HOPE OVERFLOWING

stories of grace, hope and life beyond cancer


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You are enough

So the promised advent post didn’t happen (sorry!) and now it’s almost Christmas. I blinked and my baby turned one yesterday and a new year is rapidly approaching.

I always love a new year. It holds so many possibilities and somehow gives us permission to revive dreams and hopes that have been forgotten or shelved in past years, or possibly even make space for a few new dreams.

I’ve never been very good at setting goals or making resolutions and actually sticking to them but I have such a strong sense this year of wanting to live more intentionally than ever before. I know that this sounds heavy and like there won’t be any rest as I will have to “make the most” of every moment. But, for me, I’m going more for grace-filled intentionality – one that builds pause and rest into its rhythms but that also helps me to be all that I have been made to be.

My longing for intentionality comes from a deep desire to live a great story wherever I can and to not let any year pass me by. I find it so easy to focus on just getting through each day, keeping things ticking over that before I know it another year has passed and although what I have been up to has been good and meaningful, I haven’t made it any closer to my goals or dreams.

I think my mind has also become more focused on making things count as I know six young women who have died this year. That is a lot. Too many gone far too soon.

In two weeks time it will be 57 months since I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. I read recently that the average (median) length of survival for women diagnosed with my type of cancer at the stage that mine was found at is 57 months. That is not a long time and as of a fortnight’s time, I will be on the right side of that statistic and for that I am so thankful.

But I know that it didn’t have to be that way. So, I am determined to do my best to be the kindest, most generous version of myself possible, to honour God in every way that I can and to serve my family and my community as best as I know how.

But, sometimes it’s hard and a lot of the time I don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job of any of it. I can become filled with self-doubt and the thief of comparison steps in and makes me feel worse about even my best efforts.

Almost a month ago, I launched a little business, called Hope and Ginger, selling prints, journals and cards that I had designed. I had been working on getting it set up for a few months before I launched and I almost quit every day. Literally. Poor Joel had to give me a lot of pep talks to encourage me to stick with it.

It was so hard, not because of the work (which I love) or setting up the nuts and bolts of a business (which I have also really enjoyed – finally getting a use for my business science degree). It was hard because it made me feel incredibly vulnerable. These were things that I’d made and that were important to me and what if nobody liked them or bought them or what if people really hated them?

I wasn’t sure that I could cope with the rejection.

But, despite quite a few wobbles I was determined to achieve this dream and so I kept going and launched a very small range four weeks ago. One of my best-selling prints so far has been this one.

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You are enough.

This is a message that I have had to keep telling myself throughout this journey and I think it’s one that we all need to hear. Especially in the age of the internet, where it is only too easy to compare ourselves to others and consequently feel rubbish about ourselves.

We don’t have the washboard abs (or in my case any abs at all), or the huge Instagram following, or the perfect family. Our home doesn’t look like it came out of a magazine and our hair is always a bit of a mess. I’m sure you can think of your own comparisons to insert into my list.

But – the truth is, none of that stuff matters. What matters is that you are enough just as you are and you are so deeply loved. That is where our confidence needs to come from and that truth is totally transformational. As I was writing this I was reminded of the words of Romans 5:7-8 which reads:

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

His love for us runs so so deep. We don’t need to strive to be anyone else. We are loved with an eternal, powerful, personal and totally transformational love just as we are. This is a powerful and freeing truth. It sets us free from the need to strive to be enough or be the best and it sets us free to live our lives intentionally being all that we were created to be in Him.

Happy Christmas to you all! May you know the depth of Christ’s love for you this Christmas and may you remember that you are enough.

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My friend – taken too soon

About three years ago I met a lady on a day that broke my heart.

The day wasn’t supposed to be a sad day, in fact quite the contrary. It was a training day for volunteers for the breast cancer awareness charity, CoppaFeel! and I was a new recruit. I arrived at the offices in London on that sunny Saturday and nervously began to introduce myself to the other ladies there. I think there were about 20 of us that day and the mood in the room was excited and jovial. But as we chatted and shared our stories I felt the sadness rise within me. Here was a room filled with vibrant, young women and all of them, all of us had endured a horrible trauma. We had all experienced disfiguring surgeries and had poison pumped through our veins in an attempt to destroy the unwanted intruder that is cancer and that broke my heart. It just didn’t seem right.

