Advent Reflections – Birthing

I’ve never told my birth story publicly. It was far from the candle filled water birth I’d imagined – in fact it was the total opposite of what I’d hoped. Three types of induction, hooked up to monitors, pethidine and an epidural before my newborn was whisked away for observations and antibiotics.

Within hours, I knew that these words from Sarah Bessey were true.

“Birth is never not a miracle…It’s never not the best and most at the same time.”

I’ve been wondering what Mary’s birth was like.

We know there was no pain relief, that there was no shiny hospital or consultants on call.

But was it long? Did she wonder if she could do it? Did she beg and plead for it to be over?

(I’m guessing she didn’t cry “it’s like the cruciatus curse!” like I did at some point between my waters breaking and being given pethidine.)

The thing is, whichever way we look at it, birthing is painful.

The seed breaking through the ground to the light.

The baby breaking through to begin life in the outside world.

The butterfly breaks through its cocoon to fly.

The stars break through night’s sky.

We can’t separate birthing from breaking.

But that also means we can’t separate breaking from beauty.

The pain of birth certainly felt like a breaking, if nothing else it was a breaking of my old life, but the new life was and is undoubtedly beautiful.

All too often, we hold back from the birthing because we fear the breaking. We fear breaking ourselves open to allow God to do a deeper work, we fear breaking open new possibilities in case we fail.

But there is good news. It is called the gospel, after all.

Jesus went first, He was birthed and he broke through every barrier between us and God.

Alia Joy writes in her book “Glorious Weakness”

“It was always the plan that in the midst of the catastrophic brokenness in this world, grace would surprise us all.”

As Christmas approaches, let the birth of hope in Jesus surprise us with its grace and allow it to fill our brokenness.

Advent Reflections – Journeying

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are on the move, and God seems to do much of His work in people through their journeys.

Abraham’s journey to Canaan.

The Israelites protracted journey to the Promised Land.

Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem in the months before Jesus’ birth.

We can but imagine the maelstrom of emotions evoked during this journey; the uncertainty, the more than likely physical aches and pains of Mary, the anticipation, the worry perhaps – about having your first baby far from home?

I can remember, all too clearly, the relatively short journey to the nice clean and safe hospital to have my own son just a year ago, knowing my life would never be the same again, stepping into the unknown and trusting that my feet found some solid ground.

There’s something about journeys that disrupt us, perhaps it’s that they signal change (something I’m not a great fan of), and throughout history, God disrupts His people. He sends them to new places, on new adventures and asks us to take each step away from certainty and toward Him. Perhaps the reason He speaks so loudly to us on journeys is because we are already distracted from day to day life.

I remember studying Abram’s call during some of my first lectures at LST – how he had been called away from everything he’d known to enter a promise unseen – and I felt stirred by it, a similarity, even though my journey was only 30 miles down the motorway and nowhere near as drastic as Abram’s life-changing journey! But I had left behind the life I had known and stepping into something new where each step was one of faith.

It’s that journey that I remind myself of now, when I’m fearful of the next steps, or the next journey; because at the time it was the scariest thing I’d ever done and yet it was one of great joy.

We each go on countless journeys throughout our lives; some are inconsequential (such as the one my husband has gone on to get bin bags from co-op as I write), others are earth shattering and life changing, like the journey to Bethlehem or my own through university.

One of my favourite journeys recounted in scripture is one Jesus takes the morning of His resurrection, when he takes a walk with a man named Cleopas and his friend who are lamenting the loss of the one ‘they had hoped’ for and hoped in. It’s a sliver of a story which reminds us that the journey matters – that through Jesus – God walks with us on our journeys and reveals Himself in the tenderest of places, in the tenderest of ways. For it was not through lighting flash and growling thunder that Jesus revealed His identity on the journey, it was not even as he recounted His own story through the scriptures, but as He ate with them and broke their bread with His own scarred hands.

Advent retells Jesus’ journey to be with us, one not done in majestic fashion, but one that began in the womb of a teenager and ended on a sinner’s cross.

