Love is… forgiveness and grace

steveand-i-christmas2016I am sharing this post today to commemorate National Marriage Week as well as Valentine’s Day. I know that the latter is an over-commercialised event, but my husband and I grab it as an opportunity to take time out to spend with one another. I also wanted to share this post as it my story of grace – which is the subject of my friend James’ new book, Mosaic of Grace, released yesterday (you can check it out here). What I share below is taken from my own book, which will be published later this year. I first wrote this for Amy Boucher Pye’s Forgiveness Fridays blog, but feel it is an appropriate way to celebrate my own marriage today. If it weren’t for my husband’s forgiveness and grace extended towards me there is no way we would still be journeying together today…

 

Our lives were shattered – lying about in little pieces on the floor. And the worst thing was that it was pretty much all down to me. I had chosen to believe the lies, especially the one that whispered that my husband didn’t care about me. I believed it because he worked around the clock in a recording studio and there was little left of him when he was at home. I believed it because my heart was hurting and I was lonely…

Vulnerable and foolish

As a woman who had grown up with self-esteem issues, I didn’t deal well with feeling abandoned. When I came before God with my feelings that I didn’t matter to my husband, His answer was that He wanted to take care of me and show me how to lean on Him completely. But I threw it back in His face. I needed someone who could hug me – and God just didn’t seem physical enough at the time.

But this put me in danger of allowing my emotional needs to be fed by other sources. Eventually, a friendship with another man in my church, which had started innocently enough, resulted with us deciding to leave everything behind and to start a new life together. With our actions we devastated the lives of my husband, the man’s wife and all the other members of our close-knit church community.

Lost

Two weeks later he chose to go back to his wife. I was left reeling, feeling totally deserted – but also knowing I deserved it all. Tellingly, it was my husband whom I rang once the other guy left. After all, my husband had been my best friend since I was a teenager so it seemed natural and I called him without thinking. How hard it must have been for him to take me back home, watch me huddled in the foetal position, sobbing endlessly. The next day he moved me, and a lot of my belongings, to my parents’ home where I was to stay until I had healed enough to discover what was next for my life.

I had lost everything by wrongfully pinning my hopes on another human being rather than God. And I was like a wounded animal at times – licking my wounds, lashing out, wanting to be left alone. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my husband going home, getting up for work each day and not knowing whether our marriage was salvageable.

Of course, we had deep issues that needed dealing with within our marriage. But I had to get to a place, first, of believing there was a future there. That I could look past all the years of hurt and misunderstanding and repent as well as forgive, and move on.

A taste of real love

When my husband visited me, at times I felt a little suffocated, as I knew he was trying his best to win me back. But, most of the time, he was gracious, gentle and loving, knowing also when to give me space. How he responded to me during that horrific time of limbo taught me what real love is. He showed me Jesus’ love for me in a very tangible way.

I had used him terribly – basically turned my back on him – and all our friends knew about it. And yet he was there, whenever I felt I could see him, a solid anchor who remained firm. He showed me that, even though I had done the worst thing I could to him, his love for me hadn’t faltered. He proved, over and over again, that he wanted our marriage to work.

Yes, we had counselling. And yes, we both had to face up to our failings, to understand the responsibility we had for one another and the changes that needed to occur. But his gentle patience during that time melted my hardened, broken heart. Even after I was back home, there would be moments when I would be wracked with emotional pain all over again and he would just hold me, caring for me through the tears.

Salvation through sacrifice

I know it must have been so, so excruciatingly difficult for him, and he certainly laid down his life for me. He also spoke to his bosses about what was going on, and the result was a miracle: studios always work around the clock but they agreed to put into practise the unheard of rule that the studio my husband ran would close by 8pm. Yes, his sacrifice saved our marriage – and revealed another layer of God’s love to me in such a powerful way.