One lady that stood out to me had a story that was strikingly similar to my own.  We lived just down the road from one another, we were both diagnosed near the beginning of 2012, our cancers were both found whilst we were pregnant and our children were born within weeks of one another.

But there was one crucial difference between our stories. Whilst my cancer had only spread to my lymph nodes when I was diagnosed, by the time my friend’s cancer was diagnosed it had already spread into her lungs. Because her cancer had spread beyond its original site she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer.

Secondary breast cancer currently has no cure.

Whilst I had a total response to my treatment, her cancer moved fast and didn’t respond well to treatment. She endured many different treatments and lived with this horrible disease for some time, but earlier this year it claimed her life and she died.

What a tragedy. A young husband and little girl lost their wife and mummy way too soon. A young life was taken too soon.

I will never be told that I have been cured or even that I am in remission but I have recently passed my four year anniversary of showing no evidence of disease. I know I am one of the lucky ones. Recently at an Alpha group that I am part of at church we had to answer the question, “Supposing God was real and you could ask God one question, what would you ask?” My response was easy. I would ask, “Why was I spared and others were not? Why do I get to see my children grow up and others will not?”

I don’t know the answer to those questions and perhaps one day I will get to ask them of God. But in the meantime I get to live the very best life I can.

Today I was at Borough Market with a friend. As we were walking around we saw this wall.

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It was a chalk board filled with lines saying, “Before I die I want to ______________”. The wall had been filled with all sorts of hopes and dreams and I wished there was a piece of chalk lying around so that I could’ve added my own. I have so many hopes and dreams for the future but I am also painfully aware that my story could have been so different. Cancer is an awful, indiscriminate disease and I could easily have been long gone by now. Joel could have been a widower before he turned 30 and Jonty could have grown up without me. Although I am not afraid of death the thought of leaving them makes my heart drop.

I have shed quite a few tears writing this post. It has been really hard to write. They have been tears of sadness, remembering those who have been taken too soon but there have also been tears of gratitude for the path I have walked and where I am now. Life is painful but it is also beautiful. In amidst the suffering there are blessings.

So, I am thankful for each day. I am grateful to still be able to have dreams for the future and that I get to share this life with my people and I am determined to make each day count.

October is breast cancer awareness month. Please please please get to know your own body. Check your breasts for any changes every month (no matter how young you are!). Feel as well as look. My breast cancer didn’t present with a defined lump, but I had markings on my breast, dimpled skin, an inverted nipple, pain and swelling. Not all breast cancers have lumps. If you notice any change please go to your gp and get a referral to a breast clinic. It could save your life. It saved mine.


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Why we have moved house AGAIN: choosing to participate in the adventure!

Recently I have been working through a course called Storyline with a group of friends and together we’ve been looking at the story of our lives so far, the ups and downs, the themes as well as looking for the redemptive perspective – the gold that comes as a result of the bad stuff in our lives.

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(Storyline ladies on a recent night out)

It has been really interesting to reflect on what has happened but also to think about how do I live a great story going forward? How are the choices that I make building into this story or am I always choosing the safe option, the easy way out? Would my choices and my life make the most boring book known to mankind or would there be some good stuff in there; some adventure, some conflict that was overcome, some struggle, some fantastic relationships?

 This slight shift in the way I think about my own life and decision making has really helped me to deal with some of the huge change and upheaval that have come in the past few months and as I have sought to live a great story courage has risen within me in a surprising way. 

When I wrote my last blog post 5 months ago (I really don’t know how it has been five months already!!) I wrote about feeling a call to be brave. It was such a strong sense at the time and the message was everywhere I looked. But when I wrote that blog post I honestly had no idea what that would look like at that point in my life. What would being brave at home with two little people actually mean as my life didn’t contain anything that required much bravery at all?

A week or two after I wrote the post, an opportunity came up for Joel workwise which would mean a new everything… New job for him, new house, new school for Jonty, new community. Not only this but this opportunity also meant that all of this would be temporary and that we would most likely be moving again next summer (which we were always due to be doing anyway). So it meant an additional house move, an additional new community, an additional mountain of hassle and admin tasks for me! It was quite honestly not that appealing a prospect!

