Gordon Wilson – The peacemaker

I was born and brought up in Northern Ireland. Throughout ‘The Troubles’ the question of how to achieve the all too elusive goal of peace was debated daily over breakfast tables, on living room sofas, in prayer meetings, in school classrooms, university lecture theatres, church gatherings, and chewed over endlessly by journalists and politicians.

We had prayer-athons for peace, peace marches, peace rallies, cross community peace initiatives and ‘The Peace People’ – who I didn’t have a foggy about what they actually did but I saw regularly wearing wonderful rainbow coloured home-knit woolly jumpers and passionately calling for peace.

Peace was something that seemed elusive and tantalising like an unreachable Lindt chocolate angel dangling at the top of a precarious Christmas tree. Lean too heavy in an attempt to grasp it and the whole thing could come crashing down.

On the 8th of November 1987 a crowd gathered in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland for a Remembrance Day service at the cenotaph. A bomb planted by the IRA meant to kill soldiers and policemen at the service, went off ten minutes early. Eleven people, all but one civilians, died. Sixty-three people were injured. Marie Wilson, a twenty-year-old nurse who had been standing near the monument with her father Gordon was buried under the bricks, and later died in hospital. Her father Gordon was interviewed and as my family watched I was totally shocked by what he said.Senator_Gordon_Wilson

We were both thrown forward, rubble and stones and whatever in and around and over us and under us. I was aware of a pain in my right shoulder. I shouted to Marie was she all right and she said yes, she found my hand and said, “Is that your hand, dad?” Now remember we were under six foot of rubble. I said “Are you all right?” and she said yes, but she was shouting in between. Three or four times I asked her, and she always said yes, she was all right. When I asked her the fifth time, “Are you all right, Marie?” she said, “Daddy, I love you very much.” Those were the last words she spoke to me.

I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life.

 He said that he forgave her killers and added: “I shall pray for those people tonight and every night.”

 As a 13-year-old with tears streaming down my face I couldn’t get my head around it. How could he react like that? Wasn’t he angry? Wasn’t he hurting? How could be call for reconciliation when most people would be calling for reprisals? What was it about this man that freed him from bitterness, hate and the lust for revenge?

And then the penny dropped. Gordon Wilson journeyed life with the one who the prophets had foretold and the angels announced would be ‘The Prince of Peace.’ The baby boy born in a country occupied by a foreign military power and groaning under the weight of oppression.

Gordon Wilson modelled his life on the ultimate peace maker, who spoke words of unconditional love, forgiveness and grace to the very people who were putting him to death, saying ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’

Gordon Wilson followed the servant leader who washed the feet of those who he knew were about to betray and abandon him in his hour of need. The one who said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ to a people searching for it in all the wrong places, just as we do today.

As I grew up I was continually gobsmacked by Gordon Wilson’s ability to model the grace, forgiveness and unconditional love which he had received from Jesus.

Out of unspeakable pain, Wilson dedicated his life to pursuing peace. As a peace campaigner, he sought to understand the reasons for the Remembrance Day bombing. He held many meetings with members of Sinn Fein and even met once with representatives of the Provisional IRA. He held talks with loyalist paramilitaries in an attempt to persuade them to abandon violence, was involved with initiatives to improve community relations in Enniskillen and was eventually appointed to the Senate in the Republic of Ireland.

Historian Jonathan Bardon says of Gordon Wilson’s words of forgiveness, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”

He died in 1995 aged 68. What an inspiring life. A living Advent calendar who opened his broken heart to those who had broken it. Who allowed Jesus to transform his pain, so he wouldn’t transmit it to others. Who became a wounded healer, just like the ‘Prince of Peace’ he walked alongside throughout his life.

Wow do we all need peace in our world, in our nation, in our communities, in our homes, and in our hearts today.

Big challenge to me and to all of us is how can I/we be a peace maker today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m dreaming of a white envelope

Welcome to day 10 of the Living Advent Calendar. Each day we discover an ordinary person opening real doors of hope, love and justice to others in extraordinary ways. Today I’d love to introduce you to Nancy Gavin, who wrote an article for a Women’s magazine in 1982, which turned out to win first place out of thousands of entries sent to their ‘My most moving holiday tradition’ competition.

