Oh boy

3E4B3299-6BEB-483C-8307-690C7B6D2ED2I hope you’re all doing OK. I’ve been ill in bed for two days so today my husband took the day off working-from-home in order to do the lion’s share of the homeschooling.

The shake up went very well. It’s a New New Day by Awesome Cutlery is a particularly poignant song to start the day with when you’re feeling a bit like life has been put on hold:

It’s a new new day to sing your praise
It’s a new new day to walk in your ways
It’s a new new day to make you known
It’s a new new day to see your Kingdom grow

It’s good to start the day asking God what he wants to teach us and how he wants to use us today! The children were reluctant to do the shake up but then thoroughly enjoyed themselves. One thing you learn as a teacher is to ignore whinges and plough on!

After Maths and English we enjoyed watching Michael J Tinker on Facebook live.  God bless him for his enthusiasm – it’s really appreciated! I’m sure the children feel reassured. And excellent to be reminded that the Coronavirus cannot separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

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A French lesson with Michael J Tinker

We did a bit of Geography which, truth be told, was just completing some map jigsaws.

After lunch and running around I’d planned a session looking at Genesis 6-8. This was difficult. It’s a spiritual battle, folks! Let’s remember that – and pray.

By 3.15 we were flagging. This is when we put a film on and I began wondering how we’re going to manage for 12 weeks. Any ideas from you are most welcome!

Tomorrow I think we’re going to try to watch a history lesson online. However I am reluctant to do too many online things. You know me, I just don’t really like technology.  I’m hoping that once the children settle into the routine they’ll be better at doing things independently – like going away and reading or playing a game together. (Please don’t laugh!)

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Opting for some peace and quiet outside

It occurred to me today that when we’re struggling it’s easy to feel discontent and to start envying other people’s situations/gardens/houses/families/health. Let’s guard against that. The best remedy is gratitude, in my experience. I’m thankful that my children have someone to play with, a home full of books, games, jigsaws and toys and an outside space. We also have a wonderful church family who keep delivering supplies to us.

The only remotely amusing anecdote I can think of for today is that my son’s first wobbly tooth almost fell out – but didn’t. I was alerted to this horrific fact when I heard my poor husband utter the words, “Great, your mouth’s full of blood but can you please get out of the kitchen?”

So how did your day go? Any tips? Don’t be shy!

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6.34

Day One in the Big Brooks House

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The thrill of a care package

I expected to be writing this blog post on Monday evening but homeschooling started early for the Brookses. My son developed a dry cough last night so we decided it would be best to keep them off school and quarantine ourselves. This was a really sad start to the day as we had to break the news to our daughter who was very upset to miss the last day of school.

It’s all a bit daunting. If you feel overwhelmed by social media input at this time, you’re not alone! I hope and pray that my blog will simply encourage you and share ideas – and hopefully give you a chance to laugh (kindly) at my misfortune at times.

I think as a mum I feel really responsible for holding it together and keeping my children happy. This is quite a burden to bear so I was delighted to be reminded of something when reading Galatians: So also Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’ (Chapter 3 v 6). It reminds me of Romans 1.17 which I’ve written about here. (There is overlap between the pressure of making Christmas special and making quarantine special, for sure!)  The bottom line is this: we’re righteous by faith, not by works. So we don’t need to be amazing. Which is great news for me because I’m not.

One complication of starting to homeschool early is that I had Bible study (via the Zoom app) at 10am so of course we had to resort to putting a film on for the kids. Sigh. We lasted about 70 minutes before resorting to screen time! But such is real life.

I find it helpful to have a rough plan of timings but we didn’t stick to it so I’ll just let you know what we did today (in case it’s helpful):

Film: Two by Two. No idea how good it is.  A thoroughly inaccurate portrayal of Noah’s ark. Not exactly how I’d envisaged kicking off our theological programme of study!
Maths – Numeracy Ninjas (see below) and the maths workbooks I frantically bought them in Waterstone’s the other day. With Martha (3) I played a game of Dotty Dinosaurs (Orchard Toys) which is good for shape recognition. We also baked cookies later which I reckon counts as maths!
Lunch, then a bit of TV while I had a quick lie down.
Art” – we made a giant banner for our neighbour who turned 4 today. We also received party bags from them so teh children had lots of fun playing with their little toys and eating sweets. 10y-old also made playdough as birthday present for neighbour.
Harry Potter Game with Dad.

