What is a mother?

Mother’s Day: We think of a mother and young child – it’s a classic image; but of course it’s only one of many ways that we experience ‘mothers’ and motherhood. Here are just some of the mother figures I could come up with:

  • House Mother in a Boarding School
  • Step-mum
  • Mother-in-law (or Mother-Outlaw?)
  • Adoptive Mum
  • Birth or Biological Mother
  • A neighbourhood ‘adopted’ Mum
  • The ‘mum’ of the friendship group (the sensible one who has tissues in her bag, a shoulder to cry on and chicken soup at the ready)
  • Mother Earth
  • The mother-heart of God – who longs to gather us in, like chicks sheltered under their mother’s wing

The whole concept of ‘Motherhood’ can evoke strong emotions. It may be that you never knew the woman who carried you in her womb. There is a disconnect there: a cutting off, a dislocation, a rootlessness, even rejection. 

…the egg from which we developed was formed in our grandmother’s womb…

It is strange to think that the egg from which we developed was formed in our grandmother’s womb…growing in the unborn child that would become our mother. There is such a deep sense of connection running through – or sometimes we feel at least that there ought to be. 

‘Motherhood’ may sum up for you a host of hopes unfulfilled. Something you imagined would always ‘just happen’, and for one reason or another, it has not come to fruition. In fact, often times, it’s something that was very carefully avoided – even feared – until the ‘right time’. For people who haven’t experienced this emptiness it can be hard to comprehend the depths of grief it evokes. The complex bundle of relentlessly regular cycle of hope and disappointment; the sense of failure or even (self-)blame; the questioning of identity – if not a mother, then who am I?

What about ‘Mothering’? 

After all, this day was originally known as Mothering Sunday? “Stop mothering him! He’s got to learn to stand on his own two feet!” It can bring to mind the so-called helicopter parents; the idea of the apron strings being firmly tied on; or even the umbilical cord not yet cut! Perhaps the phrase is redolent of over-protectiveness, or even cultivating dependence. 

Can you be maternal without being a mother? 

Of course! I was always very maternal growing up – despite being a younger sister, the role of big cousin came very naturally when there was something of a baby boom in the wider family. In fact, I was always the ‘mum’ of our friendship group – and still friends from the school gate, who aren’t really that close, will confide in me their heartbreaking dilemmas and worries. Someone to listen. Someone who won’t judge, or preach. Someone to comfort and hold. Someone to gently guide, inform or advise; or someone just to sit alongside. 

Carrying a child is only a very small part of being a mother – as many friends who have struggled with infertility; have adopted; or who were given up for adoption; and many who got pregnant just fine, but found the reality of having a tiny person entirely dependent on them completely overwhelming (not to mention the pervasive post-natal depression that may strike at anyone, no matter how sunny their character or strong their faith). 

Perhaps we grieve a mother who has left this earth (lost too soon, or even at a ripe old age – as someone said to me last year, their elderly mum having had a stroke – it doesn’t matter how old you are, you still need your mum) Wheyher or not you agree with that sentiment, I think there are certainly times when we wish we had someone to hold us, love and comfort us, even simply reassure us – and often the shorthand name for that person is ‘mum’.

Sometimes it’s more the case that we feel too keenly the imperfections, or absence, of parents still alive. My hope is that each of us will find someone around us to be a mother-figure; or perhaps a collection of friends whose sum total represents the family we would wish we had had. 

The Hallmark profit-generating shindig that is Mother’s Day is largely an artifice – with saccharine pseudo-poetry gracing a £4.50 card adorned with flowers – and armfuls of teddies, fridge magnets and fresh flowers at the ready. Yes, it’s a good thing to take time to honour mothers – but not all those who are mothers to us, are ‘mothers’; and sadly not all mothers are kind or even loving. 

My parents aren’t perfect and my biggest learning on this journey we call adulthood has been to learn to accept them as they are – and not to dwell on who I might have wanted or even needed them to be. They are who they are – and acceptance is a powerful and ongoing gift. I won’t buy a card whose words I couldn’t, hand on heart, say face to face to someone. Words are important to me, as a linguist I suppose that should be no surprise.  So, I won’t be a hypocrite for the sake of a retail event. I do however look for those things for which I can be truly thankful, and do my best to show my appreciation accordingly.

As a mother of one son (we would that there had been more children – but that’s in God’s hands and his timing), I recognise that however hard I try, someday my son will be disappointed in me – it’s inevitable. We joke that we’ve already put money aside for his future therapy! We are all imperfect and we’re simply doing the best with the resources we have available to us at any given time. Of course, the trick to finding a healthy balance of being a mother / mothering / being maternal – biological or not – is to recognise when things could be improved and go out looking for more and better resources for ourselves (professional support, advice, training, information, peer support), to do an even better job at this role we call ‘mother’. There are some great, free parenting courses available out there for instance.

Parenting: one long obstacle course?

My boy gave me the most wonderful card this morning – I was absolutely touched, but my reaction was also to say to him and my husband, “If I live up to even half of these claims, I’ll be doing well!” – I hope he knows I’ll always love and accept him – through my mistakes and his.