This was not what I had in mind when I was feeling that I needed to be brave! I was thinking something a lot more low key and involving a lot less paperwork and time spent on hold sorting out bills and direct debits (and I now seriously wish the council would get something other than Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as their hold music!!) 

But this was an amazing opportunity and very quickly we realised we had a choice to make: Do we participate in the adventure or don’t we? Do we move with where we feel God calling us, embracing all the upheaval that it entails or do we stay put where it is safe and comfortable? 

At the end of the day, I don’t think that it was really all that much of a difficult decision because I don’t want to miss it. I don’t want to miss out on the adventure or the blessing or the calling because I was afraid or because I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle.  

I want to be part of the adventure. I want to live a great story with God!  

So, I put my big girl pants, got out my book of lists on and we just got on with it!

We moved just over a month ago, from the suburbs of London back in towards the city, which seems to surprise everyone we meet. We always get the same response, “Oh! Why have you done that? Everyone at your stage of life always moves out, not in!” But we have moved in because it felt like the right thing to do, because it was all part of the adventure!

We have been blessed with a wonderful house in a great spot (and I discovered recently that it is five doors down from the house where my great-great grandparents lived over 100 years ago! How strange!). Last week Jonty got into an amazing local school and he started Reception there on Friday. Joel began his new job on Monday and so the new season has well and truly begun.

(First day of school fun)

So, the story continues. The adventure continues and I am excited to be part of it!

It is my prayer for myself and for us all that we never get stuck, that we never pass the adventure over because we are afraid or we think it will be too hard or we can’t be bothered with the hassle of change.

Let’s embrace the adventure and may our lives always tell a great story! 


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On being brave and laughing in the face of logistics

You know those times in your life where almost every picture you look at, every word you read, your social media feeds and your conversations all seem to be loudly shouting the same message at you about your life and how you are living it?

I don’t get this all that often but when I do I try and sit up and take notice. I am currently in one of those times, where everywhere I turn I seem to be hearing the same message.

Be brave.

Since having Aaron three and a half months ago I have been feeling surprisingly restless. I think this may have something to do with the fact that whilst I was pregnant I didn’t make any plans for beyond his birth – seriously nothing! (Not even any holiday plans which is most unlike me as I do love a nice trip away somewhere.)

So when he arrived and we had waded through the mostly awake at night early weeks, and I had recovered from the birth and started to feel reasonably ok and not entirely exhausted all the time, I started to have this gnawing feeling of ‘now what’?

I tried to put it off telling myself that my baby was still so little and that I should focus on the boys and this all too short season with them, but still the restlessness remained. I just couldn’t shake it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mum and I love being a stay-at-home mum in particular. It is a total joy and privilege to mother these two little dudes full-time and something that I wouldn’t swap for anything. But still I didn’t know what to do about this restlessness.

I was chatting to a friend about it a few weeks back and she said, “I get it. You are looking for something not to replace the season you are in now but to enhance it.”

That was a lightbulb moment for me. That was exactly what I was looking for. How could I be most authentically me and keep my dreams alive whilst embracing the precious and all too brief season of mothering little ones? How could I live the abundant life that Jesus spoke about in John 10:10 here and now.

When trying to figure out what steps I would need to take to be most me I met with two barriers.

  1. In order to do this I would need to be brave and actually articulate my dreams even just to myself (Yikes!).
  2. There was the small issue of logistics… when would this all actually happen?

Over the past week the name Annie Downs kept popping up on my social media channels. Eventually I thought I needed to look this lady up! It turns out Annie Downs is an author of several books, one of which was released this week (hence all the social media action). I had a mooch through her books on Amazon preview and the one that stood out for me was called, “Let’s all be brave. Living life with everything you have.”

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It seemed apt, so I bought it with every good intention of reading it (confession: I don’t read books nearly enough/ really at all). Within a couple of days I am half way through and I have already been so challenged about being brave, even if that bravery is only just enough to speak out my dreams.

