A Letter to my children after the vote

So I’m sitting here on what should feel like a normal Friday in the middle of June, and I’m trying to form words about what has just happened to my homeland.

Until the last couple of years, I haven’t been very politicised. I knew that I sort of vaguely leaned to the left, but generally I just tried to be nice and keep out of politics. Recent events have forced me to reappraise that perspective. I guess it began for me in the run up to the last general election: A chance conversation with a family member about Farage and immigration opened up a hornet’s nest which took me by surprise. In many ways, it wasn’t their fault. The family member involved lives in a leafy suburb and reads the Daily Express, I live in an urban community where my neighbours deliver incredible samosas at Iftar, and my work has shown me in real life the impact of the austerity cuts. We are living different lives in the same nation.

I went away from that conversation woefully aware of my own lack of political information – where could I find actual statistics on EU migrants claiming benefits? I found them here first. I was shocked. It was easy to access the government’s own statistics, and easy to see how they had been manipulated in the media. It is no wonder so many people have felt afraid and alienated.

I began to feel increasingly incensed, convinced that if people actually sat down and talked to one another, ate together and shared their experience of life in the UK, we would not find ourselves entrenched into such intractable positions. I thought back to the amazing street party we held on our diverse street in 2012 for the Royal Jubilee where my smiling Muslim neighbours clutched chubby babies and waved Union Jacks, as we all shared pakoras and Pavlova.

In the summer of 2015, we began to see the painful reality of the times we live in with the biggest movement of people across Europe since WW2. Pictures of the drowned little boy, Alan Kurdi released an unprecedented outpouring of emotion and for a while, it seemed that humanity might manage to unite, think creatively, share resources and extend compassion to those who have experienced more suffering than many of us can comprehend. Alas, there came a media-driven backlash (some examples of which are here and here), portraying refugees as financially driven or dangerous (because of course, they couldn’t possibly be a mix of wonderful and complex people with wide and varied stories and experiences, could they?) A nation that is being force-fed a diet of xenophobic sound bites will inevitably come to think in binary polarisations that fail to see the uniqueness, complexity and beauty of each human life.

And we come to the events of today, with feelings that are so raw that I can barely write about them yet. What stands out for me the most is the response of my children and their friends, for it is their generation and those who will follow who will bear the full cost of the decisions of their elders. At 8am today, my 16 and 14 year olds were having a group chat with their mates about the vote. They care passionately about their nation, and they have grown up in a diverse world, where social media enables their voice to be heard and grassroots movements can bring change about.

My son’s 16-year-old friend posted on Facebook,

“It deeply saddens me that more than half the nation are so short sighted and impulsive. Great job on stunting development in Britain and Europe, heading our economy into an economic disaster, making it far more difficult to move around Europe, reducing connectivity when we should be more united than ever, f****** over young people’s prospects in life, and a s*** ton of more things that leaving the EU is going to do to f*** up our country and the people in it. If you voted leave, shame on you, I am utterly disgraced.”

It is clear from analysis of the polls, that there is a huge generational divide in the UK, with the older generation voting Brexit whilst 75% of those aged 18-24 voted remain.

We now know that from this day forth, we face unprecedented change in the governance of our nation, so this is what I would like to say to my children and their generation:

13434896_10154295712803824_8988091821883047738_n

Dear Isaac, Caleb and Moses,

Despite your imperfect parents, you are growing up into human beings that I am proud to call my sons. You have grown up in a nation where diversity and inclusion is your wallpaper. An understanding that people are different is so deeply rooted in your characters that old-time discrimination feels clunky and embarrassing when you hear it. Unless your hearts become hardened through suffering and injustice, you will most likely continue to see people as individuals, and accept them as they are.

At the moment, the country that you are growing up in, and that your generation will one day lead, is in a deeply worrying place. This is a time where many choices must be made. These choices run deep, and have wider implications than simply party politics. Some adults that you love and trust voted to stay in the EU, and some voted to leave. These choices are hard to think through, and most decent people did what they thought best with the information they had. It is understandable to be sad and angry that our country seems to be moving away from the values we hold.

Many people who voted to leave will not have done so for racist reasons, but some will, and this is a time in history where those who hold extreme right-wing views could gain more public power than I have seen in my lifetime. This saddens me deeply, but I am not afraid. I am not afraid, because I have seen the passion in your generation. I know that you care about those who suffer, and that you want to see justice. I know that you are a generation who have creativity and activism oozing from every pore, and that you will join together to speak out for those whose voices cannot be heard. You have some new tools at your disposal, with more technology at your fingertips than we could have dreamed or imagined at your age. Use these resources well, to innovate, share stories and speak truth to power.

