O Little Town of Bethlehem

I love Christmas Carols, singing them and hearing them. Being brought up in The Salvation Army I was playing them on a brass instrument in the streets every Saturday from a young age. There are joyful carols, triumphant carols, sad sounding carols, beautiful soul moving carols and really odd ones where you’re not quite sure what they are on about!

Today I just wanted to share with you why one particular Christmas Carol is on my favourite list.

My dad died two months before my 20th birthday. Many of my memories of him have already faded far more than I would like. But strongly etched into my heart and mind is his sense of humour and fun, his questioning mind and his faith and trust in God.

I remember one Carol service giggling with him about some of the verses in different carols. We decided that Once in Royal David’s City was a propaganda song designed to make children behave! We also puzzled over the words of O Little Town of Bethlehem and how daft some of them seemed…

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Bethlehem was apparently so packed with people that Mary and Joseph couldn’t find anywhere other than a cattle shed to sleep for the night. It doesn’t seem too likely that it would be lying that still and sleeping deeply. The town would have been full of hustle and bustle. And as a kid the concept of the stars moving across the sky seemed like it was out of Fantasia or another Disney offering.

O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to all the earth;
For Christ is born of Mary;
And, gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wond’ring love.

This all seems fairly sensible…

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven:
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him – still
The dear Christ enters in.

But at this verse Phillips Brooke’s seems to have lost all his senses…. He clearly had never been present or in close vicinity of a birth if he thinks that Jesus arrived silently. I’m sorry, but as amazing as Mary was in her faith of what God could accomplish in and through her, I struggle to accept that she didn’t make a single peep through all her contractions, that at that moment of birth as she felt like her body was going to rip apart she didn’t make a sound. We’re also meant to believe that baby Jesus didn’t cry at all? Yes he was divine, but he was fully human and I suspect that he knew he had to make himself heard when he was hungry, cold, wanted a cuddle or dare we actually mention it… pooed in his swaddling clothes.

But over the years I have become very fond of this Carol and not just because of nostalgic memories of giggling with my dad.

When I worked weekend nights for the Ambulance Service the 999 calls would flood in through the evening and still be going strong at 2, even 3 in the morning. A busy control room is a fairly noisy place, people taking calls, speaking to ambulance crews, liaising with hospitals and other emergency services, negotiating with each other over limited resources as well as various dispatch alarms and radio calls demanding attention. As shift manager you’re trying to keep an ear and eye on all that is happening. But generally by 3.30am things would start to quieten down and for about 90 minutes or so there would be some respite. The team could take it in turns to step outside and get a breath of fresh air. You’re aware that most of the world around you is in fast asleep. It won’t be long before the sky starts to lighten and the birds begin to sing but in that moment there’s a stillness, a space to take a breath.

It’s that sort of moment that I can now imagine in the first verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem. However busy that town would have been, however late the visitors stayed up drinking and chatting and sharing stories there would have come a moment, somewhere before dawn, when the hubbub would have died down and there would have been a peace and stillness, all the more marked by the contrast of the evening before.

As a grown up I now understand the science of stars seemingly moving across the sky but I’m also struck by the symbolism of those stars. They have been tracking their course across the sky, night after night, for thousands of years and now witness to a cosmic moment where all of humanities hopes and fears would collide at a specific place and time that would change the course of history as a baby was born.

Having given birth to two largish babes, I’m still pretty unconvinced by the notion that Jesus arrived on this planet in such a manner that no one could hear his arrival. However I remember so very clearly those early moments; the noise and adrenaline of the birth is over, little one has fed and fallen asleep. There is such a precious peace, filled with immense wonder that this perfect little being is here. It is this moment I now call to mind when we sing, ‘How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.’

God seems to have a habit of defying expectations, delivering his love and generosity in surprising and unexpected ways. He became Emmanuel – ‘God with Us’ – in a ridiculously understated way; hthe arrival of another baby into the world, something that happens many many times every day. And yet that birth and the implications it has for all of humanity has been told in paintings, stories, plays and songs for hundreds of years inspiring wonder and hope, tears and laughter.

O holy child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today!
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell –
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.

Every year as we sing carols such as O Little Town of Bethlehem we’re invited to enter into and become part of that eternal story. We’re invited to to lay bare all our hopes and fears and receive the blessings of heaven into our hearts; we’re invited to receive the opportunity to be cleansed of the wrong in our past and to sing with the angels with joy from the bottom of our hearts as we embrace the truth that a precious baby came to turn our world upside down.

Jesus – Emmanuel – God With Us.

A Rebellious Audacious Hope

I was talking with my friend the other day about her recent visit to The Imperial War Museum in London. She’d only managed to make a brief visit but the exhibition on The Holocaust had made a significant impression. We commented that only making a brief visit was perhaps not so bad, as the enormity and reality of what this museum tells us about humanities capacity to hurt each other could be completely overwhelming.

We went on to chat about how, despite its sombering nature, studying our darkest history is so important in order to help us change the future for the better. And yet we also felt a strong sense that despite opportunities to learn from our past, humanity has a tendency to repeat its mistakes. We could point to events taking place in the world and observe that aspects of it appear very similar to something that has gone on before. It can feel quite demoralising.

We had to remind ourselves that history, and ‘The News’ often doesn’t record, report or celebrate the positives of the human race to the same degree as the bad stuff. And yet it can be found, even admist such horrific accounts as that of The Holocaust can be found stories of hope, sacrifice, bravery and faith.

I’ve been reading Barak Obama’s book The Promised Land. It’s a fascinating, if somewhat heavy going, account of how Obama came to run for President and the background to decisions that he made whilst in office. There are some really inspiring sections but mostly it again fills me with a strong sense of frustration, sadness and even anger that humans from individual level to nation states can be so selfish, violent and lacking in grace. In the face of this the fact that God thinks we are worth not only worth saving but also embracing in a loving relationship is just mind boggling.

However, within ‘The Promised Land’ there is also a fantastic phrase that has really caught my attention. The phrase is actually the title of a previous book, and a major political speech that Barak Obama wrote before becoming president but is also clearly an important value statement for the way he approaches his life and work – ‘The Audacity of Hope’.