Does anyone else find that hard or is it just me? I have always had these crazy, seemingly impossible dreams bubbling away under the surface that I find difficult to admit to myself, never mind anyone else. I guess because at some level I worry that if I admit to them then I might fail or others might laugh at me or whatever. I don’t know really. But whatever it is, it is hard to name these dreams.

So, possibly because he was tired of my restlessness or more probably just because he’s awesome, Joel organised a morning of childcare for me this week so that I could have some time to myself, a mini-retreat. I didn’t go anywhere, but I gave myself permission just to be, to have time to think and dream and pray.

And I decided to be brave and write down my dreams. I’m not ready to tell you all what they are but I wrote them in my journal and told Joel about it later. Silly as it may sound it was really liberating and I guess one way in which I can hold myself accountable in keeping my dreams alive even just in a small way.

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The second thing holding me back is logistics! Logistics in our house are complicated. I have a husband that works weird hours and a lot of evenings and the evening work in particular doesn’t have much of a discernible pattern. There are two kids to juggle, neither of whom is at school full-time yet. So logistics… Are complicated. I know I am not alone in this and that probably all of you face logistical challenges of one sort or another. But logistics can hold us back big time!

I watched a Shauna Niequest video on YouTube the other day that totally rocked my world (it is at the bottom of this post. Do yourself a favour and watch it.) It was called ‘What my mother taught me’ and was essentially about all this stuff… It was about embracing the season you are in whilst all the time keeping your dreams alive and pursuing them. In the video Shauna talks about not being limited by logistics and that spoke straight to my heart.

I was so struck by the idea that I could essentially and unintentionally park the dreams that I have for ten years or more just because it was logistically difficult to find time to pursue them. That idea really scared me as I want to live my best life now, with little ones around my ankles, in amidst the chaos of it all. For me dealing with these logistical challenges is probably going to look like getting up earlier before the kids to get stuff done, but I’d say to keep my dreams alive it is worth it (although I am the least morning person you’ll probably ever meet so I might not agree it’s worth it most mornings!!)

I am so excited about a new season of being brave and being more intentional about living my best life. I can already feel the restlessness lifting and that is a good place to be.

I’d really like to encourage you to take a moment to think about what dreams have been bubbling inside you that you have been too scared to even admit to yourself. Ignore the logistical challenges, the ‘what if I fail’ and ‘what will people think of me’ thoughts, you can deal with those later. Rather take one brave step and write those things down. Acknowledge them to yourself and maybe one or two of your people and see what happens next.

Let’s all be brave. Let’s not allow ourselves to be held back by fear or by logistics. Let’s live our best story and know abundant life here and now!


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Humbled by extravagant love

Since baby Aaron arrived 8 weeks ago I have been totally overwhelmed by the kindness and outpouring of love that we have experienced. This kindness has taken many forms: well wishes on Facebook, cards and gifts in the post, two weeks of delicious meals made and given with love by friends from church, my mom who has cleaned our house every week (you’re amazing Mom!!), and friends who’ve had Jonty for playdates so I could rest.

In this new season I have been particularly humbled by the kindness and love shown to us by those who for whom it has cost something, and for whom showing that kindness and that love has been a sacrifice – the sleep-deprived new mums that lovingly cooked for us, the well wishes from cancer friends for whom a new baby is not currently, and may never be, an option, the amazingly generous gifts we have received (one of which was so extraordinary that I was totally overwhelmed and almost burst into tears in the middle of John Lewis on receiving it). The list goes on…

These kindnesses have been humbling and have meant so much.

The generosity of spirit that we have witnessed has been particularly touching as I know that sometimes celebrating with others can be hard. When we don’t get a job we want and a friend does, when another friend gets married and we remain single, when we are still unwell and others are off having adventures we could only dream of, celebrating others’ joy costs us something. In those times rejoicing with another means that we put our pain aside and turn our eyes away from ourselves to focus on and celebrate with our friends and that can hurt. A lot.

We can know in our head that joining in the celebration is a wonderful gift to give our friends but it can also absolutely feel like the hardest thing in the world to do.