You may wonder whether your voices will be heard, and I can understand why – you have had huge pressures imposed upon you through SATS and exam changes that you didn’t ask for, and your further education will cost silly money – but here’s the thing that the far right haven’t counted on: You have lived diversity every day of your lives, and no-one can change your story. This is who you are.

So please become all that you can be and lead this nation onwards and upwards out of the pit it finds itself in today. You and your friends are wonderful kids, and you have a chance to be the change. Keep loving, have open hearts, be kind and be brave. Party politics do not define this nation, but human characters do. Become the best version of you that you can be, and never stop caring for those who are overlooked.

I really believe you can do this thing, and your parents will be right behind you.

Love Mum x

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How teddy bears have turned my life upside down

Children helping children

I’m sitting alone in my house for the first time in 6 weeks. I’m drinking a cup of tea, and I’ve just watched this video which has reduced me to a snivelling wreck.

I’m tired and overwhelmed, which may in part account for the high levels of emotion, but in truth, nothing is normal anymore. 6 weeks ago today, my life was turned upside down by teddy bears.

2nd September was the first day of the new school year. I had dressed my youngest boy, Moses, in his crisp new uniform, marvelled over his big 6 year old body that had grown so much over the summer, packed snacks and book bags, and set off for the new adventure of Y2. He had been asking for a trip to the kids indoor climbing centre all summer (We live in Sheffield, climbing is a whole thing), and so after school as a treat we decided to go there.

As a mum, there is something about your child’s body isn’t there? This human being has grown inside you, somehow emerged intact, and is now a whole person who can do clever things like climb a rock face, jump, play and grow. We had a great time there, came home, had tea and watched the Bake Off (obvs…)

I was getting ready for bed, and catching up on Facebook, when I saw this picture that had been appearing on social media. It looked like a child lying on a beach. I clicked and read the story, and then there were more pictures – horrific pictures of multiple drowned children. It was utterly shocking, and all I could think about was the fact that I’d got my boy dressed and ready for school that morning, and here were children, just like mine, whose mums had dressed them and got them ready too…ready for a dangerous journey that they hoped would end their family’s suffering and open the road to a new and better life, and now they were lying dead on European tourist beaches. Something broke in me – but what can you do to help from a suburban house in the middle of Sheffield, where there is ironing to be done and packed lunches to be made?

I commented on Facebook – but comment can be cheap, and I lay in bed wondering, thinking, dreaming…Surely we could do something?

Moses sleeps with about 20 cuddly toys in his bed. He absolutely refuses to ditch even one of them. Making that bed is the bane of my life and when he was asked on holiday what he was missing most about home, he replied in a heartbeat “My teds”.

This conflict in Syria and Iraq is so complicated. My little brain doesn’t understand the politics, the endless backstories, and I have zero ideas about solutions (except to maybe put the kids in charge?) but I do know this: Children in the midst of these hideous conflicts the world over are just that: Children.

It is not OK or someone else’s problem that my children get to grow up sleeping safe in their beds with great dreams for their future whilst another mother’s child is too afraid to put their head on the pillow because that’s when the bombs start.

Lying in bed that night, I remembered seeing this picture of children being evacuated during WWII, with a quote from Paddington Bear.

Paddington - refugee lives matter

I thought about Moses and his teddies, and felt that we had to find a way to hold on to the fact that children who should be lying in bed safe at night cuddling a teddy, are actually facing fear, trauma, immense loss and constant danger.

And that’s how Project Paddington was born – a simple idea to help children in the UK to reach out to children on the other side of the world, by sending one of their own teddy bears with a message of love and hope on a tag around its neck. I decided that this wasn’t a bad idea, that I wouldn’t think about it again, and I would give it a try in the morning.

Since then, my life has literally been turned upside down. I asked Moses’ school if we could give it a go. The headteacher said “Yes” so I went home, wrote a couple of letters outlining the plan, and set up a Facebook group. My phone began to ping…it carried on incessantly, and by the time I went to bed that night my little Facebook group had 500 members.

Over the next few days, the group grew and grew, until over 4300 of you had joined us on this crazy adventure of sending a teddy, some sponsorship money and a message of hope to refugee children around the world.

There are now over 560 UK schools and groups who are taking part in Project Paddington up and down the country, and we in the PP office (AKA my dining table) are overwhelmed by the incredible support our idea has generated. We see the pictures every day of children who have donated their bears and written wonderful messages like this one:

Project Paddington Matilda's letter

There is so much more that I could say about the Project Paddington journey so far. It is fair to say that our small (but wonderful) team are shocked and overwhelmed by the huge response that we have seen, but this is not the end of the story.