When reflecting on this subject I thought about the most famous mothers (famous for that title rather than just happening to have offspring) – I came up with two – so who you think came to mind ?
Mother Theresa – never a biological mother, though arguably (and I recognise that not everyone agrees with this) ‘mothered’ thousands of people.

And Mary, Mother of Jesus (likeness according to Leonardo da Vinci):

Let’s remember that Mary never asked to become a mother at all! It looked at one stage like she might be a single mother; she had to give birth in a strange place, amongst the animals, and away from family and friends. Then they had to flee to another country as refugees.  And later still her son clearly prioritised his God-given calling over his family. 

At a time when Jesus was persecuted and falsely accused, His mother and brothers were concerned about His welfare. They came to the house where He was residing:

 “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:31–35, New Revised Standard Version).

 Although Jesus loved and respected His physical mother, brothers and sisters, His primary concern was for the spiritual family that followed His teaching.

http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/mary_mother_of_Jesus_18542.aspx

Not quite the picture perfect nuclear family!

At the end of her famous (or at that time, more accurately ‘notorious’) son’s life, He looked down from the cross and called upon his best friend, John, to take His place, and become a son to Mary, and to take care of her as his own mother, 

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Jesus saw quite clearly that being a mother or son had less to do with biology, than it had to do with relationship, respect and honour; love, protection, acceptance and care (by the way, ‘woman’ was a term of endearment back then – just in case that jarred with you too?).

So a few thoughts to end. Perhaps this mothers day, as well as acknowledging the person in your life you call ‘Mum’…

  • take a look at the others around you who share in those attributes – honour them with thanks as well. 
  • look at who you know – could you offer some of these qualities, possibly as a mentor or even spiritual parent, to someone who needs care and guidance?
  • send a note of kindness to someone for whom this day is hard – either because of the loss of their mum, a great distance between them, or maybe the grief of their own motherhood denied.
  • lift up in prayer those who have lost children or unborn babies. A mother who loses a child, whether she has more or not, will always be a mother – forever changed by this monumentous experience. 
  • recognise those, known and unknown to us, who may be a biological mother, but lack the skills and role models to provide their child with the qualities we associate with motherhood. Rather than jump to judge, as we all too often do, look to offer a word of encouragement or solidarity. Parenting is a tough job, and judgment just makes it harder. 
  • if you are a mum, be kind to yourself. You may not feel like ‘Best Mum in the World’ or ‘Supermum’ whatever that shiny new mug might say, but remind yourself- ‘this is what it is right now’. Tomorrow can be different. If you’re feeling ‘under-resourced’ or drowning, help is out there. The first step is to acknowledge it, and reach out for help. 

If all that sounds too much like hard work, of course, feel free to make a cuppa, pop your slippered feet up on the sofa, and enjoy these flowers from me to you. 

Leave me your own thoughts below and in the meantime, have a…

Happy Mother’s Day

If you liked this blog, I would love it if you would leave me a comment of encouragement and share it too. Thank you.



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Circles of Prayer

At the moment my holiday reading is The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson, which I thoroughly recommend! It’s a seriously powerful read which challenges us to dream huge dreams, audacious, crazily impossible dreams…unless God were to get involved!

This book has provoked me to reflect on my own circles of prayer…

Prayer for a place to live… if I’m perfectly honest, at this stage of my walk with God, in 2002 ago, it wasn’t so much a prayer as a cry of my heart, as back then I had no idea of praying for my everyday needs.

This prayer was answered by the owners of the bed and breakfast where I stayed as part of my relocation for my first post-uni job, who suggested a flat just a few doors down from them which was available to rent. Consequence? I was ideally positioned to see for myself how vibrant a church Trinity was (although I still wasn’t in the parish, even though I could see it from my front gate – it’s a truly tiny parish!); then I realised I’d really found myself in the perfect place when I discovered that a couple of my age leading a home group lived nearby…in fact in the flat above! Coincidence or God-incidence??!

Prayer for my now husband, then boyfriend, to ask me to marry me…I had asked him many, many times. I look back now and wonder whether it was simply justice that, having started out quite brutally in our relationship at university saying to him that I couldn’t guarantee this going any further than the remaining two terms of uni (bad history with ex’s), once he’d been away with Tearfund on one of their Transform teams over the whole summer, I then realised that this was the man I wanted to marry (after six months together)!

Unfortunately for me, The Lord clearly decided to teach me a lesson in patience and perseverance, as well as simply waiting for His timing, as we were together for two years and three months (not that I was counting!) before he popped the question. (He had had to tell me to stop asking him, else he would never ask me!!). The Lord was so gracious in that time, and during one of the many times I went forward for prayer at church, and prayed with my prayer partners, I was given, by a complete stranger, the picture of a ring – I could have wept with relief!

Consequence? I’ve learned a lesson in persistence, and in not forcing God’s plans. Our wedding wasn’t the timing I would have planned, but I look back and am glad that God made me wait and really press in for this marriage so that later on I would know how much I wanted to fight for it when things got tough.

Prayers for our wedding venue…we desperately wanted a particular venue, and for it to be on the first May bank holiday weekend, at the same time as the Cheltenham Jazz Festival which was where we’d been the evening of our engagement. It didn’t look like we were going to get it, but after much prayer it came through. Consequence? I learned that our God is the God of the details, and when we care about things, so does He. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get exactly what you pray for, after all He may have a much better plan for you, but it does mean He sees, he hears and He cares.