Readers were asked to submit their holiday traditions and the story behind them. I stumbled across it recently in ‘Becoming Minimalist’, and was so inspired I wanted to share a shortened version of it here.

So over to Nancy to share her story…

‘Every year you will find a small white envelope stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past ten years or more.

It all started because my husband Mike hated Christmas being all about frantically running around in desperation to buy random gifts for people who really didn’t need or particularly want them. So one year I decided to do something different for Mike and not buy him the usual socks and stuff.

The inspiration came about in an unusual way. Our 12 year old son was wrestling at a local competition against a team sponsored by an inner city church.The boys on the inner city team had ragged trainers and to our dismay were missing essential safety headgear, which was obviously too expensive for their parents to afford.  They presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes. Mike was really upset by this, and even more so when they lost every single one of their wrestling matches. He shook his head sadly, and said, ‘I wish just one of them could have won. They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them.’ Mike loved kids – all kids – and he knew them, having coached little league football, baseball and lacrosse.

That’s when the idea for his present came. That afternoon, I went to a local sports shop and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and trainers and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church.

On Christmas Eve, I placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done and that this was his gift from me.

His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year and in succeeding years. Each year I followed the tradition – one year sending a group of mentally disabled children to a hockey game, another sending a cheque to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground the week before Christmas and so on.

The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning and our children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents.

That’s not where the story ends.

We sadly lost Mike last year to cancer. When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree, and in the morning, it was joined by three more. Each of our children, unbeknown to the others, had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown and will expand even further with our grandchildren standing to take down the envelope.

Mike’s spirit of giving, like the spirit of Christmas, will always be with us.’

This story inspired a family from Atlanta, Georgia to start ‘The White Envelope Project’, and ‘Giving 101’, a charity dedicated to educating youth about the importance of giving.

I’m gonna have a white envelope on our tree this year – are you?  Whether it’s twinning your toilet to support water and sanitation projects https://www.toilettwinning.org/ or the alternative Christmas gifts catalogue with https://sendacowgifts.org there are lots of creative ways to make Christmas more about the giving than the getting this year.

What traditions have you got for Christmas and what is the story behind them?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clarence is for life not just for Christmas

Welcome to day 9 of the Living Advent Calendar. Each day we open the door to an inspirational life. Today we open the door to Bedford Falls, to meet an angel who hasn’t quite got his wings yet, called Clarence.

Every year, thousands of people visit Seneca Falls, In New York, for the ‘It’s a wonderful Life’ festival. Seneca Falls is, according to local legend, the New York community upon which director Frank Capra based his fictional Bedford Falls seventy years ago. Festival-goers take part in the ‘Its a Wonderful Run’ 5K race, they dance at the Light of the Moon Ball, they dress up as the characters and role play their face scenes and watch the film being played on a loop at the Clarence Hotel.

I so want to go to that festival! (Not sure Him outdoors would be so keen mind).Its-a-Wonderful-Life-Christian-MovieFilm-DVD-Blu-ray-235x340

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, or have forgotten the story  – here’s Graham with a quick reminder (as Cilla would say) …

George Bailey grew up in Bedford Falls, a small dreary town, and he dreams of someday leaving it and making his mark on the world. George is all set to leave when his father dies and he has no choice but to take care of the family business. This business is all that stands between the good citizens of the community and Mr. Potter, a rich miser who takes sick pleasure in taking from everybody, without caring how it affects them.

Henry Potter offers George Bailey everything he has ever wanted in order to entice him to leave – travel to Europe, lots of money, and a far more interesting job than he has at the Building and Loan.

George is tempted. He has wanted these things – and they are good things – for a long time. But he memorably calls Potter “nothing but a scurvy little spider,” and turns him down.