We want you to think about this some more. The families who are fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have witnessed horrific atrocities and loss. These children are traumatised and broken by all they have been witness to. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian minister who was executed after plotting to overthrow the Nazi regime said “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Social media means that we can see exactly what is happening to families fleeing conflict. The world is facing this test today. Will we enable our children to grow in kindness and generosity? Will we work to alleviate the suffering of children who have lost everything? In amongst work, school runs, packed lunches and the ironing we CAN make a difference when we work together. Team Project Paddington is delighted to help in a small way by sending children a personal message and something to cuddle, but we don’t want to leave it there. We are listening to those who know more about relief work than us, and we are working on how we can help even more. We’ll keep you posted. The journey is just beginning. Let’s do this!

#bearhugs

http://www.projectpaddington.com

@ProjectPadding1

http://www.facebook.com/projectpaddington

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On feeling disempowered…(but still a little bit shouty)

I am in the middle of an experience that is uncommon for me. It is a galling, raw sort of experience that renders me uncomfortable and ill at ease. It has been partly triggered by my husband’s potential impending redundancy, but this is the surface skin of a chasm that runs much deeper.

I am a middle class, reasonably educated, professional Christian woman. I enjoy some of the usual perks and privileges afforded to those of my tribe – home ownership, the occasional bit of Cath Kidston merchandise, self-confidence and the ability to advocate for myself to name just a few.

This new ground that I am walking is strange and unfamiliar territory. I find that I am still able to speak, but with no guarantees of being heard. I find that despite being in possession of various skills learned over the years, I am feeling like a bumbling novice with no real clue what she’s doing.

A small part of why I feel this way I think, is because we haven’t done what we were supposed to do. You see, my husband and I are aspiring church leaders. We came to faith in evangelical churches, were raised in a large charismatic church, and set loose on the world of ministry with dreams of multitudes, platforms, slick worship sets and answers for the Hard Questions.

Now we find ourselves in a small urban church, from our platform we mainly address rowdy kids at the end of Messy Church, we regularly worship to CD’s and we have more questions than answers.

We count what we do to be an enormous privilege. There is honestly nothing better than seeing the face of a child light up when they begin to really understand that God’s love is available to them. It is an absolute joy and honour to hear families tell us that they feel safe and welcome in a church for the first time. When some of our formerly unchurched young people told us the other week that what they really want in the youth group is more prayer, “Because it changes things”, well – it doesn’t really get much better than that. We love what we do, and we love the people we get to do it with.

There is a “but” though…What we are doing doesn’t look much like the kind of Christian “success” that many of us are comfortable with. It’s Messy, with no guarantees that what emerges from this process of Christian midwifery will be a bouncing baby church with shiny happy worship and rows of shiny happy faces.

Our parish is in the top 5% of national deprivation. Many of the people that we hope to introduce to the life-changing love of Jesus are affected by poverty and subsequently also by family breakdown, worklessness, debt, mental health problems, substance misuse and crime. Not wanting to risk making us out to be more radical and pioneering than we are, I’ll be honest and tell you that we have been working in this community for six years, and we are still barely scratching the surface.

I like to keep things simple, and if I’m reading the Bible the right way round, I’m pretty sure there’s no escaping that God is passionate about the poor, the needy, the broken and the destitute. I’ve heard it preached over and over, I’ve preached it myself a fair few times, and yet as a church, I’m increasingly feeling that WE JUST DON’T LIVE LIKE IT’S TRUE.

Here’s a bit of a backstory. I’m training to be a vicar at the moment, but before I did this, I worked in urban schools as a learning mentor, and in the NHS as a trainee child therapist. My work meant that I had the privilege of working with families who were dealing with a wide variety of challenges. Before this, I had also been a foster carer, so working alongside families grappling with the care system has been a part of my experience. During some study, I read a fascinating paper by child psychotherapist Gianna Henry, where she talks about the way in which the deprivation experienced by so many of the children and families in the care system causes them to develop strong defences that keep people out and thereby “Doubly Deprive” them of the resources that might be able to make a difference. (Did anyone watch “The Casual Vacancy” on BBC 1? Krystal Weedon would be a classic example of this sort of defense behaviour) Subsequently, another child psychotherapist, Louise Emanuel, described the phenomenon of “Triple deprivation”, where the deprivation encountered is ‘reworked’ in the system around the child. When this happens, the sense of despondency that has been provoked by the child’s immediate situation is replayed and relocated in those who are working to alleviate the problems – meaning that both the child and the professionals can be caught in cycles of negativity and failure that never get broken. In simple terms, the child’s own experiences of loss and deprivation repeat themselves in and through the systems that are supposed to be bringing transformation. If you find this hard to believe, listen to the news; barely a day goes by on our school run when I don’t have to turn the volume down to protect my 5 year old from the dulcet tones of Moira Stewart on Radio 2 reporting yet more sexual abuse of vulnerable young girls in the care system.

And so to my point: Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t get caught up in the same sort of cycles in the church? We think we’re all about transformation, but we are so easily derailed and thrown off course when we stare the gritty reality of brokenness in the face.