Prayer for my wedding dress…Our wedding was planned on a tight budget; we had a spreadsheet and everything (designed by my beloved), and moreover I actually used it! I had an amount set aside for my wedding dress, which in reality, I had no idea how it was going to buy me one of the beautiful dresses I’d clipped for my scrapbook from one of the many magazines I’d had. On my very first outing dress shopping with one of my bridesmaids, when I was really only expecting to browse and try a few things on, I found it! My perfect dress, in my size, as an end of season sample, and the only one of that kind left – I loved it! It came in exactly on budget, much to my fiancé’s amazement and delight, and at a fraction of the made to measure cost. Wow!

Prayer for a new job…after I was made redundant from my graduate job, I had some time out of work, which although tough mentally and financially proved to be a blessing in some respects, as I could take time to plan our wedding and I could offer some support to my Mum caring for my Nana during end stage cancer. It also meant that I got some ‘outplacement’ support as part of the redundancy package and therefore the opportunity to really think about what it was that I wanted to do with my career.

Just before our wedding, I received an offer to become an Employment Advisor with a company up in Birmingham, which had a contract from the JobCentre to help people on benefits back to work, and was able to start immediately on our return from honeymoon. It was tough commuting on the train for over two years, but I loved my job and the people I met, and it was the perfect place to gain the skills I would need for my next role: communicating with people from all cultures, walks of life, nationalities, languages and class; learning how to run training programmes, learning about recruitment and induction, becoming a coach.

Prayer for a way out from a job(!)…I loved my job in Birmingham, but as it was target driven, and I was doing more and more training over fellow advisors, of clients, coming up with new programmes, working with the ‘hardest to help’, it became impossible to keep hitting my targets (doing the training was in theory an optional extra). I got quite ill with stress and ended up in hospital with chest pain, which culminated in the third person (two of whom didn’t know God) using the exact same phrase, word for word, to me, “no job is worth your health”. I finally got the message from The Lord! I was dedicated to my colleagues and my clients and really didn’t want to leave, but being performance managed was no fun and I had to accept that looking after myself was as important as looking after others.

I prayed, and asked my husband if we could survive for a little while on just his salary, and he tentatively said yes. When I prayed some more, Jesus very clearly told me to leave my job at the end of August; it was mid-July. So I gave seven weeks’ notice – a bit longer than usual, and I hoped my continued job hunting would finally pay off – after all it was I was employed to do for others, so I should be able to sort myself out!!

In the meantime, my bosses did everything they could to try and persuade me to stay, including asking me to come back as a consultant on a day rate – a very attractive proposition!

However, God had made his will clear and I had to step out in faith, job or no job. I left, secure in the knowledge that I was being obedient, even if my long-suffering hubby was now none too sure about the route we were taking, despite having hated taking me to and from the rail station all that time!

Praying for a new job… I found a couple of temp jobs, my parents gave us a financial gift and then all of a sudden I found a job, through an agency, which had the briefest of descriptions – in some ways I didn’t really know what I was applying for in terms of the organisation, simply that it was a Training and Development Manager post.

What you should also know, is that I had applied, during my notice period, for a similar role at a Christian charity which supported ex-offenders to resettle after their release, and a I felt a very clear prompting to go for this job from the Holy Spirit. “Woohoo, this is it, this job is earmarked for me!”, I thought to myself. I was utterly convinced.

I was terrified about giving 5 minute presentation on how I would approach training, to the Chief Executive and one of the Directors, but it went really well. Everyone around me was really excited for me. Except one friend, who was enthusiastic and supportive, but at the same time, felt that The Lord had laid it on her heart to pray for a job for me that was within 10 miles, and the head office for this place was about 25 miles away, with a tiny office more locally where I hoped I could potentially be based…but she was cautious about this being the one. Of course, she turned out to the correct and I didn’t get the job as another candidate had more experience in a particular area of training qualifications. They did however give me some very positive feedback on the creativity and content of my presentation. I was completely gutted at the time and convinced I must have heard wrongly from The Lord.

I look back and realise that something can be right and wrong at the same time. When I got an interview for the job that I had applied for through the agency, I was quickly called back to a second interview that same week (which I couldn’t have done had I still been employed up in Birmingham), and I had to deliver a 15 minute training session to…the Chief Executive and all the Directors, as well as the Head of Human Resources! Well, I was scared, but not half as terrified as I would have been had I not had that positive experience of the ‘practice run’ with the other charity!! Wow, God really does provide; I was humbled. I started within the week, and my new company was delighted that they didn’t have to wait for me to work out a notice period as unbeknownst to me, they’d already tried to recruit a couple of times previously, without success!

And the consequence of not knowing too much about the organisation from the agency’s write-up?? Well, had I known that it was a quasi-public sector organisation working with lots of academics, I might well have run a mile – I don’t think I would have thought I was good enough for the academics, merely having a degree and no post-graduate qualifications! And having had such dire experiences of dealing with the benefits offices, tax credits office and the JobCentre, I had pretty much sworn to avoid all the bureaucracy and committee structures of the public sector! The Lord knew exactly what he was doing when he aligned all those things for me! And after my initial misgivings, here I am over eight years later still here!

