Women being bold

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Today is that day when we specifically take time to celebrate all that women have achieved socially, economically, culturally and politically. Even in my lifetime so much has changed and I enjoy being able to celebrate that fact. I have been thrilled to see women who have, over many decades, helped to forge forward new discoveries and initiatives being celebrated too within the media (I think, for example, of recent films such as Hidden Figures).

However, there is so much still to be done. And so much inequality in so many areas too. I shudder when I think of the amount of gender violence that still occurs around the world. I feel sick when I think of young girls still being subjected to genital mutilation and women simply accepting daily violence from their husbands as they don’t see any way out. This year’s hashtag for IWD is #BeBoldForChange. Each one of us, in our own spheres of influence, can be courageous and bold. But can we punch above the line and stand up for what we know is right? Can we add our voices to all those saying enough is enough, it’s time for change? I try to write about such issues of inequality whenever I can, and am so grateful that I get to work for charities that are doing something practically, on the ground, to help women trapped in vicious cycles. But a day like today causes me to stop and ponder: am I doing enough? What else could I do?

As a Christian I firmly believe that God is for women. He champions us, loves us, cherishes us;  He shows us how we should be treated – and how we should treat others. May we always look to Him for guidance and openly receive His unending love, grace and mercy. May we listen when He prompts us to reach out, perhaps beyond our comfort zones, to help those who are unable to help themselves.

Forgiveness Friday

I just wanted to let you know that I am guest blogging on the wonderful Amy Boucher Pye’s website today, as part of her Forgiveness Fridays series. I am talking about my past, and what triggered my journey looking into authenticity (which the book I am currently writing is about). Here is what Amy says to introduce my post:

When I think of Claire Musters, whom I’ve known for several years professionally and personally, I think of her smile. Never could I have imagined her story from nearly two decades ago. (You’ll see what I mean when you read on below.) That I don’t count her as “damaged goods” reveals to me the nature of God’s forgiveness. When he forgives, our slates are wiped clean. Alleluia!

Please click here to read my guest blog. I’d really appreciate it if you would like to comment, either on Amy’s website or here. Thank you.

Celebrating girls around the world

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My daughter having fun and running free with her brother 🙂 

Today is International Day of the Girl Child, and the theme for this year is “Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: A Global Girl Data Movement”. As UN Women explains, this is ‘a call for action for increased investment in collecting and analysing girl-focused, girl-relevant and sex-disaggregated data.’

One of the reasons that stands in the way of girls making progress is a lack of education. When I realised that today is the Day of the Girl, I immediately thought of my daughter: how much I love her and how proud I am of her. She is so fortunate because she is given free access to education. She is at the point this year of choosing secondary schools and our area is one in which competition is fierce and the grammar schools, in particular, attract applicants from miles away. Some of the comprehensives, as well as the grammars, have entrance exams and so my daughter has been juggling various tests and auditions alongside her usual school work. She has had week after week of study and exams – and has done amazingly well under the pressure. I have felt so keenly how unfair the system is, especially when other counties across England have no such approach. But I have also been proud of how my daughter has risen to the challenge and met every new obstacle with a gritty determination.

I want my daughter to know that she is loved for who she is – not for how she performs in tests. But I also want her to know what a privilege it is to be educated freely. I want her eyes to be open to the plight of other girls her age around the world. In developing countries (excluding China), one in every three girls is married before reaching the age of 18. This stunts their progress, not just because child marriage is often followed by pregnancy – even if a girl is not yet physically or mentally ready. Every day, over 20,000 girls under age 18 give birth in developing countries – over 7 million a year.

The statistics are still horrifying and I long for the day when they won’t be, remembering soberly that each number stands for a girl’s life. Today I simply want to stand alongside UN Women’s statement: ‘On the International Day of the Girl Child, we stand with the global community to support girls’ progress everywhere. Let girls be girls.’ They are the women of the future – let us celebrate them not just today, but by doing all we can to support organisations that are seeking to educate and empower girls right around the world.

* Stats taken from UN Women.

The poison of comparison

I met up with a friend for breakfast the morning, so that we could catch up on what God has been doing in each of our lives. I was really struck by a question she asked: do you find it easier to talk to women who aren’t Christians? It sparked a conversation about whether, as Christian women, we can have a tendency to wear masks around each other because we feel we should have everything ‘together’ as it were. I also pondered whether we can enter a conversation unsure of how much to divulge because we are comparing ourselves to the other woman all the time – and feel we fall short.

