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!

“Food-Shop” Challenge, Week Two

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I just wanted to write a quick update on the plan to cut my food bill in order to send money to Tearfund for those suffering a famine in East Africa.

I didn’t run out of fruit as I’d feared!  Hooray for bumper bags of apples.  The Lord provides.

I was definitely more aware of my general spending throughout the week, which can only be a good thing.  Especially living in a city, it’s so easy to fritter away cash throughout the week.  A coffee here, a sandwich there – it all adds up.

We decided to do it for a second week, which I think is definitely a good idea because you might find you can freeze things or you bought slightly too much of something the first week and can eek things out a bit.  What I mean is, I found it easier the second week to spend less because I’d made some foolish mistakes the first week, like buying too many sausages.  Also we were all set for dishwasher tablets and nappies.

Also, my children surprised me by not minding at all about some of the changes that I thought they’d really notice.  Eg.  I bought a giant tub of cheap natural yogurt instead of exciting little munch bunch ones (other brands are available), and they are perfectly happy with that.  They are also, dare I write it, happy with bread and butter!

I was reminded on Sunday, hearing a talk on giving (coincidence?), that our main motivation for giving is the generosity of Christ.  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9.)  We should always be giving sacrificially to the Lord, our of gratitude to Christ for all he’s given to us.  So this little food-shop challenge is an extra bit of giving in a crisis, but the ultimate motivation is still the same.  This is something else to chat to the children about – what a blessing it will be for them if they can grow up as cheerful givers.

 

“Food Shop” Challenge, Week One

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This week our family has spent less on food in order that we can send some money to those suffering famine East Africa (click here for the Tearfund appeal page).  It’s a pretty straightforward idea: we don’t really have spare cash lying around, so we need to go without some things in order to be able to give.  I know some people do things like live off £1 a day for 5 days, but when you’re feeding little ones that doesn’t seem like a very good idea.  It might not sounds like much, but our budget is tight already so it is a bit of a challenge, but definitely worth it.

There are several benefits, besides the fact that you’re able to help those suffering a famine:

  • It helps the children to have a global perspective, in their own little way.  As we eat our meals we can pray together for those in Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.  We can pray that it will help them to have concern for people in other nations as they grow up.
  • It helps us all to see how rich we are.  I cut our grocery bill by a third (it would have been more, but we needed nappies and dishwasher tablets – I know, first world problems!), but we’re still eating well.  They won’t go hungry, that’s for sure.  They just won’t be as spoilt for choice.  “It’s Cornflakes or Cornflakes, peeps!”  Knowing we can live comfortably for less helps us see how much we have.  This in turn should make us thankful to God for all he gives us.
  • It’s challenged me to have more concern for the poor.  Last night we had a homeless man sleeping outside our flat.  On the way past him, Ezra said “I think that man is poor, like us.” This led to a long chat with him about what “poor” really means!  It does not mean, you can’t afford a birthday party at the local soft play, or you can’t afford a Chelsea (eek) football kit.  But as I was putting dinner on the table, I was challenged by the thought that Spike was sitting out there, cold and hungry.  By going without some treats so we could send money to Africa, were we really showing care for the poor, or was it just a token effort?  So Mike took him down some roast pork and veggies, which were much appreciated.  Would I have done this if we weren’t already focussing a bit on the poor this week?  Would Ezra have said anything?  I don’t know.  But I’m glad he did.

So that’s it really.  Hope you find it helpful or thought-provoking as an idea.  We’ll probably do it again next week – and hopefully we won’t need any expensive things like washing powder.  I’ve done this before – for Napal that time –  but my memory of it is blurry.  (Maybe I was pregnant?) Hopefully if we do it often enough, our children will see it as normal and it will give them a more healthy perspective on wealth and poverty.  You might think it’s nowhere near enough, but I think it’s one way we can help others and teach our children to be grateful to God for our food, rather than taking it for granted and rattling through “grace” without really meaning it.

If we do things like this, let’s do it cheerfully.  God loves a cheerful giver.  As Chauncy the Raccoon says, “Those who are generous are blessed when they share their bread with the poor.”

Ready?

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I asked for lots of “old lady” presents for my Birthday last month – and I was so pleased with them! Afternoon tea, tickets to watch the theatre at the cinema (it’s cheaper), and a book about Winston Churchill. This is the first of what may be several blog posts influenced by the big man himself, Sir Winston, First Lord of the Admiralty and Prime Minister of Great Britain (yes, that Winston Churchill).

