Smile…

I don’t think I am getting my point across too well. But I saw the sticker and it frustrated me. I know today is World Mental Health Day yet I’m not sure how much that will be spoken of in churches tomorrow. I know that there are 27 million plus people trapped in modern day slavery, yet so many don’t know. I know the world is in turmoil, and we grapple for solutions. I know millions live in abject poverty, whilst I live a life of comfort. I know there are thousands in children in the UK in the care system without a family, and so many homes closed to them. I know there is darkness and despair. So I just think that ’Smile Jesus loves you’ doesn’t always cut in.

A few (quite rushed) thoughts on World Mental Health Day…

So yesterday I noticed in our offices a yellow ‘Smile, Jesus loves you’ sticker.  I was reminded that I used to have that as a pencil sharpener in 6th form.  Along with my pencils, pens, notebooks, badges and anything else I could get covered in Bible verses or Christian mottos, I thought it was the best thing and of course the best form of evangelism.  Little did I know that it wasn’t the sharpener, the pen or even the ‘Mix CD’ I made for my RE teacher of 2003’s Christian hits (I know!) that would really show Jesus’ love, but my actions and my story.  I learned over the years that the fact I was smiling; the fact that I have joy in my heart despite all I had been through, that I was so full of God’s grace and forgiveness that it spread across my face- that was the true evangelism.

Don’t get me wrong, those things or similar can be a really great conversation starter and they were for me in 6th form.  In my RE class especially there was a girl who was Jehovah Witness and sometimes witch and a guy who was atheist but also dabbled in dark things and my teacher who used to be a Christian, had clearly been damaged by fundamentalism, yet cried when he recounted the story of him and a friend finding a dead lamb beside the road and being overwhelmed by Jesus’ sacrifice.  The pens and bracelets and mottos helped start dialogue that continued into class and we often had huge clashes, particularly myself and the atheist as he claimed I was ‘burning through him’ with my eyes when I looked at him, and he once stared he would ‘kill me and chop me up’.  Clearly a spiritual battle was taking place.  I was a brand new Christian, likely overzealous, but utterly convicted by the transformation that had taken place in my life.  I really believed I should smile because I knew for the first time that Jesus loved me!  I thought it was a great thing to have on my pencil sharpener!

I even managed to get ‘thrown out’ of my History class for smiling too much.  I was asked why I was grinning, to which I responded that I wasn’t grinning just smiling because I was happy, and like to smile.  My teacher told me to stop, which of course meant I couldn’t and when he thought I was making fun of him asked me to leave the class.  This was rather awkward to later explain to the head of 6th form when I was sat in the common room enjoying a cup of tea instead of enjoying my History lesson.  My RE teacher a while later said that he often ‘debated’ with my history teacher about the things I said about faith.  I to this day don’t know why he took my side, as he certainly didn’t agree with me about Jesus, but it seems he agreed enough to defend me against the History teacher.  Again- a spiritual battle.

This was at a time when I still didn’t fully realise what a spiritual battle was.  I didn’t know that Satan had been trying to claim me from the moment I was born, and often so nearly did.  I didn’t know that so much of the darkness that had surrounded my life and those closest to me; anxiety, poverty, depression, feelings of worthlessness, pain, addiction, self-injury, hopelessness, and fear were all things that should not surround you- part of the backdrop of the ultimate battle of good vs evil, life vs death, eternity vs darkness.  I had now claimed life and light but that didn’t mean that the darkness did not still try to overcome.

When I was younger, I forget how old perhaps around 13 or 14, one of my favourite songs was ‘smile’ by Michael Jackson.  I used to hear the lyrics and tears would float down my cheeks.  I know it’s pretty melancholy and perhaps dramatic to say but I used to think the song was actually speaking to me; I used to think each word was telling the story of my life and that it really would one day get better somehow even though I didn’t know how.

Songs like this, the pink blossom tree that sat in the garden on our estate and the love for my siblings willed me to push against the darkness. To not give up with life.

