A warning from God

A few weeks ago, I moved house (I might have mentioned this!). In the run up, there was all sorts of throwing-out-of-things and also buying-of things. I also decided I needed a new comfy, sink-yourself-into-it armchair.

And so, the search began.

I knew exactly what I wanted (think: light grey, huge, super comfy wingback) and so I began a search online and also all the local outlet shops, looking, looking, looking for the perfect chair.

I needed it for Christmas. There was a family ‘do’ planned. Not having a chair wasn’t an option.

As I explained this to a salesman in one shop, he blithely replied, I think that’s what you call ‘First World Problems’.

And true, he was right.

But still, I wanted a chair.

One morning I woke up and there in my notifications, was the perfect chair for sale. Better still, it was a good price and at an outlet store not too far from me. I sent an email and that afternoon, went over to take a look.

But, as I walked into the showroom, something felt ‘off’.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but all of a sudden, my spiritual senses were on high alert.

I sat in the chair (comfy!) and walked round it (perfect!) but in this little backalley discount furniture place, I suddenly found myself surrounded by 3 salespeople, all trying to convince me to buy the chair.

I continued to feel uneasy as something in my head and heart was saying, It’s wrong, you can’t buy it.

That didn’t stop me from wanting it though.

I left the shop and over the next few days, consulted with several friends who all said the same, ‘trust your gut’.

I knew they were right, but still, I WANTED that chair!

I even said to a friend, ‘I’ll pray over it, I’ll sanctify it’. Again, the response was, ‘your gut hasn’t let you down so far. You need to trust it’.

By now, I was in a bit of a grump with God. No other chairs were turning up and yet this perfect one was sitting there, tantalisingly close, but somehow I wasn’t allowed to buy it? That wasn’t fair!

The next day, out of the blue, the shop emailed me. ‘We have another chair you might like’, they said. They attached pictures and this one was even better.

I was about to reply but even as my fingers hit the keyboard, there was an urgent ‘stop’ in my head. Stop. Stop. Stop.

I didn’t send the email.

But by now, I was mighty miffed at this bizarre situation. Why was it so wrong? Whatever it was, wasn’t the power of Jesus, bigger, stronger, tougher?

As I drifted off to sleep that night, I was still thinking about The Chair.

Dozy and comfortable in bed, I said to the Lord, ‘maybe you can show me why this is so wrong? I know you don’t have to…but maybe you could let me see?’

Be careful what you pray for.

Eyes shut…drifted into a lovely, relaxed sleep.

All of a sudden, desperate blood, darkness, kidnapping, horror, someone being murdered in the worst possible way, demons attacking, more blood, desperation and darkness.

I woke up a few hours later in bed, gasping for air, slick with stickiness. And all of a sudden in the twilight hours, there was this simple voice in my heart.

THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE LETTING INTO YOUR HOME.

And I knew, instantly that my father had given me a rare insight into an unseen world.

I knew too that the people selling the chair were probably NOT kidnappers or murderers, but someone in the sales chain probably carried some kind of murderous spirit.

A murderous spirit can show up in all kinds of ways, not just in those who kill. It can be found in people who kill ideas, who crush dreams, who ‘murder’ the hopes of others.

Did I want that in my home?

Uhm, no.

I felt too in that voice, a gentle rebuke. I’d tried so hard to push back against the initial discernment.

I tried to find ways around it, to buy the chair and redeem it. But from day 1, God had said no and yet I still tried to convince him to say yes.

Where am I going with all this?

To be frank, I don’t really know. I am just as confused as you might be, about this bizarre chain of events.

But here’s what I do know,

God is faithful. He speaks to his children. He warns them about danger. He wants to protect them from harm. Sometimes he’ll use brute force to drive home a message.

I don’t like it when he does, but I had no choice but to listen.

I didn’t buy the chair and I said sorry to God for trying to push against his will.

When God warns us about something, it’s always for our own good.

I moved house…

On Saturday, I moved house.

I had no idea just how big and huge and stressful and yet, how blessed and amazing this experience would be.

But first, let me rewind to a couple of years ago.

The hunt for a house began officially in 2015. I initially registered with some estate agents and viewed quite a few places. I even made an offer on one, but if I’m honest, none of them filled me with the kind of fizzy excitement that I was promised would be mine, when I found the ‘right one’.

And then, just when I’d decided to park the idea until the new year, Number 9 popped up on Rightmove.

I liked the area where Number 9 was situated but didn’t particularly like the photos of the house. Furthermore, the street name was missing an apostrophe and everyone who knows me, knows that apostrophes are VERY, VERY important. Still, despite it all, I decided to book an appointment to go and see the house.

Surprisingly, as soon as we pulled up in front, something jumped in my heart and the minute we walked through the door, I just knew where the sofa was going to go.

This was ‘the one’.

Driving the car away later after an extended viewing, I actually pulled off into a side street to ring my financial advisor and ask him to do some number crunching to see if this was affordable. I really, really wanted it to be! Later, having a few doubts at the monumental decision I was about to make, I posted a poll on Twitter.

Could I live in a house in a street with a missing apostrophe? (Yes, I’m THAT sad!!)

I had replies from quite a few, but this one made me think.

I then had the lengthy process of mortgage-applying, valuation, all of that stuff, which was a mind-boggling mystery to me as a first time buyer, but somehow it all went through smoothly and I was given a completion date.

While all this was going on, I was busy picking carpets and colour schemes, but I also realised that in the huge rush, I’d forgotten to do one crucial thing.

I’d neglected to commit the whole process to God.

Of course, I’d prayed about it and I knew he was there, directing my steps anyway, but I’d not actively brought him in and asked for his help.

One night, I was at a Bethel concert with my friend Danielle from Manna Cards and as we worshipped, I had this lovely, clear picture of God’s presence already in place and filling my new home.

The house was stood empty at this point, I’d not even signed the paperwork, but somehow I KNEW he’d gone before me. His presence was already there, filling the rooms.

