Advent reflections

The approach to Christmas in our family is, as in so many other families, a time of growing excitement. Each day that the Advent book is opened, each chocolate from the Advent calendar, marks off another step nearer to the big day.

Advent book

Ellen loves everything about Christmas – the lights, the shopping, the carols (especially the carols), the presents. That’s to say, she loves the still-wrapped presents. She loves to take hold of them, clutch them in a moment of anticipation and then with her faltering fingers, slowly pull off the wrapping paper, by herself if she can, but sometimes defeated by the task and appealing for our help.

What happens next depends entirely on the contents of the parcel. If it contains something safe (i.e. familiar) all is well. If it contains something scary (i.e. unfamiliar) it is usually hurled across the room with a fearful cry of, “Take it back to the shop!” I’m sure it’s a scene repeated in many homes where there is a family member with autism.

Over the years we have learned how to make Ellen’s presents “safe”. It’s safe to give her CDs or DVDs as long as it’s music and films she’s already familiar with (asked what she wants for Christmas she will usually name a CD she already owns). It’s safe, and indeed very welcome, if the parcel contains chocolate, bubble bath, money, colouring books and pens, a personal stereo or dictating machine or a roll of bubble wrap that she can cut into strips and take to church on Sundays to sit and pop during the long sermon.

Stray outside these boundaries and the gift will cause stress, fear and antipathy – very embarrassing if the dear old aunt who chose it is present at the opening. The reaction can be quite extreme – given the extent of Ellen’s quadriplegic cerebral palsy, it always amazes me how she manages a bouncer that would be the envy of many an England bowler. This gesture can be accompanied not only by demands for the offending object to be taken back to the shop, but by mounting cries, screams and self-harm unless a swift promise is made to return the gift at the earliest opportunity.

Once again, as I make my preparations for Christmas, I can see a parable in Ellen’s behaviour. How often do we ask God for something, anticipating joyfully the answer to our prayer because we know how faithfully He has answered us before; but then if the answer comes in a guise we were not expecting, we reject it and refuse to allow Him to lead us into a new experience?

I am lonely and want a friend – but I’m not willing to befriend the particular person God brings across my path. I want a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in my church – but if it manifests in a way that is quieter, or noisier, or in some way more unusual than my previous experience, I’m quick to join those who denounce it as not being genuinely from God. I need financial provision – but God’s response is to tell me to sow what I have in order to reap the harvest He has for me, and my fist tightens around the little I have, unwilling to make the faith experiment.

May God give us the grace to receive all His gifts, even the unexpected ones, and to allow Him to lead us in unfamiliar paths, in undreamt-of ways, into greater blessings than we could ever have imagined if left to our own devices.

My new book is out in time for Christmas!

the well is deepHave you ever wondered about the Samaritan woman at the well – how she got through all those husbands, who is the man she’s now living with, what difference does the encounter with Jesus make to her future? This isn’t Gospel truth, but it’s my imagined version of what might have happened: Visit my author page to see my other books:

Delhi blog – final post

This is the Bengali Basti school where I taught a lesson on Friday morning.

This is the Bengali Basti school where I taught a lesson on Friday morning.

I’m writing this final entry from at home. My last 2 days in Delhi were really packed. On Thursday morning I went into Sahaita school and did a creative writing lesson with class 10 on point of view in storytelling. They really rose to the challenge and wrote some imaginative responses, some in Hindi and the braver ones in English. After lunch I walked home with the girls. They had been commissioned to make 150 coloured paper flowers and 120 paper snowflakes for an event in the Swedish Chamber of Commerce, so I pitched in and tried to help them – although it was an area where they were much more skilful than I was! When E and S came home at the end of the day, they took me a few stops on the metro to a shopping place called Dilli Haat where I was able to buy gifts to bring home and bags of sweets for all the girls in the Atulya home. I had a delicious meal out at a Kashmiri restaurant with S and E and went home tired but happy!

On Friday morning I went and did the same lesson with classes 7 and 8 in the Bengali Basti school, and again they gave the work a really good shot. Then B put me into an autorickshaw and negotiated a fair price for the ride, and I went to Sanjiv and Sushila’s house and had a good chat with Sushila, comparing notes on our experience of raising a disabled child in India and England, and also on the way our two churches had embraced our children with open arms. I stayed and had lunch with them and Martin, which gave me a chance to share with Martin a poem which I would have included had I been well enough to do the planned creative writing workshop with the church. I was planning to pose the question, “Can God speak to us through writings outside our Christian tradition?” and the poem is by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I will include it at the end of this post.

