Enjoy yourself (Just not in the same way you used to before)!

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I used to look forward to, and enjoy, weekends away with church. Now I brace myself for them, and often feel I’m the worst version of ‘me’ when I’m there. Sad, I know. But I believe that through prayer and practical wisdom this, the “time away with church family, with a family,” can be conquered!

I’m going away today, so I thought I’d offer some tips on how to get through, I mean enjoy, your time away (it’s more fun than packing). I’m in no way the expert, but I thought I’d share what I’ve come up with thus far – you’ll see I’m learning from my mistakes.

Things NOT to expect:

Sleep – Time and again I make the mistake of arriving on a conference/camp/ weekend away already tired, and hoping for some rest. Go on, point and laugh, I deserve it. You won’t get much sleep. Things will prevent you from sleeping: probably your children. But while you can do everything in your power to encourage your children to have a good night’s sleep (blackouts, familiar bedding, nightlight etc.), there are always things you can’t control. Even if your children sleep wonderfully, you are still likely to be woken up by something else, e.g. someone else’s child; a fire alarm; a 5am delivery van; a 3am Pentecostal prayer gathering (this has been my experience, anyway).

Catching up with good friends – this is unlikely, because you will be busy with your brood and also there may be other people who need you more. You don’t want to end up resenting your children or anyone else who gets in the way of your nice long chat with so-and-so. Maybe think of this as an opportunity to arrange to meet up with that friend in the next couple of weeks! Then, if you do end up having a good chat: bonus!

Taking part in everything that’s going on – it might be the teaching you look forward to, or the social aspect, or praying together. But it’s likely you’ll miss out on something you’d really like to have been at. You might get trapped in your room with a clingy baby and no phone signal to beckon help, while everyone else is having a whale of a time doing “organised fun.” You might miss all of the talks because your 3-year-old is terrified of the unfamiliar surroundings, or you might have to take someone to A&E. Hopefully none of these will happen, but I’m just saying it’s good to be emotionally prepared to miss out.

Things to DO:

Be thankful. Sorry everything above is so negative. I think that if we “manage our expectations” (fancy phrase) then we’re more likely to be thankful for any fun/teaching/sleeping/encouragements that we do receive. I need to remember to be thankful, because I just won’t be otherwise. I’m like that, me.

Forget yourself. I find that at these intense, emotionally draining times I get too focused on my own “problems” (e.g. lack of sleep/missed the seminar), which is just a recipe for disaster. If I try to focus on making sure other people are OK, I’ll actually start to forget what I was so narked off about in the first place. Get over yourself, Catherine (or, you know, something less harsh).

Research – if you haven’t been to the venue before, try to find out what you need to take with you from someone who has been or from the venue itself. You don’t want to arrive and realise you were meant to bring bedding. Almost equally you don’t want to stuff five duvets into your boot (trunk) and then discover you didn’t need them. Especially if you don’t have a driveway, so loading the car is tricky, and you bought the duvets especially. Just saying.

I’ve now noticed that (maybe apart from the final one) these are quite good tips for life in general. Maybe that’s because time away with church is really just a more intense version of normal life. And I need to remember, too, what an AMAZING privilege it is to have the resources, the community, and the freedom to be able to do this. Would my North Korean sister be grumbling about missing the Saturday night karaoke if she were here? No, I’m pretty sure she’d think she’d died and gone to heaven.

Have a good weekend, folks!

Two Churches

Two churches

There are two churches.

Church #1 is a diverse group of people: a mixture of failures, misfits and social outcasts.   There are addicts, former addicts, the otherwise mentally ill and the holistically needy. It’s a place of confusion, of grief, and mess. Everywhere you look there are scars – some self-inflicted, some the result of family background, ill-chosen relationships or just random bad luck. This is a church of the insecure, slow to learn, forgetful and (I’ll say it again), needy. It’s a place where people with very little in common get together and participate in what many wouldn’t even recognise as a church service.

Care to join me?

Or, alternatively (phew), can I suggest Church # 2?