The title of ‘The Audacity of Hope’ was inspired by the theme of a sermon entitled the ‘The Audacity to Hope’ by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright who in turn was inspired by a painting called ‘Hope’ by G F Watts. In essence these three men have all drawn on the deep hope that comes from a relationship with Jesus, a hope that audaciously says that despite experiences that might suggest otherwise, God is worth of praise, there is good in the world and change for the better is possible. When you have the audacity to hope then you are lifted from despondency and are also empowered to start being part of that positivity in the world we all so long for.

An inspiration to many around the world, including myself is singer-songwriter Nightbirde. I’ve referenced her before in my post ‘Living Life to the Full.’ Despite battling stage 4 breast cancer and living through some very dark times she has wrestled with God and found Him gracious; she has found a hope that she now shares with millions. She says,

Some people will call it blind denial, but I prefer to call it Rebellious Hope!

I love this phrase, ‘Rebellious Hope’ and I can totally see Jesus shouting ‘Yes! Love this! Bring it on!’

I also love what has also become another Nightbirde slogan:

Don’t you want to see what happens when you don’t give up?

When we refuse to give up working for good, seeking the health, wealth and happiness of others, aiming for the best and simply doing the right thing then our own lives and world begin to transform. When we refuse to give up and act with rebellious hope collectively then the impact can be significant.

But this kind of rebellious audacious hope can only be sustained when it is fed from a deep well.

Another amazing lady called Jo Hargreaves talks about rebellious hope beautifully in this Instagram post:

Check out Jo’s Instagram here

Advent is the period of the year we are now in; the run up to Christmas. It’s a period of preparation and waiting for the day when we celebrate one of the most rebellious audacious moments of hope – God coming to live with us, born into a tumultuous world as a vulnerable baby called Jesus. Thirty three years later that audacious rebellion took a surprising twist as seemingly hope was crucified with Jesus in an act of horrific torture. And yet hope rose from the grave because the hope that is God cannot be kept down, it cannot killed or buried.

It is that same rebellious audacious hope in Jesus that Watts, Wright, Obama, Nightbirde, JoHargreaves and so many many others all draw their strength and joy from, that gives them the strength to dig deep when the ‘lie of hopelessness’ threatens to disempower and disengage them and find a wellspring of hope that spills out to others.

This Advent amidst all the busyness; amidst the onslaught of ‘bad news’ I urge you take time to find Jesus in the manager and discover a rebellious audacious hope that can lift your head and transform not only your life but other people’s lives through you.

Let there be light!

I was born on the 21st of June; in the northern hemisphere it’s the summer solstice and the day of the year when we get the longest period of time between the sun rising and setting and the shortest hours of darkness. It’s also the date that signals that for the next six months the hours of daylight will get less and less each day. It’s not though until you get to the Autumn equinox on the 21st of September that you really start to notice the difference. On this date (and on the 21st of March) everyone in the world gets an equal number of hours of light and darkness! And from there on until the Winter solstice the hours of darkness are greater than those of daylight.

I’m not a big fan of the dark mornings and early nights I must say; maybe it’s because I was born into brightness. But there are two highlights that brighten up the darkness, quite literally – bonfire night and Christmas. I love bonfires, fireworks and Christmas lights. And I love the Winter Solstice because even though the hours of darkness are at their longest, from this day onwards every day gains extra minutes of daylight and the promise of spring is already in my mind.

Seeking and finding light in the darkness is so important. It’s about searching for and discovering a hope of brighter days to come. It’s about celebrating the truth that the dark cannot win. Introduce even the smallest candle flame and the darkness flees.

My husband and I have recently finished watching an excellent six part crime drama produced for the BBC called Vigil. It’s set in Scotland and on board a British nuclear submarine on deployment. As well as being a well crafted murder mystery story there are big questions raised (and not answered) about the need for and effectiveness of a nuclear deterrent. It’s also a stark reminder of the lack of trust between countries and the dangers humans pose to one another, a reminder that the world can be a very dark place.

If you pay even the slightest attention to ‘The News,’ the darkness really can close in around you as we are bombarded with stories of rape, murder, corruption, poverty, Covid-19, climate related disasters and more. If you’re like me then you probably find that to a certain extent you have to harden your heart, to avoid it taking you down emotionally and mentally. I read the news on my app to stay up to date but I mostly avoid allowing my emotions to engage.

I have to admit though, I’m not entirely comfortable with that approach to safeguarding myself. When we stop ourselves from engaging emotionally with the news then we effectively stop caring. And when we stop caring we’re unlikely to take action to bring about change, whether that be hands on action or by calling out to God in prayer. We stop believing that change is possible, that we can play a part in that change and that God is the God who overcomes the impossible, who brings light into even the darkest places.

It may be the darkness that you are facing is far more personal. Many people are struggling with things far closer to home; poor physical health, financial difficulties, aging parents, mental health struggles, the death of a loved one, bullying at work, shear volume of work, relationship breakdown. And we can become adept at hiding our pain and fear, sometimes even to those closest to us, making that darkness even more overwhelming.

In the midst of this dark reality I am so incredibly grateful that I am blessed with a spiritual faith through which light shines brightly. The theme of light, symbolising hope, truth, grace and redemption runs through the whole of The Bible; from the very first day of creation when God said, ‘Let there be light,’ to the very last two chapters of the last book where we read about the the things of darkness being banished forever and God being our direct source of light.

One well known passage about light in The Bible, traditionally heard at Christmas time, is from the book of Isaiah – a prophet speaking about Jesus many many years before he was born.

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” Isaiah‬ ‭9:2‬ ‭(New Living Translation)‬‬

What becomes clear throughout this Biblical epic of light overcoming the darkness is that the light which we so hungrily seek for is Jesus. I’m not generally big on starting Christmas too soon but for some reason this year my heart and soul are already longing for this season of lights in the darkness. I love the decorations, the present giving, the music, christmas pudding, brussel sprouts and I love driving the kids round town spotting all the Christmas lights. But I also love the message of light in the darkness that the Christmas story brings to us.

John talking about Jesus in his book of The Bible, calls him ‘The Word’ and says this:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
‭‭John‬ ‭1:1-5‬ ‭NIV‬‬

The truth that a miracle baby born to an unwed mother, laid down to sleep in a cattle trough because he was temporarily homeless and soon to be fleeing for his life as a political refugee could grow up to shine a light so bright that the darkness can never overcome it is a truth that brings hope to my soul. It’s a truth that allows me to face up to the darkness and give God the space to let his awesome light to shine out through me too.

