED me with riches that will never be destroyed. He can fill me with peace and joy and hope and contentment no matter what I wear. So I’m putting down what I think I want and am trying my level best to continue to discover and pick up what my creator wants for me. Even though I really want some new stuff, they are not my things to have today.

Here’s some reminders for me and maybe for you:

I don’t need a new car to go on a journey.

I don’t need new jeans to be my best me.

I don’t need expensive make-up to be beautiful.

I don’t need the best food to be fed.

I don’t need a huge house to be hospitable and at home.

I DO need Jesus and the peace, love, joy acceptance and hope he FREELY gives.

Plus, I’ve made a deal that he’s gonna give me a smokin’ hot pair of jeans for eternity in heaven.

To my friend who’s going through it.

I’m not sure if it’s my age or just one of those phases in life but really rubbish things seem to just keep happening to people I love. My phone beeped this morning and yet another message arrived from a friend going through some utter crap. I don’t like that term but really, what they’re going through is hard to convey in any other way.

I sat chatting to my Father-in-law this evening, himself a Widower who cared for his beloved wife until her dying day. He had been to see a dear friend this week who has also been dealt a bucket load of the aforementioned.

Now my Father-in-law and I have been kicking around church for a combined 103 years. Between us we have prayed and supported countless people going through countless really crappy situations, and dealt with some pretty low blows ourselves. Do you know what? The crap doesn’t always disappear.

The sick person never got better. The baby still died. The marriage still ended and the bankruptcy still happened. Wars are happening and natural disasters are killing people who for some reason were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Our faith is strong and our hope in Jesus Christ is so very real. We wholeheartedly believe in miracles but we also know the very real disappointment of a seemingly unanswered prayer.

So how can I balance the deep faith and real peace I have and the reality of the deep pain and real issues facing so many people I love? How do I support them and hope for them and grieve with them at the same time? In truth, it often feels impossible. But here’s a try…

Dear friend,

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that it’s so hard. I’m sorry for the pain that you are feeling, both physical and in the depths of your soul. I’m sorry that even though you have done your best and prayed in earnest that today your situation is unchanged or even worse than yesterday.

I wish with every ounce of my being that I could take your pain away.

I’m sorry for the times when people have said a fleeting prayer or a fleeting comment that instead of encouraging you made you want to scream in their face that they “HAVE NO IDEA!”

I’m sorry for the time when someone who should have known better posted something on Facebook or sent you the most ill-timed text about their happy news.

I’m sorry when I sent you that message telling you that the future is bright when you just needed me to listen to how bloody hard this all is.

I’m sorry if you’ve ever felt like a burden. You are not. At all.

I’m sorry if you’ve shied away because you feel like sympathy has moved on and now people want the old you back.

I’m sorry if people have stopped calling you.

I guess with these things that often the intention is never to hurt or to stick the knife in deeper than you thought it could go. But even without intent the hurt is real and it’s agony.

So, precious friend, know that what follows comes because there has to be hope. At this time I’m the one who can hope for you and one day I might need to ask the same back.

I have hope for you. I have hope for your situation. I have hope that no matter how painful, how real and how final it is that God is real and his promises are true. That doesn’t mean that what you have been through will change but it does mean that one day there will be a brighter day when something good will come from all of it.

Will you or your loved one be healed? Will that most precious person you loved and nursed and watched pass away come back to life? Will your finances suddenly flourish or your husband suddenly become anything other than a cheating scumbag? In all honesty I just don’t know. Do I believe God is powerful enough to do all the above and so much more? Yes I do and so I will pray believing that he will.

But what if he doesn’t do that?

What I do know is that there is always hope. I know that there is a place waiting where there is nothing but joy. No pain, no illness, no debt, no heartache, no disappointment, no bad news. Just pure, unadulterated joy.

I know that might feel a billion miles away from where you are today so here’s my prayer for you. I pray that you would know that God is always with you and that he would sustain you today and give you strength to take another breath. I pray that you know just how loved you are and that you will see glimpses of hope and be able to fix your eyes on Jesus who one day will take you to a place so absolutely incredible that you can’t even begin to imagine it.

If you want someone to listen to you, or sit in silence, or pray, or eat copious amounts of chocolate, or watch trashy TV with you then I’m here.

