A Life Less Ordinary

“Hospitality seeks to turn strangers into friends.” (p.59.)

The latest Covid jargon in the UK is the ‘roadmap to recovery.’ This means that after a year (on-and-off) of not being allowed to see our friends or family, especially not indoors, we are relearning how to talk to people and make them cups of tea. I had a friend over last week to sit in the garden and neither of us could remember how to string a sentence together. So let’s just say we might be rusty, but it’s also an optimistic time as we begin to make tentative plans.

Wherever you are in the world, as things begin to open up again I wonder if you feel excited, nervous or a bit reluctant. There’s a whole spectrum of people in this world and I don’t assume that everyone is purely delighted by the prospect of filling up the calendar again with social engagements, big or small.

But this past year God has given us a chance to reflect on what we miss and what we don’t miss; what we want to reintroduce and what we’re happy to ditch. Perhaps we’ve realised that our lives were full of after-school clubs or that we watched too much TV. Maybe we’ve realised we were filling up our time with too much socialising and not allowing enough time to pray, reflect and daydream.

I feel like this could be a turning point. It’s an unprecedented opportunity to reassess our priorities. One thing we really should do as we fill up our (real or mental) diaries again (it’s going to happen, friends) is to think about God’s priorities for us. And for that, we need to look at what his word tells us. One thing we are commanded to be, as God’s children, is hospitable.

If you’re thinking that hospitality is for some people and not others, I’m here to break it to you that we’re commanded to show hospitality repeatedly in the New Testament and God doesn’t give any exceptions (see below for a few examples*). But this is a good thing! Just think how hospitable God has been to us. And now we get to follow Christ’s example and find out what real life is in store for us when we do.

You might be wondering how Christ has shown hospitality. Didn’t he usually go to other people’s houses for dinner? He didn’t even have his own house! That’s where we need to learn what hospitality really is. I’ve just read a book all about it and I’d love to recommend it to you. It’s called “Extraordinary Hospitality (for ordinary people)” by Carolyn Lacey. In the book she outlines seven characteristics of hospitality: generosity, compassion, humility, persistence, awareness (of people’s needs), inclusivity and sacrifice. When you look at these, it’s clear to see that our Lord Jesus has shown us hospitality in spades.

There are all kinds of pressures on our time, so that if we want to prioritise the right things, we will have to make a conscious effort. If we just ‘go with the flow,’ we’ll find our days full before we’ve had chance to do any sort of discernment. The people who have blessed me most in my life with their hospitality are people who make conscious choices to do less structured things and allow more time for humble cups of tea and spontaneous dinner guests. It didn’t happen by default: they made it happen.

This is not a book (just) for people who can cook or who have their own home or a big table or who have the gift of hospitality. Although it would be a blessing to those people too. It’s not intimidating, judgemental or burdensome. It’s short, gentle and practical. And she includes some great stories.**

We’ve all (I hope) been on the receiving end of hospitality. The welcome as you walk into a gathering, the meal dropped off when you’ve just had a baby, the invite for a coffee and a chat. I remember visiting the homes of hospitable women decades later, long after they’ve forgotten I was ever there. Hospitality is powerful. I’d love to learn how to be more like Jesus in this way.

A wise friend of mine gave a talk for the women at at our church about hospitality and she described hospitality as ‘moving towards people.’ As social distancing eases, do you think you can move towards people, for Jesus’ sake? I hope so.

“As we sacrifice our time, energy, resources and comfort in order to welcome other, we can be confident that Jesus will reward us abundantly.” p. 121.

(P.S. At no point in this book does Carolyn Lacey tell you to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning. Just saying. But if that’s your thing, please carry on and God bless you!)

*Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. (Romans 12:13); Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2);
Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:9)

**I’m not paid for this (or any other blog post I ever write) but I was sent a review copy of this book. I only recommend books I really like.

Two Sisters

“…and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

This is a story about two sisters. One of them is me; the other is Ta.*

We were born twelve days apart in 1982 on opposite sides of the globe: she in Laos; I in Stockton-on-Tees. We each had an older brother, born in ’79.

Other than our genders, birthdays and our family head-counts, we had pretty much nothing in common. We would probably never meet.

My parents were English working-class, which for them meant they were hard-working and didn’t waste anything. Ta’s parents were also working-class, which meant they would buy and sell anything they could get their hands on. 

In 1988, aged 5, I moved from an industrial town to a village, 13 miles away. In 1989, Ta’s family fled the civil war in Laos and arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand. I don’t know what that was like. How could I? My greatest concern in 1989 was what colour my new bike would be. 