And man, I was going to need it.

Next began the process of emptying my current home. As it’s owned by a member of my family, I started assisting with some of the admin, getting the carpets replaced, showing estate agents round, arranging for pictures to be taken.

I was juggling that with trying to move into a new home as well as doing normal life and working full time at a job which is always busy.

And then it seemed, after such a smooth start, that suddenly everything was going wrong.

The new washing machine (despite measuring) was too big, the new carpet was too fluffy for the doors (the doors all needed to be removed and trimmed), the vinyl which was ordered was now out of stock, the attempts at painting a feature wall left dark splodges, the new TV stand was too small for the TV…and on and on. All decidedly ‘first world problems’ but each presenting their own set of stresses.

I had a group of lovely friends to help move (which was incredible) but in my mind, I was definitely carrying all the ‘heaviness’ and stress myself. Every time an issue popped up, my usual problem-solving nature did a backflip out the window, leaving me helpless and wondering what to do. I could feel this odd anxiety building.

But then I noticed another phenomena.

When a problem arose, every time I paused for just a few seconds and said, ‘Lord, I need a solution’ or just ‘help’, almost within the hour, I had my answer.

The shop agreed to take the TV stand back (despite the fact it had no labels or packaging), a friend on Facebook happened to know a carpenter who’d fix my doors (in return for pizza), the out-of-stock vinyl was replaced by a style I liked even better…and the list went on.

In the last few days, I’ve never been so aware of the concept of God as my ‘best friend’.

I’ve leapt from discouraged to elated within minutes, found ways and means to fix things that I didn’t even know were possible and above all, despite being tired and cranky some of the time, I have most definitely felt the presence of God in this new home. I have woken up in the wee hours, aware of his presence and my first ever set of visitors told me how peaceful the house felt.

God showed me (back at the Bethel concert) that he was already here and my goodness, how true that is.

And so, as I wrap this blog up, here’s a few things I’ve learned while trying to navigate my way through a pretty big project.

Ask God for help – even with the seemingly daft stuff

Screws won’t go into the wall? Spilled paint on a surface? Can’t figure out how to work the new washer? Ask God for help. Seriously! Yes, he’s busy maintaining the world but I absolutely believe he’s there for the small, mundane things as well.

Ask other people for help

I’m pretty self-sufficient (or so I thought!) but I’ve had to wave a white flag of surrender on more than one occasion recently. I have surrendered to the notion that I cannot do everything by myself and that it’s ok to ask for (and receive!) help. And when it’s offered and people tell you they do it because they love you, accept it. Accept that you’re loved with no strings attached and that sometimes, people just like to help. They just need to be asked.

Be kind to yourself

If you’re anything like me, you might put yourself under immense pressure to have everything done perfectly straight away.

Guess what? It’s not a competition. If some of the boxes are still there unpacked in 4 weeks, you won’t get a bad grade.

No one is watching, so go easy on yourself and take your time.

Junk food is ok (sometimes)

Sometimes it’s just ok to get your dinner from a drive thru! Dinner doesn’t always have to be home cooked from scratch or served on decent plates at a table.

If you don’t have a table (and have no idea where the plates even are!!!), just eat what you can. Your body likely won’t self-combust after living on takeaways for a few days.

You’re not alone

Whatever you’re going through, whether you’re surrounded by support or not, you’re never alone.

Loneliness is often very little to do with the amount of people in your life and more to do with an internal feeling of aloneness.

Big changes, projects and upheavals can all contribute to that feeling of aloneness…but guess what? With God in the picture, none of us are ever alone. He’s promised to stick closer than a brother and he’s right there where when we need him most. It doesn’t mean that everything gets fixed with the click of a finger, but it DOES mean we can lean on him in the heat of the moment.

And so today, sitting here surrounded by boxes, a washer which doesn’t quite fit and doors hanging off, I’m at peace.

This house is the dream house I never thought was even possible and every time I run up and down the stairs, I am breathing out thanks to my Father who made it all possible.

I am blessed beyond everything I could have imagined. And I’m blessed not just because of this precious, totally unexpected gift, given when I was just about to give up, but because no matter what we go through, God is already there.

Nothing can separate me from his love

When my dad was 42 years old, he had a heart attack. After some recovery time, he was soon on the mend, but a few years later, he began experiencing chest pain again. He was referred to a specialist and after tests, was told his arteries had become so blocked, he was to avoid any stress or exertion, as the slightest incident could provoke another serious heart attack.

He was put on an emergency list for quadruple heart bypass, but as the cardiologist drew a diagram and illustrated just how BAD things really were, he said my dad was unusual. Somehow, despite catastrophic blockages, a tiny vessel had grown which was feeding blood supply to the main artery. The doctor said he’d never seen anything like it before, but it was that small vessel which was keeping my dad going.

Not long after, dad went in for major open heart surgery and over 25+ years later, he’s still keeping our family on our toes, despite another couple of heart attacks and diagnosis of a neurological condition as well.

At heart, he’s a preacher, an evangelist and a man of prayer. If I tell him of a friend who’s struggling, he will always stop the conversation with ‘let’s pray right now’. Many of my friends will tell you how their circumstances have changed because of those powerful prayers.

Last year, on top of everything else, dad went through treatment for (thankfully benign) skin cancer and just yesterday, had an accident at home. Even as they were waiting for an ambulance, my stoic dad was doing his best to keep everyone else calm. He’s since been stitched up and sent home!

Time after time, I’ve sat with him and he’s told me he’s not afraid. Yes, he gets frustrated and fed up (who wouldn’t?!) and there are extremely difficult days for him and all the family, but there is a strong, single thread of faith which runs through all of these trials. It’s a belief that simply, our bodies are just ‘tents’, they’re just temporary homes. The real ‘us’ can never be destroyed by sickness or death.

