Living the actual dream.

bgptpz+VS2KLsTa6WQyRTgAlmost a year ago, I had a long talk with a friend, devastated I wasn’t pregnant, terrified I had heard God wrong. I had given him until the end of July to get pregnant, otherwise I was going to look for a new dream to pursue. 

People say you shouldn’t make bargains with God or give him time constraints, yet I was doing both. I had thought it was his idea, but in the last month it was looking like he wasn’t going to uphold his end of the deal and I was beginning to feel foolish, not to mention heartbroken. My dear friend said to me “Just wait until the end of July.” I hadn’t heard God wrong yet.

Little did we know Zoey was already in my belly, too teeny to be detected, but her DNA perfectly formed, her eye colour and the sound of her voice already decided. So, so many people have had harder, sadder and longer journeys to parenthood than we have. So many are still waiting. So many experience devastation I avoid even imagining. For so many parenthood looks different to their original dream. But those three years were painful and scary and frustrating and excruciatingly lonely for me. 

Those three years, long as they felt, weren’t wasted. I grew. I learned how to care for myself well. I learned how to dig my nails in and cling onto hope. I learned how faith puts flesh onto the bones of that hope, so it becomes something more tangible. I learned how to sing words I knew were true in my head over and over until my heart believed them too. I learned getting the answer you want has absolutely nothing to do with your praying technique. I learned about carrying joy in one hand and pain in the other, allowing them to coexist without the need to cancel each other out. 

God never wastes anything. Waiting can feel like limbo, but there is no in-between stage with God. He doesn’t sit on the sidelines waiting for us to progress to a more interesting season. He is forever active. Moving, stretching, changing, preparing, healing, loving, growing. 

He wasn’t dangling my dream in front of me like a carrot, waiting for me to mature enough before he gave me the baby I longed for. He was just waiting for the perfect timing. For me, for Dan, but also for Zoey. It isn’t hard to see how perfect the timing was when Zoey did finally come along, because God, as ever, knew what he was doing. Our job was just to trust him.

Just weeks after that conversation with my friend, my heart would tell me the baby in my belly was a little girl I had seen in my mind’s eye, months before. Zoey, my wildflower. She would bring life where there had been no life and beauty in unlikely places. She would be vibrant and wild and delicate and precious. Now she’s here. And I get to be her mama. Grateful doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

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Three things.

Over the last year, when people ask me what I want to be or do with my life (a common question for someone who works in a job that isn’t valued or seen as a ‘proper job’ but that’s a post for another day) I’ve started telling them I want to be a writer, rather than taking the easy route and saying I don’t know. But I don’t write anywhere near as much as I’d like to, or should do, if I actually want to be published in some way.  I wait for inspiration to strike and then write. I know this has to change.

A couple of nights ago I sat down with my laptop, uninspired and decided to blurt out whatever came to mind.  I decided it didn’t matter if it was rubbish or didn’t make sense, but the discipline of writing for half an hour was worth it. This is (a slightly condensed and edited version of) what came out.

What story is it God has for me to write? What is it he wants me to say?  What is it the world needs to hear from me that it isn’t hearing from someone else?  What do I have?  What do I know?  I believe I was born to be a writer.  If I believe that I have to believe I was wired that way, and I’m equipped me with the gifting and ability I need.  Inside of me, somewhere, there is the ability to be focused and disciplined.  To sit down and write even when I don’t feel inspired.  There are words.  

There are words because there is a heart inside me.  A big heart. It pumps life and emotion and compassion and courage.  It pumps the life of Jesus through my veins.  This heart reflects the heart of it’s creator.  Creative, wild, full of life and fun and an overwhelming kindness.  So what is it God wants this heart to share? The story of where the compassion came from?  The story of how I learned I was precious and beautiful and worth knowing and loving? The story of how I realised my heart was the core of my being and how everything else in my life would flow out of it?  How I learned that I had to allow my heart to be healed in order to change my life?  

