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.

Being still is a skill

*** apologies to the guys – there’s reference to women’s health issues in here – but you may learn a thing or two that might help you understand the ladies in your life and it’s not the main point of the post so don’t be too put off 😉 ***

A few weeks ago I had the dubious pleasure of a phone consultation with a specialist ‘women’s health physio’. Chemotherapy has played havoc with my bladder and two large babies in close succession have left my pelvic floor not quite up to the job!

I call the conversation a pleasure because I recognise that in a world where many many people are struggling to get their basic healthcare needs met I’m privileged to be receiving specialist help on the NHS to help me with a leaky bladder. In fact post chemo and before I had the kids a GP told me that all women suffer with urinary incontinence and I should live with it… But I’m aiming to not live with it and more helpful clinicians are doing there best to fix me.

I call it a dubious pleasure because the specialist physio was somewhat brutal in her delivery of some very sound advice – I confess she made me cry and she could be a little more empathetic and a tad more encouraging if she wants her patients to take care on board the changes to their lives she is advising.

But amidst what felt like a really harsh dressing down there was a surprise – she asked me I was particularly stressed. I said I didn’t feel I was; I was furloughed from work but we’re financially okay and we live in a beautiful place. I commented that everyone is a bit stressed with the pandemic and lockdown and of course I have two little boys and at once she pounced and ‘prescribed’ relaxation exercises because mental stress causes physical stress including to your pelvic floor.

A short time later an online friend of mine called Joanna Hargreaves posted this and it resonated powerfully:

The physio and Jo’s words helped me to realise how much tension I was holding in my body. Without realising it even just the busyness of ordinary day to day life with two little people to look after can take its toll. I feel like it shouldn’t because my life is pretty good really and so many people are under ‘real stress’. However the reality is the juggling act of parenting from 5am to 8pm, sometimes with broken sleep is a tough gig; it might be an incredibly rewarding job but it is mentally, physically and emotionally demanding.

Even if you’re not a parent you will probably have your own mental list that you are juggling day in and day out. You may be ‘parenting’ your parents, or in a job where you are constantly working more hours than you’re paid for. You may be dealing with a difficult medical condition or supporting someone you love who is unwell. You may be in a job where lots of people want your attention and time and you’re constantly trying to prioritise without offending anyone or maybe you don’t have paid work and desperately need it, spending hours each day trying to navigate the jobs market and benefits system. If you don’t take care that load can impact your health mentally and physically.

At church on Sunday the preach by Simon Benham was about the concept of Sabbath. God intends us to live lives with rhythms of rest and recuperation built in. It requires intentionally building in time to stop, relax and reflect; to give ourselves the mental space to connect with God and with those around us and even just find ourselves again.

I don’t know about you though – I hadn’t realised how hard I find it to be still and rest. The other week we had the joy of visiting our friends church in Reigate. Their teenage daughters took our boys off our hands and we got to sit through a full church service without little people needing our attention for the first time in over three years.

And it was actually really hard…

We’re just so unused to just being still. Even if we’re at home watching TV after the boys are in bed we normally pause several times to make a cuppa, or put the chickens to bed, or get into our pjs. Or I’m looking at my phone, compiling a food shop order or trying to find cheap clothes for the boys online.

Once again Jo Hargreaves in a timely fashion put her finger on the spot.

It’s not that you can’t spend time with God in the busyness. Thankfully quite the opposite – I can chat away to him on and off all day long. But you know what it’s like – if you really want a quality relationship with someone you need to give them your time and focus. The reality is my time with God is mostly spent while also cooking, or showering, or sorting washing and often frequently interrupted by small people. God rarely gets my undivided attention. He is very gracious and understanding about that but still it’s not an ideal way to treat the love of your life is it??

Apart from the fact God simply deserves my full attention I’m also not doing myself any favours in not giving this relationship the quality time it requires. Simon Benham pointed out on last Sunday that our ultimate Sabbath rest is found in Jesus:

But for Jesus’s offer to make a difference – we have to make the intentional decision to take it up – to come to Him, to spend quality time with Him and let Him lift those heavy burdens off us and give us the rest we so need.

The other day I was listening to the Real Conversations podcast by Catrina Benham where she was talking to Shari Barratt and they were talking about The Couch to 5K running programs and how it really works. In an incremental approach it turns someone over nine weeks who can barely run 100 metres into a runner. They briefly discussed what it could teach them about other things in life.

