Reality check

So how was Christmas for you? And what are your plans for the New year?

I am a great believer in making New Years resolutions. The problem is I struggle to remember and therefore..ermm…action the changes I’ve resolved to make. I get so frustrated at the mahoosive discrepancy between my aspirations, intentions and my actions. Why can’t I do what I so want and intend to do – as a Jesus follower, a wife, a mum, a daughter, a sister, a godparent, a friend, a community member, a global neighbour?

Anyone relate or is it just me?

What are your expectations, hopes or dreams for 2018?

Get fitter? Or just attempt to get off the sofa?

To read more and scroll less?

Become a domestic superfood cooking goddess? Or just eat less cake?

Read the bible in a year? Or excavate your bible from under the floordrobe?

Never ever yell at your kids? Or not in view of the neighbours anyway?

Have a marriage full of romance, passion and adventure? Or at least have a date night once a week?

Ever wonder if your New Years resolutions will become ‘rollovers’ like the ones you didn’t quite achieve last year?  How many of your great expectations, like mine, have morphed into grating reality?

I always had a childhood dream of swimming with dolphins. In 1996 I spent 9 months teaching in a school in Uganda. We had a month off for the holidays and travelled by train through Kenya, Tanzania and down to the Victoria Falls on the  Zambia/ Zimbabwe border. One highlight of the trip was the chance to get to swim with dolphins off the Zanzibar coast. The day came, the boatman arrived, the dolphin pod was in sight, and we set sail with bright sun overhead, a calm glasslike sea and uncontainable excitement in our bellies.

And then everything changed. The sun disappeared behind dark grey clouds. The cool breeze became a howling wind and the calm waves whipped up into angry white horses lashing against our boat. Torrential rain pelted us, and thunder and lightning turned our dream into a bit of a nightmare. The boatman looked terrified as his boat began to take on water and had to be continually emptied with a leaky bucket.

Two of my braver friends were determined not to be deterred by the changed circumstances. They courageously leapt into the wild waves, dived under the surface to find the dolphins, and fulfilled their dream! (even though they couldn’t see them as clearly as they would have liked to).

The rest of us clung to the side of the boat trying to stop ourselves from throwing up, crying or both. Expectation and reality couldn’t have been further apart.

As we head into a new year, and leave 2017 behind what are our aspirations, intentions or expectations?

What are we passionate about pursuing despite curveballs, disappointments or changing circumstances that come our way?

We don’t know what the sudden changes in economic, political, medical or familial climate will bring.

2017 has taught me to expect the unexpected. In the good and the bad. The joy as well as the pain. The miracles as well as the mundane. God’s faithfulness through all the twists and turns of 2017 has also taught me that its more important than ever to make every moment count. To not wait for the perfect day. To not wait for clouds to pass, but to courageously leap into the wild waves, (as my brave friends did on the leaky boat in Zanzibar), and not be deterred from pursuing the passions and purpose which we’ve been created to pursue.

So what are those passions and purposes going to look like for you and your family, and me and my family this year? Which waves might we have to plunge into?

As parents or godparents, aunties and uncles, friends, community members and global neighbours, how can we help our children, or those we influence, to navigate the storms and disappointments of life, as well as celebrate life’s miracles and surprises?

What could it look like to create a thriving family culture this year?

Family may mean parents and children but may mean a community of friends or wider church family group. What could it mean to help each other stay focused on our goals, and live from our values? To help each other to be undeterred by life’s challenges and able to sustain turbulence, sudden storms and unmet expectations?

I have just finished an incredible book looking at this very area – called ‘Belonging and Becoming ‘ by Mark and Lisa Scandrette. It is written from a Christian perspective and this radical couple hold out a compelling vision for all that family can be. They offer wisdom and insight from the joys and struggles of their own life and practical ideas for creating a healthy and deeply rooted soulful family culture. The areas they explore are: living from vision, carrying out purpose, finding a rhythm, discovering a common story, fostering connection, nurturing growth, and celebrating abundance.

I want to explore these areas here through this blog and would love your input so we can journey and learn together.  If you are keen to explore how to create a thriving family culture in 2018 then I look forward to chin wagging with you along the journey-sharing our trials and errors, our epic fails as well as our edited highlights.

My prayer for 2018 is that despite the changing weather, the curveballs or disappointments which will inevitably come our way, we will experience God’s ‘immeasurably more than all we ask for or even imagine.’ Ephesians 3:20

He is the one who calms our souls despite the storms of life, and says ‘Peace, Be Still.’ as we step out with Him to face whatever adventure lies ahead.

Thanks for sharing the Advent-ure

Welcome to day 22 – the final day of the Living Advent Calendar. We started off our journey with an interactive beach hut advent calendar experience, with real doors being opened each day, so that people could go beyond a fleeting bite sized chocolate version – and step in to savor the real McCoy. In the same vein, each day we have opened a door to uncover an inspirational life – an ordinary person opening real doors of hope, love, peace and justice to others in extraordinary ways.

