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.

So months of research, attending church, meeting Christians, listening to experiences, praying, waiting, reading… I realised that I had found Jesus! I understood who He was and what He did, that He was more than a painting or statue… He was everything. He was God. Not a man on a cloud, a ghost or a fairytale. And I found a love relationship like I never knew possible.

It has been a long, bumpy road to get here, even with confidence in what I thought I knew, but for me, it is important that I try to build on my relationship with Jesus for as long as I can, because when it’s my turn to meet Him I want to be running into his arms.

The name of Jesus, however, has long been a cliche, a joke, a curse, a flippant remark, an angry word. I’ve used His name this way myself, to my utter shame, along with For God’s Sake, Oh God!, Heaven’s Sake, Oh My God, Crikey, Lord… the list of ways I’d inadvertently been taking His name in vain is endless!

The more I came to know this beautiful man of peace, who loves me despite all that I’d done to myself and others, despite all I had said about Him, the more the way He is treated hurts.

It’s now that I realise how much the name of Jesus is used. People shout it, whisper it, write it in frustration, pain or anger, on TV, in books, on social media and in conversation. It’s so common that we don’t even know we’re doing it.

I wince. I feel uncomfortable, like when you hear someone slag off someone you know well and you don’t know how to respond.

But to curse the name of Jesus is to curse hope. It’s saying no to hope, that hope is hateful or abhorrent, that there’s no need to care one bit about hope.

And, without hope, there is nothing.

Millions of people draw hope and comfort from Jesus. Why is his name used in vain at all? Why not a genuinely bad human like Hitler or Stalin? I expect over the years, as language and meaning has changed so has how the name is used. It was likely used as some form of protection in the past, and has gradually become slang. But words are very important to us. People are particular and mindful of how appearance, gender, race or sex is referred to. We are respectful of other people’s beliefs and sensitivities (in the main!), choosing our words carefully so as not to offend, so why not with this?

For me, Jesus has become a beautiful word. A word filled with hope, comfort and friendship. A name that Abi loves. It’s the only word I can depend on. After all, there are over 170,000 other words in the English language I can choose from to express how I feel.

26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

John 17:26, NIV

 

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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.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (Matthew 14: 6-12)

So, Jesus has just had the sad news that John has been killed, and it is not what he says but what he does that is so remarkable.

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14: 13-20)

He withdraws. This all-powerful son of God, the one who people looked to for help spiritually and physically, the one who had all the answers, who was so confident in his faith and understanding of the human race, retreated. He was bereaved. He needed to be alone, to grieve, to contemplate and process what had happened.

Yet, people didn’t care about this, they just wanted Jesus to look after them. They needed fixing, healing, ministering to. They needed him to serve and guide them as he had been. Can you imagine in your grief, crowds of people following you, asking for your time and energy?

Yet, despite his grief, Jesus saw the crowds and went to them. He didn’t say ‘Can I just have a few days off, please,’, or ‘Go away! I’m grieving my friend here can’t you think about anyone but yourselves, you insensitive bunch!’ Did he turn away from them and close his eyes? Did he sit, depressed and numb to their cries for help? Nope, he saw them. He felt compassion for them and began to heal them. He went straight back to his work, not for any other reason than love.

And he didn’t just whip round a few to get some healing done to get them off his back for a bit. Nope, he then performed another miracle by feeding every single one of them. He fed them all, with five loaves of bread and two fishes. There was even some left over.

He could easily have said, right John is dead, I’m giving up on this, I’m fighting a losing battle, what’s the point anymore. But he used his bereavement and ministered to thousands of people, filling them physically and spiritually. John’s death was not in vain. Jesus was not giving up that easily. The message of God’s love would bless others despite this tragedy.

Sat in the service, I thought of the books I’m writing. I considered the ways my own grief may have ‘blessed others’ – the organ donation, the fundraising for Bristol Children’s Hospital, the appreciation and forgiveness of others, the blog writing, and now the books: the children’s book, grief journal and a memoir.