Smile, though your heart is aching

Smile, even though it’s breaking

When there are clouds in the sky

You’ll get by… 

If you smile

With your fear and sorrow

Smile and maybe tomorrow

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile

If you just…

Light up your face with gladness

Hide every trace of sadness

Although a tear may be ever so near

That’s the time you must keep on trying

Smile, what’s the use of crying

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile

If you just…

Smile, though your heart is aching

Smile, even though it’s breaking

When there are clouds in the sky

You’ll get by…

If you smile

Through your fear and sorrow

Smile and maybe tomorrow

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile

If you just smile…

That’s the time you must keep on trying

Smile, what’s the use of crying

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile

If you just smile

I found hope, as I have said before, when I was 15 and my life changed.  I entered into a new phase, with a new family and new revelation.  I was told again and again that I was loved, valued, precious and forgiven.  Not just through words, but more often in the way I was treated.  I (like the pens and sharpeners said) was told ‘Jesus loves me’, but more importantly I was shown it in small acts of love, in edification, in forgiveness when I didn’t deserve it and in being cared for and respected.

I was learning that I didn’t need to be afraid of death, which I had so feared so deeply from a young age when my half-brother had taken his own life and I cried myself to sleep thinking of the void.  I was learning that I shouldn’t have thoughts of throwing myself from a high window or into traffic to escape the numbing pain.  I was learning that I should give my body all that it needs and deserves.  I was learning that I had something unique and beautiful to offer the world. I was learning that I had a voice.  I was learning that it shouldn’t be so hard.  I was learning that community and time with people and opening yourself up is important.  I was learning that self-destruction won’t solve anything.  I was learning how to smile, and finding so many reasons to do so!

I wish however that someone had told me more clearly, that when you become a Christian, when you know outstanding grace, love acceptance and forgiveness, that the darkness does not disappear.  I mean, I do know this.  My life had seen the darkness that the world can offer and I knew that even though I had God’s love and protection, that the darkness was still there.  I was still in the battle.  But I think that’s why I kind of hate those pencil sharpeners, bumper stickers and bracelets sometimes.  They over simplify things.  Of course Jesus loves me and of course I should smile, but, because Jesus loves me doesn’t mean I will always be smiling.  Life is more complex than that.  In my opinion it doesn’t give enough gravity to the darkness that is real.

I kind of like Job for his honesty…

Job 9:

27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
    I will change my expression, and smile,’
28 I still dread all my sufferings,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 Since I am already found guilty,
    why should I struggle in vain?
30 Even if I washed myself with soap
    and my hands with cleansing powder,
31 you would plunge me into a slime pit
    so that even my clothes would detest me.

In the novel ‘The Fault in our Stars’ which grapples with teenage cancer, the male teen’s parents have a house full of ‘encouragements’.  Little notes and pillows and signs.  Things like ‘in the darkest days the Lord put the best people in your life’.  Whilst these things are true and in the novel encouraging to his parents, it doesn’t change the fact he has cancer.  Part of me feels like those kind of encouragements sometimes take away from acknowledging the reality and the pain.  It’s a fine balance of course as we don’t want to give into the darkness or allow it to swallow us (which I naturally sometimes do), but little cute words don’t always cut it.  In the novel, *spoiler alert!* the boy dies.  His girlfriend delivers a heart-breaking eulogy in a ‘pre funeral’ for him, but when it comes to the actual funeral she says an ‘encouragement’- something twee about laughter or rainbows.  She says that funerals are not for the dead but those left behind.  I think sometimes these stickers, pencil sharpeners or notes are more encouraging to Christians than they are to everyone else.  As I said I know its true Jesus loves me and I should smile, but this is not necessarily the message the world needs to hear.  It’s not always even the message the church needs to hear.  We need the ‘pre- funeral eulogy’.  The words that speak of hurt but also hope.