A friend recommended Numeracy Ninjas to me, where you can print off free worksheets for your children to do each day.

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I guess if you wanted to make a big banner but it wasn’t someone’s birthday, you could just make up a random reason. A bible verse maybe, or a cheery slogan of some sort? The children did enjoy this.

Later in the day we received work packs from school, which I found completely overwhelming. They have written out a (thankfully) “suggested” timetable. It’s similar to mine but involves more screen time (albeit educational), which I’m keen to avoid unless desperate. I’d rather reserve it for when I’m feeling unwell or trying to lead a Bible study. There’s also no way I can teach my three children three different history topics. I’m sure their teachers will understand – it’s the children I need to convince!

So today has had its ups and downs.

Our Tesco delivery arrived today, mostly intact. No rice or pasta but plenty of fresh food. I’m so grateful for God’s timing as we won’t be able to go and buy food for 2 weeks.

I’m thankful for friends who are willing to bring us things from the shops/pharmacy.

And I’m reminded of the importance of not wasting food. I hate waste anyway but when you’re into sure when you’ll next get to buy oranges (or rice) it does make you extra careful.

I also wasn’t 100% sure we were right quarantine ourselves but this afternoon I saw a GP I know had written on Instagram that you can’t be too cautious because the choices you make today affect people in ICU in 2 weeks’ time. So I think we did the right thing.

Praying that you, dear reader, would be trusting in the Lord’s provision today.

Busy going nowhere

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For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.  And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Hebrews 13:14-17

From this weekend our children will be off school until further notice.

As I write this, we are still allowed to go outside but we assume it’s not helpful to do so other than to buy food or to help someone in need. Therefore we are facing at least a month (possibly 3 or longer) inside our 3-bed flat.

We want to be obedient and thankful, rejoicing in the Lord each day.  We want our children to look back on this as a a bit of an adventure. I’d like them to be able to say that although we were probably a bit stressed (!), we remained cheerful and that in a surprising way it was a really special time.

So we’re going to need to pray and depend on God.

I’ve also been thinking of a structure which I hope is realistic and will help us all to stay positive and not slip into despair.

Here are some unusual blessings:
We also live on top of a pharmacy and a supermarket, which means food and medicine are accessible – although this won’t allow for much of a leg-stretch when we need supplies.
We share a front door with another family, whose children will be referred to on this blog as the Oompa Loompas.
We have a large outside space, which is unusual for an urban flat.

So here is my plan. I hope to be able to share with you frequent updates in case it can be of any help. Please do share your ideas in the comments below.
I’ve never home schooled so this might be completely ridiculous. However, since we can’t go out anywhere I’ve planned more in than I would do if I were actually homeschooling long term.

“School Day” Routine

9.15: Prayer and “shake up to wake up” (Singing some lively praise songs, see below)
9.30: English (Phonics for the EYFS*); Comprehension/Handwriting/Spellings
10.00: Maths (Shapes/counting for the EYFS); Maths workbooks/schoolwork
10.30: Fruit break and run around outside
10.45-11.45: EYFS ‘Choosing’ (e.g. playdough/dressing up/colouring/blocks/train set); KS1/2** Humanities
11.45-12.15: Bible teaching and related activities
12.15: Helping to prepare lunch.
12.30-1pm: Lunch
1-1.45: PE/Games (I’m hoping my husband will be in charge of this!)
1.45-2: Silent reading (Story time for EYFS)
2-3.30: Art/Cookery/Science (Messy things)
3.30-3.45: Tidy up time; Closing prayer

3.45-4.30: Quiet time (please!)

Songs for the Shake Up: “My God is so Big” and “Super Saviour” by Colin Buchanan and “A New New Day” and “We are the Church” By Awesome Cutlery. All are available on YouTube with singalong lyrics. 

Things I’m hoping to do:
Tie-dye: my 10-yr-old daughter has been talking about doing this for a while. I’ve ordered a kit… I’ll let you know how it goes!
I’d love to try making cinnamon buns.
Lots of baking cakes – although we really will need to keep up the exercise to compensate.
Learn (along with my children) to knit.
Finally give the children some piano and guitar lessons.
This may only make me happy, not anyone else, but I’d really like to chuck some of our stuff away! It’s good for the soul.
My sweet younger daughter turns 4 in April – I do hope we can make it a fun celebration for her.

