2 Cor 12v9

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Resolutions and Reading Lists

(Disclaimer: this is not an update on any medical stuff, this is just some personal ramblings about me if you're interested. I'll update you with that stuff in a separate post so you don't have to wade through this one.)

Remember that list I made for 2013 along the lines of new year's resolutions?  I revisited it the other day to see how I'd got on and this is my summary:

1. Learn to be proactive, not just reactive. Actually, this one I can say yes to. We're still living in that really weird place in life where we have no idea what is going to be thrown at us from one day to the next, but I have, imperfectly and with lots of improvement to go, got better at this. At home and at church I've implemented lists and rotas and delegated stuff rather then flying by the seat of my pants all the time, and I'm loving it. It's reminded me that once upon a time I used to be far more organised, and that I can be again. 

2. Conquer the kitchen. PAH! Let's move on.

3. Blog once a week. Yeah, sure I've done that one. I mean, in my head. Finding uninterrupted time where I can sit down and write stuff down in a coherent and understandable way? Oh, maybe not then. (The fact I started writing this three weeks ago and am only posting it now, at the end of January, speaks for itself.) My computer time has been full of the above stuff - coordinating church and family, and one of the most exciting things this year which has been the amount of opportunities to preach I've had. Doing the prep for that is one of my most favourite things to do, and it seems to have unexpectedly replaced blogging for the most part. I would much prefer to do both though! 

4. Less TV for the kids. Sigh. Now that we're back to being in and out of hospital and irregular routines, etc, I haven't been able to get on top of this. In fact, with Richard being so immobile and sometimes drugged up, I've ended up watching more TV too as it's something we can do together. And there's no denying it's the best way to take your mind off the reality of your own bizarre and too-big-to-get-your-head-around situation. Sometimes watching Jack Bauer blow things up or listening to the lilt of the farmers' stories on Countryfile is the best way to make yourself feel normal again for a little while. We definitely don't have it on from morning till night though - just more than I would like us to. Looks like that's staying on the list of things to tackle in 2014 too then.

Thankfully though, there's a lot I can look back on in the last year and be really pleased about. Stuff I didn't set out to do, but ended up surprising myself by doing it.

Doing more preaching and leading in church has been a big one - I felt more energised and useful in this than I have done in a long time.

I lost weight and got fitter. This wasn't a goal. I just thought to myself one day "I've heard a lot of people say that when they cut out bread and other carbs from their diet, they felt much better - I wonder if that would work for me." So I started replacing some foods with others, and doing some floor exercises a few times a week to build up my tired core, and over the summer I lost a stone and felt less tired than I normally do. 

If I'd have put it on my list of resolutions it probably wouldn't have got done, because it was a spur-of-the-moment-trial-and-error thing that I liked so much it ended up being consistent habits that stuck. Which is why I'm not putting "clean my kitchen more" on my list for 2014. It's bound to work.

2013 for me was the year of "I can." The two years before, I really learnt the value of letting go of a whole heap of things and saying "I can't", and watching God do amazing things while my hands were tied behind my back. Last year, right from the first week, it was like He said 'Enough of that now, see what's next..." and He's catapulted me into a whole heap of new challenges and shown me I can run further and faster (metaphorically speaking - I'm not that fit!) than ever before. A lot of it has come from having to step up into what Richard was doing and acting on his behalf in various roles, so it's a bittersweet thing, but God always takes the bad and bring good stuff out of it, and I can see so many ways that He's done that already. 

I can't wait to look back and realise what God's theme for this year will be.


And here's a couple more goals for 2014:

• To sort out my photographs. I haven't made an album for eleven years - since my pregnancy with the twins - and I have thousands of photos sat on old hard drives waiting to be organised and printed. Some of them have been lost forever on hard drives that have crashed, and I'll need to beg and borrow pictures from anyone who has photos of our family from the last decade. With all the demands of family, ministry and hospital time, it's been down at the bottom of the list because its never stood in front of me and screamed for my attention. So now I've made it scream for my attention by buying some photo books online that need to be filled and printed off within three months otherwise the money will be wasted. See what I did there?