Prayer for next steps… Over the last 6 months I’ve been really quite ill with severe anxiety and depression, and now diagnosed with symptoms of PTSD :-/. (I expect at some point I will start to write about that to untangle what has been happening and why, and how the Spirit has been with me in this time.) For now I’m waiting on my heavenly Dad to show me how I should go forward. After all, whilst the pause button might have been pressed on my work life – in my workplace, life continues apace with the only modern constant: change.

For some around me not knowing what I’m doing next is intensely frustrating and even frightening for them – will I be well enough to go back to my job, will I be able to handle the changes? For others in my life they are focussed on helping me simply to get well, my job is less relevant to them; others still are concentrating on holding me step by step as I move forwards whatever that means.

And for me? It’s scary, it’s exhausting, it’s a sad time where I’m struggling, it’s a time where I’m trying to appreciate the opportunity to be still, and to press into going deeper with God, and it’s a huge exercise in trust. I’m asking/crying out/sighing to God daily, “what do I do?? what am I doing – I’m so confused and lost? what will I do? and how will I do it?? I just want to be well, and I want to use my gifts and experiences and talents to serve you and others, to fulfil my purpose in this life!!

The answer?

“Do you trust me?”

“Take each day as it comes, one step at a time. Wait on me.”

“My plan is perfect. My timing is perfect. I am equipping you.”

My deeply held secret?? I’m not so good at waiting! Or being. Or especially being patient with myself. I’m good at doing! At being busy!

Huh.

I sense a lesson at work here. The penny drops, I suspect God is using this difficult time – not that he has caused it, but now that it has occurred, to deepen my reliance on him, and trust him and his plan for me. To learn patience. To learn that in my (very great) imperfection that in His eyes I am already perfect, that I don’t need to relentlessly strive, and try to make it on my own.

And as I reflect on these select circles of prayer, I see that I have come full circle (no pun intended!) – as when I was desperate to marry my now-husband, I realised God was teaching me patience, and perseverance, and it looks as though now I’ve moved onto the next level of learning these things and going deeper with God.

My prayer? That God will indeed ‘take all these things and use them for good, for those who love him’ – for me and my family, but for many others too. That this painful time will be transformed into something beautiful which blesses others in a way I could never have imagined.

Garden gems: Looking from the outside in

When you start tending and paying attention to your own garden, you notice what’s going on with others’ – what plants are thriving, what the snails are nibbling, where a shrub needs pruning or shaping, where a spot of weeding would be handy to prevent them running amok. How much easier is it to see these things clearly from the outside looking in?!

Having been stung quite badly by some rogue nettles in our garden (a childhood flashback of falling into a huge mound of nettles by a stream springs to mind !), I suddenly became aware of a substantial patch of nettles creeping through the rails of the local school, and then further down there was a bramble entwined with a bush. On another corner was a broken beer bottle with a lethal shard of glass, still attached to the circular base, pointing upwards and almost inviting someone to trip and fall onto it! And yet when you looked within the school grounds, they were well tended and neat.

I wasn’t sure whose responsibility these areas were where they spilled out onto the pavement, so I asked the school, who were rather incredulous at first as the council-sent gardening team had been only that morning, so surely it couldn’t be all that bad. The property manager said that nonetheless she would take a look, and that there was no issue with responsibility and the gardeners would do whatever the school asked them to do.

I was amazed and delighted that by the next day all the edges and the growth under the fences had been cut right back and tidied up, including the brambles and nettles (I’d dealt with bottle straight away rather than risk leaving it).

So what is the point of me telling you all this, is it simply a feel good story about if you don’t ask, you don’t get?? Well, not really. It made me think about how amazed the lady was who I had spoken to. Since her experience was that the gardeners always did what they were asked to do, they were clearly obedient and conscientious, so how could what I was saying be true? She could not be convinced without going to see for herself.

I reflected that it’s so much easier to look outwards than looking inwards, and even when I do that, I see what needs to be done *from my point of view*!

There’s a nifty model called the Johari window, which I make use of from time to time in coaching. Like many a management model, it is a four-box grid, looking at what is ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ about us, by self and others.

As introduced by Alan Chapman on the BusinessBalls website, ‘The Johari Window model was devised by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955, while researching group dynamics at the University of California Los Angeles.’ (For such a long time I thought that Johari was an exotic name, to be pronounced like that femme fatale, Mata Hari…it turned out that the name had a much more amusing and in some ways mundane source: simply Jo from Joseph and Hari from Harry!)

Alan Chapman explains that there are four segments of the johari window:

1 – what is known by the person about him/herself and is also known by others – open area, open self, free area, free self, or ‘the arena’

2 – what is unknown by the person about him/herself but which others know – blind area, blind self, or ‘blindspot’

3 – what the person knows about him/herself that others do not know – hidden area, hidden self, avoided area, avoided self or ‘facade’

4 – what is unknown by the person about him/herself and is also unknown by others – unknown area or unknown self

If we live in isolation, always viewing the world only from our own standpoint, how will we ever find out what is in our own blindspot? Secretly of course we want to be right, or at least believe that we’re right, all the time! To that end we’re not generally too inclined to seek out opposing opinions or even simply different perspectives – instead, like tends to attract like, and so we reinforce each other’s viewpoints. Then we take offence when our worldview is shown to be skewed, through our experiences, our upbringing, our families, our schooling, our nation, our language, our culture!