Wish list for keeping our cheer:
Praying each day – giving thanks and praying for those going through difficult times. I’d like the children to keep little log books of things they enjoyed each day and things to be thankful for. 

Evening activities:
I think we’re going to get Disney Plus for a few months
Board games (we’ve bought some news ones)
Letter writing – to relatives and friends we haven’t seen for weeks!

If you’d like some ideas for teaching the children – including Easter-themed stuff – please click on the Teaching category below. There is always loads of great stuff on the Faith in Kids website too.

I’ll let you know how it’s going!

*EYFS stands for Early Years Foundation Stage. It includes Nursery and Reception children, which in our case is my child no. 4 and the Oompa Loompas.
**Key Stage 1 is Years 1-2 (ages 5-7); Key Stage 2 is Years 3-6 (ages 7-11)

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

All Grace

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I recently read a really good secular parenting book.  It was practical, insightful and loving. And it got me thinking about grace.

I know loads of fantastic parents who wouldn’t consider themselves Christians, so this is in no way a dig at non-Christian parents.  If anything, it’s a dig at myself. 

Advice given in this book included (these aren’t direct quotes):

Start each day with a clean slate – no matter how badly yesterday went.
Don’t beat yourself up when you make mistakes – give yourself a break and look ahead, not behind.
Teach the children to be kind to one another, because in this family that’s how we do things.
Family traditions should be kept, no matter how people have behaved.

These are all really important, in my opinion. Great advice.  But how do you do this without grace? When you’ve been called names and had things thrown at you, how do you put your child to bed with a goodnight kiss and, “I love you” and start the next morning with, “Good to see you, how are you feeling?” How do you forgive?

And how do you forgive yourself when you realise that they’ve learnt their bad anger from you, or when you snap at them again because you were distracted by something else?

When her brother deliberately ruins the craft she’s been working on for three days, how can I tell her to forgive him and love him anyway?

And how can I hand my daughter a Christmas Eve Krispy Kreme when she’s tantrummed all the way there because no, she will not be getting a Segway for Christmas?*

For all of these predicaments and more, I need the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  When I consider his grace to me, that the Son of God should die for me, an ungrateful sinner, then forgiving others becomes possible.

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32.

When I come to the cross of Christ with my parenting failures, confessing again that I’ve fallen short, again, and that it was completely my own selfish fault, I find sweet forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16

And none of this – the forgiving others and the confessing my own sin – would be possible without the Holy Spirit, who changes my heart daily.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.

I suppose if you don’t believe in the grace of God and you’re not filled with the Spirit, then you need to summon the strength from within you to forgive your family and yourself.  It can help to believe that your children ‘don’t mean it.’  He didn’t know it would make her sad if he did that; she doesn’t know how expensive Segways are.  It’s only natural they should fight – all children do.  He’s calling me names because he’s upset about something – he doesn’t mean to hurt me.

Sometimes these are the things I tell myself.  But that’s not what the Gospel tells me.

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The Gospel says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3.23-24.) There is no difference between parent and child.  We’re all sinners in need of mercy.

So if you’re reading this and you’re not a believer, I marvel at your ability to parent well. I marvel partly because you’re doing it without a church family to help you, and without the wisdom that the Bible gives us, but mainly because you’re doing it without the daily supply of grace that I desperately need.

To learn more about this grace, try clicking here. Or you could watch this award-winning Christmas video.

*I should say that the examples I’ve used about things children do are not specific to my own children.  My daughter has never actually had a tantrum over a Segway!  I don’t want to defame them.  

(Belated) Back to School

 

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September is a bit like January, with all of its good intentions and naïve dreams of being a better version of myself.  Over the summer I scheme and daydream and about being more on top of things, and wonder whether this is finally the year we’ll get “the balance right.”

When my children returned to school this term, I felt quite lost for a couple of days.  Suddenly the flat was quiet and I had time to do all the things I had been putting off during the holidays. But where to start?

By week two, we’re were off to the proverbial races and we have to remember PE kits, after-school clubs, homework and consent forms.  I feel like now that it’s all in full swing, there isn’t much time for quiet reflection.  But I have noticed one thing:

I’m still me.

I’m not the slick, imaginary version of myself I’d dared to hope I might be.