Although this period of time was more than 16 years ago now, I can’t help but think of my husband’s loving sacrifice anytime I ponder the concept of forgiveness. You can read more of our story, and the passion for authentic openness that it birthed inside of me, in my forthcoming book: Taking off the mask: learning to live authentically.

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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.

How to be better at encouragement

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I’m terrible at encouragement. Particularly at encouraging my husband.

There, I’ve said it.

It’s a hard one to admit; particularly when it was the first thing I spoke on when I took over the women’s ministry at church. But I could see how we were all desperately crying out for more encouragement. When I started putting together my talk I began to realise how bad I was at encouraging those close to me.

I am married to a man whose primary love language is words of affirmation. And that is probably way down there on my list: practical help does it for me. (Isn’t it funny how God so often seems to pair us up with a life partner whose love languages are the opposite of our own? Is it His sense of humour or the best way to rub those rough edges off us? Probably both…)

Sometimes I have literally had to force myself to speak words of encouragement to my husband (not because he didn’t deserve them but because it doesn’t come naturally!). I’ve learned how important this is to him and it makes such a huge difference in our relationship. It’s a great discipline for all of us to cultivate, especially if you know encouragement is something you are not good at.

I also have to check myself – and I know I fall down all the time – as I have a tendency to nag. But, as I’m told so often, words of encouragement get better results than nagging…

So here are some things I’ve learned about the importance of encouragement:

The Bible teaches it

Throughout the Bible we can see examples of encouragement. So many of the main characters that we learn about in Sunday school had people around them to encourage them (think of how Jonathan rooted for David even when it pitted him against his father).

The New Testament letters often refer to building one another up. I love the Message translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:11: ‘So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind.’

It makes a difference

Having someone consistently in your life that totally believes in you makes such a difference. In The Family You‘ve Always Wanted Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, recognises that: ‘From the smallest child to the oldest adult, when our fan club applauds us, we try harder.’

God wants us to become members of each other’s fan club, but how do we do that? Paul gave a good guideline when he wrote that everything we say should build up the one who is listening:

‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen’ (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).

Let’s get a bit more honest now. How often do we spend time with our friends moaning about various things or ‘sharing news’ (aka gossiping), when we could be using that time to build one another up?

To read the rest of this article, please click here.

Let’s celebrate – and fight for – marriage

As we are in the middle of Marriage Week in the UK, and Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, I spent time reflecting on what marriage means to me in my latest column for Christian Today. To read the article please click here. If you enjoy it, or find it useful, please could you indicate by using the ‘like’ button on their webpage. Thanks so much.

I ended up with far too much material for that piece, so I’ve collected some of my other thoughts below. (They will make most sense read alongside the Christian Today column.) As you’ll see, I’ve learned a lot about my own weaknesses through being married: I certainly believe marriage holds up a mirror to the ugliest parts of our character. It does give us the opportunity to grow and change though, thankfully. Marriage also does not make us immune to the difficulties and trials we inevitably encounter in this life, but hopefully we learn to help one another up those mountains when they come…

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As a couple, we’ve certainly been through some crazy and difficult adventures. I’ve said before that one of the biggest surprises and challenges for me was when my husband became a pastor – I didn’t sign up for that, and really struggled to accept it to begin with. Now I view it as a privilege to be a part of his calling, as well as following my own wholeheartedly.

So here’s those points that didn’t make it into my latest column…

My husband needs me to learn to keep my mouth shut in public

I can be quite sarcastic and my humour often involves winding up people that I’m close to. But I have learned over time that my husband finds it incredibly difficult if I am sarcastic or make a joke of something he’s done or the way he’s been in front of other people.