The thing is though, we are made to live in relationship with each other, in diverse communities and our lives are richer for the complexity that that often brings. We need those alternative perspectives!

To take a completely different example of what is unknown to us, perhaps you use Microsoft Office software like Word, Outlook, or Excel, or other bits of technology? The phrase I often hear from my colleagues when I ask what they want to learn is ‘I don’t know what I don’t know!’. Sometimes there’s a sense of, ‘There must be a better way of doing this, surely? Please, can someone help me?!’ Or perhaps, ‘I’m so frustrated! This thing is so RUBBISH! Why won’t it just do what I want it to do??’.

I wonder how many of us feel like that about life in general? We get to the end of our tether, thinking to ourselves, the way that I’m doing life, it’s just not working, it’s too hard, too unsatisfying, too soulless. I just don’t know how to get myself out of this hole, because I know I need to find a different answer, but I don’t know what that is, and sometimes I don’t even really know what the question is! Surely someone out there must know a better way!

When things are really, truly awful, even for those of us who aren’t quite sure about God – who he is, what he stands for, what he expects from us, what those followers of his are about – the bit that seems to resonate within us is that when we reach the end of ourselves, we can turn to the one who must know more than us. The almighty, all-knowing, omnipresent One.

In that moment of no longer having the answers, of having lost control, it is then that we finally admit – there are things that you know, that I don’t know; things about me…who I am, who I could be, what I could accomplish, what my purpose is…but above all you know the me that is loved so recklessly, so insistently, so sacrificially by You. For to be truly known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.

I wonder if you feel known? Or truly loved? Or both?

Can you identify with that sense of getting stuck in your own perspective? How do you stay open to other’s views? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

My story: Who am I?

There are lots of different ways to answer the question: ‘Who am I?’

It’s an important question, perhaps even more so to me than to whoever is asking me about who I am. For me there may be many complex facets to my identity which influence what I believe, how I think and feel about myself; for you, the answer may well frame how interested (or not) you may be in getting to know me, whether you will read on further, indeed how much weight you give my words…

My identity is variously about who my parents are, what they do and where they come from (I’m having flashbacks now to Cilla Black on Blind Date now!)…my Mum is an incredibly dedicated and hard-working Anglo-Indian ICT teacher, with a more than hint of Portuguese thrown in; my Dad is a Chartered Accountant and spreadsheet genius, who is English through and through – with family from the Midlands and Yorkshire. Perhaps it’s about where I was born (in a London hospital, but residing in a leafy suburb in Essex), or what I do (Learning & Development professional), even how old I am (you should know better than to ask a lady her age!). Maybe it’s about where I call home (Cheltenham, in the West of England), what I believe, and then once finding out that I am a believer in Jesus, what kind of church I go to (you’ll have to have a look at this post!), what my interests are (see here), and so on, and so on…

The thing is, when I answer all those individual questions, I’m consciously or unconsciously selecting the things I think you’re most likely to want to hear. It’s all true, but it’s like striking up a conversation at a party, trying to find the Goldilocks answer (the one that is just right, not too arrogant and overblown, and not too modest and dull – we all do it in one way or another, even if we don’t like to admit it!

So instead of trite dinner party answers, how about I tell you about the raw, unadulterated and messy story of how Jesus came into my life, not once but twice! Grab a cuppa and sit awhile with me.

Childhood
Way back when I got Christened as a baby, I got the obligatory small white, unintelligible King James New Testament and got a couple of Godparents, neither of whom I think had much knowledge of or relationship with God – but still the thought was there, and I hugely appreciate that brilliant start in life of being committed to God. It surely paved the way for other things in my life to come, even if it was simply the done thing at the time, these things really do have significance in the spiritual realm.

Skip a few years and I went to Sunday School regularly, at Church of England (Anglican) church, All Saints in Woodford Green. I have memories of groups called Explorers, Ramblers and Climbers, not necessarily in that order! Now all this sounds fairly average and perhaps quite middle class for many, what I suppose I found interesting looking back on it was that my Mum being a Roman Catholic by upbringing, and my Dad professing no faith, except perhaps faith in science and knowledge both of which are pretty important in my house (then, and now too, I suppose). I consider myself very blessed to have had these Christian influences around me in those all too important years. That time when children are as malleable as soft clay, and imprints may last for a lifetime. I went on a couple of Explorer holidays, one to a boarding school in Felixstowe and another to Swanage in Dorset. These were, if I remember rightly, mostly characterised by me being in tears at the start, as the fears of going off on my own for a week and not knowing anyone had set in, and then tears at the end as I couldn’t believe the holiday was already over, and I couldn’t bear to be parted from my new friends! It was at the latter of these trips where I met a lovely lady called Judy who looked after our dorm (sadly I don’t recall her surname). I don’t remember the details, but I know it was her who talked to me about Jesus, the sacrifice he had made for us all on the cross, and who led me in a prayer to say sorry for the things I’d done wrong, to turn away from my old life of living for myself, and to welcome Jesus into my life, choosing Him by my own free will. I was about 10 years old, and I treasured for many, many years the Footprints bookmark Judy gave me with a message of encouragement and her name on the back.