• To implement the system I started in the playroom over a year ago. We have loads of great books and toys, but we're all rubbish at picking up after ourselves. In order to simplify, I decided to move everything into what was the playroom and use it as a 'resources room' instead, where people took stuff out, then brought it back and swapped it for something else, so there's less to tidy up around the house. I got as far as getting it all in there, but not as far as sorting it out, and so loads of stuff went untouched last year as they asked for it and I said "I haven't finished sorting it, so not yet..." I think this is probably the key to our TV dilemma, cos a successful toy and other activities rotation means they will be gainfully employed most of the time.

• To use the sewing machine I got last Christmas, more than the three times I used it last year. For no other reason than pure indulgence.



If you're not already bored by the ramblings of my personal life, and are interested in books, you'll want to keep reading. If you're already bored and don't like books, stop reading now. I'll see you another time.

In the summer of 2007, when I'd finished three years of bible college study, I collected up some books I'd been wanting to read for ages and made a pile on my beside cabinet - my haphazard reading list. It worked, and I read through the books with purpose and without guilt that summer. Last new year I decided to do the same, and made a stack by my bed:



I'm a greedy reader. If I start a book that I really like, I can't put it down. I'll find any excuse at all to abandon my other responsibilities and get back to it and devour it till it's finished, and then I'll look up and see the neglect caused by my distraction and feel really really guilty. Book is my cake.

So I'd tried to be all disciplined about it and only put four novels in there while I focused on books that were more practical and 'worthy', but after I'd read through the Secret Notebooks one, I was, of course, inspired to read some Agatha Christie classics, and as soon as I did, I noticed a physical change in me. It must have been a stressful week, but as I picked up the book (or my phone?) and started following the rise and fall of the language, I felt the same sensation as when I put a warm blanket over me: relaxation and comfort. Especially because these are the type of books I read when I was eleven or twelve, it seemed to cause a chemical reaction in me that slowed everything down and stilled my mind. I am an internal processor, which means thoughts and different answers to the same question spin round and round in my mind even when I don't want them to. I can't just not think about them - I need to replace them with something else. That's why I love reading so much. It calms me and refocuses me and recharges me all over. It's like pressing a reset button on my busy brain. So I've decided I do need to read, but I need to be more disciplined about it. I've worked hard on rationing it, and trying to save it for waiting rooms, minutes between school pick ups, the occasional bath and a little bit each night, and when I totted up at the end of the year, I'd got through 33 books!




Some I borrowed, and some I read in digital form (not my preferred choice, but much more convenient when I've got my phone with me at all times anyway) so they're not all here. So if you're really reeeeeally interested, here's the list (asterisk means its fiction; (r) is for 'reread' as I've read it before, another year - why is that important for you to know? I don't know, but I've put it on anyway):

God Chicks Awakened by Holly Wagner - a 90 day devotional by one of my most favourite speakers ever.

At Home by Bill Bryson - nowhere near as good as his earlier books, which were some of the funniest books I've ever read, but a really good geeky read about the history of what has influenced the way we live today.

A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser - I have read a handful of books about living with grief, and this one totally blew me away. This guy lost his mother, wife and daughter in one fatal car crash, and had to get up and rebuild his life for the sake of his other three children. This is not just for people coping with the after-effects of the death of a loved one, it's for all people who are grieving the loss of anything in their lives - their marriage, their health or some other hopes and dreams. He is brutally honest about what that feels like, but he also explores the positive side of it too - how we grow and change and let go and become more complete people as a result of the loss we've been through. Sounds impossible, but this has definitely been my experience, and he says it much more articulately than I can.

Sun Stand Still by Steven Furtick - I was so ready to NOT like this book as it seemed to be promoting a kind of prayer theology I thought was dodgy, but instead I found it a really great, biblically based challenge that made me think about the why and how behind my prayers. Lots of underlining going on in my copy.

Help Your Boys Succeed by Gary Wilson - a really short book about the challenges boys face when it comes to self-image and eduction. Really useful in ideas for building solid foundations into their lives so they're not easily swayed by other people.

The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie - she was my favourite author when I was about eleven (does that make me a weird kid?) so I was fascinated by this insight into how her mind worked and the planning (or lack of it sometimes!) that went into putting her plots together.

*The Mysterious Affair at Styles (r) 
*The Secret Adversary (r) 
*Various Short Stories all by Agatha Christie - of course after reading about her, I read some stuff by her, and the timing was perfect as we were going through the beginning of finding out that Richard's back problems were more serious than we thought. These were the perfect escape.