I didn’t plan any of these things, they all sort of happened out of the needs of others – Abi was dying but other lives could be changed from her organs, people wanted to give money in Abi’s memory so the fundraising happened, I heard from people who had been bereaved so the blog writing developed, and by listening to what would help others the ideas for the books came about.

The books, I hope, will be like Jesus’s bread – using one story – the story of our loss – to help many others.

 

 

Would you like to donate to help me publish a children’s book about dying?
Just £1 will make a big difference to help me get the book out there to comfort children like ours who have been bereaved.

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Luke 12: 4-34 – Jesus’s advice about worry

Yesterday, I posted on my grief blog about the anxieties I feel whenever illness visits our family. How, since I lost my eldest child suddenly, my life is spent constantly hovering over the anxious switch, never knowing whether to brace myself for the worst happening again – and I’m very aware that just because I have lost one child does not reduce my chances of losing another. I try not to let the anxiety dominate my life now, but in times of pressure it is hard.

As if in answer, today, I read Luke 12 and there was much in it to encourage me that I wanted to examine:

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

 

When Jesus speaks here he comes across as somewhat aggressive and, if I’m honest, not that comforting! Yet, when I read the tone of his voice, I get a sense of that parental frustration I have with my own children. It’s that assertive reassurance that we all do, to try to fill our child with confidence – because we know it will be okay. ‘Oh don’t worry, there’s no such thing as monsters’ or ‘You’ll be fine!’. Jesus knows exactly how it will be, but teaching that to people who don’t know is not that straight forward!

In verse 4, Jesus tells us quite clearly that if we are going to worry about anything we should be worrying about God. The ‘fear’ of God is such that we should not be scared of him, like a demon or monster, but actually fear that we are doing right by Him. That our lives are lived to love Him and He us, and that in fact our bodies and our lives here on earth mean nothing compared to this eternal relationship.

Yet Jesus immediately says, God knows every hair on your head, and loves you and values you far more than any other creature. While our souls are the most valuable thing, our bodies and lives are also important to him. Jesus is trying to tell us that God is looking out for us in every way, so therefore we don’t need to worry.

But worry we do!

It took me a long time to read this section without getting irritated or feeling guilt for my own worry. In misunderstanding the message, I read it as though my personal worries were not important, the anxiety that I couldn’t control was my fault and that my worry was sinful. But that’s not the case at all.

Jesus never told us to not worry about stuff because there’s nothing to worry about. He doesn’t deny what we feel, he’s actually acknowledging the fact that we can’t help but worry about our lives, our health, our loved ones, our finances and jobs. He’s telling us not to worry despite the fact there is so much to worry about. He’s teaching us that we don’t need to worry about these things because God has our backs. He is the one who will provide for us after we die as well as today, not our clothes, jobs or money.

Jesus then goes on to tell the Parable of the Rich Fool. This is the story of a businessman who created a successful business and had become very wealthy as a result. He received admiration from people around him and most likely felt very important. However, Jesus describes him as a ‘fool’ – and pretty much a ‘failure’! The man assumes he has a long and happy life to live, with his success, but he had never considered what was beyond this life (v.20).

His life was focused entirely on himself, on his success. The word ‘I’ or ‘my’ appears 11 times (vv.17-19). He thought he was worth the same as all he owned but he failed to understand the way to be truly rich. He was not ‘rich towards God’ (v.21).

Jesus then goes on to talk about worry in more detail:

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

We think we have worries today, but our worries haven’t changed all that much since Jesus said these words – food and provision, what we wear or how we look, wealth and status, being a success or a failure, ‘having it all’ – we are still wrangling with many of the same anxieties today. Jesus is telling us that, while these things aren’t bad (God ‘knows you need them’) we are so distracted by them that we forget God, we forget the very essence of life and how to achieve true fulfilment. Talk to anyone who has found faith, and they will tell you that God fills that ‘void’ they have been seeking all their lives. The ‘thing’ we feel as though something is ‘missing’ or there is ‘more to life that this’. Fulfilment comes through Him.