Church #2 is my favourite place in the whole world. Wherever they are, that’s where I want to be. I look around me and I see my family, all filled with joy because they know their God loves them.   They’re not all like me, in fact none of them are much like me at all. Some are rich; others poor; there’s the old and the young; there’s the logical thinkers and the creative artists and everything in between. But we are united by our Lord Jesus, so being from different continents and classes makes little difference to us. They love me and they show it. When I ask for a favour we all know it’s not really a favour, because when family is family you just share each other’s stuff. We are real. We laugh together; we cry together. We’ve got history, and we’ve got a future. Our future will go on and on forever. You should meet them, seriously. You’d feel so welcome there.

So… are you coming?

I wonder which church you recognise. I wonder which church you want to be a part of.

Well of course, I’m a part of both. They’re both my church. One overlays the other. We are broken, we’ve been fixed and we’re being fixed. And one day, wow will we be gloriously fixed. We’re so needy, and yet all of our needs are being satisfied by one beautiful Saviour. And we couldn’t be rescued if we weren’t being honest about needing it.   As Jesus said ‘It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ Mark 2:17. So we keep gathering and learning and praying and praising and thanking and listening and weeping and repenting and sharing the burdens and inviting others to come and do the same.

And I suppose my little family unit of five (the hubby; the kids) is a mini version of that big church family. I don’t hope for brokenness or failure or mess, but when it comes I need to know that we’re not actually meant to have it all figured out yet. We are the sick, the sinners, the tax collectors. And the Lord is changing us day by day.

When [Christ] shall come with trumpet sound
Oh may [we] then in him be found
In Him, [our] righteousness, alone
Faultless, stand before the throne.

(My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, Edward Mote)

Dear New Mum

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Here is a letter to my lovely friend Charlie, who is about to give birth any day now. It’s a bit honest, but I hope you like it. It seems wonderfully appropriate, one year on from writing about my own struggles with my first newborn (Push, Push, Glide), to post this here.

Dear Charlie,

I’m sitting in a café (had free coffee voucher – bargain!) and a lady next to me has a teeeeeeny tiny baby! He is very cute and drunk on milk. Everyone is gazing at him. Mum is probably exhausted and wondering when the baby will next need feeding. I’ve found that there’s a big old difference between actual motherhood, and motherhood from the outside looking in.

You’re about to have your first baby! You know that already. I’d love to give you loads of advice and tips. I’m sure all of your mum-friends will want to help and give you their opinion on what’s going on. My first tip would be to ask for advice if and when you need it, but if you haven’t asked perhaps put on some sort of mental filter! And then even when you’ve asked, don’t feel you have to do what people tell you. One thing I’ve learnt from reading many, many books about parenting and having many more conversations about parenting, is that babies are all different. And mums are different, as you’ll know. You’re unique, as is your family, so not everything that works for others will work for you.

You’re about to enter a world of contradictions. The baby is completely weak and vulnerable – frighteningly so – and yet has the power to make you giddy with joy one minute, and crushingly disappointed the next. Things you know are small and relatively insignificant become paralysingly huge: Why hasn’t he burped yet? How long has she been asleep? How many clean vests will I need to take with me? What does that face mean? When should his teeth come through? Which brand of bottle/travel cot/car seat (and how do we assemble any of these things)?

Conversations with your husband undergo a complete transformation. Things I thought I’d never hear Mike say, and then did:
‘We need to assign a cupboard in the kitchen just for the bottles and sterilising equipment.’
‘The ideal situation would be this: Wherever you are in the flat, you can turn around and find a clean muslin.’
And then there was the song he made up encouraging a constipated Miriam to do a poo. (It was to the tune of the South African national anthem.)

Life will change. You know what’s about to hit you, but actually you won’t know what’s hit you.

How is any of this useful? Well, I was pondering these things and wondering what the best advice for you would be, and here is what I came up with (except I didn’t come up with it at all):

One of [the Pharisees], an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’
Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’ (Matt 22)

When you can’t remember what day it is, who just visited you or when you last had a shower (top tip: do have a shower!), hopefully you’ll be able to remember these two commandments.

When things seem huge, especially in the middle of the night (when sleep is short and truth is needed*), it’s vital to remember the wonderful truth that the Lord is God. The world revolves around him, not me or my baby. When we’ve lost all perspective, let’s remind ourselves what we know to be true.