Here’s the thing – when we have known great pain, loss and poverty, we do what all human beings do: we build ourselves defences that we hope will keep the bad guys out and keep us safe in the process. The problem is that human beings are so dependent upon relationship to thrive and stay alive, that our attempts at defensive living are notoriously poor. We lock ourselves into prisons that we craft for ourselves from our most painful experiences, and we mentally throw away the key.

Hurt, defended, broken people don’t make for a “successful” church. They can be prickly and prone to lashing out, they may be chaotic and inconsistent, they might be radically saved and then disappear for six months, they may passionately love Jesus, but continue to live in ways that feel uncomfortable to us more ‘churchified’ Christians. The church that was formerly OUR safe place and refuge may never meet our needs again, and it might be that every time we gather to worship, we find ourselves staring down our own insecurities, questions and stark naked failings. Nothing about this is comfortable.

I have been in wonderful worship meetings where visions have been birthed for our cities to be brought back to God. In my best moments, this is what I want – but I don’t think it will look the way we hope it might. Our cities include many people whose lives have been shaped by raw, unyielding pain. God is in the business of transforming love – and when these two things collide, the result is often a beautiful hot mess.

And this is where I’m going to get controversial: I worry that in the UK church, we are failing to be counter-cultural. We are just not ready to deal with that level of mess. So many of our children’s services are failing our most vulnerable young people by getting caught into cycles of triple-deprivation that simply rework and move young people’s problems around the systems designed to protect them. In the same way, I wonder if we, the church, are so wedded to the need to feel successful and powerful in the face of obvious decline, that we simply cannot take the risk of really engaging with those who would show us where we are the most powerless. Of course, it is a choice that we are all free to make, but friends, THIS IS NOT THE GOSPEL. What would really be counter-cultural would be for those of us who have known a measure of healing and transformation to get stuck in to some of the places that look the hardest and the least inviting. There is some really encouraging growth happening in some large UK churches, and this is a great thing. These churches can be resourcing bases, where people can grow and be sent out from – but if we think that large, city centre resourcing churches are going to spearhead national revival, we may need to think again, because I’m beginning to see that God’s paradigm of success looks a lot like our idea of failure. Church, are we brave enough to embrace “failure” in all its vulnerability and will we go to those places that have been so broken that not even God’s people have dared to hope for change?

Here are God’s economics as I am coming to understand them:

Poor in spirit=Rich in Kingdom

In mourning=Will be comforted

Hungry to see things put right=Will be filled

Merciful=Will be shown mercy

This is a beautiful Godly overturning of everything we are so prone to cling on to. God always leads us, sometimes gently and sometimes forcibly out of our barricaded places of safety and into his glorious plains of reckless freedom. He does this because those who have been led out of captivity have to learn to live into freedom, and those of us who have been given keys, must open doors for others.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

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An Advent tale of two women…

It was one of the first winter evenings of biting cold when I noticed her. She was sitting on the pavement outside Sainsburys, arranging carrier bags of possessions around her feet, knees brought up to her chin, floral dress poking out of a carrier bag. She had a look of world-weariness combined with hope – the sort of face where the lights have dimmed but haven’t gone out. There was still some feist and spirit in the way she organised her bags and sat expectantly, but it was combined with a hollow and resounding sadness. She stopped me in my tracks because she was probably about my age. I was on my way home, at the time of day when mums like me are busy cooking meals, taxiing children to-and-from activities and helping with homework. I was heading into the shop for ingredients for tea. Would she like something to eat I asked? She requested cookies – with white chocolate chips, and I obliged. I took her apple juice too, in the hope that maybe somewhere there would be a trace of nutrition in this meagre feast. She took them both and thanked me. We parted company, and that would have been it, had the whisper of God not prompted me to offer to pray.

I returned to her awkwardly, and asked if I could pray for her. It felt like offering to water the Sahara, one tiny fragmentary gesture in an abyss of unmet need, and yet she fell upon my offer with gratitude and we exchanged names. She told me a snapshot of her situation, and I prayed, aware with every syllable of the inadequacy of my tiny response to this wide chasm of a broken human life. When I had finished praying, she asked “Can I pray for you?” She held tightly to my hand, and prayed that I would have a good life and that I would know God’s blessings upon me. These are things I dearly want, I suspect they are the things that she wants too, along with a safe and warm place to live (“I wouldn’t care if it was the size of a shoebox” she said). The juxtaposition of our two lives was glaringly apparent as I walked back to my car, and drove away to my warm home and family, leaving her sitting on a cold pavement outside Sainsburys, clutching all she owned in the world around her feet.

I’m grappling with what it means to be a follower of Jesus in a world like this.