So please forgive me for writing about Christmas already but with so much darkness about right now I’m going to keep seeking The Light and this part of Jesus’s story is where my thoughts are heading at the moment. With nine weeks to go to ‘the big day’ I’m sure this won’t be the last of my festive thoughts. 🎄🎄🎄

Valuing the undervalued.

Last week I had a visit to the dentist. It was for a filling; my third and final one since having my routine checkup appointment back in the summer and discovering the past two years had not been kind to my mouth. Past fillings were failing and needed replacing and the delay in being seen due to Covid restrictions meant they were worse than they would have been otherwise.

But I’m incredibly grateful I did manage to get up a checkup appointment and that the work has all been done on NHS terms. So many people can’t get an NHS dentist and the problem has got even worse since Covid came on the scene.

I’m also incredibly grateful that there are people who want to be dentists. It’s not a job I’d want to do, spending all day looking in people’s mouths. I know some private dentists probably earn a pretty good wage but I’m not sure even a decent amount of money could tempt me.

On a similar vein another vocation that I just don’t think I could do is podiatry. I have benefited hugely from people who work in this profession. My feet were once described by a podiatrist as ‘not well designed for walking,’ which is not great when they are such a key feature to our ability to walk!! I need custom made insoles to keep my feet stable and protect my big toe joints from further damage. I also needed the help of the podiatrists when I developed really bad ingrowing toenails after chemotherapy caused them to fall out. Eventually I had my big toenails permanently removed as I couldn’t face having to attend clinic every six weeks for them to cut my toenails for me! I’m so grateful to these people for looking after my feet but how they do there job day to day I just don’t know – some of the feet they must have to deal with just surely make even the most hardened podiatrist’s stomach turn.

I am very envious of people with beautiful manicured feet – something these toes will never be!

In fact the more I think about it, there are quite a number of jobs I’d prefer not to do and yet I’m super appreciative of the fact that there are people out there doing them. Many of these jobs are massively underpaid given the vital and important nature of what they do. I’m thinking of refuse collectors and carers of the elderly, of childcare workers and healthcare assistants, shop workers and hospital cleaners to name just a few.

When my niece was born the refuse collectors where my sister lived were on strike for 11 weeks. Eleven weeks worth of stinking rubbish built up outside people’s homes and for my sister that included a significant number of nappies. Sometimes it’s only when we no longer have access to a service that we really recognise just how important that service is.

Nearly all of these professions pay minimum wage and even if they pay more, it probably still doesn’t remotely reflect the value that we receive. I don’t think as a country we do very well at rewarding monetarily those that really do deserve far more than what we pay them.

It feels like there is something wrong when a Premier League Footballer can average a weekly wage of £61,024 (as reported in the 2019 Global Sports Salaries Annual Report), while a carer in an independent older persons carehome earns £344 (as reported by Skills for Care). Now I’m not saying footballers don’t deserve a decent wage, I’m not a big fan so I can’t really comment fairly. I’m sure football adds plenty of value to our country and many footballers are good people who do a lot for charity. But a decent carer, day in and day out, deals with some awful stuff whilst also smiling and trying to provide frail people with dignity and respect and I would argue should be on a far more comparable wage with a bloke who runs round a patch of very green grass kicking a ball.

I’m sure there’s plenty of other professions and salaries that I could be comparing. I suspect that someone could look at what I earn and claim that for what I do I’m rather well paid compared to the amazing ladies who look after my kids at nursery while I go to work. And somewhat annoyingly to some I’m not even going to start to propose a solution here in this blog.

But what I do want to do is just take a moment to stop, notice and simply acknowledge that I am deeply grateful to the people in my community, who undertake jobs that many of us don’t want to do and yet are so vitally important to our communities health, prosperity and wellbeing.

Politically I really don’t know where I belong. On some issues I find myself sitting in a left wing camp and in others I’m over to the right but for the most part I find myself in the middle ground because I find that the reality of life is far too complicated to be served by the ideologies of either camp that tends to present a polarised viewpoint. Over the past 42 years I’ve voted Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green and Independent depending on their policies at the time. In fact one election I voted one way for my MP and another way for my local counsellors! At the moment I struggle to know who is worth voting for and that causes me great sadness as I’ve been brought up believing in the importance of exercising my democratic right to vote.

However, while I am lost politically I am more than ever convinced that Jesus is the answer and the key to helping us value the undervalued. There’s a great passage in The Bible that is talking about how we need to equally value all the different spiritual gifts and roles that God calls us to within the church but what this passage has to say, I believe resonates strongly and has much to say for our communities and country as a whole and says it far better than me.

‭‭I therefore leave you with these words from 1 Corinthians‬ ‭12:12-26‬ ‭as paraphrased by a great man Eugene Peterson in ‘The Message’

“You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?

The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. You are Christ’s body – that is who you are!

Life in all its fullness

It was about this time seven years ago I found a lump in my right breast. It wasn’t mega obvious and you could only feel it if you put your hand in a certain position. So having chatted to Mike we decided to wait a couple of weeks and just see if it was some strange anomaly that would go away. When it didn’t I made a GP appointment and once she’d finally found what I was describing we chatted through all the benign things it could be. But thankfully she also followed the proper protocols and made a referral to the breast screening service.

Just a week later Mike and I attended my appointment. I had a mammogram and from there was asked to go straight into see the Consultant Radiographer for an ultrasound. He decided that he wanted to take biopsies there and then and that’s when we first started to think that actually this might be something serious. Oh my gosh – in the grand scheme of things the biopsy isn’t that bad but at the time it was pretty painful and continued to be so for some days! He then sent us straight round to the breast cancer clinic that was running to speak with a registrar there. He obviously wasn’t able to tell us much as we’d need to wait for the biopsy result but when we mentioned we were about to book a last minute holiday he strongly advised us to hold off for the moment…

As there was still a possibility that this was just a benign cyst we decided we didn’t want to tell family and have them worrying for nothing. Equally it felt important to not carry this alone so we called up some wise and dear friends who lived on the island. At this point we didn’t actually know them well but we knew they were very much friends with God and people we could trust. We took our dog for a walk and then went round to their house, had a cuppa and shared with them our news knowing they would be on the case with God about it.

And then the wait began.