I remember Mike finding me in a heap on the floor at the end of the day because acid-reflux Ezra had cried for too long. At that moment, it was hard to remember that God is big. It was hard to believe that one day I wouldn’t be sad about that anymore. It sounds silly now! But emotions are powerful. So when you’re finding it hard to look beyond you and your baby, try dwelling on the Lord your God, and worshipping him (Psalm 27: 4 is good. And stick a worship CD on!).

So onto that second commandment. You may find that your baby teaches you how to love someone else as yourself. It’s certainly true that motherhood is a great lesson in sacrificial love. What a blessing. But I also want to encourage you to keep loving others, especially as your baby’s demands seem overwhelming. In Babywise one of the many parenting books I’ve read, I remember it saying that when we become mothers we don’t stop being wives/daughters/sisters/friends. That’s not the advice you’ll hear everywhere, and that’s why it’s so important to hear.

I don’t mean to pressure you – “Don’t you know that a 3 day old baby doesn’t get you out of the church baking rota?” No I don’t mean that. But by God’s grace you’ll be able to show concern for others and pray for them, check how they’re doing and even offer to help them. And in doing this, you also will be blessed. Sharing joys and sorrows with your friends and family will help you to see your own issues with a bit more perspective. (I recently said to a friend who’d been in a horrific car accident, ‘Will you pray for me? You’re not the only one with problems!’ I truly am a wonderful friend to have around! Do you miss me?)

And we need grace, grace, grace:

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. Romans 3:20-21

Every day of being a parent, you will be conscious of your sin and your need of a saviour – at least I hope so. And in Christ, you have the righteousness of God. So keep asking for his help – he’s listening! Don’t expect to know what you’re doing, or be any good at it! And that’s all good. Your child needs to see that Mum and Dad need Jesus.

So in summary, it’s going to be hard, remember the world doesn’t revolve around you, and remember you’re absolutely hopeless without the grace of God! There, I intended to encourage you and I feel my work here is done!

Heaps of love,

Cat. X

*That was a quote from my lovely friend Katy, who sent me worship CDs to listen to during the night feeds with Ezra. Amazing. Now I’ve told you that, I suppose I’ll have to send you some! 🙂

p.s. Love you, I think you’re going to do a great job!  (Probably should have led with that.)

Learning to say ‘Thank You’

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One day this will be a nostalgic image for me!

I’ve been excavating this week.  When you have your second or subsequent baby, you have to unearth all of the baby paraphernalia that you’d hidden under the bed/on top of the wardrobe/at your mum’s house.  It’s quite heartwarming in a way, because it takes you back to those early days with your older child(ren) which seem so long ago. But in other ways, it’s a tiny bit disheartening.  What I mean is, I find it really satisfying to get rid of stuff I don’t need anymore because I’ve moved on to a new stage.  So going back to the earlier stages and starting all over again can bruise my organisational ego.  I’ve realised that I often look forward to the day when I won’t need an entire kitchen cupboard dedicated to plastic crockery, sippy cups, bottles and baby food.  Or when I won’t need to buy kiddie snacks or dairylea slices, because the kids will eat what we eat (this may never happen but shhhh don’t tell me).  But even as I long for this I do have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not a very godly way to think.

Growing up I was always told, ‘Don’t wish your life away.’  I think that was because I always wanted to be about three to five years older than I was (those days are gone, I can assure you).  Although this isn’t a phrase from the Bible, it is wise advice.  Always pining for the next thing is really a recipe for discontentment.  While I’m longing for the days when I can have a serious conversation with my son, I’m missing the blessings of the here and now.  While I’m pining for the time when I won’t have to cadunk my buggy up the steps because my buggy will be long gone, I’m ignoring the beauty of cute babes in a pushchair.