Christians suffer unthinkable tragedy; death, miscarriage, loss, and pain.  Christians suffer from mental illness.  Christians go through divorce.  Christians are broken and hurt and torn apart.  We don’t need cute messages or to be told to cheer up.  We shouldn’t have to expect to smile all the time.  We do need the truth and the miracle of the Gospel.  We do need powerful prayers and Bible verses spoken over us.  And we do have access to a peace that can pass understanding and a joy that can remain in the midst of unspeakable pain.

I don’t think I am getting my point across too well.  But I saw the sticker and it frustrated me.  I know today is World Mental Health Day yet I’m not sure how much that will be spoken of in churches tomorrow.  I know that there are 27 million plus people trapped in modern day slavery, yet so many don’t know.  I know the world is in turmoil, and we grapple for solutions.  I know millions live in abject poverty, whilst I live a life of comfort. I know there are thousands in children in the UK in the care system without a family, and so many homes closed to them.  I know there is darkness and despair.  So I just think that ’Smile Jesus loves you’ doesn’t always cut in.

We have a hope, a joy, and promises of new and better tomorrows.  We have so many reasons to smile, but that needs to come from a place of people being told the truth.  Not just to smile because you’re a Christian so you should be happy.  Not just to tell someone who doesn’t know Jesus that it will all be ok of they just follow him.  Not just to tell the world that Jesus and the Church have an answer to the suffering, but to actually live it.  We need to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  We need to give people a reason to smile.  We need to feed the poor, give homes to the orphans, set people free from slavery and do all we can to spread hope.

We need to tell people why we can still find joy and are able to smile even in the depth of suffering because of the hope we have found.  I need to tell people how I have learnt to smile rather than put it on a sticker.

I am thankful now that my story and my smile can bring hope to others.  I want people to know that God is good even when life isn’t.  I want them to see that it can get better, that life can turn around.  I want them to believe that people can be forces of good and miracles can happen.  I believe my life is a miracle.  I believe there are so many reasons to face tomorrow with a smile.  I know it can be hard and seem hopeless and hurt.  I know that having Jesus in your life doesn’t magically change that.  But salvation is, being delivered from dire situations or harm.  I know now this doesn’t mean we won’t get hurt.  I know it doesn’t mean we won’t face terrible situations and see unthinkable things.  But it does mean that we will survive them, we will get through, and we have hope and a future.  In the end of the story Jesus wins.  Love wins.  Hope wins.  That gives me reason to smile.  I hope it does you too.

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing'” -Mother Theresa

If you are suffering or struggling there is hope and there are places you can get help and people who can help you.  you are not alone…

What’s In A Name

Do I believe that even if I changed my name or had a different name, that my name would not be written in heaven? No. Do I believe that if my name had been plucked from a list, or if my birth parents gave it months of consideration and it has a great significance (I don’t really know if this is the case) that I would be any less ‘me’. Again no.

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

-Romeo & Juliet Act II Scene II

 

I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately with friends about names.

A couple of people I know are often referred to by their surname and do the same with others, in a nickname type way.  For me this always strikes a nerve.  As someone who was fostered age 15, but never legally adopted, my name, in particular my surname, for me doesn’t always fit with my current family identity and life.  I don’t share a surname with the majority of my ‘now family’, and sometimes that hurts or seems to jar.  My name belongs to my birth father, his father and his before.  It belongs to me in the sense I have always had it, but not in many other ways.

For most people their surname is part of their identity.  It is part of their lineage, of where they have come from.  It represents belonging and often ties you to someone else.  When someone gets married, the lady often takes the name of her husband, representing becoming part of his family. Your mother’s maiden name is a common security question used.  Your surname is something that is used to help identify you.  At work I daily sign for packages using my full name, telling the courier my initial and surname.  Yet is it really a major part of who I am?

I find it hard sometimes when I am identified through a name which in some ways is removed from who I am.

When someone is adopted they take on the name of their new family, their ‘forever family’.  This helps the person feel a part of their family, and gives a sense of belonging and identity.  Sometimes new middle names are given.  Rarely is a new first name given however, as it is such an integral part of who you are unless you are very young.