No one wants to live in a ‘tent’ that doesn’t work very well, but neither should we be defined by it. As a family, we’ve always avoided language like ‘MY heart problems…MY disease’. They’re not ‘mine’. They might be afflicting the body, but they don’t define my spirit, who God created ME to be.

We live in a world where ‘identity’ and ‘community’ is sometimes formed and created around the things which destroy our bodies. Name an illness and you’ll find a ‘community’ and a Facebook group which draws people together under the umbrella of suffering. Don’t get me wrong, I understand fully that support groups are important to many, but at the same time, from a Biblical point of view, our identity doesn’t come from the things which don’t work, but rather the things which do work, like the incredible grace, mercy and love of God.

The apostle Paul knew this to be true too. He was a man who suffered cruel punishment after cruel punishment but yet, he was known only as a follower of Christ, as a man who was willing to lay everything on the line, to follow the God who’d freed him from his old life.

Romans 8 is a beautiful, searing reminder that even when we suffer, when our bodies are decaying (which ALL of our bodies are, whether we like it or not), nothing can seperate us from the love of God. We may face setback after setback, but our spirits, that ‘inner man’ can’t be dented by the external stuff of our bodies.

So, if you’re struggling in some way (whatever it is) today, be encouraged that you are not the sum of your circumstances. As a believer, your identity is secure in the one thing in life which is immovable and unchanging – the character and love of God.

Romans 8 says it best.

“Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.

For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.

We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.” )

No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

‭‭Romans‬ ‭8:18-39‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Don’t give in to hate

‘I hate Donald Trump’. ‘I hate Theresa May’. I hate Jeremy Corbyn.

Have you heard anyone say things like that recently?

I have.

In a politically divided country (and world!), they’re quite common statements.

Some days (particularly on social media), it can feel like hate oozes so easily from the end of typing figures and often, it’s a toxic sludge of hate and smug self righteousness which says, I can write what I like about this person, because they are a much worse human than I am. They deserve everything they get.

Because of this (and due to the risk of possible ‘infection’!) I’m usually kinda careful about what I read and watch on social media. But, being quite fascinated by American politics, the other night I was flicking through Facebook when a video popped up on my news feed.

In the video (which seemed innocent enough), a man (in the US) was standing on his lawn filming as a passing stranger destroyed ‘Vote for Ted Cruz’ signs which were in the front yard.

Hey buddy, that’s my property, you can’t do that‘, said the guy filming.

The stranger turned to the camera and smiled, ‘well, I’ll just destroy your neighbour’s then’.

You can’t do that either (said filming man).

The man behind the camera began to follow the stranger and then told him (politely) that he needed to leave the area.

And then something utterly horrifying happened.

The stranger turned round to the camera and in a split second (before I had time to click ‘stop’ on the video), his features contorted into the most hideous snarling expression, his lips curled back, his eyes blackened, rolled and in a completely different, other-worldly voice, he started to howl and scream into the camera, ‘I hate Ted Cruz, I hate Ted Cruz, I HATE TED CRUZ’.

The moment was so shocking, I literally dropped my phone and frantically tried to switch it off. I knew I had just come face to face with some kind of demonic possession. I’ve never seen anything like it and it was quite horrific. I was not expecting that.

I sat there, heart pounding, pulse racing and had to stop, pray and ask the Lord to remove that horrible image from my head. That was by far the worst thing I’ve ever seen on social media.

But that is what hate looks like.

‘Hate’ used to be this casual word we casually threw around to say, ‘I hate onions, I hate sprouts’. Today a ‘hate crime’ can be anything from a serious physical assault through to a wolf-whistling builder. But in reality, real hate is a soul-destroying, other-worldly, vicious force that can transform a seemingly benign person into a raving, poisonous human being.

Like the guy in the video, a dislike of a politician’s policies had somehow developed into an evil that ran so deep, he had literally embodied it.

Hate is an incredibly powerful, destructive thing and in its early stages, can affect us all, in small, subtle ways.

Does our dislike of a politician’s policies, mutate into a sneering joke about their looks, their family or some other personal name-calling?

Does our sense of injustice mean we find ourselves unable to pray for the person? Perhaps we think they don’t deserve our prayer or for that matter, God’s mercy?

Hate manifests itself in lots of different ways and no matter how strongly I might feel about a public figure’s behaviour or policies, I absolutely want nothing to do with hate.

I don’t want it in my home, on my tv and I definitely don’t want it on my social media newsfeeds. But increasingly so many people seem to be allowing themselves to be embodied by hatred and at the same time, believe it’s ok, because they think they are ‘on the right side of history’.

Most of us would never deliberately introduce a virus or toxin into our physical bloodstream, but emotionally, we can dance round the edges of hatred, dabble with it, play with it.

And yep, even Christians do it. I’ve seen it (from both sides of the political divide) in their online attacks of each other and of ‘the opposition’. Their need to be ‘right’ outweighs the command to be ‘salt’ in a desperately unsalty world.

Yes, we can challenge injustice, unfairness, policies we don’t like (of course!) but ‘being salt’ is literally about being a source of healing, a disinfectant to the toxic hell so much of the world seems to have fallen into.

Salt has cleansing properties. It can help to heal wounds, melt ice and spiritually, it can bring healing and reconciliation (even when consensus on an issue can’t be reached). In all our interactions, as Christians, is that our goal? Or is it more important to ‘win’?

Can we set ourselves the challenge of actively praying for a world leader or public figure we don’t like very much? Can we get past our own feelings to do that? That’s just one way to be different, to be salt and light, when we’re surrounded by only darkness.

I’m speaking to myself just as much as anyone else, here!

Although the video I accidentally watched the other night was deeply disturbing, I later began to wonder if I was meant to see it? Maybe God wanted to show me what true hate can look like, so that I could begin to understand, how important it is, to be salt.

In the right place, at the right time?

The phone in the cold, draughty hallway rang shrilly and it just so happened, I was at home that day and able to answer.

‘Hello Paula?’ said a cheery voice.

It was a temp agency.