In my favourite book, A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s hatred is strong.  It has power.  It damages IT.  (IT is the baddie who is holding her brother captive.) But her hatred is not enough.  She has to give up her hatred to make room for love to flow.  Rather than focusing her hatred on the things which are bad, she focuses her love on that which is good.  She focuses on her love for her brother.  It was his flaws, his arrogance and his pride which got him in this situation, but her love is bigger than her frustration at his mistake.  She says “I love you” over and over and over.  IT cannot handle a love that overlooks mistakes and calls out who a person really is. So (spoiler alert) love wins. Because of course it does.  

The stories have been written and the truths have been told.  Again and again and again. But God says I have something more to add.  Something of worth to bring to the table.  So I’m here.

I don’t want my writing to be about me. I don’t want it to be about fame or fortune or making something of myself.  I don’t want it to be a source of pride. I don’t want to hear myself say or think “Everyone says it’s so hard to be a writer and loads of us said we wanted to do it but I actually did it, look how great I must be”.  That is so ugly and I don’t want that to be my heart or my story.  But writing is what I was made for.  I know it.  Because if I do become a writer, whatever that means, it won’t be because of anything I could do without God. And that’s not some nice Christian phrase I say so you don’t think I’m proud. That’s the truth. He was the one that gave me the gift I have. He gave it to me for a purpose I don’t yet know and might never fully understand.  But it will be for his glory and to spread his goodness. 

I felt God ask me if I could bring or release three things with my writing, what would I choose?

Freedom.  Freedom from needing the world’s approval.  Freedom from living within the boundaries of other people’s opinions.  Freedom from living up to the expectations of your family or those you respect or the expectations you placed on yourself when you were young.  Freedom to grow and change into who you really are, rather than staying in the cage of who you thought you were. Freedom to be wholly, fully you.  

Hope.  Hope when life is hard and your heart is broken.  Hope that healing will come and suffering will lessen.  Hope that there is always a hand to hold you and arms that welcome you in, no matter how much pain or anger or fear or bitterness or frustration you feel.  Hope that any situation is redeemable.  Hope for a miracle.  Hope in a God of kindness and mercy who is unfailingly good, always. Hope that we will see his goodness in the land of the living, like he said we would.

I wondered what to put for the third thing but the only word that kept coming back to my mind was courage.  Courage for the 20 seconds it takes to change your life.  Courage to keep showing up to the job you find hard and you feel sucks the life out of you. Courage to stay in your marriage when it is painful and broken.  Courage to walk away from your marriage when it is painful and broken.  Courage to give what God asks of you even when it seems more than you can afford.  Courage to keep asking God for healing when medicine says it’s impossible. Courage to be the first one to be vulnerable.  Courage to walk the road less travelled.  Courage to take risks and fail and to get back up again.  Courage to do brave things scared. Courage to try not just a second and third time but a fiftieth and a hundredth time.  Courage to stand accused, quietly, with dignity and let God vindicate you. Courage to be who you were made to be.  Courage to be counted for things that could make you unpopular.  Courage to ask God for the crazy, impossible things.  Courage to show up and be part of the answer.  Courage to embrace the gifts within you and give them away, rather than trying to hide.

Maybe courage is the right word after all.

And maybe, just maybe I don’t have to ‘feel inspired’ to write something worth sharing. Maybe God just needs me to show up, be willing, and let him do the rest.

Ten

It was around 7.30 on a Wednesday morning. My mum woke me up and asked me to go and sit with my dad upstairs while she phoned for an ambulance.  I was unsurprised, as he had been poorly for a few days. It had happened every couple of months for the last year or so.  He’d get a chest infection, antibiotics wouldn’t work and he’d become so dehydrated he had to be admitted to hospital for IV fluids. The only difference this time was he didn’t have a chest infection.

I quickly got up and went to my parents’ bedroom, sitting down on top of the white duvet with it’s pretty pattern of lilac flowers, next to where my dad lay. I took his hand in my own and said hello, although he didn’t respond. I don’t think I said anything else. I can still hear the sound of his breathing. Each inhalation was a gasp for air, moving his whole upper body. I didn’t hear him exhale and the time between breaths was long and drawn out. It was bright and sunny for the last day in February. The curtains were open and I looked out at the familiar scene. Willow tree just the other side of our garden fence, obscuring the view of the duck pond I went to every day as a small child. Beyond that, the green, covered in molehills and then the woods.

