Category Archives: Surviving Tough Times

The Art of Balancing Oranges

Ever played the orange-balancing game?  Players see how many oranges (or in this case mandarins) they can stack on a tea-plate, then try to stand up, turn around and sit down without dropping any.  It’s trickier than you might imagine.

Sometimes my life feels a lot like this.  There are so many oranges: so many things yelling for my urgent attention, so many people that need me to do something, or be somewhere, or find their shoes…

There are days when I think that if someone tries to balance one more orange on top of the pile (just one more) I might yell, throw the whole lot up into the air and storm away to some imaginary place of peace (maybe some arid place where no-one has ever even seen an orange).

I don’t of course, I just keep on balancing and dropping… And avoiding people who might have oranges in their pockets that they want me to carry.

I’ve slowly learned over the years that it helps to pray about things.  So I was moaning to God the other day about all the problems and worries and things to do (he called some of them blessings and opportunities, but I wasn’t in a totally positive frame of mind) and telling him how I really needed FEWER oranges thank you very much, or I couldn’t be held responsible for the mess I was going to make on the pavement, when he suddenly stilled my heart and whispered a word of great wisdom and encouragement:

 

“Get a bigger plate”

 

“There are bigger plates?” I asked incredulously, “I hadn’t thought of that

So it’s led me to a lot of thinking this week about what ‘plates’ might be made of, and how you could go about growing yours to fit your needs.  And my thoughts are, in no particular order:

  1. Take care of yourself.  Mentally, and physically, as much as you are able.  It makes a difference.  I hesitate to say this, given the shape I’m currently in, but it really is true that exercise gives you more energy. I don’t know how exactly, but I get more done on days I’ve made it to the gym. Invest time into your  mental health too, play, create things, get enough sleep, drink more water.  All of these things grow plates.
  2. Take care of yourself spiritually too. Pray! Walk as closely to Jesus as you can, not as far away as you can get away with, take time in God’s presence every day, even if it’s just a little bit.
  3. Choose wisely. Ask for wisdom so that you can make good choices and walk in them.  Don’t try to be superman, or superwoman, supermum, superdad or superpastor. If you don’t get what I mean by that please read this.
  4. Finally, grow your faith.  Faith is like water that goes granite-hard just as you step out onto it.  It gets stronger, wider and more weight-bearing the more you use it. If you never step out onto the water, maybe you’ll never get to learn that it can take your weight?

 

I pray that if you are balancing oranges, you’ll find ways to grow a bigger plate.  That your current burden would become a breeze to balance, and that you would be able to learn to let Jesus take responsibility for the weight.  I pray also for those days when oranges fall, that you would be enveloped in a grace that enables you to trust our Good Father -the ultimate expert fruit-catcher.

Hope

Hope /həʊp/:  n.  An optimistic attitude of mind, based on the expectation of positive outcomes.

It seems appropriate that at the start of thew new year I’m sitting here facing the challenge, emptiness and possibilities of a blank page.  It’s the calm before the storm of school, activities, study and work beginning again, and 2017 is still an empty blog post, a ticking cursor, waiting for me to get on and write something on it.

As you know, life isn’t all mountain tops.  Sometimes it’s deep difficult valleys, and a lot of 2016 was a struggle.  I didn’t write much.  It’s hard to write about lessons you’re still in the middle of learning and in the valley you don’t much feel like stopping to think about the view.

Actually, in the valley you mostly focus on trying to keep your face out of the rain and keep walking.  Sometimes victory is just staying upright and limping on.   But, even if you aren’t really aware of it, in the valley, truth takes root,  hope buds, new things grow.

This year God has been nudging to me to start writing postcards for people walking through valleys and wildernesses; Postcards of hope.  Not the watery hope that we often hear about: longed for, but not really expected, but solid hope. Hope which is the optimism that grows out of what we know in our hearts is coming.

Here is the first, a picture that some of you will recognise.  It’s mostly a wilderness, a blank, unexplored space.  It’s both terrifyingly empty and brimming with potential and  sometimes just what God needs in our lives.  Often he creates it, clearing the land of what has gone before to ready it for a new crop. In other times he comes and breathes new life into a space that has been created by a loss that he too wept over.

wilderness

Either way, if you’re facing a wilderness, it’s time to look for the new thing God is growing.  Whatever it is might take a while to bear fruit (and you might need some time to  rest and sit and watch it grow), although you should remember that even the dead wood of Aaron’s staff budded, blossomed and bore fruit all on the same day, so at the right time, when God does move, things might happen more quickly than you think!

