A box of memories

Tucked away at the back of my mirrored wardrobe is a sturdy green shoebox. Inside is my life – or at least a record of my life, from love-crazed teenage diaries to funny little mementoes I’ve kept from overseas trips.

Every now and then I’ll drag the shoebox out and laugh at the strange things I wrote and believed at 12, 15, 19 and so on; the teachers I hated at school, the indecision over which of the Bros twins I loved the most and the silly squabbles with my dearly beloved sibling.

In the middle of the dog-eared exercise books, is also a grubby cinema ticket to see Rocky, a little ziplock bag with sand in it (more on this shortly), stuff from more recent times, a love letter, newspaper cuttings…it’s my box of life.

Looking through it tonight and reading all those diaries had me in laughing and remembering all over again. I’d written a sliding scale of ‘boys I fancied’ and given them each a grade…there was a list of how I’d spent the money from my first Saturday job pay (all £10.02 of it) and a lot of gushing about a skinny actor from a very cheezy film called, ‘Pretty in Pink’ – Andrew Macarthy.

The sand in the ziplock bag? Taken from a beach in Anglesey, after a youth group holiday. I stood on that beach with a chap I believed I was in love with and to remember the moment, I put a handful of sand in my pocket and later transferred it to the bag. And yes, I STILL have it. The in-lovededness with the man didn’t last quite as long.

The Rocky cinema ticket was from my first proper grown-up date. I still remember what I wore and how deeply uncomfortable I was at being the subject of this guy’s attention. He wanted to marry me – told me that on our 3rd date. There wasn’t a fourth.

The love letter and the newspaper cuttings are from more recent times. I keep this stuff because when I look through it, I remember all those feelings all over again. Sometimes, if I close my eyes, I can almost taste the salty air in Anglesey or feel the scratchiness of that horrible cream skirt I wore to see Rocky.

Remembering is good. Some of the box’s memories make me really sad; the death of a good friend when I was 21, the pain of heartache, but there’s also the GREAT; the euphoria of being offered a job I really wanted, a first kiss and oh, it was Matt from Bros. I fancied him the most.

I love my memory box. It reminds me of good stuff and of God’s faithfulness through the bad times. 

As the year draws to a close, for all its loveliness and its awfulness, my memory box reminds me that I have much to be grateful for. 

  

No one understands me…

There were some crazy people in the Bible.  I mean, like really crazy.

The Yiddish word for men like Jonah and Noah and Abraham and John the Baptist would probably be ‘Meshugana’.

muh-shoo-g-uh-nah

noun, Slang

a crazy person.

In other words, they were people that no one understood.  People who were called to do wild and random things, that mostly had no place in reality.

I like people who are a bit different, people who haven’t walked a straight path, who don’t have ‘pat’ answers and who wrestle with God, life and all its questions.

I usually grin a bit when I read stories of crazy men like these, all four who were asked to do seemingly nutty things that didn’t make sense, but they did it anyway.

Noah – told to build a huge ship and take his family and ‘2 of every kind’ on board, because God was going to wipe out humanity with a flood.

Yeeahhhh….riiiigghhhhtttt.

The Bible doesn’t say what Noah’s response was, but perhaps if it was my project,  I’d have asked plenty of questions, probably consulted my nearest and dearest, had plenty of sleepless nights and wondered if I’d really heard from God.

Jonah – ‘Go and tell the heathens to turn and repent’.  And Jonah in his wisdom, did a runner.  Though, God eventually got his attention in a rather spectacular fashion.

Abraham – he and the missus wanted a baby, more than anything.  But it didn’t happen.  In the end, at the grand old age of 99, God told Abraham that he’d have a son.  He hung on and believed (there were a few wobbles with the Missus, mind), even though everything said logically, this was an impossibility.

And then Isaac came along.

And John-the-B – clearly nuts!  The fore-runner for the Messiah, wandered through the desert in a loincloth, munching on locusts, declaring the way of the Lord.

Do that in Stoke, and you’d soon get locked up and sectioned.

But these four guys all have something in common – God spoke to them all.   They were all men of God, all asked to do something a bit radical, a bit strange, a bit unusual, all asked to do something which would probably mean they’d be laughed at and mocked, but they did it anyway.

They were completely misunderstood, but felt they had heard God’s voice, and that was enough.

