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.

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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.

The value of wisdom from elders

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Each one of us hopefully learns a great deal through our lifetime, but what do we do with that knowledge? Does it go with us to our graves, or do we learn to share it with others graciously, and without expectation for the way they will use it?

Looking to the older generation for advice seems to have gone out of fashion these days, perhaps partly because families no longer live with or near each other. I don’t know if it is the computer generation with its instant answers from Google (although I suspect it happened long before the internet), but the younger generation doesn’t seem to want to ask for advice and wisdom from their elders. Titus 2 talks about older women offering encouragement to younger women to live their lives well, and I think that’s a great model for us all.

While methodology may change (I still cringe when I think of some of the advice I and my friends got as young mums from older women) those who have journeyed further along life’s path can be a huge source of wisdom, and it is foolish not to tap into it. Surely that’s something of what church family is about? It is both disrespectful and arrogant to think that these people have nothing to offer us in terms of advice and wisdom, so how can we make ourselves more open to it?

And those of us who are no longer spring-like teenagers or in our twenties should also consider what our life lessons have been along the way so far. What wisdom might we have to pass on to those who are younger (in age but also in their faith)?

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Five reasons why we need to repent more

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The words ‘sin’ and ‘repentance’ seem somewhat old-fashioned don’t they? I’m often told to change them when I’m editing Bible study notes, as people don’t relate to such terminology these days.

It is true that sin and repentance are concepts that seem to go against the grain. Our individualistic society feeds off the thought that ‘I’ should focus on myself – and that ‘truth’ is simply what I believe and how dare anyone challenge that. But that smacks of a hardness of heart – whereas we are called to be softened and malleable in God’s hands.

God has been talking to me a lot recently about how vital our need to say sorry is. I’ve come to realise that repentance actually holds the key to unlocking so much freedom within us as Christians.

We need to say sorry both to God and to others. We need to have the grace to allow others to say sorry to us and forgive when necessary.

It is true that, as Elton John says, ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. However, here are five compelling reasons to put in the effort.

1. It reveals a humble, honest heart.

God wants us to be humble enough to acknowledge when we are in the wrong, rather than trying to cover it up. When we come to Him with honesty it shows integrity; we aren’t trying to pretend we are better than we are. Saying sorry and asking for forgiveness demonstrates our continued need of a Saviour. We can’t do everything in our own strength – repenting when we trip up shows that we recognise this and are leaning on God.

I love spending time in the psalms – David is one of my biblical heroes. So much strength, wisdom, depth of feeling and a worshipful heart, and yet he wasn’t perfect. He stooped to an all-time low in his episode of covering up his sin with Bathsheba, but, when the prophet Nathan confronted David his immediate response was ‘I have sinned against God’, and he wrote Psalm 51 to God soon after. Here’s a snippet:

Have mercy on me, O God,

 according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion

 blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity

 and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,

 and my sin is always before me…

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

 wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

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The weight – and joy – of leadership

Have you ever wanted to just hide away and not go to church? That’s how I felt on Saturday evening. The thought of getting up early in the morning and speaking to dozens of people, of worshipping God even (yes, it was a low moment) and of feeling the responsibility of needing to be stood next to my husband in the front row all weighed heavily on me.

I just needed a break.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this – and I know it is right to take time out at times.

But one of the burdens of leadership is living by example. And just hiding under my duvet when I don’t feel 100 per cent is not setting a good example. So I shot up a quick prayer asking that God would refresh me and I was immediately reminded of the Sunday before.

On that day, I was suffering from such severe back pain that I hadn’t slept all night. I was playing the main instrument in the worship team and we had a visiting speaker from Nigeria, who we were hosting a lunch for after the service. On that particular Sunday the whole of me was screaming “It isn’t fair! Why should I have to carry on? Why can’t someone else do it?”

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Learning to be vulnerable

Our church is currently doing a preaching series based on Phil Moore’s brilliantly provocative book Gagging Jesus: things Jesus said we wish he hadn’t. Last Sunday my husband preached about sexuality and what Jesus said about it. We looked at sex within marriage (how different a starting point we have to our society on this subject), same-sex attraction, lust, adultery and pornography. Possibly not the most usual material for a Sunday morning sermon! And yet how important.

I was struck about how little we Christians talk about sex (and in our small group during the week so many people said they are saddened that the Church doesn’t celebrate good sex). We also don’t like engaging with the ‘hot potato’ issues such as porn or homosexuality. And yet what does that do to our churches? They are so often places that are rife with hidden sins – but why? I was leading the worship times before and after the preach and at one point I heard myself saying, ‘Church is full of sin because we are all too scared to open up and admit our failings. And so often when others do we judge them. Shame on us. Shame on us for creating an environment where no one feels comfortable enough to be open.’

Shame on us, also, for allowing sins to go on either undetected or unchallenged. Of course this isn’t just about sexual sin, but every other sin too (another point made in the preach). What about anger, bitterness, gossip, fear, making money an idol etc? Every single one of them takes us further away from God. Surely the point of being part of a church family is that we are able to walk closely with those we see regularly (I’m not saying we should be shouting our sins out to the whole congregation!). We are there to support but also confront our friends when necessary. But that isn’t going to happen if no one is willing to take off their ‘I’m fine’ mask and be real.

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