HOPE OVERFLOWING

stories of grace, hope and life beyond cancer


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The uneasy dance of life and death – my fifth cancerversary

I am so often struck by the stark contrasts of this world, and particularly how sorrow and joy seem to be able to move together in a sort of uncomfortable dance, each one rising and receding in turn. It seems to me that life and death are so often the couple intertwined in this dance and I find their uneasy coexistence difficult to wrap my head around.

It is one of those weeks where I have a heightened awareness of both life and death. Life – because today is my cancerversary and marks five years since the day that rocked my world and I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. But also death – because yesterday I attended the funeral of a vibrant young woman called Sarah, who had recently celebrated her 32nd birthday and who got married last year and whose life was claimed by breast cancer just a few weeks ago. Yesterday we celebrated her life by marking her death.

The unfairness of this situation is not lost on me. As I sat in the church at the funeral yesterday wondering how granny was getting on with planting strawberries with the boys, I was reminded that it could quite easily have been my funeral that friends and family were gathering to attend. I was reminded that it didn’t have to have turned out like it did.

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As the family processed out of the church yesterday I was so struck by just how soon her life was claimed as her husband walked down the aisle out of the church, this time with no bride on his arm. This time he walked alone. I was struck by her untimely death by the presence of her grandparents at her funeral. Grandparents should not be burying their grandchildren. It’s just the wrong way around.

For me cancer plays a smaller and smaller role in my day to day life. But a few times a year when my hospital appointments roll around I have to engage with it once more. Almost two weeks ago I had my annual mammogram. It is always an event that I dread, not just because it is a pretty uncomfortable experience but rather because it always throws up worries that maybe all is not well after all. Perhaps the cancer has returned. This year I had my mammogram in the morning and in the afternoon we went away on holiday. We had the most glorious week away in the Cotswolds. The weather was gorgeous, the kids slept well every night and the days were filled with really fun outings. It was blissful, but occasionally the thought of my mammogram would creep back into my mind and I would wonder whether the postman had dropped a letter recalling me to the hospital through my post box yet.

The very first thing I did when we got back on Saturday was gather up the post and go through it all with a fine toothed comb looking for an envelope stamped with the hospital address. It wasn’t there. I hadn’t been recalled and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had somehow been granted a more time away from the clutches of this disease.

Sarah was the fifth young women in my sphere that has died from breast cancer in the past 12 months. Every few months I have been heartbroken at the news of another life taken and so celebrating my cancerversary this year feels very bitter sweet.

I am SO THANKFUL for another good year, to be healthy and to have the opportunity to enjoy a bit more of this life. I am so thankful for my family, my friends, my little business, opportunities to serve at church and in the community. I am so thankful that I am well enough to live a normal life and I feel blessed beyond measure. But today, in amongst it all I also feel so sad. I feel so sad for the lives gone, for the young children who have lost their mums and for the families who have lost daughters, sisters, aunties and friends.

I don’t know what it all means and I don’t know how to reconcile the unfairness of it all in my mind. I find that all I can do is cling on to the knowledge that it won’t always be this way and that one day all things will be made new and there will be no more sickness or crying or pain. But in the meantime, in the middle of the mess, these women encourage me to press on, to be thankful for each day, to run the race marked out for me and to choose to participate in the adventure.

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You (yes you, reading this) are awesome!

One of the things that I find most difficult about being a stay-at-home parent is the lack of external affirmation. Let’s face it, even with two sweet and affectionate little dudes at home, kids don’t really think to say, “Thanks Mummy for doing my washing/ picking up my toys/ scraping sprayed food off the furniture. I really value you and appreciate all that you do in this home to prevent it from turning into total chaos.” They just don’t say it, like ever! I wish they did but they don’t and so often at the end of another day filled with washing and scraping food I find myself with my love tank feeling low and the house still in total chaos.

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I guess it says a lot about how I am wired that I frequently wake up and think, “Wow! I really need some encouragement today!” In fact, it is often a prayer that I pray as I am going about my daily life, “Lord, please show me something to encourage me today.”

I know that it is not just me that needs encouragement. I think that we all thrive under positive, heartfelt affirmation from others, just as we wither under harsh and unkind words.

Lately I have been quite challenged by this. I look around and see so many people just trying to knock one another down. It is amazing how much interaction there is, online in particular, and yet how little encouragement. Rather, competitiveness and one-upmanship seem to be the name of the game.

In our house we have a little joke, whereby if someone says something unkind, then the other one will usually say, “What kind of courager are you being?” It is always said with a smile and a wink, but it is a gentle correction and is a challenge to think, “Am I being an encourager or a discourager? Am I building up or am I tearing down?”

I know what type of courager (yes I know it’s not actually a word) I want to be. I want to be an intentionally encouraging person, someone that makes it their business to call out the gold in others. I think that intentionality is key in this as being encouraging can feel awkward and counter-cultural at the same time. I need to choose to move past that and encourage anyway, to look for and call out the gold in others.