I am also one that can’t bottle up my feelings but being angry or having an argument with my husband in public does not do our marriage any good. Keeping quiet while in public also gives me a chance to calm down and be a bit more objective – which I’ve never been that great at! 😉

Fighting for ways to feel connected is so important

There can be times when I’m at the end of myself – juggling work, looking after my kids, my roles within church and as a school governor can totally wring out me out to the point that I feel I have little left to give. I know as a busy pastor my husband can often feel wrung out by the end of a day too. And yet it is so so important to keep fighting for those moments of connection. We can work hard both separately and together. In those seasons when we are both focused on very different things, it can almost feel like we are like ships that pass in the night – roomies at best, strangers in the worst moments. But if we just stop for a few moments and check in with one another we both instantly feel like we are working towards a common goal and can support and understand where the other one is at. Somehow it lifts what can be a time of struggle, as we realise afresh that we are not alone.

We need to fight for marriage

I could make all sorts of points here about the way that society is diluting marriage, or how high the divorce rate is – but, while that’s all true, it’s not what I’m focusing on. While writing this I was reminded of a stark image I saw firsthand while visiting friends in another part of London. Right the way down a street were bits of ribbon tied to the telephone lines. I asked what they were, and was gobsmacked by the answer: each ribbon represented a Christian couple. Apparently there was a high proportion of witches in the area and they very openly shared that they cursed Christian marriages and called on powers to break them up. That really shook me, and made me realise the spiritual battle that we can be in as married couples. If we aren’t praying and fighting for our marriages then who will?

How good a friend are you?


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I was challenged recently by a study I was doing on Eve. The guide I was working through asked a question: “What does ‘being one flesh’ in marriage mean, both physically and spiritually?”

I realised I could think of an infinite number of ways in which my husband could show me that we are one flesh (mainly practical things like cooking more often, not going to bed so late, not distracting the kids when I’m trying to get them out to school or to bed … yes, he has read this).

However, I knew in my heart that I had to stop and really think about the ways I can show him more clearly. Here are some of the things I wrote in my journal:

Ensuring his wellbeing and needs come into my daily equation rather than being afterthoughts or forgotten about completely.

Being more thoughtful, gentle, encouraging.

I then noted underneath that that is certainly a lifetime’s worth of work for me. But I immediately thought about how I relate to others that are close to me, too. I have friends who are dear to me but I suddenly began to question how well I show them how much I care about them.

To see the questions I asked myself about how good a friend I am please click here.

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Learning to be thankful – at all times

The new term is well under way and already I feel like I’ve been struggling to catch up. I had the most wonderful Christmas, but since then both my husband and I have been dogged with illness. New Year came and went with no let up, then the kids went back to school and life continued to seem like a blur.

Friends asked if I’d made new year’s resolutions, but I replied that I was frustrated that I hadn’t had any time or space to reflect on the previous year and pray through my goals and vision for this year (something I like to do every January). I hadn’t even got my office in order or put up a new calendar.

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A few days after the kids went back to school it suddenly dawned on me how down I felt. It wasn’t that anything awful had happened – and, as I’ve said, we had a lovely Christmas. But the constant pain and problems in my body, combined with a lack of sleep, were taking their toll on my emotions.

I knew I was responding negatively to people – my husband, kids, others around me – and was desperate to do something about it. But I also knew that I needed time with those who would do me good rather than just pressing through and trying in my own strength. And that meant spending time with God – and booking a lunch date with a friend who both encourages and challenges me.

Over lunch we talked and cried, and I left feeling lighter. The following morning I couldn’t get the phrase ‘For yet I will praise Him’ out of my mind as I drove back from dropping the kids off at school. I had been saying to God that I was frustrated with myself; there was so much I wanted to get done, but I still felt like I just wanted a date with my duvet.

I came home and looked up the phrase, finding it in three psalms. Here’s one from Psalm 42:5:

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.”

Something inside me leapt. I realised that, like the psalmist, I needed to speak to my soul and remind myself to put my hope and trust in God.

To read the rest of this post, please click here.

Are you willing to let God disrupt your life?

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We are now in Advent, traditionally a time of looking forward and preparing for the coming of Christ through acts of remembrance and repentance as we get ourselves ready spiritually.

The word advent is the anglicised version of the Latin word adventus, which means ‘coming’, ‘arrival’, ‘approach’. During this time we remember the longing ancient people had for a saviour, a messiah, but also how we should be alert for His second coming.