It was only a week but that’s a long time for your brain to run through all the ‘what ifs’. It felt pointless worrying about something that might not even happen and yet you can’t help starting to wonder about all sorts of things. I found focussing on God, telling him my thoughts and then turning my mind to praising him ever so helpful. But increasingly I was sure of what the test results would show but didn’t feel panicked or desperate about it – I believe that was God responding to my prayers.

A week on from scans and biopsies we were back at the hospital, it was Friday, and this time seeing a consultant – the wonderful Mr Babu. He broke the news that ‘the lump’ was cancer and that he wanted to operate on the following Tuesday. The whirlwind began.

We phoned my mum pretty quickly as we knew she’d still be at work and we wanted her to hear the news when she would be with others who she could talk to. We then set off to a pub for lunch as we were starving and we just wanted to eat and do something semi normal while we processed what was happening. We tried to phone my sister enroute and oops – we managed to tell her I’d got cancer and then lost signal!!!

Surgery took place on the Tuesday, into hospital at 7.30am in the morning and home again at 9.30pm. And then we had to wait again…

A week and half later I’m sat topless in a waiting room and the lead consultant Mr Sainsbury’s swans into the room. He announces that the surgery had gone well, they had achieved clear margins around the cancer, there was no sign of spread into my lymph nodes and that my cancer had tested positive for hormone and protein receptors. I would be having chemotherapy, radiotherapy, herceptin and hormone therapy. I commented that I’d read that breast cancer can be more serious when you’re younger to which he replied – ‘you’re 35? That’s not young,’ and whoosh he was gone!!

Thankfully the clinical nurse specialists were great and spent time with us going through in more detail what we’d just been told. The cancer lump that I could only feel had been just over 2cm in diameter. It was a grade 3 cancer which meant it was aggressive and it had reached stage 3 which meant it had started to invade my local blood supply but there was no evidence of it having spread to other parts of my body. We had caught it in good time but the plan was to make sure that there was no rogue cancer cells hiding out waiting to re-emerge and try and take over.

A rough few months followed.

Chemotherapy was hard, three weekly cycles with new side effects emerging with each round. There’s a long list of side effects that you might or might not experience – I think I ticked off nearly every one. My veins just wouldn’t take the damage being done to them by the drugs so I had a Picc Line put in. I got a DVT as a result so had to start giving myself daily blood thinning injections. My hair fell out but it turned out I have quite a good skull shape and wigs were hot and scratchy so I mostly rocked the bald look.

Radiotherapy was in some ways much easier but hugely tiring with a five hour round trip, five days a week for four weeks. I’d been told that radiotherapy is tiring anyway but on the back of chemo it was much simpler but still tough.

The impact of Herceptin was hard to measure as it was initially given at the same time as my chemo and later doses you’re still living in the aftermath. The hormone treatment I really struggled with – it’s medication I should still be taking but in agreement with my oncologist I’ve stopped, balancing quality of life against extending it.

Seven years on I still have regular checks but I’ve finally been signed off by the consultants and oncologist and the cancer has not returned. Against the odds I’ve had two babies (see Two Little Boys) and the memory of just how tough that time was had faded considerably.

So then why am I recalling this painful time now. Two people though have given me cause recently to pause, recollect and reflect on the details of that time. Much has come flooding back – wow, I’d forgotten just how tough it was. But I’ve also become conscious once again how fortunate I am to be here today happy and healthy and with two children.

The first is a beautiful lady called Rachel who earlier this year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I have felt privileged to get to know Rachel a little during the past few months as we have messaged back and forth about her diagnosis and treatment. Despite undergoing a gruelling bi-weekly treatment regime, Rachel’s faith and belief in a God who is good and loves her shines through and inspires so many around her. My connection with Rachel has not only brought back many memories but has stirred in me again big questions around Gods ability and willingness to heal us physically. At some point I may have the courage and clarity of thought to write a blog post exploring my thoughts around healing!

Someone I’ve never met, but who has also given me much to reflect on, is a female singer called Nightbirde. Her name is Jane Marczewski and she’s been a contestant on America’s Got Talent. The clip of her audition in front of the judges went viral when her song and personal story and performance brought tears to Simon Cowell’s eyes and he pressed the golden buzzer to catapult her direct to the final. Check it out here.

Nightbirdes story and song have been so powerful to so many because she is a young woman living with metastatic breast cancer. It’s spread throughout her body and she’s been given a 2% chance of survival. But despite these minuscule odds and the impact of the treatment and disease that is attacking her body she shines positivity.

I think what has attracted so many people to Nightbirde is that this positivity doesn’t come from a place of denial, or gritted teeth determination (though I’m sure some days that must come into play) but is born in a real acknowledgment of how tough life can be combined with a decision to not wait for that to change but to embrace the joys that are present in the now. Even now as her physical condition takes a turn for the worse and she’s decided to pull out of AGT, something beautiful continues to shine through her. As so many people cast their eyes on the darkness of this world and in their own lives they are powerfully drawn to a story of hope, a story that offers light in that darkness.

You don’t have to look far to see where that beauty, hope and light comes from – Nightbirde would tell you herself – it comes from her relationship with God. That relationship is not dependent on Jane being healed in this world, though she fervently seeks that, her faith has been forged and proved in deepest darkness. Her blog ‘God is on the Bathroom Floor’ is so powerful – please do go and read it.

I’ve been so fortunate in my encounter with cancer, we found it early and I’ve made a pretty good recovery, I’ve not faced anything nearly as tough as Nightbirde or Rachel. However in the thick of it there were times of desperation, tears and wondering if we would get through it. However not once did I find myself questioning ‘why me?’ Or why as a Christian had God let this happen. I have never felt that being a Christian exempts you from the tough stuff of life.

A common misquote from the Bible is ‘the sun shines on the righteous,’ but Jesus actually says

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:45 NIV Bible

My faith in Jesus means I’ll encounter the same sorrows as anyone else. I don’t get an exemption certificate. But I do get to experience God’s Holy Spirit comforting and guiding me through the darkness. I do get to access His peace that passes all understanding. I do get the support and care of my church family. My faith reassures me that even if cancer takes my life on this earth that there is a new body and eternal life without pain and sorrow being prepared for me. My faith in Jesus means that even amidst the hardships of the present there is life in all its fullness on offer right now.