You are loved beyond measure.

x

Why the Church Needs Less Community

Free stock photo of love, people, silhouettes, letters

Community is a wonderful thing. The recent horrific events in the UK have demonstrated just how inexplicably important community is and how well people who may have very little in common choose to serve each other in times of crisis and need. Even without crisis, communities can provide joy, learning and a lifeline for those who choose to interact with them. It’s so great when people come together for entertainment, to promote a good cause or to create, discuss or exercise. People are able to “be themselves” and meet others who are like-minded or completely different who just happen to share one interest in common.

Where I live there are dance classes, dog walking groups, cinema clubs, singing groups, philosophy, pottery and poetry classes. I live in a big city so if you want to find a club or group for something, there will almost definitely be one. Failing that there is the internet, where on some forum there will be a Ukrainian, web savvy Grandma who shares your unconventional taste in Scottish pirate metal music.

I am part of a number of communities, from school Mums to Facebook forums. I am enormously grateful for them all.

But if community is so wonderful then why does the church need less of it? There is a very significant difference between community and family which becomes clear in their definitions:

community

  1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
  2. the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common. “the sense of community that organized religion can provide”

family

  1. a group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit. “she moved in with her boyfriend’s family”
  2. all the descendants of a common ancestor. “the house has been owned by the same family for 300 years”

The word family is one of the most evocative words there is. It can bring feelings of sadness, joy, happiness, longing, disappointment, satisfaction, hurt and much more. For everyone, even siblings to the same parents, it is unique.

For me family is a very positive word. I’m from a family where Mum and Dad are still very happily married after 42 years. I’m married to a man who is the son of a Mum and Dad who were happily married until they were parted by death. We have 2 children ourselves and live together with my husband’s Dad. We are very much a family and very happy with our lot. My understanding of the value of family comes from a place of being a part of one which works. Of course we have our tension and rough edges but we are not dysfunctional or separated by disunity. We are for each other.

I am well aware of the pain and maybe jealousy some will read the last paragraph. So many of my very wonderful friends have a very different story. Parents separating, leaving, not understanding. Childhoods filled with rejection and in some cases abuse. People who feel alienated because they don’t fit the mould due to sexuality, choice of partner, singleness or geographical location. For some, the word family can make them feel incredibly lonely.

On the news recently it was reported that there are at least (maybe many more) 9 million lonely people in the UK. 9 Million? That’s nearly 15% of the UK. As a self confessed extrovert, I watched with tears running down my face.  In a world which is apparently more socially connected than ever before, how did we get here? Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).  This BBC article gives a small insight into the epidemic that loneliness has become and how broadly spread over all sections of society it is.

If you are or have ever been involved in church you will no doubt have heard the term “church family” used a great deal. Family is exactly what the church should be. We are not just a community. We are children of the living God. We are heirs, sons and daughters. We are Brothers and Sisters and we should behave and love with a much deeper love than if we were linked with a common interest or characteristic.

There are lots of exceptional examples of family within the church,  but I fear the reality is that our statistics of loneliness are not always very different to those in wider society. For many the frequent use of the word family within the church will further accentuate their feeling of isolation.

There are people who walk out of church each week with a crippling feeling of loneliness. Who feel invisible. Who watch other people walk out the door with their family and friends, laughing and smiling, whilst they hold back tears, about to get in the car and weep all the way home. There are people who have served on so many teams but have never been invited back to someone’s house for lunch. Who have joined a group that meets during the week but still feel isolated.

A blog post I wrote last year describes how overnight, my 1 year old was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I suddenly needed support and family around me more than ever before. The last “proper job” I had before this was the coordinator of pastoral care for my Church. Having been the one looking after the pastoral care for others I was now the one in need of it.

Looking back with the shoe on the other foot I cringe at some of the suggestions I made to people in need back then. In many ways I did a very good job. I worked hard and did my best to not only work on behalf of the church but to genuinely love people. But I guess I thought then that with enough structures and systems and meetings and community groups, we would have a fail safe plan to enable anyone who wanted to access pastoral care and the church family to be able to. Although it never felt this blatant, I would do what I could and if someone felt lonely then they were choosing not to tap into church life and there was little more I could do.