Most people introduce themselves using their first name.  It is often one of the first words you learn to say and write.  It is ‘who’ you are.  Yet is it?

I have many issues with Katie Hopkins, but the outburst of hers that made me beyond angry was on ‘This Morning’ when she talked about names.  She suggested that a child’s name speaks to something of their parents.  She said that it clearly indicates what ‘class’ a child comes from and helps her to decide if she want her child to play with them or not.  This rant was beyond ignorant in so many ways, not least of which that if a child has been adopted, the family, circumstance, situation and class even that they now belong to, could be entirely different to the one they were born into.  The name they were given is not and nor should it be a summary of who they are.  She claimed she wouldn’t judge a child on their surname, but surely doing it on a first name is just as wrong?

A similar issue can arise for people of different race or nationality who perhaps change their name to avoid discrimination, or to ‘fit in’ more.  Something which makes me sad they would feel they have to do!  I recently watched a video where a brilliant actress was saying she wanted to change her name because friends couldn’t pronounce it.  Her mother’s reply was “If people can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky and Michelangelo then they can learn to say Uzomaka”. http://www.upworthy.com/the-perfect-response-for-kids-with-hard-to-pronounce-ethnic-names?c=ufb2

When a new company is being started, the name is one of the most important choices- it needs to be amazing for the brand to thrive.

Often, now more than even parents look for significance, or meaning behind the name before naming a child.  Baby name books are looked in, names whittled down, sometimes only chosen once the baby is seen.  Children are occasionally named after family members, places, or significant things.  More and more especially it seems in ‘celebrity’ culture, parents are trying to find the most unique names possible.  Thought goes into a name.

But again I ask myself, especially for those adopted.  How does it affect someone? That someone else has chosen your name, identified you in such a significant way, and then may no longer be a part of your life, or even was a negative part of your life.   Is what you are called really part of who you are?

As I said for me this is a daily thought.  I have a rather unusual name and even now people ask me if there is significance that it’s a French name, or do all my siblings have such unusual names, or what does it mean?  And I struggle.  I also struggle when my foster family are all together and people comment on our names.  Or on occasion when people ask why my surname is different to that of my family.

But now, this is what the LORD says– he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

-Isaiah 43:1

The names of people and their family names in the Bible have a great deal of significance.  Someone’s name often spoke of their character or where they came from. What ‘house’ they belonged to.  Adam means ‘human’, Eve ‘source of life.  Jesus of course, before he was even born was given the name ‘Emanuel’ – God with us.

“Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!  See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands. Always in my mind is a picture of Jerusalem’s walls in ruins.”

-Isaiah 49:15-16

 

Even in this promise from God to Israel; God speaks of Israel’s name written on the palms of His hands.  Luke 10:20 also speaks of our names being ‘written in heaven’.

Do I believe that even if I changed my name or had a different name, that my name would not be written in heaven?  No.  Do I believe that if my name had been plucked from a list, or if my birth parents gave it months of consideration and it has a great significance (I don’t really know if this is the case) that I would be any less ‘me’.  Again no.

When Christine Caine (Founder of the A21 Campaign) was born, she had on her birth certificate only a number, no name!  She was ‘nameless’.  Yet she was given a name by her adopted parents, and she could not have a stronger identity or such an amazing legacy.  She is an incredible woman of God.  Her name does not make her more or less so.

In Nazi concentration camps, Jews were often stripped of their names to try and take away their humanity or their identity, given only a number, sometimes tattooed on their skin.  There were so many being put to death it was ‘easier’ to just identify them by numbers.  Yet strong amazing souls still remained, even stripped of their names.  Survivors who were influential in art, literature, theology and so much more.  They were so much more than just a number or even their names.

I have a first name, 2 middle names and a surname, all dictated by my birth family.  Yet my name does not define who I am.  My character, my actions, my heart and the life I lead (I hope) do that.  I may well one day change my surname to that of my foster families.  I may get married and take my husband’s name.  Or I may indeed just keep ‘my own’ and all of the identity that it comes with.