So far, so good. However, I wouldn’t really do this story justice if I didn’t tell you that there was a big chunk of my childhood that was very tough indeed, and which has involved much untangling with the Lord in the last 12 years or so. I’m not sure if it will ever be right to share the details of that stuff on here, but definitely not today. All the unravelling of those complicated knots, through various stints of counselling and so much healing prayer and ministry, has meant that I can now look back on those years and be grateful that all of that has made me who I am today. I can see too how blessed I am to have a loving family and that amongst the painful memories which used to overshadow everything else, there was also so very much that was good, and that God never departed from my side.

The teenage years
All of that childhood complicatedness played into the next stage of my life, a big house move 100 miles from all my close primary school friends, a new school, a new town, new everything, and the ‘joy’ of the pre-teen years (I am so looking forward those years with our son, ahem!!).

We found a new Anglican Church nearby, but it was very different; it was, as I would later learn, ‘high church’ – incense, bells, church aerobics…, and there was just one group of children, the Junior Church, made up of, ooh, about 5 of us, of a few different ages.

Most of the kids were there, partly because their parents had were part of that church community, but a big part of them being there was about getting into a local former Grammar school which was now a very good Church of England comprehensive…so you can guess what happened about a year or so after I arrived…yep, the other kids pretty much stopped coming. I was already only coming to church with my friends: two sisters and their parents, so it didn’t make any sense for me to come to the family service as I wasn’t there with my family, although I did try for a while – I just felt that I didn’t fit. So, I’m sorry to say I gave up on church. It was at such a difficult time in my life (my Grandad died very suddenly around that time and that knocked me hard) and I just felt the church wasn’t there for me. I didn’t give up on God, I suppose at that time when I was only about 12 or 13, I just didn’t really realise that God and church weren’t the same.

All the same, although I felt so alone, I can look back and see that God was with me, and that He gave me the strength to do what I needed to do. Not only that but I know now that he protected me from all kinds of trauma and disaster in my life that could so easily have befallen me. Over the next few years I trundled through school, doing academically very well, filled with the kind of inner emotional turmoil that seemed little different to that of most of my peers at school (will I ever get a boyfriend, am I loveable, am I ok; what should I do with my life, what do I want; am I pretty, am I ugly; am I funny, am I boring? And so on…). It wasn’t until I got to about 17 that the depression really kicked in. I struggled on, with a bit of counselling, but I was utterly miserable through my sixth form years, and in my lower sixth my grades started to be affected, not good. Also not desperately helped by one of my tutors who told my parents, in front of me, that my health issues were psychosomatic. On reflection I didn’t realise that expertise in sixteenth century English history also gave you in depth mental health knowledge! At the time all I knew was that someone who I had respected, who was in authority over me thought I was no good and simply shirking. Thankfully now I know better.

Flying the nest
Somehow I rallied, having decided that achieving academic excellence would definitely make everything better. I completed my extra GCSE (just for fun!), got through my A-levels, S-levels and additional AS-level with a lot of slog, got my place to do modern languages at Oxford, and that seemed to be me sorted.

Until my next crash (the one where I escaped uni and came home to spend a weekend with my best friend from school and her folks, who asked no questions, but who were unstintingly supportive and an absolute answer to prayer). And the one after that (where I knew I couldn’t cope and took myself off to the GP and formally diagnosed depression for the first time and we tried to deal with it through regular routine and looking after myself, which to be fair worked for a while). And the one after that (the one where I took myself back to the GP and he prescribed the first lot of antidepressants; I bought and read the book, Prozac Nation; them I told my tutors I had depression, which surprised them as students didn’t normally tell them, they mostly had to figure it out for themselves).

Living abroad…with depression
I defiantly had my year in Germany (my home GP got me assigned to a Community Psychiatric Nurse for support, who was the first person I was able to actually talk to about what I had been through. He thought it was madness for me to go and live abroad at that time, but I just couldn’t see any other way as I couldn’t yet explain to anyone else why I was in the state I was and had to just keep going). I moved onto some stronger medication, and armed with a recommended self-help tome or two, off I went. But that was a seriously challenging time for me, a time during which another of my closest friends said she just wanted the old me back as I was so low she almost didn’t recognise me as the same person. Having taken off the old mask of everything being okay, I just couldn’t (not wouldn’t) put it back on any more). I could barely get myself to my job as a part-time teaching assistant some days, I operated in a haze and I recall my German supervisor at the school, Magdalena, having stern words with me at one point, yet when I was there I found that teaching came naturally to me.

At night I would to go to sleep with my headphones on as I didn’t want to have to deal with the cacophony and chaos of my negative thoughts pressing in. Often it was a Madonna CD playing, I was a big fan. Mostly I remember listening to Ray of Light, after all that’s what I needed so desperately at that time. It was on one such night, with the stars arrayed like a blanket spread out across the skylight above my bed, that I sensed God say to me, as clear as a bell, “I am with you”.