Carrot and Stick

We’ve just joined the Covid pandemic crowd of new puppy owners. To be fair having a dog isn’t a new thing for us. Until just over two years ago we had a choccie lab called Archie. Aged thirteen and a half he died when my youngest Toby was just three weeks old. With a fifteen month old and a baby life was full on and I still don’t feel we properly mourned his passing. However at various points we have acutely felt the lack of his presence with us and have really wanted to have a doggie as part of our family again. With two little people in the house no reputable dog rescue charity will rehome a canine with us and so we decided to take the plunge and get a puppy – something neither Mike or I have any experience with.

We have been recommended a really good book called Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy which has lots of training tips in it. The main premise is that praise is far more effective than chastisement. Positive reinforcement and encouragement for doing the right thing works far better than harsh words and admonishment for getting it wrong. So the idea is that if Harry wees in the house we make no comment – just clean it up throughly – but when he wees outside he gets lots of praise and treats. If Harry jumps up and bites we turn away and ignore him but when he sits calmly he gets lots of fuss and strokes.

It’s actually not dissimilar with young children. I’m not saying we just ignore their bad behaviour, we do deal with it but my two respond and behave better when we’re praising them for what they’re getting right. When we overreact to bad behaviour it does seem to exacerbate it.

I’ve been reflecting that actually as adults we’re not much different however much we’d like to think we’re all grown up and wouldn’t respond the same as a dog or toddler!

I’ve always found managing my weight a battle. A number of years ago my GP referred me to see a dietitian – at the time I was about fifteen and half stone. I went into the appointment positive but after being lectured for an hour on everything I must never eat again I was so depressed I came out, went to Greggs and bought a steak slice, a sausage roll and a cake and ate the lot – something I’d never normally do despite my weight at that time suggesting otherwise.

Not much longer after that I ended up at Slimming World. I was still given an eating regime but it allowed for treats and mess ups and it came with a big dose of encouragement, positive thinking, support and grace. I lost three stone at that time.

Earlier this year I had a telephone appointment with a specialist women’s health physio. She clearly knew her stuff and the advice she gave me made sense but her delivery of it was brutal. She made me cry and it felt what she was asking was going to be so hard to achieve. She took away a big achievement for me – running regularly – and basically told me that the condition I was in was a product of my own choices (to have children) and that if I wanted to change it then it was up to me to put in the hard work – if I didn’t then I’d have to expect to keep weeing myself.

Now I admit that every now and again we all might need a bit of tough love. But like dogs and toddlers I think we all respond better to encouragement and grace. A number of weeks later my physio assistant who has been working with me on exercises referred me for a face to face appointment with a different specialist physio so they could actually do a physical examination and assess how I was doing. And I am so glad she did.

For the past ten weeks I have been under Dawn’s expertise and guidance and it has been a completely different experience. She offers compassion and encouragement, she looks at the whole picture of my life and lifestyle and tailors her advice to fit in with that, seeing me as not just a woman with a pelvic floor problem but an individual with a lot going on. Yes my problems downstairs might be technically of my own making but Dawn acknowledges the miracle that having two children has been and is realistic about what can be improved while encouraging about what can change. She jokes and makes me laugh. Dawn recognises the importance of supporting my mental health in order to help my physical health and advised on how I could safely start running again. She makes me feel encouraged and hopeful and the impact is that physically I am getting there – things are improving!!

Sadly many people’s experiences of church has been of the tough love variety…. At its worst – “your life is a mess, you’re not welcome here until you sort it out.” Only slightly better is the, “We welcome you, God loves you but this, this and this part of your life is a mess – sort it out and conform to our expectations as quickly as you can or always remain feeling guilty that you don’t quite come up to standard.”

This is so at odds with how Jesus went about addressing people’s sins. It wasn’t that he lowered standards, he actually often raised the bar higher. With religious authorities Jesus could be extremely harsh in his criticism but for the individual seeking truth and life he has great compassion. He called them to a better way of life because he loved them and wanted a better life for them. He saw and addressed them as a whole person made in Gods image, not just focussing on what needed fixing. He built them up and gave them a hopeful vision of the future whilst also showing them the work needed to get there. He equipped them with what they needed to do that work.

And that’s how Jesus continues to work. Ultimately Jesus died to show us just how much he loves and values us just as we are. He rose from the dead and made that same power available to us to make changes in our lives. He gave us his Holy Spirit to work in us, give us a positive vision and empower us to take steps of change.

If your experience of church has up to this point in your life has been one of leaving you feeling unworthy, unlovely and like you could never match up then please accept my apologies on behalf of Jesus – that is absolutely not what He wants for you.

The church as God’s representatives here on earth should be copying Jesus’ example. At the core of who we are should be the offer of unconditional love, calling people to live better lives because they at God’s children and they deserve better lives. And that call should always be delivered with a extra dollop of compassion and encouragement.

As we look upon each other with compassion and grace, as we encourage and build each other up, we are far more able to empower each other to make the changes we need to live out the lifestyle that God calls us to both to honour Him but also to honour ourselves – His precious creation.

And in the words of Paul:

Nothing to fear

Since my last post on sleep, life has been pretty busy and sleep quality still lacking so getting focussed to write has not been easy. But amidst the ‘busy,’ I have been reflecting back on my conversation with Catrina Benham on her podcast REAL Conversations.

If you’ve read my previous blog posts you can’t help but notice that my Christian faith is rather important to me. My intention when I started to write was to reflect on all sorts of topics including but not exclusively faith based. And that’s still my intention, but the fact is, my relationship with God is so integral to who I am that it can’t help but be integral to my writing too.

Catrina’s podcast is a great listen with input from a wide variety of amazing women. To be asked to be involved was a great privilege. The conversations cover a wide range of topics but always ends with three statements to complete, one of which is, ‘Being a woman of faith means…’

You can listen to the podcast to hear how I replied but I’ve subsequently been reflecting on how deep and wide that question is and how much more I could have said. I started to write this post as a series of bullet points outlining what being a woman of faith means to me. However as I’ve pondered the question these past few weeks I’ve come to the conclusion that my thoughts are summed up by this verse from the Bible.

Fear is a clever foe that can pervade and undermine so many parts of our lives, holding us back from living life with confidence and being the amazing creations God has made us to be. Fear can provoke timidity and retreat but it can also show its face with aggression and domination. Fear can get its hooks into us in a number of ways:

  • Fear of failure and not being good enough
  • Fear of being unable to provide for our families
  • Fear of not being unable to protect those we love
  • Fear of an unknown future
  • Fear of chronic illness or dying

And the two big ones which I think try to catch out everyone whether we acknowledge it or not…

  • Fear of what others might be thinking about us
  • Fear that we are missing out in some way

Do any of these resonate with you?

