Church Behind Bars

hands through barsI have been to lots of different churches, from high churches dripping with opulence and finery to churches that simply meet behind metal shutters for the destitute and prostitutes, and churches in Africa that simply meet under a tree with no building in sight. I had never been to a church in a prison before – until last week.

One of the Prison Officers must have noticed my wide eyes trying to acclimatise to my new surroundings and asked “Is it your first time?”

“The first time I’ll be meeting the prisoners” I replied.

He laughed, “Well, it’ll probably be your last!”

I reassured myself that he must have had a bad shift, or the system had probably ground him down. My excitement still outweighed my nervousness but I had no idea what to expect.

The church soon began to fill up, much like any other church, from the back seats first! There were seasoned church-goers who reassured me that the service ‘was alright’ and some that have never stepped foot in a church before so were probably even more intrigued than me! Some were very candid about their reason for going to church admitting it just got them out of their cell. However, regardless of their motives, and despite being marched in under Officer escort, all the men were there of their own free will.

The congregation was a mixed bag. (Just as they all should be!) There were men who had ‘vulnerable’ written all over them and had probably been victims themselves far longer than their sentence prescribed. Some clearly had learning disabilities or special needs even before getting beyond a hand shake and pleasantries. However, most of them were Mr Average, representing any selection of young men randomly picked from the streets.

skeleton in closetI didn’t ask anything about their crimes or sentences as I wanted it to be a meeting of person to person, not insider to outsider. However, the institution and deference was undeniably ingrained. It’s been a long time since I’ve been referred to as “Miss!”

The service itself was unremarkable in many ways apart from the fact that there was no collection plate that was passed round! The Chaplain had their attention and respect and it all passed without incident. It wasn’t until the prayers that I was reminded where I was with the usual intercessions studded with requests for early release dates, tagging and for loved ones to visit.

The customary invitation to come and find out more really blew me away. I had barely got to my feet before a young man asked if he could pray for someone that he had hurt. He was nervous because he didn’t know how to pray. It was the shortest, simplest prayer yet was overflowing in sincerity and depth. I was really moved and it was such a privilege to be able to pray with him. He, like others, were hungry for a better life and were intrigued who this Jesus was. Three of them asked if they could have a Bible. As I glanced round the room all the other leaders and volunteers were also engaged in conversation or prayer with the prisoners.

My heart sank as cell block numbers got shouted out. Time in prison, for me at least, had gone too quickly. There was no time to wrap conversations up, our time was done and they were promptly escorted back to their cells.

I’m not sure how the men felt as they went back to their cells but I went home feeling challenged. Their hunger to find out more has fed my appetite to help them discover who they really are in Gods eyes, not the worlds. From that perspective, things can get really exciting. I’m not sure where things will go from here but I know the Prison Officer was wrong, it definitely won’t be my last…

freedom-in-christ

 

 

 

 

We give our best when we give from rest

We live iIncrease-Productivityn a world where productivity matters. Being good at your job isn’t enough any more; life constantly demands us to be quicker, more efficient and more productive and it’s little surprise that stress is on the rise. With ‘to do’ lists that grow faster than queues for Black Friday bargains I wonder how many people put ‘rest’ on their to do list? It isn’t exactly exciting, glamorous or inspiring, but somehow we’ve almost allowed the idea of rest to be twisted into selfishness or laziness. This certainly isn’t what God intended. A quick bible search flashed back 508 references to the word ‘rest’. God modelled it in Genesis 2:2 (on the seventh day he rested) and Jesus modelled it in the new testament, regularly taking himself ‘away from the crowds’.

 

matt-1128

Psalm 4610

 

 

 

 

 

However, churches need to be especially careful about rest. A survey of 1,050 pastors from 2005-06 revealed ‘90% were frequently fatigued and worn out on a weekly or even daily basis’*. There are many pervasive reasons in a church setting why people give beyond healthy limits . Ideas that:

  1. God deserves our best
  2. We must live our lives sacrificially to Him
  3. God will protect you from harm/illness if you’re doing His work

Whilst I agree with the first two, giving our best means giving out of rest. Our best refers to quality but so often we still hear the words quantity. Constantly giving of ourselves will only drain the battery until there is nothing left to give. I don’t think this is the sort of sacrifice that God intended! None of us know where our breaking point is until it is broken and it is far easier to maintain health than to regain it.