I was in my final year of university and, in need of some extra cash, had registered with this agency, assuming they would have so many applications that I’d probably never get a reply.

But here they were on the phone, they’d received my form and were inviting me for an interview.

An interview? Seriously? I’d never had one of those before. What did you wear? How did you behave? I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go ahead.

However, despite my misgivings, standing in the chilly hallway, I scribbled down the details and accepted the offer, secretly thinking that I’d probably ring them in a day or so and cancel.

Little did I know, but that simple interview was to kickstart a chain of events that, over the next 20 years, would be completely life-changing.

In the days leading up to the appointment, I nearly cancelled, but on the day itself, I summoned up some guts, dressed in my best trousers and smart jacket, and within days, remarkably, I’d landed an incredible job.

I was sent to the HQ of a local TV station, and my part time temp role (in between Uni lectures) was to take calls for the biggest daytime TV programme in the country, ‘This Morning’.

I loved it! Every day, there would be a televised phone in and it was my job (along with a team) to chat to viewers, record their comments and decide which ones would be put forward to go on air. Great team, great fun…I felt like I’d truly landed on my feet. I knew it was only a temporary job, but I was getting some great media and life experience.

And then there was big news.

This Morning announced they were moving the whole programme from Liverpool to London and, unexpectedly, I was asked if I wanted to go with them.

It was a BIG move. I’d only ever been to London a few times as a child, but now I’d graduated, I was available and it was an opportunity too good to be missed.

And so, about 8 weeks later, my dad drove me (and a car packed full of boxes) down to London, where I began my new life as a 21 year old, working in the amazing craziness of daytime TV.

My new job was heading up the travel department. My team’s job was to get all the TV guests from wherever they were in the world, to the studios (and back) in time for their on air slot. Throw in the factor of unpredictable flights, trains and infamous London traffic, the responsibility of the job was pretty immense.

But I loved it. I loved being in the studio with my guests, walking around with my talkback set on, calling chauffeurs to side entrances to whisk celebrities (the kind I’d only ever read about) home and dealing with all kinds of unusual travel dramas.

TV jobs can be hard-going though and after 2 years, I felt it was time to get more experience in PR (which is what I really wanted to do). And, over the next few years, I ended up working for aid and development charity, World Vision.

Still with me? (There’s a point to this long and convoluted tale, I promise!)

Working as the celebrity coordinator at World Vision, one of my first tasks was to highlight the increasing number of children who were being affected by HIV and AIDS across Africa. The statistics were horrifying and it seemed an almost impossible task, but somehow in my guts, I knew there must be a way to tell the story, in a way that people would really hear.

It then occurred to me that I might already know people who could help. And so a few phone calls later, a colleague and I found ourselves back in the Editor’s office at This Morning, asking if we could take the programme’s Agony Aunt, (the late) Denise Robertson and a crew to Uganda, to meet children being affected by the relentless spread of HIV.

Finally, after more discussion, we got a green light and some while later, we found ourselves landing in Kampala, surrounded by flight cases of camera equipment.

Over the next week, we followed a planned itinerary and met some truly incredible people. We met families who had been devastated to lose 5 or more children to the scourge of Aids. One lady had buried 11 of her children and grandchildren and lived on a plot of land, surrounded by simple wooden crosses marking their graves.

I’ll never forget meeting one little girl who stood silently beside me, while the other kids danced around and played with the cheap, plastic toys we’d given them. This little girl though, it was like she’d given up, as though at 6 (roughly) years of age, she didn’t have any joy left. Her head was covered with telltale white patches and I wondered if she too already had HIV.

Toward the end of the trip, we had a little bit of unplanned time one day, so we decided to go off the beaten track and see if we could find just one more story to record, to help finalise the film. I remember it being a warm and sticky day and we had to trek up a slight incline, carrying some of the camera gear. We came to a clearing and with the help of some translators, were led to the home of two young boys, Fred and Emmanuel.

At first, it was difficult to take in what I was hearing. But as the story unfolded, I learned these boys (both under 12 years old) were living alone, as both of their parents had died (likely of Aids).

They were clearly hungry, Emmanuel sat in the corner of their simply constructed one-room house, with his arms wrapped round his body, shivering (despite the warmth of the day).

On the floor was a big, red tomato.

It looked juicy and delicious, but it was their only food. They were carving small chunks out of it and eating it, trying to make it last for as long as possible.

Thankfully, after filming their story, we were able to help them. We returned the next day with bags of rice, flour, oil and (fresh from the market), a goat! How I managed to wrestle a somewhat reluctant goat into the back of a pickup truck, is a story for another day!

When the programme finally aired, it generated a huge response for World Vision. Denise communicated the need brilliantly and the viewers responded in their thousands. Standing in front of the TV at work, watching the show go out and hearing all the phones ringing crazily behind me, is a moment I will never forget. It felt like we were (accidentally) part of something utterly extraordinary.

Over the years that followed, I never forgot Fred and Emmanuel. I had a couple of updates and I heard how much the programme had changed their lives. Thanks to the show, World Vision’s support and Denise’s epic fundraising, the boys were given a new home, were able to go to school and I heard they were now growing bananas on a small plot of land, which enabled them to have an income.

And then, at the beginning of 2018, something extraordinary happened.

I was sitting in a meeting and needed to look up something on LinkedIn. It’s not a site I use very often but as I opened the app, I noticed I had a message from someone called Fred.

Intrigued, I read it and quickly realised this was THE Fred…of Fred and Emmanuel.

Somehow, even though 20 years had passed, Fred remembered our visit with great detail and thanks to all the assistance they’d received, he was now part of the Denise Robertson Foundation, helping orphaned children. He and Emmanuel had even adopted an orphan themselves.

I nearly dropped my phone in complete shock and delight.

And as I left the meeting and returned to my desk, I found I had a voicemail from a UK representative of the Foundation, asking if I’d call them back.

It turns out they’d been looking for people who were on the original trip to Uganda for quite some time and they were really pleased to have finally tracked one of us down.