It got me thinking that I might be able to take the same approach to regaining the skill of being still with God. Instead of trying to be still for a lengthy period of time and either falling asleep or getting distracted by things that need doing let’s take it incrementally. A couple of times this week I’ve sat down and just tried to be intentionally still with God for just five minutes. And I’m going to try and do that every day and gradually extend that time out, carving out the space in the busyness to make it happen. Give me a few weeks and I’ll try and report back to let you know the results.

In my minds eye…

Take a moment, close your eyes and think of someone you really love – in your minds eye what are they wearing? Do they have lockdown hair or have they made it to the hairdressers yet? If you can’t sleep have you ever tried counting sheep – what do they look like? Big and fluffy or recently shaun? Take a slow breath and imagine you’re in your favourite place – what does it look like?

Now tell me in your minds eye do you really actually see something??

What?? Genuinely you do?? You mean you actually see real images in your mind when you imagine things?

No – you can’t, not really… when people say ‘picture in your mind’ it’s just a phrase – you don’t actually see a picture do you??

Seriously you do???

Well I don’t. There’s nothing. It’s just blank. Completely blank. Not even a fuzzy sort of something. And I thought that was normal. I honestly thought when people talked about what they could see in their mind that it was just a metaphor, a visual way of speaking.

It turns out that I have Aphantasia. It’s estimated that it’s something experienced by about 2% of the worlds population. I’m fairly sure it’s something I’ve had all my life but I had absolutely no idea that anyone else actually saw images in their minds eye until I was nearly 40 years old.

A friend of mine shared a link to a BBC news story about a Ed Catmull retired President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. He discovered very late on in his career that he had Aphantasia when he was unable to complete the visualisation exercises for a Tibetan meditation he was undertaking. On starting to talk to several of his colleagues he discovered that many of them could see what they were imagining very clearly; for some they could still see what they had imagined once they opened their eyes. This made sense to him given the artistic work they were so evidently talented in. But having learnt that most people can see what’s in their minds eye even if only in a vague way he was surprised to discover that he was not the only one in his industry without this ability. For example Glen Keane who created the character Ariel in The Little Mermaid has no visual imagination either. To read more follow this link. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-47830256

As I read about Ed’s experience, how he discovered he had Aphantasia and the implications of this neurological condition, I had this dawning realisation that I could completely relate to what he was describing. I started asking those around me what they could see and trying to understand what it was I was experiencing when I tried to imagine things – it certainly wasn’t an actual visual experience. It was baffling to me – how could it be possible that other people actually saw things when they were asked to imagine them. And how could I not have realised before now that they did and I didn’t.

The term Aphantasia was created in 2015 by Professor Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter Medical School. His email details were on the BBC report with an invitation to contact him if you thought what was being described was you. I took the plunge and pinged off an email.

One of Professor Zeman’s research assistants got back in touch with me and gave me a number of questionnaires to complete. I was asked to imagine a close friend and describe what I could see, to imagine a sunrise and various other things and say how clearly those things were visually defined in my mind. I initially really struggled as I found I could imagine and describe these things but there was absolutely no visual image. I wondered if I was misunderstanding what was meant to ‘picture’ something and that I was right all along in assuming it was just language used to interpret how we recall things factually. When I went back to the researcher to clarify she replied that the fact that I was so confused was a classic reaction by a newly discovered Aphant.

I came to realise that I could describe these things because I just knew factually what they looked like, or how they made me feel or even a memory of movement but not because I was describing what I saw in my minds eye. Two years on I still find it baffling trying to work out how I can have a strong mental impression of something visual such as a map, or a scene from a TV show, or what someone looks like even though I actually have no visual memory of these things. And it still astounds me that most other people do actually have actual visual imagination and recollection.

For a short while I belonged to a Facebook group for people who have Aphantasia and it became apparent for a good number they have found the discovery that they lack an ability that most people have quite distressing; they want to find the cause and they want to be ‘cured’ even resorting to psychedelic drugs to induce a ‘vision’.

For me though it’s a discovery that’s baffling and fascinating. I don’t see the need to try and change it though I do wonder what it must be like to visualise and see. I am glad though I know about Aphantasia as the knowledge has given me a massive sense of relief. In years past I have suffered with poor mental health and at various points in counselling settings have been asked to do visualisation exercises – I tried so hard but I just couldn’t do it, I felt that maybe it was a symptom of my mental illness or maybe I was somehow being awkward and stubborn. I’d feel as though I was not cooperating with the medical professional who was trying to help me. I experienced the same stumbling block when in religious settings meditations involving visual imagination was used.