Despite always choosing to do the right thing and putting others before himself, his own plans to leave Bedford Falls to fulfil his dreams are repeatedly stymied and he eventually loses hope. When he thinks that he is nothing but a failure, he decides to kill himself and that’s when Clarence, his guardian angel who has yet to earn his wings, comes in and gives him a fresh perspective on how that he actually has had a “Wonderful Life”.

Clarence shows him what life would have been like if he had never been born. He poignantly challenges George to open his eyes to ’’See how many people you have changed all through your life.”

I have days when I’m a bit like George. The discrepancy between my dreams and my reality makes my heart heavy. One thing which is guaranteed to trigger such emotions is when my university Alumni magazine comes through the door. I feel my stomach flutter and my heart sink as I rip open the plastic cover. I take a gulp and brace myself before flicking through the glossy pages brimming with ‘success stories’ of ‘pioneers’ who are ‘at the top of their game’ or carrying out ‘world changing’ ‘groundbreaking’ ‘outstanding’ stuff. I sigh dejectedly while chucking it into the recycling. Hmpf. They are so spectactularly spectacular and I’m spectacularly unspectacular. Their ‘success’ instantly makes me feel like a ‘failure’. How can he/she be running a global ethical clothing company, parenting 7 children, carrying out ground breaking, world changing research, and creating an award winning bakery in her spare time, while I can’t manage to re-create the cake I saw on Pinterest or remember which sports kit goes in which bag on which day.

And thats when I’m so grateful for my Clarences.

My Clarences remind me of who I am and what really matters.

My Clarences remind me why I’m here.

My Clarences look at life differently. They define ‘success’ and ‘greatness’ differently.

You see they all follow the original Clarence who chose to ‘serve not to be served’, who chose to ’empty himself, by making himself nothing’, the ‘light of the world who stepped down into darkness’. They re-calibrate me back to what’s important. Together we get refreshed by reading about Jesus, the radical servant leader who ushered in an upside down kingdom where the last are first, the foolish shame the wise, the weak are strong, the forgotten, the poor and the overlooked are loved unconditionally, and have nothing to prove.

This Advent I want to make time to focus on what true greatness means. To be grateful for the gift of the life I’ve been given. (And not hanker after somebody else’s). I want to create time with my kids to celebrate the wonderful life of the one who chose to step out of comfort into a cold dark world. To share the story of the one who chose to be born in a pigsty not a palace so that we could be set free from climbing ladders or striving for the spectacular.  I pray that I can do a better job this Advent of opening their eyes to the miraculous in the mundane. To the wonder of normal. To be grateful for the extraordinary in the everyday.  To fall in love with the ‘life in all its fullness’ which only He can bring.

“Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!”

 

 

 

 

 

The power of hello

Welcome to day 8 of the Living Advent Calendar. Each day we open the door to step into the story of an inspirational life. Today I’d love to introduce you to an incredible lady called Zeny, who lives in the Philippines. I met Zeny when I worked with a Christian international development charity called Tearfund, and had the privilege of visiting her.

Before her role with Tearfund, Zeny had worked as a social worker in Manilla, and she was a very busy lady. The area she worked in had an extremely high level of social problems. She chose to serve the communities in a very poor area of Manilla, close to a massive rubbish dump called Smokey Mountain, around which an incredible 25,000 people would scavenge for food and goods to sell.

Every day hundreds of kids would queue up to get into the 50 metre high dump made up of 2 million tonnes of waste, to try to raise money for their families. The stench in the black air from the rotten rubbish, burning tyres, charcoal and toxic fumes was almost unbearable.

smokey mountain pile

One day Zeny was exceptionally busy at work and she was trying to get past a line of kids queuing to get onto the rubbish dump. As she was walking along, she noticed a little boy crying in the queue. She was running late, and was tempted to ignore the boy and carry on to her appointment. But she felt God nudging her not to. So she chose to stop.

She went over to the boy and simply said hello and asked him why he was crying.

He told her he was crying because he thought he wouldn’t get onto the rubbish dump that day. The queue was long and moving very slowly. His father was sick and needed medicine. He had to get onto the rubbish dump to find things to sell, so he could give money to his mother to buy medicine for his dad.The boy’s name was Eduardo. Zeny decided to forget about hurrying on to her appointment, and instead, took Eduardo by the hand and asked if she could go to visit his family.