They journey of Advent is nearing its close for this year; soon the darkness of these weeks will be pierced by the unquenchable light of the God who came wrapped in a mother’s womb to save in the most unexpected of ways. Jesus’ journey to be with us is the greatest comfort in the darkness and ignited the flame of hope forevermore – it is what keeps me walking this strange journey of surrender and freedom.

Malcolm Guite’s beautiful poem O Emmanuel captures something of the mystery of Jesus’ journey to us as our hope.

“Be folded with us into time and place,

Unfold for us the mystery of grace

And make a womb of all this wounded world.”

 

 

 

Advent Reflections Week Two – Accepting

When I decided to use the carmelite themes to reflect this advent, it was this word accepting that captivated and confused me in equal measure.

For me at least, it conjures the concept of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and at last, acceptance. It’s the pinnacle stage in this model; whereby someone can see some kind of resolution to the pain of grief.

It’s place as the second week of advent then, feels almost jarring.

And yet, as I delved into the ancient stories again, both the gospel narratives and the story of the carmelites, I began to see it a little differently, because the carmelites had been crusaders who’d gone to fight but ended up so transformed that they stayed to pray and build a community in the holy land.

It reminded me how often in the scriptures God shows up in the most unexpected ways, calling unexpected people to do unexpected things.

A virgin conceiving.

A barren woman falling pregnant whilst her husband falls silent.

When we agree to follow the way of Jesus, we agree to the unexpected.

And sometimes the unexpected way we are called to hurts.

It’s all too easy to miss the trouble woven through the nativity.

Luke 1:29 tells us that Mary was “greatly troubled” by the angel’s greeting; Joseph and the shepherds are greeted with the words “do not be afraid.”

God does not hide from us that the walk ahead with Him is not easy.

As Timothy Keller writes in his book “Hidden Christmas”:

“The manger at Christmas means that, if you live like Jesus, there won’t be room for you in a lot of inns.”

Accepting the gospel truth and the invitation of God is not the easy – but God gifts us what we need to accept His invitation.

Perhaps Zechariah needed his silence to accept what lay ahead of him and Elizabeth.

I expect that both Mary and Elizabeth needed the time they shared together, to accept the extraordinary pregnancies and prepare them for the extraordinary lives their sons would lead.

Mary does not just accept the call grudgingly, however. She doesn’t say “All right then, if you must” – she sings a mighty song of praise.

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”

Whatever we have to accept in the course of our christian lives; Mary offers us a dazzling response to echo which is not based on our own strength but on our glorious Saviour.

 

 

 

Advent Reflections Week One – Waiting

This year for advent, I’m going to reflect each week on the Carmelite themes of Advent; waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing. Having read about them in author Sarah Bessey’s advent reflections, it struck me that they sound to me like stages of grief and lament and so I want to explore. Our emotional lives don’t necessarily follow the feelings of seasons – but God remains in them and with us in each season as we wait, as we accept, as we journey and as we birth.


Last year, the 1st December marked the end of waiting for us. It was our son’s homecoming day  after his first week of life was spent cannulated and treated for a chest infection.

The week before had been full of painful waiting; the promise of home dangled in front of us like a vista, but it kept being pushed back. When we were told we could finally leave; we felt the giddy excitement our son would late exhibit every time his daddy walks through the door!

The waiting was, I think, all the more painful because we didn’t know how long the wait would be. It was altogether different from the waiting of pregnancy which had consumed the months before; whilst we didn’t know a specific date, we knew that by Christmas 2018 our baby boy would be in the world.

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are a waiting people. They are waiting for the Promised Land, freedom from slavery, to find their way home from exile – and above all – they were waiting for a Messiah, the one who would save them.

Today we wait for the final return of Jesus, the end of mourning, crying and pain. Each day, however, is full of waiting. Whether it be in the queue at the corner shop, for call from the doctor or loved one to return home, we have no choice but to wait.

We do have a choice how we wait.

Waiting without hope can consume us, twisting our desires into idols and longing into bitterness.