To discover that my brain is simply not wired to have a minds eye, that these visual imaginative tasks are neurologically just not possible for me was so freeing. I’m not a failure, I’m not uncooperative, I’m not deficient, I don’t need to try harder or be more open and receptive. My brain is a little bit different and simply just won’t do it however hard I try so I can stop trying! Hurrah!!

References to a lack of minds eye can be found in literature going back 2500 years yet until six years ago no one had really looked into it let alone give the phenomenon a name. They estimate 1 in 50 people experience Aphantasia but it’s hard to be certain because most people like me will have been completely unaware that there lack of a minds eye was any different to anyone else – they will have assumed as I did that it was just a metaphor not a real thing.

It highlights to me how much about life and other people we assume and take for granted. We can easily assume that other people experience life the same way we do, that they will think and react to situations in the same way we would. Medical science has gone so far in its understanding of the human body and mind and yet there is still so much we don’t know. Although we all have commonalities that define us as a human being we are all so incredibly diverse. Some of our differences are easier to see or pick up on but many are completely hidden and yet can have significant impacts on our lives and relationships with each other for good and ill. But recognising, celebrating and making the most of our diversity and human beings is such a valuable thing to do.

Even as I continue to be baffled by the concept that most of you reading this can actually see things in your mind I also continue to be amazed at the complexity of the human being, body, mind and soul. I can’t put it better than the writer of Psalm 139 in the Bible:

“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭139:13-14‬ ‭NLT‬‬

(If you want to know more about Aphantasia or what I’ve been describing sounds familiar and you want to take a test then check out this website: https://aphantasia.com/what-is-aphantasia)

Two Little Boys

I’ve been given cause to reflect once again this week how blessed I am to be a mum of two cheeky and bouncy little boys. I might at times feel quite frazzled and frustrated at how all consuming they can be but the fact is they are, both of them, amazing miracle gifts from God.

Children are a gift that I am so very aware not everyone is privileged to receive and sometimes I feel a little reluctant to share my blessing too ‘loudly’ because of how it might make someone else feel who has not been blessed in that way. I remember that pain. If that’s you and you’d rather not read this post I get that completely.

Having children was far from a given for me. In my teens I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the idea of having kids and it certainly wasn’t high on the agenda when I got married aged 21. But as I got older that changed, whether it was biology or social pressures or genuine maternal instincts, a developing desire to have and raise children emerged.

Sadly, or maybe in fact fortunately, in my first marriage children didn’t happen and I reached a point where I really felt it was for the best – struggling with mental health problems I believed I would have been a really bad mum anyway.

In my thirties and in a new much happier relationship I was gradually getting my head round the fact that maybe children could be part of my life. The big big question remained though, could I really be any good as a mum? Added to that Mike is older than me and has grown up children so for him to ‘start again’ would be a massive commitment. As much as a strong pull to have kids was there I really wasn’t convinced it was a good idea.

And then at age 35 came the cancer diagnosis…

In the whirlwind of diagnosis and starting treatment (it was just two and half weeks from going to see my GP to being in surgery!) there was the meeting with the oncologist who lays out the treatment plan and the possible side effects. Along with nausea, sickness, loss of taste, hair loss, sore throat, finger and toe nails coming off, constipation and so much more the bombshell of early menopause gets chucked in there. But at this point you’re aware you’re effectively entering a fight for your life so you kind of just nod you’ve understood and move on.

I guess I felt that drew a line under the question of whether I should have children or not. It simply wasn’t a valid question anymore. I wouldn’t be having children and it was time to move on.

Except I didn’t – the absence of children kept on niggling. Through the treatment and the recovery the pain of that line being drawn just wouldn’t heal.

And then my periods returned – more regular than they’d ever been before. Now that didn’t mean my fertility hadn’t been damaged beyond repair but it was a promising sign. The question of could I, and should we, try and see if having a child together was possible just kept cropping up. We talked it through with the oncologist as it would mean stopping a long term preventative medicine and made a plan for a few months later to ‘give it a go’.