Like anyone else, my personal anxieties tend to slip into the material elements of life – wanting a nice home, cars, to look good, money to spend on pastimes and luxuries, but they don’t define me either. My deep anxieties relate to the fear of losing someone I love and the fear of feeling my heart ripping open again. A bigger problem perhaps, but also something that God has hold of.

I read a lovely story the other night to my daughter, which explained this very simply:

If you put a silver coin into a matchbox, and then squeeze the matchbox in your hand, what happens? The box breaks but the coin stays the same.

If you were to burn the matchbox in the fire, what happens? It would turn to ash, but the coin would not be damaged.

Now, which of the two items is more valuable – the box or the coin? The coin of course.

Adapted from A Young Person’s Guide to Knowing God, Patricia St. John.

Our bodies are like the matchbox, it can look any way on the outside – be a ‘posh’ matchbox from a luxury hotel or be a scruffy cheap box from the local shop – it can be pristine or a bit battered. The coin on the other hand is stuck in silver. It is precious and worth infinitely more than the matchbox. The more we look after the matchbox, the longer it will last but the coin represents our soul, that’s the part that will live forever. That’s the part we need to look after most.

Far from calling us all to sell everything, wear rags and donate all we have to the poor, Jesus is saying we can have wealth and comfort, we can look good and wear nice clothes, we can use our money to do things for personal pleasure, so long as our focus is on God and the love and care of others. The businessman only cared for himself, his worth, his status. The only person benefiting from it was himself. Jesus asks us to seek God in every area of our lives and then the worrying will stop and the true joy of living will start.

As the saying goes ‘You can’t take it with you’… so, what will you take with you when it’s your turn? A silver coin, or an empty box? We need to work on refocusing our lives to God first, and then the rest will follow.

Having the courage to believe

This week, I attended my 8-year-old son’s parents’ evening. Like many parents at this time of year, I was keen and somewhat nervous to see how he was getting on.

In the past, before my eldest child died, I was guided a lot by the grades my children achieved. Abi, my eldest child, always did very well. Effortlessly getting good grades due to her natural affinity to the school system and learning. My second child was similar; a good all rounder with a creative flair. My son has found learning at school harder to adjust to. As one of the youngest in his class, he was at a slight disadvantage to his peers. He’s bright enough and loves maths, but he’s not keen on writing or reading in a structured way. He tends to worry about getting things wrong and will simply ‘switch off’ when he can’t handle something. Yet he’s happy and his confidence in himself is growing all the time.

When Abi died, my perspective on many things changed. Everything seemed insignificant… of course it was… but it was such a big thing to adjust to that no one warned me about. I suddenly didn’t know what to care about anymore. But as their routines didn’t stop, I needed to somehow find a way to continue to support my children’s schooling. Our children need to see that we care about all the things they do.

Three years on, I’m in a fairly happy place with this now; my focus centres on my children’s overall happiness and wellbeing. The grades don’t really matter. Clearly, I see the value of learning essentials such as English and mathematics, but I’m not fussed about them achieving the ever-pressured targets set by the government. I firmly believe in a rounded education that includes sports, arts, faith, hobbies and just plain old having fun.

It was something the teacher said that struck me the most about his progress. He was sat at a table with his peers and they were talking about God and Jesus. Everyone except my son said they didn’t believe in Him, they made jokes about Jesus and giggled about it. It wasn’t a deep theological debate this was just 8-year-olds having a chat. But my son went against their opinions and admitted he believed in God, and he said this with simple and honest courage in his convictions. The teacher noticed this and commented on it to us.