It’s advent at the moment, a time where the church chooses to journey in that rocky hinterland between two kingdoms. The people of God have always been a pilgrim people, journeying between the now-and-the-not-yet, and nowhere is that more apparent than during this season of expectant waiting, where we hold hope and brokenness together.

This is a season of light and shade. It is a time when it’s right to reflect on suffering and injustice as we hope for the One who will make all things new. We really don’t have to look very far in our groaning and heaving world to see why we need such a hope.

But God, in subversive creative brilliance, had a master plan that no human intellect with its emphasis on power and control could ever have dreamed up. God’s loving kindness and hope for humanity entered the world in 8lbs of human flesh, warm and squawking, born into squalor and destitution, of questionable parentage, with no credentials to his name. God as one of us, a living, breathing human being, a little baby no less.

We may be used to this narrative, and the tale of innkeepers, stars, shepherds and wise men trips off the tongue with alarming familiarity, and yet what we are really grappling with is beyond all comprehension. That God willingly chose to become a human baby – entirely dependent on others for his every need, subject to the usual patterns of human development, learning and experience. It is a gesture of vulnerability so costly and extravagant and yet so tangible and real. The language of “incarnation” can feel dusty and religious, but really what we are talking about here is God, “with skin on” as others have said before me.

I can’t see another credible way that a God of love could have reached out to his creation and really showed beyond reasonable doubt that he understood what it means to walk this earth, unless he had done just that.

What I’m realising though, is that we have Christianised Jesus, and our desire to demonstrate his divinity can mean that we forget the full extent of his humanity. Jesus the baby, the toddler, the boy, the teenager, the young man, the adult – Jesus whose personality, identity, physical body and spirituality were developing and forming as he grew, who was subject to a time, place and culture, who had relationships and was influenced by others, who hurt and cried, laughed and celebrated, worked and played, loved and was loved.

When we are unable to see Jesus through the prism of his own humanity, perhaps we are less able to see him in the humanity of others. And yet I can’t think what this sore and broken world needs more than vulnerable disciples of a vulnerable messiah.

Who being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God

something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death –

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord

to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2: 6-11, NLT

This is one of the oldest hymns of the Christian church, and it points to the deep mystery and power of God choosing to take on human flesh and live and walk this earth.

In this time of advent, I am so aware of the pressures that crowd in on every side. I know that as I look at my own life with its inconsistencies, consumerism and contradictions, my heart can so easily become brittle and closed off to the pain of others. I know that I cannot meet the needs of the homeless, broken and destitute all around me, and so it becomes easy to shut down – bury myself back into my closeted sub-culture, choose not to engage, batten down the hatches, experience the inevitable guilt and lock myself ever deeper into the same old broken patterns that fragment us and deepen our alienation.

It is precisely because I (and we?) function like this that we need a saviour. It is precisely because our humanity is precious and beautiful that our saviour had to live and breathe the same air that we do. He came – and who can resist a baby? This was Good News then, and it’s Good News today. God’s son was born, in the usual way, right in the midst of messy, human chaos. God entrusted himself completely to ordinary human beings. This Christmas, can we entrust ourselves and the mess and chaos of our lives to a saviour and friend like this?

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Cooking on sh*t

These last six months have been the hardest of my life, and when I say “hard”, I don’t mean “ever so slightly challenging”, I just mean HARD. Blood, sweat, tears, confusion, anxiety, grief, anger, frustration and real, raw, gut-wrenching pain.

There are some difficulties that I can’t put on here, they are not my story to tell, but when the apostle Paul talks about being “Hard-pressed on every side” (2 Corinthians 4), well let’s just say that I now understand what that feels like. When it rains down at you from every angle, and you come to the end of yourself – that’s a difficult place to be.

Things really peaked around December, and in our family, we needed to reorientate most of our lives around the needs of the situation we found ourselves in. This meant stopping things, lots of things, including a variety of fruitful ministry activities. On many levels, this felt like failure, and it compounded the pain we already felt.

I remember one day, when the reality of what we were dealing with sunk in, I just lay on my bed, empty and resourceless, without a clue about what to do next. But taking myself off to bed and hiding my broken life under the duvet wasn’t a great long-term plan. The battle raged white-hot all around us, and there was no option but to fight. There were some crucial components of our battle plan: We marshalled the praying people, we relied on the beauty of a loving community of friends that we could rant to and weep with, we sought wise counsel wherever we could find it, we rested when we needed to and then we fought on. We are still fighting.

But something else was needed in this situation – a deeper resolve, more strength and focus than I had yet known. I needed to allow God to take me deeper, and to forge in me some new weaponry. This happened in the most unlikely of ways.