A few Sundays later in church the Bible reading and preach was from the book of Joel – it was a passage someone had spoken over me at a time in my twenties when life was pretty tough. It’s a promise of hope given to the Israelites who have seen their homeland invaded by a foreign army described as a destructive plague of locusts. Part of the passage says this:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten— the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm — my great army that I sent among you. You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed.” Joel‬ ‭2:25-27‬ ‭NIV‬‬

I had a powerful sense that God was saying, “I’ve already come good on this promise to repay the years the locusts have eaten – you’re in a new, happy stable marriage, you’re living in a supportive community on the Isle of Wight, your mental health is so much more stable and you’re making a good recovery from an aggressive cancer. But there’s still more – you will have a child”.

I wasn’t sure I was hearing this right and maybe it was just wishful thinking so we went to see some wise Christian friends of ours who listened and prayed and told us that they felt God was saying ‘Be Expectant’.

I fell pregnant really quickly but by week 10 I had a miscarriage and there’s another whole post I could write about that experience! Trying to remain expectant after a traumatic false start was not easy but just when I thought it wasn’t going to happen I fell pregnant again.

This time I had a successful pregnancy. Isaac was born in January 2018 and then the God of abundance blessed us with Toby at the end of April 2019, just a few weeks before my 40th birthday.

They are two amazing little boys – full of life, curiosity and adventure. They are continually pushing boundaries as they grow and develop their characters; sometimes to our joy as they achieve something new, and sometimes to our frustration when they keep doing something we’ve told them not to do! Isaac is now three years old and Toby approaches two and we are seeing them starting to play together more and enjoy each other’s company – the hard work of having two born close together is starting to bear fruit. We pray that they will always be good friends as well as brothers.

Those of you who know me will know that I don’t always find being a mum an easy thing. Parenthood can be really hard work, physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. I’ve always felt that resilience was an area of my life in which I was significantly lacking but I’ve discovered I’ve got more of it than I thought! Despite the fact that there are many moments of great fun and joy with the boys I still at times would love to have 24 hours ‘off duty’.

It’s when I’m feeling a bit fed up, it’s important to stop and remember how very privileged I am to have these two little people in my life. Belonging to an online support group for younger women with breast cancer I am so aware that my privilege is not the experience of so many women who have been through the same treatment as I have. I also have friends who have been unable to have children for other reasons and they carry a sorrow because of it.

As such I will continue to remind myself just how blessed I am. Isaac and Toby are miracles to be celebrated and cherished; when we’re chasing each other round willow mazes, when I’m up in the night for the fourth time because one or both are not sleeping well, when they are squabbling or even when they are giggling their hearts out and I’m suffering the indignity of not being able to get up off the floor while they pin me down and blow wet raspberries on my bare skin!

A story to change your life

*** spoiler alert *** This blog gives away the ending or at least hints to what might happen in several stories!!

Have you seen ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’? It was a Chinese film released in 2000 starring Jet Li. There were a few similar films made around that time. They were beautifully made and directed with clever story lines and twists and from a cinematic perspective stunning. The martial arts are just that art! But I’ve only watched them twice – once at the cinema and once at home on DVD and then I decided no more… Why because the endings are always so tragic. I am not going to give two hours or so of my life to end up feeling sad and sobbing.

My step son lent me a book once called The Knife of Never Letting Go. It was a really clever book and the concept behind it very thought provoking. Some of it was emotionally quite shocking but I persevered as I really wanted to know what was going to happen. Now admittedly I was in the middle of chemo at the time so emotionally probably a tad vulnerable but boy was I unprepared for how it ended – it was not good at all – all hope for the lead character was absolutely crushed.

And do you remember the year the Christmas episode Downton Abbey saw Mary’s young husband Matthew having survived the First World War and Spanish flu, die in a car crash? Why why why would you do that to us – and on Christmas Day too?!!

No – I want my stories to have a happy ending. Even if it’s a tough journey getting there it needs to end up right in the end – hope must be fulfilled and preferably shines on to an even brighter future.

And I think that’s what I find so hard about, ‘The News’ whether at local, national or international level. So much of it is so soul destroying, highlighting the worst of humanity and often leaves me feeling so despondent. Is positive proactive long lasting change actually possible??

As I read the words of the Psalmist, ‘what is man that you are mindful of him?’ I have to ask that question too? God why on earth do you bother with us let alone love us and give this world to us to care for? That’s why when I stumble across or I’m pointed towards a real life good news story that bucks that trend of hopelessness it fills me with joy and I just want to share it.