Then it was back to the girls’ home, and more flower and snowflake making. When teatime came (around 6 o’clock) E and S had arranged for a group of women to come round for chai and biscuits and to hear my testimony. These were all women who’d had to leave their husbands because of abuse, and it was a privilege to share with them God’s incredible faithfulness and provision for me and Natasha during the year that we had to move into temporary accommodation before we were able to buy our current house. I had so many examples of when I had literally nothing and God faithfully provided for our needs over and over again. These women are not Christians and have not been exposed to the Gospel very much as yet, so it was a real joy to be able to share with them about the love of God, and how when everyone else lets you down, you can rely on Jesus and He will always be faithful.

After the ladies had gone, I had my final meal with the girls, and after dinner I gave them the sweets I had bought the previous day. They all prayed with me, mostly in Hindi, and I really felt thoroughly blessed. After dinner, one by one they crept up to me shyly and handed me farewell cards they had made for me. A number of them had written things that they hadn’t been able to share with me (because of the language barrier) but which they managed to write down in understandable English, about how God had really spoken to them when I shared my story with them. It’s been really moving to know that the things that have happened in my life, and the ways God has led me and provided for me, have had such an impact on this little group of girls who have been through far more suffering than I will ever know. I prayed a blessing on their household and on E and S who are working such miracles through the love of God, and left them with a promise to come back. After all that I just managed to catch 2 hours’ sleep before my lift arrived to take me to the airport.

Some confusion arose between me and my driver on the way there. The conversation went as follows:
C: Which terminal are you flying from?
Me: Is there more than one terminal?
C: Yes, two terminals, I need to know which one to take you to.
Me: Hold on while I google it on my phone…. Oh, it says terminal three.
C: Terminal three is fine, I take you there.
Me: But you said there were two terminals.
C: That is right, two terminals, one and three!
So, having cleared up that confusion, he dropped me at the door, and I had a very straightforward journey home from there on, with much to reflect on and much to thank God for on the journey home.

Here is the poem I mentioned, by Rabindranath Tagore:

Day after day, O lord of my life,
shall I stand before thee face to face.
With folded hands, O lord of all worlds,
shall I stand before thee face to face.

Under thy great sky in solitude and silence,
with humble heart shall I stand before thee face to face.

In this laborious world of thine, tumultuous with toil
and with struggle, among hurrying crowds
shall I stand before thee face to face.

And when my work shall be done in this world,
O King of kings, alone and speechless
shall I stand before thee face to face.

Delhi blog – day 16

This will be perhaps a rather more reflective post as my trip draws towards its close and I look back over the past two and a half weeks. My real desire in coming here was to spend time with the Atulya girls. Of all the Karuna Action projects in which I’ve taken an interest over the years, none has moved me like this one, and here is where I wanted to be.

So while it’s been great to be able to make a positive contribution in the schools, especially with the kids with learning disabilities, it’s here in this home that I’ll be leaving a chunk of my heart behind – at least until next time I come, hopefully next year.

Before I came, Martin prophesied over me that I would leave something behind and come home lighter. I had no idea what that meant, but it resonated in my heart as something I really wanted. Now, towards the end of the trip, I understand it more.

Back in June of 2006 there came a day when I had no choice but to ask Andrew to move out of our house. I went into shock (those who knew me at the time, though they had no idea what was going on at home, will have observed me lose four and a half stone in three months, the effects of the shock). And from that day onwards, I feel as if a cloud of fog descended over my life, which has never really lifted. All my emotions have felt muted, including my feelings towards God, and all the colour had gone out of life, and that was reinforced by the subsequent events of being forced into a divorce I didn’t want and the shock of Andrew’s sudden death last year.

When I shared my testimony with the girls the other night, and saw God at work in their responses to it, I suddenly realised that this fog had lifted – I don’t know exactly when or how it has happened, but something has lifted from me and my heart feels free again. I felt so much joy sharing what God has done, and seeing the Holy Spirit at work in those who listened. Somewhere along the way here in Delhi I have put down a burden.

I feel as if for the past few years I haven’t been seeing anything truly clearly, not even Jesus. I’ve seen for sure His love and comfort, His care and provision for me, miracle after miracle of financial provision, and all my needs have been taken care of. But that’s only one half of what I used to see in Jesus. The other half – His greatness and majesty, His glory and victory – had got lost in the fog.

Through everything that’s happened here, including the illness, which has all been part of a seamless whole of what God’s been doing, that missing half of the picture has been restored to me. I’ve rediscovered a dimension of worship that I’d lost, of honouring and loving Him for all that He is, not just for what He’s done for me.

Well, I said this was going to be a more reflective piece, and there it is. As I said, I’m leaving a huge chunk of my heart with these beautiful girls, who have faced the worst that man can do and yet can sing and dance about the freedom they now enjoy, and already I’m making plans to come back when I can.