It felt like I’d been waiting forever but it couldn’t have been much more than ten minutes when I heard the front door open and my mum came upstairs followed by two paramedics, a man and a woman. My mum told me to go downstairs to get dressed, so I did, hearing the paramedic saying they needed to intubate him as I left the room. Since the day wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary, I anticipated my mum wanting me to go to school. I decided I wanted to go to the hospital with her. Swapping my red pyjamas for jeans and my favourite pink hoody, I came out of my downstairs bedroom as the paramedics were bringing him down the stairs, expecting to have to defend my decision not to go to school.

She didn’t say a word. Instead we quickly got into the car and drove to the hospital. We parked and went to A&E, telling the lady at reception who we were there for. She popped out of the room and when she came back, instead of asking us to wait in the waiting room, or showing us to the right where patients were being treated, she opened a door to the left and let us in. We were taken to a small room with a blue sofa and a couple of chairs, and a coffee table with a yellowing corded phone on top. There were big pot plants in the corners of the room.

I don’t think we said anything then either. Just sat on the sofa next to each other, waiting. The door opened and an attractive man in dark blue scrubs came in and sat down. He had olive skin and curly black hair. I remember thinking he had nice arms. When he spoke his accent was australian.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you, but Stuart passed away.”

Silence.

“His heart got into a rhythm that we couldn’t shock it out of…”

I don’t remember the rest. He didn’t know that my dad had signed a DNR anyway, so resuscitation was neither here nor there. He told me, when I visited him in hospital not long after his diagnosis that he’d signed it. He said that if his heart had had enough, that meant his whole body had, and that it would be better to just let it go.

The kind man in blue scrubs left not long after. I had my arm around my mum. I remember thinking I needed to strong for her. Using the phone on the table, she phoned our pastor and his wife, although I don’t remember what she said. Less than twenty four hours before we had been sitting on another sofa, their sofa, and I had told them that I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore. Now it was over.

It, had been a hellish eighteen months.

He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2005. I was reading a book called Remembrance at the time. A beautiful but tragic novel set in WW1 that my parents were worried about me reading, as I was crying my way through it the day they had to tell me about his diagnosis. A few weeks after that I sat at the dining table with my sister and wheedled out of her the truth of his diagnosis. As the youngest child, I hadn’t been told the full story out of a desire to protect me and I knew it. He was given three weeks to live.

Two weeks after that, my sister woke me up at about 3am on a Saturday. She told me that our brother had driven to Guildford to get his girlfriend. I understood she was telling me our dad was dying. Her bedroom was the downstairs bedroom at the time, and we’d put dad in there when we brought him home to die a few days previously, as getting him upstairs was not an option. I sat on the floor beside her bed and held his hand for around an hour. Then I went to the lounge next door and curled up on the sofa.

I woke a couple of hours later, to find out he was still alive and an ambulance had been called. My mum and sister said it was like 6 am had come, and he decided he wasn’t going to die. I have often thought it would have been better if he had died that night.

The following week we were told he had been misdiagnosed and while the prognosis was still that he would die, the doctors were unable to give us a time frame. He was transferred to the Royal Marsden where specialists could see him more easily, although even they had never seen his type of cancer before. If I remember right, he signed the DNR while he was in there. My dad, the man I grew up with, never came out.

When we brought him home, just before Christmas, my larger than life dad had shrivelled into a hunched over old man. His loud, controversial and very funny personality was replaced by that of a hormonal teen. One minute he’d shout at you, the next he’d be in tears, expecting you to comfort him.

Dealing with his tantrums and counting out vast quantities of tablets for him became part of my daily life, slotted in between trying to concentrate on coursework and hanging out with friends. After a month or two, very few people still asked how he was, fewer still visited him. And so it went on, until that Wednesday morning ten years ago today, when it all came to an end.