Last night Mike and I enjoyed an online magic show by a guy called Rod Williams. As well as entertaining us with very clever magic tricks he also shared some of his life story of how at seventeen he started down a road of wild teenage parties that eventually led to drug dealing, smuggling, gambling debts and heroin addition. His life was in ruins and he ended up in prison. He then went on to explain how from that place of hopelessness he turned his life around, how he has put his addictions behind him, works with people in debt, is married and has an adopted daughter, he’s even been approved as a foster carer. Rod has also started a charity working in prisons helping to show others how their lives can be so incredibly different too.

Click here to watch the show.

It’s so encouraging to hear that someone who we could write off from society can turn their life around – change is possible!!But a key part of Rod’s life story is that the turn around of his life was made possible by another incredible story – the story of Easter.

This week all around the world Christians are remembering and reading and reflecting on what happened to Jesus nearly 2000 years ago. It’s actually a tough story to take on board if you allow yourself to really sink into it – chocolate and bunny rabbits don’t feature at all.

Jesus has been preaching and teaching for three years, he’s regularly upsetting the local politicians and religious leaders of his day as he calls them out on issues of social justice and religious hypocrisy. He’s seen as a trouble maker by the authorities yet loved by the local population for his integrity, kindness and generosity. But he really starts to cause trouble for himself when it becomes clear that he claims his authority to speak out and to heal people not only comes from God but that he is God’s son and the Messiah that has long been foretold.

In the last twenty four hours of his life Jesus is sold out by one of his inner circle, deserted by those closest to him who run away in fear, was set up on false charges, severely tortured and finally crucified on a cross beside two criminals – a hugely cruel form of capital punishment. The Messiah, the one who was supposed to save the Israelites from oppression and foreign tyranny is dead. He’s buried in a tomb with a gigantic rock rolled across the entrance just to make sure we know the door has closed to any hope of a happy ending.

And that is where Andrew Lloyd Webber would have us believe the story ends if you’ve ever watched Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s not a story to really thrill you is it? It’s not a story that would give you the inspiration and hope to turn your around is it? Good Friday doesn’t seem very good does it?

That’s because the story doesn’t finish there. On Easter Sunday some women who had been close to Jesus approach the tomb and find that the hope destroying rock has been moved away from the entrance. And so begins a series of eye witness accounts to an empty tomb, grave clothes left behind and physical encounters with a Jesus no longer dead but very much alive and well.

What is going on? There’s some deep theology here and well worth exploring in far more depth – if you have more questions definitely consider doing an Alpha course. But in essence Jesus died so we don’t have to. He died despite having never done anything wrong so that we who are always messing up at some level or another can be forgiven by God and be in a relationship with the perfect creator of the universe who loves us and esteems us more completely than anyone else. Jesus came back to life again to prove that Evil and Death are defeatable – they never have to be given the last word!

It is the power and the reality of that Easter story that changed Rod’s life. He discovered that truth through reading stories of other people’s lives that had been changed by an encounter with Jesus and then deciding to give God a chance for himself. The same love that took Jesus to the grave and power that raised Jesus from the dead became available to Rod to enable his journey towards healing, hope and transformation.

What’s even more encouraging is that Rod’s life changing encounter with Jesus isn’t a one off – check out these stories…!

My Story – Adam. https://youtu.be/tslkAogs_Zo

Burnley’s Pastor Mike – from dangerous drug dealer to lifesaver – BBC News – https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-55273677

Run Baby Run by Nicky Cruz sold by Amazon and other retailers.

REAL Conversations podcast by Catrina Benham with Emma Heath, her story of hope from addiction to recovery. https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/real-conversations-podcast/id1522040407?i=1000493206820

These stories of how a relationship with Jesus has made such a dramatic difference in people’s lives are so important to me because they give me hope. These stories give me hope that situations I see around me that seem so impossible and sad could actually change. They give me hope that positive proactive long lasting change is actually possible whether at an international level or in my local community, systematic injustices or individual desperation. It gives me encouragement I need to pray and call on God to bring about that change.

And for myself I’m reminded that God loves me unconditionally too. He considers a relationship with me worth fighting for and no situation I find myself in is beyond His power and grace. The reality and truth of the Easter story has the power to change my life and the power to change yours too. And that’s a pretty good news happy ending story I must say.

Joy is my middle name!

Four years ago Mike and I went on an amazing adventure – we canoed for 163km down the Zambezi river wild camping for six nights on the banks and encountering an array of amazing animals who depend on the river during the dry season. Having gone all the way to Zambia we felt it would be daft to not then spend a few days at Victoria Falls and somehow ended up on a raft under the falls tackling grade 5 rapids under the helmsmanship of Captain Potato. Yes – that was his name Potato… His parents had looked at the shape of his head when he was born and called him Potato.