What has been quite a surprise to me on this advent-ure is that instead of running out of people for each of the doors (a very real worry as I realised what I’d committed myself to about a week after starting!) – I have run out of doors! I could carry on opening doors to share stories for many more days – as there are so many inspirational lives to discover! Ordinary people who are defiantly hopeful in the face of despair, joyful in the face of pain and serving others selflessly despite their own great needs.

They come from all over the world, are old and young, male and female, and from all walks of life, serving in a myriad of different ways. But one thing brings them all together. They are living Advent calendars – who daily open real doors of hope, love, justice and peace to others because they do life with the one who Christmas is all about. They step into the suffering of others, just like Emmanuel, God with us, who stepped into our world and daily opens his arms to embrace us and call us beloved. They serve because they know the servant king who chose to serve not to be served. Bringing light into darkness, warmth into coldness and hope into despair.

Christmas will be different for lots of us this year. There will be heavy hearts as we light the candles. There will be empty chairs at many tables. There will be tears among the laughter and chatter.  I hope that this living Advent journey has been a reminder that in the midst of loss and pain and sadness, there is still hope and joy and gladness for all the good, all the love, all the light, and the ‘life in all its fulness’ that Jesus brings.

This Advent journey was inspired by my very special mum who we lost to cancer this year. Mum was a living Advent calendar person – opening her heart and her home so that strangers soon became friends and friends soon felt like family.  The memories of her practical love in action, flowing from her servant heart, continue to impact and challenge me every single day.

Even in her last few weeks in the hospice, she was looking out for the needs of others despite her own situation. She organised a food bank delivery for someone who was struggling. She chose to write cheery poems and uplifting messages on her little board when her voice no longer functioned. She chose to roll her sleeves up to weed and plant bulbs in the hospice garden so that others could enjoy the beautiful blooms in the spring.

She, like the other people we have opened doors to discover each day, walked with the one who we celebrate tomorrow.  The one who works miracles in the mundane. Who sees beauty in the broken. Who forgives those who persecute him. Who can bring joy despite pain. Who brings courage that overcomes fear. Who lights up the darkness. Who daily opens up his arms in a loving embrace to offer us love, hope, peace and joy – no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

William Parks said ‘Christmas is not just a day, an event to be observed and speedily forgotten. It is a spirit which should permeate every part of our lives.’

John 8 v 12 ‘ I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’

Merry Christmas!

Being Good News

Welcome to day 21 of the Living Advent Calendar. Every day we open a door to an inspirational life. Today I’d love you to meet my friend Graham Gordon, UK Director of Paz y Esperanza UK, (a Christian charity raising awareness and support for the inspiring work of human rights organisation Paz y Esperanza in Latin America). Graham shares about an incredible team opening doors of hope for deaf children and their families in Moyobamba, Peru. As a former trustee of this fantastic charity and having met some of the amazing team working in Moyobamba over ten years ago, I never cease to be inspired by their work. Over to Graham to share the story.

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the Earth. He never grows weak or weary.” (Isaiah 40 v28)

Can you remember the time when you first heard about Christmas? Possibly not, as you will have been very young, but no doubt it was one of your parents, friends or relatives who told you the story of the Christ child who came to earth to bring peace and new life for all.

So, think for a moment what life would be like if you had never heard the Good News. Or, in fact, if you couldn’t hear at all or communicate with others around you. Or if there was no way of being told by others that you are loved by God and that he sent his Son to earth to bring new life.

This is the situation of many deaf children in Peru. Children like, Talita, a young girl who has been deaf from birth and whose family could not afford a cochlear implant that would enable her to hear. This operation is only available through private healthcare that is too expensive for most Peruvian families. With no-one to teach her sign language she was isolated and had limited ways of interacting with those around her, until Paz y Esperanza started teaching her when she was five.

Orgullosos de ser Sordos

I heard about Talita just a few weeks after our elder daughter started at a school that specialises in teaching children who are deaf, and was struck by the contrast. The school has two children with hearing problems in each class, with specialised teaching support.

One of my daughter’s new friends lost her hearing when she was two years old due to an ear infection. Unlike Talita, she was able to have a cochlear implant (on the NHS) and can now hear almost as well as the other children and can interact fully with them – running, shouting, learning, singing, pushing the boundaries as you would want all children to do! The school also teaches the children that they are made in God’s image and that He loves each one of them.

“How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of those who bring Good News.” (Isaiah 52 v7)

In a concrete way Paz y Esperanza is bringing the Good News of Jesus this Christmas to the deaf children they are working with. With no other attention from the local governments, their very presence shows that these children are not forgotten but are loved like the other children.