Today, however, I’ve been pondering the consequences of one particular visit or ‘approach’ that started off the events of that first Christmas. That of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, which I’ve been looking at in Luke 1:26-38.

I was struck afresh today what a bizarre and potentially terrifying experience it must have been for a young girl to suddenly be face to face with an angel. That itself was mind-blowing enough. And yet what about his message? To be told that you, a young, unmarried virgin, would be the mother of the Son of God?!

We obviously don’t get a blow-by-blow account of the story in the Gospels, but I wonder what your response would have been if you had been given such a life-changing message?

We are told that at the start of the conversation ‘Mary was greatly troubled at his words’ (Luke 1:29). Don’t you just love the Bible’s skill at understatement? Troubled? I think I would have either frozen stiff, screamed for help or run away. And that was before he’d even told her God’s plans…

Mary was obviously someone who sought God and made following Him a priority; that must have helped her recognise that this angelic being was indeed sent from God. I admire her courage for sticking it out, for staying long enough to hear his full message.

Pondering the passage in Luke, I do believe that God’s peace must have descended on Mary when she accepted that she was listening to His messenger. How else could she stand there and listen without having a serious freak out?

But what strikes me the most is her simple trust and obedience. Just listen to what she says when Gabriel has finished his speech: ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (v38)

Part of me wants to shout at her: ‘Come on Mary he’s just totally disrupted your wedding plans – actually, he may well have cost you your wedding. Who is going to believe that you will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit? That just sounds crazy. Do you really think Joseph will believe you?’

And yet that side of me is silenced by the piercing effect her response has. Mary was being asked to trust an angelic being who had brought her a message that would turn her life upside down but, not only that, would change the world if the boy indeed turned out to be the Messiah they were all hoping for. What a privilege … but what an enormous upheaval that necessitated her laying down her rights to all her dreams and plans.

What this passage has made me consider, is what I would do if Jesus or an angel came to me and asked me to disrupt my plans. Not my whole life – just my week’s plans.

To read the rest of this reflection, please click here.

There’s a crack in my fishbowl

9781782641292I am delighted to welcome Gerard Kelly to my website as a guest blogger. A prolific poet/writer, he has just released his first novel, The Boy Who Loved Rain, a beautifully emotive book tackling huge issues: toxic family secrets, suicide, self-harming… As a pastor’s wife, I was intrigued to see how the central family would deal with the enormous crisis brewing in their lives – particularly as the father, a pastor, will not acknowledge their problems or seek help from outside the church. I was totally drawn into the novel, especially through the way Gerard portrayed the troubled teenager, Colom.

Politicians, entertainers, sports stars and other celebrities often talk of the pressures of living in the limelight. Work / life balance is hard to maintain and where they have families it is hard to establish any kind of normal rhythm for their children. They live in a fishbowl, visible to all. They are subject to constant judgements from those who look on – always ready to offer an opinion and all too often happy to see their idols fall.

My novel The Boy Who Loved Rain explores this fishbowl lifestyle through a different and very specific group of of people: the leaders of churches. Theirs is not a life of celebrity – it would be difficult to describe weekly sessions in the pulpit as ‘the limelight’ – but the pressures on their families are nonetheless real.

David and Fiona Dryden, church leaders and parents to the adolescent Colom, feel this pressure acutely, not least because the growth of their church has come from their acknowledged expertise in parenting. David in particular hands out advice quite publicly – saving marriages and keeping families together. All is not well, though, in the Dryden household. There are dark secrets not far below the surface, and the decision to keep them from the light only means the impending crisis will be deeper.

Renowned psychologist Paul Tournier in his book Secrets suggests that keeping a secret is the first step to becoming an individual. The second step, he says, is telling it. Colom, at fourteen, is on the cusp between the two, and the comfort that secrecy has brought him in childhood will not sustain him in his adult years. The question is whether his parents will have the courage, for the love of their son, to let light shine.