I stayed in shock for a good six months after. The prognosis had always been that he would die, but I believed (and still do) in a God who heals, and I was sure he would heal him. After shock I dived into a grief so deep it took over my life, although you may not have known it to see me. I desperately wished I had inherited more of his traits. I wanted to know his ability to stretch out jokes, the way he was unafraid to challenge beliefs I was taught as fact, his dreams of a B&B in Provence and his love of art would not disappear with him.

For such a long time I felt defined by my grief. When meeting new people I had to repress the urge to say “Hi I’m Jen and my dad is dead.” But four years after his death I was on my discipleship course, and received some major ministry. Over the months that followed, it felt like I was starting to see my life in colour, not realising that I had been seeing it through a black and white lens. I realised I had been blaming myself for something that could never have been my fault.

A friend told me that her friend, who’d also lost her dad, said time was a great healer. I would look ahead to when ten years would have passed and promise myself I would feel much better.

I do. The last month or so has brought with it a fresh wave of grief, but I am far better equipped to face it now. I have experienced greater pain in the years that followed and I have lived. I have thrived. I have a God who will walk through every emotion and feel every hurt with me. He heals, he restores, he makes whole.

I still miss him, so much, and expect to for the rest of my life. Then, one day, I’ll find him in heaven and he’ll tell me a joke and I’ll sing him a song and we can catch up on everything he missed.

 

NB. My brother sent me this photo a few weeks ago. It must have been taken when he was in the Marsden. He has lost weight and his hair is fluffy and thinning out, but he still looks like my dad. The cuddly toy duck is one of mine called Sunshine. I gave him to my dad to keep in hospital with him as a cheery reminder of me. I still have it.

full of hope

At the start of 2016, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it to the end. I was a broken shell of a person, only just managing to cling onto hope by my fingernails. It felt as if everything I’d built my life on was in doubt, and I had no idea what my future held.

I knew I had God, but he seemed so far away. I found it so hard to connect with him or hear his voice, the sound drowned out by my fear and pain, made distant by years of me not putting him at the top of my priority list. I found a song with lyrics that continuously told of God’s goodness and played it often. I knew he was still good, and I knew I needed reminding.

During a short course of counselling, I found seemingly everything my life was built on being questioned. I trusted my counsellor, but I couldn’t see how this was helping. Until suddenly it did. Instead of being broken but held together with the glue of good intentions, I let myself break. It felt like we had finally got past layers of beliefs that built a wall around me, and instead found me. I was a mess. Vulnerable, broken and carrying so much pain. But I remember her saying that it seemed like I liked myself more like this. She was right. It might not have been pretty, but it was real.

The real turning point came in the form of Colour, a conference I had never had any intention of going to, from a church I historically had not had a lot of time or respect for. Thankfully, I have a friend who knew better, took my “maybe I’ll come” and my hand and got me there. The first night a song was played during worship that had a really negative association for me and I was ready to walk out. She spoke truth to me and told me not to let the pain of a situation rob me of worshipping God. And then she physically held my arms up so I didn’t have to do it alone.

God spoke so many incredible things to me over the course of conference, but the last night sealed the deal. I had gone to the conference with a question and he gave me my answer, speaking more clearly than I have ever heard him speak in my entire life. I recommitted myself to him that night, fully. And that is what has changed everything.

Over the course of the summer, my situation changed very little, but inside, I changed drastically. I put work into my relationship with God, more than I had done in a long time, and he showed up, pouring out far more than I will ever deserve because that’s who he is. Connecting with him grew easier and trusting him with the unknowns became less scary because I knew that the life he has for me, whatever it looks like, will be more perfect for me than I could ever choose for myself.

September came and we moved to Dorset. After choosing Jesus and each other, Dan and I agree this has been the best decision we have ever made. The last three months have seen us grow and change at a rate I didn’t anticipate. But I guess that’s what happens when you are surrounded by people who are running hard after Jesus. Their momentum catches you and carries you, even when your footing is inexperienced or unsure.  I don’t feel I have to impress anyone here, or put on a front or fake smile.

On the surface, my life doesn’t look hugely different to how it did twelve months ago, but everything has changed. My miracle isn’t that God changed my situation, he changed me. And he didn’t change me into someone else, instead he washed off the dirt and cut off bad growths and revealed a more true version of myself. Soren Kierkegaard says “With God’s help, I become myself.” He was right.