It was so great (and more than a little overwhelming) to get the full update from the boys and hear how well they were doing, more than 20 years after the programme had aired.

And so, all these years later, tomorrow (Oct 3) is the 30th anniversary of This Morning and all I can say is, if you’re around, you might want to tune in (or record it) for an update.

For me, through all of this, through 20+ years of an astonishing story, I am reminded of one simple thing – the big things, come from small things.

Going (reluctantly) to a job interview, as a student and landing a seemingly insignificant part-time job led to a new job, new connections, a trip and ultimately two young boys having their worlds transformed.

On a grey day, we can easily despise the small things, turn over in bed, allow our nerves to get the better of us and yet, what if, those simple, ordinary, everyday things, have the power to impact the world around us? If I hadn’t answered the phone that day in the draughty hallway, if I had cancelled the interview, so many things might not have happened.

Getting up each day might feel like a chore, as you go to a job you dislike, or have to break up arguments between children, get stuck in traffic or find yourself doing a task you really don’t want to do. But what if, every small action is part of a journey, towards greater, life-transforming things?

What if, today is the day, YOU will be the right person in the right place at the right time?

You might never see the effects or get the opportunity to hear what happened next, but what if?

What if?

Letting go of an old season…

A few years ago, my dad suffered a heart attack. He’s had various health and heart issues since his early 40s, but as he was recovering from this episode, we decided that when he was better, we’d get him a dog.

My dad had always wanted a dog but the circumstances hadn’t been right. But now, with regular gentle exercise being encouraged by his cardiologist, the timing seemed perfect.

And so the search for the ‘right’ dog began.

Dad wanted what he called a ‘proper dog’, a Labrador or a Retriever and so finally after a few months of careful research, we settled on the idea of a Labradoodle. We were told they had the gentle nature of a Lab but the intelligence and energy of a poodle…in other words, a dog that wouldn’t just sit lazily at your feet, but a dog who would act as a regular daily alarm clock to get out walking.

We found a reputable breeder, who currently had 6 new puppies to sell and then, we made our first rookie error.

They say you should never let a puppy pick you. The puppy that picks you (rather than you selecting from the pack) is likely to be the cheekiest, most inquisitive of the bunch. But, from under a pile of steaming, stinky, milky little bodies, a little black nose popped out and on spindly legs wobbled his way towards us. Within minutes, he was chewing fingers and licking faces.

This was the one. This was our ‘Samson’. He picked us.

After my parents took him home, my dad created a daily training and walking schedule and as Samson grew and grew and grew, he got attention and compliments wherever he went.

Isn’t he lovely?

What a beautiful coat.

He’s so big.

For my dad, a seasoned and enthusiastic evangelist, Samson was a gift from heaven.

Every dog walker who stopped to admire Dad’s rapidly growing puppy, invariably ended up in a conversation about the meaning of life and how to get to eternity.

But it was more than just conversation, dad was also getting to see the rewards of those chats.

A chap Dad and Samson met on a country lane, turned out to also be a Christian who was looking for a church. He’s now happily settled in my parents’ congregation.

Another lady they met as part of their daily walking travels, had big questions about life. As a result of this conversation, she became a friend to the family, became a Christian and was just recently baptised.

Another lady who replied to an online advert (dad was looking for a part time dog walker) went to the house to meet my parents (and the dog) and she too ended up attending their church.

And that’s not to mention the countless other conversations and ‘seeds sown’ that walking Samson each day, led to.

By the time Samson had turned 3, he had grown pretty big (bigger than anyone had realised he would) and his exercise needs and energy levels seemed to be increasing with age, not decreasing.

When my dad was diagnosed with a neurological condition and later had another heart attack, we started to realise (reluctantly) that Samson might have to be re-homed. We just couldn’t give him the exercise he needed every day. For me, having helped pick him when he was just 6 weeks old, this was particularly gut wrenching.

I knew it was the right thing to do, but it was still very sad. We were determined to find a great new home for him though and we prayed that somehow, we’d just ‘know’ when we met the right family for our giant, loveable, evangelist dog.

One morning, it just simply hit us.

Why hadn’t we thought of this solution before?

My dad’s brother lives on a huge, sprawling farm in Northumbria, he’s a dog lover and has trained dogs all of his life. A few phone calls and lots of texted photos of Samson (crafted to look incredibly endearing) later, and Sam, the wonder dog had a new home.

Just after Christmas, I took him on the 5 hour drive up to the farm, stopping periodically at different service stations to fluff his (huge) head and have a cry. But as I drove, I thought too about the last 3 years.

It looked (to an outsider) that we’d made the wrong choice in getting such a high energy dog, that Sam was just the wrong fit for our family.

But then I began to think about all the good that had occurred because of his high energy and his need for multiple daily walks, all the people my dad had met on their adventures, all the people who’d heard more about Jesus, just because they’d stopped to admire Samson’s glossy coat and impressive stature.

And I knew absolutely that Samson was the right dog at the right time for the right season.

He wasn’t a mistake.

He was completely perfect for all the lives that were about to be impacted.

Ecclesiastes 3 says, ‘to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted’.

Samson was completely right for the season. But now as a family, we were moving into a different season.

And to me, it continues to serve as a huge life reminder, that everything in our lives has a purpose. We tend to think that jobs and houses and dogs and sometimes even important relationships are ‘forever’. When we lose them, we wonder why, we might feel like we’ve failed, but maybe God never intended us to have them forever.

Maybe he just loaned those things to us, for a specific time and a specific purpose?

Everything has a time and a purpose and a season.

Understanding when a season is ending (and doing our best to let go of an old one) is often the key to moving to the next one.

**postscript Samson loves farm life. He’s been adopted by my young cousin and has fields to run around in and rabbits to chase. Couldn’t have asked for a better home.

Fear is a liar

I love a good, gritty real-life documentary, the sort of moody TV programme with fly-on-the-wall camera work, following a police investigation team, through all the twists and turns of a seemingly unsolvable case.