I know not all of you are walking in valleys right now. Most of our lives are a patchwork of struggles and dancing, with blessing found in parts of both. But I trust that some of you on the mountains might help these postcards find their way to our sisters and brothers in the valleys and perhaps store up some of the truths for the day you do need them yourselves.


And thank you, to all of you who have encouraged me to begin again, to all of you who have shared postcards, who have bought the book and given it away, who have written to tell me how God has used my pictures to speak into your hearts, and who are still here reading in spite of the months of silence.  I wouldn’t have made it back here without you.

Ellie x

Liquid words

It means so much to be heard, to be understood.

Last week I took my youngest daughter to see the cinema to see the new Roald Dahl film the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). We both loved it. Katie declared that even without the 3D glasses and hatbox of popcorn it would have been brilliant. high praise indeed.

One scene from the movie really touched my heart. The little girl, Sophie, asks the Big Friendly Giant why he had chosen to rescue her from the orphanage and he replies,

“because I hears your lonely heart in all the secret whisperings of the world”

It is so wonderful to be heard and understood. How much more wonderful to know that even those echoes in your heart that have never made it into words are heard by someone, treasured by someone.

And Roald Dahl was right, someone is listening.

I had already scribbled these words in teardrops in my sketchbook when someone quoted this verse from the passion translation of Psalm 39:

Lord you know all my desires and deepest longings. My tears are liquid words and you can read them all.

The message of this postcard is simply that God hears. He is listening to the whisperings of the hearts of his people. He hears your sadness and your joy, your despair and your hope. He hears your faith and love, confusion and questions, celebrations and disappointments, your anger and your tears.

He has searched your heart thoroughly, knows you completely and loves you fiercely.

He hears.

The monster under the bed

In the half-light of my smallest child’s bedroom, lit only by a glowing IKEA nightlight, almost anything can look like a monster.

The only cure is to call for monster-fighting Mummy, who comes wielding a mightiest of monster beating weapons: The light switch

One flick of the switch and the evil monster that lurks beneath the bed is shown up for the what he really is… A pile of tennis balls, a broken doll, that long lost trainer and an abandoned sweatshirt.

I felt just like this the other day when troubled by a decision I’d made, and desperately worried it was the wrong one. I went for coffee with a friend and poured out all my concerns, all the reasons behind my decision, and my fears for the future. Then God used my friend to shine some light on my situation, to reveal that things weren’t quite as I had understood them to be, that there was hope. She turned on the lights and the monster wasn’t quite the monster I had thought it was.

One of the prayers I’ve been taught to pray a lot is to ask God to shine his light into the situations I’m facing. This picture reminds me of just what a powerful prayer that can be. So often our ‘monsters’ turn out to be less unpleasant than we feared.

Of course, not everything is a pile of shoes… there are sometimes real live terrifying monsters lurking in our lives. But God’s light switch will always show them up to be smaller than they have become in your imagination.

More importantly, it will light up the strands that cannot be seen in the darkness, that powerful hope that is anchored in Jesus:
the monsters are temporary, but the love, peace and joy of his presence will be eternal.

You go before me

I’m back, did you miss me?

Sorry I’ve been quiet lately.

Sometimes life can be like a stage in a car rally: racing through winding country roads much faster than is comfortable.   The driver clings to the wheel as twists and turns come up on the road ahead, swerving past, over and sometimes through obstacles. All at breakneck speed.

Some of the countryside is beautiful, but it mostly just streams past the windows while you try to focus on the bit of road in front of you and wonder what’s around the next corner.

 

As I painted this picture God spoke to me about three things:

1. Life isn’t a long, straight, easy highway all the way.

Not for anyone.

There are unexpected twists and turns, hazards and dead ends, and sometimes places where you have no idea which is the way ahead.  (There is also occasionally a patch of breathtaking scenery, which you might never have seen if you’d gone an easier way.)

My momentary struggles aren’t a punishment for something I did, or even, necessarily, a result of my bad choices.  They’re normal life.  Whatever Facebook might be telling you, no-one has it completely easy all the time.  It’s tough, but it helps to admit that, to realise that you or your family aren’t the odd ones out here.