Waiting with hope can see God transform us in the waiting – because God is with us in the waiting.

These words of the 12th century carol ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ seem to capture something of the agony of waiting and the hope of what is to come. It reminds us the God who is with us, who ‘moved into the neighbourhood’ does not leave us to languish in our despair, but comes to us and sets eternity in our hearts.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

In the waiting time, when our ‘until’ feels endless and our loneliness exiles us from ourselves, our communities and our God, Advent reminds us that our wait is not wasted when we fix our eyes on the God who broke through time and space to be Immanuel.

It’s so tempting to rush through Advent, to miss it amidst the glitter of Christmas trees and carol singing – but this year – I invite you to wait in it and watch for how God might reveal Himself in the unexpected and the lowly just as He did 2000 years ago.

 

 

Book Review: Redeeming Advent

We are well and truly into November now, so I finally feel happy to start talking about the upcoming festive season (in my house, I don’t start thinking about Christmas until after my husband’s November birthday, but now that’s passed it’s time to look forward to the celebrations).

So as we do all the practical things to prepare, it’s important that we also prepare our hearts amidst all the busyness and Lucy’s book is a great way to spend a bit of time each day to reflect and reorientate ourselves back to Christ.

One of the most beautiful parts of the book is the way in which Lucy reflects on her experience of adopting her two youngest children and how that, in turn, reflects our relationship with God.

She writes:

Advent, like adoption, opens our eyes to a new place, a better place, where the sin and suffering of the last place will be no more. Advent, like adoption, reminds us not to cling to our old home – not to get too settled here – because it’s not where we belong. Advent, like adoption, tells us that the tragedies of this life are not supposed to bring us down, but to make us look up…Advent, like adoption, brings hope and a new start and a secure future. Advent, like adoption, prepares us for that glorious day when we will be with our true, heavenly Father.”

Lucy’s writing is warm and easy to read, but it is also profound and communicates some really important theological truths in a really accessible way and includes some very practical challenges.

One of the clearest examples for me, is this:

“I don’t want anyone who enters our home this season to be in any doubt about what we’re celebrating.”

As someone who loves to co-ordinate my wrapping paper with my decorations(!) I’ve been challenged to ensure that my home doesn’t just look pretty (although I still want it to look as good as it can with a one year old running amok!) Alongside the prettiness, I want it to be clear that the beauty in my home reflects the beauty of the gospel, not just my interior design skills.

On a practical level, “Redeeming Advent” is set out in short and readable chapter for every day in Advent that can be consumed with your morning coffee and advent calendar chocolate – and I think you should!

If you’d like to buy a copy of Redeeming Advent, you can get one at Eden Books, Amazon* and real life christian bookshops. You can also be in with a chance to win a signed copy over on my Instagram and Facebook!

For more from Lucy you can find her at Desertmum, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

*affiliate link

 

 

 

Present Tense Testimony

I’ve been sharing my testimony since I was thirteen and I first stood in a church pulpit. On that blisteringly hot day in July 2003, I spoke about the God I serve and the calling I felt. Since then, I’ve been sharing my story in blog posts, seminars, sermons and talks. It’s something I feel relatively confident in doing, I am well rehearsed in what I feel comfortable sharing and making sure that I can point away from myself to the God of my story in the course of sharing.

But as I was reading Stephanie Tait’s “The View From Rock Bottom”, one phrase leapt from the page.

“present tense testimony”

More often than not, the testimonies we share are in the past tense. They speak of things overcome, of the miraculous and the way live has changed for the better.

I can speak of a significant recovery, that I live a life I love, that I have not harmed myself in over a decade.

But that would not tell the whole story.

My present tense testimony is more complicated, more unfinished and less tidy.

My present tense testimony demonstrates no less of the glory of God and His grace.

My present tense testimony is that I still struggle; that I live with mental illness but that through grace, community and rest I live a life I love.

Patrick Regan brilliantly describes it as “healing in the slow lane” in his book, Honesty Over Silence.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we all bear our pain for the world to see every day, we don’t need to bear our open wounds – but we need to be honest that we are wounded.