So I’ll admit, that yesterday in this house, there may have been a bit of binge watching of this kind of thing; one assault and killing investigation after another.

Initially, it felt great to watch the ‘bad guys’ be put away and justice be served, until that is, it was time for bed and I suddenly realised how this tiptoe-into-darkness had become lodged in my head.

As my eyes shut, all I could think about was destruction and hopelessness.

Thanks to the rather grim afternoon of viewing, fear had walked in the door and casually put its feet up on the coffee table of my mind. And it was going nowhere fast.

Eventually at about 1am (still awake!), having chewed over every possible fearful outcome in my life, I prayed, ‘Lord, will you lift this from me? It’s too much’.

I know I’d flirted with fear and swung the door wide open, but God, in his grace and mercy is always able and willing to offer us a way out.

I eventually nodded off to sleep feeling a little more peaceful, but woke up this morning, still a little uneasy and unsettled. But, on the plus side, there was a song in my head, called ‘Fear is a liar’.

I didn’t actually know all the words, just that one line, fear is a liar, fear is a liar.

As I got up, getting ready for the day ahead, I was unpacking that thought a little more.

Of course, not all fear is bad. The fear that you might fall, when standing close to a cliff edge, is a good fear.

Staying away from things (or people!) who might ‘bite’ is a good and cautious way to live.

Not all fear is bad.

But the suffocating, illogical fear of ‘what if’ usually has no life-redeeming purpose.

That’s the fear of all the things that might happen, the things that could go wrong.

That kind of fear is often groundless but it has a paralysing effect.

It lie.

It tells you the future is bleak, there’s no hope, nothing will ever change.

That kind of fear will stop you sleeping.

And it will stop you from living.

With these thoughts and the song still rolling around in my head, I poured a strong coffee and settled down to read my Bible and devotion notes.

It’s worth saying at this point that I’m currently reading a devotion which is un-dated. It’s designed to be something you work through at your own pace, without reading a specific dated page each day.

I hadn’t looked at this devotion over the weekend and before I thumbed to the last page I read, I prayed, ‘Lord, you know how I’m feeling. Please show me something for today’.

I flicked through the book, to the bookmark, turned the page and here was the headline;

You seriously couldn’t make it up!

Perhaps more amazingly is the fact that God knew I wouldn’t read this particular devotion on Saturday or Sunday. He knew that I’d need to see that exact reading on Monday morning.

He even kindly woke me up with the song in my head.

Why is this even important?

Well, to me, it’s a simple reminder of God’s goodness.

If God can orchestrate my day so perfectly, wake me up with a song in my head, line up a perfect devotional just when I needed it, surely he’s got everything else under control too?

For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

When we know we are loved and held together by a God who sees and understands the tiny details of our lives, there is nothing to fear.

Learning to do nothing…

I’ve never been much of a hugger. Ok, I should correct that. I really like hugs, I’m just not a fan of long hugs.

But coming from a family who is mercilessly affectionate, where cuddles, kisses and ‘I love yous’, were dispensed like sweeties at a fairground, over the years, I’ve learned how to enjoy a decent, warm embrace.

These days, it’s much more of a natural response when arriving or departing anywhere; everyone I know gets a short, functional but affectionate hug.

I call them power hugs. I feel like I get all the emotional nutrition I need from a quick embrace and peck on the cheek. I don’t need to slowly extract all the goodness from a prolonged squeeze. I give a hug and then I indicate I’m done by stepping back. My sister in law told me not too long ago, that I ‘tap out’. I hug and then I tap the other person’s back as if to say, ‘ok, you can let go. I’m done with you now’.

As a child, my family would be fortunate if they even got a quick squeeze. There are pictures of me grimacing, trying to wriggle away as relatives came in for a ‘proper hug’. It’s a standing joke in our family. Paula likes hugs, just don’t hug too long.

Recently, I was sitting in the quiet, reading my Bible and praying. I’d read something really powerful on the subject of worry and how it can invade our thought processes without us realising it.

I sat in the quiet, asking God for wisdom for the day ahead and then just as I felt this lovely sense of God’s presence, my brain went, ‘right, that’s it now…I’m done’.

As clear as anything, I felt God say to me, ‘don’t tap out’.

Just like the hugs where I indicate I’m done, I was doing the same with God.

Just when it got special, when he was starting to show me new things, my practical, busy, got-stuff-to-do-side, kicked in and before you could say ‘Amen’, I was off and on to something else.

There was a woman in the Bible like that. You probably know the story of Martha and Mary.

Both loved Jesus, both wanted to be near him. But Martha wanted to keep busy and do stuff for him. Mary just wanted to sit there, to listen, to absorb his presence, to enjoy the ‘hug’.

One got her fulfilment in doing.

The other got her fulfilment in being.

There’s value in both.

Sometimes we need to ‘do’, keep busy, get the job finished, tidy up. But we also need to make time to just be.

Even if it’s just 5 minutes, while we wait for an appointment, while we’re stood in a queue, or (if we have longer) to sit with God and look out a window (without feeling the need to instagram it). It’s learning how to do nothing, to not fill every second with activity, to quietly listen (instead of stressing over whether we’re listening the ‘right way’).

For me, I often show my love and concern by doing things. I’m the one whirling about like a dervish, trying to do all the stuff that others can’t do. Even just yesterday, a family member said to me, ‘stop trying to organise this…relax, we’ve got it’. It makes me aware that constant activity can be an emotionally exhausting merry go round and in the process, I can forget how to sit down, how to be cared for, how to receive.

Even with God, I can easily fall into the grace-less habit of reading a set amount of chapters, carefully highlighting the important bits, praying for the exact amount of allotted time (and all the people I said I’d pray for) as though I must do stuff, in order to earn God’s grace and mercy.

But God often asks us to be still, to wait patiently, to quietly enjoy what he’s saying, to jump off the dizzying roundabout of endless activity.