As it’s a ‘new year’ I’ve been using some new Bible reading notes, and I’m slowly reading John Chapters 14-16.  I keep thinking about these words:

 

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15)

If you can relate to my emotional ups and downs, here are a few encouragements from Jesus’ words here:

You’re in Christ.  If you believe in the Son, and he’s your Lord, then you’re secure in him. This is the same whether your kids are at home, at school, or at the hospital.  It’s true when your morning is running smoothly, and it’s true when someone spills the cereal and the cucumber lands in your tea.  It’s true at the Seaside in August, and it’s true on the school run in September.

You’re bearing fruit.  If you’re in Christ, then he’s making sure you bear fruit.  He’s making you more like himself.  It’s not just my children who’ll be learning a thing or two this year.  Jesus has a curriculum ready for me, too.

If you’re bearing fruit, you’ll be pruned.  Jesus’ curriculum for me will at times be painful, because he’s chopping off the selfishness; the pride; the impatience; the harshness; the self-pity; the badness etc.  And this is good news! He’s getting rid of it, so I need to get with the programme.

Apart from Him you can do nothing.  I don’t need to be slick (there’s no danger of that, so phew!), and I don’t need anyone to think I’m on top of things.  I don’t need to depend on a new system or regime for getting out of the door and through the school gate on time and in a state of calm serenity.  I need to depend on Him.  Seriously, I need to remain in him.  Jesus repeats this phrase to emphasise that this is what we need.  We must depend on him.  We must trust and obey him.  I need to take my eyes off my ‘to-do’ list and wish lists, and fix them on Christ.

It’s for the Father’s glory, not mine.  “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15v8) When I remember and acknowledge that I’m completely dependant on Christ, I will give the glory to the Father.  What’s my goal for this term?  Is it to keep a neat hallway?  Is it to donate more stuff to the charity shop?  Is it to finally teach my daughter the piano?  Well, those could be my mini goals, but my ultimate goal must be to glorify my Father in heaven.  That is obedience.  And let’s face it, that is much, much more worthwhile.

Let’s pray for a fruitful term, to the Father’s glory, knowing that the Gardener will have some pruning to do.  (And try not to forget the packed lunches.)

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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.

When Snow Happens

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To humans belong the plans of the heart,
but from the Lord comes the proper answer of the tongue.
All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord.
Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
and he will establish your plans…
In their hearts humans plan their course,
but the Lord establishes their steps.
(Proverbs 16)

It snowed here.  If you live in the U.K., you’ll have experienced snow this week. If you live somewhere else, you’ve probably seen it on the international news. I love snow, and living in central London we usually get short-changed on the snow. I’d have liked more.  They cancelled the parkrun in Fulham, but that’s the only difference it really made to me. My brother, however, lives in Glasgow which has ground to a halt. Only Morisson’s soldiered on.  The shelves soon emptied.

I know this chaos is the cause of much amusement for Scandinavians and Canadians and any other nation who has enough snow ploughs.  But the truth is, we’re ill-equipped and so the snow does make things rather unusual. And it’s no laughing matter for people stranded in their cars on a motorway in Scotland.

Besides any actual risk to life, though, I actually like the chaos. Usually I love order (quite an affliction for a mother of four), but when all plans have to be changed because of the weather, it’s a wonderful reminder of one truth we usually ignore: we mere mortals are not in control.

We think we can control everything: what’s on TV,  what food we eat, what school our children go to, where we live, how healthy we are, how many children we have, how long our journey will be, how successful we are etc. You only have to look at how stressed people get when they lose control of one of these things, to see how much we love control. In about 6 weeks’ time parents in England will find out which primary school their children have got into, and the news headlines will show outrage and panic as parents lament over their school place, despite having moved house and gone to church for 3 years just to get into St Juniper’s because it’s Outstanding. We do not like being reminded that we’re not in control. We do not like being reminded that we’re not God.

Don’t get me wrong, I find this challenging. There are plenty of things I try to control, and I get irrationally upset when I can’t. Sometimes the things we want to control are good things, like wanting our children to follow Jesus. Or even just wanting this meal to be a blessing and taste good. But my loving Heavenly Father does like to remind me that I’m not in control. He’s teaching me to trust him, to hold my hands up and say, “You’re in charge, and that’s a good thing!”