I came away still thinking about that particular part of our conversation, so I wanted to share the start of an article I wrote on this very subject, which is featured in October’s Woman Alive (the full title is: Why can’t I be more like her?). To read the rest, which focuses on practical ways we can avoid comparing ourselves to other women, do buy a copy of the magazine or consider subscribing to it.

I am continuing to explore this theme in the book I am currently writing: Taking off the mask: learning to live authentically. You will probably hear a lot more about that over the coming months! 🙂

comparison-piece

 

The fog is lifting

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I awoke this morning to a London skyline that looked more like Victorian London than present-day. The fog was ‘as thick as pea soup’ – a very apt description used by many a Victorian writer! The children were excited, but I was loathe to get in the car and drive through the fog to get them to school.

But it wasn’t until I got home and was sat with my Bible that I looked up and saw the sun beginning to shine through the fog. The fog was lifting and, as it did so, I felt God speak into my spirit too.

You see, we have recently been facing a change in our 10-year-old daughter’s behaviour. She is becoming exceedingly hormonal and has had some very irrational responses to situations and everyday life in general. Last night, both children were emotional – my son because he was over tired, but I could only assume that it was my daughter’s hormones kicking in as there was seemingly no other explanation.

After an hour and a half of tears and tantrums my daughter finally went to bed more peaceful – she was chirpy as she said goodnight and couldn’t understand why I was still reeling from what had happened. I then carried the sadness of the evening downstairs with me and struggled to concentrate on what I was meant to be doing.

Today I awoke and prayed for a better morning. It started off well, with smiles all round, but the pressure of ‘mufti day’ (wearing her own clothes to school) overtook my daughter and the rants and tears started again as she felt nothing fitted or looked good on her (sigh, why does that pressure seem to appear out of nowhere at such a young age?). I again felt the tears rising up in myself, and had to take myself out of the situation. I was so frustrated and yes, did lose my cool, and then hated how my husband could walk in calmly and help her choose an outfit that I had suggested much earlier and she simply put it on…

Once my daughter was finally dressed, she came downstairs as if nothing had happened, but, yet again, I knew in my heart that I had been emotionally affected by the episode. As I drove home from the school run I pondered this: I know we are only starting the journey towards adolescence and that my daughter is finding it hard to control her emotions. She needs love and stability from both her parents – but I know that her emotional outbursts trigger something in me as I can relate to them so much.

I started questioning whether I found it difficult to help her navigate these times because I know at times I can’t navigate my own emotional ups and downs. If I’m honest, I started to feel down, allowing my mind to tell me that I’m failing as a parent as I just spiral when I hear her outbursts rather than being a steadying influence for her.

But, as that fog lifted outside, I felt God nudge me to say ‘It’s okay, just relax and let the fog lift off your spirit too.’ The fog has already lifted from my daughter – she’s at school enjoying learning and being with her friends – and it’s time for me to let go and face my day free of fog too.

Yes, I know that the last 24 hours have highlighted things in both myself and my daughter that need God’s gentle touch, but, for now, I feel a real sense of His sunshine piercing through the fog. It’s warm and refreshing – so needed after a long, draining week. Whatever you are facing today, may you feel the fog lift in your own life and know His sunshine too.

As a total aside, I just wanted to let you know that I have the privilege of being a guest blogger on Amy Boucher Pye’s website today. I’ve written about Home: refuge and resource, and honestly share what it is like having our home used for so many church activities – so do please take a look and leave a comment :0) 

 

True beauty

girl looking in mirrorI have a ten-year-old daughter who is beginning to be obsessed with fashion, make-up and yes, dare I say it, her figure.

I love the growing opportunities for girly shopping days together, as we have a huge amount of fun and the one-on-one time is priceless. But I am alarmed at the preoccupations that are already surfacing. She is thin, but apparently not as thin as one of her friends. She has some fantastic outfits (mainly from her older cousins, which is such a blessing), but is apparently not as ‘fashionable’ as that same friend (outfits are ‘judged’ at school discos).

Right from an early age, I have been teaching her that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty, but as she is growing ever closer to teenage-hood I can see the message ‘you must be thin and beautiful to be worth anything’ beginning to penetrate her mind. Alarmed, I have started to ask myself: Am I perpetuating the acceptance of that silent message somehow?