For me, these stories say so much;

  • Sometimes God invites us on a journey of faith, to believe for the impossible
  • Sometimes, God asks us to wait, to be still, to stop running
  • And sometimes, the ways of God aren’t straightforward, sometimes He does take us on the circular route

But perhaps most importantly, if you feel like you’re on a ‘God journey’ that no one else understands, read the Bible. You’re in good company.

 

 

Noah...crazy dude

Surviving the worst thing in the world…

I had an amazing day and through a series  of coincidences, over a cup of coffee, I got chatting to a visitor, who told me his story.

The conversation started off by comparing notes on countries we’d been to, places we’d seen and then, next thing you know, he’s telling me about the worst thing that ever happened to him.

And before I knew it, I told him about the worst thing that ever happened to me. 

Ever had one of those moments, where you know you’ve just met a kindred spirit? A fellow journey’er?   It was *that* moment, but it was also more, because through all the loss he’d experienced, he told me his secret for survival.

Matthew 11.

Now, before you start thinking this will be a cliched, easy answer Bible moment, it isn’t. Matthew 11 tells the story of John the Baptist who is in prison, pretty much waiting to be executed. 

He’d been the one who had prepared the world for the arrival of Jesus. He had lived an unusual life, surviving by eating ‘locusts and wild honey’ but ultimately, he’d sacrificed everything so that people would be ready when Jesus started his ministry. 

But after serving God for so long, he was now in prison and the future was bleak. All of his dreams and desires and hopes in Jesus seem to have crumbled and he may have been asking himself, ‘Was I completely deluded about Jesus?‘ 

From his prison cell, John sends a message to Jesus, which roughly translated went, ‘Are you really who I think you are?’

And Jesus sends an incredible message back – a message that’s packed full of wisdom and hope and love, that says, ‘Yes, I AM…and here’s the proof; blind people are seeing, deaf people are hearing….dead people are being raised to life….it’s ALL true’. 

But because John was trapped in his prison, perhaps he couldn’t see it.

Jesus ends his message with a little postscript; ‘Blessed is the one who does not stumble on account of me’.

My visitor said that verse changed his life. That when the Worst Thing happened to him, he had a choice between running off and doing his own thing or running back to God.   The words Jesus spoke to John reminded him; ‘Yes, this utterly stinks I know, but don’t stumble, keep running to Me, DON’T give up, don’t fall at this hurdle’.

I love that thought so much; ‘Blessed are those who stick it out, who keep running even through the times when God feels far away. DON’T give up’.

What a thought…

We all go through hard times. Some suffer a great deal more than others, some wade their way through ill-health, stresses, relationship problems.  Some, like John the Baptist, face death.

But whatever we’re facing, even if it feels like we’re trapped in a cold, friendless prison cell, Jesus can still be in the middle of it, holding us together,  reminding us that even when the worst thing happens, there is still a way to get to the other side. 

I got a tattoo…

A couple of months ago, I got a tattoo. I’d been thinking about it for quite a while – and I always knew that if I did it, it would be a Bible verse. It’s the only permanent thing I’d want on my skin – the one thing that never changes.

There was mixed reaction from the people who know me best. A few were horrified, thinking it was a bit ‘common’ but lots more, thought it was super cool.

My verse of choice; Psalm 37: 4-5; ‘Delight yourself in The Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart’.

Why that verse? Lots and lots of reasons which maybe one day I will share ….but right now, it’s because I love the constant reminder.

Having that on my wrist reminds me that every thought and major decision I make, is better if it’s rooted first in God’s desire for me.

By nature, I’m quite impulsive and I’m often more likely to be ruled by my emotions than by logic. That’s not always a bad thing – but emotions can be super deceitful, so my ‘body art’ reminds me, ‘Hey, don’t get carried away with yourself here…consult God first’.

It’s not a bad reason to get a tattoo.

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Death, divorce and a happy ending

I’m sitting on the edge of my hotel bed in Nepal, with the room curtains flung wide open. It’s a huge window and outside in the clear, night sky, a thousand stars are twinkling away over the top of the Himalayas, the crickets are chirruping madly and I’m perched here, thinking about my fantastic week.

I’ve been in Nepal for a week with UCB and Habitat for Humanity – just us and 450 other volunteers from around the world. Our task was to build 40 houses in 5 days and tomorrow, our team from GB will put the final lick of paint on House number 9, and say a sad farewell to the new home owner, an amazing Nepalese lady called Dalli.