I knew without question that it was God, I don’t know how, but I just accepted that. That was it, there was no angelic visitation, no vision of Jesus, no booming voice in the manner of James Mason, as Eddie Izzard would say. Nonetheless, that experience, though it didn’t bring me running back to church (which being in German may not have been much fun for me admittedly), neither did it completely transform me (I still did a whole bunch of stupid stuff after that, of which I am not proud and would not recommend), but it did sustain me through my very lowest times which were, unbelievably, yet to come. I went through a messy break up with the long term boyfriend I had been with since the earliest weeks of uni, with him having had an affair that apparently even my college tutors were aware of before me. I was devastated; floored. I then threw myself into travelling around Germany and the bits of Europe that bordered it, and that distraction technique worked for a while… I finished my teaching year and went to Perpignan for an intensive French course. Although again I passed with flying colours, at points I was quite ready to throw myself off the balcony of my room. Once again God put two truly lovely people across my path, who not really knowing the half of it, took me under their younger wings, and gave me enough hope to keep on going. I will always be grateful to them for being there at just the right time.

Back in Oxford again, then not
I came back to the UK absolutely determined to rise above all these challenges I had faced, and launched myself back into my studies with gusto, having decided to do my optional extended essay by the end of the summer. I went up to Oxford and stayed in a college house offsite to focus, but that voice of failure hovered over me like a dark cloud and once again I reached that low place where the window beckoned temptingly. It sounds so awful now to look back on it, and I know that there were snapshots of happy times interwoven with the bleakness (as a gorgeous picture of my then very little Godson, taken in the back garden of that house as we had a picnic there, reminds me). I booked an appointment with my pastoral tutor who invited me to her home and talked a lot of sense into me, I rang my parents to come and get me urgently and then, to their utter dismay, put in train the mechanisms for me to take a year out of my degree to get the help that I so obviously, when the mask came down, needed. It was such a hard decision, as it not only meant disappointing my parents, it meant leaving behind all my friends. Even assuming I came back, which in itself wasn’t guaranteed, I would be returning to a college full of strangers.

When I first got home my parents struggled to understand what I was going through and why I had apparently opted out of doing my degree. I think they were terrified I would drop out forever and be a failure. For those first few months, I did a whole lot of reading, day and night. Pure escapism into fiction – I was a regular at the library! I slept a lot. I switched off to the world really. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had well and truly taken off the mask. The genie was out of the bottle and would not be out back inside. Now that I wasn’t happy, bubbly, outgoing, confident, life-of-the-party, flirtatious, risqué, super-successful Judith, I didn’t know who to be…and it was terrifying. At that time I didn’t know if I would ever find my way again. I wanted to hurt myself, but thankfully was never quite brave enough. I hatched all kinds of plans in my mind which never came to fruition, they call it ‘suicidal ideation’. If you identify with those feelings, then please ask for help and keep asking until you get the support you need, Samaritans was a lifeline to me on more than one occasion; especially in the middle of the night when friends and family were either asleep or just wouldn’t be able to understand.

Eventually the fourth even stronger type of antidepressants must have kicked in, along with my Mum kicking me out if bed and in the direction of a temping agency, and I got a job. In the true manner of how things had been before, I was good as an administrator and PA, but it was hard work keeping up appearances at work; maintaining a veneer of normality. I went to regular counselling sessions with a social worker with some counselling training as it was best the NHS could offer me while I waited for the more specialist help I had taken time out of my degree to get. Such is life that my appointment for my 10 week course of sessions finally came through as I was about to head back to university, but I got there in the end, it just meant that I had to commute back and forth for them in between lectures and tutorials!

Oxford University is an amazing place and I learned so much there…sadly I just can’t particularly say I had the gloriously happy time pictured in the films and brochures. My college was very supportive of me taking that additional year out, and my tutor was brilliant with me, unfortunately as accomplished as they were, it was just that none of the Fellows had a magic wand! In the end I came away with my high 2:1 degree that I’d wanted, I had just taken an additional year over it. I left with no huge hoard of Oxford buddies with all those shared experiences from Freshers week, no rowing experiences, and no job. I did however maintain one very special friendship through from those early days at Oxford, with a precious friend who stood by me through thick and thin. And I came away with a very special man in my life, who I would never have met had it not been for that extra year out! And he would eventually become my husband, oh, and even more amazingly out of the blue I left with a rediscovered faith!

My husband and Jesus
How did that last bit about the husband happen, I hear you ask?? Well, in my final year I lived on a corridor in the nicest of the on site college buildings, with just me and nine guys, ideal you might say for finding a fella. In fact, despite my better judgement having vowed to focus only on my studies, I had returned to university with a boyfriend back home (we were both on the rebound, never a great idea). That was all over by the Christmas (gutted once again and utterly depressed that I was a hopeless case, unloveable, unwanted, a mess, destined to be alone…), but meanwhile I’d become friends with one particular guy who was a good friend of the only two girls I till knew from before I’d left for Germany two years previously as they like him had been in the year below. We used to chat a lot and cooked together quite often, and after the Christmas break, I came back newly single (and devastated) and he came back sporting a new haircut and a cross on a chain around his neck! Now I knew that being a physicist he valued science and knowledge greatly (who does that sound like?!), and he found it a mighty challenge to overcome his scepticism to embrace any kind of faith, so when we first met he was most definitely a dyed in the wool atheist.