He asks us to tune in and stay there and not be quite so quick to tap out.

I am not a good person…

Don’t rejoice when your enemies fall; don’t be happy when they stumble. For the Lord will be displeased with you and will turn his anger away from them. Proverbs 24:17

I don’t like this verse very much.

It’s one of those challenging, meaty bits of Scripture that I’d rather gloss over and pretend wasn’t there. Because if I take it at face value (which I do), it means that when unjust, evil and murderous people get their comeuppance, I can’t have a party, I can’t virtue signal my delight on Twitter, I can’t even (secretly) do a mental tap dance at the glorious news.

Why? Because my reading of the Bible states one clear, (deeply uncomfortable) fact – we are all the same.

We’d like to think that individually, we are ‘good’ people, that we’d never do a terrible thing like embezzle money, have an affair, hurt someone or rob a bank.

And maybe we wouldn’t.

But sin, the capacity to do terrible things, (given the right or perhaps wrong set of circumstances) is embedded into our DNA like cheese on a crumpet. It seeps its way into the tangled wiring of our brains and emotions, meaning that not one of us is really ‘good’ at all.

We all have the capacity to make terrible judgements, to be blinded by pride and arrogance, to follow a twisted path of destruction that hurts other people. Our actions might not lead to the collapse of a world bank or destroy a country’s economy, but they can hugely impact the person next door, our colleagues, our family.

I’m not above doing it. You’re not either.

Yep, plenty of people do good things, but that’s not the same as being good. After all, if events of the last few years are anything to go by, even prolific child abusers can ‘do good’ and raise millions of pounds for charity. It demonstrates a simple point; doing good stuff, doesn’t make us good.

The only thing that can make us good, is accepting grace and mercy and believing in someone who really IS good, who’s sinless, and perfect. Following him does something that nothing else in the world can do – it makes us right with God.

So when I see people on social media, celebrating the fall of another politician or another celebrity, because of their ‘evil policies’ or something they’ve done, I can’t actually rejoice, because us humans, flawed as we are, are all the same.

To pretend otherwise is really saying, ‘I’m better than XYZ leader. I’d never have done that. I would have chosen the ‘right thing’.

But if we’d been given power, authority and unbelievable wealth, we don’t know what we would have chosen. Because, despite our best intentions, that pesky sin code is always there, nibbling at our thought processes, nudging us to choose the path that benefits our own self interest.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t challenge injustice when we see it. Some things are worth fighting for. But what’s the motivation? Is it the struggle for justice? Or is it to jump on a bandwagon and see the downfall of another human being, who in our eyes, doesn’t measure up to our standard of morality? Is it so we can dance on their graves and let the world know that we are better, we would have chosen a different path?

So, in a crazy time of political instability, with protests, resignations and public disgrace, I just can’t rejoice. I can’t dance on graves or get foamy mouthed with delight at protests on Facebook.

I can pray though, for world leaders, for politicians, for opinion formers, for the media, for the unseen people who help to shape what we think is right and wrong.

The saying, ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’, has never been more true.

Dear churches…

I grew up in the church. Church has always been my home and my safe place and I knew from an early age the dangers of becoming a ‘church hopper’. There was a frequently used analogy, ‘a coal out of the fire, on the hearth, quickly goes cold.’

And I think that’s true, being part of a church, for a believer, is pretty important and when you’re not in a community, it’s much tougher to keep ‘warm’.

But what happens if you find yourself without a church home?

Well, last year, through a variety of painful unforeseen circumstances, I found myself in that very situation.

Mentally picturing coals and slowly dying embers, I quickly drew up a shortlist of nearby churches which seemed to fit the bill and over the course of a few Sundays, I nervously started the arduous task of visiting them.

To be honest, it was not an easy or fun experience and there were plenty of mornings where I’d much rather have stayed in bed. But, I know that great things often happen, when we take small, sometimes awkward steps of obedience, so I somehow found the gumption to persevere.

However, the whole process made me think about what makes a ‘good’ church. Is it the worship style? The speaker? The band? Or something else?

As I visited one church after another, I began to realise that it was less about style, building or type of worship, but, like any new relationship or buying a house, for me, it’s mostly about chemistry.

It’s either there or it’s not.

You fit or you don’t.

It feels right, or it doesn’t.

So much of life is like that. A new house can look perfect on paper but ‘feel wrong’ and an old, crumbling ruin can look terrible, but yet somehow you’re energised and ready for the challenge. That’s chemistry.

But, despite it all, there are still some things that churches could do (or maybe NOT do!) which could make the experience of first time visitors a bit easier.

And so I write this as a bit of an open letter to all kinds of churches. This isn’t intended to be a criticism of the church and also, I know that church is equally about what I can give, not just what I can get.  I hope though, that it’ll encourage you to think about what your church might look like, to a first time visitor.

Where ARE you?

First things first, if your church building is hard to find and not obviously signposted off a main road, then please write signs, buy flags and do things which say in bold, loud lettering, ‘Yoo hoo…we’re OVER HERE!’

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve driven round endlessly in circles, trying to find a building which was tucked away in a corner with no obvious signs (all the while, fearing my detours would make me horribly late).

Is it obvious where your church is?

The welcome

The welcome is everything. Walking into a new church for the first time is a bit difficult for most people.

Where will we sit? Will anyone talk to us?

Your welcomers on the door need to be the kind of people who are genuinely interested in other humans. If they’re talking to each other and not making eye contact with the people who walk through the door, I’d dare to suggest they’re doing it wrong.

Welcoming is the equivalent of triage at A&E. The welcomers should be the people who are actively on the lookout for the newbies, for the shy, the nervous, the first-timers.

I visited one church on my own and two welcomers gave me bright smiles and asked my name. One lady in particular just ‘got it’. She asked if I wanted to be left alone or would I like to sit with someone, emphasising there was no pressure. When I said I didn’t mind either way, she then introduced me to her friend, who said cheerily, ‘hey, come sit by us’ and she immediately made me feel at ease.