She took him back to his home, met his family, and made a decision that day that she would commit to supporting him financially and in prayer. Over the next few years she supported Eduardo through school. He was exceptionally bright, and won a scholarship to university to study Accountancy.

Zeny is an ordinary woman, who, as she was walking along on an ordinary day, chose to see, chose to stop, chose to say hello and ask a simple question, ‘Why are you crying?’ Because Zeny chose to open her heart to this boy who started life as a scavenger on the rubbish dump, she opened doors of hope which she could never have foreseen or imagined.

Eduardo’s life was literally transformed. When Zeny told us this story Eduardo had just become the president of the second largest bank in Manilla. He still chose to live close to where the Smokey Mountain rubbish dump was located. He had a passion to share the love of God to those in the most vulnerable communities around the dump. He used the money he made to support the work of the churches in the area who were supporting poor communities there through practical love in action.

This Advent, who can we see, stop and chat to, and serve in a small way? I really don’t want the tinsel and trappings to distract me from seeing, stopping, and spending time with those who need it. Time is precious. Time is a gift. If we respond to the nudges of God, who can do ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or even imagine’ anything is possible.

How has Zeny inspired you to spend your precious time today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

920 Mile Pedal Powered Pilgrimage

Welcome to day seven of the Living Advent Calendar. Each day we discover an ordinary person opening real doors of hope, love and justice for others in extraordinary ways. Today let me introduce you to one of my all time fave human beings. Robert de Berry. (Second from left in pic above) He is quite simply a legend, and a privilege to have had as my pastor and now to call a dear friend.

Not many 75 years old choose to celebrate that birthday milestone by cycling 920 miles and raising over £56K…but then Robert is not any old 75 year old! Over to Robert to share his story today.

‘All my life, I have loved biking, but apart from being good exercise, it has been unproductive – miles of pedalling to arrive back from where one started! This year I celebrated my 75th birthday, and I felt the Spirit of God nudging me to pedal that energy into a pilgrimage; a pilgrimage on behalf of another of my passions: Christians who face the horrors of persecution.

The rather hazy vision started out as route plotting the mileage. There is a place on the south coast called Peacehaven, founded after the first world war for war veterans. It felt right for the bike pilgrimage to end there, as the name reflected that prayer and longing that suffering Christians might have peace.

But where to begin?

As often happens, it’s in night time insomnia that ideas germinate. One night I remembered a childhood visit to Cape Wrath, that wild northwest rectangle on the corner of north-west Scotland. The name was reflective of the fury unleashed against Christians in many parts of the world. That’s where this should begin.

A friend suggested that we ought to ride through the Hope Valley, in Derbyshire’s Peak district. Its extraordinary that those persecuted for Christ still live in hope and ask Christians around the world to sustain them with prayer.

This gave me the strap-line: WRATH HOPE PEACE

We started out on May 16th and it all ended a month later on June 16th.  Three of us biked the full 920 miles.  Another 25 joined us for different stage of the route. We had times of prayer in 34 churches and their members hosted us in their homes.Robert de Berry

Amazingly, between us we raised well over £56,000 for Release International and Christian Solidarity, but it was more important for us to join Christians in prayer, and, oh, we were so blessed by doing so.

The letter to the Hebrews urges us to “Remember those in prison, as if you were their fellow-prisoners and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering.

I love Advent – it’s an early warning system for Christians.  Of course, we will have lots of fun at Christmas, but the fun and the consumerism need to be embracing of others.

In Jesus’s sermon on the slopes of a mountain, he said, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get……and if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?”

Both CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide) and Release urge us to write letters to suffering Christians – advice as to whom and how you should write are on their websites. www.releaseinternational.org and csw.org.uk

Here is the response from an Iranian Christian girl: Mariam Rostampour, who had been in prison for her faith.  Lots of Christians from here wrote to her.  She didn’t actually receive the letters, but wrote: We heard from our guards that forty to fifty letters were coming each day…..this was something that gave us hope…..the guards who opened our letters read the Bible verses and were impacted…..they told us and mentioned some of the verses from the gospel”.