Let me backtrack, I am a lifetime hard and fast exercise-hater. I remember the first time I ran down the street aged 3. At first, sprinting alongside my cousins was exhilarating and fun, but after a few seconds I discovered that I was out of breath. I stopped in my tracks, turned to my Aunty and said with indignation “I can’t breathe!” She laughed in my face. I pretty much decided then and there that me and exercise weren’t going to be compatible. Thus began a life-long mission of sport-avoidance.  To be fair, I sucked so badly at all things sporting, it wasn’t too difficult to avoid. Last to be picked at all school games lessons, attempting to catch balls with elaborately flailing crossed arms, walking the cross-country chatting about boys, and tripping over my own feet at netball. If avoiding exercise was an Olympic sport, I would have won the gold.

It is perhaps surprising then, that I inadvertently chose exercise as my survival strategy in the midst of our whole-life-meltdown.  Perhaps there was an element of mid-life crisis too. At pushing 40, it is no longer cool to be pathologically unfit – so I joined a gym. And it came to pass that I found myself in a “spin” class. “Spin”, for the uninitiated is a high-intensity cycling class, where you increase the resistance of the pedals, whilst “sprinting” in a variety of torturous “uphill climbs”. I spent most of the first class praying “Jesus, take me now!” But he didn’t, and the endorphins kicked in (Wow! Nobody told me about them…) so I went back. Again and again. And then the strangest thing began to happen. I stopped cheating, started turning up the resistance up properly, and discovered that I had some new skills – I could do this thing!

I also discovered that my busy mind, whilst sidetracked by focussed physical activity, could slow down enough in a spin class to pray. I developed this slightly odd habit of closing my eyes during the sprint sections of the class, and reciting scripture to myself. (To be fair, it must look pretty odd, but I’m no stranger to humiliation in the arena of sporting prowess, so I go with it.)

Hebrews 12: 1-3 is the main passage of choice:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

I have always loved these verses, they have been significant throughout my life, (which is ironic for a non-athlete…), we even had them at our wedding. I have always known these words, but now, the words know me. I have been remade and formed by them. My perspective altered and my eyes lifted. When you repeat the same words hundreds of times, new things appear. Did you know for example, how easily sin entangles? Did you know that there is a race marked out for us, with angels cheering at the side “You can do it!” Did you know that Jesus pioneers and completes our faith – he is the beginning and the end. Did you know that he endured the cross, knowing that there was ultimately joy? Do you know what Jesus does with shame? He laughs in its face – it has no power over him. Did you know that Jesus is sitting next to God in heaven, egging us on as we run our little race? Did you know that Jesus was opposed – laughed at, ridiculed and ignored, slagged off by ordinary people, just like we are? Did you realise that as we look at his complex, painful but ultimately joyful journey, he resources us to complete our own?

All these wonderful things, from three verses of scripture in a spin class.

Today I ran my personal best! It’s a paltry personal best by most people’s standards, 6K in 39 minutes – and I sweated like a dog, it was not pretty. But I am learning something new. God uses the adversity we face to take us deeper into his limitless resources, to take us to places we would never otherwise dare to go.

I haven’t got any deep answers to why sh*t happens, I just know that it does, all the time, to good people. But the last few days, I have been returning again and again to this weird little verse in Ezekiel. If you dare to read Ezekiel (and usually I don’t…) you will see that in this intensely prophetic book of the Bible, there are some incredible interactions between a man longing to know God’s heart, and a God who is bigger than we can ever comprehend. In Chapter 4, God gets Ezekiel embroiled in an elaborate prophetic re-enactment of the siege of Jerusalem. I won’t go into all the details here, but he asks Ezekiel to do something that has stuck with me. God asks the prophet to symbolically cook food, using human excrement for fuel. It’s pretty clear in the passage that God is referring to the nation of Israel eating defiled food in exile – so my perspective may be slightly skewed, but I think there’s something in this about how we respond to suffering and brokenness in the church.

We just want to flush it all away, get rid of it, and get our hands clean and get the heck out of there – but God takes the sh*t and turns it into fuel that can ultimately even nourish and sustain those who have been broken by it. Only God can do this.

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good” Genesis 50:20

God intends to meet us in our brokenness and pain, to walk the path of it alongside us, to forge in us new depths of relationship with him, and to send us back out into his broken world where we can be wounded-healers, his representatives of love, walking with a limp, because we have struggled with God, but he has overcome.

Church, the world needs to see our brokenness. This world is not crying out for slick successful advocates of a religion guaranteed to make everything in life work better. This world is hungry for authentic, ordinary broken disciples of a saviour who turns sh*t into sustenance. That way we know it isn’t all about us. I think I’ll end with St. Paul, because he seems to say it best:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

 (2 Corinthians 4: 7-10)

Love and peace to you today in all the challenges you face.