When we were deciding on names for our boys there were three things that were important to me – firstly that we both of us liked the name, secondly that they wouldn’t feel silly at school being called it by the teacher (they’ve already got a surname that could cause them trouble) and thirdly what the name meant. There were a few names that we liked the sound of but when I looked up the meaning were either lacking in character or we just plain didn’t like.

It might seem a little silly to be pedantic about what the name means but in some cultures it’s really important – it’s setting out an expectation, a declaration or a promise for that child. I was reminded in a sermon the other week about the importantance the Bible places on names and how their meanings give the owner a direction and purpose and define their character.

In the Jewish and Christian scriptures the impact of a name was taken so seriously that it was as not uncommon for someone to take on a new name to symbolise a change in their life or a promise made to them. For example

  • Abram (meaning exalted father) becomes Abraham (father of many nations)
  • Sarai (meaning princess) becomes Sarah (meaning my princess)
  • Jacob (meaning supplanter or usurper) becomes Israel (meaning one who wrestles with God)
  • Naomi (meaning pleasant) renames herself Mara (meaning bitter) because she is so distraught at what has happened to her.
  • Simon is renamed Peter by Jesus to symbolise he will be the rock on which the church is built
  • Saul (meaning questioner) becomes Paul (meaning small and humble)

So my eldest is Isaac which means laughter and reminds me that in the Bible Sarah laughed with disbelief when she heard that God was promising her a child and she laughs with joy when that promise was fulfilled. I pray that Isaacs life may be filled with laughter and joy and seeing Gods promises fulfilled however impossible they might be. Toby means simply that God is Good; it reminds me how very good God has been to bless me with not one but two amazing boys when for several different reasons the prospect of having kids was off the table. I pray that Toby may have many many reasons to declare for himself that God is Good.

They’ve also got middle names; Isaacs is John which means ‘Yahweh has been gracious‘ which also fits perfectly and happens to be the name of both his Grandads. And Toby’s is Peter which means Rock and was the name that Jesus gave to Simon, one of his disciples saying that he would be the rock on which he built his church. Peter also happens to be the name of a great uncle on both sides so good family name too!

My middle name is after my mum – it’s Joy. I’ve had cause to reflect several times and it’s come home to me powerfully again recently that having joy as my middle name should not just be a family nod but something that I should embrace as defining me.

You must have heard the phrase, ‘xxxx is my middle name,’ when someone wants to claim that they are passionate about something. Or the notion that if you cut through someone you’d see something running through them like the words running through the middle of a stick of rock.

What if people could look at me and the way I live my life and could say to each other, “you know Katie Wigley, Joy is her middle name” or you know Katie – if you cut her in half you’d find Joy running all the way through her. I don’t mean that I’d be happy happy happy all the time – that’s just not realistic. But that somehow a deeper sense of peace and contentment in all circumstances would shine through; that the knowledge that I am deeply loved by the God who created the universe would impact the way I respond to life events; that the hope I find in Jesus would bubble out in how I live my life, that I would find and declare joy in the small and great wonders of this world that are all around us in nature and in people.

This doesn’t feel like much like me though. As someone who has suffered with depression and anxiety quite badly in the past I feel I have a predisposition towards the negative rather than joy being at my centre. But Joy is my middle name and I would love to own it and live it. On days when I’m feeling grumpy and down I’m going to take to try and take to heart the proclamation of Nehemiah who said to the Israelites, “Don’t be dejected and sad for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

A Thankful Woman.

In the past fortnight I’ve found my thoughts wandering a lot around my place in the world as a woman and the discrimination that women face just because they are born female. There was International Women’s Day, Mother’s Day and the massive outcry about violence against women raised by the murder of Sarah Everard. I also happen to be listening to a few different podcasts recently where gender inequality and women in leadership, particularly in faith settings, has been a hot topic.

To be truthful I’ve found some of what I am reading and listening to a little jarring and I’ve been trying to work out why. I think in part it’s because I feel that some of the rhetoric that is used to supposedly promote women’s issues actually place us so so firmly in the camp of victims that it actually, unintentionally even more disempowering.