 In January 2016, twenty one Egyptian migrant workers were forced to their knees by IS, asked to renounce Jesus or face an immediate death.  They were beheaded.  In Eritrea, 173 Christians, many of them leaders, have been incarcerated for over ten years.  There are many other countries in which Christians are tortured for Christ: North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, northern Nigeria to name just a few of them. As you write your Christmas cards, please consider writing to such people, as letters of greeting and encouragement may get through and encourage them greatly. If not they will reach their families or their churches.

Please also pray for the persecuted church – the members of these churches long for our prayers.’

Dreaming Equality

Welcome to day 6 of the Living Advent Calendar. Each day we open a door to discover an inspirational life. We meet ordinary people opening doors of love, hope and justice in extraordinary ways. Today my incredible friend Sue Hurrell shares her story with you.

‘When the doctor in Norwich told me that my daughter probably had cerebral palsy and there was nothing that could be done to heal her, that was when the bottom dropped out of my world – to use a cliche which is remarkably accurate.  It felt like I was being pushed down into a very dark place, in nowhere land – along with the dreams I had about my own future and that of my tiny daughter.  There was little light to be seen.

 

Imogen babyAnd despite emerging from that dark place I quite often find myself back in it again, often in the middle of the night, thinking about how hard it is for her to integrate with other children, and how this makes her sad.  I find myself staring bleakly into the future, realising that the things that disabled people need to flourish and co-exist (let alone “compete” and “contribute”) are expensive and require people to be patient.  And when it comes to it, whilst friends and family are astonishingly generous, society as a whole doesn’t actually want to be patient or devote resources to caring, or to changing things to make them more accessible.

One of the main things that people take for granted is the choices we have about our future.  So a new baby is rather like that tiny shoot when it first pokes through the soil – unless a label has been put into the soil nearby you’ve no way of knowing how it will turn out.  It could be an oak tree, or a sunflower. When a baby is born it is possible that she or he will be an athlete, a surgeon, a famous artist or musician, and maybe eventually a parent and grandparent. When you look at a tiny newborn baby sleeping, nothing is inherently limiting what that child could become.  It is usually a few years before we have to take decisions on school subjects and activities in our spare time that will lead us down one path and block off another.  Eventually you accept you’re not going to play for Man United, or be a concert pianist or join the circus.

And in the moment you learn your child has a disability, that limiting of future choices is by far the heaviest, sickening blow. Your baby suddenly looks alien to you – instead of a beautiful child with a future of possibilities you are staring at a worrying and frightening little creature, and feeling guilty for not being overwhelmed with love and maternal feelings.  It is devastating.

A very dark patch followed her diagnosis. Worries about a bleak and unknown future were mixed with anxiety about day-to-day decisions, exhausting rounds of appointments and interventions, and battles to get the therapy and equipment she needed before it was too late to be useful. Added to this was the loneliness, and the stress of trying to appear friendly and normal in order to make some friends.  I still struggle at times with feeling isolated and lonely, which I had never suffered from previously.

I don’t think I ever asked “why me?” because that didn’t seem like a useful question, and in any case the obvious retort is “why not me?” – misfortune of this kind seems to hit at random.  But despite never really asking the question “why me?” I gradually began to see my way to an answer. I became more aware that the things I had been taught to do all my life – my scientific training, my public sector management career, my skills at speaking and writing clearly, and most of all my faith, could all be channelled into helping lots of other people and not just myself and my immediate family.