If it’s a blessing to be reminded that God is the one in control, then this is certainly a major bonus of parenting. If anyone can ruin your plans, it’s a wilful child. Sometimes through no decision of their own, but often deliberately, they don’t fit into my neat plan. Before you have children, you can plan how many motorway stops you’re going to have on a long journey. You’d never dream of a toilet break 15 minutes before reaching your destination.

I remember trying to go out and meet Mike one day when I was about 37 weeks pregnant with number 2, and number 1 was 18 months old. I physically couldn’t get her into the pushchair, partly hindered of course by my enormous mass. I had to phone him and say I didn’t think I could go out. That was a low point. Plans thwarted by a very small, tantrumy toddler.

We might plan our career out and then find that our child needs more care than we’d expected. We might plan where to live and then discover we’re expecting twins. We might look forward to cycling holidays and then discover our child refuses to learn to balance on two wheels. Or their obsession with dinosaurs means that museum trips will be more enjoyable. We hoped they’d come to watch football with us and it turns out they don’t like crowds, or football, or Middlesbrough FC.

Im so grateful that in the major, life changing things and in the small irritating things of life, The Lord not only sees it coming but has planned it all out from the very beginning.  He is truly awesome.

Oh Lord, establish my steps. Amen.

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Coming Up For Air

Last week I introduced you to Anna, whose daughter Jemima has Cystic Fibrosis.  Here she shares Part Two of her journey as a mother.  Thank you again, Anna, for your honesty.

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I’ve been deeply humbled and encouraged by the response to the first post I wrote for Cat’s blog. It cost me to pull myself back into those black and white days but I’ve been amply repaid by the kind words I’ve received and in knowing that I’ve not been alone in these feelings.

Two and a half years on and life looks very different. Jemima is a fully fledged little person, desperate to communicate from the moment she formed her first ‘oooh’ sound, determinedly social, a blur of life and energy. She plays hard, sleeps soundly and is chomping at the bit to start nursery in the spring. We do weekly tennis, gymnastics, trampolining and music classes, as well as a monthly running club and swimming whenever we can. We do library visits, craft sessions, playdates and lots of park trips. She loves her stuffed cats (including an eccentrically named feline called Cupompom: like cucumber + pompom), role playing with Duplo characters and bouncing on her 4 foot trampoline with her stuffed frog. Her favourite books are currently ‘Zog and the Flying Doctors’, ‘P is for Potty’ and ‘Toad Makes a Road’. Her favourite colour is green and her favourite foods are bear paws and smoked salmon. Her eyes are light blue, her hair is honey coloured and she has a double crown. She has enormous tantrums which she recovers from by lying on the sofa with her dummy and blanket. She twiddles her hair to fall asleep. She is both a very ordinary and a very extraordinary girl.

The process of coming up for air after Jemima’s diagnosis has been long and hard. People sometimes comment on how time has flown. For me, it has involved the longest nights I’ve ever known: nights I spent expressing milk and watching dawn break over the city while a newborn Jemima slept on the ward. Our life before her seems so remote. We have been extremely blessed that her health has allowed us some respite to adjust to our new life, our new world. We have not had multiple hospital admissions up to this point; many children have. My heart and all my respect goes out to the parents of these children. Our one admission for viral bronchiolitis (unrelated to CF) sent me spinning back down into the dark again.

As my dad often reminds me, it costs us more to take care of Jemima. It takes time and energy to administer daily medicines, inhalers and physiotherapy. It takes creativity to think up games that make these things fun or at least acceptable for a toddler. It takes energy to chase her around, bounce with her and have tickle fights to help her clear her chest. It takes patience to squeeze apple puree onto a spoon and sprinkle on Creon around 20 times a day. It takes time to make sure that the house is clean, to help protect her lungs from bacteria and dust. It costs us financially to buy the high calorie food that her body needs. It costs us emotionally to hold her for blood tests and cough swabs and to explain to her why she can’t gather armfuls of rotting leaves like the other children because it could make her poorly. It costs us socially to avoid people with coughs and colds. Chronic anxiety wears my patience with her and with Jonathan. As much as it costs us, it costs some parents much more to care for children with more severe or complex conditions. But as my dad also reminds me, the rewards are great. I am amazed every day by Jemima’s resilience. Despite having more to complain about than some, she is not a complainer. She’s physically tough. She’s emotionally mature. She does her treatments and takes her medicines (mostly) without complaint. She’s not afraid of medical professionals or of clinic visits. If she has a procedure she dislikes (cough swabs are currently the enemy) she cries but gets over it. She’s bright, optimistic and curious. She’s agile and physically fit. To her, life is full of people to play with and parks to play in.