Teaching sign language to them and their families means that they can interact with others and start to lead more normal lives. Lobbying the local authorities to provide better educational support and health services also means that more children can benefit and that together society can tackle stigma and isolation.

peru signing

It also means that teachers and family members can help these children to understand the true meaning of Christmas, maybe for the first time.

This is life-changing work and Paz y Esperanza wants to extend it to more children. Will you join with us? Our Christmas appeal this year is raising money for this work.

Please visit

To find out more about the impact of this amazing project, please watch these three videos:

Restored Relationships

Welcome to day 20 of the Living Advent Calendar. Each day we meet an ordinary person opening doors of love and hope for others in extraordinary ways. Today my friend Mandy Marshall shares about her journey from a life changing encounter in Zimbabwe to becoming the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Restored, an international Christian Alliance working to end violence against women. Over to Mandy to share her story.

‘I was in Zimbabwe. I’d just finished speaking in a church when a woman came up to me and asked to speak to me in private. We went to her house, a mud hut with thatched roof, and through the translator she started to disclose all this horrific abuse that her Christian husband was perpetrating on her. It was awful.

I asked her whether she had informed the Pastor. ‘Yes’, she said. ‘What did he say?’ I asked. ‘He told me I should pray more, submit more and stop nagging him.’ That made me so angry but there was worse to come. She added, ‘I’ve done all of that and he still beats me.’ Then the killer question came, ‘You’re the expert, what more should I do?’

My heart shattered into a million pieces. It took all of my will not to cry at that point but to advise her to try and keep herself safe in her home and community. The reality was, the church was the only ‘safe’ space for her in this rural community but this wasn’t safe at all. I was angry that the very place a person should feel safe, feel loved and cared for, had become a place of danger. Possibly even life threatening due to ignorance, misunderstanding, misinterpretation of scripture and a patriarchal culture reinforced in the church.

In the two hour journey back to the city I raged at God. I mean properly angry at God. I let rip big time. ‘Why have you allowed this to happen? When are you going to do something about it?’ I heard this calm, firm and loving voice coming back to me staying ‘When are you going to do something about it?’

I’m not one to take a challenge lightly, so continued to protest at God. ‘What can I do?’ ‘I’m just a kid from a council estate from the North West of England, who am I to try and tackle this massive issue? I’ll get nowhere. No-one will listen to me and besides I don’t have x,y, z oh and while I’m at it nor a, b and c.’ I went on to list out all the skills and experiences I would need to start to address this issue, as if God didn’t know.

God listened and for each and every protestation I placed before Him, and in return He gently reminded me of all the training, experiences, opportunities, platforms and skills I’d gained over the years, until I was left stumped. I had a choice to make. God was not going to force me to do this but I did have a choice. I could choose to carry on doing the work I was doing with Tearfund, which was making a difference and seeing change happen, or I could take a risk and work to engage the church to end violence against women, especially one of the most prevalent forms, domestic abuse.

In that moment I could almost tangibly feel God sharing the hurt and pain of the suffering that this woman had endured and millions like her. It was utterly heart breaking. I chose to take a risk and began taking steps to set up ‘Restored’ – a charity working to engage the church to end violence against women.

Founded in 2010 Restored aims to answer two questions, ‘Where is the church?’ and ‘Where are the men?’ when it comes to ending violence against women. Restored trains churches, produces free resources, has a men’s campaign called First Man Standing and works with Christian survivors of abuse via an online network and forum.

Violence against women is universal. One in every three women globally will be affected at some point in her lifetime. In the UK, one in four women is affected by domestic abuse. Violence against women takes various forms such as female infanticide in India, female genital mutilation across Africa, bride kidnapping in Central Asia, domestic abuse fuelled by machismo culture in Latin America and rape in conflict in the Congo. The list is endless.

What is important is that we recognise the underlying drivers of this very diverse pattern of abuse. These are all abuse of power, primarily male power over women.  The answer is an empowerment of women and the transformation of male attitudes and actions based around the laying down of power.  That is a profoundly spiritual as well as practical challenge.

Jesus was a man who modelled service, sacrificial love and respect for all; women and men.  Why have our models of masculinity got so far away from him?

At Restored we seek to equip churches to be able to respond effectively to survivors and perpetrators of violence.  We want churches to break the silence, shame and stigma around abuse and be safe spaces for survivors and places where abuse and stigma are challenged and there is no collusion with perpetrators.  We also mobilise men through our First Man Standing Campaign to respect women and challenge each others’ attitudes and actions.

Everyone has a part to play.  Action is needed at every level from global standards of the Sustainable Development Goals ( aka Global Goals) and norms down to our own personal behaviours in our families and communities.  The church is present in a vast number of communities worldwide and has a massive role to play.  Restored aims to equip the church to do this effectively and we have distributed over 13,000 copies of our church pack which helps church leaders and members to respond and trained the leaders and safeguarding officers  responsible for over 4,800 churches.