The problem is that it’s when you are at your greatest need of accessing community that you often are or feel least equipped to do so. What the last year has taught me is that the primary need for the sick, the lonely, the poor, the imprisoned and anyone in need is not a community group, not a strategy, not a system but love. The kind of undeserving love that should be found in a family. The kind of love that I explain about in my last blog post.

The very heart of who we are as a church and why we gather is not a common characteristic nor is it a shared interest. It is God. Our Father. Our ancestor. It is because of this that our relationships and our identity as a church do go and must go much deeper than any other community. Our goal must not be to create a community. Our goal must be to be and to increase our family. Our relationships must not be defined by where we belong but by who we belong to. We are Brothers and Sisters within a family that is underpinned by the greatest love of all.

So how do we close the gap on loneliness within the church and function more effectively as family, for everyone? I think the first thing is to understand that the church is like a wider, extended family. We come together for big celebrations; Christmas, Easter, every Sunday. But the wider family is full of smaller, closer families. This means we all have a responsibility to look out for each other, care for each other. To contribute, to be vulnerable, to love and encourage one another.

The book of Acts in the bible tells of a time when the church was growing at an astonishing rate. I am convinced that the way in which the church behaved as a family was an essential key in it’s success. I am unapologetic in my desire to see the church grow. At this time when immorality, evil and isolation are absolutely rife, I believe Jesus and the church are more desperately needed than ever before.

In Acts it says They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.”

People met and worshiped God, then went home to carry on the celebration. Yes, lets meet as a wider family and learn and worship. But let’s not end it there. Let’s open our homes and extend our tables.

So often loneliness in the church is seen as a problem that needs to be directly addressed by the leaders of the church. In my experience, the problem of isolation and loneliness is too great a problem to be sorted by a few. As Christians we all have a responsibility to increase out families. Of course this needs to be modelled by leaders but only as much as the rest of us. It is something we must all seek to prioritise and do. To first love God, then love others.

Mother Theresa was a single, celibate woman who was and continues, even after her death to be the single greatest teacher and activist of family. She said “The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of family too small”. She also said “If you can’t feed a hundred people then just feed one”

Some people within the church build family exceptionally well. Many acts will be unseen or unheard. People opening their homes to friends and strangers for fun, food, help, to lend an ear or to give a bed to someone in need. Brutally honest conversations about joys and sorrows. Late night prayer requests. Meals that are delivered at times of sickness, grief or the birth of a new baby. Money given to help people struggling financially or purely to bless the socks off someone. This is family, and it should be available to all.

I have an overwhelming desire to see God’s family become more as it was intended to be and to grow bigger than I can imagine. My contribution may be small but I will try my best to be family to my church. So Brothers and Sisters, who’s with me?

The Stay at Home World Changer

You only have to turn on the news to see some of the total rubbish happening in the world right now: war, famine, poverty and political unrest. Mental illness is at unprecedented levels. There are horrific stories of abuse, both recent and historical. It would be easy to turn off the TV and close news apps and newspapers in an attempt to ignore and forget about it. But the problems are very present and very real. The world is desperate for answers, answers that I believe are found in Jesus and his church.

The church can often be seen as an old grandfather clock. It sits nicely in a corner, dinging its bell every Sunday. It’s majestic, worth a lot of money and generally looks down on people. It’s admired by some, ignored by others. It’s been inherited by generations of sentimental family members and maybe not for a while, but one day, it will slowly fade away.

THAT IS NOT MY CHURCH!

When I talk about my church I not only mean the congregation I am a part of but also the wider church of people who love Jesus and take seriously the impact their faith must have on the world. I am unapologetic in my love for Jesus and the genuine Jesus loving church (not one that takes the title, uses it for selfish gain and shows little shred of the love and grace that Jesus so explicitly demonstrated….but that’s another blog).

My church does not hide from what is in the news. It is not a grandfather clock. It does not ding the church bells once a week. It is relevant, alive, growing and filled with people who actually give a hoot about our broken world and contributing to it.

As part of the global church, I worship amongst world changers in every sphere of influence. People who run phenomenal, highly regarded, life-saving and life-changing charities. People with OBE’s, people heavily involved in government and politics trying to bring change in places of authority to help people most in need. Authors, actors, teachers, lawyers all using their skills to help others.

But where the heck do I fit?