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Life-lessons from my children

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It began with Isaac: His name means “He laughs”, and we commented when he was a newborn, that in a way, it was the male version of “Joy”. He arrived at 5.42 on a Tuesday morning, and I scrutinized him from head to toe, and instantly loved him with an intensity that was fierce and overwhelming. There was an immediate connection with this little person that was total and consuming.  I was 23, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I threw all my weight at motherhood nevertheless. Love and uncertainty consumed me – was I doing it right? Would I be any good at this most incessant of roles? Isaac was a sickly baby, and eczema and constant sickness clawed at both his developing body and my confidence in myself, until at nine months old, the simple act of eating egg for tea almost killed him in ten minutes. A life-threatening food allergy was discovered, and at last, Isaac’s health began to improve. By his first birthday he had become a laughing, toddling mass of blond curls and boundless energy. He didn’t crawl, he got up and ran. In that year though, I had learned something that would be imprinted on my consciousness forever: Life is vulnerable.

 

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Two years and two days after our adventure of parenthood began, I sat in a hospital bedroom as sun streamed through the window in the early morning, and stared at a scrunched up pink baby in a plastic cot, just twelve hours old. I felt protective for my displaced two year old at home, and a little bit guilty that I couldn’t muster those feelings of intense love and protection that had pounded through me two years previously. Could I hold that level of emotional intensity, and risk the pain of loss again? “Who is he going to be?” I wondered to myself. In that moment I encountered the whisper of God in my soul, and it swept the feelings of guilt away, “Oh Joy, you’re going to enjoy him.” Caleb. Hebrew for “dogged, faithful and intrepid”, I felt the delight of God in this little new person that I was going to get to know. Here was a special gift waiting to be unwrapped slowly. It was a completely different process of bonding with a completely different person. Caleb eased himself into life, relaxed, delightful and delighted, self-contained and at peace with the world. Being mum to this very different baby taught me another vital lesson: life is to be enjoyed.

 

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Holidaying on a sunkissed beach in France seven years later, seven and nine year old boys splashing in the sea, both of us set to embark on new and life-changing careers in the coming months, we looked at all we had with gratitude, although I felt a tinge of sadness that our boys were growing up and there would be no more babies. A month or so later, the thin blue line told us that all our well made plans were about to be definitively up-ended.  Moses. In Hebrew, “a son, drawn out of the water.” From the womb, this baby was different again. I was pounded with kicks so hard at times I thought he might break out, and this baby was BIG – almost 3lbs bigger than Isaac had been. From the earliest days he was never still, hands permanently grabbing and pulling my hair, rolling from room to room by four months old, active, busy, climbing inquisitive and so full of life and energy. To Moses, nothing was beyond his realm of possibility, every corner of life was awaiting his exploration, and would be enlivened by his touch. Another completely different baby, and another life-lesson: Life is beyond my control.

I believe the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God who weaves story deep into the fabric of our souls. In the Old Testament, names are so bound up with identity, so deeply grafted in to the story of salvation, it can be easy to overlook their concrete significance. “Isaac” brought laughter to Abraham and Sarah, the son of the covenant, God’s last laugh at the crushed hopes of a barren and aged couple. “Jacob” – “He grasps the heel, deceiver”, born hanging on to his twin brother’s foot, conniving and manipulating his way to the top of that family pile until his broken identity could serve him no longer and an overnight fight with God saw him forever changed in that encounter: “Israel” – “He Struggles with God”.

We each find ourselves enmeshed in a web of story: identity, personality, history, circumstance – all of these things shape us and make us who we are. Our story in turn, is woven into His-story, as lives hold together, layer up and take shape. My story is that three babies have forged deep, life-shaping truths into this soul:

Life is vulnerable,

Life is to be enjoyed,

Life is beyond my control

Life lessons forged in extremes of joy and pain, lived out through sleepless nights, nappy changes, toddler tantrums and sunny picnic afternoons.  I am grateful for what my children have taught me, and continue to teach me in the midst of all the messy-beautiful of family life.

Psalm 8 tells us,

O Lord, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.

(New King James Version)

His name is excellent, and his identity and purpose is written into the souls of our littlest ones. We can find his-story in theirs from their earliest days, and his power at work in their and our lives can silence the enemy of our souls.

What are the life-lessons that your children have taught you? What does their name speak about their identity?

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God’s peace and “Home Bargains” car park…

You know those days when you wonder quite how you’re going to fit it all in? That.

It was a couple of weeks ago, and I was in the throes of organising Moses’ 4th birthday party.  At the same time, I was trying to get Isaac prepared for his first DofE expedition. And there was also this thing called “normal family life” running alongside my general mayhem.  I’d like to think that I wasn’t channelling Alphamother, but I’m pretty sure she was standing on the sidelines, raising her eyebrows and making snarky comments about my capacities from time to time.

This really wasn’t the day for a toddler vomiting bug, and so of course, it was.