This sends me back to my original question and one that I’m never far from: how do I know that God is good? People often say that God is good in response to good things that happen to us. But to me there is a big difference between saying that God is good in response to our circumstances and saying that God is good irrespective of what happens to us. The logic is fairly simple: if the goodness of God is a consequence of our circumstances we must assume, if circumstances go awry, that God is not good. If God’s goodness is validated by our circumstances, we must assume, if circumstances go awry, that he’s either displeased with us, that we’ve strayed from his ‘path of blessing’ or that our circumstances are beyond his control. None of these options are comforting. I know that God is good not because I feel that it’s true but because I believe it is so. Fossilised somewhere in my memory are the words of the Psalm we used to recite at church when I was a child:

For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations. (Psalm 100:5)

I wouldn’t say that this feels ‘comforting’ exactly but I do believe that it is true. The knowledge that God is good, irrespective of what happens in my little life, is both liberating and terrifying. In many ways I would prefer a clearer cut and more directly applicable system: that God would bless me and keep my daughter well and by this, show his goodness. But I know in my gut that the truth lies with Job, a man who suffered and who wrestled with these questions. Job asks:

Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? (Job 2:10)

Job did everything ‘right’ yet he lost everything he had. His friends told him to shape up or ship out but still he persevered in believing that he wasn’t being punished for his sins. And he was right.

Fast forward a few thousand years and the question remains: if God is good regardless of my circumstances, how can I know that he cares? I go back to the words of John:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. (1 John 3:16)

These are hard truths. They challenge the very basis of my faith. They are hard because, as my pastor says, suffering has become personal. But there is great relief in knowing that the fact that my daughter has a genetic disease is not a sign of God’s displeasure with me or with her. He is still good. He sent a saviour in Jesus, his precious only son. The fact that Jemima has been very healthy so far is an indescribable blessing but it’s not the reason that I know that he is good. It’s taken the words of the Bible and the words of some wise people who have suffered more than I have to bring me to this conclusion. It has taken its toll on me and has left a wound which – although I know it will never heal this side of the veil – contains deep and precious truth.

I believe that God is good because he says he is and because he sent Jesus to bring ultimate healing for the sufferings of the whole world. Genetic diseases should not be passed on through generations. Babies should not be stillborn. Children should not have to make bucket lists. Add to this a million other painful tragedies and injustices. God cares, he is good and in the end he will bring about restoration:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

This is the end of the story and it’s one that I long for exponentially more than I did before I had Jemima. As for our story, I don’t know how it will play out. There are now medicines that aim at fixing the faulty gene that causes CF on a molecular level. There are also other tragedies, unrelated to CF, that we’re not guaranteed to be spared from. I want Jemima to live a long, full and joyful life. I want her to know Jesus. I want to protect her from suffering. The knowledge that I can’t protect her from life’s blows has been brought home sooner for us.

I am still angry. As the Hulk says in the film ‘Avengers Assemble’: “I’m always angry.” But I am also grateful. As much as it costs us to take care of Jemima, our victories are all the sweeter. Someone has likened living through a CF diagnosis to climbing a mountain of slick sh*t with a breathtaking view. I don’t take any of Jemima’s milestones for granted. Her first swim and her first stomp through the snow were deeply emotional and exhilarating for me. Every night that I go into her room and see her sleeping peacefully brings intense thankfulness that we’re not in hospital; that I can enjoy a glass of wine and sleep in my own bed instead of on the hospital floor amidst the bleeping of machines and slamming of doors. (Those of you who’ve been there will know all too well what I mean.) Every morning when she calls me into her room at 6am because “Mr Golden Sun is awake!” is tinged with relief and thankfulness. The breath in all of our lungs is a gift. Life is a gift in all of its fragility.

 

Living in Black and White

Guest Post by Anna Bennett

Anna is an old friend of mine, and we are really honoured that she’s made the time to write this piece.  It’s longer than my usual blog posts, but I’m sure you’ll see that it’s more than worth it.  Thank you, Anna, for your honesty and for sharing part of your story with us.