2. I’m not in this race alone

Each driver in a rally has a co-driver who has studied the course and made notes about where the turns are.  All the way through the race the co-driver calls out that it’s time to turn to the left or right.  They’ve already worked out a route past any obstacles, seen where it’s necessary to brake hard and are aware of what’s coming up around the next corner, and the next one.

The driver would do well to listen carefully.

Jesus is the one who goes before me.  He’s the one who knows the route through the field of boulders, in and out of the winding lanes  or wherever else we end up.  In fact he’s the only one who can navigate us through it.

Of course, I do have to listen.  And when you’re stressed out and under pressure listening doesn’t always come easily.  But it does seem to be possible to choose it. I’m trying.

3. There’s a roll cage

Sometimes we try to reassure ourselves that God will make sure no bad things happen to us if only we follow him and have faith in him. Perhaps the reverse is actually true?  I wonder if a deeper faith lies in a place where bad things happen and yet still we follow him.  I’ve watched faith-filled people experience the worst and yet survive with their faith mostly in tact. God is also our roll cage.

It was only as I painted this picture from one I found online that I noticed the roll cage in the car.  The worst might happen, but the team can survive it.

 

 

 

 

 

When I’m with you

It’s not so much a picture that’s captured my attention this week as a song that I keep hearing.  My car radio is broken – stuck on the local forces radio station and a DJ with a fairly limited playlist, so I keep hearing the same songs over and over.  This week’s favourite is a song written by a girl for her best friend – it has some pretty dubious lyrics, but there’s one line that sends powerful echoes through my soul every time I hear it :

“When I’m with you, I’m standing with an army”

Isn’t that awesome?  When I’m with you I’m standing with an army.  When I’m with you I can face anything because I know I’m not facing it alone.  When I’m with you I can be brave and courageous, because I know I have back-up, I know someone is covering my back.

When I’m with you, I’m standing with an army

It’s a statement of faith, a statement that slices through fear. And better than that, in Christ, it’s actually true:  One of the names of God that describes who he is and what he is like is ‘The Lord of Hosts’.  It’s used more than 200 times in the Old Testament, is sometimes translated ‘Almighty’ and means that God has ultimate power over all created things, including the mighty angelic host of heaven.

The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Psalm 46:1 NRSV

What a beautiful, awesome verse.  Pause with it for a moment.  Read it again, drink it in..

God is a both a refuge- somewhere you can run to and be safe- and the leader of a mighty army who will fight alongside you. He is your shield and the sword at your right hand. He will defend you and he will fight for you.  He is with you and when he is with you there is a whole host of heaven that stands with you too.

 

Are you fighting a battle?

Sometimes it feels like I’m fighting several skirmishes on several different fronts.  It’s tiring and painful and I easily forget the mighty army that stands with me and fights alongside me. I often make the mistake of thinking that I’m fighting my battles alone.

Sometimes the reality is harder to see than the deception.

And yet this is the truth:

When Jesus is with me, I’m standing with an army.

 

 

 

 

 

Squeezed

Ever feel like you’re being squeezed by life?  Yes. Me too.  Today I feel squeezed by little things and big things, important things and unimportant things. Things that need to be done right now, things that needed to be done yesterday and things that I have no idea how to do. All building up and squeezing away.  If you feel a bit like that this postcard might be for you too…

I’ve had the picture of an accordion in my head for a couple of days now.  It’s funny how different instruments or pieces of music can tug at a memory or make an association for us even if we’re not entirely sure why. For some reason when I picture an accordion I always hear the tune of ‘the Old Rugged Cross’ or ‘How Great thou Art‘ playing in my head.   I can probably blame my grandfather, Reg, for that as I’m told he played a concertina (similar to this) enthusiastically and rather badly for most of his adult life and apparently those hymns were in his repertoire.

I’ve found out today that this family of instruments, also called ‘squeezeboxes’, all work by compressing air with bellows and then forcing it over reeds. The reeds vibrate at different pitches creating the sound that we hear.  Depending on the combination of keys and buttons pressed by the player, the air can be forced over several reeds at once so harmonies, chords and a bass line can all be played at once.  The more pressure is created by the air, the more notes can be played loudly at the same time.