Together we can achieve so much more to end the scourge of violence against women.

This starts with me and you. God challenged me to step up and to act. What is God saying to you on this issue? We have a choice to make. What will yours be?

Here are some ways in which you could play your part:

  1. Check yourself. Are there any attitudes and behaviours towards women that you need to change? Ask God to reveal areas that need to be put right.
  2. Feel like you don’t know enough? No worries, download Restored’s free church pack and read on.
  3. Short on time? Watch Restored’s Myths of Abuse clip here
  4. Donate to Restored on a regular basis. Restored can only do what it does with people like yourself giving to enable the work to happen. Can you give the price of a take away drink per week to this work?

Giving your all

Welcome to day 19 of the Living Advent Calendar. Every day we open a door to discover an inspirational life. Today my dear friend Andy Flannagan, fellow Northern Irish exile, Executive Director of Christians in Politics, author of ‘Those who Show Up’ and incredible singer songwriter, shares a story of a woman whose life has impacted him recently. Over to Andy to tell us more…

‘There is a woman who opened up a door of understanding for me this Advent. You may know her story. These words are taken from the Bible in Mark chapter 12.

“41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

It’s the percentage that seems to matter to Jesus.

And it’s also the motive rather than the end product that seems to matter to Jesus. After all “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7) Or to put it another way, social media judges by the number of ‘Likes’ you have on display. God judges by what’s not on display.

To underline the point about motive, it’s worth pointing out that no-one’s giving is buying Jesus’ favour here, whether with a huge cheque or a few pence. He isn’t awarding salvation credits. He is simply pointing out that from his perspective, ‘more’ is a calculation he makes based on the internal rather than the external. You don’t count coins to work out who has given ‘more’. You don’t count Twitter followers to work out who is ‘more’ significant. You don’t count church members to see which pastors are ‘more’ effective.

But we do.

And it gets worse. What if the widow’s mite story is speaking to me not just about my wallet but my whole life? What if it was about every gift that I’ve been given?

With that framing I started to imagine Jesus asking me and asking our culture some probing questions like these…

Why do you applaud and idolise the elite athlete who was given so much natural talent, yet ignore the child giving every ounce to make it onto the B team?

Why do you celebrate the authors and musicians bestowed with incredible gifts, yet walk on past the parent curating beautiful, creative, playful activities for their children?

Why do you laud the preachers and teachers endowed with excellent communication skills but ignore those ‘normal people’ who are just blessing their neighbours with conversation that persuades them of the kingdom?

How could we start rating the world with Jesus’ system rather than ours? Sadly my metric in social settings often involves these unspoken questions –

Is that person worth talking to?
How could they benefit me?
Why might they be useful to know?

We genuflect to those who may grant us favours. Spend any time at drinks receptions in business, media, politics or the arts and you will see everyone hovering in the vicinity of the ‘power people’. The school playground is no different.

So I believe this story is about more than money. But it is also still about money. To get specific, studies bear out the truth that those with less give more (in relative terms). As a percentage, people with less money, give more of it away to charitable causes then those with more. Jesus is affirming this beautiful reality, but why is it so?

We hail the great philanthropists as if they are on a higher moral and spiritual plane. We applaud the person who is able to comfortably give once they have made their fortune. It seems like Jesus is more excited about the person who can give while they are still working to make their fortune, or who know they never will.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not critiquing those who give incredible amounts of money to great causes. I am glad they do. I probably wouldn’t have had a few of my jobs if they didn’t. I am critiquing our infatuation with those people to the detriment of affirming and encouraging those who will never make any headlines or attend any fancy fundraising dinners.

There is a beautiful phrase in Luke’s telling of the story. Jesus says that the widow “gave out of her poverty”. Perhaps the most toxic thing that arises from our infatuation (for reference – see the prosperity dream sold by Donald J. Trump that seems to blind people to everything else!) is that we start to believe that we own things, and are able to ‘give from our riches’. As mere stewards of this incredible creation we are always giving from poverty, as we categorically do not own anything that we are giving away. It is all God’s. It is all gift.

By his genius he knows we live healthier and more open-handedly when we have less to hold, and he therefore doesn’t allow us to theologically own anything. If we all could acknowledge that we are giving from poverty, it might change our mind-set, not just on our financial giving, but on the way we offer our lives. Could we live more simply to enable us to work less? Could it create more time for family and community? But specifically in our present context, could it help to release the grip that finances and status have on our sense of who we are?

The more we worship at the altar of productivity and end product, the harder it is to hear the voice of a downwardly mobile God, whispering to us that it’s about means as much as ends.

We have to actively choose to honour this God-man called Jesus, this ‘less-productive-than-he-could-have-been-with-the-right-management’ kind of guy, who to be honest will mess up our careers and prospects with his trajectory.

For he is like the widow. He didn’t just offer a percentage of his life. He gave all of it.’

