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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.

 

 

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.

 

We Need to Talk About Race – Book Review

If I was pushed to describe this book in two words it would be uncomfortable and hopeful and the challenge of the book can be summed up by the words of Augustine which are quoted:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

I felt uncomfortable as I read, mainly because my own conscience was pricked. I have been guilty of believing that as a mixed race woman, I wasn’t complicit in racism, but what Ben does so beautifully in this book is confront false beliefs whilst pointing to the way forward full of hope. The way forward is based not on tokenism or shows of diversity; but the kind of radical inclusion that Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry.

This has to begin with a recognition of how the church has been complicit not only in historic racism, but in perpetuating oppression; through whitewashing of biblical characters (spoiler – Jesus was middle eastern and therefore not white!) and conforming christianity to white culture, rather than allowing it to be a diverse, inclusive movement.

He also highlights and explains the difficulties many black christians face within white majority or white led churches:

“The paradox for some black people is this: loving Jesus and understanding his amazing grace is one thing; loving the church, with its complicated racial history can be problematic.”

How can church be a safe place when it’s been so complicit in causing pain?

The best parts of “We Need to Talk About Race” are those which present how we can best serve those in minority communities – from ensuring that our leadership reflects our desire for inclusiveness (rather than having a token minority to salve our consciences), to not expecting people to leave their own cultures at the door and conform to how ‘we’ do church.

As the church, we must challenge racism in our pews and communities, because if we remain silent, we are perpetuating injustice that has been present for hundreds of years.

We have a lot of work to do, and Ben’s book is a brilliant starting point and manifesto should be on your summer reading list.

We Need To Talk About Race is published on the 18th July.

 

 

The Man I Pray You’ll Be – Reflections on Martin Saunders’ “The Man You’re Made to Be”

I’m trying to imagine the world that my son will be living in by the time he’s old enough to read a book like “The Man You’re Made to Be”. It’s probably very different to the one he’s been born in. I hope that Brexit is no longer in the news in 2024! 

I often wonder who my little boy will grow up to be; I can already see that he is funny and cheeky and often hungry, but I hope many things for him, many of which are reflected in Martin’s brilliant book. 

I hope that he grows to put his hope and trust in the Lord; that he will put God first even when times are difficult. I pray that he knows he is loved; by God, by his Dad and I, by our wider family and friends. 

When I was pregnant, the thing I prayed for the most is that he will be kind. We are so often told that we can and should be anything, and I don’t mind what career path (or paths) he chooses, but I pray that he will be known for his kindness. The Bible talks many times about God’s hesed, His loving kindness and I pray that as he grows to know God, he grows in kindness. 

I hope that by the time he’s grown, there will be no stigma around mental illness (and that I will then have found a new job to do if that is the case!) I hope that he knows there is nothing shameful about expressions of emotion; of tears and frustration and shouts of joy, but that these emotions can be expressed healthily or unhealthily – with any luck we’ll model some of the healthy expressions, but I know that if he looks to Jesus he will find a clear picture of how we can cope with our feelings. As Martin writes:

“In a culture of bottled up male emotions, Jesus is a breath of fresh air: a blue print for a healthier kind of masculinity.”

I hope that my little boy will know how incredible our bodies are and that will inform how he treats his own body and how he treats everyone else. That he will use what power he has to encourage and build people up, rather than tear them down. 

I would love him to know the joy of books and reading, his Dad would probably like him to love cycling (I’m ambivalent about that one!) 

I hope that he has friends who bring out the best of one another; that they will go on adventures together, have fun and be able to rely upon one another in harder times. 

And I’d like to echo the final words of Martin’s:

“I pray that you will be able to draw your identity as a man not from past experiences, genetics or decisions you’ve made, but from the unswerving know­ ledge that you were handmade by a God who says to you, day after day, and minute after minute of your life: I love you man.”

Martin Saunders is the Deputy CEO of Youthscape and you can buy his book from the Youthscape store exclusively for one week before general publication!

Motherhood and Mental Illness

They are the strangest and most uncomfortable bedfellows. For some; motherhood heralds the beginning of mental health struggles, for some an improvement and for others motherhood entangles itself in a pre-existing mental health condition.

For me, my mental health was the best it’s been since I was thirteen. Pregnancy seemed to soothe the anxious waters of my mind and, despite a traumatic birth and my son arriving with a chest infection, the calm and contentment continued.

Motherhood is everything I hoped, quite a bit like I expected but more demanding than I could have imagined. My son has so far been what some might call “an easy baby”; we escaped the newborn phase without colic and he generally eats, poops and sleeps as one might expect.

What I’ve discovered however, is that an “easy” baby doesn’t mean that parenting is easy!

There are shades of difficulty; I for example was an objectively difficult baby for my poor parents (I didn’t sleep through the night until I was nine), others seem to breeze through babyhood as if they got an instruction manual in utero. Most are somewhere toward the middle of the spectrum, but wherever on that spectrum you find yourself in, there is the uncertainty, less sleep, recovery from a child’s arrival (however that happens) and general “winging it”!

For my little family, learning to navigate parenthood alongside pre-existing depression and anxiety has been the steepest of learning curves. For whilst I’ve been better than I can remember over the past year, I constantly feel as if I’m walking a tightrope. I want to be the best Mum I can be – but I don’t want to get unwell.

The things I have done for the last decade to manage my conditions are exponentially harder with a baby. You can’t be a freelance Mum, for starters! Whilst I would usually protect my sleep at all costs to prevent my mind going into free fall, it’s almost impossible to ensure a solid nine hours a night every night, but I am beginning to navigate this new normal.

And my new normal wouldn’t be possible without my village – not my actual village, although I do live in one, – but the people who step in and step up.

A few weeks back, I found myself stumbling (I’m mixing my metaphors quite spectacularly, aren’t I?!) I started to sleep less, laying awake for hours after getting up to do a night feed. My mind began to spin with anxiety and I felt shame shroud me like a dementor’s cloak.

And then the tears started to fall.

This is a well worn path for, a scarily predictable descent into what we euphemism as “a dip”.

Usually, I would hide; cry and sleep for a couple of days and re-emerge slowly into the world when I felt stronger.

Instead, I had a six month old baby who needed me to feed, play and care for him.

The curious thing is, that this responsibility made the situation simultaneously harder and easier.

Harder because when I could barely think straight, I had to think on behalf of a helpless baby. But it also made me take care of myself and take action in a way I don’t think I’ve been able to before. I rang my husband, we arranged for my best friend to take my son for a day long play date so I could get some rest, and I took a break from trying to be both full time Mum and full time freelancer, working out a new rhythm that wouldn’t completely exhaust me.

Motherhood and mental illness are the strangest and most uncomfortable bedfellows, but they can and do co-exist.

The bright side, if there is one, is that it has already taught me that taking care of myself is not an optional extra of parenthood – but vital. It doesn’t mean candles and massages (although I do quite like the both) but getting enough rest, food, exercise and fresh air. It means allowing people to help out without feeling guilty and being honest about how I’m coping.

For some, mental illness is a far more disruptive and difficult bedfellow, but taking care and being taken care of are universal needs- even for those without any mental health conditions!