There’s really no need for too much sordid detail, because we all know we’ve been there. There’s the initial moment of panic, then the hygiene lockdown, then the anxious wait – is it a lucky one-off or a full-blown episode?

I’d done a mental reckoning and cancelled my plans for the day, but there were some bits we still needed for the party…so by 11am with no further “episodes”, I took a gamble on a quick trip to the shops to stock up.  And so it came to pass that by 11.15am, I found myself hunched over in “Home Bargains” car park, holding a carrier bag for a spewing toddler whilst passers-by offered pitying sideways-head-tilts. Friends, it was not my finest hour.

Once home, with pale-and-wan toddler installed in front of Cbeebies and with sanity-restoring cup of tea in hand, I opened my emails and saw my Moravian Daily Text for the day. One of the verses was this:

“‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” Haggai 2:9

It was one of those moments when you just need to exhale.

Could it be that God’s peace, his “Shalom”, his wholeness, his tender grace was still reigning in the midst of what I thought of as the wreckage of my day?

This verse drew me in and made me hunger for more. Where was this place of peace that God was promising for his people?

In context, these words are amazing:

“Then on October 17 of that same year, the Lord sent another message through the prophet Haggai. “Say this to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Jeshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of God’s people there in the land:  ‘Does anyone remember this house—this Temple—in its former splendor? How, in comparison, does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing at all!  But now the Lord says: Be strong, Zerubbabel. Be strong, Jeshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people still left in the land. And now get to work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.  My Spirit remains among you, just as I promised when you came out of Egypt. So do not be afraid.’

“For this is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: In just a little while I will again shake the heavens and the earth, the oceans and the dry land.  I will shake all the nations, and the treasures of all the nations will be brought to this Temple. I will fill this place with glory, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.  The future glory of this Temple will be greater than its past glory, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. And in this place I will bring peace. I, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, have spoken!”

Haggai 2:1-9

These verses are addressed to a people who have seen the heart of their nation ripped to shreds. The forced captivity and exile of the people of Judah by the Babylonians that began in 597 BC had led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. There would have been mass dislocation on the grandest scale of a people whose identity was defined by their homeland. Families, communities and individual lives laid waste by the jackboot (or maybe sandal?) of empire.

So fast-forward around 70 years, and this remnant-people are looking at how they might rebuild the glorious house of worship that they once called home. As the newly-forming Persian empire takes hold of the known-world, more Jewish people are allowed to return to Jerusalem and begin the process of re-establishing their cultural, spiritual and national identity.

I’m trying (and failing) to get my head around what a mixed time that must have been.

In this passage, the prophet Haggai is addressing the secular ruler of Jerusalem, Zerubbabel, and the High Priest, Jeshua. He’s trying to communicate the vision of new possibility that God has filled him with, despite the wreckage that they are standing amongst. A modern day equivalent might require us to envisage a meeting with Prime Minister, David Cameron and Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby in order to discuss what currently “is” and what “could be…”

The thing that strikes me here is this powerful image of wreckage. I’m struck by the passion in Haggai’s questions to the religious and civil rulers: “Do you remember the former splendour?” “How does it look to you now?”

These words in Haggai draw us right into the centre of the mess before our gaze can be lifted to the bigger picture of possibility, new hope and restoration.

“It must seem like nothing at all” is the prophetic word that comes from a pile of crushed stones, laid desolate over many long years.

Of course the picture doesn’t end there. God’s spirit is with the people, he encourages and strengthens them, calls them to action, promises that the glory of the new temple will far surpass the glory of the former one, and assures his peace. It’s a mind-blowing passage of scripture.

I wonder though whether it’s easier for us to hold on to peace that is founded on the promise of the good that God gives. It’s maybe more difficult to grasp hold of the peace that is present in amongst the wreckage we find ourselves in at times.

Where are the places in life where all we can see is wreckage? The places where brokenness and desolation abound?

“It must seem like nothing at all.”  I am so struck by the tenderness in these words. When hopes are laid waste, when dreams come to nothing, when relationships break down, when words fail, he is in THAT place. He is patiently waiting for us, knowing that our partial vision cannot take in his fullness all at once, allowing us to see bit by bit, look first here and there, eyes falling upon rubble and desolation before we see the new growth beginning to flower in the cracks.

On the morning of our Home-Bargains-episode I was eager to get-on, do, produce, function and stride purposely forwards into ever-more activity and busyness.

Standing in the wreckage of my well-made plans clutching a carrier bag of the unmentionable, I encountered the peace that passes understanding, despite myself.

Whatever the wreckage that we find ourselves in today, (and vomit in a car park is small fry, my friends, I know…) can we trust our God to give us his peace RIGHT THERE IN THE RUBBLE, and then and only then may he lift our eyes so that we might see beyond what IS and dream great dreams for what COULD BE.

May we each encounter the God of both current-rubble and future-glory today.

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