Her new home is solidly built, plastered and rendered with a mixture of cow dung, rice husk and mud. And yep, we know, because we glooped the walls ourselves with the very smelly concoction! I have never (and I mean never) been so filthy in all my life! This is a big deal for me, lover of high heels and funky nails!

It’s been a tough week in a harsh, hot climate, with a lot of hard work and long days….but we had a great team and I’ve made some new, lovely friends.

In a week with so many extraordinary experiences, it’s hard to narrow it all down to one blog post but as I mull it over, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned this week, is the power of a story.

At the beginning of the week, the HFH staff encouraged us to not just get consumed in the task but to take time out to hear stories, to listen to what the community was saying. I’ll admit, in the busyness of life, I can sometimes forget to really listen…so I purposed this week to really open my ears and hear.

Dalli, the lady whose house we are building, is a tiny 50 year old with 4 children. Through an interpreter, we learned that her husband ran off 25 years ago to marry someone else, so she raised 4 children on her own. One of her sons later committed suicide and Dalli now lives with her daughter in law, a son (who has learning difficulties), 2 granddaughters, a cow and 2 goats. Their home at present was badly damaged in an earthquake and looks pretty unstable…so our project was to plaster and render and paint the new house she’d been built. She’s been with us all week, beaming quietly as we got busy, not afraid to get dirty or lend a hand…and faithfully washing out our yucky ‘dung gloves’ every night.

As the house started to take shape today and the roof went on, she started to move heavy rocks from a rock pile and quietly rearrange a path around the house. She was very particular about the way the stones were arranged…after the fear and insecurity of living in a crumbling house, cooking and eating next to where the cow and goats sleep, finally, Dalli’s got a home.

That’s Dalli’s story, but as it turned out, I ended up not just hearing her story and the story of the people in the community, but also the people I was working with too.

There has been some very genuine and honest sharing this week, between people who have only just met. Perhaps it was being thrown in the deep end, on unfamiliar turf but a level of honesty developed pretty quickly.

It’s amazing how similar people really are if we stop to listen to them. As various friendships developed and we talked honestly about life…I heard some pretty big and tough stories about death, divorce, alcoholism and so much more. So many people had a story to tell, some stories had yet to reach a hoped-for happy ending, others were able to look back and thank God for helping them to survive. Big stuff!

I’ve made some firm and lasting friendships with some quality people this week. I came with the expectation of being able to help someone else’s life be changed. But in the process, I think mine has been too.

When God doesn’t answer prayer…

Yesterday, we were at the National Day of Prayer in Wembley.

I never really know what to expect of big, corporate expressions of faith like these.   While on my travels to other countries, I’ve been to a few which have been haphazardly-organised and I’ve also been to some lovely ones, where it felt like God turned up and smiled.   You never quite know what it’s going to be, until you get there.

I think yesterday was one of the ‘God-smiling’ events.

I was up in the Press room and though we had a great view of the stadium, we were working in a sound-proofed, glassed-in room, so most of the time, we had to rely on sudden hand waving/raising outside to know what was going on.    Every now and then though, the sliding doors would open, and I’d get a few seconds of 40,000 people singing ‘How great is our God’ or ‘Blessed be your name’ and I’d nip out, just to grab a few moments of the atmosphere. Not only was it lovely to listen to so many voices (probably from vastly different traditions), singing together, but the hot sun, blazing overheard, made me feel somehow, that God was there and was super pleased with what was happening.

The best bit of the day for me though, came on the long journey home.

It was my turn to drive (and despite my tendency to drive super slow, when I am talking about anything important), we still ended up having a fab, deep conversation about prayer and about what happens when it works….and about what to do, when we don’t get what we have prayed for.

The conclusion was that sometimes, God doesn’t answer prayer in the way that we thought He would.  And so, when that happens, how do I fit all that, into the picture I have of God, my Father, who loves me, understands my every thought and ‘counts the hairs on my head’?  I can’t say I always understand….but our conversation yesterday threw up two things;

1) God sometimes calls us to travel a difficult road, that will result in MY life being changed.

2) God sometimes calls us to travel a difficult road, that will result in someone else’s life being changed.

3) (even though, techincally, I said there would only be 2!), God calls us to pray according to His will, not mine. So, while there is nothing wrong in asking God to do things, the biggest (scariest), boldest prayer I can ever pray, is simply, ‘God, please move the pieces in my life together, to align me to YOUR will, not mine’.