Churches thrive on rotas. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a rota for people writing the rotas! Clearly chores need to be done in any community organisation but we also need to be careful that we are serving our own calling and not someone else’s. If there is not a shared vision for service then we shouldn’t expect the service to be shared! We need to make sure that what we are doing energises and motivates us and we don’t just become someone else’s prop. There is a lot of truth in the saying that if you want something doing then ask a busy person but maybe that busy person actually needs challenging on why they are so busy!

Stress is thought to contribute to many illnesses. For example:

Capture 3

Rest is something that I now take very seriously, partly because I spent too long ignoring it. I lost my career, my much loved active lifestyle of fitness and exercise and have spent years trying to build up a life that can sustain a (reduced) social life, and things that give me purpose in life. Whilst stress didn’t cause my illness, (ME) it was probably a contributing factor, although to what extent I will never know. I didn’t feel stressed at the time, and I was in a fortunate position of being able to do what I’ve always loved doing. However, our passions can also become our obsessions.

“I worked hard, played hard and exercised hard but hardly ever rested.”

I worked hard, played hard and exercised hard but hardly ever rested. I used to hate resting – I still do but I have learnt a lot through the years of enforced rest and I will probably always need to counterbalance what I do with equal amounts of rest if I want to regain a healthy lifestyle. It’s what everyone with ME knows as pacing. I’ve blogged a lot about living with ME over the last two years and it’s not my intention to go over old ground again although I would like to emphasise that ME is far more than being tired or chronically fatigued.

However, the principle of work-rest balance is important for all of us whether we’ve had a chronic illness or not. Whether we are in paid or voluntary work, we will all have to share our responsibility in things that have to be done but we also need to have clear boundaries on what our values, purpose and priorities are.  There is so much more that could be said about the need for rest but rest time is knocking for me ( and probably you!) Lets not put the word ‘rest’ out to rest but reclaim it to prominence where it deserves to be. We need to be counter cultural and remember that to give our best we must give from rest. So, look again over your to-do list; are there any changes that need to be made?!

rest

 

*Source: Research complied by Richard J. Krejcir, Ph.D. with FASICLD).

When life gets out of control

It’s been a while since my last post, life has been busy. The New Year has started with good reason to celebrate, my health has continued to go from ‘Strength to Strength‘ and has generally withstood the annual stresses and strains of Christmas germs 2Christmas and all the bugs that get shared as well as presents!

However, Christmas was different this year; a good friend and my own Mum spent it in hospital, both with life threatening conditions. I seem to have staggered off my own health roller-coaster only to jump straight on to theirs!

So often we delude ourselves that we are in control of our lives: we work hard; get a good job; get promoted; provide for our families; we exercise to keep ourselves fit and eat the right foods to keep ourselves healthy but illness and suffering can be indiscriminate. When all this is whipped away, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Coping with the illness can be the tip of the iceberg, but the sense of loss, powerless and vulnerability can also run deep. The loss can be a grieving process whether you are going through it yourself or for a loved one. Grieving for a total loss can bring healing but when illness fluctuates, glimmers of hope temporarily push grief aside yet the uncertainty can leave you ungrounded.

Yesterday I was asked how I cope with the emotional roller-coaster of hope and disappointment. It’s a good question and despite being well practised over the last few years I am learning all the time!Dissappointment & Hope MLK

Lets not beat around the bush, whether you have faith or not it is hard. For me, the hurts, disappointments and losses are very real but there is also an eternal dimension. Praying for God to be close has revealed surprising blessings. Things I thought I would want to run and could have crumbled from have been faced with surprising strength, courage and sense of peace. This is not a mindset. I practice Mindfulness regularly which can help with distancing thoughts and emotions but it doesn’t help my spirit, or can explain the sense of joy that is still present despite the suffering.

Seeing God work through my Mum has been incredible. She is secure in God’s love and peace which makes things so much easier. During Mums seven week stay in hospital, other patients have commented how Mum has ‘brightened up the ward’, ‘helped them go through a really difficult time’ and one even asked if she could stay in touch with Mum. Whilst this doesn’t surprise me for anyone who knew my Mum from the past, I confess I initially wondered if they were talking about the right person! Mum has lived with Parkinson’s for the last 34 years and the last few months she could only communicate by blinking to yes/no questions. It’s been years since strangers have been able to understand Mum without the help of a family member to interpret.