At various times most of these fears have at some point tried (and sometimes succeeeded) to trap me. Fear of failure, combined with fear of what others might think of me, are most likely to snare me. My mental health history and vulnerability is something I’d really rather not have to live with, not only because I think it might cause me to fail at my endeavours, but also because if I have even the slightest wobble I worry what others might think. I worry that I won’t be seen as credible and that people will think less of me. Living with these sort of fears have at times stopped me stepping out and living up to my potential.

I’m guessing that if you can identify with anything on my fear list you’ll also identify with the fact that the fear and worry don’t change anything for the positive, if anything they can make the problem worse. I am so thankful for the truth declared in The Bible that through my relationship with God I can trade in that spirit of fear for a spirit of POWER, LOVE and SELF DISCIPLINE. It’s the combination of these three characteristics that allow us to lay down fear.

The word ‘power’ often has quite negative connotations, probably because of the prevalence of the abuse of power. But, when it is combined with love and self discipline, the power bestowed by God has the potential to be positively transformative, for individuals, families, communities, churches and even countries.

Self discipline is such an important characteristic in providing us with protection against the things that we fear. But on its own self discipline can be a harsh tool that we can wield to admonish and beat ourselves up. It’s also something that many of us struggle to maintain. When self discipline is combined with love – both of ourselves and of others – it can be more wisely applied and with far great motivation. And self discipline wrapped in love and empowered by the Holy Spirit has a far greater chance of success.

Even love on its own isn’t enough to replace our fears. Many a domestic abuse victim loves their abuser and yet lives in constant fear. For many the emotion of love is seen as being weak and the province of soppy Valentine cards. Love without self discipline can result in affairs and broken hearts, or can leave us burnt out from giving what we no longer have in us.

The love Paul writes about to Timothy is from the Holy Spirit and is full of power and self discipline. John, the disciple referred to in The Bible as the one whom Jesus loved, also writes the following :

It’s a powerful love; fierce and deep like a mother protecting her child. Such love empowers us to fight for justice and protect the weak. It’s a love that empowers us to stand up and speak out but in a tone that resonates grace. It’s also a love that says that we ourselves have great worth and as such should be taken care of and treated with respect by others and also by ourselves. It’s a love that forgives and releases others and allows us to accept forgiveness and be released.

We live in a world where there is potentially much to be fearful of, some of it very genuine but much of it stoked by media and marketing. Social media in particular seems to fuel a culture of fear. This past eighteen months I’ve found many occasions when it has been helpful to check myself and ask the question – am I responding to this situation from a place of fear and timidity?

When I lay down fear and call on God to fill me with his spirit of power, love and self discipline then things change and opportunities open up. I can speak up on issues that I feel passionate about with confidence and grace rather than defensiveness or fear of what those who disagree with me might think. I can weigh up risks and live adventurously. And if I’m really brave and trust in my Heavenly Father then I can stop fearing myself. In the spirit of power, love and self discipline I can live with the fact that I a woman with hormone cycles and who feels a full range of emotions and sometimes expresses them – and that’s okay, in fact it’s more than okay, they are part of the wonderful creation God made me to be.

ZZZzzzzz

Did you sleep well last night? It’s been a bit hot so I’m guessing perhaps not. How does that make you feel the next day? Do you cope well on less than eight hours quality sleep or does everyone around you have to give you a wide berth if you’ve had a rough night.

We are very privileged to own a motorhome. It was a big splash out investment pre pandemic which sadly hasn’t been used ‘on the road,’ as much as we would have liked due to the travel restrictions of the past year. It has however proved a great asset as a place of escape for my husband to study or to get some sleep during the day when working night shifts.

Getting undisturbed sleep feels like a real luxury in our house. We have a three year old and a two year old and although Isaac has fairly consistently slept through since about 16 months his younger brother Toby often still needs resettling at least once a night and sometimes more if he’s having what I assume are nightmares.

During half term we took our motorhome away for a week in the Cotswolds. The boys have bunk beds at the back and Mike and I have a bed that lowers from the ceiling. We try and stick to bedtime routines as much as possible because staying up late on holiday just doesn’t work for us. It doesn’t work for us because no matter how late the boys go to bed they still wake up early and if they don’t get enough sleep we have grumpy kids and that results in grumpy parents too.

When I say the kids wake early – I mean really early. A 6am start is fairly normal for us but in the motorhome it can easily be 5am. Toby stirs and probably at home would cry out and go back to sleep but in a different place calls out for mummy or daddy. As quickly as I leap out of my bed and get to him he’s already woken himself up completely and his brother and so that’s that – the day has begun!

There are advantages to being up so early – often you can witness a beautiful sunrise and listen to the wonderful bird song without the other noises of the day intruding. You can also get in the campsite showers before it gets busy or get your washing done and hung out before you go out for the day.

But it’s also just a tad exhausting especially if we’ve been up in the night too. Motorhome holidays although great fun are not restful. Even back home I crave a good nights sleep and even more a decent lie in. I woke up at 6.10am yesterday morning and neither child stirred until 6.50am. And that felt like a luxury!!

I’ve always been someone who needs my sleep and my lymph glands soon flare up and ache if I’ve got too overtired. Grumpy mummy (and teary wife) is also more likely to make an appearance when I’ve had a run of bad nights. However I’ve also discovered once again that I’m more resilient than I sometimes give myself credit for.

Cancer treatment was incredibly sleep disrupting with high doses of steroids each cycle. Pregnancy caused nightmares in my first and second trimester and huge discomfort in my third – they try to tell you it’s just preparing you for lack of sleep when the baby comes but I think it’s a design flaw – surely being well rested would be much better preparation. Then two little ones born fifteen months apart mean that even when they do both sleep through, I don’t, because there’s a part of me on alert waiting to respond to their cry.