Later that year, when I was going into Top Infants, Ta and her brother and mum moved to England. While Ta was getting used to the cold weather and the sea of white faces with big noses, I was rollerskating round my village without a care in the world. 

This is hard to write, but tragedy struck Ta’s family when her dear brother lost his life to Leukaemia. This is a weight of grief and loss that I am yet to experience. 

But God was with Ta. 

This is where our roles, in some ways, flip. Ta was able to attend a highly prestigious public school** in Oxfordshire. Here she worked extremely hard, became an excellent violinist and got a place at a top university to study medicine. 

Meanwhile, I was at my local comp, an average violinist, but also working hard and getting a place at a coveted university – to study English. 

Aged 18, I heard about Jesus from my brother.  I’d heard of Jesus before, naturally, but I didn’t know the gospel. During ‘upper sixth’ (Year 13), the Lord, against all odds, saved me. Full of mercy, he opened my eyes to the truth that I desperately needed a saviour, the Lord Jesus. 

The following year, Ta started university and made friends with some Christians. She also became a very strong rower. Over the course of that year, she too was saved by God’s amazing grace. 

Now, although we’d never met, we had become members of one body. We had become sisters in Christ. 

It was at our different universities, where I felt very northern and Ta felt very foreign, that we met the Civil Engineers, born in the same hospital in Kent, who were soon to become our husbands.  Both men were brought up in sheltered Christian homes, both musically talented, both the kind of men who throw children up in the air just-that-little-bit-too-high but who always catch them. These men had never met each other, but they could easily become friends. 

In 2008 when Ta and I met, she was engaged to be married and I’d been married for two years. One of us was a white, northern teacher who was educated in politics by Randy Newman and history by Billy Joel. The other was a middle-class girl who sounds English but looks East Asian and who’s never heard of Genesis (the band, not the book). She was sporty, musical and was about to gain a PhD. We met at a new church plant on a council estate, where neither of us was in our comfort zones but both of us just wanted to help out. 

This is where Jesus began to grow us together as dear, dear friends. Slowly but surely, we came to form a friendship which goes beyond birthplace, background or education. Together we grew up, becoming more like Jesus amidst the mess of this fallen world and our own repentance and faith. We’ve shared disappointments, successes and major life events.

In 2012, on the day my brother telephoned to tell me that his brain scan had shown a benign brain tumour, it was Ta that I went to visit. She listened to me, shocked and anxious and incoherent as I was. Ta has shown me, through this and other crises, that sometimes it’s OK not to know what to say. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to try to cheer a person up. She’s taught me how to share in sorrows, as well as joys. 

We’ve seen friends come and go, as is the nature of city life.
We’ve seen friends walk away from the faith and others be saved. 
We’ve prayed for friends together when neither of us new what to say or do. 

Together we’ve been raising seven children to love and follow the Lord Jesus. We’ve struggled through sleepless nights, toddler bibles and discipline. We’ve sat together at baptisms, Colin Buchanan concerts and parenting seminars. We’ve been on holiday together, we’ve been to my parents’ together and lately we’ve just about survived Zoom church together. 

Ta has taught me how to listen. She’s tried to teach me how to make sourdough. She’s taught me how to welcome people. She’s taught me how to persevere. She’s been gracious. She’s made me laugh.

And today, as I write this, Ta and her family are moving house. They’re moving to look after her parents, since her culture and her faith have taught her to respect and care for them. Next week her family will say goodbye to our church family. 

For over 12 years, we’ve been family. This is longer than I spent in compulsory education. And I could argue that I’ve grown up more in the past 12 years than I did with my beloved school friends. 

As we say goodbye, I hope that we’ll always be friends, just as we’ll always be sisters. But I’ll miss seeing her week-in, week-out and being able to pop round for kids’ tea. And our husbands, who did indeed become close friends, will miss each other, too.

Because of Christ and his powerful Spirit, it’s very hard for me to say goodbye to this girl from Laos. It would have seemed impossible to 5 year-old-me, or even 15-year-old me, that a Public School girl from Oxfordshire could mean so much to me. But Jesus does the impossible. 

And I will try to trust that Christ, the best of friends, who has brought me safe thus far, still has good things in store for me. 

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:9-10.

*Ta is pronounced “Da” and rhymes with car. I’ve seen Ta have to explain this over and over again at parties, poor woman.