There is something about being at an event like NDOP, that inspires me to think more deeply about faith. I don’t think we would have had that conversation on the way home, if we had been at an ordinary exhibition. But because we were surrounded by so many fervent, praying people, it did something to our heads and hearts and our chat, during the late night drive back, ended up being about things that truly mattered.

Love those kinds of chats.

A jolly good funeral…

Today, we went to a double funeral.

Uncle Jim and Aunty Gladys were the last of my ‘church’ aunts and uncles who’d known me since I was a baby. They were married for 71 years and did everything together.

They met at a Christmas Day party in 1936 and Gladys turned up in a gorgeous dress…but avoided the fruit on the buffet because she didn’t want to get juice on her frock. Jim, hearing of the terrible dress dilemma, peeled her an orange and shared it with her.

And as it does, Love kinda happened and every year on Christmas Day, they shared an orange, to remember the day they met. When asked the secret to a happy marriage, they both thought it was about friendship…respect and loving each other, even when they didn’t feel like it.

And all the girls say… ‘Aaawww’

When Aunty Glad died about 10 days ago, the family went to the nursing home to gently break the news to Uncle Jim and he said, ‘Well, I won’t be hanging around for long either’. And 4 days later, he passed away too.

Lovely, sweet story but beyond their love for each other, was an even bigger love for people, for Jesus and for church.

They were the founders of the church that I grew up in, they were at every meeting, responsible for the ‘open airs’ and the ‘revivals’ that used to happen every year without fail. They had missionaries from far flung places stay in their home and they loved and prayed for everyone who crossed their paths, from me to ex offenders, to their grandchildren and great, great grandchild.

They were involved in the Pentecostal Spanish mission and I don’t think they ever missed a service at Halton Pentecostal church where I grew up.

When I arrived in church as a kid with my picture Bible and pulled-up socks, it was always a reassuring sight to see Aunty Glad (as always) on the front row, in her felt grey hat. Uncle Jim, as an elder, always sat on the platform, but they both always had a kind word and a hug for everyone they saw.

Today’s service was a celebration of two lives lived incredibly well…of love for each other, commitment and shared oranges.

And, as they took the coffins out of the church, everyone sang this old, old song: I have a mansion

What a day!

Farewell Uncle Jim & Aunty Gladys.

I did a silly thing…

I did something a bit silly today!  Even as I was about to do it, there was a bit of a tug in my head; ‘Don’t do it…you’ll just regret it….

But hey, I know better, right?  So I did it anyway!

For the record, it wasn’t anything illegal or immoral,  just a stupid thing that I knew, in my heart of hearts, was probably not what God wanted me to do.

And of course, as soon as the deed was done, in poured the condemnation – that little voice that yells, ‘TOLD you not to….WHAT DID YOU DO THAT FOR?’   Yada, yada, yada.

I mulled for a bit and then looked up and noticed that the Broadcast Floor TV was tuned to Phil Pringle.    The volume was muted and I had no idea what he was preaching on, but I plugged my headphones in and started listening online.    Within 20 seconds of switching it on, he said, ‘There is nothing stupid you can do that is a match for the grace of God….nothing…so accept it, ask for forgiveness and move on’.

I had a little smile to myself, listened to the end of the preach and then about 30 minutes later, up cropped a little kernel of doubt.    “Yup”, said Doubt Voice, “that was just a coincidence…God doesn’t really speak to you like that….random occurence….why would God want to talk to you, eh?”

And then, the next preacher came on….and the subject?  Balaam’s Donkey….the speaker said, ‘If God can talk to a stinking, smelly donkey…you think He can’t talk to YOU?’

I burst out laughing!

Love it when God smacks you between the eyes, with something He wants to say…. 😉

4.30 wake-up call

I was awake at 4.30am today (cheers jet-lag!) and as I was also (oddly!) full of energy, I grabbed a coffee and plonked self in front of the big window, to watch the sun come up at 6.20.

The most beautiful sunrise I ever saw, was in Uganda about 8 years ago. We were there with a crew from ITV making a documentary about HIV and Aids. We’d had 3 hugely long, hot and dusty days of filming, when the beloved producer suggested getting up early, to climb a hill and watch the sun come up.

“I’d be delighted to..” I said with a murderous, gritted-teeth smile.

But in the end, I’m glad I did haul self out of bed at 4.45am, because as we stood there overlooking a collection of villages which had been rampaged by Aids, little whispery tendons of orange started to streak the sky, followed by hues of blues and greens, till the sun was resolutely in the sky.