I have ways I want to grow and change, things about myself that aren’t perfect and I know God wants to work on. I’m still carrying pain and baggage that needs to be worked through. There is a yet more true version of Jen underneath, waiting to see the light. But I am so much more sure of myself now, and for the first time, I truly love myself. 

Now I can look at myself and see someone who is kind, who loves big, who wants to change the world by showing people they are loved and they are worth loving. I look at the core of who I am, and I see someone really beautiful. 

It started with a horse named Ginger.

I have a dream. It’s been my dream for longer than I can remember, but I’ve talked about it very little. It’s only in the last few months I’ve had the courage to talk about it more, held back all this time by the fear of others’ lack of belief in me.

I want to be a writer.

When I was around five, I began my first story about a horse named Ginger. I wrote the first chapter, planned several more and illustrated the last page. I never finished it. And nearly everything I’ve started writing since has shared the same fate. Left unfinished, buried in a box somewhere.  My blog is one of the few attempts at writing which I haven’t given up on. Although I don’t blog as regularly as I’d like to, I have kept at it for nearly two years and I’m pretty proud of that, insignificant as it may seem.

But the fact remains that other than this little blog, I have written very little to be shared publicly. And if I’m totally honest, I think the main reason is fear.

In the past I have rarely told people I want to be a writer, usually saying that I didn’t know what I wanted to do when asked. In the last few years I have considered various career choices. Jobs I could do well in and enjoy. But I have stopped short of taking the next step every time. Because all those choices seemed second best. When push came to shove, it didn’t seem worth pouring time, money and energy into a career that I didn’t really want.

I am no longer counting the number of jobs that I have applied for in my latest bid to break out of coffee and retail. But in the last week or so, the rejections haven’t seemed so painful. Even though I don’t know if I should still be job hunting or what I should be applying for, I have felt that quiet voice say, every time a rejection has arrived in my inbox, that job wasn’t for you, sweet one. I have better.

I don’t know if I will ever be a ‘successful writer’ from most people’s perspective. But if I can start to earn money through my writing, and earn enough that I could only work in coffee a couple of days a week, I would be delighted. I can honestly say that I don’t want to write as a means to find fame or fortune. I want to write because I love it.

Over and over and over this year, I have felt God saying to me, Jen, I didn’t make you a writer to not write. Because he and I both know, I am a writer. I am not published, but at the very core of who I am, there is a woman who comes alive when she writes. In a similar vein to my favourite Frederick Beuchner quote* comes this one from Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  I think he’s right. Jesus came to bring “life in all its fullness” and nothing less.

Right now I’m making an effort to spend more time writing, and looking for places that may accept submissions for articles. I don’t know what this journey will look like or where I’ll end up. What I do know is I don’t want to spend the rest of my life not pursuing my dream because I am paralysed by fear.

So here is to baby steps and awkward words and fumbling fingers over keys. I want to pour my heart into what I was made for. The One who made me deserves nothing less, and infinitely more.

Jen

* “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.”

home

We moved to Dorset a month ago. Summer is over, autumn is definitely (beautifully) here and the realisation arrived just as the tourists left. We are home.

In some ways, I still feel super new. We don’t have internet in our flat yet or many pictures on the walls. I expect to get at least a little lost almost daily – although with my sense of direction, this may take a while to change – and when people talk to me about places or mention road names they are usually only vaguely familiar at best.  But in my heart I feel settled, even if my mind hasn’t caught up yet.

It’s a strange contrast. On the one hand we spend our walks on the beach saying “I can’t believe we get to live here.”  On the other hand, it feels as if we’ve been here forever, because, of course we live here. I remember having a conversation with a friend in the spring who has recently set up an NGO. In some ways, I can’t believe she’s doing what she is because it’s so big and exciting and amazing. But in other ways, it isn’t surprising at all. Because of course she’s doing it. It was what she was made for and has effectively been preparing for her whole life, even when she didn’t realise it.