It is strange sometimes to think when someone calls my name across a room, that it carries with it so much of where I came from.  But where I came from, and the first 15 years of my life, are as much a part of me and who I am as the recent 13.

…As Juliet says, ‘that which we call a rose’.

I would love to hear your thoughts, but please as ever keep comments respectful.  Thank you!

‘Forever Family’s’ and Finding a Place Called Home.

On Thursday the 28th June, I ventured into London because I was really keen to get to an event.   I went to a Fostering and Adoption consultation that was put on by Krish Kandiah from the Evangelical Alliance (http://www.eauk.org/  @eauknews  @krishk) and Care For the Family     (http://www.careforthefamily.org.uk/ @care4thefamily)

It was a really great informative and inspiring evening.  It was so encouraging to hear what the Church is doing in this area, and the plans to do more.  It was also brilliant to see a room full of Christians who are fostering, have adopted, or who are in the process.  It was great to learn from each other, share with each other and encourage each other.

Now I know this is a very sensitive and personal subject.  However as someone who had a really great experience of being fostered by an incredible Christian family, I feel I am in a privileged position to encourage others and share the benefits, and how it can be done so well!  But as someone who has also seen a number of times how it has not gone so well, including a short placement in emergency care which was wasn’t pleasant, and what happens when difficulties overcome potential, I also feel I know a little about how it shouldn’t be done, and what some of the obstacles are.

I was Fostered when I was 15.  My foster family in lifestyle, happiness, choices, beliefs etc could not have been more different than what I knew.  It took a long time for me to start looking after myself.  My foster family showered us with grace, love, and affirmation (I had a terrible self-image, and deep set apathy and almost hatred for life).  It took a long time to stop swearing, acting in a self-destructive way, and to accept their ways of living, and that we could be a family.

When I turned 16, the thing that showed me in the most definitive way that we were now family, is that after only a few months, my foster parents wanted me to continue to stay at home (I was offered sheltered accommodation etc), and wanted me to regain my youth.  They supported me throughout 6th form.  We went on holidays, we spent time together just playing games or watching TV.  My mum taught me how to really care for myself and love myself.  Somehow over time, we became very much a family.  My family’s decision to care for us, and step out in that way, literally radically transformed my life, my prospects and my hope and future.

 

There are 59,000 Children currently in the care system in the UK.  Currently BAAF (British Association for Adoption and Fostering- (http://www.baaf.org.uk/) state that 6,200 children need adopting in the UK.  The Fostering Network (http://www.fostering.net/) state that 8,000 children currently need foster placements.

The Evangelical Alliance alone is in contact with 15,000 Churches.

The maths is simple.  If just one family in each if these Churches, supported by the Church as a whole took on the mission to Foster or Adopt, then the need for the whole of the UK could be covered by the Church!!

Fostering and Adoption shows with words and actions the impact God has had on our lives.  Our compassion (to co-suffer, be moved into action with empathy) on such vulnerable children (70% of whom have been abused or neglected), shows the love of Jesus in the most practical way.

I have a huge heart for Children, and can’t wait to show mine (whether fostered adopted or natural) Jesus and real love as my family did for me.  I am very passionate that anyone on Church if capable, whether they have their own Children or not, should make room in their lives for those children who need families.  I believe that it is a Biblical principle, and one of the best ways possible, to show in a practical, every day way the love of God, and to literally be able to transform someone’s life.

Krish asked us to imagine the impact on the Church if at least on family per church were looking after children.  Imagine the impact on our often “Middle Class” Churches.  Imagine children in Sunday School who would never otherwise be exposed the gospel.  Imagine the topics at weekly prayer meetings which would include all the complexities of the children’s and their natural family’s lives.  Imagine the Churches praying for the poor, not just overseas, but those in their own families and extended families.

Imagine the impact on our nation.  If the Church were not seen as homophobic, hateful, bigots, or crazy ‘Bible Bashers’.  But as those who literally open up their homes and their lives to some of the most vulnerable in our nation.  Wouldn’t this help not only the children, but our communities to see who God really is?