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Jemima was born in June 2015

Part One: The First Year

Nine months after my daughter Jemima was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, Cat asked me if I would write a post about ‘how the Lord had helped me.’ My initial reaction was one of anger; our world had been shattered and how God fitted into this turn of events was beyond my comprehension. The assumption that God would necessarily be helping us as a family when, as I saw it, he’d not only ‘given’ my daughter a genetic disease but had abandoned me to deal with it in confusion and fear, made me feel all the more lonely and lost. Now, almost two years later and out of the fog of the initial diagnosis, I do have some thoughts to share. It has been and still is a steep learning curve and I am always in transition: one day full of energy and plans and another full of anxiety and fear. Life is unpredictable and my emotions are messy and non-linear. So, more accurately, here are some thoughts from me, today, about the first year of Jemima’s life, on a cloudless Sunday morning.

Jemima was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic condition that affects the lungs and the digestive system, at 10 days old via the heel prick test. We were already in hospital awaiting surgery for a bowel blockage so we knew something wasn’t right. I’d had a relatively eventful pregnancy with extra scans to monitor my gestational diabetes and Jemima’s bowel anomaly – which had been flagged up in my third trimester. Miraculously, she didn’t need surgery and we arrived home armed with medicines, instructions for how to give chest physiotherapy and advice as to how to ‘keep her healthy.’ We were to avoid people with colds and coughs, as children with CF are more susceptible to chest infections, and to avoid other people with CF, due to the risk of passing bugs between them. We were also told, paradoxically, that it was a ‘good time to be diagnosed with CF’ as advancements in medicines to treat the condition were coming thick and fast. And on top of that, we were to ‘treat her like a normal child.’

How can I describe everything that I was feeling? I can only approach it with metaphors. The world, previously benign or even beautiful, became sinister, dangerous and unpredictable. I felt wrenched from the life I’d always known and roughly deposited into a parallel universe of medical terminology and unknown threat to my tiny, precious daughter, who had dropped to under 6lb during her admission. The feeling of being scared to hold her – when she was in hospital and covered in wires and IVs – persisted when we arrived home. Every noise she made terrified me; any delayed bowel movement sent me spinning into panic. But at the same time, she was so unspeakably beautiful, so tiny and so perfect. Intense loneliness, grief and overwhelmingly, anger, characterised the first few months.

I had no idea where God was at this time or what he was doing. I felt utterly abandoned, even cursed by him. Sometimes well-meaning friends would share Bible verses with me which, if I’m honest, mainly served to make me more confused and angry. I felt as if I was in free fall, grasping for someone or something to hold onto. More painful still was that everything I’d thought about the character of God seemed to be shaken. In those times, it was the friends who would just listen to me who helped the most, and who prayed for me when all I wanted to do was scream and rage at God. Behind this white hot anger was the death of my belief that God’s goodness is demonstrated in blessings to us, here and now. Although theologically speaking I could have picked this apart, I still felt that my pregnancy was a blessing and a sign that God was ‘pleased’ with me. To learn that I carried a genetic defect that I had unwittingly passed on to my daughter (there was a ¼ chance that she would have CF – though we didn’t know this before becoming pregnant) was a blow. To discover that having another sibling with CF could put them both at risk of swapping bacterial infections, was heavier still. If God was trying to ‘teach’ me something – as is often talked about in Christian thinking – it wasn’t only ‘not worth it,’ it was downright perverse and sadistic. In hindsight, this was part of the inevitable flow of the grief cycle. I needed to ride out the rawest parts before coming to any conclusions about what life would look like for us and how my view of God had changed. Shock and trauma erased a good part of those early months and I see them now as if watching an old film, about someone else.

After about four months I suddenly felt as if I’d burst up from under the surface of the water. I started to look around me a little. It was Autumn and I remember noticing that the trees were bare apart from a few tiny yellow leaves and of having no recollection of them falling. I remember looking at Jemima, as if for the first time, and wondering who she was and who she would be. But the world was still in black and white, two-dimensional. I was afraid to keep the curtains open after dark. Christmas passed and Jemima remained well. She had gained weight wonderfully and I started to wonder if she really did have CF, as they said she did. I started to wonder if God had chosen to bless her by healing her miraculously, proving the doctors wrong. Denial and hope were given a rude awakening in the results of her ‘sweat test’ (the ‘gold standard’ for confirming a CF diagnosis) showed that, without a doubt, she did have CF. In the meantime, other people had ‘healthy’ babies, and I struggled to piece together my idea of a God who would bless others and not me; who would bless other children but not my daughter. I immersed myself in research about CF but the more I read, the more slippery the ground seemed. There were no concrete predictors of what life would look like for us and how this ‘invisible condition’ would affect her. I became addicted to trying to find the answers, trying to plug the leaks in my fractured world.