**In England, a public school is an old, very prestigious fee-paying school. A ‘comp’ is a comprehensive state school. ‘Comprehensive’ means non-selective – i.e. anyone is welcome!

Sing!

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Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;

    it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
    make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
    play skilfully, and shout for joy.

For the word of the Lord is right and true;
    he is faithful in all he does.
The Lord loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of his unfailing love. Psalm 33:1-5

When did you last belt out a song to the Lord?

In God’s word the people of God are commanded over and over again to sing praises to our God.  Why? Does he need it? Of course not. We need it.

But since your church stopped gathering, have you still been singing?

It’s easy for me to say. I grew up with a Dad who was forever singing. Singing was just the usual background noise. I only really realised this when I got to university and met Andy, who was to become a brother to me in those years. Someone said to me once, “Have you noticed that Andy’s always singing?” I said, “No, like when?” She said, “Well he’s singing right now.” No, I hadn’t noticed, because I was used to it.

Then I married Mike, who comes from a household of singers (i.e. people who sing) and who was to become a worship leader. So we are a family who will put on worship music and sing along any day of the week. On a Sunday morning in Lockdown we will stand in our living room together and sing our hearts out. The Oompa Loompas who live next door watch us through the window as though we’re mad.

Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
    extol him who rides on the clouds[b];
    rejoice before him – his name is the Lord. Psalm 68:4

But even with all this habitual singing, I’ve also been commanding myself to sing.  Because even though we’ll sing for no good reason, actually as Christians we always have good reasons to sing. Every day we have a God who is worthy of praise. Every day our hearts are tempted to grow cold to this God. Every day the world, the flesh and Satan are trying to get us to worship something else.

So when you’re fed up, I mean really fed up of the same parks, the same bike rides, the same four walls, the same arguments about school work and the same uncertainty about when you will ever see your relatives again, sing. I will say it again, sing!

Sing the gospel. Sing of your God. Sing of all his mighty works. Sing of all he’s done for you. Sing to yourself. Sing to your children. Sing to your God. Sing with the angels in heaven. If Paul and Silas could sing in prison, then I can sing in Lockdown.

And it’s never been easier to get hold of worship music to sing along to. Remember when we had to buy CD’s? We can thank God for providing Youtube, Spotify and all those other ones young people use.

If you’re lacking strength for today, sing. If you’re lacking hope for tomorrow, sing. It’s so good for you. Even the world is now realising how good it is to sing. Schools who no longer sing hymns are having singing assemblies where they sing rousing secular hymns from Hollywood blockbusters. (I mentioned this here, too.) But praise the Lord! He’s put a better song in our mouths.

Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people;
    praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
    but his favour lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
    but rejoicing comes in the morning. Psalm 30:3-5

 

Dear Gail Porter

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Since watching the recent BBC documentary, Being Gail Porter, I’ve felt compelled to write a response.  Following the tragic death of Caroline Flack last weekend, I can’t help but see the similarities between these two women. Both were children’s TV presenters who went on to host hugely successful mainstream TV shows. Both suffered at the hands of the media and were left with severe mental health issues. Both were idolised and derided.  Thankfully, Gail is still with us, but it could so easily have not been so.

Here are some simple thoughts, in the form of an open letter.

Dear Gail,

I watched your fascinating and moving documentary. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I was a teen of the nineties, so your Top of the Pops years were my Top of the Pops years, too. Watching the clips of your time on the show was like flicking through a photo album of my formative years.

I’m not a psychologist or a medic or a counsellor of any kind. I don’t claim to have a useful diagnosis for you and I won’t be recommending any self-help books that I think will give you the answers you need. But if you were my friend (and I do have friends who share various things in common with you), this is what I would love to say.

I firstly wanted to say how sorry I am. I’m sorry for all the ways you’ve been hurt and let down. The clip from Never Mind the Buzzcocks was hard to watch, and I’m sure it was just a taste of all you’ve experienced. I’m sorry that our society is such a dangerous place.

You seemed like you were searching for answers – what had happened to you? Where had it all gone wrong and why? I don’t know you – we’ve never met – but I can tell you what I believe to be true.

The Bible says that we’re made in God’s image – each and every one of us. That means we’re hugely valuable and very precious. We’re made for relationships, first and foremost with Him, our creator. We’re made for freedom, for joy, for good works and for love. We have a purpose; that purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. God’s word says that there are good works which he planned in advance for us to do. So when we’re lonely or we feel unloved or lost, it’s often because something’s gone very wrong with the relationship between God and the people he’s made. Living my own way, I might feel free at first; I might have a right-rollicking good time. But like a fish out of water, I’m soon left floundering and gasping for oxygen.