Seriously! I can see all this devastating stuff and the incredible things people are doing to impact it happening around me. I am so desperate to help and make a real difference, but my current circumstances don’t exactly scream global revivalist.

I am a stay at home Mum and a full time carer for my daughter who has Type 1 diabetes. I am knee deep in nappies, homework, diabetes supplies and vegetable peelings. My time is dictated by blood glucose monitoring and ensuring every morsel of food is offset by a precise dose of insulin. I respond to frequent unpredictable high and low blood glucose levels and the horrible side effects they carry. It is a 24/7 job and it can be exhausting.

Some days I’ve had more than 2 hours sleep and dream of setting up 18 charities to reach the poorest, most isolated people. I would fly around the world sprinkling Jesus magic (?!?) being a lycra clad Super-Christian-Woman. Then reality hits me round the face like the hand of a 2 year old at 04:35 and I am back in Stockport, filling out endless school letters, thinking about my Aldi shopping list and responding to yet another insulin pump alarm.

For a long time I have felt like the best is yet to come. Like there has to be more to  life than this. I try to attend as many inspiring teaching sessions as possible. I love a TED talk as much as the next person. I sit in church and listen to completely brilliant preaches which could motivate a dead hippo into action, but then I feel like I’ve just run as fast as Usain Bolt into a brick wall. I have often thought that once this phase is over then I can really begin to make a big difference.

But this phase I am in is similar to one that many people face. Having young children or being a carer. Working in a tough old job that can sap every ounce of energy you have but that you know is absolutely where you should be. Struggling with sickness or just getting to the point where energy reserves are a bit lower than they used to be. For many, the phase is not only long but life-long.

The thing is, being a world changer should never be our primary goal. Being successful should never be our primary goal. God does not define us by our circumstances. He does not love us because we fit a certain mould or criteria. He loves us because he loves us. And because of that, Jesus tells us exactly what our primary goals should be:

LOVE GOD

LOVE OTHERS

They are the 2 greatest commandments that Jesus gave. He prioritised them above all others and asked us to do the same. They are the same primary goals he asks of royalty, people who are homeless, the church, those in government, business workers, prostitutes, medics, teachers, stay at home parents and everyone in between:

Love God. Love others.

Of course there are so many more things he can and does call us to. There is such huge need in the world. God can use people in every sphere of influence, but before all else he needs us to be grounded in loving him and loving others. Love should impact everything else we do.

It sounds so simple and so straightforward but love isn’t easy. It’s really tough. People get hurt and disappointed. So many of my dear friends have been hurt most by the people that should have loved them most. Parents leave or abuse children. Husbands and wives have affairs. Inheritance and money can tear families apart. Some of you will read this having been hurt terribly by the church. A place that should have been a safe-haven of love has instead hurt you, seemingly beyond repair. I am so desperately sad and sorry if any of these have been your story. But I believe a better example of love awaits you.

God in his wisdom has not merely asked us to love. He has specified the order in which we should do it.

The first thing is to love God. He is the creator, the author and perfect demonstrator of love. If you read parts of the Old testament in the Bible or look at the suffering in the world today this can be a hard concept to grasp. (I won’t explain in detail in this blog how this all works but urge you to look deeper by attending an Alpha course or if you know me, please come along to church with me.)  Through Jesus Christ laying down his life for us we know that God has demonstrated the greatest expression of love.

The Bible tells us what love looks like: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

It is a tough list. Love is not an easy choice and requires self sacrifice and self awareness. It requires saying sorry when we get it wrong and being accountable to other people, especially when it feels tough. I love my church because not only does is demonstrate love, it also encourages us to love better. From relationship courses to addiction recovery, it helps people to find God, the ultimate source of love. And that’s the key to being able to love best, even when it seems impossible. Go directly to the source to get re-fueled.

Love should be at the root of everything we do. It shouldn’t be an excuse, that we only have to love and nothing else, but it should motivate everything else we do. That may be something beyond your wildest dreams and a great, wild adventure; or it may be persevering in the hardest of times. Whatever it is, with love as the foundation and the root, incredible things can and will grow. Even if it might not look significant to others, following those great commands will be more spiritually significant than you can imagine.