I’m intrigued by the dilemma faced by David and Fiona Dryden because this is my world. I’ve pastored churches and I’ve worked with others doing the same, and too often I’ve seen uncomfortable truths swept under the carpet. It doesn’t matter how successful your ministry is, or how well known you are for helping others: your children are your children and their needs will neither be defined nor be met by the success of your ministry. They need parents, not professionals, and if any role is a crash course in the power of truth-telling, it is parenting. I’ve made huge changes in my own life, including career decisions that on the surface seem foolish, when I’ve seen that the needs of my family are clashing with the demands of my role. My children, as they’ve grown, have become my teachers, and listening to them has been a hard-won but hugely rewarding discipline.

The Boy Who Loved Rain is about the battle to take adolescents seriously; to allow them to be the central actors in their own drama; to recognise that their journey and my journey are not one and the same. Adolescence is the period in which a child moves from being a passenger in someone else’s vehicle to learning to drive their own. Controlling parents, who love nothing more than having their hand on the wheel and assume that they will be making all the route decisions, don’t always take well to this transition. We have plans; goals; desires for our children’s lives: but it is not our job to deliver them. Only they can fight their battles; only they can live their life. Our job is to equip them; to set them on their way, but ultimately to free them to be the warriors their nature and their maker have designed them to be.

For families in the fishbowl, this process of freeing our children might mean a choice – of relationship over reputation; of family over fortune; of those we love over those we serve. In my experience, it is a choice worth making. Sometimes it is the only choice that will save our children’s lives – and our own.

The Boy Who Loved Rain is published by Lion Fiction. Thanks to them for the review copy and for inviting me to be part of the blog tour.

Finding a rhythm that works

Our children are back to school now and life is settling back into the recognisable term-time pattern. For me, the start of this particular term of each year is a time in which I take stock and look at my life’s rhythm.

This summer became of wonderful tapestry of visiting friends, enjoying holiday time as a family, reorganising my office and celebrating my daughter’s ninth birthday. Oh and we also managed to squeeze in our church’s big outreach event.

It was such a great few months – and yet we didn’t get a chance to draw breath at all. My husband and I commented that we hadn’t had any evenings on our own; we celebrated our 21st anniversary towards the end of the summer holidays and in my card to him I asked whether we could really try and pace ourselves this term!

I am now sitting surrounded by all the work I’ve kept simmering away while the kids were off school, but which I now need to tackle in earnest. I’m so grateful for the work, but taking a break to focus on the kids means there’s rather a big stack of it now!

Of course, the start of the autumn term is also usually the time that churches launch new initiatives and ours is no different. So, as I’m sure you can gather, it’s a busy time of year for us as a family.

With everything that has been going on, and which I know is coming up, I’ve had some moments when I have literally felt the panic rising up, trying to overtake me. I am, for instance, about to start a leadership training course. The material looks great but I’m wondering how I will cope with it all and fit in enough time to mull over and implement what I learn.

In those times of panic I’ve had to come back to God and ask for His wisdom. Of course, some of that is obvious common sense – I need to look after my family and myself in order to be able to serve consistently. So I know I/we need to look at the rhythm of our lives and make changes before we burn out.

To read the rest of this article please click here.

How well do we support parents?

I recently attended a day at a nearby church focused on equipping Christian parents. Whole families were able to go, and the organisers did a fantastic job of keeping our children engaged and excited about the activities they did while we had teaching and discussions.

I was really struck by one of the questions we were asked:

“What is the best piece of advice you have been taught about parenting in church?”

We were then given a few moments to discuss it with the person next to us.

Those of us sat together all said the same thing – we couldn’t think of anything we had been specifically taught about parenting on a Sunday morning (apart from the few comments preachers had given about what they’ve learned about parenting from their own kids and their own mistakes). This made me wonder: how intentional are our churches about teaching and equipping parents?

To read the rest of this article please click here.