There are a number of issues in relation to what I’m seeing and hearing about ‘gender inequality,’ that I’m mulling over in my mind. I feel I want to explore and write about them but for some reason I’m struggling to articulate those thoughts here in the written word. Written words can be flung into the world so easily now a days through social media and mediums such as this. However I believe that the written word can be so powerful for good and ill that if I’m going to write on such an emotive and for some painful subject I want my words to be useful and constructive and add value to the debate and that is not always an easy task. And so for the moment I’ll keep talking and asking questions and listening and mulling.

Having said all that one thing that has shone clearly in my mind these past few days is that although gender inequalities have played more of a role in my life than I had first thought I’ve also been privileged to live beyond those obstacles that could have held me back as a person of female gender.

I was raised by parents who were both church ministers in a denomination where women have been allowed to be ministers since its inception in 1865. My mum has been and continues to be a preacher and pastor and I grew up with that being normal. My dad died when I was just coming up 20 but I don’t remember him ever discouraging me not to do something because I was a girl – I clearly remember climbing up cliffs on holiday to find signs telling us we shouldn’t have been there and chatting about how the gospels came into being when I couldn’t have been much older than ten.

As a young teen I played Rugby with the boys at school and at a club. I played in the brass band at my local Salvation Army church and in the Yorkshire Divisional Youth Band. I studied Maths and Physics at A- Level. All of these things were male dominated and yes my friend Emma and I had to push to be allowed to play Rugby at school but in none of the other areas despite the gender imbalance of numbers was I given any impression that as a woman I was unwelcome or deficient.

At The University of Sheffield I studied for a BA in Biblical Studies under a number of male and female Drs and Professors whose interests and research was wide ranging. Some had strong faith and some were evangelical atheists. One of the modules I took was led by Professor Cheryl Exum on the topic of ‘The Bible and Gender’. As a nineteen year old christian woman it was a shocking and challenging course as I was presented with views on how the Bible portrays women that I had never considered. And maybe more importantly how the Bible has been interpreted and presented to portray women through history. To this day I still can’t agree with some of what I was being taught but it was an invaluable eye opener to a topic that has advanced much further in thinking over the past twenty years.

After Uni I worked for a few years in the civil service as a PA and was privileges during my time there to work for three ‘high flying’ women. They were all quite different in style and personality but each incredibly gifted. It was so educational to work closely with them, support them to do their jobs well and also be given regular opportunities to contribute my own thoughts to policy development and ministerial papers. And I’ve gone on to work in a number of different contexts with talented gifted people of both genders.

I studied for my Masters in Pastoral Theology at a Jesuit College which you might be forgiven for thinking was not a great place for a woman to be, but it was an amazing spiritual place to be. The course encouraged a conversation between reality of people’s life experiences, the Bible and the Churches wisdom of the ages; exploring what God has to say through all three into our current situations, a conversation so incredibly important as we reflect on the place of women in our churches, our communities, our workplaces, our families and our world.

As I write I’ve felt so burdened that I don’t want to come across naive about the realities of discrimination the women have and still face; or ignore the horrific violence and oppression experience by women in far too many counties that is considered the norm. Some of the statistic of sexual assault and domestic violence that have been appearing in the news this week for our own country are sobering.

I’m also aware that on a much lesser scale I’ve not been immune – reflecting back on my own life has highlighted more areas of discrimination than I was aware of. I’m currently wrestling with the reality that decent part time jobs that pay well and use my brain and experience and fit with childcare are hard to come by!!

But I also wanted to reflect and celebrate all the opportunities I’ve been given to live beyond those things that could have held me back as a woman and I thank God there have been many. I’m thankful that I have a husband who wants to support me to be the best that I can be and a church that not only has some amazing women in its leadership team but is also publicly speaking up and into issues of discrimination across the board.

As I continue to listen, reflect and explore these issues with others I pray that God will guide me as to where I need to repent, speak and act to show his universal unconditional love for all He has created.

The Blessing of Interconnectedness.

Being a mum of little people I end up watching rather more CBeebies than I ever imagined!

The other day we were watching an episode of Katie Morag, a wee drama set on the fictional Scottish Isle of Struay. In the episode Katie is worried her family are going to have to move away from the island when their Landlords wife, Mrs Cavendish decides that she wants to live on the island and in the property where Katie and her family currently live and run the local shop and postal service.