The other day I read a speech he made to the House of Commons in 1911 when he was trying to introduce unemployment insurance. He talked about the fact that when the economy is doing quite well, we forget what it was like in harder times:

“Providence has ordained that human beings should have short memories, and pain and anxiety are soon forgotten. But are we always to oscillate between panic and torpor?”

I think (surprise, surprise) that he makes an excellent point. In many areas of life, we can so often act quickly and enthusiastically when something is urgent (e.g. you have 24 hours to do your tax return or complete your school application) or something is really concerning (e.g. you’re about to go overdrawn or get a parking ticket, or you think your child has a tropical disease). But the rest of the time, we can be a bit lazy and complacent.

We can see in God’s word that Sir Winston is right about humans being forgetful. Take the book of Judges for example: God’s people rebel, they get in trouble, they cry out for help, God saves them, they rebel etc. etc. Or consider Pharoah’s cupbearer in Genesis 40-41. Terrified about his dream, Joseph is the only one who can help him. Joseph asks him for one favour in return: “The chief cupbearer, however did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” Then, when he’s panicking two years later, “Today I’m reminded of my shortcomings…” (Unbelievable!) Or in the New Testament, there are so many reminders to pray and keep trusting in the Lord (e.g. Philippians 4:4-7; James 1:22-25; 1 Peter 5:6-11), because we forget to do it, or we’re just lazy (or torpid, as Churchill would say).

As I wrote last week, we’ve been thinking about spiritual disciplines. I think many of us who struggle to keep up with regular, persistent prayer, find it much easier when we’re in a panic over something. My child is being bullied, or my husband might lose his job, or my mum has had some worrying test results. At these times, I don’t struggle to remember to make time to pray. It’s my priority. But when things are just pootling along nicely, I soon forget those concerns about provision or life and death, and then I might find my prayer time slips down the “to do” list.

So rather than “oscillating between panic and torpor,” would it not be better for my relationship with the Lord and with everyone around me (as well as my own sanity) if I chose secret option C? Perhaps we could call it Readiness. If I’m praying regularly for people I love, and thanking God for his ongoing provision, and asking him to help me serve him better, and the million other things there are to pray about, then when the air raid siren goes off I won’t be running around scrabbling to find shelter. I’ll be ready. I’m aware I’ve moved into a war metaphor now instead of an unemployment metaphor. Maybe it’s because I’m reading a book about Churchill, (did I mentioned that?) or maybe it’s because God uses a war metaphor when it comes keeping going in the Christian life:

Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6)

Let’s put on the armour of God, so that when the unexpected happens (bullyinh, bereavement, redundancy), or even just the everyday stuff (tantrums, tummy bugs, mess) we can stand firm and not run around like headless chickens, as though we don’t have an awesome and powerful God who is in control of even this.

Related post: Fight for your Life.

As ever, please share if this is helpful, and leave a comment if you have any!  Thanks for reading.

Monkey See?

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I’m trying to teach my children the piano. I can play, but I never do. They never practise, so we’re not making much progress. I know that if they saw me play, they’d probably play too.

When my husband does the washing up, he sings worship songs as loud as he dares (my children are heavy sleepers). When my 5-yr-old son plays with his Lego, he sings worship songs, too.

I have a lovely friend who always comments on my children’s clothes when I see her. She told me one day that her son is really fussy about what he wears, and she doesn’t know where he gets it from.

My neat-freak friends despair when their children cry over spilt yogurt; my own children are hopelessly messy and I know where they get that from.

I used to have so much trouble getting my children to eat vegetables, and when I asked people for advice they usually said first, “do you eat vegetables?”

 

Your children don’t just learn from what you say. In fact, many would argue that they learn a lot more from your actions than from your words. This is such a sobering thought.

A mentor of mine, Linda Marshall, used to say to me that if you wanted people to learn something, you should tell them, show them and then tell them again. I need to remember that the “showing” part speaks volumes.

I’ve been challenged over the past week about “spiritual disciplines” (which means reading the Bible and praying). I do these things, but I am not as committed to them as I am to teaching my children to do them. So if I don’t prioritise them myself, why should they value them? And worse still, am I teaching them to be hypocrites?