It was fantastic to see how God can use anyone, in any situation if we allow ourselves. We were praying that God would be close to her through her pain and suffering whilst facing the end of her life. He matched our prayers and raised them! Not only was He close but He was continuing to work through her to bless others!

No one can promise an easy, safe or secure life but God has promised life to the full. Some people seem to have pint sized measures, others just a shot measure, but whatever our full measure of ‘full’ is I’m happy to embrace it and am very thankful that I will never have to ride life’s roller-coaster alone!flowers-growing-out-of-the-concrete-photography251

Happy 2016 and may it be filled with many surprising blessings!

 

I’m going to prison!

prisonIt will come as a shock to most of family and friends. I think I’m still in shock myself! However, I’ve been convicted to go to prison this week.

My conviction came from a judge without a jury and I’m as guilty as the next person.

Ok, I’m sorry if reading this has made you spit your tea out! The fact that I’m going to a Young Offenders Institute rather than a prison gives the game away that I will be entering as a visitor rather than a convicted criminal!

Regular followers of my blog will know that I have recently completed a discipleship year ( Ignite). It really was a life changing year. It would be easy to sit back after such an amazing year and simply reminisce and wish I could do it all again but I have a real sense of needing to step out in a new direction. which direction isn’t entirely clear but I have felt gentle whispers throughout the year (and beyond) about engaging in some kind of prison ministry. Even as a fresh teenager I can recall my older sister disparagingly snapping that I was one of those ‘do-gooding sorts’ that would probably do prison visiting!

Am I qualified for doing prison ministry? No

Do I know what to expect from it? No

Is there anyone going in with me? No

What can I offer? Not sure

These questions (and more besides) do trouble me and I wonder what on earth I am doing! I’m normally the sort of person that plans, researches, prepares, studies for tasks and projects. Part of me is screaming that going into prison ‘on a whim’ is reckless and completely out of character. I can also think of lots of other people who would be far better qualified than me, but trying to suppress the whispers has only made them resurface a little louder!

I’m also cheered on by the Apostle Paul. If we are talking about the most unlikely of people to carry the message of God’s love and Grace to a world beyond the Jews it would be him. God chose him (then named Saul) despite his hatred for Christians. It was an active hatred including terrorism and persecution of any Christian until his dramatic conversion on the Damascus road. Hardly the obvious choice!

Ok, I’ve not had a dramatic conversion like Saul/Paul’s but all through the Bible God can and does choose unlikely people to do things they don’t feel qualified to do (Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Jonah… etc etc…) so that should be no barrier.

If you want to walk on waterI was also challenged by Jon Ortberg’s book; “If you want to walk on water you’ve got to get out of the boat”. It’s based on Matthew 14:25-32 and the faith of Peter that took him to get out of his boat during a storm and walk towards Jesus on the water. It challenged me to consider the potential that is outside of my comfort zone and how much I truly trust God.

So, this week I’m testing out those gentle whispers. Whether prison ministry is the final destination or just a step along another road remains to be seen. It could be more a case of walking into a lions den than walking on water! It’s both terrifying and exciting. I realise I could well sink, but there again I could just walk!…

The women ‘sewing’ their own harvest

2015 second oneThis is slightly different to my usual posts, not just because it’s shorter (!) but to promote an initiative that I’ve witnessed first hand. Some of you will know that I went on mission to Spain last May. As with a lot of Europe, the global recession has hit Spain hard. Unemployment is at 35% but this figure rises to a staggering 65% among the under 30’s. Behind the popular tourist destinations, there are many communities struggling. We were told before we went that to be prepared to show our love to lots of very dirty, smelly people! We met a whole spectrum of people from all walks of life but loving them really wasn’t hard to do. They were so open and loving to us, we gave and received in equal measure!

Chris White is an inspirational guy. He hosted our team during our weeks mission in Spain and is doing an incredible job in building community and serving the poor and those that society would prefer to forget. His way of doing church is very reminiscent of the early church in the New Testament and is very ‘hands on’.  One of his ‘churches’ was in a rural village where many of its members survived by scavenging for snails and/or eating bread dipped in olive oil. The church is church at it’s simplest level; it builds community with Christ at the center. It is small, simple, humble but has a servant heart and is extremely generous in both time and money. It provides a handsome food bank once a fortnight but Chris has also trained up a group of women to earn their own income by needlework whilst providing a sense of community and empowerment.