Yes, as I’ve hit and passed the ripe old age of forty, I’ve uttered the words ‘Oh no! I’ve put on weight!’ as I’ve tried to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans, and have also asked ‘Does this outfit make me look fat?’ And guys this isn’t just a female-only problem: the message of the media is that you need to be toned and beautiful to be successful. The male grooming industry has exploded in recent years, so I know it is not just we women who obsess about such things.

I recently read a tweet from Stylish, quoting Helen Mirram: ‘I hate the word beautiful, I wish there were another word for it’.

That got me thinking about what true beauty is, and what I want my daughter to think about when she asks herself: Am I beautiful?

I do believe that the media’s constant use of glamorous models, whatever it is they are advertising, drip feeds us with the idea that we need to try to attain what, for some, is an unattainable goal. Here’s some of the ideas I’ve been using to combat the unhelpful messages we find all around us:

• Ask yourself: Am I happy in my skin?

When we remember that God has knitted us together in our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13–14), and that each one of us is totally unique, it is time to accept ourselves for who we are. We can each strive for acceptance and affirmation from others (yes, my spirit is lifted when someone says ‘you look nice today’!), and yet God has a never-ending supply of both, if we would just look to Him.

Here’s an excerpt of the verses from psalms, taken from The Message. If you find it hard to accept your body shape, why not spend some time meditating on this, speaking it over yourself, because you are a marvellous creation:

‘Body and soul, I am marvelously made!

I worship in adoration—what a creation!’

Learn to be positive, and celebrate you for the person God made you to be; the real you.

• Stop obsessing about what you wear.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good, or enjoying the process of dressing smartly (and putting on make-up if you like wearing it), but allowing it to take over your focus isn’t healthy.

I have written previously about dressing our spirits; we can spend so long choosing what to wear but do we daily make a conscious decision to put on those garments that God has laid out for us?:

‘So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.’ (Colossians 3:12–14, The Message)

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• Change your idea of what beauty truly is.

As part of my daily reflections I am working through Rachel Gardner’s great book Beloved. Just today I got to her chapter on beauty, and loved the way she turned the definition of beauty on its head. She explains how our society has reduced beauty to glamour (outside, superficial, skin-deep beauty), and has some great, quotable lines on the difference between the two:

‘If glamour is the blusher painted onto your face, beauty is the inner radiance that lights you up from the inside.’

‘If glamour is the outfit that helps you make an entrance, beauty is your generous heart that makes your presence change the atmosphere.’

‘If glamour is the perfume clinging to your clothes, beauty is the fragrance of your life that lingers long after you’ve left the room.’

It is interesting to see how the Bible speaks directly about the importance of inner, rather than surface, beauty:

‘Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. This is how the holy women of old made themselves beautiful.’ (I Peter 3:3–5, NLT)

Taking the time to cultivate that gentle spirit has, so far, been a lifelong journey for me, so I’m taking these verses as an encouragement to keep on going!

It is this overall message that I hope to convey to my daughter, and it has also challenged me to think about the way that I live. Later on in her beauty chapter Rachel also says: ‘The goal of glamour is to make everyone feel envious. The goal of beauty is to make everyone feel loved.’ Isn’t that so true? We can get a fleeting feeling of contentment (or smugness – let’s call it by its true name!) when we know people are looking at us enviously. But those we look up to, those we describe as having a ‘beautiful spirit’, are those people who go out of their way to make others feel loved and accepted. They are the true successes; and the true world-changers.

• Remember your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

I am certainly not saying that we should let our bodies go to wrack and ruin. They are a gift, and we have a responsibility to look after them and keep them healthy, which often takes more work as we get older. I know the following verses from 1 Corinthians are in a passage about refraining from sexual immorality, but I think they are a good checkpoint for us to see what our attitudes to our bodies are:

‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.’ (1 Corinthians 6:19–20, NIVUK).

The Holy Spirit is in us; is our attitude towards our bodies and the way we behave towards those we are in contact during the day honouring to Him?

This article first appeared on the Christian Today website.