Since then I have spent many hours campaigning, researching and talking to other parents. I use social media to raise awareness of injustices and to help raise money where it is needed.  I have been campaigning to make Wales’ schools wheelchair-accessible, which has been an uphill battle, but finally we are seeing some progress.  I am a trustee of Contact www.contact.org.uk, a national charity which supports the families of children with disabilities. In 2012 we raised (which means people generously donated) £80,000 to take our daughter to America for spinal surgery which really helped her mobility and future independence, and then with three other mums we set up another charity http://www.support4SDRWales to support other families and raise funds to help pay for physio and training. There are so many injustices I want to tackle if only I had more time! You can find out more on my blog http://www.dreamingequality.blogspot.co.uk

When I started all this I began to feel I was emerging from the darkness through a sense of purpose.  The beautiful thing I discovered was that, instead of just focusing on realising my own potential I could use what I have learnt to reach out to others facing similar challenges, to stick up for those who can’t so easily speak for themselves, and to challenge assumptions and poor performance by the organisations that are supposed to help.

And that’s the Advent hope – the light shines in the darkness and overcomes it. It’s the transforming of the ordinary and broken into the beautiful here and now. The hope that triumphs and is made more vibrant through suffering.  The peace that comes from placing all the pain and puzzling into God’s hands when your own are just too small to hold it all.  It’s the dark, seemingly hopeless, times that point to the miracle of God with us through the birth of a baby. A baby born in humble circumstances who grew up to challenge assumptions, to call out hypocrisy and greed, to be rejected and killed but ultimately to triumph.’

imogen smile.jpeg

 

Maid on a mission

Welcome to day five of our Living Advent Calendar. Every day we open a door to discover an inspirational life. We meet ordinary people opening doors of hope in extraordinary ways. Today we open a door to the past, to meet a lady who is indirectly responsible for my husband and I getting together. Let me explain.

One night we were sitting on our sofa chatting about what had inspired us to want to volunteer overseas, and eventually to work for Tearfund, (where we met and fell in luuuurve). We discovered something surprising. It was the same (pretty obscure) film that had impacted us both when we were children. We watched the film at the same time on the same day in 1985! Ben, a 12 year old wearing green flash trainers sitting on a sofa in Surrey, and I, an 11 year old with a bowl haircut sitting on a sofa in Belfast. What are the chances?

But more importantly – What was the film?

It was ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.’ It was all about the life of Gladys Aylward.

Gladys Who? You may well ask.

inn of 6th happiness film

Born in 1902 into a working class London family, Gladys Aylward was a house maid on a mission. She was passionate about sharing God’s love and practically serving those in need in China, and applied to various agencies to fund her to go to do just that. She was repeatedly refused on the grounds of not being educated enough, not being rich enough, not being male enough and not being married enough.

Wow. As someone who has suffered at times with an inferiority complex and a fear that I’m never ________(insert adjective here) enough, that treatment would have confirmed my own fears, fed my insecurity and have been enough to put me right off.

But not our Gladys. She knew that in God’s hands she was enough. She had nothing to prove and she lacked nothing.

Utterly undeterred, Gladys spent her entire life’s savings on a one way ticket to China. Her journey there was harrowing. She survived not only the war front and an attempt to force her into slavery in a work camp and finally ended up in a destitute town in Yangcheng. All accounts of that place would have been enough to me right off too. But not our Gladys. Her love for her community was stronger than her need for comfort.

Together with an old lady living in the village she transformed a delapidated old house into a welcoming ‘Inn of the 8 Happinesses’ (Hollywood changed the name for the movie) providing hospitality for needy travellers, based on the eight virtues of love, virtue, gentleness, tolerance, loyalty, truth, beauty and devotion.

One day as Gladys walked through the village she saw an old lady trying to sell a bedraggled little girl. She couldn’t bear to leave the girl so she paid the lady the shockingly low price of less than two dollars so she could look after her. This girl was the first of almost 100 unwanted children who came to live with Gladys.

Gladys assisted the local government in ending the cruel custom of foot-binding, and she did such a great job that when a riot broke out in the town prison she was called by the local governor to calm things down. Afraid, Gladys prayed for help and then calmly stood in the middle of the riot. One by one each prisoner put down their weapons and peace returned. She had such a heart for them that she visited the prisoners every day and helped make their living conditions better.