This is a very small social enterprise project with big rewards for its workers. All the money earned from their craft goes directly to the women themselves. This can literally mean the difference of food or no food and I was very humbled to hear that last year they ‘could even afford to have Christmas dinner’. It was such a privilege to meet the women pictured here:

women sewing 2women sewing

As our summer rolls into Autumn, it’s easy to skip over the importance of celebrating harvest. These women are not sowing their harvest so much as sewing their harvest! I would like to celebrate mine this year by sharing this project with you. Would you like to join me?

Please have a look at their website and share with others:

https://www.facebook.com/oneofakind.es?fref=ts#sthash.EfOv0kFD.dpuf

They create gorgeous, bespoke T-shirts and cushions and fabulous Christmas decorations, personalised with name and image. The quality of their work is exceptional and they make fantastic gifts for friends and family so this year, you can celebrate harvest by preparing for Christmas as well!

 

PicMonkey Collage

(Cushions/T-shirts from £15, hearts £2.50 each or box of 5 for £10. Well worth every penny!)

 

 

 

 

 

When God speaks

I learned at a young age that God doesn’t make things all right, bad stuff happens. My Mum was diagnosed with Parkinsons when I was only eight years old; my Aunt was killed in a car crash; my uncle married again only to loose his Son in another car crash aged seventeen.

When I came to faith at the age of 14 I knew I wasn’t opting into some holy-phoney insurance system that would make my life safer, happier, healthier. If I had, I would have been in for an even bigger shock when I lost my career and social life due to the onset of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Twewnty years ago Doctors had no explanation or could give no prognosis. One didn’t even believe in the illness and told me ‘I was just looking for a way out of work!’ It was an incredibly lonely and scary couple of years of my life. It was quite possible that the rest of my life could have be lived in my bed, but improvement came, and over subsequent years I was able to become more and more active and sustain good levels of fitness and energy including running and high impact fitness classes.

When I suffered a full relapse September 2013 I was at least in a new technological era; the internet and social media meant that I could fill in the gaps the doctors couldn’t provide and this time ME was no stranger. This was a mixed blessing. The downside was that I knew that it was unlikely that a recovery would come quickly and I knew I was probably in for a long period of isolation, frustration, heartache and disappointments but on the plus side, I did have experience on my side and if I had recovered once from this illness, surely I could do it again?

My optimism to get fit became a constant stumbling block. It just seemed to invite more and more disappointment as small improvements seemed to constantly crash down in relentless waves over me. Optimism and positive attitude may be admirable but it was costly and my foundation of building my optimism on a past experience soon felt like the foolish man who built his house upon the sand!

I was grateful to be able to vent a lot of my frustrations on God during this time. He’s big enough to take it! With everything else stripped away I enjoyed a new sense of God’s presence. Yes, clouds of doubt rolled in, but God seemed to know just how to deal with these.

The big change for me came from a short conversation from a complete stranger after a Sunday service. She had the courage to tell me that God had a clear message for me! I’ve posted on this before ( The blessing of Weakness) but the message was:

“that I shouldn’t look back and wish for how things used to be because God was going to strengthen me. She told me that this wasn’t going to be a sudden thing but gradual over time and that eventually things will be even better than how they used to be but I needed to be close to God always.”

That was quite some message to receive from a teenager who was new in to town and our church! I haven’t seen her since. Could it have been some freaky coincidence? Yes, it’s possible, yet I really felt it was from God!

Of course, I would have liked to have known how gradually my strength would be restored! It still felt as slow as watching paint dry-and just as it was nearly dry, someone slapped a fresh coat of paint on top to watch! But now I had a foundation to place my optimism onto.

It gave me the extra confidence to step out in faith and sign up for a 10 month discipleship course called Ignite. At the time it seemed like a reckless option. I couldn’t even converse with friends for longer than 2 hours without it wiping me out and sending me back to bed. This was my experience for the first few weeks and I realised that I had to cut back even more of my limited social life. I think it would be fair to say that at this point, my faith in the prophetic word given to me was as small as a mustard seed – it was small but it was still there!

As the weeks and months went by that mustard seed grew. I knew I was being strengthened but not in the way I was expecting. My strength started from within and grew from the inside out. The strength multiplied as I realised that this was what God had promised to me via that random stranger.