To continue to be inspired and challenged by Andy you can find his truly brilliant book and album by following the links below.


From Maasai Land With Love

Welcome to day 18 of the Living Advent Calendar. Every day we meet an ordinary person opening real doors of love and hope to others in extraordinary ways. Today I’d love to introduce you to my lovely friends Becca and Hennie, who moved from London to Kenya with their three children, to live alongside, love and serve the Maasai community there. Over to Becca to share their story today.

‘We’ve been living among a remote Maasai community for eight years now. How did we end up living on the very margins of Kenya with our three little children… where the nearest supermarket is four hours drive away?

Well about 10 years ago both Hennie and I woke up one morning with an overwhelming desire to pack a suitcase, get on a plane and go. We had been supporting a small charity working in the area for a few years but never imagined we could live there! I can only say this must be what people say is being ‘called’.

Over the course of two years, including having our third child, we undertook training and put plans in place to move our lives and our children from London to Kenya. The last eight years haven’t been easy but we have had the enormous privilege of seeing God doing amazing things.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.” Matthew 13:31

This kingdom principle is one that we have truly seen at work here in Maasai land.

A tiny school of 20 children in a wooden shack has grown to a school of over 200 children with eight classrooms, a nursery and kitchen with a fab bunch of teachers who love the children and want to see them reach their full potential; as well as a feeding program providing 400 meals every day to the children and their teachers.

maasai academy

We became involved with the school when our children pleaded with us to send them there so they could make friends. We were concerned about their education and were very nervous about them going to a tiny school in the African bush… was it going to be good enough, when they could have been going to a nice school in the UK? We felt God challenge us to send our children there and get behind the school as He was also concerned for His children too!

This decision has transformed our time in Maasai land and helped us to build wonderful and real relationships with the local people – identifying with their needs and being part of bringing a hope and future. Our kids are also fluent in Swahili!

taliah at school

Funding the school has been tricky, but we have seen God’s provision over and over again. The parents contribute what they can – which isn’t much – sometimes a bag of maize or beans and a few shillings. So, this is where the Maasai beadwork comes in…

My background is in art and design and I immediately connected with the Maasai women’s creativity through their intricate and beautifully unique beadwork. With just one talented widow and a few beads we began a beadwork project which has grown to over 20 women who employ at least one or two women each to help them. We have an online shop and sell to many different countries around the world.

moran and beadworkWe employ vulnerable women, mainly widows, who can now feed and clothe their families and send their children to school. We are able to channel any profits back into the school to help towards sustainability and also help pay the secondary school fees of some girls who would otherwise undergo FGM (female genital mutilation) and be married off at a really young age.

We also run a clinic which aims to reach the most remote and vulnerable people with little access to healthcare. We’re trying to focus on prevention rather than just continuing to treat very basic and preventable illnesses. Waterborne diseases are very common in this community as water is collected from streams which are shared with animals and where they bathe and wash their clothes. So, to tackle this problem we have managed to pipe water from a spring to the most vulnerable areas – 2000 Maasai now have access to clean water.

The community also struggle with malnutrition during the dry times of the year so with the little bit of land near our house we’ve managed to create a vegetable garden which we have developed and irrigated to produce food even when there is no rain. We’ve now rented the area next to it as well so we can produce even more food. By January we will be providing 10,000 meals every month from the veg we grow with the Maasai.

So, with the little we started with God has been faithful and multiplied everything in abundance! We live in a joyful and thriving community who know that they are loved by their creator.

If you would like to support us as a family you can click on the link below:

The boy on the bridge

Welcome to day 17 of the Living Advent Calendar. Every day we discover real people opening doors of love and hope to others in extraordinary ways. Today I’d love to introduce you to my amazing friend Tara, a fellow Northern Irish exile who works for Tearfund up in bonnie Scotland. Over to Tara to share her story with you today.

tara pic

‘I hate to be late. Be it for the cinema or an important flight, I will always err on the side of caution and arrive in plenty of time. It’s what helps me to feel calm and in control of life. My husband, on the other hand, has a more relaxed approach to time keeping. This has been a cause of much angst to me over the years we have been married, always trying to discern when I need to learn to go with the flow and when to chivvy him along.

And so it came to pass that on a cold dark Christmas Eve some years ago, Adrian and I were driving to the late night service at our church. We were approaching the village along an unlit country road when Adrian turned to me and said, “Did you see that guy?”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

“There was a young guy back there, standing alone on the bridge. That’s a bit strange, don’t you think? To be alone at 11.40pm on Christmas Eve overlooking the railway line.”

I agreed that it was. By this stage we were driving into the village and ready to be parked and in church just in time for the start of the service. And then came the words I knew were coming.

“I think we should go back.”

