Monday, 24 March 2014

Guest Post: Rosanna Cassidy

 Rosanna is studying for a PhD at the University of Nottigham

    Everyone has bad days. Today was definitely one of mine. I woke up out of breath from screaming so much at my nightmares, and although they faded so fast that I couldn’t even remember them, I started the day still feeling a bit rubbish; it was nothing major, it had just already begun to feel like a ‘bad day’.

    About an hour after I had woken I spoke to my boyfriend and when I told him that I was still feeling a bit down he told me to remember that I was God’s princess, and that He was holding me safe in His arms. Now that is wonderful advice, but at the time I didn’t really pay too much attention to his words, because I’d heard them a thousand times before, and they were just words, how were they supposed to make me feel better?

    However, after returning from Mass and still not feeling 100%, I began to actually dwell on that advice a little more. I asked myself, “what does it actually mean to remind myself that I am God’s princess?” An answer sprung into my head pretty quickly: “start living like you believe it.”

    But then I laughed at myself, wondering what on earth that answer actually meant in a practical, real-life sort of way. I realised that the problem wasn’t reminding myself that I was God’s beloved, because I had never forgotten that fact in my head, but the problem was that I had forgotten how to feel it in my heart.

    Isn’t it true that from time to time on our Christian journey we get so caught up in the intricacies of theology, or the business of our serving, or we just have a down day, and we forget how to connect with the fundamental basics of our faith: that God loves us, that Jesus died to reclaim us, God’s daughters, God’s princesses, from every power of darkness in our lives?

    And of course, faith is not all about feeling things; we can still choose faith even when we can not feel that love and that joy for one reason or another. But sometimes it can be good for us to remind ourselves of how loved we are, and for us to reconnect with God’s love for us in a way that we can feel.

    So, thinking about all this, and being a practical and creative sort of girl, I decided that the only way for me to ‘live like I believe that I’m God’s princess’, was for me to scratch the ‘like I believe’, and actually spend some time ‘living as God’s princess’. So I put on a pretty dress, and put flowers in my hair and built myself a castle (ok, so really it’s a child’s den, but in my imagination it’s a castle!), and just generally, in a really practical, obvious way, taught myself how it feels to be a cherished, loved princess of the greatest King! And it may seem silly and childish, but God loves it when we are childlike with Him, when we strip things back to the simple things and just invite Him in. As I lie inside my den now I know that my day has turned around into a good day, and that I feel safe, and loved, and comforted– and it’s not because I’m between two sofas with a bedsheet over my head, but it’s because I found a simple way to reconnect my heart with God’s love for me.

    What I want to say to you is that everyone has bad days, or bad weeks, or bad months, but never be afraid or ashamed to admit that you need to go back to basics with God again. If you’ve lost sight of the basic message of God’s love, or if you feel like you’ve been over it time and time again but you still haven’t got it, don’t be frustrated with yourself, just be willing to be vulnerable and childlike with God again.

    When I crawled into my den today, I opened up a book, and this was what was written on the page in front of me:

‘My child, let My peace enfold you… not looking at yourself but at Me! Consciously and frequently rest your spirit in that peace; it brings true healing, and is all that you need. …Do not ‘analyse’ whether you have My peace; just know that it is there… My Name – the Name of Jesus – brings peace; Say it to Me – in love; say it to yourself – to comfort your heart, unfailingly.’

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Woman at the Well: Sharing the Joy of the Gospel

    In today’s Gospel we heard about the Samaritan women who met Jesus at the well. After asking her for a drink and receiving a shocked response, Jesus tells her: ‘if you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink and he would have given you living water’ (John 4:10). At first she fails to understand the significance of this, but He goes on to explain that ‘the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). The promise of eternal life is evident, but the most incredible part is that the woman to whom it is promised doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes of someone who people in that time expected to get to Heaven!

    This woman came from a race that historically did not associate with Jews. In fact, simply by speaking with her Jesus would have been considered ceremoniously unclean by others of His religion. She’d had five husbands and wasn’t married to the one she currently lived with, which even today would draw judgement from many people. So why did He approach her? Why did He risk His reputation for her? Because Jesus didn’t live for safety or tradition. He lived to spread a message of love to all of humanity. He was fearless in His radical interactions with people who didn’t fit the cultural or religious ideal… and in His radical attitude towards women. In this story Jesus’ behaviour is radical for the time in several ways:

He ministered to an outcast.
He interacted with a woman.
He accepted a gift from a Samaritan.
He forgave her sins and made no judgement.

    I love this photo because it’s one of the only ones I found where the woman wasn’t kneeling at Jesus’ feet. Here Jesus is sitting with her, casually talking to her whilst she carries out her work, and I think that’s how their conversation would have been! Until the point where she leaves he remains just a man to her, so she would have had no reason to kneel at His feet - especially as her coloured past had likely hardened her to be independent and self-protecting. Jesus didn’t have airs and graces. He humbled himself in becoming fully human and didn’t lose any of that humanity by also being fully God. He spoke with the woman on equal footing, showed her nothing but love, and didn’t look down on her despite the counter-message of the society at the time. 

