What’s in a name? For me, everything

My journey through my faith hasn’t been smooth by any means, but it’s been there to various degrees for as long as I can remember. My relationship with God changed dramatically when Abi died and what had become a passive sense of anger, resentment, ridicule and distrust (mine, not His obvs) became an active relationship of love, reverence, worship and trust.

I sometimes wonder if I would have revived this relationship had Abi not died. Would I still be living apart from Him, not knowing anything about the ways He could make me better, happier, content? Still blaming Him for all the bad?

I don’t know. God shows up when we need Him and I believe He would have used another event to help me find Him again. It just happened to be that at my lowest, darkest, bleakest place I felt the presence of a man next to me, between me and my husband, there for us both. It’s so hard to describe how this felt without sounding a little crazy, but having read countless similar experiences and met people who have known the same, I know I’m far from alone.

I needed to know more about this Christianity stuff, after all it had become infinitely important. If Abi had gone to heaven, I needed to know how and whether it made a difference to my life.
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Sunday Notes: Is the Easter story too scary for children?

Having just celebrated Easter, I noticed a definite preference for bunnies and chocolate than the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ. Beliefs aside, I wonder if it’s because we feel death is too hard for our children to understand… bunnies are better… right?

I read a blog a few weeks ago where a mother complained about Christianity being taught in schools. That she didn’t want her child to be exposed to stories of torture, human cruelty and the horrific execution that is crucifixion. Especially as an atheist, she didn’t see why her children should learn this distressing aspect of a religion which is supposed to claim a loving creator God. (I’m not saying this mother’s opinion is wrong, I wouldn’t want my child doing yoga in school because it goes against my beliefs, she’s of course within her rights to say the same about what offends her unbelief. This is about what we should tell our children about the real events around Easter.)

I could understand her point, as a mother, I have wanted to protect my children from the death and evil in this world as much as anyone. To focus on the good is the most natural thing in the world. My four-year-old refers to Jesus as ‘baby Jesus’, so to explain to him that the man hanging on the cross is Jesus grown up wasn’t the easiest thing. But I explained it as simply as I could, and he grasped it. He said it was sad and in the same breath talked about Buzz Lightyear.

Watching the news with my 10-year-old son, my heart was broken to see tears roll down his cheeks at the fighting in Syria. The confusion on his face as he watched news story after news story about humans terrorising each other not just in far away countries but in his own county. The evil in this world shown on TV is far more distressing than the story of Jesus.
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Sunday Sermon Notes – 11th March 2018

This year at my church we’ve been invited to bring our Bibles and notebooks to help us reflect on what we are studying. The notes I’ve made have been really interesting for me, and there is always something I can relate to, draw comfort from or feel encouraged by… and it’s not always the ‘easy’ side of Christianity either, there are some real challenges that have got me thinking. Sharing my notes in a blog post is a useful way for me to reflect on them later in the day.

Sermon 11th March 2018

Today is Mother’s Day. We listened to this passage from Exodus 2: 1-10 (CEV).

A man from the Levi tribe married a woman from the same tribe, 2 and she later had a baby boy. He was a beautiful child, and she kept him inside for three months. 3 But when she could no longer keep him hidden, she made a basket out of reeds and covered it with tar. She put him in the basket and placed it in the tall grass along the edge of the Nile River. 4 The baby’s older sister stood off at a distance to see what would happen to him.

5 About that time one of the king’s daughters came down to take a bath in the river, while her servant women walked along the river bank. She saw the basket in the tall grass and sent one of the young women to pull it out of the water. 6 When the king’s daughter opened the basket, she saw the baby and felt sorry for him because he was crying. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrew babies.”
7 At once the baby’s older sister came up and asked, “Do you want me to get a Hebrew woman to take care of the baby for you?”
8 “Yes,” the king’s daughter answered.
So the girl brought the baby’s mother, 9 and the king’s daughter told her, “Take care of this child, and I will pay you.”
The baby’s mother carried him home and took care of him. 10 And when he was old enough, she took him to the king’s daughter, who adopted him. She named him Moses because she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”

Our vicar spoke about the emotions and struggles of a mother who felt she had no choice but to put her baby out onto the water, to let him go in the hope that somehow he would be okay. The Nile was a river of death, where the bodies of the Hebrew children had been discarded on Pharaoh’s orders. This mother, feeling the danger coming closer, made a reed basket and set her baby out on the water, releasing him to she didn’t know what but knowing that it was better than staying. Continue reading

Biblical breadcrumbs, books and bereavement

 

On Sunday I attended my church’s All Souls service, which is held to remember those we have loved and lost. I have been to this ever since we lost Abi. The vicar’s sermon focused on this passage. What he said resounded with me so much that I had to replicate it here for you to read.