Once Adrian has seen something that isn’t right he can’t let it lie. His heart for the vulnerable is one of the things I love most about him – but there are many moments when it challenges every selfish bone in my body. For a second (or maybe two or three) I did battle with my inner timekeeper who was getting her knickers in a twist about being late for church. And then, following the voice of my husband, came the quiet whisper in my spirit.

I turned the car around.

We drove back to the bridge and Adrian went to speak to the guy and I stayed in the car and prayed. Five minutes later Adrian came back. The boy had been having a rough time at home and just needed some space. He assured us he wasn’t about to do anything drastic and politely declined the offer to join us at church. Later that night, before going to sleep, we prayed for him. We didn’t even know his name but we prayed that he would know peace and entrusted him to God. We never saw him again.

In some ways this is a non story. Not very much happened and we don’t know the outcome. Did we make a difference that night? Who knows? But I know it made a difference to me.

Too often I can be caught up in my own world and too full of my own concerns to see what’s important, even when it’s right in front of me. I don’t think I’m alone in this, especially at this time of year. Our already busy lives can become choked with lists and appointments and our view of the world becomes cluttered with the tinsel and trappings of the season. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and all of the bustle it brings – but sometimes those things obscure what’s really at the heart of it.

Each time I ignore that person on the margins because to include them would be too awkward; every time I decide that to stop and help would be too inconvenient right now; when the things on my list take priority over the people around me, then I am missing the very essence of Christmas.

The Christ child whom we celebrate became a man who welcomed the outsider, stopped for the needy and broken ones and celebrated that which was overlooked by the masses. The greatest way for me to honour him at this time of year is not by singing carols about him, but by actually living like him.

And so my prayer for myself this Christmas, and for each person reading this, is that in amongst the presents and the parties, the cakes and the carols, the lights and the laughter, that we would listen for the whisper of his spirit when he tells us to stop and look for what is unseen.

And then turn the car around.’

To read more of Tara’s brilliant stories find her on her inspiring blog

Anneka Rice – my hero

Welcome to day 16 of the Living Advent Calendar. Each day we uncover an ordinary person opening real doors of hope and love for people in extraordinary ways. Today I’d love to introduce you to a little old lady who, like me, saw a giant lion cooped up in a tiny cage in the Botanic Gardens in Athens, but who, unlike me, did something simple yet amazing to set the lion free.

In the summer before my final year at university I went island-hopping in Greece with ten friends. On the final morning, with no money or energy left after a month backpacking, we spent a few hours in the botanical gardens in Athens. As I wandered around I came across a domed cage, partly covered by foliage. I peered into it, expecting to see exotic birds, but was extremely surprised to discover…a very large lion.

The lion was in a pretty bad state. It clearly had no room to move around properly. The most it could do was pace backwards and forwards in a repeated motion, with a dazed, defeated look in its eyes. It walked forward two steps, reached the side of the cage, and then paced back three steps when it reached the other side. It did this over and over again and it was heartbreaking to watch.

I felt upset and angry. How could the authorities allow this poor lion to be cooped up in this way? Surely there must be a better place – a safari park where it could roam around freely? I couldn’t stop thinking about it as I waited to catch the flight home. Someone really had to do something about it!

So, I went to the airport, got on a plane home and forgot all about it.

Eighteen months later, I was at home watching my fave programme, Challenge Anneka. People wrote to Anneka with a ‘challenge’, which she was to achieve in a ridiculously short time. But Anneka, being Anneka, never disappointed. I almost fell off the sofa when I saw that the challenge that day was to free a large lion being held in a cramped cage in the botanical gardens in Athens!

An old lady had visited the gardens and, like me, had felt angry about the conditions in which the lion was kept. She, like me, had wanted something to be done to set it free. Unlike me however, she saw the lion’s problem as her problem. I had talked about it, got angry about, but then forgot about it. She had taken action and did what she could to help. She had written a simple letter telling someone with the power to do something about it, about the lion’s problem. In this case that powerful person was non other than – my hero – Anneka Rice.

The show was fantastic. Anneka and her team got permission from the Greek authorities to free and relocate the lion to an amazing safari park for big cats in Kent, England. It was an amazing sight to see the door of the lions trailer being opened and the lion slowly exploring the wide open spaces now available to it. His future was transformed because one lady did what she could with what she had. And all she had was a pen, a piece of paper, an envelope and a stamp.


It dawned on me that the lion might have been released a full year and half sooner had I bothered to do something about it. It made me think. How many other situations had I been in a position to do something about – but hadn’t?

Who can you relate to most in this situation? The lady who wrote the letter or me? Do you see situations of injustice and feel sad and upset? Do you feel shocked and angry as you watch the news? Appalled by homelessness? Upset by poverty? Really moved by the plight of refugees? Do you strongly believe that someone really should do something about it?

My mum was someone who was very compassionate and who never hesitated to take action to meet a need. She was always supporting causes, responding to appeals from charities both local and global, doing door to door collections and volunteering weekly at the local foodbank. Her actions made a huge difference to many people who never even met her. Her example inspired and challenged me to translate my intentions into action.