I’m reading a really interesting book which has encouraged me massively – One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.  Today I read this, as Ann recollects holding her sleeping daughter, the youngest of six children:

‘My baby is five… She is leaving me, she’s growing up and moving away from me, and she stirs and I sweep back the crop of golden ringlets.  Stay, Little One, stay.  Love’s a deep wound and what is a mother without a child and why can’t I hold on to now forever and her here and me here and why does time snatch away a heart I don’t think mine can beat without?’ (p. 160)

I felt so rebuked by this.  My eldest isn’t five yet, and I often wish she were just a bit older.  But I’m sure one day (maybe soon) I’ll turn around and mourn the loss of their early years.  That will also be discontentment of course!  So what’s the solution?  How do I enjoy the here and now; savour the moment?  Well, Voskamp’s book is all about thankfulness.  I know I should be thankful for today, but how?

One wonderful thing about being a parent of young children is that you have someone showing you how to live in the moment and enjoy the here and now, every single day.   Here are a few things my tots were excited about today (and these are just the ones they shouted about):

–       steam from a chimney

–       an aeroplane (many, many times, we live under the Heathrow flight path)

–       a blue van

–       ‘Sparkles’ (Actually the sunlight reflected in raindrops on a grey, dirty pavement)

I want to be more like that.  I want to be enchanted by the mundane and thankful for the ordinary.  If I can learn to do that, then I’ll start to focus on the beautiful things in my life, great and small, and to sideline the hard things that I can’t change.

At the end of a wearying day, I want to tell my husband every detail of the battles I’ve endured.  I don’t want to focus on the lovely things, because… hmmm, if I’m honest I don’t want him thinking I’ve had an easy day.  Then he might not sympathise with me.  If I tell him all the blessings, then who gets the glory?  Not me, of course, but the Lord, the giver.  I want this, and I don’t want it.  My new, spirit-filled heart wants to praise the Lord; it’s my sinful, self-centred self who wants to wallow in self-pity, ingratitude and dissatisfaction.

I’ve heard many times before that being thankful is a way to find joy and to be content.  But it seems so hard to do.  It is hard, but I’m realising that it’s a lesson to learn, and a lesson that takes time.  We can train ourselves to be thankful.  Ann Voskamp trained herself by writing one thousand things she loves, or in other words one thousand gifts she is thankful for.  I’ve started trying to do this myself.  I’m making quite slow progress, partly because I’m out of practice (I’ve never been in practice), and partly because I don’t have my notebook lying around all day (for fear of it being splattered/snatched/accidentally recycled), so I have to remember things and write them down later.  But even so, I can tell that God is gently changing me as I discipline myself to find the beauty in my life.

So may I encourage you now to try this – you don’t have to write it down or set yourself a target of course, but if you would like to find more joy, try learning to be thankful for the ‘now’ you’re in.  Maybe you live in a beautiful location, in which case your list will probably be full of natural beauty.  However, may I refer you to the title of this blog, and remind you that I live far away from wildlife (unless you count pigeons and the odd urban fox, which I absolutely do not!) or sweeping landscapes.  But there is still beauty in my life, and I’m learning to find it.  Here are ten items from my list so far, just to encourage you to give it a go:

7. Help up the stairs

10. Soft slippers on aching feet

16.  My children stopping at the road

20. Double glazing

23. A cup of tea by the bed

26. The listening ear of a friend

44. The kitchen bin, empty

60. The radio

62. The generosity of friends

111. Anaesthetic

Nothing spectacular I know, but they’re God’s gifts to me and it’s right that I thank him for them.  You can probably think of something more joy-filling than an empty kitchen bin, and I encourage you right now to thank God for whatever that is!

So I’m hoping, by God’s grace, that by cultivating a thankful heart, I will bring glory to God with my attitude, I’ll find joy, and I won’t get to the end of my life and realise I’ve spent it wishing I were somewhere else.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

Push, Push, Glide: Reflections on my Daughter’s Fourth Birthday

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My daughter turned four last weekend.  She’s my eldest, and four seems much older than three.  Three-year-olds can be classed as toddlers; four-year-olds go to primary school.  Yikes.

Miriam has been asking me for months if she can go ice-skating.  Living in central London without a car and with two younger children, this is not an easy request to grant, so I told her that when the winter outdoor rinks sprang up we would go.  This coincided nicely with her birthday, so I booked us a lesson on her birthday – at the crack of dawn, incidentally!