God has a reputation for getting it right. If we do what he says by loving him and loving others as our greatest priority, whether it be a whole nation at a time or one person at a time, the world will change. Even as a stay-at-home-parent-carer, I can be a world changer, and so can you.

The Mountain

Until 3 weeks ago, life had been plodding along fairly nicely. Like everyone, there were a few niggles that had to be endured or overcome but nothing too major or that warranted a vast amount of brain-airtime. I’d been thinking about what I’d do when my youngest starts nursery in Sept 2017 and was well on my way to a 5 year plan (which no Mother, does not include anymore children). Then BANG! Everything changed in 5 seconds.

Two weeks before we’d been on holiday. I use the term “holiday” loosely. We renamed it prison camp. We’d been to a family holiday park in Wales and had the joy of staying in an “apartment” (think council flat) above a family of chain-smokers. The weather was glorious but the windows had to be shut to stop us passively inhaling more smoke than Popeye did in his fictional lifetime. Our view on every side was sadly not Costa del Wales but of more “apartments” and the only possible reason we can think of for the almighty noise of barking dogs must have been a residential trip for Battersea Dogs Home. I had an ear infection and sinusitis and the toddler was miserable, for the entire time.

Shortly after, as a monumental treat and therapy for the hideous Wales trip, husband and I had decided I would bob off on a trip to Spain, without him, or the kids for 3 (ENTIRE) days to spend some time with some very lovely friends of ours. Last minute holiday prep ensued and another dear friend offered to look after the still grumpy toddler so I could go and try on unflattering beach attire in peace. It was Friday afternoon and this was my only time to go to the shops before leaving on the Monday morning. Predictably it was a disaster so I did what all sensible women do and bought a pair of ‘suck it all in’ jeans (ideal for 35° heat) and went to Starbucks to drown my sorrows in an overpriced latte.

That evening my husband delivered on a promise he made to our eldest daughter. All year she’d been waiting for a weekend evening warm enough for them to sleep in the shed for the night (shlamping: shed-glamping. You should try it!). After far longer than it should have taken, a puncture free airbed was finally found, sleeping bags de-mothed, toilet trips taken, a bag of snacks prepared and off they tottered down the garden path.

After a couple of hours indulging in back-to-back property programmes I lay my head on the pillow. The words of my friend earlier in the day came back to me. “She’s been really thirsty and I’ve had to change her twice in two hours”. Hmm. I have Type 1 diabetes. Although it can be passed down, the chances aren’t huge by any stretch so I’d never given it much thought. But thirst is a sign so I hopped out of bed to take a precautionary blood test. I’d done this before on my older daughter who has had a number of health issues over the years. It had always been fine so I just thought it’d be the same. The result should have been between 4-7mmol. I pricked her finger while she was sleeping and waited the 5 long seconds for the result.

24.9mmol. “Oh s**t!”

With a blood sugar that high and having the condition myself I knew immediately that she had Type 1 diabetes. I ran to the garden to wake up Dave who was asleep, in the shed, wearing headphones. (Of all the nights!!) Although Nia’s blood sugar was through the roof, we woke her up and she was OK. Persistent high sugars can lead to a potentially life threatening illness called ketoacidosis. Many children who are diagnosed with diabetes end up on high dependency or intensive care but because I’d recognised the symptoms early she wasn’t seriously poorly. To be honest, she was the most healthy looking child in A&E that night and there were puzzled expressions from other parents as to why she was receiving so much medical attention.

She was taken straight to the ward which was a hive of activity with kids crying, machines beeping and lots of people coming to see us, poking, prodding and asking questions.  They needed a urine sample from Nia but she wasn’t cooperating. They then needed to fit a cannula in her hand and we decided the shock might make her wet herself. So she’s sat on my knee with a little tray under her bottom to catch the wee. I had to restrain her while she had the needle in and blood taken. She obviously hated every second, blood went all over me, she wriggled and started to wee so that went all over me too. Brilliant. The only saving grace was that it was so traumatic she fell asleep.

In the chaos I’d remembered to pack everything that Nia might need for a month but had packed NOTHING for myself.So there I am, Nia soundly asleep, me covered in blood and wee with no pyjamas, no change of clothes, no wash bag, toothbrush, nothing. A student nurse took pity on me and gave me a theatre gown to wear as pyjamas. Just one. Just one very revealing, backless, itchy theatre gown. Let’s just say the nurses doing hourly checks on Nia would have got more than they bargained for. I brushed my teeth with Nia’s toothbrush and put my head on the pillow. I sobbed.