*Jane Eyre (r) by Charlotte Bronte - the year before, I reread Wuthering Heights, thinking it couldn't be as bad as I remembered it. It was worse; like The Jeremy Kyle Show for the 19th century. I don't get how a story about people tearing each other's lives apart through bitterness has gone down in history as a classic love story (though maybe Emily didn't mean it to, and it was supposed to expose that kind of ridiculous behaviour for what it was). Jane Eyre, on the other hand, was even better than I remembered it - all about someone who puts her faith and her convictions above her feelings, and who values commitment and respect even when it means not getting what she wants, and is well-rewarded for it - a real love story. Bravo Charlotte, and I shall read more of yours in the future.

*Miracle Cure by Harlan Coben - he's a great writer, and although you're never quite sure what's going to pop up in his books (it's normally stuff I can hum through and skip over quickly if it's nasty because there's not a lot of it), I like crime fiction in general, and he's one of the good ones. This was a reprint of his first novel.

Lancaster and York by Alison Weir - I totally hated history at school, but I love it now. This is a pure history book, but somehow not boring like I remember text books being. She gathers facts and retells them really well and this takes you all the way through the War of the Roses, from Edward III, father to all the lines that would eventually fight their claims to the throne, to Richard III. Definitely want to read more of hers in the future.

*The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - I suspect I'm not the only one downloading this book in the last few years. Where would popular culture be without this right now?

Time Management for Manic Mums (r) by Allison Mitchell - the clearest and most hilarious book on home and family organisation I've ever read. This is something I constantly need help in, and of all the books I've read on the topic, this is the best!

Jesus Freaks: Martyrs by DC Talk (r) - wow, sounds chirpy, don't it? This is re-release of a book I read in my late teens, and it's snap shots of people in history who faced death and persecution for their faith. At first you're not sure if you want to know how bad things can get, but by the end you're totally inspired by what God can do through the worst of situations and how amazing knowing Him actually is.

*The White Queen (r)
*The Red Queen (r)
*The Lady of the Rivers
*The Kingmaker's Daughter all by Philippa Gregory - I went on a reading spree at the beginning of the summer holidays and got through these four in a week and a half while I let my children run feral. She is amazing. If I told that these books are all telling the same story  (the War of the Roses) from a different viewpoint, you'd think that sounds tedious, but it's actually totally compelling, and so very clever. You totally sympathise with each viewpoint and I think it sums up how complicated history actually is - who can truly say what motivated each individual to do what they did? Is there really a bad side and a good side when it comes to war, divided loyalties and family ruin?

The Cross and the Switchblade (r) by David Wilkerson - I LOVE stories about light overcoming darkness and how people responded to the call of God on their life. He's a preacher in the 1950s from a rural town who ends up reaching gangs of drug addicts in New York, and his organisation is still changing lives today. Totally inspirational. 

*A Lineage of Grace by Francine Rivers - this is fiction but based on five biblical female characters who are all in the line of Christ. Got to admit that I've never liked Christian fiction before, but her stuff seems to be really good. It's amazing to go deeper into these characters and think about what their motivation and perspective might have been, and it links it all up to ultimate truth.

Happy Happy Happy by Phil Robertson - I bought this for Richard then read it before he'd had chance to. We love watching Duck Dynasty and this guy has an incredible testimony of being saved from a totally messed up life. The family are now millionaires through their duck-call business, but they use their influence to preach wherever they go, and they have a really inspirational, straight-forward faith.

Gospel-Centred Discipleship by Jonathon Dodson - every Christian should read this book. Really really. It's only about six chapters long, but it explained what discipleship ought to look like far better than any other book I've read. It's not about legalism, and it's not about liberalism - it's allowing the gospel to change your life every day. Read it.

Robber of the Cruel Streets by Clive Longmead - unfortunately not brilliantly written (sorry Clive) but interesting anyway, as it's the story of George Muller, a guy who nearly destroyed his life, then turned it over to God, and became the founder of many orphanages that rescued young people from the workhouses. The most fascinating part of it is how food and/or money was miraculously provided for the children, sometimes at the very last minute, even without them asking for it.

*The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton - have you read any of her books? Totally brilliant. This and The House at Riverton were both about mysteries that had gone unresolved for a couple of generations and were revisited by people later on, so they switch through different time periods to pull all the pieces together. Really gripping.

Developing the Leader Within You by John Maxwell - we're reading through this in our church leadership development group. Despite being around Maxwell's books for years, this is the first one I've properly worked through, and I'm getting a lot out of it. I prefer doing it as a group than reading it by myself.