What miracle had happened over Christmas? Well, unbeknownst to me, or any of his friends, bar one, after many deep and meaningful conversations with another friend of ours, who happened to the the daughter of a vicar, he had been going to an Alpha course the previous term on the quiet. The series of talks and dinners had finished just before Christmas and he had made the leap of faith to commit to a life following Jesus. He came back to Oxford in the January on fire and so enthusiastic about his new-found faith, that he rather cheekily, I thought, put a Nicky Gumble book (link) outside my door. He left it with a post-it note attached saying, read this particular page. I couldn’t believe his audacity, after all I’d been a Christian way longer than him, since childhood in fact! I didn’t need him to try and convert me! Ok, I wasn’t living life in a particularly Christian manner, so he probably could have been forgiven for not realising… Of course, curiosity got the better of me after a few days and I couldn’t resist reading the section he had marked for me. I couldn’t even tell you what it said, but the next thing I knew, not only were we together as a couple, but I found myself saying, “So, when can I come to this church of yours then?!”. God most definitely has a sense of humour!

Church and the Holy Spirit
We went to St Aldate’s, a very studenty, happy type of church, which is much like where we are now, but at the time I couldn’t really quite deal with how far different it was from the church I had experienced just 9 years earlier – I recognised none of the songs (where was ‘the battle of Jericho’, or ‘Jubilate Deo’?!!), and there was no church aerobics, but instead around 40 minutes of sung worship, (with people who weren’t in the choir (there was no choir!) singing loudly in harmony right behind me), so having dressed up smartly (another mistake as everyone else was in their normal jeans and jumpers) in my high-heeled boots and skirt etc, my feet were killing me by the time we sat down for the sermon! I found it hard to adjust, so we headed off to St Andrew’s in North Oxford where we were welcomed in like family. To be honest, we were there barely over a term, but they treated us as if we would be there forever and we loved it so much that neither of us wanted to leave Oxford after finishing, just so we could stay at our church! It was there that I first did the Alpha course, mostly as a way of meeting others in the church, but my eyes were truly opened. An adult in a way that as a child I couldn’t have understood.

As part of that Alpha course, we had a Holy Spirit day at a beautiful house just outside the city. On that day we learned all about who the third person of the Godhead, God the Father and Jesus the Son being the first and second. We also had the opportunity to be prayed for and to receive the Holy Spirit. What did that look like, quite simply sitting at a table with one of the group leaders, them praying for me and asking God to send his Holy Spirit, and me holding out my hands in a posture of being ready to receive. I had no idea of what to expect, and in some ways I can’t really remember exactly what happened, but one way or another, I experienced a closeness of God, an intimacy, a warmth, a lightness, a clear-headedness and certainty that I had never experienced before. Something changed that day in me, something that was different to having made the choice to welcome God into my life, and it was like a switch being thrown that can never be thrown back by anyone or anything. I don’t mean that I no longer have free will, of course I do. I could walk away from my faith if I really wanted to, but the way I would describe it is that receiving the Holy Spirit, is like the pilot light in a gas oven having been lit (remember those?), once it’s on, you can turn it to the minimum, you can choose never to let that fire burn brightly in you again, but it is there for you no matter what, whenever you need it, ready and waiting. It’s our choice.

Marriage and growing up
Since then, we’ve overcome us having had a long distance relationship involving much motorway driving, particularly for my long-suffering other half who came to see me far more than me him (my place was much nicer!); overcome opposition from family to us being together; overcome my own initial scepticism at us lasting the course (I was pretty brutal at first and said I wasn’t guaranteeing our relationship beyond the end of the summer term – ouch! It probably served me right then, that by the end of that Summer I knew I wanted to be with him forever, but it took a further 2 years and 9 months before we got married at long last!); overcome us being made redundant from both of our first jobs; more challenges with anxiety and depression, and so much more. So you can see that it hasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, been easy or straight-forward since inviting the Jesus into my life, but I can tell you though that my life has been totally transformed. It is immeasurably better than it would undoubtedly have been had I continued on the path I was walking on my own, and I am such a different person now (kinder, more humble, more caring, more balance, more forgiving, more thoughtful, more genuine, more secure…) I have so much to thank my husband, and of course God for!

Where does that leave me now? Well some years on, I’m still learning, still growing, still being challenged, still being humbled. I’ve been privileged enough to lead, to teach, to pastor and to minister to others within our church, and I have a huge heart to reach out to others, especially those who have been hurt along the way, those who would be so blessed by a touch of an awesome, loving God in their lives. I’m a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister and a friend, and each of those roles has taught me so much about my relationship with God, how rich, how deep, how multi-faceted and yet how simple it is.

So, my identity? Ultimately it’s in Jesus, it’s in Him that everything about me comes together and makes sense. He has taken all the tough stuff in my life and has worked it all together for good into the most amazing pattern. It is still very much emerging and like the back of a tapestry, quite messy, but which the end of my life will be seen from a different vantage point and I believe will have been perfected by Him.

Having got this far (congratulations!) it’s now your turn…how do you introduce yourself to others?
Where do you find your identity? How do you define yourself?
Or perhaps that’s something you’re still figuring out?
And what have been the big influences or milestones in your life?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses… 🙂