*The next 4 paragraphs are diabetes focused but it helps to paint a picture so please do read them.

Diabetes is a strange condition.From the outside, diabetics appear completely normal. The only clue I give of my diabetes is my insulin pump. A small mobile phone sized device that clips onto my clothes which is basically a mini drip which delivers insulin 24/7. But what’s going on within is a different story. In Type 1 diabetes your body mistakes the cells in your pancreas (the organ which produces insulin) as harmful and attacks them. In turn insulin production stops. Insulin makes sure that any sugar in your body is used for good. If there is no or too little insulin to deal with the sugar it can have serious short and long term damage on the body. If you have too much insulin then  you won’t have enough sugar, or energy. Extremes of both can be very serious. So it’s like walking on a tightrope, all the time. But there are dozens of variants that can affect the balance.

As a diabetic, every time you eat you have to calculate the carbohydrates to deliver the correct amount of insulin. Exercise, sickness, stress, sleeping patterns, the type of food you eat, the time you eat and more can all change the level of insulin needed. In a non-diabetic person the pancreas is like any other major organ. It works around the clock to ensure you stay healthy. It doesn’t matter what you do, it is on, 24/7. It’s like a tracking device which keeps you walking on the tightrope no matter what you do. Even if you run a marathon or eat and entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s the pancreas keeps you on track. In the diabetic body, there is no tracking device. The default is that you fall off. With routine, regular eating and good habits you can learn how to best stay on the tightrope but you have to focus on it. Take your eyes off the game and you fall off.

When I was young diabetes was treated very differently. The science was less precise. Diabetics were given a much wider tightrope to walk on and blood sugars were accepted to be far wider ranging. The problem with this is that it causes long term damage. Sight loss, nerve damage, amputations, heart failure and more. So rightly so, the aim now is to keep diabetics on a very similar tightrope to a non-diabetic.But without a pancreas doing the thinking, calculating and hard work, we have to.

Advances in technology are incredible. I have a pump which helps me to work out precise insulin requirements which vary depending on the time of day. But it doesn’t know what I’m eating or doing. I have to tell it. I have to tell it when I eat, or drink, or am ill, or am doing exercise, or am having a bath. If I go on holiday, it stays with me. When I sleep, when I’m on a date with my husband, when we go to the zoo. You cannot switch off the diabetic part of your brain. Ever. In return I will hopefully live a full, healthy life. Nia will hopefully live a full, healthy life, have children, be whatever she wants to be and go wherever she wants to go. But currently she will have to keep her diabetes brain switched on and her medical equipment with her for the rest of her life. While she is so young there are so many more  variants that can affect the balance and the speed at which it can all go wrong is frighteningly fast. So she has blood tests every 2 hours, round the clock. We have to be her pancreas, day and night. It gives her normality now and the best chance for the future, but it’s hard.

So back to that night in hospital. There I am, unwittingly flashing the nurses on a pull out parent bed and sobbing silent tears into the pillow. I know this beast only too well and now I am watching it attack my precious, tiny, 22 month old, beautiful daughter. I feel overwhelming guilt because although I know this is not my fault, I feel responsible. I have passed on this toxic baton that I never wanted my kids to have to hold. But in a strange way I’m grateful that it’s not worse. I know she can live a relatively normal life. I have watched as dear friends have had far worse hands dealt. Terminal news, news which drastically alters every aspect of life. At 18 I sat by the hospital bedside of my best friend who had battled cystic fibrosis her whole life. The next morning the phone rang with the worst possible news. Diabetes isn’t the worst news you can get, but it’s life altering and big and horrible. And it’s constant. There’s no respite, no holiday, no remission. It’s there, all the time. It’s misunderstood. It’s under-sympathised and  It’s not fair.

While in hospital a friend sent a message that hit the nail on the head. It read “I am sure you are climbing a huge b*****d of a mountain….” and I thought YES! We are at the bottom of a giant mountain. And we’re not the only ones. From my friends who are grieving the loss their beautiful children, to the family learning how to live life to the full with their precious severely disabled son, the friend who can’t conceive, the friend who desperately wants to get married, the friend engulfed by debt, the friend who lost their job, the friend who lost their parents, the friend who might get deported. It’s not just my friends. You only have to turn on the news to see millions around the world, suffering pain and terror far worse than we can imagine. There are so many mountains.