OK, so Jesus is out and about doing his amazing stuff, healing, miracles, powerful words… and the prophet and Jesus’ relative, John the Baptist, is locked up thanks to bad King Herod. John the Baptist was a special guy. He was sent by God to prepare people for the arrival of Jesus. He was a bit rough and ready, shouting at folk and eating grubs, someone we may all think was a bit of an oddball. Herod was intrigued by him, yet scared of the reaction he was causing so he locked him up. The only problem was Herod’s wife, she hated John and tricked Herod into executing him. Continue reading

Don’t sweat the small stuff, pray it!

Since Abi died, prayer has become part of my day. I didn’t often pray before, except in church or the occasional Lord’s Prayer. Now, my prayers are more like mini conversations with God. Sometimes, I read a psalm or sing a worship song. Sometimes I read a passage of the Bible aloud, slowly. I rarely have time to sit in silence and pray, as my house is just too busy, so I often find myself in the loo or shower – multitasking my only quiet time to talk with God.

The prayers I have said over the years have also changed. I started by crying out to God, whispering prayers of sorrow, praying for comfort and protection. Gradually, my prayers are ways to say thank you for the blessings in my life, to say sorry for messing up all the time, to ask for help. I then was able to intercede for others outside my immediate network. Praying for the healing of another person you don’t know is surprisingly powerful and shifts the focus away from the self and towards a love for others.

But I’m not a very good pray-er. I say the wrong thing at times, I try to say holy, eloquent words but get jumbled, I lose my train of thought. I wish my prayers had more depth and, I suppose, like my writing were grammatically correct!

I sometimes write my prayers down as that’s easier for me than talking off the cuff. But what to pray for can sometimes leave me stuck.

I recall a scene in the film, Bruce Almighty, where Bruce has died and meets God in heaven. God asks him what he prays for most, Bruce replies ‘world peace’. God smiles and says ‘That’s very good, if you’re trying to win a Miss World contest. What do you really pray for…?’ To which Bruce replies, ‘That Grace [his ex-girlfriend] is happy’.

And that’s a useful way to think about prayer. Of course, I often pray for the big events going on in the world, I also pray the common prayers in church, but what God needs me to do most is to pray into the stuff that matters to me.

A friend, who was in deep grief, met with me and we prayed together. During that prayer we prayed for our lost loved ones and for the people who were missing them, but we also prayed for what some would think ‘small’ things. We prayed that we’d find a way to encourage more volunteers to help at church, we prayed we’d find another supplier of food that we share at our group, we prayed that the sun would shine so that we could take the children to the park…

Simple, small details and insignificant when you compare them to the death of a loved one. But are they?

I reflected on how these small things make up the bigger picture… that if we got one more volunteer then that group can run and many people will benefit… that if we found another local food supplier we can feed them and it will encourage friendship and conversation… that if the sun shines we can get outside and enjoy some fresh air, meet up with friends and find some joy…

All these seemingly tiny details impact another slightly bigger detail.

It’s not been easy, but I’m learning about listening to God, who is guiding me constantly though my day – and asking him to help me take care of the small things in my life so that he is part of my whole life.

 

 

From cradle to grave

Today, I took my 9-year-old son to his football match. It’s normally Dad who does the football matches, but it had been almost a year since I’d seen my son play due to having the new baby and he asked if I’d go and watch him. He’s been appreciating some one-to-one time with me of late, which of course I love too.

While he was warming up, I automatically joined the other waiting parents by scrolling on my phone, but as I’m trying to be more active I realized I could use this as an opportunity to go for a walk, get my own blood circulating a bit. I wasn’t in an area I knew very well so I just walked out down the road and after about ten minutes I came across a small church.

I thought it would be good to have a little look around. There was a small graveyard just in front of the church, hidden by tall hedges. The graves looked old and weather-beaten, and I’m sure it had long since closed to new burials.

I first noticed five cross-shaped gravestones, lying flat in a line on the ground. On them were the details of men – figures in the community as their job titles were also engraved under their names, each from the 1800s, early 1900s.

The book of Ecclesiastes came to mind. (I’ve been reading over it this month.) In it, Solomon – the king – writes about accomplishments and the work we do, the things we put our effort into, the dreams we chase, and reflects how all of it is pointless once we’re dead. Not in the immediate years following our death, but the hundreds of years that see us but a distant memory, if that.

There can be great meaning to what we do, if through doing it we help others, but equally we spend a great deal of time doing or worrying about things that have no meaning.

Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

I thought of these men in the ground. Long gone. They probably were highly regarded in their day around the area, but who remembers them, or what they did today?

I then saw a small, quite beautiful, cherub angel gravestone. It was to mark the grave of a baby. I couldn’t tell how old the baby was as the dates had worn away. A little baby without its mother, a mother without her child. I thought of the mother having to put her newborn child into the ground here, the tears that must have been shed, nearly 100 years ago. Yet so many more have been born since – life has moved on at an extraordinary rate but this baby was here once, briefly. This baby’s short life mattered.

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I saw other graves. Some in fairly good condition, others nothing more than a nub of stone sticking out of the ground. No matter what condition the stone, what the status was of the person buried there, or what age or situation they died, they were united by sharing this space. They had once breathed and created memories, but they all ended up as dust and mud, under a gravestone, forgotten or barely remembered.

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I was struck by this stone of a weeping angel.

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It was of two sisters, buried together. One had passed away at age 19, the other had died later age 35. I thought of the parents having to cope with two of their children dying, having perhaps adjusted to the loss of one daughter, only to lose another. Or perhaps they had died too? Who knows the story behind this family’s plot. Who even cares?

There was a striking stone marking the grave of a toddler. Clearly the child of someone of some wealth or importance at the time to afford such a memorial.

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Of course, 100 years ago infant mortality was high so child burials would have been common, but the diversity of the graves in this one tiny patch of churchyard just seemed so poignant to me. Those who lived long, buried next to those who never grew up.

Each one would have been mourned, by wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, friends and relatives… who now themselves may have departed. How did they live out their lives – happy, depressed, lonely, content…? How did grief shape their futures?

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon sees that bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, the wise know more and die, just like fools who don’t know anything and die too. Life is for living he concludes, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, we can chase any number of dreams but without God there isn’t much point to life at all.

As I headed back to watch my son’s football match, I considered today, this next hour, my ‘work’ was to be there for him. To see him smile at having Mum watching from the sidelines. This memory would stay between us two. And when I’m dead and gone, and he’s dead and gone, this moment will be forever gone too.

But, today, it mattered.

 

Forgiveness Series: 4. Forgiving yourself

One of the hardest aspects of grief – as a grieving parent – is forgiving yourself.

Children die every day. And, for every child that has left this world, is a parent left wondering what they did wrong, how they could have prevented it, why they weren’t in their child’s place.

Abi’s death could not have been predicted nor prevented, yet still I wondered what I could have done to save her. If I’d have noticed sooner and taken her to hospital… had she had some injury in her past that may have caused her hemorrhage… or perhaps things I did or didn’t do in the pregnancy and birth affected her. Then there was the guilt of every single time I lost my temper with her, or punished her, or said no to her.

Even, as in my case, where there is very little scope for ‘blame’ or ‘regret’, guilt still found a place in my loss.

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Forgiveness Series: 3. The Fourfold Path of Forgiveness

In The Book of Forgiving, Desmond & Mpho Tutu offer a process called ‘The Fourfold Path’, which helps us to move from a position of anger and resentment to one of forgiveness and (inner and outer) peace.

This part makes up most of the book, but I have outlined the basic elements of the path below:

Telling the story – this is you talking, and talking, and talking, about what has happened – the shock, the pain, the fear, the details. Getting the story out, again and again can help you to process the events and move towards understanding and forgiveness.

It will also help you to ‘own’  the story. I owned the story of how Abi died by talking and writing about her death, in all it’s real and painful detail. Yes, it’s all devastating to hear or to read, but it’s also MY story and will forever be. Talk about your pain – whether that’s a traumatic death, a life-changing medical diagnosis, an offence or abuse – and own your story. Try to do this factually, without the addition of things you thought happened or were in the another person’s mind.

Exercise: Tell your story to your stone, whisper it or shout it, but hear your voice say the words to the person who you want to forgive. Explain why you feel the way you do, talk about how you want to move on from the resentment. Then, when ready, write your story down, the whole thing. Get it out and work through the key points. This will help you to see where the roots of the problem lie. You can always destroy or delete it afterwards. 

Naming the hurt – It is very important to name your hurt. When we bury our true feelings we only seem to suffer even more because of it. Marriages crumble under the weight of unspoken resentments and unacknowledged hurts. When we ignore the pain, it grows and spreads like a tumour that eventually drains us and affects all our relationships.

This happens a lot in grief. After a death, people stop talking about the deceased. No one wants to mention their name because it reminds everyone of the loss, so nothing is ever said, and this silence screams at those most deeply grieving. If you feel angry, admit that – to yourself and maybe others (the authors guide you through this). Put a name to your emotions and they won’t seem so scary and overwhelming.