I remember well the years after Jonty was born when the deepest desire of my heart was for another baby but it was categorically not a possibility for us. It was easy to celebrate friends’ new arrivals when Jonty was little but as he grew and a new baby remained impossibility for us, each new pregnancy announcement was a little more challenging to celebrate. It cost me something and sometimes it was easier than others. Sometimes I was better at joining in than others.

A few days ago I saw this quote on Instagram from author Bob Goff and it really struck me.

Bob Goff quote

In this season so many of the kindnesses given through sacrifice have felt like real acts of extravagant love and for so many of the givers I know that, even at a subconscious level, these acts have been their faith in action. They have been declarations of the goodness and kindness of God.

Romans 12:15 says rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those that mourn. These last few weeks and months have been such a wonderful season of rejoicing for us as we have seen a dream fulfilled and I am so grateful to have been joined in my rejoicing by so many others. But our season of rejoicing was preceded by a season of mourning, and I am equally thankful for those who joined us in that season and who didn’t shy away from it, but who were present with us through it.

Sometimes we feel like we don’t know how to rejoice with those who rejoice or to mourn with those who mourn, and so we don’t. We feel awkward, or sad about our own pain or guilty about our own happiness and so we steer clear. But, even though it can be hard, I encourage you to give it a go anyway. Even if it is messy or you feel awkward or you are sure you’ve said the wrong thing, offer extravagant love in the best way you know how.

When we choose to offer extravagant love to one another in either a time of rejoicing or a time of mourning, it is a powerful thing. It is a declaration of faith and in offering this love we make earth a little more like heaven. In offering extravagant love we have the opportunity reflect Jesus and the goodness and kindness of our Father God and his extravagant love for us.

That is powerful. Even if it is messy and awkward, it is important and it is something that I want to be part of!

Thank you to all of you who have shown us this extravagant love in both our seasons of rejoicing and of mourning. I am so humbled and so grateful.

Aaron 16.02.2015

(A snap from today. I hope it makes you smile.)

 

 


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A Christmas miracle

When I began treatment for breast cancer three and a half years ago, one of the saddest conversations I had with my oncologist was about my already begun regime of chemotherapy. He said something like,

“This treatment was developed in France.” (Great! I love France. Lots of good stuff comes from there)

“It is so strong that doctors didn’t give it to anyone for a few years as they were concerned that it may kill them instantly.” (Ummm… Ok… Less good)

“It can have all sorts of long lasting effects and we don’t know how it will affect you but it may well make you infertile.” (Whhhhaaaaaaatttttttt???)

It was that last bit that got me and sent me reeling. I wasn’t too worried about the first bit, as people had been having this treatment without instantly dropping down dead (well to my admittedly limited knowledge anyway) for some time. My heart was strong and I reckoned I could withstand the poison.

But to be told that your dreams for more children may be over, was not a curveball that I was expecting cancer to throw at me and I was so heartbroken by this idea. My oncologist said that there was no way to know now what would happen and only time would tell…

It was too much to process all at once, so we put the possible baby/no baby situation to the back of our minds, and I ploughed on with my treatment.

About six months after my diagnosis I had a mastectomy as planned. When I went to get the results from the surgery, the doctor I saw (who I had never met before) said that I was in luck! My cancer was slightly different to what they originally thought and it was actually estrogen positive. What that meant in practice was that there was another line of treatment available to me, a tablet called Tamoxifen which I now needed to take for five years. Oh, and by the way, that means that you can’t try to have another baby for the next five years. When questioned by us about this the doctor (who incidentally I never saw again) said that we shouldn’t even discuss it. That was a conversation for another day.

We left the hospital that day feeling a bit shell shocked

This was supposed to be good news, and in my head I knew that it was, as it meant another line of defence against the recurrence of cancer, it meant a better shot of survival. But somehow I couldn’t see that, all I could see was a baby that was not to be and that made me so sad.

Again, I put it to the back of my mind and carried on with treatment.

About six months later I saw on the news that the recommended course of Tamoxifen for Breast cancer patients had changed from five years to ten years. TEN years!!! I couldn’t possibly wait that long to try again…

I saw my oncologist and he confirmed this to be the case and that I was an excellent candidate to take the drug for ten years. I couldn’t believe it and was so sad at what felt like another huge blow to my future dreams.