Katie decides to try and put Mrs Cavendish off the island by taking her on a tour that results in the lady getting bitten by midges, falling in a bog and losing one of her smart shoes and getting covered in seagull poo. But none of this puts the wife of their landlord off – she is determined to oust the Morags and make their home her own. That is until Mrs Cavendish finds that Katie’s mum already knows what has happened, a neighbour turns up with cream for her bites and someone else returns her shoe from the bog all cleaned up. Various people had witnessed what had happened to her and were responding with kindness and concern but she sees it as people spying on her, being busybodies and the idea of living in a community where people might know her business is horrific.

Katie Morag reflects that it is very strange that despite showing Mrs Cavendish the worst parts of the island she wasn’t put off and yet when she was shown what Katie feels is the best bit – a community that looks out for each other she couldn’t get away fast enough.

Being part of a community like that is something I love about living on the Isle of Wight. We’ve a much bigger population than any of the Scottish islands with over 140000 people living here and yet there is still a strong sense of being interconnected, of people knowing each other or at least knowing someone else who does! You go to the local shops and you have to be prepared for it to take longer than you think because you’ll bump into someone you know in the bread aisle, and by the tomatoes, and by the loo roll. And then of course there’s no rushing at the checkouts because the person in front of you is chatting to the lady on the till.

When I lived and worked in Surrey I found life was very compartmentalised. You had friends and acquaintances at work, and different friends from where you live, and different friends from church and different friends from your slimming group or exercise class or parent and toddler group and none of these friendship circles really ever mixed.

In contrast here in the West Wight I can meet someone at the sports centre that I also go to church with and in my exercise class there will be someone else I also know from work. The mum I see at toddler group also goes to my slimming group, and at that slimming group is a friend who I know from one of the other churches in the area. At the beach I’ll see a lady from round the corner who’ll let me know how her Dad is because my husband saw him two days ago in his job as a paramedic. And when you have a summer BBQ and you invite your friends from all these different areas of your life it’s not awkward because they’ll find they are already connected in some way that you never realised.

I absolutely love the interconnectedness of island life and I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to embrace it – but it’s clearly not for everyone. The lady who lived in our house before us said they left the island because they found it too claustrophobic… apparently she and her husband kept very much to themselves. I know everyone is different but I find that sad.

Just three months after we moved to the Isle of Wight I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer. It was caught early enough that I’m still healthy and well now but it still required ‘the full works’ of treatment to rid me of it and prevent a recurrence. As we were presented with the treatment plan we considered moving back to Surrey, closer to family and friends. But the island friends, work colleagues and acquaintances just weeks in the making supported us and blessed us and showed us what being part of the community here means.

The past year of the Covid Pandemic has in some ways maybe squashed many aspects of our community life but it’s resilience has continued to shine through. Our local sports and community centre became a help hub with the support of the local churches and many many volunteers. It’s also more recently become a vaccination centre under the neighbouring GP surgery and has achieved the highest rates of vaccination in the whole country. Being blessed with beaches and open countryside we can easily get out for walks and whenever you meet anyone warm hellos and short conversations take place whether you know each other or not. The NHS Trust considered one of the most vulnerable in the country to being overwhelmed by Covid has stood up to the challenge and the island community has blessed the staff there with their support too.

Yes there are things about island life that can be frustrating but there are so many aspects that make it a very special place to live – not least the interconnectedness and sense of community that can be across the island.

We thank God that he called us to move to the island and make our home in the West Wight – we are greatly blessed.

“I did it!”

In the words of my youngest son – I DID IT! Finally I have got my head round how to set up this blog online and I’m up and running sharing my pick and mix of thoughts going round in my head.

Ten years ago I had a blog and I found writing and sharing my various thoughts on all sorts of topics really rewarding and it was a privilege to find that others were interested in what I had to say. But then a series of major life events happened and I found myself unable to write. My blog went silent and eventually I deleted it – something that I now regret.

Over the past two years the desire to write has returned. Various thoughts have swished round in my head and I’ve longed to pen them down and see if they resonnate with anyone else. But the busyness of life has continued to get in the way and it just hasn’t happened. Finally last July I started to set up this webpage but then got stumped by the actual process of setting it up.

And then the other week at church the amazing Heather Pocock preached in a series on Wellness on Vocation. Heather inspired me to get my act together, to get my head around the tech and start getting some words down. https://youtu.be/mVLfmoS9kbA I’d definitely reccomend checking it out.

So here it is – my first blog post. The first time round I wrote several posts before making my blog public – just to make sure that I continue – I think I might do the same again now.

If you have made your way here – do read a few posts and let me have some feedback – it will be gratefully received!!