Within minutes, the awkwardness had subsided and I was free to take part, observe and figure out if this was the church for me. As it turned out, it wasn’t, but I certainly couldn’t fault the welcome.

Don’t make me do weird stuff (please)

One church visit will always stick out, just simply because of its weirdness.

I’m pretty sure that when the speaker planned her talk, it looked fine on paper. In practice however, it was an all together much more awkward affair.

The talk, on the whole, was good, all about seeing the image of God in others, encouraging us to be less judgemental and more accepting of the people in our lives who might otherwise irritate us.

All good, all pretty challenging so far.

And then, there was an exercise.

In the middle of the preach, she asked us to stand up, face the person next to us and ‘examine their face’ for the image of God.

As these words fell from her lips, my heart sank.

Seriously? Nooooooooo? (I didn’t say this out loud)

But I was stuck. Not taking part would have seemed churlish, so, a beetroot blush creeping up my face, I turned to the woman on my left to see if she had ‘the image of God’. Yep, all looked good to me, so surely this part was now over?

But oh no, there was more.

We were then encouraged to say what we saw, say something positive about the person. I mean, sure, I’d be happy to do this if I knew her, but I didn’t even know her name.

Incidentally, I noted the speaker herself was NOT staring into the eyes of another congregant. Nope, it was ok for her (ha!). She was holding her mic and watching the rest of us, as we shifted uncomfortably and sheepishly tried to get this over and done with.

‘Are you staying for coffee?’ said nice-woman-on-the-left, at the end of the service.

Fearing another onslaught of being forced to stare deeply into strangers’ eyes,  I politely declined.

The sigh of relief as I walked out the door and sank into the comforting embrace of my car, could have been heard a mile away.

Please just let your visitors be visitors.

Don’t make them do weird stuff, don’t ask them to stand up, say their name, hug someone or force them to make awkward prolonged eye contact with the person next to them.

The silent type

Now as much as I don’t want to take part in quirky, interactive object lessons, I also don’t want to be ignored.

And alas, on quite a few occasions, that’s what’s happened. There’s been times where I have slipped in to the back of a new church, smiled at a few turned heads, tried to make myself look approachable, but by the end, no one spoke to me at all.

You might think I should have tried harder? Perhaps so, but I tend to think that on a first visit, it’s better to be approached. After all, I’m a guest in your house and bouncing up to people to introduce myself, feels a little like helping myself to the food in your fridge, when I’ve only just walked into your home.

Why not encourage your church members to not just gravitate to the people they know, but to be on the active lookout for the faces they don’t recognise?  A simple ‘hello’ and a handshake makes a massive difference. Being completely overlooked (even if it’s not at all intentional) is not fun at all.

Why the personal questions?

This is a tough one! But one of the downsides to attending a new church is sometimes, the barrage of personal questions. I completely understand that people are trying to be friendly, to reach out and I’m grateful that people try, but the questions that no one ever wants to answer on a first visit are, ‘Are you married?’ Do you have children?’ Followed up swiftly by, ‘how old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?’

(Well, now you mention it, I DO mind you asking).

One of my friends is a single parent and on one occasion, visited a church with her young daughter. A well-meaning greeter asked, ‘oh, is your husband not with you?’

What she said: Uhm, no.

What she wanted to say: No, he’s with his new wife today, the woman he left me for.

Truth is, everyone who walks into your church will have a story. They might be divorced. They might be going through a break up. They might be a single parent. They might not be able to have children.

They’re not things anyone wants to go into on a first visit.  So, as a church, if you can, why not encourage your congregation to accept people for who they appear to be, without needing to immediately put a label on them. Ask your visitors where they’ve travelled from, if they’d like a coffee, whether they want to sit next to someone (or be left alone), but don’t get too personal, too fast.

I’m not a heathen

Talking of awkward questions, I’ve noticed that if you’re new to a church, there is sometimes an assumption that you’re not actually a Christian.

Well-meaning church members have quietly pushed Alpha leaflets into my hands and on one particular occasion, the minister gave a lengthy appeal at the end of the service and stared meaningfully at me the entire time. The stare was so intense, that I began to wonder if I maybe needed to rededicate my life, you know, just to help him out and bring it to an end.

I loved his obvious passion for the gospel, but just because I’m new to the church, doesn’t mean I’m new to the faith.

I’d rather not give you my data

We recently visited a church where one of the welcomers, followed us round the auditorium to try and persuade us to fill in a visitors’ card.  At one point, he was so politely insistent, I wondered if he was on commission.

He asked when we walked in. He asked again during the ‘meet and greet’ and at the end of the service, he waved at us for a fourth time, promising us the church would not misuse our data in any way, but they just really wanted to keep in touch.  He seemed like a kind, enthusiastic sort of chap but if I want to fill in a card, you can guarantee that nothing will stop me.  I’ll fill in my details when I’m ready, but please don’t hound me until I do.

The exit is just as important as the entrance

It’s lovely to be welcomed nicely at a new church, but what about when the service  over? On a couple of occasions, I have nipped out during the final song, just to avoid any awkwardness at the end. Sitting there solo, as everyone heads to talk to their friends can be embarrassing and uncomfortable.

If you’re the pastor, why not actively seek out new people and go to say hello? Some pastors immediately go to the door at the end of the service so they can say goodbye to people as they leave. Personally, I love this. I feel it shows real pastoral concern. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea though!

Finally, I realise (in conclusion) that this might sound snippy or derogatory. I genuinely don’t want it to come across that way. I LOVE the church. I think it’s incredibly important for believers to be part of a community, a place where they can serve, give and grow. But how your church presents itself to first time visitors, is so important.

The secret to growing a church is a probably a fascinating combination of factors. But when we get the practicalities right and that is blessed by the Holy Spirit, the Church becomes a powerful force to be reckoned with.

And that is just what our world needs.

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