The trouble is, God seeks our good – but people are not like that. People take advantage of us and treat us harshly.  In the hands of others, rather than God, we can be elevated and then crushed. We can be flattered and then mocked. We can be bolstered and then betrayed. We can be admired and then shamed. People hurt us. There’s no doubt that you have been catastrophically failed by those around you and by our culture at large. If we truly are made to be loved and to love, then it’s no wonder that you’ve suffered such mental health problems as a result of all that’s happened to you. If we’re just mammals; if sex is just fun; if my body is just flesh and bones, then why does it hurt so much?

“I just wish I was a better person.” You said this in the film when you were feeling very low after attending an event in Westminster.  I don’t know exactly that you meant at the time, or if you often feel like that, but I think it’s a feeling most people have. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t and said things we feel guilty about. I think most of us have felt truly ashamed at times. I know I have, and still do. I definitely wish I were a better person!

But I’ve found hope. Jesus humbles me and then lifts me up. He does the opposite of the tabloids (who are, of course, acting on behalf of the people who read them). He’s the antithesis of social media. Jesus tells me that I’m much worse than I think I am. Then he offers me real hope because I’m also more loved than I’ve ever deserved or even imagined. In Jesus I have a friend who’ll never betray me, who’ll never break his promises and who’ll always protect me. One of the ways that he loves me best is by reminding me that he is the King at the centre of the universe. This is so liberating.

Jesus covers my shame. In the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), Adam and Eve brought shame upon themselves by disobeying God’s perfect rule. They immediately felt ashamed because they were naked, so they tried to hide. Ever since then, every human being has brought shame upon themselves by following in Adam and Eve’s footsteps. If we don’t feel shame, we really are in trouble because the truth is we do stand naked before God and he sees it all. But in the Garden, even as God was judging Adam and Eve, he clothed them.

He covered their nakedness. This was a sign that one day he would remove their shame by clothing them with perfection. Jesus came to live the beautiful life that none of us has been able to live. He came to be the “better person” that none of us can be. And if we trust in him, he clothes us with his “righteousness,” which is Bible-speak for a life perfectly lived. It’s a clean, pure, no-regrets and full-of-joy life. It’s our own Wikipedia page deleted and replaced with a perfect track record – the life we should have lived. This is what Jesus offers us.

I believe that God would take your pain and heal you; he would take your shame and clothe you, he would take your loneliness and love you; he would take your emptiness and fill you. All you have to do is turn to him, say sorry, and ask. 

One more thing. At the end of the documentary we saw you singing in a choir. I hope that’s been beneficial to your mental health, as you hoped it would be. I’m sure you know this, but it’s worth being reminded that every single week there is a free place you can go to where you can sing your heart out alongside a community of broken-but-healing friends. They sing from a Book which reminds them to sing because it’s so good for the soul – and because it pleases their Father in Heaven.

But let all who take refuge in you be glad;
    let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
    that those who love your name may rejoice in you.

 Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;
    you surround them with your favour as with a shield.
Psalm 5:11-12

Instead of your shame
    you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
    you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
    and everlasting joy will be yours.
Isaiah 61.7

Free Refreshments, Anyone?

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“…encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.”

How do you feel about words? Do you remember things people have said to you?

I used to be able to remember the exact words people had said, and find it odd that others couldn’t. They’d be telling a story and I’d think, ‘that’s not how they said it! Why the paraphrasing?’ Now I feel increasingly frustrated that my memory isn’t what it used to be. I don’t know if it’s just natural as you get older, but I think there might be four other contributing factors living in my house, who have given me ten years of broken sleep.

But I do still remember things people have said to me, if not verbatim. I put both my husband and my brother on edge when I start a sentence with, “I remember you said once…” because it’s usually something they neither remember saying nor still agree with. On the plus side, at least they know I listen!

The other day I found a Thank You card someone had sent me in 2014 after a camp we were on together. As I read it I realised that I had remembered, 5 years on, an exact phrase from the card which had encouraged me, and treasured it in my heart. It wasn’t anything spectacular – in fact, if you’re interested, it was that she appreciated our “down-to-earthness” – but I’d hung on to it nevertheless.

This got me thinking that we underestimate how much adults need and appreciate encouragement. We know that children need to be affirmed. Teachers in school know to praise good behaviour much more than they rebuke the bad. If you’ve read any parenting books or online articles you’ll have been told to do the same with your own children. I wrote a blog post years ago about this which I still recommend!