*Five on a Treasure Island (r) by Enid Blyton - yep, that's right! I was having a day when I felt totally overloaded and stressed to the max and thought "What can I read right now that will take me to a totally stress-free, non-concentrating but completely distracted place?" and this was it. She was my favourite author as a kid, the one that made me want to write (I had lots of plagiarised versions of her books in the back of my school exercise books), and it gave me that same chemical reaction as the Agatha Christies had done. This is my new/old happy place. 

*The Queens Fool by Philippa Gregory - another one, but part of the Tudor series rather than the Cousin's War ones. Her later ones are better than her earlier ones, but they're all worth reading.

*Milly-Molly-Mandy (r) by Joyce Lankester Brisley - my mum read these stories as a girl, and so did I, and after Baby was born my mum gave these ones to me as a present, and it was the first moment that I had, after getting over the birth and really thinking about it, that made me go - "Oh my goodness, I have a girl!" I've read one or two of them to Baby before, but when we hit a really tricky phase of behaviour at the end of the year, I was wondering how I could find stuff to do with Baby that would help to ground her when she seemed to be losing control. So I got these and put them by my bed, and made sure I carved out a couple of times each week when we would snuggle up and read some. She loved it, and, among other things that I did with her, seemed to really help her to stay calm and connected with me through one of those crazy toddler phases that come and go when you least expect them.

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light by Brian Kolodiejchuk - this goes through pages and pages of letters that Mother Teresa wrote through her life, mainly to her mentors, and is a really fascinating insight to the internal struggles that both confused and drove her. Some time last year I spoke about how depression and doubt are not always at odds with walking with God - sometimes they are the very thing that spur us on deeper into it, and that's totally what this book is about. So much of what she did really was faith; not based on a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but desperately trusting that God would do something life-changing with the little that she could offer Him. 

*Sense and Sensibility (r)
*Northanger Abbey (r) both by Jane Austen - what a great way to end the year, with a bit of Jane. I love her wit, her insight into human behaviour, and the way she pokes fun at every different character type. And all free on iBooks, so they can come with me wherever I go.

In addition to these, the books of the Bible I studied this year were Ephesians, Ezekiel, Ezra and Haggai.



And having inspired myself to keep going, here is the starting stack for 2014:




(That little read one you can't see the title on is Cranford, which I picked up in an antiques warehouse and had an inscription on the inside from a woman to a man at Christmas 1918 - just thinking about what was happening at that point and what they might be feeling and going through gives that book more value, far more than the £2 I paid for it.)

I've included more Agatha Christies and Enid Blytons for the feel-good factor, and am trying to restrict the Jodi Picoult and Philippa Gregory ones as they seem to take over my life as I read them. The Milly-Molly-Mandy collection has stayed as Baby loves going over them, and 'reading' them to herself even when I'm not there: "'What has happened to your dress?' eclaired Muvver to Little Fwiend Susan."

There'll definitely be more added as I go along, and a few that get left (you may notice a few the same as the top picture - I definitely need to read those first then!) but I feel excited to have my new feel-good project. My goal is to get through them so I can buy some that have been sat on my Amazon wishlist for too long. That's my favourite kind of motivation: reading more so that I get to read more.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Pushing Santa Out

This Christmas has been amazing. We knew it would be heavily influenced by hospital stays and chemo side effects, but it ended up being much less so than we thought. Bucking the trend of medical expectations (well, it IS our speciality), Richard has done much better in this cycle than the first one although it’s supposed to happen the other way around. He came home a couple of hours before Christmas Eve, was well enough to be involved in all the Christmas Day and Boxing Day festivities, and only went back in for two nights this week when his blood levels dropped, because they came back up so rapidly.

Last year there was a hollowness about Christmas that I struggled with - I couldn't even listen to the Christmas songs that I usually love because I missed Scooby so much; this year I feel like we were back to how we were the Christmas before - determined to make it good, and find joy in the tiniest thing. It's amazing how different it feels when you're fighting for something, as opposed to afterwards when you feel you've already lost. In a weird way, I was grateful to have something to fight for this Christmas. 