But why? Why us? Why this mountain. Why you? Why your mountain? Why that tragedy that happened or that difficulty you’re going through? In all honesty I don’t fully know.

I believe there is a vast spiritual world that we cannot begin to fathom. Like an iceberg we can see the tiny tip of it but under the water it is vast, huge, unimaginable and often misunderstood. Many people try to get a deeper understanding of what’s under the water by seeking help from clairvoyants or spiritualists or other religions. But I believe that God made the huge spiritual world so I’d rather go straight to him to get an understanding of it.

What I need to make clear at this point is that God does not instigate pain, suffering and death. He completely and utterly did not cause this. He sent Jesus to take all the punishment so that we could live in freedom. But I believe there is a very evil force at power in the world that as the bible says seeks to “steal, kill and destroy”. That power thrives on sadness and hate and terror. NONE of that is from God. But what God can do is to transform it for good.I know him personally and he is good, so good, so kind, always faithful and always loving. But for reasons, often unknown to me and even though he did not cause it, God won’t necessarily intervene at first request when hardship comes.

I think there is huge significance in the way  we chose to live and behave and respond to the mountains above. I believe that to respond by seeking God, trusting in him and following him will impact what lies beneath so drastically that we will only know the power of it when we get to heaven. I look at the bible and see story after story of the way that people faithfully (as in they have no idea what’s happening or what good can come of it) trust God through horrendous hardship. Sometimes for decades or generations. But each time there is ultimate victory for those that love him.

So I am fully trusting that although this mountain feels huge and although it will be tougher at times and easier at others, that although other hardship will inevitably come, if we have to climb any mountain, it will not be in vain. It will not just be one of those things. It will not be because “s**t happens, then you die”. No way. Not on my watch. If we’re climbing this mountain then it will be for a purpose. We gave Nia her name because it means ‘brightness, radiance and purpose’. Never has there been a more fitting name meaning for a child. She carries a glow with her. She is a little ray of sunshine. Her middle name is Hope and she carries that too. Her life is one of purpose and diabetes will have a purpose in her eternal story. Even if we never find out what that is in this life, we have an eternal hope that God will use this for our good and his glory.

And come what may I will (try at all times to) continue to say “God is good all the time and it is well with my soul”. Eternity is in his hand and in our weakness, he is strong.

 

Mountains can be harsh, lonely, dark, bleak and frightening places. I know there will be times when it is foggy and I won’t be able to see the view. When I have to put on my crampons and cling on for dear life. Climbing mountains requires supplies and encouragement. Cheer people on who you know are climbing at the moment. Send food parcels, costa vouchers, cards, flowers. Our friends have paid for a cleaner for a couple of months. WOW. One less bag for me to carry while the path is really steep…THANK YOU!

As I set out on this long journey I have decided to try my very best at the following:

  1. Mountain climbing comes with great views. I will remember to pause and be grateful that I can see beyond the superficial and the every day. That I can see God from a different perspective. He is everywhere but I feel closer to him up here.
  2. That (as it says in Psalm 37:23) The Lord makes firm my steps when I delight in him. I might stumble but I won’t fall because he holds me. I will praise and worship. In my car we will blast out gospel music and sing like I am a nun in Sister Act. I’ll let him be the ultimate guide up the mountain.
  3. That I will not compare my mountain. I’ll shout over encouragement and send supplies to other mountaineers. When disaster strikes I will drop and run to help carry someone.
  4. That I will always look up. To know that I will be lead down the mountain (healing) or be lifted off it and promoted to glory (death). And because they are my only options then I will tread fearlessly.
  5. That I will be grateful for people I meet because I am on the mountain. I will encourage them and cheer them on, just as they will me when I am feeling weak.
  6. That when I am no longer needed as a sherpa on Nia’s mountain, I will be useful on someone else’s.

I am sorry if you are on a mountain. I pray you will see incredible views, that you will be encouraged and supported and put your trust in Jesus, who even on the tricky paths will guide your every step.