I’ve now come to the end of my discipleship year with Ignite. It has been a hard season but that mustard seed has grown deep roots. The whole year has been incredible and totally transforming. I’m so pleased I risked my tentative step of faith, I can’t imagine where I would be now without it.

I’m still a long way off full fitness but I’m also a long way down the road of recovery and have a lot to be thankful for.

Going from strength to strength makes me smile for so many reasons but knowing that God has spoken His promise to me has to be at the top.

Faith, by definition, has no certainties but exercising my faith has reaped far greater rewards than trying to exercising my physical body! It’s an exercise I hope to continue to develop and I hope I will be ready to listen, speak and act on whatever God calls for me in the future no matter how ridiculous it might sound!

Mustard seed plant
Mustard seed plant

How deep is your fear?

It’s not often we get chance to consider our fears but yesterday offered an opportunity to do just that. The weekly Ignite course that I’m currently undertaking took us out from our four walls and to an activity centre. What we were going to undertake was shrouded in mystery. I confess the unknown started to raise my stress levels before we arrived: Would my health be up to it, would I have to sit out, would I need to leave early, would I need a change of underwear?! etc etc

But I love the outdoors, I love a challenge, I love the people I was going with. As we arrived and saw the array of canoes, high ropes, zip wires, climbing walls etc I felt more excited than fearful of the day ahead. Unless they were going to whip out a pit full of snakes I felt pretty sure that my fears would be safely buried deep from the surface for the day! I altruistically concluded that the day would be focussed on me helping others overcome their fears rather than challenging any of my own!

However, as is often the way on Ignite, the day soon had some surprises! We all wrote down things that caused us stress and circled any that could create a risk to life. The remaining fears ranged from ‘getting the kids out of the house on time’ to ‘mess’ to ‘meeting work deadlines’. All were valid as they all caused genuine stress to the individual, but they also shared something else quite profound. After exploring why they caused us stress, the common thread through our long list of varied scribblings could be summed up as pride and reputation.

Suddenly, fear had a new paradigm that suddenly sprang up much closer to the surface. Preserving face and respect has resulted in me hiding in fear on more occasions than I dared to admit:

When I first became unwell with ME I stopped going to my regular church because I couldn’t be the person people knew me to be. On my better days where I made it into church I physically didn’t have the energy to go and talk to people after the service. I didn’t want people to see me like this, I thought people wouldn’t understand so I hid away.

I had very few days where I felt well enough to go to the shops or a short walk. For a long time I seriously considered getting myself a wheelchair. It would allow many more family outings, ‘walks’ in the countryside, and shopping trips, but instead I chose to hide away at home and simply wait for a ‘good’ day to come.

Writing this down, I realise how ridiculous my choices were. But my desire to protect my reputation and what people would think of me made me stubbornly stick to my preservation mode. Fear had gotten the better of me.Abseiling

 

Back to my activity day. Heights have never bothered me, so the abseiling task should have been more of a thrill than a fear challenge but fear was still below the surface. It wasn’t a fear of testing out my ropes, trusting my other team members, or jumping off the edge, but it was a fear that I might have to leave before given the chance to prove that I had no fear! The abseiling task was at the end of the day. I had been fighting off an infection and a physical ‘crash’ and consequential failure was still a high possibility. Again, my fear was people seeing the vulnerable, compromised and weakened version of myself.

 

Another task came that did have the potential to rouse my fear: I was picked as our team leader to disarm a ‘live bomb’ from deep within the dark cellars! Clearly, I had no qualifications for this task and the instructions were deliberately vague. The results were catastrophic and all my team died under my leadership! Had I not known my group well, I’m sure the sense of failure and letting my team down would have bothered me. Fortunately however, we know, respect and love each other well enough to simply laugh the events off without so much as a second thought.

It got me thinking about I John 4:18 “Perfect love drives out fear”. If I was able to shrug and laugh off fear because of love from close friends, how much more must this be true from our heavenly Father

 

My health is definitely on the up and I’m already thinking about what I should be putting my fragile and limited energies to in the future. It would be so easy to hide away for fear of letting people down, not living up to my or others expectations, being unreliable,  and ultimately failing but I know my security and identity is in God and His perfect love. So this is what I’m praying into as my course enters it’s final term. My next small step, whatever it will be, will be a big one!