Ps 68:5-6 says:

A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
Is God in His holy habitation.
God sets the lonely in families;
He brings out those who are bound into prosperity;
But the rebellious dwell in a dry land.

Wouldn’t it be great if this is what the Church and our God was known for?  Being the defender of the poor and the protector of orphans and widows?

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not in any way suggesting that every Christian should foster and adopt.  As I have said I have seen many cases, including with Christians, where the complexities of their life, their circumstances, character or callings have meant that it would not be suitable for them.  And this kind of parenting is ‘Extreme Parenting’ that includes a great number of difficulties as well as rewards.

I realise there are hindrances to people fostering or adopting, but in my experience, even within the Church this is often out of a lack of understanding, and a feeling that it is only something particular types of people are ‘called to’ not God loving, every day loving families.  I do believe that everyone in Church has a role to play in supporting the families who do this wonderful thing.  I think that there needs to be an education and new perspective within the Church that this is not only an answer to the problem of infertility (which of course it can be) but also a mission field.

Unfortunately I haven’t always seen that.  I haven’t always seen the Church supporting those who already Foster and Adopt, who have ‘difficult children’.  Nor have I always seen the Church ‘promoting’ Adoption or Fostering, as there can be much misunderstanding on what it entails, and often a desire to see healing or natural conception when infertility is the issue.

So many non-Christian families do an amazing job of Fostering and Adopting, and seeing broken children grow and be restored.  But imagine how much more Christians can do; with God, with the Holy Spirit guiding and protecting, and with the network of help and support from others in the Church.  This is what Church should look like.

As Krish said in his article:

“Collectively we can begin to discover how we can instil a mindset change in our families and churches to open our arms and hearts to the children who need temporary and permanent homes where they can be accepted and loved unconditionally.”

http://www.fiec.org.uk/news/article/finding-a-place-called-home

One reason I am passionate about Christian’s Fostering and Adopting, is that is one of the best possible ways to evangelise- how better to show a child or others that God loves them, than by showing them that you love them, in a real, every day, sacrificial way?

Another reason is that fulfils a God given mission to protect the defenceless.  One issue I have become increasingly passionate about as I learn more and more about the issues of modern day slavery (which I will share more about) is how vulnerable to children in the care system are to abuse or sex trafficking.  This makes my heart so sad.

‘Police figures show an estimated 10,000 children go missing from care every year’

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18675986

“Under the current system you can have a situation where a sexual predator is sitting in a car outside a children’s home targeting the children inside that home, a home that the police don’t even know exists,”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-18425293

“One of the victims living in a privately run residential home was abused by 25 men in one night.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01j6t1t

U.S:

“Yesterday’s report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner makes for difficult reading. It highlights the risks of sexual exploitation faced by a “disproportionate” number of children in care.”

“As one tearful girl who called ChildLine said, “I just want a family. I just want to be loved”. Surely that’s not too much to ask.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/tom-rahilly/we-must-do-more-to-protec_b_1645438.html

I am not saying that Christian’s are perfect, or always get things right.  And I don’t believe that they always have the ‘perfect family’.  But I find it hard to believe that within the loving context of a Christian family, surrounded by the support of the Church, that foster children would go missing, suffer from abuse or be as particularly at risk.  I believe that the Church; that Christian’s old or young, single or married, with or without their own children can be the solution to this problem.

I hope that this has been in some way encouraging or informative.  Please feel free to comment as I know this is a very complex subject, with many levels, and some challenges I haven’t covered here.

Another way that Children overseas can be protected from predators or trafficking is by the protection of education or sponsorship where they attend classes and are monitored.

Vision Rescue http://www.visionrescue.org.in/ do an amazing work protecting and educating children in India.

Stop the Traffik http://www.stopthetraffik.org/ and other anti-trafficking organisations I will talk more about do some great educational work for children.

And of course sponsoring a child through Compassion UK http://www.compassionuk.org/ can be another way to not only help a child receive food, education and spiritual development, but protect them further from trafficking.