It’s true that children love to be praised, especially for specific things. So not just “oh aren’t you clever!” which can sound a bit false, but “I’ve noticed that your handwriting is really improving, you’ve clearly been working hard on it. Well done!” And if we can affirm character traits in our children, then all the better. “You’ve been so kind at sharing your Christmas chocolate with people,” and even, “that reminds me of how God shares all the good things in our lives with us.” Children love this and it’s really effective, but when do we think we grow out of our thirst for encouragement?

I’m not convinced we ever do.

I mean, honestly, which of us would not be thrilled if tomorrow a friend gave us a sincere, specific word of affirmation and then shared how it reminded them in some way of what God is like? Or it showed them how God has been working in us?

I think this is a wonderful way to be a blessing to our church family and wider community. And it doesn’t cost a thing! Plus, the more you do it the more it will become a good habit. Here are some examples of ways you could bless people with your words:

  • If you have people in your church who have been serving in the same way for years, now is the time to thank them. They’re the least likely people to be thanked or encouraged for what they do. The longer someone serves, the more they’re taken for granted.
  • If you take one encouragement from the Sunday sermon, go up to your pastor and tell him it. Don’t assume he knows!
  • If you have a visiting preacher at your church, email him the following day to thank him for coming and give him a couple of things you found encouraging from his talk.
  • If there’s something you really like about your children’s teacher, why not tell them?
  • Try not to let people squirm out of your encouragements. Imagine you’re passing them a gift and they’re trying to give it back or drop it. Just keep handing it back to them. Look them in the eye and say, “I’m trying to encourage you, please don’t shrug it off.” Or something like that! “Shut up and listen to me” might also work.
  • You could send encouragements via text or – better still – a postcard popped in the post. This is a different way of doing it and may be a good place to start if you feel nervous about doing it face to face.

You might read this and think, “I’m not that kind of person.” The truth is that I’m not either. You don’t have to pretend to be someone else in order to encourage others. You need to do it in your own way, but the sad truth is that hardly anyone is “that kind of person.” As a result, people around us are starving for words of affirmation.

Also, I would argue that we do all know how to praise and encourage. We love to tell people how good a particular film or book is, or even the reasons why we love a certain person. But why don’t we say those things to the person directly? I know it’s not British. But godliness isn’t British, folks.

As with other gifts – hospitality, evangelism, giving – some people will be better at this than others. But that doesn’t leave the rest of us off. We should all be trying to encourage others. And you never know, you might find you’re better at it than you thought.

And you might even save someone’s life:

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. Hebrews 3:12-14.

Working Mum – Yikes!

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Happy New Year, beloved readers. As you think about the year ahead I don’t know if you feel that change is afoot, but for me 2019 was a year of change. Back in September I started a part-time job. Aside from some admin jobs I’ve done that worked around my children at home, this is the first time I’ve been in paid employment in nine years.

I’m working in a secondary school (high school), which of course is full of people. There are people aged 11 right up to nearly-retirement age. Hundred and hundreds of people. This is quite a contrast from my daily routine prior to working there. Looking after a three-year old, doing a lot of laundry, perhaps meeting up with a friend for a cuppa… this is in many ways quite a lonely season. I found it as such, anyway. I love spending time with my children, but the lack of structure and the lack of adult company was a challenge for me.

In contrast, a school must be one of the most structured places in society. Every minute of the day is accounted for. And if the timetable is accompanied by many rules which are strictly adhered to, then this adds to the feeling of – to me, anyway – a certain security. At work, I know where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m not free to choose. I’ve been told where to be and when. This, after 9 years of wondering what the best use of my day would be, is a welcome relief.

You might think I’m mad. Some people hate structure. However, I notice that the routines and the rules do make most of the students feel safe. So I don’t think I’m too weird!  So anyway, here are some observations based on my transition from Stay-at-Home-Mum-of-Four to Working-Mum-of-Four:

  • The hardest thing about starting a new job has been that nobody knows me. It’s such a drag. Not that I don’t know them (although that’s something I’d like to remedy), but that they don’t know me. It’s a very lonely feeling. This got me thinking – how many people live in our neighbourhoods who don’t feel that anyone knows them? It’s a horrible feeling. And to be a Christian is to be truly known by the one who made you. (Psalm 139:1) What a wonderful truth. I’ve never really appreciated it properly before, and I’m so thankful to God that he knows me. I wonder who I could get to know better in the coming months – maybe in my church or on my street.
  • The years at home are short. If you’re working part-time or having given up paid work completely to be at home with your children, I know it can feel like a very long time. Looking at leaves, counting aeroplanes and playing the shopping list game again can really slow down time. But having come through that season (sort of), I can assure you that it is not long at all.  It means everything to our children – it’s all they’ve known so far – and they’ll benefit for the rest of their lives.  But to you, it’s one line on your CV that can be explained to a colleague in one short sentence. (Don’t expect them to ask you any details, either.) And just thinking pragmatically – there are, Lord willing, many years left to be ‘at work.’ This week a boy at work asked me how long I thought I’d work at his school. I said it could be for another thirty years – and by then he will be in his forties, perhaps sending his own children to secondary school. So what’s five or ten years in the grand scheme of things?
  • Anything new is very tiring. You’ve got new people to process, new systems to get your head around, and you might need to adjust many other things in your life to compensate. (E.g. you might have to spend your evenings, rather than your afternoons, making Ziggy Stardust costumes – or is that just me?) So cut yourself some slack. Try not to fill the diary. And get to bed early!

Mum(?)

I’m writing this one from glorious Cornwall. That’s me and my son, crabbing.

I recently watched the award-winning British comedy series Mum on BBC iPlayer. Some bits made me cringe and some scenes I didn’t even watch. But it had moments of genius. There’s a magnificent conversation about tolerance in the final episode (“I can’t stand intolerant people”), and the observational humour is at times just really, really clever. I mean, really.

I’m not here to write a review of Mum, but it did get me thinking about our society’s confusion about motherhood. In each half-hour episode, the central character, Mary (Mum) is the steady, gravitational force around which all other characters orbit. She feeds them; she listens to them; she provides them with safe shelter. There are a lot of things going on in the programme, but this is certainly one running theme.

In real life, we all want someone to be that person for us. We all need food, safety and shelter. We all need someone to listen to us. In the church community, we hopefully have several “mums” (and “dads”) who serve us in this way. This is one major way by which The Lord provides for us.

We all want this, but it’s much easier to be on the receiving end of it than to be the one giving it. Jesus said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” He said that “whoever wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” We believe these words, but boy do we need to be reminded of them. How many of us were looking forward to a nice rest this summer? To putting our feet up? How many of us were disgruntled to discover that our summer holiday actually involves more work, more service, more providing-for-others?

Spoiler alert!

It saddened me that in the final episode of Mum, the take-home message seemed to be that Mary needed to put herself first for once. All this time she’d been serving everyone else, and biting her tongue, and putting other people’s feelings before her own. But finally she became enlightened to the truth that she was entering a new season of life – one in which she could walk away from those who needed her and just enjoy herself.

This is where I think our society is confused. We want to celebrate mothers (and other servant-hearted people, or “local heroes”) and the strong communities they gather. We well up at the memories of all the home-cooked meals and steady, reliable sanctuaries we’ve benefitted from. But we also tell each other to look after number one, follow our hearts and make happiness our goal.

Of course, the irony is that Jesus is so right, and as our creator he does actually want to bless us! When we put the needs of others first, we find blessing. When we serve one another, we find real, joyful community. When we look to the needs of others, we find that we’re all provided for.

So I’m not having a go at Mum, as it really is very well done and it is an astonishingly accurate reflection of the culture it’s reflecting. I envy the writer! And I wouldn’t even say not to watch the final episode, because you’d miss the bit about tolerance. But this summer if you’re feeling a bit ragged and sorry for yourself, as we’re all prone to do, let’s repent together and thank Jesus for giving us people to serve and love. What a mind-blowing privilege it is that one day, Lord willing, they might look back and thank Him for the ways we served them.

Dear Ministry Wife

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Last week someone said to me, “Oh!  You’re the blogger.”  And it occurred to me that if I’m going to claim to be a blogger, I should probably sometimes write on my blog.  So I’m back!

This post is addressed to my Minister’s Wife, my Ministry Wife friends, and any other Ministry Wives that may stumble upon this.  And if you’re not a ministry wife, please read this as it may help you to thank God for any that you know.  You could even share it with them! 🙂

Dear Ministry Wife,

Thank you for giving your husband to your church – or the organisation he works for.  Thank you for all the evenings when he’s spending time with other people, and not you (or your children).  Thank you for not resenting this.  The Lord sees you, and he’s got your reward ready and waiting.