I know some people struggle with Christmas altogether (and probably because of the lack of something to fight for – if you haven’t got children or your spouse or your expectations anymore, then it's easy to think what’s the point in determining to make it good no matter what happens?). It’s difficult to get the balance of magic and realism, enjoying time resting with family and also being available for other people and their needs, working out how much is commercialism and how much is giving yourself permission to indulge in something you wouldn’t usually spend money on. So far we’ve just run with a mixture of all of these things because I haven’t had really strong convictions against any of them.

This year I've felt quite wound up with the whole focus on Santa though. There’s been quite a few news stories about things that have gone wrong with school assemblies or Christmas Wonderlands and the result has been children beginning to doubt that Santa really exists. The quotes that have followed from their parents have all been pretty much these exact words; “And now Christmas is totally RUINED for us.” It’s made me ask, “Really!?! THAT’S what you’ve based their whole enjoyment of Christmas on?”

When I was little, there were one or two movies that showed him, and he would be mentioned once or twice in the run up to Christmas, but now it just seems to have taken over everything. We've never told our kids Santa is real and, up till this year, we've never told them he isn't. When they were little we told them they lay out their stockings on Christmas Eve and in the morning they would be full. Over time, popular culture has filled in the gaps, but it really struck me last year how much the idea of Santa was integral to what they believed about Christmas. Sure, we covered the nativity, but it felt like a bit of an add-on.

So this year (now last year as I wrote this blog two weeks ago) we've started to push Santa out a little. Every night of December, they've opened one of a stack of wrapped books that are all to do with Christmas. Some are nativity stories, some are Santa stories (like the Night Before Christmas) and others are new or traditional tales. We read one a night and talked and prayed about it, but the important thing is we bring it ALL back to God. Because when all is said and done, it is all about Him.




So the story of The Snowman is how nothing on this earth is permanent. The Twelve Days of Christmas reminds us of all the good things we are given by God. A Christmas Carol shows us the importance of using our life to invest in people. Aliens Love Panta Claus shows us that we all have the blessing and opportunity of giving. The Grinch is all about how Christmas is about a work deep down in our hearts, not consumerism. Even the random farm story about how a sheep got stuck in the snow (yeah, I was struggling to find 24 stories that fit into the "quality Christmas tales" genre) showed us the lengths God will go to reach out to us.

And I really feel that the balance is back again. It's not just one Christmas story that points us to God - they all do. The nativity is just the only one that doesn't hide it.

Why do we so desperately want our children to believe in something magical at Christmas? Because we are all preprogrammed to want to engage with something beyond the physical realm. We've set aside carved wooden relics but we hold fast to the Tooth Fairy because something makes us want to teach our children to look beyond and imagine that there might be more.

One of the things that sparked off the most significant conversations about faith this December with our kids has been the movie The Rise of the Guardians. It's a fantastic family film, with a classic fight between good and evil that involves Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Bogey Man, and more. The good guys are fuelled by people's faith in them; the bad guys are fuelled by fear. When faith is lost, fear starts to take over, and vice versa. That's a great message of truth, but there's also a great message in the way the movie gets the whole concept of faith wrong. People only believe in Santa and his buddies in two ways: if they actually see proof of them, or if they get what they want. As soon as they don't get a physical reward, like a coin under their pillow or an Easter egg, their faith is instantly snuffed out. So it's not actually real faith, it's selfish desire.

So many people have expressed surprise to me that it's possible to keep faith in situations like the ones we have faced as a family, and if I'm honest, I find that weird. I'm not sure what faith is for if it isn't for times like this. If my faith was in things going well or getting my wishes granted, then yes, it would've made sense to let go of it by now. But my faith is in knowing that everything is going to be okay, no matter what the outcome. It's not in my circumstances, it's in a person. I don't see God differently now than I used to, because what we're going through is still in line with what I read in the bible about His character. He promises blessings and comfort, and He promises hardships and victory. He's the God of the bad circumstances and the God of the good circumstances. He's not so frail that He messes up and sometimes people don't get what they wished for because His plans didn't work out. His plans are awesome, and they are always better than ours. He's not my Santa Claus - He's my God. Every good thing I've been given was from Him in the first place, and He gets to choose how long I get to keep it for. And that's okay. So my faith is not in what He gives me, it's in Him.


That’s why hopes and plans can come and go, and illness and broken dreams can destroy my wishes, and I can still have the deepest joy that a person can feel. Cos nothing, nothing, NOTHING can separate us from the love of God. Which means nothing can ruin my Christmas, my life, or even my eternity.