    Countless times in the gospels Jesus performs healing miracles and insists His identity is not revealed. In previous instances He hid His identity as the Son of God because faith would not be faith if it were forced rather than freely chosen. Yet in this seemingly simple interaction He readily admits to being the Messiah – ‘I, the one speaking to you – I am he’ (John 4:26). They are alone with no witnesses, and He has performed no miracle so has not proven who He is. So by telling her He is the Messiah He still offers her the choice of faith. 

    That woman went on to become one of the first evangelisers. ‘Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony’ (John 4:39). Despite her past, her culture and her religion, she was not afraid to tell her neighbours about Jesus. The message of the gospel is a universal one, intended to be retold over and over again by people of every nationality, age, gender and background. Too often fear holds us back from telling it. 

    Like the Samaritan woman we, too, must find the courage to speak out. Once she had encountered Jesus she knew her life would never be the same again, and neither will ours. The compulsion to shout about the Good News is in all of us, we just sometimes stifle it. The temptation to fall prey to the lie that we don’t have the words is great, but we have a gift within us – the gift of the Holy Spirit who, if we allow it, will speak for us. 

    ‘A time is coming when worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23). That can be the time we live in. Today let’s receive the gospel and allow it to blossom within us so that the sheer joy of it is too great to hold in. 

Let’s share the joy of the Gospel!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Why Lent is NOT a diet...

    As women we’re constantly bombarded with the latest weight-loss techniques, exercise crazes and fad-diets. The automatic attention we pay to even the word ‘diet’ in magazines or on billboards is so ingrained it’s almost as though we’re hardwired to seek out ways to refine and perfect ourselves.

    When it comes to Lent, how many of us naturally veer towards food when deciding what to give up? How many of your friends have named chocolate, biscuits, sugar, desserts or chips as their chosen sacrifice? How many have simply vowed to ‘eat more healthily’? 

    How many people who aren’t religious and don’t observe any other part of the Lenten tradition have you heard say those things? The question is… When is it less about God and more about you? When is it no longer fasting but simply starving? When is it no longer a means of spiritual discipline but instead an early attempt at the pre-Summer health kick? It’s a fine line which we have to be aware of in these 40 days as we try to prepare ourselves – hearts and minds – for Christ’s resurrection. 

    The trouble with giving up ‘unhealthy’ food is that the next time we reach for that favourite chocolate bar or biscuit, the little voice inside encouraging us to “make this small sacrifice for the sake of drawing closer to God” becomes so easily confused with the equally persuasive voice reminding us that “you’re not allowed that, it’s banned”.

    That’s not to say giving up a type of food isn’t a valid Lenten pledge! For many people sacrificing those squares of chocolate in the afternoon or the morning coffee and biscuit may be the hardest thing in life to give up as it’s the thing they rely on most or do out of habit. It takes extreme self-discipline. Food is also one of the only things that is absolutely essential in life, and so one of the only things that we can guarantee we’ll be reminded of if we decide to give it up. There are few things that we’ll be tempted by so often, and in that sense giving up chocolate, for example, acts as a regular reminder to turn your heart back to God.

    Everyone has some sort of favourite food or little indulgence that they know would be hard for them to give up. As such, in many ways it serves as the perfect Lenten sacrifice because the point of that sacrifice is that it’s not easy. But it’s important to continually make sure that your heart behind your sacrifice is in the right place.

‘I will decrease, so that God can increase.’
    I think this is the fundamental basis of Lenten promises. Whatever we give up, we have to ensure that God is kept at the centre of our resolve, and that the primary purpose is to draw near to Him. I will decrease my indulgences or bad habits so that God can increase in glory. NOT: I will decrease my chocolate intake so that I can increase my confidence on the beach, popularity at school or likeness to the celebs.

    We need to remember that there are three pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. One without the others loses significance. Prayer alone causes no harm but costs very little of the self, almsgiving alone becomes self-righteousness, and fasting alone become merely dieting.

    2000 years ago a guy called Jesus gave up His own LIFE so that we might live. He sacrificed His own flesh on the cross at the hands of people like you and me, FOR people like you and me. Our simple acts of self-sacrifice during Lent are a way to share in that Good Friday spirit and dedicate our own bodies and our own lives back to Christ. 

    So next time you find yourself tempted by whatever it is you’ve given up for Lent, check your motivation. If it’s become an arbitrary rule a mere sense of duty, or even a subconscious method of fixing your figure after the weeks of eating Christmas chocolate, then offer that to Jesus and ask Him to give you a heart of truly sacrificial love in return.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Guest Post: Katey England

Katey volunteered for the Princes Trust for several years and has just begun a new career.

The dictionary definition of the word “Vulnerable” is:

“Exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.”