Then, I was persuaded to read a book called ‘The Life You Never Expected’ by Andrew and Rachel Wilson. For the first time, I felt that I wasn’t alone in feeling abandoned by God and in struggling to understand why this was happening to us. They articulate a response to suffering that did my heart good: that it is healthy to simply grieve when hit by one of life’s blows. It gave me permission to grieve, doubt and rage, and so begin the healing process:

“Many of us, fuelled by fears, doubts or insecurities, want to rush in with questions (‘how could God let this happen to us?’), answers (‘this must be happening because of this’), advice (‘we/you should start doing that’) or just plain silly comments (‘it will be alright’) …But there’s a place for just wailing about it, like Jesus did when his friend died, and like the psalmists seemed to do all the time.”

At the heart of the matter, my assumption that God was good, or at least of what good looked like, had been dissolved. What C.S. Lewis wrote in his Narnia series about the God-figure Aslan: that he’s not safe but that he is good, rang true. I didn’t feel that God was safe. Trusting a God who could allow my daughter to inherit a chronic genetic condition felt like a risky option. And if this was what good looked like, I wasn’t sure I wanted this sort of good God. Yet, where else could I go? The internet had failed me. Medical knowledge had failed me. Doctors, as I discovered to my horror, were not fonts of all wisdom and healing, but flawed humans with extra knowledge and experience, infinitely more qualified to treat my daughter than I am, but not infallible. Even they couldn’t tell me how the disease would manifest itself in Jemima’s body, much as I quizzed them about it.

It opened up the larger problem of suffering in general. Before having Jemima, my eyes were largely averted from the pain and difficulty around me; it was easier and safer to ignore it. Now, I can’t walk the corridors of our local children’s hospital without being forcibly reminded of is. I can’t see the toddler whose little hat speaks of ongoing cancer treatment or the child with the tracheotomy and nasal gastric tube without knowing something of the reality of this ‘new world’ of suffering. Amongst my acquaintance, this picture of suffering gathers pace; the little girl who dies suddenly of a rare genetic condition; the baby undergoing invasive tests to determine what is going wrong in her little body. As I once heard Don Carson say: “sooner or later, life will kick you in the teeth.” Suffering isn’t a matter of if but of when and how. I have gone through my entire life assuming that it’ll probably never happen, but when Jemima became the of 1 in 2,500 babies born with CF, this idea didn’t hold water.

As much as I resent being admitted into this new reality, I do believe it’s fundamentally the most accurate view of life. There’s nothing like being given a ‘life expectancy’ for your newborn to make you question all the notions you’ve been living by. Yet the reality is that life itself is terminal. It makes the idea of ‘life expectancy’ somewhat meaningless as, even if you don’t have a diagnosed health condition, an aggressive cancer could snuff you out, as it did one of our lovely CF nurses, between two of our bimonthly clinic appointments. And even if this doesn’t happen, death is bizarrely the only absolute certainty in life. As the apostle Paul writes in the book of Romans: “outwardly we are fading away.” As the artist Sufjan Stevens sings in ‘Fourth of July’: “we’re all gonna die.”

In the emotional chaos of the first year, I found C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Screwtape Letters’ helpful in articulating this alternative view of the world. It is a fictional series of letters from Screwtape, a senior devil, to Woodwood, a junior devil, advising him about how to tempt his ‘victim’ during a time of suffering. Here, the Enemy is God. This passage chimed with my experience of suffering in early months of Jemima’s diagnosis. I didn’t feel that God was there and I didn’t know what he was doing, but I know that he must have been there or I wouldn’t be writing this now:

“Of course, at the precise moment of terror, bereavement, or physical pain, you may catch your man when his reason is temporarily suspended. But even then, if he applies to Enemy headquarters, I have found that the post is nearly always defended.”

To be continued…