From then on the local community called her Ai-Weh-Deh which means ‘The Virtuous One.’  Apparently Gladys really disliked the movie as it glamorised her too much, but what it did do was share her inspiring life story with the world. And her life inspired an 11 and 12 year old to embark on a path which would converge 17 years later.

Who in history has inspired you to do what you are doing now?

 

Mainstream?

Welcome to day four of the living Advent calendar. Each day we open a door to uncover inspiring people who are opening real doors of hope, love and generosity this Christmas.

Today let me introduce you to my fantastic cousin Robin, and his lovely wife, Emma. Here they are to share a bit of their story with you.

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‘In the Summer of 2001, my wife Emma and I were sitting in our living room wondering what we were to do. I had taken the previous year off work as a teacher to retrain as a psychologist. We had lived on Emma’s wages but were now expecting our first child and I had not managed to get the Assistant Educational Psychologist job I had applied for. Our future was suddenly very uncertain.

It was into this context that an unmarked envelope dropped through our letterbox. In it were two job adverts, cut from the local newspaper: one was for a worker in a pupil referral unit, a school for children excluded from mainstream education; the second was for a teacher to champion the education of children in the care of the local authority. I applied for the latter of the two jobs and, to my surprise, was made ‘Liaison Teacher for Children in Public Care’.

That was 16 years ago – 16 amazing years full of exhilarating highs and demoralising lows. The role is about working to promote the education of children in foster care. It is certainly hard to beat the feeling of getting a young person, who had left school with no qualifications, through a degree course at university, or of baking cakes with a child in a secure unit, or of standing on the bow of a sailing yacht as it is steered by a young person under the light of the stars into Southampton docks.

In terms of lows, there have been many of those, but I have often noticed that it was when all appears lost, when a situation seems hopeless, when all you had left is a broken heart and a prayer, this is when the tide seems to turn; I have learnt to never lose hope.

I have been incredibly blessed to work with the most courageous and inspiring children through some very difficult circumstances. They have taught me to believe in them and, above all, in the power of relationship. We are designed for relationship; it is hard-wired into our brains. We all need someone to help negotiate life’s challenges and to find the path we were meant to tread.

And, while writing these words down and thinking about my journey, something incredible has just occurred to me. I am sitting in our living room, 16 years after an envelope dropped through our letterbox – an envelope containing two job adverts. I had always assumed that both adverts were intended for me, as if I was somehow being given a choice.

The amazing thing is this: for the last 12 years my wife Emma has worked in a pupil referral unit, a school for children excluded from mainstream primary and secondary education.

Even when we fail to see it, there’s always a plan at work.’

‘For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ Jeremiah 29:11

Raindrops on Roses and Love Locks on Bridges

Welcome to the third day of our living Advent calendar. Today we open a door to a crisp December night in Salzburg, Austria. To celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, Ben surprised me with a magical mystery tour which ended up there. Being a huge Sound of Music fan I had ALWAYS wanted to go there ever since I was old enough to belt out the hills are alive at the top of my lungs while running down a hill – (Any hill would do).

The Official ™ sound of Music Tour would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for the tour guide. He began by saying, ‘You probably know that most Austrians absolutely hated this movie….’ and it kind of got worse from there. Regardless, we (or should I say I) jumped up the Doh Re Mi steps, belted out ‘I am sixteen going on seventeen’ at the legendary summer house and climbed to the snow-covered mountain top where Maria runs down the hill in the opening sequence. Despite his best attempts, he couldn’t quell the magic. Having seen the film so many times, it was a wonderful feeling of re-visiting an old friend, a fond and familiar place filled with special memories from yesteryear.

salzburg-padlocks.jpg

After it finished, we strolled around town and headed to one of the bridges which seemed to have a lot of people gathering at the middle. We walked closer to see why. My eye caught a red heart shaped lock, which was scratched and weather beaten, had the  words ‘This moment forever’ etched on it, with ‘Tom + Bella’ on the other side.

This was the first of literally thousands of love locks – all inscribed with messages and the names of couples, families, siblings and friends. We bought a (very overpriced) red heart lock off a slightly smug looking seller and added ours to the throng.