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Life through God’s lense is not rose-tinted

With the popularity of social media it seems we know more about people than ever before. We know their good times though holiday snaps, happy families, beautiful homes, good jobs… then it goes wrong, for someone, somewhere. Someone we know or a friend of a friend. An accident, burglary, cancer diagnosis, sudden death… we perhaps, somewhat voyeuristically, crowd round them in a cyber world in shock and disbelief. While many will offer practical and emotional support, others will fan the flames of anger and injustice. Life is shit. It’s so unfair!

But, Jesus told us to expect all this. In fact, He promises ‘you will have trouble’ (John 16:33), which isn’t a phrase you’ll want to think of over the nicer messages!

Like me, one day your life could look very different… trouble comes knocking.

Your body doesn’t work the way it should anymore.
You develop anxiety over something unexpected.
Your job or income is threatened.
Your relationship breaks down.
You’re involved in an accident.
You are harmed in some way.
Someone in your family is taken ill.
Someone you know dies.

Something, anything, could have a profound affect on the rest of your life and how you are able to live it. And it’s often at times like this we turn away from God, confused about why our prayers aren’t being answered or why we have to endure this new situation and suffering.

Life is hard
In our society, we expect a large degree of perfection. Way back when, magazines touched up images of models to make them look perfect. This was one level of perfectionism that most people could ignore. However, the popularity and accessibility of social media amongst all ages and sexes has skewed how life is viewed. Life is edited to sound more interesting. Pictures are filtered to look better. The life we present online can show an unrealistic snapshot of what it truly is.

As a Christian, learning about Jesus, we are never told that our lives will be easy. I can see, now that I have explored further, that the message of ‘God Saves’ is not ‘God will solve all our problems’. When Jesus healed and raised people from death He was not just rescuing them from those afflictions, but was demonstrating who He really was and the power He had. (As we know, we often want evidence in order to to believe.) Jesus told us quite clearly that we will always have illness, poverty, evil and suffering, and that God will love and support us through it all and – ultimately – wipe every tear from every eye.

It seems a morose way to view life and contradicts what we are to believe in the love of God. But our suffering and God’s love go hand in hand, in equal measure.

When my daughter died, I didn’t understand why (I still don’t) but I did feel very strongly that Jesus was with me (and I had been so separated from my faith up to that point that I couldn’t even pray to God to save her). I felt a presence. I felt such love and grief alongside mine. I may not have understood what was happening to us, but I felt understood.

‘To be understood, as to understand.’
To be loved as to love with all my soul.’
Make me a Channel of your Peace, Prayer of St Francis

So Jesus’s message was we should not be surprised by the trials of life but know that we are blessed when things are going well. The good times shine out and become even better.

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How did Jesus feel about child loss?

My Bible reading is quite sporadic at the moment, but I have been rereading the gospel of Luke. One morning, I had some time to myself so I picked it up and began to read. It was the time in Jesus’s early ministry when he was healing the sick.

I read about the account of Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead.

‘Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, accompanied by his disciples and a large crowd. Just as he arrived at the gate of the town, a funeral procession was coming out. The dead man was the only son of a woman who was a widow, and a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart was filled with pity for her, and he said to her, “Don’t cry.” Then he walked over and touched the coffin, and the men carrying it stopped. Jesus said, “Young man! Get up, I tell you!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.’
(Luke 7: 11-15)

The words ‘his heart was filled with pity for her’ jumped out at me from the page and repeated over and over in my mind. I continued to read but was drawn back to this passage. It was hard to digest any other words.

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Jesus wept

One of the shortest sentences in the Bible has had a great impact on me and shows us that, despite all that he knew, Jesus didn’t gloss over the harsh reality of grief:

‘Jesus wept.’ (John 11:35)

Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, as He had arrived too late to save him, before He then resurrected him. He shared in the unquestionable sorrow and pain that Lazarus’s death brought to those closest to him. He understood that death is a sad thing, but, most importantly, he made it okay to grieve. He mourned with the mourners. Belief in eternal life isn’t all glorious, Jesus knew we had to die in order to be with the Father and he felt the sorrow of parting just as we do.