Thinking more broadly, I might teach my children to put Jesus first, but if I clearly put their education or their extra-curricular activities first, then why should I expect them to grow up following Jesus? I know this is a problem in many youth groups: parents end up blaming the youth leaders because their children give up on church, but they’ve clearly modeled to their children over the years that church is bottom priority.

We’ve just started a series at church on The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). These words from Jesus are seriously challenging:

‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’

As Pastor Andy Mason said, the wide gate isn’t necessarily the way of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It can also be the way of false religion and hypocrisy. And what could be more hypocritical than telling my own children to rely on God through prayer, but not doing it myself? Instead of just telling my children to scoot along the narrow way that leads to life, I need to be on it myself. Otherwise why should they believe me?

They won’t find it much of a struggle to praise the Lord if they see that I truly love and worship him myself, with my words and my actions. This means that when I say, “Not now, I’m just reading my Bible,” I’m actually doing them a great favour. I read a leaflet once that said you shouldn’t feel guilty about reading a book in front of your children, because you are teaching them to love reading. Don’t feel bad about praying or reading the Bible when your children are safely doing something else (CBeebies?), because you’re showing them that this Jesus thing is real for you, too. It also shows them that we can’t sustain ourselves; we need Him to feed us and help us each day. As Pastor Andy says, if Jesus needed to pray each day, how can we survive without it?

And I just can’t mention the narrow and wide roads without ending on a Colin Buchanan song:

“Big car, sweet ride! But tell me where you gonna drive that thing?
Cos there’s a wide, wide highway and it leads to destruction;
There’s a narrow, narrow way and it leads to life;
You’ve got to drive, drive, drive with your eyes on Jesus
He’s the King, He’s the prize,
He’s the narrow, narrow, narrow way that leads to life!”

As ever, please leave your comments by clicking on the speech bubble at the top of this post.  And do share if you’ve found it helpful, thanks!

New Year, New Disappointments

Book review – John Hindley, Dealing with Disappointment

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Did you have a disappointing 2016? Well I do hope your 2017 is less so.

That’s not something people usually write in your Christmas card, but it’s pretty appropriate. We did actually get a card saying words to that effect, and I appreciated its realism.  Our 2016 wasn’t bad at all, as years go, but it was peppered with disappointments, as is all of life if we’re being completely honest.

Let’s take parenting as an example.  Being a parent is a wonderful blessing, for which I am truly thankful.  However, I would be lying if I said there was nothing disappointing about it.  The scope for disappointment is huge and varied.  Perhaps you were disappointed with how difficult (or easy) it was to conceive, or with how you felt during pregnancy. Perhaps you wanted a natural birth and in reality that was impossible – or vice versa! It’s easy to be disappointed with how little sleep you get and how slowly things improve.  You might feel disappointed with your child’s nursery (or at least the cost of it), or school, or their behaviour, or their interest in Jesus.  There are countless other opportunities to be disappointed as a parent, and I haven’t even mentioned the major one, the thing that disappoints me most, which is my own sin.  My selfishness, impatience, inconsistency, pride, self righteousness, unkindness and ingratitude.  And the rest.

So, what can be done? Well, I was so pleased to read this book by John Hindley, in which he goes through reasons we are disappointed and when that is entirely appropriate as well as when it isn’t.  As he writes, “you should be disappointed.”  It’s inevitable in this fallen world. This book, as the title suggests, helps us deal with that disappointment in an appropriate way so that we can use it to focus all the more on Christ’s return.

The first part of the book discusses why we are disappointed, and how the gospel can change our attitudes.  The second part is more practical, addressing different specific reasons for disappointment: our situations, our success, our ministry, ourselves, and God.  I found all of it really helpful: it really is a breath of fresh air.

Here are three highlights for me:

I really appreciated the way Hindley writes about parenthood, and even specifically motherhood.  I felt like he understands what it’s like.  He must communicate well with his wife, I assume!

The style of the book is really simple, clear and direct.  Hindley is succinct and challenging, which you really want when you’re short of time and looking for practical encouragement.

He emphasises the need for community , and how we are not meant to fight the Christian fight alone.

I hope that you will choose to read this book this year, because no matter how many times you are wished a “Happy New Year,” 2017 will not be free of disappointments. And that’s ok!  I hope you have a joyful January.

You can spend your Christmas money on this fabulous book here at the Good Book Company.