The locks were put there at a specific moment in time, but were all about permanence and enduring love. Once locked, the keys are thrown away as a symbol of unbreakable love. Many couples, friends and families returned to search for those locks time after time, year after year, so that moment could be relived, love or friendship or family memories rekindled. The once pristine and shiny love locks become scratched, dented and faded after weeks and months of changing seasons, leaving them barely recognisable, but a beautiful testament to the enduring love of its owners.

For me Advent is a time when we return to a specific moment in time, when Jesus demonstrated his amazing love for us by coming down to earth and locking eyes with us in love.

Changing seasons of our lives bring storms which batter, and intense heat which scorches and fades, but His is a love that locks into our hearts through all of it. There have been times this year when I have felt that I am barely recognisable – because of all the scratched and dents and intense pain that the year has thrown at me. But I have felt Jesus lock eyes with me through that, cling to me and not let me go through it all. And that has made all the difference.

‘See I have written your name in the palms of my hands.’ Isaiah 49:16

Disco donkey mirror ball

Welcome to the second day of our living Advent calendar. Today we open a door to meet a friend in Honduras, a beautiful but currently very troubled country in Central America. My husband Ben and I volunteered at a community development project for a couple of years in a little town called Siguatepeque, with a group of people who were dedicated to working alongside those affected by poverty or injustice.

One day I spotted one of our fellow volunteers arriving at the office with a huge pane of mirrored glass under his arm. I later found him at his desk with hundreds of broken pieces of mirrored glass absolutely everywhere. Thinking there had been an accident I offered to help him clear it up.

Turns out that he had broken the mirror himself. Intentionally. He had painstakingly measured and cut literally hundreds of perfectly identical squares from the large mirror, and was absolutely delighted with the result.

Beside the pieces of broken mirror glass sat a huge Papier Mache donkey. Completely befuddled as to what on earth the donkey had to do with his community development work, I tried in vain to get him to reveal what exactly he was up to. He simply said, ‘’Wait and see”.

Well after what seemed like weeks of waiting, he finally invited us all to come outside one day for him to unveil his secret creation. When we stepped into the bright sunlight he lifted something out of a box which made us collectively gasp and shield our eyes.

WOW!

He had created a dazzling donkey disco ball from the broken mirror. When the sunlight hit it,  intensely bright rainbow rays of light were hurled over everything around. Plain walls were now transformed into beautiful palettes of colour; and even the dusty ground took on a magical hue.

The sunlight transformed this collection of broken bits into something truly beautiful. This wasn’t supposed to be kept in the dark. It could only shine when its broken bits were exposed to the light. Back inside the building, it returned to being grey and colourless.

Donkey

To me it was a metaphor for what was happening each day through the work of the project. Broken lives affected by domestic violence, poverty, lawlessness and injustice were being transformed as people came together to share and support each other. Local women who had their family life and even their bodies broken by violence, would sit alongside others who faced the same brokenness and beautiful friendships were forged. Hope fuelling friendships which cast light which others could catch.

In Advent we are waiting to celebrate the moment when Jesus stepped down into a broken world, to bring love and hope and light to our lives.

Each of us can feel cracked or broken through loss or pain or simply the experiences life has thrown at us. This Advent I want to be less afraid to hide my broken, flawed bits. May we sit with Him who is the light in our darkness, and allow His light to be reflected from our brokenness.

Back to the disco donkey. This donkey had taken him weeks to make. Each day he sat and painstakingly cut and stuck tiny squares of mirrored glass onto the donkey frame. One by one, until it was completely covered and shimmering with light. Why?

It was a labour of love. It was a birthday gift for his big brother who was working up north in the jungle region of Honduras. He knew that this disco donkey would be just what his brother would need for his birthday! To make him smile and make him feel loved.

If creating it wasn’t time consuming enough, to deliver it to his brother he had to carry the dazzling donkey onto a crowded local bus, travel with it over potholed roads, through rivers and dense jungle to finally deliver it.

What a beautiful gift something broken can be.

‘He has made everything beautiful in its time.’ Ecclesiastes 3 v 11.