Often when I’m awake in the night I talk to God – I pray. Sometimes I’m sure I talk absolute nonsense to Him because I really am only half awake. Other times though, it’s a precious moment to ask God to come close to and give sleep to others that I know might also be awake in the night; looking after babies, facing illness, or knowing the pain of bereavement. Sometimes I’m thanking God for the day just gone and sometimes asking Him to be with me when the sun comes up, giving me the energy and patience I’ll need in the face of tiredness. Sometimes I’m thanking him for the beautiful child I’m settling back to sleep and sometimes I’m pleading with Him to get my child to sleep for me as I’m so desperate to get back to bed.

And my God who never ever needs to sleep hears my every word, comprehensible or not, and cherishes the fact that in my sleeplessness I’ve chatted with Him.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”

‭‭Psalms‬ ‭121:1-8‬ ‭NIV

It feels like a very long time since I slept really well. And yet I’m doing okay! Yes I might have some days when I’m far from the happy smiley person I’d like to be because I am so very tired but I still get my boys up, dressed and fed and do the same for myself. We still go out for an ‘adventure’ each day or I get them to nursery and myself to work. The food shop gets done, meals get served to the dinner table and we have clean clothes to wear. Although I sometimes feel vulnerable I haven’t had a mental health crash or had to take medication for my mental health for nine years.

I’ll always need to accept that I need a decent amount of sleep to function well. And frustrating as it is to me, I suspect my mental well-being will always be more vulnerable if I don’t care for myself and get too overtired. But having said that I am definitely capable of far more than I would have ever thought possible in the past.

I’m still going to keep reminding God though of one of His promises.

“In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for foodr to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves.”

‭‭Psalms‬ ‭127:2‬ ‭NIV‬‬

To blog or not to blog…

I was hugely privileged last week to be asked to be on Catrina Benham’s podcast REAL Conversations, where she chats with women about life and faith. One of the regular opening questions is ‘What’s New?’ I realised that much of what’s new in my life tends to revolve around my boys, for example what’s new on CBeebies! It was great though to also talk about this blog and the fact I had started writing again.

I’ve been writing this blog now for a couple of months. I’ve been pleased to discover I have things I want to write about and it’s been satisfying to find that people have enjoyed reading my thoughts. But talking about it to Catrina has prompted me to think again about why I am ‘blogging’.

People write blogs for all sorts of reasons but they generally tend to have a theme. Some blogs are on a specific subject that the writer has an interest, for example nature, model building, parenting, spirituality or sci-fi. Some blogs are connected to specific causes like the environment, or gender inequality, or social injustice. Some blogs are connected to brands and products, either written by the owner of the brand to sell their product or by others reviewing and comparing things their readers might shop for.

I’m not sure my blog fits neatly into any of these categories. I don’t have a specific theme or cause and I’m not trying to sell a product or service . I’m simply exploring in writing various things that have been rumbling round in my head. However, I could do that quite privately; instead I’ve chosen to make my written thoughts public and I’ve been pondering why I would do that. What do I hope for when I share my words with you?

We live in an age of social media where your worth can be measured in the number of ‘likes’ you get for the picture or statement you’ve posted. I have an exercise app where I can record my physical activity and others can follow, comment and ‘like’ what I have achieved. Reality TV, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube ‘Influencers’ see people sharing their lives in the hope of gaining a following.

My blog account has a stats page that tells me how many people have read a post, where in the world they live, and how they reached the site (via Facebook, Instagram, Search Engine etc). It can be easy to get sucked into that, going beyond finding the statistics interesting and instead looking to those numbers to tell me that my thoughts and therefore myself has worth.

If I try and find my worth through how many people read my blog or what they have to say about it then I’m going to struggle. Either my following is going to be pretty low which could dent my confidence or if I’m privileged to build a larger following I’m inevitably going to find, even if I get plenty of positive feedback, that there will still be some people who disagree with me, criticise my thoughts or even attack me. And the nature of being human is that however many supportive comments we get we still become hungry for more if that’s the source of our self esteem.

As you will be aware, if you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, my faith in Jesus plays a big part in my life. When it comes to measuring your worth and firming up your self esteem believing in Jesus is a game changer. You may find that puzzling if your previous encounters with Christianity were ones that just emphasised what you were doing wrong in your life, setting moral standards that seem to high to be realistic. And if that has been your experience of Christianity so far then I can only apologise. I apologise because you’ve not been told the full story – the story that says yes humans muck up big time (just look at the news and you can’t deny the truth of that) BUT God loves us still anyway. He loves us so much, he thinks we are the best thing he ever created and so does his son Jesus. To prove that fact Jesus came to live as a human on earth to teach us the best way to live and love. He also demonstrated us just how much he loves us by dealing with all the stuff we do wrong by dying for us. Yes he’d like us to live better and love better but even if we don’t he loves us inside out still anyway.

It defies logic really but what it means is that if I fully embrace that fact my worth comes from knowing I am known and loved by the creator of the universe just as I am. So I don’t have to find my worth by how many social media ‘likes’ I get or how many people read my blog or respond to it. And if I can practice what I’ve just been preaching then that is incredibly freeing.

With all that in mind why do I write and share my life and thoughts?

Firstly I need to be honest – it’s therapeutic- it helps me to order the thoughts floating chaotically around in my mind. By shaping those thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and an overarching narrative capable of being read and understood by others it helps me to clarify for myself what I think about various subjects.

Secondly I write and share my life and thoughts because I have a hope that what I write may prompt your thoughts. Maybe what I write may inspire you to explore or do something new or clarify something you were already pondering about. I write because it might cause you to say – I totally get where you’re coming from, that’s exactly where I’m at. Or maybe you’ll say – that is really interesting because it’s so different from me. I write because if you already know Jesus something I’m exploring may encourage you in your relationship with him. And if you don’t maybe some of what I write may make you curious about finding out more.

And with that I want to thank you for reading and subscribing to my blog. Although my aim is to find by worth in what God thinks of me and not by how many people read my blog I still feel privileged and blessed that you are taking the time to read my words.

Ps – please like and share this blog post 😜

A Zambezi Adventure

A few years back Mike and I went on a big adventure. We’d planned on sharing our experience by doing a talk at our church and the local sailing club but somehow the busyness of life got in the way and then babies arrived and we never did it. So I thought I might tell you a little about it here and maybe it may inspire you to go on an adventure of your own!

Mike was turning 50 and we wanted to mark it in a special way. I’d got through the cancer treatment and we were starting to contemplate the possibility of having children and so we decided if we were going to go on a big adventure now was the time to do it. We started ‘googling’ adventure and trekking holidays and sharing ideas about what inspired us and we decided we really wanted to do an African Safari.