Thank you for giving up the hopes and dreams you may have once had, to own a home, to decorate your home a certain way, to travel to certain parts of the world, or maybe to eat in certain restaurants.  Maybe your husband left a lucrative job to do the job he has now.  Maybe you just know that he could be earning much more doing something else.  Thank you for storing up your treasure in heaven.  Thank you that we benefit from that because he’s invested so much in our lives, and we, in turn, are learning to store up our treasure in heaven, too.

Thank you for all of the times we’ve used your home as our home.  Thank you for the Bible studies, the women’s breakfasts, the men’s breakfasts, the Christmas socials and all the other events that have happened in your living room.  Maybe you’d rather have been curled up with a book on your sofa.  Thank you for your hospitality.

Thank you for giving yourself to the ministry, too.  Thank you for all the prayers, the hugs, the listening, the counselling and the love.  You didn’t have to do that.  Thank you for following in your Master’s footsteps by becoming our servant.  Thank you for all the times you’ve done this without anyone noticing or saying thank you.

There’ll never be an International Ministry Wives Day.  (Actually, anything can happen but I’d be very surprised if that ever did!)  However, I hope you know that you’re loved and appreciated.  And I hope and pray that, above all else, you’ll delight in the Lord.  The Father first gave his One and Only Son for you.  The Son gave up the riches of heaven for you, and was willing to wander, homeless, in this dark and dangerous world for you.  He gave himself up for you, and for me.

We love because he first loved us. 1 John 4:19

Come on Over

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Did you have a wedding gift list?  Oh the joy.  It’s particularly satisfying if you haven’t got two pennies to rub together.  You get to go round a department store with one of those bar code guns (they’re probably not called guns) and scan to your heart’s content.  You choose plates and bowls and pots and pans, and look forward to all the entertaining you’re going to do when you have a home that’s just yours.  I remember hoping and praying that we’d have a really welcoming home, showing hospitality and blessing our community.

And this sort of happened.  I’ve certainly got better at it over the years.  And as I’ve learnt how to cook, and how to tidy up, I’ve also learnt that what really matters in hospitality is that you love people.  That can be costly, but not in a monetary sense.

We are, as Christians, commanded to be hospitable.  It’s one way we show God’s love to others.  Since God is love and we are his ambassadors, it’s pretty important that we show hospitality.  But you don’t have to take it from me:

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality. (Romans 12: 12-13)

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:8-9)

It seems from these verses that hospitality isn’t an optional extra, for those who are really good at cooking and into that sort of thing.  I don’t think, by the way, that you need your own home or your own kitchen or a dinner table to show hospitality, but since this is a parenting blog I’m assuming you do have somewhere to cook and eat food.

So going back to my enthusiasm as a newlywed – life has changed more than a little since then.  Life got busy.  My home got smaller, and the number of inhabitants got bigger.  Now when people come through the front door, they have to trample past my children’s bedroom door.  I can’t really expect them to come through the living room window (no… I really shouldn’t).

Plus, you know, I’m tired from feeding and looking after my children all day every day.  Doesn’t that count as hospitality?

No. It doesn’t.

I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad, but I’ve noticed something about hospitality.  We all find reasons not to do it.  We all seem to think that we would do it under more suitable circumstances.  When the children are older.  Once we move that wall.  When we get an oven*.  Once I’ve had big clear-out.  My home just isn’t welcoming enough. Nobody would enjoy coming here.

Can I suggest that we should all remember that we’re in a spiritual battle?  Since we’re commanded to be hospitable, we can be sure that the Lord will use it for his glory.  And therefore we can also expect that we’ll be tempted not to do it.  So let’s fight that battle, instead of just surrendering to the inconveniences.  It might be that you’ve had some hospitality disasters.  In fact, this is pretty likely.  But that’s OK.  We pick ourselves up and fight on.

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Also I’ve noticed that people on the receiving end of hospitality are rarely aware of our alleged shortcomings.  If you think your house is too dark or too messy or too small or too full, it’s unlikely that the person coming round for a cuppa will think so too.

I was amazed to hear from a friend recently that she’s never thought that my living room was not very conducive to hospitality.  I mean, really amazed.  It just shows that my perception of my home is not the same as my guests’. (My living room, by the way, has nine walls.)

I remember another friend saying to me, “I either need to keep my flat tidier, or lower my standards of how tidy it needs to be before I invite my neighbour in.” I think she put it better than that but hopefully you see the point.  If your house is too messy, then tidy it.  If you can’t tidy it, then invite people over anyway.