On the way there, I was thinking about how relieved I feel when I look back over the years since her birth.  I’m relieved because I found things so much harder when she was first born than I do now.  I expect most people feel like that, although I know some mums love the baby phase and find the pre-school phase harder.  I don’t want this to sound ungrateful, because children are such a precious gift, but I found the first three months in particular extremely difficult.  I feel so relieved to have gotten this far!  Many thanks to God for his grace!

When we arrived at the ice rink, Miriam was given a stabiliser to hold – they give out heavy, plastic penguins with handles so children can push them along and spend less of their time prostrate on the ice.  But from the moment she stepped onto the ice, Miriam hated it.  Several teachers tried to help her – ‘Come on, take baby steps, I’ve got you, yep small steps, you won’t fall, you’re safe’ etc., but to no avail.  She was miserable.

One of the teachers told me to try waiting inside to see if that helped Miriam to get engrossed and start to enjoy it, but as I watched her through the window she just stood there, morosely gripping her penguin, watching the other children slide and shuffle about.  It was, for both of us, excruciating.

It did strike me that her experience on the ice was a tiny bit like my experience when Miriam was first born.  She had wanted to ice skate because she’d seen it on the TV and it looked fun.  It looked elegant and graceful.  It looked rewarding.  I think she probably assumed it would come naturally – that she’d get it right first time.

My ideas about motherhood were about as naïve as Miriam’s were about skating.  Even when people told me ‘it will be hard at first’, I still didn’t really know.  You can’t know, can you? Not until you get out there on the ice.  Until day three of breastfeeding.  Until no amount of pacing will stop the crying.  Until you realise that between you and your husband, despite your combined intelligence and the books you’ve read, you have no idea what you’re doing.  (I have friends who between them are Doctors three times over, who have at least once managed to put their baby’s disposable nappy on back to front AND inside out!)

One thing that it hurts to admit is that it’s actually a good thing that I didn’t and don’t find motherhood easy.  True, this is a result of the Fall – frustrations and disappointments and poo down the wall won’t happen in heaven – but God is also using this season to make me more like Christ.  It’s hard to be proud when you’re crying because baby won’t get his wind up, or crying with the pain of breastfeeding or just crying because you haven’t had any sleep, or crying just because.  This is when we learn to depend on God more.  If I’d found motherhood easy, then I’d have been even more proud and self-sufficient.  Instead, God chose in his kindness to refine me: to make me more pure.

It’s amazing how a change in perspective can affect you.  Since I’m older than Miriam, I know that ice skating is hard and you have to practise, fall on your bum fifty times, get back up and practise some more before it gets remotely fun.  And yet, when I became a mum for the first time I was so shocked at how hard it was!  (I don’t know why I’m using the past tense – I still regularly get surprised by how hard it is.)  But as we struggle and learn, we’re growing.  God is giving us character – which we wouldn’t get if the lesson were easy.

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”  Romans 5:3-4.

I have to admit that, compared to God, I am about as wise and patient through difficulty as my four-year-old daughter.  Thanks be to God that he has the right perspective, and he’s there with me on the ice, holding my hand and cheering me on.

And do you know, it’s not all bad!  Even though Miriam was stubborn, reluctant, sullen and uncooperative, I could see glimpses of a talent for skating.   I know that she didn’t believe me when I said from the sidelines, ‘You’re doing it!  That’s it!’  And when your mum or your friends or your husband say to you, ‘You’re doing a great job’ and it’s week three and you’re just trying to keep your head above water, you might think, ‘as if!’ but they do mean it.  They’re seeing glimpses of the ability God has given you to excel at this particular line of work.

So I’d like to encourage you (no matter how old our child is, by the way!) – if you feel today like you’re slipping around and just getting cold and wet, please remember that God is growing your faith and your character, which is priceless – ‘of greater worth than gold.’ (1 Peter 6:7)  And the people you see gliding around have all been in similar positions to you, they’re just further along the journey. And slowly but surely you are making your way across the ice.  Small steps!

On an even more personal note, I would just like thank God for giving my daughter breath in her lungs for four whole years.  [Jesus] is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  Colossians 1:17.  From emergency C-section until now, may I never forget that it’s the Lord Jesus who is holding us together every. single. day.