I think God’s plans for our lives are like that. Often so different from what we dreamed, planned or expected but also so natural to our hearts. One of my favourite quotes, quoted many times before, (here and here, for starters) comes to mind again: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” (Frederick Beuchner).  I don’t have my calling figured out by any stretch, but being in the right place, in the right community is a start.

Our first week here I spent a lot of time going back and forth in my head, unsure of myself. Should we have moved? Is this right? Is the church we think we’re going to be part of the right one? Will we make friends? Will we connect easily with people who can mentor us? At the end of that week I sat in church and a visiting speaker said “I feel like God wants me to share Isaiah 43” and then read the first verse. She didn’t know, but Isaiah 43:1 is my verse. And this year God has spoken to me through that chapter so much. In that moment, I was overwhelmed, in a really physical sense, with the knowledge that I was home.

I don’t know what the next few years will look like. We don’t know where we will live after this year. I don’t know what I’m going to do in terms of work or study. But I am so excited to be in the place I know I’m going to be for a minimum of two years, hopefully many more. A place where we can pursue deep friendships, grow in wisdom and love and be used however God wants to use us.

Five years ago, when I finished my discipleship course, one of the team said to me that he wanted to speak belonging over me. And I have belonged in certain ways in certain places in the years since. But I think here is the place where I will learn how to belong more fully than I ever have before. And I am so, so grateful.

Here’s to home.

Jen

25 can be tough

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The twenties are supposed to be our glory days. They’re for study and adventures, enjoying both singleness and long-term relationships, deciding what you want to do with your life and then making your way a few steps down that path.

Twenty is seen as very young, basically a teenager.  Thirty is an age where you are expected to be a fully-fledged adult.

Twenty-five, it seems, is the turning point. And I’m finding it a hard age to navigate, to be honest.

The problem with our mid-twenties, I am realising, isn’t so much what we are doing with our lives, but the disconnect between our expectations and our reality.  If you sat a group of twenty year olds down and asked them where they expected to be in five years time, how many do you think would be in that place at twenty-five?

I have a few friends whose lives have gone to plan.  It is such a joy to see them living the lives they dreamed, little bumps in the road here and there, but meandering down their planned path.  I have other friends who aren’t where they expected to be, but love where they’re at all the same.  Maybe they expected to be married by now, but instead are travelling the world.  Maybe the relationship they expected to work out didn’t, but they found someone better.  Maybe they didn’t want to make a career of their chosen subject at university, or dropped out, or couldn’t go, but have instead found an alternative career they love.

What about the rest of us? Those of us who maybe had some things go to plan, but when we look at our lives we see more than one disappointed hope and unrealised dream?

Yes, I’m married. And yes, we have just moved to the area where we plan to be based long-term, although five years ago I would never have dreamt of living here.

My career, on the other hand, is totally non-existent.

Up until eighteen months ago it was all going fine, but when we realised that the church we were a part of wasn’t the best fit for us long-term, my plans unravelled. I left my job managing their coffee shop a couple of months later, and have been back working for high-street coffee chains since.

I never expected to find myself feeling almost trapped in a minimum-wage job at twenty-five. And yet, here I am.  The roles I most want to spent my time filling aren’t options for me at this point in time. I can prepare and plan, but I can’t do.

The distance between expectation and reality is where the struggle of the twentysomething lies. We’re expected to know what we want and where we’re going, but we can’t find the right fit.  It is so easy to compare ourselves to our peers, and feel friends and family compare us too. I have deleted the majority of people I knew at school on social media.  Unless we’re still actively in touch, it is not healthy for me to see the ‘highlight reel’ of your social media presence.  Seeing your promotion news / perfect wedding / dream holiday / pregnancy announcement when I didn’t see the harder parts of the journey will only cause me to look at myself in disappointment.

I don’t have any solutions for this disconnect. I think recognising it and naming it helps. Acknowledging that things didn’t go to plan and I don’t have all the answers. Being thankful for the things that I do have and love.  Looking for ways to grow.

Tomorrow, I’ll go to work and make coffee and scrub toilets and mop floors. But I won’t be doing it forever, and tonight, I need to remember that.

Here’s to dreams, they’ll be reality someday.

Jen