Maybe you think your own family will feel neglected if you have people over.  But let’s not underestimate how much our children will learn from seeing us love people, especially people who aren’t like us.

The Lord doesn’t make commands and then add, ‘when it’s convenient.’ He himself invites us to a feast – was it easy for him to make that happen?  Was it convenient for Jesus to leave his home in heaven to come down into our neighbourhood and invite us to his party? Were we grateful guests? Were we attractive guests? Did that stop him?

What a blessing we’ll be to our communities if we pray to God and ask him to help us to be more hospitable.  Maybe we need to pile everything into the kitchen sink before the school run so we’re able to invite someone in for a cuppa.  Maybe we could start by inviting someone for lunch after church.  Tinned soup and supermarket bread goes down a treat, in my experience.

Let’s not think that, if we’re parents, we’re exempt from showing hospitality.  It might be really hard for us, but the Lord sees that even if nobody else does.  And remember that if your guests don’t have a family, your family will most probably be a blessing to them. By God’s grace, the family home is a powerful thing.

I do believe that God wants to help us grow in hospitality. Who knows what blessings he has in store?  And when it goes wrong, let’s laugh it off, dust ourselves down and try again soon.  Grace be with you!

For more on this, I’d love to recommend ‘The Ministry of a Messy House’ by Amanda Robbie.

(If the title of this blog post made you think of Shania Twain, then we are on the smart wavelengh my friend. Ah – ah – aoooh…)

*we did once spend some time in a very big house with no oven. We used a microwave.

Go the Distance

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After a run in the snow.

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. (Hebrews 12.)

I’ve been doing a bit of running.  I started with the Couch to 5k app about a year ago, and now I try to go to my local parkrun* when I can.  I’m very slow, but it turns out that even if you’re slow, it still counts. It’s better than not running.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to watch a marathon, or any other long distance race.  About ten years ago my parents, husband and I went to watch the Great North Run (a half-marathon) because my brother and his wife were running it.  It’s such a fantastic day out.

There’s something very moving about watching people run and cheering them on.  Many people wear their name on their vest so you can call it out as they run by.  We discovered that one of the best things to shout is, “Keep going, [Dave]!  You’re looking really good!”  It usually made people smile.

We positioned ourselves quite near the end of the race, so some people we saw were really flagging.  And of course, what do you do when you see someone who looks half dead?  You cheer all the louder!  “Come on, keep going!  Don’t give up! You can do this! Not much further!”

I think one of the reasons I got so choked up about all of this was that it brought to mind the fact that the Christian life is like a race.  Scripture mentions this several times.  It’s a race in which everyone who crosses the finish line receives their reward, whether they were elites at the front or power-walkers at the back.

Sometimes we go through seasons in our Christian life when we’re flagging.  We look like we might not even finish.  Sometimes this happens because of big life events, like the birth of our first child, or an illness in the family, or the death of a loved one.  Sometimes it’s caused by other factors.  But at those times, we need encouragement to keep going.  We need our friends to cheer us on and remind us why we’re in this race and what the prize is at the end.

At my local parkrun on Saturday, there was a group who all knew each other from a running club.  Some of them finished fifteen or twenty minutes after others.  But the last ones to finish got the biggest cheer, because in some ways it’s more magnificent when someone who’s struggled more crosses the line.

Think of your friends who have struggled in this Christian race.  The ones who need reminding to come to Bible study, or who need persuading to come to church.  The ones who you’ve spent so much time with explaining the simple gospel over and over again, because that’s what they’ve needed.  The ones who you weren’t sure were going to finish.  How overjoyed will you be to see them cross the finish line!  When you see them in the new creation, won’t you be thrilled that they made it?  And won’t they be thrilled that you didn’t stop cheering them on?

To God be the glory – it’s by His grace we’re saved and begin the race, and by His grace we make it to the Finish.  However, we do also have a responsibility to make it to the finish line, and to help our brothers and sisters to get there, too.  Paul tells us, Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.”  It won’t be easy, but the prize is disproportionately rewarding.

Thinking of his death, Paul wrote: For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

I want to be able to say that at the end: that I’ve kept fighting; kept running; kept believing.  I want to receive that crown, so that I can cast it down before Him, lost in wonder, love and praise.

Let’s not get distracted or held back, by babies or wealth or sin.  Let’s remember that we’re not running aimlessly, but we’re heading for a goal.  Let’s remember that we’re in this race together, and we don’t want anyone to give up.

Keep going, sister.  You’re looking really good.