We mostly didn’t say a word, just stood there, watching, probably most of us thinking about some of the tragedy we’d seen that week….but for me at least, it seemed like God was saying, “despite all the tragedy you’ve seen, I am still at work, I’m still here…I still make the sun come up each day…”

This morning as I drank coffee and watched the sun show its face over (the slightly less beautiful) Stoke-on-Trent, I was mulling over bits of Psalm 19 which I read the other day;

PSALMS 19:1-7 CEV
“The heavens keep telling the wonders of God, and the skies declare what he has done. Each day informs the following day; each night announces to the next. They don’t speak a word, and there is never the sound of a voice. Yet their message reaches all the earth, and it travels around the world. In the heavens a tent is set up for the sun.”

My favourite bit is the simple message, that God doesn’t have to say a word, because creation does it for Him. And when I see a sunrise or a sunset or stand in a doorway while a huge tropical storm rages, it knocks all of life’s dramas into perspective. It doesn’t necessarily give us answers, but to me at least, it’s God saying, “I’m still in control…I’ve got ya…”

Ugandan sunrise

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Don’t judge a book by its cover…

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover….you shouldn’t look at a person and make an assumption about their life.

Well, sometimes, I do. And today I was badly tripped up by my own nasty preconceptions.

I’m at a big music conference in the US; great speakers, inspiring music and lots and lots of lights, smoke, gloss, shiny hair and put-together lives. The speakers are real pros, brilliant at what they do, full of wit and wisdom…I’m having a ball.

Today’s final speaker was sitting at a table not far from me. I knew her from the glossy picture in the brochure and in person, she didn’t disappoint. She was gorgeous to look at, shoes to drool over, enviable worked-out figure and a bright,white, white smile.

It was dark in the room, but my brain took in the loveliness and decided she must have had the sort of life featured in films; you know, huge double-fronted white clad mansion, success, few problems…and plenty of happy, well-adjusted, all-American children. A judgement? Certainly not a bad judgement, but still I’d judged her by the cover.

To start off, I wasn’t proved wrong – her delivery was sweet, effortless, charming and I found my mind wandering toward what shampoo she used, in order to get her hair *that* shiny. I can never get my hair to do that….

But halfway through her talk, like she’d read my mind, she suddenly revealed the secret to the luscious locks. She doesn’t use shampoo at all.

The glossy, slick, gorgeous mane was a wig.

She has cancer. A real nasty, virulent rare form of cancer that has a very low survival rate, but because they found it at stage 1, she’d been told she might make it. She’s at the tail end of 8 months of chemo, 2 surgeries…and that is after she endured years of infertility ,business collapse, loss of her home….and what she described as ‘God systematically removing every idol in my life’. On the big screen, she put up a picture of her at her worst, pale, skinny, bald and oh-so-sick.

I sat there, mind kinda whirling…how wrong can you be? She’s been through SO much stuff and she admitted that even though the exterior looks well-presented, she’s still working through her ‘junk’ and the ‘whys’ and the ‘what ifs’.

You could hear a pin drop in the room, as brains probably began to clunk that, ‘oh, erm…maybe she’s just like me…she’s had pain, she gets it…life isn’t always a bed of thornless roses’.

Or at least that’s what I was thinking…mingled in with some choice guilt for jumping to an unpleasant conclusion, before she’d barely uttered a word.

Today, I think God used her to cut right through the clutter of the noise and the lights and the fuzzy fame…to make it real and remind me (at least) that not everyone who looks like they have it together, actually does.

Everyone has a story. Hers was about pushing through cancer, infertility, home and business loss and all the heartache and absolute agony of that. My story might not be as ‘dramatic’ as cancer or losing a million-dollar business, but we can all tell a tale about grief or loss or sadness or things we wish we’d done, or not done. But, mostly, we get pretty good at covering up the real version. Is it just easier that way?

But today when this speaker told her story, you could see heads nodding, a few damp eyes…because everyone could empathise with at least part of what she was saying. Later, in group sessions, you could overhear fragments of other stories being told around the room; heroin addiction, suicide…one woman just felt she’d never been quite ‘good enough’ and that had coloured every decision she’d ever made.

It was weird and freeing and liberating and moving all in one go. Sort of like the speaker had been real and normal…and given everyone else permission to drop the pretense, take off ‘the wig’ and do the same.

I think we’ve all got a story….but we’re not all brave enough to share it.

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