Pressure and worship.

You probably can’t avoid pressure in life, (and it probably wouldn’t be good for you if you did). But like this accordion player: you do have the choice about what you do with it.  On a squeezebox you can make an awful cacophony… or by pressing the right buttons you can turn that pressure into worship.  It still might not sound all that beautiful to listen to: but it will be worship.

My favourite example of this is Psalm 22. It begins with David under pressure and wondering why he’s been abandoned. His description of his circumstances is pretty colourful but my attention is caught today by this line: ‘My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs’ (Psalm 22:16 NLT).  I know that feeling. As though a hundred little things, and one or two really big things are snapping away at my heels. Stressful, painful, tiring, everyday pressure. And yet David seems to manage to choose to turn that pressure into worship. A few lines later he declares:  ‘All who seek the Lord will praise him, their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy’ (22:26).

Of course you can’t just pick up an Accordion and instantly know how to use it.  You have to learn, and then you have to practise.  But it’s a challenge isn’t it?  To take whatever is causing stress, pain or pressure in your life and choose to learn how to turn that pressure it into worship.

 

accordion

 

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In amongst all the everyday stresses something rather wonderful happened this week. Postcards from Heaven – The Book was published on January 22nd.  Already I’m hearing stories of God speaking life and grace into people’s hearts who have received a copy as a gift. So a huge thank you to those of you who have bought it and given it away!

If you haven’t got one yet:

If you’re in the UK I recommend getting a copy direct from the publisher here

or those of you in the US or Australia can buy a copy here

If you’ve already read the book and  it would be really helpful if you have time to find the book on Amazon or Waterstones and write a review!  Thanks

 

 

 

 

Shaken?

My smallest girl was so excited yesterday unwrapping our Christmas snow globes.  She gave each one a little shake before she found a place for them on the bookshelf and watched the swirl of white glitter surround the figures within.

This time of year is a bit like living in a shaken snow globe.  All the busyness of school plays and concerts, shopping, cooking and trying to get everything done is like a huge swirl of glitter celebrating yet surrounding and sometimes obscuring the message at its heart.

At the centre of my advent snowglobe there’s the extraordinary miracle of a newborn king laid in a manger, Almighty God constrained in weakness, a world changed forever.  I desperately want to celebrate it, to marvel with the shepherds at the miracle of the incarnation, to be soaked in the reality of God-with-us.

And yet there are days when all I can see is the snow, and however hard I try I can barely make out the outline of the new parents cradling my lord and my saviour. This postcard is exactly where I’ve been for the last few weeks, struggling to get a glimpse of Jesus through the snowstorm.

When I started to pray about this picture I was certain that God was going to talk to me about finding stillness,  about making space for the glitter to settle so that I can see clearly.  And that would no doubt be a great plan.  But I was wrong, he wanted to say something quite different –

 Know

Just know it.  Even when you can’t see it, know that he is there, at the very centre.

The shaking of our snow globes doesn’t remove the figures inside, just obscures them.

Know

This Christmas, even when you can’t see for glitter, know that he did invade the world that he created.  Know that he brought his Kingdom to Earth and that, in spite of all appearances, the increase of his government and peace will not end.

Know

Know that however much the snow globe of your life is shaken, and by whatever means, he will still be there. Even when it feels as though the world has been turned upside down and the storm is at its most suffocating – nothing has changed… he is still there.

And it is possible to reach out through the storm or the glitter and catch hold of him, not seeing perhaps, but touching the miracle of the God who loved us and came to pitch his tent among us.

He is still there

God with us.

 

 

 

 

Three Bears’ Prayers

I was in a prayer meeting one morning last week with a few other Mums from the girls’ school.  We pray for a lot of different things in that meeting, from strength for the teachers to protection from illness to air conditioners lasting for one more season. But at this point we’d been talking about how hard the middle school years can be and were praying together especially for the christian kids in year 7, 8 and 9.

A prayer was forming in my head along the lines of the kids surviving those years with their faith intact when next to me my friend Shannon started praying for something altogether bigger and more beautiful.  She prayed that each of those kids would grow to have their sense of identity, of self, so grounded in their identity in Christ that they would be immune to the pressure to be anyone or anything else.   Wow! Even as I write it again I can feel my faith stretching.  How great would that be?