We quickly discovered that most safaris are either horribly expensive and / or involve spending a lot of time traveling in vehicles which we really didn’t fancy. But then we stumbled on the concept of a canoe safari and found ourselves getting in touch with a brilliant company called River Horse Safaris that operate on the Zambezi river. An independent company they provide safaris to other travel companies as well as direct to independent adventurers and they are very much connected in with their local community.

We booked a seven day, six night, trip that would take us by canoe from Chirundu down the Zambezi river 163km to near the border with Mozambique. We would camp each night on islands in the middle of the river or a couple of times on the main banks. We planned our trip to go well into the dry season as that brings all the wildlife and birds to the river to drink.

The sunflower is the symbol of our local hospice. Having planned and paid for the trip ourselves we then invited people to sponsor us to raise money for the hospice which gave us so much support during my cancer treatment.

We flew out to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, a 14 hour flight via Dubai and spent our first night in a large hotel before being picked up by our transfer taxi the next morning. Enroute to the river our driver took us to various roadside shops to buy seeds and fertiliser as we’d arranged with River Horse to visit a local school that they support. We’d asked what we could help with and had brought out lots of colouring pencils, pens and other stationery with us but the school also grow crops in order to feed the children that attend the school and kind friends from church had given us money to buy the farming supplies once we arrived in the country.

The primary school serves the young children from the nearby villages, providing them with an early education before they come of an age where they have to legally attend the government run schools. The school not only provide an education but also food and clothes and a place of safety. Many of the older children still turn up each day to continue to receive those added benefits. The day we visited the Headmaster was away on a training course but his wife kindly received our gifts and introduced us to their children.

When we booked the trip we expected to be part of a larger group and wondered about who we would meet on our journey. However when we arrived at ‘base camp’ we discovered that we were the only people who had booked this particular trip and as a result we found ourselves being treated to a ‘private safari’ under the care of the company’s most experienced guide – TK.

Mike and I shared a large canoe sitting front and back on top of our mattresses. The tents for the three of us and our personal kit went inbetween. TK canoed solo with all the rest of the kit including camp table, stools, cooking equipment, and food and drink for seven days.

A typical day on the river starts at 5.30am as the sun comes up. We packed up the tents and our gear while TK made a fire and boiled some water for tea and biscuits. We then loaded the boats and made sure we’ve left no sign of our presence before picking up our paddles and making some headway on the water while the day is still a little cooler.

About 9.30am we’d pull up and go exploring the bank while TK prepared breakfast. We were surprised to discover breakfast meant a cooked feast of sausages, bacon, beans, tomatoes and toast and of course more tea! When I say exploring – this often meant going for what became known as a ‘paddle walk’… You take your paddle for a walk, you use it to dig a hole, you do what needs doing and then cover up the hole with your paddle and return!

Another hour or two on the water and the sun is high in the sky – time to stop for a light lunch and a rest in a shady spot out of the heat of the day. We weren’t always as good at resting as we should have been if there were some good wildlife spots to be had!

A couple more hours of paddling and with the sun starting to get lower in the sky TK would pick a place to stop for the night. We’d help unload the boats and then go for a quick walk with TK exploring our rest stop and witnessing stunning sunsets before setting up our tents for the night. While TK cooked our evening meal we would have a bucket wash in the dark and get straight into our PJs for a firelight supper. The meals TK produced were absolutely superb and the stars that God produced to accompany the meal were incredible.

We generally hit our mattresses by 8.30pm sleeping in tents that were essentially mosquito nets so we could see the night sky. We did sleep well but you could still wake to the sound of lions roaring in the distance or an elephant investigating the camp. One night when exiting my tent in the night for a ‘paddle walk’ my torch shone in the water and set a pod of hippos off grunting in disgust at our canoes blocking their exit from the river. Another night when camping on the main bank we were advised to bring in our shoes as hyenas were known to be in the area and like to steal them!

Everyday we would be so privileged to get close up to elephants, hippos, baboons, kudu, impala, water buck, crocodile, and so many different birds. We sadly didn’t get many good photos of the hippos as when close enough for a good snap you needed to be focussed on your paddling – a large bull hippo rising out of the water is a heart thumping experience. TK was brilliant at sharing his knowledge of the wildlife and getting us as close as possible whilst keeping us safe.

We were also privileged to spend time getting to know TK as we chatted over meals or rafted our canoes together and drifted together on sections of the river learning to enjoy some chill out time with the phrase ‘polepole’ – take it easy! We talked about what brought him to work as a safari guide and his ambitions for his children including his then twelve year old daughter who wanted to be a doctor and the obstacles that would need to be overcome to achieve that goal. We heard about the politics of Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe and the disparity between rich and poor. As we travelled several hours back to Lusaka by open jeep from rural Zambia and back into the city much of what TK described could be seen very clearly.

Having travelled all the way to Zambia we also really wanted to visit Victoria Falls so took an internal flight to Livingstone the nearest town. We spent three days there exploring the town and checking out the falls. When the river is in full flood the falls are reportedly just immense with the spray filling the sky and the sound deafening – one of the local names translates as ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. But as we were there at low water we were able to view the incredible geology of the area and we were able to swim with a guide in a pool at the top of the falls.

Even at low water the rapids below the falls are quite something to behold and for some reason we decided that we’d end our Zambezi adventure on a rafting excursion, We climbed down into the gorge and swam under the falls before paddling through a series of grade 3 – 5 rapids under the helmsmanship of Captain Potato (yes Potato was his real name!). It has to be one of the most frightening and exhilarating things we have ever done!

Although you could definitely call our trip a ‘once in a lifetime’ adventure we’d absolutely love to go back and make it ‘twice in a lifetime!’ I’d love to see the river and the falls after the rains and see the dry barren landscape turned green again. I’d love to meet TK again and find out if his daughter still wants to be a doctor or if his son is still determined to follow his father’s footsteps. I’d love to take my boys to see elephants, warthogs and baboons up close in their natural environment. I’d love to get a decent picture of a hippo and hear their chuckles once more. And I often feel the call to a be somewhere completely different from home. Mike feels the same and so he has started a ‘Zambia fund,’ saving for the day when we feel the boys are old enough for us to take them and show them all that we keep telling them about.