Delhi blog day 15

My planned visit to observe the 3 children I’ve been asked to assess was cancelled at the last moment owing to yet another tummy upset. However, I had previously seen them in school and at church, so I felt I had enough information to give the teachers some solid advice. I was recovered enough by lunchtime to go into school and did a really useful workshop with the teachers on how to write individual education plans for these children, with realistic, measurable targets that can be used to drive their learning forward.

I was telling them stuff they hadn’t heard about before, so I feel it may make a real difference, both now and to any future children with learning disabilities whom they may teach. As my trip draws nearer to its close I find myself hoping I can come back in a year or so and see what progress has been made.

Tonight we had visitors – a team of 7 from a church in Lincoln who have come out for half term week. They had dinner with us, and E and the girls cooked up a veritable feast.

One of the girls has come up to me twice today to tell me shyly, in broken English, that my testimony really touched her last night. The first time she said she doesn’t usually pray in bed at night but after listening to me she went to bed and prayed. The second time I couldn’t fully understand what she was trying to say, but she was clearly expressing that God had spoken to her through my story, and she ended with the words, “I am very happy.”

Praise God for all He has done this few weeks despite my illness, not least what He has done in my own heart.

Delhi blog day 14

I’m going to end up uploading several blogs at once as internet access is currently in short supply, so I will keep this one brief. Church this morning was wonderful – inspiring worship, warm fellowship, challenging teaching. I’m feeling better every day now although I did find my legs were still too weak to stand all through the worship.

E and S were out for lunch and didn’t return until teatime, so I had the afternoon on my own with the girls and had some lovely conversation with a couple of them, the one whose English was better acting as interpreter for the other. She asked me what my favourite worship song is and I attempted to teach her the song I really love – Chris Bowater’s “Jesus shall take the highest honour”.

E and S returned with a surprise for me – they had arranged for an interpreter to come for the evening so that I could share my testimony with the girls. It was a real privilege to share the journey that God has brought me on since childhood until now, and to be able to testify to His amazing faithfulness through it all. I was able to both tell them and show them that no matter what life throws at us or how we falter, His grace is there to pick us up, and there are no hurts He can’t heal. As it says in Psalm 91, “His faithfulness (not mine!) will be my shield and bulwark.”

It was clear from the girls’ questions and comments afterwards that God had really spoken to some of them, and I think the Holy Spirit was at work in one or two hearts as they went off to bed.

Delhi blog day 13

So bedtime came last night, and a new dilemma presented itself. Where was Moses the mouse? Was he in my room (in which case I should leave the door open to let him out)? Or was he in the living room (in which case I should shut my door to keep him from getting in)? In the end I shut the door, on the chance that if he was in my room my snoring would terrify him into keeping right away from me. The reality is he’s probably been here, unseen, all along, and I will probably not see him again, even though he’ll still be here.

This morning a miracle happened – I woke up hungry. I actually woke up very early and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I decided to be spiritual and got my Bible out to meditate on Psalm 62, but the next thing I knew I was waking up several hours later and hungry. So although my appetite is small, I’m back to eating normal food again. After feeling so very grim it’s wonderful to be feeling normal again, and makes me realise how much I take my health for granted.

I did my treasure hunt with the girls. After a couple of false starts while they grappled with the rules, they soon got the hang of it with much jostling and laughter, and found the hidden treasure, a packet of Werther’s Originals.

After this we all sat in a circle on the floor and played a riotous game in which a colourful scarf represented a thief and a grey scarf represented a policeman. Starting at opposite sides of the circle, but both moving clockwise, the scarves passed from person to person. If you received the thief scarf you had to put it on, tie two knots in it, untie it and pass it on. If you received the policeman scarf, you had to put it on, tie one knot in it, untie it and pass it on. As the “policeman” chased the “thief” around the circle, the gap gradually narrowed. If the policeman landed on you while you still had the thief, you were out, and the game went on without you. The shrieks of hilarity must have been heard halfway round the block.

Then the girls put on a dance for me, with genuine joy on their faces, and given their traumatic histories, it was a thrill beyond words because as I sat watching them, I was sitting opposite a wall hanging which bears the words, “You turned my wailing into dancing, you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” Truly these girls are living epistles. They are at various stages on their journey to God, but some can give very clear testimonies of how He has transformed their lives, and one writes beautiful worship songs.

After this I was sitting doing some work on my laptop and 3 of the girls, having secretly decided to give me a fashion show, appeared before me in their loveliest saris. They really did look beautiful. This was the point at which I discovered that for the cheap camera I picked up the day before I left home, I had brought the wrong batteries. So E took some pictures for me on her camera and is going to send them to me.