Exercise:

  1. Hold your stone in your dominant hand. Name out loud a hurt you are feeling. As you name it, clench the stone.
  2. Open your hand. As you release your fist, release the hurt.
  3. Repeat this for each of your hurts.
  4. Write down all the things you have lost and name the feelings that accompany those losses. What does your heart tell you. What is the weight of your loss. Name it so you can heal it.

In my grief, I felt so many emotions. Sometimes they all came at once and led me to feel overwhelmed. Other times, I went through periods of anger, or depression, or anxiety. Recognizing these helped me immensely, and while I still have periods of these feelings, I now know that it is better for me to allow them to happen than to try to bury them because they are too painful.

Granting forgiveness – This is how we move from the position of victim to one of a hero – a hero being someone who takes their pain and uses it to do something awesome like forgive and love others. All of us are human and are all capable of love, hate, beauty, cruelty, indifference and goodness. It would be nice to think there are those who are perfectly good, but that’s just not the case.

It’s easy to say ‘I forgive you’, but incredibly hard to mean it. You’ll know when you do, because you’ll feel able to breathe deeply again, your shoulders will relax and yes, it will feel like a weight has lifted off your shoulders. What you may actually find is that you begin to grow through forgiveness – that spreads to all areas of your life – your past, your relationships, even the person who cuts you up on the motorway…

Exercise:
1. Take your stone and wash it. You have spoken to it, clenched it and now you will cleanse it.
2. Get a bowl of water and dip the stone in three times. Each time you dip the stone in say ‘I forgive you.’
3. Write down what you have lost by not being able to forgive. Write about the person who has harmed you – why do you think they have done what they did? Now write how this experience has made you stronger. Has it helped you grow and show empathy for others? Write your story again, but not as the victim, as the hero. How did you deal with the situation and how will you prevent such harm happening to others?

For a long time after my loss, I felt like the perpetrator in a battle of resentment and anger. Why wasn’t I being forgiving? Why didn’t I forget? Why wasn’t I moving on? This only led me to clam up even more. It became a vicious cycle. I knew that in order to break this cycle I had to open my heart to forgive. Not to ‘make up’ or ‘tolerate’ but to truly forgive. It wasn’t easy, but it did transform my life and my grief.

Renewing or Releasing the Relationship – Having worked through your path to forgiveness, you’re left with a ‘what next?’ You can now decide what will happen to your relationship with the person you have forgiven. You can renew the relationship, using your forgiveness to create a new connection. Or, you can release the relationship, putting the person and the emotions related to them behind you. It is possible to release a relationship and forgive. Forgiveness is not about putting yourself in another vulnerable position. In cases where the perpetrator isn’t asking for your forgiveness or is no longer alive there isn’t a relationship to have. It can take a long while to get to this stage of the process, but when you do it will be immensely beneficial for you and your peace of mind and heart.

Exercise:

  1. Decide whether you want to renew your stone as a thing of beauty (paint it or place it somewhere), or to release it back to nature.
  2. Write down if it was possible to make something beautiful out of what you had. Was it difficult to do this. What did you learn about renewing and releasing?

The final post about forgiveness looks at forgiving yourself.

 

Forgiveness Series: 2. The forgiveness myths

In my first post about forgiveness, I outlined the impact resentment can have on our physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

In the second chapter of The Book of Forgiving, Desmond & Mpho Tutu explain what forgiveness is not. This might seem odd, but there are many things we assume about forgiveness that only add further barriers to our ability to forgive.

Forgiveness is not weakness
We greatly admire people who are forgiving, who seem to move on from their hurt or ‘cope with their loss’. We don’t think they are weak, far from it; we tell them how strong they are, yet somehow, if we forgive, it can feel as though we are giving in, being weak. Forgiveness requires immense strength, but it also offers complete freedom.

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Forgiveness Series: 1. Why forgive?

Grief is a complicated emotion. In the early days, life’s trivialities pale into insignificance. Little disagreements or annoyances fade away as you are thrown into the stark reality that life is precious. Arguing about whose turn it is to put the bins out seems petty and pointless, which of course it is.

However, over time, grief can breed resentment and anger as you try to find your place in this world without your child and try to understand other people’s emotions. You’ve changed, they’ve changed, everything you ever knew has changed.

These feelings are always natural, as I described in my post about the Whirlpool of Grief. However, it is easy to get caught up in the cycle of anger. Once you focus on those feelings, it is hard to move on from them. This leaves you feeling bitter, lonely and hopeless, and others feeling unable to help you or understand you.

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