John Stott recounts this interpretation of Matthew 25, by a homeless women:

I was hungry and you formed a humanities group to discuss my hunger.

I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your church and prayed for my release.

I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.

I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health.

I was homeless and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God.

I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me.

You seem so holy, so close to God

but I am still very hungry – and lonely – and cold.

This Christmas, can we be like living Advent calendars to those in our communities or around the world who need someone to open up their heart or their home or their wallet to make a difference to them? Who can we write a letter to, to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves? Our MP? A company CEO?

Martin Luther King Jnr said ‘At the end of the twentieth century most of us will not have to repent of the great evils we have done, but of the apathy that has prevented us from doing anything at all.’

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” James 1:22

Shrapnel that shimmers

Welcome to day fifteen of the Living Advent Calendar. Every day we discover an ordinary person opening real doors of hope and love to real people in extraordinary ways. Today we meet the couple who sold our house to us 18 months ago – yes a bit random I know, but bear with me as I explain.

When we first had a tour around the house by the couple who lived there, they got very excited about making sure we saw one particular feature. The extension? Nope. The garden? Nope. The kitchen? Nope. It was the landing outside the loo. Yeah, weird right, that’s what I thought.

They couldn’t contain their excitement as they ushered us upstairs saying  ‘You cannot leave the house without seeing this.’ We were intrigued.

On the wall hung this painting. I’ll give you a second to look closely at it. What can you see? painting

Have you noticed the holes in it? I’ll zoom in and let you see the solid grey lumps embedded in the frame.shrapnel

‘Want to know why it’s in this state?’ he asked excitedly.

‘Well an old lady used to live in this house and she had this picture hanging in this exact spot for years and years. During the Second World War, the German Luftwaffe bombed Exeter, and on their way back to Germany they offloaded bombs entirely at random to lighten their load. They flew right over over this cottage and dropped a bomb which exploded just outside in the driveway. This painting saved the life of the lady living inside as it absorbed the impact of the blast. The holes and grey clumps are from the flying shrapnel. Isn’t it simply beautiful?’

Wow. Knowing the story made us look at this faded, jaded old painting in a whole new way. We saw the ugly holes as honourable war wounds. The dull grey clumps as glistening badges of honour.

The owner of our house had discovered the picture quite by accident in an antique shop. It was stuck behind another painting he had been looking at, in a forgotten dusty corner.  He was intrigued by its pock-marked appearance and asked the antique seller what had caused it. The seller told him the story and they worked out that the house it had hung in was in fact the cottage he was living in!  The seller gave it to him for free, so that it could be returned to its rightful place, where it had saved a life, back in the landing outside the loo.

The couple cleaned it up, put a frame around it and glass to protect it – and proudly shared its story with all who came through the door.

For many, 2017 has been a year of sudden, destructive shocks blasting with explosive force into peoples lives. A cancer diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, the betrayal of a trusted someone, the shattering of a lifelong dream. The blast can leave us reeling from the shock, feeling disorientated and afraid. The impact can shatter our faith, hope or self esteem and the shrapnel can embed itself in us, leaving us scarred and feeling irreparably damaged. For some it may not have been major life events but rather explosive, damaging words fired at us or destructive action towards us which can leave us feeling not wholly ourselves, frayed, fragmented, and broken inside.

We may render ourselves irreparable, damaged goods, and hide away, concealing our flaws in a dusty corner like the picture abandoned in the antique shop. I felt like that at times in my life, but Jesus would come and seek me out, lift me out of the dusty forgotten corner, restore my frame and shield me with his unconditional love and grace. He has shown me that my shrapnel and war wounds are part of my story and its only by letting them be exposed to the light and letting them be seen by others can they bring help, hope and healing to others who carry shrapnel and war wounds too.

Today I’m thankful for people who have shared their stories and revealed their shrapnel scars to me over the years. Those who have had to absorb the impact of life’s blasts when dreams are shattered and hope lies in fragments at their feet.

He challenges me to look out for others who may be feeling wounded this Christmas and who need someone to reach out to them to let them know they are loved and valuable and not forgotten.

The picture in the hall is all the more precious and priceless because it carries war wounds. It carries shrapnel scars. It withstood a blast and absorbed the impact of a destructive force. It saved the life of a sleeping lady who lay behind it.

This Advent this picture hanging in my landing reminds me of the perfect Prince of peace who put himself in the line of fire, who took the full impact of our wrong doing on himself, whose body was shattered and scarred to save those he loved and make them whole. I marvel at the perfect baby lying in a manger who would choose to let himself be broken and scarred so that I could be healed and whole.