P.S. Did you notice I wrote this whole review without making any jokes about the book “not being a disappointment” or any similar cringe-worthy statements! It took some self control, I can tell you.  Well done me!

 

Quick, Quick, S l o w

I’ve been far too busy this term, so I found this helpful to read again. It makes me smile, too, because of my baby Martha. I introduced her to someone the other day and he said, “Aw, was she the one who sat at Jesus’ feet?”
I said, “No, she was the busy one.” A little awkward! Poor Martha can look forward to a lifetime of such conversations. 🙂

Mum in Zone One

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Have you ever done one of those personality tests?  You answer one hundred and one questions and then your character gets summed up in a four-letter acronym.  I’ve never done a proper one, although I’d like to, but a while ago I did a half-hearted one online with the help of my mum-in-law.  She would read out two statements and I had to choose between the two, but the statements didn’t always seem mutually exclusive.  I remember one question said: ‘Which best describes you?  a) You like to get things done, or b) You like to know that everyone’s getting on well’  I picked ‘b’ because surely people are more important than tasks!  Mum-in-law (who knows me too well) said, ‘Really?  Are yous sure?’  I resolved, ‘Yes, of course.’

But since then I’ve often looked back and admitted regretfully, ‘No, I should have said ‘a’.’  Because knowing what’s more important…

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ANYTHING but that

You may have felt a bit like this last night if you chose not to celebrate Halloween while everyone else from school was wandering the neighbourhood on a sugar high in super-fun fancy dress. Maybe that didn’t happen to you, but either way I hope this encourages you. I’ve certainly been saying “no” a lot since the children went back to school. It’s been a long two days…

Mum in Zone One

living water

We just borrowed a book from the library (how good is the library?), Me and My Nan by Amana Rainger and Simone Abel.  I’ve written the entire book below as a poem:

Nan came to meet me to take her to her flat.
I ran on to the bus stop.  Nan said, “Don’t do that!”
We went to the shops, and Nan stopped for a chat.
I hid round the corner.  Nan said, “Don’t do that!”
We walked by the river and I shouted, “There’s a rat!”
I thought it was funny.  Nan said, “Don’t do that!”
I knocked on the front door with a rat-a-tat-tat!
Nan dropped all the shopping.  She said, “Don’t do that!”
We had ham for tea, but I don’t like the fat.
So I hid it in the plant pot.  Nan said, “Don’t do that!”
I dropped the ketchup.  It landed, ker-splat!
Nan spilt her tea. …

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Asked and Answered

I’ve been reminded of this lately, particularly when negotiating with my son regarding the number of plums it’s sensible to consume in one day. (You can rely on him to be harbouring a plum stone in his mouth most of the time.) I wanted to write a post tonight (not about plums or stones), but family had other plans. So I hope you enjoy this instead.

Mum in Zone One

asked and answered

I’ve been watching The Good Wife – sorry to disappoint. If you’re blissfully ignorant, it’s a glamorous drama set in a Chicago law firm in which impossibly attractive people betray each other.

There’s a phrase that comes up a lot in the courtroom scenes: “Asked and answered.” It’s an objection which the lawyers use if their opposition is trying to emphasise a point by asking a question that’s already been answered, like this:

Lawyer 1:       “Who was with you in the car?”
Witness:         “The accused.”
Lawyer 1:       “So the accused was with you in the car?”

Lawyer 2:       “Objection, Your Honour! Asked and answered.”
Judge:            “Sustained.”

I said to Mike the other day that this “Asked and answered” objection is a phrase I’d quite like to use about a dozen times a day with my 5-year-old daughter. Conversations with her tend to…

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Rude not to

Hello there.  You probably already know about this but it would be rude of me not to mention that you can now buy the live album, See him Face to Face, by the co-mission music bods.  (Co-mission is a network of churches in London.) There are 13 songs on there, two of which were written by my gifted husband.  For about the first 12 weeks of Martha’s life, Mike was also working at editing these songs.  Why such bad timing?  Only the Lord knows.  But one day I shall see him face to face and can ask him.  Of course I won’t care by then.  I can hardly remember it now.

What was I saying?

Oh yes.  I highly recommend, but of course I’m biased so you should listen for yourself.  It’s on Spotify (although… adverts 👎🏼), or you can buy it here.

Sorry for the lack of picture.  We don’t have our copy yet…