But in end that ten year timeframe was just too long and we couldn’t accept it. It caused us to go back again and ask if they would support us in taking a break to try for a baby as I had read online that this might be possible (thank you Dr Google!). My oncology team confirmed that I could take a break and that they would support my decision to do so, but that I should be aware that it was not without some risk and I would need to take the drug for at least two years before even considering stopping.

The decision to take a break from the drugs was one that we thought and prayed long and hard about. I frequently swung between deciding yes I would stop and no, what a ridiculous suggestion. I experienced guilt over thinking of stopping, questioned myself as to whether I was being irresponsible by stopping, ran through countless possible scenarios in my head, but in the end we made the decision to go for it, to try for that much longed for baby.

And once the decision was made, I knew it was the right one for us and I had such peace about it.

We were given a very short window in which to try to conceive by my oncology team and we hoped and prayed we would be able to.

And that is where we are.

I am now 22 weeks pregnant with a much longed for, much hoped for and much loved little miracle of a baby. This baby is due just before Christmas and we are so excited and thankful for this new life. Jonty is so excited to be a big brother which only adds to the joy.

Both me and the baby are currently doing really well. Please do pray for continued health for both of us.

I can’t wait to introduce our little Christmas miracle to you all!

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(Sorry about the lack of “bump” shot! It is still quite small and I just look like I’ve been eating too many pies, which to be fair I probably have! Instead here’s a photo of me and the excited big brother whilst on holiday in France this week)


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From fear to freedom (the story of my little ditty)

Some of you may have seen a song that I shared on YouTube earlier this year called “I choose Freedom”. It is a song that I wrote to mark my second cancerversary in April (and had great fun recording thanks to some studio time given to me for my 30th birthday by my amazing husband). It is a song that means a lot to me and I have wanted to share its story for a long time, so here goes…

One of the things that has struck me time and time again when I visit the online cancer chat groups that I am part of is how many people live in fear… Fear of the future, fear of the present, fear of recurrence… It takes many guises. Cancer has struck fear into their hearts and they just can’t shake it. I know about this first hand, as I was absolutely one of those people.

The speaker Christine Caine recently wrote about her cancer diagnosis and what she says about fear really hit home for me:

Fear cripples, immobilises and paralyses us… Fear simply shuts us down, and when we are shut down we cannot fight the good fight of faith. I had a faith battle ahead of me, and the real enemy was not cancer, but fear.

That is how I felt, crippled, immobilised, paralysed by fear. The fear of recurrence coloured my every decision and filled up so much of my headspace there was little room for hope and even less for dreams. It was a place of captivity and certainly not freedom.

One Sunday about a year ago, we were visiting the church where my husband now works. We went along to the evening service and it happened to be about healing. The sermon was about the woman who had been bleeding for many years and who came to Jesus pushing through the crowd. When she got to him, she touched the bottom of his cloak and she was instantly healed (Mark 5:25-29), It was a lovely service, but nothing particularly remarkable happened to me as I listened.

After the service the children’s worker came up to me and said, “Cath, I feel the Lord has shown me that you are like that woman. You have come to Jesus and he has healed you. Now it is time to let go of the heavy burden of fear that you are carrying.” This really spoke to my heart and she prayed for me and then we went on our way.

About two days later I realised that something had happened, that everything had changed. I realised that in that moment, on that unremarkable Sunday evening, something truly remarkable had happened. I realised that the burden of fear that I had been carrying for so long had been completely broken off me and I had been set free. I literally felt like I was no longer carrying a heavy weight, and this dark, heavy burden had been replaced by hope and joy and this completely changed my life!

It was amazing!

Since then, the fear hasn’t returned although I do still have to choose to walk in this freedom. I have to choose not to allow myself back into old thought patterns if I feel them creeping back. I choose to stand on the truth that in Christ I am free and that is truly a wonderful thing.

Here are the lyrics to the chorus of the song and a link to the YouTube clip in case you haven’t seen it. I hope you enjoy it!

And that’s where life is in the freedom of His grace
And there I find joy and rest in his embrace
And I’ve let fear go, it’s a choice that I have made
And I choose freedom, every single day.