Each of us has so much gold within us that we often don’t see. The knocks of life and hurtful things in our past can cloud our view of ourselves and we can stop seeing how amazing we are and who we have been made to be. Encouragement is a beautiful gift that we can offer one another and it is one that has the potential to set people free to be all that they were made to be.

So to each one of you reading this (and I don’t mean this for a blanket you, but each and every individual reading this), know that you are enough. Please hear the truth of that statement for yourself today. You have been made with amazing gifts and talents. You don’t need to strive to be anybody else. Be yourself. You are enough!

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Let’s be a people that look for the good and not the bad in others and actually tell one another what we see. It’s ok if that feels a little awkward and counter-cultural and it’s also ok if the person doesn’t accept the encouragement. Whether they want to hear positive things about themselves or not doesn’t really matter, they might have been so knocked down that they don’t know how to receive kindness.

Let’s embrace the awkward and do it anyway! Be kind anyway. Encourage anyway. What a beautiful gift!


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How pausing changed my life

Yesterday, the morning dawned bright and early with a little boy who did not want to go to school anymore and a baby who was cross for no discernible reason. My big boy had decided that he only wanted to attend school on the first and last day of each term and my little boy had just decided that he would be cross and so cross he was! The house was a total disaster area and as I woke up still tired after a full on few days the day loomed long and hot and sticky before me. Joel was due to be working late and I was only expecting him home at about 10pm and so as the day began I felt the misery levels rise at the prospect of a day filled with housework and crying children. Especially the crying children! They are hard to deal with for a whole day.

As I said goodbye to Joel I very ungraciously bemoaned to him what I expected my day to look like. I was angling for some sympathy and did receive some but not the bucket loads I felt I deserved! I begrudgingly waved him off at the tube station and trudged home muttering to myself about how lucky he was to be leaving the mess and the crying for a whole day.

As I got home from the school run I realised that I needed to make a choice about how this day was going to go down. I knew that I wouldn’t get through the day in any manner of which I would be proud without a reality check and an attitude adjustment. I seriously needed some perspective.

There is only one way that I know that consistently helps me find perspective and so I parked all the chores and stopped, sat and let my heart be still.

For me what that looks like is turning on some music (United Pursuit is my choice of the moment – I have put a link to my favourite of their songs below), reading some scripture and pouring my heart out in my journal or just sitting quietly and praying or letting the music wash over me.

So this is what I did. I sat on the floor, in amongst the baby biscuit crumbs and Happyland people with a small little guy crawling around and using my legs and a climbing frame and I paused. I rested and poured my heart out and let beautiful music wash over me and I read some truth and it began to restore my soul and melt my hardened heart. As I wrote and thought and prayed my perspective began to be realigned.

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I was able to give thanks for the mess in the house as it was mostly generated preparing for the funeral of Joel’s lovely Nan who passed away last week at the age of 95. Her funeral and celebration of her life had been the day before and as part of the celebration we all baked the food that she had been renowned for. The mess was as a result of honouring the life of a wonderful woman and I think that is a mess worth having!

As I paused I had some really special time with my little guy, playing next to me on the floor. And I was more able to enjoy his clinginess as it meant extra cuddles (which I don’t get as many of anymore now that he can crawl).

As I rested and stilled my heart I was able to give thanks for our lovely home and that it is filled with love and laughter.  

My perspective was truly realigned. What a sweet gift!

These times of pause are always sweet but it they are never perfect and are frequently interrupted. Most often, at this point in my life, these times happen on the floor. Sometimes they are cut short with a knock at the door or a baby that cries. Sometimes they are very short and sometimes I get the luxury of a longer pause.

But in spite of their imperfections these times are sweet and sacred and vital and they are without a doubt a completely key part of my day

I have learnt to embrace the mess and the imperfection of these times and not to worry about them. In the past I would only have “quiet time” if I felt that I had enough time, could go somewhere quiet, had the correct pens for my journal etc etc. The list of restrictions I put on myself were extensive and as a result the times I had were limited and I felt frustrated if they weren’t quite right.

These days if I imposed any of these sorts of restrictions it would mean that these times would literally never happen. I now snatch them on my own or with my little ones at my feet. The housework can wait 10 minutes. It will still be there, believe me!!!

Yesterday, more than ever I was reminded of the huge value of coming away from the frenetic pace of life and pausing for a few minutes with God. It is a beautiful, humbling and perspective altering choice and it can truly transform the shape and trajectory of each day.

What a beautiful thing to begin the day with a thankful heart and a peaceful soul and it is my prayer that even in the chaos and mess of life that we all make moments to be still, to allow our souls to be restored and to rest with Him each day.