As I sat there in the prayer meeting and felt my faith grow and expand to fit the bigger vision of Shannon’s prayer I thought to myself, ‘we just went up a size’.

It felt as if Shannon had prayed a big brother prayer to the one in my head.  Not one that was more important, but one that stretched my faith to the next size up.

And just in that moment, this postcard popped into my head, with the words:

‘Now go for the Daddy Bear Prayer’.

For once, I understood exactly what God was saying to me – Baby Bear has a little bowl, a little chair and a little bed; Mummy Bear’s things are middle-sized; but Daddy Bear’s bowl is huge, his chair is huge and his bed is huge – so, a Daddy Bear prayer must be huge.

Sometimes we need to get hold of our faith and pull at it until it fits something bigger.  Fortunately, faith is stretchy and it grows when it’s under tension like skin for a skin-graft.  So I asked myself, ‘what would be a huge, faith-stretching prayer to pray for our year 7-9s look like?

So, I let my faith spread out a bit and I prayed that they would be not only protected, with their identity rooted in Christ, but that they would become equipped and empassioned for mission, transforming the culture they live in, seeing their friends and teachers come to faith, changing their world. Not individual beaten-up survivors but a strong united victorious army.

Now that, for our little beleaguered bunch of Christian kids, is a faith-expanding prayer… I’m so going to keep on praying it.

The point of this postcard wasn’t to get you to pray for middle-schoolers (although please do, they need all they can get, bless them), but to ask you, ‘What are the three bears prayers for your situation?’

What’s the little prayer that is easiest to pray?

What’s the medium sized prayer that stretches out your faith?

And what’s the massive Daddy-Bear-Prayer that your faith only covers a corner of, but which puts it under the tension it needs to spread out and grow?

Write them down now, then get out your faith, give it a stretch and pray some big prayers into your situation, and into others’ situations.

Let’s release a volley of Daddy-Bear-prayers and see what our faithful God might do.

Dust days

I glanced out of the window at church on Sunday morning and realised we can see the mountains again.

The beautiful Kyrenia mountains are the permanent backdrop to life in this city.   If I get lost (which still happens even after four years here) I look for the mountains to get my bearings; when we’ve been away, the sight of them makes me feel I’m home.

The sky in Cyprus is nearly always blue, so we can usually see those mountains as clearly as can be.  Occasionally we have some haze or cloud so they are harder to make out, or even partly covered – but it’s always obvious where they are.

Last week though, an extraordinary cloud of dust descended on the city and we could barely see the buildings down the street let alone a range of mountains 11 miles away.  For almost a week, our mountains were completely hidden.

In life there are days when the sky is clear, when you can see God’s face as clearly as your own reflection in a mirror.  In my experience there are many more days where it’s cloudy or misty, and you struggle a bit to be aware of his presence or hear his voice.  And then, every once in a while there are thick dust days.

No-one has a relationship with God that is easy-breezy mountain-top-experience all the time.  Everyone has misty seasons and even thick, thick dust days where it’s hard to breathe and harder to see.

On Sunday morning, as I was struggling to worship after my stressy week of sick children, overdue speeding tickets, broken down cars and general tiredness; feeling guilty and confused because I just couldn’t feel God’s presence as clearly as usual (or as much as everyone else in the room seemed to) I looked up and realised I could see the mountains.

And I heard him whisper:

“Look at those mountains…

Was there one moment, in all of the week that you couldn’t see them, or in any of the times when they’ve been partly hidden from you, has there ever been a moment when you’ve doubted that they were there?”

(And of course, I never have. Mountains don’t just cease to exist because I can’t see them. I have faith in the existence of those mountains!)

“Well then,” he said, “trust me that I am here, whether you can see me or not – you just have to turn to where you know I am, keep walking towards me, and wait for it to rain”

So I’m doing that my friends.  I’m turning to where God is, because I know he’s there, even when the outline of his face is tricky to make out.  I’m declaring to my heart that he is where he has always been.  And it seems to me that this isn’t lack of faith – it’s faith made solid, faith you can walk on.

‘Faith is being sure of what you hope for, and certain of what you cannot see’

If you’re walking blindly towards where you know God is just now, my heart is with you.  Take courage. One day it will rain, the dust will be washed away and your view will be clear again. Until then – He is still with you.