Suffragette – and sacrifice

SUFFRAGETTEOfficialUKPosterI was so excited to see the new film Suffragette last night. It was everything I was hoping it would be – challenging, inspiring, uncomfortable in (lots of) places, beautifully shot, well acted. When I take the time to ponder what those women went through I still can’t quite believe that it was such a relatively short time ago. Our generation of women owe a huge debt of gratitude to the women of that era who refused to be silenced. (But yes I do acknowledge there is still much to be done…)

I have to say, I’m not sure that I would have condoned the violent methods that were employed by the WSPU. But watching the film last night, having the bits of history literally brought to life in front of me, did make me think again. How would I have felt if I had been led to believe that there were men in government that supported votes for women, who spent time listening to women’s testimonies, only to be told in a quick announcement that nothing was changing? As Meryl Streep said in her speech as Emmeline Pankhurst, for fifty years they had tried peaceful methods. How much pent-up frustration must there have been amongst the crowd of women at that point?

suffragette film pic

I know, if I’m truly honest, how frustrated I get if my voice isn’t heard. So while I can’t say I agree with all I saw and have read about their methods, and it’s a shame the film didn’t include the more peaceful ways the suffragists, for example, protested, I don’t feel that I can sit in judgement. I can’t get the thought of the women being expected to simply accept the decision out of my mind, and the way the police dispersed the crowd using violence – and even physical abuse (ripping clothes and groping).

The film’s action is propelled by the story of a young mother, Maud. It is hugely emotive at times – she seems to be pushed into becoming a suffragette by others and I found myself finding that rather uncomfortable. But, trying not to give too much away, she gets to a point where standing up for the rights of women could cost her everything – including her family. I was really challenged by that. Is there a cause that I’m that passionate about?

Then I thought to myself: what would I do if there comes a point in my life when following Jesus could cost me my family? It’s such a painful thing to consider – and yet the Bible talks about us losing our lives for Jesus (Matthew 10:39), and there are many around the world doing just that right now.

What I was reading as part of my daily devotion today, Rachel Gardner’s wonderful book Beloved, has a line that really jumped out at me: ‘Nothing life can offer, including life itself, can compare to knowing Jesus’. Wow. I know I know that, but just reading it afresh made that truth hit me again. Wow.

Watching Suffragette made me truly grateful for those who stood up for what they believed in, and also made me question whether I ever do the same. But this morning I’ve been challenged once again to consider how much I am willing to give up for Jesus…

Why I’m glad my friends aren’t nice…

beth-new-cropped-w179I’m so pleased Beth Moran agreed to write a guest blog for my site. She is a brilliant writer, drawing the reader in right from the word go in the way she constructs her storylines. Her characters are totally believable and we get to share the best and worst moments of their lives. In honour of Women’s Friendship Month, on this last day of September, I asked Beth to write about the importance of friendship in women’s lives. This is one of the themes that weaves throughout her latest novel, I Hope You Dance, which centres around Ruth, a woman in her thirties who has just lost her husband. She discovers he has left her with a mountain of secret debts so she and her teenage daughter have to move back into her parents’ home. Ruth has to learn to face her past, present and future head on…

I’m going to come right out with it: for a long time, I had big issues with Christian women. Well, not all of them. It was the nice ones I had a problem with. The ones that always smiled, and said encouraging things, who made little jokes about their own deficiencies while their faces glowed and shiny hair sat perfectly in place. Those women who never complained, or gossiped, or growled at anyone. Who tirelessly served others, forsaking the last piece of cake so someone else could have two. Not once kicking up a fuss or making a mess or forgetting a birthday.

Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely liked these women. My issue was, I didn’t trust them.

Oh, I trusted them to do what they promised, to keep a secret, to be kind.

I didn’t trust them to be my friend.

I didn’t trust them when they said, “Well done, you were fantastic!” or “It was so wonderful to see you!” or told me how gorgeous I looked, or what a mess their car was or how they totally understood why I just kicked a chair across the kitchen.

I was dubious about the fact they were doing “really well!”, had an amazing time – every time, no matter what or where or how long the time. I didn’t quite believe they always loved being a mum, or a wife, or a Christian, or none of those things, as much as it appeared. And I couldn’t accept they liked me.

Instead, I felt comfortable with those who were blunt, who sometimes shouted at their kids in public, who made loud, large mistakes. I found myself spending time with women whose houses were a tip, honoured they invited me into the chaos. Grateful they were honest enough to tell me when they’d had a flaming row with their husband, or felt useless and weak, or were too tired to pray anymore. Or that I’d hurt them.