Is 53 v 5 ‘…The punishment that brought us peace was on him, by his wounds we are healed’


Breast Cancer to Dragon Boater

Welcome to day fourteen of the Living Advent Calendar. Every day we open a door to discover an ordinary person opening real doors of hope and love in extraordinary ways. Today let me introduce you to an incredible old friend of mine called Joanne. Over to her to share her story with you today.

 A person is the product of their dreams. 

So make sure to dream great dreams. 

And then try to live your dream.

Maya Angelou

I am a wife, daughter, mum, teacher, breast cancer survivor and now dragon boater.joanne close up

In February 2007 my lovely mum was diagnosed for the second time with breast cancer and a month later I received my initial diagnosis at the age of 37.  My three children were 12, 10 and 2 and mum and I went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy almost at the same time.

As you can imagine, or know from personal experience, this was a very difficult time.  I had mastectomies and further risk reducing surgery as I discovered I – just like Angelina Jolie – was a BRCA 1 carrier which significantly increased my chances of going on to develop ovarian cancer.

It was only after the treatment and surgical procedures finished that I truly began to struggle with what I had been through.  I was also launched abruptly into premature menopause which had a huge impact on my mind and body.

I felt guilt for struggling, after all, I had survived!

Each New Year since my diagnosis I pray for myself and those around me for health of mind, body and spirit.  God made us a whole being and I am beginning to try and nurture all three aspects of myself.

I joined a gym and discovered other equally uncoordinated people, and we laughed at our antics at Zumba and Step.  Exercise calmed my mind, which at times was full of fear, and all those lovely endorphins from leaping about like a mad eejit helped me find my smile again.  I began to accept my new body, scarred as it was, and accept that I did have a hope and a future.

This journey took me to Dublin, where I became involved with the ‘Plurabelle Paddlers’ a Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat team who paddled together on the Grand Canal.  I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know what a dragon boat was, however I was intrigued to find out how others were coping after being through a similar experience.

It was one of the hardest forms of exercise I had ever engaged in, but, unbelievably,  once I got out of the boat I immediately wanted to get straight back in and have another go – I was hooked!

I discovered it to be the most amazing support group. It was so positive, and to just know we were literally all in the same boat was so comforting and liberating.

Breast cancer dragon boating is an international movement inspired by the research of sports medicine specialist Don McKenzie.  Historically after breast cancer treatment or surgery you are told not to do any heavy lifting or strenuous upper body exercise as it might bring on or worsen lymphedema (a swelling of the arm).  Don McKenzie’s research showed that this was not the case, and that this form of exercise meant women were healthier both physically and mentally.

So there are breast cancer dragon boat teams to help women and men improve fitness, enjoy the mutual support of team mates and raise awareness of breast cancer.

I began to feel that God was giving me a dream –  which was totally beyond my personal capabilities and experience – to set up a breast cancer dragon boat club in Belfast.

It was crazy! I was not particularly sporty and had literally zero experience of water sports. Would the delicate females of Northern Ireland be interested in forming their own team?  I quickly discovered that the Northern Irish women weren’t so delicate at all and were up for the challenge! The boat club dream became reality!

‘When God wants to work in your life, he always gives you a dream – about yourself, about what he wants you to do, about how he’s going to use your life to impact the world.’ Rick Warren

From one lonely dragon we now have a membership in Belfast of nearly 60.  We are all religions and none, all ages, shapes and sizes and varying levels of fitness.  We have all been affected either directly or indirectly by a diagnosis of breast cancer.

Our motto on our logo is ‘Out of the depths’.  As the survivors of the Titanic reached America they adopted Psalm 130 – ‘Out of the depths I cry out to you, Lord’ and this seemed so appropriate to us.  As the Titanic survivors were plucked from the icy waters of the Atlantic we were also crying out from the depths of a very dark place and finding hope and a new way of life.

While many of us would not have chosen to go through what we have, we are finding through Lagan Dragons we are not only fitter, but we are gaining strength mentally as well, and have found such friendship and support within our new dragon boat family. For me, finding these amazing and supportive new friends has given me a new found confidence and taught me to fight again.

lagan dragons 1


How do you know when a dream is from God or when it’s just something you’ve thought up yourself?  The bible says God by his mighty power at work in us is able to do far more than we could ever dare to ask or even dream of – infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, or hopes’ (Ephesians 3 v20)

In other words, if a dream comes from God, it will be so big in your life that you can’t do it on your own.  If you could do it on your own, you wouldn’t need faith.

God starts to build your faith by giving you a dream.  He may be speaking to you now, but you just don’t recognize it for what it is.  The dream you have, the idea or concept you’ve been thinking about doing that would be of real benefit to other people – where do you think it has come from and what can you do?

Take time this Advent to think about it…What is it that you’ve been dreaming of doing?  What should you do with it?

Who knows, God may even inspire you to bring wholeness to people through giving you a new language – mine was dragon boat commands!

At this time of Advent be open, wait expectantly, dream then do!