    Doesn’t really sound appealing does it? To me being vulnerable always meant being weak and getting hurt – this came from past experiences, so when God asked me to do just that I quickly questioned and argued it with him! In response he showed me that being vulnerable doesn’t always mean being weak, in fact it can be a huge sign of strength. So many women (and men too) in the Bible made themselves vulnerable in order for God to do his thing. Esther put herself in harm’s way to save a nation, Mary faced being mocked, talked about and looked down upon to carry and give birth to God’s own son – the saviour. And the list could go on and on. 

    A couple of years ago I was in a place where I felt I had come to the end of the road. I was struggling with severe depression, anorexia, self-harm and had on a number of occasions tried to end my life. This wasn’t something new to me: I had struggled with an eating disorder and self-harm from my early teens. I hated who I was, and the ‘Professionals’ had pretty much given up on me – telling me there was nothing else they could do other than medicate and hospitalise. I was fighting to die, and nothing anyone did helped.  On the outside, people wouldn’t really know there was anything wrong. I hid behind masks and walls I had built up around my heart.

    I became very desperate. My relationship with God at this point was rocky – I knew who he was, could quote you scriptures and sing you worship songs, yet deep down I was angry with him. I kept Him at arm’s reach while at the same time desperately wanting to have that intimate relationship with Him. I remember the night I cried out to God:

“God, if you aren’t going to let me die then you need to help me”.

    I didn’t know what else to do. After years of abuse and then self inflicted damage, I was still alive when I should have been dead! There had to be a reason! That night was the start of what turned out to be an incredibly hard yet amazing journey of healing and restoration (and one I am still walking out.)
    God wanted me to step out of my ‘safe place’ to trust him to give up the control I was holding on so tightly to and allow him to reach the deepest hurts of my heart. He wanted me to be real, to drop the masks I hid behind and to be true to who I was in him.

The definition of the word real is:
1.      Actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.

    Women today are surrounded by images and media portrayals of what beauty supposedly is – of how things are “supposed” to be. Yet the majority of this isn’t real, it’s been airbrushed or edited to make it look appealing.  Yet by chasing this supposed reality all we really gain is emptiness, unhappiness and usually a huge sense of failure. 

    Underneath all the masks and walls I hid behind I didn’t know who I was. For so long I had had labels placed on me – mental health patient, anorexic, self-harmer, abused... I believed lies about myself and I hated the person I thought I was. I wasn’t being real with myself let alone anyone else, or God.  There were times when it was far easier to hide behind the labels and masks than it was to step out and be vulnerable and open. But if I had chosen to keep hiding and listening to those lies then I wouldn’t have been able to start living the life God had for me.  

God made each and everyone one of us different. We are authentic, one of a kind.

1.      Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.

    Living authentically, however, isn’t always easy. It’s so easy to go with the crowd, do what other people are doing. But are you being true to who you are? 

    In order for me to accept myself the way God saw me I had to allow him into the deepest and darkest part of my heart – this was a choice and one that wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There were days I had to continue to make that choice hour by hour (sometimes minute by minute). It hurt – but it allowed me to feel and start to understand my emotions. I was able to deal with past hurts and to grow in my relationship with God. I slowly opened up and allowed Him to heal the broken parts of me that for so long I had kept locked up. 

    I learned – and believed in my heart – who I am in Christ. I used God’s word to counteract the lies I believed about myself (and there were a LOT of them!). I allowed myself to be vulnerable and in return God showered me with his unconditional Love, Grace and Mercy. I had to learn to trust that there WAS something better for me and that EVERYTHING I went through He would use for GOOD!  

Deuteronomy 30:19 says this:

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

    And that’s what I did – I chose LIFE – I wrote it everywhere I could, stuck it on post it notes, wrote it on my hands, in books – anywhere I would see it. I had to want to fight to live instead of fighting to die.  

    I am far from where I want to be, but I am a million miles away from where I was! I know that I cannot change my past – but I chose to change my future. Things happen in life that we can’t always explain, but we have a choice about how we respond to them. By choosing joy in the midst of sorrow we unleash God’s amazing power – his joy, love and grace becomes our strength.  I love how the Message Bible words it: 

“Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness. Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.” 2 Corinthians 13:8-10

So what do I think it means to be a Woman of God in the 21st Century? 

1. Be Realdon’t try and fit into something that continues to make you feel empty. Be honest with where you are at – It’s OK. 

2. Be VulnerableAllow God access to your heart (he already knows it anyway) He will not leave you there. The world sees vulnerability as a weakness, God sees it as Strength!  

3 Be AuthenticStay true to who you are, don’t try and change for the sake of fitting in. You were made for a purpose and that purpose needs YOU! 

    For those that may be reading this and thinking you can’t be happy – I once believed that too, and I am not saying that it is easy but it CAN change. It takes courage to make that first step (no matter how small) but you have to want it for you – I do however promise that it is WORTH IT. There is always hope and you will smile (for real) again.