It doesn’t look as shiny, but it is miraculous nonetheless, because there were days when I couldn’t lift my eyes to even consider a future and now I am living each day. Stumbling, yes; with help, most definitely – but more importantly with the knowledge of grace and God’s care in the day-to-day boring stuff.

It is, I think, the difference that the late Rachel Held Evans and my friend Tanya Marlow speak of so eloquently. Rachel wrote:

“But there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

This is what a present tense testimony offers; that even when the pains of life persist so do we and so, more beautifully, does God.

God’s work is both the lighting flash and the slow burning flame.

What glory in the mundane might our present tense testimonies reveal?

The Way of the Waves

There are things you begin to notice.

Your voice quietens, just a little.

Noise seems louder, scratching at your eardrums.

You’re more easily irritated, patience worn thin.

You are tired, the tiredness spreads through your body like slowly freezing water. It is cold, painful and slows your thoughts and movement.

The feelings are dully familiar, and yet they catch you by surprise because the reprieve has been so long, so welcome.

Thoughts and feelings you have written about many times in the past tense have crept back into your present and they are as fresh and frightening as they were the first time.

Depression is an unwelcome returning guest. And yet you welcome you must, for fighting delay and worsens the inevitable tide which may or may not knock you off your feet.

You know how it goes, it’s a tide you’ve chased many times before and yet it feels new.

The newness is the baby, your delight, who gives no heed to your falling mood or slowing movements. He still needs to be fed, entertained, cherished.


Being a Mum made me reach out sooner than I might have done in the past; because there is not just me and my husband to consider, but a tiny boy who depends on us for everything (whether or not he cares to agree with this.)

And so I fell into my community, I allowed them to care for my family. We accepted help from all sides and I tried to push away the guilt and shame.

I realised, this time, that pride had crept in over the months and years of relative wellness. I speak of struggle in the past tense, I am a “new me” now.

Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that I still need the grace I encourage others to share.

That I experience more freedom is no small amount of work – but it is also the way of the waves – that they have been ridden and not overwhelmed me.

So I write because I believe in honesty, in fighting the stigma (even if today it exists only in my own mind) and in a God who does His most beautiful work in our weakness.

 

Motherhood: The Brutality and the Beauty

The pain.

The first look.

The exhaustion.

The first smile.

The relentlessness.

The revelation.

The brutality.

The beauty.

The mystery.

Ten months in, motherhood remains a mystery.

It’s a thousand mundane moments punctured with moments so full of wonder that they steal your breath away.

As much as I expected a lot of it; the tiredness, the love, the mum guilt. I could not have conceived of the way my emotions swing from exasperation to joy and back again within the space of five minutes; or how I can be desperate for space one minute to desperate for him to wake up so I get to give him a cuddle the next.

Rollercoaster doesn’t cut it.

But gratitude and grace do.

Gratitude for the baby I prayed for.

Grace for the difficult days when the baby screams and I don’t know why.

Gratitude for health, when I feared my son’s tiny lungs would forever struggle.

Grace for the long nights of teething, croup and colds.

Gratitude for the life I live, the God I serve and the family and friends who provide company, support and sanity after sleepless nights.

Gratitude for all that has passed – the beauty and the brutality. Grace for all that is to come.

 

 

 

Speak of Suicide and Speak Hope #WSPD2019

“You aren’t going to do anything silly, are you?”

“Can you promise you won’t do anything stupid?”

A member of staff at my secondary school asked me these questions countless times during my sixth form years.

They weren’t talking about me bunking off lessons, getting into trouble or talking back; they were talking about suicide and self-harm.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people – it’s not silly or stupid – it’s despair.

And when those thoughts and feelings were branded stupid and silly – I heard that I myself was stupid and silly.

The language we use when we’re talking about suicide matters.

Phrases such as “committed suicide” hark back to when suicide was a criminal offence; whilst those like I was faced with fail to recognise the distress and torment that self-harm and suicidal thoughts wreak through someone’s mind and life.