 

 


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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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There is always room at the table

Last week was my birthday! I turned 33. Woo hoo!! The day was mostly spent at home in quarantine as my big boy had chickenpox which we had only discovered the previous afternoon via a high fever and lone spot behind his right ear (in spite of him complaining in the morning that he had a bump on his back, which I informed him was just his spine and packed him off to nursery – oops!)

One of my birthday gifts from my sister and brother-in-law was a voucher to a local art supply shop. I was so thrilled to receive it and in the afternoon of my birthday my mum looked after the boys for a few hours so Joel and I could head into Kingston to run a few errands and of course to go and spend my art shop vouchers!!

I browsed and browsed for ages and finally settled on some watercolour brush pens (with a cartridge you fill with water and then use with paints), a set of 6 fine liners and a pad of watercolour paper.

As soon as I returned home I had buyer’s remorse about the watercolour brush pens. Were they actually any good or just an expensive gimmick? Surely a paintbrush would be as good? Should I just take them back and get something else?

The next day, I decided to give them a try and boy was I wrong! They are brilliant! I absolutely love them and I have been sitting at the dining room table doodling whatever pithy (or indeed not so pithy) quotes I can think of for the past week. What a joy!

This week as I was spending some quiet time alone I was reading a Bible story about a great banquet. After I read this story the phrase “there is always room at the table” came into my mind and so I doodled it (with one of my new fine liner pens!) in my journal.

As the week has passed and I have found myself sitting at my dining table, this phrase keeps coming into my mind… ‘there is ALWAYS room at the table’ and I have doodled it with my watercolour brush pens over and over thinking about its meaning.

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Last year I bought a 12 seater dining room table on a Facebook buying site for £10. It was the bargain of the year for me and even though it was in a pretty bad way I was so pleased with it. Over a weekend I sanded it, made a stencil then painstakingly stencilled a herringbone pattern onto it, stained it and varnished it and after it was complete I was absolutely over the moon with the results.

My table has a sort of uneven patina (as a result of the damage to the wood before I started) that I absolutely love. I love the herringbone pattern and how it looks like an inlay even though it is just paint. But most of all I love the size of the table. It is big! It can comfortably seat 12 although we have squeezed 14 round it once! The size is so wonderful because I love doing life with people around the table. There is something special about sharing a meal with others and I love welcoming people into my home. The size means that there is pretty much ALWAYS room at my table.

This got me thinking that even though practically this is the case I hope that people know that there is really ALWAYS room for them at my table. I want my table and my home to always be marked by love for others no matter who they are, by an open door and a warm welcome, and real life shared around the table. And I want my table to be a symbol for how there is ALWAYS room for us at God’s table, no matter who we are, whether we think we are worthy or not, he welcomes us in just as we are. He longs to do life with us and hang out round his table and that is a truly amazing thing.

Come and visit me sometime! I’d love to show you my dining room table and do life with you round it. There is always room.


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Farewell Kara Tippetts

Yesterday, this world lost a beautiful soul. Her name was Kara Tippetts. She was 38 years old.

I didn’t know Kara. We had never met. She lived on the other side of the pond, in Colorado, USA. Although I didn’t know her she allowed me into her world through her beautiful blog, Mundane Faithfulness. I first encountered her writing late last year when she wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard, the young lady who chose to end her life due to a terminal brain cancer diagnosis.

I started reading Kara’s blog regularly, and despite our thoughts on suffering being a little different, over and over again I found myself moved, encouraged and challenged. Even the blog’s title spoke straight to my heart as through my own cancer journey I found myself valuing faithfulness more and more as even when I had nothing to give, I could be faithful with what I had. I could be faithful in the mundane parts of life. This was all that I could offer.

Through the blog and a few short videos I watched Kara come to terms with the fact that she was dying with amazing dignity and grace and it was a privilege to witness this from a distance.

I think that one of the reasons that Kara’s life captivated me so was that, other than geography, many of our circumstances were really similar… We were both diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, both mums of young children, both married to pastors with a heart for church planting, both desperate to stay on Earth… not afraid to die, but not ready to leave either… Kara described how she felt about dying as feeling like a little girl at a party whose Dad had come to get her early. She was so upset about it as she just wasn’t ready to leave. It was too soon…

And so today my heart aches. Why is it that I am well and thriving and she has left this world? Why is it that tomorrow I get to celebrate another birthday but she won’t get to celebrate again? Why is it that tomorrow I get to cuddle my baby and walk hand in hand with my guy and she doesn’t anymore?

I don’t know.

I don’t know why she was taken so soon and I was given more time.

I will never know.

But, I am so thankful for the life she had. She lived it well. It was so evident that it was full of love, friendship, grace, forgiveness, peace and kindness. She ran the race well and was faithful to the end.

Yet again, I am reminded that life is short and life is precious. As I enter my 33rd year I rejoice in growing a little older as it means I am still here! I am still at the party. This year, more than ever I choose to live my life well.

Farewell, Kara Tippetts. You blessed more people than you will ever know.