I loved these women, who welcomed me with open arms into their imperfections. I felt safe to be imperfect, too. These were the women I could turn to when I couldn’t forgive, or struggled to do the right thing, or I wanted a genuine answer to “Does my bum look big in this?”

But a weird thing happened. Me and these non-nice women, over time we learnt to have our rants in private, to share our fears, our troubles, our sins, with coffee in our messy living rooms not after Sunday services.

Together we learnt to lean on each other before things reached snapping point. To share advice and faith and lessons we’ve learnt about living well.

And then I realised this: nice women let off steam from time to time. They can feel angry and worried and overwhelmed, just like the rest of us.

The women who appear strong and assured in public, who are pretty darn fantastic at what they do; the women who can laugh at the days to come, despite current trials, or past pain – those women have learnt the value of true friendship in private. To cherish a small number of absolute, 24/7, warts and all people in their life. Those who cheer us on, who pray with us, who help us to be the women we were created to be. Those friends who tell us when we need to find a better balance, or stop whining and get moving, or where to go and have a decent bra fitted.

When we have a few, well-chosen people we can be our worst selves with, we are able to face the rest of the world as our best selves.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be thought of as one of those nice women. I’m embarrassingly honest, prone to getting feisty and I have a sense of humour that hovers on the boundaries of taste. But I’m okay with that. And I’m so grateful that some women love and trust me enough not to be nice to me all the time. It’s how I know they count me as their friends.

9781782641704Beth’s latest book, I Hope You Dance, is available now, and is published by Lion Fiction.

Women’s Friendship Month

I know that we are on the last stretch of September, but, as I only recently discovered this, I didn’t want to let International Women’s Friendship Month pass by without mentioning it. Started by a national women’s sorority in the United States, originally as a national day, it was expanded to a month and is now recognised internationally.

9781782641704One of the books I read this month was I Hope You Dance, by Beth Moran. It is a beautiful story about love, loss and new beginnings but what struck me most was the portrayal of deep friendships amongst the group of women that her central character, Ruth, finds herself becoming a part of. Wary, cynical and untrusting to begin with, Ruth is taken aback by the level of openness that is shared amongst these somewhat unlikely friends and is slowly drawn into the centre of their friendship circle. I love the fact that they are a real mix of characters, who would probably never have got to know each other if it wasn’t for their attendance at the local church. Unlikely friendships are so wonderful at revealing some of the creativity of our Maker don’t you think?

There is something about friendship amongst women that is so vital, so life-giving. To be affirmed, encouraged and spurred on is so necessary. But it’s also those friends that are willing to give us a kick up the backside when we need it, or know us well enough to be able to tell us when we look worn out (because we know they will do all they can to help us rest), that we desperately need. Life is enriched when we open ourselves up to the possibility of such deep relationships. I know it is scary, as it also opens up the possibility of being hurt. But there is always risk in relationship isn’t there? Being loved and accepted by other women, and loving and accepting them in return is a wonderful gift. Yes there are those sticky moments at times when we might ruffle each other’s feathers – but that’s an important part of friendship too. We learn to be more gracious – and can also learn a lot about ourselves, if we allow ourselves to. I just wanted to pause today and thank God for my friends – why don’t you too?

God isn’t put off by our negative emotions

looking wistful out window

Recently I’ve been spending time reading psychology books, mainly about infant attachment and parenting styles, as research for my own book. I have been really struck about a particular aspect: how a secure self learns not to be threatened by negative feelings.

I’ve read how sensitive parenting allows a child to feel those negative emotions and also teaches him/her how to deal with them through both support (unconditional love and empathy) and challenge. The child is also reassured that the source of their security and love is not threatened by such negative emotions either.

I’ve looked at how behavioural patterns learned in childhood get transformed into our adult lives. They affect the way we respond to, and interpret, the actions and words of those around us.

I was challenged by one particular book that linked the way a child approaches negative feelings to the way we respond to God when we are experiencing negative emotions.

We are His children and yet has the parenting style we’ve experienced by our earthly parents affected the way we anticipate His responses? I’m sure it must do.

For example, if you are feeling angry, bitter or sad do you feel God will condemn you, pointing out all the reasons why you are feeling like that – and revealing that it is your fault?

To read the rest of this post please click here.