It was over a decade ago, and I hope and pray that no-one struggling with thoughts of suicide and self-harm is met with such language, because the fight for life from those depths is hard enough as it is, without the stigma that can stalk it.

Every year, when the 10th September arrives I’m filled with a mixture of the heaviest grief and a flaming hope that thing can change.

Because my experiences with suicide when I was younger, even though I survived them, have marked my heart. And those marks on my heart fan the flame of hope – because I believe that light does win – that suicide is preventable.

I can speak of hope alongside speaking of suicide because I live with suicide as a part of my story and hope as my daily reality.

If there is someone in your life who is struggling, let your words spark hope rather than cause spirals of despair.

Think about the language you’re using, listen to their story before you rush in with answers and imagine with them what the future can look like and hold their hand as you point to it.

The people who made the most difference in my life during those darkest of times, were the ones who believed in a future for me that I could not conceive of. They were persistent in their belief that hope was real, that there was a life for me to live and yet they allowed me to voice the hardest of words.

It is no exaggeration to say that I would not be here without them and the hope they pointed to.

The hope they pointed to was not an abstract “things will get better”, but rooted the One who walked to His own death for our sakes.

That Jesus’ took on our despair and sin, died on the cross and walked out of the grave with His scars remaining, that’s the hope I looked to through my tears.

It’s the hope I live for today.

That we are saved by a Creator God who willingly gave Himself for us, to endure the worst of humanity so that we may experience the glorious closeness of Him.

That we can speak of hope, on a day which highlights despair, is the work of the One who marked the night’s sky with stars and the Saviour’s hands with scars.

 

 

 

Where is the Wonder?


“Wonder blasts the soul – that is, the spiritual – and the skeleton, the body – the material. Wonder interprets life through the eyes of eternity while enjoying the moment, but never lets the moment’s revision exhaust the eternal.” 
Ravi Zacharias

There is no doubt about it, going on holiday with a baby is less relaxing. It was enormous fun and refreshing in the way a change of scenery (and that fact that we outnumbered the baby 3:1)  but I probably came home tireder than when I went (due to sharing a room with said teething baby who appreciated sharing a room with us as much as we did!)

I kind of expected this, but what I didn’t expect was to come home energised by something else.

Wonder. 

It’s perhaps something we miss a lot in the everyday humdrum of life. Perhaps we don’t feel there is a lot of wonder to behold in our own lives; the grind of the 9-5, relentlessness of caring for a relative or struggling with chronic illness. I know it’s hard to find wonder after a day of changing nappies, comforting a teething baby and trying to slot work in and around somewhat unpredictable naps.

But whilst I might struggle to see wonder in the world, my son certainly doesn’t.

Each time he experiences something new, the expression on his face shows us his wonder at the world.

When he first saw the wide expanse of the sea, his mouth dropped open.

When he first felt sea water between his toes, his smile widened into a grin and his infectious laugh broke forth like the waves.

Every time he sees a window or mirror in which he can glimpse his own reflection, he is captivated by it.

And the excitement the discovery of his own shadow produced was quite something!

For him, wonder is to be found every day – but as grown-ups we’re lucky to find wonder every month!

And yet there is still so much wonder to be had in the every day, in the ordinary – because all the world and all the people in it are creations of the God of all wonders.

The gospels record people’s reactions of wonder at Jesus’ miracles; from him calming the storm to raising Jarius’ daughter from the dead, but it is not only miracles that are the wondrous work of God.

It’s easy to feel wonder when God does some out of the ordinary; more of a challenge to find wonder in the work of the Creator every day.

Wonder in the intricate workings of the human body which keeps our hearts beating, wonder in the family we have, wonder in the foods we can consume.

And even in the darkest of times, I’m reminded again that wonder can be found when we look to Jesus. Jesus who left the wonder of heaven for our sakes.

As C.S Lewis writes in the first installment of the Chronicles of Narnia:

“Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself. “My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”

When we don’t feel able to look at the world with childlike wonder – we can look to the one of all wonder and hope and rest assured that wonder can be found in Him.